Thursday, January 06, 2011

Museum Secrets: History Television Series

A Toronto-based production company has made a series that's going to premiere tonight - Museum Secrets. The premise is visiting 6 museums (i.e there will be 6 episodes) to uncover 'secrets' while there - basically an object-based discovery of 6 famous museums. I've been to 5 of the 6 (the only one i've missed is the Vatican) so i'll be especially interested to see what they'll be looking at each visit.

I do like that in recent years there's been a push to make more documentary series about (or facilitated) by museums. A couple of BBC2 TV productions come to mind especially that fall under this category; one was simply titled The Museum, and was a short series about the British Museum and their various departments, a very 'behind-the-scenes' sort of show looking at day-to-day operations and all the sorts of jobs and work people do there. When I started my temp job in the Director's office there, I was lent a copy to watch and it was a really great way to get to know the museum. The other (more recent) TV programme that the Beeb have produced is The Museum of Life - another 'behind-the-scenes' show, but it seemed more focused on the research/curatorial teams and their work rather than the entirety of the museum's departments. BBC's Radio 4 recently did a series in conjunction with the British Museum called A History of the World in 100 Objects - a pretty ambitious undertaking for a non-visual medium. However it was a thorough and interesting series (lots of info and interviews about each object and their larger world context), and they also made use of an online presence to allow people to examine the objects further (especially useful to match up a visual to the rich audio information).

It seems like Museum Secrets has a decent amount of online content, which is pretty savvy of the production team. Not only are there trailers currently, but I believe that full episodes will be available regardless of where you are in the world - a definite kudos to them for that move! I like that they have the 'object navigator' too, so you could poke around a bit more to find out extra information on things that might have piqued your interest from watching the show. I'm looking forward to seeing what sorts of people Museum Secrets will include in each episode - being object-based i'm leaning towards curators/experts etc. It should be interesting - as someone who focused their interest on material culture and museum collections at Uni, I always love things that will give me insights into museums & the sorts of objects they house. If you're in Canada you can watch on History Television, and I guess if you're elsewhere you can watch once it's up on the web! I think i'll report back when I feel like I can properly review the series.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Yelping Museums

I've been writing up all sorts of reviews on Yelp this year, and today I got to the point where I decided to finally write my 100th review - so I picked a museum! The Royal Ontario Museum, which is my favourite here in Toronto. I now need to kick myself into gear and finally write up reviews for the Ottawa museums I visited way back in MAY. I've got a blog post bare-bones drafted, just need to find the time to plump it and I can post here AND on Yelp. You can read my ROM Yelp review here..

* General *

- First of all, let me get this out of the way - I think the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal looks awesome, and they did a great job of making modern renovations integrate with an older building. (The internal staircases are crazy awesome, too.)
- More generally, the museum is a pretty big one - they've done a reasonable job at making it easy enough for people to find their way around, but I think the wayfinding and signage around the museum could be more obvious and helpful. The maps you get when you enter are a big help though!
- Accessibility-wise the museum is fairly good - wheelchair accessible, large print guides available and a reasonable amount of audio tours/descriptions are on offer. There are even frequent guided tours throughout the day that are free with admission if you're a fan of getting a little guidance and information from docents.
- In addition to this, the ROM runs a great events program and there are often special lectures, tours that tie in with special exhibitions, and the fantastic (and free!) ROM Walks program - through all of this the ROM prove they are not just a building, and foster visitor involvement which is fantastic to see.

* Exhibitions and Galleries *
I could get out of hand with this, so i'm going to try and keep it simple:

- An excellent variety of subject matter on display - natural history, social history, world cultures, ancient cultures, and even a little art and design.
- Great visual draws without dragging you down with too much text to read (yet not leaving you info-starved either!).
- First Peoples gallery is a great feature, deserving of the large gallery space it's been situated in.
- The quality of objects and specimens being exhibited is excellent, and accompanying information is engaging and interesting.
- Recent renovations have really made a difference to not just the quality of space in the galleries, but also the quality of how everything is displayed.
- Some fun hands-on stuff that's probably meant for kids, but that I love even as an adult visitor.
- Special exhibitions are of a reasonable standard, often drawing in international travelling exhibitions (the Terracotta Army one is a great example).

* Practicalities *

- Getting to the museum is pretty much a breeze on the TTC - a short walk from Museum station and not too far to walk from St George, either. It's a pity that there's no internal link from the TTC stations into the museum for bad weather, but it could be worse (like a certain Ontario Science Centre).
- If you're feeling like you might perish from all the exhibition wandering, there are food options within the museum. Downstairs is a cafeteria-like environment with a pretty decent range of food/drinks that aren't actually hideously expensive as far as museum cafe prices go. There is a fancier restaurant/lounge in the upper reaches of the ROM too, if you're feeling in a Yorkville kinda mood.
- The shop feels like a mini-gallery in itself, so much so I feel guilty sometimes when I pick up stuff to look at it. Good range and variety of stuff that covers most (if not all) of the museum's subject range. Clothing, books, trinkets, jewelry, etc.. I just wish they had a bigger range of postcards. Things can run pretty pricey here.
- Ticket prices can be a bit hard on the wallet, but there are some ways to save. Friday evenings from 4.30 - 9.30pm are half price, the CityPass deal means you can save on all sorts of attraction admissions including the ROM, and the Toronto Public Library MAP program (http://www.torontopubl...) offers a limited amount of free tickets to members every Saturday. Sadly the free hour on Wednesday afternoons seems to have passed by the wayside.

For dollar value, for variety of exhibits and for experience, the ROM is pretty much your best bet if you're only going to visit one major attraction like this in Toronto. (It's definitely a comparable quality to other Canadian/North American museums, too.) It's great for repeated visits too, and has a little something for everyone. The only thing stopping me giving the 5th star is the price factor and the inconsistencies in wayfinding around the museum. Definitely worth your time!


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Museum funding cuts in the UK

8 UK Museums lose government funding.

I don't want to be pessimistic here - but there are limits to how much a museum can function on public support. I have worked at small museums before that have struggled along because they have little to no paid staff & small operating costs due to the size of the museum. The museums listed in the above article? They are going to struggle and possibly fail.

These are some of the bigger & more well-attended museums in London and the UK. I don't think that the public support and attendance will translate into enough funds for them to carry on as they are. Most who are free will have to introduce an entry fee, which a lot of people will balk at. The Horniman Museum - one with a fantatically rich collection and history - will, according to the above article, "lose more than £4m a year, around 85% of its budget." I suspect that is going to bleed the Horniman dry of staff and resources to the point it will be in danger of shutting down.

I am so sad to see this happen. Every one of these museums has its place, but it doesn't seem to be important to the UK government when it boils down to the numbers. I truly hope this isn't the start of a cultural drought that will leave the UK a desert in years to come.

If you can, get out there and support these museums any way possible!


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cultural Relativism, Ethnocentrism and Museum Collections: Te Papa Controversy

A couple of days ago, my RSS feeds tracking museum news came up with a lot of uproar regarding a statement that Te Papa museum in Wellington had made regarding pregnant/menstruating women accessing collections. Naturally it has been misunderstood and blown out of proportion - so i'd like to talk a little bit about what it all means. Apologies if it gets a bit cumbersome, but I just want to get this out and I don't really have time to fine tune it right now.

This AFP article is pretty representative of a lot of the other news around, so i'm going to quote from it (but you can read more here, here & here, for a variety of samples).

To begin with, the AFP's article lead is extremely misleading:

New Zealand's national museum on Tuesday warned pregnant or menstruating women to stay away from some of its exhibits or risk an encounter with angry Maori spirits.

I guess it's a bit sensational with the "angry Maori spirits" part, and definitely just wrong when it says people had been warned away from exhibits. It sets people up to be angry and misinformed from the get-go. If they do read on, they'd at least see the following:

Te Papa spokeswoman Jane Keig said the policy was not an outright ban, rather it was strong advice designed to protect pregnant and menstruating woman from exhibits which Maori, New Zealand's indigenous people, believed could hurt them.

"Pregnant women are sacred and the policy is in place to protect women from these objects," she said.

Regardless, most people see this as "pregnant or menstruating women are not wanted at this museum because of Maori cultural beliefs". One quote the AFP article uses shows how knee-jerk the reactions can be:

"I don't understand why a secular institution, funded by public money in a secular state, is imposing religious and cultural values on people," she told the New Zealand Herald newspaper.

Miscommunication leads to this sort of thing - it's not necessarily the museum's fault, nor those reacting, but it is the fault of those misrepresenting the issue (ie. much of the media). When you look at what Te Papa actually have to say on the nature of the issue it becomes clear this is not about imposing rules or banning any member of the public from visiting the museum.

Statement regarding guidelines of access to Māori collections at Te Papa clarifies a lot of what was misrepresented and caused so much trouble. Firstly, the areas that were to be visited were collection areas, never accessible to the general public, and definitely not 'exhibits'. It may come as a surprise to many people, but the material on display in public galleries is usually a small percentage of any museum's collection.

Next of all is the "cultural imposition" - which is actually just a consideration, sort of a formality. If you will read these quotes from the statement:

One of these cultural considerations is that hapu (pregnant) or menstruating women (mate wahine) should consider entering the taonga Māori collection stores at another time...

‘While we inform visitors to the collection stores of cultural considerations, no visitor would be stopped from continuing the tour if they wished to.’

Again, this is in regard to collection areas and no general display in the museum itself. Secondly, this is a cultural consideration and it's not a blanket rule that because the items are Māori then everyone must take on Māori cultural rules when visiting the museum. This is called cultural relativism (or sensitivity, I suppose) - taking a step back from your own cultural norms and perceptions to understand that everyone's life and the objects within them can have different meaning and prescribe different behaviour. Even if you don't identify with that culture, you can still take a step back and see what might be respectful even if you don't share the belief. There is no reason to see this as that culture "imposing their beliefs" on you at all.

‘Te Papa, as the kaitiaki (caretaker) of taonga Māori and a bicultural museum, embraces Māori tikanga and kawa when caring for those collections’, Ms Hippolite said.

I wanted to end with this quote as representative of Te Papa's policy and action - although the statement goes into it further and is worth reading, too. Te Papa, more than any museum I know of and have visited, has gone out of their way from the beginning to have a strong contribution from Māori communities when it comes to caring for collections, and displaying those collections, amongst everything else that Te Papa care for and exhibit. It's a mark of a responsible and forward curation and management team to see a museum do this. When you see so many museums throughout history and now have imposed their cultural beliefs and norms, it's nice to get the balance back a little.

I have worked in museums that have 'sensitive' areas of the collection which have been limited in who can access and care for them because of cultural respect and relativism - as my personal choice I didn't buck that trend, and let others who fit the bill interact with those particular items. There is no one truth, there is no one culture that deserves to be respected more than another, and there is always balance in what is appropriate for you and what is appropriate when accessing and viewing things that are important to other cultures. This is what Te Papa try to do, not to prescribe importance over Māori culture more than anyone else's.

People need to step back from their privilege and see that Te Papa's policies are reasonable and responsible, and appreciate them for all they do not just for Māori communities, but New Zealand's communities as a whole.


Friday, August 27, 2010

Drama and Desire: Art Gallery of Ontario special exhibit.

A couple of weeks ago I took advantage of a discount coupon and went to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see Drama and Desire: An art experience unlike any other. Featuring artwork inspired by the theatre, presented “on stage” with live performers, full-scale sets and period lighting.
It's rare for me to go to special exhibitions at art galleries (i'm more inclined to spend my money on museums instead), but this one seemed thematically interesting and had potential for me in its practical aspects.

Much of the style of art in the first 2/3rds of the exhibit was not necessarily to my taste, but they were great examples of theatre in art - grand and rich paintings of dramatic scenes. Much of the later artwork I found more interesting - and this is where my obvious lack of note-taking is apparent because I cannot recall any artist names. I did especially like one of the little niche rooms, hung with sparkly black velvet curtains full of Aubrey Beardsley illustrations from Salome.

What I enjoyed most about the exhibit - even despite my usual shallow interest in art history - is the physicality of the space and the use of props, etc. There are a number of props from Stratford's Shakespeare festivals hung throughout the exhibit, providing an interesting companion to narrative. I also liked the interactive spaces - being able to play with wind and rain noisemakers while "lightning" flashed over a dramatic painting was very inspired, and sitting in front of a tableau from King Lear with audio being read from the play while spotlights trained your eyes to the characters envelops you in the space. We also caught some real live performances by a small troupe, which is something i've never seen in a museum or gallery previously (staff dressed in costume yes, but not performing in exhibit space).

Like the areas where you could sit and watch or listen to performance, there were aspects of theatre in the very structure of the exhibit - from the ticketed entrance looking like an old style theatre complete with flickering candles to the very end of the exhibit where grand pillars are drowned in light, allowing you to cast dramatic shadows as you pass by. All these little things throughout, the tangible materials, almost set dressings, serve to pull you into the feel of what they're telling you about and I think it's fantastic to set that atmosphere - it's so hard to do with a lot of topics.

As i've said, despite my novice ways when it comes to art, I still appreciated the exhibit. It's thematically strong, looking on one hand at theatre in art, and on the other, art in theatre. It runs for another month, and is well worth grabbing the discount and checking out - then you can spend some time aimlessly wandering the gorgeous curves of the building afterward!


Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Link: Top 10 Scary Museums

Top 10 Museums That Will Scare You Silly. Number 10 is a pretty mild one - i've been to the House on the Rock and it's more baffling and insane than scary, really. Unless you're afraid of giant octopuses, in which case you might poop you pants in one particular section.

I am probably being semantically pedantic here, but I find it interesting that places like Madam Tussaud's and the London Dungeon are included on this list - I see them more as attractions rather than museums. I suppose some objects used in these places are historic, or worth collecting - but the places themselves are purely designed to entertain or scintillate.

The theme of this list is pretty fun, though - I mean, i'm not going to be scared silly but I do like a bit of morbid fascination. It doesn't mean it will be mutually exclusive with a learning experience, but it does make it memorable. One particular museum I remember most of all in Berlin is the Medical History Museum - fascinating mix of history of the institution, medical info, and horrifying specimens in jars.

If I ever get to any others on this list, i'm hoping it'll be Lombrosp’s Museum of Criminal Anthropology or the Mutter Museum. They look fantastic!


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

BP & The British Museum

Reposting my brief rant from here:

"Anti-BP group has sticky protest at British Museum"

Errrgggh. I knew BP’s sponsorship of the British Museum would spark some controversy, but this pisses me off no end. I am no supporter of BP and the mess they’ve made - there seriously has to be a better way to protest than by going in to possibly do damage to museum objects.

Step the fuck back from the objects, people. It’s a rule. Stick to it.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On blogging and keeping enthusiastic about museums

Other things that have gotten me suddenly excited and back here blogging (other than International Museum Day 2010) is that this coming weekend i'll be heading to Ottawa, Canada's capital!

Yes, you say.. very well.. And why is that exciting?

Because Ottawa has a whole bunch of museums! National Gallery of Canada, Canadian Museum of Civilisation, Canadian War Museum, and the soon to be reopened (this weekend!) Canadian Museum of Nature! There's also historic buildings and all that jazz, too. I'm hoping that my renewed vigor for the blog, plus visiting some new museums, will help with content here. I'm also heading back to London to visit in a couple of weeks, so depending on what museums I get time to visit then, i'll have a UK report too. Exciting, no?

I do want to keep up with the more "thinky-thoughts" blogs like the deaccessioning one though so i'll be keeping my eyes peeled for ideas there. And if the handful of you out there reading have anything to input, it'd be great!

I'm finding it increasingly hard to keep positive and keep my mind "in the game" museums-wise seeing as it's been well over a year since I last worked in anything remotely resembling a museum job, too! I am hoping this will keep me focused and interested.


Deaccessioning in museums - a link that inspired a ramble

I update this blog so sporadically now that it's almost a farce. But today is International Museums Day, so i've been kickstarted. I also found this link i'd been meaning to write about for, ooh, months now: What should museums throw out?

The link itself goes to a small gallery highlighting some items that were on display in an exhibition at University College London called "Disposal" - one I would've really loved to have checked out. None of the images themselves are particularly striking, but the little slideshow gives a bit of fodder for thought and discussion.

The process of accessioning objects into a museum collection is not that difficult - it comes in, you document it, you store it, you give it a place where it should belong. It is part of the order-making that I love so much about collection management. Deaccessioning, on the other hand, is a much trickier process.

At the surface of it all is the question, how? How can someone (or even a group of someones) decide what stays and what goes from any collection, big or small? Someone had to make the decision to take the object on in the first place - in many museums this was a decision made long ago by a person who no longer works for the same museum (or who has passed away long ago, if your museum's collection goes back far enough - which many do!).

This is where museum collecting rides along the fine lines of fetishism and hoarding. Everything seemed like a good idea when it was brought into the collection - and indeed much of it is a great idea to have in there - but how does a curator or museum board weigh up one object's usefulness as part of a museum collection over another?

One object may have amazing research potential, the other may be not necessarily unique but an excellent piece to display. One object could be kept "just in case" it's needed for either, its potential being the key. Some objects may indeed still be part of museum collections simply due to the fact that some important person many years ago felt that it should be. Why have a box full of pottery sherds when one as a representative sample is enough? Who needs 30 different tapas cloths when one can illustrate the type of textile that it is?

Every object has a story. In and of themselves, and then a story as a museum object. While two boomerangs may look superficially alike, when you look at their histories you may find that both are equally relevant to have in your museum collection.

To say, "yes, that piece is something we need for our museum collections and/or displays" is easy. To say no is usually very hard. There's a reason why policy on this from museum to museum is tricky in its wording. There's a reason why deaccessioning happens so very rarely. Saying no is hard to do.


Sunday, November 08, 2009

Art in nature

The other evening I went to the Royal Ontario Museum to see the Vanity Fair Portraits exhibit, one i'd missed when I was living in London and it was on at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition was excellent - a good range of photos/subjects/info, and quite a lot to see! Well worth a look if you can get along.

After seeing that exhibit, my companions and I wandered around in some of the natural history sections of the museum - dinosaurs and the biodiversity section mostly. A lot of people ran out of steam after all of that, but I managed to have a cursory look around in the minerals and gems gallery - i'd never made time for it before, usually having reached the point of museum fatigue before then.

I'm not super into geology as much as I am other -ologies that turn up in museums (more on the anthropology or zoology side of things really), but i'm always interested to see how any things are displayed in museums. This gallery was part of the ROM's refurb I guess, because the whole thing is gleaming and beautifully laid out.

The gallery is almost like something you'd find in a modern art museum, or in a art/design kind of museum. (It actually reminded me a little of the asian ceramics display at the British Museum). Cases were in aisle-format, filled with precious little specimens gleaming in perfect light; objects too large for these cases were given pedestals or large cases in focal points. Each little or big piece was like some sort of objet d'art.

The best part about all of this, of course, is that it's art from science. There's no need for an artist's statement, no driving force behind the creation of each little piece other than the drive of the earth itself. Unlike older types of museums and displays where objects were laid out in a fashion to show as much as possible with very little information, this gallery has not only a good range of specimens, but also a high level of labelling and interpretive information (from what I could see on a cursory walk around). I love the gallery and the layout, the design of it all. I may not be as passionate about the subject matter as I am some other things, but even in a 5 - 10 minute wander I got a lot out of it. I'd like to go back and poke around a bit more I think.


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Museums and Galleries - is there a difference, and should there be?

Two major exhibits are starting here in Toronto soon - one is Vanity Fair Portraits and the other is the major King Tut exhibit. The Vanity Fair portrait exhibit was in London when I lived there, at the National Portrait Gallery. The King Tut exhibit was also on while I was in London (and I even worked in the front of house section part time), in an exhibition space at the O2 Arena in Greenwich.

I'm surprised at the choice of venues here in Toronto, though.

Vanity Fair Portraits is being held at the Royal Ontario Museum, a mix of cultural and natural history. King Tut is opening soon at the Art Gallery of Ontario, home of a great collection of Canadian art, historic pieces and modern art.

It seems to be a mix-up, right? I would assume the portraits would be right at home hanging in the AGO, while King Tut would slip right into the ROM with its already existing Egyptian content. I understand a lot of large art institutions (for example the Tate Modern and the V&A Museum in London) have enough money and staff to develop excellent interpretive content and educational programs - they aren't just hanging space for pieces of art. And I also understand that much of the content of the King Tut exhibit are gorgeous and indeed artful. But to me, that exhibit has a strong cultural and historic element as well. I know this is an exhibit that's been developed externally and is being brought in lock-stock-and-barrell, but I believe if it were to be situated in the ROM instead there could be a stronger supporting stream of interpretation and education in the hosting institution.

Vanity Fair looks to be a gorgeous exhibition - I missed it in London so i'm definitely looking forward to seeing it. But at the ROM it will seem a little out of place. Again, no doubt a lot of the cultural artefacts on display at the ROM have artistic value - but the portraits would do better in an art-filled environment where their significance could be appreciated more fully.

It was not so long ago that museums and galleries were similar in their lack of interpretation. Content alone was different, and items were put on display with basic labels for identification only, generally. As time has moved on and the museum industry has flourished with regard to producing written exhibition content, interpretation and companion educational programs. These sorts of things are almost written into the process of exhibiting now.

Art galleries still feel different to me. Primarily displaying art with indentifying labels only, there is still very little interpretation on display to accompany pieces of art in art galleries large and small. As I noted above, it seems to be only the larger art galleries with time and resources who develop information past the basic need for most people viewing art.

Having come out of my tertiary education with anthropology and museum studies qualifications under my belt, I gravitate toward the museum world rather than art galleries. I do not doubt that I could enjoy working with objects and pieces of art in a gallery collection - however, I feel there is more cultural relevance and an opportunity to educate about this relevance in a museum.

I could be wrong about the ROM hosting art and the AGO hosting culture - i'd love to be proven wrong! There's an unspoken divide between museums and galleries - we'd be much better off if that gap could be bridged, and both types of institutions could do more to thrust their collections and education about them into the public eye.

And regardless of where they are, at least these exhibitions are touring and have somewhere to be shown.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Social networking and museums

The BBC ran a news article today about a new plan for a museum lovers social networking site, that involves the National Portrait Gallery, Natural History Museum, the Tate, the Wallace Collection, Royal Armouries, Sir John Soane's Museum, V&A, British Museum and Imperial War Museum. That's quite an impressive list.

I've not seen too much in the way of interactive museum socialising outside of museums own websites in the past - there's still a limited amount of museums taking part on sites such as Twitter, and even Facebook tends only to have 'fan pages' and not actual groups run by museum learning staff.

Because of the large amount of traffic I follow on Twitter anyhow, I tend to limit the museums I follow at the moment to ones here in London - the British Museum's recently joined up but it's not doing much, the V&A doesn't really do much for me, but the Science Museum tweets are friendly, and very interactive and informative! So at this level I definitely think museums have a long way to go (from what i've seen - there's a few big ones in the States that seem prolific though).

So this National Museums Online Learning Project sounds very dull with a name like that, but if it's a purpose built project that will allow museums to get what they need, as well as their visitors getting what they need, from the site then it is definitely promising. I think these parts interest me the most:

The museums are collaborating to allow online visitors to search across their combined collections, so that a single search might gather material from any of them.

It will also allow visitors to set up social networking groups on the website where they can talk about what has inspired them and about their creative interests.

The project allows visitors to collect scrapbooks of images or text or videos that they find in the museums, which they can share with other website users.

Point A is fantastic, if it's got useful information. When I was at the Science Museum lates evening last month, I saw at one of their computer terminals they have an Object Wiki, which intrigued me. It's got info on collection pieces as well as publications and exhibitions. Very well collated resource. If this project can get together something comprehensive and useful for users, it's a huge step forward in what museums offer online for their visitors. I can't imagine the juggling they'll have to do intellectual property wise with this one.

The last couple of paragraphs sound a little bit geared toward sitting schoolkids down in front of this thing and forcing them to put together a project. I imagine if it's anything like trying to get them to complete worksheets or activities when actually in the museum it could be a ruddy mess. On the other hand, it could be terrific - the project outline mentions 'WebQuests' for kids, which will focus their use quite a bit. There seems to be the more general 'lifelong learning' approach for other users - considering most people when physically visiting museums do little to engage with other visitors, this could be a fantastic way for people to get together and almost debrief about their visiting experiences. Flickr-like photo sharing, a bit of blog-esque or message board stuff, it'll be great. Not to mention a ridiculously useful resource for the learning and audiences staff at participating museums to feed off! The mutual feedback that would (hopefully) ensue could really enrich visitor experience for these museums.

At any rate, it will be an interesting project, I just hope the funding will continue for it - it's no use paying for this sort of thing to be set up and then forgetting it needs dedicated staff, maintenance, and development. Too often web projects for museums go this way, and it'd be frustrating to see such a bit ship sink.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Museum reference literature

For a while now i've been keeping a sort of 'to read' list of museum books on Library Thing that I think are/would be interesting or essential with regard to museum theory and practice. Of course, i'm in no position to be spending money on these sorts of things right now so it'll just stay a list - but I thought it might be more useful to keep a list here, and that way if anyone out there reading has any suggestions they can comment to let me know!

  • The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (Culture : Policy and Politics) - Tony Bennett
  • Cultures of Collecting (Reaktion Books - Critical Views) - Roger Cardinal
  • Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach: An Interpretive Approach - Beverly Serrell
  • Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display - Steven D. Lavine
  • EXHIBITIONS MUSEUMS PB (Leicester Museum Studies Series) - M Belcher
  • Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia (Studies in Australian History) - Tom Griffiths
  • The Manual of Museum Exhibitions - Gail Dexter Lord
  • The Manual of Museum Planning - Gail Dexter Lord
  • Modern Material Culture: The Archaeology of Us (Studies in Archaeology) - Richard A Gould
  • Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles (Media and Society, Vol 6) - Daniel J Sherman
  • Museum Exhibition (Heritage: Care-Preseravtion-Management) - David Dean
  • Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture (Museum Meanings) - Eilean Hooper-Greenhill
  • Museum Basics - Ambrose and Paine
  • New Museology (Reaktion Books - Critical Views) - Peter Vergo
  • Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (Culture, Media and Identities Series) - Stuart Hall
  • Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture (History of Anthropology) - George W Stocking


To Do, revisited; London's 'secret museums'

This past week's issue of Time Out has a feature on 'London's Secret Museums', so I grabbed a copy to see what they recommend. There's only 30 listed in the feature article in the museum, but there's 70 in the online version of the list - well worth a look. I'd heard of a number on the print list, even visited one or two and worked at one (the Garden Museum). There was another on the list which i'd planned to go to before picking up the mag, and it was even on my to-do list: the Hunterian Museum. Terrific little university medical museum - I loved the layout and the way they display specimens there. Fascinating and disgusting and informative, all wrapped up in a pleasing museum environment. Definitely worth a visit!

Having browsed Time Out a bit more (there had to be a point to spending a few quid on it!) I realised that in addition to visiting the museums on my to-do list plus adding a few more, i've got a few exhibitions i'd like to go and see, even if they're at museums i've already visited. So I have updated my list to reflect those as well, and we'll see how it all goes. Hopefully by the start of next month (after getting back from Berlin) I can tick off the Science Museum and Grant Museum of Zoology too!


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Lange Nacht Der Museen

Later this month i'm heading back to Berlin for the Lange Nacht Der Museen (long night of museums), as I had so much fun in August I couldn't resist heading back. I'm flying over with my flatmate Liz and a friend of ours from up north, Amy - going to be staying in Potsdam with friends and heading in en masse to flit between all the museums that take our fancy. (I'm going to warm up a couple of days before we leave by going along to the Science Museum Lates event here in London!)

The last trip I managed to see (including the long night and using our SchauLust card all the other days we stayed):

The Ethnographic Museum
The Altes Museum
Pergamon Museum
Museum of Film and TV
Museum of Musical Instruments
Deutsches Teknik Museum
Checkpoint Charlie/Wall Museum
Schloss Charlottenburg
Museum of Natural History
Museum of Medical History

(My Flickr set of the whole trip includes loads of pics from museums visited.)

This time i'm sure i'll go back to a few of those i've visited because (a) they're terrific museums worth revisiting and (b) there are some special events at certain museums for the long night so we might catch some of those. I'm also hoping to get to:

Berliner Dom
Deutsches Historisches Museum
DDR Museum
Zoo Aquarium Berlin
Zeiss Grossplanetarium

But we won't really know til we hit the streets and spend 6pm - 2am wandering them! Oh boy it's gonna be COLD. I think that's why the program is a bit shorter this time 'round, being winter rather than the milder weather of autumn of last year. More excuse to stop in for a warming round of coffee before shuttling to the next museum if you ask me!


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

National Museum of Australia could get a breath of fresh air

Out of museum and into history for culture warriors - three Howard-era appointees to the museum's council are out out out: They are John Howard's biographer David Barnett, his former speechwriter Christopher Pearson and former Liberal Party federal president Tony Staley.

Considering the troubles the NMA had in its blossoming years, I can't help but think this is a good thing - especially considering the following: Objections to the museum's displays ranged from serious to high farce. Mr Barnett, in particular, became a vocal critic. In a scathing report he referred to a stolen children exhibit as a "victim episode"and described the museum as full of "claptrap" and "Marxist rubbish".

I shall reserve judgment until I hear anything in the next couple of years, though. Changes like this aren't going to impact on anything immediately - but honestly, having had the new PM apologise to Australia's Indigenous population means that it's fairly likely anyone that's going to be put into the NMA council now will at least be a little more balanced when it comes to representing Australia's best interests - all of Australia's best interests. The job of a National Museum is not an easy one, and the NMA had a particularly rocky start, plagued with political issues. As a now established institution and with a changing management like this, I think they can really step up and provide something fresh and new and all-encompassing (possibly like parts of the Melbourne Museum but on a larger, more up to date scale).

I've never been to the NMA - I wish i'd had the chance now, just for comparison's sake - but I look forward to making the effort to visit whenever I return to Australian shores.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Getting the job done

I've had a big week of visiting, some new and some repeats. But I have made progress on my "to visit list" which I am quite chuffed at. Capped it off with Kew Gardens today, which was gorgeous despite the brisk weather. Should be doing the Tower of London soon, so there's some more ticky-boxes happening. I'll be updating my Flickr with stuff as I go, so you can click down there and check it out.

I've also done a bit of updating of my master list, and the UK is looking sorta crazy! Here I was thinking i'd not seen much at all. Still a lot of link sto add, but the list itself is going well. I do think it was slightly optimistic thinking i'd add a short review for everything on my list at some point - I think i'll leave that to reviews of particular exhibitions (like the Darwin one from last weekend) more than anything else.

Back to the BM this week to do a little temping in my old job - then it's back to hanging around waiting for a bit more work over xmas/new years. It's very quiet at the moment, and due to my less than ideal visa situation i've given up on applying for real jobs (although even those have been quiet!).


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Darwin Big Idea exhibition at the Natural History Museum, London

As part of the many and varied celebrations of the upcoming 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the Natural History Museum in London opened their exhibit 'Darwin: Big Idea Exhibition' this past weekend. Myself and my flatmate Liz found out about it a couple of weeks back thanks to an ad in the tube, while we just happened to have a little friend with us:

She being a longterm Darwin geek and myself having long been interested in evolutionary biology (especially with regard to physical anthropology), we decided we needed to see it! And although the opening weekend was possibly a poor choice of timing (I was surprised at the amount of people in there for a Saturday afternoon, assuming everyone was just around for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards), it was well worth going to see.

We spent a good hour or so in there, and that was even with skipping over some text and a video or two due to the crowding - there is most certainly plenty to see. The exhibition follows a pretty straightforward narrative starting with Darwin ending up being part of the Beagle team, working through that voyage and Darwin's discoveries and observations along the way, then looking at the immense amount of work and research he did in the years following that and leading up to the publishing of On the Origin of Species. Toward the end of the exhibition it moves away from Darwin-specific narrative and looks broadly at evolutionary theory and evidence, with practical examples (casts, skulls etc) and videos/blurbs on the teaching of evolutionary theory, and where evolutionary theory stands in modern science and society.

The content and structure of the exhibition is excellent, it follows a simple and logical structure with just the right amount of information without being overwhelming. I liked that there were little asides about scientific facts, or certain environments and animals that Darwin would've encountered. There were a goodly amount of graphics used - the one that stood out most for me and that i'm still recalling is a large map that filled a wall, detailing the voyage of the Beagle and how long it took; i'd no idea until then just what an epic journey it had been! I can understand Darwin's joy at getting the chance to tag along.

More than anything though, the amount and quality of artefacts and specimens on display really highlighted the exhibition for me - no section was sparse in the Darwin-specific sections (and even the latter part of the exhibition was still illustrated reasonably well with specimens and graphics). Some of my favourite items were Darwin's notebooks and letters, detailing his notes and conversations from the time when he was starting to form his ideas and theories about evolution and natural selection - and his first sketch of what is now known as an evolutionary tree was actually quite thrilling to see. All this thought and puzzling over issues, these brilliant minds coming together to nut out details of what we all take for granted today, it was quite amazing.

Of course, Darwin's list of pros and cons of marriage was a lovely, hilarious inclusion ("less time for clever conversations at the gentleman's club", "not as much money for books" - Oh, Darwin.).

As an admirer of Darwin and biological science as a whole, I found the exhibition incredibly interesting and rewarding. As a museum enthusiast, I feel it's been done very well. I shall have to go back again if and when it gets quieter, for a more thorough go through - I can definitely recommend it to anyone to go and see if they can!

And now I really want to visit Darwin's house, but that'll have to wait til next year.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Museum Props Are Fun

As much as I enjoy museums frequently on a cerebral and academic level, I'm still a visitor and I still try to see things from that perspective. There are some almost "guilty pleasures" I find myself clapping with glee over - I'm quite partial to dioramas large and small, discovery centres, love a good dress up and play with props, and I certainly enjoy hands-on-artefacts bits! But one of my most favourite things to find in a museum are hilarious mannequins. Usually there to illustrate costumes or historic scenes, but I generally find them awkward and hilarious. I think it's because there's an effort put in to make them look real or human but it's a difficult thing to achieve - perhaps making their faces/poses featureless would make them a more neutral prop to illustrate artefacts and scenes with. But let's not get into that too much!

When I added my Flickr ticker down on the right-hand side of my blog there I wondered how I could make it just the museum set, and then remembered I have a specific tag for my guilty pleasure - 'hilarious museum mannequins'. I'm slowly but surely collecting them, which you can see here - and here's a prime example of one I found recently at Stirling Castle:

What's going on back there?

I hope to gather more in my travels and add to my unique tag. Do any of you have favourite fun or crazy things about museums that you get excited about when visiting? Or is it just me...?


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Statuephilia @ the British Museum

I recently finished working at the British Museum, just before the Statuephilia exhibit was fully installed. Toward the end of last month I had a chance to go back as a visitor and check out the few installations that make up this exhibition.

It's an interesting thing for a museum like the BM to do, it's a bit 'thinking outside the box', with its integration of modern art and traditional collecting. There are five installations, each one in a different gallery. This in itself takes a step away from a traditional exhibiting space, the coherent whole and narrative that usually accompanies it. Instead, "five of Britain’s leading artists have contributed a sculpture responding to these world-famous collections," each a separate part of the museum - most often one that has inspired them in their work.

I like that the BM has taken on something like this (even with guest curators), because it speaks to the importance of museum collections outside the four walls of the institution. I suppose a lot of folk in the museum industry (specifically curatorial posts) most often think of collections within the bounds of their museum, and that context. The stories they can tell do have a broader cultural interest and content, but generally they are still bound by the institution itself. I think what Statuephilia does is show that museum collections do have more than just an immediate impact on a visiting public, and they demonstrate this very specifically by showing the work of sculptors who have been influenced not just by the BM as a whole, but the specifics of their collection.

I think Antony Gormley's quote sums this influence up simply: Seeing as a child the great head of Ramesses and the Assyrian winged bulls at the British Museum was what made me become a sculptor. Damien Hirst takes it a step further and examines the context and display of collections themselves: The gallery itself inspires me as a space with all those beautiful cabinets and cases complete with artefacts.

Statuephilia is a small and fairly simple idea, but it's got great impact - and it also spans the traditional museum and gallery worlds. If you're in London I definitely recommend seeing it, because it's definitely made me think about the broader scope of collections in society and the appeal that various museums can have on us all.

Below the jump are some photos of 4 out of 5 of the installations - unfortunately, Damien Hirst does not allow photography of his, but you can view it at the link above.

All images (with titles and info) on Flickr!


To Do:

I finally sat down this morning and looked through the two guides I have to London museums (yes, there are two guides just for one city!) - Museums and Galleries of London by Abigail Willis and the Blue Guide to Museums and Galleries of London by Tabitha Barber.

My aim in doing this was to work out what I need to (yes, need!) to see that I haven't, before I leave these fine shores. I've not yet updated my master list with the things I have seen, but at least i'm prepared for what's ahead. Here's the list:

Edited as of 18th Mar 2009 to include those visited:
Tate Britain (especially before the Francis Bacon exhibit finishes!)
Museum of London

Petrie Museum
Tea and Coffee Museum
Cartoon Museum
Library and Museum of Freemasonry (only open Mon - Fri)
Grant Zoology Museum (only open Mon - Fri)
Imperial War Museum Missed the Bond exhibit, too!
Hunterian Museum + Royal College of Surgeons
Old Operating Theatre Museum
Tower of London
Science Museum Went for the lates and it was tops.
Kew Gardens (there's a museum there too, shush)
Horniman Museum
Barbican Gallery
Chelsea Physic Garden
Centre for the Magic Arts (not sure if i'll prioritise this)
Cinema Museum (not sure if i'll prioritise this)
Temple Church (i'm counting this, damn it!)

Rothko @ the Tate - ends 1st Feb
Bond exhibit @ IWM - ends 1st March
British Library: Darwin and the Story of Evolution (ends 22 March), Taking Liberties (ends 1 March)

Missed all of these, sadly.

That's totally do-able, I think! Stay tuned for my efforts..


Monday, November 03, 2008

Museum Association UK Conference 2008 writeup

Museums Association Conference, Liverpool England. 6 - 8 October 2008.

Last year, my friend Alex and I attended the MA conference and entered a competition to win a placement at the conference this year - and won! Hence, my conference report for the Liverpool MA conference 2008 after the jump. I'm not sure whether or not it was just that I ended going to a lot of similarly themed sessions, but this year's conference was quite heavy on the ideas of the authority of museums and collaboration with communities and the public (visitors). I'm sure it was probably one of the conference streams, but as I didn't go to any wrap-ups I didn't get a tidy end of conference blurb written down!

My notes are all brief and bullet points, but i've tried to get as much info/context in there as I need to in order to make it useful to look back on.


** Our Cities, Our Museums **
Restless urban contexts can undermine museums' claims to represent their cities. Develop insights into the relationships between museums and the lives of cities. Examine experiences from a metropolis, a regional capital, and a city without a museum dedicated to telling its story.

[Museum of London, Cathy Ross]
- Working with a grand narrative
- Curators feeding into interpretation; public feedback to that
- Covers stories of London, responds to zeitgeist, is outward-facing as a museum.

[Museum of Liverpool, Janet Dugdale]
- In development
- Focused on stories of the city and its people, despite many of the other Liverpool museums already telling specific stories of the city
- Broken down into catergories/themes; there will be a small section with a timeline. This is rather than a grand narrative.

[Sunderland Museum, Helen White]
- Focus very much on 4 topic areas (nat. history, art, social history, archaeology) rather than the 'city museum' approach, but still tells the history of the town and its place in British history.
- Hosts loans and travelling exhibitions which have appeal for Sunderland citizens without being about them directly (eg. Burmese artefacts in exhibition having interest for soldiers who fought there)
- City as very much part of the museum's history and vice versa

** Curators for Changing Times **
Curators are stereotypically preoccupied exclusively wiht objects, unable to engage with users and resistant to change. In reality new technology is creating new forms of dialogue and revolutionising curatorial practice. Can old museum structures keep pace with increasingly audience-facing and deinstitutionalised curators?

[Museum of London, Cathy Ross]
- Again highlighting curators engaging with audiences when developing content for interpretation
- There are academic advisors for curatorial departments, but in the end curators make decisions
- Curators still have control and aren't undermined, are still involved in production of content etc.

[Cardiff Museum, Victoria Rogers]
- Museum with no collection or curators (in development)
- Advisory panels made up from their target audiences
- Huge emphasis on target market research and feedback
- Project managers work from all of this to develop with exhibition project officers
- Decentralised sort of project, taking emphasis off the curatorial rigor

[Tyne + Wear, Kylea Little]
- Keepers/curators divided up into 4 subject areas
- They work both on their own with collections, and also with their outreach teams which allows them to liaise with community to produce content, or have these people advise content
- Different model of curators, but it's a lot better for the interpretation of collections, working with audiences. Curators still have last say, not all power is given over.

** Sharing Authority: a challenge to institutional control **
Does sharing authority with audiences present an intolerable challenge to institutional control? Or is it an opportunity to democratise an rejuvenate the institution? Three international museum 'risk-takers' engage in a provocative discussion.

[City Museum Copenhagen, Jette Sandahl; has also worked at Te Papa]
- Dialogue will enhance mutual understanding and respect
- Te Papa is an example of inclusiveness and community participation - recognise role of community in enhancing collections
- Te Papa is a 'bicultural' museum
- Exhibitions developed partly through consultation and partnership
- MUseums are often very selective and particular in the communities they choose to work with
- Letting go of control can open up avencues for exhibitions that can be fulfilling and work well
- Sharing authority: encouraging participation and interaction, encouraging new users to interact with museums. Eg. 'The Wall' at Te Papa using Web 2.0 features

[Manchester Museum, Piotr Bienkowski]
- Authority based on knowledge
- Emergence of museums tied into development of objective science

Manchester Museum:
- Working with communities to interpret, have had feedback from community members that the museum still holds its knowledge over others
- Artists put together exhibitions that contained fact and fiction in their panels; the Museum included a disclaimer about this which the artists saw as intrinsically or 'typically museum', very institutional.
- Human remains: Lindow Man represents several voices from scientific and other communities. Covering of unwrapped mummies to elicit response from visitors on how these remains should be displayed has been a recent tactic. Many responded negatively to the new and different ways of treating the remains.
- Visitors are upset their shared monopoly on knowledge represented by traditional museum practice has been overturned.
- Relationship should be host (museum)/guest (communities), rather than coproduction.

[UBC Museum Vancouver, Anthony Shelton]
- First Nations people involved in all sorts of discussion at the museum from its beginings in the late 40s
- Museum founder developed the idea of "Citizens Plus" for First Nations people
- Museum has always been a very political site, hosted APEC in late 90s
- Renewal included partnerships/consultation with First Nations, other Museums, Universities (incl. Oxford and Cambridge)
-- Applying for a grant for a whole overhaul of museum space and infrastructure
-- Creating memorandums of understanding as a result of community consultation
-- Scrapping visual storage as they want a "more respectful" way of displaying objects
- Includes performance and installation in their spaces to encourage community participation and new experiences in the museum
- Consulting with communities to expand collection/artefact information.
-- This is part of a broader framework of examining and including various forms and sources of knowledge



** Collaborative Dialogue with audiences on sensitive issues **
Museums worldwide are increasingly addressing difficult pasts, from prejudice and colonialism to conflict and genocide, but museums have themselves been sites and tools for injustices. This session debates whether or not museums are ready to openly and collaboratively address their own institutional complicity.

[Museum of World Culture Sweden, Adriana Muñoz]
- Colonial origins of collections from Bolivia; wasn't repatriated at Bolivia's request
- Most information about collection is from academic/curatorial origin
- The museum now tries to work with communities to gain more information from the "cultural owners" of Bolivian objects
- Museums in Bolivia often seen as reinforcing colonisation
- For true dialogue, museum staff must "lose control"

[Science Museum, London]
- Dana Centre @ the Science Museum; uses audience-led consultation to develop events
- Constultation with community to decide not only on content but also format of events
- Allowed for feedback and continuation of projects/collaboration with same community groups
- Work will go on to feed into permanent exhibitions

[Manchester Museum - Myths of Race, Are Museums Racist? debate]
- Constulted with members of community about a race/racism exhibition to tie into last year's slavery abolition bicentenary
- Exhibition wasn't seen as representative of the collaboration by some members of discussion, it was seen that the museum "cooled down" some of the content
- Are Museums Racist? debate was productive and insightful and fed back on the exhibition as well - museum staff now realise this should have been a precursor to exhibition development
- The museum is still keeping ties with those who were dissatisfied, trying to keep the relationships alive and their input coming into the future.

** Can museums really co-create everything with the public? **
People increadingly expect and demand participation in social and cultural spheres. Are museums ready to work with others in co-producing exhibitions? Or do we fool ourselves and others in claiming that we can and do co-produce?

[International Slavery Museum, Richard Benjamin]
- Some of the museum's success is measured by how effective collaboration has been
- Politics of Rememberance in Liverpool
-- Previous emphasis of maritime aspects of slavery in the slavery gallery in the Maritime Museum
-- Original gallery has emphasis on understanding while the museum emphasises challenging assumptions etc
-- Black community links: guest curators, community exhibitions, community volunteers, collaboration with community groups (eg. African Presence Group), collections development officer (to hear what communities want fromt he museum and its collections)
-- Important to have ideas originating from the black community, for them to approach the museum rather than vice versa
- Beyond transatlantic slavery - modern slavery issues are still part of the museum's core business. They need consultation with groups such as Amnesty International, and to take part in local activism.

[Horniman Museum, Finbarr Whooley]
- Thinks it's possible to co-create exhibitions with external partners
- Focus on consultation as a process
- Need rationale for including public in these processes
- Museums still have the professionals and paid experts (seems Whooley still holds the idea of museums in control in this aspect)
- Portrayal of communities and their information must be authentic and politically mature
- Museums' responsibility to provide a quality product at the end of the process
- Should only involve public if it will be authentic and enriching and add something the museum can't

[Hackney Museum, Sue McAlpine]
- "Community Museum"; galleries are about people, temporary exhibits almost always include community
- Difference between working for, or with communities
- Particular consultations with groups made museum shy away and go for "safer" steering group
- Museum involved lots of people but still held the reigns tightly as it was easier and less stressful
- Need established and well-tried formula for co-production to make it all work; always be clear what the museum is offering
- Community exhibition space lets Hackney have a voice, gives them somewhere safe to discuss and portray themselves.

** Creating Place as well as Space **
Can we create museum spaces that are both spectacular and welcoming? Can spaces for learning be not only warm and friendly but also inspiring and uplifting? Consider recent examples and explore the multiple - and sometimes competing - expectations of museum and gallery exhibitions today. Discover what worked and why.

[Museum and Gallery Designer Steven Greenberg]
- "Design is not enough"
- Consider the story and content as part of your design process
- Museums can't just be architectural grandeur (like stadiums where sport isn't played, for eg.)
- Tension between content and commerce (eg. in the V+A where they've moved the shop and broken up some flow of the gallery)
- Place containing shared experience, portraying this through exhibitions
- For BM to be world's museum it must display the world's civilisations together.

[Museums Sheffield, Weston Park Museum]
- Working with existing old and somewhat tired museum to transform it into an updated space to provide for its target markets (to discover, create, explore and enjoy)
- Not just redesign for visitors, but collections and staff also
- Combine museum and art gallery from two disjointed buildings into one site encouraging visits to both
- Utilised redesign to make the building more visitor friendly and accessible, used visitor feedback to inform some of this
- Consulted with museum users and non-users
- Focus on a lot of practical/visitor experience redesign

[Grande galerie l'evolution Paris]
- Originated as a "cabinet of all things rare in nature"
- Transferred into a zoology museum with exhibitions of specimens all on display
- Combination of gallery and storage meant nothing could move along. Was closed in 1965.
- Redesign: emphasis on light, one large space divided by theme or type of display
- Aim wasn't to recreate nature in the display, but trigger the visitor's imagination
- Not much written information throughout the exhibits - focus on the visuals rather than text


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Welcome back! Or just welcome.

Now that i've dragged over a bunch of old blog entries from my old site, I figured I should make a real update about this particular site. I'm trying to keep my mind in the museum world, as well as trying to get myself further along with my career in said world. I'm currently living in London on a temporary visa that's really only allowed me to temp in admin/front of house positions, albeit in museums - but i've not gotten the career development and experience I thought I might get here. But I think about museums as a visitor and 'academically' a lot of the time.

So welcome to the space where i'll be doing that, and hopefully talking a little bit about working in museums in whatever aspect it might be! I'll be heading to Canada sometime before the middle of next year, and eventually home to Australia so we'll see what fodder that can provide for museum-based blogging, too!

If anyone's out there, feel free to say hi and discuss!


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Museum Association UK Conference 2007, Glasgow Scotland.

I've had this written for a good month and a half now, so it's about time I really got around to posting it. And when I get my head together more, posting about museuming here in the UK (as a visitor mostly at the moment, as i've only had a little temp work as front-of-house staff so far).

Museums Association UK 2007 Conference - 22-24 October 2007 Glasgow, Scotland.


Keynote: Museums and the cultural economy (Will Hutton, Chief Executive, The Work Foundation)

* Major growth in the "experience" industry as part of (or adjacent to) the service industry in terms of employment levels and profits generated.
* Value seen in galleries/museums as high up the hierarchy of needs (see Maslow).
* Working within cultural/creative industries; Museums are part of a core producing cultural content, but work and communicate with other industries not in that core.
* UK spends large amount of GDP on cultural/museum sector.
* UK needs to federalise their museums and perhaps decentralise some to get them out of London into other, regional centres as well.
* We must try to work for people not in the sector; take our experience and skills to them (eg. airports, info centres etc).

Developing interactive exhibits (Case study: Glasgow Science Centre)

* Two things to develop that lead to visitor experience:
- Programmes (short development, easily altered, can be quite specifically targeted)
- Exhibitions (No staff required to run, long development, broader)
* Interactive exhibits defined here as requiring actin from a visitor that gains a response.
* Move from static display toward interactive exhibit:
- Interactive displays can have varied levels of interaction.
- Use interactive exhibits to communicate a scientific message (make sure they're scientifically sound and the staff are confident in their knowledge to explain them)
* Development process:
- Evaluation ties the process together; focus groups/observations/Q+As etc. Evaluation feedback loop: current knowledge -> report on current situation -> make changes -> evaluate again -> look at current situation and knowledge.
- Starting point: get to know your visitors and exhibits.
- Important to keep Generic Learning Outcomes (indicators of visitor behaviour) in mind for evaluation.
- Active Prolonged Engagement can also be a way of indicating/measuring visitor behaviour.
* Exhibition Development Process:
Define concept (theme/message) -> Conceptualise (decide on content, targets for Generic Learning Outcomes, decide on communication tools - exhibition/website/program - then decide on the interfact and if it communicates your themes/messages properly) -> Prototyping (the concept or mechanism to minimise design failure and check and double check) -> Design and Build (consider ergonomics and accessibility, the installation/maintenance and also the look and feel) -> Interpretation (for interactive exhibits, this interprets the message, provides instructions and explains content).
* Program development process happens in conjunction with exhibits.
- Why link the two? Programs are a further communication tool that encompass more learning styles and capture more content.
- Activity trails, exhibit showcasing, shows/workshops, self-contained floor-based activities are just a few of these programs.

Developing in-house collections knowledge (Nick Merriman - chair; Margaret Serpico, Maurice Davies, Richard Taylor)

::Richard Taylor, National Railway Museum::
* Monument Fellowship - funds a position to help succession from one person with massive knowledge and experience who's been in an organisation long-term to their newcomer.
* 3 goals in using the fellowship for the NRM and their particular fellow (retired librarian/archivist, was there 30 years):
- Matching his style to what the output of the fellowship is (ie. writing a training manual instead of making a training video, or something like that)
- Not adding to existing staff's workloads
- Getting something out of the fellowship that could continue past the end of the project (benefitting the wider museum community with the output of knowledge)
* Knowledge that can be gained from the Fellow:
- How pieces came into the museum
- How parts of the museum's collection are organised
- Practical documentation/archiving information

::Margaret Serpico, University College London::
* In-house knowledge comes from a number of places:
- Curators
- Specialists
- Special interest groups
- Donors
- Conservators
- Publications
- Scientific knowledge
* Often a lack of specialists tied to specific collections - for example, most museums with Egyptian collections don't have an Egyptologist.
* ACCES ( is offering a list of curators with specialist knowledge for people to contact
* Generate knowledge, capture it, and transfer it.
* Try to use SSNs (subject specialist networks) to build up knowledge of people throughout museum organisations in the UK

::Maurice Davies, Museums Association::
* Workforce
- Some people are ready for certain positions and can jump right into jobs
- Other positions require experience and many museums expect people to be prepared for their jobs (having been trained by someone/somewhere else) rather than providing on the job training
- Many entry-level jobs are now for short-term projects rather than for apprentice-like assistant curator/keeper positions
* Very little opportunity for people to spend time developing collection based knowledge during working hours
* Must try to prepare people who have academic and/or subject knowledge with museum skills, bring them into our industry
* Leicestershire Museums hiring "museum generalists" and then training them up in subjects


Keynote - Don't Look Back In Anger (Maurice Davies, Deputy Director MA)
* In the past decade in the UK:
- Greater funding
- More absolutely new museums
- Reinvigorated goals and approaches to museums
- Issues with cultural property/repatriation starting to be dealt with
* Where now? What to approach in future?
- Improving the workforce
- Sustainability
- Partnerships (especially with other public sector agencies, regional/city museum partnerships)
- Advocating value
- Exhibitions outside capitals
- Dynamic collections
* What do we want to achieve? Inspiration, especially through collections/displays. How?
- Contemporary connections - bringing burrent issues into exhibitions. This could help renergeise debate, to engage people with politics and issues
- Creative ambition - creating a "full experience" in museum exhibitions, sound/sight/senses are important
- Compelling communication - there can be a failure to get the message across through our mesia, whereas an enthusiastic staff member can express it to us. Must try to engage people AND ensure the interpretation hits the mark.
* Making museums matter
- They can be influential in our society
- Inspired staff are important and can bring a lot to the organisation. Use creativity of your staff. Nurture and develop young/entry-level staff
- Bring in outside talent
- Stimulate and support creativity
- Take risks!

Our Workforce Matters (Caitlin Griffiths, Chair; Alec Coles, Michael Houlihan, Hedley Swain)

::Alec Coles, Tyne and Wear Museums::
* Need more diversity in staff - especially to allow broader service to the demographic range of visitors museums have.
* Level of pay is not necessarily a reason for people not entering the industry.
* "Museum profession" is not the case - it's a sector with many professions within.
* Try to open up the workforce - don't be so strict on what people's qualifications need to be.
* Welcome people from other sectors; as well as this, let people leave our sector to take their skills to other people and bring new ones back.

::Michael Houlihan, Museums and Galleries of Wales::
* Museums focus on being learning institutions, but their staff need to learn as well.
* Training issues within the industry - in house, university etc.

::Hedley Swain, Libraries and Archives Council::
* Why do we need a diversified, well-trained workforce?
- To be in and of our communities
- To be more efficient with what little resources we have
- To bring in more skills/experience at all levels
* Need to identify skills museums need
- Variety of professional and personal skills
- Important to identify them to be able to fill the gaps
* Develop staff efficientyl - when you get them, offer them training opportunties

Shared Treasures: putting stored collections to work (Ellen McAdam, chair; Janice Lane, Anne Wallace, Jacqueline Donachie, Nicholas Oddy)

::Janice Lane and Anne Wallace, Glasgow Museums::
* Glasgow Museums - education program
- "Hands On" learning from objects teacher's guide; mainly aimed at preschool/primary age children
- Not just sending out the books, but also going out with the resources and informing/training teachers to go on and use the book themselves
* What objects to choose for classroom use?
- Younger groups - toys, shoes
- Older groups - brushes, lights
* What to do with them? (Look and talk about each point/object)
- Describe
- Deduce
- Interpret
- Classify
* Specific focus on painting/artwork; starting to learn the skills to interpret/understand art. This ties in with new schools curriculum here and its themes relevant to art.
* Results of the program:
- More interest from schools in museums/objects/this program
- Creating engaged and interested audiences
- Crossover with other sectors/audiences

::Jacqueline Donachie, artist::
* Inspiration from objects or research in collections can lead to new artworks
* Collaboration between community and museums (and by extension, collections)
* New perspectives gained on contemporary life/objects by looking at objects in collections
* Artists using museum objects - redisplay/reinterpret/recontextualise

::Nicholas Oddy, Glasgow School of Art::
* Using objects for analysis in art school
- Get students into museums and galleries
- They must only look at the object, no contextual information. After this initial analysis they can look at a selection of textual information for comparison
- Look at the object's context within the museum; object histories.
- Series of 'readings' of an object
- Idea of 'precious' stored and displayed items because of their status as museum items.

Keynote - Creating Value: Thriving in the 21st Century (John Falk and Lynn Dierking)
* Change
- We're in the midst of a shift from industrial/thing-based economies to knowledge/learning-based economies.
- Shifts in public expectation of what we provide
* Knowledge economy trends (free-choice learning booms here)
- Experience sells - not goods/services though
- Increased public expectations
- Shift from mass-production to personalisation
- Expectations of quality
* To succeed in the knowledge economy
- Customer-focused bottom-up organisations
- Provide personalised and customised learning-rich goods
- Communicate with the public in customised ways, build niche audiences
- Provide measurable evidence they are fulfilling their social contract
* Why do people visit museums?
- Historically we've asked this from inside the institution; we need to look outside for the answer
- Visitors coming to museums in order to meet identity-related needs. 5 identity-based reasons for museum visits: Explorers, Facilitators (ie. motivated by others they're with), Experience Seekers, Professional/Hobbyist, Spiritual Pilgrim (after restorative experience)

* Enhancing value of museums: focus on lifelong learning, reframe museums to reach less "usual" suspects
* Using knowledge economy trends to meet challenges
- Focus on experiences, not products; reframing an exhibition/program/museum to target a group's interest (eg. art gallery as family-oriented place/activities)
- Personalising offerings; eg. a group of science-based organisations (zoo, sciencentre, natural history museum, aquarium) offering a variety of different types of programs for families who are science-interested but weren't aware of what the group of organisations offered.
- Desire to learn/need for knowledge; eg. reframing art gallery as a place to learn English for immigrants in a rich environment, welcoming them into a new community via the museum
- Documenting quality; eg. a museum shifting from children to family oriented, integrating staff from all levels to help change the institution to a family-learning one.

Handing over intellectual control? (Suzanne Keene, chair; Ross Parry, Hedley Swain, Margaret Greeves, Rebecca Wilhelm, Nat Edwards)

::Ross Parry, University of Leicester::
* User generated content (UGC) is everywhere!
* Museums are too interested in how we deliver content, instead of the actual content
* There's an important differences between just user participation and then user generated content.
* Confidence about fostering/managing/monitoring user generated content is being questioned.

::Hedley Swain, Libraries and Archives Council::
* Should museums be actively and routinely encouraging UGC?
- Muse retain some authority
- Accept that we lose some control when we put stuff out on the web
- Think through why you do UGC and what the organisation gets out of it

::Margaret Greeves, Fitzwilliam Museum::
* How do we determine the value of UGC? How do we ensure UGC is useful and successful?
- Social? Institutional? Individual? What value to measure?
- How useful is UGC?
- To a user, the value is in making a connection with a museum, in using the museum's resources; it invited engagement
- To a museum, the value is in feedback from the way users USE the UGC.

::Rebecca Wilhelm, Stockwood Park Museum::
* Are museums ready to manage a future of UGC?
* Museums need the resources to manage UGC, not to let it overtake the rest of their operations
* Do museum have enough contemporary knowledge to pull off UGC?

::Nat Edwards, National Library of Scotland::
* Are we expecting too much from our visitors? Is a 'passive' visit by a visitor necessarily a bad thing?
- No on both counts
- Must not infantalise visitors, nor be too complex for them


Presenting and sharing collections-related knowledge (Nichola Johnson, Chair; Rowan Julie Brown, Robin Holgate)

::Rowan Brown, National Museums Scotland::
* Helped develop Scottish Transport Industry Collections and Knowledge network (STICK network)
* STICK came out of consultation with relevant parts of museum industry and what people within the industry wanted to get out of a network
* The network's purpose is to promote care and enjoyments of transport and industry collections in Scotland, and to also encourage engagement within these collections
* Very few resources available for STICK, many resources pulled from member's institutions to reach goals and work on their action plan
* Website:

::Robin Holgate, Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester::
* Using handheld devices to provide visitors with access to collections knowledge
* Manchester Communications Gallery
- Themes reinforced by the use of a range of communication media, use of handheld guides
* "mi-Guide"
- Context-aware information system; can target users individually and personalise their content (eg. different types of learners, teachers with groups, parents with families etc)
- Each exhibit has an RFID tag - each device sees this as you walk through the gallery and streams relevant information to your device
- Touch screen interface
* Guide make it able to
- Target your user
- Provide collections information
- Provide variety of formats (eg. audio, video, images)
* Possibility to store/forward information to personal devices so visitors can access this after their visit.
* Guides like this offer opportunities to try different kinds of interpretation, from basic -> enhances
* Guides are only as good as the content you provide.

::Discussion of panels on collection knowledge throughout the conference::
* Sessions:
1 - Developing knowledge in-house on collections
2 - Revisiting and reinterpreting collection knowledge
3 - Collections as research resources; link between the academic and the museum institutions
4 - Handing over intellectual control
5 - Presenting and sharing collection knowledge

* Questions about collection related knowledge to ponder:
1 - What more interaction do people want in the area of collections knowledge? What kinds of linking (other than SSNs) can be done?
- Make SSNs more experience-based rather than subject based (eg. Crime and Punishment SSN is experiential)
- Making knowledge publicly available - museum wikis?
- Look at consulting outside of your museum's subject areas for more information/context on your collections; look at geographic information
- Central news place for up-to-date information on research projects happening in the industry in specific museums
- MLA to be portal to SSNs
- Consult within industry on how various delivery methods have/haven't worked to get collection knowledge out to audiences
- Institude a research framework that's industry-wide
- Audiences defining how we examine our collections, rather than museum-defined categories?

2 - Where should the MA take it on behalf of the industry?
- Evaluation of SSNs
- Links between collection knowledge and learning/education, not just curation
- Look at what the rest of the world is doing with regard to collection-related knowledge
- Examining publicly available knowledge about collections
- Cross-discipline approaches to the same subjects

3 - What areas have been missed at the conference?
- Acting as an advocate
- For the MA to structure conferences differently subject-wise
- Aid in succession planning (like the fellowship program); help out with specialist expertise training
- Campaign for long-term projects and sustainability of work in the industry
- Lobby for collections-related knowledge as an area in its own right


Because I wasn't there representing an organisation or museum, I did feel like quite an outsider and didn't network as much as I should've (or at all, really). Hopefully by the time I go to next year's (for free, woohoo!) i'll have attached myself barnacle-like to somewhere that I can represent at the conference. Here's hoping. Regardless of that, it was a worthwhile experience - not only as an excuse to go to Glasgow, but also to familiarise myself with the state of the industry here in the UK.


Sunday, July 01, 2007

"Museum of Nicole"

It's so weird, approaching bits of your life like this. An interesting experiment, anyhow; and certainly not as well-documented as I would make objects in REAL collections! Hit the jump to see it all.

[Object type: Audio cassette]
Object type: Audio cassette
Size: Cassette - W65mm, L100mm. Case - W70mm, 107mm.
Materials: Plastic, paper, magnetic tape.
General description: This audio cassette is a dual-sided 90 minute tape of the kind that can be purchased blank and recorded onto. Side A has a paper label that reads "Nic's punk tape" handwritten in black pen. The plastic case has a paper insert with a tracklist handwritten in black pen (some writing has been covered with white-out). It reads:

1969/I wanna be your dog/Search + Destroy - The Stooges
Holidays in the sun/Pretty vacant/EMI - Sex Pistols
USA/White Riot/Janie Jones - The Clash
Anger burning/Protest + Survive/Ain't no feeble - Discharge
California Uber Alles/Holiday in Cambodia/Haloween/Nazi punks fuck off

Terminal Preppie/Soup is good food/MTV Get off the air/Pull my strings - Dead Kennedys
Rise above/TV Part/Police Story - Black Flag
Filler/I don't wanna hear it/Straightedge/Out of Step (with the world)/Salad days/Good guys - Minor Threat
God Song/Generator/American Jesus/Fuck Armageddon/Punk rock song - Bad Religion

The spine reads: Puhnk.

Provenance/history: This tape was compiled by the donor and gifted to the collection early in 1999.
Donor: Dave K.
Condition: The paper label on the tape is worn, however the casing of the cassette itself is in good condition and not cracked. The magnetic tape is in good condition. The plastic case and paper insert are both in poor condition - the plastic casing is cracked and some pieces have cracked off, while the paper insert is slightly worn and dogeared.
Storage location: Museum curator's desk. (Formerly: museum curator's car tape deck.)

[Object type: Ephemera]
Object type: Ephemera
Size: Various.
Materials: Paper, cardboard.
General description: This small collection of ephemera has been registered as one object and not assigned part numbers. It consists of a variety of items including stickers, whole tickets and ticket stubs, membership cards, postcards, flyers, and miscellaneous paper and cardboard.
Provenance/history: Collected at various times and places by the museum curator, some gifts.
Donor: Nicole H.
Condition: Various. Some paper in good condition, other pieces of paper and cardboard extremely faded from constant exposure to high UV levels. Other paper/cardboard has warped in high temperature and humidity levels, or has been marked/stained by blutac/putty.
Storage location: Shoe box 01. (Formerly displayed on one side of a door.)
Images: Please see the photo with notes at Flickr.