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