Hidden Histories: Display It Like You Stole It

Continuing our series of posts about hidden histories, Eleanor Root from Colchester and Ipswich Museums (and former MDO maternity cover!) shares her thoughts on our recent study day at the British Museum.

 

On Tuesday 23rd October, a group of us journeyed into London to take part in The Exhibitionist’s (AKA Alice Procter) Uncomfortable Art Tour of the British Museum.

Alice Procter, found of Uncomfortable Art Tours, believes that we’ve failed to come to terms with our colonial past and we need to resist triumphant nostalgia and challenge traditional narratives. We need to look through whitewashed labels to see a history of violence, imperialism and genocide committed by British people.

Alice gives tours around several national galleries, but the 90-minute tour at the British Museum focuses on unpicking their founding myths through exploring a series objects and their murky provenance.

We start off in a gallery that explores the beginnings of the British Museum, their collectors and early acquisitions. We discussed how objects collected through colonial expeditions (e.g. missionaries, government officials, explorers) often tell a story of violence even when it’s not expected. For example, Christian missionaries removed children from their families (an act of genocide). Even ‘good’ collectors, who collected through trade, used coercion as they were in a position of authority and power over local people. This manner of collecting is known as ‘salvage ethnography’, meaning the removal of objects from communities as you erase their culture.

The tour wound around displays of Pacific, North American and African cultures, stopping at particularly contentious objects. Alice emphasises the need for need a greater focus on the makers and users of the objects, not the collector, if we are going to begin to address stories of colonialism. In addition, if we ignore the brutal provenance of the object, we deny our history.

Our audiences want to trust us, and we should honour this trust with honesty.

The tour was challenging, emotional and thought-provoking. For me, the key messages were:

  1. We must be cautious when displaying objects from other cultures in case we go against their cultural protocols as this perpetuates the violence committed against the communities from which the objects were taken. For example, displaying an important object close to the floor, could be abusive of the object.
  2. We need to create space for a multiplicity of voices – we can’t speak for all the people our collections represent without resorting to (and perpetuating) stereotypes.
  3. It’s important to talk about individual stories, rather than generalising. This is humanising and especially important for objects that have difficult or violent stories. The objects can become memorials and allow people to have an emotional response.
  4. We need to consider our institutional architecture, for example many African collections are in basement galleries with dark colours and low lighting whereas many Ancient Greek displays are in bright, light galleries.

At the end of the tour, Alice hands out ‘Display It Like You Stole It’ badges and postcards for participants who might want to leave some feedback…

dear+art+gallery+2

Visit Alice’s website to find out more.

Hidden Histories: Oral History Interviews

Continuing our series on Hidden Histories in museums, oral history interviews are a great way to fill gaps in your collection and to bring stories to life for audiences, both in your museum and at home.

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As previously discussed, histories of certain groups and communities are often “hidden” because we don’t have the objects in our collection to represent them or because curators lack the specialist knowledge to interpret them.

By conducting interviews with members of these communities, you not only broaden your collection to include new stories and be more representative, you can ask questions which help you to better understand the physical objects already in your collection.

There are lots of ways museums can use oral history recordings. You can include them in exhibitions, either through a fixed unit or a portable player. Essex Record Office’s recent “You Are Hear” project saw special benches being placed around the county played recordings to the people listening to them.

You use clips of recordings on your website. Websites like Soundcloud, you can share clips from your your recordings and embed them into your website or blog, enabling you to share them around the world.

However, it isn’t as simple as simply sitting down with a your interviewee and asking questions. You need to make sure you have their permission to record the interview, to keep it and to share it.  You need to know that the equipment you have is up to the job. You should have a plan about what you want to ask, know how to ask open questions and what to do if the subject becomes upset during the course of the interview.

If you haven’t previously had oral history training, or would like a refresher, I have organised a training day with Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, Sound Archivist at Essex Record Office on 27th November. Click here for more information.

Don’t forget that SHARE’s Hidden History grant scheme is now open for applications. The deadline is 28th January, 2019. There is also a Hidden Histories Study Day at the British Museum on 23rd October 2018.

Hidden Histories: We Are Colchester

Today’s blog post continues out theme of Hidden Histories and is written by Ben Paites from Colchester and Ipswich Museums.

We are Colchester 5Colchester Museums have recently been looking to engage with a wider range of audiences through a series of projects held predominantly at Hollytrees Museum. “We Are Colchester”, an exhibition running from July 2018 to January 2019, has been the launchpad for this work.

The concept of the exhibition began in 2017 when it had been suggested that we have an LGBTQ+ exhibition in Hollytrees Museum, as this is an audience that is currently underrepresented within our collections. I held a focus group in April 2017, where I invited representatives from a wide range of organisations to come and give their thoughts on this idea. It was unanimously agreed that an LGBTQ+ exhibition might not be suitable for Colchester, as there would be the potential for alienating the very audience we were trying to attract. The fear of visitors to such an exhibition having to “out” themselves was quite problematic for some attendees. However, the concept of identity more broadly was a much more favourable topic.

“We Are Colchester” therefore looks at an individual’s identity as expressed through a single object. We have items loaned to us by members of the public, as well as objects from the museums’ collections. The exhibition explores a wide range of characteristics, such as gender, race, religion and profession. Encouraging visitors to add their own stories to the exhibition, there is an engagement wall where visitors are able to add a label expressing their own identity.

Following on from this project, we are hoping to turn our attention to the permanent displays in Hollytrees by inviting individuals from various communities within Colchester to explore our galleries and see whether they feel they are reflected in the museum. We will then work with them to see if we are able to reinterpret objects, rewrite labels or even actively collect new items to be part of the museums’ collections.   As it is Black History Month, we are currently recruiting individuals with an interest in Black and African History to get in touch and to be part of this project. We will be doing the same in February 2019 for LGBT history month, with the hope of engaging more audiences in future.

Museums News – 3rd October 2018

Dear All,

There are still spaces on the free “Donation to Disposal” seminar being run by Collections Trust on 12th October at Rayleigh Weir Fire Station. The day will be a thorough look at the new SPECTRUM 5 guidelines and will be really useful to anyone working with collections or responsible for Accreditation. More information is available here.

On 23rd October, I have organised a free “Hidden Histories” study day at the British Museum. The day will include an “Uncomfortable Art Tour” with Alice Proctor, looking at the colonial past of the British Museum’s collections. In the afternoon, we will have free entry to the museum’s “I Object” exhibition, which looks at the history of dissent. For more information, click here.

There is also an oral history training day on 27th November at Essex Record Office in Chelmsford.

To book on any of these, email me at amy.cotterill@essex.gov.uk with your museum name and a contact telephone number.

Best wishes,

Amy

What is a “Hidden History”?

person with body painting

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SHARE Museums East have just launched a new grant scheme to support museums to interpret and share “hidden histories”, but what does it mean and why should you care?

Hidden histories are stories which are typically not told by museums. This could be because past curators haven’t collected relevant objects, or they have but museums lack the knowledge (or interest)to properly interpret them.

Often hidden histories are those belonging to minorities, such as people with disabilities, religious groups and BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) communities.

As homosexuality was illegal until the 1960s and continued to be deemed socially unacceptable for some time afterwards, LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual) stories are often under-represented.

However, “hidden” does not necessarily mean minority. Women are fifty percent of the population, but their stories are often not well recorded or shared. In many museums, women are only represented in the domestic galleries, or in relation to their husbands/fathers/sons. Collections are also often focussed on the wealthy or middle classes. Employers of the working class are well represented but the stories of the individuals are often sketchy or overlooked entirely.

Of course, I speak in generalities and there are many excellent examples of the above in museums but they are the exemption, not the rule.

 

How has this happened and why is this a problem? How would it benefit your museum to do more work highlighting these stories?

Many collections have come together through the work of a few private collectors and/or curators. They therefore reflect their particular interests, prejudices and opportunities. More recently, we have tended to rely on objects being offered to us rather than actively seeking to fill gaps. There is also frequently an awkwardness in tackling experiences outside of our own.

However, the world is changing. People no longer visit museums because it is considered “a good thing to do”. By tackling more diverse stories, museums are relevant to more people. They can increase not only their audiences, but their volunteers, donors and supporters, making them more resilient.

 

This is the first in a series of blogs around hidden histories, but I would like to draw your attention to a study day I have organised at the British Museum on 23rd October. This day will look at two different examples of hidden history interpretation.

SHARE Fundraising Cohort 2018-19

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As you may be aware, between 2014 and 2018 museums in the East of England had access to specialist fundraising training through SHARED Enterprise, an HLF funded project.  The programme included cohort-based training, which participating museums found highly effective because it combined group workshops with specialist one-to-one support and peer networking.

 

Now that the SHARED Enterprise programme has finished, we are planning to offer similar cohort-based fundraising training as part of the 2018-19 SHARE training calendar.  A small number of museums will attend group workshops and receive expert one-to-one support from an experienced fundraiser.  They will learn about fundraising strategies, including a variety of fundraising methods, and they will be supported to apply their learning in the real context of their own museums.

 

Workshop content will be tailored to suit the needs of the participating museums.  The following topics are likely to be covered:

 

  • Fundraising strategy
  • Case for support
  • Trusts and foundations
  • Corporate support
  • Individual giving

 

The fundraising cohort is for museums of all sizes that are serious about developing their fundraising skills, but applicants must commit to attending all group workshops and one-to-one sessions.  Ideally, the same two people should attend every session, as this makes the learning more effective and means you are more likely to be able to put the learning into practice and achieve fundraising success. Preference will be given to museums which have not had the opportunity to join any of the SHARED Enterprise cohorts.

 

The dates and locations of sessions will be arranged once the participating museums have been selected.  As far as possible, we will arrange workshops to be held in locations that are geographically sensible for participants, including asking participating museums to host a workshop if they have suitable facilities to do so.  Workshop dates are yet to be arranged and will be published as soon as possible.  One-to-one sessions will be take place at the participants’ own venues, by prior arrangement.

 

There is a small fee payable for taking part in the fundraising cohort.  This is £200 for an accredited museum in the East of England, or £400 for a non-accredited museum and museums outside the East of England region.  In return for this, you will receive training and one-to-one support worth approximately £1,600.  Information about how to pay will be sent to you if you are offered a place in the cohort, and payment is needed to secure your place.  If you would like to apply but have difficulty paying the fee, please contact us to discuss assistance.

 

How to apply:

Initially, please complete the expression of interest form below and email it to sharemuseumseast@norfolk.gov.uk no later than 5pm on Monday 10 September 2018.

 

If you have any questions, please contact Miranda on 01603 493659 or email miranda.ellis@norfolk.gov.uk.

Collections Trust Training Day – October 2018

20150420_141111.jpgThe Collections Trust will be delivering a free training day in Essex on Friday 12th October and I need your help.

 

Firstly, is anyone able to provide a venue for the day? If so, please contact me.

 

Secondly, what would you like the training to cover? The event is open to all museums, not just Accredited ones and the Collections Trust team are eager that you find the day as useful as possible. Please select as many of the options below that would be of use to your museum: