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.

black smartphone and headphones on a desk

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

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

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

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.

What the HEG…?

Museum Explorer

I’m not sure when the Heritage Education Group (HEG) first began. I know I first attended, as an Assistant Community Outreach Officer at Colchester and Ipswich Museums, back in 2007.

 

The group and the heritage sector have both changed a lot over the intervening years, and I would love to hear your views on what you value about the group, what you’d like to see more of and, if your museum doesn’t currently attend, what would get you to join.

 

If you aren’t familiar with HEG, it is a group for anyone delivering heritage education or community engagement within Essex, including Southend and Thurrock. While this is largely the staff and volunteers of the counties museums and heritage centres, it also includes parks, libraries, archives, attractions and independent freelancers.

 

We currently meet four times a year, varying our day of the week and location in the county to try and make it as accessible as possible. We regularly have guest speakers or presentations on topics relevant to the group. For example CREST Awards, working with home educators or how to use digital technology in museum learning. There is an opportunity to hear about what work other organisations are doing and to ask for support with any issues your organisation is currently having.

 

The group also feeds into the Museum Development programming locally and regionally through SHARE. For example, conversations at HEG led to the museum education mentoring pilot a couple of years ago and our current “Snapping the Stiletto” women’s history project.

 

If you are not currently on the mailing list (I know a lot of people “fell off” when the new, post-GDPR emails were launched), you can sign up here.

 

Meanwhile, please take a few minutes to complete this survey  and indicate how we can make the group of more use to you going forward.

SHARE Creative Communities Network

CIMS 100 United

Does your museum want to work more closely with local communities? Do you want to bring in new visitors, improve your reach and build relationships? Diversifying audiences and giving ownership to local communities are both priorities for HLF and Arts Council and this network is a way to bounce around ideas with colleagues, learn from each other and hear about funding and other opportunities. We will meet quarterly through the year and help shape the SHARE programme around community participation.

Our first meeting will be in September at Ipswich Museum. We will be focusing on the new OFBYFOR ALL self-assessment tool and we would ask that attendees’ museums have completed the assessment ahead of the meeting, preferably as a team rather than an individual on their own and ideally including some of your community partners in the process.

In addition to join the network mailing list, please email amy.cotterill@essex.gov.uk. Additionally, please can you let us have your availability for September by completing this poll   

– Amy Cotterill (Essex MDO) and Eleanor Root (Colchester and Ipswich Museums)