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…

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Visit Alice’s website to find out more.

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.

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.

AIM Conference 2018: Changing Gear

Caroline Hamson, Heritage Collections Officer for The Scouts, shares her experiences of this year’s Association of Independent Museums Conference.

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Diversity was the focus of the first day, or as Shaz Hussain suggested, representation not diversity. Hannah Fox the Derby Silk Mill Project Director discussed how imperative it is to design exhibitions/museums/sites alongside your communities. You must have human centred design which focuses on think, do and feel. The top down approach is out of touch and more importantly, is not impactful.

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Victoria Rogers from Cardiff Story Museum gave us a run-down of the top 10 tips for building and diversifying audiences, with the mantras, ‘Ask, Listen, Act’, ‘Live your commitment’ and ‘Review, Learn, Amend, Grow’.

A tour of the new collections store at Gaydon was an eye opener, what a magnificent facility! It even includes a full view of the workshop where staff and volunteers maintain and repair the vehicles. A facility which means 100% of their collection (bar the archive) is on display. What a dream.

 

It’s also where I found my next car…..

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On day two we learnt about the free stuff and resources that are available to us as AIM members. The free resources through the, ‘Open Up: Museums for everyone’ project which will help museums of all sizes increase the diversity of their visitors to make real and lasting change in the museum sector. And a new three-year partnership with the Charity Finance Group means AIM members can sign up to receive advice, trouble shooting, resources, all for free!

A fascinating talk by Sue Davies told about the positive impact understanding your type of museum can have. Club, temple, forum or attraction? Understanding this can lead to better management by adapting your leadership style; leader, facilitator, guardian or business manager.

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What did I learn? To be the best we can be and serve our communities we must listen, really listen, don’t impose our ideas on people, be open to criticism, have a great sense of purpose and vision which is shared by everyone, and be willing to try and test ideas without fear of failure.

SHARE Creative Communities Network

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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)

#OFBYFORALL: A Revolutionary Opportunity

Nina Simon and Amy Cotterill

Nina Simon from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History with Amy Cotterill, Essex MDO 

A few weeks ago I attended the Museum Next conference in London. It was an exciting three days and I learned a lot, but one of the most inspirational presentations was by Nina Simon of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH).

 

If you have time, I urge you to watch the video below. Nina speaks eloquently about how stronger community engagement saved the museum. Partnership working, co-creating programming and changing their recruitment processes have turned them around. In 2011 they had a budget of $700 000, in 2018 it’s $3 000 000. They have gone from 7 members of staff to 32 and17 000 visitors per year to 140 000.

Nina and MAH’s work has been so exceptional, they have raised $900 000 to roll out an international programme of support called OFBYFOR ALL to help more museums around the world work in this way.

 

The first step, one which all heritage organisations can do, is to complete their free self-assessment tool. It will give you an organisational score as to how “of, by and for” your local communities your museum is and highlight your strengths and weaknesses. This could be a good exercise to do as a team, working together to identify ways of improving. If possible, it would be good to include representatives of your community partners in the process as your perceptions and theirs might be different.

 

The second step is to apply to be part of their “first wave” research program, helping to test and co-develop tools which will help your organisation and others become more OFBYFOR. They are looking for organisations that are from diverse sizes, sectors, and geographies that are ready to make change in the next six months.

 

If accepted for the programme, your museum will have:

  • Free access to OFBYFOR ALL online platform and tools for 1 year
  • Personalized support in developing a plan and tracking your progress
  • Global support and community-building with other First Wave colleagues
  • Promotion and PR about your founding involvement in the project
  • Opportunity to be part of the beginning of something big

The OFBYFOR ALL Change Network will eventually become a paid-model, but this First Wave is free as you will be helping to develop and test the model and resources. The only exception is covering travel expenses to attend an in-person event in January (and you may be able to access Museum Development help to support this – contact me if you would like to apply). There will also be the opportunity to attend an OFBYFOR ALL Bootcamp, which you would also have to pay for.

For more information about the programme, the self-assessment tool and the opportunity to take part in the first wave of the change network, visit the OFBYFOR ALL website.

 

Snapping the Stiletto Update

Snapping the Stiletto

Logo designed by Essex artist, Lisa Temple-Cox

Pippa Smith is project manager for “Snapping the Stiletto”, an Essex-wide project looking at how women’s lives have changed since gaining the vote in 1918. 

Snapping the Stiletto is a project funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections fund which aims to uncover and celebrate stories of strong Essex women over the past 100 years. Working in partnership with 11 museums across (historic) Essex and a range of community groups to steer the project we will be looking for hidden stories of women in museum collections and creating exhibitions and events to share these stories across the county.

CHMPM 536 Pat Foster, 1st female motorcyclist for EP

Pat Foster, first female motorcyclist for Essex Police (copyright Essex Police Museum)

The museums will be recruiting volunteers to help them to research and tell these stories and I’m busy talking to a range of community groups to discover what sort of topics would interest them. So far I’ve had meetings with representatives from the WI and the Shree Ram Mandir  Hindu Cultural and Heritage Centre and spent a very enjoyable couple of hours with the Razed Roof Theatre Company in Harlow . I’ve contacted the Guides, sisters from a local mosque and representatives from a wide range of groups representing the diverse communities across Essex.

History students at Essex University studying a ‘Votes for Women’ module  have been looking at the representation of women in museums and public spaces and tackling some interesting questions set by the project which we hope to blog about soon.

So far two main themes are emerging- groups are interested in the history of women at work, in particular in industry and women as campaigners beyond the suffragettes.