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.

Curator of the Future: Part 2

Curator of the Future: Part 2

Last week, I blogged about the British Museum “The Curator of the Future” Conference. In part 1, I discussed their “Curatorial Survivial Kit”. Now I’ll look at the “Curator and Digital” and “Next Generation” sessions.

  • Curators and Digital

Chris Michaels, Head of Digital and Publishing at the British Museum set the scene after lunch by asking how curation has changed in this age of “digital enlightenment”.

Originally the museum team was focused on Neil MacGregor “History of the World in 100 Objects” books, so the success of the podcasts took them by surprise (and Chris admitted that if they’d known how well they’d work, they would have done things slightly differently!). People listened at home, on the move and even downloaded them to listen in front of the objects in the museum. The moral? It’s nearly impossible to predict which emerging platforms are going to be a hit, so it’s a good idea to experiment and make things available in as many ways as your budget, capacity and imagination will allow.

Selfies, wifi etc change how people interact with museums and how we and they share that experience. Behind the scenes sharing. Presenting more of our collections to a much wider audience.

Anra Kennedy from Culture 24’s presentation was asked if your use of digital technology is “Fit for the Future”. At the moment we have a “supply orientated approach” – this is the information we want to share with you and this is how we’re going to do so. This isn’t working. Museums need to research what their audiences (and potential audiences) want, would be interested in and how to get it to the,. This will require a multi-platform approach using the social web (Twitter, Facebook etc), on-site provision and mobile provision such as podcasts.

Last year, if you take out the stats for “adult” sites, 0.08per cent of all web traffic went to the sites of the 700 largest cultural organisations. That sounds quite positive, until you realise that the same percent were visiting same as B&Q!

Museum’s need to have an online presence that’s engaging and playful as well as informative. Anra gave several examples including Show Me, a project for 7 to 14 year olds working with teachers, and the partnership project VanGoYourself.com. This project encourages people re-create scenes from Van Gogh’s artworks and share them via social media. This has been very popular, particularly amongst hipsters, and won the “Museum and the Web” Exhibition and People’s Choice awards.

Anra also talked about. She stressed how important it is for museums to share good images online – high resolution and high quality, labelled with information about their availability for use and information about what they depict. Images should be “usable, reusable and shareable”.

I particularly liked Anra’s suggestion that websites can be “living labs” where you can experiment and change. By playing with layouts, language/tone, how functions are displayed, showing related content (or not), you can learn about how your online visitors use your site, what they like and what might work better.

Zoe Hughes is Curator of Fossil Invertebrates at the Natural History Museum, and she presented on a pet-subject of mine: Why Curators Should Tweet

Sick of being told “most people don’t care about your collections”, Zoe wondered is it that they don’t care or is it that they don’t know? She began tweeting to connect with academic researchers in her field and to raise awareness of collections, organisation and the curator’s role.

What she’s found is that only a tiny amount of her Twitter followers are her original target audience of “researchers in her field” – only 0.03 per cent. A lot are other museums but there are members of the public too. Her content is very different to what she’d originally envisioned too, as a lot of her work involves being at a computer and it’s hard to make that interesting in a tweet. Instead, she shares:

  • Photos of interesting objects as she finds them (this means she carries her smartphone with her in the stores to photograph and then share)
  • Information and images that link to popular hashtags (#FossilFriday ties in very well!)
  • Some information about what she’s doing (eg outreach, field work etc)
  • Questions and answers about the collections

Zoe raised the interesting quandary of popularity vs engagement. What does it really mean if people “like” or “follow” your content? How do you measure, record and report this data? They’re good questions and, sadly, currently without definitive answers.

(You can follow Zoe on Twitter: @NHM_Cephalopoda)

  • The Next Generation

Sadly, I had to leave after Rachel Souhami excellent introduction to this section of the programme. Rachel is a Museum Academic and Consultant who was involved in the 2014 “Future of Museums” conference which asked early career professionals to be idealistic about the future of the sector, leading to the creation of a Manifesto for the Future of Museums.

This document has been described by those  higher up in museums “nothing new”. These are the same issues that we’ve all been talking about for years. Rachel quite rightly challenges “If this is what you’ve been talking about for years, why haven’t you changed anything?”

Rachel has made a list suggestions for senior museum professionals who want this change to happen:

1 Stop talking about “the museum sector” – there is so much variety in what we do and how we do it, that we cannot be described as a cohesive whole

2 Ensure a cogent, collective leadership

3 Engage with emerging museum professionals

4 Remind emerging professionals to be proactive in seeking change

Curator of the Future: Part 1

Curator of the Future

On Monday 13th April, I attended the annual British Museum National Programmes Conference. This year’s topic, “The Curator of the Future” prompted some lively debates. Here are my thoughts and notes from the first part of the day.

I have attended several of the British Museum’s previous National Programmes Conferences, and have always been impressed at the quality and range of speakers. This year’s conference did not disappoint and Katy Swift from their UK Partnership’s team did an excellent job in bringing the day together.

  • The Role of the British Museum in Supporting Curators

The conference began with a presentation by Jonathan Williams, Deputy Director of the British Museum. The BM views itself as a “museum of the world for the world”, and takes its responsibility in supporting other museums very seriously. They do so both by acting as a “lending library” for objects but through knowledge sharing, running subject specialist networks, traineeships, work-shadowing schemes and developing touring exhibitions. They are responsible for the Portable Antiquity Scheme, which has just recorded its millionth find from metal detectorists.

However, their ability to supplement local exhibitions and displays is important. Over 2700 objects from their collection were out on loan to other museums last year. Through these displays, more people saw items from the British Museum in locations outside of London than in their site in Bloomsbury. Mr Williams asks of “Tell us what you want and where you want it”.

  • The Curatorial Survival Kit

Four presentations were made by a range of speakers about what skills curators need now and will need in the future.

Maurice Davies of The Museum Consultancy compared museums to marketplaces and curators to the traders who work there. He feels a curator’s role is to present the expected and also engage customers with the new and unexpected. The key is communication skills – they need to be able to share their knowledge of their collection with the audience. Maurice feels that specialised roles within museums such as documentation, conservation and learning are positive because they have raised the standard of delivery, but is concerned that the role of “curator” is now made up of the left-over bits. He also raised concern that in some institutions, exhibitions designed by committee without a strong lead and vision from a curator have resulted in dull displays with clear theme or story.

Timothy A. M. Ewin, Senior Curator at the Natural History Museum , presented passionately on the Campaign for Good Curatorship. He cited Museum Association research from 2013 which found that over the past ten years the number of Natural History specialists working in the sector has declined by over 35%, Art curators by 23% and Human History (archaeology, social history and world cultures) by 5%. The Campaign believes “that great museums need good curators and that delivering public benefit is about balancing community engagement and expertise in the objects which represent that community’s heritage”. The inference being that many UK museums are emphasising engagement so much, that collections knowledge is suffering and said engagement is shallower for it.

(I thoroughly recommend visiting the Campaign’s website and reading their manifesto. Mr Ewin mentioned that they are recruiting committee members if you are interested in getting involved).

Bill Seaman, Museums, Arts and Culture Manager for Colchester and Ipswich Museums (CIMS) spoke about the need for change in the sector due to austerity and cuts in funding. There isn’t one solution to this problem, as differences in collections, local needs, politics and funding levels all have a role in finding a solution that works for you. For example, in their recent restructure, CIMS have merged the different specialist curator roles with learning and engagement posts to create general “Collections and Learning Curator” posts.

Bill also raised the issue of new graduates from the many Museum Studies courses being run in the UK. Are students being training in the right skills to fit the job market as it stands now? If so, how can museums and educational institutions work together to remedy this?

Vicky Dawson, Chair of the South Western Federation of Museums and Art Galleries talked about their museum development offer (the equivalent of SHARE in our region). In particular, she talked about training for mid-level curators who’ve found that the skills they need for their current roles, as well as to move up, have changed. While agreeing with previous speakers that communication skills are important, Vicky stressed that “collections are central to a museum but they don’t look after themselves”. After all, what’s the point of being a museum if you don’t have well-cared for, well-interpreted collections?

The speakers Q&A session which followed became quite heated, both in the role and in comments made on Twitter by the attendees. There is much debate as to the correct balance of collections care/research and audience engagement. Can one person really have all of these skills or do we need specialists? How do we encourage diversity in a sector which already has too many people for too few jobs? Many museums have ceased to have entry-level positions, relying on volunteers, interns and trainees – does this make it harder for people to get onto the employment ladder?

While many of these debates have been raging for a long time, particularly around diversifying the workforce, it seems that no single answer has been found. I find the passion with which people argued encouraging, because it shows how much we all care about the future of our sector.

I will be posting a follow-up blog on the rest of the Conference soon.

~Amy Cotterill, Museum Development Officer