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: 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.

Farewell For Now

Today is my last day as Museum Development Officer for Essex… Until I return from maternity leave in November.

 

In the meantime, I’m leaving you in very capable hands. Eleanor Root is joining Essex County Council as my maternity cover on secondment from Colchester and Ipswich Museums.

 

In addition to leading on projects like Snapping the Stiletto, Eleanor will be your main contact for all things museumy in Essex, will continue to send out the e-newsletter and keep this website up-to-date. She’ll also be taking over the @EssexMDO Twitter account (although if you spot any tweets with AC at the end, it’s because I couldn’t quite give up my social media addiction).

 

Coming up over the next few months, the Stiletto project will be getting underway, there’s an opportunity to get involved in a new volunteering project and from next week we’ll be hosting a series of weekly blog posts from social media expert Louise Winters on how museums of any size can make the most of these free platforms.

 

Thank you to everyone who has been in touch over the last few weeks to wish me luck, and for all your support over the past three and a half years.

 

See you all again in the Autumn.

 

Amy Cotterill.

Snapping The Stiletto: Re-Examining Essex Collections

 

Image courtesy of Essex Police Museum

Image courtesy of Essex Police Museum

The Essex County Council Museum Development has secured a grant of £95, 445 from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund for a two year project working with museums across the county.

 

2018 is the Centenary of the of the Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave the first British women the vote, the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act 1928 which gave all women the vote and the 50th anniversary of the Dagenham Ford Worker’s Strike. These important national and local anniversaries are serving as a catalyst to explore, record and celebrate the diverse and inspirational stories of Essex women.

For the purposes of this project, we are working with partners from across “historic Essex” including those areas which are now unitary authorities or part of London, thus enabling us to tell interpret both existing collections and the stories discovered through our research as part of the wider story.

We will research and record how Essex women’s lives have changed during the last century and celebrate the stories of individual and groups of women in the county, for example Suffrage campaigners and Dagenham strikers but also women whose stories aren’t yet well known. This may include but not be limited to women who were involved in World War II, gained qualifications at a time when most women were unable to access further education, who entered male dominated professions including the services, those who moved to Essex from around the world and made a home for themselves by overcoming language and cultural differences and those who have raised families during a time of changing expectations for their gender. By highlighting women’s contributions, we will add another layer of understanding to elements of history that the public are possibly more familiar with, for example WWII, and change their perceptions of what took place. Also, through telling the stories of inspiring Essex women, we hope to weaken the negative “Essex Girl” stereotype.

 

Image courtesy of Southend Museums

Image courtesy of Southend Museums

 

 

The project is part of an overarching strand of work called “Snapping the Stiletto: 100 Years of Change”. We will be shortly be submitting further funding applications for oral history and other work, so there are still plenty of opportunities for heritage organisations and other groups to get involved. We will also be recruiting a large number of volunteers during 2017.

 

For more information, to sign up for project updates or to learn how you can get involved in the project, email amy.cotterill@essex.gov.uk

 

 

 

Our museum partners for “Revisiting Essex Collections” are:

  • Braintree Museums
  • Brightlingsea Museum
  • Chelmsford Museum
  • Colchester and Ipswich Museums
  • The Combined Military Services Museum
  • Epping Forest District Museum
  • Essex Fire Museum
  • Essex Police Museum
  • The Museum of Power
  • Redbridge Museum, Ilford
  • Southend Museums Service

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

Museums as Learning Spaces

Museums as Learning Spaces

On Monday 16th March, SHARE Museums East ran “Museums as Learning Spaces” at the Museum of Power. Sophie Stevens, Collections and Learning Curator at Colchester and Ipswich Museums shares her experiences of the day:

In my new role as a Collections and Learning Curator at Colchester and Ipswich Museums I am building on my experience as a specialist curator to learn more about museum learning. The SHARE course ‘Museums as Learning Spaces’ with Judith Carruthers sounded like a good place to start.

Museum of Power

Exploring the Museum of Power

The course was held at the Museum of Power near Maldon so it was a great opportunity to visit this fantastic museum. The staff were really welcoming and open about their experiences of delivering learning at the museum. The session began with an introduction from Judith and a ‘classifying objects’ activity. This was a great start and helped the process of thinking about objects in more creative ways. This continued with a ‘questioning mystery objects’ activity in which we looked at the type of questions we would ask to discover more about an unidentified object.

Having been a specialist Curator; looking at an unknown was a great way of recreating how many visitors might feel in our museums. How can we help our visitors discover more about our collections? How can we better support parents and other carers in exciting our young visitors about these objects?

This linked well with finding out our personal learning style. The VAK Learning Styles Self-Assessment Questionnaire categorised us as Kinaesthetic, Visual or Auditory learners. Most people are a mix of these styles but it is interesting to note that not all people learn like we do. Catering for these different learning styles is important to make our museums effective learning spaces.

Judith Carruthers

Working with Judith Carruthers

We then looked at a variety of trails from museums and historic houses and soon formed ideas about what makes a good one. Being clear and concise and not trying to do too much is key. Using photographs of museum objects rather than generic images is also important. A good museum trail should enable the child to take the lead and stimulate discussion, and shouldn’t involve too much writing. Trails are a great way of adding value to a visit, highlighting objects and even directing footfall to less visited parts of a site. The need to focus on one audience when developing a trail is important so that you cater for particular needs or interests of your visitor.

Following lunch we had a demonstration of the fantastic steam engine ‘Marshall’ and explored the museum as different types of visitor including grandparents with children and a wheelchair user. Looking at the displays as these visitors might was a valuable exercise which highlighted some simple changes that would make a big difference.

We finished the day looking at family learning ideas. These included mystery objects, feely bags and tools to encourage creative exploration of museums such as torches, magnifying glasses and role play. One museum has a toy lion that is hidden somewhere in the galleries. Visitors are challenged to locate the lion and find a new place to hide him. Activities such as these help make children feel comfortable in museums which can then lead to learning. This was the main message I took away with me – making our visitors feel welcome and comfortable in our museums is so important. Without this our museums cannot be effective learning spaces.