Films from our Exhibition of Research

For those who didn’t catch some of the fabulous videos in our Exhibition of Research!

Dr. Elee Kirk, UCL Institute of Education, ‘Seeing Children’s Voices in a Museum’:

Steve Slack, Museum Consultant and Writer, ‘Museum Objects as Travel Agents’:

Gregor Ilas, Slovene Ethnographic Museum, ‘Migrations’:

Laura-Edythe Coleman, School of Information at Florida State University, ‘The State of Inclusion: Perspectives from American Museum Researchers and Practitioners’:

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Don’t panic – tell a lie! Per Helge Nylund

“Once upon a time”, began Per Helge Nylund of Tromsø University Museum, “there was a regional museum in northern Norway. They were going to stage an exhibition for the benefit of a local audience with something as un-Arctic as live tropical snakes.”

To promote the exhibition, the Museum had created posters featuring said tropical snakes that had the words SLANGENE KOMMER! in big letters at the top. That translates in English to SNAKES COMING! I didn’t get a photo of the poster because, like any good conference blogger, I was too busy typing furiously to take photos, but I can tell you that the snake looked something a bit like this.

 

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Eric Isselee/Shutterstock.com

What you’ll notice about this snake is that it is very much real and alive. It’s terribly important that you bear this in mind.

The poster we were shown also featured another word in bold, capital letters: UTSATT, or POSTPONED. The snakes, it was hoped, would be coming, but a lack of the correct paperwork for the visiting reptiles, a protected species, meant that the they were not able to come quite yet.

Nylund and his colleagues were told about this issue six days before the exhibition was due to open. 

“We tried not to panic”, Nylund told us, “We were in denial till lunch, then we started discussions.” I don’t know about you, but the image that came into my head at this point was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, famous for its plea to readers remain calm in times of crisis.

The Museum team felt they couldn’t simply not have an exhibition as this wouldn’t be fair to visitors. A solution had to be found.

A quick Norwegian language class: Slange is both the word for ‘snake’ and ‘hose’. This homonym was responsible for some of the most creative thinking I have seen in a museum. The resulting exhibition was one that even famous snake-hater Indiana Jones would have approved of.

(Any excuse to watch a clip of everyone’s favourite fictional archaeologist, right?)

An email was sent round to museum staff: “Can we have all your hoses and pipes and tubes and toy snakes?” I’d like to suggest that this might be one of the most fun and interest-piquing[1] emails that has ever been sent to anyone in a museum since the beginning of the digital age. Even better than ‘Cakes in the staffroom’ or ‘Funding application success’[2].

Said hoses and pipes and tubes and toy snakes were then displayed around the gallery. There were hoses of all kinds: ventilation hoses, fire hoses, garden hoses and more[3]. Two vacuum cleaner pipes were contorted together to give the effect they were mating. The previously rather mundane household objects were gaining a life of their own. The fake snakes had arrived.

Each fake snake was given its own Norwegian and Latin name by Nylund. The latter were carefully chosen; the fire hose, for example, was given the Latin name for ‘durable head’. The Museum’s natural history curator also came on board with the project, displaying fossils that had been interpreted in the medieval era as being snakes. More fake snakes to enjoy.

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A selection of the fake snakes with their Latin names

The exhibition opened to great applause. All the staff got involved; a water hose was used in place of a microphone at the launch, and Nylund dressed in safari gear to lead visitors around the exhibition. “This is aggressive!” he warned visitors about one fake snake. The mating vacuum cleaners were discussed with fondness: “We’re hoping for a baby vacuum cleaner bag soon.”

Museum staff thought that the paperwork problems that had prevented the live snakes from coming would be sorted within one or two weeks. The exhibition of fake snakes was a way to buy some time before the arrival of the real, living snakes. It turned out that the paperwork was not easy to sort out and the snakes never arrived.

The lack of living snakes, however, was not a problem. The fake snakes exhibition was a great success, making local and national news and attracting over 7000 visitors in five weeks – that’s over 10% of the population of Tromsø. The Museum received fan mail from people living an eight hour drive away from Tromsø asking how long the exhibition would be on for as they were keen to visit. The exhibition was extended by an extra month.

As well as attracting visitors, capturing people’s imaginations, and being generally brilliant, the fake snakes exhibition can boast other, long-term benefits. The exhibition opened Museum staff up to new ideas and showed that the Museum was a place of fun where creativity was encouraged. A local artist approached the Museum about hosting an exhibition about recycling. Swedish artist Eric Langert, who makes animals from junk, also exhibited at the Museum. Nylund believes these collaborations would not have happened without the fake snakes exhibition.

“Fake snakes”, Nylund noted, “was not meant to be a replacement, more of an entertaining diversion and playful fantasy borne out of the idea that the show must go on and out of love for the audience.” Museum staff told a lie of sorts in pretending the snakes in the exhibition were alive, but in a sense they were living, having been presented as living creatures in a make-believe world. Although the objects that were in the exhibition were “really boring and not interesting”, suggested Nyland, they were made interesting by being treated as live species and museum objects. The approach worked very well; audiences enjoyed the irony and Museum staff didn’t receive a signal complaint about the lack of live snakes.

Nylund concluded his excellent presentation with a plea: When something like this happens, please be cool about it. In times of crisis, fake snakes and carry on. Don’t panic – just lie.

PS: Since the fake snakes exhibition, the museum has held an exhibition of live snakes. I think this sounds wonderful, but a certain Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones, Jr. might not have enjoyed it so much.

Laura Crossley, PhD Researcher, University of Leicester

[1] I’m claiming that as a word.

[2] Okay, maybe not better than ‘Funding application success’, but still jolly exciting.

[3] I confess that I could not think of another type of hose. In my defence, hoses are not my specialist subject.

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Putting Women on the Map: Women’s Museums and Gendering the Public Space. Holly Furlong.

Holly Furlong is a board member of the Women’s Museum of Ireland and an Education Assistant at the National Museum of Ireland.

Holly gave a fascinating presentation about the Women’s Museum of Ireland,  a virtual museum which promotes the formal recognition of the role of women in Irish history as well as the role of Irish women abroad.

The Museum was founded in November 2012 by an inspirational group of women in their 20s, including Holly. At the same time as the museum was being founded, issues around abortion rights were coming to the fore in Ireland after 31 year old Savita Halappanavar died from septicaemia at Galway University hospital in October 2012 after being denied an abortion. The Museum board wanted to consider how women’s museums can provide a forum for gender rights, talk about gender rights, and be involved in social justice movements.

In order to try to unpick these questions, Holly researched the roles Women’s Museums can play in terms of gender rights for her Masters dissertation at the University of Leicester. She looked at three women’s museums across the world:

  • Das Verbogene Museum, Berlin, which features artwork that has been created by women, providing a sphere for female artists to display their work and add to research on women artists.
  • Kvindemuseet, Aarhus, which was founded in the late 1970s, and displays women’s history that has often been hidden. One of the first projects undertaken by the museum, prior to having a physical space, was to build up an oral history archive that reveals women’s experiences and stories.
  • The International Museum of Women, which is largely a virtual museum, and merged with the Global Fund for Women in March 2014. The museum plays an activist role; its campaigns, ideas and exhibitions are displayed alongside petitions to sign and calls to action.

The three case studies represented three diverse museums utilising very different methods to agitate the public space. Holly’s research was influenced by Nancy Fraser’s concept of counterpublics, public spheres outside of the dominant public sphere that have been created to agitate. Fraser maintains that such spaces are nearly always temporary.

The Women’s Museum of Ireland is giving a voice to women’s stories and showing how women have helped shape Ireland. The Museum, which is run in a voluntary capacity by the board members, has an online presence, which includes crowdsourced articles an research about about women’s history and the impact and achievements of the women of Ireland, providing a forum to give women a voice. For example, the Museum works closely with Women’s History Association of Ireland whose members suggest research to add to the website. When the Museum launched, one visitor asked ‘Why isn’t there a men’s museum?, which, Holly suggested, demonstrates that the museum had caused agitation.

Holly gave us an inspirational look into current and future activities of the Museum. A pop-up exhibition, Monsters of Creation: Snapshots of women in Higher Education in Ireland, was created to accompany the Museum’s launch event. Other pop-up exhibitions have since been created, and the Museum often partners with other institutions to deliver joint events, such as an event with the Writer’s Centre, in which participants arrived with a book by female author and left with another.

Lots of people ask to visit the Museum. Since this is not possible, the board ambitiously decided to make Dublin their museum and are currently creating a map that features locations around the city that highlight women’s history. The board want the map to be useful, not just a nice piece of artwork; the aim is for people who use the map to understand the significance of the locations featured on it. Suggestions for locations to be featured on the map were crowdsourced through medium such as Twitter using the hashtag #WomenofDublin. (Debate on the hashtag again proved that the Museum has caused agitation when one commenter remarked that most of the suggestions that had been submitted weren’t worthwhile). The hashtag was enormously popular: nearly 700 suggestions were sent to the Museum via Twitter. Other submissions were received by email and letter following media interviews. Contributors have made a wide variety of suggestions, including relatives and women who worked in Dublin institutions. The work has got people talking and encouraged them to look at their local area. The board are currently whittling down the suggestions to decide on a list that will feature on the map, which will be online and in print. Next month, the Museum will launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the project. We were lucky enough to be given a sneak-peek at the Museum’s excellent Kickstarter film, in which key women from many spheres of life, including politics, science and business, stress the importance of the map in helping to demonstrate how women have shaped the city of Dublin. Did you know, for example, that almost no streets in Dublin are named after women? The map, and the Museum itself, are ensuring women’s stories and the contributions that they have made to Irish history are not lost.

You can find out more about the Women’s Museum of Ireland on Twitter and on Facebook.

Laura Crossley, PhD Researcher, University of Leicester

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Museums, social justice and human rights – and why I have fallen behind on events in Ambridge.

A conference can really mess about with your schedule, can’t it? This has impacted me in two ways, in particular, this week. Firstly, this blog post is a day late (sorry), and secondly, I have no idea whatsoever what has been going on in Ambridge this week.

For those of you that are not in the know, Ambridge is a country village, the focus of long-running BBC Radio drama, The Archers, which tells the story of rural farming folk. Over the last few weeks, Ambridge has been rocked by a dramatic storyline – one of domestic violence and trauma. Helen Titchener, victim of bullying husband Rob finally cracked under the pressure, attacking her husband and ending up in prison. You can see why I have been finding time in my schedule to regularly catch up with Helen and her pursuit for justice.

The listenership, however, is divided. Some are enthused that the programme is embracing such an issue, others outraged that the The Archers has departed from its often idyllic portrayal of English country life.

And, in a way, that’s a bit like museums, isn’t it? So often our museums offer a delicately curated portrayal of a life in our communities. A portrayal that is beautiful, that is safe, that offers a somewhat idealised story that ignores much of what people really experience as part of their daily lives. And when museums do turn their attention to contemporary social issues, it often causes great debate.

That debate was the subject of Professor Richard Sandell’s keynote speech yesterday morning. Richard thought about how museums can tackle issues of social justice and human rights, giving three examples of exhibitions that have focused on LGBTI rights, and how these have proved controversial.

The first of these examples was Hide/Seek, an exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, an exhibition that explored art history from a queer perspective. It featured a video, Fire in My Belly by David Wojnarowicz, which depicted a crucifix covered in ants, intended to demonstrate the suffering of people with AIDS. It proved controversial with congressmen even calling for reviews of the Smithsonian’s funding. The Smithsonian bowed to pressure, the film was removed. Protestors railed against the censorship, standing in the gallery and showing the film on an iPad worn around the neck. They were arrested and removed from the gallery.

The second example explored events at the Walt Whitman birthplace museum on Long Island where the interpretation of Whitman’s sexuality was hotly debated by the project team, resulting in a much watered down interpretation of his personal life and romantic relationship with long-term partner Peter Doyle. The launch of the new exhibition was hijacked by protestors who distributed flyers and threw chalkboard erasers to demonstrate against the erasure of this important aspect of Whitman’s life.

Richard’s final example explored sh[OUT], the social justice programme of the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, which focussed particularly on LGBTI issues. Richard spoke particularly about trans* rights and considered the lived experience of trans* people and how uneven this still is, even in an environment with increasing legal protections. GOMA’s Sh[OUT] programme offered a platform to explore trans* issues with a broader audience.

Richard concluded that much of the museum’s work can be considered to be human rights work, but emphasised that this should not be restricted to human rights museums or site of conscience. He believed that the potential of museums to tackle issues of social justice and human rights, including, but not limited to LGBTI issues, is largely untapped and that museums should adopt a standpoint against bigotry and for human rights.

Richard emphasised that the stakes are high: nearly half of all young trans* people have attempted suicide. LGBTI people in North Carolina and Mississippi in the USA are suffering from state-sanctioned discrimination. Museums can make a difference.

For myself, I firmly believe that if we do not highlight stories of injustice and discrimination then we are betraying the victims. I do not want museums to tell sanitised stories that ignore issues faced by marginalised communities any more that I want radio dramas portraying idealised versions of rural life.

Museums (and radio dramas) have power and they have influence, if they can use them to help bring about positive social change, then they bloody well should.

#FreeHelenTitchener

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History and the global contemporary

As a historian and museum professional, I could not be more delighted to see that the global contemporary conference has been about the past as much as about the present. I have been able to attend a series of presentations where the issue being discussed is about the role of history, historical insight, historicising, historical consciousness and the like, in helping inform museums’ present condition. In particular, there seems to be concern as regards the uses and abuses of history: how much should we “use” it in order to illuminate the present? Do we run the risk of instrumentalising history by interpreting and using it in predetermined ways in order to change the present? Is history something that needs to be taken with a “pinch of salt” and whose lessons are much less clear than they appear?

Germany provides an interesting case in point in the discussion about the instrumentalisation of history. Dr Susannah Eckersley reflected on how the traumatic experience of Nazism generated a very particular type of distrust towards using history in cultural policy. Yet, current projects such as Multaqa, at the Treffpunkst Museum, have opened up the discussion once more. This project, which actively seeks to empower refugees and that takes a clear stand on linking past, present and future, does raises questions about where do the limits between instrumentalisation and involvement with the present issues lie. A similar question could be asked about recent initiatives to engage immigrants in two Norweigian islands (Hitra and Froya) with local history, which Insa Müller presented. Should we limit ourselves to understand how those immigrants make sense of the past (their historical consciousness) or do we want to go further and use that understanding in order to improve social cohesion and life in those places?

Another case in point which embodies the tensions between the past and the contemporary is that of museum histories. That is, why do we want to know the history of our museums? Why is it relevant? A roundtable discussion chaired by Dr Kate Hill invited different museum academics and practitioners to engage with this issue. For example, Dr Conal McCarthy and Dr Bronwyn Labrum suggested history is an essential element in understanding current curatorial practice and the changes it is facing. Hill also suggested that understanding museum visiting patterns in the past was essential for understanding present audiences. However, by the end of the session, answers to the above-mentioned questions were still somehow vague; it seemed that a potential – although still unsatisfying– winning answer  is: “it depends”. Indeed, what we ask about the history of our museum depends on what we want to do with them. Put bluntly, it’s not enough to do museum histories for the sake of museum histories.

On the second day, there was yet another session that raised questions about the uses of the past for the present: how does the past inform our collecting policies? Even worse, when does the past actually “start” so that we can actually start collecting it? With tons of humour, Prof Markus Walz showed how the historicity of our “significance assesments” of collections –deeming what is valuable and what not– creates a chaotic and paradoxical scenario (image 1). Values change and accumulate in such highly complex and unstable patterns, that it often becomes impossible to use the past (or past policies) to rationalise in any way our current practice.

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Image 1 – Prof Markus Walz talking about “How to prepare for contemporary collecting of history museums for future reviews”

Despite the challenges of using or not using the past to explain the present, of studying  museum histories, or of looking historically at museums, the mentioned sessions and many others provided a deep sense that presentism has loomed to long in our discussions about museums. Borrowing on the Maori’s views of the past, it is likely that the key to understanding the global contemporary (both in and outside museums) is looking backwards into the future.

Dr Cintia Velázquez Marroni

 

 

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Thurs afternoon keynote: ‘If you could see through my eyes’, Matt Smith

Matt Smith is an artist, curator and Honorary Visiting Fellow in the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.

In his keynote speech he took us through an overview of his inspiring work, making artworks and interventions in museum spaces, from 2010 to the present day.

Starting with ‘Queering the Museum’ at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (2010), Matt reinterprets existing objects and makes new ones, and uses juxtapositions between objects in order to reveal and tell, often but not exclusively, LGBT narratives.

More recently, Matt has set up an organisation with others – Unravel – in order to explore how craft can be used to reinterpret historic houses and highlight queer histories and personal stories.

In his latest work, as artist in residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Matt has explored several different strategies for putting personal narratives centre stage in museum contexts. In order to reflect on the reality of life in The Potteries – the closure of ceramic factories, their redevelopment into accommodation – Matt has recast objects from moulds from the now closed Spode factory in Stoke-on-Trent. He is working with a composer to produce an aural response to the closure of the factories to accompany this visual work.

The second part of Matt’s residency has seen him explore empty plinths in the V&A collection – how they operate as a means of elevating or creating status, but also as supports for objects – vulnerable objects – that can’t stand up on their own. He has ‘elevated’ finds from charity shops, placing them on plinths to explore and play with accepted museal and public sculpture-related hierarchies.

Matt has also undertaken two redisplays of cases at the V&A, with objects that, in juxtaposition and interpretation, explore the way in which museums operate. In the first display, he ordered ceramic figurines in a hierarchy, by country and from the most ‘manly’ to the most ‘camp’. He then correlated the campest with the historical success of each country at producing Eurovision Song Contest winners!

In the second display, Matt looked at how museum collections are often skewed by what was historically seen as important to collect and collect from. Using the racist slogan ‘No dogs, no blacks, no Irish’ as a starting point, he explored how, as attitudes in society have changed, the objects that museums need to talk about society have had to change.

Outreach has been a core part of the V&A residency. Matt wanted to see how the museum would deal with working with the LGBT community, and so he organised family trails, workshops and ‘alternative’ family portraits in order to explore less excluding ways of talking about families in museum interpretation. These activities also considered the emotional pull between objects and people and how this can be used in the interpretation of objects. Although the museum puts on alternative tours, LGBT narratives are not included in museum interpretation and have to be overlain on objects or are reliant on visitors’ prior knowledge. As a case in point, the V&A currently has (only) two object labels that deal directly with LGBT narratives – many LGBT people and diverse narratives are not made visible. In the V&A’s recent Alexander McQueen blockbuster exhibition, Matt notes that there was no mention of McQueen’s sexuality. And yet the museum does ‘talk’ about heterosexuality. Not least, this is implicit in its name, which references a straight married couple.

While the V&A has identified around 250 LGBT-related objects in its collection, there is a huge disconnect between this and interpretation. And Matt notes that there are no references to the LGBT community in the Museum’s diversity policy.

This leaves one to question, argues Matt, how welcome LGBT people are in the Museum?

Dr Amy Jane Barnes

Heritage Consultant, Tricolor Ltd.
University Teacher, School of the Arts, Loughborough University
Honorary Visiting Fellow, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.

 

 

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Thursday morning: ‘Emotional engagement in heritage sites’, Sheila Watson

Sheila Watson (School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester) presented a great paper – any presentation that mentions Black Shuck piques my interest – which had resonances with Andrea Witcomb’s keynote, yesterday afternoon, on the ‘pedagogy of feeling’. In it, Sheila discussed her recent research interest – the emotional responses and engagement we have with heritage. She uses the subject to critique Authorised Heritage Discourse (AHD), as articulated by Laura-Jane Smith.

Sheila posed the question – who cares about emotions? She argued that visitors do (borne out by her research). But do exhibition designers, museum/heritage professionals and academics? Perhaps not, but emotional engagement is at the heart of what we (as professionals) do. Emotional engagement helps us to understand the past and its relationship to the present. At present, Sheila argues, the sector simply doesn’t understand the value of emotions in the process of engagement.

Norwich Castle Museum is, according to Sheila, an enigma. As a building it dominates the landscape. It is the focal point for the city and the venue for spectacular lights shows and firework displays. But it is not that popular as a museum (in and around the Norman castle keep) with tourists and local people. Typical comments from visitors describe it as having ‘little to offer’, that it’s ‘poor on the inside’ (meaning the museum displays). There is an emotional disconnect between what people see on the outside (the impressive Norman keep) and what they expect to see on the inside.

The AHD of Norwich Castle tells an official story of Norwich and Norfolk, is a showcase for the museum of Norfolk, with an emphasis on the architecture of the building. But there is no interpretation of the castle and its history and role. It is seen, by local people as a ‘good thing’, a symbol of the city. But it is characterised as a ‘lost’ castle – people want to place it within a narrative; they want to know more about the castle and the people who lived there. They have emotional preconceptions of what makes a castle, and so the reality is a let-down. Focus groups have revealed that what people want is realism and authenticity. They want Norwich Castle to feel like a castle, they want it to be brought to life through light and sounds, they want recreated interiors. And yet, currently, there is no emotion in the displays – this is a problem. Sheila concluded that the castle has lots of emotional narratives to uncover and that it is emotional responses to these narratives that makes them popular and engaging.

Burgh Castle, in Norfolk, is a very different site – remote and overlooking an estuary. It is an impressive building, a fort built by the Romans against Viking and Saxon raiders. Currently its interpretation is ‘classically’ archaeological, focusing on its Roman history. But Sheila has found that for local people, the Romans have little or no emotional relevance. Instead, they’re interested in local myths and legends associated with the site. In her experience, people are most keen to talk about the ghosts associated with Burgh Castle – Black Shuck, the devil dog of East Anglia – is said to retire to the fort at night!

In summing up, Sheila reiterated that heritage is too often perceived through the lens of the politics of power. But the visiting public and local people tend not to be receptive to these official meanings and are often completely indifferent to them. She asserted that we must understand people’s emotional responses to heritage, museums, objects and collections, otherwise we run the risk of rendering them irrelevant and less accessible. AHD is less powerful than we may think – people simply don’t care about the official narratives.

Dr Amy Jane Barnes

Heritage Consultant, Tricolor Ltd.
University Teacher, Loughborough University
Honorary Visiting Fellow, University of Leicester

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