Caring for Historic Dress Collections at Worthing Museum

MA History of Design and Material Culture student Chelsea Mountney describes how her current work with the historic dress collection at Worthing Museum draws upon the skills and ideas she developed during her MA, including the module ‘Caring for Collections and their Users’.

“Oh, my goodness” I screeched as I leaned in closer to smell this bodice from a woman’s black taffeta outfit from the 1910s, pictured above. “Can you smell that? What do you think that is?” I was informed by the ever-knowledgeable PhD student, Jo Lance, that the unusual smell was probably the scent of wood smoke that was lingering on the cloth, as homes were, of course, commonly heated with open fires.

This was my first afternoon volunteering at Worthing Museum and I had already been reminded of how crucial physical objects are in divulging history. My first task as a new volunteer was, in my eyes, possibly the best job in the entire world, to repack women’s costume for storage in their new dress archive. This kind of work, as many fashion historians will also agree, is a blissful opportunity to access and handle many items.

I had considered throughout my studies how invaluable embodied knowledge can be to the dress historian and leaned on Hilary Davidson’s work, the Embodied Turn during my MA in Design History and Material Culture. These were my first moments of getting to handle delicate or complex pieces, like the scented black outfit, and work out how they needed repacking for their future care. In the first image you can see that the delicate mesh collar needed an acid free tissue paper support. Each different garment supplied a new lesson in handling and packing. What unfortunately isn’t pictured, is that inside the sleeves were arm pit pads, small patches that were often inserted into historic clothing to protect the garment from sweat prior to the invention of deodorant. These were sadly disintegrating.

Look at the beautiful label which was hanging off the skirt section of the outfit, which of course provides another exciting line of enquiry. And as PhD student Jo pointed out, the outfit appeared to have been unpicked and adapted, the stylistic elements lending itself to an outfit from the previous century. It’s exciting details like these which are an utter privilege to witness up close and remind us how Material Culture study is an exhilarating way to decipher the past.

Photograph of 1917 Black Taffeta Day Dress, Label. Worthing Museum 4302 1-2. 11/11/22. Author’s Personal Collection.

This experience made me feel incredibly grateful for the handling workshops I undertook at Brighton Museum as part of the Caring for Collections and their Users Module, a core module for the MA Curating Collections and Heritage. This mixture of both object-based work and practical and theoretical study provided a rounded background in both the academic and the practical. On the module, we read industry-led incentives from the Museums Association and discovered scholarship on museums and heritage that help contextualise this world, like George Hein’s book, Learning in the Museum. We had sessions on Integrated Pest Management, and learnt what on earth accession numbers actually mean! Importantly, handling workshops taught us how to make a simple acid-free tissue paper pouffe, a crucial part of the packing process of course! All these insights allowed me to approach my newfound volunteering position with confidence.

As you can imagine, a fantastic bonus of volunteering with the dress collection at Worthing Museum is how much it has inspired further study, from researching different historical dressmaking techniques (remaking as methodology is one of my areas of special interest), to trying to better understand the varying forms of production during a specific period, or simply looking up other examples in this collection and beyond to better understand clothing cultures of a certain style. But sometimes there is just the simple joy of discovering a garment you have never seen before like the incredible 1920s crochet dress.

Photograph of gold coloured 1920s crochet dress. Worthing Museum 1976/277/1. 11/11/22. Author’s Personal Collection.

I am only a few weeks into this experience, and I already feel so inspired, not only to see what else this position has in store, but it has confirmed how I wish to work further in this environment, and to contribute to research in fashion and dress in this material manner.

TheMuseumsLab 2022: MA Curating Graduate Experience

MA Curating Collections and Heritage alumni Tony Kalume reports on how his dissertation was a springboard for attending TheMuseumsLab’s prestigious international programme, including a residency in Stuttgart

TheMuseumsLab 2022 Fellowship: What is it?

TheMuseumsLab is a platform for joint learning, exchange and continuing education on the future of museums in both Africa and Europe. The programme has the aim to provide knowledge and competencies, to foster new ideas and approaches as well as to establish close and lasting networks between future shapers of museum concepts on both sides. The programme consists of three one-week seminar modules (online and onsite in Berlin and Cape Town) lead by prominent African and European experts, a two-week residency at a renowned European partner institution and a co-working phase.

The project was developed by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and the Masters Programme in Museum Management and Communication at the University of Applied Sciences (HTW) Berlin, in close cooperation with the African consultancy group The Advisors.

How is it organised?

Current issues and concepts in museum management, social impact and responsibility, localisation of content, as well as practical aspects of museums as institutions in the 21st century, are divided into three modules:

  • Module 1     Entangled Histories and the Future of Cultural Memories online event
  • Module 2     Collections and Research Residencies in German Museums
  • Module 3     Communication and Strategic Management Cape Town South Africa

Why was I accepted?

I had submitted the synopsis of my MA Curating Collections and Heritage dissertation on 3D Printing as an acceleration for decolonisation to the organisers of MuseumsLab and they were delighted to accept my application. During my fellowship I visited several museums in Berlin and had a two-week residency in Stuttgart courtesy of the Linden Museum.

 

At the Linden Museum I managed to do a presentation on my 3D project and got access to the vaults storing artefacts from Africa. I noticed a lot of mistakes in the catalogues and inventory which was mostly written in German. I had to have them translated, and if I was to return, I would bid for a grant to pay for an interpreter or translator. The Director was keen to see the objects expressed in their unique form by conducting appropriate rituals and performances around them.

The Future

I was keen to emphasise that two weeks is not enough to research the collection. There is a need to get funding for a residential curator from the various African Museums in our cohort to gain access to the collections vault. I will be looking at potential funding options for collaborative work between German museums and UK heritage institutions, as each country has made progress in its own right, but there is a lack of partnership and exchange of information, knowledge and skills. I am also keen to see how we can use 3D printing in museums all over the world to enhance collections and make them readily available to members of the community, especially those who are visually impaired.

We also expect inroads towards restitution and repatriation of contested objects that are sacred and for some human remains that need to go to communities of Origin for burial. My argument is that museums should share intellectual property rights for making replicas so that the copies remain in Western museums and the originals can be shipped back to communities of origin.

Professional Placement in Collections and Heritage: The Fashioning Our World Project at the Salisbury Museum

MA Curating Collections and Heritage student Jenny Mearns reflects on her placement with the Fashion Collection at Salisbury Museum

As part of the Professional Placements in Collections and Heritage module on the Curating Collections and Heritage MA, I decided to undertake my work placement at the Salisbury Museum in Wiltshire. I am particularly interested in historic dress and textiles, so ideally, wanted to undertake my placement working with a fashion or dress collection. As serendipity would have it, at the time of organising my placement the Salisbury Museum was about to launch the Fashioning Our World Project.

Running from April 2022 – April 2024, the project aims to uncover historic stories of sustainability within the museum’s fashion collection to inspire future generations (specifically young people) to think differently about the fashion system, to treasure what they already have rather than perpetuating the unsustainable cycle of fast fashion.

Initially, I was tasked with investigating the fashion collection to find garments that evidenced sustainable fashion practices, such as mends, repairs, re-purposing, or alteration. This was a huge task, as the fashion collection holds over 3,500 items. I began my search by looking through supporting documentation, such as accession cards and the collections database. This proved to be challenging, as past museum practices historically privileged ‘perfect’ garments and objects, so whilst repairs, mends, alterations, and repurposing were certainly present in the collection, often such information was omitted from supporting documentation. At times, certain phrases on accession cards such as ‘messed about with’ provided hints as to the alterations and hidden stories of sustainability that may be present.

Once I had identified a garment that showed promising signs of sustainable fashion practices, I then physically located and carefully unpacked the garment from the fashion storerooms for further investigation. I have been incredibly lucky in my placement to be able to spend many hours with historical garments, noting signs of wear and use that could so easily otherwise be overlooked. Some included subtle alterations, such as the sleeves of a wedding gown that have been enlarged to exaggerate a fashionable silhouette of the 1850s, while others were more radical, such as a man’s eighteenth-century waistcoat which had been repurposed into a woman’s bodice front over 100 years later. Spending time with the fashion collection has unlocked these fascinating stories of sustainability and ingenuity.

Image 2: Fabric remnants and unpicked fabric pieces from an 1880s dress made by Mrs James of 2 Hanover Square London.

Image 3: A women’s bodice front repurposed in the 1880s from an eighteenth-century male waistcoat.

 

Image 4: Interior of an 1850s wedding bodice, enlarged at the side seam by an insertion of a fabric panel alteration.

In addition to investigating the fashion collection, during my placement I also had the opportunity to expand on my presentation skills, delivering a presentation to members of the Southern Counties Costume Society. This enabled me to build up my confidence in public speaking and, surprisingly, I discovered I enjoyed it!

I was also tasked with compiling a set of guidelines for other museums to reference when searching within their own collections for stories of sustainability, and evidence of repairs, mends and repurposing. This document has now been shared with the Wessex Museums Partnership, and is subsequently being used by collections volunteers.

I thoroughly enjoyed my placement, and gained many practical skills, as well as development on a personal level. Even though my placement is now complete, I continue to volunteer at the museum on the Fashioning Our World project, as I feel very attached to the project and thoroughly enjoy working with the collections.

 

Image 5: A repurposed eighteenth-century pocket.

Caring for Collections: Learning about pest control in the Museum Lab

MA Curating Collections and Heritage student Lola-May Baldock reports on study visits to the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery’s Museum Lab

As part of our second semester module ‘Caring for Collections and their Users’, we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to partake in two workshops at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. Both workshops provided us with invaluable sectoral skills that are important to carry into any job role within the gallery, museum and heritage sector.

Woman placing tissue paper over exhibitOn the morning of Tuesday 3 May, we had a practical session on Integrated Pest Management with Gaye at the Brighton Museum Lab. Starting with an informal presentation delivered by Gaye on identifying pest types, how to trap them and preventative measures, the second half of the session consisted of practical collections care. We learnt about the handling and process of moving objects, artefacts and works of art. The session finished with a demonstration of how to pack objects for moving. Acid-free paper was used to create packaging called ‘puffs’ that would help safely transport a fragile taxidermy pheasant.

Our second visit to the museum lab, on the morning of 17 May was a session on disaster and risk planning. The first half consisted of a presentation on types of risk within a museum or heritage environment. We learnt about the importance of a disaster plan and what it should entail. The session included a few group tasks such as a discussion on what we would do in a crisis. The second task was a constructed situation in which we would also use the information given to handle a certain minor incident. Lastly, in groups, we got to handle ‘water damaged’ objects and delicately salvage the items using relevant techniques to dry them.

The first session taught me how to identify pest infestation. It helped me develop an understanding and awareness of how pests affect artefacts and learn about signs of infestations to look out for. This also helped me to build upon my observation skills. By extension, problem solving was necessary to help create solutions to prevent further damage caused by pest infestation. In both workshops, we had the opportunity to work in small groups and use our new skills to brainstorm how we would plan around a crisis scenario. In any role within the museum, gallery, archive or the heritage sector, being able to communicate effectively  with colleagues is imperative. Both sessions really helped solidify the academic readings and seminars that we had undertaken throughout the semester, especially when thinking about the importance of preservation of collections in the event of disaster and risk to artefacts within the museum and heritage environment.

For more information about the course, please visit: Curating Collections and Heritage MA (brighton.ac.uk)

‘Chemicals Give Bread, Beauty and Prosperity!’

Lisa Hinkins, artist, student of MA Curating Collections and Heritage, and Gallery Explainer at Brighton Museum, tells the complex political history of an artefact in the collection.

This is a tale of East-West relations during the Cold War told through a lesser-known design classic, the Garden Egg Chair, on display in Brighton Museum & Art Gallery’s Twentieth Century Decorative Art and Design gallery. The chair reveals relations between East and West Germany in the period now referred to as the Thaw Years (1953-1964).

The post-World War II division of Germany meant that the East of the country inherited the nation’s extensive chemical industry. It gave what was then the Communist-ruled German Democratic Republic (GDR) a great position to compete with new synthetic materials. Inspired by the Space Race, futuristic designs were achieved. With the death of Stalin in 1953, the new Soviet Leader, Nikita Khrushchev was motivated to outdo the West. At the heart of the Communist future was to be higher living standards. Western designs, technologies and materials were viewed as products of a treacherous world but they could be adapted to a Socialist vision.

To compete with the West’s flow of goods crossing the border from West Germany, which was enjoying an economic miracle enabled by US loans, a ‘friendship pipe-line’ connected East Germany (GDR) with Soviet oilfields. The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance permitted GDR factories to supply industrial and domestic plastic products  for GDR and the Eastern Bloc, while the Kremlin used oil as a way of propping up the GDR economy in the face of Western competition. GDR leader Walter Ulbricht announced it as an essential element of the socialist cultural revolution’. At the 1958 Chemical Conference he proclaimed, ‘Chemicals Give Bread, Beauty and Prosperity!’

Newer thermoplastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene were preferred products for GDR designers. The possibilities of a new world challenged the dominating official Stalinist aesthetic, which had imitated rococo and Chippendale styles. These were expensive and not suited to mass production, but at the same time Bauhaus-style modern design was viewed as dangerously international, cosmopolitan and a weapon of imperialism. In 1956 Khrushchev proclaimed that he wanted to build ‘better, cheaper, and faster’. The stylistic tide was changing in favour of the Bauhaus-influenced designers. Modernist designers gained control of the aesthetic discourse in East Germany, though many in government found this hard to reconcile. Designers used plastic in unity of form and function. It was manipulated to fit the functional needs of the product, not to cut overheads and increase profit. Most of the GDR population saw plastic as a quality material and a sign of technological progress.

Peter Ghyzczy, Garden Egg Chair. c. 1968. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Photograph by Lisa Hinkins. 2018.

Designer Peter Ghyzczy was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1940. After the 1956 political unrest he moved to Vienna, and then to Bonn. He studied sculpture in Düsseldorf and then architecture. After graduating he produced many designs for furniture including the Garden Egg Chair, one of the earliest examples of a hinged chair. The political Thaw did not last and by the early 1960s the ultimate ‘check on freedom’ was the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The East German leader Walter Ulbricht called it an ‘anti-fascist protection barrier’. Ghyzczy’s design defied the barrier with new materials testing carried out in West Germany. Cheaper labour meant the chair could be produced in East Germany. This border-crossing practice was not unique, but it was not publicly acknowledged. The flood of people fleeing East to West threatened the national economy and revealed the GDR’s inability to match the West in the consumer boom. The Garden Egg Chair demonstrates these problems. In the GDR, the chair was unaffordable for the general consumer. Officially one third of production was sold in West Germany, while the rest was for the domestic market and for export.

Expectations raised by the Eastern Bloc were not alleviated when hard currency shops selling Western consumer goods opened in the mid-1960s nor when factories churned out cars and stereos for the domestic market. There were great design accomplishments in the Eastern Bloc, but they did not reach consumers. Production of the Garden Egg Chair ceased after about three years, in part due to its problematic lacquering process. Shortages continued  for people living in the Eastern Bloc and promises could not be fulfilled by the communist regime. Cracks also appeared in design discourse with further outbursts from Khrushchev in Moscow and Ulbricht in East Germany on the subject of modern art and ceramics. Some designs were just too modern, even for those in the vanguard of socialism. Ghyzczy moved to the Netherlands in the early 1970s. He developed new ways in fixing glass to metal, resulting in his signature designs for furniture including tables of frameless glass secured with a single brass screw.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the re-unification of Germany in 1990, scholars started to dispel the myths that Western capitalist countries had no contact with Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War period and the full story of these design exchanges could be told. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery acquired its Garden Egg Chair in 1999. The Twentieth Century Gallery offers a unique setting for a distinctive chair with a complex history.

Further reading:

Crowley, David and Jane Pavitt, eds. Cold War Modern Design 1945-1970. London: V&A Publishing, 2010.

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/g/the-garden-egg-chair/

The Stranger Within: Challenging Roma stereotypes in the museum

Lisa Hinkins, MA Curating Collection and Heritage student, Brighton Museum and Gallery Explainer and artist, describes her input into a recent inclusive museum project.

The British Gypsy could be viewed as the stranger within, or as German sociologist Georg Simmel has put it, a ‘stranger in society from elsewhere’.[1] As a people who settled among other inhabitants, they have frequently been treated with suspicion and ignorance as they have been represented an exotic other that was difficult for many to understand.

Fig. 1. ‘Gipsy Fortune Telling Machine’, Royal Pavilion & Museums Collection.
Queer the Pier exhibition, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Photograph by Lisa Hinkins.

To address such ignorance the Queer the Pier (QTP) curatorial team wanted to utilise Brighton Museum & Art Gallery’s ‘Gipsy Fortune Telling Machine’ in their 2020 exhibition in the Museum’s Spotlight Gallery. As the Community Curator leading research and content for queer Roma inclusion, I collaborated with internationally-acclaimed Roma artist Delaine Le Bas, academic Dr Lucie Fremlova, LGBTIQ+ artists and workshop participants. Applying the theoretical framework of intersectionality  –  an understanding of the interrelationships between queer, Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities  –  the participants created responses that challenge stereotypes and discrimination across these interconnected social categories.

I had the privilege to work on this project due to my own Romany heritage. My great-grandmother, Rhoda Wells [1897-1982], was a Romany Gypsy living in the New Forest, Hampshire. She met and eventually married my great-grandfather, Ralph Cuttriss Hinkins [1882-1952], when he and his father, my great-great-grandfather, Francis Robert ‘Frank’ Hinkins [1852-1934] befriended the Gypsy families. They spent many years periodically travelling with the Gypsies across the South of England. Many of the Hinkins clan were appalled by Frank and Ralph. It resulted in a distancing within family circles. Frank was a photographer and illustrator. In 1915, father and son published the book Romany Life: experienced and observed during many years of friendly intercourse with the Gypsies under the nom de plume Frank Cuttris. This book is still available, published by Echo Library. The Keep, Sussex’s historical repository, holds three lantern slides attributed to Frank, all c.1915, of portraits of travelling people.

Decolonisation of objects in museums is imperative to inclusion. The LGBTIQ+ Roma, Gypsy and Traveller workshop collaboration sought to re-interpret the museum’s problematic Victorian ‘Gipsy Fortune Telling Machine’ (Fig.1). The object perpetuated a stereotype of Roma culture through the style of the human figure and through the misspelling of ‘Gipsy’ with an ‘i’ not a ‘y’. Reaching out to a continually-persecuted community, participants were welcomed into a safe space within the museum to produce drawn and written responses to the machine. A theme emerged with colourful images reflecting the Romani flag, the Rainbow flag and the use of positive language. Romani, the Roma language, has filtered through Cockney English and the queer subcultural language of Polari. Familiar words clobber (clothes), minge (vagina) and chavi (child/friend, now used as a derogatory term) originate from Romani, Cant or Argot languages.

Fig. 2. Fortune Telling Card by Delaine Le Bas. Queer the Pier exhibition. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.
Photograph by Lisa Hinkins.

Developing ideas from the workshop, Delaine Le Bas (Fig. 2) created beautiful contemporary fortune cards with positive messages (£1 in the slot, a card is yours). In her words, ‘Fortune Telling is an intimate form of communication between people; it requires close contact physically and mentally in its true form.’ She continues, ‘for me in particular coming from such a demonised community I refuse to respond in a negative way.’

I edited the accompanying free zine that addresses stereotypes. It includes the following statement: “Gypsiness” is a term to describe the phenomenon of dissociation where over time Gypsy identity becomes abstracted and separated from the people themselves. Through images and literature, the dominant culture dictates the representation of a marginal group, in this case Gypsies. Stereotypes of Gypsy women have been perpetuated by figures such as Vita Sackville-West, who invented Romany ancestry for herself on her Spanish side of her family to explain her ‘bohemian behaviour’ (lesbian lovers).

Dr Lucie Fremlova’s postdoctoral collaboration with LGBTIQ+ Roma Artists has produced powerful images that break down and challenge the dominant representation of queer Roma people. Photographs created during a one-week workshop in Brighton were printed in the zine. An image of one of the Roma artists by the Palace Pier’s current ‘Zoltar Fortune Telling Machine’ accompanies the text for the Victorian machine. It is a powerful reminder that stereotypes are still interlaced with contemporary arcade amusements.

Delaine Le Bas pays tribute in the zine to her Uncle Eddie who moved to Brighton in the mid-1960s with his partner Peter. She acknowledges that their lives had not been easy being Romani and gay, but Delaine states that Eddie and Peter taught her the importance of being yourself and that love should be unconditional.

City-based organisation Friends, Families and Travellers is a leading national charity that works on behalf of all Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. They provided support and contacts for this project. This led to contact with Roma poet Lois Brookes-Jones who beautifully weaved Romani and English words into a poem expressing lesbian desire especially for the zine.

It is my sincere hope that this project engagement with LGBTIQ+ Roma, Gypsies and Travellers will help counter suspicion and ignorance towards ‘strangers within’. Brighton museum staff were fantastically supportive in encouraging an ignored community through its doors. A final thought: is it not ironic that a people so rich in its own creative arts, music and culture has never been fully appreciated within the institutions that claim to be custodians of our material culture? Perhaps we have an opportunity now to address that.

[1] Kalwant Bhopal and Martin Myers, Insiders, Outsiders and Others: Gypsies and Identity (Hertfordshire: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2008).

 

What is Curating?

Wendy Marshall, MA Curating Collections and Heritage student, describes a recent roundtable on a slippery term.

On 26 September 2019, MA Curating Collections and Heritage students were invited to a round table discussion, chaired by Dr Claire Wintle, and supported by the Centre for Design History under its Museums, Archives, Exhibitions research strand.  Keen to discuss the uses of the term curating and to find out what today’s curator actually does, we were treated to presentations from four curators sharing experiences and thoughts about their roles as curators, archivists and exhibition managers.

Fig. 1. Kids Guernica with Future Hope, 2019, Roche Bois Social Welfare Centre, Mauritius. Courtesy of Joe Hague.

Dr Nicola Ashmore, Senior Lecturer in History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton, spoke about her project, Guernica Remakings, which examines and enables remakings of Picasso’s painting by artists, activities and communities around the world (Fig. 1).  Nicola stressed that central to curating the exhibition elements of her project was the need to create a space for people to think, reflect, make and connect.  Its touring phase had included public sewing events in free public spaces (Fig. 2), the commissioning of poetry and working with children in Mauritius to create a children’s Guernica.  As part of the tour to Salford’s Working Class Movement Library the exhibition made connections with the histories of child refugees in Salford during the Spanish Civil War.  The changing nature of the exhibition in each location demonstrated Nicola’s view that curating is always site-specific, with pop-up exhibitions able to make fresh connections with communities.

Kajal Meghani, collaborative doctoral candidate at the British Museum and University of Brighton and previously Exhibitions Assistant Curator at the Royal Collection Trust, also spoke about curating a touring exhibition that changed at each location. Kajal had been a Collections Assistant who was ‘on the spot’ when the Splendours of the Sub-Continent exhibition was proposed. The exhibition aimed to re-create and reinterpret a nineteenth century touring exhibition of the Prince of Wales’s India Collection of gifts presented during his tour of India in 1875-6.

Kajal showed impressive chutzpah in taking on such a major exhibition whilst still a relatively junior member of the collections team. 70 key objects were selected from the 200 available which spoke to the themes of the exhibition. This included the practice of court culture and showcasing local craftsmanship. It also allowed visitors from South Asian communities to take a closer look. Kajal was determined to present a critique of the original 19th century interpretation of the objects, however she alluded to the limitations of critique when working within the parameters of a Royal collection.

Collaborative interpretation was central to this exhibition and at all locations (London, Bradford, Leicester and Edinburgh) responses to the objects were invited from artists such as the Singh Twins, alongside poets and musicians.  These artworks contextualised the exhibition better than any labels; they invited a personal response and allowed visitors to engage with performances in the gallery.

Presenting on the roles of the Archivist and Curator of archive collections were Sue Breakell and Dr Lesley Whitworth from the University of Brighton Design Archives.  Lesley, Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Curator, talked about her career from studying art and design history through to archivist, librarian and PhD scholar, leading to setting up the archival proposition for a design archive with Professor Catherine Moriarty. Lesley’s title of Curator reflected the museums background of her colleague and was seen as the preferred term for her role. Lesley has curated exhibitions, is involved in the committees of learned societies and uses her research activities and networks to position the archive within a broader spectrum of interests than just design. A critical part of her role is to explore the potential of the material in the archive to respond to scholarly research questions.

Sue, Design Archives Leader, spoke about her role in looking after a paper-based archive involving documentation, presentation, preservation and facilitating interpretation. Her previous job title at the Tate had been Curator (Archive), which distinguished museums curatorial practice from archive theory and the archival profession, which is rooted in an administrative practice. Ideas of curating have changed in the digital world and ‘data curating’ is now a new field.  The terms curator and archivist are therefore slippery, shifting and related terms, as can been seen in the work of those who use the term flexibly, such as Jeremy Deller, a conceptual, video and installation artist who works at the borders of artist / archivist / curator / exhibition developer.

Fig. 2. Remaking Picasso’s Guernica, a banner, public sewing, 2013, Jubilee Library, Brighton. Courtesy of Emilia Poisson.

Considering curating more broadly, the roundtable discussed personal responses to objects and collections, the feeling of responsibility and of needing to do justice to objects in their care while also having a personal impulse to get close to objects. We were told of the challenge of needing to step back from the pleasure of objects in order to discuss processes and context. We discussed giving up the power of interpretation and how freeing this could be and were told that at times we would need to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.  The curators spoke of exhibitions, particularly Guernica Remakings, as being a meeting of makers across politically-charged artworks, reinforcing the idea of the curator’s responsibility to artworks and makers, reflecting their narrative but also being ethically selective.  We were reminded that objects have more than one story to tell.

 

 

 

 

 

Museums: Changing lives one conversation at a time

Museums Associations conference T-shirt 2019. Photograph by Jen Grasso.

Jen Grasso, MA Curating Collections and Heritage student, reports on insights generated as a volunteer at the 2019 Museums Association conference in Brighton.

Conversation, collaboration, cooperation, connectivity, storytelling, (re/de)contextualization: within the framework of sustainability and climate change, themes of dialogue permeated the Brighton Centre where the Museums Association held its annual conference, 2-5 October 2019. As a conference volunteer, I was a fly on the wall observing aspects of the conference first hand. In my role in charge of the roaming microphone, I even helped facilitate the discussion.

Sometimes the dialogue was strategic, encouraging networking to make real-life connections with like-minded (and very friendly) individuals.  At other times the dialogue was more literal to the conference theme of sustainability, encouraging open discussions about practical, energy-saving methods. This included pragmatic discussions about shifting temperature and humidity parameters, recycling old exhibition materials and even finding alternative transport options to reduce an exhibition’s carbon footprint. Specific zoning techniques were mentioned, such as grouping objects / collections with similar conservation / preservation needs together in displays, which is not only greener but also recontextualizes the objects within a space, changing the narrative and making a new story.  Presenters also encouraged cooperation with local suppliers of greener / recycled materials or even local institutions to take care of / take part in labeling and other display needs to reduce global impact, produce less waste, and to make reusing the norm.

The importance of dialogue within all departments of an institution was emphasized too – from the gift shop to the cafe, from the ticket sellers to the conservators. It takes each and every voice to make a collection / exhibition / institution successful. These conversations can even become part of the exhibition, for example, when working with unpredictable materials (such as the Fatberg!) where issues of display, conservation, health and safety are interconnected.  Interdepartmental dialogue also helps inform the staff on better approaches for future practice by encouraging an ongoing conversation about roles and responsibilities in an institution.

Specialist hearing aids and site-specific listening devices for the hearing (and visually) impaired were introduced at the conference to help facilitate dialogue between museums and those who might not have been able, or comfortable, to enter into dialogue before. Technology was also used to help broaden the audience even further with live-action in situ video games encouraging younger audiences to take up a dialogue while not even realizing it, through the act of gaming. Digital interventions addressed matters of voice and authenticity through the “polyvocal medium of podcasts” or by reaching out to communities to share their stories directly on institutional websites, giving much needed first-person accounts.  Language can also be used in a virtual setting to increase traffic and thus increase visitors through minor tweaking and embracing the digital “algorithm”, using it to an institution’s advantage.   Innovation is a social process and community engagement is a dialogue that needs to be embraced.

Sometimes the conversation was as simple as being clear about an institution’s intent through using clear signage and providing transparency about the development of a particular exhibition. How can a display facilitate a dialogue about the origins of its objects and tell a story that honours the subject matter while still being engaging? There was also a lot of dialogue about ethics. Importance was placed on changing museums’ narratives as a whole. Issues such as racism, genocide and colonialism have shaped the sector and they need to be discussed.  There are ethical decisions to be made about who to work with (on a micro and macro level) and sponsorship remains a contentious issue. At the conference, climate activists waving pink flags ran through the auditorium praising the National Theatre for ending its relationship with Shell and rounds of applause were given for the Royal Shakespeare Company for ending its partnership with BP.

As Clayton Thomas Müller explained in his keynote speech, we are all individual sardines in a large school of fish and it only takes a small percentage of us swimming the other way to change the entire school’s direction. So while the theme of the conference was sustainability, what it really seemed to be about was dialogue: keeping it open, widening it, letting it evolve, being open to new forms. Keep talking, keep engaging; tell new stories, change the narrative. Campaigner Dr Errol Francis has argued, “[Museums are] polyphonic space[s] for ideas.” They can be transformative, democratizing and inclusive. And that’s not too bad as a mere fly on the wall.

Multi-sensory display and inclusive practice at the Horniman Museum

Shannon Wilson, MA Curating Cultures and Heritage, reflects on good practice in the museums sector. 

A group of MA Curating Collections and Heritage students was recently given the opportunity to visit the Horniman Museum and Gardens in Forest Hill. This trip allowed us to consider how issues relating to access and learning in museums might be addressed in practice. While the wet weather prevented us from enjoying the gardens, we were able to explore many other areas inside the museum. Below, I discuss my impressions of the Natural History Gallery, the World Gallery and the Hands on Base Gallery.

The Horniman Museum attracts a large number of both new and returning visitors, with many families who enjoyed visiting the museum when they were younger coming back with their own children. Upon entering the bright, airy entrance to the Horniman, you are immediately hit by the noise from the World Gallery, which seems to rise up and spill over onto the mezzanine level above it. The gallery that houses the museum’s natural history collection can be found here, although once inside, the atmosphere changes completely as you are met with quiet tranquility and a soothing pastel colour scheme (not to mention the famous Horniman walrus). The pared-down, traditional displays contain many of the founding objects in the museum’s collection and seem to have been virtually unchanged in the past 100 years. The familiarity of these displays and the peaceful environment in which they are situated may be one reasons why so many visitors are drawn back to the museum.

Figure 1: The Crochetdermy® display. Photograph by author.

Alongside these well-worn, well-loved exhibits, there is also a relatively new display at the entrance of the gallery about a form of art called Crochetdermy® by the artist Shauna Richardson [Fig. 1]. The small installation includes examples of the artist’s work alongside a collection of graphs and diagrams illustrating the ‘Evolution of the Artist and the Exhibited Works’. While the influence of the museum’s taxidermy displays on the artist’s work is clear, this section’s modern aesthetic stands in stark contrast to the rest of the gallery. This may have been an intentional decision on the part of the curator, perhaps representing the ‘evolution’ of the museum’s display practices as a whole, especially when compared to the contemporary styling of the World Gallery below [Fig. 2].

Figure 2: An interactive activity in the World Gallery. Photograph by author.

Containing a dizzying 3,000+ objects, as well as a range of video clips and interactive features, the World Gallery is loosely divided into four spaces: an Introductory area, Encounters, Perspectives and Horniman’s Vision. The Encounters section houses collections which represent different ways of living and are further divided by continent: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Oceania and Europe. Although the noise in the World Gallery as a whole can make it quite difficult to concentrate on the displays, this part of the gallery is without a doubt the strongest, most thoughtfully curated and well presented (if a little visually busy).

Conversations with museum staff revealed that many of the display cabinets have underlying themes running through them that determined how each object has been selected and arranged. The Perspectives area is tucked into the very back of the gallery and is designed to encourage visitors to reflect on how and why objects are categorised, and how this contributes to our understanding of the world. This section of the gallery also contains a display about disability and mental illness that was co-curated by the museum’s Access Advisory Group (AAG). It is clear after speaking to members of staff that this display was the product of much hard work and collaboration. The museum adapted certain aspects of its practice to better accommodate the needs of the AAG, such as allowing one member of the group to draw objects using their preferred medium of felt tip pens (which would usually not be possible). However, in practice this display feels almost lost amongst the vast assortment of objects around it, demonstrating some of the difficulties that can arise when translating collaborative community engagement into gallery-based exhibitions.

Figure 3: The cloutie tree in the World Gallery. Photograph by author.

On our MA, Curating Collections and Heritage, we have considered the benefits of multi-sensory display to inclusive learning practice, and the World Gallery at the Horniman makes great use of multi-sensory display techniques. There are things to see, hear, touch and smell, as well as many activities that encourage audience participation, such as the cloutie tree, which is covered in brightly coloured tags bearing messages of well-being and thanks written by visitors {Fig. 3].

There are also opportunities to interact with objects in the Hands on Base gallery. This is a fantastic space, full of objects which can be touched and even worn. During the week this gallery is booked out for school and community sessions, but at weekends and during school holidays there are some free drop-in sessions available for all visitors. The star attraction in this gallery is undoubtedly the discovery boxes. These boxes were developed with a number of groups within the community and respond to a range of themes. For example, ReWrite, a large refugee focused organisation, created ‘a survival kit for landing on a new planet’. While there are certainly some inconsistencies in the Horniman’s public-facing practice which it would benefit from addressing in the future, these discovery boxes successfully celebrate the range of collaborative work that is taking place at the museum [Fig. 4].

Figure 4: A discovery box created by ReWrite. Photograph by author.

Overall the Horniman Museum is a joy to visit and sets a great example for the museums sector. Although the museum does need to be mindful of the potential for sensory overload for some visitors, the bright, stimulating displays are clearly very popular. The museum as a whole is very accessible and there are many different ways to engage with the collections.