It’s interesting just how much angst I have felt about writing this blog, and amusingly this morning I found that the draft I had been working on had disappeared. Which means I have had even more time to dwell on the embroidered food bags that I have recently completed for a heritage home display.
The food bags were decided on to fill an interpretation hole in the space. The space is not able to have any panels or electronic means for interpretation, but there is an enthusiastic volunteer and staff team. The embroidered food bags were to be added into the living area of the 1860s zone, along with a number of other display food items. A common way of storing dry staple foods during this time period were cotton bags, but having bags without interpretation seemed lacking in depth. We were also a little concerned about people trying to open them and spilling the stuffing out in an attempt to work out what was in them (curiosity being the chief mother of invention and also mess).
I am an embroider, and love spending time on researching historic embroidery pieces. I sadly have been unable to find any indication of embroidered food bags. However, I can prove that women on their way to Australia on the boats did spend time embroidering and sewing small pieces. I can say that Mary Ginn, the first female occupant of the cottage was educated and likely had been taught embroidery as part of her education. We know that she could read and write. The font used for the bags is from a period embroidery book, which was fairly readily available. I do know that the fabric is on par with what should be expected, the threads are right and the stitching style is popular during that period.
Can I prove that there were absolutely embroidered food bags in the 1860s?
And it drives me crazy.
So why am I admitting to this?
During the Open Palaces Programme, I was struck by a talk that was given at the Tower of London. The Yeoman Warder who took us around during our tour was incredibly open about what had been tried and succeeded. Beyond that, he told us what hadn’t worked. Why it hadn’t worked. The processes that led to both success and failure and how they measured those attempts. And it inspired me, because in failure there is a great amount of strength. Knowing what has and hasn’t worked helps us to grow.
So, have I failed with these baggies? I don’t know. On one hand, the interpretation works perfectly. Visitors react to them really well and ask why the food is in bags. It sets up an indication of what hand writing could kind of look like. So there is some great things happening. However, I feel like it’s not quite right, so I will keep looking for evidence (whether for or against). I think the chief thing I could have done is finish them a hell of a lot faster. Part way through the process, I froze up with anxiety over whether they were right and how they would reflect on my (and the heritage home) if they were wrong. That was a good learning experience, in that sometimes you need to go forwards to give yourself time to think in the future. I can also say that the embroidery was travelling at about 1 letter per two hours, on average, so they took a really long time to complete. There are dozens of little things that my perfectionist brain hates as well, but they are far less useful to dwell on.
I don’t know if I will call this any type of serious failure. I will call this a learning experience that I can develop from. I will also be open and transparent, because failure is healthy. It’s good to fall over and make mistakes and doubt ourselves. And if we share these stories and these thoughts openly, then it helps others to make informed choices in the future. It also just makes us feel less alone.
Firstly, I think I should acknowledge my own naivety before going over the England for the first time. There were many things that I had made assumptions on, or simply underestimated in large ways.
No 1 Royal Crescent, visited for a workshop conducted with the Open Palaces Programme, was one of those underestimated locations. I have been to many heritage houses in Australia, and so I was mildly interested but not overly enthusiastic. By the time I had completed my first two sessions with the Bath Preservation Trust (Beckford’s Tower and Museum of Bath Architecture), I could not wait to listen and learn from Dr Amy Frost again. Honestly, I would have happily listened to her in any location, No 1 was just a receptacle for another workshop and I was okay with that.
No 1 Royal Crescent is not simply a heritage house. It is part of a series of 30 houses, joined together like modern townhouses, forming a concave crescent. Built between 1767 and 1774 by John Wood the Younger, it is a stunning piece of Palladian design. The Georgian architecture is stunning, and standing on the parkland in front of the houses it was hard to imagine the person power it would have taken to build these houses before modern building machinery. No 1 is the first building on the eastern end of the crescent, and is dedicated as a museum for Georgian life.
Up until this point, I could not have imagined what standing in front of the crescent would feel like. I am still struck by just how big so many of these grand buildings are. The crescent is spectacular, and standing in the parkland in front of the building I felt so very very small in comparison. Behind me, is lovely park land for creating a beautiful vista to look out upon from the houses windows. Up until this point, I had never seen anything comparable. During this trip, I would regularly find myself in awe of the sheer presence these buildings had in the landscape.
Being greeted at the door by a very convincing Georgian butler was also lovely.
The workshop at the museum focused on the creation of engaging and small exhibition. Given a space in which to design a concept, and objects that had be included, our group was given a limited amount of time to come up with some ideas and then present to the group. I had the chance to team up with Helen, Marian, Trisha and Rachel, who were awesome to work with. We decided on an exhibition that focused on leisure during Georgian times with the title of the exhibition being “A Game of Class”. It was a lot of fun banging the idea together and considering what ways we could activate participation in the displays and exhibition as a whole.
A few of the big take away points here (and this is an extreme summary, because there was a lot to think about from this workshop) included:
There was so much more then just these points, but these are the parts I have already started using back in my home museum.
I must admit, having originally looked at the Open Palaces Programme, I was so excited about the workshops. Finding out that they were group activities, turned my smile into something more akin to ‘The Scream’, with nightmare visions of university group work. But I am so glad that we had so many opportunities to work together. Everyone had slightly different backgrounds and interests, and I have come away from the program somewhat disappointed that chances to work with these incredible people are going to be limited by time and space. They were delightful to work with and learn from!
One of the stops that I had been extremely excited to see during the Open Palaces Programme was the Roman Baths. I ended up visiting twice, which I am so glad for, because there is no way I could have taken in the vast amount of information in one session.
If you are visiting the Roman Baths as a tourist, I would highly recommend going to the summer evening sessions. It’s a little quieter, and the location takes on a very different atmosphere once the glare of sunlight dims. Also, contrary to the descriptions of the taste of the water, I didn’t find it repulsive. Someone during the tour described it like ‘warm water, served through a sweaty sock’. I would describe it more like warm bore water inside a metal tin. It was odd, but not awful. As a museum enthusiast, be prepared to take a lot of notes. There is a whole lot to see and think about.
There are some significant differences between The Roman Baths and the vast number of heritage sites in Australia. Firstly, there seems to be an entire country of people visiting it everyday. The Roman Baths had a whopping 1.2million people visit it during the last financial year This is remarkably close to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, who stood at 1.12million during the previous financial year. The part that makes this particularly incredible, is that those 1.2million visitors are walking through and touching the ancient space. There are areas that are protected, but when you are walking on those ancient stones you are stepping on the real stones. There are places where you can put your hand on the building and almost feel the weight of the years behind it. I can’t image the work that must be achieved behind the scenes by a dedicated conservation team to make this possible. From all those people visiting and some brilliant retail/hospitality choices, The Roman Baths turns over a very tidy profit each year. It’s important to keep that in mind when looking at the incredible set up that exists there, I can imagine that a good amount of that is achievable because they sell themselves extremely well. I was also incredibly impressed that in their annual report, they reflect on the benefit that has reached the wider community through generated tourism revenue and employment.
The two fantastic take homes from the Roman Baths, for me, was the diversity of their audio guides and brilliant use of scrims. We had a workshop session with the Education Manager, Lindsay Braidley, who was entirely inspiring. Much of the workshop revolved around placing people back into the site, and their work on creating audio tours that felt personable. I also fell in love with the concept of the ‘Tripod of sustainability’ which includes Customers, Commercial, and Conservation. I will likely cover that much more in another blog post (most likely when I am day dreaming about working in Bath).
Audio guides and I, are not normally friends. I like strolling at my own pace, and being required to stand in front of an object while someone talks in my ear is not my idea of a good time. Generally I find them hugely irritating and kind of pretentious. The key is, that most guides are there to inform the visitor about details, and without a guide there is a good chance of missing information. So it was with a heavy heart that I picked up an audio guide and started winding through the ginormous crowds of people. The Roman Baths has gone out their way to match people with an interest through different programs. From memory the guides included children, adults, archeology, geology and (my personal favourite) the Bill Bryson tour. You are not locked in to hearing only one, you can key into which ever one interests you the most, giving me some power over what style of information that I wanted. The Bill Bryson one particular appealed to me, because it was really a bit like wandering around with a mate who liked to think about things, and was very accessible. The children’s audio guide was quite enjoyable, and included a variety of characters that kids could connect with. I found myself frequently tuning into a session, because they were so personable. The audio points are all over the place, and there are few spots which don’t include them. Audio guides were free with admission and available in a wide range of languages.
Scrims! I personally love the use of a good scrim, but not everyone does. A scrim is an incredibly thin piece of fabric, that is mostly see through, which you can either print or project an image onto. The reason that I love them so dearly is that you can very effectively create a scene where the current and the past bump up against each other. This is particularly useful in heritage locations when restoring a location to the vision of the past is not suitable or in interpreting areas which are difficult for a participant to imagine. The Roman Baths were using a large numbers of scrims with incredible results. Many of the rooms that are still being researched and used by archaeologists had scrims with projected scenes of everyday use in the space. The character actors were not often speaking (which is great for avoiding language or hearing barriers), but soundscapes created the atmosphere of noise that would have been heard within a busy location full of people. In some locations, scrims were used in conjunction with items that were placed around the area, further creating the illusion of the scene. It was an incredible experience and I found it very sympathetic to the spaces, and really felt like seeing the ruins and combining the scenes made the building extremely relatable.
The Roman Baths are well worth a visit for some wonderful cutting edge museum practice. They will soon be opening up a new area, which is highly exciting. I really recommend checking out their annual reports if you are in the museum business, because they are fascinating. They also have a wonderful website full of educational programs that can be downloaded and studied in detail. It was truly a wonderful experience.
Sally Lunn’s was the first museum I checked out during my Open Palaces Programme adventure. The day before the tour started, I decided to stomp my way around Bath locating some of the places that I would be coming to and getting an idea of the location. Plus, I was in Bath! My excitement levels were so high I felt like my little heart was going to bounce straight out of my chest.
Sally Lunn’s is located close to the heart of the town, and within an easy walk from the train station and Roman Baths. The top part is a great little restaurant dedicated to serving a historic themed menu, including something call a Bath Bun, which is a little like a very large dinner roll which has been sliced in half. The Smithsonian mag describes it much better then I as “nearly six-inches in diameter with a soft, domed top, it is like a brioche bun on steroids”. I didn’t get a chance to eat there, but I can say that the smells coming from the kitchen were enticing. I will note, the food was surprisingly affordable and it’s a regret that I didn’t find the time to eat there.
Below the restaurant is a small museum dedicated to the history of Sally Lunn’s. I personally wonder whether there is a better word to call it then a museum, but heritage site doesn’t really do justice to the level of contents. I wouldn’t call it a heritage house either. It is not a traditional museum of ‘things in cabinets and words on walls”, but a fully recreated set of scenes that interpret the space. On one side of the small space is a fully recreated kitchen, with some fantastic looking fake food. Only after you have spent 2 months staring at plastic tomatoes can you fully appreciate realistic fake food. The other side was my favourite, with an explanation of the floor level changes and a plaster archeologist busily excavating a section.
What I really loved was the immersion of history combined with the present. The historic section was great, but having a section explaining how the history was being discovered and the different eras of the building was great. On the wall in the modern section was a series of very symbolic figures showing the different depths that the ground would have been at. It was such a simple and effective method of showing those differences, and for someone who comes from a country where cities have not necessarily been built on top of other cities, it was a really useful way to picture it. I loved that the archeologists finds and record keeping were on display (and that he had a neat little packed lunch).
The museum was free and really is worth a visit if you happen to be in the area.
As a side note, plastic models of people give me the serious willies. I loved that I couldn’t see the faces of either of the figures. But not in a terrifying Blair Witch style. This didn’t seem relevant to the actual review though...
Website for Sally Lunn’s: https://www.sallylunns.co.uk
Dana Bate: The Squishy History of Bath’s Buns
I took the time to pop into Midwarr/Harvest yesterday at the National Museum of Australia, with the knowledge that I was catching the exhibition on the last day. I’m not certain why it took me so long to check this amazing exhibition out, it has some fantastic artworks and brilliant design practice. The exhibition is a collaboration between Mulkun Wirrpanda and John Wolseley, exploring the plants of north-east Arnhem Land. There were more then 80 items to explore which stretched out over a number of different mediums.
I loved the organic feeling to the exhibition space. The front entrance to the exhibition included natural feeling curves with a backdrop of a massive canvas stretching nearly the length of the displays. The text panels incorporated the same art styles and created connection to the works very succinctly. It will never fail to impress me when a designer so beautifully conveys messages in so few words. Along with text panels, there were also called out quotes from the artists, in both English and in Yolnu matha (language). It really was a stunning exhibition, and I am disappointed that I left it too late to visit a second time. I’m also disappointed that the book seems to be sold out pretty much from every shop in Canberra - on the upside it’s nice to see a museum exhibition book sell out!
I think what I loved the most with this exhibition was the connection that I felt to the artists. Through expressive panels, I was reading their stories that deepened my curiousity and respect for the works. I felt a powerful draw towards the artist tools and creation process descriptions. Having the wood block cuttings next to their respective prints was a wonderful choice. Not only could I imagine the work that it would take to create the blocks, it created a real resonance with the matierials displayed. I appreciated the small display of artistic tools on display, as another personal connection, and I thought that the photos of the artists creating these beautiful works were fantastic. I really loved that the display design did not shy away from showing the medium that the works were painted on to, and in fact seemed to embrace all aspects of the work as significant.
Having recently attended the National Libaries Dombrovski exhibition, I felt that as a viewer I preferred these deeper connections to really humanise the artworks. Perhaps the purpose of the exhibition Dombrovski exhibition was to give an insider peak into the vast nature of Tasmanian wilderness. However, my reaction to the exhibition was a whole lot of ‘my, that’s a lot of nature’. I would have loved to see some of the personal artefacts to give me an idea of the person behind the lens - a camera, a duffle bag, one of the glass slides, some personal stories. Without these small human connections, I found it hard to transcend from ‘my, that’s a big mountain’, to ‘wow! I can’t beleive a human took that photo under such extreme conditions’. Perhaps the design of the exhibition just required someone who is much more interested in natural landscapes then I am.
A short break in my home town for a weekend gave me some time to go and have a look at one of the local museums. As a young adult I had visited the Berrima District Museum several times, but I’m pretty certain I haven’t been there for at least 10 years. It’s a great little museum, with good spaces and a nice history of average people rather then a focus on the famous. It’s also located in beautiful Berrima, which will always have a special place in my heart for stone cottages and good honey. Enough about me, let’s find the amazing parts of the current displays!
There has been plenty of funding available in the GLAM sector due to the anniversary of the WW1. Berrima District Museum seized on this chance and have created a really fabulous exhibition called the Southern Highlands 1200. The reasoning behind the title is that the Southern HIghlands had 1200 local people sign up for service. I really like the title, it has a draw to it without instantly referring to WW1, a change from many of the other exhibitions I have seen.
There are a lot of really slick ideas going on inside this exhibition that I thought were really amazing. The panels are succinct and drenched in human stories, which makes for pleasant (if not occasionally sad) reading. Along one side of the exhibition is a wall of remembrance, with a space for each of the 1200 enlisted people. On the opposite wall is the more in-depth stories, focusing on a mixture of stories rather then just those who died. The wall of remembrance has a nifty code: a printed poppy for those who died, an identity disc for people linked to other stories or objects in the exhibition and ‘Discovering Anzacs’ leading to a very well presented interactive on iPads. The symbols were easy to see along the wall and I did notice my companion for the day looking for those links.
The display cases are fantastic. Filled with interesting objects, and generally connected to one persons story, they link nicely together. I do like the trend for removing the tags from cases and placing them on the glass. I think removing the number of things that can distract from the emotion or presence of objects is a great thing, and honestly I don’t need to see a tag under an embroidered postcard to know it’s a postcard. I find myself looking for the information on items that have ‘spoken’ to me or that I need more details on.
There are two interactive that are available, in the shape of a replica hat and electronic media. I did like the replica hat being available to touch and interpret, whoever created that item did a fantastic job. Placing an item into someone’s hands is always a great way to sell an object, so this was a neat way to do that without having to have a museum person on hand to facilitate the experience. The iPads are also a great touch and did not remove focus from the rest of the exhibition. I appreciate that the program worked with a viewers natural curiosity, and I found myself falling down a ‘click hole’, where one topic lead to another seamlessly. The program facilitated people choosing to just explore without asking them to know what they were looking for, a great method of encouraging learning and linking of topics.
Beyond the specific WW1 exhibition there were a few other cabinets/displays that caught my eye. I’m kicking myself for not having taken enough photos of the museum, as I think there is some great museum practice happening. I also found myself wishing that the same level of funding could be found for more then just Australia’s war history. As much as I respect Australia’s war history, I tend to wonder if all these well funded WW1 exhibitions, which will likely stay on display due to the money and quality poured into them, will end up skewing the public perception of important events in our history. Where as each little local museum may have once included at least a small panel, now many will have entire wings dedicated to Australia’s war history.
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.