I couldn’t help but be somewhat amused at the differences between two articles that I read this week: One that focused on the passion that Smithsonian has for repatriation of sacred and important collections, the other reporting on the reaction the public had towards the British Museums assertion that their collection is not entirely made up of looted items from the colonial era.
Amusing to me, and it must make others grind their teeth in total frustration.
I’m incredibly disappointed that for the last part of my Open Palaces Programme adventure, I missed seeing Alice Procter’s Uncomfortable Art Tour of the British Museum. Alice is an Australian running incredible tours in London which look at the uncomfortable history of items and artworks in museums. And it’s not just about the stolen nature of some of the objects, but about the way that colonialism continues to effect the way things are described, displayed and stored. I desperately want to get my hands on one of the badges she was handing out “Display is like you stole it”. I also find it amazing that such a great piece of agitation, may have contributed to the British Museum releasing a statement that sounds a lot like “Not everything is looted!”. But enough of it is.
While on the program we visited the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The Pitt Rivers Museum was founded by Augustus Pitt Rivers (a name which sounds like it should feature in a movie about looting crypts in the Victorian era) in 1884, seeded with 22,000 of his collected objects from around the world. His history is both fascinating and exciting, and completely of the era he was from. Rivers was a noted archaeologist, with a particular interest in tracking the history of human invention. Thus, the museum space is fascinating in its grouping of objects with like objects. The tags in the cases are sparse in information, presenting the item as a piece of a larger puzzle. What this lacks, regularly, is contextual information. What this does (unintentionally, I hope), is to put a beautiful bone china cup next to something rougher from somewhere ‘other’ and allow the viewer to see that obviously the British cup is much less primitive. That evolution and invention has been better in Britain or other ‘developed’ countries.
Hold on, I think I may be letting some of my bias and annoyance show. Let me just try and tuck that away for the moment.
I was born in Australia, and have always known that we are in a colonised land. Opinions and approaches to this have changed dramatically over time, but the violence that is a by product of that invasion is something that can not be ignored. The colonial period is intensely complicated, and is a time of great developments in science and understanding the world we live in. It’s also littered with violence and acts of great injustice which we are only now starting to fully understand and work through. So while I understand the significance of not removing histories successes, I think we need to spend more time really reflecting on what had to occur to make those achievements.
The Pitt Rivers Museum holds a special place in my mind as being stunningly beautiful and everything I imagined a Victorian era museum would be. Oxford is an amazing town (city?), and I felt so amazed to be standing in a place of such history. The Pitt Rivers Museum can be accessed directly from the street, or you can take the scenic route through the Natural History Museum first, with it’s dodos, dinosaurs and other delights. When you walk through the massive doors, you will be faced with soft light bathing the multi story open space. And it is filled to the brim with cases of curiosity. I was properly in awe, my breath lost as I stared at the space. There were giggles and gasps in the museums sound scape as people took in not only the historic items on display, but also the surprisingly gory. I was horrified to discover that the museum is still in possession of Indigenous Australia remains. I was mortified when I began to look at the history of Australian’s asking for the remains to come home only to have to fight for the right to bring their family home to Country. When I asked about the repatriation process, I discovered that the museums policy is really about waiting to receive requests and that these requests do not happen regularly.
The article from the Smithsonian hit the note that I had really been hoping to see. The Smithsonian is significantly larger then the Pitt Rivers Museums, but I should note that the museum is one of many that are managed by Oxford University (which is a fairly large organisation). The Smithsonian has repatriation offices that actively seek to reconnect items and human remains with communities. It has a goal to reduce the number of human remains held by the museums to zero. I enjoyed reading an article that actually celebrated the ideals of repatriation. I feel like British museums could really benefit from setting some appropriate goals around what is appropriate to have in a museum collection.
What I did hear in the museum itself, and from having read a number of articles revolving specifically around the Pitt Rivers Museum were statements of concern to send the items back to the communities from whence they came from. And if absolute evidence can’t be found, then hiccups occur in the process. What this (once again, unintentionally I hope) breeds is a feeling that British Museums feel that they understand our communities and country better then we do ourselves. This is extremely patronising, and honestly there are a good number of institutions in Australia which would be much more experienced in working with Australian communities then most British institutions.
It easy to fall into a thought process that exclaims how easy this should all be. Repatriation and reconciliation is not a simple process, but it is ennobled by being an active process. When an organisation is seen to actively seek out traditional owners and question the history of their collections, it is an act of reconciliation. It’s facing our own complex histories, putting aside the inlaid shame, and offering to be transparent in our desire to be honest about history and ownership. Instead of waiting for communities to present themselves into our European style processes, approach communities and find out how the museum can work with their systems. If you can’t find a community something belongs to, at least have a partnership museum in the right country, and return it to them until a permanent home can be found. Museums and galleries may find themselves with unexpected friendships that deliver more content and information then any stollen artificial could hope to give. They could find deep and wonderful contextual details. And if the list is so huge, because I do understand just how many countries have been touched by the colonial era, then alphabetise it and start from the top. I imagine the process would be hard, with complexities, but reconciliation is not meant to be an easy process. The point is to learn from our mistakes, not to ignore them or explain them away.
Articles that influenced and touched this blog post:
During my trip with the Open Palaces Programme, I had spare afternoons and mornings which I filled with museums and heritage. Sometimes I would wander by myself and sometimes I would have company. My wandering to the Fashion Museum included Calla Sundin and Rachel Cottle, two awesome museum folks who put up with my ranting and raving with lots of amusement.
The Fashion Museum had been high on my list of places to visit. Being an avid embroiderer, I have always wanted to see the Elizabethan embroidered pieces. So after a morning at the Bath Museum of Architecture, I headed off with extreme purpose. My head was filled with brightly coloured embroidery silks and linen.
The museum is located within the Assembly Rooms, a heritage building designed by John Woods and his son John Woods in 1769. The rooms were designed for communities to hold grand balls and get togethers, which it still does to this day under the careful guardianship of the National Trust. Below the shindigs and frivolity, is the basement home of the Fashion Museum. The collection was started by Doris Langley Moore, arguably one of the first female fashion historians. The collection was seeded by Moore’s personal collection and has been added to each year with both historic and modern items.
The collection is incredibly comprehensive and beautiful. I really wanted to be able to sit down and sketch dress after dress, but did not have the time or ability to do so. The museum was filled with people, which was both wonderful and included my pet irritation of audio guides. The museum was completely quiet and included the shuffling masses moving to each curated one sided conversation. As I stood there, marvelling at the embroidered jacket that I had poured over in books a million times over, I was somewhat saddened that it was in this quiet space in a darkened area to prevent damage to it. My companions listened into the audio guide, which is quite fair, and I longed to be able to actually discuss what was there in front of us. What I find problematic, particularly in traditionally designed museum spaces (which this certainly was), with audio guides is that not all people benefit from listening to someone speak to them. As interested in a topic as I am, the moment I have no way to interact with the information my brain removes itself from the situation. Audio guides can be wonderful, but it should considered to be only one way of interacting with guests. There were some text panels, but that only gives a secondary information output and was significantly less detailed then the audio guide.
To protect the pieces, the clothing was often in darkened spaces with specialised lighting. At first I enjoyed this display, but as the shuffling masses moved me along, I started to find it reminiscent of how I was feeling about the exhibition. Somewhat removed and distant from these items that I had lusted over seeing in person. It did however make for some fantastic photos. There is a singular hands on space, where replicas can be tried on for the ever important selfie moments.
What I would have loved to see was more areas where you could interact with the collection or people. If I could change the displays, I would add in nooks and crannies which included touch stations, design spaces, drawing areas, interactive spaces. I would have loved to have seen more humans - the designers, the makers and the wearers. If I could have only one style of interactive it would be focussed on how the different clothing was made - preferably in a way where the visitor could attempt to create their own design and then have it printed out for collection at the desk when I left the museum.
I would absolutely go back again, the collection is incredible and well worth a visit. I just felt alienated by it, and unable to connect on a level that I wanted to. I can thoroughly recommend the shop for a decent fashion books and the cafe in the Assembly Rooms was lovely
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
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.