In October I had the pleasant experience of visiting the Goulburn Historic Waterworks to check out their annual Steampunk & Victoriana Fair. It was brilliant fun, and I will certainly be going along again!
The Waterworks is located next to the Wollondilly River, making it a very picturesque location. I can completely understand why so many events choose this location for a wide variety of shindigs. The official website explains that the pumping station was built in the 1880’s and provided Goulburn’s first reticulated water supply. The original Appleby Bro’s Beam engine is still maintained as a working piece of machinery. I was struck by how surprisingly quiet it was - somehow I has imagined that it would be as loud as the steam powered trains that I have seen. Beyond the original machine, there is a variety of other impressive devices that are somewhat meditative to watch in movement.
The museum space has a complicated past, much like many small museums. It has swung between fully privately funded, to council funding multiple times, but has somehow managed to survive quite solidly. There is a neat little education program available and the volunteers that I met onsite were very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. The Steampunk & Victoriana Fair is an initiative by the Waterworks to raise funds and profile. The Steampunk & Victoriana Fair has been running since 2014, with an attendance of approximately 250 people in it’s first year. Attendance for 2018 was approximately 3000, which is a fairly good rate of growth for an annual event (I believe this would have been higher is not for the rain). Revenue is also raised by having themed retail stores and food vendors. Cleverly, the food vendors were hidden slightly around a corner, which meant that the steampunk atmosphere could be maintain a little more easily. Multiple competitions (costume, inventions etc) invite participants to join in the fun from early before the events date, keeping it fresh in the public’s mind.
Steampunk is a genre of fiction that imagines a 19th-century inspired world that is influenced by science fiction style elements. There are very few ‘rules’ on what this means exactly - but imagine, it you will, a Victorian Gentleman in a lovely outfit that also includes a fully steam powered mechanical arm, or a set of suitcases that follows along behind the owner using steam powered tank treads. It is an amalgamation of science fiction with steam powered 19th century ingenuity and fashion. As someone who enjoys textile arts and sewing, I was so inspired by the characterful costumes. Admittedly, I am certainly not looking to get involved in another hobby, but I thought the deliberate anachronistic nature of the costuming looked very enjoyable. There is a storytelling element that is very alluring to the whole business.
With that in mind, I think that as a revenue raising event, the Fair is a wonderful choice for the site. The volunteers onsite helped to explain how the actual technology worked and I did notice that people were stopping to read the historic panels. The atmosphere was fabulous, and the users of the site clearly cared for the space. A quick googling brings up plenty of news articles talking about the event, raising the profile and traffic of the Waterworks. It also promotes the historic buildings as a prime site for other private and public events. I love that it both celebrates a history that was, and will never be. I will absolutely be returning to visit again this year!
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:
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!
During the Open Palaces Programme, we were super lucky to have a session with the incredible Polly Andrews at the Bath Museum of Architecture. I was really looking forward to this museum, as it intersects neatly with some of my current work, but the workshop here was incredibly enjoyable beyond what I was expecting as well.
The museum is particularly niche in content, concentrating mostly on the design and construction methods for Georgian houses. Located in the beautiful Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel, it houses a fantastic hands on exhibition of the process for creating a building during the Georgian era, many scale models of buildings and towns, and a large study gallery filled with a very extensive library. The exhibits are extremely hands on, with plenty of things to touch and read. The museum is part of the Bath Preservation Trust, which runs a number of heritage spaces in Bath (some of which I will cover in the future).
The museum has a bustling education and outreach program, which is aimed at an astoundingly wide range of people. I was particularly inspired by Polly’s direction in reaching out to adult disability groups. It was from this session that I took away the statement “Nothing about us, without us”, and a lot of ideas around hands on activity sessions.
‘Nothing about us without us’ (apparently the Latin is ‘Nihil de bonus, sine nobis’) revolves around the ideal that no policy should be created without input from the community that is is designed for. Versions of the slogan have existed in history, but it has particularly become popular since the 1990s in relation to disability activism. This translates particularly well in museum practice, but particularly works well as a slogan for educational or community group activity design. Polly Andrews stressed that this concept is behind the activity and session design for any group that chooses to visit the exhibition. When I have designed school programs, I have always tried to work with curriculum but after this I feel that there is more that can be tapped into. Looking around the internet for further inspiration I found a wonderful blog article by Philippa Antipas that talks about the benefits to students not just learning, but flourishing. Flourishing includes more thought then just what we need a student outcome to be but how to make the environment something that nurtures participants into growing. I now have this slogan on my desk, and I am looking forward to trying to work much more collaboratively then I have in the past.
Beyond consulting closely with groups to for what they need, they design sessions while considering Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This theory follows that before education can occur, a participant must have a basic level of human need met. If a participant is hungry, cold, exhausted, as examples, they will be less likely to be able to concentrate on the higher brain function of learning. In museums, we can not magically give people rest, but ensuring that there is water and toilets readily available helps. If you have a community group coming in, something as simple as a a packet of biscuits can help a group that is participating. Penny explained how students are encouraged to bring a snack to some sessions, so that an afternoon or morning break can help to feed students and bring them back to concentration. On reflection, it’s interesting how many times I have talked about Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs in regards to history and inclusivity, but never actually thought to include biscuits or tea during training sessions that I host. The next set of training sessions are absolutely going to include some snacks!
I loved the hands on activities that were set up for participants that were tied to the exhibits incredibly well. I particularly enjoyed getting hands on myself and making bridges, creating some patterns for pressing, making gilded mirrors. It was exceptionally satisfying and covered a wide range of Georgian design. If you check out their website you can find all types of activities that individuals and families can get involved with, and there is a section dedicated to their school programs as well. The space also doubles as an Arts space as well, and I have heard marvellous things about the acoustics in the building.
If you are in Bath, you should absolutely take the time to come and visit this inspiring museum!
Museum of Bath Architecture: http://museumofbatharchitecture.org.uk
Some links to places of information:
Nothing about us without us - Katherine Annear
Nothing about us without us: Student wellbeing
Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in our classrooms - Tony Kline
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.
When I first started studying at the University of Canberra, I saw a poster for the Open Palaces Programme on the wall and thought “One day, I am going to do that”.
And friends, that is a goal I can tick off my list now.
Why did I want to do the Open Palaces Programme? At first, honestly the idea of walking around in palaces sounded like a beautiful thing to do. I had been involved in a medieval reenactment group, and castles sounded exciting and filled with medieval ‘stuff’. As I grew into my studies a bit more, and worked in the industry, the program started to embody the excitement of learning about heritage and museum practice in a different country. To look at ideas from a different point of view. I wanted to be steeped in museum ideas and saturated in heritage. It certainly achieved all of those things and more.
The program is run by Glasscastle Ltd, and designed by Jean MacIntyre. Jean has an incredible wealth of experience in the GLAM sector, and was a very warm and inviting person to work with. The purpose of the program is to provide a unique learning experience for students and emergent professionals in the GLAM field. The program works with a number of organisations (including the Bath Preservation Trust and the Historic Royal Palaces) to provide talks and workshops on different topics. There was a good combination of theory and hands on, with time to discuss and ask questions. The networking opportunities were vast and highly enjoyable.
Travelling with a group of like minded and fantabulous museum professionals for 20 days was wonderful. One of my favourite parts of any convention is knowing that everyone around you has the same style of passion, but they only last 3 days. Having 20 days to discuss, and theorise, and debate was just lovely. To ensure that the program runs smoothly, a team leader and mentors are assigned to the group. This years team leader for our session was Robbie Ladbrook, an entirely inspiring individual who organised and sorted the group seamlessly. Jill Eastcott and Tyler Mills were our mentors, providing valuable insights and a hearty dose of humour. Travelling for a fair amount of time and taking in a huge amount of information, these 3 lovely individuals made sure our brains were not entirely falling out of our heads and even cared for some of us as we fell sick from lurgies. I have no doubt that these connections that I made will continue to be a valuable resource in my future career path.
I’m lining up a number of blog posts about the places that we visited, talking about some of the topics that we covered. The program has inspired me to keep writing and has left me feeling reinvigorated after a bit of a low point. Over the course of the program, and then with the additional 20 days of travel that I tacked onto the end of the program, I visited 50 different museums, galleries and heritage sites. I have a fair amount to talk about!
For future posts, I’ll tag which of the sites we visited as a part of the program, just in case there is anyone else out there looking for information about some of the places visited in the 2018 sessions. They do change the program regularly though, so please if you are reading this, make sure to check the official website if you are looking for concrete future information.
If you are looking for further information, you can find plenty on their official website: http://openpalace.co
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.