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:
Beckford’s Tower was on our list for the Open Palaces Programme, scheduled for a hands on workshop with Dr Amy Frost. Beckford’s Tower is part of the Bath Preservation Trust, along with a number of other buildings that I visited during the educational program. Dr Amy Frost is the Senior Curator and led two of our workshops, and also demonstrated her wonderful abilities in stone masonry at the Bath Museum of Architecture.
Beckford’s Tower is an incredible building that was lovely to spend time in. To reach the tower itself there is a quick stroll through a surprisingly beautiful graveyard. I felt a little like I was wandering into the beginning of a fairy tale, and wondered whether a princess would let her hair down from the gold gilded peak of the tower. I managed to make it up most of the tower until my terror of enclosed spaces and heights won out. It was an incredible view though. I loved the curation within the building and thought it was just a marvellous place to study.
The building was constructed in the 1820s, commissioned by William Beckford, an English novelist. He had a deep passion for architecture and landscaping, with a love for the picturesque movement. His tower was built as a place of solitude and quiet, landscaped to mimic the concepts within the picturesque art pieces that he enjoyed. It included a vast pleasure garden that stretched between his home, located on Lansdowne Crescent, to the tower which is at the top of Lansdowne Hill.
With his death, the land was sold to a publican who used the area briefly as a beer garden in the early 1840s. It was repurchased by Beckford’s daughter, the Duchess of Hamilton, in 1848, who donated the building and land to the Walcot Parish, where it entered it’s second life as a graveyard. The tower was partly converted into a chapel to carry out funerals. Originally, Beckford had been buried in Bath Abbey Cemetery, but he was reinterred shortly after the towers transformation.
It’s third life started in the 1970’s, sold after being made redundant by the church. It had endured a catastrophic fire that had destroyed much of it’s contents in the 1930s. Privately purchased, the first intention was to renovate the building into two flats. The Beckford Tower Trust and museum were established in 1977 and it started it’s new life as a historical site. Bath Preservation Trust are now the primary caretakers of the building. As a side thought, if you ever want to stay the night it looks quite beautiful and is available through The Landmark Trust (link below).
The workshop at Beckford’s Tower was a hands on chance to create reports focussed on restoration and conservation of the building. There was a very pleasant 60 minutes of walking through sections and finding areas that we thought could use conservation. Dr Frost was brilliant, allowing us to come up with our own thoughts and I was pleasantly surprised that as a group we perhaps picked up on 50% of what we should have noticed. The other 50% included us madly taking down notes and asking a lot of questions. Dr Frost was incredibly enjoyable to listen to and wonderfully pragmatic about the limitations that are involved in small heritage sites without huge budgets.
The second part of the workshop included considering how to work on the interpretation of the landscaping, which has significantly changed since Beckford’s time. The area is complex, with management of the building being organised by Bath Preservation Trust, and the grounds managed by the Bath & North East Somerset Council. This style of situation in heritage sites is not unusual, but nevertheless awkward. I can imagine there must be a great deal of diplomacy and consultation being conducted behind the scenes. I did like the challenge of considering how you could interpret a site that can never go back to what it once was. Those bodies are happily buried for the rest of their existence. So how can you interpret something that is stubbornly no longer there?
My thoughts revolved around two concepts. One of my coworkers created a fantastic children’s activity that they called time telescopes. Using old photos printed on transparencies, they attached them to white PVC pipes. By looking through the pipe, you could overlay the picture with what now existed. This is a very low cost alternatives to the AR apps being used by multiple organisations, where an overlay of images can be created to call back to the past. However, there are not really any photos of the gardens during their existence. My idea was that an artistic interpretation could be designed, using paintings that were focussed on the written details of what was described in the garden, and painted in the picturesque style that Beckford loved. For a low cost option, large interpretation panels could be placed in the landscape allowing participants to look through the semi transparent window that had a view painted onto it. Alternatively you could design an app that painted those images onto the phone screen depending on where it picked a person standing. It was an enjoyable thing to image, and I think quite influenced by a video I had recently seen of Van Gogh’s Starry Night brought to life (I’ve popped a link in below).
Beckford’s Tower only opens on select dates during the year, so I recommend checking out their website. It’s well worth a visit!
Beckford’s Tower: http://beckfordstower.org.uk
Landmark Trust: Beckford’s Tower
3d VR version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night: Motion Magic
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.
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.
I often can’t help but compare the retail experience to museums. It likely wrapped up in my work history, but I often see myself still as a sales person - it’s just that I’m selling history now. Today I stumbled into a shop called The Cool Hunter, which according to its byline is ‘Internationally Curated’. Beyond the industry argument of what constitutes as curated (lets face it, cricket pitches were being curated before museums were), I thought the shop used scarcity theory extremely well and presented it in a fascinating manner.
Scarcity effect is a theory that when you present an item/event as being rare or limited, it’s considered value rises. So if I present a sock knitted in WW1 in a case and talk about how millions of these socks are made it’s perceived value would be low. But if I displayed the same sock and the same story, and added in a section about the person who knitted the sock and who received it and the epic romance that bloomed from that sock, it’s value would increase. This is due to the sock suddenly seeming less like a knitted thing, and more of a one off love story found in a parcel to a WW1 soldier. Museums are kind of lucky, because most things that are displayed already have a scarcity effect applied to them. Museum curators create exhibitions of rare items and wrap narratives around the items which are more common.
For retail, rarity is often made through limited editions or events. As an example, Games Workshop will often release a model that will only be sold during a specific event, increasing it’s perceived value. T2 will have member only sales, which are by invitation, and increase the assumption that these are very special prices. These tactics are retail 101. What I appreciated about the Cool Hunter was that it is creating a museum like experience to sell their collection of items.
Plinths! Items are displayed on plinths, with stock hidden away behind lush (velvet?) curtains. The items are gathered together in a snippet of experience - the perfume stand in the right hand photo below was an excellent example of gathering together a collection that felt like it might fit into a noble ladies dressing room. The pictures are hung as if in a gallery. The book section displayed the items with their covers facing front. Each facet of the store felt as if you might have been buying items from a museum of ‘now’ and potentially ‘cool’. The lack of products made everything feel very exclusive, and for all I know perhaps some of those items were very limited, and most important that felt valuable. Then of course, there is the use of the word curated, presented proudly at the entrance. From the moment that you walk into the store, the message is that the items are hand picked for their importance and ‘cool’ factor. Less cool from the 90s, and more the ‘cool’ that you feel from Audrey Hepburn drinking coffee in Paris. The store was incredibly impressive and I look forward to visiting regularly to see what their curation team is selling next.
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.