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.
My interesting read of the week popped up from Medium, with a fantastic article by Ben Freeland titled “When Does Good Art By Awful People Become Untouchable?”. My current fascination with discrimination and history certainly was looking for interesting articles around that topic, and this article had me thinking deeply.
Today in my collection, one of my multitalented coworkers (the lovely Tash) found a rice tin in a box of items we had been considering for an exhibition. The rice tin is likely the right time period, is in surprisingly good condition and completely unable to be used. Why? Because it’s trimmed in swastikas.
As someone who wants to teach good history and stare unflinchingly at challenging narratives, part of me rails against not displaying this, purely because someone might interpret it as an item that supports Nazi symbolism. I want to have deep conversations about the rich history that the symbol has and explain that it’s only problematic when used in conjunction with white supremacy.
This symbol is a little like an artist that has become undone by their own criminal behaviours. Admittedly, the symbol itself has never committed and act, but people have used it with intention and now it has this contextual history linking it directly to harm and pain. Would I display this in a war exhibition? Absolutely yes to create those strong links to that period. Will I place it in an exhibition knowing that the symbol causes fear and distrust? Absolutely not. The conversations about how a swastikas can be used is not necessary in a cute little cottage talking about early Australian life.
The article asks when is too soon, to allow art to become seen almost separately from it’s creator. I think this is really tided up with how long that person, or art, or thing, is used as a potential rally to arms for those who seek to justify a moral corrupt position. Richard Wagner, mentioned in the article for his strong links to the Third Reich, is likely not being listened to in reverence by those who currently ascribe to Nazi leanings. Swastikas certainly are. Even if something is no longer used for potential harm, historical narratives should not ignore that history but use it as part of it’s diverse history. Embracing the power of Wagner’s music, does not mean we should ignore that he was, likely, an awful person. His skills in music should not equate a get out of jail card for the impact he had on the people he effected. It may not be too soon for Wagner, but it still is for many others.
That rice tin may never go on display. Or it could stop being actively used, and with some distance maybe we can have some of those discussions in unexpected museums and heritage houses. Maslow hierarchy of needs tells us that you can’t be an open learner and deep thinker if you are afraid of being damaged. For the moment, it’s too soon. That very average tin could inspire even one person to not feel safe in an environment, and that is one too many for me.
Ben Freelands article can be found here: https://medium.com/@benfreeland/when-does-good-art-by-awful-people-become-untouchable-b24b8fdd118f
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
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 popped into the Hall School Museum and Heritage Centre last week and was totally blown away by their WW1 displays!
Having tackled fake food in a heritage house in the past, I have a lot of respect for anyone who can find items that don’t look a bit shoddy in someway. The last batch I bought were not too bad, but I still ended up with some very dubious looking carrots. Hall School Museum decided to make their own! A skilled volunteer led the process and has created some very edible looking food.
Beyond the awesome fake food, there were a couple of extra impressive pieces of museum design. The current exhibition space is a permanent zone for the display, but it started as a temporary exhibition for the WW1 anniversaries. Public reactions to the display were so strong that they decided to move the display into a permenant area which is slightly smaller then the temporary exhibition space. To achieve this, the museum has employed a couple of very clever tactics. The one that blew my mind was changing the wall panels into a swinging display a visitor could flip through in their own time. There is some brilliant design going into this small community museum, and it is certainly well worth a visit!
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.