Friends, I love embroidery. I’m sure you have already picked that up. Yesterday, I went to an exhibition at the Asian Civilisation Exhibition on the work by Guo Pei that just sunk into my soul. That moment, where people talk about being emotionally moved by a piece of art, or music? That was me, in awe. The embroidery and beading work is beyond anything I have ever seen in person before. Beyond literally getting lost in the design of the works, the exhibition design is divine. And it has a fabulous education section. I was in heaven.
Guo Pei is China’s leading couturiere, creating not only incredible clothing for famous people, but also artistic pieces that are mind blowing. Having started sewing at the age of 2 (!), her career started in Tianma and then moved on to create Rose Studio in 1997. Gus’s dresses are designed to tell a story, through the medium of fabric and textiles. The entire outfit stitches together to tell a narrative. Her most famous work is most likely what the media started calling the ‘Omelette Dress’ (I believe it’s actual name is the Empress Dress), which was worn by Rihanna during the Met Gala in 2015.
The exhibition is beautifully designed, with lighting that highlights the dresses perfectly. The first section, has a minimalistic wardrobe feeling to it. The dresses are displayed next to either clothing or items from collections that form part of the inspiration behind the design. In the second section along, the dress on the mannequins have well placed mirrors around them, giving the impression that the wearable items are being admired by the wearer. When you move into the last section, which are highly sculptural artistic designs (only really worn for the runway) the mirrors disappear for the dresses to stand by themselves in the space. The interpretation is spot on. Short and easy to read panels, and the exhibition guide (in multiple languages) doesn’t just repeat exactly what is on the walls. There is soft music to set the feeling of the space, and benches to gaze upon the works.
I loved the education section of the exhibition as well, which is designed for both children and adults. The learning space is located well and truly on the other side of the exhibition, where the prized Empress Dress commands the space. There are a couple of really great reasons for the location: the noise of creating and having fun doesn’t leak into the other galleries, it’s outside of the paid section so it can tempt people in, and it a lovely well lit area. There is a reading area with books about art and design in fashion, a creation space for making clothes on mannequins and a great embroidery area that doesn’t include the risk of visitors stabbing themselves with sharp needles. It’s really just fabulous and inviting for anyone to touch, play and learn.
Go see this exhibition, it you can. It’s wonderful and inspiring, both as an embroidery geek and as a museum design/interpretation enthusiast. I am so glad I had the chance to see this. I left with a much great appreciation of Chinese art and fashion.
It’s interesting just how much angst I have felt about writing this blog, and amusingly this morning I found that the draft I had been working on had disappeared. Which means I have had even more time to dwell on the embroidered food bags that I have recently completed for a heritage home display.
The food bags were decided on to fill an interpretation hole in the space. The space is not able to have any panels or electronic means for interpretation, but there is an enthusiastic volunteer and staff team. The embroidered food bags were to be added into the living area of the 1860s zone, along with a number of other display food items. A common way of storing dry staple foods during this time period were cotton bags, but having bags without interpretation seemed lacking in depth. We were also a little concerned about people trying to open them and spilling the stuffing out in an attempt to work out what was in them (curiosity being the chief mother of invention and also mess).
I am an embroider, and love spending time on researching historic embroidery pieces. I sadly have been unable to find any indication of embroidered food bags. However, I can prove that women on their way to Australia on the boats did spend time embroidering and sewing small pieces. I can say that Mary Ginn, the first female occupant of the cottage was educated and likely had been taught embroidery as part of her education. We know that she could read and write. The font used for the bags is from a period embroidery book, which was fairly readily available. I do know that the fabric is on par with what should be expected, the threads are right and the stitching style is popular during that period.
Can I prove that there were absolutely embroidered food bags in the 1860s?
And it drives me crazy.
So why am I admitting to this?
During the Open Palaces Programme, I was struck by a talk that was given at the Tower of London. The Yeoman Warder who took us around during our tour was incredibly open about what had been tried and succeeded. Beyond that, he told us what hadn’t worked. Why it hadn’t worked. The processes that led to both success and failure and how they measured those attempts. And it inspired me, because in failure there is a great amount of strength. Knowing what has and hasn’t worked helps us to grow.
So, have I failed with these baggies? I don’t know. On one hand, the interpretation works perfectly. Visitors react to them really well and ask why the food is in bags. It sets up an indication of what hand writing could kind of look like. So there is some great things happening. However, I feel like it’s not quite right, so I will keep looking for evidence (whether for or against). I think the chief thing I could have done is finish them a hell of a lot faster. Part way through the process, I froze up with anxiety over whether they were right and how they would reflect on my (and the heritage home) if they were wrong. That was a good learning experience, in that sometimes you need to go forwards to give yourself time to think in the future. I can also say that the embroidery was travelling at about 1 letter per two hours, on average, so they took a really long time to complete. There are dozens of little things that my perfectionist brain hates as well, but they are far less useful to dwell on.
I don’t know if I will call this any type of serious failure. I will call this a learning experience that I can develop from. I will also be open and transparent, because failure is healthy. It’s good to fall over and make mistakes and doubt ourselves. And if we share these stories and these thoughts openly, then it helps others to make informed choices in the future. It also just makes us feel less alone.
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.
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.