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 my trip with the Open Palaces Programme, I had spare afternoons and mornings which I filled with museums and heritage. Sometimes I would wander by myself and sometimes I would have company. My wandering to the Fashion Museum included Calla Sundin and Rachel Cottle, two awesome museum folks who put up with my ranting and raving with lots of amusement.
The Fashion Museum had been high on my list of places to visit. Being an avid embroiderer, I have always wanted to see the Elizabethan embroidered pieces. So after a morning at the Bath Museum of Architecture, I headed off with extreme purpose. My head was filled with brightly coloured embroidery silks and linen.
The museum is located within the Assembly Rooms, a heritage building designed by John Woods and his son John Woods in 1769. The rooms were designed for communities to hold grand balls and get togethers, which it still does to this day under the careful guardianship of the National Trust. Below the shindigs and frivolity, is the basement home of the Fashion Museum. The collection was started by Doris Langley Moore, arguably one of the first female fashion historians. The collection was seeded by Moore’s personal collection and has been added to each year with both historic and modern items.
The collection is incredibly comprehensive and beautiful. I really wanted to be able to sit down and sketch dress after dress, but did not have the time or ability to do so. The museum was filled with people, which was both wonderful and included my pet irritation of audio guides. The museum was completely quiet and included the shuffling masses moving to each curated one sided conversation. As I stood there, marvelling at the embroidered jacket that I had poured over in books a million times over, I was somewhat saddened that it was in this quiet space in a darkened area to prevent damage to it. My companions listened into the audio guide, which is quite fair, and I longed to be able to actually discuss what was there in front of us. What I find problematic, particularly in traditionally designed museum spaces (which this certainly was), with audio guides is that not all people benefit from listening to someone speak to them. As interested in a topic as I am, the moment I have no way to interact with the information my brain removes itself from the situation. Audio guides can be wonderful, but it should considered to be only one way of interacting with guests. There were some text panels, but that only gives a secondary information output and was significantly less detailed then the audio guide.
To protect the pieces, the clothing was often in darkened spaces with specialised lighting. At first I enjoyed this display, but as the shuffling masses moved me along, I started to find it reminiscent of how I was feeling about the exhibition. Somewhat removed and distant from these items that I had lusted over seeing in person. It did however make for some fantastic photos. There is a singular hands on space, where replicas can be tried on for the ever important selfie moments.
What I would have loved to see was more areas where you could interact with the collection or people. If I could change the displays, I would add in nooks and crannies which included touch stations, design spaces, drawing areas, interactive spaces. I would have loved to have seen more humans - the designers, the makers and the wearers. If I could have only one style of interactive it would be focussed on how the different clothing was made - preferably in a way where the visitor could attempt to create their own design and then have it printed out for collection at the desk when I left the museum.
I would absolutely go back again, the collection is incredible and well worth a visit. I just felt alienated by it, and unable to connect on a level that I wanted to. I can thoroughly recommend the shop for a decent fashion books and the cafe in the Assembly Rooms was lovely
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
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.