The importance of a comment card

Sunday, November 19th, 2017

The London, Sugar & Slavery gallery opened in 2007, to mark the 200th anniversary of the end of the British trade in enslaved African people. London, Sugar & Slavery: 10 Years uses some of the thousands of visitor comment cards we’ve received over the past decade to reflect on the gallery and its contents. You can read a wide range of viewpoints, written by visitors from 6 to 93 years old, including school children, grandparents with their grandchildren, and visitors from Europe, the Caribbean, North America and, of course, London. London, Sugar & Slavery is the only permanent display in London to solely focus on the history of the slave trade and slavery. Since 2007 the gallery has been visited by around 2 million people, including 250,000 school pupils.

After knocking off my list most of the central London major museums, including the main Museum of London, I headed down the DLR to Museum of London Docklands last week. While I LOVE (obviously) the Suffragette related section of the Museum of London, apart from that I’ve never been massively struck (apart from the amazing Fire of London exhibition). So, I had pretty low expectations – of which were very quickly surpassed.

Before I went, I read the page quoted above about the visitor cards put on display, which perhaps unusually was what first intrigued me to visit. After visiting the Slavery Museum in Liverpool a couple of years ago, I knew that representations of the heritage of Slavery can be difficult, inevitably. I was intrigued to see how this translated into visitor opinion.

Fascinatingly, not all of the comments were wholly positive. Most of them were, it’s a good exhibition, but not all. For example: “Thank you, but you cannot just close it off in the 1800s just cos it was ‘abolished’ – aftermath? What about the numerous people from Asia? But thank you.” But, what struck most was the importance the display places on visitor comments. There could be the impression that comment cards are a fairly futile activity, compared to the grandness of curation, but the display and labels depicting its importance certainly counter that.

The centre stage given to the visitor comments on display spotlights their fundamental importance to a discussion of a difficult history. Counter to the impression that the museum’s narrative is the only interpretation, the inclusion of negative visitor comments (of course only the constructive criticism) shows that understanding of history develops over time – there isn’t one ‘accurate’ way to share the heritage of slavery.

London, Sugar & Slavery on the whole is open about the complexity of displaying such a contentious topic. At the start of the exhibition, an infographic opens the narrative by confronting terminology. For example, the interpretation intentionally uses the term ‘enslaved Africans’ instead of ‘slaves’. While on the surface, the difference between these terms might appear slight, but of course linguistically the difference is enormous – enslaved Africans represents the people as human, highlighting the victims humanity and African identity that would’ve been taken away when slaves. Consideration of complexities such as this has clearly opened public discussion in a way that may not have been otherwise, which is apparent by the sheer variety of visitor comments.

Curated by Kirsty Warren, a post-doctoral fellow in the Centre for Research in Race and Rights at the University of Nottingham, the integral necessity of collaboration is highlighted. London, Sugar & Slavery is considerate, compelling, and while contentious makes positive steps to be inclusive and not shy away from the complexities of a difficult history.

 

The Museum of Ordinary Animals

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

This exhibition tells the story of the boring beasts that have changed the world: the mundane creatures in our everyday lives including dogs, pigeons, cats, cows, chickens and mice. These animals are rarely represented in natural history museum displays. They are not special enough. People would rather see dinosaurs, dodos and giant whales. The Museum of Ordinary Animals gives these commonplace creatures a chance to tell their stories. It begins by asking where ordinary animals came from, followed by the exploration of the themes of Ordinary Animals in culture, in science and in the environment.

I visited the The Museum of Ordinary Animals on the same day as heading to the Can Graphic Design Save Your Life exhibition at Wellcome Collection. A stones throw away from each other, both newly opened, and both small enough to not be entirely museumed out, it made sense to see the two. Both concerning entirely different topics, it was fascinating to see both in the space of a couple of hours.

The Museum of Ordinary Animals, curated by Grant Museum Manager Jack Ashby, opens up the collection to a wholly different narrative that natural history collections are presented. Since the renaissance curiosity cabinet era, natural history collections have existed to exhibit the most curious of animals and the most exciting of species. Collections such as the one held by the Grant Museum in University College London are perceived as a space for awe, wonder and amazement. The Museum of Ordinary Animals appears to be the opposite of that, yet it isn’t.

Focussing on ‘ordinary’ animals doesn’t sound like it would be the most fascinating of topics, of course the animals that are on display are the types of animals you see on a regular basis in farms and even in your own homes. But, key to the exhibitions success is the thematic discussion of the importance of these animals, the threads that tie them to our society makes them anything but ordinary.

One particular theme that interested me was the exhibition’s section on recognising controversy, and how we have impacted the natural world around us – often to it’s demise. This section covered eugenics, animal cruelty, and selective breeding. While our worlds would be an entirely different place without domesticated animals, and while it is uncomfortable to recognise the damage we have done to the animal world, The Museum of Ordinary Animals doesn’t shy away from that. The display stems domestication back to its roots, when wolves were first introduced to nomadic societies in a symbiotic relationship, eventually looking at the sheer damage that selective breeding has caused to species such as Pugs. Linking to the devastating results Darwinian thinking has caused to both the animal world, and the human world when adopted by the Nazi party in the 1930’s, the exhibition highlights the chaotic connection that humans and animals hold.

However, aside from that rather difficult section, the rest of the exhibition maintains a sense of humour throughout, acknowledging the rather bizarre relationship that humans and animals have, as well as the curious world of seemingly ordinary animals.

Overall, The Museum of Ordinary Animals certainly encapsulates the “boring beasts that changed the world” in a human way. In putting the spotlight on the animals that are so often ignored by both natural history museum curators, and the visitors themselves, the exhibition recognises the enormous impact that these species have to our planet. As well as being humorous, enlightening and absorbing, The Museum of Ordinary Animal offers a new way to see the animal kingdom and questions our place at the top of it.

21st September to 22nd December 2017. Free admission.
Grant Museum of Zoology. University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT.

Can Museums challenge Youtube?

Monday, March 27th, 2017

“Curated by members of the local LGBT+ community, this unique exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, exploring and celebrating those who campaigned and continue to campaign for equality for LGBT+ people.  The exhibition details the development of an LGBT+ movement, showing the internal and external struggles, the different party political approaches to equality, and the social and historical context of the last sixty years of activism.  This is the complex and compelling story of a long and often bumpy journey.”

Perhaps you’re not that into Youtube, fair enough, who really needs to know what lipstick Zoella likes recently. But, what is important, important enough to write a blog post about, is Youtube’s blocking of LGBTQ+ videos, while on their ‘restricted mode.’ (Read more about it on Buzzfeed here, where it’s much more eloquently described.)

Youtube’s blocking of LGBTQ+ content was met with mixed response. Some on the side of the fence of “it protects children from sexually explicit content” and others on the side of “HOW CAN THIS BE, blocking LGBTQ+ content is homophobic and dangerous.” Me? I think I’m still on the fence, with my leg dangling on the side of HOW CAN THIS BE. Although sitting on the fence is painful, uncomfortable, and only a temporary place to sit, literally or metaphorically.

So, this is a museum blog after all, back to museums. I visited the Never Going Underground exhibition at the Peoples History Museum this month, not long before finding out about the Youtube news. When the Youtube news came out, it got me thinking about the similarities between social media and museums, in terms of what they are to society. Now, perhaps I’m too millennial, but both, to me, are integral parts of society. My entire masters dissertation was about social media, so I definitely am too millennial. Social media, to those who use it, is a way to communicate, both individual stories and community narratives. Sound familiar? So are museums.

Peoples History Museum is always forward thinking, it’s the main reason it’s one of my favourite museums in the country. Never Going Underground is (unfortunately) brave. It is complex, enlightening, sad, joyful, humorous, dark, and curated expertly in perhaps a way no other museum could. I’m fascinated by how it was curated by volunteers from the local LGBT+ community, but definitely not surprised, who else could it be curated by? Never Going Underground presents the LGBTQ+ community, in my subjectively cis-het perspective, perfectly. People’s History Museum does what it does best, a timeline, a cracking timeline. Seeing the development from homosexuality being a crime, to it’s (ish) acceptance today, you can see how far we’ve come as a society, and how far we have left to go. It also portrays perfectly the complex vastness of the LGBTQ+ community, and doesn’t shy away from the racism and transphobia that exists within organisations such as Pride. But ultimately, Never Going Underground shows the resilience, strength, and vibrancy of the LGBTQ+ communities past, present and future. Also, how incredible are the family friendly bags, and when will they be available at all museums? Soon, I hope.

If museums, and social media broadly, but looking at Youtube in particular, blocks or hides these stories, what happens next? While I understand* the right to conservative beliefs, and the desire of those beliefs to ‘protect’ children from sexuality they are not mature enough to process until adulthood, blocking those stories is more than just ‘protecting children.’ If the excuse is there that it is protecting children, it inherently implies that it is a bad thing to need that protection from. If our museums don’t have LGBTQ+ displays, there is the implication that those stories are hidden for a reason, that they are bad stories, that should be hidden.

I wholeheartedly recommend following Queering Museums, particularly their brilliant podcast that has come out recently, on the matter. One day London will have a museum dedicated to LGBTQ+ stories, and I will be there on the opening weekend, with pride.

 


*by understand, I mean I can empathise with having views different to my own.

A Temple in London

Monday, March 6th, 2017

Ever since reading The Museum, a Temple or the Forum by Duncan F. Cameron, most museum visits for me have a background noise of thinking which they are, a forum or a temple.

I visited the British Museum this week, for a lecture on the upcoming The American Dream exhibition. Opening on the 9th of March for three months, the exhibition will explore American culture, centred around American printmaking from the 1960s to the present. Curator Stephen Coppel discussed the pieces in their relation to gender and race issues that have been addressed in the prints, and have existed as social issues in America. As the lecture was delivered in the grand lecture theatre, above the Great Court space, the Temple or Forum debate sat in the back of my mind.

British Museum is perhaps the pinnacle of the ‘Temple’ stereotype. Often didactic interpretation, grand architecture, it literally looks like a Temple. It’s so easy to get lost in the British Museum, both psychically and intellectually. The globally and chronologically broad collection tells so many stories it’s easy to lose sight of individual objects and individual narratives.

I’ll admit my bias from the get-go, I prefer a smaller museum. Big crowds, tourists, and screaming children do little for me, no matter how great the collection is. So while I’m thinking about museums elitism, perhaps I should consider my own personal elitism as a visitor. The age old argument that interactives are ruining the experience of museums for some, like the one linked here, is never going away, and it’s one I struggle to balance while visiting a major museum. Intellectually, of course I know the value of interactives, and family engagement. Personally however? That’s perhaps a little different.

But, back to the Temple or the Forum debate, which ones museums are, and which they should be. There is something quintessential and nostalgic about the Temple template museum. Grandiose marble staircases and peering through glass to see a cabinet of labels and objects evokes that sense of what a stereotypical museum visit should be. Perhaps this should be enough. Surely the collection at the Science Museum is enough to engage, is Wonderlab necessary to maintain our depleting attention spans? Maybe it is.

Without delving too much into that controversial extreme caricature of what I don’t completely believe, to  next consider the Forum template museum. The forum ideal is ultimately where my heart is. Yes, as an adult visitor, with a considerable interest in museums before walking in the door, and without children, perhaps the piece and quiet of the interactive museum would fit me best. But, unfortunately, the world doesn’t yet revolve around me. Ultimately, museums work best when they work for all. Without believing that it’s possible for museums to be perfect for the multitude of subjective opinions that walk in the door, there should of course at least be an attempt to address every visitors needs, and attempt the tricky balance to facilitate accordingly.

This slightly controversial, mainly satirical, blog post is written with the intention of weaving through my own complicated opinions on the matter. What do I want museums to be (as one day I might rule the museum world, of course), and what works best for both the current audience, and to engage audiences currently excluded. Ultimately, museums can never be wholly a Temple, or wholly a Forum. Even if they could, neither would quite work.

Pinch Punch first of the year

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

This highly intelligent and witty title is of course referring to this being my first blog post of 2017! It’s almost a year since living in London and I’ve still not been to all the Museums. (Not that I was ever expecting to, there’s about ninety???)

I’ll be honest, I’m not the biggest fan of cartoons, excluding the Beano, of which I had a membership and a fan-club card when I was a child. Punch, however, if they did fan-club card for adults, I would definitely get that. So when The Cartoon Museum had a temporary exhibition displaying Punch cartoons, I knew I had to go. The temporary exhibition is celebrating the 175th anniversary, with Punch founded in 1841. A celebration of all the artistry, satire, as well as an exploration of the social, political and cultural changes so subtly while also blatantly portrayed in Punch.

While I went to the Cartoon Museum expecting to spend a long time in the temporary exhibition, and fly through the permanent galleries to be polite, that wasn’t the case. The contemporary cartoons including Corbyn, Brexit and Cameron were gripping, both in their humour and relevance. I had also forgotten that they have in their permanent collection the Charlie Hebdo cartoon, produced after the terrorist attacks that defined satirical cartoon discussion for much of 2015.

What likewise had struck me most with The Cartoon Museum was their use of space. As a self-funded, relatively small museum, with the daunting competition of the British Museum literally over the road, I wasn’t expecting much in terms of interpretation. While the budget restrictions compared to their neighbour are of course huge, they’ve used what they have to best effect. Their ‘Young Artists’ space is low-key, while also being somewhere schools, families, and probably even adults would love. Sometimes you don’t need tablets, TVs and computers to engage with audiences, sometimes you just need a clipboard, some crayons, and a drawing kit.

 

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House of Terror

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

Opened in 2002, the relatively new House of Terror in central Pest in Budapest is a memorial to the victims of horrific fascist and communist regimes in Hungary during the 20th Century.

Guided by an English language Audio Guide, which I’ll add at this point was 100% necessary for a full understanding of the complex and difficult narrative, I visited the museum last week.

It’s taken me a while to write this post. The thing with difficult museums is the difficulty in taking them in. What is the ‘right’ way to discuss the House of Terror? Is there a right way? The last thing I would want to be is disrespectful to the victims, or disrespectful to the museum, who I do believe has done as best as they could’ve done.

I’ve heard of ‘concept based’ museums, but never visited one. House of Terror is strikingly concept-based. The lack of ‘real’ objects is palpable. What the museum lacks in ‘real objects’, it makes up for, and more, in creative, innovative and artistic interpretation. The room discussing the history of show trials has little to no objects, but represents the narrative in a creative recreation of a trial room, with all the seats and walls lines with mock documents, seated watching film footage of trials. The space intepretating the communist party taking stock from peasant farmers is a maze of kg of grease to symbolise the sheer mass quantity that was expected, and punished if unfulfilled.

The second and first floors house the interpretation of the terror that was happening in wider Hungary, and wider Europe under the regimes of facist Nazism and Stalinist communism. Then, you enter an elevator to the basement, which had been described as the most powerful aspect of the museum. Slow, and playing an testimony explaining an excecution, the elevator instilled a sense of unease, preparing you for what you are soon to face. The basement prison is wondered fairly freely, with few spaces for the Audio Guide, and many opportunities to exlplore inside the cells themselves. There are few to no labels, it doesn’t need it, the space speaks for itself.

The House of Terror isn’t lacking objects or labels, it doesn’t need them. What the museum is lacking, that it bet much needs, is plurality of narrative. There is a noticeably simplistic idea of good and evil, the audio guide condemns a small boy for telling the police of his fathers accused anti-communist sentiments, with no explaining of his justifications or wider contexts. While no two museums are the same, Amsterdams Verzetsmuseum does this perfectly, while of course condemning Nazism, the museum explains the fear, brainwashing and blindness that led to individuals joining. Similarly, the House of Terror is noticeably more focused on the reign of terror from the communist party, with much, much less of that of the Nazis. The museum has come under criticism for this, with the potential reasoning that a seperate holocaust museum is set to come for Hungary.

The museum does have its ommissions, but to end on positive note, the museum’s use of new techniques to interpret a difficult history is facinating. Forward thinking, creative, innovative and artistic, maybe traditional museums has something to learn.

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When a Synagogue gets a hashtag

Saturday, November 28th, 2015

Under the new Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council funding, the Manchester Jewish Museum is reinventing.

Bollywood, comedy, theatre, Video Jame, gigs, and old classic Klezmah is revitalising the museum, opening up to a new demographic. The museum, and heritage site as a former 19th Century Synagogue, is looking towards the future. With long-term future goals of extensions and development, the museum is diversifying its audience with an exciting new events programme, with the best hashtag.

#Synagigs is the hashtag for the autumn, and future, events within the museum.

I went to Video Jam and the Karima Francis gig and as a space for events, the building is impressive. Acoustically, performances bounced around the room. It fits amongst the interesting shift of heritage sites becoming venues, audiences are becoming tired of soulless, repetitive Academy venues and it is heritage sites and museums that are opening up to this demand, and doing it oh so well.

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Innovation Race

Friday, July 10th, 2015

Gender boundaries, interactives, war, Manchester, science, inventions. A lot to have in a gallery space no bigger than a standard sized bedroom. Yet, the Innovation Race at the Museum of Science and Industry somehow fits it all in, without overcrowding. Innovation Race is a temporary exhibition about inventions during the Second World War, specifically focusing on Manchester’s involvement and the Ferranti family. Set in dark paint with dim lighting, the space sets the tone for sombre, yet the narrative is surprisingly a celebration of the scientific and social advances made in Manchester during the war era. Equally surprising is the sheer amount of interactives in such a small space. Centred is the Stand and Stare desk, used to tell the oral history narratives of six individuals. The exhibition, despite its size, is engaging, rich in information, stylishly designed and interactive.
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WHEN A HERITAGE SITE IS BOTH NOTHING AND EVERYTHING

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

As a recent visitor to the Victoria Baths, alongside the Cultural Concierge network, which I have been a member of representing the Manchester Jewish Museum, we had a private guided tour by a passionate member of staff. As a heritage site, the Baths are a beautiful, fascinating insight into the municipal bathing culture of the era. With this in mind, during this tour, I found myself questioning how it had become so much to Manchester, yet still relatively falling short on the visitor radar. Perhaps I am bias, but I couldn’t quite fathom that public tours only occur fortnightly, both culturally and financially. As the guided tour was private, and for museum and gallery professionals, the tour was focussed mainly upon what the site had become and what it had achieved. Perhaps the more fitting term would be that it had focussed on what it hadn’t become. The baths are used for weddings, a television set, a private event space, a venue for ‘northern soul discos’ and a space to host a vintage market, to name a few. This surprised me, yet, is it surprising? Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of council funding and heritage lottery funding, heritage sites lack self-sufficiency without this adaptation to the modern market. Without meaning to regurgitate the feeling that museums and heritage sites are increasingly underfunded, it became glaringly apparent at the Victoria Baths. However, the Baths have brilliantly adapted themselves to be commercially viable, without losing its credibility and undeniable charm. The lengths of conservation and protection of the site, amongst the multitude of uses of the venue, is remarkable. The site remains charismatic and I left infatuated, yet endlessly sympathetic of those who had used the baths for their original purpose, in ridiculously cold temperatures.

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