The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Museum Studies’ ‘Cabinet’ receives new award — University of Leicester

We don't normally toot our own horns here, but this is such a wonderful project that the department has been involved with that it's hard not to share it. This has been a collaboration between RCMG here at the School of Museum Studies and artist Mat Fraser. It has just won the Observer Ethical Award for Arts and Culture.

But I'm posting about it because this award is a culmination of an amazing project between RCMG and and various museum institutions surrounding disability. And it is worth checking out. The link also provides several media reviews of the project and a few lovely videos to watch.

Museum Studies’ ‘Cabinet’ receives new award — University of Leicester

Monday, June 16, 2014

Postdigital Design

What came out of last week's University Museums Group conference was an understanding that we really, as a discipline that is both professional and academic, need to talk a lot more. This might seem like such a simple thing, but over the years of attending conferences and meeting with academics in the heritage sector, it's not simple at all. It's not simple because we don't do it.

On Thursday, James Davis, who is the Project (Programme) Manager of the Google Cultural Institute declared something that I've been thinking about for a while, but that came as a shock (judging by the whispers) to a lot of the museum audience.

Technology is advancing faster than museums can keep up. Stop trying.

It's logical. It's simple. But museums are not doing it. They are still trying to second guess the next great tech revolution in exhibition design. Point in proof is the Horizon Reports Museum Edition, which exists to tell museums every year what the tech outlook is for the following year. What tech they need to adopt in order to stay with the times.

Which sounds great if you're the BM or the Science Museum, but since 99% of us don't work there, there is a decided reality disconnect going on between what we 'should' be doing and what actually happens. Face it, we who are not the Big Nationals don't have the money.  And if we don't have the money, talking about how to keep up with the tech revolution on a tiny budget is a waste of breath.

Instead, Davis suggests that there is another way. Understand that you can't keep up. Give up. There is plenty of other things museums can do without spending their precious time and resources deciding if iPads will still be viable in 2 years time. Digital must become part of an organisation. Adopt the digital that is easy to adopt, the digital that doesn't take much money, that evolves slower and changes more gradually. But adopt it everywhere and in everything. Go digital. Whether it's your director, your curator, your volunteer coordinator, make sure they buy in and are on board. We don't all need to be tech wizes to do that. But there is something to be said for training (or hiring) staff to use digital in all aspects of their job. Once you get a digital institution, it's easier to adopt other digital and decide what works for you and what doesn't.

It was a great start to the one-day conference. It certainly got a lot of us thinking, but it especially appealed to me. Because one of the things that comes out of my research is the fact that most of the issues are because museums jumped on the tech bandwagon before they had any understanding of it and now they are suffering from the 'well, it's outdated, what do we do now?' response. And their answer seems to be to put more tech in. Davis knows that won't work. I know that won't work. But museums are still doing it.

Which means we need to talk a lot more about what we do and why we do it. We need to admit what didn't work (to each other, not just ourselves). We need to stand up at conferences and declare 'we did this entire programme last month and not a wit of it was digital' and not worry about being lynched (bad example).

Which brings me onto the topic of the postdigital, which was the final panel theme. Ross Parry dreamed this one up, as you might imagine, and brought it to the conference as a new way for the audience to start looking at how they do digital.

Basically, postdigital means looking at digital through a backward facing lens. Digital is not new. It's not sudden. It's not going to solve our problems. Digital has existed for ages (really, technology in the museums goes back 100 years) and yet we are still treating it as some kind of wonder, even while we live and breath digital in our everyday lives. No more. This has to stop. We live in a postdigital world and we have to admit that. We have to start considering digital as part of everything we do, not as something special we now do.

I pitched a paper on 'postdigital design', because it had something to do with my thesis. It meant a lot of work shoving two things together, but in the end it works. It works because my thesis is about children and technology. And if we are going to talk about children and technology in anything resembling a useful way, we first have to admit we live in a postdigital world.

Because I believe that children and technology already exist in a postdigital world. And you can tweet me on that (others already have).

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Museums and Heritage Magazine announcement

Museums + Heritage Show Ltd acquires leading sector magazine
creating Europe’s largest online resource for the cultural community

Tuesday 29th April, London, Museums + Heritage Show Ltd, owners of the annual Museums + Heritage Show and Awards, has today announced the acquisition of the leading cultural sector title: Museums and Heritage.
The magazine acquisition responds to the growing need for a dominant, comprehensive online resource to connect and inspire museums, designers, suppliers and contractors within the cultural sector.
The Museums and Heritage Magazine, which was owned by Ten Alps Communications Ltd, has never previously been connected with Museums + Heritage Show Ltd. The Show and Awards organisers will merge the acquired magazine into Museums + Heritage Advisor – already an online hub of essential information and advice that informs, inspires and connects those working in the museums and heritage industry.
Anna Preedy, Director of Museums + Heritage Show Ltd, said: “We’re delighted to announce the acquisition of Museums and Heritage magazine. By integrating the finest elements of the magazine into our popular Advisor website we will provide those working within the sector with an unparalleled online resource – a one-stop-shop for information, case studies and sector news as well as the opportunity to connect with each other.”
The magazine acquisition completes the company’s 20-year-long industry stronghold, adding the magazine title to the prestigious Museums + Heritage Awards for Excellence and the annual Museums + Heritage Show – the UK’s largest event for the cultural sector. The Show at Olympia, London on May 14th and 15th brings together all of the latest technologies, services and thinking for professionals working in museums, galleries, heritage and cultural visitor attractions.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Real Things and Difficult Heritage: The 9/11 Memorial Museum and Sharon Macdonald's Lunchtime Seminar on National Socialist Documentation Centres in Nuremberg and Munich

This week, on 21 May 2014, the National 9/11 Memorial Museum will open to the public for the first time, 13 years after the attacks on the Twin Towers. Built on Ground Zero, the place of the tragedy, the museum aims to tell the stories of what happened there in 2001. A virtual exploration of the museum's architecture can be seen on the Guardian website. Already causing controversy in the press for several reasons including the (in)appropriateness of the things available for sale in its gift shop (for example see 'popular press' reports in the Daily Mail and New York Post), and also its widely reported controversial storage of human remains from those still missing, the Memorial Museum is of course in line for much further discussion and debate once its doors are open and visitors begin to engage fully with the site, its collections and its meanings, both in the present and for the future.
On the museum's website, its Director Alice Greenwald states: "where most museums are buildings that house artefacts, this Museum has been built within an artefact". That this building is an artefact, itself filled with hundreds of other artefacts, reflects the organisation's aspiration to be both immense, yet also intimate, both a museum and a memorial. Of the 10,000 objects collected after 9/11, 800 of them will be on display in the Memorial Museum.
Collections are largely drawn from two distinct categories. Either they are things found and donated by the families of victims as memorials to those individuals who died during the tragedy, or else they are things that were salvaged in the immediate aftermath from the wreckage of the World Trade Centre (some of which can be seen in these NY Times films including commentary from Chief Curator, Jan Seidler Ramirez, and also on this CNN film).  Straightaway, those working in New York's heritage industries, as well as those involved in the rescue operation, recognised a need to collect. This mass of things, from flowers left at the scene, to 'missing' posters, to personal possessions, to trucks, to structural remains, has come to have symbolic meaning and value, both individually and collectively. All of these objects are real. They have what Walter Benjamin might describe as 'aura'.
In contrast with this visceral need to display the real object, in other 'sites as artefacts', decisions have been made deliberately not to present the public with any 'real' objects. The heritage is just too difficult, and 'museumification' of things too problematic.
At her lunchtime seminar on 14 May 2014,  Sharon Macdonald, Anniversary Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of York and Visiting Professor at the Institute of European Ethnology at Humboldt University in Berlin, presented us with a fascinating paper entitled '"Nothing Real": Aura, Affect and the Dilemmas of Displaying Nazi Objects', which builds upon her 2009 book, 'Difficult Heritage: Negotiating the Nazi Past in Nuremberg and Beyond'.
In this paper, Sharon presented her most recent field research from Nuremberg's Documentation Centre, undertaken in September 2013, 14 years after her initial work began there in 1999. On this trip, she also went to Munich where a project to develop a Documentation Centre of National Socialism is underway and scheduled to open on the site of the Brown House, the former headquarters of the Nazi Party, in April 2015.
The Munich Centre's founder is architectural historian Professor Winfried Nerdinger. Unlike the situation leading to the collection of thousands of artefacts in post 9/11 New York, Professor Nerdinger is adamant that this Documentation Centre will have 'nothing real' in it: there will be no real objects from the Nazi past at all. It is not a museum. Putting things into a display cabinet, he argues, exalts their status, giving them that mystical aura described by Benjamin in his 1936 essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. And this is entirely inappropriate for a site of Nazi perpetration (compared with that of a site of victims). The site itself is enough. The site of perpetration is the artefact. (This does raise the question though as to the status of the documents being exhibited here: are these not real objects? It will be fascinating to visit this controversial centre once it opens next year.)
Moving to Nuremberg, as in Munich and New York, the vast site itself, the place of the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, can also be described as an artefact. Bewildering in its immensity, this is an intimidating space, without intimacy. I got lost wandering around the outside of the building on my visit, and it was terrifying. Again, this is called a Documentation Centre, and not a museum. And here, the aim was, like in Munich, not to have objects. Interpretive text, contextual information and archive photographs form the main component parts, and are woven into the architectural fabric. What few objects there are are sometimes displayed underneath glass in the floor, giving them a 'trampled on' ontological status.
There are not enough staff here to deal with constant object curation; there is no space for storage; there are no policies for collecting. Yet slowly, objects have begun to creep into the building, under the radar, perhaps a 'dirty secret' of the place. The staff offices contain piles of controversial donated objects: copies of right-wing propaganda books fill a shopping trolley, and slowly recent exhibitions are beginning to display these things.
Visitors want to tell their stories. The centre has a duty to document. Staff are increasingly describing their roles as becoming like social workers, giving time to donors, listening to each individual account. How and why has this happened in a space that did not want or should not have objects?
One reason given is that as more and more German families have begun clearing out attics of deceased family members, and dealing with their 'stuff', the problem of what to do with the materiality of the past has become all too apparent. Embarrassed to have any associations with Nazi things, people do not want to put them out with the rubbish for fear of being spotted, yet these things are still historical objects which tell stories, and from which potential lessons can be learnt: not forgotten, never again. Objects breed more objects. Collecting stuff is what people have always done, what they will always do. And giving things to a collective centre perhaps removes some of the individual burden of having too much problematic stuff of one's own.
On my train journey home from Sharon's paper about the materiality of contested and difficult histories, someone had coincidentally left open this article on my seat from the Evening Standard, which made me think of similarities and dissimilarities between the 9/11 Memorial Museum, and those Documentation Centres in Germany. What are these places? Are they 'tombs to the unknown', 'commemorations of the known', 'educational attractions'? What is the role of history, memory, empathy? How does a site of perpetrators differ from that of victims? And what actually is the role of material objects in making meanings from such difficult and traumatic histories?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Introducing: Museums Alive!

Tuesday 4 — Wednesday 5 November 2014
A Two-Day Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Conference hosted by the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, in partnership with Migration Museum Project
This conference seeks to explore the notion of museums as living organisms and the multiple questions that emerge from this context.  Museums, like living beings, do not live in isolation, rather, they are embedded in complex eco systems. Museums are occupied and given life by people. They are constantly evolving, directly affected by the changes around them, as well as effecting and acting as catalysts for change. Museums Alive! — Exploring how museums behave like living beings, organized in partnership with Migration Museum Project, will be the sixth conference developed by the PhD community at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, and follows last year's highly successful Museum Metamorphosis conference.
We aim to discuss and share ideas on some of the most seminal issues in museums today.  Papers addressing the following themes and questions are encouraged, but we also welcome new suggestions and creative proposals:

Conscious Living
      Open System
 Organic Evolution
·       How do museums form their identity both internally and externally?
·       How do museums as ‘organisms’ coexist and relate to the wider eco system? How do we define what that system is?
·       How are museums born and do museums get sick or die? Do they mutate? How can we portray a museum’s life cycles? 

·       How do museums facilitate the creation of identities, and how in turn are museums’ identities created by the communities they serve?
·       How do museums migrate in order to adapt to the environment, not only in ways of living but also in ways of thinking?
·       How can museums use bodily ‘senses’ to respond to, capture and integrate with their visitors and the public?

·       How might we define living in the context of the museum?
·       How do museums affect the world around them?

·       How do museums collaborate and compete with different types of ‘species’?

·       Should museums remain neutral or express emotions?
·       How do museums behave in reaction to perceived threats and/or opportunities of change?
·       How can museums become laboratories or spaces for experimentation?

·       If museums actively and emotionally participate in social issues, what are the implications that need to be considered?
·       How can museums ensure that internal and external (the public) relations are balanced and appropriate?
·       How can museums become adaptive within in a defined structure? How and why do museums evolve?

The conference team welcomes all postgraduate students, early career researchers and practitioners who are interested in and researching topics related to the museum field. All disciplines and nationalities are invited to participate.
We welcome and encourage creative and alternative presentational styles, alongside the traditional paper. Workshops, panel debates, creative writing, films, installations, visual creations, displays and ignite presentations will all be considered.
·       Presenters of traditional papers will have 20 minutes to deliver their paper (ending with a 30 minutes Q & A with the whole session panel).
·       Workshops, panel debates and other alternative formats can either last 30, 45 or 60 minutes (please specify on submission proposal).
·       This year we are also inviting proposals for ignite rapid fire presentations, a great opportunity to spend 5 minutes presenting about a particular project, area of work or piece of research.
Abstracts and session submissions should include the following information:
1)     title of abstract or session
2)     author(s)' name and contact information (including twitter handle)
3)     biography (max. 100 words)
4)     format and style of presentation
5)     abstract or session description of no more than 250 words
6)     optional: up to two jpeg images, each under 2MB, to complement your proposal

Abstracts should be sent by email to Sipei Lu, Conference Secretary, by midnight GMT on 20 June 2014, to
Successful participants will be notified by mid July 2014.

Early bird fee (until 31 August)
Full fee (after 1 September)

Lunch and refreshments will be provided on both days. In addition, there will be optional social events and museum visits.
Conference email:

Twitter: @msphdconf