Material Worlds: A belated review of the conference at the University of Leicester, 15-17 December 2008

Trying to avoid computers this Christmas has not been too much of a chore. However I was reminded that I intended to write a brief (for me!) review of the recent-ish Material Worlds conference organised by the Award-winning (can we say that now???) Department of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester in honour of Sue Pearce. I think I should furnish some links or something but being a 'researcher-on-holiday' I have reverted to a laziness which induces in me a wilful abandonment of my usual attention to detail so apologies - I am sure that Amy has posted some earlier links which can be referred to. Also I am sure you are well aware, this is purely an opinion piece and may bear little or no relation to the actual reality of the conference for other people there, which has since disappeared under a tinsel, trifle and present-induced haze of contentment.

My interest in the conference was directed mainly to the ways in which museums create meanings for objects, how these are or might be contested, how audiences engage with objects and how objects can be intangible as well as tangible. I found that 15 minutes a paper was not always enough to sate my appetite but it presented me with many new avenues for exploration. A session on 'The real and unreal in museums' presented the themes of 'absence' and 'presence' and how these (seemingly) opposed ideas can be used to potent effect in the museum e.g. the absence of a mannequin in historic costume enables us to imagine the shape of the person who wore it; the absence of a body inside the uniform of a gulag convict invites interpretations that may be broader than the story of the human who once wore it. In the desire to appeal, museums might perhaps be too anxious to fill every space with an object or a story - such as the open-air museum with its 'haunted' house - instead of using absence to more radical, and perhaps spectacular, effect?

The tangibility of the museum object is something which really comes into question when looking at visitor engagement with objects, often because visitors are denied an interaction with objects except through the medium of sight. I shared the frustration of examples of students who wanted to touch objects at the V&A to get a feel for their touch, weight etc but having to do so from behind glass. It was not surprising therefore that where handling is permitted, visitors report that they feel more engaged with a topic, in one example, prehistory. A collection of posters created at the height of the British Empire and trade with the colonies prompted an interesting discussion about the differences between how audiences and museum staff respond to such a difficult and challenging subject. In this case the audience were able to make broad connections with the past and the present whilst the staff were much more institutionally focused and anxious as a result. The findings from research looking at audience reactions to the 2007 Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade was alarming in that certain visitors felt that they were being forced to feel guilt and shame over Britain's role in the Slave Trade and thus felt disengaged from the museum exhibitions that they had willingly gone to visit. It seemed important to me however to me that museums were creating such feelings in visitors; rather than giving them a cosy narrative of how Britain was wonderful because we 'abolished' slavery in 1807 they seemed to present a more complex picture. I look forward to seeing more results from this study in the future.

A final session on how objects and their meanings / uses in the museum might be contested saw museums (excuse my vulgar phrase) experience a bit of a bashing! It looked at the limitations of the 20 word label and how limited numbers of objects are supposed to speak for entire cultures (you can also extend this to historical periods and entire civilisations if you so wish). Alternatives to the 'norm' are silenced through convention or fear, ways of presenting objects that are seen as standard or traditional which often exclude more challenging or complex narratives for a more simple, recognisable alternative. There might also be political reasons, as in the display of material related to the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

So. Museums - what are they good for?

I suppose the conference made me despair a little about museums, probably not its intention. As the world seems to be enveloped in a large degree of trauma it makes me wonder why the way in which objects are presented in museums should be a matter for such minute concern. It speaks to me however of larger concerns, the difference to me between truth and an approximation of the truth which all too easily slips into everyday culture - the difference between myth and history for instance. History is 'dry' whilst myth is spiced with the thrill of what we want to happen in history, the difference between real life and Eastenders for instance. Perhaps if museums were more open about the choices that they have made in presenting material to the public it might begin to make more sense as to why particular narratives endure at the expense of others?


Amy said…
Oh hai 'researcher-on-holiday.' I will attempt to write something intelligible and intelligent in response to this later on. For now, I just wanted to say how impressed I am that you can remember ANYTHING from the conference AT ALL. It passed by in a fug of cold cure and presentation anxiety for me. I remember the rotten sandwiches on the first day though, all too well. Bleugh!

Popular Posts