Do they have a place, a role to play, in contemporary museums? Should museums publicly reflect upon their own histories and how? Are audiences really interested? Do only museologists care?!
These questions have been bothering me since our PhD community Hallowe'en Museum Crawl round Leicester (podcast/photos coming soon!). Focused particularly upon a group of beautifully crafted, yet hopelessly outdated dioramas displayed at Jewry Wall Museum, Leicester's criminally neglected archaeology museum.
The dioramas were made for the 1951 Festival of Britain and thereafter bought by Leicester Museum Service. They depict family groups from the prehistoric to Anglo-Saxon periods of English history.
Until recently, the cases housing the dioramas were seemingly indiscriminately dotted about the museum wherever there was an empty space, kind of as an afterthought. They certainly did not belong to adjacent displays, their presence - silent, yet obtrusive - ruptured the otherwise chronological narrative (a similar fate still befalls several just as elderly figures representing characters from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales).
However recently they have been reincorporated into the display as key didactic objects. A new label does admit their 'shortcomings', that ideas about these historical periods has developed over the intervening decades. And yet, even if it is not the intention, the figure groups otherwise inhabit the gallery space unchallenged. To the average visitor there is no reason to doubt their veracity, their objectivity, their scientific basis in reality. Indeed, the museum has recently commissioned a new figure group depicting Roman craftsmen laying a mosaic floor. Highly problematic.
But they are beautiful and fascinating for what they reveal of archaeological knowledge and museum practice 60 years ago. They deserve to be exhibited.
Do you see the paradox?
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.