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.

Friday, June 26, 2009

It seems kind of appropriate...

Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988)
In the collection of the Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica

Manchester Hermit

Just a little reminder that Ansuman Biswas will be taking up his residency as the Manchester Hermit tomorrow.

I'm very dubious about the value of the whole venture. It will be interesting to follow his 'journey' though. Follow his blog/webcam here.


Andrew Wulf, PhD student at University of Leicester, has recently published a blog related to his dissertation topic on the University of Southern California's (USC) Center for Cultural Diplomacy website (where he is a fellow), which he would like to share with us. You can find the blog post here

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Museum of Accidents?


The twentieth century can already be regarded as a museum of accidents. Take the history of film, of television, of video (including video games), and the biggest spectacle is the accident. It is not fortuitous that the Titanic has become a modern myth, or that television invents a new genre like “Reality-TV” to celebrate the accident. There certainly exists a desire to enjoy accidents. That is why I once proposed to set up a museum of accidents: a museum that would bring the accident to us instead of bringing us to the accident.
—Paul Virilio.

Reflections on writing-up #15

Busy Procrastinating

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Them marbles (I'm losing them?)

So, the new Acropolis Museum opens today. It seems like as good a time as any to articulate my position on the Parthenon Marbles repatriation debate. That 'holy cow' of museology. In short...

I really couldn't care less.

I visited them once at the British Museum: was completely nonplussed and came away feeling kind of 'meh'. I have no desire to repeat the experience.

New Curator triggered this bout of apathy with his recent 'revisionist' post. The trouble is that I used to, like the good museum studies student I once was (now I'm just a bad museologist, bad to the bone), share that knee-jerk, pro-repatriation position that most of us seem to buy into at some time or another. But when I really tried to think about the issue this week, I realised that keep them, send them away, whatever. I really don't care.

I'm not personally invested in the issue. I'm not Greek. I'm not an archaeologist or a classicist. I've never been to the Acropolis. I don't work for the British Museum, or the Greek tourist board.

I have a lingering, vague, detached academic interest in the wider political (dare I say nationalist, propagandist?) implications of the debate. But that's it.

Is this the museological equivalent as coming out as a global warming denier?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Research Week 2009: Reviews

By Cristina Lleras

Monday May 18, afternoon session

Looking back at the presentations on Monday afternoon, there is a common thread that sows the argument of both research projects. Mette and Pippa are analyzing how visitors, especially adults, engage with art works in museums. Though their takes on the matter are very different, since one is looking at discourse propelled by objects and the other at representations through drawing, their work is about understanding how museums become meaningful sites to individuals rather than generically to “audiences”.

Mette Houlberg Rung
Dialogic Spaces. Experiences in the collections at the Statens Museum for Kunst

Mette´s presentation focused on how audiences use the museum as a space of action, where narratives are produced between audiences, space and objects. As she dives into her research, after a few months of having it on hold, she is looking at how adults engage with the 2006 rehanging of the National Gallery in Copenhagen. Initially the methods of data collection included tracking sheets and observation at one of the galleries in the post 1945 art area; she then decided to record 14 pairs of conversations.

What these recordings reveal is the use people give to art pieces in order to draw in other “objects” outside of the museum that are relevant to personal stories. Thus dialogue here (taken from Bakhtin) is about an exchange between people stirred by objects and space, marked by previous experiences and future dreams, as well as imagined spaces.

In fact the majority of visitors are in the company of another adult. This particular use is confirmed by the questionnaires answered by the pairs who participated in the study where 50% say that a good museum experience comes about striking good conversations. Their main reason to visit is to have an experience with a companion rather than learning, in a more traditional sense.

There are two themes that Mette highlights: the relevance of personal experience in relating to art works and the construction of social narratives in the formation of identities. Mette interprets the widespread use of judgments as a legacy of educational policies in Denmark, which encourages learning not as knowledge intake but rather as opinion formation. It is interesting how the use of the museum is done in cultures of discussion where learning is more about the development of the self in a social context.

A particularly interesting point in her presentation, following Michel de Certeau, is how the museum exists when people use it. This leads us to rethink the ways in which traditionally art museums have conceived their exhibitions as results of enlightened curators that expect audiences “to get” the discourses and art pieces in a particular exhibition. In a different model, curators of art could look at patterns of consumption as possibilities in the creation of narratives.

There was a short discussion at the end about the use of texts, which Mette said were hardly read. The issue might have to do with the fact that audiences are more educated and older and might not feel they have to read, plus only a minority is there for the first time. Ceri mentioned that this phenomenon says something about how we are conditioned to look at art and Amy commented how having no text might force people to really look at art works.

Pippa Sherriff
Drawing Engagement. The relationship between people and objects as viewed through the people who are encouraged to draw in museums of art and design

Pippa´s research is focused on the mediation of drawing in the relationship between people and objects in the museum. She mentioned previous research done in 1997, which shows that participatory activities encourage people to engage in art. This is significant because though governments might emphasize cultural experiences, there is self-exclusion and thus understanding how people engage with art works can be of relevance for projects undertaken.

Her research was carried out in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, with two participants as well as her own experience of drawing. Though she believes that more participants need to be included, Richard thought this might be unnecessary if the data was rich enough.

As far as her paradigm and where she is standing to analyze her data, Pippa stressed the use of bricolage as a way to connect the parts to the whole, where individual experiences are interpreted in the light of meanings for the totality. She follows the phenomenographic approach, where material collected reveals people´s experience and their constructions of that reality. Autoethnography also became an important source of data, as well as the significance of the drawings themselves in order to reveal how drawing encourages reflection and problem solving.

Visual tasks might get the brain to work in ways that are different. Pippa was critical of the use of digital technology because it is an instant record of our experience. She believes it suspends the reference (object), and instead the act of drawing allows the meaningful reconstruction of a tangible object and thus gives meaning to our engagement with art (Though I find this theory interesting, I am not in agreement since I have also seen how young people “appropriate” things in an exhibit when they take pictures of themselves with objects).

To the question of how to avoid romanticizing the experience of drawing, Pippa mentioned the use of the various experiences, including her own. Sandra pointed to the interesting tactile relationship between a person and an object that drawing encourages, while Sheila mentioned how Pippa´s research will dive into a particular form people use to make meaning for them.

Monday, June 15, 2009

CFP: Spring 2010 issue of 'Exhibitionist'

Hello all,

For the Spring 2010 issue of "Exhibitionist," the exhibitions journal that I edit (, we want to look at issues that come up over and over again in developing and designing exhibitions - like should we do an intro film? Are dioramas out forever or in again? Strong lighting for accessibility or low lighting to preserve objects? Artifacts or props, etc?

I'm soliciting examples of any exhibition frictions you would like to contribute, and am especially interested in those that have been addressed creatively. Any ideas? I'd love to hear them. I would like to hear from you by end of June 2009.

Thanks, Gretchen Jennings

Gretchen Jennings
Editor of Exhibitionist
Journal of the National Association for Museum Exhibition
Washington, DC


H-Net Network for Museums and Museum Studies

Special Option Module Museum Management: Politics and Policy (University of Leicester, Department of Museum Studies)

Shameless self-promotion! ;)

The University of Leicester, Department of Museum Studies is offering a new Special Option Module for its campus based programmes, for 2009-10:

Museum Management: Politics and Policy

This option will deliver a high level understanding of the theoretical discussions which inform key contemporary cultural policy debates and an understanding of the development and delivery of strategic museum policy. Thus, this option will have both a theoretical and practical orientation. It will involve analysis and discussion of cultural and museum theory and analysis and discussion of gray literature (policy, strategy, reports).

The option will involve detailed consideration of key issues in relation to museum politics and policy such as: what is the public value of the museum; should museums be used for instrumental ends or is this a betrayal of their real function; who is the museum visitor and who is the non-visitor, does not going to museums matter? How can museums respond to the needs of their funders while maintaining and developing their own programming aims?

See for details of the Special Option Module and for all our programmes of study.

Jim Roberts

University of Leicester
Department of Museum Studies

+44 (0)116 252 3961

The University of Leicester's Department of Museum Studies has the highest
proportion of world-leading research in any subject in any UK university
(RAE 2008)

H-Net Network for Museums and Museum Studies

Seminar: Museums as Social Enterprise (London/UK, 21 July 2009)

Museums as Social Enterprise: Doing Good and Earning Income
One-Day Seminar
London, 21 July 2009

"Advancing a social mission through entrepreneurial earned income strategies" - this is what Social Enterprise is all about.

And by launching new initiatives for the long-term unemployed, offenders, people with disabilities, or sustainability, museums are increasingly adopting this approach. As well as having a positive impact, these initiatives can - and are - generating significant extra income. In this small-group seminar, UK and international experience will be shared, and both recent research studies and current initiatives used, to highlight the current results and future potential of this important new trend.

Social Enterprises are businesses whose social or environmental purpose is central to what they do. It's about making things happen; about using skills to make a difference. Social enterprises often break with conventional business models to find new and more sustainable ways of improving the world around them.

From History to Policy
In the UK, the social enterprise tradition can be traced at least as far back to 1840s to Rochdale, where a workers' co-operative was set up to provide high-quality, affordable food in response to poor factory conditions. The original store is now itself a museum.

The concept is now a key element of Government strategy, with the Social Enterprise Unit forming part of the Office of the Third Sector, within the UK Cabinet Office.

Now, more and more museums - including the Eden Centre and the Museum of East Anglian Life - are finding that this model reflects the range of services they want to provide. This seminar aims to explore whether the approach can and should be more widely adopted within the museum community.

This event is primarily aimed at museum professionals who have some experience in this area, however limited, or who are seriously interested in engaging with it in future. Speakers will include Tony Butler, Director of the Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket and other leading UK and international practitioners in the field.

This event will be based at the stylish Hoxton Hotel in Central London, and will start at 10.00 and end by 17.00.

Delegate fee: £245 includes lunch, refreshments and resource materials.

Graeme Farnell
8 Albany Street
EH1 3QB Edinburgh
Great Britain
0131 467 2791

H-Net Network for Museums and Museum Studies

Applicant, by Jesse Reklaw

'Applicant' by Jesse Reklaw:

“One night while rooting through the recycling bin for magazines, I found all the confidential Ph.D. applicant files for the biology department at an Ivy League university from the years 1965-1975. Stapled to many of the yellowed documents were photographs of the prospective students. They were treasures! I tore through the folders and rescued every portrait I could find. I had to have them. Only later did I realize I had to publish them”.

Friday, June 12, 2009

CFP: Museums, material culture and the British Empire (London/UK, 29-30 October 2009)

"Museums, material culture and the British Empire" symposium
The British Museum and National Maritime Museum
29 - 30 October 2009

The symposium as described below on "Museums, material culture and the British Empire" will take place on 29 and 30 October 2009 at the British Museum and the National Maritime Museum. There are still a few spaces in the programme for speakers and we would be delighted to hear from any scholars whose work fits into the following themes and would be interested in presenting a paper.

Further information will be available on registering to attend the symposium in July.

The establishment of museums throughout the British Empire is increasingly recognised as part of the context of imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, both practically and symbolically. This symposium will build on the ground-breaking work of John MacKenzie in his latest book, Museums and Empire (forthcoming with Manchester University Press). A range of papers will explore the relationship between museums, as repositories for objects and cultural institutions for conveying knowledge, and the politics of culture and the formation of identities in the British Empire.

As the work of Professor MacKenzie has shown, museums responded to their locations, perceived audiences and the agency of individual collectors in order to mediate an engagement with non-European spaces, peoples and cultures. This symposium will bring together scholars working on issues such as the history of colonial museums, the historical display and interpretation of empire, and the establishment of 'museum networks' in the British imperial context.

Possible themes for papers include:

- Museums and their meanings in the colonial context
- Collecting and curating in the British Empire
- Role of objects and display in the formation of colonial identities
- Museum networks in the British Empire
- Architecture of museums in the British Empire

Unfortunately, due to limited funding, we will not be able to provide assistance towards speakers' travel or accommodation, although refreshments will be provided. Those wishing to present a paper should contact Sarah Longair ( or John McAleer ( by 1 July 2009.

Sarah Longair

H-Net Network for Museums and Museum Studies

CFP: The Story of Things (Manchester, Jan 2010)

The Story of Things: reading narrative in the visual

PLACE: Manchester Metropolitan University
DATE: Friday 29th January, 2010

The production, consumption and interpretation of narratives in visual form is central to contemporary cultures. Within this context, the notion of narrative finding expression in the visual can be traced, for example, in the growth of the graphic novel form, the positioning of cinema as subject matter for art practice and the persistence of the artist's book as an art form. Visual narratives demand specific forms of readerly interaction and critical response. They require a shift of reading focus from text to text-and-image or to image-only, and therefore require different critical apparatus and analytical skills.

This one day conference will investigate the reading of narrative in visual contexts, encouraging interdisciplinary approaches in addressing the following specific clusters of concerns:

- Authoring and reading the sequential narrative: linear and non-linear approaches.

- Visualising the remembered narrative: archetype, biography, autobiography.

- Object as catalyst: the potential for narrative within the artefact.

These areas of related interest will facilitate aesthetic and theoretical interrogations of visual narrative.

Papers are invited which explore or respond to issues of visual narrative production, consumption and interpretation in relation to these and other connected areas of concern. We encourage contributions from artists, academics and other practitioners. Please send proposals (250 words) for papers (20 mins) to: Jonathan Carson at <> by Tuesday 1st September, 2009.

Jonathan Carson
Lecturer in Critical & Contextual Studies (0.8 - Monday, Tuesday,
Wednesday & Friday)

T: +44 (0) 161 295 6712
School of Art & Design, The University of Salford, HT211 Centenary
Building, Salford, M3 6EQ.


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Research Week 2009 reviews

Monday morning is not traditionally the time that I am bright and bushy-eyed, so I have no idea why I volunteered to write the reviews for Research Week 2009 at that time! Fortunately the variety and interest of the presentations from the diverse international body of Museum Studies doctoral students jolted me from my usual torpor. What follows is an overview of four presentations - for MS students with access to Blackboard, the full presentations are available to download, along with any accompanying material, in case you want to check the veracity of my comments or just find out more :D.

Geuntae Park - The Function of the Museum in the city of planning in Abu-Dhabi in UAE and Sejong in Korea

Geuntae is in the first year of his PhD research and so treated us to an overview of where he is so far in his research. His topic focuses on the way in which new museum projects may or may not make a positive contribution to the social, cultural, historical and social environment of the city, with an analysis of the possible affects and expectations of the communities of those cities. The two cities coming under the microscope so to speak are Abu-Dhabi (UAE) and Sejong (Korea); in the former a number of very grandiose museum projects are being developed, featuring renowned museum 'brands' such as the Guggenheim. Sejong is an artificial city planned by the Government of Korea, within which the museum has a specific role. So far so simple... well not actually, as Geuntae revealed his very comprehensive and complex literature review, which reminded me of how broad a reading list any PhD student needs to have (and an overflowing bookcase!) Every topic being covered even in summary looked incredibly daunting, every word that we take for granted (such a community) having to be carefully defined.

I was especially interested in the notion of an artificial city because, to me, in some ways all cities are 'artificial' in that they are defined as such by the communities which inhabit them; even if a settlement grows organically it is the society that decides / names it as a city based on certain criteria. Now the having of a 'museum' seems to be a crucial part of that criteria.

Ahluah (Chungju Lin) - To operate the economic function in the art and cultural museum: solutions for the National Museum in Taiwan

In Ahluah's words, her PhD topic aims to look at 'how to make museums rich', examining the ways in which museums might capitalise on their economic and cultural value to ensure that they are more self-sufficient, and make a profit (which is currently frowned upon by museum regulations but something which the government of Taiwan is encouraging). Whilst there are many arguments for and against the general proposition of Ahluah's thesis, I will concentrate more on the interesting context she furnished us with regarding Taiwan's museums, which spoke of past colonialisation (for instance by Japan) and the adoption of 'Western' ideas such as the museum and its (somewhat) uncomfortable existence in Taiwanese society and culture. For until relatively recently the concept of a 'museum' was fairly alien to Chinese society, collections tended to be private and owned by a family rather than for the nation. The first museum was established under Japanese rule in 1908, The Taiwanese Governor Museum, and it was striking how 'Western' the museum looked on the photograph that Ahluah showed us with its portico and cupola, it was almost like looking at the National Gallery in London. It seemed reasonable, therefore, to assume that this relatively 'alien' concept has led to a complex relationship between the museum and the Taiwanese people (although Ahluah assured us that as a nation Taiwan is used to be ruled by others) - increasing museum audiences is the challenge that museums are facing, to encourage more visitors to come outside of school trips, to see the museum 'visit' as a spontaneous, almost 'natural' event, whilst retaining their integrity as creative, cultural venues. How museums negotiate their way through this maze of visitor attitudes, colonial hangovers, ethics of money-making and limited funding will be an interesting exploration and if Ahluah does find the 'secret', it will be one that surely that all museums will desire to know!

Andrew Wulf - Against Criticisms of "American Degeneracy": An early effort in global cultural diplomacy

The fiction that museums are neutral and objective spaces has been challenged more than enough times; Andrew's research, however, focuses on the overt political use of museum exhibitions as a tool of cultural diplomacy, where the US government sought to shape attitudes and influence outsider reactions to their foreign policy, a vision of the US found in displays and interpretation. Looking at exhibitions from 1938 - 2003, what 'vision' of the US was conveyed through these exhibitions? And what kinds of impact did these have upon the popular imagination and foreign attitudes towards America? As ever, stereotypes and prejudices are likely to play a substantial role in the formation of the image of a nation, including its people, its character, and so on, and this was just as likely in the 18th century as it is now, something which even then America's leaders, such as Thomas Jefferson, were keen to dispute and challenge. In an extended example, Andrew illustrated how Jefferson was concerned with the criticism coming from Europe that America was an 'intellectual wasteland' in comparison, that the people were degenerates and even their natural history specimens were inferior. Jefferson's solution to these demeaning attacks was to attempt to correct this perspective, to spread the 'right' views about America. Museums were one way in which to show that America was as cultured and advanced as its European detractors, and as 'ancient' with the display of excavated remains such as that of the 'mammoth.' It is a challenging task I think to reconstruct the impact of such exhibitions, even if Andrew is not going so far back as the 18th century, as it is greatly reliant upon what material is available, and the audience reaction will almost certainly be the hardest to locate in the archives (if any were ever collected). However, considering the recent change in administration and the need to repair some of the damage inflicted upon the image of the US after the Iraq War and the War on Terror, Andrew's research comes across as very timely and fascinating in terms of the ways in which museum exhibitions can be mobilised by those in power.

Jennifer Binnie - Perception and Well-being: Cross disciplinary approach to experiencing art in the museum

Jen's research is certainly one of the most unusual cross-departmental projects that I have ever encountered in Museum Studies, which brings together Museum Studies, Psychology and Engineering. Funded by the AHRC 'Beyond Text' programme, and The Art Fund, Jen will be researching into how art improves lives - something which is taken as a 'given' but is very rarely 'proved' by research. Indeed much of the evidence that it improves well-being is anecdotal. The sheer variety of responses to art, and the factors that influence that response, is so complex as to be overwhelming: it can depend upon the setting, the atmosphere of the gallery, the social context of the visitor, who they are with, how they are feeling, how much time someone has, the position of the painting in the gallery, not to forget the properties of the painting, the colour, the shape, lighting... and so on! Sensibly Jen will be focusing on a couple of those variables, investigated through the use of 'eye tracking' - capturing how an individual's eye travels across a painting and how long they look at elements of it etc. - and combined with other methods such as interviews and observation. It was startling to learn that eye tracking, which is done today with computer technology, has been developed as a method since the late 19th century, when evidently far more painful methods were used! Fortunately for today's human subjects, the experiments are not so potentially harmful.

Jen showed us some of her results which have been undertaken under laboratory conditions, with the obvious caveats that it is very different to the museum environment (where a head mounted camera will be used to capture how individuals explore and behave in art museums). Participants were asked to look at a series of images, both 'real' artworks and amateur photoshopped images, and rate them in terms of their artistic value and how much they liked / disliked them. I won't go into much of the detail here but an interesting example was that Andy Warhol's famous painting of Marilyn Monroe, based on a photograph, was rated much more highly in terms of artistic value than the photograph itself, still a very arresting image. The eye tracking instruments also enable Jen to investigate how individuals 'look' at paintings, where their eyes linger and how long they look at a painting before moving to the next one. It will be really interesting to see how Jen takes this further in relation to the broader aims of her research.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Make me a witness

Another fascinating article in the BBC News Magazine today, about witnesses to important historical events of the 20th century, and how they are dwindling. It raises some interesting questions about the value of first-person interpretation (the part about Milvina Dean, who was too young to remember the sinking of the Titanic, even though she survived it, is particularly great), as well as the impact of interaction with these "living relics" in developing empathy and understanding.

I have been lucky enough over the years to hear several Holocaust survivors speak about their experiences. Due to my age, and theirs, these were usually child prisoners or smuggled children at the time, and in fact, this made it even more powerful, because they were "our age" then. But thinking about it more analytically, what I have just realized is the paradoxical simultaneity of these narratives: they were both highly personal, and yet somehow blend into the accepted version of a Grand Historical Narrative. It's the same thing as happens in documentaries - you hardly ever hear a dissenting voice say "no, that's not how it was for me!" And even if they do (I can think of a couple of WWII documentaries I've seen, in which unrepentant Russian or German prison camp guards were interviewed) they are the immediate villain.

So it makes me wonder - if we already have this Grand Narrative Truth in our heads, and whatever else we hear either falls in line with it and therefore tugs at our conscience, or goes against it and we therefore reject it outright - what is the impact of witness stories?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Make no mistake, museums are political

In a tragic display of how charged certain kinds of museum subject matter are for some people, an 88-year-old white supremacist opened fire in the US Holocaust Museum in Washington today. Both he and the security guard he aimed at are in hospital with injuries. No visitors were hurt, and no artefacts were damaged.

It takes incidents like this to remind me that museology isn't just about "pushing dust around," as my mother says - museums are lightning rods for socio-cultural views. I'm just sad that instead of the Enlightenment dream of presenting and debating things reasonably and with evidence, this man decided to take the violent way.

Collecting as it happens

Meet the latest edition to my collection of vintage museum merchandising...

It's a paperweight from the Natural History Museum (useful for keeping all those bits of paper I've written my thesis upon under control).

Science is not a popularity contest

Greetings, all - your friendly "museums as seen on BBC news" reporter here... Also breaking the nice tidy sum of 1,111 posts on The Attic. This is #1,112.

Anyhoodles, back to the news. The Science Museum in London has published its Top Ten most significant objects list:

  • Steam engine
  • V2 rocket engine
  • Electric telegraph
  • Stephenson's Rocket
  • X-ray machine
  • Model T Ford
  • Penicillin
  • Pilot ACE Computer
  • DNA double helix
  • Apollo 10 capsule

Except, of course, that's a bit misleading, because the double helix isn't really an object, and I'd be surprised and disturbed if they had a live Penicillin culture in their stores. So what are we voting for, then? Objects, or the ideas they represent?

As museologists, I think we should all be concerned. Not only is the Science Museum trivializing scientific achievement by conflating artefacts and ideas, and asking the public to vote on their significance, but I am dead-set against the idea of a reality-TV-show-style vote in favour of, or against museum objects. Granted, nothing is in danger of getting voted out, but sometimes museums contain things in their stores, the significance of which isn't immediately recognised. Plus (and this might inspire some disagreement), I think the Museum has a responsibility to interpret these things, not just let us, the undereducated public, once again rely on our mass-media-fed cliched perceptions. Engendering debate, as the quote below seems to suggest, is the point of this list - but how can you argue without knowing the facts?

The museum's chief curator, Tim Boon, wants the top 10 to spark debate about the value of inventions and discoveries.
"What did we miss, is there an alternative top ten? Some of the objects may divide opinion. Would we be better off if some of the icons, which have had negative consequences, had not been invented?"

Who came up with this list, anyway? Nowhere do I see a justification for why these items, and not others, made it to the list. Finally, a list like this, at least for me, shows in stark relief why museums merely give the illusion of global intellectual representativeness, and actually are strange, esoteric collections of mere stuff. Surely, a Copernican model of the solar system is more representative of human intellect, aptitude, and achievement in science and technology than the arbitrary choice of the Apollo 10 capsule? What about the first paper published on germ theory, or going further back, Antony von Leeuwenhoek's descriptions of baccilae, versus penicillin? Shouldn't we be debating the concept of such a thing as scientific heritage "icons", instead of promoting it further?

I think the thing that bothers me about this popularity contest is that it is run by a museum. It's frankly irresponsible. This isn't like the contest for icons of British design run by The Culture Show a few years ago - that was done by a media outlet, but at least it had "experts" weighing in on the choices, and explaining them! Here, we are once again faced with the monolithic authority of the museum, except with a pretense toward democracy and debate, but without any real way of meaningfully doing so. The objects won't change; their meanings won't be debated; and nothing new will be discovered. The public doesn't even get to weigh in on a new acquisition, or something of real lasting value to any international scientific legacy. Most gallingly of all, this flies in the face of the spirit of scientific inquiry. What on earth does the curator mean, "would we have been better off had some things not been invented?" Yes, Oppenheimer repented of the use of atomic weapons, but that doesn't mean he repented of the process that made it be.

So, what's the point of this list? What can the museum or the public gain? No, really - I want to know!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Museums on Flickr

Our illustrious alumnus Kostas Arvanitis has set up a group on Flickr for museum advertisements (see here), and it got me thinking about what a fantastic resource Flickr is for researchers.  There are a great number of groups dedicated to museums, museum objects and museum visits.  Some, like the V&A's group, have been set up by the institutions themselves.  Others like Museum Watchers are user-driven.  

I find that most people who share their photographs on Flickr are very generous.  I found this out when looking for images from a temporary exhibition a few years  ago which I needed for a paper.  I had completely failed to manage to find anything suitable via the museum, but did turn up some great photographs of the display on Flickr.  A quick email to the photographers resulted in permission to use their work.  Marvellous!

The Commons  is a Flickr-venture in partnership with museums and collecting institutions worldwide.  The idea is that museums, galleries and archives share their photographic collections online in return for users' knowledge and expertise.  The majority of institutions taking part are US-based, but there are some UK museums represented.  Among my favourites are the National Media Museum's photostream.  I love the circular Kodak prints and the spirit photographs.

What will you find?

Monday, June 08, 2009

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Research Week Review: A home is a house that’s lived in

A historic house is one of the few museum sites where the transportation back to the past is presented unproblematic and without questions. It is preserved as it was and in that way is a testimony to its own identity as an artefact from the past. New museology has hit the general museum world and posed questions about presentation, authenticity and the role of the audience, but what has happened to the historic house seem to have escaped these critical questions.

Kieran Burns is in his PhD looking at historic houses or homes in Ireland and trying to incorporate a critical approach. He does not see the audiences as empty vessels, but instead people that project their own ideas of history onto the historic sites when focusing on what stories historic houses tell and how.

The one idea that I found really interesting is Kieran’s idea about the perceiving at the house as a concept of home. A home is a shared idea across cultures and everyone can relate to what a home is. In this way he is not just dealing with big estate homes, but also with smaller scale history with homes of working class families or buildings converted to provide refugees with a home.

How do the audience relate to these different concepts of home? How do they perform their own identity in relation to the way they experience the historic home?

Research Week Review: From Representation to Commodity

Normally the task of museum is to collect, research, educate and preserve objects of the past. But due to storage space, changing preferences of curators or the condition of a object sometimes museums will find itself in a position where deaccessioning is necessary. Jennifer Jankauskas described this in relation to American art museums. What was really interesting about her paper was that fact that she presented this in the perspective of the disheartening financial situation that many museums find themselves in because of the global recession. Jennifer described how museums have started to sell out of the collections in order to cover running cost of the museum or even, when it comes to university museum, to keep the university in business.

This is of course problematic in terms of objects disappearing from the public realm and perhaps is not looked after in a proper way in the private collections that they might end up in. But what is also problematic is the shift in the status of the object from representing a culture, artist or trend in history to becoming a commodity. Especially when dealing with art objects the status as commodity is not a foreign one, but in museums artworks have up till now been more or less unaffected by the changing tends in the thieving art marked. Only when acquiring and insuring artworks the museum must deal with the marked price of an object. Or have they?

The interesting question behind this ethical issue that has arisen due to financial crisis is how neutral the collecting of museums is in the first place. How ethical and representative is a collection? And by deaccessioning does the museum really disturb a true representation of the past? Boris Groys, the German theorist, have dealt with this in his Die Logic der Samlung – the logic of the collection. Here he describes how a collection is being formed by the personal taste of a curator, or the fact that it fits the grand museum architecture so popular today or how the holes in a collection need to be filled in order to present the current understanding of what artists cannot be omitted when presented a given period in time. It is all in flux and all collecting is contingent. Of course this is not to say that all entry and exit of artworks into a collection is completely unproblematic. Especially when dealing with selling artworks to cover running cost, which is properly not the most sustainable strategy of museum management! However, it does put a perspective on the fact that both including and expelling artworks from a collection is a very complex situation and it raises the question whether acquisition is innocent in the first place. Perhaps a global recession and its financial consequences is just one of the conditions that shape the future of the collection along with many others.

Research Week Review: Mum, I met Napoleon today!!

What is authenticity? What is ‘real’? and does the past exist?
With her presentation Ceri Jones kicked off the second day of the Museum Studies Research Week with some of the most intriguing questions when dealing with, not only living history, which is her topic, but also when discussing museums and objects in general. For are history museums and their displays about the past? or are they more a testimony to how we today perceive the past? When engaging with an art object in the art museum can it tell you something about the past? (the artist’s feelings for example) or are you projecting your own perceptions of the past/the artist onto the canvas?
From a postmodern perspective authenticity and the aura of the past have long been contested, but they still seem to be concepts which continue to attract and fascinate us – the real objects are still powerful and lure us in.

Ceri’s way into this is though living history – the re-enactment (by actors) of a historic situation, event, person etc. in a museum in order to make the past become alive. But is it possible to create a real sense of the past? The goal is to immerse the audience in an experience where they feel touched by the past, where it becomes tangible and where it is not just about what happened and what it looked like, but also show museum users why people acted and understood the world as they did. The audience can have a dialogue with someone from the past – or that is what is pretended. Through case studies with younger students, older students and MA students, Ceri have started to investigate the reaction of the audiences to this type of re-enactment.

What I found the most interesting and perhaps also the most troubling was Ceri’s last comments about what living history seem to do – or not do. She described how the students engaged with the enactment in several ways, but they did not question the actual content of the play. To me that mean that the critical approach to history is being lost in this interpreting strategy as enactment history is. I think one of the most important lessons in history class is to be able to critically judge the way the past have been portrayed and to reflect on why we tell the tale of the past in a certain way. Having said that I think living history plays an important role in drawing the students in and making them interested in history – but this interpretation should not stand alone. What do you think?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Publication: International Journal of Heritage Studies 15:2/3

International Journal of Heritage Studies: Volume 15 Issue 2 & 3

Special Issue:Heritage and the Environment

This new issue contains the following articles:


Contributors, Pages 101 - 103
DOI: 10.1080/13527250903011037


Heritage and the Environment, Pages 104 - 107
Authors: Hugh Cheape; Mary-Cate Garden; Fiona McLean
DOI: 10.1080/13527250902890597


Marginal Lands? An Overview of the Environmental Contexts of Cultural Landscapes in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, Pages 108 - 141
Authors: Patricia Macdonald; Angus Macdonald
DOI: 10.1080/13527250902890605

The Landscape of the Gaelic Imagination, Pages 142 - 152
Author: Meg Bateman
DOI: 10.1080/13527250902890613

Àite Dachaidh : Re-connecting People with Place—Island Landscapes and Intangible Heritage, Pages 153 - 162
Author: Màiri Robertson
DOI: 10.1080/13527250902890639

Towards an Exhibition of Highland Art, Pages 163 - 174
Author: Murdo Macdonald
DOI: 10.1080/13527250902890647

Balancing Environmental and Cultural Impact against the Strategic Need for Wind Power, Pages 175 - 191
Author: Simon Clarke
DOI: 10.1080/13527250902890688

Dynamics of Informal Networking: Two Studies of Cattle Draft in the Perspective of Deeper Time, Pages 192 - 208
Author: Cozette Griffin-Kremer
DOI: 10.1080/13527250902890712

Homeland Emotion: An Emotional Geography of Heritage and Homeland, Pages 209 - 222
Author: Amanda Kearney
DOI: 10.1080/13527250902890746

The Eco-tourism of Cultural Heritage Management (ECT-CHM): Linking Heritage and ‘Environment’ in the Okavango Delta Regions of Botswana, Pages 223 - 244
Author: S. O. Keitumetse
DOI: 10.1080/13527250902890811

The Southern Upland Way: Exploring Landscape and Culture, Pages 245 - 257
Authors: V. Bold; S. Gillespie
DOI: 10.1080/13527250902890944

Heritage Conservation in Post-colonial Hong Kong, Pages 258 - 272
Author: Tracey L. -D. Lu
DOI: 10.1080/13527250902890969