MEG Conference 2010, 'Making Things': A Review

Well, readers, I have returned! This friendly Attic resident has just spent three days in Reading, rather enjoying themselves at the Museum Ethnographer's Group Annual Conference. I've conferenced before, of course, but I didn't manage to live blog this one – partly because I was presenting. So please, don't think my standards of speed have slipped. It was just a case of fear and the desire to concentrate and look professional. Plus, there was limited internet access.

Anyway, if you want to read on, a report follows.

This year's MEG conference, centred on 'Making Things', was held at the Museum of Rural Life, in Reading, and organised with superb flair by Ollie Douglas, the Assistant Curator. As you can see, if you click on the link, MERL houses a huge variety of material which might be termed social history, or ethnographic, depending on your proclivities, I suppose. In any case, it was an interesting collection, housed in a fascinating building. The house was originally built for Sir Alfred Palmer, the chap who owned Huntley & Palmers Biscuits. (And because I know that biscuits are very close to many readers' hearts, I've included the link there, too. Sadly, however, Huntley and Palmer's no longer make biscuits, but I'm also sure that many of you are rather adept at making your own! ) It became the site for MERL in 2005, and is a lovely site, really, located near Reading city centre in a conservation area. The hanging of the objects makes objects such as handcarts, often displayed as objects of work, seem like art. The garden is charming, and as the weather was nice I spent much time out there, inspecting the medicinal herbs, lavender varieties and the two small allotments. Small, but beautifully formed.

The same might be said of the Conference. There was just a nice number of delegates and presenters enough to keep everyone entertained! Initially, as this was my first conference at which I was presenting, I was intimidated. I didn't know what to expect from the conference itself, and having never been to Reading before had already had to reorient myself in a new place. Fortunately, however, I needn't have worried. All the members were incredibly friendly, the museum staff were hugely accommodating, we (even awkward vegan me) were well served by the University Catering Services and taken out to dinner at the Reading International Solidarity Centre, where Tutu's Ethiopean Table served us lovely lentils, veggies, and injera. So, that's the social stuff done, on to the academic stuff. I've spraffed enough.

The programme for the conference involved a huge diversity of people, from well established luminaries such as Jeremy Coote from the Pitt Rivers, and Len Pole, from Saffron Walden, through artists such as George Nuku, to 'emerging scholars' such as myself. It also encompassed a huge diversity of subjects. Though the rationale for the conference arose initially from how museum ethnographers and ethnographic museums might engage with the physical processes of making objects, the focus constantly shifted back and forth between this and the processes that occur within the museum itself. The different interpretations which people bring to a conference theme always fascinate me, and it is certainly true that the idea of 'Making Things' was taken to various ends. I found many of the papers really fascinating, actually, for precisely this reason. The organisation of the conference was such that we didn't remain stranded in one particular mode of discourse for too long, whilst still retaining a sense of unity throughout. This must have been incredibly hard to achieve, and just shows the skill with which the papers were selected and put together. I can't really precise all the papers here – there will be a Journal issue, I believe, so you'll have to wait until then to read more in detail, but I'd like to offer a few of my personal edited highlights, and some of the main themes and ideas which I picked out, in no particular order.

Day one was centred around four main themes: 'Making Artistic Interventions', 'Making Shrines', 'Making Community Connections' and 'Making Museums'. A major strand which ran throughout all these panels was that of the status of the 'object' – where in objects does value lie, and in what process and characteristics is the status of 'object' constituted? The notion of object biography is significant here, the transitions through which an object goes throughout its life being critical in the apprehension of its significance from one period to the next. The papers also raised issues of the nature of 'object' – for myself it is the interpretation which is placed upon any extant in the world which accords it the status of 'museum object', and thus ANY extant 'thing' can be taken as such. I found particularly interesting the importance which Jeffrey Sarmiento and Chris Wingfield gave to the objects which are generated by curatorial practice. In Ossify, Jeffrey Sarmiento has built a version of a Maori paddle in glass form, incorporating within it images of the documentation with which it is surrounded. This reinterpretation in a transparent media brings the multiple layers of the paddle into sharp relief, showcasing that behind one singular object, a multitude of stories lies. And thus was the argument propounded by Chris Wingfield, in a paper which highlighted the importance of conducting 'archaeology' upon museum objects, through chasing their paper trails, labels, and previous incarnations. In the museum, intertextuality is crucial, and is frequently tacitly understood, but often remains undertheorised. These papers brought that issue to the fore.

On the first day we were also lucky enough to experience the charm of George Nuku. An artist of Maori, German and Scottish ancestry, his work uses old strategies on new materials in order to make the ancestors speak once more. His works in perspex and polystyrene have appeared in exhibitions throughout the United Kingdom, such as Pasifika Styles, and he has also worked on reconstructing objects such as this Maori waka, or war canoe, held by National Museums Scotland, by restoring its missing elements with these new materials. His work shows that many museums are leaving behind that 'ethnographic past' which they are so accused of propounding, and shows us too that such blatant and honest reconstruction can result in incredibly beautiful works which in no way denude the truth value of the original. He stressed, too, the difficulties that many of his countryfolk face in working with Western museums. The task is problematic for both sides, attempting to acclimatise themselves to cultures and beliefs which they may never previously have experienced, to learn about the skills and processes which each uses in their varied activities as 'makers'.

Throughout the conference, in fact, the role which museum staff play as makers was emphasised. For understanding an object, there is little doubt that a practical haptic knowledge of it's construction can play a valuable role. This is especially true, perhaps, in terms of conservation practice, where experience of the materials and the manner in which they are manipulated can prove invaluable to the successful preservation of items, as both Sherry Doyal and Marieanne Davy-Ball showed. But there is value, too, for academics, and I for one, came away from the conference wishing that I was a creative maker, that I could manipulate these forms and come to an understanding of the materials with which I might work in the future. Perhaps, one day, I shall get this chance.

The first part of the second day, I have to admit, was spent in an abject state of terror. Fortunately, my presentation was the first of the day, and I hoped that most of the audience were still waking up! But they were kind to me, and I hope that I did not bore them too much. I am truly grateful for such a gentle introduction to conference presenting. It was sited within a set of ten minute presentations based around works in progress, and all the presenters there had a really tiny time slot in which to pack a huge amount of study, a task at which, aided by the skilful chairing of Claire Wintle (henceforward to be known as 'Whiplash') they acquited themselves extremely well! Again, the papers were extremely diverse, ranging from the processes of object making, to issues of collection building and re-creation. The second part of the day, which centred around 'Materials, Manufacture and Meaning', saw again an engagement with the issues surrounding object validity and the acculturation and reinterpretation of forms within new contexts. The generation of meaning for an object lies within many forms, and Mark Jamieson's discussion of counterfeits raised, for me, many questions about where authenticity lies and whether there is any real justification for the ascription of 'authenticity' to items. Personally, I believe that the conceptualisation of certain things as 'authentic' accords them a reified status which they do not really deserve. It precludes from that status other items, and to me, every object which exists is in some sense 'authentic'. It is how you choose to ascribe that authenticity, to what and in what terms, and in which particular situation which matters, and so the term becomes a subjective, rather than objective one. An item's validity should not be based upon its 'authenticity', because there is no objective, all encompassing truth. Only the particular case with its particular needs.

But the particular situation of the MEG conference 2010, I have to say, was for this particular interpreter, an extremely enjoyable experience. I hope to be able to attend next year, and that in the meantime I will have learned a lot more about making, making myself and my thesis better as a result.


Amy said…
You've made it sound a lovely experience Jenny - on the basis of this I might just go next year!

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