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, March 31, 2010

Desert rose to bloom in Qatar

Nouvel presents designs for new museum

With a design inspired by the form of the desert rose, Jean Nouvel presented his plans Wednesday at MoMA in New York City for the new National Museum in Qatar...

UCL Autopsies Project Study Day: "Yesterday's Objects"

'Yesterday’s Objects: The Death and Afterlife of Everyday Things'
Autopsies Research Project Study Day
Friday, 4 June 2010
University College London (UCL)

The Autopsies Project explores how objects die. Just as the twentieth century was transformed by the advent of new forms of media - the typewriter, gramophone, and film, for example - the arrival of the twenty-first century has brought with it the disappearance of many public and private objects that only recently seemed essential to ‘modern life.’

Responding to recent work in cultural history, spatial studies, and 'thing theory,' this study day reflects on the ends of objects, raising questions of modernity, obsolescence, memory, collecting and recording. How can critical theorists and cultural historians participate in the reflexion on the ends of objects—from their physical finitude to the very projects for their disposal, the latter increasingly of concern with the multiplication of things that do not gently decompose into their own night?

This study day on ‘Yesterday’s Objects’ will investigate the everyday objects—the fridges, typewriters, and jukeboxes—that have irrevocably changed our lives. We invite papers that will explore how these objects have refashioned and reimagined our work, home, and leisure spaces. We are interested in hearing research on ‘built-in’ obsolescence and other processes of ‘renewal’ that have changed consumer habits. We are also eager to welcome papers on the economic and environmental implications of this process.

The Autopsies Project forms part of the UCL Film Studies Space interdisciplinary research project on ‘Cinematic Memory, Consumer Culture, and Everyday Life’. The UCL Film Studies Space is a centre devoted to the cultural history of the moving image. We are particularly interested in proposals for papers that address how still and moving images represent objects. We encourage work on cinema, television, photography, and the arts of advertising.

Individual papers are invited from scholars and researchers in any discipline of the humanities, arts, social sciences, and sciences. Scholars from postgraduate to permanent senior academics are welcome to submit papers.

Suggested topics include, but are not limited to :

· the representation of objects in cinema and the visual arts
· the role of advertising in consumer culture
· history of technology
· industrial and interior design
· domestic objects
· obsolescence
· recycling
· object disposal
· the object and the museum
· objects and the spaces they inhabit

Send abstracts of no more than 300 words for 20-minute papers with your name, institution and contact details to by Monday, 26 April 2010. We will read proposals and respond by Monday, 3 May 2010.

For further information on the project see,



Historical Hot or Not VII

More historical picspam for all you prurient followers!

Today's candidate is typical in a late-eighteenth century sort of way. Sir William Hamilton, (1730-1803) was a diplomat, British Ambassador to Naples, where he studied volcanoes, and managed to collect plenty of antiquities; he even wrote a book about Pompeii. A Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and a member of the Dilletanti, he sold his collection of Greek and Roman artefacts and some of his natural history specimens to the British Museum in 1784, and counts as a major donor.

More titillatingly, however, it was two years later, in 1786, that he encountered his second wife, Emma Lyon. She was "sent" to him by his nephew, in appreciation for Hamilton's paying off his debts; she performed dances inspired by the Ancient World while wearing no underwear, and Hamilton was smitted. When they married in 1791, he was 26, and he was 60. He was to become the most famous cuckold of the day when Emma became the mistress of Horatio Nelson.

Now, I leave it for you to decide if Nelson held a candle to this guy:
With the first Lady Hamilton in Naples, David Allan, c. 1765.

By David Allan, 1775
By Joshua Reynolds, 1776-7
By George Romney, 1783.

By Giovanni Morghen, 1789.

The Rest of the Stuff

Only 1% of the British Museum's objects are ever on display at any time; read about some of the others, and about the people who study them in this amusing article here.

Top Ten Special Exhibitions 2008/09

1. Ashura and Masterpieces from Kohfukuji - Tokyo National Museum, 15,960 visitors per day
2. 61st Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures - Nara National Museum, 14,965 visitors per day
3. Treasures of the Imperial Collections - Tokyo National Museum, 9,473 visitors per day
4. 17th Century Painting from the Louvre, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, 9,267 visitors per day
5. 2nd Photoquai Biennale, Musee Quai Branly, Paris, 7,868 visitors per day
6. Picasso and the Masters, Grand Palais, Paris, 7,270 visitors per day
7. Kandinsky, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 6,553 visitors per day
8. Joan Miro: Painting and Anti-Painting, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 6,299 visitors per day
9. Pipilotti Rist: Pour Your Body Out, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 6,186 visitors per day
10. Treasures of the Habsburg Monarcy, National Art Centre, Tokyo, 5,609 visitors per day

Read more here.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I know it isn't QUITE like the original...but isn't it cool

Steampunks gather for Great Exhibition

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

The Great Exhibition of 2010 was held at London's La Scala club - though on a smaller scale than the 19th Century original. This one was a party for steampunks where they could come together to show off their creations and costumes.

Steampunk has rapidly grown as a sub-culture among makers, hackers and crafters the world over. It takes the Victorian era as its inspiration, but imagines how it might have been had technology been more advanced during the days of Empire.

"It's a highly literate art," said Tobias Slater of White Mischief, which organised the night. "It's unlike the original punk, it takes quite a lot of work and dedication to end up looking this way."

For him, steampunk is all about "raiding the garret of the past to make something new". Stalls were dotted around the venue showing off some of some of the new that had been made from the old.

The exquisite steampunk models of Ian Crichton (aka Herr Doktor) were on show, including his Thunderbuss - an elaborate 'sonic gun' intended to scare off birds.

Professor Maelstromme and House of Hirudenia displayed jewellery and clothing and craftsman Shipton Bellinger had built some modern gadgets to give them a neo-Victorian feel.

Most popular was his "portable information cabinettes".

"They are otherwise known as USB flash drives but we like them rather more ornate than most," he said. "They have been well and truly steamed."

The USB drives were housed in a case of English oak stained and polished to a high shine then adorned with metalwork such as tiny brass gauges and, in one case, piston and smokestack.

For Ian Crichton the surprise of the night was the numbers that had turned out.

"I'm amazed there's so many people here," he said. "Considering it's such a niche genre it's amazing that you can walk into a room of 1000 people and not know any of them."

The vast majority of party-goers went in costume. There were more top hats being worn than at any time since the days of Dickens and many were adorned with gears and goggles. Guns and swords were tucked into belts and many used a fob watch to keep track of time.

Alongside those in frock coats and corsets strolled women aviators, adventurers, explorers in pith helmets, street urchins and soldiers in dress uniform. There was a military theme to many costumes

"One of the really good things about this is the mix of people you have," said Allegra Hawksmoor, editor of The Steampunk magazine.

Evidence of the movement's eclecticism was demonstrated by the bands that played on the night.

The roster included The Clockwork Quartet which describes itself as playing "steampunk, folk narrative songs" and Tankus The Henge, who combine brass, guitars and a steam-powered piano.

Also playing was Mr B the self-styled gentleman rhymer who combines "beats, rhymes and manners" into a charming whole he has dubbed "chap hop" rather than hip hop.

The sheer variety of music, performers on display led many to ponder what steampunk was becoming and if it could be described as a unified sub-culture.

"This is a niche," said Mr Slater, "though I hope this is the start of fomenting a bit of a social movement."

"It's going to hit the threshold where the media start to think about it and that's how more and more people will discover it," he said.

Miss Hawksmoor from The Steampunk Magazine is keen to remind people of the politics that informed the first punk movement, which had a very DIY element to it and set itself apart from the establishment.

Many of those involved in steampunk do take a political stance by championing open source software, transparency and the use of licences that let anyone rip mix and burn what they have done.

For polymath Edward Saperia, steampunk's origins are linked closely to the rise of the net and the maker culture in particular.

"It's about the realisation that technology will probably solve our problems and it is good thing and we should learn about it and use it," he said.

The Victorian elements are present, he believes, because that was the last great industrial shift that mirrors the big changes being inflicted on society by the rise of the net.

"Think about how things were 10 years ago, 20 years ago," he said. "Everything has changed. Now no-one can even say what things are going to be like in five years time."

Monday, March 29, 2010

Native Remains Will Be Repatriated

I wondered what your reactions were to this?

From the Courthouse News Service

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Department of the Interior will release human remains from museums and natural history collections to Indian tribes or Native Hawaiian organizations that had a historic or prehistoric presence on the land from which the remains originally were taken. This will be true even when the remains cannot be definitively traced to the tribe or organization, according to new department rules, effective May 14.
Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, culturally unidentifiable Native American remains have been repatriated for burial or other disposition only after consultation with a Review Committee that advises the Secretary of the Interior on disposition approval. The new regulation will eliminate the review process, and the remains would be turned over to the requesting tribe or native organization after the request was announced in the Federal Register.
The act, which was passed in 1990, requires all museums and federal agencies to identify Native American cultural items in their collections, such as human remains, funerary objects, and sacred objects, to lineal descendents and culturally affiliated Indian tribes. As of Sept. 2009, museums and federal agencies have listed the remains of nearly 40,000 individuals and almost one million funerary objects on their inventories.
The most famous case of unaffiliated remains was the discovery in 1996 of the skeleton of a prehistoric man on a bank of the Columbia River in Kennewick Washington on land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Five Indian tribes claimed ownership of the remains, which became known as Kennewick Man, and sought to dispose of the remains according to traditional burial practices without subjecting them to scientific examination.
In 2004 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected the claims of the tribes because they could not establish cultural affiliation or kinship to the remains. Later testing revealed that Kennewick Man was approximately 9,000 years old and that his DNA could not be definitively tied to any modern Native American tribes.

Wessex Culture Revolution? or Beaker Evolution? The Decline and Fall of Stonehenge - Conference at Bournemouth University 16-18th April, 2010

The Megalithic Portal and Megalith Map:Wessex Culture Revolution? Conference at Bournemouth University 16-18th April

The conference will address a problem that archaeologists of the Early Bronze Age have faced since William Cunnington and Sir Richard Colt Hoare first dug into the barrows of Salisbury Plain. What happened to Beaker burial practice in Southern Britain between the late Third and early Second Millennium BC?

In the area of Wessex (the counties of Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset), several dramatic changes occurred that transformed the face of the landscape forever. New barrow forms started being built in lines and groups, field boundaries emerged, advanced bronze weaponry from Europeand artistry in gold and amber flourished and ceremonial henges suddenly stopped being elaborated. In cemeteries across Wessex burial practices changed from inhumation to cremation burial in a relatively short time.

Archaeologists have struggled to characterise these different practices. Speculation as to what brought about these changes have ranged from foreign warriors to local insurrections, but for the past forty years little research has been done to understand the reasons for this dramatic change. However, recent discoveries have sparked a flurry of new studies and this conference aims to pool knowledge from archaeologists working with early second millennium artefacts, burials and other evidence from Britain and the Continent to better understand the dynamics of this change termed the ‘Wessex Culture’.

Provisional Programme Highlights:

Paul Garwood - 'Elite' funerals, monuments and landscapes in the 2nd millennium BC: Wessex graves in long-term perspective
John Hunter -Ritual and Early Bronze Age Gravegoods
Ann Woodward - Does the Wessex Culture exist?
Jo Appleby & Andrew Martin - Beyond Fashion: Characterising the shift in cremation in Early Bronze Age Wessex
John Gale - Changing focus and identity in Early Bronze Age Dorset
Mike Allen - Did the farming economy generate the Wessex Culture wealth; changes in environment and agriculture
Jan Harding - Henges and ceremonial monuments
Wessex and the Wider World - Jodie Lewis and David Mullin
West of Wessex but only just: barrow construction on the Mendip Hills, Somerset
Alison Sheridan - Perspectives from beyond Wessex
Ros Cleal - Avebury Barrows
Sabine Gerloff - The locations and chronology of European artefact links abroad
Anthony Harding - Long distance travel and trade in the Bronze Age: the Wessex connection
Martyn Barber & Helen Wickstead - Metallurgy and Society
Nick Thorpe - The Age of warriors? Beaker to Wessex Culture warfare and violence
Jonathan Last - The rise of the round barrow

Further details and on-line registration can be found at:
or email

WessexCulture, 16th – 18th April 2010
Centre for Archaeology, Anthropology and Heritage, Bournemouth University, Bournemouth, Dorset, UK

Chaucer Goes Digital!

For the original story, go here.

Geoffrey Chauncer's The Canterbury Tales is digitised

A medieval edition of The Canterbury Tales manuscript has been digitised. I'm all for the digitisation of manuscripts. It gives a much wider range of people access to historical documents. Nonetheless, there is nothing quite like smelling and touching a document. You can never recreate that - but what you can create is a new, and very useful, resource.

Symposium - Secondhand Culture: Waste, Value, and Materiality, April 15-16, 2010, Bard Graduate Center

Symposium – Secondhand Culture: Waste, Value, and Materiality

Thursday, April 15, 2010 – Friday, April 16, 2010

Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture, 38 West 86th Street, New York, NY

Secondhand Culture: Waste, Value, and Materiality explores the ways in which objects ranging from clothing to collectibles to trash have been constructed and experienced. Scholars of Theater, History, Geography, and Art and Design History discuss this vital new area at the intersection of consumerism, material culture studies, cultural geography, and artmaking.

Thursday, April 15, 2010, 5:00 pm – 8:00 pm

5:00 pm – Welcome: Michele Majer
Assistant Professor, Bard Graduate Center

5:15 pm – Film Screening: "Secondhand (Pepe)", (2007)
followed by Q&A with the filmmakers Hanna Rose Shell and Vanessa Bertozzi

6:00 pm – Reception

6:30 pm – William Davies King
Professor of Theater, University of California Santa Barbara
"Suited for Nothing: Collecting Second-Hand"

Friday, April 16, 2010, 9:00 am – 4:00 pm

9:15 am – Welcome: Catherine Whalen
Assistant Professor, Bard Graduate Center

9:30 am – Shirley Teresa Wajda
"Secondhand Culture Studies: A View from the Rust Belt"

10:10 am – Alexandra Palmer
Senior Curator, Royal Ontario Museum
"Back to Back: Retro-fitting Fashion within the Museum"

10:50 am – Coffee Break

11:15 am – Alison Isenberg
Associate Professor, History, Rutgers University
"Second-Hand Cities: Antiques, Inheritance, and Preservation from the Civil War to Urban Renewal"

12:00 pm – Lunch Break

1:30 pm – Nicky Gregson
Professor, Geography, University of Sheffield
"Death, the Phoenix, and Pandora: End of Life Ships,
Chock-Chocky Furniture and the Bangladeshi Middle Class"

2:10 pm – Marilynn Gelfman Karp
Emeritus Professor of Art, New York University
"In Flagrante Collecto: Caught in the Act of Collecting"

2:50 pm – Susan Strasser
Professor, History, University of Delaware

3:30 pm – Open Discussion moderated by Amy F. Ogata
Associate Professor, Bard Graduate Center

This symposium is organized by Catherine Whalen, Amy F. Ogata, Michele Majer, and Pat Kirkham at the Bard Graduate Center. It is free and open to the public. RSVP required to 212.501.3019, For additional information contact Alex Phelan,

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Museums at Night: London Horror

14 May 2010

Visit Museum of London Docklands after-hours for an evening of guts and gore, including a screening of 80s cult classic 'An American Werewolf in London'. From 6pm you can enjoy open galleries and a themed bar serving cocktails and traditional cinema food. Entry is free but tickets are on a first come, first served basis therefore booking is advised for the screening. The galleries and tours are open to all. Film starts at 7.30pm so please allow plenty of time to obtain your tickets and get to your seats.

Not suitable for children

When: 6-9pm

Where: Museum of London Docklands

Admission: FREE, please book in advance for the film as capacity is limited.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


After my child-like rapture of yesterday, I am evidently back to being my cranky self - grumbling at what I think is a pretty lame idea on the part of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. To wit:
MOCAD is inviting artists, collectors and others to visit the museum Saturday evening with at least one piece of original art in tow. Participants will be encouraged to collectively smash, mutilate and destroy the works they brought. Everyone is encouraged to then work together to create a new art piece using the remnants of the smashed works. The museum requests that no glass, dangerous materials or hazardous products be used.
So much for artistic freedom, then.

You see, the first thing I thought of was this bit from the 1978 Beatles parody, The Rutles: All You Need is Cash, in which "Nasty," the John Lennon character, first encounters "Chastity," a Nazi wannabe Yoko parody whose "art" consists of bits of rubble thrown out of tall buildings:

It's never a good thing if your innovative audience engagement strategy was already parodied 32 years ago as a really terrible idea...

Friday, March 26, 2010

Magical Realism

A whimsical and rather adorable story from Kensington Palace: taking advantage of building work on the site, curators have invited actors, artists and designers to create installations to imaginatively evoke the Palace's history. The idea is that construction has shaken the fabric of the building, and now the dimensions of past and present have magically mingled. Installations include fashion by Vivienne Westwood and Stephen Jones, as well as live-action interpretation, interactive toy soldier armies, a knitted throne, and Victorian fairy tales come to life. To my own surprise, I find this all rather delightful.

More about the Enchanted Palace exhibition
From 26 March 2010, Kensington Palace will become the Enchanted Palace in a unique multisensory exhibition combining fashion, performance, and dazzling spectacle to reveal Kensington's magnificent State Apartments in a magical new light.
In the sumptuous State Apartments, leading fashion designers Vivienne Westwood, William Tempest, Stephen Jones, Boudicca, Aminaka Wilmont and illustrator/set designer Echo Morgan will each create spectacular installations in collaboration with WILDWORKS, taking inspiration from Kensington Palace and the princesses who once lived there - Mary, Anne, Caroline, Charlotte, Victoria, Margaret and Diana.

These extraordinary contemporary designs will be displayed alongside historic items from the Royal Collection and Kensington Palace's Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, together with two dresses worn by Diana, Princess of Wales and Princess Margaret.

The complex and mysterious world of the royal court will be opened up through spectacular installations, interactive theatre, intimate storytelling, soundscapes, haunting film projections, and a series of intriguing clues hidden throughout the historic rooms, revealing tales of love and hate, surprise and sadness, secrets and jealousy.
Each room will have a powerful story to tell about Kensington Palace's former royal residents and the life of the court - a world within a world, with its own time and rituals.

For more information on the Enchanted Palace see

Volunteer opportunity with Historic Royal Palaces at Kensington Palace, London
An exciting opportunity has arisen for volunteers to help with the evaluation of a new exhibition at Kensington Palace: The Enchanted Palace. We would like a number of volunteers to carry out face to face interviews with our visitors using a questionnaire we have prepared.
Volunteers will need to be confident in talking to visitors and recording feedback, a second language would be desirable and you must be willing to spend time standing talking to the public.

We are able to pay expenses of up to £8.00 per day on production of valid receipts and will be able to provide desk space, a computer and tea and coffee during break periods. We would also give you background to the exhibition and information about the Interpretation & Marketing Departments and our work. We would like volunteers who can be (even only for some of the days) available between April 19th and 23rd May including weekends. If you are interested in this opportunity please e-mail your CV with a short covering e-mail explaining why you think you are right for this role to Rhiannon Goddard, Interpretation Programmes Manager, by Tuesday 7th April 2010.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Cracking the Code

Remember how worried we were that Bletchley Park might have to close? Well, they are slowly getting some funding. In the fall, they were awarded £500,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and DCMS has just awarded them £250,000 to keep the building from falling down. Hardly the £10 million they need, but it's a start. Let's hope the good publicity women in computing have been getting spurs more funding. After all, if Barbie can be an IT professional, and Ada Lovelace (historical hottie, daughter of Byron, inventor of software/programming code) is still technology's most popular heroine, it has to mean bright times ahead for digital heritage!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Historical Hot or Not VI

Today's museum hottie isn't a museum person per se. Catharine the Great (1729-1796), a German princess who became Empress of all the Russias in the 18th century, built the building and amassed the bulk of the collection that would become one of the world's greatest museums. The Hermitage was her private palace, and the collection of art, sculpture, decorative art, and ethnographic material that filled it was by-and-large purchased from the estate sales of European collectors on her behalf by agents. It was only opened to the public in 1852, 88 years after its founding, and didn't become a national museum until after the Revolution. Still, it is only due to Catharine's Enlightenment ideals that Russia possesses any relics of European culture worth speaking of.

Portrait of Catharine Großherzogin von Rußland von Anhalt-Zerbst (Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste of Anhalt-Zerbst, later Catherine II of Russia), 1745, Kunstsammlungen der Veste Coburg

Portrait by Georg Christoph Grooth of the Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alexeevna (later Empress Catherine II of Russia/Catherine the Great) painted circa 1745, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.Portrait of Grand Duchess Catherine Alexeevna, the future Catherine the Great of Russia, from 1745, painted by Louis Cavaque.

We tend to remember Catharine as a portly oversexed despot; but before the many lovers, the killing of her husband, the brutal political repressions, she was a clever, sprightly, and lithe young fraulein with great promise. Recall that she was once played in a film by the great Marlene Dietrich. So: hot or not?

Debate: Artistic interventions in the museum

Yesterday we were joined by Janet Marstine - Director of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall. She gave a lively presentation on several examples of the work of Fred Wilson, an artist who works with collections and institutions to produce installations and exhibitions - institutional critiques - which comment upon exclusion and inclusion and challenge hi-lo hierarchies in museal interpretation and practice.

(In retrospect, the talk made an interesting counterpoint to today's brown bag seminar (as blogged here, by Jen, earlier). Together they have made us think about what engagement *is*, and *who* is it for?#)

I, for one, was a little unsettled. Who are the intended audiences of Wilson's work? Visitors or institutions? Surely his rejection of textual interpretive material (because of its historical relationship with authority) must negatively impact upon the very visitors with whom he wishes to engage and to give permission to, to think more deeply, to challenge and construct their own ideas? Because, crucially, there is apparently nothing in-gallery - at least in the examples Janet spoke about - to indicate that the space encountered by visitors is a thoughtful art installation, as opposed to standard museum display. I imagine, for the average visitor, bewilderment and/or disinterest would result. Not to mention, fostering an inadvertent reassertion of the cultural superiority of the authoritative museum. One would need the necessary cultural capital - the nous - to grapple with the complex and, let's face it, fairly impenetrable (except for us museos) ideas and traditions which Wilson's work seeks to subvert.

There can be no doubt that Wilson's own inclusive practice (working with the whole institutional workforce - front-of-house staff included as much as senior curators) is a good thing, and neither that his presence in the institution leaves an indelible mark upon the future practice of that museum and its individual members of staff, as Janet pervasively argued. But does he meet his own aim to make the museum a more socially inclusive space?

And, while we're on the subject, how much of the social inclusion agenda is about assuaging middle-class guilt and making *us* feel better?*

What do you think?

#A point shamelessly stolen from Julia!
*I may be being deliberately confrontational here. ;)

Creating engaging exhibitions

The past ten years have seen great innovations in the ways that museums and galleries display their collections to the public, which is creating a new set of expectations. How should museums and galleries embrace these? This conference looks at the benefits of working with audiences and of letting non-curatorial staff interpret and display museum collections. One case study will examine how last year’s Banksy vs Bristol Museum generated huge positive publicity and unprecedented audience numbers. It also looks at re-imagining displays with three criteria in mind: cost-effectiveness, sustainability and flexibility. For curators, exhibition organisers and anyone involved in creating displays and exhibitions. Taking place 23 April 2010 at the Royal College of Surgeons, London. For more information click here

Brown Bag Seminar: Audience Appeal: Museums, technology and cultural policy in the 21st Century

Today our Brown Bag seminar was given by visiting speaker Wendy Earle. She is the online education manager at the British Film Institute and is also working her PhD. Her talk was based around one for her case studies for this PhD, Culture Online, a project which took place from 2002 to 2007 to build a ‘digital bridge between culture and learning’.
Wendy began her talk with this quote she found in a greeting card.

“It's only when you look at an ant through a magnifying glass on a sunny day that you realise how often they burst into flames.” Harry Hill

There has been substantial change in museums, galleries and achieves over recent time, with a greater emphasis on audiences. There have been intense discussions on public value of culture and the justification of funding being provided for the development of cultural institutions. Wendy suggested that there has been a revival of museological debates like those of the 1980s/90s centring on social issues such as how to get people into museums and galleries, and the arguments of social elitism of museums.

This video was shown as an example of the debate arising around current issues of who is audience is. Should it be taken as a joke or more seriously? Although this video clip has been made to be directed to libraries, some say it could just as easily be applied to museums and galleries. The audience is always changing and it is the young “digital natives” who are joining that audience group now. They are the future audience but are museums and galleries ready for this? Can they meet the needs of the digitally savvy, and multimedia fluent? How important is it for museums and galleries to alter their methods to accommodate these needs?

Wendy then went on to talk about New Labour’s Cultural Policy (from 1997 to 2007) on engineering social change. This focused on shaping cultural agendas, social change and social inclusion, but brought up questions of the relationship between inclusion and equality. Just because something is inclusive, is it providing equal opportunities? This policy also looked at the economic and social benefits of cultural projects, will they be an investment? The McMaster’s report of Excellence in the Arts impacted this. One of the ways this policy was to be implemented was through internet projects though, as always, questions can be raised. Can internet projects promise democratisation? Can the benefits of museums and galleries be delivered to a new audience through this technology?

Culture Online
This incorporated 20 websites and was funded and run by the government for £16m. It would provide new modes of audience outreach and redefine the relationship between museums and the public. There were many different perspectives that the outcomes of this project could be looked at from, both positive and negative. Wendy questions whether this project and its outcomes are relevant today. Some of the websites and projects within the overall initiative are still running, however others have been forgotten and left by the way side.

Every Object Tells a Story was one of the projects involved. It used over £1m of the £16m and allowed people to share their stories about objects which were special them, and to explore other people’s stories. The idea for this project was developed by DCMS and the V&A who wanted to reach new audiences and to engage these audiences in an innovative way. However there were some issues which arose for them such as who are the audience, what was the purpose and who was in control? Why are you putting something online, is it to publicise or to be engaged with. This project was aimed at ‘the many not the few’ but by aiming it at everyone is it then more difficult to clarify these ideas?
This was the only one of the Culture Online projects which was based in a national museum, but strangely those involved were broadcasters and not museum specialists. In a project which was set up for museums this seems like it was outsiders taking an outsider perspective of museums and their audiences rather than incorporating the museums knowledge of their audience. The broadcasters took the perspective that museums did not start their work by thinking of the audience. For the website they wanted to use user-generated content and active engagement to reach their new audiences, but was the expectation that this would be a viable endeavour be realistic? Museums specialise in their ability to engage audiences, their environments foster contemplation and learning (among other experiences) so can it be expected that a digital environment will be able to do the same? At this point in the talk/conversation Ross Parry pointed out that ‘the web is not a museum, it’s just the web’, which I thought highlighted the fact that expectations really do have to be relevant to what they are being applied to although it is not always possible to keep these in check or indeed to know when they are entering the unrealistic without also leaving the optimistic.
Wendy provided the statistic that of website users around 99% simply look lots, almost 1% engage and interact with the contents, and the remaining tiny amount actually contribute to the content. These seem surprising statistics and need to be taken along with the correct context and parameters in which the data was collected but it illustrates quite clearly the trend that a lot less people contribute to websites than simply view them. It can’t simply be expected that content will be generated. This brings up another point, that not everyone who might contribute has the skills to navigate the media needed to do so, so is this not also imposing a form of exclusivity? No matter how the Every Object Tells a Story project is interpreted, it is very clear that valuable lessons were learnt and experience gained which contributed to Culture Online as a whole. Unfortunately this website ended in 2007 due to death by spam.

The Culture Online project overall had a steep learning curve, for instance the idea that this would be a cheap way of reaching new audiences is problematic. Projects which are not successful in the manner expected could be seen as something where the money should have been put towards something else, but on the other hand maybe it didn’t reach expectations because it hadn’t had enough money put into it to make it a success.

This seminar sparked some really interesting discussion throughout and at the end of Wendy’s presentation. One of the things discussed was why the Culture Online project went from being proposed as a £250m project to £16m, which included suggestions of Intellectual property rights, and a change of minister of culture amongst other things.
I really enjoyed todays seminar so thank you Wendy! The above are just what I took from this seminar so by-the-way it may not reflect what everyone was trying to put accross accuratley.

The Guardian

Via Museos Unite's Tumblr, here's a story about a New York magazine special issue featuring the art of museum guards. I think it's wonderful that they have been given this opportunity to express themselves as individuals, not just as silent sullen guardians of something more valuable.
In yesterday's Brown Bag seminar (review to come) we heard about Fred Wilson, an artist, giving museum guards the ability to serve as docents in his museum interventions, but certainly, more needs to be said about the valuable service these people provide to museums. Quite apart from the valuable security service they give (sometimes at their cost, such as the guard killed last year during the shooting at Washington's Holocaust Museum), many of these individuals are among the few museum representatives visitors see during their visits (along with gift shop, cloakroom, information and ticket staff, equally likely to be posessed of only marginal museum training and interests), and because of their presence in the galleries, are most closely associated with the curatorial content therein. In my experience as a visitor, they have been very helpful and informative; many times, I have showed my own engagement with artwork through discussing it with a companion, only to have a guard approach me and let me in on more details about the work or point out something else in the gallery or museum that relates to it or is likely to be interesting to me. As a one-time museum guard myself (worst job ever), I understand the tedium of the endless hours of aimless standing around, the discomfort of having to tell people to step back from the art on the walls, the stigma around the job as visitors (not everyone, but enough to count) assume that I am illiterate or underqualified (whereas in fact I had just finished my MA and was just spinning my wheels in a job marginally associated with my chosen profession). Bravo, Sw!pe Magazine for celebrating the people who keep museums ticking!

Conference: Diaspora Homes

Multiple Belongings: Diaspora and Transnational Homes
The Conference will take place on Friday 21 May at the British Library Conference Centre in London.

The Histories of Home Subject Specialist Network’s Second Annual Conference, Multiple Belongings: Diaspora and Transnational Homes is an exciting opportunity to explore the meanings associated with the material culture of transnational homes from the late eighteenth-century to the present, with a particular emphasis on contemporary homes. Papers will focus on material aspects of setting up home in another country, such as room layouts, furnishings and other possessions and how these are adapted, integrated or negotiated between host nation and place of origin. Wider meanings of home will be explored through concepts of belonging and questions around what and where home is, where and when people “feel at home”.

The conference programme reflects both the interdisciplinary nature of the SSN and the international scope of the theme with a wide range of backgrounds and methodologies represented including religious studies, geography, cultural and architectural history, material culture, ethnology and museology.

Delegate fees are £70/£45 (full-time students), including a light lunch and refreshments.

Programme details and a booking form can be downloaded via
For further information please contact SSN Co-ordinator Krisztina Lackoi on
Krisztina Lackoi
SSN Co-ordinator
Geffrye Museum

New Smithsonian Blog

Would you like to know more about the hidden treasures in the Smithsonian’s libraries, archives, museums, and special collections? Read about highlights from these treasures on the newest Smithsonian blog at

Several times a week, Smithsonian staff will showcase some of their favorites from the fascinating pieces of history they discover in their daily work. We hope you will use the comments to engage in conversations with staff about these featured collections and to share your knowledge with us.

You can access the blog from the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS) at or from the Collections Search Center at

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

CALL FOR PAPERS ICOM / ICMAH Annual International Conference 2010

Shanghai, November 8 - November 10, 2010 Original-Copy-Fake: On the Significance of the Object in History and Archaeology Museums organized by ICOM’s International Committee of Museums and Collection of Archaeology and History ICMAH in cooperation with the Committee for Museums of Archaeology and Sites ¨ of the Chinese Society of Museums CMAS-CSM

“Original - Copy – Fake: On the significance of the object in history and archaeology museums” is the independent conference of ICMAH, ICOM’s International Committee for Museums and Collections of Archaeology and History. It will take place in the context of the ICOM General Conference Shanghai 2010. As one of ICOM’s oldest and largest committees, ICMAH in recent years has taken on the particular mission of examining the public and political status of museums in present times ( ICMAH is delighted to be organising the 2010 Shanghai Conference in cooperation with CMAS-CSM.

ICMAH Shanghai 2010 will be dedicated to the issues involved in working in historical and archaeological museums today, under presentation of the theme Original - Copy – Fake: On the significance of the object in history and archaeology museums – with a programme that addresses the current issues and awareness of the international ICOM audience.

Starting points and objectives of the conference

“Culture of the copy” is the title of a study on the culture of the present launched more than a decade ago by American cultural studies expert Hillel Schwartz. The core theory of this research, which has in the meantime become a “classic”, postulates that in a comprehensive sense our societies are characterised by a “culture of reproduction” that permeates all our areas of life from culture via the media to the natural and life sciences. In this “culture of reproduction”, the image becomes an icon of a culture of the same, a “cloning culture”.

This is and should not be the place to elaborate to what extent Schwartz’s thesis is truly applicable in its totality. But it is a logical and continuative starting point for raising some issues at the 2010 Shanghai ICMAH Conference.

The 2010 ICMAH Conference focuses on an aspect of museum practice that has to date not been the centre of a reflective interest, but is nevertheless very significant for the self-understanding of its own work, namely the dimensions of medial reproduction in museums. In other words: what exactly is the approach to copies and their use in exhibitions and other forms of display?

To what extent is the work in exhibitions and museums, which after all involves the storing and display of the original object, characterised by a “culture of the copy”? And does this approach to copies embody a contradiction with regard to the responsibilities of history and archaeology museums? What role do copies assume in exhibitions and presentations? Is it possible that they prompt an increase in awareness that is not always achievable in this form with originals?

It is important at this stage to remember that the use of copies has a long tradition in museums. Wilhelm von Humboldt, for instance, one of the “forefathers” of the museum concept during the early 19th century, not only defended the use of copies (plaster casts of antique statues, etc.), but actually actively encouraged it. While he did want the spatial separation of original and copy, in order to be able to provide visual access, he felt it was of secondary importance whether this involved an original or a copy. The claim that a museum bears the responsibility to be educational was thus already established as long as 200 years ago. And where are we at today? What significance and function do original and copy have with regard to the duty of a museum to educate and convey knowledge?

The objective of the ICMAH Conference is to contribute to a future systematic contemplation of the original and the copy and to provide interested fellow museum experts with an opportunity to engage in a more in-depth exchange of their experiences in this area of museum work.

The focus will be on these draft contexts, divided into the following four sections:

1. The copy as an exhibit: “representative” or “educational tool”?

This introductory section raises the question of the fundamental significance and possibilities of expression of copies in history museums and exhibitions. By using a selection of “good practice” examples, this is an opportunity for a more in-depth assessment of the relation between an original and a copy. (To what extent) can the copy become a true representative of the original? Is it possible to achieve congruity between original and copy? Does the copy always fall short of the original, is it merely an auxiliary tool? Or does it maybe also open up new possibilities?

2. Loss of the “aura” of the original?

In his analysis “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit” (“The work of art in times of technical reproducibility”), German philosopher Walter Benjamin formulated the dictum that a work of art, through its aura, assumes a stand-alone and unique position. Even if it were to be reproduced a thousand times, ultimately these reproductions could never assume the aura of the original. To this day, the cultural sciences have been impregnated by this dictum. But what is the approach when it comes to historical objects and their reproductions? Is this aura even necessary? To what extent do we work with it? Can and should reproductions maybe acquire an aura after all? These questions underlie that of the role of objects in history exhibitions.

3. Endless reproduction

As museum visitors, we have long become used to the fact that a museum’s key objects or works of art can be found in endless reproductions and variations on a website, in publications or in a museum shop – such as Raphael’s Angel for instance, which features as a popular theme on cushions, T-shirts, pinafores, etc. or the various Mona Lisa displays in the shop of the Paris Louvre, which enjoyed renewed popularity following Dan Brown’s bestseller “Da Vinci Code”.

Museums themselves thus also actively change the status and significance of original objects. What do they actually achieve by doing this? Does this result in a devaluation of the objects? Or, on the contrary, does this increase their value? Are such strategies able to be separated from the approach towards objects in exhibitions?

4. Archaeological displays of original versus copy

This year’s ICMAH Conference is deliberately dedicating an entire section to archaeological museums and exhibitions. This is where in particular and since time immemorial the copy has occupied and still occupies a high place value: be it that copies of excavations, wall paintings, etc. replace valuable and fragile originals in situ, while the latter are accommodated in an – often purpose-built – museum (see Pompeii or the Lascaux Cave, which for conservation reasons was rebuilt on a 1:1 scale), or that the copy replaces the original that has survived only in fragments.

This section aims to present current examples of archaeological presentations. The question will also be examined as to whether in history or archaeology exhibitions there are fundamental differences in practice or whether the approach towards original and copy is mostly shared?

Language(s) of the conference: English (– eventually Chinese: simultaneous translation)

We invite you to support our ICOM / ICMAH Shanghai Conference 2010 with suggestions of how we, as museum professionals, do and should carry out the professional responsibilities placed upon us.

The challenges and problems outlined above will be studied by means of keynotes, panel contributions and case studies from actual museum and exhibition work of recent years.
Marie-Paule Jungblut, President of ICMAH, Rosmarie Beier-de Haan, Secretary General of ICMAH, and ICOM / ICMAH Shanghai 2010 Project Coordinator
Kong Li-Ning (Emperor Qin Shihuang's Terra-cotta Army Museum) invite all ICOM members to attend and actively participate in three days of professional exchange and discussion.

Please submit any suggestions for talks and presentations of case studies by 31 March 2010 to: and

The length of abstracts should not exceed 250 words.

Please also ensure that you indicate your role in the submitted project and include your contact address and all professional details (name, position, address, telephone and fax numbers, email).

Stafforshire Hoard saved

Fans of local history, rejoice - the purchase price of £3.3 million has been met, reports the BBC, so the Staffordshire Hoard will stay in the Midlands.

Connected History

Alas, this very good idea will only be up and running next year, but in the meantime, have a read about this proposed meta-database of history resources.

But is it @rt?

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has acquired the @ symbol into its collection. You can read their blog post about it here. I found this paragraph particularly interesting:
The acquisition of @ takes one more step. It relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore it sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that “cannot be had”—because they are too big (buildings, Boeing 747’s, satellites), or because they are in the air and belong to everybody and to no one, like the @—as art objects befitting MoMA’s collection. The same criteria of quality, relevance, and overall excellence shared by all objects in MoMA’s collection also apply to these entities.
In the first instance, allow me to be pedantic: buildings are musealised all the time as part of heritage services, Google tells me that there is a Boeing 747 in a museum here (if not in many other places), and satellites are also institutionalised as replicas in science museums and space centres. The @ sign is not "in the air". In the second instance, I have an issue with the term "tagging", because it implies a sort of intellectual graffiti over heritage. We all acknowledge things that cannot be had all the time; it's called cultural capital, and it is not museum-worthy. Rather, it is what makes museums tick. Finally, I have an issue with MOMA musealising the @ sign, because it seems like this would be more appropriate for the British Library (if we are going to set about collecting intangible intellectual shorthand; Google tells me that there is an alphabet museum in North Carolina somewhere, but it seems to be classed as a roadside attraction). The blog admits the symbol is hardly modern, and it's not art, so I still don't get it's relevance to the museum's mission.

At the risk of sounding as cranky as I feel, what's next? The ampersand? (No offence to the ampersand, which has a fascinating history.)

PS: Wikipedia informs me that "Other names for the symbol include asperand and alphastratocus." I think "alphastratocus" sounds like a species of dinosaur, which I picture as a cartoon gree lizard thing wearing thick spectacles and reading, obviously.

Art mediation

The Manifesta Workbook is a free, print-on-demand art mediation resource. Manifesta biennials set out to investigate, develop and reflect on new aspects of contemporary art, specifically within a European context. Education, in the broadest sense of the word, is not an additional program for Manifesta; it is at the core of how Manifesta works. During the biennial exhibitions, but also with such projects as the Manifesta Journal and now the Manifesta Workbook, we strive to create meaningful, long-term cultural dialogue and to build strong links between European and international artists and art audiences. The Manifesta Workbook is a growing resource aimed at facilitating access to the various approaches to art mediation, as developed during the successive Manifesta biennials. In keeping with the literal sense of its name, the Workbook is intended as a tool to help open debate, rather than as a theoretical reference book on the subject of art mediation. The Workbook is organised as an expanding collection of non-linear chapters, able to be downloaded separately. Each of these chapters addresses a topical subject in the field of art mediation and includes a hands-on assignment. This provides you with a platform for discussion, including inspirational ideas for developing art mediation projects and practical guidelines as how to put developed skills and knowledge into practice.
Gallery Education – or preferably Art Mediation – today is a vibrant field. Throughout the visual arts sector one can observe a proliferation of education-based practices. Old methods and prejudices are being cast aside, sparking a strong debate on the role and function of education in exhibition settings. To date relatively little material has been available to open up this discussion to a wider audience. With the Workbook Manifesta hopes to create a growing platform for the development and exchange of methods for art mediation. As such Manifesta will open up the platform by inviting guest contributions by our colleagues working at other biennials, museums and other art mediation contexts. So;
— Are you an art mediator or student and would you like hands-on material to complement your theory books? What are you waiting for? Start downloading right away, and keep an eye out for new chapters as they become available.
— Are you an artist or curator, and is education and audience inclusion part of your practice? Scan the contents based on those keywords that most interest you. Our subject matter, methodologies and discursive models are certainly not exclusively reserved for art mediators.
— Are you director or manager of an art institution and are you wondering what all the fuss is about? Help your education team by discovering how relevant and recognisable some of the subjects may be for your own practice.
— Are you nonetheless interested in mediating between art and its audience? You are more than welcome to use the Workbook in whatever fashion or situation you wish (and please send us an email about it, since we are most interested in how the Workbook can be used in different ways).
The Workbook is available at:

Monday, March 22, 2010

Brown Bag Seminar Series: Wed 24th March 2010

This week's Brown Bag comes from Wendy Earle at the British Film Institute,

"Audience Appeal
Museums, technology and cultural policy in the 21st century

Culture Online was a unique government funded project with a transformative vision to use online digital technologies to make the assets of publicly funded cultural institutions more accessible to a wider public. Every Object Tells a Story was an innovative museum-based project to engage audiences online, initiated by the V&A and funded by Culture Online. At the heart of both projects was the commitment to using the opportunities represented by online digital technologies to engage wider audiences and encouraging audience participation in cultural activity. However, each project took a very different starting point and the contrast between them raises some interesting issues about the problems and possibilities of audience engagement in the museum and archive sector which I will explore in this presentation."

We hope you'll come along! Usual place (School of Museum Studies), usual time (1pm).

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Essen restores 'world's most beautiful' museum

Museum Folkwang in Essen, recently restored by star architect David Chipperfield, has recreated for the first time the collection it housed prior to the Nazi period. DW spoke with museum director Hartwig Fischer.

And you can see the interview here

British Library Higher Education Forum

British Library HE Forum 2010

An introduction to our 2010 HE Forum

In April, we will be travelling around the UK and Ireland, to present and discuss the future of British Library services for the UK and Ireland HE sector. Come along, hear our ideas and join the debate. The sessions are free and are aimed at those within the HE university sector, who are interested in our document supply services

Below is an agenda for the sessions*

10.30 Registration Opens

11.00 Welcome and Introductions Barry Smith, Head of Sales and Marketing

11.10 The future development of the British Library’s document supply service Barry Smith, Head of Sales and Marketing

11.40 An introduction to the new British Library resource management platform David Hughes, Subscriptions Manager

12.00 Lunch

12.40 EThOS – a year in review and ideas for future directions. Barry Smith, Head of Sales and Marketing

13.30 The development of the UK Research Reserve Pavan Ramrakha, Business Development Manager for the HE sector

13.50 Thanks and close

*The timings for our Edinburgh session will differ from those outlined above to co- inside with the close of the UKSG conference. This session will begin at 14.00 and close at around 16.30, with a tea and coffee break.

Events will take place at the following venues:

* Belfast: Wednesday 7 April The Merchant Hotel
* Dublin: Thursday 8 April Wood Quay
* Edinburgh: Wednesday 14 April EICC * Please note timing alterations
* Cardiff: Monday 19 April Cardiff Castle, Guest Tower Suite
* Birmingham: Tuesday 20 April The Barber Institute
* London: Monday 26 April The British Library Conference Centre
* Leeds: Thursday 29 April 42 The Calls

To book a place, email, indicating which session you would like to attend.

Places are limited and will be issued on a first come, first served basis.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill - Building Design

Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill - Building Design

Well here's something for you. A Strawberry Hill, a Mad Collector, and the V&A.

It makes me think about how values change. What once was left to ruin is now a heritage site. The articles he collected which were once so scandalous, are now almost comic.

There are some values, however, which I can never see changing. See this interesting set of links to a set of interesting books!

History for Chocoholics

Left Coast Press, Inc. Fifth Anniversary Sale-- 30% discount through March 21

Left Coast Press, Inc. was launched on March 16, 2005. Believe it or not, we are now celebrating our fifth birthday. After five years, we have approximately 250 books in print, 9 journals, 3 videos, and a staff of roughly a dozen humans + a chief canine officer. In thanks for supporting us through the past half decade, we are holding a book sale for our customers, authors, and friends. Buy any Left Coast book from our website this week, from March 18-March 21, and it will be 30% off the list price.

Especially check out the Museum Studies & Practice section for titles like John Falk, /Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience/; D. Lynn McRainey & John Russick, /Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions/; N. Elizabeth Schlatter, /Museum Careers: A Practical Guide for Students and Novices/ and more!

Caveats? There are always caveats:

* Orders have to be placed through our website and ordered through our US distributor.

* When clicking the shopping cart, select Chicago Distribution Center.

* Customers outside the US will have to pay international postage.

* Plug in the discount code L1110 at checkout to claim the discount.

*If you hit the Update key on that same page, it will show the correct discount.

Thanks to all of you for your unflagging support.

Mitch Allen, Publisher

Off with her head!

Apropos of our Nottingham Galleries of Justice Museum visit last weekend, and the Brown Bag seminar on Wednesday, is this article about a guillotine finally going on display in France. Why? Well, it has finally become a museum object, in the sense that it isn't being used any more. The model on display is the last intact one remaining in mainland France, and apparently, it was being used up until 1981. The article also poses some interesting questions about the interpretation (or lack thereof) of justice systems, something that has kept coming up in discussion this week among us.

Friday rant

A recent trip to Nottingham Castle inspired this rant, which I have also blogged about if you can stomach reading a lengthy and medieval-history-obsessed review *grin*

Okay my rant is this - museums and art galleries only selling postcards of their more popular work and neglecting the more obscure works, which, surprise surprise are not possible to find anywhere else. And even worse selling postcards of artworks that are not even in their collections and stocking these postcards and taking up space for artworks which are in their collections and are not even represented on a postcard. Picture the scene - you wander around a collection of artworks, one in particular catches your eye and you think it will be nice to have a small memento of it. Since it is by an obscure artist or of local relevance there is no chance in hell that you will be able to find it in a book or even on the Internet except with extreme patience and looking through potentially reams of images. You would expect (quite rightly) that the museum or art gallery has a role to play here in enabling visitors to have copies of aforesaid obscure artworks because they know that it will drive them mad trying to find a copy anywhere else. Not that a postcard is necessary for successful living but it is good to have interesting and inspiring artworks either at home or in the office (and in the cold stark walls of my office postcards are the only thing that livens it up). However imagine when you get to the shop to find a copy of the painting that so captured your eye only to find postcards of paintings that DO NOT EVEN BELONG TO THE GALLERY masquerading as souvenirs!!! It is not right or proper. Okay okay there are sound commercial reasons for catering for conventional tastes but you can buy pictures of the Pre-Raphelites anywhere and everywhere! It's not everywhere that I am going to be able to get a copy of Judith holding Holofene's head as shown in Nottingham art gallery. The same thing happened in the National Portrait Gallery when I had a good long list of about 6 postcards to find and I could not find any of them because the shelves were filled with postcards of Kate Moss and the Queen! The same Kate Moss and the Queen who appear in countless magazines and newspapers, we can hardly move for pictures of these two and yet the NPG sees fit to produce even more of their likenesses to add to the Kate Moss and Queen mountain we already have. I managed to walk round the entire gallery as well without having to encounter any images of these over-hyped personages too.

So this is a plea to museums and art galleries everywhere. Please can you make postcards of your more obscure works as well as your more popular works. I guess there will be the usual spiel about economics yadda yadda but I am sure I am not the only person who doesn't want pictures of just the famous stuff. And please if museums and galleries have to sell stuff that does not belong in their collections can they hide it in a special section so I don't see it and get annoyed because there is more about the Pre-Raphelites in a museum which has no Pre-Raphelites FROM WHAT I COULD SEE. Maybe I missed them because I was too busy looking for what was unusual and special. Sorry.

Science, museums and Venn diagrams

People who know me know that I can be a bit of a science geek at times. My twitter account feeds in as many science related tweets as it does museum ones. But sometimes a tweet pops up which sits nicely between the two, and those are some of the ones I like the best. (Obviously, being a geek, this is represented in my head by a Venn diagram.)

In the last week or so the New Scientist has been getting in on the act, and I was very pleased to get notices of the following three image galleries. First, and probably closest to my heart, was Natural history museums - a photographer's playground, with an eclectic and provocative collection of photographs, including artefacts on display, stored behind the scenes, and in the process of being displayed.

Next was Behind the scenes at Kew Gardens, which shows the importance of collections and archives in other organisations, and also raises the question of the place of living things within the museum world and of the crossovers between museums, archives, and botanical gardens (and another Venn diagram?).

Lastly (for the moment at least) was Art through instability: how drawings move the brain, which looks at some of the fantastic drawings by Hokusai and other 18th & 19th century Japanese artists, and the ways that they lead to our brains perceiving motion.

It's incredibly important to remember the work (including, but not limited to, storage, cataloguing, research, communication and inspiration) that museums do for science, especially in the area of natural history, but also in helping us to understand ourselves as humans and our place in the world more generally. So I say "Hurrah!" for the New Scientist, and long may museums, art and science nestle in the cosy space in the middle of their Venn diagram.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Critics Rave...

As you all know,
The views expressed by contributors to The Attic are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Museum Studies.
but we nevertheless are thrilled to have the personal (and public!) praise of our Director and Head of Department, Professor Dr Richard Sandell, who writes:
The (frequently minxey) postings on The Attic blog are set to become my new guilty pleasure.
Check out his Twitter here, and follow the leader!

City Gallery Modifications

Here are some of the new plans for the City Gallery. Recently, it moved from Granby Street, and the new proposed site is New Walk. There will be a meeting at the town hall on the 29th March when the council discuss the plans. I wondered what you all thought, and thought myself that such local events are also worth highlighting.

TV reminder

Don't forget to watch the new behind-the-scenes documentary on BBC tonight about the Natural History Museum, starting at 8pm. Here are some pretty pictures to whet your appetite.

Historical Heist

Remember Isabella Stewart Gardner, the star of our second Museum Hot or Not? The thefts that took place in her museum 20 years ago are still considered one of the greatest art heists in history, as they remain unsolved and the pieces are still missing. A great overview can be found here (also check out the BBC radio programme), and I can attest to the fact that the museum does an excellent job of interpreting the thefts of the now-missing works.

Young Curators

Look, kids! Museum work is fun! It's hip! People under 40 do it (even if they'd rather be making a film or pushing art prices up at Sotheby's...)! Check out the sexy bright young things profiled (with only a little sarcasm) by the New York Times here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Obscura Day

This Saturday is 'Obscura Day' in which strange places, landscapes and institutions are celebrated and, a quick question - tell me your obscure places, and if you were hosting a day there, what you would do. This applies both in Leicester and further afield...

Looking forward to it!

Brown Bag Seminar, Wednesday 17th March 2010

Jane Samuels, Access and Diversity Manager, British Museum

'The British Museum Prison Collaborations, 2005 - 2009'

Three prison projects, beginning in 2005, had the key objectives of allowing a socially excluded group access to the museum objects, and putting the BM in the role of an agent of social change. The Throne of Weapons and Pharmacopia were used in Pentonville and Holloway prisons as a means of combating social inequality, using touch and handling to give the participants respect for the objects, and increasing their respect for themselves.

Pentonville Prison had only one counsellor for 1200 prisoners, and most of the population stayed in their cells for twenty three hours of the day. In Holloway, more than 50% of the female prisoners were on anti-psychotic drugs, 55% of them had a child under sixteen, and 30% of them self harmed. Many women have much emotional baggage, and frequently have to continue to deal with the external administration of their life, which is less common in men.

The projects aimed to engage approximately fifteen participants, and employed artists, prison staff, and curatorial and access staff from the British Museum. The exhibits lasted for a month, and each project lasted for a fortnight. They ended with an exhibition or sharing and performative event. In the current climate, the restrictions which are imposed upon activity in prisons are becoming more and more stringent. This had a huge impact upon how the museum could engage with the inmates, and it was a huge learning curve for both the prisons and the museum. In Pentonville Prison, the regulations were so strict that a group photograph had to be taken using painted portraits, in order that they didn't reveal their identity. Though many of the prisoners were using drugs in the prison, giving them access to biscuits and juice was a huge diplomatic problem. It is both ironic and very sad, then, that the project came to an end because a member of prison staff, who was a very productive and driving force behind the project, was found to be a drug user.

The Throne of Weapons comes from Mozambique. In 1977 the civil war broke out, and didn't end until 1992. It was devastating. In 1995, the Transforming Arms into Tools amnesty attempted to go towards rebuilding society. It was in response to this that the Throne was created from decommissioned AK47s by the artists Kester.

The idea was to use the Throne as a means of discussing and debating the themes of crime, violence, loss and death with the participants. Initially they swallowed the curatorial interpretation that the Throne was about peace and reconciliation, but many of them came to reconsider it as a glorification of weapons. There was an astonishing variety and unpredictability of responses towards it.

Seeing some of the pictures of the prisoners and hearing their stories is often painful. But there was, overall, a real positive engagement with the project. Strikingly, the prison teacher said that it enabled them to 'act like human beings' - which surely is a crucial thing in prisoner rehabilitation.

Cradle to Grave, created by Pharmacopeia, represented the life of individuals through the medium of their medication. A version of this was used to discuss life and heath, health and wellbeing and drug use in Pentonville. The respondents, including prisoners and staff were encouraged to use the exhibit to reengage with their own personal timelines, placing post-it notes at particular points. This enabled reminiscence and discussion around traumatic events.

When the project moved to Holloway, the same sort of issues were discussed, although there was a far greater emphasis upon family and children. For many of them, especially those in prison for the protection of the public, their future was unclear - some didn't know when, or even if, they would be freed, and often these were the most dedicated participants. One prisoner commented that they never finished anything in prison, and the fact that they were able to create tangible outcomes, in the form of a bag, was incredible for many of them. An interesting comment upon the importance that cultural engagement retains even in these circumstances. The timeline concept which was used in Pentonville was crucial, allowing for the discussion of previously unexpressed life experience. Here, there was a lot more conversation than at Pentonville, suggesting that it was a the social, rather than the creative aspect, which was critical. The situations of the two prisons were clearly very different, and the engagement of the inmates with the project at Holloway was based around the idea that they would be able to express themselves and be listened to. And many of the things they expressed, therefore, were dark and traumatic things which they had never before revealed.

While there were differences in the ways the participants reacted, some of the project outcomes were more general. They were exposed to stimuli and influences which they would not otherwise have had. Being allowed to handle objects, technical equipment and artistic materials allowed them to feel valued and productive. They were listened to, by artists selected deliberately because they were non-judgemental. They had a reason to get up, get out of their cells. Hierarchies in the prison, between the prisoners, the staff and the museum were broken down, and a camaraderie was built up. That amongst the responses came the comment that they were allowed to feel human again, shows the deep emotional power of the projects.

At the presentation, we were shown a video, inspired by the Throne of Weapons, one of the outputs of the projects. It was entirely the product of the prisoners, and they must retain the credit for it. All the storyboarding, the poetry, music and images were produced by them. It is an incredibly moving piece, shedding light on the life of the prisoners and giving them a voice. It has since been frequently shown at the British Museum.

How is such a project finished or sustained? These things need to be long term to be successful, but much of that is clearly down to funding and willingness. The projects are problematical, in terms of the institutional requirements and regulations, the British Museum's ability and knowledge, and the attitude and behavior of the participants.But they are so vital and crucial that they cannot be ignored. Such projects must continue, and I for one would advocate them.

We were all, I think, profoundly moved by Jane's presentation. Deeply affecting as hearing about them is, these are projects whose long term impacts are hard to assess. Both Pentonville and Holloway are holding prisons, and the prisoners either move on or return to the outside. The projects didn't match with the quantitative assessment frameworks of governments and institutions. But I think that most people will agree that it is not, perhaps, upon measuring those results upon which we should concentrate. You cannot reduce to quantitative data the joy and hope, and the evidence of hidden, and deep, intelligence, which being allowed to engage with such a project can provide.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Historical Hot or Not V

Today's submission for your aesthetic consideration is Lord Elgin; yes, that Lord Elgin, of the marbles in the British Museum. Here is a portrait of him before that now-politically-incorrect historical episode.

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin (1766-1841), by George Perfect Harding, after Anton Graff, 1787, NPG. and detail (below):He's rather debonair, leaning on his stick like that. Plus, he still has his nose here (syphilis hadn't quite taken its toll yet). So, Hot or Not? Or Naughty?

Imperial War museum serves food eaten in Britain during WWII's rationing period

came across this on one of the blogs i follow... it made me think of a discussion we had at Tea in the Attic once

there may be no mention of vodka to make things taste better but hey lets just add some tatties!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Caves, coifs and costumes: A trip to Nottingham

On Saturday a group of six (sometimes eight) Museum Studies students (and honorary members of the group) visited three of the most famous tourist attractions in Nottingham; the Galleries of Justice, Nottingham Castle Museum, and Brewhouse Yard Museum of Nottinghamshire Life. It would have been four if we had made it to the City of Caves attraction as well but unfortunately that had to be jettisoned in an otherwise very tightly packed schedule! After an uneventful journey by train (phew) we started our day at the Galleries of Justice. Situated in the picturesque Lace Market, the current building which has become the Galleries of Justice, the former Shire Hall, was built in 1770 on the site of much older buildings, dating back to the Middle Ages.

The mellow stone of the court house contrasts with the ultramodern 'Nottingham Contemporary' arts centre which has just opened down the road (we could not decide if it looked more like a DIY store, warehouse or a chicken shed). After buying our tickets, and admiring the statue of Robin Hood in the entrance of the Galleries, we were surprised by the entrance of a man in a dress and carrying a long sword... it turned out to be the Sheriff of Nottingham, who roundly insulted us, told us a few historical inaccuracies about the gibbet hanging from the ceiling (which is only for DEAD people not alive people as tour guides like to keep saying) and then dragged us to the court room for a sham trial involving Robin Hood and a couple of browbeaten witnesses (including yours truly who gave an impassioned speech in defence of Robin Hood). Robin Hood also unwittingly provided the first truly hysterical moment of the day when he attempted to climb up the side of the court room to escape the dastardly (but ineffectual) Sheriff and fell off. Spared execution we were nonetheless banished to prison beneath the court room where we met the 18th century Turnkey; paid no wages the turnkey basically exploited prisoners by charging them for food, blankets, buckets... even for sleeping on the floor! This was changed in the 19th century when prison reformers such as Elizabeth Fry began 'sticking their noses in' and sacked men like the turnkey, bringing in discipline, cleaner cells and salaried staff. The Shire Hall's prison was actually condemned and closed later in the 19th century which suggests it must have been absolutely horrible. After looking round the wash-house we headed downstairs to look at the 'Sheriff's dungeon', an oubliette where poor unfortunates would be thrown down and essentially 'forgotten' about. Out in the exercise (and execution) yard we met a third interpreter, a prison ward from the 19th century. Much stricter than his 18th century counterpart he had us all marching round the yard in a line in a very similar fashion to how the prisoners would have done. It was quite chilling considering that they would have done this in silence, and was not helped by the gory fact that we had been marching over the bones of executed criminals! The graffiti in the courtyard was also poignant, carved by prisoners awaiting their execution.

More cells and dark pits later, we found ourselves in the Transportation Gallery, followed by the HM Prison Services exhibition which showed examples of prisons through the ages, artwork made by prisoners, examples of costume and, most fascinating of all, items that have been swallowed by prisoners to enable them to go into hospital. This included dentures and a fork of all things. The most poignant was a room of photographs of prisoners, in contrast to a system which dehumanizes people, robs them of their identity and turns them into a number it was fascinating to see the very people we had just been 'assuming' through the interpretation process. It reminded me that beneath the sensationalism and emphasis on the barbarity of the past existed real people who had many reasons for involving themselves in criminal activity, a side which is not explored so much as the system they became a part of. Nevertheless the exhibition asks some important questions and the display about a hanging is very moving, if mostly for the factual voiceover by the 'hangman' who carried out his hanging and then went and had his breakfast.

Emerging into the sunlight was very welcoming after the oppressive surroundings of the Galleries, although they are an amazing and fascinating survival. I certainly can't think of any other courthouse/prison complexes left, although there are quite a few prisons open to visiting like Lincoln and Kilmainham in Dublin. Our curiosity further sated by the temporary Robin Hood exhibition, we went to seek lunch in the city centre. Then on to the Castle!

Nottingham castle has always been a disappointment to me, the actual real castle that took part in so many important Medieval decisions and events bulldozed down after the Civil War to make way for some effete country house for the Duke of Newcastle. Still it is an interesting venue for a museum with extensive grounds which must look much better in the Summer when there is actually some foliage. Fuelled by the Robin Hood connection, four of the group bought Merry Man hats and we had a wander around the grounds in the sun (obviously the dank and dark of the prisons were still bothering us) and looked at the beautiful views of Nottingham and the hills beyond. It is easy to forget in the city that there is countryside not too far away. Once inside the museum we poked around the galleries, looked at some textiles and tried to work out the theme of the hanging in the art gallery, which was very jumbled mixing 19th century landscapes with contemporary artworks showing the Bosnian conflict and people wandering over fields of skeletons. It was disconcerting to say the least. One of the most interesting paintings was a picture of Judith holding the head of Holofernes, the expression on Judith's face was incredibly calm which is not something I would have felt whilst carrying a severed head. The local history galleries were a brief diversion and it was hard to find anything to say about them other than they remind me of almost every single local history museum I have ever been to. It is crying out for a re-vamp to be honest.

Then came the best part of the day. I find it hard now to write about my excitement without sounding like an incredibly sad geeky person but that is the price I have to pay. As we went into the Castle I noticed that they did tours. Not just any tour but a tour into Mortimer's Hole, only one of the most important caves in Medieval history (apart from Robert the Bruce's cave where he watched the spider). For those readers who don't know who this Mortimer is - and since no-one on the tour knew I imagine there are quite a few - I better explain myself. Anyway I am pretty obsessed with medieval history and one of the most compelling stories for me has always been Edward II, the man who most historians (as well as his contemporaries) think shouldn't have been a king. Unlike his warlike father he was much more interested in swimming, thatching and giving his jewels to male favourites like Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser. The barons managed to get rid of Gaveston (executing him) but when Edward went and gave all his attention to Despenser and his father (ignoring their wiser counsel of course) he didn't only annoy his barons this time. Edward's wife Isabella often had to encounter the shame of being ignored for her husband's best friends (and rumoured lovers) and she hated Despenser especially, who treated her with contempt. Fed up, she took as her lover Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, one of the great Anglo-Welsh barons who were more or less a law unto themselves. She and Mortimer plotted to depose Edward II, which according to the history books they managed, executing the Despensers and locking Edward up in Berkerley Castle in Gloucestershire. Unable to kill him - they tried putting him in a cell next to a pit of rotting animals but his constitution was amazingly strong - they murdered him instead with a red hot poker applied to the innards so that there would be no mark on the body. Whilst historians like Paul Doherty believe that Edward actually escaped to Italy (for which there is compelling proof) the belief at the time was that he had died during his imprisonment. Isabella and Mortimer proclaimed that they would rule as regents for her eldest son, Edward III. As he got older he became fed up with Isabella and Mortimer's posturing and unpopularity, as well as the fact they murdered his father, so decided to do something about it. Edward built up his support and news soon reached the adulterous couple that he was planning to rise against them. They fled to Nottingham and secured themselves inside the castle. Paul Doherty in his book Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II (2003) London, Constable, relates how Edward was encouraged to strike against Mortimer; "It would be better to eat the dog than let the dog eat us" (160). Making use of a secret entrance through cave passages hewed out of the rock upon which the castle sits, Edward and his supporters made their way up into the castle, where Mortimer was having a meeting to discuss (ironically) the capture of the traitors against them. Doherty writes:

'The noise of the attacking force brought this council to an abrupt end... A short but very violent dagger fight broke out on the stairs. [One man] had his brains dashed out; another... was cut down. The rest surrendered. Mortimer had barred the door and was busy arming himself when the King, Montague and their party burst in. Mortimer and Beresford put up a short struggle but were arrested immediately. Henry Burghesh, Bishop of Lincoln, made a vain and inglorious attempt to escape down a privy but got stuck and was hauled out. Isabella threw herself at her son's feet, screaming 'Ayez pitie! Ayez pitie a gentil Mortimer!' (161)

Edward was all for dispatching Mortimer there and then but he was convinced to be a proper king and allow the lord to be tried by his peers. Plus that kind of tyranny had got his father into trouble. Mortimer was taken from the castle to Leicester and then to London where he was executed as a traitor at Tyburn. Isabella was kept under house arrest for the rest of her life.

Those pivotal events in British history happened right inside where the museum is now and on the tour you can go down and see what is known as 'Mortimer's Hole', the passageway which Edward's supporters sneaked up to get into the castle proper. It is not clear whether Mortimer ever made it down this hole - on the tour it is claimed that the Marcher lord was dragged down here before his journey to London - but it makes an evocative scene to imagine the proud and brutal Mortimer being dragged down the narrow passageway with Isabella screaming for her son to take pity on him.

Apparently Mortimer haunts the passageway, although I seem to remember that Isabella has also been heard, her screams echoing around. The caves themselves are certainly dramatic enough to warrant such stories. They are entirely man-made and connect the castle to a vast labyrinth of caves that have been hollowed out across the city, the soft, salt-encrusted sandstone rock - which crumbles with the softest of touches - making it relatively easy to 'dig your own hole' as some people did to live in. The tour of the caves was also interesting for getting a flavour of the turbulent history of the Castle.

As well as the aforesaid incident with Mortimer, it was one of 'bad King John's' favourite castles (from the walls of which he cruelly hung the hostage children of Welsh lords), it saw action in the Civil War before being knocked down and rebuilt as a pleasure palace by the Duke of Newcastle. His house was in turn burnt down by Nottingham citizens protesting against the Reform Bill in the early 19th century and the Duke was so incensed by this act of rebellion that he left the Castle ruined and gutted as a symbol of his displeasure. The City Council eventually bought it and restored it as the museum and art gallery we see today. What I found interesting on the tour was that there are still quite a few remnants of the Medieval castle scattered around including the site of the drawbridge, the dry moat and storage areas under the ground, which in legend was also used to hold prisoners such as King David of Scotland. As the very enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guide pointed out however it was unlikely that someone of his stature would have been kept underground. Still it makes a good story. BTW this tour of the castle is a MUST SEE and proved to be the highlight of the day for most of our group.

The passage leading down from Mortimer's Hole impressed me with its length, and it seemed a long time before we emerged into the sunlight again in Brewhouse yard and our final stop, the Museum of Nottinghamshire life. This small-ish museum (for which admission is included as part of the ticket for Nottingham Castle) is housed in 17th century cottages next to the Medieval Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem pub and traces the social history of the city through a mixture of displays and reconstructed shop fronts / insides. Some of the objects were pretty horrific including a bizarre looking birthing stool and what looked like a torture device for making marcel waves in hair. The shops were the most fascinating for me, particularly an old cash register with the big metal buttons which I had to try very very hard not to press them down (although it looked like someone had not been able to resist the temptation!)

There were yet even more caves, which people used to live in and even drank tea and ate cake in. Museum and cave fatigue began to set in, besides which the museum was also closing, so it was a relatively quick visit before we went in search of some tea and cake of our own.

A successful trip to Nottingham and one that will be chiefly remembered by me for finally getting to see Mortimer's Hole, a cave that has until that day been merely a picture in a book. It reminds me of the significance that can be attached to seeing an object, a picture or a place for real, the abstract impression you get from a book no substitute for really standing on the site where history happened.