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.

Monday, February 28, 2011

CFP: ICOM Museum Education


Zagreb, Croatia,16-21 September 2011


quality criteria for museum education

Call for Abstracts: 15th April, 2011.

The aim of the conference is to discuss criteria for quality in museum education. What do we mean by "good" museum education? When it is good, does it mean that we are necessarily successful in what we do?

What do we mean by standards of museum education? How does the global crisis influence the quality of museum education? While some experience dramatic changes due to the crisis, for others the crisis is a permanent condition.

How do we adapt or fail to preserve the quality of our programs if and when a crisis is actually a permanent condition?

We are also interested in considering issues related to "good" education for museum educators / teachers. How have training programs for Museum Education evolved in recent decades?

How have these changes been reflected in the performance of education?

Do we perform "special education" in museums, or are we involved in a broader field of "cultural education"?

How can we help those who have no formal training in museum education to work as professional educators?

Are there links between the motivation of professionals and the quality of museum education?

CALL FOR ABSTRACTS: If you are interested in contributing to this international and interdisciplinary conference, please fill in the form and submit it by 15th April, 2011.

Further information: please contact directly ORGANIZERS Croatian National Committee of ICOM

tel: 00385 1 4881 106

fax: 00385 1 4881 119

Or go to:

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Brown Bag 23rd February 2011
Attic Review
“Reanimating Cultural Heritage”
Digital Repatriation, Knowledge Networks, and Civil Society Strengthening in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone
Dr. Paul Basu

Dealing with societal reconstruction after a trauma – whether that be human conflict or natural disaster – is always difficult, and raises many moral and ethical dilemmas. In the day-to-day practical issues which accompany the rehabilitation of countries and societies, regaining access to food, water, and infrastructure can overshadow any kind of attempt to revitalise the cultural life and heritage of the community. Particularly if this is already a community with a troubled and tangled cultural past.

Such is the case with Sierra Leone, as Paul Basu made plain to us in his fascinating seminar presentation this week. Having recently emerged from civil war, Sierra Leone is a country full of difficult negotiations and issues, and often appears at the lowest rung of the World Bank’s economic table. In the Euro-American imagination it often portrayed in a very negative light; images of child soldiers, poverty and mass graves are all too familiar. It is a country in need of rehabilitation, both in terms of its own internal functioning, and in its appearance on the international stage.

It is the potential role of cultural heritage in this re-visioning which the Beyond Text ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ Project seeks to answer. Is there a place for cultural heritage institutions, such as a museum, in a society where just staying alive can be hard enough? If there is, how can that presence be best utilized, and in what form should it make itself known?

Answers to such questions are, of course, highly context dependent, and so in order to give some background to the project, it is important to understand the situational case of Sierra Leone. Paul, therefore, enlightened us as to the polyvocality of this cultural context, and its various ‘mnemonic modes’ in particular. Multiple modalities of memory, memorialisation, and heritage awareness operate in every locale, and in Sierra Leone the case is no different. This particular situation is in fact extremely complex, for we have to recognise community based knowledges, gained through ethnographic works and the recording of oral histories, the way in which landscape functions as a memorial resource, the nature, location, and interpretation of material culture objects, and acts of colonial memorialisation amongst other ‘mnemonic modes’. Neither are these modes delineated clearly and distinctly from each other. Rather, they operate in a very entangled way, resulting in a palimpsestual memorial landscape where identities, ideals, ideas and interpretations are constantly shifting and undergoing renegotiation, and where context and juxtapositions matter.

Dealing with these complexities is seemingly hard enough, but in the particular case of Sierra Leone the situation is further problematised, as Paul notes, by the lack of attention and resources which are presently, and have historically been, focussed on the project of preserving and valuing of cultural heritages. During the colonial and early post-colonial periods, Sierra Leone, unlike other African countries such as Ghana or Nigeria, was not commonly deemed to have an ‘artistic tradition’ as such. Memorial sites, as far as the early records of the Monuments and Relics Commission are concerned, tend to be focussed upon sites of colonialism and the slave trade, rather than on sites of importance to the people. Historically, very little attention has been paid to the cultural heritage of the country by its own authorities – the National Museum of Sierra Leone, for instance, was founded only in the 1950s, with limited collections, resources and rationale, and very little has changed since. Heritage played only a small role in the country’s independence movement, and much of it's historical material culture has been dispersed.

Conversely, however, there is what Paul terms an ‘embarrassment of riches’ located in museums around the world, including the partners of RCH such as the British Museum, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, and Glasgow Museums. The international spread and quantity of content of the Sierra Leonean objects is vast, and it seems appropriate, then, to use the languages of migration studies, particularly the word ‘diaspora,’ to talk about them. The RCH project seeks not only to contribute to the rehabilitation of countries, but also to the rehabilitation of terms. Revisiting the meanings and connotations of ‘diaspora’ can allow the concept to broaden. So frequently the primary discussions around the concept have been rooted in the desire to return, the feeling of being dislocated and desiring home. However, to be part of a ‘diaspora’, as Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy have noted, need not be such a negative thing, for it can be a ‘hybrid space of future possibility’(1) in which objects can form new identities-in-context, create dialogic spaces, and bring benefits to their former, and current, host communities. Objects have the ability to create links, engender the telling of stories, and create pathways of communication which are both material and intangible.

How, then, are the object diaspora and the reconstruction of Sierra Leone to be brought together? How is the country to be made able to use these dispersed resources to gain ‘remittances’ for itself, but also to give back to the wider world, culturally and intellectually? It is this question which the digital heritage element of the RCH Project aims to fulfil. The creation of a network of linked online resources related to Sierra Leonean objects, as one of the outcomes of the project, creates the potential for wider access to object information, for the reciprocal sharing of knowledges and information, and for the juxtaposition of objects with pieces of data such as audio or film which go ‘beyond text’ to make meaning. In terms of creating community, a Facebook site, currently being developed, is intended to be a space of dialogue and comment. Whilst the online infrastructure of Sierra Leone remains limited, the project is encouraging its development, using cultural heritage as an excuse through which to engage with other programmes of digital literacy, community building, and education, such as iEARN, or the British Museum’s Africa Programme, for example. Through such projects, the value of cultural heritage is increased almost as a by-product, making the museum, and the internet, into spaces which have multiple beneficial outputs.

Of course, there are many problems associated with such a project. Many of the objects, Viv pointed out, have difficult and complicated histories, and in different contexts appear highly positive, or disturbingly negative. These complexities, Basu argues, should not be ignored, and if objects do have traumatic, ‘demonic’ elements to their biographies, these should be acknowledged alongside their positive qualities. Likewise, the complexity of meaning extends to the language of the project itself; Ross focussed particularly upon the connotative issues surrounding the word ‘repatriation’, which Paul recognised as a problematic term. To use such phrases, ‘repatriation’ and ‘diaspora’ especially, we need to clearly reconceptualise how they might be seen to mean, which, as noted earlier, is in one sense what the RCH project aims to do. There are also complex practical issues which have arisen – the translation of media formats between the various institutions, the accessibility of information to museums and the cultural communities, have all provided various problems which the project has had to overcome, and in some cases is still dealing with.

But there is, overall, one rather large question. This project has not stemmed from the Sierra Leonean community itself, and there has been very little interest or input in the cultural heritage elements of their reconstruction. Therefore, it behoves us to question the appropriateness of a project such as ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage.’ Is it a form of cultural imperialism to use the ideas of ‘museum’ and ‘heritage’ as they are valued in the West in a context in which they may not have such importance or meaning? Does the project, Paul asks, have a right to intervene in this society? Being so questioned, the project has built into itself a continual critique and reflective questioning of its aims, purpose, and methodology. The question of the project’s appropriateness is something which Paul struggles with each day, and any decision made upon it, whether it results in intervention or otherwise, is bound to have moral and ethical implications.
It is wise of us all to ask such questions. When cultures come into contact, presuppositions abound on both sides, and the question becomes one of power and authority. It might appear that museums and the internet can act as fora in which dialogue – reciprocal and polyvocal – can occur, but how much are these fora the already mediated products of a particular society, is worth foregrounding and speculating upon.

These are large questions, and perhaps the point here is to recognise them, but also to recognise the potential good which can come out of such a project, which is of course convened without colonial intent in mind. ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ is a project which I, and many others hope, will go some significant way to helping museums gain access to information, for objects to regain lost stories and build their biographies, and for the people of Sierra Leone to come to terms with a past of trauma, and work towards a positive future.

Thank you Paul. You’ve interested, entertained, and enlightened us. Good luck with the rest of the project, and we hope you’ll keep us up to date on how it is progressing.

1. Paul Basu, ‘Object Diasporas, Resourcing Communities: Sierra Leonean Collections in the Global Museumscape’, Museum Anthropology, 34(1) 2011, Forthcoming, p.4

CFP: Museums and National Identity

The Museum 2011. Building Identity: The Making of National Museums and Identity Politics
16-18 November 2011

Taipei, Taiwan

Papers for this conference are solicited on history and theory, empirical research, or reflections on museums in practice as related to national museums and identity politics from academics in a variety of fields.

The conference organisers are inviting proposals from delegates wishing to present 30-minute papers, or 90-minute colloquium sessions.

Those interested are welcome to submit related papers.

- Museums, nationalism and national identity
- Museum history and historiography
- Architecture and the construction of place and identity
- The re-making of National Museums
- Museum management and marketing
- Audience research and the roles of national museums

Who Should Attend?
- Museum practitioners
- Researchers
- Research students
- Policy makers

All those interested in presenting papers at the conference are requested to submit an abstract in English of their proposed paper by 15 March, 2011 by email attachment (the document should be made with Word 97-2003 compatible application) to Dr Yung-Neng Lin ( email: ).

The abstract should not exceed 500 words and should include the following information:
- Title of paper
- Author name(s)
- Affiliation and position
- Email address
- Abstract
- Keywords (up to five)

Authors will be notified of the acceptance of their proposals by the end of April 2011. Accepted authors must submit papers of between 2000 and 5000 words by 31 August 2011 by email to Dr. Yung-Neng Lin. All proposals, presentations and papers must be in English or Chinese.

Enquiries may be sent to: Dr Yung-Neng Lin, National Taipei University of Education


CFP: Museums and Social Issues

Museums & Social Issues, a peer-reviewed journal published by Left Coast Press, is pleased to share a sneak peek at several potential themes for future issues of the journal (below). We welcome your feedback and invite you to contact MSI's editor, Kris Morrissey, if you are interested in submitting, reviewing or helping with any of these topics: or

Future Topics:

Being Human: How does current research shape and inform what it means to be human? How is “being human” studied and viewed today in the fields of philosophy, cognition, computer science, biology and others? How are we as individuals, museums and a society connecting with and grappling with changing ideas of our human-ness?

Prisons & US: The United States has the highest proportion of our population in prison. What does this reflect about our society? How are prisons experienced by those within? How has the concept and practice of prison shaped our music, literature, identity? How have museums reflected life in prisons or served populations within prisons?

Aging: How does aging affect the way we live in the 21st century? What are the implications of aging on government, relationships, and family structures? How is research changing our assumptions about aging? What are the implications of an aging population on museums and other cultural and educational institutions?

Homelessness: Who are the homeless and what is the path to homelessness? What is the daily life and culture of the homeless? What are the rights, hopes and future for those without homes? How do museums connect with and tell the stories of these audiences?

Exhibit, Book or Program Reviews: The journal is always interested in reviews of exhibit, books and museum projects that address these or any other questions or issues of concern to society.

For information about submissions and deadlines contact:
Editor: Kris Morrissey (
Managing Editor: Alex Curio

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Architect sought for V&A refurb | News | Building Design

The V&A is inviting expressions of interest from architects to refurbish its Europe 1600-1800 galleries.

For more information, clicky the linky...

Read more:
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution
Architect sought for V&A refurb | News | Building Design

Monday, February 21, 2011

Christ Revealed

Amazing - a blind sculptor recreates a statue he has never seen or felt. For reference, the original and the "copy":

Registration Guaranteed

Museobunny has been receiving emails from people whose tails have been anxiously twitching about whether their registration and payment guarantees them a place. Museobunny would never take people's money and leave them in the cold! It is against his fluffy white nature! Do not worry, attending-bunnies, your registration and payment definitely guarantees you a place, and receipt of your registration will be confirmed by one of the helper-bunnies. If we run out of spots, Museobunny will let you know right away!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Towards an empathic understanding of history in the museum

Brown Bag 16th February 2011

Performance as a Learning Medium in the Museum – and the ‘Empathy Paradox’

Tony Jackson

Today we welcomed back Tony Jackson, Emeritus Professor of Educational Theatre at the University of Manchester. Given the current emphasis on learning in the museum, Prof. Jackson was keen to discuss the findings of his most recent research project, entitled ‘Performance, Learning and Heritage’, which investigated the increasingly widespread and varied use of performance in the museum as both a learning medium and interpretive tool.

Prof. Jackson began by suggesting that ‘museum theatre’ is too narrow a term to describe what is happening in museums now, and that we need to think in broader terms of ‘performance’, which includes theatre, but also performative acts such as storytelling and guiding. Prof. Jackson’s team were particularly interested in the visitor response to the more overtly theatrical aspects of performance in the museum space such as costumed interpretation, and conducted ‘longitudinal’ research which assessed the impact of different types of performance on independent adult visitors and families, as well as organized educational groups, both at the time and ten months later. The research focussed on the different types of performance style employed by three museums and one heritage site in the UK: the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, The Manchester Museum and Llancaiach Fawr Manor, a restored seventeenth-century manor house in South Wales.

Performance in the museum, Prof. Jackson argues, is a particularly difficult tool to master. Its detractors have claimed that it represents a diversion from the ‘real’ purpose of museums, as well as a ‘dumbing down’ and worse still, a caricature of history. Yet done well, Prof. Jackson contends, it can serve to enrich our experiences in the museum, and his research found that the memories of it can stay with us long after much else has been forgotten. Far from trivializing history, it can also serve to draw attention to the complexities and lacunae of any attempt to interpret the past. Done badly, however, it can be, quite simply, embarrassing. While performance in the museum remains a matter of contention, Prof. Jackson suggests that we are witnessing an increasing confidence on the part of museums in deploying it, while simultaneously, an increasing number of questions are being asked about its validity as a learning medium.

There are certain elements which Prof. Jackson’s team found were key to a successful performance. First of all, it was important for the hosting institution to establish trust by introducing the purpose of the event and its ground rules out of character, thereby creating a ‘contract’ between the performers and the audience. Secondly, interactivity and participation on the part of the audience were found to be vital parts of the performance. In ‘The Gunner’s Tale’, visitors to the National Maritime Museum encountered an actor playing the part of an ‘ordinary’ sailor at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, who talked to them about his experiences and passed around a ship’s biscuit. One adult visitor’s remark to the research team was that while they did not learn any new information, they had experienced a moment of immediacy and tangibility with the past which they found very satisfying. Interactivity helps establish a direct link between visitors and persons whose ‘otherness’ and marginalization as lesser-known historic figures would otherwise preclude such a close reading of the past, helping visitors to recall facts, sites and artefacts, and often establishing an empathic bond between visitors and the ‘character’. Visitors who had seen the performance first remarked that it had helped them look at the objects in the museum in a more focussed way.

Prof. Jackson is particularly interested in the dynamics of performance, which can often create significant challenges for the host museum. He cites the recent example of the performance of ‘This Accursed Thing’, a ‘promenade’ play held at Manchester Museum in 2008 in which museum visitors met six costumed actors playing characters involved in the slave trade in various parts of the building. One of the characters was a slave trader from 1807 who directly challenged visitors to tell him why slavery was wrong. He was able to defend ‘his’ position with well-researched answers; something audiences found extremely frustrating, and more than a little uncomfortable. The situation was complicated still further by the fact that many of the museum objects on display in the performance environment were paid for by wealthy individuals who had profited from the traffic of slaves.

Prof. Jackson argued that stinging audiences into an emotional response meant that many visitors formed a deeper, longer-lasting interest in the subject. Yet stirring up emotions has its consequences, in extreme cases proving traumatic for the individuals involved, and the research project found that a ‘debriefing’ session, usually in the form of a museum-led focus group, in which visitors could talk through the issues that had emerged was crucial in managing the performance. Nevertheless, in the case of difficult histories with a continuing resonance in the present, Prof. Jackson warns that not only can it be difficult to close the emotional floodgates once opened, but that the museum can also run the risk of creating a ‘monocular’ reading of events seen through the eyes of a single character.

Prof. Jackson cites the work of the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1956), who suggested that theatres should get away from ‘easy’ emotional engagement through a central character such as Hamlet or Oedipus, and move towards crafting a more ‘epic’ portrayal of the world which encapsulates the larger political, economic and social developments which impinge upon the central characters. Also a source of inspiration for Prof. Jackson is philosopher and semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1895 – 1975) notion of heteroglossia in the Russian novel, in which a variety of different types of speech, or voices, co-exist within a single work of literature, from the speech of the narrator and characters, to the speech of the author, each of them representing a completely different world view from the protagonist’s and even the author’s. Nevertheless, Prof. Jackson argues, it is still possible to glean a sense of another perspective from a monologue, and the delivery of interpretation through theatrical performance is an effective way of getting visitors to engage with dialogues and debates so as to put flesh on the bare bones of historical facts.

There followed a brief but engaged discussion during which Pat Schettino considered whether the research might be extended to include performance in digital immersive environments, giving the example of the Immigration Museum, Melbourne. Prof. Jackson seemed very interested in this idea, as this was not something that had been looked at in depth during the research project. Dr. Giasemi Vavoula remarked on the surprising importance of the focus group in providing a ‘scaffolding’ for managing performances and their aftermath, and Prof. Jackson noted that in some cases, the memory of the focus group outweighed the memory of the original performance. Ceri Jones asked if the research found any tension in visitors’ minds as to whether they were being ‘entertained’ or ‘educated’ by performance, but Prof. Jackson suggested that it simply depended on the individual and their own notions of what ‘learning’ is, although in the case of children they tended to talk about their enjoyment of the event, even if they had also been learning!

Creating that personal, immersive, empathic moment between museum audiences and the past and breaking down the temporal barriers so that they are encouraged to feel, as well as think, helps forge a direct connection to historical persons and events, and responsibly used is, I would argue, one of the most powerful tools at the museum’s disposal. While we may employ more than one mode of display or interpretive paradigm in today’s museums, we have also, to some extent, inherited an Enlightenment tendency to privilege ‘rational’ didactic displays which presuppose a Cartesian split between body and mind, whereby reason, and not imagination or the senses, is considered to be the most reliable route to knowledge and visitor engagement. Paradoxically, therefore, evoking life on board an early nineteenth-century ship for a twenty-first audience requires a more flexible approach. From burlesque at the British Library to the Hogarthian staging of one man’s philosophy of history at Dennis Severs’ House (coming soon to a Brown Bag near you), performance in the museum is here to stay.

Our thanks go to Prof. Jackson for taking the time to speak to us today, and for those of you who would like to learn more, Prof. Jackson’s and Jenny Kidd’s edited book Performing Heritage: Research, Practice and Innovation in Museum Theatre and Live Interpretation, published by Manchester University Press, is available now.

Reminder: New History Attic

Our upcoming collaboration with New History Lab on Friday (you're all coming, right???) was featured on the University internal homepage today! Thanks to Mike Simpson, our champion over there, for doing a great promo, which you can read here.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Curiouser and Curiouser Conference Programme

Museobunny and all his helper-bunnies are very excited about the Curiouser and Curiouser conference programme which has just been posted online, so hop on over to the website and check it out. You can also bookmark Museobunny's blog or follow him down the rabbit hole on Facebook and Twitter to get all the latest news and updates.

Remember to register, or the Red Queen will have your head!

Friday, February 11, 2011

100 Experiences

Given the recent reprieve given to Leicester's Museums, I am beginning to think that it is worth this department thinking about what it could do to help maintain the value and power of these places. It has always seemed a little ironic to me that we have a world-leading Museum Studies School, and museums that have not always been well cared for.

However, these museums are, in many ways, unique and wonderful places. Each of Leicester City Council's Museums have objects, stories, ideas which are truly special. How, then, can we make that special nature manifest? By encouraging people to see beyond the surface, to see perhaps that which is not immediately apparent to the eye.

I've been a little bit inspired by this post from the Dallas Museum of Art, which encourages the visitor to engage with the museum in a multitude of different ways - some of which are quite inventive. Perhaps we need to do something similar with our own museums? Can we, collectively, think of a similar list of experiences to be had in New Walk, Newarke, the Guildhall, Jewry Wall, Abbey Pumping Station, and Belgrave Hall? And by doing so, can we show how valuable these places are, and protect them further for the future?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lost Museums Study Day at the Royal College of Surgeons, London

The Royal College of Surgeons are holding a rather exciting study day on Saturday 21 May 2011 from 10 am til 5 pm on the subject of some of London's forgotten museums. This will coincide with a forthcoming exhibition at the Hunterian Museum entitled Lost Museums: Nature and Medicine on Show which will run from 1 March to 2 July 2011 in the Qvist Gallery.

There will also be an interesting programme of lunchtime and evening lectures on the subject of loss as applied not only to museums but also to concepts, topographies and material culture.

Tickets for the study day cost £45 (£35 concessions) and include lunch and refreshments. To book, you'll need to call the Hunterian Museum on 020 7869 6560. The venue for the day will be the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inn Fields (opposite Sir John Soane's Museum).

Speakers confirmed so far are:

Sam Alberti (Royal College of Surgeons) on lost medical museums

Alan Bates (University College London) on lost anatomy shows

Michael Costeloe (University of Bristol) on Bullock’s lost collection

Stuart Eagles on the lost art museum at Ancoats

Tim Knox (Sir John Soane's Museum) on a lost architectural museum

Frances Larson (Durham University) on Wellcome’s lost collection

Chris Plumb (University of Manchester) on lost animal displays

I think this one sounds too good to miss!

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

What is Material Culture?

At last week's New History Lab session, one of the comments on Miriam's paper about Trekkie material culture was that they had never understood what material culture was and how it could be useful. "Typical historian, stuck in a book," I grumbled inwardly to myself. "It's not such a mystery!" But then I realised that this sort of reaction was not conducive to the spirit of collaboration that we were trying to achieve, and indeed that our upcoming session on A History of Leicester in 10 Objects could be very helpful in giving people insights into exactly that.

But what is it about stuff that makes people so terrified of working with it? Did they have traumatic childhoods with hoarder parents where they spent their fifth birthday stuck under a collapsed pile of ancient National Geographic magazines, and now they can't bear the thought of looking at objects? You'd be surprised at how prevalent this phobia of material culture is: a very highly placed individual at one of the national museums in this country admitted to the fact that if he was locked in a room with objects, he wouldn't know what to do with them. Good thing he's not often called on to be a curator, I guess!

Unfortunately, people who claim to look at material culture often don't. Descriptions of how this or that domestic good was described in novels or parish records isn't material culture - it's still literary and historical studies, I'm afraid. However, the best kind of material culture studies marry these descriptions with surviving artefacts and its visual depictions. They have a grasp of the wider social context of an item's production and consumption, as well as how its very materiality affected the behaviours of people who encountered it. The amazing thing about stuff is that it stymies you with its presence: it's there, undeniably. You can't claim that it can be put down to some error of punctuation or a slip of the brush; no, it was made, and used, and has survived. And you can touch it and use it in your own ways - sometimes physically, sometimes not.

Because sometimes, an object is not an object. Or rather, it's not just an object. It can stand in as a physical metaphor, a symbolic good; by being a product of a nexus of needs and associations and identities, it can reflect all or some of them - it just depends what prisms you choose to use! And that is what we will attempt to demonstrate next week, each in our own esoteric interdisciplinary way: that Leicester, its history, and its objects, have materiality and meanings in and for the present and the past. And hopefully, you will learn that material culture is good to think with.

Tea in the Attic 2011

Tea in the Attic
What: Tea in the Attic is the Museum Studies PhD discussion group.
Who: While it primarily constitutes PhD students from the School of Museum Studies, visiting students and PhD students from other departments at the University of Leicester who are interested in our topics of discussion are welcome.
When: It meets every Wednesday fortnight, in the Collections Room of the School of Museum Studies from 5-7pm. We head to the Lansdowne pub afterwards.
We are an informal group, which aims to discuss topics that are relevant to the multidisciplinary nature of Museum Studies in an open, supportive and comfortably intellectual environment.
Sessions are based largely around group discussion of a topic which is allocated in advance. One or two people take responsibility for the planning of each session. Participants should expect some degree of preparation, but not so much that it is difficult to fit around their studies (e.g. around half an hour’s reading).
People bring their own drinks. Nibbles and cakes can also be brought along to share.
Examples of possible focusses for discussion:
 Journal article
 TV programme (watched before or during session)
 Photographs of a museum visit
 An object or collection of objects
 A visitor - “In conversation with...” (but not a lecture)
 Bluffer’s guides to areas of theory or research practice
 Test-running conference papers
 Weekend group visits to museums
 Anything else that fits the format and that might be interesting to the group.
Sessions will be planned for a semester at a time, and advertised on the Attic blog. As it just so happens, the next session will be led by yours truly ("J") and will focus on museums in comedy. It will be LOLarious. We will then turn serious and set up a more formal timetable for the rest of the semester - get your thinking caps ready, kids! (If any Archaeology, Art History, History or other PhDs would like to join us, get in touch!)

Tuesday, February 08, 2011


It seems that the city council have come to their senses, and decided that maybe museums aren't a sensible budget cut? Cuts will still come, but at least the building's won't be closed to the public.

In the spirit of celebration, I give you something fun (although it might be dangerously appealing to a pencil-pushing bureaucrat who might see it as a cost-saving automation!): The Lazy Curator's exhibition title generator.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

St Mary de Castro Church, Leicester

St Mary de Castro Church in Leicester stands next to the remains of Leicester castle, sheltered from the hustle and bustle of the city in the relatively quiet precincts of The Newarke (corrupted from 'New Work'). Once standing outside the boundaries of the city walls, The Newarke is now more or less indistinguishable from the city which has grown around it but retains an aura of centuries past thanks to its cobbled streets and lack of people. On a blustery February day I had the church and its graveyard all to myself, although the energetic ringing of the church bells provided a noisy backdrop to my explorations.

The church was founded in 1107, although it may have been on the site of an earlier Saxon church. 'De Castro' means of the castle and Leicester's association with important Medieval events meant that the church saw its fair share of drama. King Henry VI was knighted here as a child in 1426, but most famously it is believed that Geoffrey Chaucer married his wife Philippa de Roet here in the 1360s. Philippa was sister of Katherine Swynford, mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt, brother and uncle of kings.

I did not look inside the church but instead wondered around the graveyard. Sandwiched between the Medieval splendour of the church and, to the rear, old factories now turned student living space, the graveyard felt melancholy and somewhat lost to the modern age.

Most of the headstones were minimally decorated with the name of the deceased and the odd poem or message to the viewer.

This headstone has a Masonic reference; the compass and set square with the letter G.

This fine headstone belonged to Scott who in the Royal Navy, dated 1834.

One of the rarer table-like tombs in the churchyard, this was in memory to Jesse Berridge, Gentleman.

The hard, grey stone used for most of the headstones lends itself well to carving.

Pretty graves all in a row.

Despite the desolate nature of the churchyard, not helped by the gloomy weather, the snowdrops were starting to come out, bringing some life to it.

More information about St Mary de Castro can be found from:
BBC's website, Haunted Leicester
Rather bizarre review of a church service by a 'Mystery Worshipper'
This website has good pictures of the exterior and interior of the church

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Rock and Roll Museology - Brown Bag Seminar, 2nd February

“Rock and Roll Museology”
Capturing Popular Music Heritage in UK Museums and Galleries
Dr Robert Knifton

A researcher on the AHRC’s Beyond Text Project, ‘Collecting and Curating Popular Music Histories’, Robert Knifton comes from a museological background, having worked at TATE Liverpool on the ‘Centre of the Creative Universe’. Whilst the TATE project focused on artistic and creative pursuits in general, his current research position uses broad surveys, as well as specific case studies and interviews, to investigate the ways in which museums have engaged with, collected and represented popular music heritage.

Whilst exhibitions of popular music have increased in recent years, with examples including the short lived National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, Rock and Pop at the V&A, the BME at the O2 Arena, and the soon to appear ‘Wondrous Place’ at the Museum of Liverpool, the academic museological discussions upon the subject remain limited. Perhaps because it is so close to the hearts and identities of many individuals and communities, the issues which surround the philosophy, collection, and display of ‘popular music’, whatever that term might mean, are manifold and difficult. At times, they speak directly to ontological questions surrounding the nature of the museum, and of objecthood itself.

What, then, are the issues which Robert will have to deal with in the next few months of his investigation? Initially, at least, the concept of what classifies as popular music, and its status as a museum subject in its own right needs to be investigated, even if it cannot be finally classified. ‘Pop music’ is a difficult and slippery term, and its associated products can cross several traditional museum categories. The V&A, for instance, situates many items which could be classified as ‘popular music’ in their Theatre and Performance, Prints, and Word and Image collections. From each of the museums surveyed by Robert, only one devotes a taxonomic category to popular music, and only 10% of museum collection policies mention it specifically. However, in the UK alone there are over 12 000 items in museum collections which might well fit into this category. It’s boundaries, however, are difficult to determine, both chronologically and in terms of its intrinsic nature as an object. When did pop music start? Where is its cut off point in terms of museum display and collection? What should we be collecting as examples of ‘popular music’? Not easy questions to answer.

Difficulties also arise in terms of the practical collection of the artefacts themselves. Not only must the museum compete with the financial power of the private collector when attempting to collect and acquire iconic objects, but they must invest extra time in researching these possible acquisitions, and their surrounding policies, particularly difficult in current economic climes. One solution, Rob suggests, is the development of relationships with both collectors and the music industry itself. This can, however, bring its own problems when the expectations of the donor and the realities of the museum world clash.

This is, of course, clearly apparent in the problems associated with the representation of popular music, as seen through the eyes of the institutions which collect and display them. The V&A, for example, has emphasised the design and performance aspects of its holdings, seeking costume and memoriabilia which is out of the ordinary, unique, or emblematic. They are, therefore, less inclined, not without reason, to collect the ordinary items, the standard jeans and t-shirts of Oasis and have a tendancy to favour such things asAdam Ant’s iconic highwayman outfit?

Closely related is the question of mythology. When dealing with such culturally significant figures, products, and places, so bound up collective memory and community identity, the relationship between fact and fiction needs to be clearly defined. Should museums tell the ‘truth’ to the destruction of a powerful, and socially important myth? I wonder, in fact, whether a myth can ever reach a point where it has become a kind of truth of its own? To mitigate this issue, some museums have taken on the use of oral histories, for by utilizing the popular music as an access to the past, to memory, and to self, they can preserve a legend whilst showing its subjective, illusory quality.

Of course, the world of music, of performance, of celebrity is built upon tales and illusions. Objects, might be seen as less important than the stories which surround them. Material culture can only do so much in representing the ephemeral elements of popular culture, and this is a debate which Robert is keen to further. The British Music Experience tends to favour stories and concepts at least as much, if not more, than objects, and many of the material artefacts displayed are loaned temporarily. This in itself raises questions about the nature of the museum – is it about the object, and if so, what kind of object is it about? How can the museum, in the world of popular culture, retain its museuminess and perform a different role from television, radio and magazines? What and importantly, who is it that museums represent, and can the world of pop music combine with this activitiy?

When we moved into the Q&A, Simon raised an interesting point about the nature of musealisation, asking if when popular culture becomes musealised, does it cease to be popular culture? Could you, hypothetically, ever ‘Punk’ a museum without destroying the rebel qualities of that genre? How do you go about collecting something which is so fleeting and immaterial as the performance of a rock concert? How do you, as Ross Parry noted, collect something such as Bubblegum Pop, which is deliberately ephemeral and transient? Should you, in fact, collect such a thing? What exciting possibilities are offered by technological approaches to collection and interpretation, including the online archive such as that of Home of Metal, or perhaps the conceptualisation of your media player as your own private, personal music museum?

This does, of course, beg the question of what the museum actually is. Is it a place which displays material culture? Is it an online site, a building, a collection, and what is it a collection of? Does it display the truth of one, or of many, for we must, of course, also remember that that which is collected and displayed in museums is only a singular view, and often with popular music it is the view of the obsessive collector. But is this necessarily a problem, and is it a problem that different museums conceptualise and display items of popular music in ways which suit their own institutional status, such as the ‘high art’ approach of the V&A? Music is more than one thing, more subjective and multiplicitous than people often give it credit for, and any museological dealings with it need to understand it as such. Is there an ideal space, somewhere in the contemporary, distributed museum, in which popular music, in all its fleeting, transient joy, can find a home?

It is time, Rob argues, that these questions were addressed. For some reason, the world of popular music has not been given the same consideration and governmental support as the other Arts. This is something which needs to change, and I think as Popular Music Studies matures as an academic discipline, research by individuals such as Rob and our own Kathleen Pirre-Adams will be at the vanguard of achieving this.

Rock On, guys - Ride the Lightening!