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, May 30, 2011

National Heritage List for England

I just wanted you to note that English Heritage have just published their National Heritage List for England - and it is fully searchable online. It includes listed buildings, scheduled monuments, registered parks and gardens...the list goes on.

I'm a little disturbed, however, about the apparent lack of buildings and sites registered in the City of Leicester. I think some nominating may need to occur! We can't only have two sites...

We've a wonderful amount of heritage in this country. If resources such as this can help make people aware of those obscure ones, hidden just around the corner from their homes, then as far as I'm concerned, this is all to the good.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Of Costumes, Crowns and Kings...

Brown Bag 25th May 2011
Attic Review
“The Devil’s Brood: Interpreting Henry II, His Family and Court at Dover Castle”
Mark Wallis, MA FAHI, Director of Past Pleasures

Costumed interpretation tends to cause something of a divide in the heritage community. Very often, it’s something of a Marmite situation – you either love it or hate it, and it can either be hugely successful, or a complete disaster as far as the public are concerned. Of course, this dichotomy is not absolute, for the right interpretation, in the right place at the right time has the potential to convert and enthral even the most hardened cynic. It is this kind of enchantment, enthrallment and empathy which Mark Wallis and his team at Past Pleasures aim to achieve.

In its twenty five years of operation, the company has been, I think it’s fair to say, instrumental in developing the role of costumed interpreters at heritage sites, not just in the UK, but around the world. They have worked with the Historic Royal Palaces, including Hampton Court, at Colonial Williamsburg in the US, Eger Castle in Hungary, and in historical periods which run the gamut ‘From Plato to NATO.’ Mark himself travels around the world advising museums and groups upon the most appropriate use of costumed interpretation in their individual contexts - and ‘appropriate’ is an apposite term. For this company is not about self-aggrandisement, but about site specificity, and public engagement with history. Their activities and role are aptly summed up by Messers. Gilbert and Sullivan – for they “trick you into learning with a laugh”.

One of their more recent projects was with English Heritage who in 2009 unveiled the Great Tower Project at Dover Castle. Redesigned and displayed to reflect its period of high grandeur during the 1180s, when King Henry II used it as an entertainment space for honoured guests and political dignitaries, this multi-million pound recreation included no interpretive panels, and no audio guide. Instead, it needed a population to bring the space to life, and help visitors to engage with the place – in the present and the past. It was this population that Past Pleasures was invited to provide.

Building populations requires the building of characters, from all walks of life. From the king and his sons, to the jester and the breweress, Past Pleasures assembled a cast of characters able to tell multiple stories about the castle, the times, and the people who lived and visited there. It’s not an easy task: a costumed interpreter is more than a person in fancy dress, and there are many facets to creating successful and powerful experiences and interactions.

Costume, of course, is a major issue. Getting it right is a difficult game, different problems arising depending on the times, places and people being evoked. Very little costume survives from the medieval period, and that which does is extraordinary. Past Pleasures, and historic clothiers like them, are reliant, therefore, on documentary sources, such as manuscript inventories and images, tomb sculptures, and works of literature such as the Roman de la Rose. However, such sources are notoriously idealised, and augmentation through experimentation and testing – the costumier’s form of experimental archaeology – is crucial. The examples which Mark brought in to show to us are evidence of the extensive level of detail to which the company pays attention, right down to the 18th century shape of the pockets on the recreation of Captain Cook’s coat. The examples are stunning examples of his company’s art – a 12th century knife, used by Prince John at the Dover Castle project, is a particularly stunning piece, with a stamp-tooled leatherwork scabbard and striped ivory and bone handle. It is clear evidence of the love and care which the company puts into its objects – these are pieces of museum quality. Indeed, English Heritage commissioned a crown to be made for the Dover Castle project, which in the end turned out to be so expensive and so well done that it could not be worn, and had to be accompanied on all its travels by a curator – rather an anachronistic inconvenience, should Henry II have actually decided, for once, to wear it.

Interpretation is, of course, more than costume. Less obvious to the casual observer, but no less important to those in the know, are the small minor details evoked in the ‘mute’ interpretation, down to the placement of stools and people, and the positions of the characters on the stage. Having the correct, most honoured character sitting on the right hand side of the king, for instance – something easily missed, but which just goes to show how much detail and care a recreator should undertake. When interpreting a place such as Dover Castle, the interpreter has to become one with their site. Initially, the rooms, like the crown, were deemed so well designed that they could not be used, and were barriered and inaccessible. But as Mark noted, if the characters couldn’t inhabit their world, there was little point in having them there at all. How were they supposed to bring a place to life if they couldn’t live in it? Eventually, Past Pleasures managed to convince English Heritage to let them actually inhabit the space, and though strictures still remain, the audience can now sit at a table with the king, and watch him partake of an admittedly synechdochic version of a kingly feast. Live interpretation brings many practical tensions and problems, between museum or heritage site and storyteller, which have to be acknowledged, and compromises must be made on both counts.

In donning the mantle of Henry and his accomplices, the interpreter inhabits not just clothes, but a world and a character, a real human being which they have to know inside out, and treat with understanding and respect. It is fundamentally critical, and not often enough stated, that the interpreters themselves need to be right: and not just in terms of how they look. Of course, when portraying a particular individual, it is important that the interpreter does match up to any ‘aesthetic’ or visual requirements – in many ways, this is fundamental to the public perception of historic characters and history generally. On a visit to Jamestown, Mark noted that the appearance of the ‘Native Americans’ completely undermined any real accuracy in the project. Not only were they wearing too many clothes, but every single one of them was a ‘WASP’ – a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. It is fascinating to me how certain groups, and certain historic periods can be accorded so little respect – we are well beyond the days of the Black and White Minstrel show, and most would baulk in horror at the idea of white men blacking up to portray slaves. Likewise would most people, rightly, be scandalized by a dumbed down, gory live display of prisoners at Auschwitz: and yet Plague victims of the 14th century can be portrayed in a comic, disturbingly grotesque manner. Temporal remoteness, mixed perhaps with a lack of publicity and understanding, it seems, are factors powerful enough to make the present remote enough from history that it is deemed acceptable to trivialize it so. But this is not what Past Pleasures seeks to do: whilst admitting their 21st century location, and their potential errors and inaccuracies (which are, as in any historical investigation, inevitable), they seek to achieve an empathetic, respectful homage to their characters.

Recruiting the right people for the task, then, is crucial – they have to be more than actors, but highly skilled improvisers, deeply knowledgeable about their character and the period in which they lived, and sympathetic not only to their character, but to the audience. They need to be, at times, police and psychotherapists, and as far as possible need to be able to engage with the visitor to such an extent that they can encourage them to suspend their disbelief, just for a moment, and to play the game. This is particularly important with characters famous for their personality quirks – Henry the II, for instance, was known for flying into rages and in fact claimed to be descended from the devil, but I suspect that it would not be appropriate, and highly disturbing for the visitor, for the interpreter to suddenly begin to chew the carpets. The interpreter has to know how to get the character across without reverting to third person explanation, or puzzlement and confusion. Past Pleasures do not provide a staged, scripted performance but instead interactive, site specific theatre which places the public at the very centre of a human drama. Getting this right is a skill, and a special kind of person is needed to pull it off with taste and respect, for all parties concerned. Hence the extensive nature of Mark’s recruitment process, which comprises a character creation and a thousand word essay, as well as unscripted interaction with the interviewers and the other interviewees.

There are huge issues with costumed interpretation of course. Good interpretation is hugely expensive. The Historic Royal Palaces can afford to use them every day, but many other places can’t. But it can encourage return visits, and can, if successful, can generate more income for the institution. For each institution, it’s a difficult balance to draw, and a difficult investment to make.

Such activities have also in the past been seen as ‘dumbing down’ the past, and in some cases this is true. However, costumed interpretation, as RCMG found at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, can make concrete an abstract concept, can create a visual, sensory hook upon which to hang and develop ideas of the past. The research of RCMG, the Historic Royal Palaces, and Tony Jackson amongst others is beginning to show concrete evidence for its true and strong power, particularly for school groups, but also for other audiences. A strong visceral experience such as this provides can be a springboard into understanding and investigating those once remote and removed places, times and peoples. Successful interpretation can challenge stereotyped perceptions of the past, developing deep, faceted characters, and subtly changing people’s inaccurate ideas, without, of course, embarrassing them. They need to be able to use language which is appropriate to the times – so they do, in fact, on occasion use language which 21st century ears might deem offensive or unacceptable – but which is also understandable to the viewer. One of the strange temporal realities surrounding interpretation is, of course, language and translation – there would be very little point in the interpreter playing Henry II to speak the language of 12th century aristocracy, for the vast majority of the audience would have little idea of what they were saying. Justifiable anachronisms, therefore, have to be made.

For of course, as with any historic investigation, it is impossible to reach to the ‘real’ truth, and costs, practicality, and the impossibility of time travel preclude any completely accurate recreation of the past. However, if you’re willing to accept and admit that, you can open yourselves up to wonder. It depends, of course, on your definition of authenticity. For Mark, an ‘authentic’ recreation and re-enactment comes from understanding the bridges and links which exist between historic periods and the present day, but also from recognizing that we are not the same as they were, that we can never be them or understand their real position in the world. A positivistic approach to history will always be a flawed one: there are things, feelings, mental and social worlds which we can never know, even those which belong to people of our own time, let alone those of people who lived and died a thousand years ago. It is only if we, museums, audiences and interpreters, can accept that all our professional and worldly actions are, to some extent, those of translation, then we can begin to truly see the valuable and authentic which is only generated through make believe.

‘ “The artist,” Jonah attempted to explain, “is not like every other worker in society. The artist deals with reality: inner and outer reality transformed into meaningful symbols. Those who deal in money deal in symbols behind which stands nothing. It is wonderful to think of the thousands and thousands of Ninevite stockbrokers for whom reality, the real world, is the arbitrary rising and falling of figures transformed in their imagination into wealth – a wealth that exists only on a piece of paper or on a flickering screen. No fantasy writer, no virtual reality artist could ever aspire to create in an audience such as all-pervading suspension of disbelief as that which takes place in an assembly of stockbrokers. Grown up men and women who will not for a minute consider the reality of the unicorn, even as a symbol, will accept as rick hard fact that they possess a share in the nation’s camel bellies, and in that belief they consider themselves happy and secure.” ’ Alberto Manguel, ‘Jonah and the Whale’, pp.239-252, (p. 245), Into the Looking Glass Wood, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 1999)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

ALHFAM: Bulletin article submissions

The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM) invites submissions for its Summer 2011 Bulletin on the topic, "Being Social." Research-based articles on community, entertainment, and celebrations, as well as research reports, event case studies and "how to" articles are encouraged.

Authors do not have to be ALHFAM members.

Bulletin submission guidelines can be found at

and the ALHFAM style sheet can be found at

The deadline for all article submissions for the Summer issue is on or before June 22, 2011.

The Fall issue is an "Open Forum," and articles on topics having to do with all aspects of living history, historical farms, and agricultural museums and agricultural history are welcome. Deadline for all article submissions for the Fall issue is on or before September 20, 2011.

Smithsonian Institution - Symposium

The Smithsonian Institution presents Santiniketan to Smithsonian: A Tribute to Tagore, which celebrates the life and work of poet, playwright, painter, composer, educator, and humanist Rabindranath Tagore: the Renaissance man, the leading light of modern India and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1913). To commemorate the 150th Birth Anniversary of Tagore, the Smithsonian will present a two-day symposium at the National Museum of the American Indian on May 28th and May 29th 2011 starting at 1:00 p.m.

A special highlight of the event is a live on-line streaming of the entire symposium.

We hope to create a worldwide Tagore chain. Please log on:

Monday, May 23, 2011

Challenging Perceptions; Re-thinking Practice

Brown Bag 18 May 2011

Redefining the Role of Botanic Gardens: Towards A New Social Purpose

Jocelyn Dodd and Ceri Jones

This Brown Bag was a little unusual for two reasons: firstly, it gave us the chance to find out more about some of the research which goes on in our own department, and secondly it took that research beyond the museal context, and into new territory. Today we welcomed Jocelyn Dodd and Ceri Jones from the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, based at the School of Museum Studies here in Leicester. Jocelyn is Senior Research Fellow and Director of RCMG, and Ceri is both a Research Associate with RCMG as well as a current PhD student with the School.

The RCMG was set up in 1999 by Professor Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, its primary remit to conduct research into ‘the social role, impact and agency of museums and galleries’ (RCMG 2011). This mission statement was accompanied by practical objectives to promote inclusivity, inspire learning and ensure that museums and galleries are relevant to contemporary society. RCMG often embark upon collaborative research projects with other organizations, and all research tends to fall into two categories – that which is initiated by RCMG, and that which is commissioned by external organizations.

In 2010 RCMG were commissioned, most unusually, by an organization outside the museum sector, Botanic Gardens Conservation International, to carry out research into the societal role and impact of botanic gardens in the UK. The impetus for the research was an overriding concern that botanic gardens were becoming out of touch with society. As a result, BGCI not only wanted to attract a greater number and diversity of visitors to botanic gardens, but to re-connect them with plants and the major role they play in nearly all aspects of contemporary life from food, clothing and fuel to healthcare and medicine. The research, the first of its kind in the UK, was funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

The definition of what constitutes a botanic garden in the twenty-first century is somewhat hazy. In differentiating between botanic gardens and public parks or pleasure gardens, BGCI lists a set of ten criteria, but suggests that above all, there has to be an underlying scientific purpose for the plants grown in a botanic garden (BGCI 2011).

The research made some surprising discoveries. Botanic gardens tend to be situated in affluent areas, such as Kew Gardens on the outskirts of London in Richmond, Surrey, and typically attract visitors from more ‘élite’ backgrounds. Yet the preponderance of botanic gardens in the UK are very much in the dark as to the identities of their visitors, and appeared to be lacking in statistic collation or visitor studies of any kind. The research also found that while well-placed to educate the public on key societal issues such as conservation, climate change and species extinction, botanic gardens are in most cases far from fulfilling their true potential. The lack of visitors from poorer economic backgrounds is also a worrying trend as it is these groups who are most likely to be affected by the negative impact of human activity on our environment. Botanic gardens also tend not to publicise themselves effectively – who knew, for instance, that the University of Leicester has its own botanic garden, or that it is the only garden of its kind in the whole of the East Midlands?

Why is this? RCMG’s findings indicated that the majority of botanic gardens have an insular and traditional outlook. Staff were often found to be of a retiring disposition, and unused to actively promoting the merits of botanic gardens to visitors. There was also a lack of informal learning opportunities, and a marked lack of education on issues such as climate change. Jocelyn and Ceri suggested that such attitudes may hearken back to the purported origins of the botanic garden in the physic garden of the early modern era, which housed specialist collections for medical students, and was typically not open to the general public. However, it is also the result of more practical contemporary concerns: public funding for botanic gardens tends to be limited, especially for new or experimental work, and so public accountability is limited as a result. An exemplar of the more traditional outlook is provided by the University of Oxford’s botanic gardens, who take pride in stating that their mission statement has suffered no alteration in four centuries. Above all, RCMG found, these gardens are seen as timeless places, havens of tranquillity undisturbed by the stresses and strains of everyday life, and in which the visitor does not wish to be disturbed by warnings of climate change or carbon footprints. There appears to be a real tension here; in promoting change, would an integral part of these gardens’ appeal be eradicated? I would suggest probably not; but to ensure their survival, the valuable contribution they are capable of making to society must be evidenced.

There are notable exceptions, however. The best-performing site in the UK was the Eden Project in Cornwall, but as Jocelyn and Ceri point out, this has moved so far forward that it is debatable whether it can be considered a botanic garden any longer, which brings us back to the emerging tension above. Yet botanic gardens can certainly learn from Eden’s example. Eden is particularly adept at changing visitor behaviour in a manner which is embedded within the site itself – as a model of sustainable practice. Their café, for example, fulfils its environmental obligations not only by composting and recycling, but by growing its own organic food – which is clearly visible and identifiable as such to visitors as they enter the premises. RCMG found that this approach, pleasingly non-invasive, can go a long way to combat society’s current detachment from plants and the vital societal, as well as scientific and technical, issues they raise. Indeed, Eden is now helping to shape government policy itself, an interesting prospect in the era of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

The research methods employed in this project were diverse, and mainly of a qualitative nature. They included desk-based research in the form of a literature review, case studies, interviews with key individuals in the sector, questionnaires and a think tank. While based in the UK, the researchers also engaged with botanic gardens in Sydney and Chicago, and found that the UK appears to be lagging behind international practice. Botanic gardens in Sydney, for example, were found to be sharing their expertise with the public in simple but innovative ways, such as transforming derelict areas of the city into community allotments.

There followed an interesting discussion in which Dave Unwin pointed out that climate change is an area of contention for many scientists; many are not convinced by its arguments, and there are some who believe while human behaviour has an impact on the environment, climate change is something that occurs naturally and cannot be prevented. Nevertheless, there was a general consensus that even if such change cannot be stopped, botanic gardens are well-placed to educate the public on how best to cope with it when it does happen.

In identifying key forces for change as well as change inhibitors in today’s botanic gardens, RCMG have also set out their own solutions and recommendations. First and foremost, botanic gardens need to communicate more – with each other, and with the general public. In particular, they need to be bolder and more assertive in publicizing what they have to offer. Secondly, they need to build more diverse workforces, but to be a force for positive change in their own right, they need to share the desire to create a different world.

Our thanks go to Jocelyn and Ceri for such an interesting Brown Bag. More about RCMG’s research findings on the societal role and impact of botanic gardens can be found in their recent report here.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Electronic Visualisation and the Arts - conference

EVA London 2011
Wednesday 6th July - Friday 8th July 2011
Venue: British Computer Society, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7HA

Registration open: Catch the Early Bird rates until 27th May 2011

For registration details, keynote speakers and the latest conference
programme visit:

EVA London 2011 will debate the issues, discuss the trends and
demonstrate the digital possibilities in culture, heritage and the
arts. If you are interested in new technologies in the cultural sector
- if you are an artist, policy maker, manager, researcher,
practitioner, or educator - then this conference is for you.

This year's conference will include sessions on:
* The Three Dimensions
* Museums : technologies and interactions
* New digitisations
* Social Networking
* Virtual Worlds
* Visualisation of Spaces
* 3D Imaging Technology
* Education and Philosophy
* History
* Digital Art
* Performance Technology
* Performance
* Visualisation and the Arts
** Plus 3 full sessions featuring live demonstrations **

If this message was forwarded to you, join our mailing list to receive
EVA London announcements (only) directly.

Send an email to:
Subject: leave blank.

EVA London 2011 will be co-sponsored by the Computer Arts Society, a
Special Interest Group of the British Computer Society, and by the BCS

2nd annual Virtual Conference

Upcoming: 2nd annual Virtual Conference ( from AAM - occurring May 23–24.

Produced in collaboration with LearningTimes, the Virtual Conference 2011 is a two-day online conference of ten online sessions like:

Forging Ahead: The Role of Museum Education in Developing 21st Century Learners (Monday, May 23)
Explore how institutions are addressing changing demographics, technology and globalization, and fulfilling crucial new needs that require adaptation so we can serve our varied audiences and become vital educational leaders.

Content-Heavy Exhibitions: A Collaborative Approach to Balancing the Need to Inform and Visitor’s Capacity to Absorb Information (Tuesday, May 24)
Working together, curators and educators must balance conceptual complexity with audience knowledge, interest and capacity to quickly make sense of new knowledge. Discuss creatively balancing curatorial responsibility and the leisure-learners, interest in visual pleasure.

Each of these sessions will last 75 minutes and will feature live Web-based audio, visuals and real-life demonstrations of best practices at work.

Be sure to take advantage of the online conference community that is the hub for the event. Access to fellow participants and great content begin before the conference commences with member introduction areas and topic-based discussion areas.

Registration Rates

AAM Members: $119
Non-members: $199

(for up to 10 unique logins for you and your staff)
AAM Members: $219
Non-members: $299

Register now:

Monday, May 16, 2011

Global Museum - available jobs

Visit the JOBS section of Global Museum to view these jobs:

* Administrator
* Assistant Director
* Weekend Coordinator
* Studio Educator
* Part-time Education Coordinator
* Assistant Registrar of Multi-Media
* Educator
* Curator of History



Chicago - May 16-17
Illinois Institute of Technology

Sponsored by Illinois Institute of Technology

In Partnership with:
The Arts & Business Council of Chicago
Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education
Chicago Public Schools
Museum of Science and Industry
The Field Museum
Urban Gateways.

Conference Agenda:
Walter Massey, President, School of The Art Institute of Chicago
Harvey White, Qualcomm co-founder
Todd Siler's Unique Metaphorming Workshop

* * * * *
*Certification of Hours of Attendance available*

The Art of Science Learning: Shaping the 21st-Century Workforce is an NSF-funded project convening educators, scientists, artists, business leaders, researchers and policymakers in three conferences this Spring (Washington DC, Chicago and San Diego) to explore how the arts can be engaged to strengthen STEM skills and spark creativity in the 21st-Century American workforce.

Following the successful debut of The Art of Science Learning conferences in Washington DC (April 6-7), we invite you to participate in the next conference in this series, hosted by the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago May 16-17.

The 1½-day conferences are hands-on, workshop-based forums organized around three interactive tracks that will: showcase interdisciplinary methods using arts-based learning to develop creativity, critical thinking and communication skills in the future STEM workforce (Educational Practice); share current research into the impact of arts-based approaches on science education (Research); and explore the connection between the arts, innovation and American economic competitiveness (Workforce Development).

A conference agenda is available on the website, The conference will feature opening keynotes by Walter Massey, President of the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, and Qualcomm co-founder Harvey White. All conferences also feature Dr. Todd Siler's unique Metaphorming Workshop, in which participants collaboratively model and explore ideas using arts and science-based hands-on techniques.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Brown Bag 4th May: Collaboration in Theory and Practice

It's been a while, my little Atticites. I hope you have not missed me too much...In any case, here's a treat for you - a lovely Brown Bag for you to read about!

“Museum Exhibitions: Collaboration in Theory and Practice”

Polly McKenna-Cress, Chair, Museum Studies and Programme Director for Museum Exhibition Planning and Design, The University of the Arts, Philadelphia

‘Collaboration’ is one of those words which gets bandied around a lot, often without a true consideration of what it actually entails in practice, or even means in theory. It has been, as Eilean Hooper-Greenhill or Bruno Latour might have said, ‘black-boxed’.* There is widespread assumption that we understand collaboration, that we know what it is, and a concomitant expectation that it can be nothing other than inherently good.

But it is nowhere near so simple, as Polly McKenna-Cress from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, informs us. Collaboration can be defined in various ways: some more positive than others, as any reader of spy literature could probably tell you. Here, we take collaboration in the less traitorous sense, as ‘the action of working with someone to produce something’. Currently working on a forthcoming book on the topic, McKenna-Cress came from a background in industrial design, but has worked on projects as diverse as ‘Mermaids, Mummies and Mastadons’, a historical exhibition on the development of the American Museums at the Peale Museum in Baltimore, MD, ‘Seeds of Change’ at the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC, and at the Smithsonian Institutions’ National Postal Museum, Washington, DC as an external consultant. She worked for an architectural and landscape design firm developing and designing zoological gardens and was then employed by the Franklin Institute Science Museum, Philadelphia, PA as a permanent staff member. All of these must have involved collaboration, to some extent: but it is this latter which is particularly interesting, for McKenna-Cress was employed by a scientific institution precisely because she was not a scientist but brought a diversity of skills and knowledge to bare on this new discipline. We shall return to the issues this raises later on.

Museums are facing, and are already within, an exciting period in their evolution. The development of technologies of various kinds, the plethora of subjects which they can cover, and the increasing willingness to accept polyvocality mean that they are, as McKenna-Cress said, ‘evolving at an incredibly rapid rate’. But along with this evolution come issues and opportunities. One of these issues is documentation – or perhaps a lack of it, for we fail to document our exhibitions and how they are developed to a satisfactory extent. This issue is intrinsically involved in the main subject of this presentation, for without documentation, without records and information, the professionals of today cannot hope to collaborate across space and time with the professionals of yesterday and tomorrow.

And it is collaboration which provided our main topic of conversation, for this Brown Bag was itself a collaborative experience, as we wrote down on postcards our own experiences of collaborative working. Don’t you love it when things get meta?

What precisely does collaboration mean and entail? We know almost without having to think about it that museums and their exhibits cannot be built by one person. Collaboration is often taken to mean working with the communities outside the museum, but I maintain that it is a poor hope to expect such communications to truly succeed if the institution themselves cannot cooperate internally. Even if they do functionally succeed, it is somewhat duplicitous for the museum concerned to lack a collaborative inner structure itself. Perhaps it’s a case of practising what you preach. It is all very well, in my opinion, to publicize those external collaborations, but I maintain that some serious ethnographic studies of the internal workings of museums are needed to assess, and perhaps fundamentally change if need be, the health of the workings of their in-house cultures. As institutions, it is important that we are self-reflexive, and that, from time to time, it is worth remembering to navel-gaze.

However, collaboration with the outside world is important. But what is it, actually, that people collaborate upon. Projects such as Minnesota 150 at the Minnesota History Centre and Click! at the Brooklyn Museum are prime examples of the focus that many ‘collaborative’ projects have: the generation of content for the exhibition. Whilst both these projects are interesting and valuable, they do not preclude the existence of other forms of community participation. The principles of ‘visitor driven design’ were used at The Tech Museum in San Jose, CA which allowed their public to create interactive exhibit models in Second Life, which were then transferred to physical form within the museum. This, unfortunately, resulted in a number of unforeseen problems, including the impossibility of translating some of the Second Life imaginings into actual material existence, leaving their creators somewhat disenfranchised.

This points to an important issue: what is the role of the expert? In collaborations, there are invariably parties with different experiences and skills, and it is important to clearly know where these skills lie, and to be transparent from the start about the parameters of the actual possibilities. Perhaps there is something to be said for training public collaborators in museum design, sharing the nomenclature of the field or at least giving them a glimpse into the operative world of museums. Whether this would be successful or not I do not know, but it is critical that at some point, expertise, knowledge, and experience are used to prevent potential disaster and disappointment. You need to know where you stand.

Many of the collaborations which were spoken about were certainly revolutionary. But McKenna-Cress questioned whether they were evolutionary in any sense of the term? Evolution, I suppose, might be considered a collaborative act in itself, for it builds upon the work of the past to create the future. The issue of recording and documentation arises here, for if projects do not keep records of themselves and their work, and publicize these documents, then they are inherently setting up a barrier to their correspondence with the future. Where, then, can museum professionals and their partners look for models of collaborative working which can be truly powerful and create long-lasting legacies?

The answers might lie in other disciplines. Certainly, ‘collaboration’ has been important (though perhaps not always comfortable) in politics, University Design courses and research projects such as those at the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art suggest, are often heavily based upon collaborative working, outwith their own sector and beyond purely aesthetic merit, to develop civic, economic and social benefits. The same is true of the sciences: institutional laboratories and Universities have found critical benefits in working together and are often funded by the US National Science Foundation that emphasizes collaboration to its funding applicants, as do many other funding agencies in the US and the UK. And these two, often falsely opposed, fields, the arts and the sciences, can collaborate to create such benefits too, and a stunning example of this is the Science Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin. And even the corporate world has embraced collaboration, moving largely from a world of private financial and intellectual property, to one of commons, sharing and interlinked resources.

It is critical, then, for museums to further understand and engage in collaboration. As they become more socially relevant, they need to make themselves accountable to the outside world, for the people whom they are for, about, and paid for by. They need to accommodate polyvocality, but they need to do so in a way which does not agglomerate all these voices together into a single, homogeneous mass as McKenna-Cress points out. They are naturally open to interdisciplinarity, and they need to take more advantage of this fact, in the way that the Science Gallery has done. They need to be intrinsically inclusive, rather than managing or sanctioning inclusive acts to shore up their ‘accountability quota’, as it were. They need to be innovative. As Michael John Gorman from the Science Gallery put it, “Three people in a room cannot dream this big.” Museums need to evolve, and to evolve they need invention, and to be inventive, they need different thinkers thinking different thoughts, different dreamers dreaming different dreams.

Collaboration needs to involve all parties: core exhibition teams, core stakeholders, audiences, communities, the next generation of professionals, and indeed the subject matter and its people itself. There need to be clear goals, roles and outcomes, mutual gains, transparency and honesty, communication, flexibility and resilience. In the museum, and more broadly, it is vital that we collaborate. As McKenna-Cress says

‘Collaboration is not just a fad or simply fundamental, it is an intrinstic imperative if we intend our museums to be current, innovative, and relevant advocates as well as culturally and socially responsible’

Certainly, it is not free of problems. How do we, McKenna-Cress asked, collaborate with visitors without losing the value of museal authority? What is the role of visionary and individual thinking in group projects? Finding a common language, defining authorities and, importantly, not being afraid to admit those authorities, and understanding that in collaboration things are lost as well as gained are all issues which it is important to raise. Collaboration is not the solution for everything. As anyone who has worked on collaborative projects in the past will know, truth is a relative concept, created in the spaces between team parties, and it is fleeting and ephemeral. Collaborations play on this relativity, and thus we must acknowledge that there are times which are more appropriate for individual creativity. Yet whether individually, or as part of a collective, ultimately, what matters is the dream.

*Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge (Routledge, London and New York, 1992) p. 3; Bruno Latour, Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Harvard University Press, Cambridge
Massachusetts and London, 1999) p.304.

Friday, May 06, 2011

CFP: Paris International Congress of Humanities & Social Sciences Research


Call for Contributions
Paris International Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences Research
Paris (France), Hotel Concorde La Fayette, 24-28 July 2012

The congress will bring together humanities and social sciences (HSS) researchers, scientists, academicians, experts, engineers, developers, administrators and other HSS research-related professionals and practitioners from all over the world. The aims are to promote multidisciplinary dialogue and mutual cross-fertilisation of ideas and methods; to offer a place for participants to present, discuss, and showcase innovative recent and ongoing HSS research works and their applications or development; to update on- and explore new ways and directions; and to take advantage of opportunities for contacts, interaction, international collaboration and networking. All areas of Humanities and Social Sciences research are invited: anthropology and ethnology; applied mathematics, statistics and sciences for HSS research; archaeology; area studies; arts; business administration; classics; communication studies; cultural studies; demography; development studies; economics; environmental studies; epistemology; gender studies; geography; history; information science; international relations; languages and cultures; law; linguistics and language sciences; literature; philosophy; policy, epistemology and methodology of multi-, inter-, trans- and cross-disciplinary HSS research; political science; psychology; religion; research policy, administration and strategies; and sociology. Proposals are in the form of abstracts. Session formats include individual paper sessions, symposia, workshops, roundtables and poster sessions. The languages of the congress are English and French. Deadline for abstract submission: 30 October 2011. Closing date for early bird registration: 29 February 2012. For more information, submission and registration:

CFP: Challenging History conference

Call for conference participation:
Challenging History: understanding aims, audiences and outcomes in work with difficult and sensitive heritages

The Challenging History project steering group invites proposals for contributions to the International Challenging History conference to be held at City University London, Feb 23-25th 2012.

Since 2009, the Challenging History group has been working with heritage professionals, practitioners and academics in order to explore and interrogate issues raised in work with difficult, contested and sensitive heritages in a range of museum contexts, within and beyond the UK. The project acknowledges that all history is – to a greater or lesser degree – challenging, and encourages practitioners to consider how heritage interpretation can better acknowledge this complexity at its core.

In 2012, we wish to bring together those working in disparate and diverse locations and disciplines to help explore the practicalities, limitations and ethical implications of work in this knotty area of heritage interpretation. The programme will foster collaboration and shared understanding between academia and the heritage sector, and offer opportunities for networking, demonstrating approaches and practice, and presenting empirical research. We anticipate a vibrant and vital range of discussions and keynotes.

You are invited to submit a proposal along one or more of the following thematics related to challenging histories in Europe and beyond:
*Ethics, ownership and responsibility
*The role and positionality of audiences (including their entry narratives)
*Recognising complexity and multiplicity in heritage interpretation
*Definitions of learning, meaning making and understanding in challenging history work
*The role of empathy and personal resonance
*Framing, space and place of activity
*The role of memorialisation and commemoration
*Exploring symbols and their meanings
*Collaboration and co-production
*Methodological approaches
*Using new media to extend the museum walls
*Translating challenging histories across cultures and contexts

We welcome abstracts of 300 words along the following lines:
- 20 minute paper presentation
- 90 minute workshop
- 90 minute panel presentation with discussion
- Performance/storytelling

Abstracts should be sent to by June 30th. We welcome international contributions and EU colleagues will be able to apply for a Grundtvig Visits and Exchanges grant. The programme will be confirmed by mid July and registration will open in August.

The Challenging History conference is the culmination of a two year project funded by Grundtvig and supported by the MLA. The project includes partners in the UK (Historic Royal Palaces, the Tower of London, the Imperial War Museum, Orleans House Gallery, MLA and City University), Germany (the Forum for Contemporary History) and the Czech Republic (Lidice Memorial).

Funding and costs
Non UK European participants can apply for a Grundtvig Visits and Exchanges grant to attend the conference The conference will be listed on the Grundtvig catalogue. If you require a letter of invitation to apply for your Grundtvig grant please email
UK based colleagues will be unable to apply for a Grundtvig grant for the conference fee and will be offered concessionary rates to attend the conference.

More on Challenging History…
Challenging History is at once a community of like-minded individuals, a forum for discussion, a programme of ongoing professional development for practitioners and teachers and an advocate for change in the way our audiences engage with our shared history. It originated with the Challenging History series of seminars in 2009, held at Historic Royal Palaces - Tower of London. The programme was conceived to explore the role, aims and outcomes of heritage and museum learning programmes in relation to difficult and controversial subjects (see for more on the continuing work of the project).

A challenging history is any history that is contested, or difficult and upsetting to know about.

Challenging History believes the museum and heritage sector has an important role to play covering these histories in their spaces and programmes, and must do this work to stay relevant. It also believes at a personal and societal level it is important to acknowledge and learn about these histories that contribute to our understanding of the world and how we want to live in it.

24th Annual Visitor Studies Association Conference: July 24-27, 2011, Chicago, USA

24th Annual Visitor Studies Association Conference
Sustaining a Community of Learners
July 24-27, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois

VSA seeks to foster a sense of community among its members, who gather once a year to pose intriguing questions, explore diverse opinions, debate controversial issues, challenge assumptions, and share their successes and their struggles — in essence, to learn from one another.

To expand upon this community of learners, VSA's 24th Annual Conference at the historic Palmer House Hilton in Chicago will take place concurrently with the Association of Midwest Museums (AMM) and the Illinois Association of Museums (IAM) annual conferences. The partnership between these three organizations creates a unique opportunity for VSA conference attendees to meet with a wide spectrum of museum professionals. Through an “open-door” registration, VSA, AMM, and IAM members will be able to attend all sessions, keynote addresses, coffee breaks, and special events offered by any of the three partner organizations.

Online-only Early Bird Registration is open now!

Explore the Preliminary Schedule at a Glance
Explore the Preliminary Session Schedule

Pre-Conference Workshops

For in-depth experiences you can sign up for pre-conference workshops including: “Using iPads, iPhones and other Smart Devices to Study Visitors”, “Practitioner-Driven Visitor Studies”, “Working with Logic Models”, and much more. View workshop descriptions here.

Opening Event

Don’t miss this year’s opening event on Sunday evening, July 24 — an opening reception at the stunning Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Modern Wing, which was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano and opened in May 2009, provides a new home for the Art Institute of Chicago's collection of 20th- and 21st-century art. The building houses the museum's world-renowned collections of modern European painting and sculpture, contemporary art, architecture and design, and photography. The Modern Wing is a short walk from the Palmer House Hilton. View all evening event descriptions here.

For more information, including link to conference registration,
and event and location descriptions, please visit
and click on Conference