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.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bodies of Protest: The Museum and its Discontents, Helen Rees Leahy Brown Bag, 15 May 2013

While there is a growing body of evidence that visiting museums can contribute to our physical and psychological well-being, there is an equally rich history of their adverse affects on our corporeal and mental equilibrium. This presentation explored the ways in which visitors’ bodies have rebuked the norms of comportment inside the museum, due to the effects of fatigue, confusion, nausea and frustration.

Helen is Director of the Centre for Museology at the University of Manchester. Prior to coming to Manchester, Helen worked as a curator and museum director for over 12 years, and has organised numerous exhibitions of fine art and design. Helen has published on topics relating to practices of individual and institutional collecting, in both historical and contemporary contexts, including issues of patronage, display and interpretation. Her project on "Museum Bodies" addresses the visitor's embodied encounter with the museum or exhibition and the processes whereby a continually changing repertoire of normative 'techniques of the body' in the public art gallery has been produced and acquired, ranging from regimes of regulation and instruction to licensed sociality and consumption. Her book “Museum Bodies: the Politics and Practices of Viewing and Visiting” is published by Ashgate,  2012. She is currently Curatorial Consultant to The Gaskells’ House (opens summer 2014) and is working on a new project on exhibition historiography.

This session was something of an antidote to the current focus and political requirement to think of museums as places of wellbeing, or, as Helen described, it was the Yin to the Happy Museum project's Yang. Nausea, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, falling over, tripping up, being bewildered, being exhausted, getting lost and myriad ways in which museums and galleries can make us actually feel quite ill and unhappy were all discussed with a real sense of excitement and as experiences which we could all relate to.  In fact anecdotes about our own experiences of bodily discontent in museums were copious.  

Putting this into historical context, Helen referred to Paul Valery's writings of 1923.  His 'Le Probleme des Musees' recognises this physical exhaustion in galleries, this confusion over expected behaviours in a space that is part drawing room, part temple, and which requires a bizarre and involuntary change in gait and even in speech: there is simply too much to take in, a sensory overload which has real corporeal and visceral effects on our bodies.  Indeed there is even a psychological syndrome, recognised by Stendhal ('La Syndrome di Stendhal') also known as 'Jerusalem', or 'Florence syndrome' - that overwhelming crisis that in seeking to see, observe, experience every single thing within a place or a museum, we may have palpitations, be exhausted, suffer physically and mentally.

And just as museums have negative effects on our bodies, so too do we sometimes negatively affect museum objects in a highly demonstrative and physical way.  There are several recorded instances of acts of violence to museum objects, both petty and more serious.  For example Mary Richardson's slashing of the Rokeby Venus, and other suffragette demonstrations (which interestingly are often ignored by institutions).  In fact could it be because of the strict rules of the museum, the 'do not touch' posters and regulations, that such vandalism takes place?  Telling people to do something often has the opposite effect, leading to an 'impish vision of havoc' (a quotation from Ruth Hoberman's 2011 Introduction to 'Museum Trouble: Edwardian Fiction and the Emergence of Modernism').  I love this phrase.  And I love to be an imp and do all those things that I am not supposed to do: sneak up to sculptures and touch them, disobey 'no photography' signs surreptitiously, peer through doors with 'no entry' signs.  I wonder how many of us do?

But why is it that galleries and museums are so uncomfortable with telling these stories of their own institutions?  Do they not make them seem more human, less mysterious?  Is there an institutional embarrassment that such things can happen, that security can be breached, or that such damage can occur in a place which is meant to care for and conserve?  Why will the National Gallery not permit publication for example of the photograph of the slashed Velazquez painting?  Should a more concerted effort be made to tell these stories, to be transparent and acknowledge that museums can be discomforting: they assault us, and we assault them?  Should we begin to factor this into exhibition design and space making - not just seats for weary visitors and shorter exhibitions as strategies for visitor wellbeing, or inviting artists to critique the institution, but what about managed opportunities for visitors to be angry, for venting frustration, for being discontent, for acknowledging bodies of protest?

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Brown Bag Seminar Report for Prof. Piotr Bienkowski, ‘Our Museum’ Programme.

On Wednesday 1st of May 2013, Prof. Piotr Bienkowski was guest speaker to the Brown Bag Seminar series at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. Prof. Bienkowski is the Project Director of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Our Museum programme, and runs a cultural consultancy specialising in organisational change, community engagement and cultural planning. Previously he was Head of Antiquities at National Museums Liverpool, Deputy (and Acting) Director at Manchester Museum, Professor of Archaeology and Museology at the University of Manchester, and Chair of the North West Federation of Museums and Galleries. He is a leading authority on the archaeology of Jordan, and directs an excavation in Petra. In his spare time, he does triathlon and he has represented Great Britain at duathlon. 

Our Museum: Communities and Museums as Active Partners is a Paul Hamlyn Foundation Special Initiative to facilitate a process of development and organisational change within museums and galleries that are committed to active partnership with their communities. This initiative is the culmination of a careful consultation process started in 2008 and a research phase led by Dr. Bernadette Lynch. Her report, Whose cake is it anyway? (2011) concluded that the funding invested in recent years in public engagement and participation in the UK's museums and galleries has not succeeded in shifting the work from the margins to the core of many of these organisations.

Prof. Bienkowski discussed barriers to participation and sustainable cooperative relationships, which fall broadly into four sections: Organisational and governance, knowledge and skills, understanding of communities and their issues, and fear of conflict. Piotr observed that leadership, governance protocols and social priorities are of most immediate concern in the success of any collaborative process. In particular, effective communication is essential to the engagement of all members of staff. Museum professionals within organisations that are in the midst of changing organisational paradigms may not (and sometimes may not wish to) consistently recognise shared authority and community engagement as institutional and professional priorities.

Unfortunately in the process of transformation, it is not always clear who is specifically responsible for community engagement. The answer is that everyone should be. In the context of competing priorities, it is important to charge all staff with a heightened awareness of and integration of community engagement in daily museum practices. It is also important to observe that sustainable relationships are necessarily long-term commitments; they are not simply ‘project specific’. Collaborative partnerships take time and commitment. 

Additionally, staff may not have the knowledge and skills to respond appropriately to the challenges presented by collaborations. Staff may not understand differing cultural norms and behaviours; they may not know the appropriate social conventions necessary to create socially constructive relationships in collaborative partnerships for community engagement. It takes a great deal of patience and self-confidence to promote constructive communications both internally and externally to the museum community. Most cogently, Piotr recommended that in planning sessions and during sessions/events that are aimed towards community engagement, museum staff should always ask: ‘Who is in the room today, who is not in the room with us and why?’ Ultimately, however, the greatest barrier to constructive relationships between museums and the communities they engage, is ‘fear’, especially fear of conflict if the discussion of long-suppressed issues sparks strong views and anger. Fear, especially by directors and governing bodies, is one of the greatest barriers to reflective collaborative practice, to constructive collaborative sharing of authority, and to affirming the social agency of all participants. 

Our Museum offers support for organisations to manage significant structural change.  It is not about short-term project funding, but about facilitating organisational change so that participatory work becomes core, embedded, sustainable and less at risk of being marginalised when specific funding streams run out. The distinctive characteristic of Our Museum is a collaborative and reflective process through which institutions and communities share their experiences and learn from each other as critical friends. 

In terms of wider impact, the Our Museum programme is working toward disseminating, across the museum sector, tested sets of principles and ways of working that bring communities and their values to the core of museums and galleries, and which can be applied to all types of institutions – small, medium, large, from multidisciplinary to social history museums to fine art galleries.

URL for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation:

URL for ‘Whose cake is it anyway?’ pdf. file:

URL for ‘Our Museum’ website: