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Telling a story in a 100 objects

Hmmm

A colleague at a recent session suggested we should tell our local story in a 100 objects, very original, here are some suggestions from Tom Gauld in today’s Guardian

2014-10-03

Beetling away

This is a story about the benefits of beetling away in the store rooms of museums.

Dr Livingstone’s beetle I presume?

Dr David Livingstone’s only known beetle specimens were recently discovered at the Natural History Museum after he brought them back from Africa. The 20 specimens date back to Livingstone’s expedition along the Zambezi River in the mid nineteenth century.  The beetles in question were unearthed when the museum’s extensive insect collection was being catalogued and photographed for its online database. The beetles came to light when an unusual box was opened, and in it Dr Livingstone’s name and the name of the Zambezi expedition were written on the specimens’ labels.  This particular case was publicised on the Today programme on Radio 4.

Over in the Red House Museum, Christchurch, the collections are not quite so large, but have a few interesting secrets that a band of staff and volunteers are unearthing as the collections are being catalogued and digitised.  The latest one is the re discovery of the Whizz Bangs, an entertainment group who performed during the First World War to raise funds for injured troops convalescing in Christchurch and Barton on Sea (then south west Hampshire coast).  Perhaps not as eye catching a Dr Livingstone’s beetles but they inspired the museum to recreate the Whizz Bang variety act with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund and students from Highcliffe school.

Highcliffe School Whizz Bangs 2014

Highcliffe School Whizz Bangs 2014

The Original Whizz Bangs circa 1916

The Original Whizz Bangs circa 1916

And the moral of the story, you never know what is in your museum store until you properly catalogue and digitise it, and when you do, you may get on Radio 4 or kick start a community project.

Who reads museum displays anyway?

Who reads the labels or text panels in museum displays? Personally, I start a visit to a gallery reading the first few display panels start to finish, but as the visit unwinds I begin to flag.

United_States_Declaration_of_Independence

So how do you help a visitor avoid becoming overwhelmed by wordy displays?

A little bit of research analysing the readability and comprehension of literature given to parents of new borns in hospitals shines some light. Literature produced by patients and parents with experience of medical issues produced the most complex text. Literature produced by the hospital for parents and patients was less complex. While material circulated by companies selling baby related goods wrote the simplest and easiest to read leaflets. The latter was written by advertising professionals whose aim was to sell their products. Parents who could not understand marketing material would result in no sales of baby products.

I suspect museum texts seldom prove to be as readable as those produced by advertising executives.

I checked the reading age of this blog posting and it came out at 11.49 using the Coleman Liau Index,  in comparison the Declaration of Independence comes in at 12.28

Brand new Trust


 

Last year I posted about museums and cultural bodies moving from the public sector to Charitable Trusts.  Well it looks like the Hampshire Cultural Trust is about to get the final green light this summer and will take on Winchester Museums and Hampshire Arts & Museums Services this autumn, while Somerset and Devon County Councils are also planning to create a merged Trust for their 2 heritage services.

?????luton culture

There are few examples of County Councils transferring their cultural or heritage offers to Trust status yet, it is more common for unitary or district councils, such as York, Derby, Sheffield or Luton.   Why is this? Cities or town heritage services are often compact and concentrate on a relatively few number of physical sites in a confined area, while counties often include dispersed sites that  seldom have a dominant museum or cultural venue.   Maybe.

Another consideration could be that County Councils have been able to weather the public sector cuts until now, while District and Unitary authorities had to make hard decisions in earlier rounds of public sector spending reductions.  Counties are definitely feeling the cuts now, and hence are revisiting Trusts.

However big the organisational change of creating a Trust, in the short term it is unlikely that the visitor will notice much change.  Spotter guides for the observant will be new brands, more commercial offers (cafe, shop, venue hire and sponsorship) and new websites.  I have included some of the more colourful examples.

Hear My Story @ The National Museum of the Royal Naval Portsmouth: A review

HMS

For the full review, see the July copy of the Museums Journal

Hear My Story is the new twentieth century gallery at the Royal Navy Museum Portsmouth. The National Museum for the Senior Service has always struck me as the odd one compared to the other big nationals. It has kept its admission charge, it is does not have a presence in London and perhaps most importantly it is overshadowed by its neighbours the Mary Rose and HMS Victory in Portsmouth Historic Dockyards.

So it is good news that this hidden National has expanded its recent history displays in the new Babcock Galleries, the refurbished Georgian Grade 1 listed Storehouse Number 10. The museum has made a conscious effort that this new gallery will not be another models and guns show, the officers and crew of the Royal Navy as well as families and experts have been given a chance to tell their stories, ably illustrated with video, still images as well as plenty of objects. Hear My Story has moving tales to tell from the Great War to Marines serving in Afghanistan. The gallery is packed with objects, not only the obligatory heavy metal (Bofors guns and torpedoes) but also lovingly illustrated letters from sailors to their families.

However Hear My Story left me a little disappointed despite such excellent material on display and with the voices of the Royal Navy ringing in my ears. The exhibition is essentially telling the story of a large extended family, the Royal Navy family, to the exclusion of outside voices and an absence of contrary views. I also felt the strong subject matter overwhelmed the visitor due to an absence of a structured flow through the gallery.

Throughout the exhibition it is emphasised again and again, this is the story of the, and by the, Royal Navy, its men, women officers and ratings. Voices from other services or the wider public are rare indeed and other nations are silent. Despite our allies and enemies being repeatedly mentioned there were no American, French or German accounts and definitely no Iraqi or Afghan voices.  This does lead to somewhat uncritical approach to telling the story, yes, the hardships and triumphs are detailed, but you are rarely invited to challenge the largely benign view of the Service.

The designers used plenty of props to aid the telling of peoples’ stories, the exhibition is full of noises providing a busy feel, and large showcases, pull out drawers, colourful graphics and generous use of video screens utilising the museum’s rich collections.   Second World War era black and white footage and grainy video from the Falklands conflict is used as well as a section covering the film and the Navy. Plenty of showcases enabled the museum to display a variety of collections, much of it of a personal nature, letters, photographs, and trophies, with layered interpretation including numbered labels, display paddles, a selection of audio clips and videos stills.   In some cases objects were given space to make a greater impact.

Although there was plenty of technology on display for the public to view, most of the interactives were located at the end of the gallery, along with a family area, with the obligatory dressing up costumes and table top games. The most popular item within the main body of the exhibition was the long touch screen research desk allowing you to explore dates in the last century, which were populated with key historical events, illustrated with photos and images of original documents which could be virtually moved around on your research desk. The novelty of the device attracted visitors who rapidly became engrossed with the historical sources, it also allowed several groups to independently play.

At the end of the gallery there was a chance for visitors to listen to contemporary voices from the Navy. HMS wants to hear your opinion, but very much on their terms. The visitor was asked to agree or disagree with various statements following a briefing by a vox pop of opinions from service personnel, experts and families. Statements included whether the Navy should receive more funding, should we proud of our service and so on. It felt like the visitor was definitely being nudged towards a “correct” answer, and you couldn’t help looking over your shoulder if you did not choose the correct response!

Adjacent was another bank of video screens where you can choose to listen to an interview from serving and retired Royal Navy personnel. They were interviewed by young school children, no older than 12. I found the interview of the Marine Reserve and his tour in Sangin province, Afghanistan, visibly moving, including his description of collecting one his compatriot’s bodies, following an attack. The shock of his tour of duty obviously had a profound impact on the Marine.  This was perhaps the most eloquent reminder of the impact and horror of war in HMS, powerful stuff.

 

50p for Culture does it add up?

50p

The National Campaign for Arts is leading the 50p for culture campaign, lobbying local authorities to spend at least 50p per person per week on the arts.  Sounds a good idea and 50p does not sound much especially as the average council tax per household is around £4 per day and remember council tax accounts for less than a fifth of local authority income (the rest comes from business rates, grants and income).

I am not sure culture spend alone provides the entire picture for local culture.  Outcome based research, what museums and the arts do with this income, would be important as well.  That is probably harder to evidence, especially as one person’s great museum or art form is another’s dislike.  But the data does turn up some interesting points.  It helps if you know a little of the local background.

Glancing at the figures, “historic” towns and cities like Canterbury, Colchester and Exeter spend more than leafy stockbroker belt districts like the Chilterns, Hart and Sevenoaks.  Generally more urban councils tend to spend more on culture than rural or suburban authorities.  There does not seem to be link between richer areas spending more on culture and poorer places less, indeed if anything the reverse appears to be true.

Providing some context, urban places tend to have a tradition of  publicly funding and running museums and theatres.  Living in Hampshire this is very marked, Winchester and Basingstoke are the 2 biggest borough funders of museums in non metropolitan Hampshire.  Winchester operates 2 museums and Basingstoke part funds Milestones, a regional museum, and the excellent Willis Museum in the town centre both in partnership with Hampshire County Council.  Of course I am sure the figures are not infallible, and they don’t include capital spend, only revenue!  But used with caution they are helpful.  So go and lobby your council if you think they are being mean with the arts!

Museum of English Rural Life: a visit

Its the first time I have returned to this university museum since it appointed its new Curator a year or so ago.  There have been changes, families with little people are now being welcomed by a play area with a toy chest and rugs for toddlers to amuse themselves.  A family friendly trail of the museum is available highlighting displays and objects that maybe of interest to children, while a toddler session runs every Friday.

On the day I visited, a saturday, children  outnumbered the adult visitors, giving the play area a good run for its money!  The permanent displays are still much the same, with the mix of agricultural tools, posters and static vehicles.  Its more interesting than it sounds, but perhaps not naturally popular with younger audiences.  So the popularity of the play area is a definite success.

MERL's Miller's Waggon

MERL’s Miller’s Waggon

Philanthropy in the regions

The push to garner more funds for museums from philanthropy has been a hard one in recent times, especially for organisations outside London.  The capital has become bigger and richer in recent times in comparison with the rest of the nation.  The sources of philanthropy and sponsorship, large companies, have increasingly moved their headquarters to London or even further afield.  Even if a large business is present near a provincial museum, its likely that its marketing team are centralised, in London, or elsewhere.  It is estimated that 82% of business sponsorship to the arts goes to London based organisations and private giving is even more skewed.

Hold on you may think, at least the public sector will counteract this disparity between the regions and London, but actually central government funding also pours most of its funds into London.  A recent report “Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital” suggests that funding from Department for Culture, Media & Sport and its allied quango, the Arts Council, direct 75% of their (English) funding to London cultural bodies (including museums).  Remember London’s population is less than 16% of the population of England. Regional museums that do receive public funding are often reliant on local government funding.  Unfortunately local government funding is being cut back more drastically than central government (at least in relation to culture).

The Clifton under threat in the 60s

The Clifton under threat in the 60s

Regional museums that do attract new funding tend to succeed in raising it from, grant making bodies (Heritage Lottery), commercial income (venue hire) or using new technology (like crowd funding).  To give one example (OK its not a museum) the Clifton Community Art Centre in Wellington is seeking crowd funding to  develop a non profit venue, in this case a theatre and art centre.  The public are invited to buy community shares into this non profit making organisation.  Innovative fundraising is essential if you want to survive these days!

What makes a good museum?

Today I attended a conference in Winchester where the President of the Museums Association, David Anderson (and Director of National Museums Wales) laid out his vision for museums.

David Anderson

David Anderson

He felt museums needed to be inclusive, a welcome place and participative. So what does that mean to you and me, and what does it look like? Well it should be a place were you feel at ease when you visit, where you feel at home. Good museums should be engaging, that means visitors are excited by their visit and can explore new ideas and respond to the museum experience.

That can encompass a wide range of museums from small to international, from those that use new technology to simple exhibits. But they should engender wonder and be engaging. Next time you visit a visitor attraction, see if you can spot these characteristics.

Nelson, Navy & Nation exhibition review in the Museums Journal

My review of the Nelson, Navy and Nation exhibition at the National Maritime Museum is now available in the January edition of the Museums Journal with pictures, but you can still read it here for free!