Some thoughts about diversity agendas in museums

hello all!

A few updates:

  • I’m currently working on some corrections for a chapter for a book called Museums and Activism, edited by Richard Sandell and Robert Janes. I’m so excited to be part of this, and have really enjoyed writing about Sutton House outside the context/confines of a thesis. 
  • I’m also working on some illustrations relating to the history of Sutton House. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with them yet, but I’m feeling a self published book or a zine coming on… I might share some of those on this blog soon. 
  • Most significantly, I’m delighted to have been appointed as a part time Lecturer for the Museums and Galleries in Education MA at the UCL Institute of Education. It’s the MA I did in 2010-2012 and the department within which I’ve been doing my PhD, so it’s really great to have the opportunity to contribute to a department that has been so supportive, inspiring and rewarding. I will start in the new year, and Sutton House have been super accommodating, so I will be continuing my work there too. 

For my interview I was asked to give a presentation about diversity in museums and galleries. It ended up, like a lot of my writing, more of a polemic than I had intended. I thought I’d share some of the thoughts I raised in my presentation here (in more form) as I thought it might be of interest to some.

Speaking about diversity in museums, you have to start with the staff. Museum Studies MAs and other post graduate qualifications are inherently a barrier. Increasingly museum jobs are requiring a postgraduate qualification, or otherwise a lot of experience which usually means unpaid work. This is, of course, a class barrier, which in turn is a barrier for people of colour, people with disabilities and a large portion of the LGBTQ community. Museum Studies MAs are unsurprisingly reflective of the wider heritage sector and the education sector in that it comprises mostly white, middle class women.

Andrea Fraser notes that the majority of people of colour working in museums (in the US) are security staff or catering staff, and do not hold the more “professionalised” roles related to curation, collection care/conservation or education. This is also reflective of UK museums as well. I would urge museum professionals recruiting staff to consider whether or not a post graduate qualification genuinely is essential, and I imagine the answer is almost always no. A more diverse workforce might be built if transferable skills from other jobs are considered as highly as post graduate qualifications or masses of voluntary experience within museums. Having time and capacity to volunteer is a huge privilege, and requires that candidates have sufficient savings or financial support to be able to do it.

I also think we need to be wary about the overuse or rather misuse of the word diversity. And more specifically we should be wary of assuming there’s a commonly understood definition. I think that in museums, diversity is usually a lazy shorthand for people of colour. This often reductive term neglects other protected characteristics and issues of class, and access in terms of disability and mental health. It also often fails to address intersectional identities: some trans women are Muslim, some black people are disabled, some autistic people are refugees etc etc etc.

The first obstacle in addressing the diversity problems in museums is that we all need to start acknowledging our privileges more. People often don’t like to be called out on their privilege or their complicity with ableism, heteronormativity and white supremacy. Linked to this, it is often difficult to articulate to people with privilege, what it’s like to be oppressed, marginalised, or invisible- when we introduced gender neutral toilets at Sutton House for example, some people couldn’t understand why it was worth doing. We had a young trans teenager who visited who, along with their mother, told us it was great to find somewhere where they felt safe and welcome. Cis people who have never felt vulnerable in a public toilet, or had to go without using a toilet in a public space because there was no where to accommodate them, might not be able to see why such a small change can be such a crucial one. I myself have had experiences where I’ve been reminded of my blindness to barriers faced by other marginalised people. During my exhibition 126, some disabled participants were rightly disappointed that they had contributed to the exhibition, but that it would be exhibited in a place inaccessible by wheelchair. I felt bad, but it wasn’t about me, we have to listen, get over our own bruised ego, and make changes to our behaviour.

Museums, and their staff, need to be good allies. Saying ‘we welcome all’ is not being an ally, what are you doing about it? How are you reducing the barriers faced by people of colour, who only see white faces in the museum? How are you making concessions in pay for entry museums for local working class visitors who can’t otherwise afford the fee? How are you challenging heteronormativity in depictions, for example, of the home and family in historic house museums? How are you making school workshops engaging and accessible for children with autism or other specific educational needs? How are you developing alternatives to audio tours for deaf people?

The Morris Hargreaves McIntyre ‘spectrum of audience engagement’ (see page 19 here), which is something I return to regularly is a good measuring tool for museums, or an aid for museum studies students to assess museums they encounter: where do they fit, where are they aiming for? My aspiration is always to achieve the final column: museum as a platform for ideas, as an “egalitarian facilitator”. A key word there is Safe Space, it’s not only about producing programming and exhibitions to appeal to marginalised groups, but to steer a cultural change that makes museums a space of an exchange of ideas and expertise between visitors and so-called “experts”.

Likewise, establishing trust with communities as an “egalitarian facilitator” means that marginalised communities are also more likely to visit and engage outside of programmes directly marketed towards them. If you invest time and resources into a community, that community are more likely to feel welcome, and that the museum is a space for them. Sutton House Queered, the year long LGBTQ programme of events and exhibitions at Sutton House is, I’m pleased (and a bit smug to say) a good example of this. At the beginning of the project we set out to make Sutton House a safe and welcoming place for the LGBTQ community, for this year and beyond. We were approached by the Fringe Queer Film Festival to host one of their biggest events, a screening of the film Out of this world and a Q&A with Mykki Blanco. They approached us based on the reputation we have established over the year, the curator of the festival had been to a few of our events and knew that we were serious, and not taking a tokenistic approach to our LGBTQ engagement. This impact, and the relationships built on the back of it, influences the legacy of such projects once key milestone anniversaries, such as the 50 year anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, have ended.

Exhibitions that are built for, with and by communities, is an ethos I bang on about quite regularly. This often means conceding that museums professionals aren’t the experts, and that unsettles a culture of gate keeping and ivory tower syndrome, which museums are still often regarded as being inflicted with.

I attended the 13th LGBTQ History and Archives conference at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) a few weekends ago. As usual it was great. Steven Dryden who was one of the curators of the British Library exhibition Gay UK: Love, Law and Legacy, told us that they welcomed 88,502 visitors over three months, this was 111% over target, the second most visited exhibition of the year, 6th best attended in the space- most of which had a much longer run time. These are the sorts of figures that make the museum big wigs who might question the desire for such exhibitions sit up and take notice. This has given the newly formed British Library LGBTQ network extra mileage and perhaps lobbying leverage to make demands for further work, and they have created new guidelines to say that every exhibition must have an element relating to LGBTQ history, be it an object, some interpretation, an online blog post etc. This in turn has implications for future collection building too. 

We must also start to challenge the assumption of a shared understanding of what is ‘important’, particularly in regards to historic houses and other heritage sites. They are usually deemed heritage sites because they are considered ‘important’. But what does important mean? Usually it means related to the monarchy, an aristocratic family or a well known successful figure, or of architectural significance. If we reframe what constitutes “importance” in public history, we open up a wider and more exciting variety of spaces. Sutton House was dismissed by architectural historian James Lees-Milne, whose influence likely saw it sit in a state of decay for almost 50 years. ‘No more important’ than any other house he wrote in his diaries. Its true importance came to be in its potential, rather than its past, its potential for a community space for the people of Hackney. The Birmingham Back to Backs are another great example. They were far from unique, thousands were built in inner city areas to accommodate for a burgeoning population growth in industrial areas. These homes were occupied by normal working people, a vision of history much more relatable to most visitors and potential visitors than the grand crumbling piles owned by Lord and Lady Upperclass.

The conference at the LMA was about oral histories, and was called ‘Talking Back’, a title inspired by bell hooks, who was raised to believe that to talk back was to challenge or stand up to an authority figure. This idea lends itself naturally to oral histories, but also, I’d argue, to museums in general. If we think of the museum as the authority figure, then people within marginalised communities must ‘talk back’ to be heard, seen and recognised. Bell hooks said: ‘It is in the act of speech, of “talking back”, that is no mere gesture of empty words, that it is the expression of our movement from object to subject- the liberated voice’. It’s our responsibility, as people in the museum sector, not to idly wait until the oppressed, forgotten and ignored ‘talk back’ to us, but to actively invite them to do so and to listen to them.

(Apologies these are only half-formed thoughts, and no doubt full of typos, but that’s part of the charm of blogging… isn’t it?)

‘Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display’ review

Hello all, just a quick post today- I’m currently at the bitter end of thesis writing, hence my inactivity on the blog.

Some great news though, I have got the job of Community Learning Manager at the National Trust’s Sutton House in Hackney, where I have volunteered since starting my PhD, and is the central site I look at in my thesis. I start in September, and I’m so excited to be part of such a great team in such a radical and important National Trust house!

I have written a review of Jennifer Tyburczy’s Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display for the Histsex, H-Net Reviews site. You can read the review here, or there is a printable PDF version here. A really great book, and very timely for my thesis!

 

LGBTQ Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections 2016: Without Borders

Sorry for the long gap in blog posts, I’ve been very busy working on my thesis, and much more exciting things, including this!

You might remember a much earlier post on this blog from just before I started my PhD, when I mentioned the LGBTI ALMS (Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections) conference in Amsterdam. It was an incredible conference, and I’m so pleased to be a small part of its follow up in summer 2016. I am part of the steering committee, and the conference is hosted by London Metropolitan Archives and the Bishopsgate Institute, and a third institution which is to be announced shortly!

The call for papers is as follows:

Deadline for proposals is 8 January 2016:

WITHOUT BORDERS…
Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections (ALMS) 2016
an International LGBTQ+ Conference hosted by the City of London through London Metropolitan Archives in partnership with Bishopsgate Institute.

Dates: 22 – 24 June 2016
Location: London

Background

ALMS is an international conference focussed on the work by public, private, academic, and grassroots organisations which are collecting, capture and preserving archives of LGBTQ+ experiences, to ensure our histories continue to be documented and shared. The conference began in Minnesota in 2006 when the Tretter Collection and Quatrefoil Library co-hosted the first LGBT ALMS Conference. The last conference took place in Amsterdam in 2012 and saw archivists, activists, librarians, museums professionals and academics from around the world coming together to share success stories and discuss challenges involved in recording LGBTQ+ lives.

CALL FOR PAPERS 2016

To reflect our emerging global community, the 2016 conference is titled ‘Without Borders’. Papers are invited from across the heritage, cultural, academic and grassroots communities. Our aim is to generate a dialogue within the co-dependent fields of LGBTQ+ historical research and collecting, and share experiences, ideas and best practice through a programme of presentations and short talks that explore margins, borders, barriers and intersections, past and present. Topics may include, but are not limited to:

• Barriers –in accessing LGBTQ+ content within existing collections, and in collecting material from LGBTQ+ communities
• Intersections – collecting, cataloguing or researching subjects which share multiple / contrasting identities
• Margins – researching elusive or liminal subjects; learning, research or projects taking place outside formal institutions
• Connections – uniting individuals or communities across boundaries through heritage or research
• Border police – navigating the formal standards of the heritage sector, including official terms and language or constructions of identity

We invite 200 word abstracts offering informal 10-minute presentations that share work-in-progress or provide an introduction to new projects or research that address these themes.

We also invite 300 word abstracts for 20-minute papers or presentations exploring the themes in more detail.

We particularly welcome contributions from BME / QPOC (Black Minority Ethnic / Queer People of Colour) and Transgender communities, as well as from those living outside the UK and USA.

The ALMS conference 2016 is being delivered on a not-for-profit basis by London Metropolitan Archives and Bishopsgate Institute in order to encourage dialogue and share knowledge in LGBTQ+ histories and cultures. The conference is not being funded as part of a wider project and the organisers are unable to cover speakers’ costs except in cases where keynote or invited speakers are prevented from attendance for financial reasons. A limited number of bursaries for attendees will be made available at the beginning of 2016.

Abstract deadline: Friday 8 January 2016
Abstracts to: jan.pimblett@cityoflondon.gov.uk

A website will shortly be launched, but in the mean time you can keep an eye out for announcements at the Facebook page and on twitter @LGBTQALMS

New York

Hello all, sorry for the radio silence, been a bit busy. I thought I’d share some brief thoughts about my visit to New York, which was amazing (but feels like a million years ago now…)

A few bits of news before I do:

  • I did an interview for the Queer East London Project, which you can read here.
  • ‘Twilight People: stories of faith and gender beyond the binary’ is looking for trans and gender variant people of faith to share their stories, see here for more details of how to get involved, it’s a groundbreaking project that I feel really privileged to be a part of.
  • An updated version of my book chapter about LGBTQ oral histories (including PICTURES!) appears in the new MuseumsEtc book ‘On Sexuality‘, it’s a really great book that collects together essays about making LGBTQ narratives visible in museums, it’s also more reasonably priced than the last one!
  • I’m part of a really great steering committee for the next LGBTQ+ Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections conference. The last took place in 2012 in Amsterdam, and was incredible, I wrote about it at the time here. The committee includes archive professionals, artists, academics and activists from Bishopsgate Institute, London Metropolitan Archives, Kingston University, the Institute of Education (that’s me), Tower Hamlets Local History Library, rukus! Federation, the Parliamentary Archives, Tate Britain and University College London. I’ll keep you posted once the official blog is up and running, but in the meantime, like the Facebook page here.
  • I’ve been recruited as an ‘expert advisor’ for a new project by Leeds Beckett University and Historic England, which is crowdsourcing pins on a map highlighting LGBTQ history. The trial version is available here. Feel free to add your own pins, although for the trail the map includes only London.

That’s enough of that. On to New York.

Museum Association of New York: Museums in Action Conference “Museums Mean Business”
April 12th , Corning Museum of Glass

Myself and Lauren Windham presented a workshop together on the first day of this conference. Initially, it was to be a three person panel, but Ellie Lewis-Nunes was unfortunately unable to make it (I’m hiking with her to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support, you can donate here!), so while it was bitter sweet, the talk was still a great success. Our workshop was called ‘Addressing the balance’ and we spoke about challenges arising when addressing specific community groups in historic buildings in London, and how this can extend to the regular visitor. I spoke about my work with Sutton House, and Lauren spoke about her time at Bruce Castle, and a project she ran with children and their non-English speaking parents. We had some really great questions, and people seemed really engaged with the subject.

We had a quick chance to poke around the new wing of the museum, and we were blown away. I must admit my expectations of glass museums are based on the one in my hometown of Sunderland, which may be great now, but when I visited it a very long time ago, it was a little dry. This new wing was spectacular, a huge array of really challenging contemporary glasswork in a beautiful naturally lit space, it really was breathtaking.

Bjork at MOMA

I am a huge Bjork fan, like worryingly huge. I have her words tattooed on my flesh (as well as the swan from Vespertine) and I’ve seen her live 6 times now (7 in July!), she truly is my idol and this exhibition felt like a pilgrimage for me. Four of her instruments, which I’d previously seen live on her Biophilia tour, were dotted around the museum atrium and removed from their natural context, it became even more clear what beautiful works of art they are, especially the pendulum harp.

The first part of the exhibition was an immersive screening of the MOMA commissioned video for Black Lake, which is the centrepiece of her new album Vulnicura. At ten minutes long, Black Lake is sparse and heartbreaking, probably Bjork’s most personal and vulnerable song to date. The video is understated, it features her walking around barefoot in the inside of a volcano, and only in the final minute or so does she surface to the moonlike mossy Iceland surface. The video is projected on two walls that are often in sync, but often show different things, and the small space they were played in was made to recreate the inside of a volcano, with crater-like protrusions lining the wall. The room had nearly 50 speakers, and we saw the film twice (I cried both times haha), the first time, everyone was sitting on the floor, which I thought was weird, and the second time, people stood and moved around the space. There’s a particular moment in the film during a long 30 second drawn out note from the strings, where Bjork, on her knees, pounds violently at her chest as if she is trying to restart her heart. I glanced around and it was really moving to see so many glistening eyes reflected from the glow of the screen. For me, if you can’t see an artist live, surely this is the ideal way to experience music, it was a staggering achievement.

The next part was the Bjork cinema, a room filled with red velvet cushions to lay on where they play all of Bjork’s music videos in chronological order. We spent about 40 minutes in there, I have seen all of those videos countless times, but it was a whole new experience to see them in this setting.

The final part was the timed-ticket section called ‘Songlines’, in which a fictional story about a woman moving through the albums of Bjork is whispered in your ears alongside snippets of her songs. It was a really creative and unusual way of telling the story of Bjork’s music, and of the strongly defined characters she creates for each of her albums. In each room, which corresponded to an album, were costumes and props from videos and live performances and Bjork’s notebooks.

The exhibition completely lived up to my expectations, and the Black Lake screening in particular completely surpassed it. I’m not sure I’ll ever love an exhibition as much as I loved this one, it truly felt like a religious experience.


(here’s me gazing lovingly at the bell dress from the Who Is It? video)

9/11 Memorial Museum

Lauren left to go back to Washington, it was really great to catch up with her after so long (she and I studied on our MA together), she is one of my heritage idols and a continued source of inspiration to me. I had a day on my own before my housemate arrived to stay for a week, so I went to see the 9/11 Memorial Museum. I was expecting it to be problematic to be honest, I imagined it would be extremely patriotic and Islamophobic, but I was very pleasantly surprised at how tasteful and moving it was, it was purely a commemoration of those lost in the attacks, and the interpretation combined stark monuments, rich and compassionate storytelling, and some really visually powerful moments (especially the missing posters that were projected onto one of the walls and gradually faded in and out). The fountains themselves were really beautiful too.

Two really interesting points (from a museum studies student perspective…); firstly, there was a recording studio for visitors to record their memories and thoughts about the day, these were then projected onto a long screen and was really beautifully done. Secondly, I’ve never experienced such a raw and solemn audience before, I’m a terrible eavesdropper in museums, as I think it’s a good lazy research tool, but in this museum the conversations were much more personal than usual, everyone remembers where they were that day, and everyone was very visibly moved and at times uncomfortable. The museum even had tissue dispensers at parts of the main exhibition, it was quite unlike anything I’d seen before.

Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

One of the smaller treats we had was the Leslie Lohman, which is a really nice space devoted to LGBTQ art and artists. The mission statement reads: ‘The Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art is the first dedicated LGBTQ art museum in the world with a mission to exhibit and preserve LGBTQ art, and foster the artists who create it The Leslie-Lohman Museum embraces the rich creative history of the LGBTQ art community by educating, informing, inspiring, entertaining, and challenging all who enter its doors. The Museum is operated by the Leslie Lohman Gay Art Foundation, Inc., a non-profit founded in 1987 by Charles W. Leslie and Fritz Lohman who have supported LGBTQ artists for over 30 years.’

 

The exhibition we saw was called ‘Irreverent: a celebration of censorship’. The museum hosts up to 8 exhibitions a year, which is pretty remarkable for a non-profit venture, it was also one of the very few free museums we visited, which seems like a rare treat in New York, where entry to most museums is in excess of $15. I really wish there was an equivalent to this in London.

Brooklyn Museum

I think my favourite museum overall was the Brooklyn Museum. Lauren had recommended I go and see the Kehinde Wiley exhibition there, and the museum was already on my housemate’s to do list. It is one of the best art exhibitions I have seen in ages. Wiley paints huge portraits of people of colour in classic heroic poses, with rich and florid patterned backgrounds. They really are incredible, and the exhibition also featured work on stained glass and sculpture. We also saw the Jean-Michel Basquiat ‘Unknown Notebooks exhibition’ and looked around the permanent collections. It was great to see a museum genuinely privileging its local artists, and especially exciting to see people of colour represented on such a scale in such a huge museum.

These are just a few of the things we saw, we also saw a small exhibition of Keith Haring’s work, the American Folk Art Museum, the Museum of Morbid Curiosity (which was a HUGE disappointment), the Museum of Sex, the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (which a lovely couple kindly gave us their tickets for so we didn’t have to pay!), a super cute little museum at Coney Island, and Lauren and I had a little tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

If you get the chance to go to New York, definitely do! It was incredible and I hope I get the opportunity to go back one day, I feel like we only scratched the surface!

Here’s a little bonus picture of me admiring some of the art at the American Folk Art Museum:

Museum Association of New York: Museums in Action Conference “Museums Mean Business”

I’m really excited to be part of a panel at the Museum Association of New York’s annual Museums in Action Conference at the Corning Museum of Glass on the 12th of April.

Our panel takes place on Sunday 12th at 14.30, here are the details:

Title: 
Addressing the balance: negotiating potential conflicts between the regular visitor and specific community groups in historic buildings- UK and US perspectives

Facilitators: 
Lauren Windham (museum educator and historic guide at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C), Ellie Lewis-Nunes (heritage educator at Ealing Council in West London, covering parks and open spaces and two historic houses; Gunnersbury Park Museum, Pitzhanger Manor), Sean Curran (PhD student at UCL IOE and curator/volunteer with the National Trust)

Panel description: 
This session aims to address potential challenges in negotiating the balance between creating innovative and thoughtful programming tailored to specific diverse audience groups, and programming with regular local visitors. The session will aim to provoke discussion about best practice and experience sharing through three innovative and adaptable case studies from historic buildings in London, England. Ellie Lewis-Nunes will discuss engaging 14-21 year olds in exhibitions and programming at Gunnersbury Park Museum, Sean Curran will discuss the challenges of unearthing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender narratives at Sutton House, and Lauren Windham will discuss meeting the needs of international visitors and their differing roles as both tourists and immigrant populations in a community and their impact on programming. Lauren will transition from UK to US museums in her current work back in The States, which will then lead into a facilitator led discussion where participants will be invited to share experiences of working with diverse audience groups.

This is a great opportunity to share my research with an international audience, and to sample some of the museums New York has to offer, and I’m really looking forward to being reunited with, and working with Lauren and Ellie, who I met on the Museums and Galleries in Education MA at the IOE. I think it’s going to be a really great workshop and I’m looking forward to meeting those who attend.

You can see the full programme here.

‘The Period Room: Museum, Material, Experience’ conference at Bowes Museum

At the end of last week I attended the Period Room conference at Bowes Museum (home to the brilliant and bonkers Silver Swan) in Barnard Castle. I hadn’t visited the Bowes since I was a child on a school trip, so it was great to have a good excuse to visit the imposing French Chateau once again.

This conference, was jointly organised by the University of Leeds and The Bowes Museum, and was supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art,  and aimed to ‘consider the Period Room, and the historic interior, from a wide variety of perspectives in order to address some key questions about the history and practice of Period Room displays in Museums’.

I had attended the conference on the recommendation of my supervisor, and thought that it would be interesting but rather tangential to my research, but given my focus on historic houses it served as a very useful alternative way into thinking about how domestic spaces are displayed, both in and out of museum contexts.

Rather than describe the whole conference, I will instead highlight a few of the ideas/themes I found most interesting/thought provoking.

  • Does a Period Room cease to be a “room” because of its context in a museum? Does it become a memorial, a shrine, a mausoleum? Is it just a fictional stage for unrelated objects, or otherwise tenuously linked objects from the same era. Is an IKEA store just a collection of period rooms? Are we being sold Good Taste when we visit a period room in a museum?
  • Is the period room aiming for historical accuracy, or aesthetic pleasure? Does authenticity really matter (I’d argue definitely not, though I overheard two other delegates discussing this “what’s the point of a period room if not all of the furniture is authentic?” “I know, it’s more like a playroom”…)? To what extent is a curator relying on imagination as much as historical fervour? One speaker pointed out that no room consists of only furniture, decor and objects from the particular snapshot it might be recorded in, there might be a piece of furniture belonging to granny that’s already 50 years old, etc. The presentation of a period room can only ever be in line with research/recreation and conservation techniques of the time in which it is assembled.
  • How do you people a period room? Where are the humans? Are period rooms too often sanitised as places of inactivity? A room only lives because of how people use and interact with it. Period rooms, perhaps, become about production, design, furniture, rather than the social. Where does taste fit in to this? and class? these are inherently human phenomenons, and inherently visible in domestic spaces. How can people be introduced into a period room? Often curators will leave a period-appropriate newspaper draped over the arm of a chair, a pair of reading glasses on a side table, a pair of slippers by the bed, is this any better than leaving them unpeopled? Is it too staged?
  • What parallels does the period room have with the theatre? or with stage sets? what skills could be harvested between period room curators, stage and set designers? does one value authenticity and historical accuracy/aesthetic appearance more than the other?
  • One point that had never occurred to me was to do with ambience and the room being situated in a wider context, through lighting and windows. What time of day/night is the period room being presented? does it matter? in windowless museum spaces, should windows be replicated? If the curtains or shutters are always closed it immediately lessens the room-ness of the room, it isolates it from any broader context.
  • For me, the most interesting discussion was about the potential role of artists in period rooms, which chimes with my own exhibition at Sutton House with artist Judith Brocklehurst. Do audiences more readily accept more radical approaches to story telling from artists than from curators? Can artists take more risks? Will visitors accept fiction and inauthenticity from artists, but not from curators? and is the root of this problem that curators, and museums more broadly are seen to be authoritative and definitive? how can we challenge this?

I’ll leave you with a few links to some examples that struck me as particularly interesting:

notes on Taipei

My Taipei trip feels like an age ago, I’ve been quite slow in blogging about it, it was such a brilliant (albeit exhausting experience), apologies for my tardiness.

I attended the ‘Museums and Education in the 21st century: local and global discourses’ conference at the National Taiwan Normal University in June with fellow PhD student (and artist for my Master Mistress exhibition) Judith Brocklehurst, and three academics from my department.

I won’t recount the conference proceedings, but the two days were varied and rich and truly international, there were papers from Taiwan, the UK, Australia, China and more. We met some really interesting people and made some really great connections for the future.

I wanted instead to share some of the pictures I took while I was there, Judith and I stayed for a few days following the conference, and visited several heritage sites which helped to contextualise some of the issues that we had been discussing and hearing about throughout the conference.

The first site we visited was the National Palace Museum in Shilin, which holds one of the largest collections of ancient Chinese artefacts in the world. The conference organisers kindly arranged for us to have a tour from an extremely knowledgable voluntary tour guide, though due to the size of the museum we only scratched the surface in the few hours we were there (also we were treated to a delicious meal in the roof top restaurant!)

We then went to the Shihsanhang Museum of Archaeology, which, aside from being one of the most interesting museum buildings I’ve ever seen, seemed quite incoherent in terms of the odd dialogue happening between the jarring architecture and the rather archaic nature of the exhibits within it, including rather dated dioramas and model human architects aplenty.

The next day we visited the Lin Family Mansions and Gardens. I was really keen to see what historic houses in Taiwan looked like, and how they were as a visitor experience in comparison to UK historic houses. Unfortunately the tours were only conducted in Mandarin, and Judith and I felt our language skills weren’t up to enough to join them, so we mainly spent time in the gardens. The rain was torrential, but this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. It is one of the most complete surviving examples of traditional Chinese garden architecture and was structured around a series of ponds.

It was beautifully crafted to accommodate the wet weather, as it was almost entirely under cover, you could walk almost all the way around it without getting wet. It was also great so see groups of teenagers using the space to just hang out, I can’t imagine a group of teens here, spending their free times just chatting in a national trust garden (partially because they aren’t free!). A really interesting thing was the interpretation sign at the front which was in Mandarin and English, the English one gave a brief overview of the entire history of the house (it was occupied by squatters at one point, a surprising parallel with Sutton House!), with the only unaccounted period being the 50 years (until 1945) that Taiwan was under Japanese rule, a really interesting omission in a country that seems to wear the Japanese legacy of architecture, food and subcultures quite proudly. The gardens had been built around, so closely that there were rather run down high rises with mesh screens in front of them looking over the gardens. A really striking juxtaposition.

As an aside, we visited the gay area of Ximen, which was one of the only places that we encountered where there seemed to be any sort of bar culture that resembles our own, the stairway leading to a walkway around the top of the bars had its walls painted in rainbow striped and had a small photographic exhibition called Rainbow People.

There was a theatre next to the gay bars called the Red House Theatre, most of which operated as an artists market, and there was a small exhibition about the history of the building and the area, including a small exhibit of material relating to queer culture. I gather Taipei is quite Westernised in terms of its approach to visibility of queerness, which was lovely to see.

Our next trip was to Tamsui, which was at the end of one of the MRT lines (the metro system). It was one of my favourite days, even though we were still in Taipei, because it was at the mouth of a river and felt quite seasidey, the climate was completely different, the skies were blue, and the humidity was slightly more bearable because of the sea breeze.

We visited Tamsui Historical Museum, a former British Consular residence, which felt very much like an English country house (apart from the humidity), and oddly enough they had an exhibition there called ‘Everlasting vision of William Morris’, including various Morris pieces of furniture, the focus was on the preservation of historic buildings, and the origins of SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings). It was very unusual to see an exhibition in a historic house that was about the process of protecting historic houses, a really refreshing approach.

Next day we went to the Taipei Fine Art Museum, which had a very Tate Modern feel about it, but more coherent, and MUCH cheaper. We went to three exhibitions, but my favourite was a retrospective of the work of Dean-E Mei, who I was unfamiliar with before. Due to the time he lived, studied and practiced in New York, Dean-E Mei has a really interesting perspective on Taiwan, and his own national identity.

Right by the Fine Art Museum was the Taipei Story House, which was a really weird faux Tudor building built in the early 1900s. The house was used in a really interesting way, as apart from the first room, which gave a brief history of the building, the rest of the house was devoted to temporary exhibitions, telling a single story, in this case, it was the history of fortune telling. There were walls filled with Tarot cards, and various ways for the visitor to learn various elements of fortune telling, a woman helped us to tell our fortunes using numerology, by drawing out three numbers from a little velvet bag, my fortune was something along the lines of ‘pretty face’ and Judith’s elicited shrieks of horror and fear from the woman, who had to ask someone else to try and translate it sensitively…

Then we headed to the Lin An Tai Historical House and Museum, which was odd as it claimed to be the oldest historic house in Taipei, but had been deconstructed and relocated in order to make room for a new road. We only had half an hour or so to see the house as it was about to close, but it was great to see the interior of a traditional Chinese house as we hadn’t seen the inside of the Lin Family Mansion.

On our final full day, we visited the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, and were just in time for the changing of the guards, which was a gloriously camp choreographed affair, because the building was so open, there was no air condition, it was so insanely hot in there as we were watching the guards change I could feel sweat running down my legs, the guards must have been suffocating. There was a very nice moment where a security man mopped the sweat from their brows and the back of their necks, a weirdly tender moment between men with massive guns.

It was such a great trip, an honour to be able to talk about my Sutton House exhibition to an international audience and meet so many people doing really great work in museums around the globe. It was also a brilliant opportunity to see so many amazing sights (and sites) in a country that otherwise hadn’t really been on my radar of places to visit.

I also made a little video of some of the moments I captured while I was there, including the changing of the guards at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, and the torrential rain at the Lin Family Mansion and Gardens:

 
Taipei from Sean Curran on Vimeo.

Collecting the contemporary

Just a quick post to mention this upcoming publication, Collecting the contemporary: recording the present for the future, by MuseumsEtc, which features a chapter by my entitled ‘Let’s Talk About Sexuality: Capturing, Collecting and Disseminating LGBTQ Oral His- and Her-stories’, in which I ruminate the challenges specific to the gathering and displaying of queer oral histories in museum spaces. The book is edited by Owain Rhys and Zelda Baveystock.

Collecting the contemporary aims to address (amongst others) these questions:

  • How best should we engage with contemporary collecting? 
  • Should we collect to fill gaps in the existing collection? 
  • How best to record modern urban life? 
  • How might we best engage with minority communities? 
  • Should we aim to link past and present?

There is a special pre-publication offer of 15% discount if you order it now, so request your librarians to buy it!

“Challenging histories” at Sutton House

On Thursday 13th, we celebrated LGBT History Month at Sutton House, Hackney, in an event to support the ‘Master-Mistress’ exhibition, which runs until 7th March. The event was called ‘Challenging Histories: what place do LGBTQ identities have in museums and historic houses’ and was so well attended that people had to sit on the window-sills in the beautiful Great Chamber.

The discussion raised many interesting ideas and questions, and we could have run for longer than we did- but hopefully we have peaked people’s interests for future events.

 Below is the podcast of the evening, I’m hoping to put it on iTunes at some point- but it’s beyond my technical capabilities, so this will have to suffice for now.

I’d also like to thank again the four speakers for the event; Jan, Claire, Naomi and Oliver, and of course to the team at Sutton House for being such great hosts!
 

I hope this is a conversation that will continue amongst everyone who attended, and amongst other National Trust properties.

Museum futures in an age of austerity

This weekend was the conference to celebrate 20 years of the MA in Museums and Galleries in Education at the IOE. It was a great opportunity to catch up with some former classmates and to meet professionals and fellow researchers who are making an innovative and inspiring impact on a sector in financial turmoil.

Instead of giving a blow by blow account of the three days, I thought it would be more useful to highlight some of the recurring themes throughout the wide range of papers given, and the three keynote speakers, which John Reeve neatly summarised on the final day. The obvious theme was austerity, and how museum and gallery professionals  are responding to this with creativity and innovation to provide new approaches to museum and education professionals with limited (or often no) funding. Advocacy was another theme, the importance of making the case, to institutions, schools, funders and the government. Another thread running through the conference was the idea of spectacle (in the form of big blockbuster exhibitions) vs engagement and meaning, which Professor Nick Stanley delved into in his keynote on the first day. In a time when many museums are hard pushed to put together blockbuster exhibitions (the definition of which was rightly problematised), curators and educators are finding ways to re-examine and re-interpret existing collections, and experimenting with different ways of approaching this, one of which was another recurring idea, that of the of artist intervention. This was underpinned by the idea of risk, and how many curators feel that artists aren’t bound by institutional standards meaning that their interpretation of collections have more room for creativity and rule-breaking, others suggested that curators may be censoring their own innovations in this sense, and that curators and artists are doing much the same thing. The final theme was about voices, particularly other voices, be it two way dialogues with museum visitors, a disruption of authority by inviting non-museum professionals a hand in curating and interpreting, or, as in my own paper, about marginalised voices finding their own ways of claiming heritage.

One of the most interesting and pleasing parts of the conference for me was finding myself in a community of fellow museum researchers, as PhDing can often be a rather isolated (and isolating) affair. I was particularly interested in the papers from other PhD students, and was really encouraged by the wide range of great research taking place. I particularly enjoyed Judith Brocklehurst and Annie Davey’s papers, as, although their research includes an element of art practice, they still got me thinking about more unique ways of approaching research. I also enjoyed Nina Trivedi from the University of Westminster, who was arguing that an exhibition catalogue has the potential to be a site in itself, and an alternative curatorial platform that allows contributors more risks that aren’t necessarily policed by the institutions as much as the exhibitions themselves.

Another paper I got a lot from was Helen Pike, events programmer from the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, where they have a Timekeeper in residence, who questioned the authority of the linear nature of time and the reliance on timelines in museums. This felt like an unquestionably queer critique of museum practice to me. You can find more about this project here.

A great three days, with lots to think about, and a perfect way to celebrate the first 20 years of the MA. Here’s to another twenty!