Curator’s Advent. Day 8. Light and UV

Two identical coasters showing the effects of UV and sunlight damage

Left: on a window sill. Right: Not on a window sill*

Few of us use the p-word any longer – perpetuity but it would be nice if our museum objects could weather at least a few generations’ worth of abuse. Some wavelengths of light, especially sunlight, and ultra violet greedily snatch colour away from many of our written, painted, printed and dyed objects. This may reinforce the idea that the past really was all black, white, beige and grey. While a museum object kept permanently in the dark is of as much use to the curator as an empty box of teabags, let’s be grateful for those who assiduously protect our colourful heritage. *No real museum objects were harmed in the writing of this post.

Curator’s Advent. Day 7. Object record

An object and a record, but not an object record

An object and a record, but not an object record

They say that without provenance the museum object is worthless. The object record acts as a certificate of authenticity and contains everything from vital statistics on materials, dimensions, broken or worn bits, to ownership history, exhibition history, publication history… quite a lot of history. Index cards used to be the favoured medium of the curator’s record keeping but now we use all manner of databases–all that history reduced to 0s and 1s. Led by simple names controlled by peculiar technical dictionaries called thesauri or vocabulary lists, there was a strange habit, that I believe some still indulge in, whereby it’s frowned upon to write in proper sentences so you might get something that reads like a Victorian telegram:

record, vinyl, 7″ (17.78cm), black and silver, with sleeve, paper, torn, 1964.

Curator’s Advent. Day 6. Gloves

Me as a curator wearing full length oven gloves as a precaution against contaminating museum objects

I prefer to leave nothing to chance.


Museum objects are living gods and goddesses. Lords and Ladies of the material world. Most usually donning white cotton (or purple nitrile) gloves the curator is able to undertake her calling as high priest and footman.  It’s vital museum purity laws are adhered to. Contamination of the museum object by greasy palm or sticky fingers or unappointed non-curators results in the need for complex ritual cleaning and prayers involving Pygmy goat-hair brushes and holy distilled water and liturgical implements too numerous to list here that you wouldn’t understand anyway. 

Curator’s Advent. Day 4. Entry form

Wheel, East Pool Mine, National Trust. Not sure what this object's mission is and it probably doesn't have an entry form.

Wheel, East Pool Mine, National Trust. Not sure what this object’s mission is and it probably doesn’t have an entry form.

The birth certificate of the museum object, its proof of purchase. The entry form marks the start of an artefact’s rite of passage from prop, trinket or reject to sacred relic on a mission.

Curator’s Advent. Day 3. Moths

Butterflies on display at the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro. Not moths but you get the idea.

Butterflies on display at the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro. Not moths but you get the idea.

Moths and other creepy pests are The Enemy of the curator (unless they are already dead and desirable specimens, pinned and catalogued). If you see a furrowed brow and haunted look, a struggle with sticky pheromone-fueled patches, spare a thought. We are saving museums from the very real peril of textiles and taxidermy annihilation. No one wants to see a naval rating’s uniform with holes in its unmentionables.

Curator’s Advent. Day 2. The label

Luray Vallery Museum, Virginia, USA. This curator liked this exhibit and label very much.

Luray Vallery Museum, Virginia, USA. This curator liked this exhibit and label very much.

The art of a well-tempered label is a museum’s greatest gift to humanity. As selector and interpreter, the label is an opportunity for the curator to display her prowess. Curators believe in facts not opinions. The label contains up to 50 learned words. One idea per sentence (we prefer facts). Reading age: 12. Sans serif all the way.

Curator’s Advent. Day 1. Please do not touch

Curator’s Advent is a little idea I’ve been toying around with to explore some of my beliefs and values as a curator and playfully challenge some myths about what ‘curator-types’ are like. Every day in the run up to Christmas I’ll be playing around with curatorship in a series of mini posts and pics. You may not necessarily know whether I am being serious.

In this scene I examine a finger ring, reusing a late Roman agate seal, from southern Italy, late 7th century in the Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli. In the next scene, the custodian of the stores tried it on and asked if it suited her (not pictured).

In this scene I examine a finger ring, reusing a late Roman agate seal, from southern Italy, late 7th century in the Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli. In the next scene, the custodian of the stores tried it on and asked if it suited her (not pictured).

Day 1. Please do not touch

Everyone knows curators are born with a special ability to handle museum objects. When you are ordained to be a curator you will receive a signal that you are a chosen one. Begloved, the curator lifts her precious treasure ve-ery slowly from the acid-free paper draped altar. Stay a safe distance away for any disturbance of the air between the beholder and the beheld may cause a small part of the object to die. When an artefact travels through the corridors of time and straight into a museum the curator has nourished it upon the elixir of eternal life with a monastic devotion. Anything less and you might just think you’re in an old junk or pawn shop. And that won’t do.

#100museumhours

#100museumhours logo

  • 2 years
  • 100 chats on 100 subjects
  • Two Hosts: @tehm and @sospot
  • 46 Guest Hosts
  • 22.1K Tweets (all time)
  • 130-140K Impressions per month
  • 4-5K Impressions per day
  • ~25-100 Engagements per Tweet

It’s a very simple enterprise, light weight but high energy and without any constrictions of institutionalism or stakeholder expectation. It’s free and for all-comers.

Follow: @museumhour
Mondays 20:00 UK time
Hashtag: #museumhour

In October 2014, I wrote about the idea of #museumhour, a (yet another) Twitter movement following the model of weekly, fortnightly and monthly chat forums. Today we celebrate museumhour’s second birthday and our 100th #museumhour.

It was Sophie Ballinger’s tweet from the Eureka! Museum account back in May 2014 that I found a couple of months later (wondering if anyone had started up a regular museum slot on Twitter) that started it all off.

Over the last two years and 100 museumhours things have evolved but not a huge amount. I thought it would be useful to outline museumhour’s current philosophy and how it works. It’s a very simple enterprise, light weight but high energy and without any constrictions of institutionalism or stakeholder expectation. It’s free and for all-comers.

Our philosophy

To provide a regular, open forum for the discussion of museum issues. It is for anyone with an interest in museums, not just museum workers. You don’t have to participate to benefit from it.

Free from influence. Museumhour is run entirely on a voluntary basis, week in week out with occasional breaks. We don’t receive any funding or in-kind support beyond our own resources.

Platform for communication, not broadcast. There are very few rules that govern museumhour. All we ask is that the topics that are suggested to us are broad enough to encourage as wide an audience as possible. However we also welcome specialist topics that don’t often get public airplay.

We will not accept themes that are solely for the promotion of one initiative, project or organisation. It’s fine for your thing to be used as an anchor for debate but prompts, cues and links must range broadly. The best museumhours are those where the host engages with a range of the responses tweeted in return – it’s not always easy though when it gets very frenetic!

It’s also ok to use the #museumhour hashtag to help promote and plug your events and activities but when you’re hosting you must be mindful not to broadcast but to exchange and communicate.

Why Twitter?

Twitter is a relentless quick-fire ‘of the moment’ forum for rapid exchange. That’s why we chose it – or rather it chose us.

Managed well, Twitter also promotes the sense of an open and diverse community that we need for museumhour to work and provides a healthy and productive environment for people to share their views and information without fear of thinking they or what they have to say isn’t important enough or might be subject to sneers, reprisal or other puerile behaviour.

The other benefit of Twitter, over, say, Facebook, is that it is open for everyone to see, not just those who have an account and are logged in. This way anyone with access to the internet can head on over to twitter.com/museumhour and see the discussions, or, follow using the saved hashtag #museumhour.

Museumhour only exists on Twitter and that’s where it is staying. We do not maintain separate channels such as website, enewsletter or other social networks. We or our Guest Hosts will occasionally Storify museumhour debates or include content in their own Storify account or other work which is great.

Featured

Museumhour benefits from occasional blogging by us and others. We’ve been really pleased to be featured by the Ministry of Curiosity, Fran Taylor, and others, as well as featuring in museum articles such as Museum Practice.

Our 46 Guest Hosts have also done a brilliant job using their websites, blogs and social media channels to promote the subjects of their museumhours.

We do want to take part in the big debates and issues facing museums and have played a role in helping other organisations with hosting sessions whose results have fed into research, for example, AIM’s work on museum charging, and the MA’s work on workforce professional development.

Is this a good format for museumhour for the foreseeable future? And can you suggest changes to refresh the experience? Do you want to join our team?

What next?

Our format is simple. After the first couple of weeks of museumhour we realised that the big wide open world of topics made it difficult for people to engage meaningfully with each other so we started to introduce themes.

We or our Guest Host comes up with a range of prompts, cues and links to information prior to (usually) and most importantly during the hour – approximately one every 5-10 minutes. Some of these are in the form of questions, others are statements that are responded to.

Museumhour happens and then it ends. We move on to organising the next week.

Is this a good format for museumhour for the foreseeable future? And can you suggest changes to refresh the experience? Do you want to join our team?

Two years of relentless weekly organisation is bound to take a toll on the schedules and lives of its two founders. Two people who haven’t even met each other in the flesh but who have somehow made this thing work.

Tribute

I would like to pay tribute to my co-founder Sophie Ballinger for being a brilliant colleague and friend making the museumhour enterprise both fulfilling and fun! We seem to fill each other’s gaps naturally and with minimum fuss. That can be quite a rare quality in a team.

But museumhour isn’t all about us. We have prided ourselves on taking a back seat and gently herding from behind. We think it is about time our team expanded. We are therefore shortly going to be advertising for new members of our small team. If you have read this and feel excited about museumhour please stay in touch.

What Cornish National Minority Status means for Museums (and Arts and Culture organisations)

Cornish pasty (c) Tehmina Goskar

The decision to recognise the unique identity of the Cornish, now affords them the same status under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as the UK’s other Celtic people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish.

Barely a ripple ran through the cultural sector nationally or here in Cornwall when, on 24 April 2014, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, announced that “the proud history, unique culture, and distinctive language of Cornwall will be fully recognised under European rules for the protection of national minorities.”

Currently researching diversity issues, in rural contexts in particular, and working in Cornwall, I couldn’t understand why museums and the cultural sector here seemed ambivalent to this historic development. I have therefore been formally and informally advocating for greater consideration and awareness of Cornish National Minority Status in my work and to my peers, both here and nationally.

Thanks to an invitation by Cornwall Museums Partnership, I gave a keynote presentation on what National Minority Status means, how its governed and what features of Cornish identity museums could better embrace in their make-up and their work.

I have also advocated to the Museums Association in my capacity as regional representative for the South West. It was also a significant factor in my representations to English Heritage about their new interpretive treatment of Tintagel Castle.

Given the systemic inequality and unintentional bias that has been proven to exist in the museum sector (and in culture more generally), now is absolutely the right time for responsible institutions and individuals to better understand what Cornish National Minority Status means for them and their audiences.

Equality without prejudice

“The decision to recognise the unique identity of the Cornish, now affords them the same status under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as the UK’s other Celtic people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish. For the first time the government has recognised the distinctive culture and history of the Cornish.”

“It is without prejudice as to whether the Cornish meet the definition of “racial group” under the Equality Act 2010.”

So the UK Government press release qualified this excellent news. It should also be pointed out that oversight of Cornish National Minority Status has fallen to the Department for Communities and Local Government.

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 contains the diversity themes that dominate discourse around equality and social justice for those participating and working in museums, culture, arts and heritage and concern discrimination and systemic inequality against nine protected characteristics.

Under the act, National Minority status is not currently a protected characteristic but it is implied, with colour, ethnicity, national origins and citizenship under race. However, it has been made incumbent upon a successful case of discrimination being prosecuted before the Cornish would be considered a race in the same way as the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish are. Interestingly none of those groups have been made to prosecute a successful case to provide their identity – they can bypass this process by virtue of their “national origins.”

What is a National Minority?

“to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe.”

Bretons in Penzance, Cornwall (c) Tehmina Goskar.

Bretons in Penzance, Cornwall.

No definition of a National Minority is provided by the Council of Europe or present in the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

The Council of Europe is not part of the EU. It is based on Strasbourg. It comprises 47 member states of which 28 are in the EU. Founded in a post-WW2 world, along similar lines to the UN, in 1949. Its particular responsibility is “to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe.” It is responsible for:

  • European Convention on Human Rights
  • Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities
  • Other charters and commissions: European Social Charter, European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and European Commission against Racism and Intolerance.

About the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities

  • Instituted in February 1995
  • UK ratified the convention 1998
  • Contains 32 articles
  • Member states have to report back periodically on request of the Committee of Ministers (UK submitted 4 to date)
  • Does not define a national minority
  • Each member state decides
  • The right to ‘self-identify’ important
  • Must be based on objective criteria connected with their identity, such as their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.

Articles in the Convention with resonance to the museum and cultural sector

My emphasis.

Article 5:

“The Parties undertake to promote the conditions necessary for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture, and to preserve the essential elements of their identity, namely their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.

Without prejudice to measures taken in pursuance of their general integration policy, the Parties shall refrain from policies or practices aimed at assimilation of persons belonging to national minorities against their will and shall protect these persons from any action aimed at such assimilation.”

Article 6:

“The Parties shall encourage a spirit of tolerance and intercultural dialogue and take effective measures to promote mutual respect and understanding and co-operation among all persons living on their territory, irrespective of those persons’ ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious identity, in particular in the fields of education, culture and the media.”

Article 12:

“The Parties shall, where appropriate, take measures in the fields of education and research to foster knowledge of the culture, history, language and religion of their national minorities and of the majority.”

Article 20 has be criticised by some as a kind of get-out clause i.e. there will always been a reason, if increased consideration and recognition of a National Minority is considered politically unappetising, this clause may be invoked. Decide for yourself:

Article 20:

“In the exercise of the rights and freedoms flowing from the principles enshrined in the present framework Convention, any person belonging to a national minority shall respect the national legislation and the rights of others, in particular those of persons belonging to the majority or to other national minorities.”

How did the Cornish prove their case?

“It is an anomaly – some say an injustice – in a society that extols the merits of equality and tolerance, for the identity of the Cornish, the People at the heart of this long and proud story to remain unrecognised, unequal and uncounted, at the outset of the 21st century.”

What features of Cornish identity were put forward when campaigning for minority status?

This milestone is the result of a long and sustained campaign with a long history in the modern era for official recognition of the distinctiveness of the Cornish, rooted in a historical past, and Cornwall as a territory with particular characteristics that distinguish it from the “English counties.” A modern political consciousness of Cornish separateness goes at least back into the 19th century and dissent and rebellion against English rules goes back even further than that.

Evidence was gathered in at least two influential reports (see sources below):

The 2011 report by Ian Saltern on behalf of the Cornish Gorsedh, was the most hard-hitting in terms of evidence gathered and the strength of the case put forward, for example:

“It is an anomaly – some say an injustice – in a society that extols the merits of equality and tolerance, for the identity of the Cornish, the People at the heart of this long and proud story to remain unrecognised, unequal and uncounted, at the outset of the 21st century.”

The case was also built on a positive vision of what official recognition could bring to Cornish and British society as a whole:

“National minority status will enable the Cornish to play a full and active part in British society, contributing to the diversity of the United Kingdom.”

Led by Cornwall Council and its predecessors, with a large collaboration of others the case for National Minority Status was based on:

  • Self-identification
  • Religion
  • Language
  • Traditions
  • History and Cultural heritage
  • Long-term association with a specific territory

The need was based on barriers to: “Maintaining, celebrating and asserting a distinct identity.”

Self-identification is a particularly important feature of Cornish identity, measured through the Census – and thereby addressing Cornish people outside Cornwall and also the Pupil Level Annual Schools Census (PLASC) as a barometer of the growing consciousness of Cornish identity among young people: 37% in 2011 up to 48% in 2014.

Not England

Welcome to Penzance sign (c) Tehmina Goskar.

The aspect of Cornish identity I find most compelling is that based on historical territorial integrity and resistance against England and English assimilation – something museums need to be acutely aware of, for example:

  • Kernow—suggested in use for “at least 2000 years” (unknown sources)
  • Early Anglo-Saxon references to Corn wealh – peninsula of foreigners
  • West Wales
  • River Tamar as border with West Saxon kingdom since 10th c (no source given probably referring to a later 12th reference in William of Malmesbury including expulsion from Exeter—use of medieval history is needs more rigour)
  • Norman Conquest – creation of Earldom in 1068
  • Creation of Royal Duchy in 1337
  • Stannary Parliament and Courts
  • Laws of England intermittently applied to ‘Anglia et Cornubia’ into the 16th century
  • Foreshore Case arbitration case held between 1854 and 1858 between British Crown and Duchy of Cornwall over mineral rights.
  • Bona Vacantia – intestate property in Cornwall goes to Duke of Cornwall’s private estates, not to the Treasury via the Crown.

International recognition of Cornwall in over 30 languages as a separate entity to England is a hard-hitting fact that is difficult to refute, and formed part of the case made for national distinctiveness. This is not afforded to other English counties which is why many Cornish people will rail against designations of Cornwall being in England.

Sources and reports

Cornish National Minority Report 2, 2011: http://www.gorsedhkernow.org.uk/archivedsite/english/downloads/cornish_minority_report_2.pdf

Why should the Cornish be recognised as a National Minority within the UK, 2014: https://www.cornwall.gov.uk/media/7326793/FINAL-Cornish-Minority-Report-2014-pr7.pdf

See also: Cornish Gorsedh, Case for Cornwall, Devolution Deal for Cornwall, Cornish Culture Association, Bewnans Kernow—Partnership of Cornish Cultural Associations.

Call to action for museums

the dignity of visibility.

The 2011 report makes direct reference to how Cornish culture and heritage should be treated by institutions with Cornish collections:

“National minority status will confer upon the Cornish the dignity of visibility. It will acknowledge that Cornish language, culture and heritage are the products of Cornish people – a group with historic national origins no less deserving of official recognition than the Welsh or the Scottish.”

No museum or archive collections were used as examples of Cornish distinctiveness and museums do not feature in the heritage and culture Case for Cornwall, March 2015 (relating to devolution powers to Cornwall Council).

It also directly challenges museums who abide by the Museums Association Code of Ethics which states a museum’s important position of trust in relation to, amongst others,  source communities. 

Ways museums, culture and arts organisations can reflect Cornish diversity

  1. Embrace it! Don’t ignore it.
  2. Look at your governance – ask yourself who makes the decisions?
  3. Do you have a Diversity Policy or Action Plan? Do you state your commitment to the Cornish National Minority and Protected Characteristics?
  4. Look at your programmes – what are the themes of your collections, exhibitions, learning programmes and events?
  5. Partnerships: Who do you tend to work with? Who else could you work with?
  6. What is the make up of your community (not just local area)?
  7. Which audiences do you tend to aim for repeatedly, who isn’t joining in?
  8. Be authentic and be careful of stereotypes.

What next for this research?

  1. Cornish heritage in conflict case-studies e.g. Tintagel Controversy
  2. Develop a toolkit to help you apply the principles of Diversity in a Cornish Context to your work—funds permitting
  3. Explore Welsh, Irish and Scottish contexts
  4. European comparisons – minorities and under-represented
  5. International comparisons – minorities and under-represented
  6. Open dialogue with national agencies to raise awareness of the view from Cornwall and suggest how it can be brought to bear on their policies
  7. Looking for interview subjects
  8. Organise outreach and education programme and set up Rural Diversity Network using Cornwall for action research–funds permitting.

If you work in or use cultural services like museums and art galleries, or you are a practitioner with an interest in diversity in a Cornish context, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.