Becoming a city of culture

A Musical Club showing composer and musician Joseph Emidy of Truro (1775-1835). Courtesy of the Royal Institution of Cornwall

A Musical Club showing composer and musician Joseph Emidy of Truro (1775-1835). Courtesy of the Royal Institution of Cornwall

I’ve been working in recent months on the value and role of museums and similar organisations in place making–the new way of describing what has developed from early millennium debates on creating a sense of place.

What makes places unique isn’t cutting it anymore. Like our museum visitors and users, people’s expectations from a city visit have changed. We want experiences that are memorable, not just an ill-defined and oft-unsatisfying learning something new.

Just before I left for a study trip to Finland and Estonia, Cornwall was in the midst of some pretty grim arguments about putting Truro forward as a candidate for European City of Culture 2023 (unfathomably a joint bid of Truro-Cornwall). The development of the bid itself came under fire and eventually it was dropped altogether following our recent local authority elections.

At about the same time I was working in a small group comprising good minds from Truro Cathedral, Hall for Cornwall and the Royal Institution of Cornwall (the organisation that runs Royal Cornwall Museum on River Street) to discuss how three of Truro’s leading organisations could come together to promote the city as a cultural centre, for local communities and tourists alike. All are also developing ambitious new plans for their future and it made sense to me that they should try and work together in a strategic way. They are, after all, the content holders, when it comes to creating stories and narratives about a city, its heritage and most importantly its people.

While visiting Tartu in Estonia–the country’s second city and cultural capital, I realised what it really meant to be in a city of culture and came back with some tips…

What Truro can learn from Tartu – the city of good thoughts

 

Citizen Curators programme launched

Street art in Santiago de Chile, one of the many important topics for the modern curator

Street art in Santiago de Chile, one of the many important topics for the modern curator

Last Thursday at Cornwall Museums Partnership’s annual Share and Learn day in Helston, I launched the Citizen Curators Programme and introduced its prospective pilot at Royal Cornwall Museum.

Citizen Curators is basically museum studies in the workplace and takes the place between attending one-off training and a full-on course at a university such as an MA in Museum Studies.

Citizen Curators is a work-based training programme aimed at skilling up volunteers (and also staff who want to develop new skills) in modern curatorial practice. The idea behind this programme was developed over 18 months ago in response to the increasing lack of opportunities to learn curatorial and modern museum skills while working or volunteering in a sustained manner, and have the opportunity to test and assess competencies and in a peer learning framework.

The rural context of Citizen Curators is important. People of smaller museums in large rural regions lack the most access to training, skills, networking and peer groups.

For me it’s an opportunity to experiment with delivering education to workers while they work, and also led by the needs of their work. Colleagues will know about my growing interest and involvement in museum skills development and I am grateful for this opportunity try out something new.

Apart from access to skills and an opportunity to test them out, the Citizen Curators pilot will also focus on recruiting at least 50% under-25s.

The emphasis will be on the participants’ learning goals, rather than on fancying up a regular volunteer opportunity or disguising a dreaded unpaid internship.

That said, participants will have to demonstrate commitment and a dedication to completing the course and creating an outcome that is meaningful to the museum.

Chart showing Citizen Curators competencies

Citizen Curators competencies

It is thanks to Arts Council England support through Cornwall Museums Partnership received through through the Change Makers leadership programme that I am able to conduct this pilot.

Download the Citizen Curators Pilot summary (PDF)

Download the Citizen Curators Flier (PDF)

Curator’s Advent. Day 22. Conservation supplies

In need of conservation supplies. Serious condensation inside a showcase

In need of conservation supplies. Serious condensation inside a showcase

Purchasing conservation supplies is retail therapy for the curator.

Solander boxes. Unbleached cotton tape. Melanex sleeves. Acid free tissue. Goat hair brush. Distilled water. Tyvek. Humidity control cassettes. Nitrile gloves (S, M, L, XL). Solid brass paperclips. Book sofa. Light meter. Thermohygrometer. Plastazote.

Museum gel.

Curator’s Advent. Day 21. Art hang

Nothing is straight - shows a row of five framed prints

Nothing is straight

Simple, yet fiendish, the art hang requires a different set of skills to the mounting of objects in showcases or for open display. What happens when:

  1. The ceiling isn’t straight
  2. The tops of the walls aren’t straight
  3. The floor slopes
  4. The frames aren’t straight

Throw out the spirit level and trust thine eyes.

Curator’s Advent. Day 20. Documentation backlog

Documentation at the Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli, Italy

Documentation at the Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli, Italy

The documentation backlog was the bees-knees museum trend of the late 1990s/early 2000s. It sailed forth amongst the arguments over access vs preservation and rose above the fights for and against perpetuity. Any curator who has the luxury today of dealing with a documentation backlog will no doubt relish the task ahead. It’s probably the nearest today’s curator will get to the Joy of Cataloguing. The depressing bits usually involve a lack of paperwork showing what belongs to the museum and what doesn’t and discovering an entire filing cabinet of ‘long-term loans’ or even ‘permanent loans’. Many modern museums will not permit time to be spent on documentation backlogs meaning that collections will be properly prepared for the post-truth era.

Curator’s Advent. Day 18. Archives

Photographic postcards displayed as museum objects in the Isles of Scilly Museum.

Photographic postcards displayed as museum objects in the Isles of Scilly Museum.

Is an archive (series of documents) just another type of museum collection? No it is not. Archival and documentary collections are organised differently and the information they contain is (mostly) read rather than gleaned through observation, measurements and other forms of object research. However, sometimes you’re going to walk straight into Dilemma Avenue. Is a collection of photographs an archive or a set of objects? When is a manuscript book an archive and not an artefact? Context is everything. If 100 documents or papery writings come as a set you might like to threat them archivally. If you have two or three photographs as part of a donation you might be more tempted to keep them in situ and threat them as objects. What’s the most useful way you can organise archives for the benefit of your people?