Diversity in the Nation

The phrase “increasing diversity” occurs regularly in discussions about culture but what do we mean? What does diversity look like?  Is diversity in the context of equality the same as diversity in the context of inclusion?

Diversity is on every major cultural agenda. I have been taking a keen interest in how diversity is represented and expressed by museums and other heritage institutions as I have been a long-time advocate and producer of community-focused programming as a mainstream rather than fringe strategy for survival.

Achieving resilience in your museum or cultural organisation has to have at its heart a commitment to diversify audiences. The reason is that if you want your organisation to survive, and be loved, your communities and communities of interest (not just the obvious stakeholders) need to understand why you are important to them.

At the Museums Association conference 2015, Sir Peter Luff, the Chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund gave a stirring keynote speech where skills, diversity and young people were firmly and unequivocally put on the agenda and HLF is changing its funding schemes to reflect these priorities.

Arts Council England is also centralising diversity in its agenda, particularly to support the Creative Case for ‘diverse-led’ arts and culture. The emphasis is also on diversifying the range of people and organisations which apply for arts funding from them, and to ensure that at least 75% of its funding is invested outside London. ACE’s Chair Sir Peter Bazalgette said that arts and cultural organisations must reflect the diverse communities they serve. A report by the Museum Consultancy presents research findings on the state of diversity in the museum workforce.

The much-vaunted UK Government’s Culture White Paper, published in March, “sets out the government’s ambition and strategy for the cultural sectors.” The paper jars heavily with the austerity-led narrative that dominates the cultural sector at the moment. There is a sense that the White Paper was born from a Whitehall Office out of touch with the reality of people’s joys and woes as producers and consumers of arts, heritage and culture. Nevertheless, diversity is mentioned 18 times in its 72 pages.

Diversity has also been much debated in discussions on #museumhour.

The UK Parliament’s Countries of Culture enquiry is ongoing and no doubt several of the oral and written submissions will express concern about a lack of diversity in funded art and culture.

I am less familiar with the culture and diversity landscapes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and internationally, but I look forward to doing a bit of asking around and reporting back.

The phrase “increasing diversity” occurs regularly in discussions about culture but what do we mean? What does diversity look like? Is diversity in the context of equality the same as diversity in the context of inclusion? How does workforce diversity differ from audience diversity?

The debate took place at the Goldsmith's Centre, London.

The debate took place at the Goldsmith’s Centre, London.

Big debates

On 16 March I attended the Museums Association’s Diversity: A State of the Nation Debate in my capacity as the Regional Representative for the South West. At this point, I’d like to extend my thanks to the MA for sponsoring my travel from deepest Cornwall to London enabling me to attend.

This event took place not long after the MA’s Big Debate on Diversity at the annual conference in Birmingham in November 2015 which I also attended. This was followed by an informal and therapeutic meeting of the Museum Detox network, a very loose group of museum professionals from BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds.

I find these debates deeply stimulating as they make me question my own understanding and beliefs about people and their identities, and in particular how complex self-indentifying is, and how poorly we express and understand it.

However, there were also some concerning features apparent and unacknowledged at both these debates and indeed in the majority of discussion about diversity and what diversity looks like.

What’s missing from the debate. Who is missing? Where do they take place?

Big City types

Both Birmingham and London debates took place in corporate boxes. This is not a slur, just an observation as I believe that place is a fundamental, if unarticulated, component in understanding diversity.

The main proponents of the debates were also from London or large urban metropolitan areas whose perspectives on their own communities are shaped by the people and places they live and work in everyday. Sharon Heal, Director of the MA, spoke fondly of her everyday diversity where she lives in Bethnal Green.

When they think about diversity in museums, for example, do museums from large swathes of the UK that are politically and economically defined as rural, figure in their minds: the South West of Britain, the Highlands of Scotland, most of Northern Ireland, or North Wales?

Beyond the Protected Characteristics

The diversity themes that dominate discourse are around equality and social justice for those participating and working in museums, culture, arts and heritage that concern discrimination and systemic inequality against nine protected characteristics:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

Of these race, disability and sex and to a lesser extent religion, were of most interest to those participating in the Museums Association debates. Put crudely, there are more women than men in the museum workforce but few women occupy leadership and governance roles; disability remains poorly represented and catered for, more so a problem for those with hidden disabilities; working and participating in museums remains unattractive to those from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.

Geographic exclusion, Cornwall and the South West

During the several round-table discussions, we talked about other major factors that present barriers to diversifying the workforce, audiences and programmes.

A top consideration at my table was geography and geographic discrimination or exclusion.

I live and work in the far west of Cornwall. It took me over 5 hours and an overnight stay to be able to take part in both Birmingham and London debates. Cornwall is politically and economically part of the South West even though culturally and perhaps socially too Cornwall and the Cornish are distinct from its South West neighbours on many levels, evidenced by international recognition of its indigenous language, Kernewek, UK Government-ratified National Minority Status and through the devolution of (some) powers to its unitary authority. Note that Nationality is not currently a protected characteristic under Equality legislation.

Even beyond Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly, with nearly 2500 inhabitants can feel that the UK mainland is a world away. For much of the year you can only fly there (if the weather is right).

I live and work in a highly fragmented region with hundreds of mainly small urban centres and large numbers of rural (isolated) places that are all defined in the context of London and other major metropolitan areas. Large parts of our region are unable to regularly participate in and access the big issues of our time (perhaps with the exception of Bristol), whether that’s diversity, austerity or other matters high on political agendas.

Consequently voices from the region, and especially Cornwall, tend to get muffled or ignored or simply deemed too far and too remote and not plentiful enough to engage with. Within this situation, what hope do minority people have in finding a voice?

Class psychology and professionalisation

The other theme of discrimination and diversity we discussed was class. I felt this was not particularly well-articulated by anyone. I am uncomfortable with the idea that low economic productivity directly leads to low participation in arts and culture. And football tickets are so expensive.

After all, many, many museum and arts jobs are amongst the lowest paid and least stable in terms of security and benefits of all professions. One of our table cited the professionalisation of our sector as a serious factor in the lack of class diversity, e.g. job competitions requiring sometimes not one but two degrees.

I think there’s a separate debate to be had about that as I do not agree that professional qualifications which give people the know-how to take care of our collections and make them accessible to our audiences is blanketly a bad thing. But at the same time not all museum jobs need a degree to do them. And, there still remain fewer jobs than there are people who want them–as I said it’s a related but separate issue.

Perhaps more broadly, class is a psychological barrier that encompasses upbringing, education, comprehension and articulation–do some sectors of UK society lack the social and cultural language to participate in culture? What can museums do about that, especially when they talk about the “hard to reach?”

More cultural organisations are aware of their obligations to serve diverse audiences but the same institutions are still not doing anything strategic about it. Diversity is addressed in short-term ‘nice to have’ community engagement projects but not addressed in organisational governance, mainstream programming or the workforce.

How do we develop long-term programmes and activities that are more attractive to those not currently engaged (however you want to define that)? What about those not engaged that face practical barriers to participation such as the “Time-poor dreamers” representing in 2010, approximately 4% of the adult population, a higher than average proportion from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds and most under the age of 44.

There was a sense from the room that diversity, as imperfect as expressions of it are, is now more mainstream than 15 years ago. More cultural organisations are aware of their obligations to serve diverse audiences but the same institutions are still not doing anything strategic about it. Diversity is addressed in short-term ‘nice to have’ community engagement projects but not addressed in organisational governance, mainstream programming or the workforce.

Democracy and power

Other features from my table’s discussion that I felt strongly about was democracy and power.  I was surprised no one brought up these fundamental features of social and cultural demography that we all take for granted. This led to a debate about the usefulness of techniques used in peace and reconciliation in post-conflict zones such as deep listening and developmental evaluation.

We didn’t get a chance to discuss these in detail but I think the principle of mutual education through listening is a fundamental challenge in our sector, as evidenced in the Tintagel Controversy.

We need to keep debates about diversity going, both formally and informally. They need to take place in more diverse places and more diverse people need to be invited to take part in them. I am only seeing the usual suspects time and again.

Diversity doesn’t look like anything. It’s a philosophy and a commitment to trusting the idea that embracing difference is a good thing that will lead to better-governed and more accessible and successful institutions and activities.

New Code of Ethics and what is a museum?

Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.

Museums Association definition of a museum.

Update: The Museums Association has just issued Additional Guidance for the new Code of Ethics.

At the last AGM of the Museums Association in November 2015 in Birmingham, we (the membership delegation) voted to formally adopt the new Code of Ethics.

This revision follows several revisions since the launch of a UK-wide code of practice and conduct in 1977. Previous updates happened in 1987, 1991, 2002 and 2007, each responding to the changing social, economic and cultural contexts of museums of all shapes and sizes.

The MA’s working definition of a museum, or what a museum should be, has not changed but the emphasis on how it should behave (this is not about prescribing a set of activities or audiences) has transformed by raising the stakes on community involvement and public benefit and this is raised to headlining the Code:

Museums and those who work in and with them should:

• provide and generate accurate information for and with the public

• support freedom of speech and debate

• treat everyone equally, with honesty and respect

• actively engage and work in partnership with existing audiences and reach out to new and diverse audiences

• use collections for public benefit – for learning, inspiration and enjoyment

Read in full the New Code of Ethics, 2015.

This increased emphasis has raised some cynicism and protest from those who are uncomfortable about museums’ social function being as important as core functions (albeit they are often not defined). This MA LinkedIn debate is worth reading.

For me, the MA’s Code of Ethics is the no. 1 reason I remain a member and volunteer (as Regional Representative for the South West) for the MA. Without a sense of purpose museums are just activity centres or cafe, event and shop businesses with a gallery or two tagged on.

Collections and their stewardship for and on behalf of society is what makes a museum a museum (rather than (just) an arts venue).

As an independent consultant, supplier and contractor the Code of Ethics gives me the strength I sometimes (often) need to challenge shady, lazy or misguided goings-on in the museum world.

At the same time I challenge pejorative, if well-meaning, comments that “people are more important than objects in museums.” Such beliefs can skew the fundamental philosophy and meaning behind what a museum is.

Without a starting point of collections, and their good care, research and dissemination, you are doing a disservice to the very people you aim to engage in your museum.

The emphasis on diverse communities being fully engaged in your museum is important and is one of the fundamental standards for any museum to dispense its ‘in trust for society’ functions.

Think about it this way, if your communities and audiences grow to love your museum because they feel a sense of ownership over the collections, and the exhibitions and activities which breathe life into them, the Code of Ethics is a philosophy to guide you in that purpose.

 

Debate: Should museums charge for entry? #museumhour

Update:

This debate has now happened. You can explore it on Storify.

Essential info:

On 11 April at 20:00 BST (UK time) Museum Hour is debating the thorny and loaded question of entry charges for museums.

We are helping the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) with their crucial research on this issue which is primarily being conducted through a sector-wide survey: The Impact of Charging Museum Admission. The deadline for taking part is 11 April as well but AIM may extend this by a couple of days following the #museumhour debate.

The research is being undertaken by DC Research and also in partnership with Arts Council England and also supported by the Welsh Assembly Government.

Museum Hour will Storify the debate shortly afterwards and the interactions will feed into the broader research into the question of museum admission charges.

Go straight to the museum charging survey.

There is a lot of misinformation about museums and entry charges, and a lot of misunderstanding within the sector and its audiences. Free museum entry to UK Nationals is pretty much the only manifesto pledge you will see on most political parties’ agendas that have much to do with museums in society. Is there a sense that the expectation of free entry confuses some museum visitors who hesitate when confronted with an admission fee–not helped by national radio DJs proclaiming that “we have to keep our museums free.” Lines could also be blurred with the socially-defining issue of library closure.

Echoing the social worth and function of their museums many Local Authority museums have supported free entry as a way to embed their role in their communities but in the Age of Austerity several museums face pressure to introduce entry charges to improve their income streams against a backdrop of falling and failing grants–that’s if they aren’t facing total closure.

Of course there is the huge (majority) independent museum sector for whom income from admission fees is a strategically crucial part of their sustainability and have happily charged for years without being at odds with their moral and social contract with society. Some have also gone free having seen that entry charging was limiting their work and also their resilience.

The national press has picked up on this issue, including the Financial Times. Sector commentators have put their views forward on this topic. The Museums Association has come out strongly in favour of defending free entry to civic museums. Civic museums are not well-defined in their context (except as Local Authority museums which used to be free) — another facet to this debate that needs better engagement.

On the other hand those running successful independent museums who are fully engaged in their commercial and market viability present a slightly different view. This Apollo Feature on museum charging contains both views.

This is a very complex and confusing picture which will not result in one answer that all museums can apply. But to have the starting point of good, solid research can only be a good thing to help the museum sector understand how it is they are seen by society and what society expects from us.

It is incredible to think that proper research on this fundamental issue for museums has not already happened. As the UK Government in its recent Culture White Paper announced it is going to review museums (which ones, how and why as yet undetermined) I cannot think of a more crucial issue for Whitehall and politicians to engage with than how museums are perceived by their communities, and the visitors to those communities, and surely the question of who pays and at what point is basic to this understanding?

Here is a taster of some of the questions and provocations that we are chairing on the night. We will be inviting new and different questions from the floor too:

  • Are we asking the right question? Free entry museums need money from somewhere so should museum funding change?
  • If people expect to pay for tickets to the cinema, theatre and football, why not museums and galleries?
  • Is museum charging a practical funding problem or an ethical and moral issue? And whose problem is it?
  • Free at the point of use? Do museums’ ethical responsibilities towards its communities mean #museumcharge becomes a barrier?
  • Do you charge entry for everyone? Which categories of visitor go free?
  • As a museum and gallery visitor, are you more likely to visit a free museum than one that charges?

#migration and #museums

A migration story at the NZ Maritime Museum in Auckland.

A migration story at the NZ Maritime Museum in Auckland.

How do museums represent, present and interpret migrant stories? Museumhour from 25 January 2016.

I was inspired to host this topic following my visit to museums in New Zealand in Auckland (National Maritime Museum of New Zealand) and Wellington (Wellington Museum and Te Papa National Museum). All these museums featured the stories of migrants heavily. In fact the whole human history of the islands is one of migration from the first Maori voyages to the latest migrations from other parts of the Pacific and the Far East. It was good to see them presented so honestly.

I found myself enchanted and enthralled by the stories because you can’t get more human a story than that of deciding to move away from home.

We captured our great debate on #migration and #museums on museumhour’s Storify:

https://storify.com/museumhour/migration-and-museums

Museums and the UK General Election 2015

 

Culture and museums find themselves off the menu this election.

This is a summary of excerpts from the policies and manifestos of political parties standing candidates in the UK General Election on 7 May 2015.

Monday 4 May at 20:00 in the UK will see a #GE2015 election special #museumhour so please do come and join the debate if you are on Twitter.

I was looking for mention of specific policies and commitments towards museums, and in lieu of that, their views on culture.

This is not an exhaustive list of all parties standing in the upcoming election and I would welcome news from other parties and especially independent Prospective Parliamentary Candidates if they are standing on a culture or museum platform, to leave their pledges in the comments below.

Business as usual for museums after the election?

What is clear is that culture and museums find themselves off the menu this election. Museums are not a political hot potato or even on the radar of politicians, and particularly pundits who control what we hear from the media about this election.

This is in spite of the last 5 years seeing a significant transformation in the governance and landscape of the museum sector in the UK, especially England, namely cuts to grant-in-aid and revenue funding for those museums who were used to receiving it.

Coupled with the huge inequality between museum funding in London compared with the rest of the UK, both remain moot political points, except for the Green Party which makes a specific pledge to reverse this situation (see below).

Purdah (the pre-election period) has prevented the participation of government and local government civil servants engaged in administering, advising and funding museums from commenting or passing opinion on this election.

It is these arms-length or quango organisations that administer public funding to museums that are most likely to be affected by the election result, namely Arts Council England, Historic England, Historic Scotland, Scottish Arts Council, Museums Galleries Scotland, CyMAL, Cadw and RCAHMW in Wales and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in Northern Ireland.

UKIP pledges to abolish the Department of Culture, Media and Sport which governs public museum bodies in England, suggesting the role of DCMS would be absorbed into other departments (not stated, see below).

For alternative analyses see the Art Newspaper and the Heritage Alliance. Museums Journal also published an analysis of the BBC Culture Debate on 7 April in May’s edition (article access only to Museums Association members).

Free entry for Nationals (again)

Several parties affirm the commitment to free entry to National museums but little else. The Conservatives alluded to an extra-manifesto commitment towards the creation of an India Gallery in Manchester Museum (in partnership with the British Museum).

Northern Ireland and Wales talk museums more

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) makes specific reference to the Ulster Museum and its role in promoting the Northern Ireland brand in its manifesto and one Sinn Féin candidate has made a public commitment towards the Derry Walls.

Twitter conversation of politicians using Derry Walls in #GE2015

Plaid Cymru make a tantalising pledge to create specific apprenticeships in the fields of historical documentation and culture in order to preserve specialist skills and knowledge. Indeed the party makes nine separate pledges towards the arts, culture and heritage of Wales–the most of any of the party policies I have read so far.

So what are the other parties saying about museums? Listed in alphabetical order.

What parties say about museums

Conservative party

From their manifesto 2015, they pledge to voters in the section Enabling you to enjoy our heritage, creativity and sports, to:

  • Keep major national museums and galleries free to enter.

Democratic Unionist Party

From their manifesto 2015:

“Whether at Westminster, Stormont or Europe, the DUP is pro-active in developing Northern Ireland’s cultural wealth and encouraging creativity to develop new opportunities in our economy.”

  • Display appropriately our cultural assets at the Ulster Museum to promote the Northern Ireland brand
  • Reduce the number of arms-length bodies associated with DCAL (Dept of Culture, Arts and Leisure)

Green Party

From the Culture principles stated on their website:

“CMS414 The body of historical creative work forms the basis of our culture at national, regional and local level; the preservation of this culture is a responsibility of the state through support for cultural stores such as museums, archives, libraries, heritage and major performing arts venues and companies.”

From the Media, Sports and Arts section in their manifesto 2015:

  • Increase government arts funding by £500 million a year to restore the cuts made since 2010 and reinstate proper levels of funding for local authorities, helping to keep local museums, theatres, libraries and art galleries open.

Labour Party

From the section on the Arts and Culture section in their manifesto 2015:

  • We reaffirm our commitment to universal free admission to ensure that our great works of art and national heritage can be enjoyed in all parts of the country.

Liberal Democrat Party

From the Pride in Creativity section of their manifesto 2015:

  • Maintain free access to museums and galleries, while giving these institutions greater autonomy.

Mebyon Kernow – The Party for Cornwall

No specific mention of museums. From the Recognition for Cornwall section of their manifesto 2015:

  • Greater local control over all aspects of Cornwall’s heritage, culture and identity, including the transfer of responsibility for work currently undertaken in Cornwall by agencies such as English Heritage.

Quizzing one of the candidates on Twitter I asked if that would include include Arts Council England and the reply was affirmative, that all organisations dealing with Cornwall should be devolved:

Tweets between me and Mebyon Kernow screenshot

Plaid Cymru – The Party of Wales

From the principles stated on their website Plaid Cymru says:

“Wales has a huge amount of priceless national treasures, including our National Museum, the National Library, and countless CADW monuments, and we believe that every child ought to have the opportunity, free of charge, to visit one of the National Museums or Libraries during their school years.”

In the Arts, Heritage and Culture section of the manifesto 2015:

  • We will ensure that free access to National Museum Wales continues.
  • We will create apprenticeships in the field of historical documentation and culture so that staff skills, knowledge and experiences are retained and nurtured.

Scottish National Party

From policy outlined on their website the SNP makes a commitment towards museum loans:

“We will continue to support the International Touring Fund for Scotland’s National Companies and co-ordinate overseas cultural and economic promotion activities. That means bringing together, where we can, national company tours, museum and gallery loans and trade missions for an ‘all Scotland’ approach to cultural and economic promotion.”

There is no mention of museums, heritage, arts or culture in the SNP’s manifesto 2015.

Sinn Féin

I could not find any mention of museums, heritage, arts or culture on Sinn Féin’s website nor the policies published on their website. The only glimpse into the party’s view of museums is the brief event stated above of a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate in the Foyle constituency using the Derry Walls (see above).

I tweeted the official party account for link but have yet to receive a reply.

United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

There is no mention of museums in the published policies of UKIP. From the Heritage and Tourism section of their manifesto 2015 they pledge to:

  • Abolish the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Want to have a say?

Join #museumhour to take part in a special #GE2015 debate on Monday 4 May 20:00 in the UK. Some of the questions we are asking:

  • Why aren’t museums politically important?
  • Should all museums be politically neutral?
  • Has your museum petitioned local candidates?
  • Have your local candidates visited your museum and its staff and volunteers?
  • Which party will offer the best deal for UK museums?
  • Should politicians be more interested in museums or is it better to be left alone?
  • Has your museum got involved in campaigning to encourage people to vote?
  • What, if anything, will change after the election for your museum?
  • What, if anything, will happen to national museum funding and advisory bodies after the election?
  • What message would you like to send out to your local candidates before election day?

#museumhour

#Follow @museumhour
Mondays 7-8pm UST (UK time).

#museumhour tweets

#museumhour is (yet another) new UK-based museum movement which took 24 hours to set up by Sophie Ballinger (@sospot) and me (@tehm).

Sophie had a while back posed the question of whether a #museumhour existed in Twitterverse and received the sound of tumbleweed in return.

I was travelling back to Cornwall from London after a meeting of Museums Association Regional Reps in which there was much discussion about the best forums for museum people to get together online to exchange news and views, particularly to debate the Museum Association’s new agenda Museums Change Lives (I almost wrote Loves).

Place-based Twitter hours have been well-established across the country, from #CornwallHour to #ScotlandHour as have profession-based ones such as #legalhour.

Searching for the existence of a #museumhour Tehmina found Sophie via Eureka! Museum’s twitter feed and after a few tweets exchanged after working hours during commutes and baby feeds we claimed the hour every Monday 7-8pm. Sophie set up a Twitter account @museumhour to help field the exchange of tweets and an automatic retweet of its accompanying hashtag #museumhour

As long as people used the hashtag #museumhour or replied to @museumhour participants can follow tweets easily.

After some initial campaigning in between our day jobs Monday 6 October, 7pm arrived. We had about 57 followers at the beginning and by the end of the evening this grew to over 100.

We had no idea what would happen. We didn’t want to control proceedings by forcing a topic but to encourage people to share #onecoolthing about their museum or their favourite museum.

Although a UK-based social meet we had willing tweeters from Virginia, USA to South Australia. And those working in museums were joined with museophiles.

Astonishingly 99 people sent 349 tweets during the first #museumhour

Tweets ranged from Brighton Museums’ football table in their World Stories gallery, Kids in Museums’ Youth Panel meeting at Geffrye Museum, the launch of iBeacons at Roman Caerleon, the famous cat mummy of Derby Museums (it is essential to include cats in all Twitter conversations–Ed), Lowewood Museum’s community project and exhibition on World War 1 display, finding out Sir Walter Scott used to be a Sheriff and his courtroom museum is there to be visited in Selkirk, a museum geek’s Elk, two major development projects at Surgeons Hall Museum and Epping Forest District Museum, and news from the Welsh Museum Festival. And more.

In fact it continued beyond the hour.

Look, just take a look at #museumhour tweets.

The idea is to let #museumhour grow organically and steadily and begin to introduce some hard hitting topics to the weekly discussions.

Policy-making museum people were notably absent or quiet and yet tend to be the ones always wanting our opinion on things. We hope they join the talk.

I also hope that #museumhour will remain good fun, be a new, additional way, for museum people to meet each other and network, as well as providing a forum for opinions to be exchanged.

Follow @museumhour now.

A history of Cornwall through objects

Padstow's Obby Oss used for its world famous May Day celebrations (c) Padstow Museum

Padstow’s Obby Oss used for its world famous May Day celebrations (c) Padstow Museum

In September I was commissioned to help develop and create content for a digital history of Cornwall through its objects alla History of the World in 100 Objects format and fame.

A booklet of 100 objects chosen from collections across Cornwall’s museums had already been created by Museum Development Officers showcasing everything from a cork model of St Michael’s Mount made by one of its butlers and on show there, to a commemorative football medal from Mexico. The booklet had enjoyed limited circulation, and in particular, did not make much of an impact on audiences that did not visit museums and heritage sites in Cornwall.

This project, funded via a grant from Arts Council England, is available via the Museums in Cornwall website that showcases information and events from Cornish museums:

http://www.museumsincornwall.org.uk/100-Objects/

This was an exercise in writing for the web and exhibition interpretation. Using pre-selected (or curated) objects chosen by the museums themselves I was challenged with writing the stories that linked them together — some more seamlessly than others. Some objects appeared within more than one story while others found a place in some more unexpected themes such as Cornish Journeys or Customs but I think these work better than the more pedestrian, War, Mining and Sport. It’s an alternative history of Cornwall.

Journeys
Pilgrimage and plant hunting

It takes a long time to get to Cornwall from most places in Britain, whether by road, rail or air.

Until the introduction of motorised transport most Cornish people walked the long distance to get from town to town, or from home to work. Many of the surviving waymarking crosses we see scattered across our landscape still mark the ancient routes that people used.

Pilgrimage was an important motive for starting a long journey. From the early Middle Ages St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall’s most recognisable landmark, was a very significant pilgrimage site. Pilgrims from Britain and Ireland would have walked the 12.5 miles (19.5km) along St Michael’s Way, a route from Lelant near St Ives, to Marazion and the Mount. From here pilgrims could also make their way by sea to Mont Saint-Michel and other pilgrimage sites in Brittany and beyond…

Read more from Cornish Journeys.

At heart, I am a creative organiser of information which makes me deeply sensitive to the dull ways in which many museums and academics categorise and class collections. One entire section of my PhD thesis was a critique of taxonomy arguing that although the common language of classification helps scholars and researchers share information (like a common metadata standard) ultimately the structural interpretation of our material culture can be a major barrier to wider understanding–yes it’s about our audiences.

The History of Cornwall Through its Objects was therefore an attempt to blend the expected and the unexpected together. To tell new stories from Cornish heritage as well as reassure by telling favoured stories perhaps in a new way. I’m not sure this piece of digital heritage has succeeded particularly well. I have no idea of the analytics or even who is using it or coming across it. I have my doubts about its discoverability. The CMS that structured the data was quirky and bizarre to say the least but I can hope that the content will live on and somewhere out there it will fascinate people who love Cornwall and Cornish history.

Exhibitions development at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall

In July 2013 I was contracted by the National Maritime Museum Cornwall to provide maternity cover for their exhibitions development role, and in particular to develop new shows for their small but multi-layered Quarterdeck gallery.

The first exhibition I was charged with installing From the Loft Floor (Sep 2013-Jan 2014). This show of reportage drawings by Anna Cattermole revealed the build of a traditional Scillonian pilot cutter by Luke Powell at his boatyard, Working Sail.20130918_100716

The thirteen drawings were interpreted in the artist’s words in accompanying captions. We complemented the artwork with a film by Steve Morris of Ideaplus, a display of authentic boatbuilding tools from the NMMC collection, a half model of a Falmouth pilot cutter, and a tactile display of tools on a workbench (sensitively secured to prevent over-excitement and caulking mallets getting the better of each other).

Tactile work bench with boat building tools and apprentice pieces from Falmouth Marine School.

Tactile work bench with boat building tools and apprentice pieces from Falmouth Marine School.

It was a joy to install–much credit to the previous work on the project by Anna Cattermole and the person whose role I am covering. An ideal show for the Autumn with its muted colours easy browsing layout. The artist also provided visitors with a free newspaper-style guide to her project. Anna’s drawings were started and completed on site, live. She did not use sketches or photographs to revisit them.

The opportunity to display objects from the museum’s collection was a particular highlight for someone like me who finds the act of object interpretation and display deeply satisfying. The half model of the Falmouth pilot cutter was a challenge to install owing to its age and size but it created beautiful lines and gave much needed height to the exhibition space.

Half model of a Falmouth pilot cutter made from the NMMC's collection.

Half model of a Falmouth pilot cutter made from the NMMC’s collection. 

The next show is a big one that is currently only partly developed in style and concept on smuggling during its heyday in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Time to get my historian’s hat on and also get inventive about how to make tax evasion an interesting subject.

 

Top ten for heritage digitisation projects

Preparing for digitisation: Record photograph from an album in the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, Hypatia Trust.

Preparing for digitisation: Record photograph from an album in the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, Hypatia Trust.

Digitisation usually refers to making collections data, including images and other media, available online. But it may also refer to making any quantitative (e.g. historical datasets) or qualitative information (exhibition and learning resources) available and discoverable via the web.

A digital collection usually comprises an object record describing the object, its composition or makeup and other descriptive elements. It may have an associated image, video, audio or document with it. Sophisticated digital collections will display links to related objects and information. Some are aggregated into larger digital repositories which allow you to search across several collections such as Culture Grid or Europeana.

The digitisation movement in the UK heritage sector started in earnest under the New Opportunities Fund Digitisation (NOF-digi) programme, funded by the National Lottery between 2001-3/4. One of my previous projects, Hantsphere, was part of this. NOF-digi projects taught heritage and cultural technologists a lot about good and bad practice, and most importantly about sustainability. A significant amount of data remains undiscoverable and in some cases has been lost altogether through lack of onward funding and resources within the organisations that ran these projects. Continue reading

A bad curator blames their tools

M-Shed, tells the story of Bristol especially its industrial and social history

M-Shed, tells the story of Bristol especially its industrial and social history

I have been a member of the Social History Curators Group (SHCG) for a few years now. Of all the professional groups and societies dedicated to museum and collections work I have found SHCG to be the most useful. Most degrees and qualifications in museum studies (or indeed heritage management) lack opportunities for sustained subject-specialist training unless it is part of an internship, vocational attachment or similar activity. That’s why SHCG and other curatorial networks are so important.

FirstBASE is SHCG’s recently launched online resources centre, an invaluable library of information for anyone dealing with social (and industrial) collections. SHCG also organises training events and when I saw one advertised for identifying tools I leapt at the opportunity. Here is my review, which will also appear in a forthcoming SHCG newsletter.

Training Review: What is it? Identifying mystery objects: trade tools

Venue: M-Shed, Bristol, 4 March 2013

I didn’t know a twybil from an adze before the training. By the end of the day I could enthusiastically explain the difference between a dado plane and a plough plane.

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