Authority, authenticity and interpretation at Tintagel

Panorama from the headland of Tintagel island, with new sculpture in mid-ground.

Panorama from the headland of Tintagel island, with new sculpture in mid-ground.

Summary

This week my opinion article “Cornwall, Authenticity and the Dark Ages: Controversy at Tintagel Castle” was published by History & Policy. Following my visit to Tintagel on 30 April, it is an attempt to bring perspective to the key issues that have caused considerable upset and concern amongst Cornish communities, medieval historians and English Heritage.

The hope is that the airing of these issues in a systematic, question-driven way will help everyone learn from the problems with new interpretation at Tintagel Castle. The key issues I raise are summarised below.

They are apposite not just to the situation at Tintagel but more widely concern methods of interpretation of Cornish history, medieval history, and the ways in which sites with multiple protective designations are treated by heritage agencies. I expand on these issues below (with pictures!)

  1. Tintagel Castle and its setting are part of a site with multiple designations: Scheduled Ancient Monument, SSSI, AONB amongst others. English Heritage as property manager has asserted its dominance over the site with its recent and future planned interventions – why?
  2. Tintagel Castle’s early medieval history as the seat of Cornish Dumnonian kings/leaders is over-shadowed by a Victorian populist idea of King Arthur whose links with Tintagel are no more significant than the literary/historical figure’s links with many other sites in Britain and Europe. Why is Tintagel used to propagate this myth?
  3. Tintagel’s early medieval period is branded as the Dark Ages. Dark Ages is an obsolete, value-laden term, not even used by school teachers anymore. For this period in Cornish history some of the richest and most numerous archaeological finds have emerged – so why call it the Dark Ages?
  4. Why were monumental artistic interventions chosen as a method of interpretation? Would English Heritage countenance similar interventions at Stonehenge or at other multipli-designated sites they manage? If not, why at Tintagel?
  5. Why is the indoor exhibition centre so small and the space devoted to the Cornish history of the site under-stated when the shop areas are so large?
  6. Is the occasional use of the Cornish language enough to signal the site’s Cornish distinctiveness?
  7. Inviting audiences to ‘Step into England’s Story’ goes counter to the un-English history of the Cornish and Cornwall. How can English Heritage justify its use at the Cornish heritage sites it manages, and online, especially in the light of Articles 5, 6 and 12 of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities?
  8. Given the disappointment in the pop Arthuriana presented at Tintagel back in 2010 (see below) who are the audiences for Tintagel Castle? As English Heritage’s fifth most visited heritage site is it being used as a cash cow and therefore privileging the undiscerning tourist over Cornish communities and other communities of interest? How is ‘popularity’ understood and is this a valid measure of success?
  9. What audience development and research consultation were undertaken to inform the new interpretation, including the decision to make several artistic interventions on this multipli-designated site? How are the responses to new interpretation being recorded?
  10. What can be done to improve or mitigate the concerns raised above and those by other professionals and members of the community?

Authority

Tintagel is special. The historic complex that comprises Tintagel Castle is part of a rich geological, archaeological and natural landscape that is protected by a number of designations. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument monitored by Historic England. It is set in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) with Tintagel’s cliffs designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) both monitored by Natural England. Cornwall Council has selected Tintagel as an Area of Great Historic Value in its Local Plan. The island part of the site is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall.

Tintagel Castle itself is one of several historic sites in Cornwall actively managed by English Heritage Trust (now an independent charity licensed to manage the “national heritage collection” on license from Historic England). Many are free to roam/enter while a few are paid entry, such as Tintagel Castle, Chysauster Ancient Village and Pendennis Castle–larger complexes looked after by property managers or seasonal custodians offering visitors a more mediated experience.

As such, there are competing designations at Tintagel and different authorities that have a duty to protect its precious distinctiveness and those same authorities with reciprocal duties towards its communities.

The Home Nations, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, have enjoyed autonomy over their historic environments and how it is interpreted for decades and given the spirit of Cornwall’s (first) Devolution Deal, and the context of Cornish National Minority Status, it seems to be an anomaly that Historic England and English Heritage continue to govern and make decisions on Cornwall’s historic environment (where decisions take place mainly outside Cornwall) without due care to include Cornish communities in decision-making and planning.

While Cornwall Council are currently planning to address the devolution of discussion and decision-making on the historic environment to Cornwall, in the form of a Board and Forum called “Heritage Kernow,” the set-up of this new group is yet to be publicised and its remit and constituents largely unknown.

An ongoing Parliamentary consultation of oral and written evidence called Countries of Culture is questioning how culture and heritage is supported, funded and how services are delivered, with a particular focus on the work of Arts Council England (responsible for central government funding for museums, archives and libraries and arts organisations) which has come under scrutiny for bias towards London, big cities and certain types of culture that may inadvertently be serving a minority elite.

Given the problematic context of other un-devolved English agencies, the challenges facing Cornish heritage and its expression become even more complex.

King Arthur's Great Halls, Tintagel village.

King Arthur’s Great Halls, Tintagel village.

Authenticity

The approach to Tintagel is long and winding. We now arrive at Tintagel the wrong way round as this place was created to face the ocean. As you get to Slaughterbridge on the village outskirts brown signs confidently point you to the Arthurian Centre, an exhibition experience dedicated to Arthur afficioados, and so the seduction begins. From King Arthur’s Great Halls to Spriggans Cove, a mini Glastonbury awaits you.

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“Whilst the Arthurian legends are accessible and well-known, the public does not ‘know’ a Tintagel beyond imagination, myth-making and marketing.”

Tintagel village renamed itself/was renamed (apparently for postal reasons) from its Cornish name Trevena and has been identifying with its cultish fame ever since the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King and the Great Western Railway started to provide easy access for pleasure tourists to Cornwall.

Hilary Orange and Patrick Laviolette conducted an ethnographic study of tourists to Tintagel in 2010, commenting on the interpretation of the time, “Whilst the Arthurian legends are accessible and well-known, the public does not ‘know’ a Tintagel beyond imagination, myth-making and marketing.”

What, if anything, has changed in the most recent reinterpretation at Tintagel? If visitors were “left disappointed by the lack of authoritative on-site narrative” what is offered today?

Where history sits uncomfortably with legend, new interpretation at Tintagel Castle.

Where history sits uncomfortably with legend, new interpretation at Tintagel Castle.

Interpretation

This interpretation review is measured against the following factors:

  1. My expectations and prejudices
  2. The call to action: From what starting point or philosophy does the interpreter begin?
  3. What expectations are raised before the visit?
  4. What are the key messages?
  5. How much interpretive space is devoted to them?
  6. Who are the audiences?

1. Caveat emptor – Buyer beware

This is not a neutral descriptive review of what you can expect to find at Tintagel Castle but an an analysis of how new interpretation may impact on impressions of Cornish history and heritage.

My concerns as an heritage interpreter and medieval historian were raised before my recent visit following press coverage of new on-site sculptural interpretation, discussions with Cornish campaigners and groups and correspondence with English Heritage regarding their approaches to interpretation at Tintagel Castle.

It was important that I visited to see for myself to what extent the new interpretation enhanced or adversely affected the integrity of the site. I undertook this site visit at my own cost and in my own time.

2. Call to action – England’s story

English Heritage has reinvented its reason for being and marketing is playing a big role in bringing cohesion to its portfolio of 400+ historic sites in the national heritage collection (in England including Cornwall). That cohesion is represented by their strategic priority and call to action to, “Step into England’s Story.

English Heritage is open about its vision and values:

Our work is informed by enduring values of authenticity, quality, imagination, responsibility and fun. Our vision is that people will experience the story of England where it really happened.

I am particularly struck by their commitment to authenticity:

We seek to be true to the story of the places and artefacts that we look after and present.  We don’t exaggerate or make things up for entertainment’s sake. Instead, through careful research, we separate fact from fiction and bring fascinating truth to light.

You have to dig deeply to find out about English Heritage’s attitudes towards community participation. The audience emphasis is on “the service we provide to our visitors.”

Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director says, “Whether on a famous battlefield, in the heart of a medieval castle, among the ruins of a once-great abbey or in the kitchen of a country house, the voices of our ancestors will sing out.” Whose ancestors is not clear, and as we shall see, the feeling of disconnection from local communities is felt keenly at Tintagel Castle.

The Story of England as a strategic interpretive aim of English Heritage is repeated in its manifesto called Our Priorities which includes: “We will create engaging and memorable experiences based on the story of England.” On involving others they say, “We will include the wider community in our work.”

Given the demonstrable upset caused by new interpretation at Tintagel amongst Cornish communities, and wider groups of interest, it is not clear what the extent of community consultation or feedback was, beyond the design consultation for the proposed new footbridge where candidate entries were displayed in the village.

However, the jury that chose the final design did not include any representatives from Cornish groups except for author Philip Marsden who is a trustee of the Royal Institution of Cornwall.

The problem with such admirable ideals is that they can often mask actions which do not match but it remains relatively difficult to call them to account.

Having demonstrated above the growing official recognition of distinctiveness in Cornish identity, culture and heritage, Cornwall’s story does not easily fit into England’s story so what impact is this having on the Cornish historic sites, and their audiences? Is an Anglo-centric approach appropriate?

3. I blow my nose at you, so-called ‘Arthur King’, you and all your silly English K-nig-hts*

I picked up the latest free tourist brochure about Tintagel on the way–the type of literature a large number of the 200,000+ visitors a year are likely to also pick up–to find out some tit-bits of information, trivia, taxi numbers, restaurants and a place for local businesses to advertise.

On page 7 there is a half page advertisement from English Heritage headlined “The Legend Lives On. Explore the myth and mystery of King Arthur in breathtaking surroundings.” The graphic shows a gigantic fantasy sword plunged into an image of Tintagel island. Heritage marketing has improved so much in its authenticity in the last few years. This is seriously disappointing from a national heritage agency which ought to know better.

“Get swept up in the history of Tintagel with new eye-catching outdoor interpretation across the site, including the Sword in the Stone and the centrepiece bronze statue of King Arthur; both perfect photo opportunities. Can you also spot Merlin’s face carved into the rocks near his cave on the beach?”

English Heritage advertisement in local tourist guide of TIntagel 2016

English Heritage’s leaflet on its principal Cornish sites, entitled, “Castles of Cornwall” with Cornish language sub-title “Kastylli Kernow” and footer slogan “Step into England’s Story” highlights “New for 2016” features at Tintagel: “Get swept up in the history of Tintagel with new eye-catching outdoor interpretation across the site, including the Sword in the Stone and the centrepiece bronze statue of King Arthur; both perfect photo opportunities. Can you also spot Merlin’s face carved into the rocks near his cave on the beach?”

English Heritage leaflet of Cornish properties, 2016

It is extremely hard to refute English Heritage’s clear bias towards pulling visitors to Tintagel Castle because of its tenuous Arthurian connections or question the agency’s desire to capitalise on the populism of Arthurian fantasy. By this point I was rerunning Monty Python’s Holy Grail in my head.*Gratitude to the Pythons for inspiring this bit of my review.

This is in spite of the rest of the village and other places mentioned already catering well for consumers of New Age Arthuriana. The only mention of anything else is “Dark Age settlements” and “Find out what inspired Richard, Earl of Cornwall, to build his castle here.”

The Cornishness of the experience is entirely absent in pre-visit marketing if you exclude the use of Cornish language sub-titles.

4. Imagined Arthur and Cornish history

Tintagel Castle, and indeed the broader cultural landscape that stretches beyond it, is widely acknowledged as a 5th-7th century (likely earlier and a bit later) seat of post-Roman kings who ruled over the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia taking up most of the large South Western peninsular of Britain, including today’s Cornwall, large parts of Devon and parts of Somerset. Tintagel represents considerable continuity in power structures, contacts and legitimacy in early medieval Britain.

After the consolidation of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 10th century, the rump of this kingdom retained its territorial integrity up to today with its border with England consolidated along the River Tamar but the territory was not absorbed and pretty much left as a kind of protectorate and retained its specific constitutional status when the territory was retained as an earldom and then a Duchy in the 14th century.

The archaeological evidence, much of which still remains unexcavated, overwhelmingly supports the paradigm that Tintagel was a seat of power based on international maritime commerce that connected western Britain with the Mediterranean world in a big way.

This is a hugely significant story for Cornish communities and for scholars of early medieval culture but also for anyone wanting a better understanding of how different the topographies of Britain, Europe and the Mediterranean were in this period.

It is also extremely exciting history for any heritage interpreter to get their teeth into and for local and visiting audiences to learn about. It is unique to Tintagel and cannot be adequately told elsewhere. The popular stories of King Arthur can be told elsewhere.

The nature of publication in archaeology is hard-to-access and expensive so the social imperative of heritage interpreters must be to do as much as possible to convey the extent and distinctiveness of a site and its material culture to wide and diverse audiences and bring that scholarship to bear.

The tiny number of finds displayed in the exhibition centre do not do justice to the vast site archive that has been uncovered over the decades that Tintagel has been investigated. (Not sure where the remaining “several thousand pieces of pottery” and other site finds are.)

Display on Tintagel in the Cornish Dumnonian period (5th-7th centuries).

Display on Tintagel in the Cornish Dumnonian period (5th-7th centuries).

In my opinion, this part of Tintagel Castle’s story should lead the key messages. At present it plays only a supporting role in the interpretation presented in the small exhibition centre and is further denigrated by being branded under the banner of the Dark Ages.

Further, there are back references to Arthur in the interpretation, particularly in the interpretation of the so-called “Artognou Stone” presenting this period as part of an inevitable teleology leading to the more comfortable realms of Arthurian fantasy that continues in the section of Richard, Earl of Cornwall’s 13th century castle and Victorian re-imaginings in the 19th century.

The 3D model with unusual projections showing the contrast between early medieval and 13th-century Tintagel (era of Richard, Earl of Cornwall’s castle) did attract the eye but it was hard to understand the passage of time being presented unless you also had half an eye on the flashing images surrounding the model. I did feel however that here was some effort to convey messages that were firmly rooted in the archaeology of the site and not in an imagined version of it, like we find outside.

Merlin carving created in 2016 as part of new interpretation at Tintagel

Outside the small exhibition centre and on-site the privileging of a neo-Gothic version of King Arthur is undeniable.

English Heritage spokespeople were quick to point out that the carving of Merlin’s face into the SSSI-designated cliffs of Tintagel was really very small and admittedly it is very hard to find.

But then what is the point of it? If it is an activity to engage visitors especially families with young kids to search for Merlin’s face, what is the lasting imprint on that visit meant to be? And why does Merlin look like that? Surely the most popular depiction of Merlin in the modern day was that represented in the eponymous BBC fantasy drama.

Since my visit a bit of the nose of Merlin either fell off or was deliberately chipped off. Sadly the immediate reaction was that it was the responsibility of someone who didn’t like EH’s new interventions. However it may equally have been caused by someone wanting a souvenir, from natural causes, or by someone wanting to cause mischief with no sense of the controversy surrounding its creation. Whichever reason, it would seem disingenuous for this to be considered an ‘act of vandalism’ when the original carving may also be considered destructive because of the protected designation of the cliffs.

Already, the controversy surrounding this item of interpretation has started to remove people from its intentions and from representing Tintagel authentically. With Merlin’s Cave (a name for the beach only dating from the 19th century Victorian imagination) just below, was it really necessary to damage the cliff face to create a corporately-approved anthropomorphic image of Merlin? Was there another way to pique people’s own imaginations?

Bronze statue of King Arthur or other figure.

Bronze statue of King Arthur or other figure.

any king or leader using Tintagel as a seat of power would certainly not have his back to the sea

The statue of King Arthur or the figure it’s meant to represent in audience imaginations is an attempt to create a photo opportunity for visitors.  The figure is 8 feet high and looms awkwardly on the headland. Sculptural interventions at ancient and historic sites will divide opinions in taste and how in-keeping or proportional it is with surroundings. In this already spectacular environment with imagination-provoking remains what is the interpretive purpose of this statue?

King Arthur’s association with Tintagel in legend principally concerns his conception and the machinations of Uther Pendragon as presented in the stories of 12th-century Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. He bears a close resemblance to Gandalf in the recent film adaptations of Lord of the Rings. King Arthur as an old wisdom-figure does not have associations with Tintagel in medieval tales.

The legend of Tristan and Iseult (Eselt in its Cornish form) with its associations with Tintagel could have provided an opportunity to gender-balance interpretation, at least of legend, at Tintagel which, as it stands, is distinctly male.

In an interview with the Financial Times Jeremy Ashbee of English Heritage asserts the importance of balancing historical and legendary aspects of an historic site such as Tintagel. This is true and a challenge for any heritage interpreter. However, the authenticity of the figure is questionable, even when privileging the Arthurian legend of Tintagel over the site’s other histories.

Why does Tintagel need such visual focuses when, for example, Stonehenge does not? Who is making these value judgements?

If, as has also been suggested, that the statue could even represent the presence of Cornish kings from the post-Roman Dumnonian period when England did not yet exist and borders and frontiers were fluid and fought over, why is he represented like this?

Any king or leader using Tintagel as a seat of power would certainly not have his back to the sea–the source of contact, connections and wealth that is represented spectacularly by the archaeological finds from the site.

Overall this statue can only serve to reinforce populist acceptance of a Victorian version of King Arthur. It lacks the interpretive power to make any of the subtle points that perhaps the interpreters may have hoped it could make.

It is rooted in a fundamental lack of understanding or interest in the audiences and communities English Heritage has a responsibility to serve through its custodianship of monuments in our national heritage. Still less does it serve the Cornish stories of Arthur or the Cornish history of the site.

Part of curtain walls of Richard, Earl of Cornwall's castle at Tintagel.

Part of curtain walls of Richard, Earl of Cornwall’s castle at Tintagel.

Amongst the Arthurian interventions the most prominent remains at Tintagel Castle are those of the 13th-centry symbolic castle built on the orders of Richard, Earl of Cornwall. Herein lies an exceptionally important milestone in the history of Cornwall. A most significant omission in interpretation is the castle’s potentially continued symbolic importance as a place of ancient legitimacy and power not just for Cornwall but for Britain and Europe.

The caption for a small illumination from a medieval manuscript showing the Black Prince being made Duke of Cornwall (an elevation from Earl) by his father Edward III in 1337 does not make the connection between this key date and the creation of the Duchy of Cornwall in the same year. By this date the Ricardian castle was already in a ruinous state but was clearly still important enough as a place of power to have a third phase of building in the 1340s.

Cornwall’s constitutional status was cemented as being different from the rest of England with the creation of the Duchy of Cornwall to directly benefit the first born male heir to the throne. The Duchy of Cornwall, and not the Crown, still owns the land at Tintagel Castle. The current Duke of Cornwall is Prince Charles and he remains a major landowner in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, originating from this period.

We are told in the exhibition centre that Richard chose the site at Tintagel for his symbolic castle because of its associations with King Arthur and to place himself in the “long tradition of Cornish kings, demonstrating his power over the Cornish people.” While the subject of the Cornish kings remains contentious because of partial and fleeting documentation, the lack of explanation as to why Richard would want to demonstrate his dominance over Cornwall, and how this led to the institution of the Duchy of Cornwall as a territory distinct from England in 1337 is a missed opportunity to emphasise the site’s importance in Cornish history.

Illustration on outdoor interpretive slab showing Edward, the Black Prince being made Duke of Cornwall.

Illustration on outdoor interpretive slab showing Edward, the Black Prince being made Duke of Cornwall.

In another post I outline problems with the interpretation of the early medieval period at Tintagel Castle, particularly its categorisation as the Dark Ages. They do no need re-stating  except to reiterate that heritage interpreters must be careful of using value judgements in their presentation of historical subjects.

By and large the textual interpretation at Tintagel is even and un-provocative; this is in sharp contrast to the sculptural interventions outside which are provocative. The use of the headline term Dark Ages is provocative and generally degrades a modern understanding of this well-studied site for which there exists much historical and archaeological commentary. From a Cornish perspective, some historians have argued that it was more of a Golden Age for Cornwall than a dark one.

Choices in interpretive delivery are crucial here and wide research and audience understanding are needed to make those choices as well as possible within the resources available. For example, not even in the school curriculum is the term Dark Ages used to teach children about the early medieval period stretching from the end of Roman rule to the 11th century. Perhaps local schools are not a key target audience for EH at Tintagel?

The accompanying guidebook is really a post-visit souvenir. I would not recommend using it (as it recommends you do) while you clamber around the rocks and steep stair cases at Tintagel or you will fall over and do yourself an injury.

The key messages in the guidebook and the website are broadly reflective of what you find on site with Arthurian connections dominating the narratives that are presented, the presence of some Cornish history but not much, and the emphasis of Cornwall’s distinctive chronology, as compared with “England” assumed but not stated.

5. Interpretive value

Currently, the entire back wall of the exhibition centre currently serves to display different words in English and Kernewek–lending an air of Cornish authenticity that is not rooted in the history of the place and has low interpretive value except to suggest some distinctiveness to the place in which the visitors find themselves. What was the logic behind this? There is no call to action.

A version of the Cornish language in use today was certainly spoken throughout the medieval period here. The common language of the aristocracy in the 13th and 14th century of Richard Earl of Cornwall’s period and after was medieval French. Cornish is a protected minority language today and while it is good to see it in use at heritage sites it would have been more powerful to make this connection overt.

Wasted space? A large part of the Tintagel exhibition centre shows low interpretive value.

Wasted space? A large part of the Tintagel exhibition centre shows low interpretive value.

The displays in the exhibition centre are roughly equally balanced to reflect different phases of Tintagel Castle’s history. While a tiny display serves the early medieval period of the site from where there certainly hails the largest amount of evidence in terms of artefacts, when compared with the exhibits used to illustrate the 19th century, there could have been the opportunity here to create the centre around these more prominently, and more widely, and an opportunity to diversify the range of interpretation currently on offer–particularly when it comes to the role of women in the early medieval period of the site.

I am sure there were lots of logistical problems for English Heritage undertaking this, not least negotiating loans and organising their mounting and care, but I can’t help but feel that this was a lost opportunity to use this space more specifically to emphasise the huge number and range of evidence found in archaeological investigations at the site, even if they were exhibited in surrogate form. Perhaps this could be part of a future refurbishment of the centre together with some opportunities for audience interaction?

Outside the interpretive value of the artistic interventions have been stated above. There is not a huge amount more to say on this except that the choices that were made have monumentally privileged an inauthentic narrative over the chance of a more authentic one.

Generic English Heritage branded medieval souvenirs in one of the Tintagel Castle shops.

Generic English Heritage branded medieval souvenirs in one of the Tintagel Castle shops.

Perhaps the greatest concern I have about interpretive value at the site is the space devoted to merchandising and shopping opportunities, raising the stakes on the claim that Tintagel is being used as a cash-cow to finance other aspects of English Heritage’s work. The English Heritage branded goods and medieval souvenirs are generic and I could find none relating specifically to Tintagel.

This shop could be anywhere and serves to reduce the site’s distinctiveness in place. There is a lack of access to reference works to buy in the shop where a visitor could, if they wished, read more about Tintagel and its related history and archaeology.

I am a big museum shop aficionado. Museum shops are great opportunities to continue interpretation and permit visitors to take some of the authenticity of the place they have visited home. I would be interested to see what future lines emerge and whether they will default to the kind of Arthuriana you can already find in the rest of the village.

6. Audiences and communities

Many of the problems I have highlighted above contravene the rights of the Cornish National Minority to have a say in how their heritage is presented and used.

Everything I have described above has at its root the diverse audiences and communities that historical sites, museums and others with authority are entrusted by society to serve.

The interpretation at Tintagel Castle does not feel like it is rooted in the community nor a result of good audience development work. Orange and Laviolette highlighted the problem of disappointment in their ethnography of Tintagel in 2010 (see above) and yet in 2016 after a new interpretive effort we are left with a similar feeling of disillusionment about not really being able to “know” a Tintagel beyond the imagination, myth-making and marketing.

Where exactly is Tintagel’s place in the histories of Cornwall, Britain and Europe and how can the communities that are connected to those histories better relate to the site in their lives and world views?

Tour group at Tintagel.

Tour group at Tintagel.

While visiting there were not many other visitors except for a large group of mixed-nationality students. They were being guided by a tour-guide who was presenting some questionable history to the audience. I would have loved to have surveyed the group afterwards to see what impression of Tintagel and Cornwall they left with.

Authority is certainly asserted by the tone and finish of the interpretive work at Tintagel Castle which leaves very little room for what different audiences, especially local ones, can bring. How is the new interpretation at Tintagel relevant to Cornish communities? Why is the tourist leisure family audience privileged, and if the new interventions were for their sake to drive more of them through the turnstiles, what impressions of Cornish heritage will be left with them?

What of the programming at Tintagel? Activity at historic sites, while potentially more expensive, can be a far better tool for interpretation than words on boards.

In 2014 the unique identity of the Cornish was officially recognised by the UK Government  under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (Council of Europe, not EU) affording them the same right to officially self-identity as as the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish, amongst others.

A significant part of the protection of the Cornish National Minority concerns the State’s (UK Government) undertaking to “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.” (Article 5).

Articles 6 and 12 contain further obligations that are relevant to all public bodies who have responsibility for cultural heritage in Cornwall.

Many of the problems I have highlighted above contravene the rights of the Cornish National Minority to have a say in how their heritage is presented and used. As English Heritage is de facto an arm of the state via license from Historic England, these responsibilities are particularly incumbent upon them.

But this is not about recriminations and blame, it’s about needing to open up lines of communication that are honest and transparent between all communities of interest so that the best result (there is no perfect) can be achieved. Having a say is important even if the point being made may be misguided. Agencies like English Heritage have a responsibility to listen and take action accordingly.

The growing need to mainstream diversity in our culture is apposite to this argument. A lack of consciousness of, or ignoring, the diversity in our communities will lead to poorer interpretation and a lack of engagement with heritage. We all want that not to be the case.

In conclusion, I should like to reiterate that a site as special as Tintagel, meaningful to Cornish people, meaningful to the millions that visit Cornwall every year, meaningful to those that have the privilege of being custodians, and meaningful to those with a love for good history, ought to have been treated with more loving care and respect in its interpretation that is currently evidenced.

I have presented Tintagel Castle as a case-study of Cornish heritage in conflict. There are others and it is about time we debated openly about why this kind of thing happens and how we can improve the situation. Can we expect better at other Cornish heritage sites, those run by English Heritage and those that are in the care of others?

Museums Association visits Cornwall

On 12 May the Museums Association visited Cornwall for the annual Members Meeting in the South West. I’d like to extend my appreciation to MA colleagues for making the long journey from London but also emphasise the importance of such visits to show it is a fully inclusive and diverse-led organisation that is interested in views from everywhere.

Big debates and discussions in the museum sector tend to happen in big cities. It’s good for them to happen in large rural regions like Cornwall too. Cornwall and the South West suffer from a lack of representation and voice in national organisations and perhaps we are not good at sharing our great work and good practice outside our local areas.

As MA Rep for the South West, I’d like to help, in whatever small way I can, to change that so the region becomes another default place to look to where great ideas are put into practice, particularly from small and tiny museums.

Museums Change Lives logo

Share your case-studies

The Museums Association is always looking for great case-studies and stories, invitations for review and features. Museums in the South West should be better represented in the case-studies of the MA’s flagship policy Museums Change Lives. Please consider submitting one. If you don’t know how, get in touch and I’ll help.

Read my review of the South West Museums Association Meeting.

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 but is included, with colour and citizenship under race.

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.