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Why do you love museums?

In Museums on June 10, 2015 at 9:02 am

Today we are being asked to think about – and share – what we love about museums.

#ilovemuseums is a campaign aimed at getting us thinking about the value of built and cultural heritage and objects and the institutions that collect them.

Despite working in the museum sector for nearly 15 years I still find it difficult to answer that question.

As a social researcher I could take issue with being asked about this – it’s a loaded question as it starts with an assumption that one does actually love museums. And that means that it will only receive positive responses. There’s no #ihatemuseums day for those who would see our nation’s museums closed down and turned into shopping centres. Or no #whatcouldmuseumsdobetter day.

But maybe that’s overly cynical of me. I supposed I ought to play nicely and answer the question properly. Given that I do love museums, why do I love them so? There are a few reasons.

Museums have special things
They are repositories for objects and specimens which document our human journey, and that of our environments. These objects allow us to find out about ourselves, our ancestors and the world we live in. They aren’t pixels or sound bites. They’re real things.

Making objects talk
But objects on their own – collected, documented and wrapped up in store cupboards – can’t speak for themselves (okay, most of them can’t speak). We, as museum professionals, get to tell our audiences about those stories. As a consultant I help museums with this storytelling – we call it interpretation. Interpreting objects for visitors is what I do. And I love it.

A place for everyone to talk
One of my favourite trends in museums in recent years has been to release some of the constraints of who gets to select what story we choose to interpret for the visitor. Curators still hold a lot of sway when it comes to interpreting objects, but now everyday folk do as well. Consulting audiences about what they would like to see in museums means exhibits become more and more relevant to people’s lives.

What a great job
People often say they are jealous of my job, so I suppose I also love museums because they provide me with continued employment. They are amazing places to work – I feel privileged each time I step behind the scenes in a museum. I’m passionate about communicating that infectious enthusiasm I see in curators to the public.

In summary, what I love most about museums is the experiences they provide for visitors – access to culture, learning (in its broadest sense), inspiration and as places of reflection.

There’s an argument to say that the real value of museums is their collections, and it’s true that without the objects museums wouldn’t exist. But they wouldn’t exist without visitors either.

Why do I love museums? It’s because you love museums.

Exploring indie arts in Manchester

In Museums on May 28, 2015 at 1:47 pm

I’ve recently relocated from London to Manchester. First stop for me, in any new city, is to check out the cultural life.

Think of Manchester and you’ll think of some great museums (IWM North, Museum of Science and Industry, People’s History Museum, Whitworth etc) as well as the Royal Exchange Theatre and the Halle at the Bridgewater Hall.

But I’m quickly finding that there’s more to Manchester than mainstream offerings. In just a couple of weeks I’ve come across a few independent gems already.

Nexus Art Café in the northern quarter is a charming spot to hang out. I’d previously thought of it as just a place for coffee, cake and a chat amongst mismatched tablecloths and organic tea. But then I was invited to see an exhibition there. BMC Art Collective is a group of students from Stockport who have displayed their work in the back room of this café. Taking music as a starting point, the artists have responded in different media – textiles, graphic art, illustration – and in a range of styles. And just to underline how non-mainstreatm they are, they’ve mounted this show in an underground zine library. An art collective in a zine library in a basement. It’s like a Russian doll of alternative culture.

Around the corner Manchester Craft and Design Centre is home to 30+ artists, working, displaying and selling their works in a converted Victorian market building. It’s fun to skulk around the place, watching artists and craftspeople paint, etch, carve and glaze products right in front of your eyes. Just be careful not to take too much spare cash, or you’ll be coming home with tote bags filled with canvasses, jewellery and ceramics. But do stop in at their café for some Guinness and Whisky cake.

Slightly more mainstream is the talk of the city’s cultural offering right now: HOME. Whatever the political wranglings over how it came to be, HOME is offering a range of artistic programming that is enticing audiences in and giving them much more than cinema blockbusters. I’ve already seen two pieces of world cinema and their opening theatre production The Funfair. The play is not only impressive as a performance, but also a sign that HOME intends not to play it safe when compiling a programme – it’s a bold and, some might say, daring first piece which has surprised audiences.

Here’s to more surprises in Manchester.

50 museums in 50 days

In Awards, Museums on April 14, 2015 at 9:28 am

I’ve just returned home from a trip around the globe – and I reached my goal of visiting 50 museums in 50 days. It was touch and go for a while, but like Phileas Fogg I just made it. Here’s my summing up of the trip (which is actually just me showing off) …

Best museum bar – Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, mostly for the view over the bridge and opera house.

Most jaw-dropping interior – the Alhambra. I hadn’t expected it to be quite so beautiful.

Finest collection – National Gallery of Australia is just packed with hit after hit. Such a shame that it’s locked away in Canberra where nobody goes (apart from civil servants and museum geeks.)

Tea room of the trip – not an easy category to judge. While the Museum of Australia and Hong Kong Maritime Museum both have a great views from their terraces, there’s no beating the splendid vista from the Getty Villa.

Best guided tour – Susannah Place Museum. Definitely take this tour if you’re in Sydney. Be sure to call in advance and book.

Surprise of the trip – Australians know how to do museums

Weirdest display – For years this would normally have been taken by the Museum of Jurassic Technology (Los Angeles), but perhaps the crying wooden statues next to the bed where St John of God died (Granada) were the most full on. Or the home butchery and blood-letting display at the folk museum in Seville. Or the Mars Attacks display in Hong Kong’s space museum. Hmm, tough one to call. I’ll just have to go again in search of more.

If you can deal with any more museological gloating, here’s the full list of 50 museums I visited. I hope it makes you jealous:

Sepulveda Block Museum, Los Angeles
América Tropical Interpretive Centre, Los Angeles
Avila Adobe, Los Angeles
Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles
Japanese American Museum, Los Angeles
LA Firefighting Museum, Los Angeles
Getty Villa, Malibu
Wende Museum, Culver City
Museum of Jurassic Technology, Culver City
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles
Catalina Island Museum, Avalon
California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco
USS Hornet, San Francisco
SFO Airport Museum, San Francisco
Maritime Museum, Hong Kong
Art Central, Hong Kong
Dr Sun Yat Sen Museum, Hong Kong
Space Museum, Hong Kong
Museum of Art, Hong Kong
Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney
Anzac Memorial Museum, Sydney
State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
Museum of Sydney, Sydney
Susannah Place Museum, Sydney
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney
Cockatoo Island, Sydney
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Canberra Museum and Gallery, Canberra
National Museum of Australia, Canberra
Australian War Memorial, Canberra
National Library of Australia, Canberra
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
National Film and Video Archive, Canberra
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
National Archives, Canberra
Museum of Australian Democracy, Canberra
Immigration Museum, Melbourne
Melbourne Old Gaol, Melbourne
Melbourne Museum, Melbourne
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
State Library of Victoria, Melbourne
Museo Reine Sofia, Madrid
XIII-Century House, Cordoba
Archaeological Museum, Seville
Museum of Popular Art and Folk Culture, Seville
Museo de la Real Maestranza de Caballera, Seville
General Archives of the Indies, Seville
The Chain House, Cadiz
Museo de San Juan de Deos, Granada
Alhambra, Granada

Right, back to the real world.

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