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Exhibiting invisible objects

In Museums, Uncategorized on July 29, 2016 at 11:46 am

When we’re planning museum exhibitions one of the obvious starting points is the object list. We talk through the options for what we are going to put on display for the public to see.

But what happens when the subject of the exhibition isn’t visible to the naked eye?

Graphene is an incredibly thin wonder material – a million times thinner than paper but 200 times stronger than steel. It’s just one atom thick, which makes mounting an exhibition about it rather difficult.

Wonder Materials has just opened to the public at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. It seeks to explain and interpret graphene for a general audience. There’s been a lot of chat about graphene in recent years, since it was discovered a decade ago. But I wonder whether most of us really understand what it is.

A really simple, but effective, interactive shows a series of rubber sheets of blown up atoms on top of one another. Visitors are invited to peel the top layer off, replicating what the Nobel-prize winning scientists did when they isolated a sheet of graphene. It’s a really simple and effective way of showing us that this material is super thin, whilst also remind us that it’s super strong. By engaging our sense of touch, we are invited to feel the experience of splicing off a layer of graphene, rather than just reading about it on a text panel.

I wrote a piece about the exhibition on Northern Soul this week.

In this case, the subject of the exhibition meant that the objects selected for display were all going to have to be illustrative of graphene, rather than made if the material itself. That’s quite a challenge.

A key part of the museum interpretation process is thinking, at the early stage of exhibition development, not only what we will put on display, but also what story will those objects or art pieces tell and how we will interpret that story for visitors. It’s important that we keep their expectations and motivations in mind and that we think about what their visit experience will be like, as well as deciding what to include on the object list, be they visible or invisible.

Wonder Materials: Graphene and Beyond is at MSI Manchester. It’s free and runs until July 2017.

Carving beautiful things

In Museums on July 8, 2016 at 10:35 am

If you live or work in a British town or city, the chances are you are surrounded by a range of buildings, representing a range of styles. We have a strong architectural heritage in this country – from mock-Tudor beams to modernist clean lines and everything in between.

Sometimes it’s not the form of a building I’m struck by, but the decoration and ornaments on it. And something I’ve started to look more closely at is carved stone.

I never realised there are so many carvings around us. You’d think Neo-classical and Victorian buildings have most of this, but there’s also relief carving and lettering on buildings right up to today.

I’d not thought much of this, until I went on a relief stone carving course recently at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, for an article I was writing for the Northern Soul online magazine.

It took me a whole day to create a pretty awful relief carving on a large brick. Looking again at a swathe of hand-carved lettering on a war memorial or a huge carved mural now makes me stand back and appreciate the time and skill that goes into chipping away with a hammer and chisel.

Carving stone is a remarkably therapeutic process – taking something hard and cold and trying (in my case not all that well) to turn it into something smooth and beautiful.

But perhaps more important than the carved slab at the end of the day, what I appreciated most was the chance to stop, to think and to create something. In a busy world of hectic urban life and continuous news cycles, it’s important to stand back every so often and enjoy the process of making something.

Have a go – you might like it.

Museum objects as travel agents

In Museums on April 20, 2016 at 10:25 am

For me, museum objects are inspirational things. And I like to think that museums can seek to inspire visitors to do all sorts of wonderful things as a result of looking at the things in their collections. They can even inspire us to travel.

It’s the theme of a little film I’ve made, currently screening at The Museum and the Global Contemporary conference at the University of Leicester, which starts today.

There’s little point us seeking to be places of inspiration just for the sake of it. Here’s an example of what I mean …

A few years ago I was working on a museum exhibition about ancient Rome. When we were putting the project together someone in our team said “wouldn’t it be great if visitors to the exhibition were inspired to travel to Italy after leaving the exhibition?”

Of course, we’d no real way of measuring whether visitors did indeed book flights after seeing the exhibition. But it was a great way for us as a project team to think about what we wanted visitors to experience as part of their visit.

In museums we talk a lot about ‘visitor outcomes’ – what we want our visitors to know, understand, experience and feel when they are with us. In this little video I argue that we ought to place just as much emphasis on what they are inspired to do as a result of a visit as we do on communicating facts to them.

Museums can be didactic, sure. But let’s make them intentionally inspirational places too. Let’s get people so excited by museum objects that they are inspired to book flights.

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