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Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

New science gallery in Birmingham

In Museum [Insider], Museums, new content on January 28, 2011 at 8:44 am

I’ve written an article for Museum [Insider] about the new gallery being built at Thinktank, the Birmingham Science Museum.

The museum was awarded £900,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a redevelopment of one of their existing galleries into a new, shiny, multimedia interpretive exhibition space. The plan is to get it open in time for the end of 2012, the year that every museum development project appears to be opening. (I wonder if there’ll be any work for suppliers to the heritage sector in 2013?!)

The piece about Thinktank is live on the M[I] site now.

Consulting at Fulham Palace

In Museums on January 24, 2011 at 11:56 am

I’ve just finished a piece of work with Fulham Palace – another of London’s amazing ‘hidden gems’. It’s been a pleasure to work there, not only because the staff and volunteers there are lovely and the work was stimulating, but also because it’s such a beautiful building.

Traditionally the home of the Bishop of London, the palace is now split into a variety of different functions. Alongside the offices, cafe, shop and gardens are some rather handsome gallery rooms, a great hall and – fortunately for me – a museum! They’ve done some amazing work in recent years, opening up the building and refurbishing areas which were in dire need of repair. Indeed while works are currently underway to restore some of the garden areas and to create a new education centre the palace commissioned me to undertake some audience research in advance of their third HLF funding application – the first two have both been successful!

The museum asked me not only to find out what visitors think of the museum and how it might develop in the future, but also to train them in how to go about audience research on their own. This was great from my point of view as it meant me not having to move in and undertake the research myself – instead I was able to train up a group of volunteers to conduct face-to-face interviews themselves.  I then chaired some focus groups, analysed the interview results and wrote a report based on the findings. But more than just finding out what their visitors think of the museum, Fulham Palace are now equipped with the skills to do it for themselves.

As a freelancer I can build bespoke pieces of training for museum staff and volunteers in any of the areas where I have experience and expertise: audience research, writing for museums, writing for audio, being a freelance show off etc.

Adornment and identity

In Museums on January 21, 2011 at 4:42 pm

There’s a new exhibition open at the British Museum today called Adornment and Identity: Jewellery and Costume from Oman, a display about, well, it’s pretty obvious from the title, isn’t it?

You might be forgiven for thinking that, as it’s at the BM, it’s an exhibition of ancient artefacts – little relics in display cases. But the jewellery, trinkets and clothing in this exhibition are all from the twentieth century, in fact mostly from the 1950s and 60s. These beautiful objects – mostly silver – have gone out of fashion in recent years, in favour of gold decorative jewellery, but these pieces stand as a reminder of a bygone era.

And that’s what’s so good about this display. It’s more than just beautiful things in showcases – there’s a social dimension to these pieces, which describe everyday and celebratory life in Oman. These are pieces which were used by real people, so there’s a human element involved. That’s always a huge plus when storytelling in a museum setting – people love stories about people.

I did a small piece of work on the exhibition last year, when they were preparing the display, helping them to write and edit text for the interpretive panels for the display. The exhibition labels were edited by the mindful, diplomatic and all round clever clogs Maria Blyzinski from The Exhibitions Team. Go check out our text and let us know what you think!

One-eyed museum visitor

In Museums on January 20, 2011 at 10:32 am

Last week I had a rather nasty eye infection, the details of which I won’t go into, but if you like gruesome things, then here you go. Before my eye had been properly diagnosed I made a visit to Tate Modern to see the Gauguin exhibition which closed on 16 January.

In the museum sector we know that we have to make our content understandable and accessible to as many audiences as possible, irrelevant of visitors’ nationality, level of education or physical/mental ability. Museums have come on leaps and bounds in recent years in terms of providing enhanced access for those who have sensory impairments – large print booklets, audio-described audio guides and tactile models are now the norm in at least our larger museums and others are catching up.

I was in a fair bit of pain that day and wearing dark glasses as my eyes were sensitive to the light, so I thought it would be interesting to perhaps experience some of what visually impaired visitors go through as part of a museum visit. (Of course, I could never replicate actual disability, but perhaps the experience might teach me something.)

Perhaps the biggest thing I took away from this was the timing of my visit. I had, through only my own fault, not been to see the exhibition on a quiet mid-week afternoon during the middle of the exhibition run, outside of a school holiday. I had, in fact, decided to visit on perhaps one of the busiest days of the run, right before it closed. The place was heaving with people – even with timed tickets we had to queue for 15 minutes just to get in the door! I’ve always thought the lighting in Tate Modern was rather harsh, but with an added sensitivity it seemed even more unbearable. Nobody enjoys going to an art gallery when it’s incredibly busy – something which doesn’t seem to bother Tate, who will regularly oversell time slots – but it’s even more confusing and baffling when you’re battling with one sense out of order.

I wish I’d also taken an audio-described audio tour of the exhibition as Tate’s insistence on long, wordy introductory panels followed by barely visible painting captions in light grey at below waist level made identifying any of the works of art a challenge, especially through a crowd three-deep in front of the viewer.

That said, Tate are still capable of achieving something amazing – the range of institutions and private collections lending to the exhibition was mind boggling. They have a political presence in the art world which means they can attract loans and sponsorship from a wide range of donors, both artistic and financial. It’s a shame they insist on pumping as many people through their galleries as possible.

I’ve certainly taken an added sense of understanding of the needs of a visually impaired visitor. I’ll be thinking of them next time I design an exhibition scheme which features a world map tucked away in a corner, a blank wall with no directional information on it, a 300-word text panel and a labelling system at the back of a display case. They’re all simple things really – noted down in my list of top interpretation tips.

2010 – the year in review

In Museum [Insider], new content on January 10, 2011 at 9:06 am

The start of a new year is an ideal time to look back and take stock of what’s happened over the last twelve months. In terms of the British arts sector and the way in which it is funded, 2010 saw some pretty big changes.

The arrival of the new coalition government in the late spring heralded a raft of changes and amendments not only to the way in which the museum and heritage sector is funded, but also how some of the bodies which represent and provide for it are organised.

The changes introduced by the Government have affected the many bodies sponsored directly by the Treasury. And they have also had implications for local and regional museums across the country.

At first sight, it might seem that these changes are most likely to affect people working in the museum sector. But if money is drying up, then suppliers to the sector are likely to be affected as well. And it’s worth considering whether the bad news that the nation’s museums have received in the last year is indeed all bad news. In some cases money is no longer available for large-scale building projects. In others, redundancies for permanent staff mean that opportunities for consultancy have opened up. Someone needs to do the work!

There’s a large review article, live on Museum [Insider] now, detailing the breadth and depth of the cuts and the impact they are likely to have on the museum and heritage sector, and also the private sector which supplies them. It’s perhaps not all such bad news.