Posts Tagged ‘museum’

Conflict brought right up to date

In Museums on March 8, 2018 at 12:58 pm

The war in Syria started on 15 March 2011.  There are more hours of content on YouTube about the war than there have been hours of the actual conflict itself. It might not all be great film content, but it’s certainly evidence of a bewildering and confusing war that continues to make headlines.

Between 15 March and 28 May 2018 Imperial War Museum North is inviting visitors to actively and intimately think about how to make sense of what we hear from Syria – in the news, in print, online. Taking evidence from specific events during the battle of Aleppo in late 2016, the interactive audio experience asks us whether confusion is being used as a weapon to stop the international community from acting. Who controls the fog of war?

This is particularly fitting in IWM North – a building that is designed to confuse and bewilder us. The architecture of the main museum gallery deliberately places visitors in a space where they cannot see all of the room at once . The curves and shards of the walls obscure the entrances and disorient us into a state of mild unease. It’s supposed to be that way, reflecting the notion that when one is in a conflict, one cannot step back, reflect or view situations objectively.

I’ve often thought it makes for a confused visitor experience. But once visitors ‘get’ it, they think it’s rather clever.

When the Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917 its task was to document the story of the First World War raging in Europe and around the (then) British Empire.

Today people might tend to think of the IWM as an historical institution that looks back,  telling us stories of conflicts past. With this installation – and with their accompanying exhibition which I’ve reviewed for Northern Soul – they are demonstrating their relevance to the modern day and that they still have the skills to collect and interpret wars in our lifetime.

Programming about contemporary conflict reminds us of the value of museums, collecting things and presenting them to the public, not only to document our world, but also to help us reflect on our part in it.


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.

Could artificial intelligence curate an exhibition?

In Museums on March 16, 2016 at 7:20 pm

The computers are rising up and stealing our jobs.

They can drive our cars.

They can beat humans at Go (reputedly the most complicated board game in the world).

Computers control the light and water on our vegetables as they grow; they pick our orders from warehouses and they know when to send us special offers or reminders to go back to the gym.

With the roles of the driver, the game player, the farmer and the personal trainer all under threat from the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), I was wondering what other jobs and roles computers might replace in the future.

Museum staff already rely on computers in many ways. We use them to store information about objects in collection databases; to monitor environmental conditions; to design exhibitions and of course to communicate with the wider world.

But could a computer do the job of a curator? Could a computer with AI put an exhibition together?

So much of the exhibition-making process is digitised. A computer could quite easily scan a database of objects or artworks and pick out a selection to put on display. Whether it chose them at random, or if it looked for something specific would be up for debate.

In a world, probably not too far away, AI could look at the facebook profiles of everyone who follows a specific museum and identify a trend in their activity – then look back at the collection and find some objects that are related to that trend. A computer could filter the objects to make sure they are all available for display or all in a certain format. It could probably make a suggestion as to how the items might be ordered in an object list and then, with the information in the database, come up with a piece of text about each one.

(Of course, the data in database is only ever going to be as good as that which has been entered by a person, but indulge my whimsy for a moment here.)

Space-planning software is quite widely used nowadays, so a computer could use AI could easily arrange the objects on a plan of the exhibition gallery so that people could actually see them.

Whether AI could choose an appropriate colour for the walls, generate a marketing campaign, put together a public programme of events or select which canapes to serve on the opening night are all still debatable.

But surely some aspect of the curatorial process – the part that many might argue is the most important – could potentially be handed over to the AI overlords, when they rule the planet. Humans will simply need to turn up to put the pictures on the walls and open the champagne.

This is of course fanciful thinking for the moment, but I wonder if anyone is ready to run a simulation of this yet? And are they brave enough to let a computer with AI free on their collection?

The results would be really interesting to see … or they could be terrifying. What if AI comes up with better ideas for exhibitions that we do?!

Looking at objects … and my phone

In Museums on March 21, 2014 at 10:02 am

The other day I found myself alone in a museum (not that strange a thing in my line of work). I was having such a great time that I decided to share my experience with some friends and colleagues. It seemed like a good time to show people what I was looking at and explain how I was feeling about it.

I got my phone out and took some pictures of the objects and exhibition in front of me. After sending an image to a few friends via text I also tweeted it and placed it on Instagram. I emailed my parents something I thought they’d like too. Before long I had created a Vine video, updated my Facebook status, checked myself in at the museum online and sent a Snapchat of a gallery interactive exhibits to a a few mates.

Then I realised I’d spent 15 minutes looking at my phone and not at objects or displays.

There’s been quite a bit in the heritage press recently about people enjoying the genuine article – we know from visitor research the seeing the real thing, however insignificant it might look, is a big driver for learning and social outcomes. Museums are encouraged to create experiences where their visitors can engage directly with real objects, and I’m a big supporter of this. Telling stories using objects is a large part of my job, after all.

But then I suppose museums also have a role to communicate in an increasingly diverging online world, where social media can compliment our visits and experiences. So I don’t feel bad that I locked myself in to my phone for a while.

Spreading the word about great objects and displays is worthwhile. But don’t forget to keep on looking at objects.

Plymtouh History Centre aims high

In Museum [Insider], Museums on February 12, 2014 at 1:30 pm

Councillors in Plymouth believe that by investing in a new history-themed visitor attraction, they will attract new visitors and business to the city.

The council intends for Plymouth History Centre (name to be confirmed) to bring to life the city’s rich history and tell the stories of some of their legends and heroes such as Scott, Darwin and Drake.

They claim the ‘not to be missed’ attraction will open by January 2018 and will cost in the region of £21 million. And more than just historical storytelling, they hope the new initiative will attract more visitors, create local jobs and boost the city’s economy.

We see a lot of projects coming along in the museum and heritage sector with high ambitions. I was recently working on a project which had the aim of being ‘the best museum in the world’. But what are these claims worth? Is it just hot air to get funders to agree to give you a load of cash so you can build it? Perhaps I’m battle hardened by working on these projects, but I wonder if they really have the power to make good their ambitions and create something truly different and novel in a sector already saturated with ‘new’ projects.

I truly hope the people at Plymouth prove me wrong and this is one of the greatest museums we see built in the next few years. Good luck to them!

Museum advent calendar

In Museums, Uncategorized on December 24, 2013 at 4:46 pm

Today is Christmas Eve. Throughout December I’ve been adding objects from museums around the world to my #museumxmas advent calendar on twitter. I thought I’d pull them all together into one place here.

Happy Christmas!

1 Dec: In 1843, Henry Cole, director of V&A sent the world’s first Christmas card
2 Dec: Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! A piece of snowflake obsidian from the National Museum of Scotland
3 Dec: The Adoration of the Magi by Mantegna from the Getty Museum, CA
4 Dec: Christmas decorations from Mexico and Russia at the Horniman Museum, London
5 Dec: 1950s Christmas card from a Liverpool sweet factory from the Museum of Liverpool
6 Dec: An awesome, if slightly terrifying, C19th bauble from Brooklyn Museum, NY
7 Dec: Japanese snow scenes by Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Hokusai (1760-1849) from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
8 Dec: Feliz Navidad! A 1969 photo of Christmas at the Plaza Mayor, from the Reina Sofia, Madrid
9 Dec: The reindeer are getting ready for their massive delivery round. Here’s a 13000-year-old one from the British Museum, London
10 Dec: Some festive objects from the U.S.S.R. from the Wende Museum, CA
11 Dec: David Shrigley is definitely not scared of Santa. Or so he says in this 1996 artwork in Tate, London
12 Dec: A festive photo from the National Railway Museum, York
13 Dec: A beautiful, if expensive bauble from London Transport Museum
14 Dec: Front cover of 1995 xmas NME, strangely in Seattle Art Museum, WA
15 Dec: Christmas Day 1916. British officers enjoy turkey and champagne in a mess tent. Photograph from Imperial War Museum, London
16 Dec: Christmas cake decoration (Santa drove a car!?) from Te Papa, New Zealand
17 Dec: ‘The Santa Klaus Murder’ a novel in which Santa gets murdered! Available from the British Library shop
18 Dec: Do you have as many Christmas cards as this chap from 1960s Hong Kong from the Ashmolean, Oxford
19 Dec: A 1837 snowy scene from St Alban’s Museum, Herts
20 Dec: The Spruce Bark Beetle eats Christmas trees! Make sure you haven’t got one on yours by checking in at the Natural History Museum, London
21 Dec: A charming xmas card from 1903, showing that little boys and girls have never really got on from Castle Drogo, Devon
22 Dec: Tree-shaped Spode ceramics for Christmas from the Spode Museum, Stoke-on-Trent
23 Dec: The Reverend Christmas Evans 1766-1838 (what a wonderful name) immortalised in pottery at the Wedgwood Museum, Stoke-on-Trent
24 Dec: The famous Met Christmas Tree, complete with nativity scene tree from the Metropolitan Museum, NY

. c/o @Wedgwood_Museum #museumxmas
To conclude the #museumxmas advent calendar,  Merry Christmas!

Watching visitors

In Museums on October 22, 2013 at 8:39 am

I’ve been doing quite a bit of visitor-watching recently.

As a cultural and heritage audience researcher I try to use as many different methodologies for understanding visitors. We do obvious things like interviews, focus groups, online surveys etc. But we also watch what people do – either by counting them, observing their behaviour or looking at CCTV. And recently I also did a day of participant observation, where I played the role of a visitor for an entire day and watched what people around me are doing.

Watching visitors is, of course, great fun. It’s legitamised snooping, really. But it also tells us so much about what visitors do and think. We might set out to find out which are the busiest areas of a building, or how long people dwell in one space. But we end up finding out things we didn’t expect to learn, which makes it all the more interesting and all the more fun.

When we put all this data together, along with some qualitative findings, we end up creating a sense of how a building operates, how people understand it, where the blockage points are and how they might be remedied. It’s a great health check for your building, to find out how people use it. So go and watch them and see what they’re doing!

“Visitors think …”

In Museums on June 4, 2013 at 11:14 am

You’d be surprised the number of times I hear that phrase.

Some curators I work with will happily tell me that visitors think x, y or z, or that they visitors expect to see certain objects on display. But how do they know what visitors really think? They’re locked away in their dusty storerooms, looking after collections, right? Wrong.

We know that the most successful exhibition content in museums and galleries is designed with the visitor in mind. And so, in recent years, it has become best practice for cultural institutions to undertake research with their visitors – members of the public, carefully selected to help us understand what’s going on in their minds when they are in museums.

Sometimes I help out museums, galleries or heritage bodies with this kind of research. We undertake front end testing – that is finding out what kinds of exhibitions or content people might like to see on display. This is a really useful – and important – process, informing what we plan for the future.

Once ideas are in progress and an exhibition is being developed we might do some formative testing – this is the point where we take ideas that are almost ready and show them to a representative sample of the public who we expect to visit. This is a chance to fine-tune the exhibition and make sure it’s suited to the audience’s needs.

And once the exhibition is open we can also undertake summative evaluation. This involves finding out what people who have seen the display think of it. It’s great when they say they liked it, but if they do, then why? And if not, why not?

It’s all with the aim of making better exhibitions in the future. We find out what doesn’t work and change it. We find out what works and try to replicate more of that.

We do it through a load of different techniques – from traditional focus groups and exit surveys (the person loitering with a clipboard – or nowadays iPad – at the exhibition exit) to telephone interviews and audience forums. We arrange for online questionnaires and sometimes even take part in focussed observations – legitamised snooping on visitors in exhibitions.

Taking part in research can be quite good fun – it gives people a chance to see behind-the-scenes in a cultural institution and sometimes to hear about exhibition well before they are made public. And importantly, it’s a chance to make sure that exhibitions are as relevant to the public as possible.

Exhibition of the Year 2012

In Awards, Museums on December 31, 2012 at 11:43 am

It’s time for the much coveted (actually not at all coveted) temporary exhibition of the year award.

I think it’s important that we take time to celebrate museums and exhibitions off the beaten track – the nationals and the large independent museums in the UK get the lion’s share of the funding and also the majority of the press attention. So it’s important to make sure that places which aren’t in the limelight as much get their fair share of the glory.

But that said, I’ve got to be honest when it comes to my favourite exhibitions of the last year and I’m afraid my top three were all large, expensive shows in national museums in London. What can you do?

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, National Gallery
The NG asked Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger (with The Royal Ballet) to respond to three Titian paintings – Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon and the recently acquired Diana and Callisto – which depict stories from Ovid’s epic poem ‘Metamorphoses’. The three paintings, displayed in the middle of the exhibition space, were brought together on display for the first time since the 1700s.

It’s brave of the National to bring contemporary art to their audience, but it really worked as a project and as an exhibition piece.

Shakespeare: staging the world, British Museum
Much more than an exhibition about Shakespeare and much more than an exhibition about the world he lived in, this display brought together extracts from the texts we all know (and plenty we don’t!) with real objects of all shapes and sizes to create a seamless narrative. I left feeling like I understood Shakespeare’s London and his world much better.

Plus, like the NG they worked in collaboration with a performance art organisation – the Royal Shakespeare Company – to create some new interpretations of classic Shakespeare soliloquies. Great stuff.

Hollywood Costume, V&A
What a show-stopper. From the moment you walk in the door, it’s a visual treat.

I know it’s a bit cliché to like this exhibition as everyone is talking about it. But that’s because it’s just so brilliant.

I tend to get a bit tired in V&A exhibitions as they are often huge – and the last room tends to have some dresses in it, displayed in a glass box. Gone are the frocks. Gone are the display cases – and here are dozens – perhaps hundreds?? – of costumes from movies that we all know and love on open display.

The V&A have pushed the boat out interpretively as well – the exhibition has its own soundtrack and there are some impressive interpretive techniques that I will certainly be pinching to put in other exhibitions before very long.
I won’t give the whole game away as the exhibition is still open – until 27 January. Go see.

Happy New Year all.
Here’s to another year of great exhibitions in 2013 …

Museum of the Year 2012

In Awards on December 25, 2012 at 9:22 am

Now for my favourite annual award – the best museum I’ve visited for the first time in the preceding twelve months.

This year I travelled to the Dordogne region of France for a wedding and went to some of the prehistoric cave systems, with the paintings which have lasted for thousands – even tens of thousands of years. The durability of these paintings is astonishing, but I’m afraid the museums and guided tours there that we experienced are a bit shabby, so they won’t be making it into my final list.

Certainly the most eye-opening trip of the year – and possibly the decade – was our visit to North Korea in April. Again, is doesn’t seem like museology has reached Pyongyang as the few museums we visited weren’t up to much. But in the world’s most secretive state where they can’t afford to feed their people, I’ll let them off some poorly interpreted objects.
Instead, my three favourite museums this year are all chosen for the quality of the visit, as well as the museums themselves.

2012 Runner up:
The new Museum of Liverpool is a striking building, on the river and prominently displayed next to the city’s three graces.

In places this museum could be described as design over content – the interpretation of objects is much more obvious than the objects themselves – but that’s not to say it’s bad. Quite the opposite – they have created a multi-layered, multi-dimensional museum experience which is easy to access and understand. And it does was every local museum strive to do, yet rarely achieves – it celebrated its locality.

This is a truly scouse experience for a proud city and well worth a visit.

2012 winner:
My favourite museum this year is the Musee de la chasse et de la nature (the Museum of hunting and nature) in Paris.

Whether you’re a fan of blood sports or a card-carrying member of the anti-hunt lobby, there is something for you in this carefully curated and beautifully constructed installation museum in the heart of the Marais. Rather than simply telling a story of man’s interaction with nature and how he has killed plenty of things over the years, this museum takes a creative look at the interaction between animal and human. Taxidermy is displayed tastefully and humourously. Objects which may inflict pain are juxtaposed with modern art. And there’s a massive stuffed bear, which nobody can complain about.

Look out for the room of dogs, the owl room and the space devoted to hunting where the animals dominate and take precedence over the guns.

Very clever.