By Nicholas J Booth, on 6 June 2013
Most of last week I was busy installing the new Octagon Gallery Exhibition, ‘Digital Frontiers: Smart, Connected and Participatory’, curated by Claire Ross from the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. The exhibition features a huge range of objects, from a tweeting doorstop (the ‘sheep-pig’) to a drawer of pinned beetles, however most of the objects have come from the UCL Engineering Collections. This is one of the collections I look after, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about what goes into the process of putting together one of UCL’s Octagon exhibitions.
The exhibition opened on Wednesday 5th June. However the first meeting happened back in September when all the curators and collections managers from the different UCL Museums and Collections get together with Claire to hear about her plans for the exhibition, and to initially brain storm about what we have in our collections that fit with the exhibition subject. This was harder for some collections than others, but happily was relatively easy for me.
After this initial meeting Claire met all the curators individually to discuss the exhibition and view possible objects, before going away and coming up with a long list of what she wants. In the case of the Engineering Collections it was a very long list…which is great! However this also means that there was a lot of work for me, and others, to do.
One of my main challenges was that Claire (understandably) wanted to know as much information about the objects as we could provide. Not only when she was choosing her objects, but also for the labels that she has had to write for each one. In most of the Science and Engineering Collections our object records are literally a few lines in the database, and many things (such as the ‘big egg’ from the last exhibition) are completely unrecognised, by me anyway. This meant that while trying to help Claire pin down her ideas and decide how she would interpret them, I was also having to furiously learn about what we had in the collections. This is a very good thing from a curatorial point of view, but did mean I had to answer a lot with ‘let me get back to you’. However I do know an awful lot about light bulbs now!
After Claire’s Initial list all the objects had to be checked to ensure that they were safe enough to be put on display for 6 / 7 months. This can sound a bit ridiculous – of course an object is going to be safe for a few months in a museum case. However there are a lot of things that need to be considered. For instance if it is made of paper will it fade? Does it have any damage that could get worse? Could it be a danger to any other objects!? At this time each object also needs to be assessed to see if it needs cleaning (most inevitably do) and if it will need a mount. Again most do.
Once this initial assessment has been completed and conservation / mounting requirements have been identified it’s then the curators job to make sure the objects get to the conservers and / or mount makers in time for them to carry out their work. Most of the objects chosen were in good condition, and so often only minor cleaning was required. However even this minor clean can mean several hours of a conservators time, depending on what the object is, so a couple of weeks at least are required for the work. Unfortunately for me most of the objects chosen for display were already on display elsewhere, so I had to try convince the conservators to do it as late as possible. Something which, understandably, they weren’t so happy about.
Throughout this time Claire has been writing her labels, having them checked, rewriting, rechecked, tweaking them…you get the idea. I have also been furiously trying to learn things for my self. Mostly light bulb facts.
Once the objects have been chosen, labels written, mounts made, objects cleaned, etc, it is time for the installation. Again a process that takes a lot longer than you would think!
It took two days to install the 30 Science and Engineering Objects (which included 10 light bulbs). This is because each one needs to be placed, moved to a different spot, mounted, replaced, turned slightly, the lights changed, moved again…and so on. There’s also certain rule’s that should be followed while this is going on, like if you are pinning something to the back case wall all the objects in front of this need to be moved (you cant lean over an object!). It’s funny but no matter how well you plan a case before hand, using computer graphics or old fashioned cut outs, it never looks the same once the objects are in there.
During the two days of installation I tried out an app on my phone, designed to show how far I moved over the day. I’m not sure how accurate it was, but I had myself clocked at having moved 12.07 miles in almost 6 hours on the Tuesday (1,266 calories) and 3.93 miles I just over 3 hours on the second day (482 calories). I had to move a lot between different store rooms, workshops and display galleries in UCL to collect the various objects, but I suspect that most of those miles were spent moving between the cases in the Octagon and rocking back and forth on my feet. Even if the data is inaccurate it should give you an idea of how much leg work is involved installing an exhibition.
I know that once I had finished installing ‘my’ objects it took another two days for Claire and two members of staff to install the objects form the other museums and collections around UCL. I imagine trying to deal with one curator is hard enough, let alone 6 or 7 of them! During this time Claire was also responsible for uploading the label text onto the digital rails.
All the condition checks, object movements, conservation treatments, loans and location updates have to be recorded through out the whole time. This has generated a stack of paperwork that is currently sitting in my inbox with a big note ‘to file’. I’m just building up to that now.
I would like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to Claire Ross for being an excellent curator to work with. ‘Digital Frontiers: Smart, Connected and Participatory’ runs until the end of the year. If you get a chance to visit you should, it’s excellent!
Nick is a Teaching and Research Curator at UCL.