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News and musings from the UCL Culture team


The Portability Question

By Celine West, on 26 August 2011

As I posted on here some time ago, we have a new way of doing outreach in development. A pop-up kind of kiosk that one or two people can visit at a time, with a member of museum staff and one object inside, with the aim of having a much more intense discussion about the object than in our usual outreach sessions, and, more so, issues connected to it. We’re calling it “The Thing Is…”

The kiosk (not the right word but I’m not sure what the right word is: in practice it’s a very large box, beautiful inside) is going to be a great space in which to work, and it will do its job creating an immersive environment in which people can experience something different from any other encounter with museum objects.

But, this week I’ve had worries, doubts and general collywobbles about its portability.

We have been doing outreach for a considerable amount of time now, over a decade. For all that time we have used what we call loan boxes, though this is a bit of a misnomer as they are not all available for loan and for a long time were predominantly used in outreach run by our staff not in loans to schools.

The boxes look like this –

UCL Archaeology loan box

They are metal camera equipment cases, the insides filled with conservation foam which is cut to hold objects snugly and safely in place. There are variations – some boxes are bigger than others, some have more internal packing. But the idea is the same: a box that can be used to transport museum objects securely from one place to another, by one person using public transport, with enough in there to teach a class of 30 children.

As I say, we’ve done it this way for a long time now, and we have had a lot of positive feedback in that time. We continue to offer this kind of outreach to a select list of schools.

We have worked with some great designers on the new format (the “kiosk”) and they’ve done their best but of course there had to be compromises. Balancing ease of use-portability-stability-putting up-taking down has been very hard. We agreed early on that whatever we had would be transported in a car or van and that we were happy to have two members of staff with it. But I still had (unrealistic-bordering-on-dreamy) visions of being able to pack up my new pod (see, the fact that this is what I’ve been calling it that shows how whimsical one can be) into a wheelie box and go merrily trotting all over our fair city.

There is to be a wheelie box. This will contain vital parts needed for erecting the kiosk/box. There will also be multiple side panels, a roof, a battery pack for lights, a stepladder for reaching up to put on the roof, plastic sheeting, and the museum object itself.

This has given me pause for thought. The ends justify the means, I said to myself when I realised that portable was perhaps not quite the word any more. It will be a great experience, once we’re ensconced somewhere and have people coming in, who will be wowed by the space and be caught up in the story of the object and the myriad subjects that surround it. And it is portable, transportable, and it will be easy to put up once I’ve had a practice and have a willing and good-tempered assistant (n.b. do contact me if the idea of helping out at various events over the coming months appeals, there will even be some pay for this). It will just take more trips to and from the van than I dreamed of, and more swearing (from me).

What’s important is that we try and see what happens. We’re ready to do something new with outreach, no matter if it is somewhat more cumbersome than I originally hoped.

Let me not forget that I have met a number of museum people over the years who couldn’t even conceive of what I used to do, to them it seemed so hassle-full and too much effort: carrying heavy boxes on the Underground and walking through the rain with them to get to a school, being up early to get there in time for the first lesson, having lunch alone in a cold staffroom, just in order to bring the delights of handling actual skulls or Egyptian amulets or volcanic glass to a class of London kids. We’ve met several thousand young people each year through this kind of outreach, nearly all of them pleased to have had the experience, so perhaps I should think about the people who’ll be coming to “The Thing Is…” for a bit, rather than the practicalities.

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