A box, an object, several hundred conversations
By Celine West, on 11 November 2011
After months of design meetings, discussions about materials, worries about portability, and hiccups during fabrication, our new outreach “pod” is finished. The designers call it a portable gallery, and that’s probably the best description. As you can see from the photos here, it has a mirrored interior, creating the feel of an infinite space. It’s 2.2mx2.2m inside but does feel much bigger. At the same time, it does what we wanted and creates an intimate and immersive environment, where people come in and immediately forget what’s going on outside.
The exterior is a giant cardboard box, with the words “the thing is…” wrapping around it. We called it “the thing is…” because that phrase pops up with incredible frequency in conversations, especially discussions where people are thinking of new points as they go along, which is something we wanted to happen inside the box. And this museum space is all about conversation, especially asking people to engage with more difficult or challenging ideas than they would if left to wander through a museum on their own.
“The thing is…” launched at the Bloomsbury Festival a couple of weeks ago and it was a resounding hit. We squeezed twice as many people inside at a time as we had intended, sometimes 6 of us were gathered round the lightbox podium on which one of our museum objects rested when it wasn’t being passed around. We had to chuck people out after 10 minutes, as they were so drawn into conversations about the object and there was a queue of people waiting to come in. I had thought we would have about a 65% hit rate, that is, of all the people coming in, 6 or 7 out of every 10 would fully engage and talk about issues surrounding the objects. On the two days we spent in Russell Square, it was over 90% and it was thrilling to be part of so many thought-provoking conversations. I was on a high by Saturday evening and if I hadn’t been dead tired from the practicalities of packing, lifting, carrying all the parts of this large heavy box from UCL down to the festival site, I’d have wanted to stay all night.
People wanted to talk, they wanted to hear about the object in the beginning but once they had picked a card with a question on it that sparked discussion, they really wanted to talk. Everyone had an opinion on all sorts of aspects of museum practice, such as how they felt about things being removed from burial sites, or how we present objects in a contemporary setting, or taxidermy.
They were often inspired to tell their own stories, such as the women who, in response to seeing a necklace from our Archaeology Collections, told me all about their love for jewellery and what meanings it has for them, and how they feel as human beings we’re attracted to symmetry and pattern. Such as a young man who knew all about the historical period that the necklace was from, who talked about how he hadn’t paid any attention at school, only since he was free to learn what he wanted had he discovered that this was his passion. Such as the people who couldn’t believe that a rock could be fascinating but had to be almost dragged out of the box to make way for others, who came out saying how brilliant it had been to focus on one object and talk with someone from the museum.
“The thing is…” will be up again soon, in the Wilkins Building at UCL – follow us on Twitter @UCLMuseums or see our Facebook page for dates.