Looking at Strange Creatures Seminar Day
By Dean W Veall, on 4 August 2015
Dean Veall here. Following on from the first blog in the series, Why do museums bother running events?, I’ thought I would work backward highlighting some of our events from the last year presenting them as case studies in an effort to better understand why we here at Team Grant bother running events. Many of our readers are fellow museum peoplpe and I thought our blog would be perfect space to share some of our practice, the lessons I’ve learnt as a practitioner in museum event programming as well as a more permenant record of the event.
The seminar day was the penultimate event of the series accompanying our Strange Creatures exhibition. Throughout the series we offered visitors the opportunity to engage with some of the themes of the exhibition through various different event formats from our open mic night Animal Showoff and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo film night, to straight up lecture, DINOSAURS! of Victorian London. The seminar was a foray into a programmed series of talks that offered a more academic take on the world of animal representation. It included perspectives of art from the historical to the contemporary with some zoology thrown in for good measure.
Looking at Strange Creatures Seminar Day
Saturday 13 June, 10am to 3.30pm
Strange Creatures was inspired by the display of George Stubbs’ painting of a kangaroo that was on loan to us from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. First up was Professor Markman Ellis, Head of the School of English and Drama, Queen Mary University of London who presented the kangaroo painting in a historical context. He described Cook and his crew’s experience of encountering this now iconic Australian animal as well as the impact the kangaroo had on shaping of people’s perceptions of Australia.
Museum Manager and exhibition curator Jack Ashby shared his own personal experience of encountering the fauna of Australia as well as the natural history and diversity of marsupials in general back in amongst the specimens in the Museum.
The seminar took a turn to the Medieval with Dr. Bob Mills from UCL History of Art as he presented his work on bestiaries. Bob shared his research on how the use of animal imagery was not purely driven by artistic representations but was used to convey political messages about the nature of Medieval societies.
Sarah Wade, a PhD student at UCL History of Art brought us back to the contemporary and how natural history museums are using contemporary craft and art to restore a sense of wonder into their spaces such as artist Ruth Marshall who was also featured in the exhibition.
The day finished with contemporary artist ATM sharing some of his ornithological work that has brought him much acclaim. ATM shared his passion for bringing the wonder and beauty of nature out of the gallery and onto the street and how he is using this work to raise awareness of the some of the rarest birds in the UK in order to inspire change.
Facts and figures
In total 55 people attended the seminar day, of which 35 had never attended an event here before, 67% were in the demographic 18-35, 14% 36-45 and 17% 45-66+. The total cost for the event was £596, which included the cost of the lunch and refreshments for the attendees, of which £134 was recouped in sales of 62 tickets at £3 (£2.17 once fees deducted).
As with our all our events we invite attendees to share their experiences of the day through a feedback form filled in at the end of the event. From the response, the experience was overwhelmingly positive with most people rating it as excellent or good. One of the strongest themes to come from the feedback was the multi-disciplinary nature of the event:
- Really lovely ‘cross-disciplinary’ variety.
- I really appreciated the connecting of different themes, times and attitudes
- Very varied programme; excellent talks and presentations just about right length.
We also invited people to offer suggestions for improvement which were constructive and will help shape future seminar days. They ranged from comments about the food, timing of the day, future events we could run and the event format.
- Top ups of coffee/hot water throughout the day
- It started a little too early for me
- A walking tour of ATM’s birds
- Perhaps more chance for discussion- didn’t have time to expand on some interesting points
Lessons from programming
Difficulty rating: 2/5 – a fairly easy event to programme with logistics of booking systems, processing payments, ordering catering, booking rooms and AV requirements taking up most of the time in the programming.
Looking to other institutions for examples
In terms of a format, a seminar day was new for us so I looked to other museums for inspiration for format for a seminar day such as the Natural History Museum’s Coral’s study day and The Whale – An Exploration seminar at the National Maritime Museum. Doing that helped shape our programme as there were common themes to those such as including an exhibition visit and adding a variety of voices such as artists to the discussion.
Finding speakers was relatively easy as we already had a number of researchers we could call upon who had co-curated the Strange Creatures exhibition, which left plenty of time to ask (or stalk via social media) street artist ATM if he would like to be involved.
The biggest challenge faced for this event was the marketing. Normally we might have been able to rely on the student population to attend this event as it was aimed at more informed members of the public, but it was the wrong time of year with the summer term having just ended. So promoting a whole day event billed as a ‘seminar’ was tricky especially as it wasn’t being picked up the free listings that would give us greater coverage such as Timeout, but a huge push that involved direct mail promotion to organisations who already programme events like this got as over the target of 50 attendees.
Would we run this type of event again? Possibly. The small ticket charge for the event was heavily subsidised by funding we received as part of the Traveller’s Tails project funded by National Maritime Museum, The Art Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, so any future seminar would probably require us to charge more, which might deter people from attending. However, it was a great format to engage at greater depth in some of the topics explored in the exhibition which some people have explicitly asked for in the past.
Dean Veall is Learning and Access Officer at the Grant Museum of Zoology.