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Question of the Week: What’s this Museum For?

By Hannah L Wills, on 19 October 2017

By Hannah Wills

 

 

A couple of weeks ago, whilst engaging in the Grant Museum, I started talking to some secondary school students on a group visit to the museum. During their visit, the students had been asked to think about a number of questions, one of which was “what is the purpose of this museum?” When asked by some of the students, I started by telling them a little about the history of the museum, why the collection had been assembled, and how visitors and members of UCL use the museum today. As we continued chatting, I started to think about the question in more detail. How did visitors experience the role of museums in the past? How do museums themselves understand their role in today’s world? What could museums be in the future? It was only during our discussion that I realised quite how big this question was, and it is one I have continued to think about since.

What are UCL museums for?

The Grant Museum, in a similar way to both the Petrie and Art Museums, was founded in 1828 as a teaching collection. Named after Robert Grant, the first professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at UCL, the collection was originally assembled in order to teach students. Today, the museum is the last surviving university zoological museum in London, and is still used as a teaching resource, alongside being a public museum. As well as finding classes of biology and zoology students in the museum, you’re also likely to encounter artists, historians and students from a variety of other disciplines, using the museum as a place to get inspiration and to encounter new ideas. Alongside their roles as spaces for teaching and learning, UCL museums are also places for conversation, comedy, film screenings and interactive workshops — a whole host of activities that might not have taken place when these museums were first created. As student engagers, we are part of this process, bringing our own research, from a variety of disciplines not all naturally associated with the content of each of the museums, into the museum space.

 

A Murder-Mystery Night at the Grant Museum (Image credit: Grant Museum / Matt Clayton)

A Murder-Mystery Night at the Grant Museum (Image credit: Grant Museum / Matt Clayton)

 

What was the role of museums in the past?

Taking a look at the seventeenth and eighteenth-century roots of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the British Museum in London, it is possible to see how markedly the role and function of the museum has changed over time. These museums were originally only open to elite visitors. The 1697 statues of the Ashmolean Museum required that ‘Every Person’ wishing to see the museum pay ‘Six Pence… for the Space of One Hour’.[i] In its early days, the British Museum was only open to the public on weekdays at restricted times, effectively excluding anyone except the leisured upper classes from attending.[ii]

Another feature of these early museums was the ubiquity of the sense of touch within the visitor experience, as revealed in contemporary visitor accounts. The role of these early museums was to serve as a place for learning about objects and the world through sensory experience, something that, although present in museum activities including handling workshops, tactile displays, and projects such as ‘Heritage in Hospitals’, is not typically associated with the modern visitor experience. Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1683-1784), a distinguished German collector, recorded his visit to Oxford in 1710, and his handling of a range of museum specimens. Of his interactions with a Turkish goat specimen, Uffenbach wrote, ‘it is very large, yellowish-white, with… crinkled hair… as soft as silk’.[iii] As Constance Classen has argued, the early museum experience resembled that of the private ‘house tour’, where the museum keeper, assuming the role of the ‘gracious host’, was expected to offer objects up to be touched, with the elite visitor showing polite and learned interest by handling the proffered objects.[iv]

Aristocratic visitors handle objects and books in a Dutch cabinet of curiosities, Levinus Vincent, Illustration from the book, Wondertooneel der Nature - a Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammern in Holland. c. 1706-1715 (Image credit: Universities of Strasbourg)

Aristocratic visitors handle objects and books in a Dutch cabinet of curiosities, Levinus Vincent, Illustration from the book, Wondertooneel der Nature – a Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammern in Holland. c. 1706-1715 (Image credit: Universities of Strasbourg)

 

How do museums think about their function today?

In understanding how museums think about their role in the present, it can be useful to examine the kind of language museums employ when describing visitor experiences. The British Museum regularly publishes exhibition evaluation reports on its website, detailing visitor attendance, identity, motivation and experience. These reports are fascinating, particularly in the way they classify different visitor types and motivations for visiting a museum. Visitor motivations are broken down into four categories: ‘Spiritual’, ‘Emotional’, ‘Intellectual’ and ‘Social’, with each connected to a different type of museum function.[v]

Those who are driven by spiritual motivations are described as seeing the museum as a Church — a place ‘to escape and recharge, food for the soul’. Those motivated by emotion are understood as searching for ‘Ambience, deep sensory and intellectual experience’, the role of the museum being described as akin to that of a spa. For the intellectually motivated, the museum’s role is conceptualised as that of an archive, a place to develop knowledge and conduct a ‘journey of discovery’. For social visitors, the museum is an attraction, an ‘enjoyable place to spend time’ where facilitates, services and welcoming staff improve the experience. Visitors are by no means homogenous, their unique needs and expectations varying between every visit they make, as the Museum’s surveys point out. Nevertheless, the language of these motivations reveals how museum professionals and evaluation experts envisage the role of the modern museum, a place which serves multiple functions in line with what a visitor might expect to gain from the time they spend there.

What will the museum of the future be like?

In an article published in Frieze magazine a couple of years ago, Sam Thorne, director of Nottingham Contemporary, invited a group of curators to share their visions on the future of museums. Responses ranged from the notion of the museum as a ‘necessary sanctuary for the freedom of ideas’, to more dystopian fears of increased corporate funding and the museum as a ‘business’.[vi] These ways of approaching the role of the museum are by no means exclusive; there are countless other ways that museums have been used, can be used, and may be used in the future. My thinking after the conversation I had in the Grant Museum focussed on my own research and experience with museums, but this is a discussion that can and should be had by everyone — those who work in museums, those who go to museums, and those who might never have visited a museum before.

 

What do you think a museum is for? Tweet us @ResearchEngager or come and find us in the UCL museums and carry on the discussion!

 

References:

[i] R. F. Ovenell, The Ashmolean Museum 1683-1894 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 87.

[ii] Fiona Candlin has written on the class politics of early museums, in “Museums, Modernity and the Class Politics of Touching Objects,” in Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling, ed. Helen Chatterjee, et al. (Oxford: Berg, 2008).

[iii] Zacharias Konrad von Uffenbach, Oxford in 1710: From the Travels of Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, trans. W. H. Quarrell and W. J. C. Quarrell (Oxford: Blackwell, 1928), 28.

[iv] Constance Classen, “Touch in the Museum,” in The Book of Touch, ed. Constance Classen (Oxford Berg, 2005), 275.

[v] For this post I took a look at ‘More than mummies A summative report of Egypt: faith after the pharaohs at the British Museum May 2016’, Appendix A: Understanding motivations, 27.

[vi] Sam Thorne, “What is the Future of the Museum?” Frieze 175, (2015), accessed online.

The wonderful world of primate poo (and why it really matters)

By Catryn Williams, on 17 August 2017

As a biology PhD student, I’ll be the first to admit that there are some studies in science that, whilst interesting, can leave you questioning who comes up with these and why they (and we) should care so much.  If you, like me, are the kind of person who loves these kinds of things, the list of past Ig Nobel prize winners is a cornucopia of great examples.  Often, though, all it takes is delving a little deeper to find the importance in what seems like a pointless topic.  My PhD involves collecting primate poo samples to look at their gut bacteria, and so does occasionally elicit the classic and very valid question: “But what’s the point of it?” from people, so I thought for this week’s blog post I’d try and answer exactly that.

Primates are our closest relatives and, in fact, your closest relatives are also primates, as are you yourself.  We’ve known about the anatomical similarities between humans and other, non-human primates for hundreds of years.  The Grant Museum of Zoology plays host to what used to be a teaching collection for doctors studying at UCL, where the bones and structures of animals from non-human primates to fish would be studied to understand how our own bodies developed from the ancestors we shared with other organisms.  Then, in the 1980s, with the birth of molecular sequencing techniques, we gained the ability to study the DNA of animals.  From this we began to understand just how closely related to other primates we really are, leading us to the famous fact that we are 98% genetically identical to chimpanzees, our closest relative.

ChimpanzeeSkeleton

A juvenile chimpanzee skeleton from the Grant Museum of Zoology, accession number Z449

The next big step, in my (admittedly, probably biased) opinion, in our understanding of the human body and how it works has been our realisation that gut bacteria are hugely important to human health and disease.  We might tend to think of bacteria as harmful or infectious, but actually the bugs that live in your intestine are a normal part of a healthy human body.  They outnumber our own cells 10 to 1, making us 90% bacteria in terms of cell numbers alone (although our own cells are much larger, which is why by mass we’re still mostly human), break down parts of our food that we ourselves can’t digest and even provide us with many hormones (such as 90% of our serotonin, the “happiness” hormone).  In addition, gut bacteria has lately been linked to everything from keeping us lean or helping to make us obese, to maintaining normal bowel functions or exacerbating conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.

So where do non-human primates come into this?  Well, as with the Grant Museum’s collection all those years ago, it’s nothing new to study our relatives in order to understand more about ourselves.  While understanding the gut bacteria of primates across the whole primate evolutionary tree lets us take a look at how gut bacteria have evolved alongside us to create a mutualistic relationship, primates in particular are a very interesting group of animals.  Within the Primate Order there is huge variation in the ways that these animals live their lives, and it is by considering these differences that we can begin to understand how the variations between different human lifestyles affect our gut bacteria and so our health.  For example, by comparing primates that eat mostly vegetation to species that eat fruit or meat or even gum like lorises, we can start to ask questions about how much our diet affects what bacteria can survive in the gut.  Looking at animals that are highly social, such as chimpanzees or baboons, vs. those that are mostly solitary creatures such as bushbabies can tell us how gut bacteria is spread and shared between individuals, communities and even between different species living in the same area (this is not as crazy as you think – humans have been found to share skin bacteria with their pet dogs).

Primate species, diet and social structure are all thought to be important in determining an animal's gut bacteria

Primate species, diet and social structure are all thought to be important in determining an animal’s gut bacteria. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0 1.0

But it’s not just ourselves that we can learn things about when we study non-human primates.  One large aspect of my PhD looks at how life in captivity affects the gut microbiomes of primates.  Whilst life in captivity is not ideal for any animal, raising them in zoos and centres can have benefits for endangered species.  Studying the gut bacteria has the potential to offer suggestions on how we might be able to enrich the diets of captive animals to ensure they maintain healthy gut bacteria whilst living in zoos.  Furthermore, by looking at what nutrients are necessary to keep a healthy set of bacteria, we might be able to start thinking about conservations issues such as which plants are highly important to conserve alongside these endangered animals.

So, I hope I’ve convinced you that gut bacteria are important, that my area of research has the potential to be of great help, and above all, that primate poo is a great thing to study.

Should human remains be displayed in museums?

By Julia R Deathridge, on 28 March 2017

If you have ever visited the Petrie Museum you are unlikely to have missed the man buried in a pot. In the past the pragmatic scientist in me had just regarded this as a skeleton in a pot; spending most of my time studying it to see how many of the different human bones I could still name from my undergraduate anatomy class (not that many it turns out!). However, a group of visiting American college students made me think about it differently. They were discussing the use of human remains in museum collections, their purpose, and the importance of displaying them respectfully. This opened up an interesting debate: how should human remains be displayed and should they even be displayed at all?

Pot burial from Hemamieh, near the village of Badari UC14856-8

Pot burial from Hemamieh, near the village of Badari. UC14856-8

In the past human remains were regularly collected from excavation sites and displayed in museum cases with little thought put into the person that they once were. However, feelings towards the use of human remains in the UK have begun to change in recent years. In 2005 the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) released a “Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums” outlining a code of practice for the handling and displaying of human remains. Consequently, human remains have been given a unique status within collections and are no longer treated as objects.

Repatriation of human remains has also become more common with many indigenous communities requesting the return of their ancestors. Since 1996 both the UK and Australian governments have been committed to the return of indigenous remains to Australia and New Zealand. Over 1000 remains have been returned including 13 skulls and one limb, which were repatriated from UCL in 2007.

A display that has caused a large amount of controversy is the skeleton of “The Irish Giant” Charles Byrne. To avoid being dissected and used for medical research, Charles Byrne requested to be buried at sea. His request was ignored and his skeleton currently resides in a cabinet at the Huntarian Museum. Many have advocated for the return of his bones from the Huntarian allowing his burial wishes to be fulfilled. The Huntarian Museum, however, claim there is no direct evidence of his burial wishes and the educational benefits he provides to living and future generations of visitors is of greater value.

This brings up another important question: Does the educational benefit of human remains outweigh the rights of the dead? Human remains are an important teaching tool for anthropology and archaeology and are vital to the study of medical sciences. Use of human remains in exhibitions can also greatly stimulate a learning experience, allowing a much stronger connection to the culture that is being represented. A survey by English Heritage showed that only 9% of people opposed the display of human bones in museums suggesting there is still high demand for public display of human remains in museums. However, museums must be careful to utilise human remains in an appropriate context in order to educate rather than just to attract audiences.

Charles Byrne's skeleton on display in the Huntarian Museum. Photo credit: CC image courtesy of Paul Dean

Charles Byrne’s skeleton on display in the Huntarian Museum. Photo credit: CC image courtesy of Paul Dean

Many people do not consider the ethical issues of how the dead should be displayed in a collection until they are asked: what if that was your grandfather or great-great grandmother? Would you still consider this respectful? However, for many of the ancient human remains collected, including the man buried in the pot, their ancestry has been lost and we cannot know how their descendants, or they themselves, would feel about how their body is being used in the name of education. Although admittedly it is hard to argue that this is what the ancient Egyptians would have wanted.

In our current legal system we rely on our family and loved ones to carry out our burial wishes. But in their absence we too would have no control over this, much like the ancient Egyptians on display. I’m not sure I would be willing for my skeleton to be used to educate future generation about the irreversible impact mobile phones had on our postures and spines (I’m imagining my skeleton hunched over my iPhone whilst scrolling through Instagram). But others might feel differently.

As attitudes towards the displaying of human remains change, museum’s policies will have to adapt. Maybe in the future forms of consent will be required, similar to signing up for organ donation. But how many people will actually be willing to donate their bodies to museums? I guess only time will tell.

 

The value of ‘offline’ cultural heritage

By Kevin Guyan, on 19 September 2016

By Anna Rudnicka

SPF 50By Anna Rudnicka

Observing a small child approach a museum object and squeak with joy is perhaps the most rewarding part of working in UCL’s museums. I still remember how long it took for medieval kings to put on their Sunday best – just under an hour, apparently, at least in Central Europe – a fact I learnt during a primary school trip to the local castle. Children and adults tend to acquire knowledge more easily when the information is supported by ‘hands-on’ experience of handling or observing an object.

Nowadays, an increasing amount of culture consumption happens online. Will children go to castles in 20 years’ time? Or will they learn history solely from online textbooks and virtual reality tutorials? It has been argued that museums may struggle to compete with virtual reality. The speed with which technology progresses makes it difficult to speculate about the future of the heritage sector. For now, numerous heritage institutions have made an effort to create digital collections. Paintings, sculptures, old books and even historic houses are represented online in digital format – they are often videotaped, photographed or, in case of texts, transcribed. Then, linked by a theme or a story, they become collections. Because of the cost and time commitment required, institutions have been delegating some of these tasks to online volunteers. We are yet to understand how this may affect job prospects, or indeed the security of jobs for those currently employed within the sector.

Digital resources provide us with many new opportunities: we can discover art and historic objects from museums situated thousands of miles away, while sitting at the computer in our comfortable slippers. We benefit from speed of access and lower costs (no plane fare needed) even when conducting extensive online research. Finally, there is the advantage of flexibility. Themes and stories can take precedence over geographic location: objects stored or displayed in remote parts of the world are now only as far as a click or a swipe. We learn contextually.

Although popularity of digital resources could make them seem devoid of drawbacks, the number of British citizens that lack either Internet access or the IT skills required to perform searches in Internet databases, is still high. UCL’s Melissa Terras (Director of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and Professor of Digital Humanities in the Department of Information Studies) cautions that ‘digital’ does not equal ‘accessible’. It will take time for researchers to achieve a good understanding of what different social and age groups want, and need, form their experience of online heritage.

In the same way that most of us prefer to eat ice cream than to look at it, the experience of material – offline – heritage, can offer us some unique, irreplaceable benefits. Regular library users are more likely to report higher life satisfaction and better overall health. This finding remains valid when many other factors relevant for our wellbeing are controlled for. Learning opportunities afforded by visiting a museum can surpass those inside a classroom. A large study conducted at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has shown that a trip to the museum resulted in improved ability to think critically about art, and that this effect was particularly pronounced for students from underprivileged backgrounds.


“The experience of material – offline – heritage, can offer us some unique, irreplaceable benefits”


As reminded by Jones and Holden in their seminal pamphlet, we live in a material world. Interestingly, factors such as air pollution, high levels of UV radiation or presence of microbes, are detrimental both to materials that make up our heritage, and to our own health. Perhaps, if we paid more attention to conservation needs of heritage objects, it could result in improved environmental awareness? Since learning about the impact of UV radiation on paintings and other objects prone to fading of colours – I have been a lot more diligent in applying my SPF cream. I am also more interested in pro-environmental initiatives. While heavy Internet consumption may be a sign of the times, it is the material world and material heritage objects that illustrate the consequences of unsustainable behaviours.

Finally, the role of providing access to cultural heritage objects and collections goes beyond personal interests, entertainment, academic study or even the natural environment. By showing us how our ancestors lived, thought and created in the past, heritage institutions teach us the history of humanity. We learn about the things we all have in common, and we are exposed to mistakes that we can learn from. Material objects play a crucial role in educating about the Holocaust. It is their physical real-ness that provides us with an accurate insight into the course of events. Their tangibility and material form offer an experience that is very different from the glamorized version of Holocaust so often depicted by Hollywood or the Holocaust as a generalised concept surrounded by myths and inaccuracies.

Although providing us with new opportunities, online heritage collections are far from perfect: we still need unified description systems, databases that are easier to navigate, and a better understanding of people’s Internet behaviours. Digital heritage and cultural resources allow fast and cost-effective access to information, however, in their current shape and form, we cannot rely on them to provide equal access for all members of the society or to fulfil our duty of honouring the past. It is difficult to foresee the impact that the next few decades may have on the heritage sector, or whether technologies such as virtual reality might bridge the gap between online and offline collections. In the meantime, I encourage you to support your local libraries and museums, especially if they are affected by cuts in funding. You can do this by speaking to your local MP, or by joining an online campaign. The values of material cultural heritage – and the human interaction and learning opportunities afforded by trained staff – should not be taken for granted. My guess is, if we found them gone once we had unglued ourselves from our computers, we would not know how to do without them.

Anna works as a Student Engager and is currently conducting an experiment at UCL’s Octagon Gallery into fading. Anyone visiting the gallery is encouraged to take a photo of the colour chart and tweet it to @HeritageCitSci.

Research engager goes abroad

By Ann E M Liljas, on 7 September 2015

Ann

By Ann Liljas

 

Our research engager Ann has explored exhibitions about ancient Egypt in Rome and Dublin.

In the last few months I have been to Rome and Dublin. In Rome I visited the Vatican Museums which consists of several museums of which one is about ancient Egypt. In Dublin I spent a couple of hours at the National Museum of Ireland where visitors are introduced to ancient Egypt. In this blog post I present a couple of items on display at these two exhibitions. If you want to find out more, visit Petrie museum in London part of your preparations for your trip to Rome or Dublin.

One of the first things you get to explore when entering the Vatican Museums is the museum about ancient Egypt. It was founded by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839 and has several interesting shabtisartefacts for those interested in the complex civilisation of ancient Egypt. Highlights include statues, papyruses, animal mummies and reproductions of the Book of the Dead. During my visit I took a closer look at the collection of small statues called Shabtis. The word Shabti refers to “respond” or “answer” and these statues of adult male or female form were supposed to carry out tasks on behalf of a person in the afterlife such as heavy manual work. The Shabti figures on display vary in size and some are made of stone and others of wood. A sign next to them tells the visitor that they were wrapped in bandages like mummies and the number of shabtis in a burial could be as many as one for every day of the year. The use of shabtis increased over time but during the Ptolemaic Period the use of these statues gradually disappeared. Now, the good news is that you do not have to go all the way to Rome to see Shabtis as there are several of them on display at the Petrie museum in London.

The exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland includes four mummies, jewellery and other personal adornments portraying life and death in ancient Egypt. The collection consists imageof artefacts from several excavations throughout the Valley and Delta led by Flinders Petrie. I really liked a painted wooden model of a Nile boat with rowers and armed guard from c.1900 BC. The model was found in a tomb and boat models of different types were often included in Middle Kingdom tomb equipment. Boats were important as they were the swiftest and most reliable mode of transport and communication. In contrast to many other models found this one includes an armed man with speckled cowhide shield. An informative sign next to the model suggests it may be that he is the officer and the crew a troop of soldiers. Military features in burials around this time may reflect the civil wars of the First Intermediate Period which ended c. 2025 BC.

Have you been to any of these exhibitions or any other exhibition about ancient Egypt outside the UK? Share your experience with me and the other research engagers next time you visit Petrie museum. Research engagers are PhD students at UCL who regularly spend time at the museums speaking to visitors about their research. We are also interested in hearing your thoughts on the imagecollections as well as research at UCL. And we love when visitors ask us questions! Although we may not be experts on ancient Egypt as our field of study ranges from mechanical engineering to epidemiology, we will try our best to answer your questions. Questions that we think are interesting to share with others may be published here on our website. We look forward to speaking to you at your next visit.  

Question of the Week:

Why can’t I touch museum objects?

By Stacy Hackner, on 19 August 2015

DSC_0745By Stacy Hackner

For humans, touch is an important way to gain information about an object. We can tell if something is soft or hard, heavy or light, smooth or rough or fluffy, pliable, sharp, irregular. During my masters class on human dentition, I learned to identify teeth by touch to get around visual biases. We spent a significant amount of time touching objects in our environment, so we tend to get angry when museums tell us not to touch the objects.

I understand the desire to touch a piece of history. There’s a feeling of authenticity you get from holding something made by ancient people, and a sense of disappointment if you’re told the artifact is actually a replica. A British Museum visitor commented that “It was just lovely to know that you could pick something up that was authentic. It was just lovely to put your hands on something.” Another said “You do think sometimes when you’re looking in the cases, sometimes I’d like to pick that up and really look closely.”[i]

Even with “no touching” signs, museum visitors continue to touch things. Sometimes it’s by accident and sometimes they get a sneaky look on their faces, knowing they’re ignoring the signs; most often, they don’t realize what they’re doing is damaging the object.

Passive conservation of an object involves creating a stable environment so that the object can continue its “life” undisturbed. Sudden changes in humidity, temperature, and light can degrade the object. Touching it introduces dirt and oils from your skin onto its surface – the same way you’d leave fingerprints at a crime scene. Additionally, the oils can then attract dirt to linger, and acidic oils can also degrade metallic surfaces.

Yes, museum professionals handle objects for research purposes. However, we attempt to handle them as little as possible with clean hands and wear gloves when appropriate. This difference between museum staff and the public is also one of quantity: it’s ok if one person does it occasionally, but if everyone touches it on every visit, the grime adds up. In 2009, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford introduced a “touchometer” that counts how many people have touched an object made of various materials. As you can see in the image below, after nearly 8 million touches, the left half of the object is severely degraded. The stone (centre) has developed a patina, the metal (bottom) has become shiny, and the cloth (left) has entirely worn away. (Also, people have scratched the frame.)

The Ashmolean's Touchometer. Thanks to Mark Norman.

The Ashmolean’s Touchometer. Thanks to Mark Norman, the Ashmolean’s Head of Conservation.

If you walk through the British Museum’s gallery of Egyptian statuary, you can clearly see the areas on artifacts that people like to touch – the corners and public-facing edges of sarcophaguses are darker than the wall-facing edges, and anything round and protruding tends to have a sheen that takes years of painstaking work to remove (hands, feet, and breasts of statues at human height are particularly vulnerable).

Schoolchildren touch a sarcophagus. Credit: Sebastian Meyer for The Telegraph.

The Grant Museum has specific objects that can be handled, and UCL Museums have object-based learning programs to introduce students and specific groups to handling museum objects. [ii] Many other museums have touch tables or touch sessions where you can feel the weight of hand axes or porcupine quills. Don’t despair if you’re asked not to touch something in a museum – we’re not angry, we just want to make sure they’re preserved for future museum visitors to enjoy.

 

Sources

[i] Touching History: An evaluation of Hands On desks at The British Museum. 2008. Morris Hargreaves Mcintyre.

[ii] UCL Museums Touch & Wellbeing; Object-Based Learning

Conservation Advice – Handling Museum Objects. 2015. Southeast Museums.

National Gallery of Ireland Research Day

By Kevin Guyan, on 9 March 2015

Kevin GuyanBy Kevin Guyan

The Student Engagement project was the subject of a paper presented to an audience of museum and gallery professionals, researchers and members of the public at the National Gallery of Ireland Research Day on 6 March 2015.

The day’s theme was Conditions of Display: Research & Practice and preceded the reopening of the gallery in 2016, in which curators will make a number of decisions on rehanging and reimagining the collection.  It was therefore an ideal opportunity to share the ongoing link between researchers and public engagement taking place across UCL Museums and the possibilities the Student Engagement project presents for museums and galleries in both the UK and Ireland.

Artists and researchers from a number of UK and Irish universities and art colleges shared their experiences of devising, organising and interpreting exhibitions, as well as the public’s experience of these exhibitions once they go ‘live’.

Sean Rainbird, Director of the NGI, opened the day noting the need to consider the ‘physical experience of humans in space’ when thinking about museums and galleries.  Adding that this not only included the arrangement of space and objects but also the management of sound.

Gemma Tipton, known for her commentary on art, architecture and aspects of Irish culture for The Irish Times and regular contributions to TV and radio, raised interesting points about what the exterior of galleries say about the content within.  This instantly conjured up the very different entrances to the Grant Museum and Petrie Museum, and whether this shapes people’s interpretations of museum objects prior to their arrival in the museum.

Entrances to the Grant Museum (left) and Petrie Museum (right).

Entrances to the Grant Museum (left) and Petrie Museum (right).

Paul Green, PhD Candidate in the School of Art and Media at the University of Plymouth, shared the ongoing work of Cork’s South Presentation Heritage and the conversion of a convent into a public heritage site.  The need to ‘future proof’ the site so that it is ready for unforeseen uses and forms of engagements was insightful, as well as the involvement of design students in devising ways for the public to interact with the objects and space.

Mirjami Schuppert, PhD Candidate at Ulster University, examined the role of the curator in mediating artistic interventions.  She drew a distinction between ‘conventional curating’ and ‘contemporary curating’, which revolves around ‘creative authorship and discursive coproduction’, and expressed the need for those working with archives to give something back in return.

Saidhbhín Gibson, Masters in Fine Art-Sculpture Candidate at the National College of Art and Design, shared her artistic interventions in permanent collections at The Natural History Museum and The Lab, Dublin.  She also raised questions over the level of interpretation presented in museums, and the exciting possibilities that emerge when visitors are not given directions on how they should or should not understand an object on display.

Sabina MacMahon, Masters in Museum Studies Candidate at the University of Leicester, discussed her creation of the fictitious South Down Society of Modern Art and exhibition of its work.

Kevin Guyan concluded the day’s papers by sharing the case study of the Student Engagement project and how two-way discussions with visitors helped promote his work as well as reconsider views towards his own research.  He argued that curators should build strategies for engagement, like the Student Engagement project, into the planning of exhibitions and hanging of collections from the offset, as it brings a number of benefits for researchers and the public.

Conditions of Display

The Research Day discussed new ways to share collections.

A panel discussion followed that examined a number of these themes in further depth.  One person questioned the expandability of the Student Engagement project to larger, non-university spaces.  Though the focus of the project has thus far been UCL’s three campus museums, it seems likely that elements of this project could transfer to differently sized museums not linked to universities.  Another person asked whether this style of engagement was dependent on the layout of the museum space?  As Student Engagers report differing levels of success in different parts of UCL museums, environment undoubtedly plays a role in people’s willingness to converse.

People clustered afterwards to share their thoughts, both positive and negative, on the Student Engagement project.  A few audience members found the idea of a researcher approaching them when contemplating a painting or museum object an unwelcome idea, though admitted that others may enjoy this opportunity to share their opinion on the collection.  Others identified the two-way benefits of bringing researchers into the museum or gallery space and were excited by the project’s potential to serve as a training platform for students.  Expanding the skillset of PhD students, while also bringing into museums and galleries new methods of public engagement, interested many of those in attendance and it is hoped that elements of the work taking place at UCL appears in other museums and galleries.