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Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

The latest issue of the UK Museums Journal gives plenty of evidence of the impact budget cuts have on the museums and heritage sector.  English Heritage is about to shut down its entire (!) outreach department, the Victoria and Albert Museum has downgraded its post of Director of Learning and Interpretation to Head of Education (the sheer terminology of which representing a step backward), and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, whose functions are soon to be taken over by the Arts Council England, has served several museum development officers with risk of redundancy notices, thus jeopardising the forward development of many museums who might benefit from their support.

Of course, the fabric of the heritage, be it objects in museums or Britain’s famed castles, will still be preserved.  But without interpretation, without outreach and ongoing support for visitor programmes, who will care?

These cuts in the heritage sector go against everything that heritage legislation and recent policies have stipulated and recognised.  Even if we put aside that heritage is supposed to enhance our sense of identity (1990 ICOMOS Lausanne Charter) and help us lead balanced and complete lives (1975 European Charter of the Architectural Heritage), ensuring that people understand the importance of protecting our heritage is also called upon as an intrinsic part of gaining people’s support.

If the sector is no longer able to help people make a connection to their heritage, who will care about a museum stuffed full of objects?  Who will care about the pile of old stones on top of the hill?  Heritage is not in the fabric of things, it is in the hearts and minds of people.  And with these cuts, we are just about to wipe that heritage out.

I do know that every sector is worthy of support, and I know that the government and local councils are having to make tough decisions.  But to jeopardise our sense of heritage in my opinion is the worst that can happen.  We may not yet have enough hard evidence to prove what every interpreter and heritage manager knows in their hearts to be true but that doesn’t change my conviction: heritage does provide us with a sense of orientation, as the American legislation that created the National Register of Historic Places in 1966 says.  Heritage does tell us about our own roots and that of humanity as a whole, and it provides us with inspiration and aspiration.  If we’re cut off from that, what could possibly replace it?  Not the sheer presence of stones on a hill, I’m sure.

We need people to interact with people.  We need people who understand stakeholders and visitors and who have the know-how to connect them with a site’s many meanings.  Conserving and preserving isn’t enough.  Just imagine how quickly we throw things out when clearing out our house.  It’s when we hold that book in our hands and remember where we bought it and how a loved one read it out to us in the store that the book turns from mere object to a part of who we are.  Without interpretation and programming and outreach we deny people to learn about that part of themselves.  And in turn, they may just no longer agree that any money should be spent at all on what looks just like any other old object.  Who cares?

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A couple of weeks ago I visited the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, Wales.  The museum’s focus is on the industrial history of wales, and object cases alternate with high-tech interactives.

I’m not personally a huge fan of interactives.  The reason is that I have not seen many interactives that I feel were necessary and the ‘best tool for the job’.  I particularly dislike the off-the-rack, stand-up computer screen interactives shoved into an arbitrary corner: I might as well be sitting at my own computer at home surfing the web.  Why come to a museum?

In all fairness, these are not the kind of interactives I found at the National Waterfront Museum.  They did put some thought into their interactives, and a few of them were quite interesting.

My favourite was one about the 1851 census in Swansea.  The entire room was created around the interactive which integrated the technology into a more traditional exploration of museum objects.  The room as a whole was really successful at telling a story, and if you’ve been reading my blog you will know that I consider that to be the core of good interpretation.  A panel by the entrance talked about the man who walked through the streets of this particular neighbourhood in Swansea, knocking on doors, chatting with inhabitants, and jotting down their stories for us to participate in.  Once inside the room, visitors could sit down by a screen and see a map of the neighbourhood.  On the map, certain houses were highlighted, and you could tap on the house you wanted to visit.  At this point, an animation was projected onto a transparent screen hanging from the ceiling.  It took you on a carriage ride through the street until you entered the house.  You continue to interact with the screen on the table in front of you, but the content of the interactive is projected onto the transparent screen.  This made for a subtle dynamic which meant you didn’t get bored with the activity straight away.  The content was also very smartly organised: A little bit about the main character we meet in the house as recorded by the census man, and then the opportunity to explore the house for objects relating to that character.  You had to find the objects, which again kept the activity interesting, and then you could click on them to get information about the object, its relation to the main character and a little background on the wider story.  Most of this content was related through audio; again this was a nice change from using one sense only.  I found myself quite engrossed and spent about fifteen minutes exploring houses and people.  When I got up, I walked around the rest of the room and was delighted to see the actual objects I had just explored in the virtual world displayed in the show cases.  There was more information on panels here which made for a nice reenforcement of what I had just learnt, and then some.

This was the primary strength of many of the interactives in the National Waterfront Museum: the interactives related to objects that were displayed in nearby cases.  Quite often, the museum had created environments for the interactives and objects, turning them into a whole experience where one part connotated and complemented the other.  That’s how museum interactives should be done.

On the other hand, there were many interactives where I couldn’t but feel that the interactives were there just because the planners had the technology.  Mind, I liked playing with the technology but I honestly couldn’t tell you much about the content I was supposed to have interacted with. In one such interactive the way you had to interact with the content was by sticking your arm through a frame and point at the screen in front of you.  I’d never done that, so it was fun, but the technology was also sluggish and looked terribly unattractive.  It must have cost an absolute fortune, and I’m convinced that the cost per contact and effectiveness ratio analysis would make me wince.

So overall, the Swansea National Waterfront Museum did have some interactives that were smartly used as interpretive tools.  But it also reenforced my opinion that technology should never be used for technology’s sake.

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Buried in a commentary in this month’s Museums Journal was a reference to the programmes offered for migrants and refugees at the Victoria and Albert Museum in England [1].

Migrants are more and more becoming part of the social fabric of almost every country around the globe, and certainly in Western Europe and North America museums are called upon to do their bit in assisting integration.

But how to go about it?  The V&A offers a series of free tours and accompanying worksheets that help learners of English to engage with the exhibition while also practicing their English skills.  The ‘Citizenship Tours‘ go one step further and enhance students’ knowledge of British history through a visit to the British Galleries.  This latter example in particular is a striking reminder that museums are meant to capture a country’s history and culture.  In visiting a museum, therefore, migrants may get a sense of what their new home country is all about [2].

Canada, a country with a long history of immigration, also has many museums that offer programmes for migrants.  To make access particularly easy, the Institute for Canadian Citizenship has implemented a Cultural Access Pass for all new Canadians.  The pass gives them and their families access to Canada’s museums free of charge for one year.   Similar to the British V&A, some museums offer special programmes for English learners, such as the Museum of Vancouver.

But to me, the most exciting programmes are those that involve migrants either as curators, guides or artists in the museum.  At the Portrait Gallery of Canada a 2009 exhibition showed self-portraits that 17 recently immigrated families had created in collaboration with an artist.  The self-portraits were meant to express their changing identities now that they had settled into a new environment and culture.  Not only will this programme have strengthened language skills and shown these families and other migrants in their community that the museum is interested in them and therefore a welcoming place to visit.  The exhibition will also have made their existence, their experiences and their cultures visible to the Canadian-born communities.

A somewhat similar programme at the V&A gives even greater power to migrants.  The My V&A tours given by refugees allow them to select objects from the exhibition that remind them of their own stories.  Using the collection as a starting point, the guides then tell that story to the visitors who have joined their tours.  They provide a unique and personal look behind what may otherwise simply be an object in a glass case.  Again, the primary objective for the refugees presumably was to improve their English and apply it when guiding a tour.  But for the visitors this is also an invaluable experience both in terms of learning about what is on display and about the refugees that have joined their community.  Museum programmes for migrants can therefore be more than a mere public service to support integration.  They can strengthen social cohesion and reveal the human stories behind collections.

Notes:

[1] Felicity Heywood, ‘From where I’m standing: Museums should shout louder about these powerful stories.’ Commentary, Museums Journal July 2010, p. 19.

[2] Do you sense a slight criticism here?  I suppose I am feeling that rather than capture and communicate such a distilled sense of place, too often museums have isolated objects from the histories they have been part of.  Rather than creating a feel for the culture in question, therefore, museums often leave me puzzled by a disintegrated bombardment with information on artistry, materials and epochs that I tend to forget even before I’ve reached the exit.

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This month’s Museums Journal (UK) reports on the Highland Council’s public consultation on, among others, the potential for closing museums to achieve budget savings.

There is an air of simplism about how the questions are put to the public that raises concerns over what value – if any – the council assigns to museums. ‘The Council would continue its obligation to look after collections that have been gifted over the years,’ the questionnaire explains when asking ‘Can we reduce this provision [of £1.5 million for museums]?’  As long as the collection is still cared for, this appears to say, all is well.

I do not fault this or any other council for seeking ways to save funds in these difficult financial times.  However, merely presenting museums as an expenditure is to oversimplify matters and does appear to be the ‘abdication of responsibility’ that the SNP councillor John Finnie is reported to have called the consultation.

On the other hand, perhaps the museums sector is partially to blame, too.  I, for one, am still to find a study of the sector’s quantified contribution to society.  For interpretation, Sam Ham and Betty Weiler published a study in 2007 that gave a value to interpretation’s contribution to the experience of visitors (Journal of Interpretation Research 12 (2), p. 5-24).  If nothing else, the study provides a serious argument to consider when funding cuts are made.

Also, accreditation is not as widely spread as one would wish, nor perhaps as user-focussed.  The UK’s Museums, Libraries and Archive Council’s accreditation scheme aims at ‘minimum standards’ at this point, and only about 1800 museums are accredited of the ‘thousands’ that the MLA reports exist.  The MLA’s definition of museums also indicates a possible flaw in the weighting: ‘[Museums] are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens…’

Perhaps where museums fail to prove their worth to funders is in how they ‘make accessible’ their collections.  Amid specialist interest in collections and the need to care for artefacts, visitors often seem an afterthought.  How else do we explain for example the emergence as recently as 2003 of an organisation like Kids in Museums that was created in response to the lack of user-friendliness of a museum?

Needless to say, I do not think museums are a luxury that can – or should – be cut when times are rough, even if museums could to better.  There is no doubt in my mind that the loss of museums will  be sourly felt in many areas of society.  I hope that the people in the Highlands will participate in this consultation, and tell their council as much.  After all, where else but to the Highland Folk Museum can locals and visitors alike go to learn about the vibrant communities that once dotted the glens?  Neither the empty mountain sides nor the collections cared for out of sight will tell you anything about their story.

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