Posts Tagged ‘British Museum’

Recently, I heard Emma Jane Kirby’s piece on the British Museum’s acquisition of The Lampedusa Cross in October 2015. It highlighted some of the frustrations I have with current approaches to museums and their practice, certainly in the UK, and I’d like to ponder that a bit further in this post.


Just a quick background to the cross first: On 3rd October 2013, a boat carrying refugees sank before the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Only about 150 of the over 500 refugees onboard could be rescued. A local carpenter met some of the survivors in his church, and feeling helpless in the face of their suffering, he made crosses for them from the wreckage of their boat. He continued to make crosses, and the BM commissioned one of them. He then donated it to the museum.


In the radio piece (see also the BM’s press release), the curator notes that the museum ‘ is a reflection of the society around us.’ However, this emerges as a fairly one-dimensional reflection. Again the curator: ‘…refugees and migrants have nothing, they’re kind of invisible in the record.’ The cross, therefore, is first a record, and predominantly of refugees. And what it records is a very narrow aspect of refugees’ experiences. The press release describes the cross as a record of ‘the terrible tragedies that have befallen refugees/migrants as they seek to cross from Africa into Europe.’ This then is the main story that the cross can tell, and which is why the museum had to collect it. The curator said, ‘…that is the most important thing about the museum, that we tell stories about all people in all parts of the world’. The interpretation (or ‘curator’s comments’) on the Collection online entry only adds to the above that the cross stands witness to the kindness of the people of the small island of Lampedusa who have done what they can for the refugees and migrants who arrive on their shores’.


I haven’t yet seen how the cross is displayed and interpreted at the BM. Judging from the visitor reactions in the radio piece, it’s along the lines of the above. And the above to me is an example of how museums prune the contemporary relevance of objects and miss an opportunity to actually contribute to what moves and changes today’s world in this very moment. The BM press release in fact suggests that the real purpose of collecting the cross lies in the future. The curator said it’s ‘to make sure in 200 years’ time…our descendents can make an exhibition to show what happens now.


There are a few things here that deeply unsettle me. Firstly, as I live in this present that appears set to tear Europe apart and lead, as far as I can see, most likely to another war, I’m really not that concerned about anyone’s ability to make an exhibition about this period in the future. If that’s really all that museums are about, then they do nothing for our present.


Secondly, the stories that we’re geared up to ‘pass down to future generations’, of tragic refugees and helpful locals, also present a worryingly sanitised picture of what’s going on at the moment. I wonder, in collecting the cross, are we actually trying to make ourselves feel and look better? The curator expressed her hope for how the object would be perceived in the future like this: ‘…the children and grand-children of people caught up in these desperate migrations, and their children and grand-children will know that we did notice what was happening, that we did care, and that we did try to reflect the crisis, the desperation, but also the hope in the collection that we make for the future.’


In this story, we can identify with the helpful people of Lampedusa, and express our sadness for the plight of the victim-refugees. In reality, however, we are all collectively engaged in writing a parallel story right now, one that maybe doesn’t make us look as good: About an Italy unable to maintain the Mare Nostrum rescue operation it launched precisely in response to the Lampedusa disaster, because an unhelpful Europe refused to support it. About Britons’ attitudes toward refugees that are among the least welcoming in Europe. About Germany, where over one million refugees arrived in 2015, now wondering whether she can integrate successfully the old and new arrivals from sometimes very different cultural backgrounds.


Why are these stories not mentioned? Are they not what represents the real depth of the Lampedusa Cross, and its relevance today? Is it good enough for museums today to ignore these issues of the present and defer critical engagement and judgment to the future? Is it good enough for museums to declare that they reflect contemporary society while knowingly excluding other stories that are equally associated with an object, but far less comfortable? Can we hide behind justifications of immediate material connections?


The carpenter that made the Lampedusa Cross appears to have hoped that having it in the British Museum would make a difference in the current crisis. According to the curator he wondered, ‘…is this enough then to break down the wall in the hearts of people who are still indifferent to this crisis?’


The way the cross is viewed and discussed at the moment I would have to say: It’s unlikely.

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If you’ve been reading my blog you will know that I don’t believe in making my own opinion known when I interpret.  No matter how contentious the story, I think it’s important to share all the facts, allow room for all the views.  I’m a facilitator, not a dictator of opinions.

I feel that we’re not sharing all the facts when it comes to the ethics of displaying certain artefacts.  And it’s bothering me.  Take the example of displaying human remains.  Some visitors, like the online group that I belong to and who recently discussed the matter at length, are fully aware of the implications when they look at a skeleton.  But I would venture to say that the majority of visitors don’t make the connection between the bag of bones on display and the human dimension behind it.  This was certainly the case when I recently visited the Mary Rose Museum.  It was only when I voiced my personal concerns about displaying all these human remains that the others in my group started to think about it.  Until then they had looked, but not connected: There’s a skull.  A skeleton.  But nothing human here.

As an interpreter, I found this really unsatisfying, not the least because at the very start of the exhibition, the text asked us to connect to the people that perished when the Mary Rose sank.  This exhibition, the text grandly announced, is in memory of all those people, and then these very same people were promptly (as I felt) disrespected by having their remains displayed like circus attractions.

The fact that visitors weren’t at least made aware of the concerns surrounding the displaying of these artefacts to me highlights a real issue with interpretation. Where elsewhere we talk about provoking people [1] and revealing a larger truth, in instances like this (displaying human remains) we seem quite content to not get visitors to ask the most fundamental question of them all: do we have a right to display these artefacts?  What do they really represent (a human life, in this case)?

I really feel that interpretation needs to do more here because the instances where displaying an artefact is contentious are far more numerous than we admit.  I strongly feel that this is part of facilitating visitors’ engagement with something.  From grave goods to indigenous ceremonial pieces, there is more to these artefacts than their material attributes: the disputes over whether they should be displayed, who should display them, how and where (if at all) are integral to understanding the truth behind them [2]. It really isn’t good enough to appeal to our emotional connection with people that died in a shipwreck and then display their remains without even another word about it. It isn’t good enough to display something that was placed in a grave without explaining the hopes and fears that are represented in this artefact and to ask whether we really, really should even have removed it from the grave.

In truth, if it were up to me, we wouldn’t be displaying many of these artefacts, and certainly not human remains.  In the case of the Mary Rose Museum, I would bet you anything that visitors would not even think about the skeletons and skulls if you gave them just the reconstructions – yes, based on the skulls – of people’s faces.  I daresay that’s what interested visitors, and what helped them to connect.  I think the added value of seeing the ‘real thing’ is minimal in these cases, and worth losing altogether compared to the much higher value that not displaying these remains or artefacts in other instances has to those who care [3]. If you will you can argue that in doing so, we as the ‘professionals’ are censoring what goes on display, and that this is against my proclaimed philosophy.  You may be right.  But then, it is my job to tell the whole story, and sometimes that means choosing an alternative means to do so.


[1] I actually really don’t like this term and the notion behind it, but for argument’s sake, lets use it here.

[2] The British Museum made a tiny step in that direction when they produced a leaflet explaining their stance about not returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece.  To me, that is a far more interesting story at this stage than the marbles themselves.

[3] I am aware of BDRC’s 2009 research for English Heritage on the public’s attitude toward displaying human remains.  I don’t think it’s an excuse for uncritically displaying them.  Sorry.

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I spent this week at the joint Interpret Europe/National Association for Interpretation conference in Sweden.  The conference theme was global citizenship, but probably due to my own interests, I ended up hearing mostly papers on stakeholder engagement [1].

Here are a few impressions and thoughts that I’ve had during the conference – no doubt I’ll come back to blogging later on in detail about some of these things.

Read, Travel, Be Someone!
Ted Cable’s opening keynote reflected on three pieces of advice that writer Barry Lopez gave (as I remember, it was advice about finding your place in the world.  Ted Cable applied it to becoming a world citizen, and an interpreter).  Firstly, Lopez recommended to read: reading gives depth, especially if you read broadly, and if you read the classics you’ll get exposed to some truly universal themes (as an avid reader of all kinds of literature I couldn’t agree more).  Secondly, Lopez said to travel, for travelling helps understanding, gives meaning, and makes us care (true).  Lastly, Lopez recommended to become somebody.  For Ted Cable this means to become an interpreter with your own beliefs, for otherwise ‘you’re just another source of interpretation’ [2]. One to think about.

The relationship between audiences
The first paper I heard was by consultant Jane Severs of Newfoundland.  She and her colleagues had been hired by a town that wanted an ‘interpretation of their heritage’, their story.  Jane and her colleagues told them that there really wasn’t that kind of story there (go Jane! It takes courage for a consultant to tell their client the truth and do the right thing).  Instead, they spent time exploring the issues: existing inhabitants felt their heritage was getting lost, while new inhabitants felt they were excluded from that heritage story. Jane came up with a project that combined old inhabitants’ knowledge of the landscape with an opportunity for new inhabitants to contribute their own experiences in this place.  As a process, I thought this was great, and the resulting concept was good too (changeable panels at different, unlikely locations, including the post office).  People could phone in and hear stories as well as leave their own.  The only issue I see is that the local museum hadn’t (at the onset) given much thought to how they would include new comments left.  These are now somehow displayed at the museum (I can’t remember the details), but there are no plans to actually make them accessible via the phone system – bit of a missed opportunity, I think.

No communication between interpreters’ organisations
John Jameson of ICOMOS made a very good point as he talked about the ICOMOS Ename Charter: that there is an ‘appalling lack of communication’ between the different interpretation/heritage organisations, including a lack of consideration of the Ename Charter.  Now, I’m aware of the issues with the charter’s first emergence (interpreters and their organisations weren’t involved), but let’s get over that now.  The charter is not perfect, but it’s also not a bad start at all.  Perhaps more importantly, however, we should acknowledge that coming from ICOMOS, the charter has clout.  As Jameson pointed out, in countries that don’t have their own heritage or interpretation organisations, the guidelines and policies of UNESCO and ICOMOS are important documents, which are regularly referenced.  I think existing organisations should make use of this momentum, rather than ignore it.  Let’s work with ICOMOS and the Charter, instead of each organisation trying to force their own vision through.

The thing with underrepresented groups and special exhibitions
I’d already heard Stuart Frost speak about the British MuseumsHajj exhibition at the Encountering Religion Study Day a few months ago.  What was interesting in terms of developing audiences was one particular observation he made in Sweden: the Hajj exhibition saw increased numbers in usually under-represented groups (mostly Muslims), but these dropped right back to their usual levels once the exhibition closed.  This isn’t unheard of; many museums actually report that special exhibitions or projects attract ‘special’ audiences, which then will disappear again from the museum’s visitor profile.  And yet, it’s an observation that isn’t sufficiently discussed when museums talk about audience development: Here, the argument still implies that one-off projects with ‘excluded’ groups can permanently change whatever the underlying issue may be.  If this simplistic formula doesn’t work at the British Museum (and their resources with regard to audience research, front-end/formative evaluation and not to mention marketing make me white with jealousy), then it’s unlikely to work anywhere else.

Yay to Denmark
The second day’s keynote speech by Poul Hjlmann Seidler and Mette Aashov Knudsen of Denmark was great for one particular thing: they actually called interpretation facilitation.  That’s the first time I’ve heard someone use this definition at a conference, and since I’ve been harping on about this for years, I felt like jumping up and yahooing.  I must confess that I knew nothing about the work that’s being done in Denmark on interpretation (mostly nature interpretation, I gather), but this is exciting.  Poul later mentioned their interest in doing some more fundamental evaluation research that goes beyond the tools and really looks at impact, which is of course right up my street.  I hope they share their progress; I’ll certainly keep an eye on Scandinavia now.

And our actions speak louder than our words, too
One final paper that stood out for me was by Kate Armstrong of the Museum of Australian Democracy.  Her key question was whether or not an organisation’s actions actually matched their professed mission.  The obvious example was of a nature centre that didn’t offer recycling facilities on site.  It’s less obvious when we come to examine our actions as museums of social history, or in Kate’s case, a museum about democracy.  I found this really thought provoking: Kate questioned whether her museum’s programmes actually were democratic, and whether their processes and actions mirrored the processes of democracy that they wished to convey.  The issue is probably more pressing and challenging for some types of museums than others, but it’s definitely something that I’ve not heard considered before (and this applies to my own practice too).

Overall, I was really pleased to have attended this conference.  Sweden was a great host (I’d never been), and it was good to visit such famed sites as Skansen [3] as part of the excellent choice of study visits [4].  The Scandinavians are clearly interested in digging deeper into the impacts of interpretation, and how the theoretical framing of the discipline relates to practice.  Personally, I would have wished for more such critical papers, which don’t merely share practice, but really examine the thinking, the intention, and the outcome.  Even as a practitioner, these are the examples I learn from the most, and I fervently hope that one of my fellow presenters will be proven wrong in the not too distant future when he said that theoretical papers (such as his own) just don’t attract that much interest.  Well, they should.


[1] It was so wonderful to see that the interpretive community finally seems to be giving more thought to stakeholders.  I’ve been arguing for including stakeholders in interpretation more widely for a long time and to adopt a wider definition of the term also (see for example here), and yet as late as last year I still had interpreters here in the UK question me on whether stakeholders were important at all beyond the (immediate) local community and the decision-makers (especially in planning and landowners).

[2] Personally, I’m not so sure about this last one –since I believe my job as an interpreter is to facilitate someone else’s engagement with (their) heritage I really don’t think I have much of a place as a private person in this equation (something to explore at a later date).  Nevertheless, Ted’s passion for interpretation was, as always, moving.

[3] On a side note, I was really disappointed with Skansen.  A lot of the buildings were closed with neither a sign saying so (one was simply confronted with a locked door – never a good experience), nor an explanation of whether they are ever open (some apparently are, others aren’t – I still don’t know which ones).  The quality of the personal interpretation provided by the costumed interpreters was also inconsistent.  Even allowing for language issues (although I’m told all interpreters are expected to speak English) or a certain level of self-consciousness when dealing with a bunch of international interpreters with name badges dangling around their necks, this wasn’t very impressive. After all, for people dealing with personal interpretation, Skansen is pretty much the birthplace of the format.

[4] The Swedish colleagues really did make an effort here.  They structured the visits, and they wanted both us as the conference delegates and the host sites to get something out of it.  The only qualms that I had: in all this, they didn’t always allow us to be ‘visitors’, which is not only important for our own sakes (after all, I have no idea when I’ll have the chance to go back to Sweden) but is also a prerequisite for anyone giving informed feedback on the interpretation provided.  But that’s just a mini-concern.  Overall, the Swedes have just shown us how it’s done.

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I spent today at the British Museum’s ‘Encountering the Sacred in Museums’ Study Day.

Museums: Spiritual or Secular?

Johnathan Williams, Director of Collections at the British Museum, started the day by making much of the original collector’s intentions, which were apparently to show the divine as captured in objects and to challenge disbelievers by showing these objects [1].  It was also with reference to this origin that he disputed one participant’s portrayal of the museum as a ‘secular’ institution. I found this both interesting and disturbing: interesting because I think there are few who would associate the British Museum with religious motivations, and disturbing because for me, this sense of identity based on religious origins seriously puts in question the claim to benign objectivity that permeates so much of the museum’s public persona [2].


What is sacred?

Karen Armstrong then spoke about the meaning of ‘the sacred’.  This wasn’t limited to religion: sacred values are non-negotiable values, such as free speech in Western society.  The most interesting part of Armstrong’s talk for me was the concept of the ‘science of compassion’: to really inhabit someone else’s experience and in a scholarly way pursue the question of why they feel this way. Objects now come into play as an important focus: they embody the interconnectedness of all cultures, and thus can serve as a common ground from which mutual understanding can be built.  Museums thus are important as places where these objects can be encountered in a compassionate manner.  I’m not sure I entirely buy into this view of objects; it seems to me that there are plenty of examples also of fiercely contested objects and sites. Perhaps, however, ‘compassionate interpretation’ is what’s needed here.  This may upon further reflection (which I’ve not done yet) turn out to be rather similar to Uzzel and Ballantyne’s ‘hot’ interpretation, but at the moment my feeling is that it goes beyond the basic ‘courage to show emotion and conflict’ approach to truly and respectfully encompass and give voice to conflicting views.


Interactive = sharing spiritual experience?

The next presentation was about the Jewish Museum London.  It described the museum’s aims and redevelopment in 2010, but sadly did not discuss visitors’ reactions to or uses of the exhibits (if any).  I’ve never been to the Jewish Museum, but judging from the talk an effort has been made to give visitors an opportunity to explore the objects on display via interactives, and to experience at least in part Jewish traditions such as the Shabbat. I would have been interested in hearing whether such engagement actually enhances understanding.  Do non-Jews walk away feeling they have shared in some of the spiritual experiences of Judaism?  And what about Jews themselves?  Do they feel they’ve encountered ‘especially sacred’ objects? Does the museum do them justice?


Encountering the sacred: use or consumption?

On this point, the talk by Steph Berns was very interesting.  Berns did qualitative research with visitors to the 2011 exhibition ‘Treasures of Heaven’ at the British Museum, an exhibition mainly exploring Catholicism and Medieval relics.  There were many who felt the museums display obscured the sacred nature of the objects, and inhibited meaningful engagement.  Others made joking comments about what they saw, engaging with the content on a purely intellectual level without any connection to or empathy for the people whose heritage or beliefs this content represented.  But most interestingly to me, Berns also observed visitors praying before relics, and bringing their own talismans in to bless them by touching them to the glass cases.  I’d be interested in reading her full report, to see in detail what impact individual interpretive methods had on all these different responses and uses.


Consultation, and then what actually happens

It would also be interesting to explore in further detail the relationship between the responses that were obtained in the initial consultations for the exhibition, and those that Berns found. Stuart Frost, Head of Interpretation at the British Museum, suggested that the consultations pushed the interpretation away from an overtly religious feel and toward juxtapositions with other religions and modern imagery.  One of these was an exit video that showed both images of Catholic reverence of saints as well as the shrine to Elvis at Graceland. Berns received at least one comment that was negative about this video, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the overwhelming majority of visitors (67%) identified as Christian.  I wonder what the original, more religious approach would have changed.


Interpretation of a different belief

John Troyer of the University of Bath then explored the interpretation at the Creation Museum in Kentucky.  Creationism is of course in itself a very interesting perspective on life, and I fear that the audience’s (and presenter’s?) general dismissiveness of this point of view somewhat hindered a full exploration of what the museum did for and with visitors.  Personally, and this is admittedly an expression of my own arrogance toward creationism, I was really struck by just how slick the interpretation and presentation of the content is.  I’ve often argued with other interpreters that interpretation can really be used for anything – it doesn’t in itself have any intrinsic truth-claim or morality, like so many seem to assume.  Interpretation is communication, and communication can be used for anything.  In this case, it was used with great professionalism and effect to present creationism as at least one possible truth. The museum also didn’t miss a trick in presenting their version of natural history in just the same way as the most modern of natural history museums, using animatronics and lifelike dinosaurs that surely delight any family audience.  Troyer didn’t say much about the visitors – the data, he reported, is either not there or the museum doesn’t want to share it.  His own feeling was that the Creationist audiences that do come, come not on a pilgrimage, but for validation of their views.  This, I think, is an oft-ignored purpose of museums: to validate our point of view and reaffirm our place in the world.


Undoubtedly spiritual

In many ways, one might suspect a similar motivation behind the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, which Fiona Candlin reported on.  The most interesting contrast here was that the interpretation and presentation has a decidedly home-made feel.  But this isn’t to the detriment of the museum, Candlin feels: it is evident that the staff are all practicing witches themselves, and that for them the objects have power.  In fact, Candlin became interested in researching the museum further because so many non-believers were also persuaded of the magical powers of the objects on display – something that wasn’t reported by Berns of the ‘Treasures of Heaven’ exhibition.  That is quite an achievement. Part of it might be the use of language on labels: staff conversationally weave in their own practice and knowledge (‘we’, ‘I’) and address the visitor either in the role of interested party, potential future practitioner or fellow witch, depending on the subject and section in the museum.  Also, staff belief in the potency of the objects naturally requires counter-spells, which are unapologetically placed around the museum without further explanation: the line between display and ‘life’ blurs. There is no question about the spiritual motivation here: this is a museum of the tradition still practiced by the people that run it [3].


So all in all, what have I learnt today about encountering the sacred in a museum?  Well firstly that this is actually possible: I must confess that I doubted museums’ institutional ability to facilitate worship.  What it has also pointed out to me is the need for interpretation to really take a stance: do we approach something in a religious manner, or will we try for secular ‘objectivity’?  Along the same lines, I also feel that interpreters need to think carefully about juxtapositions: who are they to serve?  Are we falling back into a humanist educational trap whereby we want to force-compare and contrast where this really has little benefit for visitors, or might indeed offend? And lastly, I really want to explore what compassionate interpretation could be.


[1] There was a third and forth aspect, which now escape me. Also, the ‘divine’ here is presumably an Anglican-Christian divine, as the Trustees of the museum originally had to be Anglicans, according to Williams.

[2] The little leaflet outlining the museum’s stance in the debate surrounding the Parthenon Marbles is a good case in point: the argument is unsubtly based on the BM collecting ‘humanity’s heritage’ and making it accessible ‘free of charge’ to anyone for personal pleasure and scholarly research.  The tone is decidedly one of selfless science and public service, which is completely at odds with a view of the museum as a religiously motivated institution.  Should we suspect deception?

[3] Apparently, the Museum of Witchcraft was denied accreditation because their labels aren’t ‘anthropological’ and because of their subject matter.  If true, I think this gives cause for serious concern.

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