Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Digital Culture, Museum Curation

Curating expertise: Towards an Interdisciplinary Museums Studies Research Agenda at KCL

Dr Serena Iervolino and Dr Stuart Dunn

There has recently been much interest and attention within King’s College London to the field of museum studies. This is hardly surprising: the university sits within one of the richest and most diverse cultural cities in the world, surrounded by gems such as the British Museum, the National Gallery, the V&A, the Soane Museum and many, many more, large and small, famous and niche. Together with the Faculty of Arts and Humanities’ cutting-edge interdisciplinary research agenda, and there is massive scope for interdisciplinary dialogue about what museums are, and should be, in 2020.  However, that interest, and the expertise which drives it, is dispersed across various departments at King’s, and exists way beyond Arts and Humanities. Some, such as that found in CMCI, concerns the social and political effects of museums and how they are shaped by and shape contemporary social, economic and political imperatives. Others, such as DDH, are interested in digital methods for exploring, explaining and present collections. Others still are interested in the managerial aspects of museums. And, others bring specialist technical skills currently applied in other areas, such as imaging, and 3D.

There is, in general, limited knowledge of how this interdisciplinary area might fit together more coherently at King’s. As Museum and Gallery Studies is a strongly interdisciplinary field, with an increasingly important digital component, academics working in this area are effectively dispersed across King’s various departments. As a result, they are often unaware of colleagues within King’s who share similar interests. This situation sharply diminishes the opportunity of internal—research and teaching—collaborations, and significantly weakens the external profile of King’s as a leader in this field.

The project Curating expertise: Towards an Interdisciplinary Museums Studies Research Agenda at KCL will enable us to establish close collaborations between our sister departments, CMCI and DDH, whilst facilitating the establishment of connections with relevant colleagues across King’s. This is an essential step, we believe, to facilitate future research and teaching collaborations between our departments and within King’s, whilst raising the profile of King’s expertise within this field outside the organisation. It will accomplish this by establishing the foundations of a “Museum Forum/Centre” at King’s through exploring, and capitalizing upon, CMCI and DDH’s overlapping interests in museums, digital heritage and galleries.

We will organise a series of internal activities aiming to

  1. bring together CCMI and DDH colleagues whose work addresses museums, heritage and galleries to explore their interest in contributing to future teaching and research collaborations;
  2. identify relevant colleagues across KCL whose work focuses significantly on museums, digital heritage and galleries through a process of primary desk research undertaken by a student;
  3. explore existing overlapping interests in this area of research and teaching during structured activities, via a speed-networking/sharing event; followed by a workshop aiming to define the scope of future collaborations.

We will thus facilitate a public debate around the future of museum/gallery university-based interdisciplinary research and teaching at KCL and draw up a concrete plan to facilitate internal collaborations and raise the profile of King’s.

If you are interested in our project and wish to contribute to shaping the future of an interdisciplinary Museum Studies research agenda at King’s, please get in touch with Stuart Dunn and Serena Iervolino. We would be delighted to hear from you, whether you are a member of the King’s community or a stakeholder from the museum and gallery sector.

Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Museum Curation, Representation

Chile: Doing research in times of social change

Catalina Urtubia Figueroa

Just two months ago, Chilean president Sebastian Piñera stated in a televised interview that Chile was “an oasis in Latin America”, referring to its stable democracy and growing economy. On October 18th, it became evident that Chile was more likely to be a mirage when mass protests kicked off in Santiago due to a rise in the subway ticket fare. This rapidly escalated and led to an ongoing social movement and mass protests in the whole country, including a historical demonstration with over 1.2 million participants on October 25th. The Chilean protests now demand social justice in a broader sense, questioning the severe inequality in the country. These protests have been followed by brutal police repression, resulting in over 700 allegations of human rights violations since mid-October. This piece of writing is a reflection about how this situation has challenged and influenced my research, as a Chilean PhD student at King’s; but also, and more importantly, it thinks over the social responsibilities of academic research.

The Santiago Times

                                                                                                          

The Chilean protests found me at the end of my first year as a PhD student in the CMCI department. Throughout this year, I’ve been researching about cultural diversity representation in Chilean art museums, especially in the area of collections. That said, one of the key elements in my research was to explore the responsibility of cultural institutions in promoting cultural democracy, especially in the post-dictatorship period (onwards 1990). Cultural participation in Chile has been historically low, and this was one of my core arguments to highlight the social role of museums in promoting spaces for citizens’ participation.

Then, suddenly, Chile woke up. Protests in Chile increasingly adopted a participative approach, questioning the political elite and claiming for the need of more democratized institutions. An example of this is a widespread demand for a change of constitution (as the current one was created during the dictatorship) through a constitutive process that allows citizens to vote for direct representatives, whose only purpose would be drafting a new constitution. As a result of these protests, a referendum has been approved to take place in April 2020, for Chileans to vote if they want a new constitution and what mechanism will be used for that purpose. At the same time, different sectors and neighbourhoods have been organizing Citizen Open Forums (called Cabildos) to discuss the situation in the country and developing proposals for a new Chile.

Like every other public institution in the country, cultural institutions have been directly challenged by social protests. Outside the National Library, protesters hanged a canvas that reads as “Poetry is in the street”, and in the front of the Fine Arts Museum there are several graffiti questioning elitism in cultural institutions. Facing this situation, many cultural workers have organized different spaces for social action. The most successful so far has been the Citizens’ Cultural Open Forum (Cabildo Cultural Cuidadano), organized by workers from various cultural institutions. This event, which was summoned through social media, ended up with over 2000 attendees, which surprised not only the organizers but the sector as a whole.

All that I’ve mentioned above has had different impacts on my research. Not only because it has challenged presumptions that were deeply embedded in my approach, but also because of the distress it causes me on a personal level. This has kept me thinking of ways I can make my research meaningful for the situation the country is facing now; while dealing with the contradictions of sitting in my desk in London, funded by the same government that now is being accomplice of over 20 deaths, hundreds of severe eye injuries and several allegations of sexual violence by agents of the state.

While I’ve found frustrating to realize that I just can’t address all these issues in my research, I’ve been thinking of ways to connect it with the contingency. Firstly, the way the protests have directly challenged cultural institutions in Chile has given me a strong argument to highlight the urgency of reforming museums in the country. At the same time, this has supported the idea that the democratization of the museums’ spaces should be crucial in my discussion. Based on this, while my former approach was strongly focused on institutional perspectives and professional practice, now I consider fundamental to look at museums’ communities and their demands with more attention.

This also demand changes in my methodology, which originally focused on interviews with museums’ professionals and analysis of museums’ permanent collections. My current methodology aims to include testimonies related to the cultural open forums, through participant observation of these events and posterior interviews with the forums’ attendees and organizers. This has meant to develop modifications in my ethics clearance (in terms of sampling of participants), which was first granted before the social protests in Chile started. Besides this, I’ve also included questions regarding the current Chilean scenario and the role of discussion spaces –such as the open forums– as part of the interviews I’ll be conducting with museums’ professionals.

Lastly, I consider this rethinking of my research in relation to the political contingency as one of the most meaningful learnings of my first year as a PhD student. This has pushed me to address what I think is the social responsibility of academic research. This has meant to change plans and understand research as an organic process that must acknowledge current and ongoing events. It has also placed me not as an observer, but as an active participant of social change, what has made me reflect more strictly on the resources and tools I have on hand to take action. The protests in Chile have become a wake-up call for me as a researcher. I’m sure the Chilean social movement will keep on challenging my research in the upcoming years, and for that, I’m deeply grateful.

Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Memory & Heritage, Museum Curation

The new activist museum agenda: an interview with Dr Red Chidgey

Protest has become a popular topic of interest in the national arts and heritage sector.  In the past year alone, The British Museum hosted I object, an exhibition dedicated to protest objects running from graffiti on a Babylonian brick to a recent anti-Trump Pussyhat. The Imperial War Museum celebrated peace activism in People Power, and the People’s History Museum commemorated the Peterloo Massacre with a Protest Lab encouraging visitors to design collective actions.

Some have called this a ‘social turn’. Here the myth of political neutrality is exploded, and heritage and arts practitioners embrace the challenges of a new ‘activist museum’ agenda. In this blog post, we talk to CMCI’s Dr Red Chidgey, Lecturer in Gender and Media, about their new book Feminist Afterlives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and why there is an activist turn in cultural institutions.

Representations of protest are often considered negatively in the mainstream media, and have been conspicuously absent from galleries and museums. Why this resurgence in interest?

A cultural shift is currently happening: social movements have erupted across the globe tackling institutional racism, climate change and sexual violence, as well as a rise in populist movements. What is striking is how this activism takes place. Everyday citizens are getting socially involved, who do not necessarily identify as activists. Social media has facilitated this, of course. There is also an interest in ‘doing the right thing’, which has been picked up by brands in the creative industries. Within the arts and heritage sector, the focus rests on community collaboration and the need to represent broader demographics. Not only are we seeing more events around protest and activism, but cultural institutions are now offering exciting new ways for visitors and communities to act as agents and provocateurs within the museum space.

In your recent book Feminist Afterlives, you talk about the ‘restlessness’ of social movement memories. Can you tell us more?

Rather than being disavowed, feminist activist histories – and their circulation in photographs, artefacts, and slogans – have been achieving a magnificent afterlife across public and digital spheres. A good example being the Edwardian militant Votes for Women campaign, which, as I was researching and writing the book, was experiencing a veritable popular memory boom.

I tracked these cultural memories across films, exhibitions, magazine articles, commodities, political speeches and contemporary acts of protest. By ‘restlessness’, I evoke the idea that history does not stay put: different actors draw on memory resources and put them to use in the here-and-now in unwieldy ways. Historically, suffragettes were seen as terrorists; today these campaigners have become exemplars of democratic struggle. Such histories are restless because they are endlessly undone and re-imagined. This is how collective memory works: its key emblems and narratives must be picked up, re-energised, and put into conversation with the urgencies and demands of the present. All the time telling partial, interested stories.

The protest momentum within the arts and cultural sector doesn’t seem to be winding down. What can galleries and museums do to strengthen their commitment to activism and social justice?

A few years ago, Sharon Heal, the Director of the Museum Association, suggested bravery, passion, empathy and activism as core values the museum sector should embrace. Last spring, I organised an event at King’s around ‘Curating Protest Memory’, which brought together activists, curators and archivists from Tate, Platform, Bishopsgate Institute, Queerseum, and other institutions. We discussed these challenges and came up with some recommendations. Most importantly, it is not enough for museums and galleries to curate temporary exhibitions around activism. There is a demand, coming from activists and workers most strongly, for cultural organisations to demonstrate a social mission throughout their operation – whether this means relinquishing corporate sponsorship from major oil companies, or ensuring cleaners and front of house staff are paid a living wage. There is also an appetite for cultural institutions to engage with current activism rather than presenting an archival and aesthetic version of settled movement pasts.

I am co-investigator of an AHRC-funded network called the Afterlives of Protest, which is holding its final conference in September 2019. Students and researchers can tune into live tweets at @protestmemory as we document debates and discuss actions. The key point is that memories of protest cultures are not just mementoes of a distant or fleeting past. These cultural reminders can, ideally, provide a tool-kit in creativity and strategy for actively labouring for a just society. And through institutional and public recognition of protest past and present, we affirm the kinds of cultural values required for more equitable futures.

Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Museum Curation

The co-created museum: art institutions’ search for new roles and relevance

Stella Toonen 

When visiting museums as a child I was always fascinated by the exotic stories from far away countries or the extraordinary ideas coming from the creative minds of the featured artists. When I grew up, that fascination transformed into wanting to find out where those stories and ideas came from, and especially who had decided that they should be in a museum and why. As a result, I studied museums as part of my MA in Cultural and Creative Industries in King’s CMCI Department, and am currently continuing to look at them in my PhD too. My focus is on an approach that seems to be gaining increasing support across the museum sector, a new focus that would change how we view museums quite radically.

The classic ‘universal survey museum’ model, in which colonial trophy objects are often presented as neutral and objective displays of history, does not seem to survive the scrutiny of today’s museum audiences anymore. Instead we require museums to acknowledge that they are not neutral – that they are influenced by the views of its curators and the backgrounds they come from, by the pushes and pulls of funders and policy-makers, by the visions of directors, and by the stories that audiences themselves connect to the objects.

What is in a museum says a lot about what that museum (and the people running it) find important. Having few women artists in your collections is a political statement, whether intentional or not, and so is displaying objects that were looted from former colonies, or letting a white, British curator curate a show about indigenous art. In an era characterised by huge progress in conversations around feminism, decolonisation and diversity, museums do have to look at the statements they make and choose what they want to stand for.

Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? (1989). Image: Tate / Guerrilla Girls

The move towards daring to be more political doesn’t stop with issues of representation only. Over the last few years, museums in the UK have stepped forward as activists around lots of other important matters too. The Happy Museum Project promotes sustainability, and so does the more recent Culture Declares Emergency partnership, which a host of major museums support. The Manchester Museum is aiming to become a ‘caring’ museum, in which health and wellbeing projects are given much priority. The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art has recently taken on the Fine Arts courses of Teesside University, to reimagine what art education might look like, and King’s My Primary School is at the Museum project did the same to incorporate art in education at primary schools. Finally, the Calouste Gulbenkian research project called The Civic Role of Arts Organisations looks at how museums and other cultural organisations take a stronger political role in society, and I have even argued in a recent magazine article that museums are taking up responsibilities where democracy leaves gaps.

It seems to me that many museums are playing with how they might find new relevance in society and how they can serve its audiences and local communities best. Nina Simon’s ‘participatory museum’ model, which challenges museums to take on some of the tasks of community centres, might have been an early influence for many organisations, and almost ten years after her book appeared a move towards putting audiences more at the centre of what museums do is definitely visible in the sector.

One way to acknowledge museums’ subjectivity, find new relevance and also put audiences at the heart can be through ‘co-creation’. This is a form of working where museums and audiences curate, programme, design, produce, and generally create projects together. It is a collaborative approach in which both groups equally lead and own projects and share the authority to make decisions. While co-creation currently is a buzzword concept that many museums are looking to engage with, it is also very hard to do it well. It can be quite a challenge to avoid letting a plan for a collaborative project become a tokenistic partnership that does not actually share any real power, especially for museums that are new at this kind of work.

However, some museums in the UK are doing co-creation really well. Derby Museums are co-producing their entire new Museum of Making with the local community, taking the time to build elaborate and genuine relationships with their community. The Manchester Museum will be opening a co-created South Asia Gallery soon, following the National Maritime Museum’s recently opened and co-curated Endeavour Galleries. Tate Modern and Tate Liverpool are going into their fourth year of Tate Exchange projects, through which they open up the floor to over 60 community associates annually to put up their own stories and installations in the gallery space.

I think there lies a future for museums in this move towards more open and socially-engaged programming, but I am equally concerned that many of these co-creation projects could end up being one-off projects without much of a legacy or the power to create real change. That is why my research looks at how co-creation might challenge some of the traditional working practices within museums. In other words, how might giving away some of the museum’s power and authority to community groups lead to new ideas and new strategies that could help museums to be most relevant?

Stella’s PhD project is part of a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership between King’s College London and Tate. Her fieldwork will include observations at three case study museums in the UK and abroad. Before starting her PhD in October 2018, Stella worked for the British Museum, V&A, Imperial War Museum and the Cultural Institute at King’s College London. 

Notes from a recent event by the research team behind the Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations, looking at relevance and co-creation. Image: Calouste Gulbenkian / Scriberia

The theme of the MuseumNext 2019 conference in London focused on change in museums and how to make it happen, heavily touching upon co-creation, activism and relevance. Image: Stella Toonen

Museum Curation

Energy in Store: How can museums encourage more productive relationships with their communities?

Dr Anna Woodham

@Aura Films

For the last year, I have been part of a project called ‘Energy in Store’ working with the Science Museum Group (SMG) to consider how museums can better meet the needs of diverse audiences. In particular, we have been looking at new ways of working with ‘enthusiast experts’ that could benefit not only the experts themselves but also new generations of researchers, the museum and the wider public. 

Enthusiast experts, in the context of the Science Museum, are enthusiast historians of technology who often include former professional engineers, model builders or even inventors. These are people who have detailed knowledge, networks and practical skills that are vital to shedding new light on the collections, and also to bringing them to life. They are often the stalwarts of volunteer museums and demonstration sites across the UK. This is an audience group that has received relatively little attention from museums or policymakers in recent years, but one that plays a vital and under-recognised part of the heritage community in the UK and elsewhere. Through the project we wanted to draw attention to their particular skills and understandings of museum objects, enabling better interpretation of the parts of the SMG collection that are not currently on public display.  [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”608″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row 0=””][vc_column 0=””][vc_column_text 0=””]The substantial cuts in public funding experienced by museums in recent years have had an impact on their capacity to answer (often rather detailed) queries from enthusiast experts and to offer the level of access to the collections that researchers may expect. A large proportion of our project involved unpicking assumptions made by museum staff about what these researchers want, but also enhancing the enthusiast expert’s understanding around how collections management works and what happens behind the scenes in a museum.  

We did this through holding a series of structured discussions over the course of a year between a group of enthusiast experts and curators and museum collections care and conservation staff. Together we visited the SMG collections stores in West London, and Wroughton, as well as the SMG sites in London and Manchester, often using objects as prompts for discussion. 

 

Our meetings focused particularly on objects relating to the history of energy production and distribution. This was an interesting case study because energy technologies can be a challenge to collect, store and make accessible. Also, energy objects are often hard to manage because of their scale, or the fact that they reflect just small parts of enormous ‘networked infrastructures’, meaning that these objects can be hard to make sense of on their own.  

It was a revelation to most of the enthusiast experts to see just how much happens behind the scenes when a research visit to see an object in storage is requested and just how much time and resources dealing with requests can take. We worked together to map out all of the individual steps involved in making a request and it showed that the process could be streamlined and made more transparent, thus benefitting both members of the public and museum staff. This is something that the Museum is going to work on going forwards.  

 

It also became clear that enthusiast experts have their own distinct needs and research practices which perhaps do not always align with traditional museum collections management processes. For example, it is not always helpful to be shown just a single object on a research visit, as comparing a number of similar objects is a key way of understanding a collection. This isn’t currently a form of access that is available. However, SMG are considering whether and how it will be possible for researchers to ‘browse’ collections in their new collections centre in Wroughton. Offering this kind of access sounds easy, but it would mean thinking through a number of complex issues including how this could be resourced effectively.  

By the end of the project, we were able to draw some findings which we have shared with the Museum. But we are certain that these would also be valuable for other museums who have similar collections or who have enthusiast expert communities (probably nearly all museums!). These include recommendations around sharing collections documentation, digital futures and encouraging social networks around stored collections (see our report below for more details).  

Expert enthusiasts are uniquely placed to deepen existing understandings of stored collections reinvigorating them and adding new layers of meaning through their research practices, networks and connections. If we consider them as key actors within the wider ecology of heritage, then their involvement in the museum becomes essential for the sustainability and ongoing life of the collection.  

The project was documented by Aura Films and has a publicly accessible archive on YouTube

Here you can download a copy o the 2-page report on the project.

Energy in Store was funded by the AHRC (official name, ‘Integrating Forms of Care: Building Communities of Practice Around Reserve Collections)