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Co-curation and the Public History of Science Workshop Part 1

By: Dr Lynda Kelly, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 23 Oct 2010

Attending this workshop at the Science Museum, London. The aim is to create dialogue and debate and learn from each others' experience of co-curation as the Science Musuem moves into the next phase of gallery redevelopment.

Here are my quick notes. There is also more on the workshop wiki: http://ccphworkshop.pbworks.com/w/page/CCHPWorkshopWiki

Panel 1: Power and permission

Emma Bryant from the Wallace Collection discussed the Shhh…It’s a secret exhibition curated by 12 school children:

  • Exhibition explored treasures of the Wallace collection, Told the museum about what children like about their collection, made it family friendly, also taught museum guides what to say from child perspective.
  • There was a finance team as part of the project, Found differences between object interest between boys and girls, they were also conscious about meeting the needs of audiences with disabilities.
  • Met weekly, had to be flexible and keep the kids engaged, kids found it hard working with 12 people, there were conflicts (there are on teams anyway!). No restrictions on what could be used – big responsibility for museum staff as objects are priceless.
  • Joe and Cecilia (two of the student participants who presented at the workshop) reported that it was a life changing experience and are now ambassadors for the museum and want to continue the relationship.

Susie Ironside discussed Glasgow’s Riverside Museum that was shaped by public consultation:

  • Talked to people who worked on and sailed on QE2 rather than just focusing on technical info about the objects. Learned to focus on the story.
  • Glasgow Museums Advisory Panels are education, community, access, teen and junior panels. Formal consultation on regular basis, timed to coincide with key project stages + informal advice throughout project. Use for consultations, evaluation prototyping and focus groups.

Tom Wareham Museum of London on the London Dockland’s Sugar and Slavery Gallery:

  • Museums have to get off their high horse and break down their walls! Keys to sharing power – bridge the status gap between museum and community, museum has to relinquish power.
  • Gallery aims to create visitor experience including and of greater relevance to new audiences, also attract African-Caribbean audiences.
  • How to do? Co-opted a co-lead curator from outside museum. They got lots back – different perspective, broader knowledge base, additional contacts, verification of messages, greater confidence, better channel of communication with consultative group.
  • When working with a consultative group: Establish agree common approach at outset; Define role and extent of powers;Agree on limits and conclusion of role – for example the physical limits of an exhibition design (deadlines, text, using objects etc – the ‘museum’ stuff);State ultimate responsibility, i.e. role of management and sign-offs etc;Avoid creation by committee;Allow enough time for it to work
  • They ended up with a more relevant and inclusive gallery; increased visitor numbers including African Caribbean audience who now want to work more with them. Can be stressful and time consuming but worth it.

Alex Woodall (for Liz Mitchell) on the Manchester Art Gallery experiences in co-curation:

  • Started a blog marymaryquitecontrary.org.uk to engage with those interested in the collection. Also had open stores days for those who are interested and engaged – great way to combine physical and online. However, as word gets out lots more people want to become involved in the stores – how to manage this?
  • Bigger question for them: allowing public to use collection means the value may be diminished as it was formerly a lost, secret collection. What could be done?

Panel 2: Science and the public what can history tell us?:

Iwan Rhys Morus Performing Victorian Science

  • If we worry today about presentation of science to publics, that preoccupation took center-stage for Victorian science performers, they were intimately aware that business was to put on a show
  • Victorian audiences knew what they wanted from a science performer, they had expectations of how show would impact on their senses, exhibitors knew they had to put on right kind of show or they wouldn’t earn any money. Performers were about entertainment and edification, but also in it to make money. Successful performance relied on meticulous preparation. While scientific instruments moved easily between contexts it was always performance that defined them. Today we need to pay attention to the choreography of experimentation and performance and to the visual cultures of Victorian physics and, in doing so, find new ways of representing those cultures to contemporary audiences.

Vicky Carroll, Science Museum: Exhibiting eccentricity in science: lessons from 19th century. Why exhibit eccentric science today?

  • Tells engaging human stories – telling stories about the people draws in audience
  • Challenges traditional, elitist narratives
  • Explores politics of exclusion
  • Understand how science defined in past
  • Opportunity to display quirky and curious objects

More tomorrow!