Peopling the Past – NMM Conference

National Maritime Museum, image from http://www.NMM.ac.uk

A few weeks ago I went to a conference at the National Maritime Museum called ‘Peopling the Past‘. The conference hosted papers from a variety of speakers including academics, postgraduate students and museum professionals and the aim of the two days was to look at the variety of techniques in which museums use people in generating, displaying and communicating the stories held by their collections. The conference saw over twenty speakers discussing their different areas of interest, and I won’t try to convey all the topics that were covered. I will just provide a short overview of some the main themes and papers that I particularly enjoyed.

Transcribe Bentham Project at UCL

Putting people into museum exhibitions and displays can happen in a variety of ways, in the first session on the first day issues of crowd sourcing and co-curation, as well as oral history were discussed as ways people can contribute to content in museums. This could all come under the banner of Public History an increasingly popular theme in academic and museum circles, and The Participatory Museum was mentioned as a good place to start when looking at the possible roles the public could take in museums, roles that include creators, collectors, critics, and spectators. Museums seem  to be increasing their work in these areas, demonstrated by the Imperial War Museum, which will be launching a project, in time for the centenary of the First World War, that looks at combining their information on War Memorials along with their wider collection and encouraging the public to access and contribute to this information. This comes off the back of some very successful crowd sourcing initiatives including the Transcribe Bentham Project, (of which I went to a talk earlier this year) and Zooniverse. Know of any others out there? (Update: The Porthcurno Telegraph Museum has launched a Virtual Volunteers programme, looking at ways remote volunteers can contribute and help the museum, see here for more info:http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/page.php?id=286)

Ellie Miles brought up some very interesting points looking at the Museum of London’s modern galleries, which has pockets of public participation, though they may not be immediately obvious. I discovered that the under-floor display which includes the much publicised desiccated cat, was co-curated with members of the public, and I began to wonder how integral this was to the display – was it enough to do the outreach programme and involve members of the public but then not provide any on gallery interpretation of this? Miles also highlighted the Brixton Riots Community Project, a project that was created due to the lack of museum objects related to the riots and consequently worked with young Brixton locals to collect the oral histories from those that were there. This sounds like a great idea and highlights one of the possible ways oral histories can assist museums in issues and topics that physical objects may be hard to come by. However, due to the project running out of money, the recordings are not on display – a great opportunity missed it seems. (Though it is worth noting that the oral histories and more information on the project are online, so arguably find a great audience than simply being on gallery. See http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Get-involved/Collaborative-projects/Brixton-Riots/ for more info.)

Half-Timer by Patti Mayor, 1906. Portrait of Annie Hill, from the Industrial Revolutionaries exhibition at Harris Museum and Art Gallery

Another theme was the untold stories of people in history, which I thought was covered extremely well by the conference by predominantly looking at children’s histories. Laura Briggs talked about the recent exhibition at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston that looked the Industrial Revolution through the biographies of individuals, including one of the child workers which potrayed as an interesting contrast to the intimating figure of the famous entrepreneur, Richard Arkwright. Dr Simon Sleight’s paper followed on well from this as it specifically looked at the subject of child labour as represented in museums and asked why so many of these exhibitions took the moral high ground without addressing contemporary issues of child labour from child actors to sweatshops. Finally Kim Tao from the Australian National Maritime Museum demonstrated the political and emotional power of displaying and discussing untold stories through their exhibitions relating to child refugees and migration. Their exhibition ‘On Their Own: Britain’s Child Migrants’ has worked with and helped some of those child migrants who came to Australia from Britain, and preceded the national apologies from British and Australian governments for their role in the scheme. The exhibition demonstrated the capability museums have in being able to have a very personal impact along with presenting the larger international implications of an issue. I very much recommend the ‘On Their Own’ website to learn more on the topic: http://www.britainschildmigrants.com/

On a lighter note there were other very interesting points raised focusing a lot more on the role of objects and material culture. I was enthralled by  Prof. Adriana Craciu’s paper that looked at the ‘Franklin Relics’ and the changing ways they were interpreted and displayed from the first expeditions to find Captain Sir John Franklin’s ship and crew, lost in the Arctic. I felt this paper had links to my own study of the Atlantic Submarine Telegraph’s material culture, and was particularly interested in how Victorian society portrayed these as relics, at a time when traditional Catholic relics would not be shown in Protestant Britain. Also the idea that the mystery of the expedition grew with the absence of textual explanation of events was interesting, suggesting the objects gain more significance without written context.

Traditionally Motor Museums have very static displays. From Somerset Tourist Guide website

Along the theme of presenting objects, Jenifer Clark presented on the very interesting difficulties faced by transport or motor museums. Traditionally motor museums have tended to act as a temples of worship to the aesthetics of the motor vehicle, often visited by enthusiasts, often not those looking for a social history, and consequently displays can be very static with a very whiggish interpretation. Clark argued that the silent voices for these museums were those killed or injured in car accidents, and asked the question of how can victims be acknowledged or represented in display.

Following the varied and often emotional topics of the two days I left feeling pretty tired, but excited about the amazing work being done by museums around the world in presenting and including people in history, whether they be historical or contemporary. Furthermore I felt confident of the worthwhile contribution academics are making to how we view museums, their exhibitions and the wider social context. I’ve only discussed a few of the papers discussed, but here is a link to a list of all the papers given to give you an idea of the sheer range of speakers and topics (opens PDF): http://www.nmm.ac.uk/upload/pdf/Peopling_Past_Programme.pdf

Finally leaves me to thank the National Maritime Museum for a really great and thought-provoking two days.

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One Response to Peopling the Past – NMM Conference

  1. Pingback: Geology and Arctic Exploration in Cambridge « The History Student: Kathleen's History and Culture blog

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