Anniversary Events – what are they good for?

‘Lights Out’ project to mark 4 August led by 14-18NOW

You may feel that we’re flying high in our journey of First World War commemoration, but I’m afraid we haven’t even taken off yet.

We are currently being taxied to our take-off point, flicking through the in-flight magazine, enjoying a few themed exhibitions, BBC documentaries and dramas and perhaps indulging in a puzzle book participating in the National Archive’s hugely successful Operation War Diary crowd-sourcing project.

Hopefully you’ve taken in enough to know that Britain entered the war on 4 August 1914, and it is that date, one hundred years later, that we’re scheduled for take off.

The opening of the refurbished Imperial War Museum on 19 July will mark our acceleration down the runway but we’ll know we’re in the air during the government planned memorial services in Glasgow, Westminster and Belgium, as well as the 14-18NOW art project ‘Lights Out’. An art event designed to echo Sir Edward Grey’s ominous words “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

With at least four years of commemoration activities, this is a long-haul flight bound to have a mix of blockbuster in-flight movies and turbulence. But what will it all mean by 11 November 2018. Where will we land and will it be a safe landing?

In an attempt to make some sense out of this an AHRC research network has been set up between the Universities of Birmingham, Cardiff and Sheffield and involving heritage partners Historic Royal Palaces and National Library of Wales to investigate the significance of centenary commemoration. I recently attended one of their conferences at Hampton Court Palace and was fascinated by the topic.

Papers were given by a range of organisations and institutions including some of the big players in the First World War commemorations such as Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Heritage Lottery Fund and the Imperial War Museum. (Unfortunately the BBC weren’t represented, as their input would have been fascinating, but we did discuss anniversaries on TV.) Also, refreshingly, the day wasn’t just about the First World War and we heard about plans for the Peterloo anniversary in Manchester, the Power Rangers made a surprising appearance and as a reminder that the war wasn’t the only thing to happen in 1914 the Komagata Maru Incident was also discussed, a moment often forgotten in Canadian and Indian history. The bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade was also referred to continuously throughout the day.

I could spend a long time going through each paper and discussing what I took from each, but in fear that this would make a very long blog post I’ll try to summarise the main points.

– Anniversaries aren’t going anywhere, we’re obsessed with them! From two pound coins to TV they feature in public understanding of history, and have been an increasing feature in recent years.

– A parallel change in the public understanding of history has been the emphasis on experience exemplified by the success of the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are’. This is useful for us to use aspects of family history or local history to engage with possibly new audiences, but could this mean we forsake the macro or political history? Does that matter?

– It is important to remember that as heritage organisations or universities we do not own the history we are trying to communicate. Topics, especially like the First World War or Peterloo or the abolition of the slave trade, are very personal and we need to trust people to make their own sense of this history through the gateways they chose.

– Evaluation was important to everyone involved from DCMS and HLF to the universities, museums and archives. DCMS and HLF have their desired outputs and will try to measure success against these. I was introduced to the logic chain, and DCMS said they would like to meta-evaluation but it sounds like getting evaluations out in the middle of the four years to inform later events will be challenging. HLF will work with Sheffield Hallam University on their evaluation.

– Everyone felt it was important that academia and heritage organisations keep up a dialogue throughout the anniversary events. Many new resources and sources will be unearthed and made available and it is valuable for the latest scholarship to be shared as widely as possible.

– Especially with so many cuts in so many areas it is great to have a lot funding available for First World War projects, as well as anniversaries more generally. HLF noted that through the First World War funding they have had a lot of first-time applicants, but large and small, new fundraisers and well-seasoned, it’s clear we’re all taking advantage of the available funding. But keeping track of the outputs and the current scholarship from all of this is difficult. For the First World War commemoration the number of organisations working in partnerships is huge and it is important to sustain those relationships after the project.

– Diverse stories are important, the fact that the First World War was a global conflict needs to be reflected in our work. There are also links outside of the conflict that can be examined and could be used for community projects, the Komagata Maru Incident is a perfect example.

– Finally there was some concern that we just move from one anniversary to the next, following the funding and the publicity to fund projects and attract audiences. It was felt there needed to be some longer legacy, that for many museums and archives the carefully prepared resources created for the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade are now in drawers and cupboards. Though I don’t think we need to lament too much on this. I think one of the legacies of those events has been the success of UCL’s ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’ project. It is possible that the bicentenary events laid the groundwork on knowledge to help people understand the background and importance of this database, and hopefully work like this will continue.

More events by the network are due in the forthcoming months and I will follow them with interest. In the meantime I have a lot to think about and will enjoy looking at how my work as a PhD student and museum professional can use anniversaries to promote the public understanding of history.

For future events of The Significance of the Centenary network: http://thecentenary.wordpress.com/key-events/

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Museomix Diary 4: Sunday

So here it was, Day 3: D-Day aka Delivery Day.

We had some stuff to finish off, animation, attaching the speaker to the pot and bits and pieces. (I got to help Emma with the animation for the interlude section – bubbling blubber – great fun!) We also tried to update the website, and Mark, our tech team-member, worked really hard to finish the programming for the sensor. It was finished, and worked, but unfortunately too late to use the sensor on gallery.

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Programming at work – the sensor would trigger these arms to start the main poem & animation or the holding animation.

We did manage to get the animation and audio on gallery and I had the pleasure of being there to hear the feedback. It was generally very positive. It was great seeing wide-eyed children peer into the pot and adults lean forward into the object to get closer to the audio and animation. Through the guided tours we were also able to give people some background information on the concept and how we could see it being used in reality.

Usefully, not all of it was glowing praise and we did get some constructive feedback. We knew the sound quality wasn’t great and if rolled out there should be back-up speakers to transmit the audio more clearly (in fact one of the coaches tried to get us an extension to plug two speakers in at the same time, but, alas, it did not work). I think the coaches did understand that we saw the value in using the pot as a speaker, especially as you could feel the vibration through the object. (It really did come to life!)

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As well as the visitors and those part of MuseomixUK, I was so grateful for the enthusiasm of the guys that worked on the front desk of the Museum of Iron. Alongside Dominic they also felt like extra members of the team, and we really appreciated their enthusiasm for what we were trying to do.

Thankfully I was able to run round and check out some of the other groups’ creations as well, and what can I say – they were spectacular! The group with the furnace created wonderful audio and visual that put fire back in the furnace. Magic hands brought new dimensions to the large 3D model map in the Museum of Iron, it was the first time I’d used this technology and was amazed my finger could project light! The ‘It’s In the Bag’ group’s family trail looked like so much fun, and who wouldn’t want to do some interpretive dance in a museum?! Unfortunately I didn’t get  a chance to check out the groups in Enginuity, but from their presentations they had big plans for water power display, and the other group was introducing super powers to the gallery! Finally you should check out the wonderful app, Iron Insight – it’s astounding how much content they got into the app so quickly and it really brought the sites together.

All too soon it was over and on the train home I was pretty tired but so happy I was part of the #MuseomixUK weekend and become a Museomixer! I took so much from it. So thanks to Mar and all the teams of organisers, coaches, techy support and web support. We could not have asked for more friendly and imaginative guidance – you guys were the bedrock of all of our amazing creations.

Our team by our talented team member, Emma Metcalf

Our team by our talented team member, Emma Metcalf

But most importantly thanks to my team for your inspiration, challenging conversions and eager participation. I think we achieved something great (this includes Dominic and the front of house guy at Ironbridge).

Finally for more information about what we and the other groups created and what we got up do whilst creating it check out some of these links:

http://www.museomix.org/en/localisation/shropshire-2013/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/museomixuk/with/10780517864/

http://www.youtube.com/user/museomixUK

Mar Dixon’s blog looking back over the weekend: http://www.mardixon.com/wordpress/tag/museomix/

Frankie Roberto‘s blog looking at how they made the Iron Insight App: http://www.frankieroberto.com/museomix-2013

Matthew Whittaker‘s honest account of the weekend working on the Iron Insight App: https://plus.google.com/112567883397519086111/posts/fAPeJu22WiX

There are also Storify compilations of the #museomixUK see: http://storify.com/museomixUK & http://storify.com/mattdawhit/museomix-uk

For a lovely summary of the final day and all the prototypes see Virtual Shropshire‘s video below:

For previous diary entries see Thursday’s here, Friday’s here and Saturday’s here.

Museomix Diary 3: Saturday

Day Two: Dreams to Production

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Strangely I found the second day a lot less stressful. I say strangely as one of our group threatened to walk out a few hours into the day. The important point though, is that they didn’t, they came back and as a team we got on with the project.

Why did they consider walking out? I’m not entirely sure if I’m honest, but on reflection I think it might have been related to a lack of knowledge and understanding of what certain jobs would entail. For many of us making what we thought was a simple suggestion to the exhibit could result in a lot of work for others, I’m specifically thinking of programming here, but this could apply across job roles. From personal experience when people suggest an exhibition’s period should increase (say covering 1800-1900 instead of 1800-1850) they don’t often appreciate the amount of extra research that will need to be done.

An important lesson was learnt.

But a member walking out wasn’t our only problem. Others felt we weren’t being innovative enough, and again they probably had a point. This would not be the first time an animation with a voice over would be used in a museum. However, thanks to Mar and coaches, I think we were able to come to a consensus that innovation is relative and an exhibit like this had not been seen at the Museum of Iron before. Moreover, I strongly felt that giving the pot a voice and using it as a conduit to tell the story was innovative. Someone the previous evening had mentioned ‘Take One’ as an example of museums and galleries using an object as a gateway to other stories and collections. We were certainly using that premise, but we had developed it so that the pot would be telling it story, gathering people around it to hopefully think and reflect on purpose it was designed for and how that placed Coalbrookdale in global history and economy – you can tell I was loving our idea and our pot.

In any case, I really enjoyed the day. We got on with the exhibit, and I really this felt like the most creative day.

Projection in the pot

Projection in the pot

A part from the management of roles and expectations our first hurdle in regards to the exhibition was the question of projection. Could we project an animation into a black cast iron pot? To our complete surprise you could! No only that, but it looked really good!

For me the next question was content. It was quickly apparent that as we were looking at audio the content could not be much longer than 30 seconds to hold visitors’ attention. I was working with Laura and after reading aloud the text I was putting together, we thought it all sounded a bit dry and boring. The realisation that Coalbrookdale rhymed with whale resulted in the decision to write a poem rather than straight narrative. This was one of our eureka moments, as this would work a lot better with an animation, not that we knew what the animation looked like yet, and it could convey ideas and messages quickly and succinctly.

By the end of the day we had most of an animation and two poems. Two, because as well as writing our very simple poem we enlisted the talents of Matthew Ward, aka @HistoryNeedsYou. He leant us his voice and took our poem at a starting point to write a far more sophisticated version. It really is beautiful, and you can find it here. However, subsequent discussions within the team led to the decision that we would use our simple poem, partly because we hoped the simple language might make it more accessible to children but principally because it was shorter.

Consequently Emma and Caroline used our lyrics to create the storyboard for the animation. We were very fortunate to have the talented Emma on our team and her artistic vision really brought the project together. You’d never guess that none of us had done animation before, but Caroline and Emma set to its creation with fantastic results.

After a day of stress and worry we had a day of productivity. We also started to reach outside the group for help, and we have to say thank you to Dominic from Mixed Reality – whose technical and practical knowledge was indispensable. Dominic also provided something that began key to our display – the speaker! It was something we hadn’t even considered, but this clever device used the surface it sits on to amplify sound, if we attached this to the pot, the pot would become a speaker! Genius!!

Below is the video that Ralph put together for the evening presentations. I should also mention that Mark was working hard on the programming for the sensor throughout the day. Unfortunately this was a lonely job and I (unhelpfully) kept telling him how useless I felt that I couldn’t help (doubly unhelpful).

Well I hope the video gives an idea of what were were trying to achieve, and here is a link to all the other prototype videos here.

For previous diary entries see Thursday’s entry here and Friday’s here.

Museomix Diary 2: Friday

Day One: Ideas & Emotion

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The Iron fountain made for the Great Exhibition in 1851, the furnace is in the background

We were up early and raring to go. After the delight of receiving badges, colour coded medals (mine was pink for content), coffee and a muffin, we were off on tours of the site.

After these brilliant tours by the Ironbridge staff I had the conflict of whether to pitch an idea or not. I soon had a couple of ideas, but nothing fully formed. However, cometh the hour, either a similar idea was pitched or an idea was pitched that I wanted to be involved in. Either way I talked myself out of pitching. Rubbish me, but lots of respect to those who did pitch.

There were at least three projects I wanted to work on, and was fortunate that two of those merged (workers and objects). Bingo!

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The team!
From top left: Mark, Emma, Me, Ralph. Bottom left: Caroline & Laura
From @MuseomixUK

I was in a team (#MMUK3) and we were going to focus on objects and try to tell personal stories from them – bloody awesome!

After this excitement the rest of the day was hard work, in fact, at times, it felt like a full on struggle, and, to be honest, I was a little amazed we had something to present on by the end of the day.

Reflecting on the day from my cosy bed that evening, I think I can appreciate how much creativity there was around the table. But there were times it felt like we’d hit a wall, awkward silences and steely looks, it seemed nothing could get a team consensus. We’d all (including myself) be picking problems with almost every idea. It felt like the tech guy didn’t like tech, others were becoming obsessed with the Great Exhibition and we couldn’t see the people in the stories. The coaches called on the librarian and curators to help us and at times I was convinced we were the problem group – the one’s who needed ‘special’ help.

However, it did all help, and something I’ve learnt from that day was that it does help to talk ideas through. Even if the ideas are picked apart, deemed in practicable or without the ability to translate a narrative, it was wonderful to hear new ideas and see people get excited about an exhibit. I also realised that I’m not very visual, I think I rely a lot of text, audio and perhaps physical. I was always going back to the content and the physical presence of the object – these are clearly the areas important to me, but it was great seeing others conjure images and concepts from physical & visual. I suppose this is the benefit of having people with different backgrounds working together.

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The Whaling Pot!

In any case we did it, we had an idea. Inevitably it was something we had started with – the Coalbrookdale pot. Finally, I think it was returning to the low-lit gallery that helped. It felt like we were discovering these objects for the first time. The large whaling pot at the entrance of the museum had a presence for us and gave us something to work with.

On top of that all the talking (and silences) had helped us determine some principles. We didn’t want tech to get in the way of interpreting the object – holding a device to look at an object would take away from being close and looking at the object yourself. Also, we wanted something tactile, we were talking about mechanical levers to get the animation in the pot going, but ultimately we wanted people up code and personal with the pot. If we could get people to reach in or put they’re head in the pot we were winning.

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The initial idea on paper.

So, we were able to present an idea at the end of the day to everyone else, and even got some positive feedback from the coaches. Things were looking up.

Now, was the development the hard part or the easy part? I’d find out on Saturday!

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The evening presentation from @DianaPitchers

See previous diary entries here.

Museomix Diary 1: The Prep

Museomix at Ironbridge – graphic from one of the sponsors KASCEN

Months ago I had seen a few tweets related to something called Museomix, a movement started in France to remix museums. This looked like great fun and seemed to fit with an interesting podcast I’d heard by Muesopunks on Design Thinking. I was intrigued and wanted to be involved so completed the online form to apply. To my amazement I was successful, and, all too quickly, November arrived and I had to pack for this experience.

How on earth do you prep for an event/workshop/activity/thing you don’t really understand. I thought pack warm & pack comfortable. So socks, jumpers, jeans and big boots were high on the list. My foot was recovering from a sprained ankle a couple of weeks previous, so Ibuprofen was also thrown in.

I also had the impression that tech was important, so laptop, tablet and USB sticks were added.

But then the panic set in. I was supposed to be a content person, bringing knowledge about a museum I had never been to before.

I found this short podcast from the BBC History magazine: http://www.historyextra.com/visit/ironbridge

But really, I thought, I should bring some books.

So I packed my essential reading list:
Raphael Samuel’s Theatres of Memory
E.P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class
Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum
And as a last minute decision Frederick Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England.

With these books and jumpers, what could go wrong?

Music and Museums

David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A

For a number of months ideas about music and museums have been floating around my head. I think it was the David Bowie Is exhibition, at the V&A, that kickstarted this process and since a jumble of ideas and observations have been bouncing around. This blog is an attempt to make some sense out of them.

Now, the obvious difficulty in the relationship between museums and music is that music is not a thing. It is not a tactile object we can grab hold of and put on a wall, in a case or on a plinth. It adds to our lives in so many ways, but is difficult to physically contain and present.

Possibly because of this I think one of the most fascinating areas of historical research is in the history of music. BBC Radio 4 made a wonderful documentary series called Noise: A Human History on the history of sound, and through that I have come to understand that music has always been an important part of human communication. It satisfies a basic human need. I didn’t manage to catch all of the series, but what I did I really enjoyed, and I think part of its success was because it was on radio. A medium devoted to noise, I would listen to it before going to sleep so I could relax and dedicate my ears to it.

Also, the recent BBC season on the Sound of Cinema is fantastic. I’ve particularly enjoyed Neil Brand’s series The Music that Made the Movies for drawing out the emotive qualities and value music brings to images, and its use can completely change our understanding of a scene. (My personal favourite was regarding a scene in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ where music that was deemed too sexually suggestive had to be replaced by sentimental strings for public release.)

Lates at the Science Museum, image from DCMS blog

However, TV and radio are multimedia channels, designed to carry music. A museum is not one of these places. Music is more often seen in a museum space during a function, whether that be a private hire or, increasingly, a Lates. (I find silent discos at Lates interesting as juxtaposing the traditional quiet atmosphere with rebellious dancing). Exhibitions might have a soundscape, adding to the atmosphere, but not really a soundtrack.

This is where the ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition really interested me. I thought the headphones that picked up sensors and started playing music (and sometimes speech for extra content) in different places really worked. Every now and again I felt I had missed something or the signal didn’t seem very strong, but the technique came into its own in the section projecting different Bowie concerts. Depending where you sat determined which concert you heard, and there were normally three playing on a different wall simultaneously. I got the impression people had been, and could be, there for hours.

In the other areas of the exhibition I did feel that the music added to the objects, particularly costume and other memorabilia. It added a layer of context that text could not bring. Nonetheless, in this blockbuster exhibition it was the marriage of sound and visual that worked best for me.

The Clash exhibition, Berwick Street

The Clash exhibition, Berwick Street

In stark contrast to the Bowie exhibition (for which I did queue for a number of hours), a few weeks ago I walked into an exhibition on Berwick Street, depicting the career of one of my all time favourite bands, The Clash.

This was not in an accredited museum, but was in a small shop just off Oxford Street. The budget for The Clash exhibition was considerably lower, and rather than getting your own headset, the band’s music were playing out of speakers. This gave the exhibition a bit more of a community feel to it, as you caught the eye of a fellow fan singing along whilst peering into the glass letters that spelt out, you guessed it, The Clash, to see their memorabilia. Similar to the Bowie exhibition, some of the most interesting objects, for me, were the books and record sleeves that had a influence on their work amongst the gig paraphernalia and hand-written song lyrics.

In a way both exhibitions suited each artist, Bowie’s was considerably more dramatic and grand, where as The Clash was a bit more do-it-yourself. Though both had really interesting techniques to convey their message, I loved the cases displaying The Clash’s guitars were made to look like see-through flight cases. Also the online presence for each exhibition is interesting, the V&A produced a thoughtful podcast that discussed the challenges of curating the exhibition, see a link here. The Clash curated an online exhibition complete with interviews and music, streemed through Spotify.

The Oramics Machine is a unique electronic instrument invented by Daphne Oram (1925-2003).  Copyright: Science Museum

The Oramics Machine is a unique electronic instrument invented by Daphne Oram (1925-2003). Copyright: Science Museum

For these exhibitions music is central and needed music to animate their objects. Similarly to this, my first museum volunteer role was at the Handel House Museum and I’ve always loved that they hold recitals there. Music can bring topics to life in other ways, and I have to mention the Science Museum’s Oramics and Electronic Music project and exhibition. This was the first project in the Science Museum’s Public History department and I think it worked so well due to the music element. The type of music brought together enthusiasts who had a shared love and though the exhibition was clearly important, the project also had a strong online presence which widened the community and build enthusiasm for the project, partly helped by a competition for people to create their own from a number of samples.

Music can bring a space and history to life. It also had the power to evoke unique reactions – songs can have very personal meanings for people.

But could music work for exhibitions that are unrelated to the practice or performance of music?

I think it could. The idea first occurred to me on a train listening to Everything Everything album ‘Arc’, and I had images of playing it in a exhibition planning meeting saying “I want this exhibition to make people feel like this.” (Yeah, these are my daydreams). I have also since discovered that some museums and archives have their own Spotify playlists. The Ministry of Curiosity’s blog discusses the subject here. I think this is a fantastic idea. Many of these lists are based on theme – songs related to libraries, songs related to London etc. But this could perhaps work with emotions as well? I want this exhibition to make people angry, happy or sad. Or perhaps to add an extra layer of context? Source and record songs that would have been sung locally, from execution ballads to music hall. Or as with cinema could pop music also work to build atmosphere and extra meaning to our visual displays?

I’d be interested in your thoughts on music in museums. I think the possibilities for music in museums are endless, so here’s to more music in museums!

Useful links:

Here is a link to a conference report in which Merel van deer Vaart talks about the project (opens a PDF): http://www.york.ac.uk/ipup/projects/audiences/science.html

Ministry of Curiosity’s blog on museums on Spotify: http://theministryofcuriosity.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/prancing-to-playlists-museums-on-spotify.html

The Clash online exhibition or Radio Show: http://www.theclash.com/thisisradioclash/

V&A ‘David Bowie Is’ podcast: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/v/v-and-a-podcast-curating-pop-music/

Lived-in history or Museum Living

Me presenting Warwick Castle

Me presenting Warwick Castle

Over the summer whilst visiting two historic houses, of sorts, I started to think about the relationship between visitor, objects and space.

The ‘houses’ were Warwick Castle and Somerleyton House in Norfolk. Clearly the buildings themselves are objects, and often the main reason for the public to visit. As large objects the way visitors move around the buildings can be important for interpretation. It can build a relationship based on access and feelings of exploration.

But they also hold historic objects and in that sense act as museums, so where and how objects are located within them are important. As set dressing or telling a story in their own right, these objects contribute to the atmosphere of the room or house, because their location is within a house or homely setting the visitor is presented with, I think, a different set of questions, than if the objects were on display in a museum. Principally “what would it have been like to live in this space with these objects?” or “would I want or have these objects in my home?”.

In both cases the buildings themselves were magnificent and I completely recommend them as places to visit. Obviously, they were very different with very different stories but both firmly situated in the history of England and Britain as a whole. Warwick Castle dates back to the eleventh century, it was home to the Kingmaker, the Earl of Warwick famous for his role in the War of the Roses, and in more recent times it was the home to Frances “Daisy” Greville, Countess of Warwick, a socialite and long term mistress of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.

Somerleyton Hall

Somerleyton has 17th century origins with links to royalists who prospered after the Restoration. However, it’s current design has more to do with the 19th century and the birth of railways, as it was bought and redesigned by Samuel Morton Peto, civil engineer and railway developer. Following the bust years of the railways the house was bought by the Crossleys, manufactures of Crossleys Carpets and it remains in the hands of that family today, a symbol of the rise of some of these industrial families.

The Royal Weekend Party, Warwick Castle

A part from the historical and design differences, the principal difference between these two historic houses is that one is solely a visitor attraction, run by the company that also looks after Madam Tussaud’s, the other is still a family home. Though at Warwick there have been attempts to recreated rooms for a weekend party in 1898, hosted by Frances Countess of Warwick. Rooms are dressed, wax figures stand in place and very few areas are blocked off, giving visitors free reign to explore rooms, read text or listen to recordings. They pull you into the late Victorian scandals, and made me feel like a ghost wandering through these people’s lives. Also,this immersive technique made you feel like you could touch objects. As a curator-in-training I felt very conflicted about it, but my friends (two of whom work in the sciences and the other a professional kite-surfer – I kid you not) didn’t feel this way at all.

In contrast, at Somerleyton, you were taken round by a guide, preventing as attempts to be too nosey. There were also those tell-tale signs of a lived in house, principally the family photos (and being a stately home also portraits and buffs). Even in the dining room, with the exquisite dining set, you could imagine a family having a dinner party there. In this room one of the pieces of art had been removed to be in an exhibition in Norwich, acting as a reminder that many of these objects could be in a museum, but were, instead, used and enjoyed by a family.

Entrance Hall, Somerleyton

Nonetheless, there must be a responsibility that comes with living amongst ‘museum’ pieces, and this really hit home, so to speak, in one area in Somerleyton, the hallway at the entrance of the house. We came in from the side, so the entrance hall was the third or fourth room, this gave it a more shocking effect as it didn’t seem to fit in with the other areas that felt very lived in. Consequently, for me, it was the most powerful in giving the sense of the house in a different time and was a reminder of how tastes can change. The halfway was a hunting trophy area, with two stuffed polar bears proudly displayed alongside a hippopotamus skeleton head, skins of white tigers and a jockey weighing-in chair. I’ve seen many stuffed animals in museums but it was the home setting that I found unnerving. Yes, this was part of the family story and also part of the house’s history that men in high society at this time would go on hunts and effectively display their achievements or spoils. It’s difficult for us today, so aware of endangered animals and the devastating human impact on nature, to be confronted with this voyeuristic hobby. But it also made me ask myself would I want that in my family home? No. But it was very thought provoking inclusion, and possibly a very brave one add well. It certainly provided a greater talking point for my partner and I, compared to a sofa where the Queen apparently sat and ate lemon cake.

In contrast I didn’t find anything in the ‘home-setting’ in Warwick controversial. Though we were probably most shocked by the bedroom where noises were played from behind curtains of the four poster bed.  You really felt like you’d walked in on a rather intimate moment.

I really enjoyed both and thought the interpretation techniques used were powerful for different reasons. Warwick gave you that feeling of freedom that you were an invisible visitor walking through a family drama at the turn off the century. In Somerleyton we were welcome guests given insights into a family history amongst a family that clearly cared for their history.

They left me wondering how much of a compromise it is to live in a museum piece and how the conflicts curators have over display and interpretation could enter into your daily life. I love what I do, but I’m not sure if I’d welcome the pressure of it entering into my home. It also emphasised the importance of studies into the history of the home – it can tell us so much about how people used space and can reflect their feelings about themselves and society. Not to mention the possibilities of tackling controversial topics.

These two examples are clearly of the higher classes of society, but through a number of collaborative PhDs and work done by museums like the Geffrye Museum website, investigation continues to be done in this area.