MuseomixUK 2014: Some reflections and a chart

MuseomixUK 2014 6-9 November 2014

MuseomixUK 2014 6-9 November 2014

It’s over. After months of planning, countless emails and a few trips to Derby, it’s over. MuseomixUK 2014 ran from Friday 7 November through to Sunday 9 November with a showcase of the prototypes on Monday 10 November. And what a weekend!

Lots of carbs and caffeine saw us through the long days and I’ve been in awe of what the teams made. It was odd not being on a team this year, but it was nice to be allocated to one team to keep them informed of their deadlines and help progress where I could. This meant I didn’t really feel ownership of any of the prototypes, but I did get a better idea of what was going on elsewhere rather than being in the bubble of a team. I was also looking after evaluation which meant I got to work with Derby Museum, as well as our student volunteers, to develop a visitor evaluation. I was also attempting to monitor the changing emotions of the participants, but more of that later.

Team “Museums as Conversations” see their Tumblr here: http://museumasconversation.tumblr.com/

Firstly, I want to mention the team I worked with. They were ‘Museums as Conversations’, and as a facilitator I was very fortunate that the team worked very well together from the start. I’m not saying it was plain sailing from the get go. Saturday morning was a particular challenge as the team wrestled with their ideas and how they could be realised into a physical prototype. In that, I am also grateful to Dominic and Fraser from Mixed Reality (one of our sponsors) who helped talk them through the variety of tech possibilities. But I have to say that once that got their idea, and agreed, I did very little. I helped put together a to do list, gave them jobs and off they went. I was occasionally asked for tape or post-it notes and had a sing-along, but apart from that they got on with it. Amazing!!

Museums As Conversations map and projection

Museums As Conversations map and projection

And what did they make? It was a tactile 3D map of Derby with particular places of interest available to be selected by pushing them down on to a touchscreen. This activated a projection displaying historic information on the building and a twitter feed that represented memories of that location submitted by the public.

The central point of the prototype was that it stimulated and invited memories from the public.Consequently the group envisaged that a final product could have an interface that allowed people to contribute memories there, through a keyboard etc. The history of locations could also be connected to museum objects, so visitors could simply enjoy learning the history and seeing personal connections or use this as a stimulus for their memories or thoughts. Beautiful!

The other teams were also impressive and it would take me too long to explain them all, so if you want to know more please see their Tumblr sites:
http://museomixuk.tumblr.com/teams

Before I mention the evaluation process I was also looking at over the weekend I should also say a huge thank you to Dr Cath Feely and her five students from Derby University who gave up their time to help us. There were times when there wasn’t much to do, but having them there for the sudden ‘we need this’, ‘can you get this’ and as roving reporters was brilliant. They were also essential to putting together the brochure and tour for the public on the Monday, and they led some tours on the Monday and helped me monitor and think about evaluation. One of the students was keeping blog over the weekend, see here.

Talking about evaluation, the important part of this is yet to come, and we’ll be sending out a post-event evaluation to participants soon. This will be the most important part for our feedback for our sponsors, the Arts Council, but we have also done a couple of other this. A pre-event evaluation for a baseline of thoughts and feelings. Also, over the weekend I put together a visitor evaluation for the public on Monday. A quick look at this shows that the prototypes were very positively received and words to describe the exhibits included:
Intriguing; Fun; Interactive; Tactile; Thought-provoking; Alive; Inspirational; Innovative; Crazy; Left-field; Exciting and Future!

I was also using emotion boxes to attempt to monitor the emotional rollercoaster of MuseomixUK.

Emotion Boxes at MuseomixUK - they always started with one small block to encourage others

Emotion Boxes at MuseomixUK – they always started with one small block to encourage others

This is probably not the most scientific method, but from the feedback of a few participants over the weekend, many found them therapeutic. Many people called for a tired box, I said I knew they were all tired and didn’t need a box to tell me, and other said the size of the blocks really mattered to them, so they’d put in a large block for inspired and a small one in frustrated. I hadn’t planned to account for the volume of the boxes, but may include it an anecdotal in my final evaluation. So far I’ve standardised the results and made this graph. What do you think??

MuseomixUK 2014 Emotion Boxes Standardised Graph

MuseomixUK 2014 Emotion Boxes Standardised Graph

Waiting for MuseomixUK 2014

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I’m sitting in a cafe in St Pancras station waiting for a train to Derby. I booked a cheap train so now have some time to grab some food, check out twitter and maybe do some work. I say maybe because I’m actually writing this blog, I’m hoping it will be some sort off therapy to understand my feelings of participating in MuseomixUK again. If your been following my blog for a while you may remember the monumental weekend last November when I became a Museomixer. You can find my diary of the weekend here. If you don’t want to read it, I can sum it up as an emotional rollercoaster. There were massive highs and real lows (my team almost fell apart), I was actually nervous about keeping the diary, very aware that it was a very one-sided account of a weekend that was very much about a team. This year I’m looking after evaluation and also going to help facilitate teams to understand the process and meet their deadlines. I’m really excited about this, but also very nervous. It feels like a lot of responsibility but I can’t wait to try and get a grip on how MuseomixUK affects others. By preparing for the evaluations I feel I’ve been able to get to grips with what lies at the heart of MuseomixUK. It’s hard to put into words but as an academic I’ve tried and I came up with this:

MuseomixUK aims to challenge how people view museums and themselves through openly promoting trans-disciplinary collaboration and building a supportive community.

I realise I haven’t talked about what will happen over the weekend, but that doesn’t really matter at this stage. There is obviously a plan but i think the weekend will evolve as we work and create together. That’s another terrifying aspect, I don’t really know what the weekend holds: what personalities, what ideas, what technology what creations!!! I hope to blog again about my experience and my findings, and I hope you’re just as excited as me.

The Revolution will be Digitised: part 1

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We are quite clearly living through a revolution, the digital revolution. We can’t move for it, it’s infiltrated into so many parts of our working lives and leisure we’ve almost stopped being amazed or confounded by the possibilities or the consequences.

Almost, I say because I have been to the ‘Digital Revolution’ exhibition at the Barbican in London. My strongest feeling about this exhibition was that it was a lot of fun. From playing Tetris on an original Game Boy and watching how the film Gravity was made, to seeing my shadow sprout wings and shooting robots with my mind. I had a lot of fun. And that was only the first part of the exhibition!

The exhibition is spilt into three areas across the building and the first section is by far the longest with the most to say. It was a real novelty to be able to not only see but use and play with original games consuls, and as you can probably tell the Game Boy was my favourite. Why? Because I had one of course! Though novelty and nostalgia are not the only interesting aspects of the exhibition and the development of games and art feels pioneering and democratic. The best example of this has to be the system that was to become the internet, Tim Berners-Lee’s Enquire system. It doesn’t look like much but just look where we are now!

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The exhibition moves into the present and consequently the future as the screens slowly disappear and the digital world becomes more reactive. The big finale is a room in the basement which is dark a part from a few beams of light. It is quickly apparent these are more than spotlights, they are lasers and they dance and explode at your touch – so much fun!

All of this was exciting and though the exhibition focused on games and art it made me think about what these developments could mean for the wider world. The technology linked to the game using eye movement and brain power appears ideal for people with severe paralysis. Could the artwork that gave my shadow wings be used to any benefit in discussing issues surrounding body-image or self-image?

I have no idea. What I do know is that it got me excited about the possibilities for museums and how the digital revolution can help us look at the world, objects and ourselves a little differently. Museums are using digital to increasing effect and it is becoming clear that interactives no longer need to be these touchscreens on gallery, they can be much more.

I’m obviously not the first to think this and there is already great work being done to explore the possibilities. The V&A commissioned a games designer in-residence, whose final game should be released soon. I’m totally fascinated by the Battle of Bannockburn heritage centre where visitors are emersed in the history of the battle, its characters as well as its arms and armour then invites you to play out your own Bannockburn. Derby Museums have taken the ethos of creating and collaborating to it’s core in the Re:Make Museums project at the Derby Silk Mill, asking visitors to be creators and help shape the museum, they’ve even agreed to host MuseomixUK this year!

I think museums can demonstrate some of the best ways the digital revolution can work, encouraging collaborative and inclusive participation. I also think they are well placed to discuss the darker side, the issues surrounding surveillance, abuse, theft, privatisation of data and civil liberties. The issues that are not necessarily easily understood but are of increasing importance as we spend more of our working and leisure time in the digital realm. But let’s end on a positive note and get excited about the future of digital and the future of museums! Long live the revolution!

United in History: A personal experience of collaborative research in museums and academia

The International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Towards the end of 2012 I received an invitation to join a panel at the upcoming International Congress of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine looking at collaboration between universities and museums.

The symposium was called ‘Research in Science Museums: The State of the Art’ and I was part of the first panel, ‘Museum-university collaborations: an ideal marriage?’. The symposium had been put together by Rebekah Higgitt (Royal Museums Greenwich, United Kingdom), Tim Boon (Science Museum Group, United Kingdom), Martin Collins (Smithsonian Institution, United States) and Helmuth Trischler (Deutsches Museum, Germany). The panel I was part of was principally coordinated and chaired by Rebekah Higgitt.

My contribution to the panel was to give a student’s perspective. During my MA I had completed an internship at the National Maritime Museum looking at submarine telegraph cables and I have blogged about it here. Being part of the panel gave me a chance to think about what I had done and where I was trying to go with my work between academic study and museums. As the number of Collaborative Doctoral Awards or Partnerships as they’re now called are growing maybe we need to think more about the role and benefits for the student in this. Consequently I thought I’d blog my paper and welcome your thoughts and contributions.

Finally I should thank Rebekah Higgit and Tim Boon for asking me to part of the panel and the amazing conference that is ICHSTM, and also to the British Society for the History of Science for the funding to attend.

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In danger of sounding like a cliché I came to the decision that my future lay in history whilst travelling. I had finished an undergraduate degree in history at the University of Liverpool but was clueless as to what career I wanted to pursue; after briefly dabbling in music industry I decided to follow an ambition to go travelling.

An excuse to get my travel pictures out: Cuba's Museum of Revolution

An excuse to get my travel pictures out: Cuba’s Museum of Revolution

Somewhere between Cuba’s Museum of the Revolution and Boliva’s Coca Museum, I realised that museums excited me as a way of connecting the public to history; informative and inspirational, conventional and controversial, museums can help us understand our world today. It was only when I was back in the UK that I realised I wasn’t the only person to have this revelation and that building a career in museums was, and still is, very competitive. Eventually I realised that to develop a career working with collections I needed to do an MA.

After much deliberation I decided on an MA in Historical Research at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR). I knew I wanted my dissertation to use museum objects, so when I spotted the National Maritime Museum’s paid internships I jumped at the chance.

Commemorative Medals for the laying of the Atlantic Cable made by Tiffany. Image copyright Royal Museums Greenwich.

My dissertation looked at the material culture surrounding submarine telegraph cables, and I soon discovered that though I wasn’t short of objects; the NMM collection is varied and I found relevant objects in the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, the Science Museum and the Museum of Freemasonry. Finding objects wasn’t hard, but what I did find challenging was how to focus my work with these objects into a research question. Fortunately I found great support from the NMM and the IHR, and both supervisors were able to offer background and museological/historiographical reading and I eventually settled on looking at the transitional identity of the Atlantic Telegraph cable through these collections.

I really enjoyed working with the different museums and their collections, and was amazed at how each museum went out of their way to help me in my research. Furthermore, I felt I was able to build a relationship with these museums. As part of the paid internship at the NMM I had tangible outcomes which included updating their collections database, a blog post and a rather nervous paper at a lunchtime seminar. For Porthcurno, I used a week of my summer to volunteer in their educational summer programme whilst doing research. This was all valuable in widening my ‘hands on’ experience and meant I saw a different side to the museums, as well as helping me locate the different objects within the different museum cultures. I hope the trip and other outputs benefited them as much as it did my research and museum experience.

General Post Office, St Martins-Le-Grand, from The Illustrated London News, 1843

After completing my MA I realised how much I enjoyed research, and started to consider a PhD. The Collaborative Doctoral Awards looked like the perfect way for me to maintain the collaboration I initially explored through my MA dissertation, and I have since started a CDA with the IHR and the British Postal Museum and Archive looking at the Victorian Post Office. My PhD is currently very archive focused, but I am hopeful that my research will involve some of the BPMA’s museum collection. I believe each CDA is organised differently and as part of mine there is an expectation that I will work on a project for the BPMA for a certain number of days a year and I see my relationship with the BPMA growing as my PhD develops.

De-installation in preparation for the new 'Line of Kings' exhibition

De-installation in preparation for the new ‘Line of Kings’ exhibition

Though I have the luxury of being a funded PhD student, I have felt that gaining practical everyday museum experience was important if I wanted to consider a museum role after my PhD. Consequently I also work part-time as curatorial assistant of Tower collections for the Royal Armouries. Research is integral to museums but a PhD is unlikely to involve practicalities such as auditing a collection, arranging an object loan or providing a handling session for 10 year olds.

I believe there is a lot of value for both historians and museum professionals in museums and universities working more closely together. Not only for developing audiences and skills, disseminating knowledge, also enabling us to view collections and history differently, and importantly, funding is available. However, my only caution is where this leaves the student. I see myself as ‘hedging my bets’, I love history and I believe it is important and want to communicate this but am I being trained for academia or museums? Both, I hope. I believe CDAs were developed to give students more practical skills, but this could be dependent on how the institutions want to deliver the collaborative aspects of the PhD and how aware the student is as to what they want to get out of the experience. Perhaps the CDAs should take longer and involve a job role for two days a week, or perhaps the student should complete the Associateship of the Museum Association (AMA) alongside their studies.

I’d be interested in others thoughts on this but to end on a positive note I want to emphasise that it’s through collaboration that I’ve had some of the most rewarding experiences in the academic and museum world, and I think it is something we should all seek to encourage.

Victorian Photos of Hackney Residents: Volunteering at Hackney Museum

The Great Atroy, Image from the 'Peculiar Portraits' at Hackney Museum from Culture24.org.uk Copyright held by Anderson/Four

This is just a quick post about some work I’ve been doing for Hackney Museum. I have been volunteering with the Collections and Exhibitions Manager and had the pleasure of cataloguing a collection of photos by the Hackney photographer, Arthur Eason.

The story behind these photographs, as well as the content, is fascinating. Over 2000 glass plates were discovered several years ago in derelict school in Hackney. These glass plates were in their original boxes and accompanied by the photograph studio’s original office stationery. From this it was discovered that the  plates were from Eason & Co. studio, run by Arthur Eason, and based on Dalston Lane. With no clue as to how they got to the school or who had owned them between the closure of the studio in the early 1900s and the discovery in the early 2000s, their life as objects remains a mystery. We know that the majority of images are from the 1890s and were taken in Eason’s Hackney studio.

Most of these images are portraits and they represent a rare historical window to life in Victorian Hackney. Subjects include newly wed couples, family portraits, possibly to celebrate a child’s birthday or other life milestone, and also promotion photographs for music hall acts. These promotional images even include some Victorian photography trickery with additional effects added by drawing on the negative.

In addition to these there are fascinating images of Asian and Chinese people in both national and Western dress. It is thought that most of the images are of international Salvation Army delegates in Hackney to attend the International Salvation Army Congress of 1894. This is supported by the fact that many of the subjects have Salvation Army badges, but it is also supported by the Eason’s connection to the Salvation Army.

The Easons were very active within the Salvation Army; Arthur’s father, John Eason, was a close friend of William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army, and Arthur went on a missionary trip to China in early 1880s. The relationship between the families was clearly maintained and there are even photographs of Booth’s grandchildren within the collection.

I have been cataloguing Hackney Museum’s collection of Arthur Eason’s photographs, preparing them to be accessible through their online catalogue and so accessible to more people. This is a fantastic resource of the public and historians alike and I hope they are used in the future to tell many stories, from life in Victorian Hackney, Victorian photography and the history of the Salvation Army to name a few! Until then I will continue to catalogue to attempt to ensure they can be found by as many people as possible.

Update: I should note that the legal owners of the copyright of the images belong to Bridgit Anderson and Jim Four, who kindly donated copies of some of the images to Hackney Museum.

The images are up on Hackney Museum website now – go to their collections website (http://museum.hackney.gov.uk/home) and search ‘Eason’ and they’ll appear. Have fun!

Links:

Hackney Museum: http://www.hackney.gov.uk/cm-museum.htm

Salvation Army History: http://www1.salvationarmy.org.uk/uki/www_uki_ihc.nsf/stc-vw-dynamic-arrays/576D5B691C7BD8978025704A0055741F

Beddington Royal Female Orphanage

Carew Manor, Wikipedia

Through my recent volunteer work for Honeywood Museum I’ve had the chance to do some research into the history of the Sutton area during the nineteenth century. This has thrown up many interesting stories related to the industry of the area (being based of the river Wandle, there were many mills), and also the many institutions created to assist the unfortunate. One of these institutions was the Royal Female Orphanage in Beddington.

The Royal Female Orphanage was established in 1762 in the historic Carew Manor, in the beautiful setting of Beddington Park. Carew Manor was built in the 1500’s for the Carew family, a well-connected family who reportedly often had visits from Tudor royalty; however by the second half of the 18th century the family had moved out of the manor and the house was put to a different purpose. This purpose was to house, school and train girls with no parents or, more frequently, without a father or with parents who were unable to look them. They were schooled and trained to work in domestic service and once at a suitable age (normally about between 14 and 16 years old) they were sent out to work.

The Sutton Archives has many of the records related to the orphanage, and I’ve had the joy of looking through the log of girls who had reached that suitable age. This holds a wealth of information in terms of social history and demonstrates the relationship these children must have developed with the orphanage. To encourage the girls to stay in domestic service and as a reward for their efforts, they were given a prize of £2 2s after two years of successful service. This was a continuation of many prize giving events that took place turning their time at Carew Manor, where prizes were given for good behaviour as well as merit in their schooling.

The Great Hall at the Royal Female Orphanage, The Carew Manor Project

The location and size of house the girls were sent to work in could vary greatly; some stayed locally to Carlshalton and Sutton however I found one girl, Florence Louisa Crago, who was sent to work for Lady Walpole at Hampton Court Palace. Domestic service wasn’t the only option for the girls, it is evident that some girls were ‘not strong enough for service’. Annie Elliot Bowe was sent into an apprenticeship as a dressmaker, and though this meant she was not eligible for the reward money, from orphanage’s records, she went on to have a successful career as a dressmaker.

I was amazed at the length of time the orphanage kept in contact with the girls after they had left, sending out regular letters, they attempted to maintain this almost paternal relationship with the girls. This is demonstrated in Annie Elliot Bowe’s records; it notes that having taken up the position of Assistant Dressmaker in Devonshire in April 1893, in June 1896 she was ‘still at same place and doing well’. The writer of this note almost comes over as proud of Annie’s achievement. For many the contact ended once they got married or after a move, but it is clear that for others a strong relationship had been developed with the institution that brought them up. Alice Maria Robinson was born in 1874 and at the age of 16 went into service with Lady Margaret Lashington in Lyndhurst. Two years later she received her £2 2s reward and went into service for Lady Rothschild. In July 1898 Alice came back to the Beddington Orphanage to attend the Prize Distribution event for the girls at the orphanage, and had married Mr Charles Pratt. The fact that this is recorded shows the perceived importance of this by the orphanage, obviously Alice would have given the resident girls something to aspire to, but also embodied the orphanage’s pride and achievement. The final entry for Alice is for sometime later and of a sadder note, it reads ‘July 1920, Died of heart failure’, ending her long relationship with the Beddington Royal Female Orphanage.

Links:

For more information on Carew Manor see the Carew Manor Project: http://www.carewmanorproject.co.uk

For more information on Sutton’s local history and archives, see the council’s website: http://www.sutton.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=930

For Honeywood Museum also look on the council’s website: http://www.sutton.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=1253 and the Honeywoode Friends website: http://www.friendsofhoneywood.co.uk/

Free Talks & Courses at HistoryTalk

A very quick post to mainly promote my local history society: HistoryTalk!

It is the community history society for North Kensington and I have volunteered for them as part of the Britain at Work project, and I also had the pleasure of a giving a talk in Spring on the centenary of the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road.

They have their series of Autumn seminars and courses up on  their website: http://www.historytalk.org/

But thought I’d copy and paste some of the details below as well – hope to see some of you there!
(Please contact HistoryTalk for locations and further details).

Evening Talks

Thursday 13th October 6.30pm
Portobello Roots the market in the 1920s and 30s.
With local historians Eddie Adams and Tom Vague.

Thursday 20th October 6.30pm
Portobello Today and its Future children from Colville Primary School present their documentary Stall Stories.
Following this there will be a panel discussion with speakers from Save the Portobello Road Market campaign.

Thursday 3rd November 6.30pm
Murder in Notting Hill.
A talk by Mark Olden about the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959, based on his new book.

Thursday 10th November 6.30pm
Britain at Work oral history project update.
With speakers Jeff Howarth (project worker at TUC Library Collections) and Dave Welsh (project co-ordinator at HISTORYtalk.)
Britain at Work Project Page & a blog I’ve written about my involvement so far.

Courses

NEW COURSE!
North Africa, from Morocco to Egypt; Revolution and Upheaval
An introduction to the history, politics and culture of North Africa. Ten free sessions.
Starts Monday 26th September 6.30-8.30pm. Ends Monday 5th December. Break on 24th October.

NEW COURSE!
Migration and the Arabic Language
The course will discuss the contribution of North African migrant and refugee communities to Britain and Europe as well as teaching participants the basics of written and spoken
Arabic. Complete beginners welcome. Six free sessions.
Starts Saturday 29th October 3-6pm.Ends Saturday 3rd December.

Spanish Memories
Join a lively group of Spanish speaking people who work together on projects that draw on
their experiences and memories. This term the focus will on bilingual publication and music.
Ten free sessions. Starts Friday 16th September 1.30-3.30pm. Ends Friday 16th December. With some breaks.

Between the Boroughs: Shepherds Bush to North Pole Road
Local history and reminiscence looking in particular at Norland Market, Latimer Road, Wood Lane, Frestonia, White City Stadium and more.
Eight free sessions. Starts Wednesday 5th October 2-4pm. Ends Wednesday 30th November. Break on 2nd November.

Between the Borough:
walks & talks through the Eastern edge of North Kensington (into Westminster) Look at old photos and maps, share memories of more recent changes and go out on visits and walks.
Eight sessions. £2.50 per session. Starts Monday 12th September 10.30-12.30pm. Ends Monday 14th November. With some breaks.

Contact HistoryTalk on 020 7792 2282 or info@historytalk.org

 

 

 

 

Volunteering at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

In the last week of July I spent my time volunteering at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in Cornwall. I’ll admit that this wasn’t the easiest museum to get to from London, and so may a first appear to be an odd choice of museum to volunteer for. However it all becomes clear when I explain that Porthcurno was the site of the Eastern Telegraph Company telegraph office, and was at one point the biggest and most important telegraph office in the world.

Porthcurno World War Two Tunnels today

Established in 1870 this telegraph office connected Britain to the British Empire and the European Continent through networks of submarine telegraph cables. Porthcurno was chosen due to its remote location and sandy beach which meant it wasn’t used by fishermen and would present less hazards for the iron roped cables. By the Second World War this telegraph office was so important that heavy defences were established such as flame throwers on the beach and camouflaged tunnels in the valley walls. Today you’re more likely to see tourists on the beach than flame throwers, and the tunnels form part of the Museum’s buildings, housing most of its collection; and what a collection it has! One of the most popular activities is an interactive Mirror Galvanometer, and unsurprisingly one of my favourite cases contained a large variety of cable samples, ranging from samples dating back to first international submarine cables to more recent fiber-optic cables. The museum also has a gallery full of working instruments, helping to create the atmosphere and sound of a working building, transferring electrical information from the world to London.

As you can probably tell, this museum was right up my street, and what I thought it did very well was underline the modern significance of this Victorian enterprise. Even I was surprised to discover that 95% of our international communication today is still sent via submarine cables. Satellites are obviously used today, but are better for television broadcasting, GPS and satellite telephones; even mobile phones, though they initially send information wirelessly,  connect to a server or base station, which is connected to cables, consequently if the call is international underwater cables are required. Furthermore the location of the old submarine telegraph cables are still important today as the new fiber-optic cables follow their course, and fishing vessels and renewable energy companies need to know where they are. Frankly the sea bed is becoming an increasingly important area of real estate and there is a lot going on under the water that we just don’t know or think about.

Connecting Cornwall/Nerve Centre of the Empire Exhibition

As well as being an international telegraph office Porthcurno was also a training school for telegraph engineers, many of whom were subsequently sent off to remote outposts across the British Empire, and in later years trained engineers from around the world. Consequently the Museum has very strong collections relating to social history and local history, demonstrated through the Nerve Centre of the Empire Exhibition. As well as objects like the engineers tool boxes, important because they contain all the necessary tools to fix the telegraph machines, as help was a long time coming to these remote outposts, like the Cocos Islands or Ascension Island, and a ship could take days costing the company as well as other businesses a lot of money.

The other area the museum is exceptional at is interactives and education. Part of my role as a Volunteer Learning Facilitator was to help supervise a room with several science activities from magnets and optical illusions, to circuit building. This was extremely popular and complemented the other interactives in the museum, including the activity that enabled families to use Morse Code to telegraph each other across the Empire or dress up as Victorians. Many a visitor would exclaim their surprise at the amount of activities for children and the amount of fun they were having. And yes, the adults had as much fun and the children, I built circuits with pensioners as much as toddlers, and more often than not it was dad who wanted to dress up first.

As well as my volunteering I did get to do some research too. It was a treat to get into Porthcurno’s incredible archive, and all the staff were exceptionally helpful and interested in my work. I almost didn’t want to leave!

Porthcurno Beach

I will try and write a post on some of the information I found there but I finish this post with a few links:

Obviously here is a link to the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum itself: http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/

Here is also a link to it’s mention with other locations of communications history in Cornwall on the British Society for History of Science (BSHS) Travel Guide: http://www.bshs.org.uk/travel-guide/porthcurno-telegraph-museum-cornwall

Also Porthcurno are looking at ways to increase their national participation and impact, and one way they are looking at this is through Virtual Volunteers. So if you have any ideas of how you (or someone else) could help the museum in their many research, education, exhibition and outreach activities let them know. See their Virtual Volunteers site for more info: http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/page.php?id=286

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.

Discovering Jeremy Bentham: Bentham in the Community Event

Transcribe Bentham Project

Last night I went a long to the first event in the ‘Bentham in the Community’ series of events being hosted by the Transcribe Bentham project. This event acted as an introduction to Jeremy Bentham and his ideas, as well as a bit of context of the ideas circulating at the time and also some context for the Transcribe Bentham project itself.

The three speakers were Professor Philip Schofield, Director of the Bentham Project, Lucy Inglis, author of ‘Georgian London‘ blog and soon to be published author, and Mike Paterson, Director of the London Historian‘s group.

A Young Bentham in 1790

I have to admit I didn’t know very much about Bentham before this talk. I had previously come across him when looking into Nineteenth Century Radicalism, Bentham did have correspondence with Daniel O’Connell, the Irish Reformer, but as he died in 1832 he did not have much to do with the Chartists, whose first National Petition was presented to parliament in 1839.

What I didn’t know was that Bentham was something of a child genius, attending Queens College, Oxford at the age 0f 12 years, and completing his BA by the age of 16! He clearly was an intelligent man from a privileged background, brought up as a member of Britain’s establishment, however, perhaps surprisingly, he became one of the loudest and most infamous champions of reform.

Looking at his three main points it is clear what a radical he was:

  1. To remove the current common law system and start again on the principles of his theory of Utilitarianism (simply put: what brings happiness and pleasure is good and right, where as what brings misery and pain is bad and wrong.)
  2. Abolish the current establishment, from the monarchy to parliament, creating a system accountable to the people through universal male suffrage.
  3. Euthanasia of the Church of England, slowly dismantle the religious establishment, by simply not replacing members once they retired or died.

Plans for Bentham's Panopticon, Georgian London

Through Professor Schofield and Lucy’s talk it quickly became apparent that there wasn’t a topic that Bentham didn’t have an opinion on. From his innovative design for a prison, the Panoptican, (here is link to more info on it from Lucy’s great blog) to his thoughts on sexuality; he disagreed with homosexuality being illegal, but thought masturbation was unhealthy encouraging ‘social’ sex opposed to ‘solitary’ sex.

Something that linked Lucy and Mike’s talk was the idea of collaboration. Bentham didn’t arrive at these grand ideas all by himself, he too was influence and worked with people. People like Patrick Colquhoun, who did the ground work on which Bentham would base his great philosophies and theories. Colquhoun wrote a lot about poverty in the London docks area, and particularly the link between the role of public houses as employment agencies, he was also a statistician and magistrate. In the 1790s, working with Bentham and John  Harriot, he established the Thames River Police, the first regular preventative police force of its kind. By working with people, Bentham was able to develop his ideas and well and see them enacted.

Bringing us back to the present day, it is clear that something like the Transcribe Bentham project would be impossible without collaboration. UCL holds 60,000 folios of Bentham’s papers and have so far managed to transcribe 27 volumes in the past 50 years. With an estimation that the end result probably equals something like 70 volumes, they have a long way to go. However 2010 saw the launch of an innovative project to not only increase the output of the Transcribe project, but to increase awareness of Bentham and his ideas. Through the Transcribe Bentham website anyone can sign up to transcribe parts of his work, and progress is tracked by the Benthamometer.

Benthamometer from Transcribe Bentham project

This is a project, Mike reminded us, that has only really become possible in the past few years, as historians are using social media and technology to interact and further their research. Being a blogger, tweeter and facebooker I can also vouch for the variety and insight using these tools provide to further my historical knowledge and contacts, furthermore digital humanities continues to grow and through websites such as Connected Histories it seems we are only starting to realise the possibilities. With JISC continuing the fund projects and developments of Transcribe projects like Bentham, I share Mike’s enthusiasm for what the future may bring.

The Bentham project have two more events in the ‘Bentham in the Community’ series, see here for details.

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