Local history comes to Life – Enfield Life

Enfield Life Exhibition at the Dugdale Centre. copyright Kathleen McIlvenna

Enfield Life Exhibition at the Dugdale Centre. copyright Kathleen McIlvenna

Recently the Enfield Life exhibition, looking at the history of the modern London Borough of Enfield, which includes the historic boroughs of Edmonton, Southgate and Enfield, was officially launched. It was curated by Enfield Museum Service and has been open and receiving visitors for a number of months, but as part of the redevelopment of the first floor of the Dugdale Centre in Enfield Town, it was officially launched with the availability of meeting rooms and community spaces in the heart of Enfield Town.

Enfield Life exhibition including room sets. Copyright Kathleen McIlvenna

Enfield Life exhibition including room sets. Copyright Kathleen McIlvenna

Now, I should immediately admit my bias to this, and declare that I was part of the team that put this exhibition together. It is something I am immensely proud of and can only claim to be a small part of the team that put it together, my two other colleagues, who were full time, put in a lot of time and effort and I think this is evident in the final display.

The exhibition is generally chronological, using aspects of life across Enfield to draw out themes. It largely follows a standard panel and case format, which results in the first couples of cases looking at the pre-history, ‘Early Life’, and also the Early Modern or ‘big house’ era called ‘Aristocratic Life’. However, I think a few touches have gone a long way to make the display more dynamic drawing visitors into and through the space. It was also a great excuse to exhibit some of the larger gems in the collection. A Roman coffin sits in the middle of the floor and two room sets demonstrate changes and continuity from Georgian to 1930s homes.

Community Life case in Enfield Life exhibition. Copyright Kathleen McIlvenna

Community Life case in Enfield Life exhibition. Copyright Kathleen McIlvenna

The people of Enfield are at the heart of this exhibition and the cases looking at the later history of the area become more thematic looking at Suburban Life, Industrial Life, Municipal Life and Community Life (not in that order). Most of the objects in Enfield Museum Service collection were donated by local residents and hopefully the exhibition will facilitate a connection between the people of Enfield through the ages by translating how life has changed. From the Belling cooker, to a 1930 Toucan dinner gong and from a turn of the century silk women’s cooperative banner to a t-shirt created by the Enfield Island Village Mothers and Daughters group to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee in summer 2012.

The exhibition was also a great excuse to put up some of Enfield’s art collection depicting various aspects of Enfield’s people and places, and most of the press coverage of the exhibition has focused on the Constable drawing that has also been put on display. I won’t say much about that as it has been said elsewhere, but I will urge to take the trip to Enfield Town and the first floor of the Dugdale to have a look.

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Geology and Arctic Exploration in Cambridge

The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Cambridge

I recently had my first introduction to two of Cambridge’s many museums. An experience that took me through over a century of museology not to mention millions of years of history. The two museums were the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, and The Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute.

The Sedgwick was nestled in one of the colleges, and had all you could hope for from an Earth Science Museums. Rocks a plenty and more fossils and prehistoric animals than you could shake an animal bone at. Using 19th century cabinets filled to the brim with carefully catalogued artefacts, with names I couldn’t pronounce and handwriting I couldn’t always read, the wonderful world of the 18th and 19th century scientists and collectors, such as the collections founder, Dr John Woodward, and developer, Prof Adam Sedgewick, lives on. Alongside displays that don’t appear to have been changed since the museum opened its doors in 1904 there are modern interpretation panels to guide you chronologically through the creation of the Earth we know today. What I also enjoyed were the very local discoveries, I was fascinated by the skeleton of a hippopotamus uncovered from a town just outside Cambridge. Can you imagine a hippo in East Anglia?!

With the names associated with Cambridge University it is unsurprising to find a plethora of exhibits and displays the NHM could be envious of, including artefacts discovered by Mary Anning and Charles Darwin, and I was constantly amazed at how big the museum was and how much of their collection was on display. I feel like there was plenty I didn’t see and even more I didn’t fully understand.

These rough notes: Capt. Scott's last expedition (7th December – 5th May), The Polar Museum, Scott Polar Research Institute

The Polar Museum was a complete contrast in terms of atmosphere, with a very modern and sleek design. Methods of display also followed more modern habits of interpretation panels above a number of objects alongside a list detailing what the objects actually are, with some more detailed interpretation for some objects. I find the stories of Polar exploration fascinating, particularly because of the intrigued it encouraged among the Victorian public. This public curiosity was first underlined for me when reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but most recently by Prof. Adriana Craciu, in her paper on the Franklin relics given recently at a conference at the National Maritime Museum.

Franklin and other early explorers, as well as the communities that have lived in the Polar regions, are well represented in the Museum, but what I was there for was their exhibition, ‘These Rough Notes: Captain Scott’s Last Expedition’. Being the Scott Polar Research Institute this felt like a very personal exhibition, it was very text heavy; the series of panels (thankfully numbered) were fairly long and most of the exhibits were from diaries, log books, or other paper material from the expedition including the magazine created by the team and a penguin shaped menu. However photographs were able to break this up and following the numbered panels I was able to be absorbed into the detail and felt like I was on this last expedition myself. I found the last few panels about the harrowing experiences of the other sub-teams as well as Scott’s own team quite emotional.

It can be quite difficult to display text-based objects, especially as you probably need a lot of text to interpret the objects and the story within the paper, but the exhibition did manage to translate the relationship between the people and these bits of paper. In such a desolate place writing your thoughts, or creating a magazine, can be one of the few emotional outlets. However the stunning photography from the expedition was able to translate the emotional journey of these men more than any written document and the solemn image of the team at the South Pole was just heartbreaking.

After making the journey with Captain Scott and his team, you’re then able to go back into the main Museum display and I was pleasantly surprised to find more objects associated with the Scott expedition, as well as the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who beat Scott to the South Pole. I was transfixed by Scott’s personal camera and snow shoes for the ill-fated horses on the expedition.

As you can probably tell I loved this museum, and I feel it is the best placed Institution to tell the Scott story. Not only is the Scott Polar Institute the direct result of the scientific findings of that expedition, carrying forward the legacy of the early polar explorers in progressing scientific discovery and understanding but by also telling their stories and the stories of the communities they encountered and affected, the museum is ensuring this legacy is preserved for future generations to investigate and understand.

Here are links to the two museums – you should go!
Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences: http://www.sedgwickmuseum.org/index.html
The Polar Museum: http://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/museum/

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.