MoM recommends: Fashion Museum

The Fashion Museum, in Bath, is one of those museums that could not be located in a better place. Bang in the middle of the city, and only a short walk from other attractions such as the famous Roman Baths, it gets away with charging £9 for a standard adult ticket. Rather a costly sum for most, especially in a family-touristy area, but I can tell you I was glad that I paid it.

The museum is located inside the old Assembly Rooms, built in 1769, for the Georgian social elite. This of course lends a certain added meaning to the collection on display in the museum, as each piece is of exquisite quality, just like the Assembly Rooms themselves. The museum’s main exhibition, A History of Fashion in 100 objects, has been nestled into the building’s basement, with some perfectly purpose-fitted display cases. The galleries aren’t particular large, and in fact I imagine it would get a bit claustrophobic if it was very busy. Instead its somewhat cosy, and requires you to follow the perimeter of the rooms in chronological order.

The first gallery, 1660-1770s.

The historic costumes are beautifully displayed with what appears like minimal effort. Of course we know that in fact a lot of time and design went into this, but it appears so effortless and effective. I was more than glad that they had opted to use headless mannequins to display the garments, one of my pet hates is old-style creepy mannequins (often old shop stock) so often seen in older, underfunded museums.

We were also given an audio guide, free of charge, and incredibly easy to use, and which gave us a little description for each object on display. Although the audio guide wasn’t overly informative, only a snippet of interesting background for each, it really did help me to engage with the many chronological garments. As well as this, the signs for the objects were located towards the ground, and so it limited the amount of times you had to bend your head up and down between object and interpretation.

Collection of C17th gloves with archival boxes

The majority of items on display were dresses, suits, or other quite formal items of clothing. But there were also items of underwear, hats, and shoes on display. There was also a small collection of fans and some fantastic gloves in the first gallery. Some of the gloves on display dated from the period of Shakespeare, making an excellent start to the exhibition. But from the viewpoint of a museum professional, I absolutely loved the design of the glove display. The use of archival boxes in exhibitions is fairly common these days, but its so effective. Usually freely available from your own collection, and with the added benefit of being aesthetically simple yet effective, they’re a great way to create a modern looking display without using lots of extra funds.

A macaroni’s outfit

It was made clear that each piece of clothing was selected as example of clear changes in fashion history. For example, a suit dating from the 1780s is described by the museum as an example of the kind of clothing sported by Macaronis. I’ve an endless fascination with the escapades of C.18th gentleman, especially the Grand Tour undertaken by many a young man in the making. Macaronis symbolised everything fashionable and epicene. Macaronis, kind of fops, were essentially a precursor to the more known and rather more masculine dandies of the later C.18th. As the audio guide was explaining the outfit to the right, the clothes were far narrower and more well fitted than previously more conservative styles. Another little display design I liked went with this item in the form of an C.18th caricature included next to the signage text. I always like extra interpretive material, especially if it grounds an object in the historical context it is trying to convey. C.18th caricatures have an almost innate way of being able to interpret another self-reflective perspective of an event/object/society, as they are themselves a direct product of the attitudes of the time. This allows both curators and visitors a window to engage with the object’s past in a humorous way.

Macaroni caricature
Stomacher

Another fascinating element to the exhibition was how you were encouraged to see the change in women’s history through their dress habits. The first gallery included some beautifully crafted dresses, with examples of various dress types, such as the open dress. It also showed various parts of a woman’s dress, including the horribly named ‘stomacher’, a piece of v-shaped stiff fabric placed across the stomach and chest in the inside of an open dress. It was great to see an attempt to describe the separate elements to these complicated garments, in contrast to the easier, more convenient styles later on.

The exhibition design in terms of lighting was also excellent, with signage being well lit from within, a great addition for visitors with depleted eyesight. Each garment was beautifully lit, not letting any detail get lost in shadow.

Though the Fashion Museum may not be to everyone’s tastes, I can guarantee that there is a garment for everyone here. The exhibition’s use of the ‘100 objects’ framework lends an accessibility to those without any kind of previous fashion knowledge, and yet remains fascinating and very enjoyable.

Now here’s a bonus picture:

 

A Rapid Response

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Copyright V&A Museum. V&A’s first accessioned app.

 

So this is not breaking news any more, I am more than slightly late for the party, but I think the V&A’s decision to adopt a new strategy of ‘Rapid Response Collecting’ is very cool. This was introduced in 2014, and it isn’t a ‘new’ idea per se, institutions have been collecting contemporary items for years, but the V&A have deliberately made it their business to immediately collect items from breaking events from around the world. For example, they accessioned their first phone app, Flappy Bird, after it’s creator made the mildly controversial decision to remove it for sale when the public got a little too obsessed with it. I don’t know how they plan to conserve the app, but it is nevertheless a valuable asset to a museum that focuses upon design and its impact upon society.

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Rana Plaza Building after collapse. Photo from The Telegraph Online.

My favourite, however, is the pair of cheap and dull trousers from Primark. An item that is so easily collected that anyone could do it. But what makes this item collection-worthy is the shared experience of thousands of factory workers employed at the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh to make Primark clothing, and also a building that collapsed in 24th April 2013 killing 1133 employees and injuring thousands more. This event brought to light the dangerous working conditions of those employed, just so Britain could purchase cheap garments. Also, the tragedy highlighted the rapid changing of clothing trends, and the need of the market to keep up, much to the detriment of large communities of people.

It is hard not to be awed by the complex history of a simple pair of trousers. The way that the V&A have constructed this new strategy allows them to respond quickly to modern events without the paperwork and committees needed for new acquisitions. In turn this also allows them to collect in the moment, theoretically meaning that the item chosen will have a stronger historical connection in a few decades.

Museums are no longer places that solely put the past on display, and no longer do the public take interpretation as gospel. Museums are evolving into spaces for reflection on current events, and although the public engage more critically with what they’re seeing, museums have a unique advantage in that people still trust them as an institution.

museums are not just bystanders or “witnesses to history”, they are becoming a voice and a force in shaping the social future. Museums are looking to create emotional experiences that inspire visitors to take action.”¹

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Life jackets on display. Image from http://www.unitedagainstracism.org.

This unique trust should be put to good use, and adopting a rapid collection strategy allows museums to keep up to date with social and political changes, local or global, it doesn’t matter, just engaging with their visitors. This does require a LOT of guts, many local museums perhaps do not have that levity to risk rocking the boat with local communities, as many people do still see museums in the classic, traditional framework.

Museums are also becoming more transparent in their operations and processes, involving the public more and more with the complete ‘museum process’, would this not be a brilliant time to invite visitors to discuss issues in a increasingly transparent society? The People’s History Museum in Manchester, for example, created a wooden ‘EU tunnel’ in their gallery as a place for visitors to discuss the EU Referendum. Another example, perhaps more troubling, is the installation of life jackets worn by refugees, and the stories of those who wore them, in an exhibition called Call me by my name: stories from Calais and beyond by the Migration Museum Project. The project leaders saw the opportunity to purchase these life jackets and ship them to Britain for the exhibition, and thought it would be a compelling collection of items that would challenge how visitors view migrants and refugees.

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On an more local museum scale, the M Shed in Bristol has a permanent exhibition about the Occupy Bristol protests in 2011. included in the exhibition are items such as a radio, placards, and other objects collected from the protest camp site. The M Shed actually opened a few months later, showing that the decision to accession these items matched the thoughts of the V&A’s Rapid Response strategy, but on a local scale.

Museums are, at heart, democratic. They should be “by rule of the commoners” and the freedom for the public to expect, and demand, exhibitions and events that reflect the rapid way in which we experience the world should be adopted as at least a ‘way-of-thinking’ in each museum. Working it into museum policy would be even better.

¹ Brown, Clare, ‘Future of Museums: Social Impact + UX + PHYGITAL’ from http://www.museum-id.com/idea-detail.asp?id=283

 

Chawton House Library

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Chawton House Library exterior

“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.” – Persuasion, 1818.

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The store room

This time one month ago I was packing my bags, ready to begin a month-long residential internship at Chawton House Library. It was somewhat of a dream come true; I had visited three times before, and have always been impressed by the library in general. However, this time I was able to get behind the scenes, and try it out for myself, all the while being able to stay in the very grand converted Old Stables.

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Conservation work drying

Fast forward one week and I find myself deep into the various different aspects of running the library. Each morning I was taking the ritual readings for Environmental Monitoring, and making sure the dehumidifiers were empty for the day. I had also been taught the basics of book conservation by a very knowledgeable volunteer, learning how to repair tears, holes, and ‘lifting’ of edges. I also had the chance to assist the Wedding Manager with two Saturday weddings. As many of you probably know, the pressures of funding often means other possibilities are explored, and with CHL’s beautiful house and setting, it is ideal for the use of a beautiful wedding venue, so was a valuable experience. On top of weddings, CHL also hosts other events such as conferences and lectures, and an ever-growing programme for visitors. Even in my inexperienced eye, I can tell that in the year or so that they have been functioning both as a library and an attraction, Chawton already seems remarkably comfortable with balancing both aspects.

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Corridor leading to the Dining room

Other tasks I was busy working on included cataloguing the secondary research material donated by Deirdre Le Faye, proof reading The Solemn Injunction for their Novels Online Project, letting visitors in and out of the charming Lower Reading Room (and hearing MANY a good word), writing the information cards for the future ‘Adopt-a-book initiative’ display, and also assisting the Librarian with the general upkeep of the storeroom collection.

Alongside my work with the team, I have gained quite a good knowledge about the history of the house itself, and the grounds that surround it. CHL is unique in that it has a rich history to each aspect of the house, including the grounds, ancestry, paintings, architecture, and the collection, and is an endless source of fascination to staff and visitors alike.

The past month has been an invaluable experience, not only have I progressed my own skills, I am able to say that I have had experience with a very special collection, in a very special location, with some very special people. It has further fuelled my passion for literature and heritage, just in time to begin my Masters course in Cultural Heritage and Resource Management in the autumn. Thank you, Chawton, this is not goodbye!


Working with a special collection naturally involves handling rare and interesting items, and it would be a little mean of me not to share some of what I found with you:

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Yarrow for staunching blood
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Yarrow illustration – with seeds

A Curious Herbal (1737) by Elizabeth Blackwell is an oversized book about herbal remedies. It is an impressive and beautiful book in itself, with each remedy alongside delicate botanical illustrations. The story behind the book, however, adds a new level of meaning. A Curious Herbal was born out of a  period of financial and emotional stress, Elizabeth’s husband having gone to debtor’s prison, and it provided her with an incentive to gain financial stability and focus her mind upon something positive. Chawton’s Garden Manager has created a unique herb garden inspired by Elizabeth’s work.

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By Mary Astell – 1694

A Serious Proposal (1694) by Mary Astell is essentially a pocket sized letter addressed to the women of England, to refine their minds, not their aesthetics. Astell says, “your glass will not do you half so much service as a serious reflection on your own minds.” Not a lot is known about Mary’s biographical details, and, as a woman, details of her life were little documented. However, her ideas and publications have had a lasting effect upon feminist thought, and she promoted the idea that women were born capable of equal intelligence to men.

“If all men Men are born Free, then why are all Women born Slaves?” – Astell – ‘Reflections’ 1700.

IMG_5220Diverse Observations (1617) by Louise Bourgeois Boursier is the second publication by Louise, the first being Diverse Observations on Sterility and, as it stands, is the first known publication on midwifery by a female author.  Louise was midwife to French Royalty, and was respected enough to have been awarded 6000 livres and 300 livres a year pension by the French Royal family. She spent her retirement writing about obstetrics and passing on her knowledge to other women. Her publications were translated in several different languages, and were widely used into the 1700s.

 

 

 

“Not relevant to their everyday lives”: A Millennial Problem

millennialsThere has recently been a tonne of discussion surrounding Millennials, and how on earth do Museums engage them?

I find this question of Millennials in museums especially interesting and relevant considering I am one who both visits and works in them. Also, when you think about it, a large number of young people make up a museum’s workforce. Probably most of the people I know in museums are under 35.

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In 2013 Time issue this cover, addressing the warped opinions about Millenials.

Now, I don’t think this is a new ‘phenomenon’, but young people are working in museums probably more than perhaps three or four decades ago. But how do we encourage young visitors to fully engage with museums? Firstly we need to get rid of any preconceptions about millennials, just as Time Magazine wanted to do in 2013. Despite what the media loves to report as a growing tidal wave of narcissistic and idle youths, a recent survey highlighted the fact that out of a choice of valuing a good career trajectory against a good social life, most chose the first. Perhaps this is because of a deep dissatisfaction with the movement of careers, many of us feel as though its near impossible to graduate and get a job in your desired sector within a few months. Just as people believe money will equal happiness, many believe the same for a good job.

So, who can blame us for wanting to relax? There is perhaps a misconception for many young people, especially those who didn’t grow up with trips to cultural venues, that museums require serious thinking and a lot of spare time. With this train of thought, it isn’t purely because millennials don’t care enough about their heritage, its a question of accessibility.

But many museums are hosting late night arts and culture events to cater for those millennials who work during the day, and do indeed like a party in the evening. Much of these events are proving extremely popular, even if they are only feasible for larger museums.

There is a lot more to late night events than just keeping the doors open for an extra few hours, and music, DJ sets, poetry readings and film screenings regularly feature.

Julie Nightingale wrote a great article for MA about millennials in museums, who points out that a huge variety of events need to be offered if a museum is providing late nights, not all young people enjoy loud music and dance, and the same can be said about interactive workshops. She also points out that if museums are to take on this task then it should be vital to communicate with local universities, youth clubs, colleges, employers etc not only to get the word out, but to learn what those young people in their area are looking for. In other words, setting up Youth Panels should be a given. But evening events aren’t the only option we should be considering, a regular timetable of classes, workshops, lectures, and temporary exhibitions at various hours of the day should be on the card; not all millennials enjoy late nights.

What I believe to be the most effective answer for the future, is to encourage the next generation of 18-35 year olds by engaging them now as a family. Kids in Museums commissioned a review entitled ‘Hurdles to the participation of children, families and young people in museums.’ which, in short, showed that if parents had not regularly taken their children to cultural venues, then these children grew up with a “negative view of museums as remote and inaccessible, and not relevant to their everyday lives.”¹ And I truly believe that is this idea that museums do not fit into the ‘everyday’ that stops many millennials from engaging.  The defining features of our generation, arguably, is our interest in diversity, culture, technology, self-expression, and everything unique. Therefore ensuring that all museums try to host events and put on exhibitions that are relevant to the shared experience of young people is the tool to unpick the issue.

Here is a list of exhibitions that are accessible for all but particularly young people:

(Of course these are all subjective to personal interests)

¹ Whitaker, Sally. Hurdles to the participation of children, families and young people in museums: a literature review. Kids in Museums. p.2

 

M Shed: Things I REEEALLY liked.

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It has taken me near enough 22 years to visit Bristol, even though it is only a two and a half hour drive from where I live. Bristol didn’t fill me with thoughts of a vibrant and artistic city, but BOY I was wrong. There is a myriad of local and semi local museums/heritage sites, and the majority are free entry. As you can imagine, then, I spent a large percentage of my time making the rounds with my boyfriend in tow.

We started off with M Shed. I had previously googled this museum for background info, and described itself in a way that focused upon Bristol’s industrial heritage. I’m more about ‘social’ history, people, stories, social change etc, so the possibility of seeing machine after machine didn’t appeal at first. It is true that outside the museum it has some very large but very impressive 1951 electric dock cranes. The best thing about these is that they are working museum pieces, and were restored by a lot of TLC from volunteers. I started to change my mind by this point – they are just that impressive.

M Shed is an enormous building, with three floors of exhibitions and collections. Each floor is themed, starting off with the various sections that Bristol is split in to. The first is dedicated to the people of Bristol, and the second floor to Bristonian life. This museum isn’t just about Bristol’s industrial heritage, so by now I’m wondering about pleased as punch. I won’t ramble on about what M Shed displays, you can see that for yourself one day. However, I do want to ramble about the way they have displayed.

Features of M Shed I REEEALLY liked:

For this I will enlist the use of a list, because its easy and not boring:

  1. image8(1)I loved the use of this old illustrated map as a background for a large case. Its a great way to make an impactful [not a word I know] use of document and photograph collections.

 

 

 

  1. image7(1)The ground floor that is dedicated to places was sectioned, with various bits of the outer wall split up into Bristol’s numerous districts. Here they have used smaller floating cases filled with what local residents felt most summed-up their district. This is an effective way not only to engage with the community, but also provide a town/city with depth, showing us that Bristol does have a collective history, but each place also has it’s own distinct voice.

 

  1. Also another great way to display photograph collections and get kids to engage with them. This may look clunky, but the orange colour and wheel handle make it fun, not to mention the design suited the industrial aspects of the museum. M Shed had three of these and it was almost permanently in use by small children running between them.

 

 

 

  1. Now, the tiny image9(1)toy boats. I stood looking at these for a long time. They had been placed in cut-out sections of the museum wall that faced the docks, looking over the boats and machinery. I thought it was a brilliant way to bring the outside in, and also make use of some uninspiring toy boats. This is clearly a design feature of the building, therefore hard to copy, but nevertheless a very creative way to use physically tiny collections.

 

  1. image2(1)I have left the best for last. As I have said, the first floor was dedicated to the stories of Brisonians. This was the first space in which you were deliberately guided through exhibits. Above the panels and cases were long signs asking very personal and possibly quite troubling questions. The one in the photo below was above a case showing objects collected from the 2011 Occupy Bristol protest which lasted about 2/3 months in a public park. Mostly I admired M Shed’s sense of urgency to display such a recent and controversial event, especially adding it not as a temporary feature, but to their permanent exhibition.

You need to know about: Edward King

I recently visited Portsmouth Museum, and those who are familiar with Portsmouth are aware of it’s rich naval history and museums relating to such. However, I was pleasantly surprised to have been greeted with an art exhibition as the first port-of-call there. The artist in question is the quite unknown Edward King. Born in 1862, and living through both wars, he died of a stroke at St James’ Hospital in Portsmouth in 1951. He made the move to St James’ after a breakdown after the death of his wife. Consequently he was plagued by depression, and spent 26 years in the institution. But rather like many other famous artists, King’s work was revered during these troubled times.

“If you can see light, shade and shadow, you can paint and the picture will come.”  – Edward King.

The exhibition was split into lose segments, grouping his work into themes such as his work depicting the WWII bombing of Portsmouth, fishing, and rural scenes. His painting technique includes a particularly warm feeling even to those of bombed buildings. In turn this creates a sense of hope in the morning after, the feeling of warm sunshine that somehow belittles the harrowing nature of the attacks, and shows that Portsmouth will steadfastly carry on.

King, Edward; High Street, Old Portsmouth; Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/high-street-old-portsmouth-24193
King, Edward; High Street, Old Portsmouth; Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/high-street-old-portsmouth-24193

Another feature I observed was his use of near-impasto painting technique, as can be observed in Cabbage Field on the farm at St James’ Hospital, 1941 (see below). This use of impasto, alongside the use of perspective, draws you deep into the scene an creates the illusion you are either part of the farming staff, or a casual walker wondering past this beautiful scene. It does give you the impression that Edward King saw beauty in the darkest of his experiences, as St James’ Hospital was an Asylum.

In regards to the displaying and conveying of Edward King’s work and history, PM did a paired-back, engaging, but altogether wonderful job. I have seen comments from people who have wondered why his works aren’t available to see, this was a few years ago, and seems to be a man that belongs to Portsmouth. It is evident that the museum is lucky and holds an extensive collection, seeing as King gave many of his paintings away, and we are met by a self-portrait at the beginning giving us an immediate connection with this local man.

King, Edward; Self Portrait; Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/self-portrait-24363
King, Edward; Self Portrait; Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/self-portrait-24363

I enjoyed the basic but modern signage as it let the paintings do most of the story-telling. It was also the little touches, like the quotes and his signature on the walls, that helped to bring the character alive as well as the paintings. In terms of connecting this exhibition with the community, it was indeed minimal. However, the use of a washing-line with memories of Portsmouth residents pegged to it, plus the space in the centre for quiet study, acknowledged the city’s links with WWII and the University’s Art School. Moreover, it reminded people that like WWII, King has not left Portsmouth’s conciousness just yet, and his artistic influence will continue to stir up thought in people’s minds.

Photos from the exhibition

 

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Generation Game

How did you feel when you last visited a museum? Did you feel like the exhibitions were accessible? How much technology was employed? As brilliantly pointed out by Hamish Robinson in April’s edition of Museum’s Journal,

“The key issue is how prepared are our institutions and societies for living in not just an ageing, but aged, world?”¹

Perhaps this thought has been sparked because a large amount of new technology and scientific advancement stands to prolong life, and, although there is a large number of octogenarians who are tech-savvy, many aren’t and for various reasons will not learn these new skills. This is just an observation, but it leads me on to ask what are museum’s doing to accommodate the 80+ visitor.

Sensory and cognitive functions can, and often, diminish in later life. Pair this with an ageing populace, museums are left wondering how much are they truly engaging with their elderly visitors. Whilst features such as interactive screens, virtual reality, and other technologies that require a certain level of sensory engagement are fantastic for those who have grown up with it, it can be alienating for those who haven’t.

So what can we do?

Firstly, there has always be debate and a beady eye kept on the standards of sign usage in order to constantly offer peak accessibility for those who choose to read the history. However, I tend to feel that our generation is, rightly or wrongly so, opting out of reading what they can see and feel. I cannot be the only one that has visited an exhibition on a time limit and later, from the comfort of home, researched the topic myself online. Therefore I often feel that keeping descriptions and short histories black text on white, bold, un-crowded, and with short sentences will often convey information better. Its wonderful to go to a museum and feel they are sharing as much knowledge as possible, yet more is sometimes less. This is even more so when we consider those with concentration difficulties.

Other areas such as lighting can help with understanding. Darker exhibitions can feel claustrophobic and can somewhat suppress the absorption of information when your sight is deteriorating. Plenty of seating is also another feature crucial to encouraging older visitors, having several displays at seating level provides a calmer and more comfortable way to engage with information. And, in terms of technology, those museums with the funding or contacts, could also consider how some use of specialist technology can also help the older generation.

I can propose no immediate solution to this, it is a complex and possibly expensive issue, however I do believe that museums should take advantage of their mixed audience and gather as much generational feedback as possible. How does a family, say a grandchild and a grandparent, react to a single exhibition, did they absorb the same information, if not then why? Striking the right balance will be tricky, trying to create an ageless, but an all catered for space can be done but with plenty of marketing and demographic feedback (which can be a task for visitors and museum staff alike).

¹ Robertson, Hamish, ‘The challenge of preparing for the aged world’ (Museums Journal vol 116 no 4, April 2016)