Tag Archives: museums

Ghosts in the Machine?

Museums Association’s Patrick Steel (Museums Journal 14 Dec 2016) has drawn my attention to the fact that museums have been entirely left out of the Welsh Government’s diabetic coma-inducingly-titled “Light Springs Through The Dark: A Vision For Culture In Wales” (who on earth comes up with these report names…!?).

This is, as the pretentious title suggests, a “vision”. For culture. In Wales.

A vision that has a blindspot when it comes to museums.

The Welsh Government itself commissioned an Expert Review of Local Museum Provision last year. But has done nothing with it. Now it has conveniently forgotten about it and left it out of “Light Springs…” (Or should that be “Sh*te Springs…?” Perhaps the name will stick….).

Patrick’s full article can be read here.

One specific point leaps out. The Welsh Government are currently consulting on their suggestion to create an organisation called “Historic Wales” to combine the commercial operations of Cadw, National Museum Wales and The Royal Commission. In “Sh*te Springs…” (see, it DID stick!) the Welsh Government states it will create Historic Wales. No ifs, no buts, it will create. Nice valuing of consultation there WG!

I am appalled by Welsh Government’s attitude to the museum sector. Initially interested but, ultimately, callously indifferent to the contribution museums make to Wales economy and soul.

2016 was a bad year for all sorts of reasons. Museums in Wales will not be looking forward to a prosperous 2017.

Bah humbug….


Whip Crack-Away

Below is the unedited text of my review of a current exhibition in National Museum Cardiff. The review appeared in the May edition of The Museums Journal:

The marketing for this exhibition has heavily used the imagery of Indiana Jones, the jauntily-hatted, kangaroo-hide whip-wielding hero of Hollywood scriptwriters. Whilst I am a fan of the Steven Spielberg films this did worry me as I expected to encounter more style than substance. More story than objects. However I was to be pleasantly disappointed.

Treasure: Adventures in Archaeology is the National Museum Cardiff’s first temporary exhibition, for over 20 years, for which an admission charge is levied. £7 per adult is not cheap (35 concessions, 16yrs and under go free) for a museum which has done much in the last decade to grow its reputation as a museum which provides access to all. So I donned my museologists hat, stowed my whip of cynicism on my belt and entered…

The exhibition is housed in the museum’s east wing temporary exhibition gallery which is a long rectangle in plan. Visitors enter via one of the long sides of the rectangle. The first thing to notice is the excellent, large, narrative panels which introduce visitors to some of the basic principles and issues to be found in the rest of the exhibition. The panels are mounted at a relatively low (but not too low for my 6ft 4in frame) height and use language which is both appropriate to a wide range of visitors and as much challenging as it is informing. The size and style of these panels is consistent throughout the gallery and greatly enhance the objects on show (some of which, for me, were stronger than others).

The very first case-mounted objects are poorly lit from high above and shadows spoiled my viewing of them. Throughout the gallery there are some issues with the individual object labels and lighting for the same reasons.

On entry I turned right and started to view the cases and panels. After a few minutes I arrived at the exit! I realised, with the help of a museum attendant, that I should have turned left. A simple problem which could be simply rectified by some kind of panel-, or floor-mounted instruction/arrows.

Once back on track I noticed the exhibition itself only took up about half of the temporary exhibition space, which was a disappointment for a paid-for exhibition. Having visited the museum many times over the years I assumed the whole space would be taken up.

I found my stride and started to read and view. The exhibition adopts an intriguing and stimulating approach of taking the visitor on a chronological inquiry of archaeology, using key archaeologists as the hook.

Did you know that Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1823), one of the first real excavators of Egyptian sites, had an earlier career as a strongman and was also known as “The Sampson of Patagonia” and described later as “archaeologist and weightlifter”? I love these kinds of facts and couldn’t have been more surprised and entertained if I’d learned that Geoff Capes had joined the Time Team..

The displays continued on through William Matthew Flinders Petrie “Father of Egyptian Archaeology”, Heinrich Schliemann (discoverer, and plunderer, of Troy), Hiram Bingham the discoverer of Machu Pichu (at this point the large narrative panel asked the question “What’s the biggest thing you have ever lost? Have you lost a city?”, which made me smile) and more.

It was good to see information about Adele Breton who, apart from William Petrie’s wife, was the only female archaeologist I could see. Her obsidian tool cores, from Mexico, were beautiful and my favourite objects).

This trail of historically important archaeologists continued through to include early British examples and some from Wales.

The story of these individuals was cleverly interwoven with the story of a small number of cultures from around the world. Mycenae, Ancient Greece, Pre-Columbian, Rapa-Nui (Easter Island), Egypt and Wales.

One or two of the intermediate level narrative panels were placed at different heights and some were too high for the smaller visitor or those who may be seated. But this is a minor point in what otherwise is a good execution of a text-writing which is highly engaging. The several interactive screens around the gallery are simple, intuitive and work well. They flesh out the story told by panels and objects and give the visitor a deeper engagement. Their use of illustrations and text was crisp and uncluttered.

At one point, for some unknown reason, there is a 2ft diameter brown ball (mounted in a side panel) which is constantly revolving to reveal a skull embedded within. This didn’t bring anything to the experience other than a loud “click” each time it turned.

As a Welshman I was fascinated by the displays of archaeology and archaeologists from Wales. Finds from the wreck of the Ann Francis, the Tregwynt Civil War hoard and hoards from Bridgend. All clearly displayed.

Near the end of the exhibition (now that I knew where that was…) there are cases which explore the cultural impact of archaeology through time. Books, ornaments, stamps, jewellery etc. Another exhibited archaeological “fakes”, challenging the visitor to think about what archaeologists do and the finding of “truth”.

A panel on 1920s archaeologists and their relationships with newspapers and the writing of regular articles was used to draw parallels with “bloggers” of today. Another took the opportunity to explain the importance, and impact, of responsible metal detecting with an explanation of the finding of a Viking burial in Llanbedrgoch, Anglesey.

A children’s area contains paper, crayons, workbooks and textured panels from which to take rubbings. A simple, but well delivered area which will entertain children and adults alike. The workbooks contained some activity which asked children to think about what is meant by “treasure”. I think the exhibition could have been a bit more explicit about this too, but that is a minor quibble.

Finally, framed by the two bronze exit doors, is the case containing the “real” Indiana Jones’ hat, jacket and whip. He is a Hollywood hero to many, but the case label politely pointed out that he wasn’t necessarily the best at careful, logical, scientific excavations and research.

The visitors’ book comments are universally positive and I have to agree with them. I spent an hour in the exhibition and learned many unexpected things.

As I walked down the steps outside the museum I couldn’t resist glancing back to see if I was being followed by an enormous stone ball….


Happy St. David’s Day!

Dydd Gwyl Dewi Hapus!

It seems an appropriate/auspicious date on which to post a blog about another famous Welshman, Dylan Thomas.

I was commissioned, by the Museums Association, to review The Dylan Thomas Centre’s new permanent exhibition on Dylan Thomas. The review will be in this month’s Museums Journal (out today) but here it is too:

So, to begin at the beginning….

Dylan Thomas famously dubbed Swansea an “ugly lovely town” and this rings true as one approaches the Dylan Thomas Centre, situated beside the fishboat bobbing marina. This part of Swansea is still undergoing development and the car park, and its environs, could do with upgrading to create a better impression. However, the Dylan Thomas Centre itself is an attractive pile, constructed of honey-coloured limestone.

On entering, the staff are friendly and welcoming and exude a pride in their work and their workplace. They oriented me, pointing out the Dylan Thomas exhibition and the temporary exhibition and education spaces.

First impressions of the new permanent display, telling the story of Thomas’ life and works, are of a rather traditional, if shiny and new, space. A circular gallery chronologically arranged from, on the right, Thomas’ birth round (anti-clockwise) to his tragically early death in New York. One can see many tabletop glass cases and text on walls. “Oh dear” I thought.

However, how does one tell the story of a writer if not through his, and others’, writings? So I liberally sprinkled benefit over my doubt and began to engage with the exhibition…

The walls are peppered with quotes from the appropriate stage of the exhibition’s story (a timeline stretches along the edge of the ceiling from start to finish) and these begin to draw visitors in to the unravelling tale. “The memories of childhood have no order, and no end” struck a chord with me as did the description of the Kardomah Gang “…drinking coffee dashes and arguing the toss” (which could easily have described the MA Conference in Cardiff. Apart from the coffee…).

Throughout the space there are flip-up panels which invite inspection. They reveal further quotes, facts, and general information and, whilst a simple idea, the physicality actually enhanced the experience. There are smaller, lower, flip-up panels whose contents are more abstract and I was puzzled by these as there is no explanation of what they are for (one assumes they are for children and/or wheelchair users but this is not obvious).

Working further around the timeline one reaches a seating area where one can use headphones to hear Dylan Thomas’ writings in his own words. This was a special moment as I had only heard one or two recordings of his before. The headphones are essential in this position as there is significant sound “bleed” from an art installation around the corner which makes the exhibition feel more alive but also, sadly, does annoy slightly.

I was blown away to learn of his association with the Surrealist movement and his links with Dali, Picasso etc. It is this kind of informational gem which this exhibition delivers.

The whole exhibition is design-heavy, with objects, graphic panels and labels combined. It is, on the whole, a good design but there are one or two zones where it is difficult to make the link between object and label.

The designers have made the exhibition as interactive as possible (a challenge given the nature of the written word, photographs and other printed ephemera) with touch screens and flip-up panels. A model of a radio engages visitors in selecting, via a rotating knob, different broadcasts of Dylan Thomas’. I found this informative and entertaining until my selected broadcast ended and the radio emitted a loud, sustained hiss which I could not switch off (I sloped off, hoping no one noticed me…). All exhibitions featuring such interactivity are going to suffer from wear and tear and perhaps this is what’s happening here.

The art installation in the centre of the gallery mixes video and audio from various broadcasts of his works into an immersive experience with the visitor standing in the middle of three video screens. I found this piece a welcome artistic accompaniment to the rest of the informative gallery. Working further round one comes to objects associated with his most famous work “Under Milkwood”. They are held in cases whose design is redolent of medieaval reliquaries. Given the nature of the cases’ contents I felt this was highly appropriate and, hopefully, intentional.

Throughout the exhibition there is, where possible, primary source material which either was created by the hand of Thomas or is closely associated with him, his family and his story. Understandably, since his death, a great deal of other primary source material has been acquired by other collectors and it was wonderful to see this addressed through the temporary exhibition gallery close by which, at the time of this visit, contained a fascinating set of original writing from an American University’s collections.

The exhibition reaches a poignant end with a case showing Thomas’ tweed jacket and trousers and, finally, his death mask. I found this, and the photograph of the poet in his coffin, terrifically moving. It stimulated me to find out even more about the great man.

As a proud Welshman I was more than a little ashamed at my ignorance of the spectrum of Dylan Thomas’ work. Perhaps more than any other Welshman Dylan Thomas belongs to the world. This exhibition, despite minor glitches, admirably introduces visitors to his life, times and works. It takes them from his cheeky happy childhood, through his creative blossoming and, finally, on to 9 November 1953 when he died aged only 39.

Making museums work (and work at museums)

Last week I had the great good fortune to meet with Reethah Desi and Jackie Winchester at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery to discuss how museums can contribute to delivering employability skills. We had (I hope Reethah and Jackie agree!) a very stimulating discussion on how museums can help the unemployed back into work. I’m sad to say I was blissfully ignorant of the museum’s excellent project Moving Forward which is delivered by M Shed in collaboration with South Gloucestershire and Stroud College and local employment support agencies. The project gives young people the confidence and skills to obtain customer service/front of house style jobs. For many this is simply a stepping stone to future, wider employment options.

This project drew inspiration from Manchester Museum and Imperial War Museum North’s In Touch Volunteer Programme which developed adult’s employability skills almost by accident!

The museum sector needs more of these projects. Whether large or small, national or independent, rural or urban, Roman history or geology, whatever your museum is about you can turn your hand to helping adults gain the confidence and motivation they need to re-engage with society and employment. Oh, and they might just become new visitors while they are at it…

Where do you go to my lovely?

Far from being a reference to Peter Sarstedt’s rather stalker-esque pop hit (just Google the lyrics…), this blog post aims to promote an interesting, free, publication from NIACE on how to track learners once they have left you. Whilst this is of direct relevance to providers of formal, accredited adult learning it should also be of interest to all providers in the adult learning and culture sectors as it gives ideas on following (in a non-Peter-Sarstedt way) those adults who have previously engaged in your learning provision.

Now, more than ever, both sectors need to prove “impact”. What better way than to do this than to be able to show key stakeholders (ie funders…) that you know exactly what happened to people immediately after they did some learning with you?

Anyway, it’s not for everyone but I thought it might be interesting. I’m off now to my apartment on the Boulevard of St. Michel to listen to some Rolling Stones records with my mate, Sacha Distel…