Category Archives: digital museums

What does Australia look like in cultural institutions overseas? Part 2

In Part two of this post, I’d like to think more about the “decolonisation” of cultural institutions and how this could impact on Australia and the way it is viewed by visitors overseas. Do cultural institutions present Australian history and cultural heritage to reflect our ever evolving nation post British colonisation and including those who have migrated to Australia up to the present day?

Present day Australians. Image: abc.net

I would say that our Colonial past has synergy with other parts of the world colonised by the British – such as the United States, India, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. British Colonial Governors were regularly transferred to different parts of the British Empire and used convict labour to put their stamp onto the newly formed colonies. This period of history provides the earliest evidence of Australia’s changing cultural heritage post British settlement. After losing its American colonies in 1783, the British formed six colonies in Australia. They began to create a European-style “built environment” including townships, infrastructure and industries, large scale farming and trading between colonies and with other nations. 

History is Messy. Image: The Guardian

Calla Wahlquist from The Guardian wrote an article “History is Messy” about the National Galleries Victoria’s (NGV) concurrent shows called Colony (1770-1861) and Colony (Frontiers), exploring Australia’s complex colonial past and the art that emerged during and in response to this period. Presented concurrently, the two exhibitions offered parallel experiences of the settlement of Australia. Drawing from public and private collections across the country, Colony: Australia 1770–1861, brought together the most important examples of art and design produced during this period and surveyed the key settlements and development of life and culture in the colonies. Importantly, the exhibition acknowledged the impact of European settlement on Indigenous communities. Such an exhibition would have relevance in the UK and other Pacific nations that similarly were impacted by British explorers and colonists.

When the six colonies in Australia federated in 1901 and the Commonwealth of Australia was formed as part of the British Empire, there was widespread public support for the adoption of a national immigration policy and administration post Federation. Immigration was at the time administered separately by the states. All of the major parties involved in the new Federal Parliament held policies deliberately aimed at the exclusion of non-European migrants. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901, included a ‘dictation test’ for those seeking to immigrate that could be given in any European language, and was the beginning of what became known as the ‘White Australia Policy’. This policy remained virtually unchanged until after the Second World War.

Until 1949, Britain and Australia shared a common nationality code. The Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 created an Australian citizenship and the conditions by which it could be acquired. An Australian citizen was also considered to be a British subject.The Australian Citizenship Amendment Act 1984 was aimed at removing discriminatory aspects of the Act in relation to sex, marital status and nationality. The English language requirement was changed from ‘adequate’ to ‘basic’ and applicants over 50 were exempted from the English language requirement. Of particular importance, the definition of the status of British subject was repealed in order for the Act to reflect the national identity of all Australians. By the end of the 1980s, the total number of migrants from Asia overtook the total number from the UK. 

250 years after James Cook’s arrival, what are we doing to ensure the quality control of this information about Australia’s history on the world stage? There is a great deal of chatter worldwide about whether or not cultural institutions and their collections can be “decolonised”. 

“To decolonise is to add context that has been deliberately ignored and stripped away over generations. There are many examples of the misrepresentation of objects in museum displays that have only been corrected after dialogue with source communities. And there are countless instances where interpretation still needs to be rectified and stories freshly told.”  (Sharon Heal – 2019 Policy article – UK Museums Association) 

I think that it’s about more than that. It’s about being honest, stripping back the imbalance of power that occurred in the past (often unknowingly), really looking at inadvertent racism or examining the way that we tread “softly, softly” on difficult subjects like “The Stolen Generation”, “Slavery in Australia” or the “White Australia Policy”. It’s about looking carefully at museum collections – empowering them by reinterpreting and researching them, perhaps even repatriating objects with significance to living cultures or changing direction to be more “inclusive”. It is critical to consider the present diversity of museum audiences when evaluating objects in specific collections – are they relevant for each museum’s vision for the future or are they stuck with interpretation that belonged to times past, older exhibitions and a different type of museum visitor.

Museums must be safe places for inter-generational learning and education, spaces for healing and reflection and a place where everyone feels welcome and the majority of visitors would want to return again and again. In the era of Covid-19 when cultural institutions are about to take a huge financial hit – getting your house in order is the best way to stay relevant when the doors to your institution reopen. 

The Washington Post defines decolonisation as “a process that institutions undergo to expand the perspectives they portray beyond those of the dominant cultural group, particularly white colonisers.”

There are several ways to promote Australia in cultural institutions overseas. The first and simplest method is to design travelling exhibitions in partnership with museums that may have objects in their collections which would enhance an existing exhibition or has had a direct connection which might be relevant  to the subject matter in the exhibition. 

Australia is very much a nation of migrants from 1788 until the present day. We have a number of good “Migration” museums and museums reflecting the migrant contribution to Australian culture around the country. Specific collections relating to our migrant history can be found at the Migration museums in Melbourne, Adelaide, and sections of the Australian National Maritime Museum (Sydney), National Museum of Australia (Canberra), National Archives of Australia (Canberra). There are also “specialist” museums such as Sydney Jewish Museum, Jewish Museum of Australia (Melbourne), Jewish Holocaust Centre (Melbourne) and “multicultural” museums e.g.  Multicultural Museums Victoria (MMV) an alliance  which is an Australian first including the Chinese Museum, Co.As.It Italian Historical Society & Museo Italiano, Hellenic Museum, Islamic Museum of Australia and the Jewish Museum of Australia. I doubt that many of these museums would have an opportunity to exhibit travelling exhibitions overseas which is a pity because I’m not certain how we are seen as Australians from a global perspective.

What’s on at Multicultural Museums Victoria.

 I’ve seen some sad misrepresentation of Australia in world class museums, but in direct contrast, I’ve been very proud to see one of our difficult stories connecting with audiences in the UK. I was lucky to visit “On Their Own – Britain’s Child Migrants”, a collaboration between the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney and National Museums Liverpool in both Sydney and Liverpool, UK and observe the emotional audience response to the telling of this story from our difficult past.

Sometimes the absence of objects in museums overseas also tells a story about how Australia is seen on the world stage. If you look into the online collections and exhibition databases of major cultural institutions overseas, Australia is either not mentioned, poorly represented across layers of history and cultural diversity or aspects of the Australian collection have been vaguely researched or mislabeled or tagged as Australian when they are not, or the provenance is weak to say the least (see Part one of the post). This is an opportunity for Australian cultural institutions to support or partner with museums overseas to assist with researching collections or reinterpreting out of date displays.

For example, I have seen wonderful exhibitions of Fred William’s work in Australian galleries over many years and would love to have seen some of those beautifully curated exhibitions travel the world. The works would also lend themselves to digital or immersive experiences of the outback Australia. Of course Williams is only one of hundreds of 19th and 20th century Australian artists who would look good on the walls of cultural institutions in other parts of the world.

Fred Williams from the Tate Galleries UK Collection

Williams (b.1927) is one of my favourite Australian artists because his works are truly evocative of the Australian landscape. Fred is the first and only Australian artist to have exhibited at MoMA (New York) and this happened  in 1977- 43 years ago. Sadly there are few other references to Australian Art in the MoMA collection. The artists represented in the collection are – Leonard French b.1928, Tracey Moffat b.1960, Toba Khedori, b.1964, Sydney Nolan b.1917, Anton Bruehl b.1900 (born in Australia), Shaun Gladwell b.1972, and the University of Western Australia for their Pig Wings Project 2000-2001.

In the UK the Tate Gallery holds 30 of Fred Williams works and works by over 70 Australian artists including those  with Indigenous and Multicultural cultural heritage. 

I was excited to find 619 references to Australia in the online collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York but so many of these works were by Australian born artists who were more American or British in reality. Indigenous Australia seemed to be well represented in the online collection, but actually looking at these objects and artworks reveals that a large proportion are actually African, Indian, European, Fijian, South East Asian or from Papua New Guinea and New Zealand. 

In the British Museum collection online there are over 7,000 references to Australia but closer examination reveals that hundreds of these are objects from other countries which had been on loan to Australian Museums for exhibitions rather than actually being sourced from Australia. Thousands of objects are Indigenous Australian pieces – tools, weapons, bags, adornments, artwork, shields etc. There are more recent art works and decorative objects, coins and banknotes and photographs and colonial paintings and engravings but only one record for Multicultural Australia – Ithaca I; print; Aida Tomescu (Print made by); 1997 .

Aida Tomescu (1997) Ithaca I. AGNSW Collection. No image available for British Museum.

Australia’s Multicultural heritage is unique and an interesting part of the fabric of our nation and there are many stories in museums in Australia that could be shared world over. In 2011 Viv Szekeres wrote an article  ‘Museums and multiculturalism: too vague to understand, too important to ignore’ . To reflect our changing cultural heritage may require a rethink in collection practices – a more strategic collection practice in partnership with different communities.

The National Galleries Victoria presented a major exhibition of influential British artist, David Hockney, in 2016 at NGV International. The exhibition, curated by the NGV in collaboration with David Hockney and his studio, featured more than 700 works from the past decade of the artist’s career – some new and many never-before-seen in Australia – including paintings, digital drawings, photography and video works. We seem to do really well collaborating with overseas museums to highlight their collections but what about the reverse situation to highlight our Australian collections overseas? 

Useful references

What does it mean to decolonize a museum?

Who’s afraid of decolonisation?

Decolonising museums

The ‘decolonization’ of the American museum – The

White Australia policy

Australia’s hidden history of slavery: the government divides to conquer

The Stolen Generations

Understanding Museums – Museums and multiculturalism

Decolonizing the Museum Mind

Museums Association UK  Collections 2030 DISCUSSION PAPER 

FRED WILLIAMS : INFINITE HORIZONS –

What does Australia look like in cultural institutions overseas? Part 1

https://naturalhistory.si.edu/exhibits/beauty-rich-and-rare

I read a post on LinkedIn about the first major Australian exhibition at The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. Beauty Rich and Rare was developed over a two year period by The National Library of Australia (NLA) and digital storytellers AGB Events (creators of Sydney’s Vivid festival) and is on show until 5th July 2020. It marks the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s arrival on Australian shores and is an immersive sound and light display featuring original illustrations, charts, and a digital version of Joseph Banks’ journal. The exhibition was shown at the NLA in Canberra concurrently with Cook and the Pacific which examined the legacy of Cook from different angles – “the great navigator, sailor and commander” and from the perspective of the Indigenous people of the Pacific. Cook’s Pacific encounters were a two-way exchange with island nations – nations that had different languages and a unique cultural heritage. Today Cook and the impact of his voyages continues to resonate powerfully across the Pacific.

Beauty Rich and Rare Exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC on December 18, 2019. (Photo by Richie Downs / Asico Photo)

Recently I’ve undertaken a FutureLearn course (online) called “Confronting Captain Cook: Memorialisation in Museums and Public Places” by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. The information presented has led me to think more critically about Cook’s voyages and their unresolved impact on the history of the  Pacific region (including Australia), and the way in which such historical encounters and Pacific peoples are represented in cultural institutions around the world.

As an Australian, I’d like to know more about the way that Australia is viewed by curators and visitors in museums overseas. The representation of Australia in foreign collections started with Cook and other foreign explorers and the need to gather evidence of “the natural world” and human civilisation (or lack thereof according to European standards) on their voyages. Explorers kept journals and gathered a variety of objects and specimens – both cultural and scientific (including flora, fauna and geological specimens). Curiosities from other lands were collected by institutions in both a “wunderkammer” and scientific sense, without the benefit of context, cultural interpretation or significance to living cultures – without the input which we demand for objects acquired in museums today. 

Art Gallery of NSW collection. The English Channel (2015) Michael Parekowhai. New Zealand. Cook reflecting on his legacy in a contemporary world.

Historic collections should be open to further research, interpretation and rethinking because artefacts are meaningless without specific scientific research or cultural knowledge being attached to them. In particular, Indigenous Australian objects were taken or sourced without Aboriginal voices and meanings, without knowledge of cultural significance and importance attached to them. Some items would still be relevant in 2020 to living Indigenous cultures and should be considered for repatriation rather than remaining stuck in glass cases and conservation stores across the world.

It is shocking to realise that for more than 150 years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains and sacred objects were removed from their communities and placed in museums, universities and private collections overseas. Jennifer Beer from the Aboriginal Heritage Council of Victoria sums it up in these words:

“Secret and sacred objects are a big part of who we are. They carry stories that shape us, and we, and future generations, in turn shape them. They need to be with their rightful custodians so they can keep carrying our stories and our connection with them.”

I want to see Australia’s rich cultural heritage represented in cultural institutions around the world. I’d love to see historic figures, artworks and artefacts given the respect that they deserve on the world stage but honestly this is not occurring in many cultural institutions without appropriate staff, policies and procedures for reviewing historic collections in the contemporary world.

Looking at museum collections online to examine the way Australia is viewed in cultural institutions internationally is an enormous project in itself and would take many years of research. In this post I have sampled a handful of museums presenting Indigenous Australian cultural heritage (tangible and intangible) – one of the oldest in the world dating back 60,000 years. 

The National Museum of Australia has published some work on the subject for Australian Museums under Understanding Museums: Australian museums and museology called “Indigenous People and Museums” which speaks critically about indigenous collections, culture and art and repatriation of objects under certain circumstances. Perhaps the information needs a further push to curators and conservators of Indigenous Australian collections in other parts of the world as well as Australia. 

Secret or sacred objects are secret or sacred according to Aboriginal tradition. Aboriginal Traditional Owners determine which Aboriginal objects are secret or sacred.

Secret or sacred objects include items:

  • associated with a traditional burial
  • created for ceremonial, religious or burial purposes
  • used or seen only by certain people
  • sourced from or containing materials that only certain members of the community can use or see

There are some brilliant offerings and interpretation in Australian museums and galleries and there are a number of articles and guidelines available online which have thoughtful discussion regarding Indigenous engagement, Continuous culture and ongoing responsibilities

Indigenous Australian Artwork by Ningura Napurrula ( Western Desert artist) at the Musee du quai Branly

I had great hopes for Musee Quai Branly in Paris, but in spite of Architect Jean Nouvel’s original concept for the museum, the more I read about it, the less convinced I am that the museum hits the mark for the people that it was supposed to champion. One of the most interesting articles that I’ve read is written by Alexandra Sauvage in reCollections, Vol 2,Number 2 called  Narratives of colonisation: The Musée du quai Branly in context. Sauvage points out that:

 “Whereas museums tend more and more to collaborate with Indigenous peoples in the preservation of collections and the development of exhibitions, the Musée du quai Branly proposes a complicated, marginalising and (most) un-traditional way for Indigenous communities to benefit from their cultural heritage. Clearly, everything indicates that it was a political choice to ignore the 30-year-long fruitful dialogue between anthropologists, curators and Indigenous peoples that has taken place worldwide, a dialogue ‘between cultures’ that has informed museum policies for the last decades. Instead of following this general path, the efforts of the MQB are directed to promoting the ‘aesthetics’ of the collections.”

Musee du quai Branly – Indigenous Australian Artworks

On a more positive note, The Indigenous Repatriation Program has so far led to the return of more than 1,480 Indigenous Australian ancestral remains, with more than 1,200 coming from the UK. In 2019, the ancestral remains of 37 Aboriginal people were returned to Australia from London’s Natural History Museum. Narungga community representatives were part of a delegation receiving the remains of an ancestor who will be cared for at the South Australian Museum until the community is ready to conduct a reburial ceremony. The Museum will also look after another seven repatriated ancestral remains. The remaining 29 ancestral remains will go to the National Museum of Australia until the Ngarrindjeri, Far West Coast, Kaurna and Flinders Ranges communities are ready to lay them to rest.

Sacred Indigenous artefacts have been returned to traditional owners in Central Australia after spending almost a century in United States museums. The objects were displayed in Illinois after being taken in the 1920s. Due to their nature, the  items cannot be revealed or seen by the public for cultural reasons. Elders spent months liaising for the return of 42 Aranda and Bardi Jawi objects, which arrived in Sydney from the Illinois State Museum.

The items were the first of many to be returned as part of a project that coincides with this year’s 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s first voyage to Australia. Project leader Christopher Simpson, from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), said the goal was returning items to country, not putting them on the shelf of another museum.

The Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples at AMNH, New York

In The American Museum Of Natural History , New York City, Australia is represented within The Margaret Mead Hall Of Pacific Peoples. The museum has more than 25,000 ethnographic objects from the Pacific in its online database. Of these, 3,400 have originated from Indigenous Australian communities.

I was surprised to cross reference the objects with the registration catalogue to see who had donated the objects and the year that they had been donated – many items donated in the early 1900s. There was often a lack of useful information recorded and provenance was even more surprising. Objects had been exchanged from other museums including The Australian Museum, Museum of Florence, etc. as well as from private donors, often anthropologists and archaeologists who had worked in Australia with Indigenous communities.

There are still many contentious items in museums all over the world. I am not an Indigenous Australian, but I am a museum professional who sees no sense in objects which belong to living cultures being placed in storage or incorrectly displayed when they have significance and a part to play in modern day Aboriginal Australian cultural practice and heritage. How do we, as professionals, continue to raise awareness in cultural institutions around the world about the significance of these objects which need further research and evaluation?

Useful references:

Augustus Earle (1793─1838), Portrait of Bungaree, a Native of New South Wales, with Fort Macquarie, Sydney Harbour, in Background c.1826, Rex Nan Kivell Collection, NLA.GOV.AU/NLA.CAT-VN313278
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Narratives of Colonisation:The Musée du quai Branly in context. https://recollections.nma.gov.au/issues/vol_2_no2/papers/narratives_of_colonisation

Under Western Eyes’: a short analysis of the reception of Aboriginal art in France through the press. https://journals.openedition.org/actesbranly/581?lang=en

The Creation of Indigenous Collections in Melbourne: How Kenneth Clark, Charles Mountford, and Leonhard Adam Interrogated Australian Indigeneity https://journals.openedition.org/actesbranly/332?lang=en

Indigenous People and Museums. https://nma.gov.au/research/understanding-museums/_lib/pdf/Understanding-Museums_Indigenous_people_and_museums.pdf

Continuous Cultures, Ongoing Responsibilities. https://www.nma.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/3296/ccor_final_feb_05.pdf

Reuniting Indigenous ‘sticks’ with their stories: the museum on a mission to give back . https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/mar/04/reuniting-indigenous-sticks-with-their-stories-the-museum-on-a-mission-to-give-back

Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1999). The educational role of the museum. London: Routledge.

Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (2000). Changing Values in the Art Museum: rethinking communication and learning, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 6:1, 9-31, DOI: 10.1080/135272500363715

Hodge, R., D’Souza, W., & Rivière, G.H. (2009). The museum as a Communicator: A semiotic analysis of the Western Australian Museum Aboriginal Gallery, Perth.

Helena Robinson (2017) Is cultural democracy possible in a museum? Critical reflections on Indigenous engagement in the development of the exhibition “Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum”, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 23:9, 860-874, DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2017.1300931

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-07/indigenous-artefact-repatriation-nt/11677810

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-05-11/british-museum-battle-for-stolen-indigenous-gweagal-shield/11085534

Audience Research 101

Why should cultural institutions do audience research?

Competition in the “museum world” is tough. It doesn’t matter how exclusive your collection is, or how famous your brand, there is competition from other cultural institutions, big and small, as well as any number of other distractions (sport, relaxation, leisure pursuits) competing for a share of potential visitors and even the most committed members’  valuable time. Face to face audience research into visitor experiences within the museum provides useful information that can be fed back into program development, museum policy and strategic planning for the future.

The front foyer of the newly rebranded MU-SEA-UM (Australian National Maritime Museum) at Darling Harbour

It is not enough to just happily count numbers of visitors through the door. Numbers on their own can be quite misleading without the qualitative data supporting visitor behaviour (including  visitor observation and tracking – see  separate post) during the  visit and feedback from visitors about their personal experiences inside your cultural institution and why they may or may not come back in the future.

Impressionists from Monet to Cezanne at Palazzo degli Esami in Rome

Visitor Feedback Surveys

Certainly, visitor feedback is key to keeping audiences engaged with your museum and your brand. If you welcome feedback, audiences feel appreciated and valued, whether it’s about the collection, upcoming or current exhibitions, kids activities, programs, eating spaces  or the state of the bathrooms!

Once you have direct communication with visitors, you can benefit enormously from their feedback (both positive and negative), but firstly, the organisation needs to be specific as possible about  what it wants to know in order for the feedback to be beneficial.

Preparing  your audience research objective

Modern Masters from The Hermitage at the Art Gallery of NSW

Feedback survey questions usually require a brainstorming session in order to define the aims of the survey. Once the aims have been determined, it becomes easier to write the survey questions. It’s impossible to retrieve and analyse data that has not been collected and there is no point in collecting data that staff have no use for.  Think carefully –

  • How will the information be used?
  • What do staff want to find out about their visitors?

Visitor feedback  survey objectives need to be clearly defined. Keep them simple and specific. Try to minimise bias in the questions.  Visitor surveys are research. Research on museum visitors can determine specifics such as:

  • Where are your visitors from? Are they alone or with friends/ family?
  • Are they likely to return to your institution – this may be affected by accessibility. Are visitors local or from overseas/interstate? Are they already members, repeat visitors or first timers?
  • What are their interests? These may be specific to your museum collection, a particular exhibition or just a family outing?
  • What do people like or dislike about your museum collection, exhibitions, program and activities? Embrace both sides as an opportunity to think critically about what you offer and the way you offer it.

Also be conscious that research on people who do not visit the museum can be useful  to determine why people don’t come, particularly the local community on your doorstep.

Using results

Constant self-reflection and improvement will  encourage more visitors through the door. Use the findings from visitor feedback surveys to help with the planning and implementation of improvements to the “people interface” –  Front of House, museum spaces and services (including facilities, cafe, museum shop etc.). Listening to and responding to the feedback findings will ensure the success of future marketing, promotional and public relations campaigns.

The solid evidence produced by analysing survey results will add credibility to your case when pitching to potential sponsors or funding sources to support future projects.

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Clip boards at the ready. Many museums choose iPads for surveying. The importance thing is to use tools which allow engagement with the visitor. You may learn something extra during the exchange.

Tips  for Survey staff on real time Surveying of Visitors

  • Take time to absorb the museum atmosphere on the day. Move around the museum spaces and work out the best spots  to catch people.
  • Choose people carefully. There is no point in asking a parent with a screaming child or people preoccupied with something inside the museum where they are unlikely to want to be disturbed.
  • Introduce yourself to visitors being surveyed and tell them what you are doing emphasising that the museum needs their feedback to try to improve or find out their opinion on “(whatever)” depending upon the survey aim – ticket pricing, accessibility, current exhibition content and future exhibition topics ……..
  • Encourage each visitor to fill out the form themselves if possible but try to ensure that all pages are filled out
  • Add “in-house” predetermined requirements such as completion time, date etc. to each survey
  • Try to sample broadly
  • Don’t worry about knockbacks, if you are friendly then visitors might participate next time or at another cultural institution when they have more time.
  • Write down anecdotal comments which you think may add value to the survey being carried out even if  the feedback isn’t relevant to the questions
  • Set yourself a target based on past experience – some days are better than others depending on the flow and mood of the museum visitors on the day in question and on the length of the survey.
  • Offer an incentive for their time. e.g. a coffee voucher, discount for next visit or even a voucher for the museum shop.
  • Thank them for their participation

Further reading for those people thinking about visitors to cultural institutions – what visitors think and why they may or may not visit our cultural institutions.

  • Potential visitors to cultural institutions are spending more time on the couch instead

https://www.colleendilen.com/2018/09/19/potential-visitors-cultural-entities-spending-time-couch-instead-data-update/

  • Couch potatoes, Television Consumption and Museum Visitation

https://musdigi.wordpress.com/

  • Are we asking the right questions?

https://musdigi.wordpress.com/2018/09/07/are-we-asking-the-right-questions-compassconference-day-one-reflections/

  • 10 reasons to visit a museum

https://www.colleendilen.com/2009/07/31/10-reasons-to-visit-a-museum/

  • 21 Reasons why I hate Museums

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/lists/21-reasons-why-I-hate-museums/

  • Why don’t people visit museums more often?

https://rereeti.wordpress.com/2015/02/03/why-dont-people-visit-museums-more-often/

  • How to encourage people to visit museums more often

https://medium.com/@miaeveliina/how-can-we-encourage-those-who-rarely-visit-museums-to-do-so-more-often-441c27cf4770

  • The drop in museum visitors reveals a nation without aspiration or hope

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2017/feb/02/drop-uk-museum-attendance

  • Audience Research 101 – #museumeval

https://musdigi.wordpress.com/2016/09/16/audience-research-101-museumeval/

  • Visitor research at Te Papa

https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/sites/default/files/4-visitors-survey_0.pdf

 

Group tour of Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli outside Rome. UNESCO World Heritage site.

Museum Digitisation – A Case Study

I support the digitisation of museum and gallery collections. There are so many places that I’d like to go to but realistically I won’t have the time or money to travel to all the destinations that I have on my bucket list. Enter the digital museum. Museums with a strong digital presence allow the virtual visitor at least some entrée into their collections. When collections are digitised it also assists researchers access to a wealth of new information to study without them ever having to leave the comfort of their own home.

One of the best stories that I’ve read recently was in Cosmos Magazine[1] which reported on The British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership launching the Qatar Digital Library – a new bilingual, online portal which provides access to previously undigitised British Library archive materials relating to Gulf history and Arabic science. Their vision was to prepare the people of Qatar and the region to meet the challenges of a changing world by leading innovation in research and education[2]. (See Fig 1.)

Qatar Digital Library

Fig 1. Home page of Qatar Digital Library

The British Library (in London, England) has amassed one of the world’s greatest research collections and with the Qatar Foundation has undertaken a huge project to digitise more than half a million pages from their collection consisting of images, manuscripts, maps, sketches, personal archives and East India Company Office Records. The project is an ideal example of the role of the contemporary curator who as part of a project management team of curators, cataloguers, conservators and digitisation experts works to create a valuable online digital resource[3] from a significant collection of objects located in the British Library. The Qatar Digital Library[4] aims to bridge the gap between past and the future by providing access to information about the history and heritage of the Gulf and Arabic science. Before digitisation, researchers would have manually searched a printed catalogue or physically visited the library to access a particular item which would then be retrieved from the archives.

One of the pages now accessible online
One of the maps from the archive now available to study online.

The web-based, interactive, multilingual information is more searchable and accessible for new audiences in Qatar, the UK and other online researchers and hopes to inspire new forms of interpretation from the original historic documents. The project has created high quality contextual and interpretative material to facilitate the use and understanding of the digitised content. Digital technology has provided a  platform for the discovery of history from the gulf region by allowing access to the original primary source scientific documents in Arabic which can be reinterpreted in the future without physically visiting the British Library.

As part of the process, the curator has taken primary sources, such as a photograph album, showing the everyday life in Afghanistan (social, architectural, trade) during a one month period, and digitised the pages allowing the voice of the object to come alive for the researcher. Supporting text has been added to contextualise the objects for the online audience in the same way that they would be supported by curatorial staff in the British Library.[5]

In order to encourage new audiences, the project team has actively tested the portal with possible users such as academics, archivists and young people, to find out what they need from the content and how they would use the collection for their own purposes. The feedback has been used to create a better system. The online catalogue is intuitive and researchers will be able to access the collection more easily than the original objects in the British Library. Evaluation of the new website will be carried out to determine the project’s success by measuring website users, site feedback, media coverage and other Key Performance Indicators.

References:

[1] New Digital Home for 1,000 years of Arabic scientific manuscripts viewed online at http://blog.cosmosmagazine.com/blog/2014/10/28/new-digital-home-for-1000-years-of-arabic-scientific-manuscripts?rq=Qatar%20digital%20library viewed online 20/2/2016

[2] Qatar Foundation vision and mission statement viewed online at http://www.bl.uk/qatar/ on 20/2/2016.

[3] The British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership viewed online at http://www.bl.uk/press-releases/2015/january/british-library-and-qatar-foundation-extend-partnership-to-digitise-images-of-gulf-history  on 20/2/2016

[4] Qatar Digital Library viewed online at http://www.qdl.qa/en on 20/2/2016

[5] Some of the information cannot be accurately interpreted without advice on the circumstances in which the records were created which is normally provided by archivists in the reading room at the British Library. Links to related material may also be provided by the curatorial staff in the British Library.

Musing on Text and Labels

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Persuasion – an exhibition of wartime propaganda art at the Australian National Maritime Museum

Many museums and authoritative museologists  have written guides or chapters in their books on producing text and labels (see VandA guidelines for example). As a Masters student visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, I was given some good advice by art educator about looking at and learning from objects in a more creative way than just using text and labels. Now I have changed my approach to my own museum and gallery visits. I always focus on the objects first, and if they interest me, I read the text and labels. It’s like reading the book rather than seeing the movie. When you actually look at an object, you can use your own imagination to make a  decision on how connected you feel (if at all) to that object and what you see is not a predetermined response to the information given in the text panel or label (or audio tour for that matter).

I like to find out information about the objects that I connect with – their age, construction method, maker, provenance and the story behind their creation so I use the text panels or the internet for extra information about various artists or particular objects. For example, after seeing prints by Koizumi Kishio and Onchi Koshiro, I found that I had strong connection to the type of Japanese woodblock prints created by these Sosaku Hanga  artists who are not as well regarded as Ukiyo-e printmakers like Utamaro and Hiroshige. I love the fact that these “creatives” were involved in the process from start to finish and that they don’t use other artisans to design, carve and print their wood blocks. Their works on the surface don’t appear as complex and yet these artisans were highly skilled individuals. In another exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, I learned about the animated installations by contemporary Japanese artist Tabaimo who creates thousands of detailed drawings which are laboriously scanned into her computer to create her wonderful works. These facts gleaned from text panels and further investigated on the internet added value to what I saw on display and my appreciation of the works that I initially connected to.

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Text panels of different heights at Old Government House, Parramatta for Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries Costume Exhibition in 2014.

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One instance of the text being too low for visitors to access easily. This problem has been corrected in the new 2016 exhibition.

Although officially the importance of text and labels has been recognised, theorised and documented, I still notice that many art galleries and museums are not getting it right.

When you track visitors in any gallery space, it is surprising how their behaviours can vary. Very few will stop and read all the labels and even fewer will read the labels in any kind of order and so it is important to grab their attention when you have a chance. Yes, labels must be accessible for wheelchairs and children but what about those with poor sight or the elderly who can’t bend down too far. Labels need to be in bold print and text must stand out from the background even if the lighting in the room needs to be dimmed for conservation reasons. I have seen elderly people nearly fall over while bending to see a poorly placed label. I have seen others struggle with text on an inappropriate background colour which makes it difficult to make out the words. I have seen visitors wasting time trying to find out information about an object when a label is missing or incorrect. Labels need to be visible to several viewers at the same time and able to be viewed from a distance. They should not be too detailed because their role is to enhance the experience of seeing the object rather than take over from the object.

The British Museum speaks about the use of “Gateway Objects” to catch the eye of the viewer with accompanying text to allow the visitor some understanding of the space and themes of the gallery without having to read every single label in the exhibition. These objects aim to engage the audience quickly with enough information on the label to draw them into the exhibition or gallery. I guess that  my newly adopted technique is similar, but without well written labels may not always be as good as the constructed British Museum experience. Thinking about the short window of time to grab the audience’s attention – 30 seconds or so – and realising that the average visitor may spend less than 10 minutes in an exhibition……. museums really need to think about the importance of well designed and well written text and labels to accompany the objects on display.

See also:

Australian Museum – Writing Text and Labels which also discusses the audience response to text and labels.

Why have a museum collection? Lego to the rescue

Don’t get me wrong – I love Lego. It is a wonderful creative tool with endless possibilities but I am so sick of seeing it in museums and galleries as the main attraction.

Audience engagement is something that I’m passionate about. I don’t think that the museum sector can just sit back and wait for visitors to come through their doors because of a single exhibition or a Lego attraction. They need to build on relationships with their local communities and develop a substantial membership base, offering reasons for members to visit frequently. They need to be creative and flexible with their collections, providing a great package for tourists who may only physically visit the museum once in their lifetime and also for the “not so local”  visitor to give them a “taste” of what’s on offer. Realistically, a “taste” (and an entry price) which makes the visitor want to return to the museum the next time that they’re in town.

I don’t begrudge National Galleries Victoria (NGV) for harnessing Ai Weiwei’s talent to create a major new installation using Lego for the recent NGV Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei blockbuster exhibition (December 2015 April 2016). Weiwei’s crowd-sourced Lego work focused on Australian activists, advocates and champions of human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the internet and highlighted many of the current social justice issues facing all Australians. But seriously, everyone else needs to give Lego a miss for a while and work harder to attract visitors, particularly families, with innovative exhibitions and galleries using their own unique collections or borrowed works from other places which are in line with the stated vision and purpose of their space.