Natalie Milor is the Curator on the Birthplace Project with the David Livingstone Trust. She writes about her experiences at the Museums Association conference in Belfast in the latest blog for the SMF.
Working as the curator on the Birthplace Project, has prompted a number of questions in my mind. How do you do justice to an ambitious Heritage Lottery Funded refurbishment project which hopes to shed new light on a largely forgotten figure? How do you tackle controversial issues such as slavery, colonialism and the roles of missionaries in a way which engages and empowers audiences? Well, the Museums Association’s annual conference had a few suggestions…
Lured by the prospect of discussions around decolonisation, digital democracy and dissent, I signed up for the Museums Association’s 2018 annual conference in Belfast. Armed with my notepad and a handful of multi-coloured pens, I looked forward to getting my teeth into a number of talks during the two-day conference.
Too Hot to Handle by Ian Brunswick, Catherine Flood and Manon Perry discussed using objects for social change. The days of the ‘museum as a mausoleum’ where objects displayed without context go to die are over. At the V&A, Catherine Flood showed us how to give objects a new life. The Disobedient Objects exhibition displayed the artwork and material culture of protests. Displaying a tear gas mask showed the unequal balance of power between the protester and the police who aimed to subdue them. The exhibition’s content included a do-it-yourself guide to making your own gas mask, created in partnership with past protesters. Widely shared during the lifetime of the exhibition, these instructions were subsequently used in protests located in Hong Kong. Elsewhere, locally organised workshops described how to use these instructions when protests turned into riots sparked by the shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. As Catherine argued, the relevance of the objects and the museum’s partnership with the object’s creators led to a springboard effect which launched the mask back out into the world where it was first created and used.
Manon Perry’s presentation focused on her research in medical museums. Manon talked about the controversy behind the widely toured Body Worlds exhibition which displays the flayed and plasticised bodies of people who died in the 21st century. Yet, no paperwork showing consent to use their bodies exists. A similar problem is faced by medical museums around the world. Thousands of human remains are preserved without any indication of who the person was, let alone their permission to dissect, preserve or display their bodies. So what to do with these collections? While obviously consent for such displays can never be obtained, Manon’s research shows that objects such as ‘babies in bottles’ (the preserved remains of babies and foetuses) can help break down societal taboos. When displayed and interpreted correctly Manon argued that, rather than upset, such displays help bereaved parents understand how their own child has died. Taboos surrounding miscarriage and infant mortality can be tackled and parents given peace of mind. When asked how to display ‘babies in bottles’ for such an audience, Manon’s suggestion was simple: ask a mother.
In Decolonising Museum Practice, the speakers (Alison Rooke, Hannah Graham, Miranda Lowe and Navjot Mangat) asked the audience to recognise and check their white privilege when reinterpreting museums. Hannah Graham argued that museums should not only work with their stakeholders and audiences, but also pay them. Paying participants shows the museum actually values their contribution and provides an incentive for them to provide high quality, constant and useful contributions. To ask for expertise without payment is an outdated idea and should be factored into project plans and grant applications.
Overall, most of my takeaways from the conference in hindsight are obvious. The idea of making exhibitions relevant, consulting audiences and paying participants is not ground-breaking, but what is worrying is that it is so often overlooked. The failure to plan often starts at the beginning: blind-sided by the possibilities of a project, sometimes funding applications and project plans can forget to investigate how its aims will actually be delivered. As my own project at the David Livingstone Trust continues, I know that while some of these lessons may have been learned too late, others can still be implemented. Regardless, all are certainly ones I will keep in mind for the future!