Christina Mackenzie, Assistant Curator at University of Aberdeen Museums tells us about recent interventions within their exhibitions:
“What role do Museums play in global and political issues? It’s often said ‘Museums are Not Neutral’ but what are we doing to demonstrate this and what more could we be doing?
This year we’ve had two temporary exhibitions on display at University of Aberdeen Museums and have staged ‘interventions’ in both. The first was within Walking with Birds: The art of Audubon and MacGillivray during climate week, from 20th to 29th September. The exhibition focuses on two ornithologists, William MacGlillivray of Aberdeen and the famous American, John James Audubon and an impressive 1-metre-high book filled with Audubon’s illustrations, Birds of America.
Key themes throughout the exhibition are the friendship between the two men, their shared love of birds and the natural environment. Almost 200 years ago they were both remarking on the sorry state of the environment and the impact that humankind was having, and we were keen to ensure this was a key part of the exhibition throughout it’s display.
During climate week we wanted to join in by highlighting the climate emergency we are currently facing; we covered the gallery in Extinction Rebellion posters and wrapped the case containing Birds of America in (biodegradable) ‘Danger’ tape. We also added ‘climate threatened’ and ‘endangered’ stamps to all images of birds that were currently being threatened or were already extinct as a result of humans.
The intervention was very warmly received by visitors and we particularly seemed to appeal to a lot of our student audience who thought it was refreshing to see the issue being spoken about so openly. Personally, it felt fantastic to get involved with the Climate Strike in such a visible way, and to learn of the impact it had on our visitors. Although our reach was probably quite small, staff morale was also boosted by the intervention, and led to a lot of us feeling energised and enthusiastic about involving ourselves in further acts of activism.
Of course, however, we did still get a complaint because we didn’t take everything down as soon as the allotted time for climate week was over…
The other exhibition that we’ve had on display this year is Sewing Resistance: Teaching through Chilean Art. The exhibition displays student-created arpilleras, a result of their Spanish and Latin American course within the University.
Arpilleras are beautifully embroidered scenes, first made by women in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s. Many of the student arpilleras , like those made in Chile, contain bright colours that draw the eye in but also depict difficult aspects of Chilean history, such as the forced disappearances of the dictatorship.
The Postcard Project was launched by the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago in order to record the current moment of potentially historic change in Chile. On 14 October plans to increase the fare of Santiago’s metro sparked protests, including mass fare dodging and fires in metro stations. Chile’s president has used legislation left over from the dictatorship to declare a state of emergency, sending armoured vehicles and soldiers onto Chile’s streets.
Since the protests began at least 20 people have died and Chile’s National Institute of Human Rights has recorded 1,574 injuries requiring hospital attention.
The Sewing Resistance exhibition, in which so many arpilleras tell the stories of struggles for justice and human rights in Chile, joined with the Postcard Project in order to show international solidarity. Visitors are invited to take a postcard and write a message, or just sign their name, and all postcards left are being sent to Chile to let the Chileans know that they are not forgotten.
With these interventions we’ve been trying to remind visitors that just because it happened in the past, that doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen again. MacGillivray and Audubon were warning of the dangers of over-hunting and human’s effect on our natural world, and we are still trying to convince people that this is an emergency that needs attention now. Similarly, while the arpilleras depict horrific scenes from Chilean history, we cannot ignore the human rights abuses Chileans face today.”
If you’re interested in discussing sustainability and interventions within Museums more, then check out our call for papers, available now.