What seems like way back in 2007-8, the final year of my undergraduate studies, an exhibition opened that, for me and perhaps others, changed the way I thought about what museums might be for. At the time, the First Emperor exhibition in the wonderful round Reading Room space then being used at the British Museum for its special exhibitions felt like an intellectual journey in a way that I had not really experienced in exhibitions before. I came away having seen some amazing objects but also feeling like I knew more about something. I had been told a story, but it was a story with holes and ambiguities and debates still unresolved. It was an exhibition which felt like historical study as I have come to love it: exploration of our records of the past to raise and shape questions which matter to the present. I should add that at the time I did not go to very many exhibitions and the impact the First Emperor made on me should not imply that equally excellent work was not being done elsewhere. The exhibition was part of a wider trend in museology, and in British museology in particular, but it was the first time I had really felt it.
Looking back, the impact of that exhibition now stands as a landmark from which many subsequent journeys, at the time unforeseen, have taken their direction. These have included my own curatorial experience and contribution to the first exhibition project in the Bilderfahrzeuge group. It has become a point on the map of my scholarly topography, where I first began to think about how research might meet design to present ideas in a radically different way to books or articles, but one which did not just simplify, ‘dumb-down’ or gloss over. Since then the relationship between research, publication and exhibition has been a recurring theme.
Working with objects has meant that I have always had a research connection to museums and the museum community, and more than many disciplines, numismatics is an area in which scholarly dialogue in my experience routinely incorporates museum professionals, academicians and collectors. Coins are, however, also considered to be one of the hardest object-types to display. Small, two-sided objects, often in dull shades of brown do not necessarily lend themselves to flat museum cases or crowd-pulling object displays. Coins have, therefore, perhaps benefitted most from new and imaginitive ways of using objects in museums not just to reflect on the size of a collection or the variety of images, but to construct narratives or explorations of historical questions: what is money? how have people handled the problem of forgery? when did people begin using coins? what else have people used as money? The questions are endless and many find attractive and interesting exploration in such pathbreaking galleries as the Citi Money Gallery (formerly the HSBC Money Gallery) at the British Museum and the Deutsche Bundesbank Geldmuseum in Frankfurt am Main.
When, therefore, the AHRC-funded project, ‘Research in Translation’ crossed my radar last August I was intrigued and immediately applied. Its remit was to bring together researchers from varied disciplinary backgrounds to exhibit their research, supported by guidance from museology researchers, mainly affiliated with the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, museum professsionals and leading designers in the field of exhibition spaces. So far it has more than met its brief. The group of participants is engaged in research into everything from the role of women in poultry rearing to collections of scrap books by members of the Womens’ Institute in rural Britain in the 1960s. Over the course of two workshops, in Birmingham in November 2014 and in Leicester in January 2015 we have had the opportunity to discuss ideas for exhibiting research into the 19th-century development of phobias, the use and creation of gender stereotyping in girl teen-movies or the distinction between books and toys in the early mass-production of children’s entertainment.
Some of the problems discussed have immediate or evolving resonance. Sophie Salffner, who works on the preservation of endangered languages, found herself posing a question asked by the British Museum only the previous year when it decided to exhibit Bitcoins: how do you exhibit something which has no physical form? Emma Login‘s work on war memorials faces the challenge of presenting research into war memorials which, in contrast to modern displays such as the evocative poppies exhibition at the Tower of London this year, highlights the opposition to such memorials by many survivors or immediate family members of servicemen in the First World War, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. Cynthia Johnston’s work on manuscript illuminations raises the queston of how best to present intricate imagery on valuable objects to a mass audience, and her work will also be presented at the Bilderfahrzeuge lecture on June 24th. The chance to talk about these issues and the umbrella questions of what exhibition, or indeed, dissemination of research in any form is for was inspiring. Perspectives from a variety of backgrounds and detailed examination of past and current exhibitions at Birmingham Museum and Art Galleries maintained an important focus on the pragmatics of exhibition design and implementation.
A particular privilege for me was the opportunity to talk with and learn from presentations by two designers who have been major players in the re-imagining of the museum experience in Britain, and who have led the design on some of my personal favourite exhibitions of the last ten years, including, as it happens, the First Emperor! Having designed our initial ideas for an exhibition we were able to present them and receive feedback and I can honestly say that it has never been a greater pleasure to be told that my outline proposal was unengaging and overly intellectual. It was. And thus do we improve. I hope that the results will speak for themselves when the Research in Translation exhibition opens in Leicester in June 2015.
A further post will follow about my own exhibition, which seeks to explore the idea of the archive as a research resource, but for now I would like to leave you with some of the questions we have been exploring, and welcome any responses!
– Is an exhibition mainly to inform?
– Should an exhibition begin from a research idea or a set of objects?
(In practice, the answer is often situational, and thus what difference does it make to the aims and structure of an exhibition if it begins with ideas or objects?)
– How can an exhibition provoke questions as well as providing answers (and do people want it to)?
– How far can/should an exhibition make people uncomfortable?
– What are the different audiences and environments for exhibition and how do these affect design?