Notice Visitors, Create Joyful Gallery

A while back, I discovered that Derby Museum and Art Gallery was about to open a new natural history gallery. This was exciting to me for three reasons: firstly, because I ‘collect’ natural history galleries by visiting as many as I can; secondly, because Derby is very easy for me to get to; and thirdly, because the new gallery had the incredible name of ‘Notice Nature Feel Joy’. This I had to see.

Notice Nature Feel Joy gallery
Notice Nature Feel Joy gallery

Last week, with my sister, Alice, in tow, I managed to get to the new gallery. It’s a lovely space: calm, bright and clutter-free, and full of natural materials (including, of course, the natural history collections). Alice said that it made her feel like she was in a forest.

We were also lucky enough to speak to Andrea Hadley-Johnson, who led the project to put the gallery together. When I asked where the concept came from, she explained that from the outset, the museum didn’t have a particular plan, or even a name for the gallery. All of this came from work carried out with visitors and volunteers to find out what they wanted from such a gallery, what objects they wanted to see, and what nature meant to them. Continue reading

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Talking about museum learning

This is a super-quick post, just to say that you can hear me talking about my research on the Boundary Objects podcast, with Dr Amy Jane Barnes and Dr Ceri Jones. Amy and Ceri are good friends of mine, who also studied and now work at the wonderful School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. In this podcast, we discuss my PhD research with young children in a natural history museum, and Ceri’s PhD research about teenagers and Medieval living history. We also think more broadly about the challenges of carrying out research with schools in museums. And we get a bit carried away reminiscing about the 90’s TV show Maid Marian and her Merry Men.

You can find the podcast, and a few useful links, here. It’s fairly long (nearly 40 mins), so I reckon this is a good one to listen to on a long commute, or whilst you’re doing the ironing.

Boundary Objects is a group for early career researchers working with museums and collections. Get in touch with them through their website if you’re interested in joining.

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Finding the Familiar in the Unfamiliar, Or, Reece in Space

Boy wearing an astronaut suit
Reece at the National Space Centre

Last weekend I visited Leicester’s National Space Centre with my seven year old nephew, Reece. As a researcher, I have an annoying tendency of carrying out experiments on my poor nephews. I decided a little while ago that I’d like to start visiting museums with families that I know, and, just as I did during my doctoral research, giving the children cameras to record their visits. The main difference from my PhD research would be that this time I would actually get to join in with the visit. So this was my first attempt at this new project. It was also Reece’s first visit to the Space Centre.

In spite of being related to me, Reece’s family don’t visit many museums, preferring more energetic and outdoor activities. Over the past few years I’ve taken my nephews to an animatronic dinosaur exhibition, to Thinktank, the Birmingham Science Museum, and to the Transport Museum in Coventry. Reece also told me that they’ve been to the Sea Life Centre. This is probably more museum visiting than many children manage, but still not enough to make these comfortable and familiar places to be. It also became clear that Reece doesn’t have a strong personal interest in space as a topic, so the actual theme of this centre didn’t give him any hooks upon which to hang his understanding of where he was and what was supposed to happen there. What all of this meant that the really interesting thing about our visit to the Space Centre was the number of ways in which Reece connected this unfamiliar, over-stimulating, and confusing place to things that were familiar and comprehensible to him. Continue reading

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On How Museums Got Under My Skin

Dinosaur skeleton at New Walk MuseumGosh, it’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. Last year was a busy one, to say the least: I spent the first half of the year finishing off my thesis, and then almost immediately began working full time. There’s also been a big and slightly disconcerting change in my life — for the first time in 14 years, I am neither studying, nor working in, museums. I’ve also had very little time to visit museums, so at the moment I’m feeling a bit like there’s a gaping, museum-shaped hole in my life. It’s made me wonder why museums are so important to me.

Several years ago, my parents moved house. In the process, they discovered one of my old primary school exercise books, dating from when I was around 10 years old. In a style that was typical of the ’80s, one of the pieces of work I had undertaken was entitled ‘What I will be doing in the year 2000’. Unfortunately, for a museum person, I am spectacularly un-nostalgic, and seem to lack the urge to hoard, so I no longer have the book. But as far as I remember, my prediction was something along the lines of: ‘In the year 2000 I will be working in a museum. I will live in a flat and have a cat and a car.’

What is strange about this is that I actually have very few significant memories of museums from my childhood. Continue reading

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Some Thoughts on Shopseums

A thought has been brewing in my mind for a couple of years now, that there is an interesting crossover or relationship between shops and museums. Both are places full of stuff, both have the stuff intentionally displayed to show it off and to convey something about it, and both are places that some people like to mooch around in their leisure time. Most museums have a shop in them, and many shops have displays of things that are not for sale, but are displayed to give a particular feel to the place. I even wondered about creating a Shopseum Scale. At one end would be shopless museums, and at the other would be Argos.

On Saturday, I visited a place that would fall right in the middle of this scale, at the Old Skating Rink Gallery in Norwich. This lovely old building houses both the South Asian Decorative Arts and Crafts Collection (SADACC), a museum of vernacular Asian arts and crafts; and Country & Eastern, an Asian clothing and furnishings emporium. Continue reading

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The Armchair Museum Visitor

No, I haven’t been visiting museums of armchairs. In fact, for the past couple of months, for unavoidable health reasons, I haven’t visited any museums at all, which is sad. But today, thanks to my Tumblr-mad little sister, I have totally immersed myself in a rather wonderful museum, which I plan to keep visiting at regular intervals over the next few museum-restricted months. The museum isn’t even local. It’s the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum at the University of Montana, USA. Continue reading

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Seeing Voices in the Museum

Human beings are incredibly social animals. This manifests itself in a whole host of ways—from our desire to share ideas and conversation, to our tendency to see agency and intention in inanimate objects (‘my computer hates me’), to our ability to form relationships with everything from people, to cats, to cars. If museums are clever, they can make use of this inherent sociability to create some really compelling exhibitions.

This was revealed to me particularly on a recent visit to Manchester Museum, where I was delighted to have a good chunk of time in which to explore the new Living Worlds gallery, which reopened last year. I had been wanting to go ever since seeing the old gallery in 2010 and hearing that the redesign was going to be carried out in association with a fashion design company (catwalk show producers Villa Eugenie). I’d heard good things about the new gallery since it opened, and had been looking for an excuse to travel up to Manchester and see it for myself. Continue reading

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Evolution galleries: Humans and other animals

I’ve been interested in human evolution ever since spending time learning about it during my Human Sciences degree in the late nineties, so whenever I’m in a museum with a human evolution gallery, my antennae start quivering. I’ve visited a couple in the USA over the past few years — one in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and, last year, in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I just love the idea of looking back at our ancestors, and also of being reminded that over the past few million years other species of humans and hominids have existed, often in parallel with each other.

I’m used to seeing these galleries, or even the single human evolution cases in some museums, presenting the various human species on their own, or maybe alongside a few other primates. The museums nip off a single twig of the evolutionary tree, usually starting with modern humans evolving from something like an australopithecus, and maybe hinting that these evolved from an earlier primate species. Continue reading

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Lost in Science

Yesterday I was in London for a meeting, and managed to carve out a couple of hours to visit the Science Museum. Given that I spent eight years of my life working in science museums, and that I now research museums, it was a shock to realise that it’s probably been over half a decade since I’ve visited the UK’s largest and most famous museum of science.

In spite of the fact that I inevitably get lost there, my first mistake was failing to pick up a map as I came in. Continue reading

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