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How museums get new objects

New artefacts for old?

Something I’m regularly asked when people find I work in a museum is “how do museums get new objects”?. The answer probably is that it varies. Where there’s a collecting policy the process is transparent but otherwise an enigma inside a mystery.

On visiting the National Army Museum in Stockholm in early September 2017 I saw their exhibition dedicated to explaining this mystery.

How museums get new objects – the exhibition

The Army Museum’s exhibition was in their temporary exhibition space on the ground floor. I liked the focus on objects for visitors to reflect on and practical examples. Also the emphasis on who made decisions.

Exhibition sign saying who made decisions

A key part of the exhibition was an infographic showing the path an object follows to join the collection. Unfortunately this was in a shadow so whilst legible in the museum didn’t photograph well. This was supported by another display explaining who makes the decisions.

Flow chart of accessioning object

This display was very honest about the influence of individuals and groups on collecting policy. It stated that in the museum’s early days former soldiers were making the decisions but now it’s mainly highly educated middle class people.

Display showing who makes decisions

An object that didn’t get in

An example of new objects was based around items used by an officer in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Most items were conserved ready to go into the collection. One item was not and this was the shipping crate the officer had lived in. Why was it rejected? Because it wasn’t the actual container the officer used but one the shipping company sent. So a good example of an object being rejected because of a lack of direct association with the museum’s purpose and lacking heritage authenticity.

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Magic Lantern Slides at Hove Museum & Art Gallery

a magic lantern slide showing a learned cat

 The optical, film and cinema collection at Hove Museum

While exploring Hove museum I was really impressed by the two galleries dedicated to their optical toys, devices, film and cinema collection. A great mix of stories, machines, objects and historic films playing in a tiny cinema. Part of this collection includes magic lantern slides and a fine selection of projectors.

Why magic lantern slides?

At work (Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery) there’s a research project about the museum’s magic lantern slide collection. The A Million Pictures  project is international in scope involving museums and universities. Part of this includes digitising and adding the slides to the museum’s database and collections website. Being involved in this project kindled an interest in magic lantern slides as social history and as objects in their own right.

Assisting my more learned colleagues with slide shows at museum events added fuel to the fire. Thinking of fuel we used an electric light rather than anything more inflammable and exciting. From this my interest in both slides and projectors has grown.

Photo of myself Ready to be a projector's assistant

Ready to be a projector’s assistant

 

The collection at Hove Museum

Finding a gallery with lots of magic lantern slides related content was a lovely surprise. There were full size projectors along with smaller ones for home use and even toy ones. A two lens (biunial) projector from the 1870s was very impressive. The brass was gleaming and the wood glowing with polish.  A later projector was displayed with its case and accessories showing how bulky these were.

By way of contrast small projectors for home use and toy projectors were displayed, These also had slide mounts and strips of images with them. The strips of images often had amusing images for home entertainment on. There is also an impressive backlit wall of slides to give an idea of the variety of subjects found. I didn’t look at every one but could have happily done so!

 

If you’re in the Brighton and Hove area I recommend a visit to Hove Museum and Art Gallery

 

 

 

 

Sutton Hoo display at the British Museum

Display case with helmets and shield

Ship burial from Sutton Hoo redisplayed

The Sutton Hoo ship burial and the dark ages artefacts found there have fascinated many of us from first sight. The full face helmet alone is an amazing object in its own right.  The other treasures create an impression of wealth not normally associated with the popular idea of the Anglo-Saxons in the dark ages.

Three silver plates from the Mediterranean

Silver plates from the Mediterranean

The recent redisplay of the Sutton Hoo discoveries at the British Museum shows the objects familiar to frequent visitors in a new setting and with new interpretation. What I liked most about the redisplay was the context given to the finds. The display case is long and tall with the outline of a ship in white. The photo shows this is faint but helps remind visitors that the objects come from a ship grave. This is underlined by the simple labels showing whereabouts in the ship the objects were found.

Sutton Hoo display case

Centre of the new Sutton Hoo display case

Interpretation panel showing the ship

Panel showing where objects were in the ship

Recreated objects and interpretation

A big change in this display is the number of modern recreations of objects displayed alongside the originals. I liked this approach because it helps the non-specialist understand what the original looked like and can help see how it was used. For example the modern versions of the cauldron and chain make it clear the size of the object and it’s use. Not least the length of the chain shows it was hung from a high support. I also liked the way the modern versions were clearly marked to avoid confusion.

Cauldron and chain display

Modern cauldron and chain beside original chain

Inevitably the modern helmet attracted most attention while I was in the gallery. Having it displayed by the original allows a compare and contrast the two. Plus it shows how much the Anglo-Saxons liked to create an impression with polished metal objects.

Modern version of the helmet

Modern reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet

The reconstructed helmet has more detailed interpretation than I expected. It highlights the pagan horned dancing figures similar to other pagan depictions. It also points out the similarity to Roman cavalry tombstones that show a Roman (or auxiliary) riding down a barbarian.

Dancing figures on a helmet panel

Dancing figures on the modern helmet

Helmet panel with Roman style horseman

Modern helmet panel showing horseman riding down an enemy

The shield was a reconstruction to provide a display for the original shield fittings and this is essentially unchanged. It has a modern and an original sword below it. Seeing the modern sword in pristine condition helps the visitor imagine the impact visually and physically of this finely made weapons.

Shield and swords display

Modern shield with original fittings and modern and original swords

Sutton Hoo and the Anglo-Saxons

What does this splendid display tell us about the Anglo-Saxons and their world? It makes clear the wealth that an individual could command. From gold metalwork and red garnet fittings on the pouch cover to the workmanship of the helmet’s decorated panel and ridge it shows the love of bling and display. Identifying where objects come from gives an insight into the wider world of the time. Clear links between East Anglia and East Sweden are seen along with silver plate from the Mediterranean (more dark ages bling!).

The discovery is significant enough to feature in the name of Room 41 at the British Museum. Room 41 is now the Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100 gallery.

 

 

The Vikings exhibition in Falmouth

Reproduction Viking spectacle helmet

A day out at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall

My longstanding interest in the Vikings whether historical or in miniature meant the Vikings exhibition at the NMMC in Falmouth was a must see! Because of the distance it meant little time to see the rest of the museum although we found time for the cafe funnily enough. Walking through the museum I did like the Viking inspired decoration of the learning area.

Dragon guarding the exhibition entrance

Dragon guarding the exhibition entrance

The Vikings in Cornwall

Most people think of the raids on the North East coast, York and Alfred burning the cakes when Vikings are mentioned. However, they really got around and that included Devon and Cornwall. The Great Army burnt down Exmouth in Devon where I live and some residents think they should do so again! In Cornwall there is evidence of settlement and trading which the exhibition included. The combination of interpretation, reconstruction and objects really brought this out clearly I thought.

Sea going chicken in a basket

Scandinavian sea going chicken in a basket

Vikings – raiders or traders?

This argument has a long history and I’ve encountered it since university days in the late 1970s. Coincidently this same argument applies to the Homeric world of the Iliad and Odyssey which I studied in the context of ancient banditry but that’s one for another blog.

I liked the way the exhibition clearly brought out both sides of Viking life. The combination of the large clear interpretation panels and related objects was excellent. Being able to handle objects was good too. My mother was amazed at the weight of a mail shirt and said being able to touch it really helped imagine it in use.

Reproduction spectacle helmet on top of the mail shirt

Reproduction spectacle helmet on top of the mail shirt

Including weapons and slave fetters illustrated the dark side of Viking life. Backed up with DNA research showing how many Icelanders are descended from Irish women taken as slaves. The Irish connection was well documented in the exhibition too.

Trading ship Walrus

My favourite part of the exhibition was the recreated Viking trader the Walrus. Visitors are allowed on this boat which was both fun and informative. Moving about on the deckspace really made both of us appreciate the skill and courage needed for sailing shallow draft ships on the high seas.

The Walrus from the bow

The Walrus from the bow

Speaking with a well informed volunteer about how the ship was made at the NMMC and finding out more about some of the recreated objects was really interesting. I didn’t know that the Vikings used hazel as barrel hoops which makes perfect sense in terms of time and resources. After all splitting hazel is quicker and cheaper than making iron hoops.

Hazel bound barrels on deck

Hazel bound barrels on deck

How the Vikings made things was a really strong theme in the exhibition. From nails for ships to rigging from intestines there was enough information to appreciate how preindustrial societies relied on skills, crafts, time and effort. I also learnt that saws were not used but a broad headed axe provided a means of splitting wood into planks.

Invisible Vikings

No, not some form of dark undead from the Sagas but women and children. Another strength of the exhibition was including women and children in the interpretation and the objects on display. A lovely object was a child’s toy boat and imaging it being played with really brought the past closer. Having a reconstructed trader’s booth with a female mannequin was a nice bit of trading interpretation. The clothes worn were plainer than often shown which seems sensible as the cost of fine clothes with tablet stitch decoration would make plainer working clothes more practical.

Basket work Viking woman

Basket work Viking woman

As you leave the exhibition

I enjoyed the display of modern items inspired by the Vikings. Everything from films to comics, toys to the Rover badge. A good assortment of souvenirs were in the shop although I didn’t buy anything. Most of the items were very reasonably priced as well which is always good to see.

Three men and a Viking boat

By odd coincidence a week after visiting the exhibition I was at Legionary, the Exeter Games Show, talking to a friend and a trader about Viking ships.

MDF model Viking ship

MDF model Viking ship

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