The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Museum Utopias Replay

Photos and two days worth of liveblogging (care of blogger Jenny!) are up at for anyone interested in seeing a play-by-play of how the Museum Utopias Conference went!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Museum Utopias Begins!

Are you following our live-blogging of the Museum Utopias conference over at the msphdconf blog? Hop on over and share your views!

Friday, March 23, 2012


[Note, this entry has been crossposted from a University of Leicester Student Blog.]
v. to conference
Strictly speaking, that term applies currently to the act of ‘web-conferencing’ and not to academic conferences attended in person.  I am slightly abusing the English language here; bear with me.
Next week, the School of Museum Studies here at Leicester is hosting Museum Utopias, a conference organised by the – more senior – PhD students, not that us newbies aren’t helping out.  Until recently, I had never even attended an academic conference as a delegate.  One day soon, I will have to attend one as a presenter.  From someone who loathes public speaking the way most people loath the dentist, I am trying to put that obligation off as long as possible.  However, with my recent experience [read: lack thereof] of academic run conferences, I find myself quite enjoying watching what goes on behind the scenes to plan and implement one.  Of course, because it will soon become apparent to you that I do things like this, I volunteered to ‘help out’.
Never, ever, volunteer to ‘help out’ with anything.  ‘Anything’ will turn in twenty or so something-or-others.  But that’s a post for another time.
It is nothing onerous, and there is nothing you can do to help out your department that will look bad as an addition to your CV.  It is also an exciting learning experience, though one must walk a fine line between those that have spent weeks out of their life doing all of the groundwork and those, like me, who have come in at the last moment to help out with little things of much less importance.  Still, everyone plays their part, and without everyone, the conference will not go well.  I must say, from everything that I’ve seen, I think this one will go quite well indeed!  I hope, next year, when it no doubt falls to me to be much more heavily involved in the organisation from the get-go, that we do as well.  I also hope to attend a Cambridge run PhD conference in June, and will no doubt be unable to refrain from making comparisons [theirs is only one day, ours is two].  It is all valuable information for the future.  Sooner or later, for those of us who spend enough years in academia (as students or professionals or both) conferences become a very important aspect. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Brown Bag – Kathy Cremin ‘ Power, freedom, and love – what are museums for?’

Kathy Cremin’s involvement with museums is a recent development in her career. She has only been working with the institutions for about 8 years. Over the course of her years as a professional she has worked with libraries, museums and theatres and has focused mainly on the topic of literature.

Her talk today proved to be an interesting and very thought-provoking theorization on the current museum industry, both where we are and where we are (or should be) going. Lovingly subtitled ‘Banana sellers of the world unite’, Kathy took us through many notions of being a museum professional today that we try not to think about. The realisation that museum practice is more about ‘do what I say, not as I do’ is prevalent in nearly every aspect of the industry, but to acknowledge it requires a great deal more self-reflection than the average professional is likely willing to give. And even when we do acknowledge the problems Kathy raised, we are seldom willing to do anything to correct them (if we are even in a position to do so).

This is the first ‘interactive’ Brown Bag in quite a while and began with a simple question: What are museums for? Nearly everyone at the seminar had a different answer, ranging from being places of education to entertainment to inspiration. There is no wrong answers in any of them, but what museums should be for and what they are for can in practice be very separate things.

The next 'interactive' was a short quiz, which was entertaining and at the same time very informative. It was a current look at the climate in museums today and characterised by such questions as: who said the following? ‘The reason we’ve had our funding increased is there’s nothing else cultural here.’ The answer? A director of a prestigious gallery in a medium sized town. This answer should spark stark terror in the minds of museum professionals everywhere. Have we really reached this point in the pursuit of cultural preservation? Has culture really become so meaningless?

I suppose one could not say that Kathy’s talk was particularly optimistic, but that is all right. We don’t need optimism right now. We need someone to stand up and say what we are doing wrong so that we can start to do things right. And the more people who stand up and protest, the better. Nearly everyone I know can point to a specific museum as say: ‘See? They’re doing it right.’ Which is all very well and good, but how many of us can point to ten such museums, or fifteen or twenty?

The reality is in the fact that every museum should be doing it right, but we can only ever name a few that are. They are, as Kathy said, the anomalies or exceptions rather than the standard. Kathy went on to point out that museums today need to be people-centric, reactive and topical, and so many of them are not, even if they think they are. They preach to the public with banners and quotes that museums 'inspire and engage', but more often than not these are just signs they post in the lobbies and on websites. They do not do these things within their organisations. Museums are more focused on what communities can do for them than what they can do for their communities.

Museums today are concerned with many things. For most, they concern themselves with funding and visitor numbers. Museums and staff are so busy proving their usefulness to governing bodies and funding partners by using whatever ‘interesting aspects’ they can, that they have become afraid, as Kathy says, to be themselves. Each museum is a brand. We have become much like corporate labels that way. We need to sell the brand in order to survive, and so time and effort and money goes towards maintaining and marketing that brand to people who are not the public. ‘Public Engagement’ is not about the community, but about the face of museums that are concerned with media, marketing and boards of directors. Museums should first and foremost be liable to the publics they purport to serve, right? The truth is that they are very rarely concerned with such.

Museums exist to reach the public consciousness, to be institutions of culture and history. We must love what we do and love what it’s all about. As Kathy says, to change how people think museums must first change how they feel and you cannot connect with people on an emotional level unless you care about yourselves and about them. She uses a very good example about the power of objects to tell personal stories. Rarely do such personal stories of powerful love ever make it into the museum itself. They are watered down, cut and pasted together into other bits by curators trying to fit the person’s story into their own pre-determined narrative. We do not tell the stories of the communities, we make those stories fit with what we want to say about those communities.

Kathy raised a good many points about India, though almost any country with as much history would also work. In India, culture is in everything; every aspect of life, in every place you look. Indians live and breathe their culture. Can the same be said about the UK? About America? In many ways, India itself is a museum, on every street corner. They love their culture and that clearly shows. There are no barriers between the outside and the inside (the museum) as there are here.

In the UK, museums think big. They are, in fact, very good at it. But thinking big means ignoring the small – the personal, the stories, the aspects that make up culture. We are always looking at the big picture or the big theme, and therefore many museums miss out on the small stuff.

Kathy spoke about John Lawson (a bit more about him here) who is a storyteller at the Ryedale Folk Museum, and specifically focuses on mining history. Mr. Lawson argues for the importance of culture being at the heart of everything a museum does. He believes that we need a better understanding of culture to make people better [the example used (and very paraphrased) was: we don’t need more police to deal with increase vandalism, rather we need storytellers to pass on the culture to the community to give people more history and understanding]. Storytellers are an integral part of a museum (some would say the most important part), but so few museums are actually concerned with the stories.

We talk about community outreach, about involving the public in museum exhibitions, but in practice it is rarely done, or only at the beginning of the planning stages. One of people in attendance at the Brown Bag today agreed this wholeheartedly. They were shocked to discover recently how little of the public’s stories actually make it into final exhibitions, despite how much work usually goes into ‘outreach’ with communities. Museums talk about outreach all the time, but how little of it makes it to the final exhibition wall, I wonder? Certainly there are examples (like Mike Pickering’s Brown bag a few weeks ago) of how museums do it well, but they seem to be the exceptions rather than the rule. It is the community stories, the personal stories that we should tell because they are the ‘culture’.

Kathy made a good point about Ireland, where so few official records and histories exist, and much of the past is based on accounts passed on by people (oral histories). But it has taken many, many years for museum professionals to put stock in those histories and display them in museums. We speak of ‘value’ in museums today; how valuable we are to communities, the value of culture to the public, or how we educate people on the value of objects, but we never think to acknowledge the value the community itself brings to preserving the past.

[Some of the views expressed in this review are my own. Those that are directly attributed to Kathy Cremin are indicated by the use of her name.]

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Brownbag Seminar Write Up - Examining the flexible museum

Examining the flexible museum: exhibition process, a project approach, and the creative element
Dr. Jennie Morgan

In this session of the Brown Bag Seminar, Jennie Morgan presented us a section of her larger PhD research devoted to a case study of the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, Scotland. 
Kelvingrove Museum was founded in 1901 and has symbolized since then, the efforts to improve the image of a strongly industrialized city such as Glasgow; a phenomenon which has gained a new impulse since the last decade of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. During this period, Kelvingrove museum underwent a renovation project designed to increase its public relevance and achieve a better engagement with the diverse communities of the city. The process, which lasted from 2003 to 2006, implied not only a set of physical changes and adaptations but, above all, a deep reconfiguration of its work procedures, staff relationships and vision and mission statements.
It is in the aftermath of this context that Morgan’s research took place. Her study is of the greatest relevance because it analyzed in detail the process of reconfiguration of an institution, which in itself is a challenging topic. But what makes her work even more exciting is the fact that she carried it out through a process of one year ethnographic research, in which she participated from the inside, getting to know all the different departments of the museum. As a result of this, she gained a deep insight into the institution. This is indeed a difficult and infrequently used research method, perhaps because of its strong ethical, practical and even political implications; which Morgan seems to have dealt with quite effectively.
In her presentation, Morgan focused on the concept of flexibility as one of the pillars of all her research. It was particularly inspiring and mind-opening to see the way in which her consideration of the concept of “flexibility” served as a starting point for reflection about more complex topics such as the nature of change and adaptability. While defining flexibility as one of the most desirable characteristics of an institution aimed at surviving in an increasingly economically and socially limited context, her study surpassed a mere operational view and reached a performative point in which creativity, continuity and multiplicity were a fundamental part of it as well as being one of its subjects. Her notion of flexibility became a kaleidoscope of concepts which allowed her to assess the spontaneous and ambiguous way in which institutions work, and that managerial literature sometimes fails to address because of the static and linear view in which it frequently assesses institutional change.
By focusing on the making of a display about Darwin, Morgan analyzed in more detail the notion of flexibility and its implications in everyday activities at the museum, especially in the exhibition domain. One of these implications was, for example, the adaptation to new procedures and even coexistence among the different teams of the museum. Curators began a closer and more dialogical relationship with the education staff – as happened in a large amount of museums throughout the Western world after the turn towards the visitor-centred museum since the 1980s. There is a constant negotiation between communicating to diverse audiences while preserving the main academic features of the content displayed. Exhibition design also reconsidered some of the display techniques and started bearing in mind issues such as visual aesthetics, physical intuition, spatial harmony and even common sense arrangements, in an attempt to produce a more engaging and “natural” visual prospects. Therefore, flexibility within the staff has meant the acquisition of new skills and learning in order to become more effective as a visitor-centered institution, for example, managing better interpersonal relationships within the museum’s staff, exploring new ways of telling stories (and not only informing) at the museum, taking care of the visual meaning process in all its detail and responding more creatively and spontaneously to the unexpected.
So far, it must be said that the processes analyzed by Morgan are not new within the existing museum literature. What is indeed revealing is the micro-level in which she dissected the every day struggles, negotiations, expectations and actions undertaken to deal with those processes. Change and flexibility are complex and even abstract concepts or processes to grab on; but Morgan’s work shows how everyday innovation, creativity, adaptive practice and improvisation are words that can help us name those complex phenomena that take place in the ever-changing museum. After all, museums are a fantastic point of reflection about change and continuity.

Museum Utopias Press Release

Another reminder to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and of course the official blog for our upcoming Museum Utopias conference. Here's the official press release, in case you missed it!

Friday, March 16, 2012

CFP: Journal of Museum and Culture

The Journal of Museum and Culture (published by the Chinese Museums Association) invites papers on the broad theme of 'museum boundaries'. This topic might be approached from a wide range of perspectives including but not confined to the following:

"1. Spatial: How a museum architecture or its spatial structure dialogues with its environments.

2. Categorical: The diversity of museums' types, the tendency towards digitization, virtual environment, the blurred boundary between library and museum, etc.

3. Interdisciplinary: The shifting ways of looking at the museums and their collections, such as it has happened at the anthropology museum.

4. Intertextual: how the museum and its exhibitions are situated in a textual space."

If you are interested, please email Professor Wan-Chen Chang, Graduate School of Art Management & Culture Policy, National Taiwan University or Arts.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


From Left Coast Press comes this hilarious sale:

30-40% off ALL BOOKS, DEADLINE: March 22nd, 2012

It’s our seventh anniversary, and we’re celebrating with another book sale and contest! You can go to our website right now, input the discount code below, and SAVE 30% on our excellently-written books.

Would you rather get 40% off? Then write us the most terrible, horrible, ungood OPENING SENTENCE for an ACADEMIC OR PROFESSIONAL ARTICLE you can muster.

The fine print:

All Left Coast books are on sale at a 30% discount between NOW and October 22nd, 2012. Books must be ordered from our website ( and through our US distributor (U Chicago Press) and must include the discount code: L1012. In the shopping cart, remember to hit “update” after entering the code!

Write us the worst possible opening sentence for an academic article – 100 words or less – and we'll increase your discount to 40%. Submit it via email to by March 18th and we will send you a secret, yes secret, code that allows you to PURCHASE ANY LEFT COAST BOOKS AT A 40% DISCOUNT UNTIL MARCH 22ND.

The three WORST entrants, announced March 20, will each receive a free paperback of their choice!

Even if you don’t want to write us something terrible, take a look at our selection and use discount code L1012 at checkout. 30% is still a great deal!

You can pre-order George Hein's forthcoming book, PROGRESSIVE MUSEUM PRACTICE: JOHN DEWEY AND DEMOCRACY. It's not available until Summer, but why not get the discount now?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Writing Up: Pace Yourself

This is a very hectic month for me. My submission deadline is the 30th, so I have to polish my thesis into an acceptable state by then. I have been re-writing a chapter a week, and am finally on my last one! But because when it rains, it pours, I have had another deadline every week for the last few weeks. From conference abstracts to journal articles, to research seminars, everything seems to be happening at once.

I suspect the more disciplined among you would have no problem with this. "Two deadlines a week?" you'd sniff, waving your hand dismissively. "That's nothing!" And in theory, I love having a work plan set out, being able to move smoothly from one thing to another. But in practice, my body just doesn't work that way. I finished one thing yesterday, and emailed it off; you would think that today, I would be able to turn with renewed vigour to my languishing chapter. But you would be wrong, because I actually spent most of the day moping around the house, watching bad television and checking my email. Only at about 6pm was I finally able to open up the relevant Word document and start typing.

Because, you see, I need to take breaks. That's a major lesson I've learned in the PhD process: I can only do as much as my body lets me, and that is not nearly as much as I expect myself to be able to do. If I do too much one day, I collapse with exhaustion the next. Maybe I will get better. I certainly hope so, because from what I have seen, academia involves a lot more work, a lot more competing expectations, and then there's that pesky thing called a real life which comes with its own time-consuming challenges. I really admire my colleagues (like Ceri, for example, who works flat out, non-stop), but sadly, I am not a long-distance runner - I am a sprinter, if anything. And my (intellectual) muscles need to take rests between races!

What about you? Are you academic marathon men? Or do you prefer to sip lemonade on the sidelines?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Novel Study: The Museum of Innocence (2009)

I finished reading Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence last night. It's taken me a while to read it, as Pamuk's unique brand of melancholy often coincides too acutely with my own, and I can only read a few chapters of his books at any given time before despair and ennui consume me entirely. This is not to say that the novel is a sad one; it isn't, really. It's just filled with the same kind of world-weary self-examination that pervades the works of such great philosophical novelists as Proust, Borges, and Garcia Marquez, among others.

The Museum of Innocence is the story of Kemal, a rich young man who seems set up for success. Reaching adulthood in the liberal Istanbul of the 1970s, he has lots of friends, a cushy job in his father's company, and a beautiful and clever fiancee. Not only that, but he also has a young mistress: Fusun, a distant relative who is a pretty 18-year-old shop-girl. At first, Kemal believes he can have it all, but slowly, things begin to unravel. When Fusun leaves him, Kemal becomes consumed with an obsessive love for her, one that destroys his prospects, but opens up a new way of being in the world.

Kemal begins to collect objects that remind him of the time he spent with Fusun; they are fetishistic in a real sense, in that when he touches them, he feels an erotic charge. But as the objects begin to accumulate, he realises that he is creating a collection that echoes far beyond his own doomed love affair.

The book moves at a snail's pace, and readers have to be prepared for long, meditative descriptions of the world Kemal inhabits. The ending, however, makes up for the patience invested beautifully, and will delight all museum studies students. There are wonderful passages that discuss the nature of time, the solace of objects, and the purpose of a museum.

The book's author, Orhan Pamuk, inserts himself into the narrative - he also delights in inter-textual tricks that refer to his other novels, as well as the novels of the authors he admires. Perhaps this will encourage some to read his other books, and enjoy them as much as I have.
"After all, isn't the purpose of the novel, or of a museum for that matter, to relate our memories with such sincerity as to transform individual happiness into a happiness all can share?"

Book - Wonderful Things: Learning with Museum Objects

As Wonderful Things vividly demonstrates, learning by engaging with objects
can be a powerful experience. Whether you're an educator, interpreter,
curator, designer, gallery explainer or simply intrigued by this method of
teaching, there will be rewarding material in this book for you.

What's in the book?
After an exploration of the process of learning from objects, the book puts
these principles into practice, in the form of over 50 easy-to-set-up
games, designed to facilitate creative interaction with objects. Although
in themselves straightforward, many of the games can have surprisingly
powerful and stimulating results and each game has been tested, used and
refined in practice many times.

All the games are ideal for use in classroom or museum settings, and most
are easily adapted for use with all educational ages, from 5-18. However,
some can also be used successfully with adults; and the more complex,
drama-based games have been used in psychotherapeutic work and with older
people for reminiscence.

Wonderful Things will be of value to a wide range of specialist staff -
including educators, outreach staff, interpreters, designers, curators,
gallery "explainers", guides and volunteers - in museums, galleries,
science centres, historic houses and sites and zoos.

For a limited time only, a special launch offer is available:
* Save over 10% on the published price
* Receive an immediate copy of the Digital Edition to read (on any device)
and print
* Receive your copy of the paperback edition on 30 March

For full details of the book, the author, and to place an order, please

This book is packed with bright, tested ideas and I know you'll find it
both stimulating and practically useful.

PS We offer all our readers an unconditional guarantee: if, once received,
you decide for any reason this book is not for you, simply return it to us
for a full refund!

CFP: Museum 2012: The Socially Purposeful Museum

Museum 2012: The Socially Purposeful Museum
Call for Proposals
20-22 November 2012
National Museum of History, Taipei, Taiwan

An international conference organised by the National Taipei University of Education, the University of Leicester's Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, National Museums Liverpool and the National Museum of History, Taipei.

Building on the success of the Museum 2010 and Museum 2011 events, this conference explores the notion of the socially purposeful museum - a dynamic, vital institution that has rich relationships with diverse audiences; that nurtures participatory and co-creative practice and is part of people's everyday lives; that seeks to foster progressive social values and, at the same time, is widely recognised as a site for dialogue and debate; that works collaboratively with a range of institutions within and beyond the cultural sector to engender vibrant, inclusive and more just societies .

Museum 2012 will be a forum for museum practitioners, leaders and policy makers, researchers, academics and students to share ideas and discuss strategies around three interlinked themes;

Growing audiences: How can museums strengthen relationships with existing audiences and, at the same time, open up to new audiences that have traditionally been under-represented in most institutions' visitor profiles? What roles are marketing and public relations playing in embedding museums in community, social and political life? What strategies support museums in becoming more highly valued by diverse stakeholders, more visible and talked about?

Partnerships and participatory practice: How are partnerships with agencies beyond the cultural sector transforming the practices, roles and impacts of museums? What opportunities and challenges are presented by initiatives that enable communities to actively shape the future direction of museums?

Contemporary issues and difficult histories: How are museums, galleries and heritage sites engaging audiences in debates surrounding difficult histories and contemporary social issues? How are museums responding to (and seeking to impact) global and local concerns from environmental degradation and health inequalities to human rights and censorship? What strategies are museums deploying to address controversial, contested and challenging social and political issues?

Confirmed keynote speakers include:

David Fleming, Director, National Museums Liverpool

Catharine Braithwaite, media relations and strategic marketing specialist and Associate Lecturer, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester

Lisa Lee, Director, Jane Addams Hull House Museum, Chicago

Andrew McIntyre, Principal Consultant and co-founder of Morris Hargreaves McIntyre

Jocelyn Dodd, Director, Research Centre for Museums and Galleries

Richard Sandell, Head of Museum Studies, University of Leicester

Call for proposals

Museum 2012 will feature different kinds of format for sharing ideas and engaging delegates. Alongside keynote presentations and conference papers from leaders in the field will be panel discussions that bring together people from different professional backgrounds, countries and viewpoints; discussions between representatives from communities/ partner bodies outside the culture sector and museum professionals with whom they have collaborated; and inspiring visits to museums. We welcome proposals for presentations and other kinds of session that address the conference themes.

Call for proposals Document

Conference Proposal Form

Please complete a conference proposal form and submit to Dr. Yung-Neng by 10 May 2012.

Enquiries and requests for Proposal Forms may be sent to: Dr Yung-Neng Lin, National Taipei University of Education ( or Jocelyn Dodd, Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (

We will notify you of the outcome of your proposal by the end of May 2012.

We anticipate that selected papers will be published to accompany Museum 2012 and authors will be asked to submit papers of between 2000 and 5000 words by 30 September 2012 by email to Dr. Yung-Neng Lin.

All proposals, presentations and papers must be in English or Chinese.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Brown Bag: “Museums, Collections and Cultural Diplomacy – Some Reflections from UCL”

Brown Bag 7th March 2012

“Museums, Collections and Cultural Diplomacy – Some Reflections from UCL”

Sally Macdonald
Director of UCL Museums and Public Engagement

It’s been quite some time since I wrote up one of these Brown Bag reviews, and after the hard work and wonderful write ups from all my colleagues, I have to admit to feeling rather intimidated! That said, Sally’s presentation was a pleasure to attend, and, indeed, a pleasure to write up and think upon. So, without further preamble or ado, let us launch into the world of Cultural Diplomacy – which is, as it turns out, a complex one to negotiate, both personally and professionally.

Sally is the director of University College London’s Museums and Collections, as such having the responsibility for eight collections and, rather uniquely, the auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham. She has also served on a number of advisory committees, working parties and associations, and as recently been involved in setting up Heritage Without Borders – of which more below. Thus she is well placed to lead us through the sensitive, and sometimes surprising, landscape which comes into being when museums get involved in international activities.

In the early 2000s, Sally was involved in the DCMS Working Party on Human Remains. These meetings, made up of members of government, National, Independent and University Museums and other institutions were designed with the purpose of guiding the repatriation debate. It was Sally’s first encounter with the DCMS, and she found it interesting to note how this government body, and the National Museums in particular, found the issue of repatriation much harder to handle than other institutions involved.
Such a debate can, and has for some, including Sally, incited self-reflection, and a questioning of attitudes both individual and institutional. For Sally, the DCMS Working Groups certainly brought about a step-change in the way she thought about the collections in her care. Prior to these meetings, the Human Remains UCL held were, for Sally, objects – by the end of the process, they were people. This realization of the complexities of things began to extend to other pieces of material culture in her care, and she has personally and professionally become ever more involved in the diplomatic and international acts which surround them.

 But what are these diplomatic and international acts? Many of them fall under the umbrella term of ‘cultural diplomacy’. Though it has many definitions, that forwarded by Milton Cummings in 2003 is very commonly accepted. Cultural diplomacy, he states, is the exchange of ideas, information, values, systems, traditions, beliefs, and other aspects of culture, with the intention of fostering mutual understanding.” What those exchanges and understandings are, however, vary from case to case and interested party to interested party. The separation of cultural from political diplomacy comes into question. It seems that the two are inextricably linked, and that, counter to the ideals of some, the independence of cultural action in an international arena is impossible. The crucial question is how aware cultural practitioners are of this intertwining of values and purposes, and how they work in a knowing way to achieve their stated goals.
There are various ways in which museums and cultural institutions can act diplomatically – intentionally or otherwise. Sally has herself been involved in a number of such activities and, from a purple box which makes a welcome change from Powerpoint slides, she takes the material traces which these have left behind.

Appropriately, for something so prettily wrapped, the first item to emerge is ‘The Gift’. Arguably the oldest form of cultural diplomacy – its age was noted by Marcel Mauss1 – the gift remains as important for institutions today as it was for the royal houses of medieval Europe. UCL sees itself as a global player, and as such it needs a distinctive gift to present to its potential partners. What should this gift be? In the case of UCL, it is a catalogue of their art collection, not originally designed to be given as a present. However, they are now being called upon to produce something which is more identifiably a formal offering. But this brings with it a number of difficult questions. What should that specifically designed gift be, and what should it do? If it is to be a catalogue, then what should it include? What languages should it be in and, crucially, what should it omit? If it is to be specifically directed to certain groups, should concessions to religious or political sensibilities be made and, if so, how far should these go?

The act of giving and receiving a gift is of course a complex one, fraught with social issues, but it is clear too that the gift itself is a manifold object, and one and the same time a simple item of generosity and a metonymic representation of the giver. Sally recognises that, from the contents of the catalogue to the packaging in which it is presented, this particular material artefact is a frame for the public, and international, image of UCL. In the short space of time which was available to us, it was unfortunately impossible to unpick the intricacies of the gift in great detail, in the case of UCL in particular, and in general. But perhaps you as readers might respond to the following question: what are the implications of inclusion, and exclusion in regard to a gift of cultural diplomacy?

The session then switched to another mode of physical/cultural exchange – repatriation. The DCMS Working Groups were instigated as a result of an agreement in 2000, made between the then Prime Ministers of the UK and Australia, Tony Blair and John Howard. When it comes to any politically sensitive act, including repatriation, those with higher stakes in the Establishment have moth more stringent legal strictures to abide by, and perhaps much more to loose – not just in terms of their physical collections, but also in terms of their cultural capital and self-identity. There was at the time a widespread fear about repatriation, which perhaps still persists in some quarters, that to let one object go might signify the opening of the floodgates, and perhaps for some institutions a loss of collections and icons so hugely central to their function and identity as to undermine their very notions of selfhood.

As yet, of course, this has not happened. Limits have remained. The Working Groups were originally intended to consider sacred objects but this discussion was shelved, and has not, as yet, been reasserted at a government level. But it is not only that things have been retained – there have also been more visibly positive, if rather intangible, gains made for many institutions as a result of repatriation. Sally provides concrete evidence of the positive relationships which can arise through the process of returning goods and artefacts. UCL has been able to build links with institutions including the Australian High Commission and Te Papa in New Zealand, and has also been able to extend its social and political networks to include dialogues with originary source communities themselves. All of the Australian human remains, however they came into the collection, have now been returned.

It is not just a question of human remains, however. UCL has also taken steps to return objects which came into its keeping in questionable ways. When some Bronze Age Thai pottery was discovered in the collection, the methods by which it was acquired came under scrutiny, and the Thai ambassador was invited to the collections to come and advise. In 2010, these 16 items were returned to the Museum in Bangkok. Sally believes that the fact that the holding institution approached the potential recipient, and not the other way around, was crucial to the relationship which has blossomed since, which has resulted in such benefits as a scholarship for a UCL student to study in Thailand. It is fascinating, and inspiring to learn that manifold benefits can be gleaned from something which institutions might well initially see to be a problem.

Exchanges might also be temporary or with certain conditions, and Sally turns now to the act of loan. Through various engagements, a relationship was established between UCL and the Egyptian Cultural Bureau which is still ongoing. UCL’s Petrie Museum is famous as an Egyptological institute, and the ECB requested that they might use some of its collections in their redesigned building. Through an application to Effective Collections, Sally’s colleagues were able to gain support for this venture, to be produced in collaboration with the ECB, and members of the local Egyptian community in London. The project has understandably been delayed by the the recent revolution in Egypt, and there was a time when it was unknown as to whether it would happen at all. However, the new regime is equally committed to the partnership and the number of Egyptian co-curators has increased. They have a desire to represent the personal, religious and national identities of the Egypt of the present: how to do this with an archaeological collection is, of course, something of a challenge for the institution. As if further evidence were needed for the intertwined nature of culture and politics, some of the co-curators have since asked UCL if it would be possible to use the Petrie as a forum in which to debate the new Egyptian constitution. One day, perhaps, given time and greater space, this is something a museum such as the Petrie might well aspire.

But institutions such as UCL and individuals such as Sally can also help with the aspirations of others – and herein lies the driver behind one of her most inspiring projects, Heritage Without Borders. Conceived through her frustration at being unable to respond to many international requests for help, HWB is a capacity building initiative which works in situations of poverty, conflict and disaster to exchange knowledge and skills regarding the protection and preservation of cultural heritage. It’s first projects, conservation summer schools for museum professionals, took place in Bosnia and Turkmenistan, and a trip to Albania is planned for later this year. Funding for these projects comes from a number of sources, and the British Council themselves will later this year fund an exchange programme between UK and Middle Eastern curators and heritage professionals, developing mentoring and partnering relationships which, it is hoped, will see not the imposition of knowledges and cultural frameworks, but a two way exchange.

Such projects as Sally has shown have made, and have yet to make, possible personal, public, and administrative transformations. How, she asks, will the work with HWB change the British Council, UCL, or governmental and cultural bodies in the Arabic world? How will it change us as cultural professionals, and as individuals?

International activities are, of course, not free of negative issues. The political alignments of interested parties in each diplomatic act are always open to question, and are often difficult. The cultural professional needs to be honest about how they position themselves within this, to make their own role, goals, and values clear. There is no doubt that museums can act more overtly and radically in global politics, as TATE’s support of Ai Weiwei goes to show. How far this should go, however, is a question to be debated. Whilst Sally does not believe that institutions can, or necessarily should, be apolitical, in terms of their activities or indeed in their interpretation and display, it does need to be understood that these attitudes and alignments will affect the ways in which institutions are seen by governments and communities, both at home and abroad. And of course, these relationships can go wrong: the return of objects to Egypt, instigated by the Petrie, was reported in the Arab press as a triumphal return with goods reclaimed from a colonial institution, which was initially upsetting. But Sally remains pragmatic – there is no way in which you can control all interpretations of your actions. All you can do, perhaps, is everything you can to further what you perceive as good – and this must carefully be distinguished from enforcing cultural primacy.

Admittedly, this is a long blog post – but this was a discussion which opened up a purple Pandora’s Box filled to the brim with opportunities and threats, triumphs and potential dangers. Once Sally had emptied it, then, what was left at the bottom? As in the myth, through all the political, social and physical vicissitudes of life, Hope, and the potential it brings for the future, remains in its ‘unbreakable home.’2

  1. Marcel Mauss, The Gift, (Abingdon: Routledge Classics, 2002)
  2. Hesiod. Works and Days, in The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, (Cambridge, MA. and London: Harvard University Press/ William Heinemann Ltd, 1914), l.95

Friday, March 02, 2012

Symposium: Popular Media Cultures

REGISTRATION NOW OPEN FOR: Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines
A One Day Symposium to be held at the Odeon Cinema, Covent Garden, London
Saturday 19th May 2012
Keynote Address by:Prof. Henry Jenkins, University of Southern California
Popular Media Cultures seeks to explore the relationship between audiencesand media texts, their paratexts and interconnected ephemera, and therelated cultural practices that add to and expand the narrative worlds withwhich fans engage. How audiences make meaning out of established mediatexts will be discussed in connection with the new texts produced by fans.The symposium will focus on the cultural work done by media audiences, howthey engage with new technologies and how convergence culture impacts onthe strategies and activities of popular media fans.
With papers by: Stacey Abbott, Joanne Garde-Hansen & Kristyn Gorton, MattHills, Mark Jancovich, Roberta E. Pearson and Cornel Sandvoss.
Fees (including lunch and refreshments)*:£50 Full rate£25 Student reduced rate*
Delegates on the day will receive a 10% discount on purchases made at the Forbidden Planet Megastore on presentation of their symposium name badge.
For further details of how to register and attend the event go to the ourwebsite at:
The Symposium is supported by the Centre for Cultural and Creative Research at the University of Portsmouth. See:

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Get your snark on

From the annals of my research: journalist Prudence Glynn goes to a museum, and does not like it. No one is safe. Click to embiggen. (Snippet extracted from 'What's a nice dress like you doing in a place like this', by Prudence Glynn, The Times, September 3, 1974, p. 6.)