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.

Monday, November 24, 2014

School of Museum Studies Research Seminar Wednesday 22nd October 2014, Professor Simon Gunn The Strange Death of Industrial England

On Wednesday 22nd October 2014 Professor Simon Gunn, Professor of Urban History at the Centre for Urban History, a research centre within the University of Leicester’s School of History, and author of books including:  History and cultural theory (2006) and The public culture of the Victorian middle class:  ritual and authority and the English industrial city, 1840-1914 (2000), visited the University of Leicester School of Museum Studies Research Seminar Series to speak on the topic of ‘The Strange Death of Industrial England’.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Museums Alive! conference

The PhD students at the University of Leicester School of Museum Studies recently partnered with the Migration Museum Project to present the sixth School of Museum Studies PhD student led conference Museums Alive! Exploring How Museums Behave Like Living Beings 3-5 November. This conference attracted delegates and presenters from 22 different countries. Over half of the delegates came from either the museum profession or from other universities and academic departments. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Dear Fellow PhD Students

I think it's high time we wrote a letter to you, because I know at least a few of you follow this blog, and a few more have since graduated, but started following us when you were students.

If you've finished, congratulations! I hope your careers are going well for you.

If you haven't finished, I promise there is a light at the end of the tunnel, though you may not yet be close enough to the end to see it. But it is there.

I know this, because up until three months ago there was no light. It was just a long and very dark tunnel and I had begun to lose hope. But there's a light now, and it's been growing steadily brighter ever since it appeared. And I can almost - almost - glimpse the shape of that light. It's sort of curved at the top, and flat on the bottom and sides. It's starting to look more like a tunnel exit (or entrance).

I have just, literally, started the last 30 days of my PhD. In 30 days I have to have edited, proofread, printed and submitted my thesis, because in 30 days I have to be on an airplane. Which is one of those deadlines that is rather...set in stone, as it were. Or in metal.

And I thought, in admits all that work, that I'd stop for a moment and share what life is like for me right now. Because, I admit, I don't think most people talk about the last couple of months of their PhD, because they are too stressed or anxious or overworked to stop and have that talk with others. And that's unfortunate, because it's just as important a time as any other month in your PhD. But I've concluded that I really had no idea what this month would consist of, and perhaps knowing ahead of time would have been better for me; mentally, at least.

Everyone is different and everyone's timeline is different, but the last month roughly consists of finishing edits, having your work reviewed by your supervisors, proofreading and finally printing the copies to submit (or having them printed for you).

I have found, so far, that all of it is a bit anti-climatic. And I don't say that to worry you, just to make you aware. I though the overwhelming excitement and relief of each step in this last final push would be wonderful and exciting and any other words you can think of. But it's not. I'm tired. I really, really am exhausted after a very busy six months of trying to get this finished. It's winter. I'm cold. The department is growing quiet after the new influx of students have slowly dispersed to work on their own PhDs. Last week, I submitted my draft to my second supervisor, after having gone through my first supervisor's edits. And I thought I'd feel elated. I really, honestly, did. Instead, I wondered around the department for the rest of the day in something of a mental fugue, wondering what exactly I was supposed to do with myself for the interim. I'm still not quite sure, even though I have my edits from the 2nd back now (the first round, that is). I found it far too easy to fall out of the habit of writing after I finished in September, and even easier to fall out of the habit that editing brings. I have been left to poke at things, which is fine; poking still gets stuff done, but I'm not as focused or as driven as I was a few weeks ago. And perhaps that's normal. Perhaps it isn't normal. I'm not certain, because people don't talk about these last few weeks of edits.

But I'm sharing my experience with you now, not because I expect yours will be/has been the same, but because I wanted those of you who are reaching this point (or will reach it) to know that everyone goes through it. That it's not easier or harder than anything that came before. That it's going to be strange and new and weird, because everything you've gone through in your PhD experience has been that way (unless you're on your second PhD, and if so, congratulations). I guess, in the end, what I really want is for people to talk more. Not just at the beginning about how scared they are, or in the middle about how tired they are, but all the time, to people who are behind you and people who are in front of you and at all the stages in between. Because I have found that, singlehandedly, the most helpful thing in my PhD has been to discuss the experience with others.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Heritage Career Day in Birmingham

AAH Art History Careers Day! 
Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham 
Saturday 25 October

The event will bring together a wide-range of speakers from leading cultural institutions who will share their professional experiences and expertise in areas including curatorship, art management, gallery marketing and education, and research.

Tickets (includes lunch and refreshments): 
AAH members £8; non-members £12

Places are limited and tickets must be bought online in advance:

Speakers include: 
Reyahn King (Head of Heritage Lottery Fund, West Midlands) 
Dr Connie Wan (Pop Art Curator, Wolverhampton Art Gallery) 
Sarah Shirley-Priest (Senior Specialist and Branch Manager, Bonhams) 
Jane Thompson Webb (Conservator, Birmingham Museums Trust) 
Alex Jolly (Learning & Access Assistant, Barber Institute of Fine Arts) 
Hannah Carroll (Marketing Officer, Birmingham Museums) 
Carly Hegenbarth (Doctoral Researcher, University of Birmingham) 
Chris Packham (Careers Consultant, Arts and Law, University of Birmingham)

Facebook event:

Careers Day | AAH - Association of Art Historians

Monday, July 28, 2014

RIII (Richard III) – Dynasty, Death and Discovery

It’s the opening weekend of Leicester’s brand spanking new Richard III Visitor Centre (KRIII), right across from the Cathedral’s brand spanking new gardens, in the heart of Leicester’s oldest quarter. The sun is shining, the weather has been too hot for more than a week, and a gardener is out, madly trying to water all the new plants before they die.

St Martins is a short laneway leading to Peacock Lane, and is still partly under construction due to the new gardens in front of the Cathedral that now create a pedestrianized walking area between the Church and the Centre. It’s away from the hustle and bustle of the main city centre, and with Castle Garden’s Richard III statue now pointing the way from the Cathedral (Richard’s final resting place next year) and the Centre, there is a peaceful contemplation to the area that has never previously been there.

The Centre itself is an old school, now converted following £4 million pounds of funding into a Visitor Centre. Or maybe a visitor attraction is closer to the mark, like Bosworth Battlefield on the outskirts of Leicester. There is a certain symmetry now, between the two. The city got lucky with the old school, conveniently located next door to the 2012 dig site and with an extension towards the west, the Centre now encompasses the ruins of Grey Friar’s Church and a 500 year old grave, now empty.

I will start with the positives, because I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t support this new Leicester initiative. I do. I wholeheartedly do. I hope it’s popular and interesting, and that visitors flock to the place for many years to come. Leicester deserves to be known by non-residents, as it boasts a wonderful cultural amalgamation and a great yearly calendar of events.

The architectural additions to the old school are quite well done, preserving the original (glorious) architecture, but still creating a space that can house a modern exhibition. The décor in the lobby and café is tasteful. Care has clearly been taken to use some nicer-than-average building materials in the glass entryway leading to the ‘tomb’. The exhibition styles on the ground floor and the first floor are as different as night and day, but they work with the themes presented and there’s a good deal of space devoted to exhibition. I appreciated the wood that has been added in many places and the continuing theme of the RIII Centre’s logo, with the crown and fleur-de-lis. On the ground floor, just by the café and before the trip upstairs to the second half of the exhibition, there is a text panel telling visitors about the history of the building. It’s well placed, on the way to the washrooms and in obvious view of the (too industrial looking, I think) staircase.

The Centre has undertaken timed entry, which will no doubt be useful when the place becomes very busy, but on opening day there wasn’t a huge number of visitors (at least when we were there at 11am). This will, hopefully, change when word gets around that the Centre is open, as the visitor target for the first year is 100,000. A long ramp leads from the (woefully inadequate) gift shop up to the first room. It’s there to set the mood, to take the visitor away from the outside world and get them to understand that they are walking into history, to a place where they will learn about death and betrayal and all the other wonderful aspects of fifteenth century England. However, it somewhat fails in this scene-setting by the fact that the huge entrance door is so big that all the sound from the lobby just echoes through the space and makes getting into the mood a bit difficult. A smaller doorway might have solved this problem, or an offset one that might have blocked the sound. The first room is all digital, with projections on the floor and far wall. While this is a nice touch, I worry about what happens on the day that the first projector bulb goes. One assumes they’ve taken this into account, but my own thesis research (dealing with exactly this topic) suggests that heritage centres rarely consider breakage after the fact, or the skyrocketing costs that come with fixing broken technology. I appreciate the need for a ‘wow’ factor to give visitors their money’s worth, but this may backfire at a later stage (inevitably it will one day, tech doesn’t last forever).

From this entrance room there is a room to the left that is bright and cheerful and appears to be temporary exhibition space. I appreciate this addition to the Centre, though the current exhibition of paintings – appropriately-themed works by a local painter - didn’t grab my interest at all. It could be a useful space later, and would certainly work as commercial space for events and parties (which is perhaps the true purpose, I didn’t think to ask the staff this).

On the right, a claustrophobic and dark corridor leads into the main exhibit. I’d be fine with this, normally, except it’s going to be a constant bottleneck space with even half the normal visitor numbers and those always bug me. They had limited space in the old school to create the exhibits, but there are ways around tight spaces. The few text panels in this corridor space are set remarkably high (I’m average height for a woman) and with the press of bodies, visitors stopping to read them isn’t likely anyways.

The main downstairs exhibition is, at first glance, pretty, though horribly dark. The mood lighting is obvious, but without artefacts to take care of, the darkness is sometimes annoying and at other times plain frustrating, particularly towards the back of the room. Even a short line of people is going to hold the whole place up, as people stop to read the text (and it’s ALL text in here). The ground floor exhibit details the history of the late fifteenth century in England, explaining King Edward and the War of the Roses, though in a way that suggests the intended audience will have no prior knowledge of either (good assumptions for foreign visitors, less good for locals – there’s been enough documentaries on BBC in the last two years). I admit to having lost interest in the text panels quite quickly (I’m more a history buff than most) and also getting tired of waiting for people to move on. A solitary interactive tucked into a corner at the back of the first section of the gallery seems more geared at children, but with the overwhelming amount of text, the dark lighting and a lack of interactivity, this place is not made for children.

Following the path around (there’s only one route in here, like it or leave), there is the barest glimpse of an artifact (a ring donated by the Leicester Museums) and a few reproductions that (in one case fail to state it’s a reproduction) hardly stand in for actual objects, more of which could be seen in the tiny Guildhall exhibit that’s been on the last year. Shame that, as even a floor tile or two would have been more interesting to look at. The few resin objects, for example, could easily be replaced by ‘real’ examples from the Leicester Arts and Museum Service collection.

More projection screens tell the story of Richard’s reign and fall, with more text to read in darkened spaces. An ‘interactive’ which lets visitors open doors to look at figures and read the accompanying text could have been great fun…except for the lack of light in which to see it. It could easily be missed by visitors not paying attention.

A back corner of the gallery offers a few nice quotes about Richard throughout history, though an extra text panel has obviously been added this week, listing the original contributors of the quotes, a slight miss. However, the most worrying aspect of the gallery is the ‘display’ of halberds (by which I mean a recreations, arranged to stick out from the wall at various angles) is fine, though presents an awful lot of sharp points at child level.

An issue that is clear from the start is that there is already subtle damage to the text panels and displays, even within the first couple of hours of opening day. Things will wear quite quickly from visitor touching and children will touch, peel and destroy everything they can. To have not taken this into account shows a severe lack of foresight in the design. There are already fingerprints on everything, and a final clean was clearly missed before the Centre opened, particularly in the grave room.

A minor issue is the font used for the headings in the lower gallery, a gothic type script set well above eye-level in most cases and, in the dark, takes a bit of concentration to read. It fits the mood, but will be a challenge for some visitors. The main text, at least, is clear and easy to read, though sometimes more difficult in lower light.

A regular door leads out to the café area from the dark gallery and here we encounter perhaps the greatest problem of all with the Centre: the café is only accessible to paying visitors. There is no other way to get to it except to pass the ticketing desk. A staff member said that gift aid (yet to be set up) will allow a year’s access to the café, but as not everyone will/can ‘gift aid’ this seems a big miss. I have wracked my brains all day but have failed to come up with another visitor centre or museum in Britain where the café is not publically accessible. As it is a nice café with a good and affordable menu, they have missed the boat, particularly with a good sized courtyard for the summer months (though with insufficient tables and chairs outside on opening day) and a nice fresh menu with plenty of options for adults and kids.

The entrance outside the café then leads by stair or lift to the first floor, a bright (almost shockingly so after the lower gallery) space that explores the archaeological and scientific processes of the ‘discovery’ of Richard III. It’s well done and the information is well presented (although eagle eyes might spot a few typos in the interpretive text!). A few interactives help visitors explore in more depth and a great 3D digital rendering of Leicester then and now is a wonderful addition. Several problems with the space, however, include the fact that the audio for the interactives is much too low to be heard in anything other than a completely silent gallery and the speakers are aimed in the wrong directions. Also, the inclusion of ‘artefacts’ from the dig are, well, a bit of a joke, really. Again, several things from the Guildhall exhibit could have been placed here, but instead hi-vis jackets and Phillipa Langley’s wellies take pride of place. A mistake, I feel.

The first section of the gallery nicely features information about portrayals of Richard III over the years, from Shakespeare to 2014’s ‘The White Queen’ mini-series (it’s already out of date – no Martin Freeman in 2014's summer production of Richard III in London) and includes a reproduction (why not the original?) of Ian McKellan’s Richard III costume. This leads into an overview of the dig itself, ending in a section featuring small photos of the skeleton in situ, in its grave. No doubt an effort to treat the body of a king with dignity, but having seen the bones in multiple photos over the last two years, this ‘dignity’ seems highly unnecessary.

The final space is about what has happened since the dig, from DNA sequencing through scientific evaluation and the identification of the bones as being those of Richard III. This last section, I feel, is where the Centre really comes into its own, as it’s interesting and informative, well designed and features displays about each aspect of the process, and has a lovely central interactive based around an MRI machine with a recreated skeleton that uses HUD technology to show different parts of the skeleton.

The famous portrait and the reconstructed head that was based on the skull are also on display, before the stairs that lead you back down (a lovely wooden staircase) to the central glazed promenade between the lobby and the café. Here is a space that should be quiet, though with sound from the café and the lobby it’s less so. It leads to a ‘gold’ sliding door and into an area that feels remarkably tomb-like. Here is the ultimate ‘wow’, a glass floor over the gravesite, exactly as it looked two years ago when I last saw it, standing at the edge of the archaeological dig. It’s a lovely space (though the seats and quote on the wall emphasis ‘tomb’ and almost go too far towards a meditative space which will be available in the Cathedral this time next year). Still, it’s the most architecturally stunning part of the whole Centre and might be worth the admission price alone, if you’ve did not have the chance to see the site on dig open days. A projection that comes and goes shows you how the skeleton lay in the shallow cramped space for 500 years. The space is only truly let down by the dirty finger smudges all over the ‘gold’ door and up to the ceiling. Someone find a cleaner STAT!

In all, the entry price is reasonable, in comparison with other places around Britain, and the Centre should attract tourists from far and wide. It has enough of a wow factor and information to appeal to the general public (though not, you may have noticed, a museum professional!). The staff seem enthusiastic (for now) and there are certainly enough of them around, almost too many staff, but this may change after opening weekend.

There need to be more activities for the kids, however, to make it worth the price of their admission. The kids that were there were running about ignoring everything, so clearly they were already bored before they had got half way. A shame, really, as the history and science lend themselves to much more interactivity; the only true interactive being a ‘dig’ station upstairs that does not work as well as the designer intended it too. A station more akin to what Jewry Wall put in for the Millennium addition would have been much more hands on.

Lastly, comment cards are readily available, with a chance to win a Richard III goody bag (whatever that is), however there is no box to leave them in and, therefore, they must be handed to staff, which requires a certain amount of trust, not least in respect of the personal details, required to enter the draw.

In all, however, visitors will likely enjoy the trip (though only once – I wonder whether the Centre will get repeat visitors?) and hopefully it will gain Leicester that much coveted reputation as a tourist destination. Time will tell.

*All views presented in this article are those of MuseumWriter, and are not the views of The Attic or the School of Museum Studies at Leicester.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Museum Studies’ ‘Cabinet’ receives new award — University of Leicester

We don't normally toot our own horns here, but this is such a wonderful project that the department has been involved with that it's hard not to share it. This has been a collaboration between RCMG here at the School of Museum Studies and artist Mat Fraser. It has just won the Observer Ethical Award for Arts and Culture.

But I'm posting about it because this award is a culmination of an amazing project between RCMG and and various museum institutions surrounding disability. And it is worth checking out. The link also provides several media reviews of the project and a few lovely videos to watch.

Museum Studies’ ‘Cabinet’ receives new award — University of Leicester

Monday, June 16, 2014

Postdigital Design

What came out of last week's University Museums Group conference was an understanding that we really, as a discipline that is both professional and academic, need to talk a lot more. This might seem like such a simple thing, but over the years of attending conferences and meeting with academics in the heritage sector, it's not simple at all. It's not simple because we don't do it.

On Thursday, James Davis, who is the Project (Programme) Manager of the Google Cultural Institute declared something that I've been thinking about for a while, but that came as a shock (judging by the whispers) to a lot of the museum audience.

Technology is advancing faster than museums can keep up. Stop trying.

It's logical. It's simple. But museums are not doing it. They are still trying to second guess the next great tech revolution in exhibition design. Point in proof is the Horizon Reports Museum Edition, which exists to tell museums every year what the tech outlook is for the following year. What tech they need to adopt in order to stay with the times.

Which sounds great if you're the BM or the Science Museum, but since 99% of us don't work there, there is a decided reality disconnect going on between what we 'should' be doing and what actually happens. Face it, we who are not the Big Nationals don't have the money.  And if we don't have the money, talking about how to keep up with the tech revolution on a tiny budget is a waste of breath.

Instead, Davis suggests that there is another way. Understand that you can't keep up. Give up. There is plenty of other things museums can do without spending their precious time and resources deciding if iPads will still be viable in 2 years time. Digital must become part of an organisation. Adopt the digital that is easy to adopt, the digital that doesn't take much money, that evolves slower and changes more gradually. But adopt it everywhere and in everything. Go digital. Whether it's your director, your curator, your volunteer coordinator, make sure they buy in and are on board. We don't all need to be tech wizes to do that. But there is something to be said for training (or hiring) staff to use digital in all aspects of their job. Once you get a digital institution, it's easier to adopt other digital and decide what works for you and what doesn't.

It was a great start to the one-day conference. It certainly got a lot of us thinking, but it especially appealed to me. Because one of the things that comes out of my research is the fact that most of the issues are because museums jumped on the tech bandwagon before they had any understanding of it and now they are suffering from the 'well, it's outdated, what do we do now?' response. And their answer seems to be to put more tech in. Davis knows that won't work. I know that won't work. But museums are still doing it.

Which means we need to talk a lot more about what we do and why we do it. We need to admit what didn't work (to each other, not just ourselves). We need to stand up at conferences and declare 'we did this entire programme last month and not a wit of it was digital' and not worry about being lynched (bad example).

Which brings me onto the topic of the postdigital, which was the final panel theme. Ross Parry dreamed this one up, as you might imagine, and brought it to the conference as a new way for the audience to start looking at how they do digital.

Basically, postdigital means looking at digital through a backward facing lens. Digital is not new. It's not sudden. It's not going to solve our problems. Digital has existed for ages (really, technology in the museums goes back 100 years) and yet we are still treating it as some kind of wonder, even while we live and breath digital in our everyday lives. No more. This has to stop. We live in a postdigital world and we have to admit that. We have to start considering digital as part of everything we do, not as something special we now do.

I pitched a paper on 'postdigital design', because it had something to do with my thesis. It meant a lot of work shoving two things together, but in the end it works. It works because my thesis is about children and technology. And if we are going to talk about children and technology in anything resembling a useful way, we first have to admit we live in a postdigital world.

Because I believe that children and technology already exist in a postdigital world. And you can tweet me on that (others already have).

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Museums and Heritage Magazine announcement

Museums + Heritage Show Ltd acquires leading sector magazine
creating Europe’s largest online resource for the cultural community

Tuesday 29th April, London, Museums + Heritage Show Ltd, owners of the annual Museums + Heritage Show and Awards, has today announced the acquisition of the leading cultural sector title: Museums and Heritage.
The magazine acquisition responds to the growing need for a dominant, comprehensive online resource to connect and inspire museums, designers, suppliers and contractors within the cultural sector.
The Museums and Heritage Magazine, which was owned by Ten Alps Communications Ltd, has never previously been connected with Museums + Heritage Show Ltd. The Show and Awards organisers will merge the acquired magazine into Museums + Heritage Advisor – already an online hub of essential information and advice that informs, inspires and connects those working in the museums and heritage industry.
Anna Preedy, Director of Museums + Heritage Show Ltd, said: “We’re delighted to announce the acquisition of Museums and Heritage magazine. By integrating the finest elements of the magazine into our popular Advisor website we will provide those working within the sector with an unparalleled online resource – a one-stop-shop for information, case studies and sector news as well as the opportunity to connect with each other.”
The magazine acquisition completes the company’s 20-year-long industry stronghold, adding the magazine title to the prestigious Museums + Heritage Awards for Excellence and the annual Museums + Heritage Show – the UK’s largest event for the cultural sector. The Show at Olympia, London on May 14th and 15th brings together all of the latest technologies, services and thinking for professionals working in museums, galleries, heritage and cultural visitor attractions.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Real Things and Difficult Heritage: The 9/11 Memorial Museum and Sharon Macdonald's Lunchtime Seminar on National Socialist Documentation Centres in Nuremberg and Munich

This week, on 21 May 2014, the National 9/11 Memorial Museum will open to the public for the first time, 13 years after the attacks on the Twin Towers. Built on Ground Zero, the place of the tragedy, the museum aims to tell the stories of what happened there in 2001. A virtual exploration of the museum's architecture can be seen on the Guardian website. Already causing controversy in the press for several reasons including the (in)appropriateness of the things available for sale in its gift shop (for example see 'popular press' reports in the Daily Mail and New York Post), and also its widely reported controversial storage of human remains from those still missing, the Memorial Museum is of course in line for much further discussion and debate once its doors are open and visitors begin to engage fully with the site, its collections and its meanings, both in the present and for the future.
On the museum's website, its Director Alice Greenwald states: "where most museums are buildings that house artefacts, this Museum has been built within an artefact". That this building is an artefact, itself filled with hundreds of other artefacts, reflects the organisation's aspiration to be both immense, yet also intimate, both a museum and a memorial. Of the 10,000 objects collected after 9/11, 800 of them will be on display in the Memorial Museum.
Collections are largely drawn from two distinct categories. Either they are things found and donated by the families of victims as memorials to those individuals who died during the tragedy, or else they are things that were salvaged in the immediate aftermath from the wreckage of the World Trade Centre (some of which can be seen in these NY Times films including commentary from Chief Curator, Jan Seidler Ramirez, and also on this CNN film).  Straightaway, those working in New York's heritage industries, as well as those involved in the rescue operation, recognised a need to collect. This mass of things, from flowers left at the scene, to 'missing' posters, to personal possessions, to trucks, to structural remains, has come to have symbolic meaning and value, both individually and collectively. All of these objects are real. They have what Walter Benjamin might describe as 'aura'.
In contrast with this visceral need to display the real object, in other 'sites as artefacts', decisions have been made deliberately not to present the public with any 'real' objects. The heritage is just too difficult, and 'museumification' of things too problematic.
At her lunchtime seminar on 14 May 2014,  Sharon Macdonald, Anniversary Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of York and Visiting Professor at the Institute of European Ethnology at Humboldt University in Berlin, presented us with a fascinating paper entitled '"Nothing Real": Aura, Affect and the Dilemmas of Displaying Nazi Objects', which builds upon her 2009 book, 'Difficult Heritage: Negotiating the Nazi Past in Nuremberg and Beyond'.
In this paper, Sharon presented her most recent field research from Nuremberg's Documentation Centre, undertaken in September 2013, 14 years after her initial work began there in 1999. On this trip, she also went to Munich where a project to develop a Documentation Centre of National Socialism is underway and scheduled to open on the site of the Brown House, the former headquarters of the Nazi Party, in April 2015.
The Munich Centre's founder is architectural historian Professor Winfried Nerdinger. Unlike the situation leading to the collection of thousands of artefacts in post 9/11 New York, Professor Nerdinger is adamant that this Documentation Centre will have 'nothing real' in it: there will be no real objects from the Nazi past at all. It is not a museum. Putting things into a display cabinet, he argues, exalts their status, giving them that mystical aura described by Benjamin in his 1936 essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. And this is entirely inappropriate for a site of Nazi perpetration (compared with that of a site of victims). The site itself is enough. The site of perpetration is the artefact. (This does raise the question though as to the status of the documents being exhibited here: are these not real objects? It will be fascinating to visit this controversial centre once it opens next year.)
Moving to Nuremberg, as in Munich and New York, the vast site itself, the place of the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, can also be described as an artefact. Bewildering in its immensity, this is an intimidating space, without intimacy. I got lost wandering around the outside of the building on my visit, and it was terrifying. Again, this is called a Documentation Centre, and not a museum. And here, the aim was, like in Munich, not to have objects. Interpretive text, contextual information and archive photographs form the main component parts, and are woven into the architectural fabric. What few objects there are are sometimes displayed underneath glass in the floor, giving them a 'trampled on' ontological status.
There are not enough staff here to deal with constant object curation; there is no space for storage; there are no policies for collecting. Yet slowly, objects have begun to creep into the building, under the radar, perhaps a 'dirty secret' of the place. The staff offices contain piles of controversial donated objects: copies of right-wing propaganda books fill a shopping trolley, and slowly recent exhibitions are beginning to display these things.
Visitors want to tell their stories. The centre has a duty to document. Staff are increasingly describing their roles as becoming like social workers, giving time to donors, listening to each individual account. How and why has this happened in a space that did not want or should not have objects?
One reason given is that as more and more German families have begun clearing out attics of deceased family members, and dealing with their 'stuff', the problem of what to do with the materiality of the past has become all too apparent. Embarrassed to have any associations with Nazi things, people do not want to put them out with the rubbish for fear of being spotted, yet these things are still historical objects which tell stories, and from which potential lessons can be learnt: not forgotten, never again. Objects breed more objects. Collecting stuff is what people have always done, what they will always do. And giving things to a collective centre perhaps removes some of the individual burden of having too much problematic stuff of one's own.
On my train journey home from Sharon's paper about the materiality of contested and difficult histories, someone had coincidentally left open this article on my seat from the Evening Standard, which made me think of similarities and dissimilarities between the 9/11 Memorial Museum, and those Documentation Centres in Germany. What are these places? Are they 'tombs to the unknown', 'commemorations of the known', 'educational attractions'? What is the role of history, memory, empathy? How does a site of perpetrators differ from that of victims? And what actually is the role of material objects in making meanings from such difficult and traumatic histories?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Introducing: Museums Alive!

Tuesday 4 — Wednesday 5 November 2014
A Two-Day Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Conference hosted by the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, in partnership with Migration Museum Project
This conference seeks to explore the notion of museums as living organisms and the multiple questions that emerge from this context.  Museums, like living beings, do not live in isolation, rather, they are embedded in complex eco systems. Museums are occupied and given life by people. They are constantly evolving, directly affected by the changes around them, as well as effecting and acting as catalysts for change. Museums Alive! — Exploring how museums behave like living beings, organized in partnership with Migration Museum Project, will be the sixth conference developed by the PhD community at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, and follows last year's highly successful Museum Metamorphosis conference.
We aim to discuss and share ideas on some of the most seminal issues in museums today.  Papers addressing the following themes and questions are encouraged, but we also welcome new suggestions and creative proposals:

Conscious Living
      Open System
 Organic Evolution
·       How do museums form their identity both internally and externally?
·       How do museums as ‘organisms’ coexist and relate to the wider eco system? How do we define what that system is?
·       How are museums born and do museums get sick or die? Do they mutate? How can we portray a museum’s life cycles? 

·       How do museums facilitate the creation of identities, and how in turn are museums’ identities created by the communities they serve?
·       How do museums migrate in order to adapt to the environment, not only in ways of living but also in ways of thinking?
·       How can museums use bodily ‘senses’ to respond to, capture and integrate with their visitors and the public?

·       How might we define living in the context of the museum?
·       How do museums affect the world around them?

·       How do museums collaborate and compete with different types of ‘species’?

·       Should museums remain neutral or express emotions?
·       How do museums behave in reaction to perceived threats and/or opportunities of change?
·       How can museums become laboratories or spaces for experimentation?

·       If museums actively and emotionally participate in social issues, what are the implications that need to be considered?
·       How can museums ensure that internal and external (the public) relations are balanced and appropriate?
·       How can museums become adaptive within in a defined structure? How and why do museums evolve?

The conference team welcomes all postgraduate students, early career researchers and practitioners who are interested in and researching topics related to the museum field. All disciplines and nationalities are invited to participate.
We welcome and encourage creative and alternative presentational styles, alongside the traditional paper. Workshops, panel debates, creative writing, films, installations, visual creations, displays and ignite presentations will all be considered.
·       Presenters of traditional papers will have 20 minutes to deliver their paper (ending with a 30 minutes Q & A with the whole session panel).
·       Workshops, panel debates and other alternative formats can either last 30, 45 or 60 minutes (please specify on submission proposal).
·       This year we are also inviting proposals for ignite rapid fire presentations, a great opportunity to spend 5 minutes presenting about a particular project, area of work or piece of research.
Abstracts and session submissions should include the following information:
1)     title of abstract or session
2)     author(s)' name and contact information (including twitter handle)
3)     biography (max. 100 words)
4)     format and style of presentation
5)     abstract or session description of no more than 250 words
6)     optional: up to two jpeg images, each under 2MB, to complement your proposal

Abstracts should be sent by email to Sipei Lu, Conference Secretary, by midnight GMT on 20 June 2014, to
Successful participants will be notified by mid July 2014.

Early bird fee (until 31 August)
Full fee (after 1 September)

Lunch and refreshments will be provided on both days. In addition, there will be optional social events and museum visits.
Conference email:

Twitter: @msphdconf