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Monday, 16 November 2015

Who Cares? Stores Explorers do!

On Friday 6th November we were fortunate to join academics, heritage professionals and researchers to discuss interventions in unloved museum collections for Who Cares? A conference hosted by a collaboration of PhD researchers from the Science Museum, Museum of English Rural Life, University of Birmingham and University of Reading and supported by AHRC the day looked into the emotional responses or lack of love in stored museum collections.

As you'll be aware by now both Kristin and I have spent our careers working in museum stores and we even met in the deep dark basement of Blythe house working with unloved collections, forming the Ministry out of our passion to make them accessible. So, we decided to share our experiences by presenting a paper on 'Becoming a Stores Explorer: Sharing Enchantment of Collections through Social Media'  aiming to weprovide an insight into the life as a stores explorer (more about that later) and how we can communicate the enchantment of the stores using social media.

If youve worked in a museum store no matter how large or small you'll be familiar with the alluring chaos, freedom to touch (providing youve received handling training) and of course the smell that you just cant get out of your hair. Nonetheless the  stores experience is a prvieledged feeling of enchantment.

We know only too well that if even if you work in a museum our role demands means that taknig an afternoon in the stores isn't possible without an object list or aim  and for researchers and visitors their experience of the stores is rightly so monitored by the watchful eye of a custodian. However, this restriction is a necessary contribution to the enchantment of the stores.  Some efforts have been made to make this experience accessible to the public through open storage, but while highlighting to an extend the vast array of objects in a store access is still restricted, prestigious and cleaner objects are pushed to the front and visitors are invited to view behind glass but not to touch. The unloved, dirty and broken are still hidden.

Here we call for our beloved social media to step in, by using digital technologies can the stores explorer maintain or recreate the enchantment of the stores?

But what is a stores explorer? If youve worked in the stores youll probably have spent some time looking like this: 

It's not pretty, it͛'s not clean and it most certainly isn'͛t always safe, or at least, it involves some calculated and well-assessed risks. As a stores explorer you get to see the collection in a varied and vast way as a researcher, a conservator, a registrar, you get to pick out those that interest you and those objects that might kill you. The weight of the objects can be your friend or your foe and you need a good head on your shoulders to try and identify an object with just a brief description and a number. As a pioneer of the unloved collections you get to roam freely put your object handling
Skills to good use by touching the objects.

You may be a stores explorer yourself or feel  a huge urge to be one. Can we not apply technologies and social media platforms to this approach whilst maintaining the protection of the stored objects? 

Many institutions are already utilising the knowledge of their staff through realistic solutions using collections staff on twitter and Tumblr

Time-lapse is a great tool and often used to show the time and work that it takes to install an exhibition

But what about when Camberwell College have used it to show their collections audit?

Periscope tours have also been used to explore exhibitions, but what about a stores explorer wearing a go pro to explore the stores?

Then how about utilising more recent technological advancements?

Last week saw the launch of the British Museum on Cultural Institute, exploring the whole of the museum in this way and highlighting key objects, could a version of this be made for the stores?

What about 3D renders of objects, its becoming more common on the closure of galleries or for objects that are already on display but what about icing this for collections that havent been shown for years and years?

Theres also oculist rift, exploring the stores in this three sixty experiences allows incredible access without the fear of damage or theft from the stores.

Then perhaps as a combination theres haptic technology, soon coming to your mobile haptic technology provides pressurised feedback and vibrations to mimic touch.

Now mimicking the decaying smell of the stores may be a bit more difficult, perhaps we can advise you on the smell for a collections based perfume or scratch and sniff?!

Much of this technology is used for exhibitions; can we not use it for their stores too?

We're available for further discussion and consultation on this topic @curiositytweet or on email

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Grand Old Duke of York and the Guards Museum #HipsterMuseum

If you’re a big fan of the Ministry you’ll already know of our #hipstermuseum series that sees us review and try to bring to attention the smaller lesser loved museums in London. Often their on your radar but perhaps not top of your list to visit they still deserve a bit of museum loving to ensure that they remain open especially in advance of the vicious cuts we’re likely to hear of soon.

As November 11th marks Armistice Day , a day of memorial for the fallen heroes of war across the commonwealth counties it seems somewhat apt to remember those who lost their lives fighting by highlighting one of London’s military museums.  

A certainly more obscure museum than ones we usually review  the Guards Museum is situated right in central London opposite St James Park, and as part of the Wellington Barracks that host her royal highness’s foot guards. Costing only £6.00 to visit the displays document the military history of five regiments of the Queen’s foot guards - grenadier, cold stream, scots, Irish and welsh and aims to be a secure repository for artefacts belonging to those troops and help young guardsmen to learn about the history of their regiment.

The showcases are full to the brim with a wide range of objects relating to the military personnel, beginning with the uniforms of the Queen’s guards and a handy video introduction from the curator highlighting the differences in the regiments and how this is reflected in their grand uniforms including those bearskin hats. Moving on to some creepy waxworks and early drawings of the guards the museum gives a full outline of their history, hosting medical, personal and prestigious objects. Perhaps most excitingly the medical kits and objects of infamy such as the Grand Old Duke of York’s (yep the one who went up the hill!) hat. Of course, the place is filled with the expected royalist and nationalistic ephemera including some of Queenies military clothes and the occasional noise of a fanfare but with the Chelsea Pensioners as museum wardens walking around with their cups of tea and offering stories it becomes less intimidating.

However, I personally find it uncomfortable and upsetting to view objects of war and so when some of the more contemporary cases paid homage to members of regiments who have lost their lives in battles within the last ten years in Iraq and the stories of those who survived I found myself feeling that it almost too recent and potentially insensitive. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that this is a museum for research, although their text panels may use outdated language and the objects may seem insensitive to myself its purpose is to teach those young soldiers taking this path and its accessibility to the public is a peak into that way of life and worth a visit, if not just to find out more about those fancy uniforms!

Visit the Guards Museum daily from 10am to 4pm. 

Or if like me, you think all wars should be ended check out Stop the War campaign 

Monday, 9 November 2015

Using collections to drive social media: MA conference digest

Thank you so much to everyone you came along to our Smarter Training session at this year’s MA conference or who joined the discussion on twitter. We had an absolutely fantastic time sharing our passion with you and we were thrilled with your really positive response! As promised, this post includes some of the guidelines and suggestions we talked about to help you develop content for social media using your collections.

Before that though, just a few thoughts on some of the issues that came up on the day. First of all, we were really interested to see the broad spectrum of people who came along- from social media newbies to old hands. We were asked by a few people which sites we recommend for museum social media and how to get started. Just quickly- we love twitter and instagram and see museums moving more towards periscope and tumblr in the future. To be honest we don’t use facebook that much and wouldn’t really recommend it for a museum audience. It’s not nearly reactive or interactive enough! If you are just getting started, make an account, follow some people, and watch how its done for a few weeks before wading in. Also – get cozy with other local museums and heritage institutions who can draw attention to your new account!

We were also asked how we think a museum should deal with twitter accounts when lots of people want to get involved. Personally we don’t see a problem with museum staff tweeting from their personal accounts- as long as they are following guidelines of common sense and professionalism. Since that makes some museums nervous, we suggest that each department be in charge of its own twitter account – and the main museum twitter can focus on big stories and events, and supporting its separate departments.

The main subject of our talk was using collections for social media. As everyone who works with online accounts knows, the social media rat race is a hungry hungry beast. It needs to be constantly fed with new content, images, opinions and posts- and that’s where your collections and your staff come in! There are so many different ways to look at one object that your collection is a boundless source of inspiration, as are they people who work with them everyday. We believe in empowering collections staff of all varieties, from volunteers to curators, to engage with objects and create new content.

But of course, not all of us are used to thinking like social media people. So how do you tell a story with an object? Well here are some of our tips:

 At the Museums Association Conference in 2014, we ran a collaborative workshop in which we, along with fellow delegates, created the Social Media Manifesto. We think the Manifesto summarizes some really important points about museum social media which should be kept in mind when creating your content:

Finally, we’ve put together just a few thoughts which we’ve called the ‘Golden Rules of Social Media’ – based on the Manifesto as well as our own experience as museum professionals and museum bloggers:

We hoped that the workshop, as well as these resources, will inspire you to think about your collections in a new way, and to give staff across the museum a better sense of how they could get involved!

If you have any questions or comments- please feel free to get in touch! @curiositytweet or! 

Friday, 30 October 2015

Not for the faint of heart: MoL's Crime Museum

The Crime Museum at the Museum of London has to be one of the most hotly anticipated museum exhibitions of the year. From Resurrection Men to Sherlock Holmes, MoL seems to be building its brand on the curious and the slightly morbid. The Crime Museum (otherwise known as the Black Museum) is the Metropolitan Police's own collection of evidence from history of policing, stretching back to the end of the nineteenth century. This is the first time that their objects have been seen by the public. So - plenty of cache, but how does the real thing stack up?

The exhibition is divided into two sections which are meant to reflect the lay our of the actual museum within Scotland Yard. The first section is modeled on older drawings of the Crime Museum, complete with fireplace and old fashioned cases. A broad-sheet style information pamphlet guides you through. Note: if you do not pick up this information pamphlet you will be very very confused as very little text is included with any of these objects. As a historian - this is the stuff I came here for: death masks of Newgate prisoners, execution ropes, textile and hair samples from the Harley Street mystery, and the cunning ladder of the cat burglar Charles Peace. 

Somewhat controversially, there isn't much here about Jack the Ripper. To be honest, after seeing some Ripper objects from the Crime Museum at the Wellcome's recent Forensics exhibition I was quite looking forward to seeing them again. But on reflection, Jack has really had his day, and crime in London is so much more than that. A few examples of police appeals for information from the era should satisfy someone who is a Ripper-ologist. 

I couldn't help but wish that more space had been given to the nineteenth century section - which so effectively transports the visitor into the space of the hidden crime museum. But unfortunately this section abruptly ends as you enter into one large, violently orange space dedicated to the Met in the 20th and 21st century. On one side, themed displays cover topics like weapons, drugs, and counterfeits, while along the other, individual cases are given over to particular trials or crimes. 

Staring into what feels like an endless abyss of labels, one visitor near me commented 'Wow, this is not the exhibition for you if you don't like to read.' As astute a comment as they come. I felt tired before I even really got started. Coming from the first section where text was sparse, the rest of the exhibition felt like reading a book. But then again, trying to imagine how you communicate the basics of a case: who it was, what happened, why it is relevant to the history of crime or policing, it's a necessarily verbose affair. Critical as I might be of so much text, I can't really imagine a better curatorial technique. It's just a difficult subject matter.

Speaking of difficult. While I probably should have considered this when going to see an exhibition called 'The Crime Museum', it is a very disturbing experience. There is a really strong sense that many of the famous crimes were perpetrated against women. With case after case of horrifically murdered women, I actually felt glad to see some gangsters shooting each other up. Even the one case which features a female perpetrator, Ruth Ellis, you kind of feel for her. In 1955, she shot her ex five times after he kicked her in the stomach, causing her to lose her child. Ellis was the last women to be executed in Britain. This, displayed near a case showing the different techniques used for illegal abortion over the years, speaks strongly about the place of women in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The exhibition ends with terrorism- of course one the biggest threats to London and the Met in recent years. The cases on IRA bombings are interesting, and its certainly relevant to include modern policing work. Although for me, the section about the 7/7 bombings still felt a little too recent. Bizarre to think already this has become museum-ified history.

The Crime Museum is certainly not a romp through London's seedy history. Despite it's bright colours and sleek fonts, this is really a very serious look into crime and punishment in the metropolis. Not for the faint of heart or for those who don't feel like reading. An exhibition to be pondered and a slow pace, and maybe followed by a calming cup of tea!

The Crime Museum is on at the Museum of London until the 10th of April, 2016. Pre-booking strongly advised. 

Friday, 23 October 2015

Your #museuminterview questions

Hello everyone! A few weeks ago, in response to a request from a reader, we asked you to submit your #museuminteview questions. While museum interview usually contain the standard interview questions, we wanted to hear more about the industry specific questions that new entrants to the field should look out for. The responses we got were - well- a bit ridiculous! Sounds like you need to be prepared for anything and everything in a museum interview. We'll do our best to break it down for you here...

First of all, as we mentioned, in a museum interview you should always expect the standard interview questions - tell us about a time you worked as part of a team, a time you overcame a challenge, why you think you are the best for this job etc. 

But you all now that bit so on to some museum-specific stuff.

Standards and Documentation: 

  • Can you give an example of a documentation practice you improved?
  • Talk about a time you made a mistake and how you solved it.
  • What procedures are necessary for returning an object to its owner?
  • What research sources do you use in documentation work?
  • Can you name a time you applied SPECTRUM standards in the work place?

Of course things are a little different for conservators who need specialist knowledge.

Practical Examination:

Something that comes up over and over again is of course- a practical involving object handling, or sometimes an object ID-

Talking around an object you don't recognise or don't understand is a key skill for a museum interview. Ask yourself- what is it made of? How big is it? Does it have any inscriptions on it that might suggest it's use or age? Is it damaged? Is it hazardous? What could it have been used for? Often even if you don't know what something is, you can still describe how you would document or store it safely. 

And for the love of god, if they give you a teapot - don't pick it up by the handle. ALWAYS HANDLE OBJECTS FROM THE BASE!

Sheer Ridiculous:

Sounds like the museum industry maybe needs to get a hold on itself - because these examples from our readers are just plain bizarre- 

Never Forget: 

Or your favourite museum for that matter!

Other resources: 

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Gnome and Away at the Garden Museum

The Garden Museum has always been a firm favourite with us here at The Ministry of Curiosity, so it's sad and exciting to report that from the 30th October 2015 the museum will be closing up, cataloguing objects and packing them away for a redisplay due to open early in 2017. But before it does, you need to take a long look at their Gnome and Away exhibition that ingeniously shows off some of the processes of decanting, packing and moving objects from the gallery and into storage.

So many hoes in here where do I begin? 
Largely funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund the development of the Museum currently housed in the deconsecrated and beautiful parish church of St Mary-at-Lambeth will give the collection more space in the doubling of gallery spaces, new pavilions for earning spaces and the much needed but not so sexy work on the electrics and drainage. There is even an exciting plan to resurrect some of John Tradescant’s ‘Ark’ an infamous cabinet of curiosities that became the first museum to open to the public in the seventeenth century. With many objects collected by the naturalist and traveller now owned by the Ashmolean museum the garden museum are working closely with the Oxford institution to bring the objects back to Lambeth and closer to the collector himself whose tomb lies in the garden of the museum.

But of course, the museums intent to show off the history of the nation’s gardens from 2017 comes at no small cost. To reach their target they need to take an additional £500,000 in donations and thus have asked the public to contribute by adopting an object, not a fresh idea but an effective one. The donor will not only get the satisfaction of helping out a small museum but also attend a special private view of the new galleries and be credited on object labels. Here are a few special objects up for donor grabs including a miniature flower pot for £250.

Does this have your name on it? 

However before opening the new galleries the staff of the museum have to take on a museum mission that is a full decant of the building - no easy feat. In anticipation of this workload the curatorial team have provided visitors a sneak peak of what closing a museum entails. Offering visitors a ‘last chance’ to see the Garden museum's unique collection, the Gnome and Away exhibition invites visitors to rifle through the drawers of photographs, peer at the salon hang of their impressive art collection and gaze into open crates with objects ready to be packed. An even more delightful touch is that they have used catalogue cards instead of labels and each card details storage guidelines, conservation considerations and the standard reference of collection and accession number. For the fellow museum professional the exhibition even boasts a cataloguing table complete with gloves, cards, and tissue paper, hopefully reminding the public that the considerations of temporarily closing a museum go further than stopping visitation. A clear and concise plan of action for the objects is vital to any decant and the opportunity to catalogue, conserve and reconsider the collection during this downtime is vital for the longevity of any collection.

Here at The Ministry we urge you to visit the museum, and treat yourself to a bit of cake in the cafe. The beetroot and chocolate cake in the garden is a brilliant treat.

The Museum, Café and shop are open 10:30 - 17:00 Sunday to Friday and 10:30 - 16:00 on Saturdays; last orders in the cafe are 30 minutes before we close.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Museum job interview questions

Hello everyone! So here at the Ministry we get a lot of questions about museum careers and job hunting. Constant job applications are an inevitable part of every museum persons life- whether you are starting out and struggling to find something, or just because so many of us are on short term contracts! But as someone recently pointed out to us, there's actually very little guidance on museum-specific interview questions hanging around on the interweb. 

So in order to help the community at large we are asking you to submit some of the questions you've been asked in museum/art gallery/ and other heritage organisation interviews. Tweet them at us using the hashtag #museuminterview and then we will compile them into a final resource!

Here are a few we've had in the past just to get your started:

  • Give an example of a time you prioritized tasks.
  • Can you give an example of a documentation practice you improved?
  • Talk about a time you made a mistake and how you solved it.
  • What procedures are necessary for returning an object to its owner?
  • What research sources do you use in documentation work?
  • Can you name a time you applied SPECTRUM standards in the work place?