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Sunday, 29 May 2016

SMARTIFY the Great British Graphic Novel

A few weeks ago, to celebrate Museums at Night, we headed to Bloomsbury's Cartoon Museum (one of our favs) to check out the celebrations around their new exhibition: The Great British Graphic Novel. While art, culture, and a bar have been known to lure us just about anywhere, on this particular evening we had something more particular in mind. The exhibition is also playing a part of an important live run for a new museum-y app called Smartify. We were invited to chat with one of the founders and see what its all about. 

I think first of all we have to say that the Cartoon Museum's exhibition is definitely worth a visit on its own merit. Drawing a link between the classic works of 18th century cartoonist William Hogarth, through the graphic novels of the 1980s and 1990s and right up to the present with unpublished sneakpeaks at new works, the exhibition is a celebration of the British contribution to the graphic novel genre. Unlike the British Library's recent comic book exhibition (a spectacular effort which ended up being a tad overwhelming), the Cartoon Museum's rendition is punchy and finely tuned. From the Victorians to Neill Gaiman, the exhibition definitely makes its point about the importance of British artists to the world of the graphic novel. We particularly loved the new works by Birmingham based-artist Asia Alsafi, whose perspective as a Libyan immigrant to Britain, tackles present day issues around cultural integration with a Manga inspiration. 

Panel from an upcoming Alsafi graphic novel
But, what's even more exciting is that the exhibition is also the first live trial of a new art app called SMARTIFY (smart, art- get it?!). A combination of a virtual tour and instagram, the app is aiming to be a platform for a more personal, emotional interaction with art. We met with Anna Lowe, the Partner Development Manager, to tell us more. Anna is a museum education professional who, in her spare time, decided to work with a small team to develop a new piece of technology to change the way we interact in galleries and commercial art exhibitions. Makes you feel lazy right? The concept of the app is deceptively simple: using your phone camera, you scan the works and the app bring up information about it onto the screen. Having a play around in the Cartoon Museum, we can testify that the image recognition software is on point, and even works through glass cases.

Tank Girl, obvs. 
But acting as a digital tour isn't enough for Anna and the SMARTIFY team. The idea is that you can add images to a personal gallery (think like your Instagram) and then add your own comments and reflections. These will then be tagged to the images, so the next person along can read them and add their thoughts. So when you wave your phone in front of a piece of art, not only do you get the gallery-standard interpretation, you get to interact with other visitor's responses. The potential here is incredible. What about a guided tour from a celebrity? Anna is particularly keen on working with artists to record their perspectives on their work - something which is in progress for the Great British Graphic Novel. Well, with the living artists at least!

An new acquisition for the museum- an annotated draft from Alan Moore's Watchmen
We all talk a lot about technology and museums, and apps seem a natural way forward to try to do something different in the gallery. We have to say though, we haven't met too many people like Anna who are actually out there doing it, and have actually implemented it in an exhibition! Hats off to the Cartoon Museum for being so supportive. We hear that SMARTIFY is already talking to several other London galleries who might be interested in the technology.

The idea behind SMARTIFY raises some interesting museological questions. Who gets to speak for a work of art? Is it the museum (so when the app brings up the caption on your phone)? Or is it the artist? How about the exhibition curator? Or is it you? How would a gallery handle people leaving comments (digitally) all over their art? We love the democratic visitor-centred vision of SMARTIFY, although we are interested to see how the internal museum politics play out in different institutions. Personally, we think that the curator, the artist, the institution, the visitor, all play an important role in what we can learn from a work of art. How you collate and then explore that information is the tricky bit. But with their sleek platform and branding, we think SMARTIFY might be up to the task. 

So far the museum world has had a pretty start and stop approach to app. Sometimes a particular institution will get a little funding and develop one for their own collections. But (and stop me if I'm wrong) I've not seen anyone developing a platform that could be used across collections, from temporary to permanent exhibitions, and even commercial art. You might just soon be seeing the SMARTIFY logo in other London galleries so we recommend heading down to the Cartoon Museum and being one of the first to give it a go!

SMARTIFY is available for free download from the iTunes store. The Great British Graphic Novel is on at the Cartoon Museum until July 24th. 

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Hispter Museum - The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers Museum

You’ll know by now that here at the Ministry of Curiosity we like to celebrate London’s smaller museums with our hipster museum series. Small collections, mini museums and those hidden gems are explored and reviewed by us on the website and twitter using the hashtag  #hipstermuseum.

Image courtesy of
 Well, on this occasion we want to bring to your attention The Clockmakers Museum a stunning collection of timekeeping objects belonging to the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. This is no ordinary small, hidden collection because it can be found in the most obvious of places – a national. Since October 2015 the Clockmakers museum has been sited at the Science Museum, South Kensington.

It’s not uncommon for larger national museums to amalgamate collections of smaller museums into their own as they become unable to care for the objects in the wide variety of ways necessary. This is something that the press have recently discussed in detail with the controversial move of the Royal Photographic Society’s collection from the National Media Museum to the Victoria and Albert Museum as the Bradford based museum shifts its collection policies and collection it has come under fire for centralising national collections to London and again taking away from the North.  

Nonetheless the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers museum has never been displayed on its own site from 1874 to 2014 it was housed by the Guildhall Library. Founded in 1631 The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers was charted as a way to regulate the clock and watch making trade – originally only those who were members of the company could make timekeeping devices.  The collection is the oldest of its kinds in the world having started in 1814 and consists of more than 1000 watches, 80 clocks, 25 marine chronometers.

The museum has been on my watch list (geddit?!) for some time, and unfortunately I never got a chance to visit it at its Guildhall site so I can’t say for sure how much of a change in impact it has had in relocating to the Science Museum. However, I can certainly say that it is more accessible for me and perhaps others on its new location, and thus I was able to spend a joyous lunch hour perusing it in its new home.

The current display is a treasure trove of a museum and tells the story of the socio-economic history of British clock making since the company’s formation, the clocks and their makers through the beautiful, delicate and intricate clocks and tools of the collection.

With some objects stunningly illustrating the domestic time keeping and how the Longitude Act 1714 assisted in the formation of mechanical skills by offering monetary prizes for anyone able to present a simple and practical method for the precise determination of a ship's longitude. An, how the formation of the prize and winnings had the knock on effect of the industrial revolution. The museum really emphasises how clocks, their formation and importance have had an exceptional impact on British History.

Other timepieces are more beautiful and exemplary examples of craftsmanship.  The Nelthropp collection for example shows and spectacularly displayed group of watches and shows and insight into the mind of a private collector without any reference book.

Then there are the almost novelty object but nonetheless significant and beautiful , a pedometer from the 18th Century that could track how many steps were taking across 12 miles by a swinging mechanism from a waistband. Additionally the museum hosts the early 19th century skull watch that belonged to  Mary Queen of Scots skull as a horological memento mori the case sites within the jaw and the watch face within the skull, it’s a beautiful, creepy and fascinating piece.

If you want to see these items and more head to the Science Museum, the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers museum is on the second floor of the museum and free entry then enjoy the Media Space galleries – I here there’s some great shows on in there too! 

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Baffling out millennials in museums

We have been a little behind in our reading at the Ministry, so thankfully a friend of ours brought this topic to our attention. 'Have you read this article on millenials in March's Museums Journal?' she exclaimed. 'It makes it sound like all we want is booze and technology! Don't they know we do all the work?!' Digging out the MJ from our 'to read' pile, we found she was right. 'Late-night events and mobile-friendly content are just two elements need to get right for this group' the tag line reads. Oi. Museums like many other industries, seem to be struggling with how to reach out to younger people. The funny thing is, millennials make up a huge amount of museum staff- so why is this so hard exactly?

First of all, it would be impossible to write a short blog which addresses all of the issues of using the term 'millennial' in the first place. Applied to all 18-35 year olds, the likelihood of the stereotypical description of a millennial matching the personality and preferences of a given individual is about as likely as a horoscope predicting your future. Sure, if you say enough general things, you are likely to get a match. Millennials like evening open hours, millennials like hands-on events, millennials like unique experiences- ok, but who doesn't? 

Our issue is not really with the fact that the Museums Journal has published some (fairly accurate) observations about events that entice young people to museums. As a note, I would say that things like Lates events, artistic interventions, hands-on activities and art classes do not appeal uniquely to people in their 20s, they are (or rather should be) part of a broader movement for active audience engagement in museums (regardless of your year of birth). The point is that museums and museum advocacy organisations talk about 'what millennials like' 'how millennials behave', like we are some bizarre, distant race that must be studied by anthropologists. 

Lates event at the National Museum Scotland
Museums, like many sectors in fact, are interested in millennials because they are generally seen as having disposable income which they like to waste in coffee shops or at clubs. Money you could be getting, right museum management? No, according to a recent study, 1/3 of UK millennials live in poverty, and most are struggling with debt. Little indulgences like a nice coffee or a night out at a Lates event are important to bolstering social lives typically limited by our bank balance. Millennials aren't something to be farmed for cash, but an audience that needs museums as much as any other. 

This is made even more frustrating when you think about what percentage of the museum workforce falls within this age bracket. Hello! We are your front of house team, your documentation specialists, registrars, art handlers, researchers, curators, conservators, interns and on and on. Museums are run on millennial brain power. I'm sure if you looked into the teams who are pioneering Lates events in London they are - you guessed it- millennials. So why do policies, events and programmes aimed at people born in the 1980s and 1990s feel like such a burden for museums.

The answer is because you don't listen to us. You don't need to pay marketing companies to tell you how to get in touch with younger audiences, you need to listen to your younger staff members. Despite the shakeups, the short term contracts, the overhauls in museums of the years of the cuts, there remains a massive divide between museum leadership and the people doing the everyday work. I can just imagine a meeting of Directors, puzzling over the 'millennial' problem, reading reports written for them by their younger staff. If giving decision making powers to your junior staff scares you, that might be the reason why you are struggling to attract younger audiences.

I'd like to just say, from my own experience as a so-called 'millennial' and those of my friends, Londoners in their twenties are (generally) educated, cultured, engaged and enthusiastic. Even those who don't work in museums love coming to events because they love performance art or gaming or music. Not just because we like to get plastered and take selfies (although that is fun). No we don't have a lot of money to spend on events (housing shortage, university loans, being poorly paid in museums) but we still like to enjoy our city. You are very welcome to keep on keeping on with the mobile-friendly content and after hours events, but you should probably have a look within your organisation if you are feeling like you need some insights into programming for young people.

Monday, 2 May 2016

So you want to be a museum blogger?

We are so thrilled and excited to be featured in this month's Museums Journal in their feature on museum bloggers. It's odd to think we started this little blog in November of 2012, and we are still at it! The MJ's piece is such a great opportunity to meet the people behind the blogs and get to know a little bit more about what interests them. From comedy and natural history, to autism in museums, and art crime news, each blogger brings something new to the community. If you read this issue and thought, wow I'd like to do that! - then just let us say, you definitely should! But if you wanted some pointers before you start out, here are some of our top tips!

1) Think about your hook- What makes you different than anyone else writing about museums? What struck is reading the MJ article is the very different takes all the bloggers had on the field. At the Ministry we focus on young people working in museums, registry and collections issues, and women in museums. If you want your blog to get some traffic, then you have to have some kind of hook that makes people interested in your opinion. Just writing exhibition reviews probably won't get you much of a following.

2) Create your voice/brand - Ok so you have a concept, how are you going to make that consistent? You want your readers to know they are reading a blog by you each time, so think about your unique writing style. Once you've thought about the tone you want to take - friendly, informal, or critical and hard-hitting, then stick to it. Your blog should be unique to stand out from the crowd.

3) Have a content plan- How frequently are you going to post on your blog? Try to make it realistic. We aim for once a week, although twice a week would really be ideal! Very frequently bloggers start out with daily posts that peter out after a month or two. If you have so many ideas, save them up and schedule them to go out at more even intervals! If are you posting new content, be sure you let your readers know. Which brings us to...

4) Snap up those social media accounts- Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are all great ways to keep your followers up to date and drive them towards your site. The museum community on Twitter is amazing and really supportive. Be sure whatever site to use hashtags like #museums #culture #museblogger to get some attention. 

5) Get to know your community- Even before you get started, have a look around on twitter and instagram for bloggers you admire. Then FOLLOW FOLLOW FOLLOW - the best way to get followers on twitter or anything else is to follow other people. But not just anyone, the kind of people who you want reading what you right. Get stuck in on online conversations like #museumhour or visit an event like Museums Showoff to get your name our there. Some museums like the Wallace Collection offer museum blogger only events, so do your homework. 

6) Just keep swimming - Blogging can be harder than you think, especially over a long stretch of time. Life find a way of getting in the way of your ambitious plans. Maybe you had a fantastic idea for this week's post, but your boiler broke. C'est la vie. Either try and have some posts saved as drafts, or just leave it til next week. Just don't get disheartened! 

Our number one tip however is that if you want to blog, make sure its for you. Don't set up a blog because you think you have to, or its the 'done' thing. Blogging is hard, and the only way to sustain it is your passion for it! If you haven't quite figured out what drives you, maybe leave it for a bit until you find something that makes you excited! 

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Loving Loan Agreements: Negotiations, complexities and 'no sketching'

When the Guardian released this article on the 22nd April titled 'No Sketching': V&A signs betray everything the museum stands for' by Oliver Wainwright like many I was saddened to hear that the V&A were clamping down on sketching in the exhibition spaces, but it has become clear that not all is what it seems and it is the elusive agreements that museums make with lenders that is the root of the issue.

Museums are sites for reflection and learning and there is no doubt that art museums and galleries hold an important aim in allowing students, researchers and artists of all levels to spend hours in galleries taking inspiration from the objects and works and sketching away. I believe, and have seen from my time in those spaces that this is something that many museums do regularly allow visitors to sketch without much restriction and sometimes even hosting events to facilitate.

But when it comes to temporary exhibitions it's not just the museum's collection at stake, creating a successful exhibition requires curators to lure in the public with an offer of objects they will not usually have the opportunity to see be it from private collections or another museum loans come with their own set of rules and stipulations.

The Guardian article may have played down the importance of the loan agreement in the first instance, later correcting their news story to say that 'it is to do with preventing congestion and the strict loan agreements the museum signs for each new exhibition.'  that influenced the decision to not allow sketching in the temporary exhibition space.

For those of you that are not familiar, the loan agreement is a document that sets out what the lenders and museums obligations are in terms of the transportation, display, insurance and costs associated with the borrowing of an object. Usually the standard contracts cover assurances such as the environmental conditions, a promise that the showcase will not be opened without a courier present and even sometimes the more unusual requests - I once had to add a clause that stated an object would not be DNA tested whilst it was in the museum!

The clauses also cover the IPR, copyright and security of the object and perhaps it was a combination of the three that has reflected in the V&A’s loan agreement that has prompted the no sketching rule. While sketching is an exemption of copyright law many loan agreements refer with presumed knowledge to the complexities of IPR and copyright law and perhaps in fright, some may wish to omit any sort of image taking be it photography or sketching in their agreement. It’s hard to say however without actually checking out the document - which is likely to be stored in a fireproof safe and knowing what loans have requested this omission. Its this same agreement that means that often ' no photography' is allowed in temporary exhibitions.

Whilst it is unfortunate in some respects that the lenders dictations prevent photography, sketching or even DNA testing, without this agreement, and the sometimes complex negotiations that  museum registrars spend time agreeing. It is important to remember that this would not have been a decision that the exhibition team would have taken lightly. And sometimes without these discussions and resolutions agreed in the loan agreement it would not always be possible to borrow and display some of the treasures of private collections and international museums. 

Like many registrars there is a certain level of dislike for complex loan agreements and the sometimes months it takes to iron out the complexities for shows as large as Undressed but we can't deny their importance in securing the rare, beautiful and often never before seen objects for public display.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

NSFW! Field Report: The Museum of Sex in New York

NSFW! Contains images of an explicit sexual nature, not suitable for readers under the age of 18. 

Well we can honestly say that's the first time we've ever had to start a blog with this kind of a warning, but it comes with the territory if you are attempting to review an exhibition about sex. As you can imagine, when we do get out of London for a brief while, we always try to track down the most interesting museums we can. On last week's trip to the Big Apple, we just had to see what was going on at the Museum of Sex (or MoSex, as it goes by- you know like MoMA? Get it). When it opened in 2002, the message of the museum was clear- they were not another tawdry tourist exhibition, but a critical, cultural take on the evolution and significance of sex and sexuality. 

The Museum of Sex defines it's mission as: "to preserve and present the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality. In its exhibitions, programmes and publications, the Museum of Sex is committed to open discourse and exchange, and to bringing to the public the best in current scholarship." The seriousness of this mission has been, since it's earliest days, questioned by the New York Authorities who have been, perhaps understandably, concerned about the idea of a museum about sex. The New York's Regents Board called the idea of a sex museum a 'mockery' of the name museum. Well, you all know how much we love a controversy, so we had to go see for ourselves. 

Glory hole door, c.1990s
In most museums, as you enter the main doors to buy a ticket, you wander through a gift shop. Of course, its clever marketing, but in this case, it's a high class erotic shop. Everything from porn to sex toys to high end art books are on display, full of giggling tourists and serious looking bouncers. My initial hopes of visiting a serious take on the history of sex were knocked down a few pegs. Next, I went to buy a ticket which was a full $17. $17!!! Now I know this is America and museums cost money, but that seemed a lot. Since I'd made the trip especially, I coughed up the cash. Only later did I learn that this high admission price is a result of the fact that New York will not grant the museum charitable status due to its subject matter. Fair enough.

Somewhat shaken after empyting my wallet and having to push through squealing college kids playing with dildos, I finally made my way into the first floor of the museum. I have to tell you - I was shocked. And not in the - oh how salacious way. In a pleasant, impressed way. Well designed but darkly lit, with everything you expect to see in a museum (text panels, themed sections, interesting objects), I found myself in an incredibly professional gallery. Entitled 'Hard Core', the first floor of the museum explores the history of pornography (in its drawn, written and filmed forms) from the Roman era to the mid twentieth century. Its introductory panels introduced the authors and curators - almost every single one of them PhDs and post-docs, many from the UK, including Dr Sarah Bull, a Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow.

Organised chronologically, the exhibition provided a glimpse into pornographic imagery from the works of the Marquis de Sade, eighteenth century 'fancy books' (pornographic etchings' and directories of ladies of fashion (brothel guides).  These printed artefacts provide an interesting perspective on how idea of sexuality were shared and spread in an era before any other kind of communication technology. One pamphlet claimed to tell women how to enjoy sex, as well as including a section on how men might enjoy anal sex. And while the era of print technology certainly took advantage of the new means of communication, the advent of photography in the nineteenth century brought pornography into its own.

As the text label helpfully explained, the Victorians, despite their moralistic outlook on life, were particularly adept at capturing sexuality in imagery. From erotic post cards, images, stereographs, and drawings, you can see why by the 1880s the Victorians felt they were in a moral crisis. Anything they could use to take dirty pictures, they can and they did. And these were no run of the mill cheeky photographs. The Victorians experimented with orgies, mixed race and homosexual encounters, all documented in the Museum of Sex's collections. 

By the early 20th century, the film had brought new possibilities for pornography. And indeed, even as early as the silent film era, you can bet there were pornographic films. I learned that these early pornos were called 'stag' films (for the young, presumably single men who watched them), and porn watching parties, were called stag parties. Lolz. As the technology got more sophisticated, so did the porn and what it could capture.

Personally, I found the exhibition incredibly well curated. While somewhat light on materials, each image or object was carefully described and well lit in the dark gallery. The text labels were written critically and intelligently, each ascribed to a particular curatorial voice. Attributing text labels is something museums talk a lot about, and MoSex has put this into action. of course, this is likely an attempt to give their somewhat salacious exhibition some scholastic integrity. 

Not to ruin it or bore you with a full description of the museum's three floors, at the moment you can also visit an interactive artistic intervention about sex and nature, browse a gallery about sexual pleasure in the animal world, and visit their object in focus gallery. This last one immediately reminded me of the Wellcome as it has a very similar curatorial style. Single objects are highlighted and jumbled together to provide different sides of the history of sex. Items related to public health, fetishes, technology, and social justice are mingled together side by side. 

In fact, I couldn't help but think that the Wellcome's recent exhibition, the Institute of Sexology, really could have stood to learn something from the Museum of Sex. The Institute of Sex was trying to achieve something similar (admittedly with more of a focus on the scientific research into sexual behaviour) but fell down short because, well, it didn't include very much that was sexy! MoSex is packed with very explicit imagery, and yet managed to keep its message firmly on course with its carefully written text. That said, I do believe there was a room full of blow up boobs I could have gone to jump around in. Perhaps more an activity for a group of friends than a lone blogger scribbling notes on curatorial technique.

I left the Museum of Sex informed, entertained, and impressed by what they had achieved with admittedly difficult subject matter. Is everyone ready for a museum with such an upfront treatment of sexuality? Maybe not. There certainly was a lot of giggling happening in the galleries. But in a world in which issues of sexuality are increasingly prevalent, I think everyone could use more of an education. I think the signs for their toilets pretty much sum up why places like MoSex matter:

Definitely worth the price of admission if you are ever in New York! Now let's see how long until this blog gets taken down...

Sunday, 3 April 2016

#LoveMW: I love museums because they help with my depression and anxiety

Today is the last day of Twitter’s Museum Week on the topic of Museum Love. Not really knowing whether it is a good idea to post something like this on the Ministry, I thought I would throw together something personal and a little bit difficult to write. Why I love museums is, at least at the moment, slightly more self-centred than their research potential, engagement with history, or inspiring stories. I love museums because they help me deal with my mental health issues.

Museum Week is a huge time for museum bloggers to be busy, and getting likes and retweets for their social media content. You might have noticed the Ministry has been a bit quiet this week, however, and it’s mostly me to blame. In addition to being overwhelmed with work, personal life etc, it has been a particularly rough period in my much longer struggle with anxiety and depression. We talk a lot about mental health in museums, but typically about how this issues are represented in museums. More frequently the industry is becoming interested in how to reach out to different health communities, and how museums might be therapeutic for the public. Well I have to say as a museum professional they are simultaneously therapeutic and incredibly stressful.

How do I always seem to miss all the exhibitions? The grueling cycle of headline grabbing, queue-inducing exhibitions that London museum’s jostle for make loving museums in the city a stressful affair. Personally I have some serious FOMO, and when I do miss exhibitions it can make me very anxious and down. Too much to see in too little time – unless you are doing it as a job it seems inevitable to only scratch the surface of what London’s museums are doing at any one time. Great for tourists with so many amazing opportunities to choose from, anxiety-inducing for those of us who are trying to keep up with the industry.

But on the other hand, I think it’s the slowness of museums, their permanency, which has helped me out in times of trouble. If you can manage to get into a museum on a relatively calm day, there is something incredibly soothing about performing the role of the museum visitor. You enter the hallowed halls, hang up your coat, select a gallery, and slowly wander round, casually pausing at interesting looking pieces of text. You read from start to finish, you follow the story, you listen to the interactives, maybe you take a picture of something you’d like to share. You sit for a while and think. While I most frequently go to museums as a social outing, they are also a place for me to be alone.

When you have depression, doing anything at all is a challenge. When you combine that with anxiety, at least in my case, it typically means that I continued to be busy doing things (hence the FOMO) just more like a zombie inside. Social interactions are particularly difficult, but my brain is not very keen on letting me rest. Museums are such a blissful oasis in this particular combination of issues. I can be alone, I can be quiet but also keep my brain focused on something that is not anxiety. But I think importantly I’m often looking at objects or paintings made decades or centuries ago, probably by people dealing with the exact same things as me. The world is big, time is long, this moment is short and things will, more or less, continue in the same way (with probably a newer more exiting version of a phone).

So I love museums because (and this is not a particularly trendy thing to say, quite unlike what we normally promote via the Ministry), they are sanctuaries – places where anyone can go to see art, history, or whatever they are interested, and take a little break from the world around them. As a museum person, I know how to ‘be’ in a museum, how to interact, how to get the most out of it. I know this is a privilege of the few, but speaking from a selfish place, the knowability of museum has helped me time and time again when I have felt isolated or too introspective. I’m sure there are many people out there similar stories, and personally I would love to hear if and how museums might have helped with your own struggles.

I’m sure we will be back to your regularly programmed Ministry cheerfulness shortly, but thank you for listening. – Kristin