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Wednesday, 5 August 2015

#HipsterMuseum - Benjamin Franklin House

You will know well enough by now that here at The Ministry we love to celebrate London’s hidden gems, the smaller museums whose presence is often overshadowed by blockbuster exhibitions and huge crowds. But don't let this impose on their significance, those smaller, volunteer led and largely grant funded museums they can be an exciting trip into the past and our next hipster museum is no exception.

Oddly situated in a fancy Georgian terrace behind Charing Cross station (I swear this street appeared out of nowhere) 36 Craven Street or now Benjamin Franklin House is a delightful step back to the 1730’s. Funded by donations and HLF grants the house museum is run by only three members of staff and a group of volunteers offering visitors tours throughout the day choosing from the historical experience (£7 per person) or the architectural tour for £3.50.

We were invited along for the architectural tour which thankfully began with an introduction to the man himself. Benjamin Franklin is one of those annoying people who can turn their hand to anything, an inventor, political reformer and writer and he is even credited as the first American for his early campaign for colonialism. Franklin’s life was dictated by his politics and spurring his move to London was to make Pennsylvania a Royal colony rather than a proprietary province in 1764, originally intended for six months it soon turned into sixteen years staying in Craven Street and it was here that he even developed a phonetic alphabet.

Gentrification has played a key part in the life of 36 Craven Street. Previously known as the grim Spur Alley an 18th century road riddled with prostitution the 1830’s saw the street become Craven Street attracting a different sort of clientele with its close proximity to the Houses of Parliament, set back houses and coal stores under the road out front. The building soon became a lodging house where Benjamin Franklin stayed on his trips to London and for its longest stint from 1764 to 1775. It is now the only surviving home of Benjamin Franklin and one of the most intact properties of the era. Having undergone extensive conservation prior to its launch as a museum in 2006 the house hosts the only complete 18th century staircase in the world, original floors and ceilings and with many original parts of the fireplaces. The staff even x-rayed through 26 layers of paint to get the same sickly green colour that Benjamin Franklin would have experienced.

The museum sees the house is the object. A curatorial decision has made that each room was to only have one or two  props and not to be furnished with eighteenth century replicas one room may have cards and another a writing desk as the only occupants in bare crooked rooms, but it is an effective decision. The rooms are as original as possible and have removed the 'glass and rope' of other historic homes allowing the room do the talking. This is beautifully done in the kitchen where the only props are large object labels hanging from the ceiling.

However the education room in the basement does host two small and high spec showcases with a collection of human remains discovered during conservation. No Franklin was not a murderer, but his landladys son in law was a wannabe anatomist, who like all good 18th century  self-taught medical students relied on a steady income of cadavers from body snatchers and without the correct waste facilities had no option but to bury them in the ground.

The attic also features a replica glass armonica. Yet again the super successful Franklin was credited as the first American instrument maker and by this point of the tour you get the feeling he is a bit smug, especially as he apparently enjoyed two hour long air baths every morning (you'll have to find out more about that on the tour!) If you’re lucky you will get to have a go on the glass armonica and hear it produce a creepy sound mimicking the tones of a wet finger round running around crystal glass. It even inspired Mozart to write music for and has been used on the Harry potter soundtrack.

The museum is open every day 10.30am-5pm, except Tuesdays when the House and Box Office are closed for weekly Schools Day. But we would highly recommend a tour with the absence of objects or even text panels the knowledge of the guides creates a different experience meaning that is a necessity.     

Follow @BFhouse

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Down the rabbit hole with Alice in Cartoonland

Coming up with the title for this blog I could think of so many Alice in Wonderland inspired puns it was hard to pick just one. Maybe that's because Lewis Carroll's classic story has become such a part of our culture we find it everywhere. Well, actually that was the Cartoon Museum's premise when they decided to explore how the imagery and illustrations of Alice have pervaded drawing and cartooning from the late nineteenth century to today. Short, sweet and snappy - Alice in Cartoonland is charming and refreshingly straightforward.

Ministry accomplice Becky gets excited
I have to admit, I had never been to the Cartoon Museum before - but the Alice exhibition seemed the perfect time for a first visit. Hidden just around the corner from the British Museum, the tiny Cartoon Museum is a little place with a lot of heart. While the Ministry may never have made it there before- it was clear from the huge crowd the exhibition opening had drawn that this was a place with some seriously loyal fans. Fun house mirrors, a magician dressed at the Mad Hatter, and some amazing Sipsmith gin cocktails certainly set the mood!

Fun with mirrors and the Mad Hatter!
In its relatively small floor space, the Museum packs in two permanent galleries and a sizable temporary exhibition space, in this case absolutely packed with every iteration of Alice inspired image you can imagine. From Carroll's original drawings of his characters, to Victorian political satire, Guinness advertisements, comic book renditions and prints from the famous Disney film, Cartoon land takes you on a tour of our fascination with Alice and her friends. 
Victorian satire

So often these days it seems exhibitions try to be everything and then some. What the Cartoon Museum has done so well is to capture our fascination with Alice on a level that everyone can interact with. Do you like history? It's there. Contemporary art? Got it. Your childhood films? Boom. Wanted to learn something about Lewis Carroll? Of course. 

Simultaneously showing our diverse interpretation of Carroll's story as well as the power and variety of cartoons and drawn images- the visitor walks away remembering their own unique memories of the book, film, characters - or whatever else means the most to them. Without being didactic, Alice in Cartoonland is a fitting celebration of the 150th anniversary of the book's original publication. 

Alice in Cartoonland is on at the Cartoon Museum until the 1st of November. Don't forget to check out their great events series to go with the exhibition! Hat-making anyone?

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Where did this come from? Provenance and research

Today working away on some research in a museum archive, I overheard a researcher who was seemingly constantly getting up to ask the archivist questions. While they were, of course, being very polite, I personally found their questions incredibly annoying. ‘Your catalogue only tracks the provenance of this item to this date… what happened before that?’ “Can you ask a curator? Why wasn’t this included? You don’t seem to have the catalogue of the previous owner two times removed, why is that?” Oh dear researchers, maybe it would be helpful to explain just a wee bit about provenance.

Making a death mask, c.1908 
Provenance is all important in a museum, for lots of reasons – curatorial, legal etc. But let’s get this straight, provenance is a bitch. By provenance, we mean the history of any object or artifact from its original creation to its arrival in the museum. As in - who owned it? Who made it? Who sold it? Prized are the few objects in a collection which have a clear, complete and above-board history that resulted in them sitting in our display cases. Much more often the history is pretty damn complicated.

This particular enquiry I overheard was (and I’ll try to be general) related to a death mask that ended up in a museum collection in the early 19th century. The mask itself was bought at auction, so really the beginning point of the provenance that was available was the name of the donor to that original collection as provided in the auction manual. And that’s is, that’s all the information there is. The researcher seemed puzzled by this, but personally I thought that was pretty thorough. Some enterprising curator had not only tracked down the acquisition info from the early 19th century, but also did enough research to get their hands on an original acquisition catalogue. Is it the museum’s responsibility to know the history even further than that, as this researcher way implying? Yes and no.

Yes it would be amazing if museums have the time to do that extensive amount of provenance research on every item in their collection. But we are all overworked and look after thousands if not millions of objects, so there’s logistical reasons why not. Secondly, sometimes that information just does not exist- it has been lost to the sands of time. Most auction houses kept their sellers information private, or destroyed it, so if your research is coming up to an auction, the buck might stop there. Also not forgetting that the Victorians (who founded most of our museums) were pretty slapdash when it came to documentation anyway. 

In certain cases museums really do have to do a complete provenance check on an object, and that's usually when its going into an exhibition. To comply with the conditions of loan agreements, museums have to be able to prove they are the legal owners of an object or they can end up in some nasty trouble with spoliation. So in a way, yeah, it is a museums job.
Stevens auction catalogues

But on the other hand, no, it’s not reasonable to expect a museum to have a complete provenance of everything in their collection. Especially in this case where the institution had traced the original acquisition, but not further. That would be the cherry on top, but it’s certainly not standard.

But actually this is what makes researching in museum collections so exciting- the opportunity for discovery! Doing ‘object biographies’ has become all the range in academia these days and resulted in a huge surge in research interest in museum collections. That’s because if you can figure out the exiting life of an object that’s a great opportunity for original research! If the museum had already done it, it would be worth your time. And in fact, this is why museums love to help researchers- because we need this kind of research to be done!

So basically, don’t expect museums to just have the answers to your provenance questions. You’ll have to do the digging yourself but we promise it will be an exciting journey!

Monday, 6 July 2015

#hipstermuseum - Museum of London Docklands

Oh dearest followers it's been far too long since we've done one of these. We know that its a very exciting time with McQueen still ruling the roost, slides at the Hayward and the RA's Summer Exhibition - but we like to take some time for our city's smaller and lesser known museums. For this hot July we've picked somewhere dark, atmospheric and by the water- its the Museum of London Docklands!

The MoLD might not at first seem like a good contender as a hipster museum - I mean really, would a hipster by caught dead in West India Quay? We think most people are probably scared off by the cross-City trek from Canada Water to this little gem tucked away in an 18th century warehouse on the other side of all the skyscrapers and commuters. In fact, our first impressions upon arriving were 1) this building is f**king awesome and 2) why is there no one here?

Well we would like to change that. You might maybe have the impression from the name that this is just a small, slightly sad out-posting of the big Museum of London near the Barbican. Not so. Not only is the museum absolutely enormous compared to what we were expecting (cafe, kids gallery, archival research centre and three floors packed full of exhibits), the exhibition design is absolutely GORGEOUS. They've got everything about docklands history from the Romans to the Blitz to more recent social history and the regeneration of the Isle of Dogs.

Museum of London has always been known for its innovative dense display - bringing together art, objects, archives and large-scale industrial pieces, and the MoLD does not disappoint. Add to that the atmospheric re-purposed hardwood floors and warehouse rafters and the effect is stunning. This isn't a museum purely for school groups, this is a museum for trendy openings! Parties! Weddings!

And if you weren't convinced to make the trip already, here are two more incentives. The first, is Sailor Town. Oh my god I love Sailor Town. We know its probably aimed at kids but we get so damn excited about re-created streets in museums - with their low lighting and sound effects. Is there anywhere more perfect for instagramming than the MoLD's recreated rough riverside town?

If you are of a more cultural persuasion, then you'll be excited to hear about the Dockland's new photographic exhibition- Soldiers and Suffragette's: The Photography of Christina Broom. Step into the world of the UK's first female press photographer and follow her work around London, particularly her postcard images of suffragette rallies and soldiers heading off to the First World War. Being a woman in a male-dominated field wasn't going to keep Christina Broom out of the action, and her badass-ness paid off, famously photographing the Royal Family.

So basically it's all happening at MoLD- so you'd better get down there before everyone else figures it out...

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Why do museums need to think about Copyright?

Mentioning copyright law to anyone working in the creative industries and they shudder and immediately dismiss it with 'I don't get it' and 'it's too complex' and to some degree yes it is but it's there to protect the intangible in the tangible being of artistic works.

Is this how you feel about copyright? 

Edvard Munch - The Scream 1910.

 Fortunately this came out of copyright this year. 

The Museum’s very being lies in its duty to protect and care for collection of physical objects. We're used to displaying, packing, storing and conserving tangible things but when it comes to the intangible idea of copyright Many museum professionals will quickly claim ignorance, yet copyright law in its basic state is simple – a material object can be owned by a museum or gallery but its intellectual property right, its intangible, immaterial  rights can belong to another. In the UK Copyright is assigned to the author of the work at the moment it is created, it can be literary, dramatic, musical or artistic provided that the work is original.

It is difficult to get your head round at first, especially at the introduction of infringements and fair dealings, but the very notion that guides museum professionals experiences with objects are based in the non-physical information an object can give us - it's scholarly value, it's provenance, it's associated costs and the information it tells us about a time or a culture. So should we really find it such a daunting law?
Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902) 
Well, there is no denying that copyright law can be complex; it has many layers that mean that you can be liable for infringement by taking a picture of a painting in an exhibition or downloading an image from a website for use on social media such as in the case of National Portrait Gallery vs Wikimedia. But what does this mean for museums? As the owners of the physical artistic works they do not always own the copyright too, this makes creating exhibition catalogues, images for collections online and press and marketing a bit more difficult than you may have first though. Along with strict checks on due diligence and provenance registration staff  often have to ask copyright holders permission to ensure that we can take images of the artwork when it is on display,  unfortunately this can sometimes even having to spend hours seeking out the correct copyright holder or licensee to ensure that they are not infringing on its copyright.

Up until last year it was infringement for a museum to even take preservation copies of works i.e. taking photographs for records management or condition reports. Thankfully the changes in June 2014 last year have helped museums considerable and a fair dealing law that makes it possible to preserve any type of copyrighted work held in the permanent collection. Additionally a new clause that institutions can allow access to all types of works by electronic means at a ‘dedicated terminal for research and private study’ however I’m yet to see an institution do this?

Description of the points system for judging English rabbits, from The American Pet Stock Standard of Perfection and Official Guide to the American Fur Fanciers’ Association (1915)
Have patience though, copyright does not last forever. Duration generally last the lifetime of the author plus seventy years - so I doubt we will still be around when Hirst or Emin's work ocomes out of copyright. But once out of this time frame the works enter the public domain and each year the fantastic online journal the public domain review (  pick their fave authors whose work will enter the public domain that year the class of 2015 includes Mondrian, Ian Flemming and Munch.

We as museum professionals love to look after collections property rights so don’t shy away from looking after their intellectual property rights too they can be just as important.

 Please note that this article is not a full breakdown of copyright. Check out the Act for details. 

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Why won't you respond to my email and other woes of academics

So here’s a bit of a spoiler for you – I (Kristin) am currently taking a break from museum work to do my PhD. And something I’ve found about being a museum professional in the academic world is that you are something of a unicorn. Everyone wants to hear about this mysterious ‘museum sector’ – who are these museum people? Where do they come from? How can I work with them? And most importantly, how do I get a museum job? At a panel at my university today, I was asked one of the questions I hear the most and one I think really deserves a full response. A fellow PhD asked me:

Do museums really want to help researchers if they are so busy and cash-strapped? If they really cared they would respond to my emails.

First of all can I just say, despite the reputation we might get from a handful of grumpy people, museums love, nay EXIST, to help with research and engagement. Please don’t get the impression that museums don’t want to help you, we do, and in fact if we are a national museum we legally have to. But your point about museums being busy and cash-strapped it well taken, and this, not any other reason, is why we take so long in replying.

That said, there are some things that academic researchers could do that will ensure you get the best response in the fastest time.
  • Please check the online catalogue first. If you email a question like: ‘I’m interested in Victorian pottery, what do you have of that?’ there is a pretty high likelihood that enquiry is getting dropped to the bottom of the queue. We aren’t there to do your research for you!

  • Then again, something like: ‘I’ve identified these three objects I’d like to know more about, plus anything else that comes to mind’ is fine.
  • That said, please please PLEASE include reference numbers in your emails. Museums look after literally thousands of objects and just saying ‘the 1850s textile from Burma’ is specific but likely not good enough. It helps us to send emails to the right person and keep track of the enquiry with a number.
  • Be realistic about the number of objects you enquire about. Please be sure you genuinely need to know about everything you are asking for – researching a huge object lists takes lots of time, especially if you only think you are really interest in one or two.

  • Similarly- do you really need to see those objects? Likely a picture will do and what you really want to see is the object file- the provenance. There’s no point in physically getting an object from an off-site store when really what you want to know is who owned it, collected it etc. Be sure to ask for the right thing.
  • Be polite. It sounds like the most basic one, but sadly often neglected. Yes it is (in a way) curators’ jobs to help you, but they are doing it on a tight schedule and budget, so be kind.

Although people may not realise it (and it may not always feel this way for museum people) but research requests are actually really important and helpful. Tracking the number of requests certain objects and files get can be important for funding bids for conservation or digitisation projects. In depth research on the collections by external sources can be an important resource that museum people just don’t have time to do. Theses and published articles can be a boon to showing a museum’s research impact and utility and often make their way into grants and annual reports. 

So since a museum is helping you out, be sure you share and share alike. Let them know when research you did using objects is being published and send them a copy. This goes in files to help future generations and can actually help the doors stay open!

Museums and academics have in the past had a fairly tense relationship, but we don’t think this has to be the case. If researchers understood how to work with museums, and remembered to pay it back in terms of research output, everything would be rosy. And maybe curators would be less grumpy about answering their enquiries… maybe.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Ministry Explains it All: Courier Trips

Ok, we're all aware that museum pay is pretty poor, temporary contracts are frustrating and trying to champion the needs of collections management is a battle we are all constantly fighting. But, there are undeniably some pretty wonderful things about working in a museum, and for once were not talking directly about the collections. There is the (granted infrequent) opportunity to courier objects and travel the world. Ok, well maybe just a trip to the home counties

Courier trips are museums way of flexing their muscles, claiming ownership and an opportunity for lending institutions to check that those borrowing from them have fulfilled all of the requirements that they promised in the UKRG facilities report and/or make sure that no borrowing institution hands make it onto the object. 

Loans out  and acquisitions are the usual reasons why you would be sent as a courier namely because the objects are fragile, high value or incredibly rare and distance can vary from down the road to Australia with one object to hundreds on a truck, plane or train. It's a variation game but a few things remain the same:


  • Per diem - freebie lunch is always a winner, even if it is a off colour sandwich from a service station and a bag of discos
  • A day out - getting some real sun and time away from the lab/office/gallery
  • Getting to see behind the scenes at another museum - we always love a sneeky peak of another museums offices to compare
  • Responsibility - repping the museum so you have to be flexing some of those muscles too
And sometimes you can just chill 


  • Thinking about a million things at once - are they wearing gloves? have i got the exit forms? Is the object safe in the truck? See below
  • Spending hours waiting - On trucks, in airline sheds, on trains, for installation. Yep you will be spending a lot of time waiting around for decisions, movement and transport 
  • Early mornings - All long trips begin with an early morning start, sometimes even before Macdonalds is open. Its crazy. 
  • Responsibility - paperwork, so much paperwork. Exit forms, condition reports, entry forms, courier packs, tickets 


Your train of thought for the day will be an endless repeat of:  
  • Is this the right object?
  • Is it in the crate?
  • Does it need a mount/did we make one? 
  • Has it broken in transit?
  • Is this definitely the right museum?
  • My god, has it broken?

Appropriate  hashtags
  • #trucklife - because spending six hours on a truck justifies your new existence as a trucker
  • #trainselfie - what else are you going to do with all of those hours on a train, work emails?
  • #notcuteenoughforacoffee the early morning will do nothing for your chance to flirt your way to a free coffee at Pret
  • #Arewenearlythereyet - The answer will forever be no. 
  • Courtesy of Powerhouse Museum, Sydney 
  • #howmanycrates - more crates, more problems. 

Once you're at the borrowing institution its time to install, sign paperwork and be freed from the constraints of the day but be warned it does feel like you can claim some ownership over the object once you've carefully attended to its every need and walking out it does seem like you're leaving your kid behind, worrying about the objects welfare, mount and appearance will stay with you until its back in the stores or displayed in your own institution. Safe and sound 

Do you have any tip, tricks or panics about couriering collections? Let us know on twitter @curiositytweet