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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 

Thursday, 28 May 2015

3000 Followers and 3000 Thankyou's

Here at The Ministry we're pretty chuffed to have reached 3000 followers! Thanks for the love, discussions, museum based snark and engagement that has led us to this mind blowing total! Seriously, we're honoured! 

To celebrate this incredible achievement  we will be posting some of our favourite articles all over again!! Remember when we asked about your first time? Or that infuriating moment when we really made you mad about museums then told you to love your registrars? When we outed the Little Mermaid and declared our love? 

But we won't be stopping at this number, let us continue to open the forum for humorous commentary, constructive criticism, and a whole ton of devotion to the collections! Got something to say? Get in touch  or @curiositytweet

And we can't celebrate anything without some funny images! Our new favourite historical meme site  - Fat cat art has everything you need for one of those paperwork heavy days. 

Monday, 25 May 2015

For the love of collections: AHRC #whocares project

A few weeks ago we were lucky enough to be invited to a concept development workshop on a topic close to our hearts: caring for unloved reserve collections. As a part of a larger AHRC funded project called Who Cares? Interventions in Unloved Collections, the leaders of this initiative are asking some big questions like: What does caring for collections really mean? Is it possible for a curator or researcher to ever be objective about the collections they look after? How can we exploit the intense emotional connection museum people have for their objects? As museum professionals ourselves, we think these are exactly the right sorts of questions to be asking.

One day someone will want you, rows of pig skulls
The general public tend not to appreciate that what they see on display is only ever a very small proportion of the collections a museum holds. Securely locked away in cold dark stores, the great wealth of a museum in the form of slightly broken, repetitious, and unfashionable objects sit waiting for someone to come find them. But just because stored collections aren't on display doesn't mean they aren't loved: museum people are notoriously protective and emotionally attached to their objects, especially their slightly wonky, plain looking children no one else seems to want. Add to that specialist researchers and enthusiast groups, and actually the stores can be quite a busy place.

You wish your stores looked like these new open ones at
the Museum of English Rural Life
Even if our objects, big and small, exciting and mundane, are loved by a select few- how can we harness this emotional attachment for the public? Thats the question that Who Cares? is endeavoring the answer. As a result of the workshop however, it became clear that questions around reserve collections are even more complicated than they might originally appear. Sure you can have a publicly accessible store, offer curator-led tours, engage specialist communities through workshops, or have rotating displays- but what about objects that are visually unattractive? So specialist as to be unintelligible? Lacking in any sort of provenance?

Grecian helmet? How about 100
On the day, we ran a short discussion group on the topic of how you can engage the public with disturbing or uncomfortable collections- whether that's human remains, objects related to death and crime, collections with a morally dubious acquisition history, or even just items that end up relating to topical issues. These are objects that are not only unloved but purposefully forgotten or even detested. How do you engage with objects you own as a result of imperial domination, slavery, or something as visually disturbing as a teratology collection? These were certainly some difficult questions for the group, but we were impressed by some of the helpful suggestions they came up with.

The Vrolick Museum in Amsterdam is famous
for its displays of human remains
As practically-minded museum professionals, the first issue to consider had to be how we as institutions are socially responsible and fulfill our commitment to funders and the public at the same time. We shouldn't be seen to sanitize the past and yet some of our displays, like those of human remains, can be alienating to certain audiences. It was pointed out that actually most museums do already deal with difficult issues, just think of specialist war museums which are essentially about death, conflict and trauma. It's not even always possible to just avoid sensitive topics as they come back around when you least expect it: are displays about hunting now offensive with the return of debates over fox hunting? One participant even wondered whether Ripley's Believe it or not with its displays of human freaks were actually more honest about historical issues around difference and discomfort than most museums.

View of a crime scene from Wellcome Collection's Forensics exhibition
The surprising conclusion of our brief chat was the general agreement that so long as objects were provided with context and treated with professionalism, we should be taking more risks with sharing with audiences the uncomfortable or complicated objects in our collections. Just look at the success of the Wellcome Forensics exhibition which contains incredibly graphic images of dead bodies, and yet when its contextualised with both art and research, audiences are clamouring for more. Maybe we need to give both our audiences and ourselves a bit more credit for our ability to handle museum's sometimes haunted past with professionalism and clarity.

Do you have a favourite artefact, collection, or type of object that you think isn't getting enough love in your museum? Tell us all about it with the hashtag #whocares!

If you really love your stored collections or have ideas about how they can be shared with the public, why not submit a paper for the upcoming Who Cares conference at the Science Museum in November? Deets here: 

Monday, 18 May 2015

Homes for the Homeless: the experience of Victorian poverty

We have to be honest, we usually find ourselves at the Geffrye Museum only around Christmas time. And for this, we are ashamed. For on a recent visit on a sunny spring day, not only did we realise that the building and its gardens are glorious in the sunshine, but it's exhibitions and displays are fascinating all year round. On this particular trip we were there to see 'Homes for the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London' exhibition because, well, you know how we feel about the Victorians. (We love them in case that wasn't clear). What we found was a thoughtful, beautiful designed, multi-faceted exhibition that brought home the realities of life in the nineteenth century city.

The Pinch of Poverty - Thomas Benjamin Kennington 1891
Why is it that we are so fascinated by the Victorians? I think there's something fascinating about being able to look back at history through the medium of photography- which seems so immediate and 'real'. I also think we recognise a lot of ourselves in them - their socialising, family life, businesses, travel, aspirations : the Victorians are really the birth of the modern age we are still living in. But for all of the exciting technical innovations and fabulous clothes, Victorian London was a place of poverty, illness, and a pre-welfare state which left most of the work of looking after the vulnerable to charity organisations.

Meal-time at Holborn workhouse, 1885
We get pretty used to seeing images of Victorian families in slum conditions, dirty children playing in the street, or homeless people sleeping on benches. But we forget that for the homeless of nineteenth century London, they had to figure out everyday how to find a place to sleep and something to eat. How they achieved that shows the maze that was the Poor Law system (hospitals, workhouses), charity, and sometimes just sheer determination.

Corridor at a casual ward, early 20th c.
The Geffrye exhibition really aims to try and humanize all those black-and-white pictures of Victorian poverty that most of us have become desensitised to. Sure it's history, but those are really people's lives. Through recreated voice-recordings of contemporary testimonies, we hear about the experience of getting into a casual ward, living in a crowded common lodging house, or the best places to sleep rough. You can try the harrowing task of picking apart rope or sleeping in a coffin-like box bed. The displays show the savvy needed to navigate what relief was available, the conditions people endured, but also how people made the best of a bad situation.

Sleek, graphics-dense exhibition design
The messages of the exhibition are really hit home by a complimentary exhibition in the corridor in which vulnerable teens and children from the New Horizons Centre in Kings Cross. The participants reflect on their own experiences of homelessness, and see a surprising number of similarities with the situation as it was experienced over 100 years ago. With the new government possibly preparing to slash disability benefits, the Geffrye's exhibition takes on a new meaning as both a well-crated temporary display, and a meaningful warning for the future. 

 Homes for the Homeless is on at the Geffrye Museum until the 12th of July 

Monday, 11 May 2015

Dreamland Dreaming...

Everyone knows that the Ministry of Curiosity is all about London's museum-centric social life. But today we are breaking the rules to update you about an event outside the M25 (shock, horror) because...well just because we can. If there's anywhere in the UK we will a spiritual kinship with that's not our glorious London-town, it's got to be Margate. All the charms of the old-fashioned seaside, stuffed with antique shops (for Kristin), suspicious British seafood (for Terri), and a huge dash of contemporary art (thanks to TC Margate). And now, added to the mix, the newly re-opened Dreamland theme park is sure to be again the jewel in Margate's crown.

Dreamland Margate sits somewhere between myth and horror story. You've seen the British Pathe images of happy mid-twentieth century youths partying on tea cups, but you also probably remember the decline of the British seaside and the devastation of the 2008 fire. But Margate is about to get it's groove back as the park reopens this June! Promising to be much more than just a revival, Dreamland will blend old and new, seaside history with new technology. Don't believe us, watch the vid courtesy of BBC.

The new Dreamland will open on Friday the 16th of June with fanfare; Marina and the Diamonds is headlining (swoon) with plenty of other fab acts including the Miniscule of Sound (the world's smallest nightclub) and a roller disco hosted by Too Many Ts. Maybe now you see why we had to break the rules and update you while there are still tickets left! I do like to be beside the seaside...