I was out at the Silchester Excavation site today for one of their annual Open Days. For those of you that don’t know, the Silchester Excavation is examining one insula (or block) in the large Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum and the Iron Age settlement Calleva which lies beneath it. Since 1997 Prof Mike Fulford and Amanda Clarke have been leading a team of dedicated excavators at the site. Silchester is the University of Reading Archaeology Department’s training dig and students make up the majority of the ‘diggers’.
Visitors on the viewing platform
Students also get involved in the interpretation of the site, this year under the guidance of freelance museum educator Ross McGauran. The site welcomes school groups and has a training pit, Roman garden, tours and activities for visitors to the site. I was also really impressed by their head-sets which linked visitors not to a pre-recorded tour but to a microphone. This meant that site directors could jump around the trenches providing information while visitors listened from a viewing platform. On a windy day like today this was much needed.
This kind of activity also gives students an opportunity to communicate their passion for the subject with the public. In recent blog posts I seem to be repeatedly talking about how easily the popular image of apathetic students is overturned when you look at heritage volunteering. Academics and professionals can assist in this process by providing support and giving students a platform to express themselves. To link back to a previous post on this blog two of the students were Nerdfighters and the three of us chatted about how we had been inspired to use social media to communicate about arts and heritage. I am currently thinking about how I can integrate social media training into my teaching to help students in this process. The students that I met at Silchester were excellent communicators and the kids who visited were enthralled. I walked back up the path at the end of the day to find a 7 and 3 year old ‘being archaeologists’ by picking up every piece of gravel. If you want to be similarly inspired the next Open Day is on 3rd August…
It looks like I’m going to be posting most of these cards from the UK due to my full on schedule. However, that will give me the opportunity to add some cool photos from the places in question. This one is coming from JFK airport wi-fi willing.
The next stop was Carlisle, Pennsylvania which we reached through some stunning countryside. It’s a lovely college town with lots of great eateries. The college focus on sustainability is really impressive. They have a farm which is powered by student labour and is self sustaining due to the patronage of local food lovers and the hard work of the team who run the programme. They also ‘green’ the curriculum (most colleges just green their operations) by identifying and encouraging the development of sustainability teaching and tracking the students who engage with these courses.
On the museum side of things I visited the Trout Gallery which was running a really powerful student curated exhibition about reporting and illustration during the American Civil War. I also got to
see the African objects in the store and had a browse through some catalogues for past exhibitions. The work the students produce is up of professional quality and it was an object lesson (pardon the pun) in trusting students with bigger projects. We got to have lunch with the student archive interns and they got us thinking about how we engage students with our special collections. The Goodyear Gallery was another example of a student focused space in which individuals had studio space to develop their own artwork.
Obviously smaller staff to student ratios help a lot when creating a rich student experience, but that’s no reason to be defeatist. I am heading back to the UK thinking about how we can adapt some of these ideas to work in our specific HE environment. In case you are wondering about the photo, that’s what met me when I boarded the train at Harrisburg …is this standard at American train stations?
Firstly apologies for the lack of images and links. Blogging on the move with only an iPad takes some getting used to. I am actually posting this from Philadelphia train station!
Our second stop on our whistle-stop tour of the US was Lynchburg Virginia. Randolph College has had a long running exchange programme with the University of Reading. One of my former students Maggie is a Randolph alum who now works in an art gallery in the States. She had waxed lyrical about the Maier Museum (see image for website) so it was great to finally visit.
There was beautiful art in the gallery, including an exquisite Hopper. However, what struck me was how they use the museum as an experiential teaching space for their students. Students co-curate exhibitions, facilitate community education programmes and even create their own iPod tours. Our two student tour guides Stormy and Hannah had an infectious enthusiasm for the collection. Until recently the college was women only and the art, and their interpretation of it, also demonstrated a strong awareness of issues of gender. I was so impressed that I have asked them if they will write something the blog. I am sure that they will do more justice to the collection than I have in these few paragraphs.
This week I am travelling around the States with come colleagues and I am going to add updates from the places I visit. I’m hoping to add some more detail and some illuminating photos once I get back to the UK. The first stop is Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
I had read about Williamsburg but I hadn’t fully appreciated the scale of the site or how multi-functional Williamsburg is. Colonial Williamsburg has a golf course, spa, several hotels and restaurants. Williamsburg also takes the museum shop to a whole new level with a shopping area called Merchants Square.
However, the heritage interpretation, research and collections management is also something to behold. The Living History is well thought out, with a mix of first person, third person, general costumed facilitator-guides and craftspeople. The new coffee house is a particularly good example, which engages visitors in a familiar yet unfamiliar environment where revolutionary ideas took shape during the period in question. Heritage crafts are kept alive through the traditional master-apprentice system, and in the museum and collections store we also found incredible collections of objects cared for by curators and conservators in custom designed premises.
Unfortunately I only had a day there when I really needed a week. It’s a challenging site which deals with multiple historic narratives and a range of different kinds of resources and I’m sure to post more when I get back.
Scary front cover of Milgrom’s ‘Still Life: adventures in taxidermy’
I promised ages ago to post about the nerdy museum phenomenon that is The Brain Scoop. This seems like a brilliant time to post as it has just reached the next stage in its development. The Brain Scoop began only a few months ago in December 2012 when Vlogbrother Hank Green shot a video blog post from the University of Montana’s Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum. There he met museum studies student and curatorial assistant Emily Graslie. Emily’s enthusiasm secured her an invitation to start her own YouTube channel as part of the Nerdfighter family (on which more in a later post). As the museum is mostly a research collection this was a rare opportunity to display objects to the public. The series also went behind the scenes, and in a series of stomach turning episodes Emily even dissected a wolf. The video in which the wolf is skinned currently has around 217,000 views!
Spider in the Cole Museum of Zoology (Photograph taken by Fil Gierlinski)
As an aside, I chatted to my colleague Claire about Brain Scoop and we compared the books on taxidermy that we had bought following Emily’s recommendations. Claire has been volunteering at our own university zoology collection The Cole Museum of Zoology and is also a digital aficionado. Check out Claire the Conservatrix to find out more.
Anyway, back to Brain Scoop. The Field Museum, Chicago became aware of the channel and invited Emily to visit. They were so impressed that they made her the Chief Curiosity Correspondent. I was a little sad to see Emily leave the smaller research collection but I’m excited to see what she comes up with in Chicago. Emily is a positive role model for young women who might be considering STEM careers. Brainscoop also makes me wonder whether students or ‘experts in training’ make more accessible role models than the established academics that we usually see on TV documentaries.
Finally, the success of The Brain Scoop demonstrates that zoology and taxidermy have a nerdy appeal when pitched correctly. Other examples which embrace the kookiness of zoology collections are my twitter favourites Glass Jar of Moles (UCL’s Grant Museum) and the Horniman Museum’s Walrus. These social media experiments work because their authors aren’t restricted by brand or ‘organisational voice’. They use their own voices and embrace their inner nerd.
The entrance to the Ashmolean’s Xu Bing exhibition
First off I popped into the Ashmolean to catch the Xu Bing exhibition before it closed. I had glimpsed the banners and mistakenly thought it was on traditional Chinese landscapes. The exhibition actually charted contemporary artist Xu Bing’s negotiation of socialist realism, pop art, French impressionist landscape painting, community art projects and calligraphy. His landscripts took centre stage. These are landscapes which use Chinese characters as marks to depict features in the landscape e.g. the character for rock to depict a rock. Maybe I’m weird but the early sketches made during the Cultural Revolution were my favourites. If you missed it there is a lot of highly quality online content still available via Eastern Art Online.
A Case for ‘Natural Histories’ at the Oxford Museum of History of Science
Then it was off to the Oxford Museum of History of Science. They only have a small temporary exhibition space which they always use to great effect. Their ‘Natural Histories’ exhibition used items from the currently closed Oxford Natural History Museum. It explored the use of these collections for scientific research. The items which stuck with me were initially unassuming preparations signed by Darwin and Linnaeus. The display of the taxidermy really captured the romance of these collections and seems to have inspired the Blackwell art shop next door in their window displays.
Taxidermy in the Blackwells Art Shop Oxford
Quick lunch in the Ashmolean and then what I thought was going to be the boring part of the day: hitting the books. Turns out reading is a lot more fun when you can pretend to be one of the X-men as you move from historic building to secret underground facility. The Gladstone annexe is in an old book tunnel between the Bodleian and the Radcliffe Camera. I don’t think it’s open to the public but here is a sneak peek.
The tunnel to the Gladstone Annexe
Rounded off the day listening to the wonderful Jon Whiteley talk about the history of the Ashmolean for Museums at Night. The event also celebrated the launch of the new book about the history of the museum ‘Dodos and Dark Lanterns’ (Berry 2013). I had a train to catch so I only caught glimpses of what was on offer: live music, historic costume, lantern making with families. I then ran to the Pitt Rivers Museum to see it in darkness (again for for Museums at Night). The sight of the shrunken heads by torch light was particularly uncanny. It was worth the run and I only wish I could have stayed longer.
Best photo I could get with no flash while balancing a torch of Pitt Rivers Museum in darkness
Just back from the Royal Berkshire Medical Museum. I’ve been there before but I always seem to forget just what a hidden treasure it is. Tucked away in an old laundry room (Grade 2 listed), the museum is packed with fascinating stories and objects. The key ‘object’ is the glass jar of living leeches that are ‘fed’ by the team of volunteers.
The museum is run by former members of staff on a voluntary basis. The current display was made possible by HLF funding in 2008 and the look is the result of a collaboration with local designer Martin Andrews. I know Martin from the 2005 Ure Museum redesign, and his ability to bring objects to life with a low key and low cost bit of theatricality makes him a really inspiring guy to work with. Take for example this low tech bit of reconstruction.
Reconstruction of wartime injuries
However, the real stars are the objects. Weird, wonderful and a bit disturbing. One member of our group briefly looked up and started laughing at the faces everybody else was pulling. I love a museum that provokes a gut reaction (pun intended) and the universal subject of the body and medicine means that everybody has some kind of response.
Scary pokey things (yes that’s a medical term)
The museum is hard to get to and has limited opening hours but try to get to it if you can. It’s often open on weekends and is to the left hand side of the Royal Berkshire Hospital’s neo-classical facade on London Road (NB no parking but good bus links). Rather than rabbit on about it I thought I would add some photos for those who might not get to see inside. Enjoy…
Tray of glass eyes
The medicine cabinet
A view through the museum (small but perfectly formed)
So… I am speaking at a history event at Glastonbury Abbey this Friday. I’m just finishing up my paper and thinking about a few things. There are some big names there and I don’t class myself as an Arthur specialist. I’m focussing on what I do know about, interpreting objects and places. My paper is called ‘We don’t want Disney’ and it’s all about how hard it is to interpret Arthurian sites. Do you go for an all out ‘immersive experience’ and pull away from the archaeology and history? Or do you use sceptical academic analysis to illustrate that, now your visitors have paid their ticket price, they have bought into a historical fabrication?
There’s a great article in ‘Public Archaeology’ by Orange and Laviolette (2010) A Disgruntled Tourist in King Arthur’s Court which examines some of these tensions at Tintagel. For many visitors, consuming Arthurian heritage is about connecting to your own sense of identity. Tackiness or scepticism can kill the magic.
At Glastonbury Abbey while it is very difficult to demonstrate any hard facts, stories have had a real impact on the political and religious history and archaeology of the site. Today the Abbey still attracts people who are seeking out an experience which is greater than themselves. Will an exhibition or a text panel really achieve this? Can we can learn from the rest of the world when examining how ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ is interpreted in this country? Live story-telling, dramatic performances, music, poetry and art may acknowledge the importance of stories without pinning them down to a specific perspective.
As I will discuss in my talk, Arthur is never going to be ‘easy’ to interpret. These stories are the focal point for centuries of debate about British identity and spirituality and that’s why they continue to be important today. If you want to witness me grappling with these issues in person, tickets are still available for the Foosteps of Arthur event at Glastonbury Abbey.