Body Art in Museums

I attended a thought provoking lecture by Dr Matt Lodder on Victorian trends in tattooing yesterday. Matt stressed that the idea that tattooing is ‘a new fad’ is itself very old. The British royal family, including King George V, had Japanese tattoos. During the 1890s it was quite the fashionable thing amongst the upper classes. It was also much commented upon by the tabloid press of the time. Here is a link to an online article by Matt which does a bit of myth busting

The talk got me thinking about body arts in museums as a topic for museum studies students. One of the lecture slides showed an image of an ‘object’ from a museum which was a tattoo on the original skin. There are several examples of ethnographic objects which occupy this murky territory, being both human remains and art objects, and they raise interesting ethical and philosophical questions. From a collecting viewpoint body arts also unsettle object focussed techniques, as much of it is transitory and you can’t (for practical and ethical reasons) collect a body with its skin and hair. Matt and his fellow researchers use photography, diaries, paintings and newspaper articles to understand the history of tattooing and exhibitions of body art increasingly do the same.

When I was still a student I did some audience evaluation with the, then new, Body Arts display in the Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford. I was struck by how a discussion of the decoration of the human body unsettled certain ‘safe’ categories and engaged people in active debate. It’s an amazing topic for museums because the body is universal, but ways of shaping and viewing bodies are so varied. The Pitt Rivers dealt with the collecting issues by engaging in a bit of contemporary collecting with a tattoo parlour in Oxford and have included videos on the website:

As a discussion point in class it can be uncomfortable. Many people don’t think they have any body art because they don’t have a large tattoo but hairstyle, perfume, make-up, ear piercings all count. Questioning how your own body is constructed can feel quite unsettling, but that’s what makes it such a great topic for debate.

Live Friday at the Ashmolean – Music in the Museum

Theremin Ashmolean

I attended the Ashmolean’s late night opening event Live Friday and thought I would jot down some impressions. I’m not an expert on music but it got me thinking about what sound can do to a museum space.

When I first entered the atrium I was struck by the sound of Lydia Kavina playing the theremin. You can just see her through the window in the picture. This musical instrument works on the basis of manipulating electrical currents. It’s best known as the staple instrument of sci-fi sound effects department, and was used to create the theme tune to Dr Who. Kavina was originally playing a haunting melody that echoed throughout the space. As she switched to more staccato sound effects I instantly shook myself out of my state of contemplation and began negotiating packed staircases in an agitated state.

In with the Chinese paintings the DJ set ‘Six Bar Gate’ allowed visitors to interact with instruments and contribute to a relaxing soundscape which immediately made me think of water. Looking back through my guide the piece was called ‘Lake Dysmal’ which just goes to show how a skilled composer can summon up certain associations.

In ‘The Ethometric Museum’ by Ray Lee (British Composer of the Year 2012 for Sonic Art), the staircase gallery for European Art was transformed into an uncanny space. This was more of an installation, with the objects the focus of your attention and the dark red gallery working with them to create an almost steampunk vibe.

Down in the Ancient Cyprus Gallery ‘Noise Relay’ by Dr Lisa Busby engaged audience members as DJs on a collaborative soundtrack. Here the effect of music as it sped up and slowed down was noticeable. Whereas we had been quiet in the other spaces, we chatted away in this gallery and seemed to speed up and slow down with the music.

All this reminded me of brilliant lecture by the late Hélène La Rue (formerly Curator of the Bate Collections of Musical Instruments, University of Oxford) in which she played a strange range of sounds in order to get us students thinking about the anthropology of music. In terms of exhibition design, sound is an important way of eliciting an emotional response and can also change the way we move through spaces. However, in museums we always seem to focus on the visual not the aural. I came across this post from a couple of years ago which discusses music in museums It’s clear from the comments that adding music to a gallery is not an endeavour to be entered into lightly. However, these kinds of interactions between musicians, composers and researchers help us to question why we keep galleries quiet, and explore some possible alternatives.

Welcome to our new blog!

As it says above this is a brand spanking new blog. My name is Rhianedd or ‘Rhi’ Smith and I’m the Museum Studies Programme Director and novice blogger. This blog is for museum studies students and researchers at Reading and beyond. I have big plans that one day it will also be written in part by students. I am definitely planning on press-ganging my colleagues into posting and I will flag up interesting posts on blogs written by folks at Reading or people in the wider world.

We’ve been teaching Museum Studies at Reading since 2005, although there is a longer history which I will try to track in an upcoming post. The optional modules we devised back in 2005 were so popular that we are offering two joint degrees, BA Classical and Museum Studies and BA Archaeology and Museum Studies, from 2013/2014.

I want this blog to be a central place for information and discussion which students and researchers (here and elsewhere) can eventually tap into and contribute to.The initial posts are going to be written by yours truly. I’m going to give some background to the museums and collections here and our approach to teaching and research with collections. However, I’m also going to blog about exhibitions, projects, conferences and anything that takes my interest – hence the word ‘musings’ in the tagline.

So to conclude here’s a really old photo of students having a lively discussion about a pig carcass scraper in our stores. I like it because it shows how even the most mundane (and kind of disgusting) object can spark a conversation. Hopefully that’s what this blog will be –  a way to spark a conversation.

Students in the store