Museums Work

Museums Work Blog

Not such strange dry specimens…

New Walk Museum - 150th anniversary 1999

The Museum Buddies project on working in museums has now ended – but I wanted to add a few final reflections on the subject of museum curators from the sources that I’ve been researching. Firstly, in the first issue of the Museums Journal in 1901-02, there is an article entitled ‘The man as museum-curator’ which acknowledges the contribution of George Brown Goode, assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, to the art of exhibition and curating. ‘The outside world…’, it comments:

‘usually regards the museum-curator as but one of the strange, dry specimens to be found within the walls of the museum. A curator is sometimes seen (through a glass door) to move, as he registers or arranges his fossils or his potsherds; but to the public the movement appears so automatic, the acts so mechanical, that enthusiasm, or it may be humour, in a museum official is apt to shock them as something out of place. Unfortunately there is always a danger of this conception becoming true rather than ridiculous’.

In the case of George Brown Goode, however:

‘his whole life stands for a proof that the successful curator may be, say rather that the great museum administrator must be, a man of enthusiasm, of ideas, of strictest honour, of sincerity, with the grip and devotion of a specialist, yet with the wisdom born of wide experience, with an eye for the most meticulous detail, but with a heart and mind responsive to all things of life, art and nature’.

As a job description, that’s quite demanding – but some of the curators I’ve encountered in the course of my research into historical documents have certainly not been lacking in either a sense of humour or enthusiasm for their work, even if the public has occasionally overestimated the extent of their specialist knowledge. In 1949 Mr A.L. Thorpe, Curator of the Museum and Art Gallery in Derby, noted that the wide range of their enquiries ‘would seem to prove that a Museum is widely held to be an authoritative source of information on subjects ranging from “old master” (?) paintings found in an attic to furniture beetles found in a utility sideboard’ (County Borough of Derby, Public Libraries, Museum and Art Gallery, 78th Annual Report, March 1949). Almost identical queries were noted in Leicester later in the century, ranging from ‘the identification of family heirlooms through to, quite literally, the insect that has just crawled out of the woodwork’ (C. Brown, Cherished Possessions: a history of New Walk Museum and Leicester City Museums Service, 2002, p25).

Another recurring theme was the asortment of objects that members of the public wanted to donate to museums, which had only reinforced, in the view of Montagu Browne, Curator of the Town Museum in Leicester in 1880, ‘the great curse of the collection…’:

‘sketchy versatility. In walking through the usual dry-as-dust collections, you find groups of very atrociously-rendered animals, a greater sprinkling of funereal and highly-disreputable birds, some extremely protracted fishes, some clipped insects, a lot of shells… I allude to those odds and ends which people do not want themselves, and which are therefore so kindly brought in as an offering – would I might say a burnt one… I do not consider the end and aim of a museum should be the collection of “bullets” collected by Handy-Andy from the field of Arrah-na-Pogue, “my grandfather’s clock”, and so on… we now have a little bit of everything and very much crowded up and incomplete at every point’ (Cherished Possessions, p8).

Until Mr Browne’s appointment, the museum had been largely run by Honorary Curators, appointed initially by the Leicester Literary & Philosophical Society and from 1872 by the Borough Council’s Museum Committee. The latter was apparently not an arrangement that pleased the then Curator, Mr Weatherhead, to judge from a letter signed ‘IMPUDENT WEATHERTAIL’ in the Leicester Chronicle (6 April 1872):

‘with respect to the rights of the Museum Curator… I quite agree with him that it is most provoking for a man occupying his exalted position in the borough, and who has been allowed for so many years to manage the Museum without any kind of control, to find himself threatened with such impertinences as “rules and regulations”. Why should [the Museum Committee] want to make him responsible for the safe custody and preservation of the Museum collection? Why should they fix any hours in the day, or any day in the week, at which he should be required to be  in attendance?’.

Mr Browne himself was notable for his skills as a taxidermist. These had occasionally to be employed outside the museum,  ‘making half of New Walk uninhabitable for weeks on end’ as he worked on specimens too large for the available space inside. On one occasion he also complained that the Museum itself was ‘so cold that I am obliged to wrap up closely… I have had the unpleasant task of brushing away mildew from many of the specimens’. Appointed as he was at a point of transition in the management of the museum, he no doubt felt a need to make his mark as a  ‘professional’ – but he was certainly not one of those ‘dry specimens’ of popular perception.

I leave you with a final thought from the Museums Journal as quoted above:

‘No investment is more profitable to a museum than that in the salary fund… No work is more exhausting to body or mind than the care of collections, and nowhere are enthusiasm and abundant vitality more essential’.


An experiment in education…

Following on from my previous blog, most of the local authority museums I have looked at in the East Midlands seem to have established their services for schools from the 1930s, often in conjunction with the Local Educational Authority (LEA) and in the form of objects for loan. That in Derbyshire, for instance, was set up by the Education Committee in 1936 as a three year experiment with a grant from the Carnegie UK Trustees for the purchase of exhibits, consisting of ‘material which would not normally be available in a classroom but had hitherto only been seen in public museums and art galleries’.*

The experiment was a great success, offering by the end of the three years over 500 artefacts, 100 framed reproductions of paintings and a library of gramophone records used by 80 local schools, which could exchange loans up to three times a term. Apart from a short closure in September 1939, the service continued throughout the Second World War and was also used up to 1946 by military hospitals in the area and the Army Education Corps.

The early exhibits for loan consisted of ‘things easily obtained…’ – natural history material, for example, and contemporary crafts such as pottery – ‘based on the requirements of the school curriculum, with particular emphasis on local material of all kinds’. These were displayed in small glazed oak cases ‘in the belief that the specimens needed some form of protection from inquisitive or mischevious fingers’, but by 1957 most specimens were ‘freely available for the child or teacher to handle, to examine, and to arrange in a manner most suited to the purpose’, only fragile or rare items being presented in cases.

The service was described as ‘a pioneering scheme in its particular sphere’, attracting visitors from Australia, Israel, Cuba, Mexico, Trinidad and Uganda, as well as within Britain. The list of members of the Museums Advisory Committee in 1957 also suggests a widening educational remit embracing adults as well as children, including such organisations as Nottingham University, the Dervyshire Rural Community Council, the Arts Council, the Derbyshire Federations of Women’s Institutes and Townswomen’s Guilds, as well as teachers’ and parents’ associations and the School Broadcasting Council.   

* Derbyshire County Council, Derbyshire Education Committee Museums Service 1936 – 1957 (1957)


Dullness, dustiness, and moribund banality…

‘Let it not be supposed that all children are angels in a museum; they are not. They play, they howl at the door, they are at times most troublesome, but that can be overcome with a little tact, and judicious treatment… Though full of spirits, they are at an impressionable age. To shut the door upon them would be to miss an opportunity’.

The above quotation is taken from a pamphlet written by Frank Stevens FSA and published in 1919 by Salisbury Museum. Some Account of the Educational Work Done at the Salisbury Museum 1916 – 19 was prompted by the belief that education would be ‘in the forefront of the activities which demand attention under “after the war reconstruction” Educational development is a burning question of the hour, and it is part of the policy of every museum to avail itself of the opportunities this development gives in the new era which must follow in the wake of the great war’.

In the Salisbury Museum itself, just before the war, the curator had organised educational activities for the children who visited the Museum in increasing numbers on Monday evenings (when it was open until 8 pm), at times ‘to the prejudice of good order’. While some appeared to be ‘merely curious, others steadily examined the cases one by one, with an evident desire to master their contents’. A course of lectures was thus organised to ‘thoroughly explain’ the objects on display ‘in such terms and in such a way as will bring their history most vividly to their imagination’. 

This was conducted on the lines of a school class – at which point the merely ‘casual or curious’ disappeared; but the experiment also prompted some interesting reflections on the nature of a museum as an ‘educational storehouse’. In Mr Stevens’ view, this had often been overlooked in the past, partly because of ‘a lack of public appreciation of the solid merits of a regularly organised collection’ – but also because of the existence of museums which:

‘have earned for the whole class a name for dullness, dustiness, and moribund banality. There are Museums and Museums. A good one, well arranged and well kept, clean, neat and attractive, may be the means of conveying instruction and giving interest and pleasure to the lives of thousands of our fellow creatures. Such museums do not grow by themselves. Money, time, knowledge, and loving sympathetic care must be expended upon them, both in their foundation and in their maintainance, and unless these can be provided for with tolerable certainty, it is useless to think of founding them… A church demands its minister, a school its teacher, a garden its gardener; so, too, the Museum requires its competent staff to take care of it…’.  

The employment of staff with specific educational roles seems to have been a longer-term development, however. In my next blog I’ll be looking at an example from Derbyshire…


Cultivating the taste of the masses…


Nottingham Castle Museum opening

Many provincial museums have their origins in the activities of learned societies, but were clearly intended for the benefit of ‘the masses’. This was explicit in the Act of Parliament of 1845 which allowed local councils to levy a halfpenny rate to provide museums for the ‘Instruction and Amusement of the Inhabitants’, and in the Corporation of Nottingham’s address to the Prince and Princess of Wales on the opening of the Castle Museum and Art Gallery in 1878, which identified ‘the cultivation of the taste of the masses of the population of this Borough and the surrounding towns and counties’ as its primary objective.

The Castle had remained a ruin since 1831, when it was looted and damaged by rioters protesting against the Duke of Newcastle’s opposition to parliamentart reform. According to one history of it:

‘visitors to the town wended their way to it with curious interest, and the terrace, always a source of attraction, was paced with pleasure by many during the calm summer evenings. Occasionally in recent years a gala has drawn a flock of visitors to the grounds…’*

Its transformation into a museum and art gallery owed much to the association between the Nottingham School of Art, founded in 1843, and the South Kensington Museum - later the Victoria and Albert Museum – whose director Sir Henry Cole urged the Corporation to extend ‘the influence and advantages of further art education by the establishment of a Museum of Science  and Art, especially illustrative of those industries which have given to Nottingham the eminent position it holds among the great manufacturing centres of the United Kingdom’.

The Long Gallery

On the day of the official opening, the Prince and Princess were welcomed ‘with all the enthusiasm and varied demonstrations which usually characterise an English crowd when receiving personages so popular as the Royal visitors’. ‘Artistic decorations’ had been ‘spontaneously provided… with ungrudging liberality’  by the townspeople , including floral displays and a triumphal arch. They were met at the entrance to the town, near St. Andrew’s church, by the Mayor and Corporation in their robes, accompanied by the local Guilds, the Borough MPs and other dignitaries, and from there ‘an imposing and magnificent procession was formed, extending quite half a mile in length, escorted by squadrons of Her Majesty’s Lancers and the Yeoman Cavalry of the County’.  

This passed through the Market Place, where houses were hung with crimson cloth with ‘the windows and parapets throughout being thronged with spectators’. The Town Hall was also ‘decked in showy draperies, her roof and time ball minaret bristling with coloured flags’. On reaching the Castle grounds, ‘crowded with a vast assembly’, the Mayor presented the Prince of Wales with a ceremonial key with which he unlocked the door. Following an escorted tour by the Curator, Mr G.H. Wallis, and Castle Architect Thomas Chambers Hine, and a luncheon in a pavilion on the Castle lawn, the Prince declared the museum officially open. As the Corporation address to the royal visitors noted, few of the inhabitants of Nottingham had had an opportunity ‘of visiting the metropolis, or spending there sufficient time to enable them thoroughly to master the art treasures amassed in that [Sotuh Kensington] museum. The Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery was thus  ’an experiment which we trust will be crowned with complete success… the means of affording them the culture which they could obtain in no other way’.

* Thomas Chambers Hine, Nottingham, its Castle and art gallery: a military fortress, a ducal mansion, a blackened ruin, a museum and gallery of art (Unknown publisher, 1876; supplement 1879)


The development of new technologies and the emergence of new museology professions – AVICOM annual conference

Friday 9 March is the last day for registration and submission of proposals for presentations for the AVICOM 2012 conference.

‘That new technologies have a place in museums, be it intra or extra muros, is an established fact that no one would think of challenging. The vitality of the AVICOM Committee is proof of this. A number of new tools—interactive terminals, smartphone applications, and exhibition designs featuring strong interactive components come to mind—have recently appeared and immediately captured the public’s interest. AVICOM’s FIAMP awards celebrate museums’ creativity in this area.

‘It is clear that the relationship between “new technologies” and museums is now well established. This relationship seems to be becoming more essential by the day, as was confirmed in July 2010 during a debate around the issue of the museum in the 21st century that took place between Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, and Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate in London. One of the conclusions resulting from that discussion was that the future of museums is ever more dependent on their ability to interact with their publics on-line. Indeed, a July 29, 2011 post on the Cultural Engineering Group Weblog purported that the future of the institution of the “Museum” increasingly hinges on the Web. In the face of such a “prophecy,” which is well on its way to becoming a reality, a number of issues arise, both on the ethical and practical levels.

  • Will this change result in the development of new museum professions?
  • Who are the people now creating these new programs? Specialists? Communications or creative professionals?

AVICOM Montreal 2012 will focus on the ‘very topical issue of the challenge now shared by museums, interpretation centres, the education community, art conservation centres and multimedia companies, as well as examine the question of what is the public’s part in this dizzying process. Further details at


Funding available for MA in Heritage Studies…

From the Oral History Noticeboard at

Funding is now available for studying the MA in Heritage Studies: place, memory and history, hosted by the Raphael Samuel History Centre in London – but be quick – applications must be in by 5pm, Monday 30th April 2012 and you need to apply for the MA first.

For more details about the MA, which has a distinctive focus on memory and oral history, see

And for details of the application process for 11 AHRC studentships that are available for this programme (amongst others) see

If you have any questions about the MA, please contact the programme leader, Toby Butler


Careers for our sons…

A quick snapshot from an entry for British Museum Assistantships in Careers for our Sons in 1928.* This notes that these are available in the library and antiquarian sections at Bloomsbury and the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as in the Science Department – but that there are ‘as a rule’ only one or two vacancies a year ‘between the several departments’. Candidates were selected by examination, and it was ‘an essential condition of selection that a candidate shall have a thorough knowledge of those subjects cognate to the work of the department in which he seeks an appointment’. They might also be required to take a test in English and General Knowledge. 

The age limit for applicants was 22 – 26 years of age, with a salary on first appointment of £250 a year, plus bonus, increasing to £440. An Assistant Keeper could earn £475 – 800 a year, and a Deputy Keeper or Keeper from £900 – 1000.   

* D. W. Hughes ed., Careers for our Sons (A. & C. Black, London, 6th edition, 1928)


Art and grog…

Suzanne Macleod, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Head of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, will be talking to the Leicester Branch of the Victorian Society next week on’ Art and Grog – the Making of a Gallery for Art in Liverpool, 1874-77′. The talk is based on her research for a book exploring ‘the role of architectural history in the prioitisation of specific stories of museum building and museum architects and the exclusion of other actors from the history of museum making’. Instead, it aims to link the physical development of museums and galleries ‘directly to the actions, agendas and contexts of the groups and individuals involved in their making’.

Foremost among them, in the case of the Walker Art Gallery, was Andrew Barclay Walker (1824 – 1893), a brewer and Conservative politician, who offered in 1873 to present a gallery to Liverpool to mark his term as mayor, donating £20,000 for the purpose. This provoked opposition from the local temperance movement, including a series of libellous cartoons showing him as profiting from what campaigners regarded as one of the great ‘social evils’ of the day – hence the title of the talk.

‘Art and Grog’ takes place at the Leicester Adult Education College, Wellington Street, Leicester, at 7.30pm on Tuesday 6 March 2012, finishing at around 9 pm. A donation of £2 is requested for visitors, who are very welcome. For further information, telephone 01455 291 694 or 0116 239 3744.


An update from Alex…

I caught up recently with Alex Woodall, who has featured in a couple of my earlier blogs about working in museums. Alex used to be Digital Access Development Officer at Renaissance East Midlands and is now studying for a PhD in the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. Here’s an update from her on how things are going.

What have you been doing so far?

Well, rather terrifyingly, I have been studying for nearly 5 months now. It’s gone so quickly in many ways, but in others, it seems a long time – but I still haven’t done nearly as much as I’d hoped. The three years that were stretching ahead of me in October rapidly seem to be passing – weeks easily turn to months. It seems a long time since I was going to work everyday, commuting to Leicester City Council to the Renaissance office, and it did take me a while to adjust to a different pace of life once I’d finished that in December. I felt guilty for ages about just sitting down to read books and journals: I’d been so used to rushing around all day, answering emails, trying to get through enormous ‘to do’ lists, ensuring all the digital projects were going ok, and travelling quite a bit around the region, in short ‘doing’ work!

Research was always a luxury, something I tried, often in vain, to make time for, but inevitably something else would crop up. I think I’ve just about got used to the fact that reading is what I am now more or less supposed to be doing all day (although I still seem to be very good at procrastinating!) and I have a nice office space at home in Sheffield from which I work and do my research, and I just come to Leicester once or twice a week for seminars and to visit the library, or go to training events etc.

So, what have I done so far? My first task (self-identified) was to read around the topic of sensory experience in museums, a theme I thoroughly enjoyed researching (history, anthropology and museum studies texts mainly), and I wrote an extended essay on the topic for Dr Sandra Dudley, my supervisor (who is an anthropologist who has formerly worked at the wonderful Pitt Rivers Museum). I am currently reading lightly heavier tomes around phenomenology (Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty at the moment) with a view to seeing if/how they apply to sensory and material culture studies in museums, and again will be producing an essay imminently.

Following that, I imagine I’ll be looking into methodologies and case studies (which will definitely incorporate the Mary Greg project at Manchester Art Gallery, but I am also uncovering further places to visit on a weekly basis!) I find it strange that initially, I’d assumed that I had three years to ‘write my thing’ but actually, in the day-to-day scheme of things, it is so much easier to divide it into smaller, manageable chunks – not to even think of the bigger picture just yet. I do still need to go on that time management course though!

In addition to literature reviews, I’ve thrown myself into student life. I have taught several sessions for the MA Museum Studies students, mainly around Learning in Museums, but I also led a feedback session following a trip to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and helped run an object-based ‘Thinktank’ workshop. I have also been marking MA essays (a very interesting process – with some mind-blowingly good essays, others not so). I now find myself organising ‘The Museum Studio’, a fortnightly reading group seminar where a designated person selects a text for us all (PhD students) to review and critique during the two-hour session. I’ll be chairing sessions in the forthcoming Museum Utopias international conference too in March (something I’m a bit nervous about but looking forward to the challenge).

I have also had my first poster accepted for the Festival of Postgraduate Research at the university in May, so I am looking forward to the opportunity to attend the training and development course for the 50 of us who have been selected. Another poster proposal has been submitted for a conference in Nuremberg in July – a bit of a gamble, but fingers crossed… I was lucky to attend the engage conference in November, held at Turner Contemporary in Margate where I met some brilliant people and saw another Object Dialogue Box. And as well as all that, I’ve been enjoying some museum and gallery visiting time too – in particular seeing the Grayson Perry exhibition at the British Museum, Hockney at the Royal Academy, Vermeer at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Kettle’s Yard (where I started my museum career), Temple Newsam near Leeds, and Museums Sheffield. It’s a wonder I’ve had any time to read or write anything!

What are you enjoying most about studying for a PhD?

I suppose for me, the highlight, and the reason why it was so important for me to be in the Museum Studies department in Leicester, is the PhD community, and the other academics and opportunities at the School. When I started in October, there were also 7 others who started, the biggest PhD intake ever – and that’s just the campus-based people. I am the only British person to have started in October, so I am really relishing the range of perspectives and the chance to be part of a really intensive but warm and diverse community.

I am still in awe and disbelief that this is now ‘my job’ and I have a different pace of life – yes, it’s hectic and busy and can be really stressful, but it is up to me to set the goals, to manage my days and to do whatever I need to while still looking for those other opportunities to stay involved with ‘real’ professional practice. I’ve done a couple of freelance things – including at the amazing Spalding Gentlemen’s Society – and am still open to interpretation consultancy work, as well as being the GEM Yorkshire convenor, and sitting on a CPD+ group for the Museums Association, but on the whole, the PhD has taken over, and I am loving it.

* Join Alex and her fellow students at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester on 27 – 28 March 2012 for Museum Utopias, an interdisciplinary postgraduate symposium investigating the imaginary, ideal and possible museum. See

Difficulties incidental to museum demonstrations…

Sir William Turner, MA President 1901

Some reflections from the report of the Museums Association Annual Conference in 1901 give an interesting insight into how  ‘demonstrations’ about museum objects were – or should be in the view of the speaker – conducted, and about attitudes to museum education in general. These were offered by F.W. Rudler, FGS, Curator of the Museum of Practical Geology, on the basis that ‘few who have acted as demonstrators, if they have given serious attention to the wants of their audience, can have felt that their performance has been altogether satisfactory’:

‘In order that  demonstration be successful, it is essential that everyone present should hear what the demonstrator says, and see the objects which he is describing. The speaker should face his party, be in a slightly elevated position, and, while he is referring to a given specimen, all the audience should be able to see the specimen at the same time, so as to follow the words of the demonstrator. But how rarely can these conditions be fulfilled!

‘In the first place it is necessary to secure a large area in which the party can assemble in the immediate neighbourhood…. This is by no means always easy… most museums become, in the course of time, so crowded that the cases are necessarily placed too close together, and the area thus becomes so broken up that only comparatively narrow passages are free. The visitors are, therefore, more or less scattered, and only a favoured few can see and hear…

‘In most Museums, a large proportion of the specimens will be exhibited in upright Wall-cases, and when the demonstrator turns to these objects his back is presented to the audience. This is obviously a disadvantage to his hearers; but let that pass.  He points to a certain shelf, and the few spectators immediately at his side see what he is referring to, and appreciate his description; but the others forming the large outside group, see nothing until the demonstrator and the little circle around him pass to the next case. By the time, however, that the outsiders can obtain a glimpse of the specimens in the first case, the demonstrator has begun to talk about the second… No wonder, then, that they get bewildered, lose interest in the demonstration, and leave without carrying away any educational benefit…

‘Probably the demonstrator himself in many cases hardly realises the difficulty under which he labours. He, if no one else, has seen all that he is talking about, from beginning to end of his discourse. Of his failure to reach the out-skirts of his party, he remains practically ignorant… At the same time, the outside members, sensible of their obligations to the Curator for his trouble, are too polite to murmur dissatisfaction…

Mr Rudler had ‘been induced to bring the subject forward in order to ask the members of this Association if they think the difficulties which have forced themselves upon my attention are real; and, if so, how they are in the habit of dealing with them…’. His own preferred method was to limit the numbers in any group to twelve, and deliver a lecture on selected specimens in a classroom or lecture room. However:

 ’it seems to me far preferable not to disturb the Collections. My suggestion is that the typical objects upon which the demonstration is founded should be photographed from specimens in the Museum, and that lantern slides of these specimens, and not the objects themselves, should be exhibited on the screen during the demonstration. The camera and the lantern ought, in these days, to be adjuncts to every Museum’.  

In the discussion that followed his paper, others ‘admitted that the difficulty dealt with… was a real one’, but opinions as to how to deal with it varied. One delegate ’was disposed to extend Mr. Rudler’s limit of a dozen to 40 or 50′, while another ‘spoke of the great usefulness of the lantern… and said that it had been for some time the practice to use lantern-slides with lime-light, even in the daytime, in Cambridge lecture rooms’. Mr Carr, Curator of the Castle Museum and Art Gallery in Nottingham, ‘gave an amusing account of his experience of Museum demonstrations’ there: he had ‘not yet used the lantern, and was very grateful for the suggestion. He would also advise the use of a short syllabus, to be distributed among those attending the demonstration’.

In the view of another, ‘teaching was best accomplished by lectures etc. outside the Museum, supplemented by walk through the galleries. Demonstrations, in the ordinary sense of the term, seemed scarcely necessary’. But was this part of the job of the Curator at all? Most delegates agreed felt that it was, but one, while admitting ‘the use of occasional demonstrations…’, felt obliged to point out ‘the danger of the Curator degenerating into a guide if demonstrations became frequent’…

It’s notable that the educational function of museums at this time was seen as applying almost exclusively to adults rather than children. In the course of my research, however, I turned up an account of the introduction of classes for children at Salisbury Museum during the First World War, prompted by educational development as a ‘burning topic of the day’ and the opportunities this seemed to offer museums in a post-war world. A topic for another day…