Radical Voices Exhibition at Senate House

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The Radical Voices Exhibition is at Senate House Library until 31st of March.

Senate House Library is the University of London’s centralised library in Bloomsbury. The library has a small exhibition space which they use to display some of the library’s collections, around which public event series are organised. The current exhibition is on the theme of Radical Voices, so I felt almost obliged to go and check it out.

The exhibition is organised according to different ways in which dissenting opinion has been expressed through history, including posters, badges, poems, cartoons, and pamphlets. The items are displayed in glass cases, with labels detailing a bit of information about each form of communication.

One method of communicating dissent featured in the exhibition which was not illustrated with examples from the library’s collections was blogs. Examples of rebellious blogs were displayed using a large touch screen monitor. I liked this technique, as it did not alter the materiality of the blogs. Despite descending from printed pamphlets, blogs are a digital phenomenon, and displaying them in a more traditional format would have detracted from this.

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The Radical Voices exhibition at Senate House Library (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The exhibition is fairly minimal in its labelling of the objects on display; some labels do not even have a date. If I had been paying more attention, I would have noticed that the free exhibition guide contained more information about each item, but I still think I would have preferred to have more basic information on the label.

The Radical Voices exhibition is small, but it provides an insight into the various ways that radical opinions can be expressed, as well as Senate House Library’s collections. If you’re in the area, and have a spare half an hour, I would definitely recommend a visit.

IWM North

On a recent visit to Manchester I visited the northern branch of the Imperial War Museums (IWM) in Trafford. I liked the museum, and enjoyed making comparisons with the IWM site in south London. The IWM North was opened in 2002 as the IWM’s first (and only) branch in the north of England. It receives around 300,000 visitors a year. In comparison, the IWM London is visited almost one million times annually. The museum’s focus is people, and how they have been affected by conflict.

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The Imperial War Museums North was designed to mimic the effects of war. The building is meant to represent a shattered globe (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The IWM North is a striking, modern building, purpose-built and designed by Polish architect Daniel Libeskind, who also designed the Ground Zero site in New York. It is very different from the IWM London, which is housed in the former building of the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark, built in 1815. The London building is flooded with natural light from the roof of the atrium, which stretches the entire height of the building. In contrast, the IWM North building was designed to be disorientating, in order to give the visitor a taste of the effects of war. There are no windows in the entrance hall or main exhibition space. It works; I didn’t like the interior of the building when I first walked in, it felt oppressive and disjointed. However, I thought the main exhibition space on the first floor was well-suited to its purpose, even more so when I discovered it was meant to be disorientating.

The permanent exhibitions are all housed in one space. They are arranged chronologically, from 1914 to the present. Dotted around the space are six ‘silos’, enclosed spaces that focus on specific themes such as ‘Women in War’, and ‘Impressions of War’. Every hour the entire space is taken over by ‘Big Picture’ shows, audiovisual presentations that fill the space with pictures and sounds from the IWM’s archival collections. The shows are immersive, and you have little choice to stop whatever you were doing and watch it. I quite like the idea that everyone in the space is watching, listening to, and thinking about, the same things.

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A Big Picture audiovisual show in the museum’s main exhibition space (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The museum’s use of artefacts feels minimal, with lots of text and open space. This is in sharp contrast to the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) that I had visited the day before. MOSI is housed across five buildings close to central Manchester, several of which are chock full of planes, cars, motorbikes, trains and engines of various kinds. In contrast, IWM North felt almost sparse. I prefer this minimal approach; too many objects can make it difficult to take anything in.

The curatorial decisions in any museum can be controversial, but the representation of conflict and war must be particularly difficult. In some ways I think the IWM North makes better decisions than the IWM London, for example it is more inclusive of conflicts in which the British armed forces were not involved. In other respects, the IWM North makes some decisions that I think could have been improved upon. Like the IWM London, there is very little information on conscientious objectors and peace movements. Most of what there is is located in the ‘Women in War’ silo, implying it is only women who object to war and conflict. Also, the museum has some steel from the World Trade Centre on display. Whilst I do not necessarily think that it shouldn’t be there, I do think there should be some explicit discussion of the relationship between terrorism and war. The ‘War on Terror’ is a very different kind of conflict from the World Wars, the Falklands War, or the Gulf Wars, but the IWM North’s display does not acknowledge this.

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Part of the World Trade Centre on display in the main gallery space (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Over three days in Manchester I visited three museums. The People’s History Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry and the IWM North are all brilliant, and well worth a visit. The IWM North is certainly the most innovative in terms of architecture and display, and although my favourite has to be the People’s History Museum (I am fully prepared to admit bias here), the IWM North has to be one of the most intriguing museums I have ever been to.

Sources and further reading

Museum of Science and Industry. “About Us.” No date, accessed 1 January 2017. Available at http://msimanchester.org.uk/about

Tully, Lucy. “8 Things You Didn’t Know About the IWM North Building.” Imperial War Museum. No date, accessed 1 January 2017. Available at  http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/8-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-iwm-north-building

Wikipedia. “Imperial War Museum.” Last updated 11 December 2016, accessed 1 January 2017. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_War_Museum

Wikipedia. “Imperial War Museum North. Last update 11 December 2016, accessed 1 January 2017. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_War_Museum_North

The People’s History Museum

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The People’s History Museum is housed in an old pump house on the banks of the river Irwell in Manchester (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I have been studying the historical geography of protest for the last four years. For most of that time, I have wanted to visit the People’s History Museum. The problem was that I am normally in the south of England, and the museum is in Manchester. Last week, I visited Manchester and finally got to see the museum, and I was not disappointed!

The People’s History Museum started life as a collection of protest-related material belonging to a group of activists in the 1960s. They opened a museum in London in the 1970s, but it struggled financially. In the 1980s, the collection was rescued by Manchester City Council and Greater Manchester authorities, with some help from the TUC. In 1990, the People’s History Museum opened on Princess Street in Manchester, in the same building where the TUC had its first meeting, over one hundred years before. In 1994, the museum opened a second site at its current location—an old pump house on Bridge Street. In 2010, the museum relaunched in a restored and expanded pump house. Now the museum has several permanent galleries, a temporary gallery space, and meeting and conference rooms. It describes itself as “the national museum of democracy,” and receives around 100,000 visitors a year.

The permanent gallery spaces are arranged in a largely chronological order. The zones are colour coded, each colour chosen for its symbolism in radical culture (e.g. red for courage and revolution, blue for loyalty). The galleries are accessible, interactive, child-friendly, and well-paced. There is a nice balance between individuals, groups, and events, and between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics. I think it is important to highlight the connections between these elements, as it is all too easy to focus solely on one. Whilst the galleries begin with the Peterloo massacre, a local event, the rest of the museum covers the whole country. The museum presents itself as a national museum, and I think it lives up to that.

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The ‘Reformers’ section of Main Gallery 1. Each section is colour coded according to the symbolism of radical culture. Fittingly, green means reform (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

For me, there were two threads running through the galleries that connected everything together. The first was a series of videos about 5 generations of one family. With each family member, the videos and accompanying text explained what life was like for the individual, what rights and services they were entitled to, and whether or not they could vote. They demonstrated how the conflicts and struggles described in the displays affected people in very real ways, from working conditions to healthcare.

The second unifying thread running through the galleries was the banners. The People’s History Museum has one of the largest collection of protest banners in the country, and they are the only group that specialises in the restoration and preservation of these kinds of banners. There are banners on display in every area of the galleries, from the oldest surviving trade union banner, to a banner protesting the 2012 Bedroom Tax. Some are highly detailed, others were obviously made very quickly, but all are striking. They illustrate that whilst there have been many changes over the past two and a half centuries, there are also a lot of continuities in radical culture. Banners have provided a sense of identity and belonging for radical groups for decades.

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Some of the magnificent banners on display in the museum. The are spread throughout the gallery spaces, but banners do have their own devoted section in Main Gallery 2 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The museum has an open approach to curation which I like. The plaques describing items often explain how the items came into the museum’s collection. Many items were donated by activists or their descendants, and there can sometimes be a disconnect between the received history of an event and the stories that are attached to particular items and passed down through generations. All museums have to make decisions about the authenticity of the items in their collections, but most cover up this process. The People’s History Museum does not, asking the visitor to reflect on such issues—would you trust the descendants of a protester over historians? I liked this honesty, and appreciated the way it engaged visitors in the ongoing debate about how best to represent history.

The People’s History Museum is well worth a visit, even if protest is not something that particularly interests you. It is a museum of social history as well as radical history, and as I look back on 2016 it is a much-needed reminder that many of the rights and privileges we take for granted today had to be fought for, tooth and nail, by earlier generations. If we are not willing to fight, just as fiercely, to protect them, we will lose them.

 

Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom

Me outside the Museum of London Docklands, contributing to the #museumselfie Twitter hashtag (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Me outside the Museum of London Docklands, contributing to the #museumselfie Twitter hashtag (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom is a temporary exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands in Canary Wharf, open until Sunday the 1st of November. I went along because not only did Christina Broom photograph the campaign for female suffrage in the early twentieth century, she was also an impressive woman in her own right, as the first female British press photographer. The exhibition is worth checking out if you are interested in photography or social history, as well as the two main topics; Brooms photography of the suffrage movement and the armed forces.

Christina Broom was a small woman, and it must have been difficult to carry her heavy camera and equipment around (Source: Museum of London).

Christina Broom was a small woman, and it must have been difficult to carry her heavy camera and equipment around (Source: Museum of London).

In 1903 at the age of 40, Christina Broom noticed the increasing popularity of postcards, and began photographing local views and events in order to produce her own. Her husband had never fully recovered from an injury acquired during a game of cricket, and she took up photography to provide for her family. For the next four decades Broom hauled her heavy camera and tripod back and forth across London documenting the city and its people. Soldiers and Suffragettes is the first exhibition devoted solely to Broom’s work, and aims to share her story so she can receive some of the appreciation she deserves.

Because of my own interests I was mostly drawn to Broom’s photos of the suffrage movement, but I also found her military photography engaging. Broom was trusted by the soldiers, and she photographed many before they left to take part in the First World War. The photos of soldiers with their families on the platforms at Waterloo Station are particularly moving. The knowledge that this might have been the last time the men ever saw their loved ones is haunting, and the fact that Broom was allowed to capture these significant moments is an indication of how good she was at her job.

Broom photographed soldiers saying goodbye to their friends and family before leaving for the First World War. The pictures are haunting (Source: Museum of London).

Broom photographed soldiers saying goodbye to their friends and family before leaving for the First World War. (Source: Museum of London).

Broom’s pictures of the suffrage campaign are wonderful. She photographed campaigners both famous (including the Pankhursts) and obscure, capturing the sheer number of people involved. It is easy to think that Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst won the vote for women single-handed, but this is far from the case. Broom’s photos depict many of the organisations involved in the campaign, including the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and the Women’s Freedom League, led by the incredible Charlotte Despard.

A photograph of Charlotte Despard taken by Christina Broom (Sources: National Portrait Gallery).

A photograph of Charlotte Despard taken by Christina Broom (Sources: National Portrait Gallery).

The exhibition also highlights the economics of the suffrage campaign. Although a supporter of female suffrage, Broom’s main reason for photographing the movement was financial. Supporters of female suffrage would collect memorabilia, the proceeds of which helped to fund campaigning. The WSPU had their own shops, in which they sold everything from postcards like the ones Broom produced to tea sets designed by Sylvia Pankhurst. The exhibition also includes photos of fairs held by various suffrage groups. One of the purposes of these fairs was to raise money. For example, at the Women’s Exhibition in Knightsbridge in 1909, a replica prison cell was constructed. Visitors were charged 6d to see inside and hear about what life was like for suffragettes in prison. The economics of social movements is something that I think gets frequently overlooked, so it was good to see it so prominent in Soldiers and Suffragettes.

Christina Broom's photograph of a suffragette dressed in a replica prison uniform at the Women's Exhibition in May 1909 (Source: Museum of London).

Christina Broom’s photograph of a suffragette dressed in a replica prison uniform at the Women’s Exhibition in May 1909 (Source: Museum of London).

Soldiers and Suffragettes is an exhibition that appeals on a whole range of levels. I even enjoyed the section about the technology of developing and printing the images- the backlit negatives of Broom’s photos were beautiful, making the Suffragettes look like vibrant ghosts. I would definitely recommend checking it out over the new few weeks before it closes.

Not only was Christina Broom a pioneer, leading the way for other female professional photographers, she was also very talented. Her images are moving and personal, as well as a fantastic record of a dynamic period in London’s history.

Turbulent Chicago: Representations of Protest at the Chicago History Museum

A selfie with an Illinois suffragette in the Facing Freedom exhibition at the Chicago History Museum.

A selfie with an Illinois suffragette in the Facing Freedom exhibition at the Chicago History Museum (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A few weeks ago I went to the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Chicago. Amongst all the geography-ing I had some time to look around the city, and I spent a really enjoyable morning in the Chicago History Museum. Like any other city, Chicago has a history of riots and protest, and some of this history is represented in the museum. There are two main areas in which protest is represented in the museum’s permanent exhibits. The first is Facing Freedom, which explores the concept of freedom and how it has been negotiated, fought for and denied in America’s recent history. The second is Chicago: Crossroads of America, which narrates the city’s history through a series of themed galleries.

The Facing Freedom exhibition has an interactive element where visitors can become part of the exhibit.

The Facing Freedom exhibition has an interactive element where visitors can become part of the exhibit (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A hot worn by Illinois suffragists at a national march in Washington DC in 1913 in the Facing Freedom Exhibition.

A hat worn by Illinois suffragists at a national march in Washington DC in 1913 in the Facing Freedom Exhibition (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The Facing Freedom exhibition examines the relationship between the United States of America and freedom, which has been patchy to say the least. Slavery, Japanese internment camps during WW2 and the treatment of Native Americans are all covered, but of course what interests me most are the protests and social movements.  The exhibition features the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porter’s in the 1920s-30s, the United Farm Workers in the 1960s, the Chicago school boycott in 1963, and the Illinois suffragists movement in the early 1900s. All of these movements and groups were successful to a greater or lesser extent; nothing was featured that didn’t achieve at least some of their goals. In this way these social movements, people who fought and won for freedom, are counter posed with those who had their freedom taken from them, the Japanese-Americans, slaves and Native Americans. The general message of the gallery is that freedom must be fought for and protected, and protest is positioned as a necessary part of that process.

The riots during the 1968 Democratic National convention are portrayed as a negative event, the divisive legacies of which can still be found in Chicago today.

The riots during the 1968 Democratic National convention are portrayed as a negative event, the divisive legacies of which can still be found in Chicago today (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Artifacts displayed in the Chicago and Crisis gallery from the Haymarket Affair. 4 anarchists were hanged and another 4 hanged based on very little evidence after a bomb went off at a protest. (Source; Chicago History Museum).

Artefacts displayed in the Chicago and Crisis gallery from the Haymarket Affair. 4 anarchists were hanged and another 4 imprisoned based on very little evidence after a bomb went off at a protest. (Source: Chicago History Museum).

In contrast, protest is represented in a more negative light in the Chicago: Crossroads of America exhibition. 3 protests are depicted in the Chicago in Crisis gallery: the Haymarket Affair, the 1919 Race Riots, and the Democratic National Convention riots in 1968. Along with the 1871 Great Fire that destroyed huge swathes of the city, the Gangland Era, and the sinking of the passenger ship the SS Eastland in which 844 people died, these protests are represented as turning points in the history of Chicago; negative experiences which the city dealt with with varying degrees of success. In this gallery, protest is not viewed as a positive, or even a necessary evil. The understanding of protest represented here is fundamentally at odds with that of the Facing Freedom exhibition.

In Chicago’s complex urban environment, powerful economic, social and political forces converge and collide, creating tensions that periodically explode into crisis. Chicago’s greatest crises include the Great Fire of 1871, the Haymarket Affair, the 1919 Race Riot, the Gangland Era, and the West Side and Democratic National Convention riots in 1968.

Chicago’s response to each crisis shaped its identity. A triumphant recovery from fire earned Chicago the “I Will” motto, but its failure to heal racial divisions following the 1919 and 1968 riots fostered segregation that plagued the city. Likewise, Chicago’s reputation for gangland violence continues, despite the bootlegger’s demise.

Text from the Chicago in Crisis gallery, Chicago History Museum

These 2 exhibitions demonstrate how protests can be interpreted in different ways. In this age of mass media and instant news, the way that a protest is viewed by people removed from the event itself is crucial. The presence of positive and negative representations of protest within the same museum illustrate the richness involved in thinking about how protests are perceived, and hints at the complexity of museum geographies. Next time you see a protest represented in a museum, trying thinking about some of these issues. And if you’ve ever in Chicago, the Chicago History Museum is well worth a visit (it is also close to Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the oldest zoo’s in America, and free to get in, although a little dreary on a cold April day!)

Sans Dust: Flickr and Instagram as Archives

Rachel Taylor graduated from Royal Holloway’s research-based MA Cultural Geography last year. She is currently working for the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). Her research interests include public engagement with academia, museums, identity politics and how we understand human remains. Here she reflects on online archives, particularly photographic ones, as a research method. The internet is not one of the first things that springs to mind when you think of archives, but it is a valuable resource for academics if we only made use of it. Follow Rachel on Twitter: @mereplacenames


 

A photo of the British Museum available on Flickr (Source: Alex Roach)

A photo of the British Museum available on Flickr. Rachel Taylor used websites such as Flickr and Instagram to analyse visitor behaviour in museums in the research for her Masters dissertation (Source: Alex Loach).

In an age where the most popular ‘camera’ used by Flickr uploaders is the iPhone 4S, it’s time to reconsider photography, contemporary archival methods and move beyond the idea that dust – “the scholar’s choice of dirt” (Lorimer, 2009: 248) and tangibility are the only bedfellows of archival scholarship. Cultural geographers and non-geographers alike are beginning to consider the importance of the online archives that are increasingly playing an important role in our day to day life, and what follows are some brief reflections on the promise and pitfalls of working with these modern archives.

The field of online research is still in its infancy. Having conducted research on the place of Web 2.0 in understanding modern museum behaviour, I’m interested in the many ways in which this infancy provokes questions on the methodological difficulties of working with online archives.

While working with archives has often involved accessing material fiercely guarded by gatekeepers, with a strong emphasis on the physicality of the archive, contemporary visual archives such as Flickr and Instagram offer the chance to conduct research from any location and to gain an immediate appreciation of how the ‘photographers’ that use these sites articulate their social identities and make memories. Rather than delving into little seen and barely touched sources, the empirical data of online archives is generally available to anyone with an internet connection, with “the family photo album, once confined to living rooms…brought into the equivalent of the town square” (Kramer-Duffield and Hank, 2008: 1).

A man studies some paintings in a museum in Denmark in this image from Flickr (Source: Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen).

A man studies some paintings in a museum in Denmark in this image from Flickr (Source: Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen).

Despite online photographic repositories offering innovation in archival methodology, both Flickr and Instagram can be accused of hosting throwaway images, with each Instagram photograph “rapidly replaced by the next” (Champion, 2012: 86). Champion draws upon van Dijk in considering the disposability of Instagram images, suggesting they can be equated “to postcards which were meant to be thrown away” (2012: 87). While online visual archives act as a repository of memory, the very fact that they serve as repositories means permanence and importance are not privileged. In a world where some feel the need to photograph every morsel of food they eat, images are no longer confined to capturing the extraordinary. Rather, the banal, everyday moments of life take centre stage.

On a practical note, this disposable nature of the online world hinders attempts at locating images, often exponentially increasing the labour of data collection and encapsulates the difficulties of carrying out research on the Internet. Instagram’s web platform allows a maximum of twenty images to be viewed at any one time, with no means of viewing large amounts of images at once. Web platform such as spots.io and Websta do provide assistance, but issues with cached data and partial information ensure data collection remains a demanding task.

An image of a woman studying something at a museum on Flickr (Source: Pedro Ribeiro Simões).

An image of a woman studying something at a museum on Flickr (Source: Pedro Ribeiro Simões).

While paper may crumple and ink fade, webpages can be edited, deleted and moved. More traditional forms of archival scholarship are reliant upon gatekeepers’ superior knowledge of their collections to guide the researcher in knowing what to look for. In the online world, images are effectively lost if one does not know what they are looking for, with elements such as hashtags, captions and geotags all serving as digital clues to contextualise the images in the vast visual banks of photographic repositories. The wealth of information contained within these non-visual cues demonstrate that when carrying out archival research with online sources, visuality is only one element of the photographic archives.

Despite these challenges, platforms such as Instagram and Flickr offer the chance to engage with how users visually curate their lives. The act of photographing something denotes it as something ‘worth’ seeing. These images then are “increasingly active objects” (de Rijcke and Beaulieu, 2011: 665). These active objects shouldn’t be viewed as objective records, but rather seek to actively represent the person taking the photograph, “negotiated” with an audience in mind (Goffman, 1959 in Larsen, 2005: 419). Photographic practice acts as a form of memory making and establishing one’s presence, allowing content producers to self-curate their everyday life and activities. In an ever increasingly visual world, online archival work offers the ability to understand and interpret contemporary behaviour – sans dust.

Rachel Taylor.

Image Sources 

Loach, Alex. ‘British Museum,’ Flickr. Last modified 20 January 2013, accessed 16 March 2015. https://www.flickr.com/photos/53825985@N02/8511913573/in/photolist-dYaMmz-6gvd6S-r1WK48-4kJjwN-6Hd3CP-r3AEfA-6fSDBu-rkG8bG-qUtFr6-kaZYtK-qK2xpQ-pXVAJx-nxeVVc-knC3mt-p5AtAA-eddJf-eLhnGA-7Wtfoq-69Z6so-f8iCdQ-pFNHFt-qBu2ug-egQaH1-qpmTvJ-qTpi3G-qmABJD-jfT5Dx-egUieh-rbCsCz-rd9cgz-33uFJg-4hGJCF-5M4nRX-8y3FSm-6Ffpq5-qCPUwu-oWvcZY-rmVgbN-cCcccJ-eKmgWY-9qVj39-dxddWb-bD3stx-e9CS8i-dQNzLD-6DDprL-mko8q-r54Yjy-mBmNr-peMD4r

Rasmussen, Peter Kirkeskov. ‘Art Lover,’ Flickr. Last modified 23 May 2014, accessed 16 March 2015. https://www.flickr.com/photos/peterras/14836699804/in/photolist-oB4XX3-pAbmw9-nJpFiX-5jiP2o-59Ca2w-dYaMmz-6gvd6S-r1WK48-4kJjwN-6Hd3CP-r3AEfA-6fSDBu-rkG8bG-qUtFr6-kaZYtK-qK2xpQ-pXVAJx-nxeVVc-knC3mt-p5AtAA-eddJf-eLhnGA-7Wtfoq-69Z6so-f8iCdQ-pFNHFt-qBu2ug-egQaH1-qpmTvJ-qTpi3G-qmABJD-jfT5Dx-egUieh-rbCsCz-rd9cgz-33uFJg-4hGJCF-5M4nRX-8y3FSm-6Ffpq5-qCPUwu-oWvcZY-rmVgbN-cCcccJ-eKmgWY-9qVj39-dxddWb-bD3stx-e9CS8i-dQNzLD

Simões, Pedro Ribeiro. ‘At the Museum,’ Flickr. Last modified 7 September 2013, accessed 16 March 2015. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pedrosimoes7/9963567134/in/photolist-gbrTof-eQtr7R-eNi91F-kS7xZG-9iRWE4-p9r7xJ-8wEJ4i-qGyxkU-dJe3X1-7HPno-hWikPC-ggEYvo-fjrkti-nuXEBU-bQM6F8-hZLuW3-ggFfBU-7Jxfvm-52VDyu-52RiAx-52RnCn-52VG1J-gx23J3-4M5AMj-8M11qQ-o6zto2-7Lm6fD-hscdSo-gb3Nv4-ek5HQV-pNWxRf-axtYjo-ff867-gRWHM1-5asFL2-hrnKAS-omNwf7-5asxNR-87JwvP-6oFrtA-nSRAPy-nGKKk2-8VG5Th-qAVRw5-oRnx9N-7BmL1Q-6mjAiq-hZxjVh-7LXw1y-oGczzQ/

Disobedient Objects: Mainstreaming the Subversive

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The entrance to the ‘Disobedient Objects’ exhibition at the V&A museum (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last weekend, the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A museum in South Kensington closed. For the past 6 months, when you walked into the front entrance of the museum on Cromwell Road you could turn right and walk into a gallery filled with the objects of protest, from a suffragette branded teacup, through a remote-controlled spray-paint machine, to giant inflatable cobblestones. Safe to say it’s not what you would usually expect to find in “the world’s greatest museum of art and design.”

Since its foundation in 1852, the V&A museum (named after Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert), has housed a collection representing 5,000 years of human history, in the form of art works of all kinds, from all over the world. The purpose of Disobedient Objects was “to examine the powerful role of objects in movements for social change” (V&A, n.d.) using “objects that open histories of making from below.” (Flood and Grindon, 2014; 8).

The 'Disobedient Objects' exhibition.

The ‘Disobedient Objects’ exhibition (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I visited the exhibition several times, and I thought it was fantastic. It had objects of all shapes and sizes from social movements and protests all over the word, and it even had an empty space on the wall for visitors to contribute to as more social movements and contentious issues developed over the course of the exhibition. However I did notice some interesting conflicts between the culture of the museum and the cultures of protest represented by the objects in the exhibition. Protest is ephemeral, messy, and anti-hierarchical, and it was very interesting to observe how the museum, a place of quiet permanence, dealt with these characteristics.

The ceramic 'intervention' at the entrance to the V&A.

The ceramic ‘intervention’ at the entrance to the V&A (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The first example of conflict appeared before you even entered the exhibition. On the walls outside the main entrance to the V&A is a ceramic ‘intervention,’ made by Carrie Reichardt and the Treatment Rooms Collective. It is beautiful, but it was done with the full permission and approval of the museum, and is mounted on metal frames, so it can easily be removed. It demonstrates a common phenomenon that occurs when subversive subcultures are accepted into mainstream culture; they lose some of their edge, their spontaneity, often the things that made them so exciting in the first place.

The seating provided for watching a short film.

The seating provided for watching a short film (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Another example I noticed of the clash between museum and protest culture was during my last visit. It was the final day that the exhibition was open, and it was very busy. A short film was projected onto the back wall of the gallery, and there were a few bench-like things in the ply-wood used for displays so that people could sit and watch it. On this day people were sitting on the backs of the benches, with their feet on the ‘seat’ bit, to watch the film because it was so busy. They were ordered down by a V&A employee, a triumph of the strict rules of museum spaces over the freedom of protest spaces.

A sticker in the exhibition protesting a pay cut for V&A staff.

A sticker in the exhibition protesting a pay cut for V&A staff (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

My final example is less a contradiction, and more just something I thought noteworthy. I have already mentioned the space in the exhibition set aside for visitor-generated materials as the exhibition progressed. On this wall, and dotted around the rest of the exhibit were stickers protesting a 10% pay cut at the V&A. If you celebrate methods and practices of criticism, you have to be prepared to receive some criticism yourself.

Subversive subcultures such as graffiti, skateboarding and protest have all been appropriated by mainstream culture to various extents over the past few decades. I think that Disobedient Objects is a good example of this process, and highlights some of the difficulties involved. The social norms and expectations of museums are very different from those of protest. Disobedient Objects existed on the border between the two, a precarious position that was reflected in the constant negotiations around how the space was used by visitors and controlled by the museum.

Sources

“Disobedient Objects: About the Exhibition.” V&A. No date, accessed February 2nd, 2015. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/disobedient-objects/disobedient-objects-about-the-exhibition/

Flood, Catherine and Gavin Grindon. “Introduction” in Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon (eds.) Disobedient Objects. London: V&A, 2014.

“Victoria and Albert Museum.” Wikipedia. No date, accessed February 2nd, 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria_and_Albert_Museum

‘Archaeology by Twilight’ at the Museum of London Archaeological Archive

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Archaelogy by Twilight at the Museum of London Archaelogical Archive (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last Thursday, I went to the ‘Archaeology by Twilight’ open evening at the Museum of London Archaeological Archive in Hackney. Part of a summer series of tours and events at the archive, the evening included tours, displays of items, spoken word performances and a bar. The archive holds information on almost 8,500 archaeological sites that have been investigated in Greater London over the past century, including many of the items found (http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/collections-research/laarc/). With a huge variety of items, from human remains, medieval hairnets, cars and carriages to board games, horns, and Roman pots, it was a fascinating evening.

My favourite part of the evening was an atmospheric tour around the ceramics and glass archive, with the lights switched off and the chanting of medieval monks playing in the background. Armed with torches, we were let loose amongst the rows of cabinets and shelves, to gaze at pottery that was, in some cases, more than 2,000 years old. Once I got over the sensation that this was exactly how an episode of a murder mystery drama would start, I was struck by the sheer volume of material, each item with a story to tell about London’s past. The further we moved away from the door, towards the back of the room, the further back in time we went, to the Romans and beyond. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was very excited to see so much history in one room!

For me, the evening highlighted the process of museum exhibits. Displays and exhibitions in museums have the air of being complete, an accurate record of the past. This glimpse ‘behind the scenes’ suggested how much work goes into curating an exhibit in a museum. Most of the items in the archive will probably never go on display, what a visitor sees in the galleries of the Museum of London is just a fraction of everything that they hold. One of the most fundamental lessons I have learnt since starting my university education as an undergraduate is to question everything, to take nothing at face value. But I still find myself overlooking things, and welcome being reminded of the complexity and intricacy of seemingly simple things as I was on Thursday evening.

Another element that struck me was the particular materiality of this archive. When imagining archives, most people probably think of documents, records, letters, photos, maps, pieces of paper in various shapes and sizes. And whilst the Archaeological Archive no doubt has this kind of thing too, it also has thousands upon thousands of objects. Listening to the curators on Thursday night it was obvious that huge amounts can be learnt from the collections in the archive. For example, because the volume of material is so large, comparisons can be made between similar objects, leading to more general conclusions about life in London than it would be possible to make from one object. After exploring what the archive has to offer, it’s clear that it does not fit into the stereotypical image of ‘the archive’. Materiality has become a popular topic within geography over recent years, and I can think of at least a few historical geographers who use objects in their research. However I’m sure it is not the sort of research that springs to mind when people think of historical geography (when they think about historical geography at all!). ‘Archaeology by Twilight’ reminded me of the huge variety and potential of archives, which is something I wish that more people knew about!

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The Archaeology by Twilight bar (Photo: Hannah Awcock).