Tag Archives: Museum

Our Writing on your things

Diana Young, University of Queensland Art Museum

The University of Queensland Director Diana Young writes…

Since 2009 the Anthropology Museum has again had a rolling exhibition program both to enable more of its significant 26,000 item collection to be seen, to present academic research in ways that engages with a wide audience whilst challenging and expanding ideas about what an ‘anthropological’ collection can be in the 21st century.


Eshewing long text panels the installation of all exhibtions must in some way convey ideas and context. In Gapuwiyak Calling the curators wanted a rainforest in which to hang the tiny projections of films made on mobile phones and the Museum team worked to make that forest from plinths together with the paper, mini projectors and repro retro phone handsets sourced by Miyarrka Media.


My aim also has been to include collection things in each exhibition and initially Gapuwiyak Calling seemed to be a show composed entirely of intangible media. But a sculpture of a spirit figure arrived with Miyarrka media  and was armed with spear, spear thrower and yidaki from the collection. He resides in the gallery video projection of the forest in where he dwells.

In this double bill in one gallery space written on the body, curated by Waanyi artist Judy Watson and Diana Young, is an exhibition that is seemingly the inverse of Gapuwiyak Calling – crammed full of stuff. Both these exhibitions question received ideas about Museum processes by making them more visible to the visitor through different Indigenous interventions.


In written on the body playfulness and visual poetry is evident in the tableau of written on museum collection things that have been arranged with used kitchenware, mirrors and anthropometric measuring devices. These have been deployed both to reassure through their worn ordinariness  and to emphasise the violence in the gesture of writing on someone else’s property.

As Watson writes in her catalogue essay;

‘To the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descendants of the places from which these museum – held objects came, the act of writing onto the objects can be seen as an act of vandalism, a sacrilege, an infliction of control by another, dominating culture.’

This sentiment is played out in the film Watson made in the Anthropology Museum collection store in which descendants of the people to whom the things once belonged touch and talk to them. In Watson’s words these  ‘… are an extension of their family’s embrace, carrying messages from home’. The used kitchenware conveys similar sentiment.

Jennifer Deger, anthropologist and co-curator of Gapuwiyak Calling describes the exhibition as “…an experiment in activating a Yolngu poetics of connection in an anthropology museum; a project that, if it were to succeed, needed to do more than simply catalogue and classify Yolngu new media as contemporary cultural artefacts. Throughout the design, the media selection, the arrangement and production of wall and touchscreen texts, the challenge has been to find ways to present this phone-media in a suitably performative way, in keeping with the subject matter as well as Yolngu social and aesthetic values. For us, the art of curation lay in finding ways to re-mediate the photographs and films so as to give them new life and meaning appropriate to the broader, and yet still site specific, intercultural context of the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum”.

The performativity of Gapuwiyak Calling contrasts with the meditative stillness of written on the body.  But in this exhibition too is an intention by the curators to activate things through a richochet of relationships that destabilises the layers of information and misinformation on the museum labels ( mostly dating from the early period of the collecting of 1940s to 1960) and provide a rich visual experience for visitors.

The exhibition catalogue can be download here


Call for photos of intriguing museum display structures

Jes Fernie, Independent Curator, History Rising Project,

We’d like you to send us your photos of museum display structures from across the world.  These could be from your local museum, trips abroad or from your academic research.

We are interested in vitrines, plinths, shelves and general display mechanisms, rather than museum collections.  They could tell a pathetic story of desperation (the spider plant in a regional museum used to disguise ill-maintained vitrines); a humorous dictat (a carefully positioned sign on a piano which says ‘Do not put anything on this piano’); or simply a display structure that shows off a collection in an intelligent and beguiling way.

The initiative is part of the History Rising programme by artist Marjolijn Dijkman and curator Jes Fernie.  

Please send jpegs with museum details to: jes@jesfernie.com

History Rising is a subversive and engaging study of museum display in Wisbech, East Anglia. Viewers and participants are invited to reconsider their view of history by looking at the mechanisms museums put in place to create a sense of order and hierarchy within their collections. 

By distancing museum objects from their support structures History Rising forms a critique of the assumptions that are made about how things are positioned, who chooses to display them, and how the social, political and aesthetic choices that are made in the process dictate the language of display.

New work by Marjolijn Dijkman is installed in two public museums (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery and Wisbech & Fenland Museum) and an artist run space (OUTPOST). Dijkman’s sculptures propose strange and fantastical juxtapositions, alleviate objects from the weight of history and create links with modernism, the heritage industry and the aesthetics of sci-fi.


On the Enclosure of Time

Marjolijn Dijkman, Wisbech & Fenland Museum, 1 Nov 2013 – 2 Feb 2014

International Dutch artist Marjolijn Dijkman has made a significant body of new work for one of Britain’s oldest museums, the Wisbech & Fenland Museum in East Anglia. When she first visited the Wisbech & Fenland Museum in 2011 Dijkman was immediately taken with the display structures: the wooden and glass vitrines that have remained unmoved for 166 years; the labeling system and the various shelves used to support museum objects.  Each of these elements contain within them their own systems of hierarchy, hinting at what is deemed to be important and what is not.

‘The Present is Now Appearing’, 7 layers of 6mm glass, afzelia wood

During a two year research period, Dijkman visited a large number of public and private museums in East Anglia – from the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker in Brentwood to the Gordon Boswell Romany Museum in Spalding – looking at the way objects are displayed, which stories are prioritised and who chooses to tell them.

As the visitor moves from the main museum space in the Wisbech & Fenland Museum into the Hudson Room, the change in atmosphere is immediately apparent.  From the relatively dark surroundings of the museum space, with its packed vitrines and eclectic ethnographic and natural history collections, you are greeted with a light and airy space with no labels and a selection of strange sculptural objects. The carpet from the museum area has been extended into the Hudson Room; a devise instigated by the artist to create a sense of continuity between museum space and the neutral white cube environment beyond.

The chain at the top of the steps of the Hudson Room (called Please Don’t Touch) is taken from the design of the chain that binds the hands of the slave in the Thomas Clarkson display in the main museum space.  This chain alludes to the type of barriers often found in museums to demarcate space and time, and discourage visitors from touching exhibits. The chain here is broken and although it is called ‘Please Don’t Touch’, it is manifestly not doing its job; we can walk past it with little chance of being challenged by a museum guard.

Each sculpture in On the Enclosure of Time references a museum display structure.  The objects have gone missing. Has the artist forgotten to install the collection? In What we know of them (Shelves of the World), museum shelving systems have been positioned on the wall in a way that is reminiscent of fungal growth seeping out of a tree trunk. These reference the shelves in the Wisbech & Fenland Museum which display the Waterhouse Hawkins models of extinct dinosaurs.


The little red wooden wedges positioned on the floor are a play on a commonly used museum display system which stops wheels turning in agricultural or transport exhibits, known as ‘chocks’.  There is a suggestion here that we consider the controlling mechanisms of museums: wheels become trapped in time, unable to create a vital relationship with the present, forever repeating the past.

Furniture in museums is often displayed in such a way that deters visitors from sitting on chairs and sofas. The pink, green and yellow sculptures in the exhibition entitled Treasure, Trade and the Exotic allude to the diagonally placed pieces of string that are often attached to museum furniture to deter use.  Here they are transformed into sculptural objects with vibrant colour codes. One of these works is placed underneath a vitrine in the same way that many items in the main museum space are placed underneath display structures. Space is often at a premium in museums as time forms layers of accreted objects, signage and display paraphernalia.


The titles of individual works in the exhibition are taken from museum labels, many of which have a very particular form of didactic expression verging on the surreal.  About 40 Million and 195 – 140 Million are both impossible to imagine and strangely specific; The Beginning and the End is bombastic with ominous overtones; The Present is Now Appearing sounds like a metaphysical tract. The title of the exhibition On the Enclosure of Time references the ambition of many museums to encapsulate time in an effort to present an overarching worldview that is fixed and definite.  Dijkman’s sculptures ask us to look again, to re-consider the parameters of our knowledge base and how it is presented to us.

Marjolijn Dijkman is an artist who lives and works in Brussels and Rotterdam.  Her work has been shown in galleries and public spaces across the world, including The Hague, Rotterdam, Barcelona, Tongin-si (Korea), Marrakech, Sharjah (United Arab Emirates), Tblisi (Georgia) and Berkely (USA).

Encounters: Photograph albums and their stories

Ulrike Bessel, Curatorial Assistant, Royal Engineers Museum, Library and Archive

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A new photography exhibition, open from 22nd October 2013 – 30th May 2014 at the Royal Engineers Museum, Library and Archive in Gillingham, Kent, will show a different side of the Museum’s collection. Supported using public funding by Arts Council England, the exhibition ‘Encounters: Photograph albums and their stories’ presents unseen photographs and albums, dating back to the 1850s, which have been chosen from a collection of over 600 photograph albums at the Royal Engineers Museum.

The exhibition explores the narratives that are told through photograph albums and scrapbooks. These hold an intriguing mixture of private photography and commercial prints and postcards. Until the end of the nineteenth century, photography was an expensive and complex process, so that the purchase of photographs was common practice. It is fascinating to see how the album compiler would personalise these prints by adding captions, further information and notes on experiences of their own travels.

The exhibition will further draw attention to the photographs themselves. Photography is seldom a clear reflection of reality as photographs are framed and their subjects arranged. A showcase will discuss the presentation of people – the way they portray themselves and the manners in which they are depicted by others. This is a particularly intriguing topic with regards to depictions of encountered cultures and natives. The aspect of colonial relations is central to the photography collection, which largely exists due to the expansion of the British Empire. Explorers, travellers and Royal Engineers were active all over the globe and used photography as a key documenting tool. The exhibition will look at the Royal Engineers and their uses of, and advances in, photography. The Royal Engineer Sir William de Wiveleslie Abney, for instance, helped to develop ‘instantaneous’ photography in the 1870s through a rapid gelatin emulsion process.

CFP: Travel and Museums: Rethinking the Modern Experience

17th Berlin Roundtables on Transnationality
26 – 29 June 2013, Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB)


Submission deadline is February 28, 2013.

The formation of the modern world was accompanied by a fundamental reshaping of culture itself: its agents, values, and symbols, its everyday practice and high culture rituals. Travel and museums present two key phenomena that capture the nature and extent of these transformations unlike any others. Born out of the economic, political and social upheaval of the 19th century, tourism and exhibitions gradually became part and parcel of modern life for growing strata of society. Yet, how have these practices altered in our post-industrial age with its globalized patterns of consumption and altered regimes of mobility? Who travels today and why? What defines the museum experience and wherein lies its purpose? The 17th Roundtables on Transnationality will explore these and other related questions in two international and interdisciplinary workshops.

For further details please see the background paper.

Conference Format

Based on an international essay competition, approximately 30 applicants will be invited to discuss their research, concerns and agendas with peers and prominent scholars in Berlin. The Irmgard Coninx Foundation will cover travel to and accommodation in Berlin.

Continue reading

The Future of Ethnographic Museums

Pitt Rivers Museum & Keble College

University of Oxford, United Kingdom

19th – 21st July 2013

 Ethnographic museums have a long and distinguished history but they have also been the subject of criticism and complaint. During the second half of the twentieth century they therefore underwent something of an identity crisis. More recently however, many of these institutions have been remodeled or rethought and visitor numbers have only increased. This conference seeks to analyze these shifts and to ask what the remit of an ethnographic museum should be in the twenty first century. Keynote lecturer: Prof. James Clifford. Other distinguished speakers include: Ruth Phillips, Sharon Macdonald, Wayne Modest, Corinne Kratz, Kavita Singh, Annie Coombes and Nicholas Thomas. Join us for lectures, debate and a series of art and music events in the unique environment of the Pitt Rivers Museum. For more information visit here:

Contact: conference@prm.ox.ac.uk

2013 Conference: Brave New Worlds – Transforming Museum Ethnography through Technolog

Deadline for Submissions: 7 December 2012

We invite papers from curators, conservators, artists, makers, anthropologists, art and design historians, digital media practitioners, researchers and others that explore the impact of technology upon the development and interpretation of museum ethnography, historically and today.

See further details at: www.museumethnographersgroup.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=29&Itemid=41

Emotion: Mapping Museum Experience

eMotion, a project at the Institute for Research in Art and Design, University of Applied Science Northwestern Switzerland researches the museum-going experience experimentally. 

eMotion analyses the experience of the museum-goer experimentally. The core of our interest is the museum architecture, the art objects, curatorial installation and how they effect and affect the behaviour of the visitors.

Gaining access to this complex realm of visitor reception in the museum required both innovative developments in research methods and technical apparatus. Architectural, visual and audio processes of data collection / presentation have been developed in parallel with field research methods in psychology and sociology, in a wholly complimentary fashion. Methods of visitor tracking, biometric measurements, empirical social science, data-sonification as well as the experiment itself as an intervention and installation.

Visitors who wanted to take part in the project, did receive a dataglove at the exhibition entrance that included several signalling and measurement sensors. The dataglove, allowed for the precise measurement of the path of each individual through the museum, their speed, their time spent in front of a picture/object. We also measured the heart rate and the skin conductance and their variablities. The immense amount of quantitative data generated was then validated by qualitative questionnaires, enabling the team to interpret the complex material adequately and thoroughly.

This has been taken from the site:


Ghosts, Giants and fairies: Classic Faked Photographs a slide show

Does the camera ever lie? A new exhibition shows that photography has been doing exactly that since its inception. From fairies at the bottom of the garden to ghostly visitors, here is a slide show of the best manipulated images (from the BBC Website).

• Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 11 October

Ghost photo: ghost photo 2 from the Met exhibition


Aesthetics of display in a museum context

Gabriela Nicolescu, Phd candidate
Department of Anthropology
Goldsmiths, University of London
Figure 1: The statue of Marx, Engels and Lenin in the back yard of the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant (NMRP) @ Marius Caraman/ 1991, Image Archive of the NMRP.

This image comes from the Image Archive of a museum. It was taken in 1991, two years after the fall of the Ceausescu’s regime in Romania. Even so, one can wonder what a statue of three famous communist ideologists has to do, even in the backyard, with an institution which mainly exhibits ethnographic objects. Another subject of reflection, that the image provokes, is the ambiguous situation in which the statue finds itself: near the garbage bins, but still covered with a roof as if protected.

In this text I will briefly discuss two themes that emerged during my fieldwork research in the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant (NMRP) in Bucharest, Romania. First theme is concerned with the changing nature of the display in the history of a museum. How are different visual representations of the same objects used by radically different ideologies to re-assemble particular social ideas about the peasant in Romania? The second theme is concerned with quite different questions: what do neglect, iconoclasm and vandalism mean in a museum context and how do diverse ways of destruction actually lead to the construction of new displays?

An entire panel that I co-organise (with Raluca Musat) at this year’s European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) conference (W110: Confident museums of uncertain pasts, www.nomadit.co.uk/easa/easa2012/panels.php5?PanelID=1184) on 11th of July 2012 will discuss the way museums use and make visible the controversies and uncertainties of their past and that of the societies to which they belong.


The Museum of National Art, Ethnology, Decorative and Industrial Art was born in 1906 under the guidance of an art historian, Al. Tzigara-Samurcas.  The institution attempted to promote ‘peasant art’ as the basis of the unity of the newly formed Romanian nation state.

Figure 2: Image from the inter-war institution: The Museum of National Art, Image Archive of the MRP

After the Second World War, the museum was completely changed by the new regime. The initial collections were split among other institutions; the employees were re-trained in line with the exigencies of Stalinist Cultural Revolution and historical materialism, and the displays of ethnographic objects were fundamentally altered. An important thing to be mentioned is that the museum’s building was occupied by different other museums dealing with communist[1] propaganda.

In the following image, one can see what an ethnographic display of costumes meant in the 1950s: items from all the ethnographic regions of the country were stitched in a series, one after another, on the boards, inside glass cases. Labels, as well as maps would sustain the theme of the exhibition: the representation of the costumes from all the ethnographic regions of the country. Images at the top of the costumes and maps, would present factories and collectivised lands, but not collectivised peasants.

Figure 3: The Bi-annual folk art exhibition in 1955, Image Archive of the NMRP

From the 1950s, Muzeul de Artă Populară (a name that can only be roughly translated as the Museum of Folk Art) received the collections of ethnographic objects from the previous institution. In just two decades the collections were tripled, by making new acquisitions from regions across the whole country, adding to them artisan objects and objects donated by other museum institutions all over the world. The collection process was so extensive that in 1971 the museum ended up by literally being transformed in a store and closed to visitors. What mattered were the numerous temporary exhibitions organised in the country (in factories, schools, and community halls) and abroad.

After the earthquake in 1977, when the building of the institution was damaged, the Museum of Folk Art closed its gates and its collections entered the deposits of another museum that displayed rural life, the outdoor Village Museum.

In 1990s, after the fall of communism in Romania, a new team of curators mainly lead by the contemporary artist Horia Bernea started to re-construct the display, by neglecting the institution’s communist history and aesthetics and reinforcing the glorious past of the inter-war period. The reunited collections of the two previous museums were replaced in the original building under the new title of the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. However, this museum claimed its ideological and physical precursor was in many ways the original Museum of National Art, even if ironically much of its present power of attraction came from the way it integrated through opposition its communist predecessors.

In order to obliterate the communist past, the new museum team literally dismantled piece by piece the previous display of the Museum of the Party (officially opened in 1966), asked priest to ‘purify’ the space with holy water and prayers.  Objects, boards, slogans, glass cases were taken away, transported to other institutions or made to pieces or thrown away.

However, fragments of this ‘deleted’ past remained in the stores of the museum and few years after the fall of Ceausescu regime, re-gained power. For example, in the back yard of the museum, a statue that initially was meant to be thrown away, was covered with wooden boards and kept in an indecisive state: to be thrown or treasured.  In 2006 attempts to include the statue in an exhibition that the museum organised in the Museum of Young Art in Vienna were made. For a moment, the statue returned to the front stage of the museum and became an object that could have represented the institution abroad. (In the end, it didn’t: it was too heavy to be transported by car to Vienna!)

Some other objects have been collected and displayed in other exhibitions and projects about communism.  Now the NMRP is the only institution in Bucharest to have a permanent display about the recent socialist past, as well as many other objects related to this in its stores.

Figure 4: ‘Lenin facing Lenin.’ Personal image from the exhibition: The Plague. Political Installation. The Museum of the Romanian Peasant, 2011

Figure 4 is an image taken in the only permanent exhibition room to exhibit something to do with the communist regime in Bucharest, Romania, 22 years after Ceausescu regime fell. The room called: The Plague: Political Installation is placed in the under-ground of the museum. For those of you, who want to see what the museum looks like, but also to relate more the relation between the present aesthetics of display and the use of history in this institution, you can take a virtual tour of the museum in English. www.tur.muzeultaranuluiroman.ro/index_en.html

This text presented the history of a museum institution and its various ways of displaying objects in its collections. The nature of the museum’s collection is changed over time: national art became folk art during communism. Today, even if the NMRP should exhibit only objects related with peasants, it combines ethnographic objects with fragments of a deleted communist past. I showed how different institutions and their trajectories of collection and exhibition making impacted on the present display in the NMRP. My PhD thesis at Goldsmiths College, Department of Anthropology as well as the EASA panel W110: Confident museums of uncertain pasts will develop more on the above mentioned themes.



[1] In this text and in my PhD thesis I use the term ‘communist/ Communism’ when I discuss the realities of the People’s Republic of Romania (1947-1965) and The Socialist Republic of Romania (1965-1989). By making use of the term ‘communism’ people in Romania denominate the recent past and the socialist regime. One reason for this appellation is that the name of the only party in power during this regime remained unchanged: the Romanian Communist Party.