Myths and legends - Museums Association

Myths and legends

Winners of the 2019 Museums Change Lives Awards
Museums Change Lives
John Holt
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Christ cleansing the Temple (cropped), 16th-century stained glass window. Part of the Jews, Money, Myth exhibition at Jewish Museum London © The Victoria & Albert Museum
Museums Change Lives Award | Jewish Museum London for the Jews, Money, Myth exhibition

Looking back at her work on Jews, Money, Myth, Joanne Rosenthal’s recollections are peppered with words such as anguish, controversy and sensitivity. “During its development we were nervous about how the idea might be received and conscious about ensuring we had the subtleties, nuances and balance right,” she says of her experience curating the exhibition, which set out to tackle the legends, conspiracy theories and antisemitic deceits about finance and Jewish history.

“It was such a difficult, though intellectually stimulating, exhibition on so many levels. Whether they are aware of them or not, many people have all sorts of unchecked assumptions and ideas about this topic; we picked up the challenge to see why it provokes so much unease.”

Joanne Rosenthal collects the Museums Change Lives Award at the Museums Association conference in Brighton, October 2019

Reflecting that disquiet, securing funding for the exhibition was a considerable struggle and there were even some heated in-house disagreements about the original title, says Rosenthal, a freelance curator and former head of exhibitions at the Jewish Museum.

“I was all set to call it Loaded as I thought it was tongue in cheek and edgy with a dual meaning that might disarm people, but market research showed many thought it was counter-productive – an in-joke that would be damaging and offensive. “I was taken aback by that but, in retrospect, it taught me a lesson about missing things when you’re too close to a topic,” she adds.

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“People could quite easily have looked at a poster saying Loaded: Jews and Money and taken it the wrong way. It was too knowing for its own good.”

That chain of events did, however, inspire an innovative approach to the exhibition’s labels. Many of them revealed the discussions and differences among the museum team as the objects were displayed and interpreted. Artefacts ranged from Rembrandt’s Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver to contemporary cartoons and from everyday ephemera to costumes and films.

To ensure intellectual integrity and balance throughout the project, the museum worked closely with the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London, says Rosenthal.

“The academic expertise was enormously helpful as we conceptualised the exhibition and developed the narratives. At the start, for example, I wondered if I needed to read up on capitalist theory, but the Pears Institute was an intellectual sounding board and gave me a sense of where our attention should be properly focused.”

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What few people could have envisaged, of course, was how an already volatile political climate at home and abroad was going to change from when the show opened last March, and how it would continue to do so during its extended run.

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“The show opened just a few months after the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, ugly discourse in Europe and the US, conspiracy theories about people like the investment banker and philanthropist George Soros,” Rosenthal says.

“I’m always keen to be measured about the threat of racism and violent rhetoric, but the ground was shifting in an alarming way. For me, this exhibition was an important intervention. I’d certainly never worked on one before where curatorial staff were having to respond to what was happening in the news almost every day.

“But if people can’t think in neutral spaces like museums about how terrible ideas flourish, we’re lacking as a society.”

Judges’ Award for Environmental Sustainability | Leeds Museums and Galleries for the Beavers to Weavers exhibition

Some curatorial blue-sky thinking about what collections might look like 100 years from now led to an exhibition that detailed the impact that animal behaviour has on the natural world, and what we might learn from it.

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“I started thinking about how much of our collections today are the dead bodies of animals rather than the products of their labours – the objects and sounds that enrich our lives,” says Rebecca Machin, the curator of natural science at Leeds Museums and Galleries.

“As well as highlighting the amazing things they make and do, I wanted an exhibition to show the ways that animals use resources, often very skilfully, and how their existence is threatened by our own wasteful behaviour.”

The team at Leeds City Museum collect their MCL award

The resulting Beavers to Weavers exhibition was split into sections that explored the weird and wonderful world of animal grand designs from domestic set-ups (featuring nests made by birds and wasps) and life developments (cocoons, a fungal garden grown by leaf-cutter ants) to survival tactics (caddis fly larval cases and the shells of xenophora sea snails; birds’ courtship rituals and mating calls).

And as a tribute to the waste not, want not agenda set by the animal kingdom, sustainability was written into every aspect of the exhibition. Recyclable cardboard was gathered for the graphics, scrap paper from across Leeds Museums and Galleries was used for documentation and all decorative paint and gallery materials were sourced from local social enterprises set up to repurpose the things society deems disposable.

“We printed some of the labels on an original Albion printing press, part of the collections at Leeds Industrial Museum, using printing blocks otherwise lying redundant in our object stores,” says Machin, who was keen to use the show to develop relationships with community groups, thereby building more sustainable audiences. “In collaboration with them, we built several installations including a termite mound model. It was created using recycled paper and old exhibition panels, and was a lovely example of individuals cooperating to build something beautiful together.”

The exhibition, which ran last year, is now used as a pilot for ensuring all shows and displays across the group are produced in a more sustainable way, says Yvonne Hardman, the head of collections and programmes at Leeds Museums and Galleries.

“We run nine museums and galleries around Leeds and we want to ensure we are implementing sustainable practice across each of them as well as looking for ways to share environmental messaging with audiences,” she says.

To that end, Leeds City Museum is working with the University of Leeds on a programme that informs café customers about the carbon footprint of each menu item, a scheme designed to find out if reading such data can change consumer habits.

Similarly, Leeds Industrial Museum has partnered with the environmental charity Hyde Park Source to run the Colour Garden, a volunteer-led project that supports wellbeing and positive mental health by growing heritage plants used in the dyeing process.

“After an extensive conservation programme, we recently suspended a longfinned pilot whale skeleton from the ceiling outside the Life on Earth gallery in Leeds City Museum,” Hardman says. “The interpretation talks about the species and the violent fate this whale met – killed in 1867 by fishermen at the Firth of Forth – and, more broadly, the whaling industry. This year, we plan to update other interpretation in the gallery to bring environmental messaging more strongly to the fore.”

Radical Changemaker Award | Victoria Rogers, Museum of Cardiff

Victoria Rogers knew from an early age that the past was going to play a signifi cant role in her future, and that partnerships were going to be integral to her work.

“When my parents took me shopping for school shoes as a young girl in Cardiff, it was a trade-off that we would spend some time in the national museum in the afternoon as I was never a great shopper,” she says.

Encouraged by her mum to pursue a career in the heritage sector, Rogers is now the manager of the Museum of Cardiff, where a commitment to local communities has informed everything it has done since opening in 2011. Rogers’ efforts have ensured the museum is dementia-friendly and it is visited by an impressively diverse audience. It is also not afraid to confront challenging aspects of the city’s past.

Victoria Rogers won the MCL Radical Changemaker award

“Starting from scratch afforded us the luxury of inviting local people to be completely involved in creating the museum they wanted,” Rogers says. “They donated objects, told us stories, decided how collections would be displayed, what themes should be explored, what events they’d like to attend, what colour the logo should be and what size typeface should be used on the panels. All this and more was decided by Cardiff’s public long before co-creation became a mainstream term.”

Rogers describes her award as something of a triumph over adversity. “We have faced significant challenges over the past three or four years,” she says. “Our phase two development was put on hold indefinitely, we endured a budget cut of more than 50% and then decided to lease parts of the building to other organisations, which effectively meant we lost 40% of our display space.

“All that is forcing us to be more creative in the ways we use the museum as a space for reflection and debate.” A recent exhibition, for example, engaged local black and minority ethnic groups to produce artwork, poetry and photography to mark the centenary of the Cardiff race riots, an uncomfortable event in the city’s history.

“It was a way of exploring what happened through the eyes of the communities involved and use that as a basis to think about the current situation in Cardiff,” says Rogers. “It was also another way to show you don’t have to be a big museum to be relevant to the people you serve and help to improve their lives.”

Best Small Museum Award | Kirkleatham Museum, Redcar and Cleveland, for Steel Stories

Kirkleatham Museum is housed in an 18th-century school building, one of many Georgian delights on an estate built by the wool merchant, philanthropist and former lord mayor of London, William Turner.

Much of the collection relates to the history of the area, which originally comprised Turner’s manor house, the charitable hospital he founded and the homes he built for the less fortunate. The museum’s current exhibition tells a very different local story, however.

Steel Stories (until April) comprises the memories and memorabilia of the generations of (mostly) men who worked at the former Teesside Steelworks site, which stands derelict a mile away. The closure of the site by its Thai owners was the spark for the exhibition, says the project offi cer Leo Croft.

“Feelings were raw, but we thought it was the right time to focus on what was good about the iron and steel industry here,” says Croft, who appealed to steelworkers and their families to share their experiences.

“One of the most Memorable contributors was 97-year-old Nancy Lewis, who brought in her ceremonial blast furnace lighting rod. It was made to celebrate her role as the first woman in England to do that job and has her initials on it.”

Another impressive donation came from a local company, Primetals, which was an offshoot of the firm that designed the original Redcar blast furnace back in 1979.

The team from Kirkleatham Museum with their MCL Best Small Museum award

“Primetals now designs furnaces around the world that are still based on that original Redcar template and made a 3D-printed model of it for us,” Croft says. “It was a massive moment when it arrived as I could see the community engagement theme working well, and it was free of charge.”

Visitors are in for a noisy experience from the clocking-in machine at the door to the laboratory area and a full-scale mock up of a steelworkers’ locker room replete with personal objects.

“There’s no doubt the region took a hit when the steelworks closed and that’s exacerbated by the decline of seaside towns,” Croft says. “But the exhibition also provides an opportunity to explore what local authorities are planning, such as turning remaining buildings into heritage assets.

“Life can be hard here. I come from the area – some family members worked in the industry – and even trying to find full-time work in heritage was diffi cult,” Croft adds. “But people are trying to make things better; we are on the up and that’s an important message.”

John Holt is a freelance writer

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