Letters - Museums Association


Are museums ready for the new web wave? James Morrisons’ thoughtful but ultimately unsatisfying piece about online cultural projects (Museums …
Museums Association
Are museums ready for the new web wave?

James Morrisons' thoughtful but ultimately unsatisfying piece about online cultural projects (Museums Journal September 2006, p24) raises more questions than it answers.

Morrison questions the relevance and value for public money of much of what has been done over the past ten years, but does not suggest ways forward for the sector. Nor does his analysis pick out new challenges to the sector posed, for example, by the new wave of the web - Web 2.0.

More and more web users worldwide are lurking in search-engine land and people in the UK now spend more time online than watching TV, according to Google. Sites like GoogleBase, MySpace, YouTube and the stupendous Windows Live Local should be alerting cultural thinkers, curators, digital policymakers and publishers to the new possibilities of the digital world.

The conundrum is: how do you get your stuff into the world of MySpace and Google when there isn't yet a strategically planned, sustainably-funded digital cultural infrastructure to allow wholesale public access to collections and exhibition info in the first place?

The 24 Hour Museum is the only fundamentally simple, sustainable and successful network of museum and gallery event listings, accessible content and venue info aimed at the public in the UK. We're going to beat our 2006 target of 10 million visitor sessions for the year and we're now (with MLA, DfES and DCMS support) working on a redesign to meet the challenge of Web 2.0. I think our success proves that the funding agencies are getting to grips with the challenges of the new wave web.

Jon Pratty, editor, 24 Hour Museum

James Morrison cites political attitudes and £50m grant aid as the motivation that encouraged museums to start object websites. However, there were simpler pressures - such as the recognition of an opportunity to fulfil the curatorial role of making collection data accessible - behind the setting up of Hampshire County Council Museums Service website of 80,0000 objects in 1996.

There was no grant aid or even internal project funding to make it work. I had the whole-hearted backing of the director of the service; the enthusiastic advice of the IT department; and two weeks to get the web pages loaded.

We did not select our 100 best objects - this is the worst sort of cultural elitism. We did not use design teams or focus groups, or have endless committee meetings. We did have 80,000 object records in an effective database system (Modes) with excellent terminology control (Object Format Rules), which enables sensible output.

The site has had a wonderful response from all over the world. It does not take grant aid or political pressure to produce a website. It does need a curatorial ethic that recognises object documentation as an essential element of everyday museum work.

Martin Norgate, Kendal

A disability programme is needed for jobs

Access for people with disabilities is currently a big issue, but what about support for disabled people who want to become museum employees?

As a deaf person with relevant qualifications and being perfectly positioned to apply for entry-level work, I have been finding it very difficult to find employment. I am currently a volunteer curatorial assistant for a major South West museum, and am told I have a real talent and aptitude for the work, but am beginning to feel that my disability is holding me back. Recently, a perfect job came up, on my doorstep, no less, for which I was more than amply able, and I didn't even get an acknowledgement of my application, despite the presence of a 'Positive about Disabled People' logo on the ads.

Initiatives such as Diversify are absolutely wonderful, but why are there no equivalents to help that other significant minority? Nearly a fifth of the UK population lives with a disability.

I don't intend to give up just yet but it would be nice, just for once, to know that museums see disabled people as valuable potential employees, and not just as mere visitors to add to through-the-door numbers.

Daniel Milford-Cottam, volunteer

Franklin's house is a new approach

In a recent edition of Museums Journal (Museums Journal March 2006, p42), Rachel Souhami critiqued the newly opened Benjamin Franklin House in London. She comments, 'this is not a typical guided tour'. Indeed it is not.

In contrast to a large number of attractions that present artefacts behind glass with interpretation through information paddles or wall-mounted panels, Benjamin Franklin House attempts to remove the traditional distance between visitor and history and bring a pivotal moment of the Age of Enlightenment to life.

In formulating our plans, we were motivated by Franklin who dedicated his life to breaking new ground - whether in inventing lightning rods, a musical instrument, or in fostering seeds of a 'special relationship' between Britain and America. The 'museum as theatre' historical experience takes visitors on a journey through three prime floors where so much took place, blending live interpretation, leading-edge lighting, sound and visual projection to tell the rich story of Franklin in London.

It is a new concept that won't please traditionalists expecting roped-off furnished rooms. At Benjamin Franklin House, visitors are on stage in the 18th-century spaces. Walls with no straight angles, paneling that shows the warp of time and a staircase carved with Georgian care all speak of the past.

In awarding the historical experience four stars, Time Out magazine noted 'it's a short, intense experience… You'll come away with a strong sense of the man and the times in which he lived'. We encourage readers to come to Benjamin Franklin House and form their own judgements on a new approach to heritage.

Márcia Balisciano, director, Benjamin Franklin House, London

Taste test for Tudor kitchen

Historic Royal Palaces would like to thank you for the review of our re-presented Tudor Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace (Museums Journal August 2006, p46).

I feel that it might help your readers if we were to answer a few of the questions that the review raised.

In working to create a more multi-sensory experience appropriate for this part of the palace, we are acutely aware that 'taste' is the one sense still notable by its absence. The main reason for not letting people eat all the wonderfully researched and accurately prepared food is that the utensils used to prepare it don't meet modern health and safety requirements. Indeed, by letting the public walk through the preparation area, and by not compromising on the authenticity, we unfortunately deny everyone the chance of tasting the results.

This is an unsatisfactory state of affairs, which we are determined to resolve.

I should also point out that the review took place during the Easter Cookery events programme at the palace, and does not reflect the kitchens as they stand for most of the year. Our cooks are not always present, and we now have a new introductory area in the Great Hall Undercroft and a new audioguide. These explain the Tudor Kitchens without impinging on the experience of wandering through the kitchens themselves, which can now be visited without graphic interpretation boards and, for the first time, without rope barriers.

Brett Dolman, curator (collections), Historic Royal Palaces

Communities fight for museums too

I was interested to read Sharon Heal's comment on disposal, which said it is usually a local newspaper that has led a campaign to save a museum's collection rather than the local community taking the initiative (Museums Journal September 2006, p4).

When Worthing Museum and Art Gallery was threatened with closure in 2004, it was local individuals and groups who actively demonstrated against the council. The local newspapers were very supportive and gave excellent (if sometimes inflammatory) coverage. But if the local residents hadn't been so vocal or passionate about the museum and its collections, the campaign wouldn't have received so much press attention.

Ann Wise, Warner Textile archive manager, Braintree, Essex

The sky's the limit with cosmic theatre

September's cover article Reach for the Stars asked if every museum should have a planetarium. And they can - thanks to the recent development of portable immersive theatres. The CosmicSky Theatre is a state-of-the-art semi-portable planetarium and it has has just completed a successful tour of the UK reaching more than 10,000 visitors from a wide range of venues.

Funded with a grant from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, CosmicSky, (a collaboration between astronomer, artist and poet) offers a fresh and innovative approach to learning about the universe, and our very special place in it.
Central to the shows is the idea of providing an experience that encourages the audience to play an active role, by allowing them to reflect and to use their imagination to explore and discover in their own way.

Gill Russell and Francisco Diego

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