Letters - Museums Association

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Gypsy culture has not been ignored I was surprised and rather disappointed to read Jake Bowers’ article about the ‘failure …
Museums Association
Gypsy culture has not been ignored

I was surprised and rather disappointed to read Jake Bowers' article about the 'failure of public museums to represent Gypsy-Traveller history' (Museums Journal August 2006, p18). Bowers states that 'in 2005 (he) investigated why public museums, libraries and archives had done so little to represent and celebrate the history and culture of Britain's Gypsy and Traveller population', but failed to find something that is practically on his doorstep.

In 2004, the Hertford Museum together with the Hertfordshire Traveller Education Service produced an exhibition about Gypsy-Traveller lifestyles and culture, as part of a Heritage Lottery Fund initiative, with a number of museums in Hertfordshire. It was called Diverse Herts, Diverse Museums. The exhibition, which was on for six months, included oral histories of a variety of local Gypsy-Travellers, talking about many different issues.

There were 14 colourful panels looking at various themes such as the contribution of Gypsy-Travellers during the two world wars and also current issues such as local authority site provisions and prejudice. We also ran a six-month programme of events that involved Gypsy and Traveller organisations such as the Romany and Traveller Family History Society, a Gypsy storyteller and art workshops with a local New Traveller.

We wanted to make sure that other museums could benefit from this exhibition and it has toured across the UK. It is going to the Epping Forest District Museum in September. Most of these museums used our touring exhibition and some of the objects we provided, but many of them used this opportunity to work with their local Traveller community to give it a more local identity, by borrowing photographs and approaching them to do demonstrations and give talks. This has been a real success from the start, and more importantly, many Travellers have visited these exhibitions and have contributed to them.

Helen Gurney, curator, Hertford Museum

Gypsy and Traveller history may not be quite as neglected by museums as Jake Bowers feels. Here in Leicestershire, I have been working with local academic and historian David Smith (himself of Gypsy ancestry) to produce an exhibition called The Thousand Year Story.

This tells how the Romani migrated from north-west India, and how they have formed an important and often highly valued element of the Leicestershire community since the 16th century. I have also made maps to show the traditional Gypsy Lanes and other stopping places that David has been able to identify from years of talking to travellers and researching in the Record Office.

We have not ignored the more recent outbreaks of conflict and prejudice, but the main theme of the display is the persistence of a cultural identity.

The exhibition is getting a very favourable response from visitors. It is at the Manor House, Donington-le-Heath, until 5 September and will be at the Charnwood Museum in Loughborough from 3 November to 4 February.

Robert Hartley, keeper of collections, Leicestershire County Council

I write following Jake Bowers' excellent article regarding the representation of Romani people in museums. In July, the Museum of East Anglian Life held its inaugural Gypsy Arts Festival. Flamenco dancers, players from the Suffolk-based Romany Theatre Company and gypsy musicians performed alongside local Romani artists.

For the museum, it was an opportunity to deepen our links with the local Romani community, who led storytelling sessions, wagon- painting and paper-flower-making workshops. Probably the most moving event was the church service held in the museum's 1890 Baptist chapel led by the Newmarket Romani Gospel Choir. We were particularly pleased that there are signs that we are developing an audience among local Romani and travelling people.

The museum is drawing up ambitious redevelopment plans. Central to this will be the redisplay of our splendid collection of Romani and Showman's wagons and modern trailers. We will be working in partnership with the local Romani community not only to reinterpret these beautiful objects, but to advise on the nature of a new display building or space. We want to do justice to this overwhelming oral culture to ensure that, to paraphrase that son of Suffolk Benjamin Britten, that 'we hear the voices of those who will not be drowned'.

Tony Butler, director, Museum of East Anglian Life

We read with interest the article by Jake Bowers. The National Museums of Scotland has been working with young Scottish Gypsy Travellers, through Save the Children (Scotland) since 2005, first as part of the National Portrait Gallery's Reaching Out, Drawing In outreach programme with an exhibition of self-portraits and again in 2006 to create three short films based on aspects of Gypsy Traveller Culture.

The films were shot on location at the Museum of Scottish Country Life, Wester Kittochside, near East Kilbride and were scripted, performed and filmed by the young people, describing traditional Gypsy lifestyle and their contribution to society.

Both projects will be shown at the Museum of Scottish Country Life this September and we hope to continue working with Save the Children and the young people to find ways to capture contemporary Scottish Gypsy Traveller culture and integrate this into our permanent collections. If anyone is interested in these projects or can donate relevant items or stories, please contact me (e.edwards@nms.ac.uk).

Elaine Edwards, curator, Museum of Scottish Country Life

Constantine show is a star of the north

As one of the editors of the catalogue of the Constantine exhibition at York (Museums Journal July 2006, p48), I was delighted by Craig Barclay's endorsement of theexhibition's beauty, but some of the lapses in lighting and labelling were simply teething troubles put right within days of the opening.

It was the intention to give the North East a show of star quality that one so seldom finds in British provincial museums compared with those in France, Germany and Italy. This was achieved - despite a much lower budget than would have been available on the continent - by, for example, not paying contributors who worked long hours to ensure the success of the project.

Finally, this was not done at the expense of young visitors for whom a great deal has been achieved. Upstairs, they can play at being enrolled in Constantine's army, while downstairs they can dress up in civilian clothes or construct a mosaic. I have seldom seen such an innovative approach to using a major exhibition as a teaching aid and the Yorkshire Museum's education department fully deserves to share in what is very much the crowning triumph of Elizabeth Hartley's (the exhibition's curator) museum career.

Martin Henig, supernumerary fellow, Wolfson College, Oxford

MA maps out clear career paths

I completely agree with Meredith Greiling's comment that there are 'high levels of well qualified and experienced professionals competing for the same jobs' (Museums Journal July 2006, p14).

When a job is advertised, the requirements and responsibilities for that post may depict a certain level, but in reality people with much more experience and skills will compete for that role. Take the range of jobs highlighted in the Museums Association's (MA) Draft Salary Guidelines 2005. Although these posts asked for a conservative amount of experience, such as two, three or five years, a quick
survey of the people who were actually appointed reveals that they often had two or three times the amount of required experience.

A lack of career progression within the sector is perpetuating this problem. Opportunities to progress up the ladder are few. The MA's Salary Guidelines 2006 detail a job profile format designed to map out a clear career progression structure to encourage more movement within the sector. If the sector wants to hold on to the best people, then career progression and the nurturing and recognition of skills and talent needs to be prioritised. The salary guidelines are a step in that direction.

Nikola Burdon, professional development and ethics coordinator, MA

Third Age members have a lot to offer

I was interested to read Peter Lewis's article on museums and older people (Museums Journal July 2006, p16). Like him, I am a member of the University of the Third Age (U3A), and I endorse his comments on this admirable and growing organisation of 'self-educating and self-governing' people.

I am the London-based coordinator of U3A's Shared Learning Projects. These research projects are largely, but not entirely, based in museums; they are partnerships between members of different U3As and education/lifelong learning departments to work on a specific project for a limited length of time.

The first Shared Learning Project, in autumn 2002, was at the British Museum, where 17 people from London and the Home Counties worked on object-based research for three months, led by Margaret O'Brien from the museum's education department. This pilot project was enthusiastically received by the museum and U3A, and since then there have been nearly 20 projects in London alone.

The projects are not in any way reminiscence. Ask any U3A member what they have enjoyed about their project, and they will tell you of their excitement in research, their pleasure at meeting and working with new friends, and their delight at contributing to the museum's resources.

In turn, the museums have discovered intelligent, diligent and enthusiastic teams of people with the time and energy to carry out projects that the staff cannot take on. It's no surprise that the U3A Shared Learning Projects have taken a hold in London and there is no reason why they shouldn't start wherever there is an enthusiastic education officer or curator and a willing U3A member.

For more information, tel: 020 8466 6139 or visit www.u3a.org.uk

Jenny Clark, London

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