6 May 2014

The World in Reading

On the 29th April I was among colleagues from other museums in the South East with ethnographic collections invited by Reading Museum to a day of knowledge sharing and brainstorming around the theme of community engagement. 

I was very pleased to be revisiting Reading Museum where I started my Museum career. Reading will always hold fond memories for me. Reading Museum is a sizeable local authority funded town Museum. The Museum has galleries including displays of Huntley and Palmers biscuit tins, a Victorian replica of the Bayeux Tapestry, Roman artefacts from nearby Silchester20th century art and sculpture. The Museum has a large temporary exhibition space currently hosting the exhibition 'Reading at War'.

Reading Museum also has reserve stores and a successful school loans service. Included in the stores and in loans boxes are objects from all over the world, which form the 3,000 strong 'World historic objects' collection. Like many local authority museums, the curator responsible for this collection does not have an expertise in ethnography or anthropology, she is also responsible for the art collection of which Reading has a significant collection of art by notable local and regional artists. 

The day was organized by Felicity McWilliams, project officer at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) and Brendan Carr, curator of community engagement. As part of the ACE funded project 'Reading Connections' both Felicity and Brendan have been working on raising the profile of the historic world objects collection at Reading. I worked on basic cataloguing of the collection when I was a museum assistant in Reading several years ago. The collection was in a state of neglect for many years. The main aim of the 'World Cultures' strand of the Reading Connections project is to create enhanced records for 600 Historic World Objects, to be included in a new online catalogue for Reading Museum collections. Felicity and her colleague Adam gave a short introductory talk to the group illustrating the range of objects in the collection. The Historic World Objects Collection was mostly collected between the late-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century. Most of the objects were donated by local people who had gathered artifacts during their own travels abroad. Smaller numbers were collected during the course of overseas expeditions, and others were donated as part of large collections, including Reading Museum's founding Bland and Stevens Collections. The Museum officially 'closed' the Collection and stopped acquiring objects for it in the early 1950s.


A major aspect of the 'World Cultures' strand of the project has been consultancy with Reading Museum and MERL working together in partnership. A number of consultancy days have advised on different aspects of the collection and the focus of the day I was invited to was community engagement. In the morning we heard of a number of interesting engagement projects and personal experiences of such projects from Helen Mears, Keeper of World Culture at Brighton Museumand Art GalleryKeiko Higashi, education project officer at the Powell-Cotton Museum, Catherine Harvey Education officer at Hastings Museum and myself. 

Brighton Museum and Art Gallery have been very innovative and focused on audience engagement from the early 1990's. Helen spoke of the many co-curated projects she has been involved in since working at Brighton from 2008. Most notably the major redisplay of the world culture gallery as part of the World Stories: Young Voices project. Helen engaged young people to redesign the gallery making it more relevant to them. The thing they most wanted from a new display of the world culture collections was culturally specific displays and connections to Brighton. Helen stressed the major learning curve to come out of such projects was one of processes rather than actions. Helen also stressed how time consuming and resource hungry co-curated projects could be and shared her mantra of 'D DIY' 'Don't do it yourself'! However she did emphasis the value of such projects to the communities involved. Often they are curatorially driven and she would like to see the impetus for engagement come from communities themselves without funding agendas prescribing project outcomes. 




  







The Powell-Cotton Museum is currently undergoing a major project redesigning the unpopular 'gallery 6' which displayed the Museum's ethnographic collections. 'Securing the Future of Our Past' aims to increase access to the ethnographic collections by contextualizing them with the natural history collections and raising the status of the handling collection. Keiko explained how she had been using community philosophy as a model to engage with visitors to Quex Park and Museum staff. 

Catherine told the group about work Hastings Museum has done with creative practitioners including the inspired 'Ethnographic Imaginings' a series of poems exploring and bringing to life objects in the collections and Hyakkai Yakou's evocative dance performance 'A night walk of A hundred demons' inspired by Durbar Hall at Hastings Museum. Hastings also engaged with young people to redisplay their Native American displays. 

Finally I spoke to the group about the 2011 temporary exhibition 'Made for Trade' and the Pitt Rivers current HLF funded VERVE project Need Make Use highlighting some of the community engagement activities we have been exploring during the first year of this project. 

The afternoon provided us with an opportunity to digest some of the ideas from the morning session. After an introduction by Matthew Williams, Reading Museum Manager, to Reading’s follow on project from ‘Reading Connections, ‘Reading Engaged’ a joint project with MERL aimed at strengthening engagement with local communities, we split into groups to brainstorm engagement ideas for Reading’s ‘Historic World Objects’ collection. Reading is a vibrant town of great community spirit and diversity. From Matt and Brendan we learnt that the Museum has taken a proactive approach by positioning itself as a leader in Reading’s cultural life and activities.

The morning presentations stimulated great discussion of how to proceed having done all the ground work in cataloguing and researching the ethnographic collection at Reading Museum encouraging the Museum to reignite partnerships with Reading Solidarity Society (RISC) and other local community groups. I was very happy to be part of such a knowledge sharing and thought provoking day and look forward to hearing more of Reading’s activities as the project progresses.

Faye Belsey 
Assistant Curator, Pitt Rivers Museum.

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