16 June 2015

MEG Conference 2015 Review: A sunny weekend in Kent...

I've been lucky enough to attend the Museum Ethnographers Group conference since I first spoke there, as a callow first year PhD student in 2010. I have always found MEG to me the most wonderfully accepting bunch of people: so despite the fact that, at this conference, I stepped down from my role on the committee, you haven't heard the last of me yet.

This year we were lucky enough to hold the conference in the beautiful surroundings of Quex Park, at the Powell Cotton Museum in Birchington, Kent: thanks must go to Inbal Livne and her colleagues, notably Abby Wise, without who's stalwart attention and organization the conference would have been very different.

Birchington, and Quex Park, felt miles away from the strange, seaside town of Margate in which I was staying, and which has it's own dilapidated, faded charm. I arrived at the Park, with it's lush greenery and craft shops, far too early on the Monday morning, but nonetheless it was a pleasure to wander in the landscape for an hour before the other attendees showed up. The Museum, too, was a landscape in its own right - the oldest part of the house dates from the 1400s, and the interior of the Museum is home to stunning natural history dioramas, put in place by Percy Powell-Cotton, presenting the wildlife he encountered on his trips to the ends of the earth.

The conference itself began, bright and early in Gallery 1 on the 20th April. The theme was Nature and Culture in Museums, and the papers presented on that day spoke directly to the theme. Paolo Viscardi spoke eloquently on the importance of collaboration between ethnographers and scientists, particularly in order to identify certain items and clarify their heritage. Jude Philip, having come all the way from Sydney, wove a fascinating story of the adventurous Macleay family and the oldest Natural History Museum in Australia: the Macleay Museum. Then we broke for lunch, at which we were all very well served, and were able to have a look around the galleries, all of which have their own character, and all of which are fascinating. Many of us found the newly revamped Gallery 6 particularly interesting, with its collection of handleable artefacts and accessible information. In many ways, it was in stark contrast to the rest of the Museum, which was of a much more old fashioned, though unique and charming, character.

We returned, sated, to listen to Ali Clark speak as elegantly as ever on the records and history of Gerrard and Sons, a taxdermist and art dealer which supplied many items to the Horniman during their years of operation. After Ali, it was my turn, and people were very kind to let me ramble on about the reciprocal framing of nature and culture in the NaturalHistory Museum, Oxford, and its Rabelaisian, grotesque qualities. I do hope that everyone was able to recover with afternoon tea.

Next it was the turn of Caroline Cornish and Mark Nesbitt to speak about the Economic Botany Collections at Kew, and their environmental and cultural importance today. Then it was time for our chair, Antonia Lovelace, to end the presentations for the day with a thoroughly entertaining delve into the reasons why we love animal mascots, and why museums often have them. (As consequence of her talk, during a pause in the centre of Margate on my way home, I attempted to win her a meerkat toy on the penny arcade machines, but sadly I was unsuccessful).  

We entered the relaxed part of the evening with a wander around the galleries and a glass of wine. Chris Spring presented in Gallery 2 on the exhibition, Social Fabric: African Textiles Today, which has been touring from the British Museum and is now in Exeter. The Kanga Cloths were wonderful, and despite being exhausted, we were enthralled.

Dinner was a bountiful and lively affair - I spoke at length with Tony Eccles, Lisa Graves, Malika Kraamer, and many others at our table, and we drank many bottles of wine between us. I must, at this point, mention how grateful I was to the staff at Quex Park, who were so willing to accommodate us, and our requirements, and did so with much spirit, grace and generosity. After a rather trying time attempting to get a taxi back to our respective hostelries in Margate (Birchington has little in the way of accommodation), we, the last table standing, eventually wandered off into the Kentish night.

Once again, we arrived bright and early, me with my treasurer's box, all ready to hand over to the next occupant of the post. The second day of the MEG conference always includes the AGM, but aside from that, the day was a relaxed one, with less presentations than the previous. Anita Herle and TonyEccles spoke with passion about the Blackfoot projects which are occurring throughout a number of UK museums, and Alana Jelinek's concept of ecology as a model for culture was a fascinating one. The Work in Progress papers which constituted the next session were a fascinating bunch - Heather Donoghue, Alison Petch, Claire Wintle, Catherine Harvey, Len Pole and Alison Brown speaking on topics from Australia to Siberia. On the 21st April, from the comfort of the Powell Cotton, we travelled the world.

The AGM was the final official event of the day, and at it we elected new committee members to the posts of Treasurer and Membership Secretary - Lisa Graves and Jenny Reddish respectively. I wish them all the best in their new roles.

After I left Birchington, I wandered around Margate, taking in its threadbare glamour and playing in the penny arcades. MEG Conferences always leave me feeling dreamy, footloose and dog-tired - and this is why I will always return.

Jenny Walklate
16 June 2015 

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