10 May 2016

MEG Conference Review: Faith and Community: Interpreting Beliefs in the Modern Museum

Stephen Welsh and Nick Merriman welcomed us to the Kanaris lecture theatre at the Manchester Museum, where MEG last met for an AGM and conference in 2009. Manchester’s ties with MEG go back to our early years and the input and support of both Frank Willett and George Bankes.  We were delighted that Catherine, George’s widow, had made time to attend this year’s conference with us, and the special MEG 40th birthday cake incorporated one of the Moche pots George worked on into the digitally printed icing. Since 2009 the new main entrance at Manchester Museum has come into its own and the curators have been working across departments and across the University on the new Life gallery and a lively exhibition programme.  Now the museum will expand again using a special government grant of £5 million for the development of a new South Asia gallery in partnership with the British Museum.   

Session 1 of the conference had a strong Asian bias with a paper from Frederike Voigt and Rosanna Nicholson on the Maharaja Duleep Singh’s collection at NMS and an outreach project to involve a Glasgow Gurdwara in this and in visits to CastleMenzies in Perthshire where Duleep Singh first lived in the UK.  The links are celebrated in a new work by the Singh sisters (Amrit and Rabindra), the well-known UK Sikh artists who are twins.  This was a highlight of the Indian Encounters exhibition from Nov 2014 to March 2015 at NMS.  Then Ruth Garde took us behind the scenes at the Wellcome’s recent ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple’ exhibition in London, discussing the visioning of the exhibition, its structure and the complimentary role of film and exhibits.  Emma Martin posed the dilemma of how to communicate the key non-religious sides of Tibetan culture, the gambling and drunkenness, and the variety of contemporary art,  to stop the viewer responding to Tibet as an ‘out of time’ Shangri-La.
In Session 2 Marek Romaniszyn discussed a major contemporary collecting project on the music scene at Leeds Festival, undertaken over several years and a new community partnership exhibition, ‘Leeds Queer Stories’. Chris Wood, curator of the Ickeny collection, shared his thoughts on the topic of faith in museums so far, and Caroline van Santen talked to us about the options for improving local and visitor understanding of the role of religion and belief in the Zeeuws museum in Middelburg which is situated in a former Abbey.  We gained some great insights into the history of Zeeland,  as part of the Netherlands.
Session 3 was dominated by Death. Lisa Graves talked about the recent Bristol exhibition: ‘death:  the human experience’, it’s development and the reactions from visitors to this and a smaller display which reconstructed one of the rooms at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. Campbell Price presented the detail of Ancient Egyptian beliefs about death and animal mummies,  and their wrappings as shown in the Manchester exhibition which had just closed. Bryan Sitch took us through the lively debate that occurred when Manchester borrowed back the local Lindow man peat-bog burial from the British Museum for exhibition in Manchester (April 2008 – April 2009). 

That evening many of us had a drink at the nearby Kro bar before moving on to a Chinese meal at ‘The Red Chilli’, also on Oxford Road.
On Tuesday Session 4 was devoted to Australia. Gaye Sculthorpe contrasted the development and realisation of the ‘IndigenousAustralia – enduring civilisation’ exhibition at the British Museum with its Australian counterpart ‘Encounters’ at the NationalMuseum of Australia. A core group of British Museum exhibits travelled to Canberra. Both exhibitions were part of a broader collaborative project between the National Museum of Australia, the British Museum, the Australian National University and a range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia. The exhibitions were the climax of years of research and community engagement, and the two catalogues and more than 10 short films are a benchmark in this continuing history.  Rachel Murphy then discussed some of the findings of her PhD research on attitudes to Aborigine art in terms of its needing a spiritual audience.

After the AGM we had six brief Work in Progress sessions. Sushma Jansari, Project Curator of the Asian Ethnographic Collections at the British Museum was too ill to attend so Stephen Welsh read out her paper on South Asian items with strong Manchester links at the BM. The colourful labels for export cloth were particularly stunning.  Klas Grinell, Curator of Contemporary Global Issues at the national Museum of World Cultures in Gotenburg told us of his initial findings on how Islam was dealt with in Museums in Europe and the UK. Katy Barrett and colleagues from the National Maritime Museum looked at the issues of Christianity in the Pacific in their shortlisting of items for a new gallery. Inbal Livne described the success of a recent work on bringing the Sudanese collections to life at Powell-Cotton museum, using community input from London. Then Adam Jaffer and Rebecca Bridgman talked about the new Faith in Birmingham gallery. Rebecca also put out an advert for MEG member involvement in the new Islamic SSN. Andy Mills described the early stages of work on a major AHRC funded backcloth project led by the Centre for Textile Conservation & Technical Art History at the University of Glasgow and Kew. The project will examine the collections at The Hunterian Museum, The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and the Smithsonian Institution, using stylistic analysis, ethno-history and the history of collections, and cutting edge methods of scientific analysis and conservation. Finally after a short tea break we ended the day with a consultation session by the National Maritime Museum on the issues they hope to cover in their new Pacific gallery.
Antonia Lovelace
MEG Chair & Curator of World Cultures Leeds Museums and Galleries     



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