26 June 2020

What do world art curators do in lockdown?

Rachel's desk (and coworker) while working from home.
A guest blog from Rachel Heminway Hurst, Curator of World Art, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove and MEG events officer.  Rachel tells us what she's been up to in lockdown, if you'd like to let us know about your lockdown experience then get in touch!

Towards the end of March I was gearing up for spring conferences, research visits, holiday activities,busy juggling multiple project commitments, with core collections work responsibilities that are on-going and seemingly never ending at times, and will no doubt feel a familiar scenario for most museum staff! When all of a sudden we went into lockdown. I left my office as usual on Monday 16th March thinking I would be back there the next day and haven’t set foot in my office, the museum or the stores since. It still felt like winter then, and now we are enjoying full summer weather and have just passed the longest day of the year. 
Before the lockdown, I was feeling quite overwhelmed by the number of commitments ahead of me, when all of a sudden everything just ground to a halt. One by one events were cancelled, researchers and project partners stopped emailing, our museum postponed moving to Trust on April 1st 2020, and all the competing deadlines just melted away and everything was ‘postponed’, and not just work, it felt like life had been postponed. 

Like many people in the UK, I developed a mild case of the corona virus during the first week of lockdown, and spent 6 weeks on a bit of a rollercoaster of good and not so good days. My head was foggy during this time and I could only concentrate on one thing at a time and gave up trying to multitask and carry on working as normal. I decided that this was an opportunity to focus on just one task, and finish something I had been working on without much success since 2016. 

I usually work from home one day a week and keep a lot of digital work files on my home computer, and I also have a freelance colleague and project curator, Kathleen Lawther, who is tech savvy unlike myself! So we set about completing a web resource that we have only had the time to work on in a piecemeal way up to now. The lockdown allowed me to focus clearly on one project and one goal, and this felt really liberating.

Myself and Helen Mears, Keeper of World Art have been working on the Fashioning Africa Project since 2015, we have been collecting garments, textiles and art that reflect fashion and style in post 1960s Africa and Africa UK diaspora, this work had been guided by an external Collecting Panel. It turned into a huge but extremely rewarding project, including working with numerous partners and donors, hosting many events and papers given at conferences, some objects from the new collection have featured in displays at Brighton Museum, and some objects will be going on loan. But creating our web resource has at last given us a platform on which to share the new collection and most importantly the stories that accompany these objects.

Working with the Collecting Panel meant we were guided by people who are specialists in African Fashion both through personal experience and through academic training. Their input enabled us to source objects that reflected the personal styles and stories of individuals as well as designers and specific communities. Our focus was on building a collection where individuals voices and stories were told, and we collected photographs of donors wearing their outfits, testimonies, quotes, pamphlets and pieces of creative writing that all accompanied the outfits. As well as film footage and oral histories.

We have collected over 400 objects and although we haven’t yet finished professionally photographing them all or processing all of the accompanying media, creating the web resource has enabled us to provide access to a large number of them with their accompanying stories. If it were not for being in lockdown and being able to work on this in a sustained way and daily over the last few months, creating this resource would not have been possible, and this would have been a missed opportunity. I also feel as if I would be letting people down, people trusted us and offered their objects and stories and wanted to share these. When finishing an interview with Ewe kente weavers and twins Fred and Richmond Akpo in Ghana, I asked if there was anything else they wanted to tell us or share and they said ‘We just want people to know we are here and what we do’. 

This work has also afforded me the time to make contact with donors and partners to check information with them, and through this contact, a chance to check in and catch up with one another. So yes other things haven’t got done, which is hugely frustrating - we don’t have collections database access at home and haven’t been able to access the stores or facilitate events and the uncertainty over budgets and resources means other projects are delayed. But I feel that I have really benefitted from this period of time to take stock, to focus on this important work, gather everything together and process it, and get something finished, and I am really pleased to be able to share the results. The question is now, when things begin to pick up and gather momentum, how do I sustain this focus and clarity? I do know that I will make a concerted effort to try and plan in blocks of time to enable this type of important work to happen.  

Rachel Heminway Hurst, Curator of World Art, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove.

3 June 2020

Farewell to Sue Giles from Alison Petch

The recent AGM was Sue's last as Chair and while we fully expect her to remain an active member of the MEG community we thought we would take this oppurtunity to reflect on Sue's career.  We are pleased that Alison Petch has shared her memories of Sue with us for the MEG blog. 

I first heard of Sue when I became a member of the MEG committee a very long time ago. I didn’t meet her then because she was no longer a committee member at that point but at almost every meeting I heard that ’Sue says …” and more particularly ’Sue has done …’: I thought of her as the Stakhanovite of MEG, beavering away doing essential things for the members whilst I lolled around on the committee, pontificating (plus ├ža change …). To be honest, from MEG’s point of view, I think that that has always been the honest view of her labour for us all: she has always been 'exceptionally hard-working and productive’ on our behalf, latterly as the Chair of MEG. The old-fashioned paper newsletter would probably have folded without her hard work and she also guarenteed the continuing success of JME by ensuring all members got their copies for many years (and without members’ receipt of the journal what would be the point of it, or MEG?)

On a personal note I have always found Sue to be a courteous, thoughtful and helpful person, with huge integrity in a work context and a personal one. I well remember going to the Aztec exhibition at the Royal Academy with her in 2002, whilst Sue was still thoughtfully considering the first gallery, I had shallowly rushed round the whole thing! 

 I often seem to bump into her accidentally on my infrequent trips to Bristol. I last saw her in person just after she had started her final job for Bristol Museum (I was on a short holiday near Bristol), she was popping out to recycle a lot of plastic shopping bags (a characteristicly green activity) and we had a catch-up over a cup of tea and a cake in the Bristol Museum cafe. The next day I fell downstairs and broke my shoulder, but I don’t think there was any connection between the two events! 

I like to think of Sue as someone who has become a friend, as well as a colleague and I hope to remain in contact with her during her hopefully long and no doubt characteristically fruitful retirement, and bump into her on my next trip to Bristol [as this was written during the virus crisis, I have no way of knowing when that will be!]