girl looking at pictures in an art gallery exhibition

Curating an external exhibition

Posted Posted in Exhibit, museums, libraries, archives, collections, planning, Using archives and collections

As a freelance curator, I do get asked to mount exhibitions for other organisations, sometimes in their location, sometimes not. Putting on an exhibition of unfamiliar objects with an unfamiliar subject in an unfamiliar location brings one or two challenges and more than a few questions. Invariably an initial conversation goes something like this:

‘Hello, are you a curator?’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Can you put on an exhibition for us? What will it cost? How long will it take?’
‘Yes I can. First I need a few details about what you’d like, when you’d like it, how long for, who does what….’
‘Oh. I thought it was just putting pictures on walls?’

In case you’re unfamiliar with museum exhibitions, here are a few initial questions and considerations before a budget/timescale can be set. What is the size of the exhibition? Where will it be? How many objects might there be? How long will it run for? What do you want to see in it? What is the exhibition saying and to whom? And at what level to say it – beginner, intermediate, expert? What are the aims of the exhibition? Do they fit the aims and mission statement of the display location? Will the objects be worthy of display? Will they be in good condition? Will the organisation’s intended budget cover their initial ideas? (Usually, no!) How will objects move from place to place? Who will be responsible for packing/crating them? How will they be physically displayed? Who will organise and pay for the mounts and frames? Who will actually get up on a ladder to put paintings on walls? Who will condition check them on arrival? Who is responsible for advertising and promotion? Who selects each object – those with subject specialist knowledge or those with an oversight of how museum exhibitions work? How will the exhibition be monitored and evaluated and by whom? How long might research take – what information will be provided to the curator? Who will develop the concept and write the panels – those with the knowledge of the subject or those who know about writing text for visitors? Who decides the layout, lighting, display? Is there anything that already exists that can be re-used? Who is responsible for finding, putting together and mounting any audio visuals? What of insurance? Who pays for it in transit or in the museum? Who puts the objects in position? What’s in the budget for interactives? And speaking of budgets…who sets the budget? And who, from the company or organisation, will liaise with the curator – marketing, purchasers, company historians, secretaries, technicians, volunteers, MDs, CEOs? Depending on the organisation’s structure, all might have to be prepared to give some time to make it happen.

You see, it’s not all ‘just putting pictures on walls’. A simple one room exhibition of mixed media will take a minimum of three months (and that’s rushing it) exhibitors at a national museum will probably allow three years to plan and implement something new. As to budgets – a very simple temporary display will probably be upwards of £10,000; a blockbuster will be many millions. Most of the time taken is in liaison and making arrangements. Even a simple thing like a difficult mount for a single item might take hours to research, order and present. Curators are keen to do as much as possible to ensure that the exhibition works as a whole; clients are keen to do as much as possible to avoid curatorial fees. Discussion, early decisions about who does what and open lines of communication are key to smooth relations with stakeholders.

If you’re thinking of putting on your own exhibition – perhaps for an important anniversary (congratulations!) – here are The Company Curator’s Top Tips:

1) It will take longer than you think. Work well in advance. Think years, not months.
2) Have an accessible budget ready to go.
3) Communication and early, transparent decisions about who does what – in writing – are vital.

Happy exhibiting!

Image of a museum exhibition text panel about collecting and collectors

Hoarder, accumulator, collector: a collective obsession

Posted 1 CommentPosted in Exhibit, museums, libraries, archives, collections, Opinion, Using archives and collections

Hoarder, accumulator, collector: a collective obsession

Image of a museum exhibition text panel about collecting and collectors' obsession
Obsession – hoarders, accumulators and collectors

‘Obsession: Collectors, Collections and Collecting’, was an exhibition I put on a while back, reflecting the passion of collectors for their objects.  Part of the exhibition involved defining what a collector was and how they differ from hoarders and accumulators. The crucial differences in defining whether someone is a collector, a hoarder or an accumulator is the way in which they go about adding to their possessions and what they mean to them.

Hoarders

You’ve probably seen the programmes on television about hoarders, such as the famous ‘Life of Grime’, which featured Mr Trebus and his houseful of possessions – so many possessions, in fact, that he couldn’t move about in the house, had no idea what was in it and had rats within the piles of stored items. Mr Trebus, and many like him, are hoarders. They cannot bear to throw items away as they ‘might come in useful one day’ or ‘it’s wasteful’ or  they ‘need’ them.  Accumulators have often suffered trauma in the past which makes them view every object with an inherent and deeply felt desire to use, possess or save the item. Their objects become a physical barrier to the world around them,  a world from which the owners become increasingly detached. Hoarders are strongly emotionally attached to their items, even if they are what others would class as waste, and feel that to part with their items is to lose themselves. This kind of collecting is seen as a treatable disorder.

Accumulators

Accumulators store items in much the same way as hoarders do – they want to use, possess or save the item but have no concerns about throwing things out when necessary and no particular emotional attachment to most of them. Items are brought into the collection in a haphazard way. In this type of collection, a collector might have multiples of identical items, items which add no new knowledge to the collection, damaged duplicates and extremely similar items. Often this type of collector will see value in quantity over quality. Accumulators often collect as an emotional response and their collections lack historical or scientific importance; for instance groups of china frogs or souvenir teapots, fridge magnets or stuffed toys.

Collectors

A collector collects with a specific aim – to have one good representative example of everything that it’s possible to own on the subject. This collector looks for areas that aren’t represented and searches out items to fill those holes. This collector does not duplicate excessively but might, for instance, collect the same image printed at different times by different people, seeing a value in those differences. The collection will be well thought out and the collector will be able to define parameters; for example ‘British First World War Medals’ or ‘prints of the County of Oxfordshire’ or ‘Georgian silver teaspoons’. They will be able to cite the reasons why they collect and what they hope to achieve. Often, these collectors spend many hours establishing histories and provenances and will usually have documentation for each item as well as a catalogue of their collections.

Obsession

While preparing for that long-ago exhibition about collectors, it became evident that many collectors were obsessed. Their collection was their main hobby; their focus; their motive. Collecting takes over their lives, informing where they holiday (there’s a medal in that museum I’d like to see/a dealer I’d like to meet/a type of item only available from one place), costing a great deal of money and taking up a great deal of time. Often called eccentrics, these people are the backbone of museums over the world, often donating their well-preserved, beautifully catalogued, documented collections to museums and writing books in their subject areas. The late Colin White, when in his role as the director of the Royal Naval Museum at Portsmouth, once told me “The world needs experts” and these collectors are often the world’s experts. Long live the true, obsessed, eccentric collector!

heritage blacboard image reading time for change

Out with the old and in with the new…and the old

Posted Posted in Exhibit, Using archives and collections

Heritage for the new year

This time of year is often a time of reflection, evaluation and of planning. What went right? What went wrong? What could be improved on? How can you improve client perception of your company’s trustworthiness, survival skills and friendliness? With a heritage strategy….of course! If your company is older, more venerable, has been around the block a few times and has gained wisdom, knowledge and status, tell your clients. Don’t just add something like ‘since 1820’ on the website – show your clients. Other, newer companies can’t do this, making you one step ahead – don’t waste the opportunity to show your achievements.

Use technology to leverage your company heritage

Put a page on your website with the interesting bits of your company’s history. Show how you’ve managed change, wars, times, people, difficulties. Show how the company has grown in status; has merged; has bought into or created new technologies; how you’ve diversified or reined in to better serve customer needs. Show how you’re supporting diversity or gender issues in the workplace by putting up the changing faces of your staff, particularly if you’re taking on new staff – find all the old staff photos and create a ‘staff through time’ wall. Use technology to show how the technologies developed by your company have always been ahead of the competition.

Use your archives on the office walls

Find old photos or prints which tell a story and have them framed in a timeline sequence. Choose photos of staff, of leaders, of the building, of work done. If you’re a manufacturer, use old blueprints or designs to show how things have changed in your industry. If you’re office based, what about a series of old blank contracts, indentures, maps, plans? Really use your archives to generate thoughts and inspiration.

Use your office spaces to show company heritage

Invest in a proper display case and show off pieces of company history – label them to tell the story you want clients to hear. One case not enough – you have more history, more space and more objects? Have a company history room with text panels and changing displays. Displays can show anything – how you did it in the past, how you’re going to do it in the future; both together. Just landed a great contract? Put a display together about all the great contracts you’ve landed and how this one is going to move your company forwards. Received another award? Put them all out on display for a few weeks. Manufacturing a new range? Put it out there; put the older ones out there; juxtapose them. Explain why newer is better.
Making your archives work for you justifies their existence, shows off your company heritage and makes your company look well-informed and interesting. Displays, websites and walls all offer information, a powerful tool which you can turn to your company’s advantage to keep you one step ahead.

Leverage for collections – Boots the Chemists’ archives

Posted Posted in Exhibit, Using archives and collections

old-card-1348456_1280While checking LinkedIn this morning, I was attracted by an interesting image. It was a blog from Boots the Chemist with a cartoon line drawing from 1903. I saw that Boots’ Archive Department were cleverly using their archives to create an online 2016 advent calendar with a new image each day – brilliant marketing, fabulous leverage and a lovely historical way of marking the passage of time – not only of this year but of their years as a company.

 

The image showed a sign pointing to Boots where one could find ‘cash and chemist’ and a van driving through the snow. The van was advertising Boots’ Christmas Card Department and the strapline was for  ‘Christmas cards, comics, books, toy books and calendars’. Although Boots sells all of these things today, it’s not what the shop is known for. This gives us an interesting historical perspective and leads to questions about their marketing and sales choices over the years; why they chose to sell or not to sell specific items; what worked well for them at this time and what works well for them now; the changing customer needs over the years. Looking at something like this is a way of evaluating company success and change over time.

 

Why don’t more people do this? Why is this seen as ‘a bit out there’? Surely it’s both a great way of reminiscing about a company, its products and what they mean as well as a fabulous way of promoting a company in a subtle way? What could you to leverage your company history and create client engagement in a similar way?

 

Here’s the first page link www.linkedin.com/hp/update/6211494794460426240 ;

radiator

Art: keeping it cool

Posted Posted in Care, Environmental monitoring, Exhibit, Temperature

radiator-imageLast Monday I went to a lovely pub restaurant; one which is part of a new chain. I was impressed. There were friendly, helpful staff, lovely interiors, a log fire, fabulous, well-presented food and a corridor filled with what looked like original artworks. On closer inspection, I found that they were indeed originals. They were very interesting, large, pen and watercolour pieces and each reflected an incident in the town’s history. What an original and wonderful thing for a pub to commission! There were 20 or 30 of them – no small investment in time, thought, framing, cost or insurance. This, surely, is a collection to be treated with care.

 

I was surprised, then, to see that two of them were hung directly over a radiator. During a conversation, I mentioned it to the pub manager who said that the collection was curated by the artist. I asked if anyone minded that the images were hung directly over a heat source. The manager looked surprised and said ‘….well….’ Either it had never occurred to anybody that heat isn’t great for pictures or they were aware, but the paintings had to remain over the radiator.

 

Why should the manager care? Three reasons: expansion, contraction and chemical reaction. As things become warmer, they expand. As things become colder, they contract. When this happens regularly the work gradually becomes unstable. As things become warmer, for each 10 degrees of warmth the chemical reaction rate – which leads to deterioration – doubles. Art should ideally be kept at one constant temperature of 19-22 degrees. Seasonal changes are acceptable as they occur over a long period of time, but if radiators are on and off this will accelerate the natural deterioration process and the reaction of the ink and watercolour with each other, the paper, the backing and the frame.  The end result is that the pub will have a series of lovely artworks with two that are brittle, brown and wavy.

 

So what to do? We don’t all have the space to not hang things over radiators. The pub manager could try these:

 

1) Turn down that radiator

2) Have the radiators on constantly low rather than on and off

3) Fit a radiator cover or shelf over the radiator: the heat will go out rather than up

4) Swap those pictures for others occasionally

5) Re-site the pictures and put a less important item, or nothing, in their place

5) If you’ve done all you can and aren’t compounding your mistake with sunlight, strong lamplight, humidity, dust etc, don’t think about it again and enjoy your original art. That’s what it’s for.

Should a company display its assets?

Posted Posted in Exhibit, museums, libraries, archives, collections, Other, planning, Using archives and collections

I asked my husband what his employer’s company does about its history. ‘It’s all in an archive, it’s not on display’. I asked why not, and he said that the company was very forward facing and had designed all its branches and head office to all look identically modern, with the same branding, the same carpets, curtains, paint – even the prints had all been selected to be identical across the nation, so that when customers walked into any branch they felt recognition; it was the same as the one they usually used.
I know that when I walk into one of the branches I feel recognition. I recognise that I could be in any part of the country – it’s faceless; it’s soulless; it’s a cultural and historical desert – and for me, somebody with a historical background, that’s a shame. By being identical they are without identity, which is a pity as that company has traded since 1840s – that’s 175 years of people, products, innovation, change, which is all hidden under the bland face of modernity.
I know I’d perceive that company as more interesting, more engaging, more trustworthy, if I could see its origins, see the work that’s gone into it, see how politics and world events have changed its aims and outlook, or even just see a painting or lithograph of some of the leaders who’ve gone before. But that’s not modern. Modern seems to be about forgetting history, smoothing over everything into one-size-fits-all blandness. I don’t know that this helps anybody, companies least of all.
By displaying the origins of a company, the company is saying that it has a history to be proud of. It boasts longevity and staying power. It shows that it can weather storms, that its leadership has worked well for decades – centuries possibly – and that it will go on working. Thoughtfully chosen items bring a little of this history to customers and clients and show the human, unidentical side of a business and this is what those customers and clients respond to – for we are all human and we are not identical.