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!

Digitisation: one way to be remembered at work

Posted 1 CommentPosted in Opinion, Storage, Using archives and collections

Digitisation is a hot topic at the moment (OK, I’ll qualify – it’s a hot topic in the world of collections and collectors).  By 2008 the number of devices connected to the internet outnumbered the human population.  We love to be online and digitisation can only enhance this.

Digitisation (the scanning or photographing of physical items into a digital form) is a great way of recording the object’s condition at that point in time, sharing information, showing and  protecting objects which are too rare or fragile to be on show, making collections accessible, using them in new ways, supporting new methods of research, allowing new audiences to interpret content, and generating income from image sales.

So what’s the problem?

The main problem (after ‘what to digitise’ – I mean, who wants to pay for and manage a second, virtual collection because – unthinkingly – they digitised everything?) is that it’s very tempting for companies, particularly those with limited space, to think ‘Let’s digitise it and chuck out the originals!’.  Seeing as we’re talking tech,  I’ll use an emoji:  It’s very hard not to run away screaming when a client says this.

 

I have only one answer to the person who asks ‘Do you think we should keep our collection after we’ve digitised it?’ and that is yes.  If you are considering the digitisation-and-bin method, ask yourself why anyone ever visits museums and galleries.  Do they go to look at copies or at the real thing?  Would you be happy if our great national museums and galleries took photos of everything inside, threw out the originals, shut up shop and said ‘yeah, but you can see them online now, and we don’t have to pay for a museum any more’?  Do people value cut glass rings or diamond rings?  Real pearls or fake?  Genuine artwork or prints?  Tutankhamun’s death mask or a postcard of it?  I hope you see where I’m going here?

 

Your company heritage is your own unique record of your company’s history, people, working conditions, processes, developments and successes.  It is tangible, physical, real, genuine.  It can be held, seen from three sides, displayed this way and that, passed round, shown off;  it has an associated feel and smell which a scan or photograph does not.  The past becomes the present when you’re in a space filled with that past, feeling the hands of time, people and place wrapping around you and pulling you in – this cannot happen when you’re on a computer looking at single objects one by one.

 

Don’t go down in company memory as ‘the one who threw out the collections’. Be remembered as the one who did something with them.

 

Faith Carpenter curates for The Company Curator, working across Berkshire, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. We can help you to tell your story to your customers and clients.

www.thecompanycurator.co.uk

https://uk.linkedin.com/in/faithcarpenter

https://www.facebook.com/thecompanycurator/

07842 320691

photo of memory box of photos

5 things to save in a fire

Posted Posted in museums, libraries, archives, collections, Opinion, Other

Recently an article in Cotswold Life caught my eye. Adam Edwards was asking what five things you’d save from your home in a fire, assuming that children, pets and photographs had been saved.

Easy, I thought, I’d take the…the…hmm. After the children, pets and photographs? Nothing else would seem of that much importance.  You start to think about what’s significant to you, don’t you?

So, assuming that this fire was terribly slow and that we had all the time we needed and could access every room, the children’s memory boxes are very significant, if financially valueless. I could take them if they aren’t too much in the photo category; they are a collection of bits and pieces from their lives – artwork, baby shoes, clothes, hospital bracelets, cards – the little important things I treasure from  the time when they were small (and cute, but that’s another story). So they could count as one.

Next, I thought, my Victorian tables? We have a lovely breakfast table and a pretty dressing table. They’d come next. I’ve worked hard to do them up and make them just so and I love their aesthetically pleasing shapes and lines. Can they be a job lot and count as one?

Then I’d take the African artefacts that we’ve collected – can I squeeze them in as one? Some were inherited from my grandfather when he was out in Colonial Africa; others are ours; rugs, bowls, mirrors, art from the places we’ve visited. Am I cheating badly if I say that’s one?

Next thing; my jewellery collection. It’s not much, just pieces I’ve been given or bought that have special significance to me. Nobody else would make much of it but each piece is important to me and I love it as a collection too (which is why it keeps quietly growing).

One more. Tricky, but I think it would have to be my rock, fossil and mineral collection. I’ve been adding to this for over 20 years and it comprises finds from my Grandfather’s garden, finds from our various gardens and items I’ve bought and been given.; again, nothing spectacular but important to me.

And then it dawned on me: they are all either collections or they are old, or they are collections of old stuff. I couldn’t separate them and just take one item from each, for as Aristotle said ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’.  Is this just because I love collections and collecting? Or is it because a single item might have little value but when in a collection, it becomes so much more when connected to other items? Even the children’s memory boxes (just junk to other people) are, unwittingly, a carefully curated collection of items which provoke memories of ideas, moods, times, places and people.

It appears that I also practice what I preach – the art of collecting, sorting and caring for collected items – and even though I don’t think of myself as a collector (surely that’s best left to the Gettys, Rothschilds and stamp collectors?) I clearly am. I’ve had various collections in my lifetime – lists of the charts in the 80s, candles, shells, books, shoes and handbags – none of them exceptional to anyone else but important to me because I collected them. That’s the nature of collecting, and it’s important because we can define ourselves through it and create memories through it. Come on then, what five things would you take?

Cold frosted window with sunset behind

Cold: why collections and archives don’t much like it

Posted 5 CommentsPosted in Storage, Temperature

It’s been cold – below zero – in the UK the last few days, with days more chilly weather to come. I’m keen to have warmer weather (unless there’s snow coming, in which case bring it on) and it’s a sure thing that if you’re storing collections and archives in basements or attics, they’ll be suffering too.

Why? How can cold cause problems? I’ll use an analogy from last week. My seven year old wanted to take an inflatable plastic globe to school. We rescued it from her bedroom by the radiator and blew it up fully. We set off on foot to do the 10 minute walk in -2 degrees. After a few minutes, we noticed that it had ‘blown down’ and that the feel of it had changed – it had gone from being plump and springy to brittle and hard to move. I explained that it hadn’t blown down but that the molecFrosted window with sunset behindules of cold air within the globe and the particles of plastic in the globe had contracted in the cold, causing the blown down effect and the plastic to feel delicate. I told her to take it in to the warm classroom and see what happened and later she was able to tell me that the procedure had reversed.

Items in archives and collections react in exactly the same way to differing degrees – and there lies the problem. If you’ve two items together, say books with parchment glued onto paper or buckskin glued to card, they will expand and contract at different rates, causing loosening and tearing. Add a bit of condensation into the mix, which freezes in the layers, and you’ve got trouble heading your way – mould, mildew, shrinkage…

18 degrees is considered a stable temperature for most objects. It is worse to have daily fluctuations than seasonal ones as this causes more expansion/contraction cycles. Any area getting down to near freezing temperatures is a cause for concern. If your collection is in a poor space, consider a long term insulation plan with false walls of battens and foamboard – this will help with heating costs in the rest of the building. If you haven’t already covered windows, do so, either permanently or with blankets or thermal blinds at the windows. Allow some heating on the coldest days. Keep the area dry at all times. Consider a proper plan to look after your history and take care of your unique collections.

New Year, New Strategy? Use the old to show off the new!

Posted Posted in Using archives and collections

New Year, New Strategy? Use the old to show off the new!

So 2017 is here – (a shock, I know – each year seems to move ever more swiftly the older I get). So how can we use this year in new ways? What new strategy can we adopt to show that we’re moving with the times? Ironically, to show new things, old things can often be the answer.

Look to the past
The past is the informer of the present and the future. We can look to it in myriad ways to find out what we did well and what we did badly. We can look at how we’ve changed, progressed, learned, adapted. We can see if we are reactive or proactive. We can see how we’ve dealt with challenges, from minor to major, and what effect those changes had – was it positive or negative? We can, if we look closely enough at a long company history, see the different ways that different company directors work – their differing leadership styles are written in the company’s footprint.

But why look?
Knowing what’s gone on is such a useful way of knowing how to proceed. You can evaluate a plan better if it’s been done before and failed because you can find out why it failed. You can try a plan again even if it failed last time if you know that other parameters – customer needs, changes in spending, technology – have changed too. If it’s not been done before, you know that you are the pioneer and can move in any direction you choose and this is empowering.

Where can we look?
Your company records, archives and collections are fabulous tools for evaluating your company’s future. They can tell you all of the above. Your company history can give you the confidence to lead in new and challenging directions. Perhaps this means that through your company’s past you can see the future? Maybe that’s a bit whimsical, but a new year with new hope and new ideas…anything is possible! Look to the past to think of the future and a Happy New Year to you all.

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 ;

Finding out that my role is quite unusual

Posted Posted in museums, libraries, archives, collections, Opinion

woman-42009_1280I recently attended the British Archive Council’s annual conference at the HSBC building in Canary Wharf. The theme was diversity – not of people, but of archives – diversifying, really.

 

Each speaker discussed the new challenge of getting one’s archive ‘out there’; of getting it to work for its owners; of justifying its existence; of how to exploit it for company benefit. Historically there has been a feeling that if a company owns an archive it is a) strictly private b) nothing more than a repository of ‘stuff we can’t get rid of’  and c) too difficult, too expensive, too risky and too time-consuming to either use it or open it to the public.

 

Happily, more forward thinking companies have changed and are continuing to change this view. Most of the big hitters – think Mitsubishi, Honda, Wells Fargo, M&S, Boots, Ikea, HSBC, Rothschilds, Guinness, Thomas Cook, Harley Davidson, Coca Cola – already have not only archives and archivists but museums too, to explore their collections, open them up to academics, provide inspiration and leverage their brand.

 

So I was surprised, when networking with the attendee archivists, to find out that the majority of them a) don’t already diversify as it’s a new field for them, b) are usually not trained in caring for a collection comprising three-dimensional items and c) are not used to putting on exhibitions. It seems that my role – being an archivist and museum curator for companies; somebody able to not only care for two-dimensional and three-dimensional items but to  put on exhibitions and then leverage the collection for profit – is rarer than I’d thought. Maybe I should be called Archivist Plus or Archivist Extra instead of The Company Curator…

From trilobite to kilobyte

Posted 5 CommentsPosted in Opinion
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Fred, a trilobyte

Meet Fred, who sits on my desk next to my mouse. Fred is a trilobite. He lived a while back; sometime about 400 million years ago he was living in what would now be Morocco, with volcanoes above him and a warm coral sea below. At this time life had exploded in the seas: arthropods ruled the oceans, fish and sharks were becoming prolific and plants and trees were taking hold on land.

 

Trilobites are first seen in the fossil record about 521 million years ago, and were the most successful of all early creatures, living for over 270 million years, during the Cambrian, Devonian, Ordovician periods before dying out in the mass extinctions of the Permian period about 250 million years ago.

I like to have Fred on my desk, next to my computer mouse, to remind me of several things.

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Fred looking good at 400 million years old

 

 

  • However successful a species is, however long that species lives or rules for, it can all end suddenly in circumstances beyond that species’ control. We will all go the way of the trilobite one day. This is humbling.
  • Humans did not exist when Fred did, yet we know so much about him thanks to constantly changing theories, emerging science ideas, our need for knowledge and understanding and the fossil record which provides this. By having a piece of the past to hand, we can seek to be reminded of and to understand our history, the history of the world and our place in it.
  • What was once a tangible, fleshy, living part of a wider ecosystem is now a tangible item of art, geology and history. It can be seen as a geological specimen of rocks and minerals; as an artistic item and a representation of the fossil-finder’s skill; and also as a historical specimen and representation of the Linnaean system (Kingdom: Animalia, Phylum: Arthropoda, Class: Trilobita, Order: Phacopidae, Suborder: Phacopina, Superfamily: Acastoidea, Family: Acastidae, Subfamily: Asteropyginae, Genus: Greenops, Species: Widderensis)
  • To compare old and new and to see how they mix together (I do occasionally reach for my mouse and find a trilobite in my hand) and inform each other. Together they can create new stories.
  • That history is emotive. This is where companies can benefit from showing off their histories. People are interested in history because it’s about other people; other lives; other times. Just as I like to see Fred, and feel humbled at the passage of time even as it is kaleidoscoped down and the past and the present sit together on my desk, so customers and clients like to feel this when they see the history of their companies.
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From trilobite to kilobyte

Ultimately, companies can be inspired by their histories in the way I’m inspired by Fred – to tell a story, to learn more, to be reminded of the past and therefore of our futures, to mix old and new and to create emotions.