Unstraight Outta Stockholm

Last Friday I attended the Unstraight Museum conference at the Museum of Liverpool, National Museums Liverpool. The conference sought to address the challenges involved in the incorporation of LGBTQ objects, narratives and exhibitions across the cultural sector, and interrogate examples of best practice. Examples included April Ashley: Portrait of a Lady, a collaborative exhibition between the Museum of Liverpool and Homotopia (http://bit.ly/SKrM3U), and the work of Finnish museums, libraries and archives as presented by sociologist Kati Mustola. The delegate body was truly international and representative of a variegated global cultural sector, everything from the Tom of Finland Foundation to the V&A.

The name of conference referenced the ongoing Unstraight Museum project (http://bit.ly/UI0LQk), which began in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2007. This virtual museum is described as ‘a site dedicated to presenting the stories of Unstraight individuals and their contemporary reality’ and it does this in a particularly playful fashion. The traditional curatorial preoccupation with category and definition is abandoned in favour of a collective appreciation of experience and emotion. Visitors to the museum are encouraged to upload images of their Unstraight objects with accompanying narratives.  This opportunity was afforded to each of the conference delegates as one of our tasks was to bring along an Unstraight object and help create a pop-up exhibition within an hour. Images of these objects and their associated narratives, some of which were filmed, will soon be uploaded to the Unstraight Museum.

Delegates were keen to know how exactly how the museum defined Unstraight and put the question to its curator Nicolas Hasselqvist, he responded just as the video above does in that the museum wants its users to ‘be part of defining unstraight’. With the addition of each new object, narrative, and experience, the definition of unstraight expands exponentially. I find this particularly exciting as it allows for the creation of a multi-verse of perception and interpretation, that perhaps only a virtual museum is capable of capturing. It’s reminiscent of the fascinating work on multiple ontologies being conducted by anthropologists such as Dr. Martin Holbraad, University College London, which emphasises the need for multi-layered interpretation and multiple methodologies. Museums globally are increasingly recognising this need, just as Prof. Yashiaki Nishino has done at the University Museum, University of Tokyo, with the Chamber of Curiosities. This installation has no explanatory text or object labels but simply asks visitors to view, experience and react to the very many encyclopaedic objects around them.

Such innovative methodologies will increasingly encourage museums to recognise that interpretation is a perpetual process and the need also to incorporate multiple modernities, as described by Prof. Thomas A. McCarthy, Northwestern University, in his book Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development, 2009. In this way the Unstraight Museum provides a crucial interpretative vehicle to access other modernities beyond that of the heteronormative. Interestingly, McCarthy also states in the same book that the virtuosos of reflexivity invariably originate in the margins of society. Perhaps then the Unstraight Museum is a tangible example of museological reflexive virtuosity in action, and a wonderfully irreverent approach to documentation and display that the sector globally could learn from.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Exhibiting Concepts, Experiencing Meanings

I’ve just joined Manchester Museum as Trainee Curator in Anthropology as part of the Future Curators programme at the British Museum. A couple of weeks ago, Stephen Welsh and I attended a symposium at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, organised to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The symposium was entitled ‘Exhibiting Concepts, Experiencing Meanings: Current and future curatorial challenges’. The programme brought together curators and academics from across the world to discuss the intellectual and practical challenges which surround exhibition making with ethnographic collections. There were many fascinating papers, but here I’m going to highlight just a few of the projects discussed.

In a session entitled ‘Experiencing exhibitions ‘at home’ and abroad’, Gaye Sculthorpe, Section Head for Oceania at the British Museum spoke about the project she is currently working on to develop exhibitions about Indigenous Australia to be shown in London and Canberra in 2015. The major temporary exhibition at the British Museum will be an outcome of a five year research project which has sought to engage indigenous communities across Australia. Many of the objects will then travel to the National Museum of Australia for a related exhibition. Gaye spoke of the intense emotional reactions she’d witnessed from indigenous visitors when faced with objects which represent the contentious history of Australia.

This shield was collected in Australia when Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay in 1770. It represents the first contact between Europeans and Indigenous Australians and will return to Australia in 2015 for the first time since it was collected as part of a loan from the collection of the British Museum. This is likely to have a huge emotional impact on Indigenous audiences for the exhibitions in London and Canberra.

The emotional power of objects was also addressed by Noelle Kahuna who spoke about the loan of Kū figures to the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. This was the first time in over 150 years that three monumental carvings of the god Kū had come together. The carvings from the collections of the British Museum in London, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts and the Bishop Museum are thought to be the last remaining examples of this quality and size in the world. Kū is a god known is several Pacific cultures associated with procreation, prosperity and warfare. In this exhibit, the lenders agreed that the objects could be dressed in loincloths called a malo, honouring traditional beliefs and acknowledging the power of museums to explore issues of cultural identity.

The three Ku figues on display at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Hawaii in 2010.

Many speakers addressed the need for exhibitions to be more than geographical or typological arrangements of objects, and suggested ways that displays could use concepts drawn from indigenous cultures. Aristoteles Barcelos-Neto spoke of how a new framework had been developed for Amerindian studies which contributed to a change in anthropological approach. His ethnographic film about the Amazon’s Wauja community made in 2007 shows atujuwa masks, the manufacture of which was revived as a cultural practice in 1997. Fourteen masks have been made to go into private collections in Paris and Lisbon, as they would not exist for long in the humid rainforest climate. Exhibitions of the masks were developed around the Wauja concept of apapaatai, which are spirits thought to cause illness. This type of illness will not kill but can only be cured by a shaman, and once cured allows the person to take on the power and protection of that spirit.

The range of papers presented across the three day symposium was vast, and raised many questions which will require further thought going into the future. In the opening remarks, it was suggested that anthropological museums need to begin to address environmental issues as these concerns are of particular relevance to many indigenous communities as well as to the wider world. While climate change and deforestation have been easily incorporated into displays within museums of natural history or science, these issues are yet to be tackled in ethnographic museums. This theme was not revisited for discussion during the symposium, but presents an interesting challenge to curators: in a time where many institutions do not have the capacity to continue collecting contemporary objects and need to make our historical collections relevant, how can we use them to provoke discussion around environmental concerns?

Several speakers also discussed the role of the curator – as a guardian for collections, but also as a translator, to let people know what they’re looking at and why they should want to look at it. Do they also have the responsibility to ask questions and provoke reactions?

Together in Ethnographic Dreams

Last week over 300 UK museums joined forces on Twitter to celebrate Museums Week. It was a roaring success with innumerable museum experiences, challenges, memories, selfies and questions flooding Twitter. I found one particular question I was asked both stimulating and challenging in equal measure:

As a curator I am constantly inspired by the objects and people I work with, and this in turn stimulates countless exhibition ideas. To pick any single exhibition idea would be like testifying to having a single object of interest, impossible! However, over the past several months I have found myself increasingly intrigued by an ethnographic aesthetic embedded in popular music videos. This aesthetic is one based on a popular understanding of ethnic, namely tribal and non-western. My answer therefore was an exhibition on this very phenomenon, and included a link to this sublime video:

Acapella was directed by British team photographer John Waddell and musical director Chris Cottam. Kelis assumes the role of a variegated matriarch lambent in bead, feather, and face-paint as she straddles rainforest and desert with mesmerising ferocity. This is one of a pantheon of contemporary music videos to indulge ethnographically:

Of course this is nothing new, popular culture has for generations consumed and reconstructed the ethnographic in film, fashion and music. There does, however, seem to be a yearning, maybe a as consequence of increasing globalisation, for an escape to a 21st century imagined ethnographic simplicity. Around the world people are increasingly trying to reconnect culturally, whether it’s Mexicans and their Aztec ancestors or Britons and Druids. In this pursuit both music videos and museums play an extraordinarily influential role, both tangibly and intangibly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Good Dogs go to Manchester Museum

Last Wednesday Breed: The British and their Dogs finally opened. All those who attended, both canine and human, were captivated by the fascinating stories, wonderful objects and stunning graphics. Dog breeders from the Manchester Dog Show Society and beyond very kindly brought a selection of pedigree show dogs to meet visitors in the flesh. Rocky the bulldog was the star of the show winning the affection of the majority of visitors with his loveable personality.

Borzoi at the opening of Breed.

However, visitors were equally as intrigued and pleased to meet the other five breeds including Pekingese, borzoi, and the final three focus breeds I’ve yet to blog about, namely the Irish wolfhound, collie and bloodhound. These three breeds have enthralling histories associated with nationalism, colonialism, industrialisation and criminology! They typify and illuminate changes in British society over the past two centuries just as the Pekingese, borzoi and bulldog do.

Breed: The British and their Dogs. Manchester Museum. The University of Manchester. 2012.

If you missed the opening do come along to the Museum this Saturday as the dogs and their owners will be back. They’ll also be several other dog orientated events going on throughout the day so don’t miss out.

Installation Design and the Exhibition of Oceanic Things: Two New York Museums in the 1940s

On Wednesday 9th November , Kanaris Theatre, the Manchester Museum, from 3pm onwards Professor Robert Foster, University of Rochester, New York,  will be presenting his paper:

Installation Design and the Exhibition of Oceanic Things: Two New York Museums in the 1940s

 Further information regarding Professor Fosters research can be found at:

 http://www.rochester.edu/news/show.php?id=3771

 The presentation is a result of ongoing collaboration between the Museum and the University of Manchester Pacific Interest Group and Department of Social Anthropology. The Manchester Museum has an international significant Oceanic collection with over 7000 objects including textiles, weapons, tools, masks and carvings.

Bone and shell fish hook, Maori, New Zealand. 1800-1900. The Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection.

Spaces are limited so if you would like to attend do be punctual!

Stephen Terence Welsh

Curator of Living Cultures