Written by George Peckham, ITP Assistant

Collections with feelings

Monday 8 November 2021

Foteini Aravan, Curator, Museum of London
Dražen Grubišić, Co founder, Museum of Broken Relationships
Sharon Sliwinski, Creator and Editor, Museums of Dreams
Victoria Iglikowski-Broad, Principal Records Specialist, National Archives

This session posited the statement that museum collections are missing feelings; stories told in galleries can be one-sided and the objects can be dry. This session’s panellists look at how museums can open up collections, not only to engage news audiences, but to rethink what and how we collect. The session present three case studies of how collection with the help of our audiences can create more emotional and relatable collections. The museums and projects we hear from in this session have attempt to insert more feeling in museums by collecting love, breakups, dreams, and other intimate personal emotions. In curating more humane narratives, these projects aim to help improve health and wellbeing and provide inspiration and hope for the future.

With Love, an exhibition at the National Archives

First, we heard from Victoria Iglikowski-Broad, Principal Records Specialist at the National Archives who spoke to us about their recent exhibition, With Love: Letter of love, loss and longing. The exhibition explored 500 years of written expression of love. Documents in this exhibition included love letters, romantic letters, wills, legal documents and more. It is an exhibition about feelings which invites the audience to make emotional connections with the objects and documents on display. The exhibition originally opened on Valentine’s Day 2020 but closed shortly after due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In January 2021 and online version of the exhibition launched and the exhibition relaunched at the National Archives in July 2021.

Victoria presented some examples of the documents displayed in the exhibition. The most emotive of all was an example of a romantic letter written between a homosexual couple in the UK in 1930s. We are able to read this letter because it was collected as evidence during a police raid of a gay-friendly club in London; homosexual acts between men were criminalised at this time.

You can watch a video tour of the exhibition here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdcXuGPf0dQ&ab_channel=TheNationalArchivesUK

Museum of Broken Relationships

The next panellist we hear from was Dražen Grubišić, Co founder of the Museum of Broken Relationships. The museum is located in Zagreb and is dedicated to failed relationships. The museum’s collection is made up of objects donated by people all over the world that remind them of a broken relationship.

Dražen explained that the creation of the museum originated from a very personal experience in 2003, when his long-term relationship with his partner ended. Following the experience of dividing their personal items after the break-up, Dražen and his ex-partner started the Museum of Broken Relationships, with their own possessions being the first objects in the museum’s collection. Since 2010 the museum has had a permanent building in Zagreb.

The museum actively encourages more stories and more objects being contributed, so its collection is always growing. The public can submit a story of a broken relationship for the museum’s virtual collection, or people can send a physical item and a brief description of its significance to be added to the museum’s collection in Zagreb.

You can see the museum’s virtual collection on its website: https://brokenships.com/

Museum of Dreams

In the final case study we heard from Sharon Sliwinski, Creator and Editor of the Museums of Dreams. Based in Canada, the Museum of Dreams aims to be platform for exploring the emotional and social significance of dream-life. The museum collects historical records of dreams. You can explore their online collection which presents dreams and story-telling in various different forms, from people presenting their dreams through artistic performance, to personal interviews with contributors about their dreams.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Museum of Dreams collaborated with the Museum of London as part of their ongoing Collecting COVID project. The project collected dreams in the form of oral histories to explore what insight dreams might offer into mental health and ways of coping with external stresses, especially in times of crisis.

Written by Anna Cottle, ITP Coordinator

Curating conflict

Monday, November 8 2021
Hannah Crowdy, Head of Curatorial, National Museums NI

Museums are often tasked with collecting and interpreting conflicts and controversies from history and the present day. In this session, Hannah Crowdy (some ITP fellows will have met Hannah previously on partner placements or at the MA conference) explains how National Museums NI has approached curating conflict through an ethical lens and offers advice on how your museum can approach similar issues.

Hannah concentrates on the The Troubles and Beyond gallery at Ulster Museum. first of all explaining what ‘the Troubles’ means in terms of conflict in Northern Ireland:

Hannah asks how we can simultaneously acknowledge conflict and also move forwards and says that for National Museums NI, The Troubles and Beyond gallery has been transformational in helping train staff and support visitors to come to terms with the shocking events that happened in Northern Ireland. Below, you can see some of the ‘ethical considerations’ when dealing with content such as this.

When curating a gallery such as The Troubles and Beyond, Hannah talks about using the Museums association ‘Code of Ethics’ as a guide, some of which are shown in the slide above. However, as useful as the MA guidance is, to promote mutual respect, tolerance and understanding specific to the Troubles, National Museums NI formulated their own ethics policy and Hannah talked about four of these in the presentation, explaining how these are used at work.

1.3 Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Expression

Hannah mentioned individual museum projects at National Museums NI, which you can see in the slide above, on the right, relating to point 1.3. She adds that in terms of freedom of speech, the museum will display offensive content if necessary and relevant, but will always involve those who are the victims and make sure they are represented in the interpretation.

1.4 Accurate Research and Minimising Bias

According to Hannah, everything National Museums NI do is based on very sound research and the slide above explains how they do this. Being critical is really important, as is not celebrating or condemning people or actions, but analysing. At the museum they are seeking to learn from lived experience and multiple perspectives. An example of this in the Troubles gallery, is a selection of personal testimonies which is changed regularly to show multiple perspectives and welcoming new narratives. Hannah believes this way of conducting research allows them to be inclusive whilst basing content on accurate research without bias, with the work always evolving as they learn.

1.5 Acknowledging Contributions

This point focuses on the immeasurable value of peoples lived experience and the importance of recognising this. An example given, of a related project is National Museum NI’s Voices of ‘68 Exhibit. This exhibition invited audiences to learn about the events of 1968, a pivotal year in Northern Ireland’s history, directly from some of the key figures of this period.

1.6 Working in Partnership

Partnership and co-production is important and being proactive is key – Hannah feels that museums can often be inactive and presume their spaces are welcoming and inclusive but that isn’t always true. Enabling people to become involved in co-curation is important when looking at who and who is not represented.

2.1 Collections – Past, present and future

The last point covered asks, what is our role as a museum and purpose in society and when looking to the future? Hannah comments that collecting the past, is making the future and for them, it is vital to record the difficult and contentious events which mark the partition and creation of Northern Ireland.

A film is shown from the Troubles gallery, which the museum made to try and communicate what they are doing with objects and display and their storytelling. The story follows the conversation between a young woman and an older man, who has a bus ticket from the time of the Troubles. He feels it should be forgotten and the young woman explains to him why it is important for someone like her to learn from ‘just a bus ticket’. Different media formats can tell stories in different ways and reach new audiences.

Hannah also mentions the Principles for Ethical Remembering (below) which is relevant to National Museums NI and was developed by Community Relations Council and National Heritage Lottery Fund and includes advice such as ‘Start from the historical facts’.

Audience feedback is vital to the museum and Hannah goes through some quotes from visitors to the Troubles gallery (below), including, ‘I was familiar with the events…though, it ‘shocked’ me to see objects, read memories. I know it has happened but I came close to it today.’ This kind of feedback informs and directs the museum’s work and is an important way of capturing different perspectives.

Hannah explains how they use an ongoing work cycle (simplified version below) to ensure that the work of the museum remains dynamic and is constantly developing over time. Again, feedback is key to know that what they are providing is relevant and engaging.

Hannah welcomes feedback and if you would like to get in touch her email address is hannah.crowdy@nullnmni.com.

The ethics of contemporary collecting

Susanna Cordner, Senior Research Fellow: Archives, London College of Fashion
Rosamund Lily West, Documentary Curator, London Transport Museum
Ellie Miles, Documentary Curator, London Transport Museum

Recent global events have led to a growth in contemporary collecting projects. Covid-19 and climate being two key examples which become the subjects of various contemporary collection projects.

This session was a workshop which gave delegates a chance to discuss some of the potential ethical issues of contemporary collecting, such as issues around collecting trauma; collecting safely from social justice movements such as Black Lives Matters; collecting hateful or harmful material; collecting in a climate emergency.

The delegates attending the session physically were split into groups and given a contemporary collecting scenario and asked to consider some of the ethical concerns around their scenario. Below are some of the ideas and considerations shared:

  • Respecting time/space – not overstepping on people’s digital personal spaces (like social media). So possibly looking at a space where people could upload/share their own experiences/photographs digitally.
  • A way of collecting experiences from frontline workers could be by recording audio interviews, rather than by collecting objects.
  • Respect, empathy and sensitivity are crucial, but so is a dialogue about what is collected, not just museum professionals deciding what should be collected.
  • When processing a traumatic event, such as working on Covid-19 front lines, many people use art to express their feelings creatively and process experience. Collecting the outcomes of these, whether drawing, painting, poetry, are all objects in themselves and can offer a different way of understanding than the written or spoken account.
  • forming a more lasting relationship gives you the chance to earn someone’s trust before they share their story of object.
  • Idea of people being able to donate their story/lived experience along with an object by writing its label

Contemporary collecting projects mentioned during the session: