Objects in museums – coming full circle
When my grandfather was a small boy in a small town in Germany, his own grandfather worked as a carpenter and caretaker in the local museum. Like the town, the museum was also rather small. It was located in an old mansion, had just a few rooms and was surrounded by a garden. For my grandfather, the place must have been an exciting playground when he visited his grandfather at work and he tells happy stories of running around the garden and sitting on an old and (again) rather small cannon.
When I grew up in the same town, our primary school class visited the same museum. I remember a dark, damp place, a chest with a secret lock mechanism, the usual assortment of shields and swords and of course also the cannon. Being a girl and going there with my class mates under the watchful eyes of the primary school teacher, we were of course not allowed to step on the grass, let alone ride the cannon.
Things were not much more entertaining in the bigger cities either. My grandparents had moved to another town and my grandfather would occasionally take me to the natural history museum there. Again, I remember a place that was mostly dark and very quiet, almost scarily so. There was a stuffed mammoth that seemed very large to a small girl, and there was another room that was particularly frightful: it showed an installation of a Neanderthal camp, all with fierce-looking spear-holding hairy men with bushy eyebrows and dark hair. When you switched on the light the whole installation lit up in all its glory and I was thoroughly terrified.
As I grew up I went to more museums: the Pergamon Museum, the Berlin Musical Instrument Museum, local museums around Germany and elsewhere. It was interesting, in principle I quite liked the idea of a museum but overall it wasn’t all that exciting. When it wasn’t damp and dark, it was still just you walking around looking at stuff, a rather passive experience.
Then I moved to Wales for a year, worked as an au-pair and one day the parents I worked for took me and the children to the Techniquest in Cardiff. I was expecting a museum about science, but I found an open, airy, well-lit space, bright colours, hands-on experiments, children completely soaked in water playing with pumps, and metal sticks illustrating standard electrode potentials. I had just written my chemistry A-level exams about stuff like that, and here it was in a museum for children and teenagers, and what’s more: it was fun! What a revelation!
Since then I have been to quite a few museums around the UK and I have seen great exhibits, but more importantly I have seen great ways of exploring objects through guided activities. My absolute favourite must be the mummy trail in the British Museum, especially the task with the mini carpet in the shape of a human torso and a set of stuffed toy organs. The organs represent those that would have been taken out of the dead bodies and put into different vases, and your task is to arrange the toy organs on the human torso carpet to figure out which ones the old Egyptians took out and where they took them from. The mummies are a bit scary, I know, and it could be a bit gross to think about taking out organs, but the way it’s done is wonderful and the objects seem far less intimidating and more meaningful afterwards.
With some of that in the back of my mind, I went off to Birmingham for the first of the two-day training workshops in creating museum exhibits to communicate our research to the wider public. Now, my research is a bit difficult to “put” in a museum. I work on language, in particular on spoken language and the way people use language in their everyday life. Language has no physical shape that you can put in a cabinet or on a plinth and exhibit like a dinosaur skeleton that you have dug out. Spoken language is so fleeting! You say something and it’s gone. You can’t really see it, and you can’t touch it.
Lucky for me though my research is based on audio and video recordings of the languages I study, or more precisely, it is based on audio and video recordings of the people who speak the languages that I study. So once I had settled for one of my ideas for an exhibit, it was quite clear for me that I would go digital. I want to show what systems of communication people had invented to talk to each other over long distances before there were mobile phones. Visitors may have heard of yodelling, a way to talk to one another in the Alps across deep valleys. But there are also elaborate whistling languages and drum languages. So I was thinking that objects and artefacts as exhibits in their own right are not for me. I want to go digital! I want video screens and headphones where visitors can see and hear whistling and drum languages, and whistles and drums where they can try it out themselves.
So when I was sitting in the training and we discussed glass cabinets and acquiring objects to exhibit I thought this was not all that relevant for me. But then we walked around the storage of the museums and saw some exhibits in museums. I listened to the discussions and to the ideas that participants had for bringing in material that didn’t necessarily represent their research but was related to it and fit in well as a background or a relevant contrast. And slowly, slowly artefacts and objects crept back into my thinking. I will not let go of the videos and headphones, they are essential for what I want to show. I really would like talking drums for people to play on and would happily bring in my own. I still would really like a can and string telephone because it’s just too much fun. But why not have something that illustrates the need for long-distance communication? A model of a thick forest with hunters and villages, and whistling languages and talking drums to communicate from one hunter to the other and from one village to the next? An artificial barrier to thread the string telephone through? Just to show the distances people have to overcome, and to really drive home the message that with shouting you’d just get a sore throat and alternatives are needed.
It seems that my childhood fear of dark, damp museum objects is going away. Ideas for objects and artefacts are popping into my head and by now I’d be almost a bit disappointed if there were no objects at all in my exhibit. Let’s see what the final exhibit will look like! Maybe nothing like what I am envisaging now, but I’m sure the journey there will be full of discoveries and fun, just like the journey so far.
Dr Sophie Salffner
Curation Assistant / Research Assistant
SOAS, University of London