Workshop 1, Reflections by Emma Login

Following Workshop 1 (18-19 September 2014), we asked participants to write a summary of their thoughts and reflections on Workshop 1. Below you find Emma Login’s reflections on the two-day workshop.

The first two days of workshops offered a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the project and to get to know the other participants. All of the workshops proved really helpful and have definitely given lots of food for thought.

Together the sessions highlighted the many different things that need to be taken into consideration when curating a museum exhibition. Having never organised an exhibition before the chance to hear about Rebecca Bridgmans’s experience putting together the recent Islamic Calligraphy exhibition was really helpful. Rebecca raised lots of very interesting points, including for example, the importance of community involvement for a successful project, particularly in relation to engaging with audiences that do not traditionally visit museums. The sensitive nature of some of the objects highlighted the importance of ensuring that the exhibition was thoughtfully curated in a way that respected the religious beliefs of individuals. This approach was very relevant to my research into memorials, as they can be very emotive objects, especially when viewed within the context of contemporary conflicts. Most thought provoking in the Calligraphy exhibition was the integration of historic and contemporary objects. Antique items displayed in the same context as contemporary writing and art pieces made really interesting connections within the exhibition, and I would definitely be interested in using a similar technique to explore the presentation of historic and contemporary attitudes towards memorials.

My research examines the development of war memorialisation in the last 150 years. I’m particularly interested in the ways that attitudes towards commemoration and memorialisation have changed over time. Much of my research is based on interviews and oral testimonies which are difficult to display using conventional museum methods. Consequently, the session on the display of photographic images was especially useful. War memorials can obviously be very sensitive and the workshop dealt with the thoughtful display and labelling of images. This exercise was also useful in demonstrating the preconceptions that individuals can bring with them when viewing any image or object. Each group interpreted the images placed before them through a lens of contemporary understandings. In the context of such challenging images the labels take on added importance. The session on ‘writing texts for museums’ was, as a result, very helpful and showed the importance of considering both the object and the audience when writing an object label. It demonstrated the impact and influence a label can exert over understandings of an object, and consequently over the viewer’s engagement with that object. The potential for a poorly thought through label to alienate the reader was especially striking.

Perhaps the most inspirational part of the first day was the visit to the Museum Collections Centre. The chance to chat to the other participants and learn about their research whilst walking around the centre was really helpful. I was able to gain some interesting perspectives on my own research and discuss potential exhibition ideas. The surreal juxtaposition of objects within the collections centre allowed creative connections to be made; something that was further developed the following day in Andy Horn’s presentation. The talk by Andy Horn demonstrated how unusual combinations of visual signs can be used to give objects a completely different meaning. This is definitely something that I would be really interested in exploring in my own exhibition. In particular, the ways in which attitudes to memorials in the past may appear controversial when juxtaposed with images of their use in the present, and conversely contemporary attitudes may seem inappropriate if viewed in a post-First World War context.

The session on digital technology was really helpful for thinking about the display of images and the spoken word in new and exciting ways. Particularly interesting were the ways in which little glimpses of images were used on the touch screen to invite people to see and learn about the whole image. I’m very interested in exploring the possibility of using recordings of oral testimonies from both contemporary respondents, and also those drawn from the Mass Observation archives, juxtaposed with some of the more challenging images from my research. Through this I hope to challenge the ways that people think about memorials.

One of the main lessons I learned from the workshops was the importance of considering the audience of the exhibition and the expectations that they might have. The digital technology session was very useful for exploring different levels of interpretation and the possibility of incorporating technologies that can give more information if required by the viewer. Equally important, and something that came through in all of the workshops, was the importance of storytelling and bringing in a human element. This was especially relevant to my research as the war memorials themselves often have no intrinsic artistic value. The stories that individuals attach to them, and in particular the stories behind the names, add to the interest and meaning of the objects. Using these stories provides an interesting way in which individuals can engage with a memorial regardless of their level of knowledge relating to the events being commemorated.

Overall the workshops provided a great introduction to the project and a really thought provoking insight into exhibition design. It was really nice to meet the other participants and hear about their varied backgrounds and research interests. The possibility for collaborative exhibitions is very exciting and I’m really looking forward to getting to know everyone better over the course of the project.

Emma Login
University of Birmingham

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