Filling my glass (case)
With my head already swimming with ideas from the Research in Translation workshop the day before, I took a seat in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery on the morning of Friday 19 September 2014. My mind was occupied with other thoughts as well; although the teaching semester at Queen’s University Belfast would not begin for another week, the days leading up to the workshop had been spent furiously planning classes for my new final-year ‘Crime and Punishment’ module. Friday night was also Culture Night and my involvement in the Research in Translation programme meant that I’d had to refuse invitations to participate in history-related activities at home. Admittedly, as I took my seat alongside other delegates, my mind was also wandering to arrangements for the night ahead. I’d planned to attend a colleague’s party on Friday night and I was anxious that Flybe wouldn’t interfere with my plans to go directly from Belfast City Airport to the party.
While some participants seemed to have clear ideas about their exhibitions by Friday morning, I hadn’t yet decided how best to present my research on women in nineteenth-century Irish prisons. The presentations had been fascinating up to that point. These, and the ‘behind the scenes’ walk around the Birmingham Museum Collections Centre at Duddeston, had revealed the many possibilities available. Although I had begun to think about the types of objects that I could potentially display, I hadn’t settled on the overarching concept behind my project. I was, however, considerably more informed than I had been about the importance of audience research, the ways to engage diverse audiences, the deliberations that should accompany decisions about the layout of the exhibition, and the impact of seemingly insignificant details like colour and texture of background fabrics or panels. Thursday’s discussion had also included valuable advice about choosing images for marketing purposes. I had also developed a new appreciation for museum and gallery labels. Presentations had highlighted the various levels of understanding that labels need to address, and the type of words that should and should not feature.
The themes that were discussed on Friday morning at the Birmingham Museum, the manner in which museum can convey various levels of meaning to different individuals, the way that messages can be implied rather than overtly stated, and the juxtaposition of very different ideas, images and objects, fascinated me. Exhibitions Manager Andy Horn spoke about grouping objects by era or by theme, but also by colour or intuition, and emphasised the ways that exhibitions can be playful. He explained how the viewer can be encouraged to draw connections between seemingly separate objects and described how curators work with the objects that they have to create exhibitions on very diverse subjects. As he explained, the same object might feature in several seemingly unrelated exhibitions. And then the realisation hit me: I could present the entire argument of my (in progress) monograph in a single glass case. True, the small exhibition wouldn’t include all of the case studies that will ultimately feature in the book, the argument wouldn’t be supported by statistical calculations or be rigorously footnoted, and the discussion wouldn’t be placed in a wider international context. But the essence of the monograph’s argument could still be conveyed in the exhibition. Now it’s just a matter of locating my objects and securing permission for their display. And then there’s the small task of co-ordinating their safe transfer across the Irish Sea!
The relaxed atmosphere and collegial spirit encouraged much discussion across the two days. Ample time had been allowed for questions and conversations, and hands-on activities had been built into the schedule on both days. It wasn’t without its hiccups – I got separated from the main group at one point, and from my jacket at another – but it was an extremely informative and valuable two days and immense fun with smart, interesting, and good-humoured delegates, facilitators and mentors. It was worth the effort, time and money to travel from Belfast. And I made it to the party, duty-free bottle of whiskey in one hand and my suitcase in the other.
Dr Elaine Farrell
Lecturer in Irish Social and Economic History, Queen’s University Belfast