5 Simple Things Museums Can Do to Help the Environment

In recent years, there has been a large focus on what individuals can do to help the environment. From switching energy suppliers to shopping more sustainably, people have been advised to change their everyday habits. Responsibility has been shifted away from governments and organisations to the individual, and in response, individuals have tried to shift the blame back to them when they fail to address the issues themselves. I think there is definitely a middle-ground to be had, and a ‘trickle up’ effect to be triggered. I am optimistic that if individuals within larger groups, communities and organisations make changes to help the environment, it will set a precedent that will force governments and transnational communities to listen. In museums, there are of course some limitations; certain artefacts and collections have to be kept at a particular temperature and humidity so that they do not deteriorate, for example. However, the following 5 actions are reasonable, feasible ways in which a Museum Professional could make their workplace more sustainable:

  1. Recycling bins: This may seem obvious, but this simple change could dramatically reduce the amount of material sent from your museum to landfill. Even if you already have recycling bins in your museum, think about how they are used. Are they available to staff AND visitors? Is there a clear guide near each bin about what is and isn’t recyclable? Are the bins easily locatable?
  2. No plastic bags: Museum shops often provide more rigid plastic bags than supermarkets, for example. Whilst this may encourage some visitors to reuse the bags, they are often also made in unhelpful sizes, designed specifically for postcards, pencils or other miscellanea, and are therefore left unused or put in the bin. Some museums now only offer paper bags, which is a better alterantive. I think museums should not encourage the use of ANY plastic bags; they are unneccesary and known to be damaging for the environment, taking much longer to decompose than other recyclables (if they are, indeed, recycled). The Horniman Museum has eradicated single use plastics from its catering – no plastic bottles, no plastic food wrap – but believes that paper bags are more expensive than plastic ones. Why not… insist that people bring their own, or SELL paper bags?
  3. Link collections to environmental issues: This is something that, as a museum volunteer, I have seen in practice. The MAA in Cambridge has linked its Pacific Islands collections to the environment by directly linking information about Pacific Communities to the effects of pollution and climate change on their livelihoods. The museum has also run events with a specific focus on global warming. The same has been done in several natural history museums, such as the collection at the Bristol Museum, who veiled animals that would become extinct as a result of global warming.
  4. Join a group or community that wants change: Culture Declares Emergency is just one of many communities of Arts & Heritage organisations that are fighting for the environment. Art not Oil is another. There are plenty of groups out there, and even if the museum you work for doesn’t want to declare itself a member, there’s nothing to say that you can’t and go on to enact small changes as a result.
  5. Incentivise sustainable travel: Whilst more difficult for smaller, rural museums to enforce, city or town museums could easily do this. Incentivising the use of bicycles, buses and trains over car travel, to staff AND visitors, may well reduce the environmental impact of visiting your museum.

Of course, there are larger things that can be done by museums to act in favour of sustainability, but they require meetings with operations teams, managers, directors, and so on. Small changes – if done well, advertised, and shouted about within the community – could well encourage bigger dicussions to happen. There is already a large eco-warrior community within the Arts & Heritage sector… let’s keep that trend going!

‘Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature’s Young Rebels’ at a glance

If you are looking for a family-friendly exhibition to start your year off, the British Library’s latest exhibtion may be just the thing. Addressing children’s stories, old and new, the exhibition exlores what it means to be a rebel, and the difference between naughtiness and bravery, misbehaviour and activism.

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I was delighted to see the ingenious way in which this particular exhibition was designed to engage adults and children alike. My favourite example can be seen below.

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At adults’ eye-level, an original draft and a later manuscript of Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ are hung on the wall, with an explanation about how the content changed between versions of the same story; it is explained that Matilda was originally portrayed as a mischievous child until she was rewritten as a helpful, kind and brave little girl.

Meanwhile, at a child’s eye-level, a short passage reads:

Can you count how many korrections
corections correcshons corrections
Roald Dahl has made?

Remember to keep trying
next time you make a mistake.

You never know what
marvellous story it could lead to!

I think that the impact of correcting ‘correction’ and the message’s other simple language is a very clever way of engaging children and encouraging them to problem-solve. The link between mistake-making and creativity is a wonderfully positive message to communicate, especially in relation to such a well-known author whose stories may well inspire the children visiting the exhibition.

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The same double-captioning was used throughout the exhibition, as can be seen above with modern favourite ‘Clarice Bean’.  It’s also worth noting how the exhibition doesn’t shy away from exhibiting original content, from the collage-style page design on loan from Lauren Child (above) to handwritten manuscript of ‘Jane Eyre’ (below).

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Even though all of the exhibits sat behind glass, it was lovely to see old texts such as this Latin Textbook and ‘Child’s First Tales’…

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… sat next to ‘The Jolly Postman’ and ‘Tracy Beaker’…

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… as well as international, foreign-language texts such as this new edition of ‘Mulan’.

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This truly gorgeous exhibition is definitely worth a visit, and whilst it is certainly family-friendly, there’s more than enough for big-kids to enjoy too, with or without the brood!

Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature’s Young Rebels

– Free, and open until Sun 1st March 2020

Lizzie Champion – Multilingual Solutions for your Museum’s Accessibility

I recently reached out to museums in Cambridge over twitter about multilingual resources, and am thrilled to have already heard back from people who are interested! Off the back of this, I would like to extend the offer I made to anyone who feels that their museum would benefit from my Multilingual Solutions.

In recent years, I have observed a lack of multilingual resources available to those visiting museums throughout the UK. As a former Modern and Medieval Languages student at the University of Cambridge and a University of Cambridge Museums Volunteer, I feel that I can resolve this issue through linguistic dexterity and an understanding of the Arts & Heritage sector. I am able to provide a range of support, including:

  • Translations of existing museum content – signs, labels, leaflets, etc.
  • New content for museums, in English and Foreign Languages
  • Bespoke resources for museums, highlighting culturally relevant exhibits, artefacts and themes for international visitors in audio and/or text form
  • Collaboration with education, events and outreach teams to arrange multilingual, in-person support for sessions in museums
  • Bespoke tours/tour guides of museums in Foreign Languages

Further or alternate multilingual services can also be provided. I am also open to proposals, and any fees will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

I genuinely think that – especially in the face of Brexit – UK museums need to be as accessible as possible to those whose native language is not English. I am sure I am not the only person to think this, and believe I am capable of helping everyone to enjoy their museum experience, regardless of where they call home.

If you happen to be interested in any of the above, or know someone/somewhere that would benefit from becoming a multilingual space, please do get in touch via the form on my blog. Thank you for reading!

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Accessibility: myth and reality – A critique of the ‘Troy’ exhibition at the British Museum

There has been a lot of controversy about the latest temporary exhibition to be launched at the British Museum. Art Not Oil is one of many groups to have been outraged by BP’s sponsorship of the exhibition, for example. However, upon visiting the exhibition last week, my primary concern was that of the exhibition’s accessibility.

Access means different things for different people. In the Heritage sector, accessibility commonly refers to how equipped the space is to feel welcoming to disabled and/or differently-abled people of all ages. For me, access is more than that. Accessibility, in my view, goes beyond issues of disability, encompassing language-barriers, barriers to education, mental health issues, pricing, and so on… essentially, I would say that an accessible exhibition should present no barriers to anyone.

Unfortunately, the Troy exhibition was not an accessible exhibition, for the following reasons:

  1. The cost: A full-priced ticket to the exhibition costs £20. For many people, £20 would cover the cost of food for a week. To sell tickets to a single exhibition at such an extortionate price restricts access to those on a budget, trying to save or simply incapable of paying such an amount, many of whom may well be keen to see the exhibition or may benefit from seeing such an exhibition. Given the content of the exhibition – and its BP sponsorship – it is also unclear where exactly this money is going…
  2. Capacity: When I went to visit, on a Tuesday afternoon, the exhibition was full. People were crowding around exhibits and there were queues to see even the first objects on display. This was very odd, given that the exhibition did not seem ‘full’. I believe that the objects on display were too close together, so perhaps the rooms should have been laid out in such a way that would facilitate people’s view of the objects.78890291_523420575048936_6012507430427033600_n.jpg
  3. Labelling: The first half of the exhibition were labelled with panels that were very low down, at mid-calf level. There were elderly people hunched over trying to read the labels and others kneeling down or straining to do the same.
  4. Lighting in the cases: In many of the cases, light was shone onto objects either from the side or diagonally from above. This obscured the details on some of the objects, such as the fragment of pottery below, whose cuneiform text is totally indistinguishable because of the shadows caused by the lighting.78675211_982519448794739_2290266902292856832_n
  5. Lighting of the space: This was one of my biggest concerns. The exhibition was very dark, with low lighting throughout. I appreciate that this gave an ‘old-worldy’, mysterious atmosphere to the exhibition, but it was personally very disorientating, and did not help with the fatigue triggered by the case-lighting and low-level labelling.
  6. Sounds: There were also a lot of disorientating and distracting sounds being played throughout the exhibition. A high-pitched song (possibly a folk-song or chant) was being played on repeat in the second room and this could be heard as you travelled around the exhibition. Repetitive sounds are really unhelpful to those – like me – who are often overstimulated by what is going on around them. I often found myself unable to concentrate on anything, let alone the content of the exhibition.
  7. Content: My issue with the content of the exhibition is twofold. Firstly, the text was not as clear as it could have been. As a graduate who had the opportunity to study classical literature and culture, I was able to follow the content of the exhibition. However, had I not received the education that I had, I would have found it an incredibly difficult exhibition to follow. There was an attempt at a continuous narrative, but it was too wordy and in many parts comprised little more than a list of names which, without context, would mean absolutely nothing. Perhaps an introductory room, with a storyboard of key events in the mythical story of Troy and the key protagonists, locations and interpretations, would have made this more accessible. Secondly, I found the physical content of the first half of the exhibition quite underwhelming. A lot of the content had been lifted from artefacts that I felt I had seen before and which were doubled in the permanent Greek exhibits at the museum. The links between these objects and the Troy myth were also sometimes tenuous, and their relevance was not always explained. Furthermore, content that had been added from elsewhere only went to exacerbate the narrative that Troy belonged to a realm of white, male academia. The treatment of the story was dry, which is a shame given that the story itself is so exciting and could have presented a real opportunity for the museum to engage with a large audience that may not otherwise be excited by history and culture. I personally went to the exhibition in the hope of seeing something *new*. Thankfully, the second half of the exhibition did a better job of fulfilling this, but I was left disappointed by the first half. Perhaps the intention here was to show the contrast between ancient and recent history and their interpretations of the story of Troy… If this were the case, I feel it could have been carried out more effectively.

 

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There were aspects of the exhibition that I really liked. The collaboration with Waterloo Uncovered, for example, was wonderful. It was excellent to see the exhibit addressing (albeit briefly) contemporary issues such as mental health in its discussion of grief and PTSD. The same was done with brief comments on colonialism and sex-trafficking in relation to Marian Maguire’s artwork and Helen of Troy’s experience respectively. It was also encouraging to see the exhibit (finally) address the role of women, but disappointing that this appeared as an afterthought, at the end of the exhibition. ‘The Shield of Achilles’ was also an exceptional addition to the exhibition.

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The main conclusion to be drawn from my visit is that the accessibility of the exhibition was compromised by its curation. I feel that changes could have been made to make the exhibition more engaging, accessible and ‘complete’. If I were to re-curate the exhibition, I would perhaps start from the end, from the present day, and work backwards; I think this would be a more impactful, engaging and tangible way to start the exhibition. I would prioritise the sensory experience and eliminate the aforementioned barriers to appreciating and interacting with the content. It is clear that accessibility was not a priority for this particular exhibition, and perhaps the price of entry charged by the British Museum was set as a deliberate barrier to dissuade attendance of those that its accessibility issues would affect…