Plastic fantastic?

MGA National Conference day 1

Technically this session was called managing material change, but part of it revolves around those pesky plastic items that are becoming more prevalent in museum collections. They type of things we put into storage and hope they don’t either explode or flood the place with noxious gasses (I’m looking at you celluloid).

Dr Petronella Nel, GCCMC, University of Melbourne.
Plastics have become an increasingly common substance within museum collections in recent years, and learning how they degrade is vital to ensuring long term preservation as well as risk management of the collection. Dr. Nel focused on the most common plastics to do damage, the three malignant plastics – Cellulose Nitrate, Cellulose Acetate and Polyurethane. She outlined accelerated aging studies to determine how these will degrade over long periods of time,  signs of degradation, consequences of off-gassing and appropriate storage and monitoring for these types of materials.

Dr Joel Taylor, Getty Conservation Institute.
This outlined sustainable museum practice and question the long-held rule of appropriate temperature and humidity controls for museum collection storage. The current standard for preservation of most collections is a stable temperature of 20 degrees C, plus or minus 5 degrees, and a relative humidity of 55%, plus or minus 5%. This rule was established c1940 in the UK and did not adapt for context. This is because it was discovered during the Second World War when the British Museum hid a heap of their collections in mines in Wales to protect it from the Blitz. Turns out the stuff survived better in the climate inside the caves than it had in storage in London, so the conditions of the caves were taken as museum standard from then on. Dr Taylor’s studies through the Managing Collection Environs Initiative conducted stress tests on collection objects to understand the response to fluctuating conditions. His research suggests that these guidelines are unsustainable in line with current climate strategies around energy conservation.

Amanda Pagliarino, Queensland Art Gallery
Amanda Pagliarino followed on from the previous theme with a discussion of the Environmental Guidelines Project for the Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Materials (AICCM). This project has recently begun and aims to gather data through a broad survey of collection environmental practices from different institutions around Australia, develop a resource base to promote the national guidelines and develop collaborative opportunities with other institutions to address the challenges of appropriate environmental conditions for cultural collections.


MGA National Conference – Agents of Change

Opening Plenary
Karen Mundine, Reconciliation Australia – Truth-telling, reconciliation and Uluru
Instead of looking at the conference theme ‘Agents of Change’, we were instead asked to think about museums as ‘agents of truth’. Quite often the Indigenous truth is missing from the history of sites around the country. Omitting this truth is damaging and truth-telling and historical acceptance are fundamental to reconciliation. The theme for this year’s Reconciliation Week is Don’t Keep History a Mystery.  The first step in reconciliation is to recognise the errors and omissions in order to solve problems. Truth is important in the role we play as cultural custodians.

5 dimensions of Reconciliation – race relations, equality and equity, unity, institutional integrity and historical acceptance.

Kaywin Feldman, Minneapolis Musesum of Art – Feminism: no longer the ‘F’ word.
The new movement of feminism in museums needs to develop from within. This includes development of professional standards and opportunities for women working in museums as well as the representation of women to the public through exhibitions and collections.

The challenge for many is to see women as leaders because the way we define leadership is in male terms. Especially as Kaywin described, when considered that leaders are often thought to need ‘gravitas’.

The presentation considered that leaders/managers generally need to have gravitas, women generally are not considered to have gravitas and therefore women can’t be leaders.

The first part of this presentation focused on the need for women to have opportunities to make it to leadership roles within the museum sector. The latter part considered that the lower levels of museum and gallery sector is becoming increasingly dominated by women, which is detrimental to the industry. Museums are stronger the more diverse they are. It has been shown that when women begin to dominate a profession, salaries drop. Women (generally) make 83c to every dollar a man makes. There should be regular salary comparisons at different levels to ensure equal pay. It also means diversity in planning, programs, research areas and audience development to have equal representation of men and women within an organisation. It helps to prevent unconscious bias in either direction.

The representation of women in museums is not just about statistics. It is also about considering what is omitted from the records. For example, many artworks by women are unattributed. When presenting these works many institutions do not think to challenge the public assumption that men are responsible for anonymous or unattributed works. By remaining silent museums and galleries are allowing the public consciousness to forget the roles of women throughout history. Instead by explaining to people that it is likely that many of the artworks are produced by women, they bring to the surface the consideration that women were as active in producing art throughout history as men.

Copyright adventures in museums

Elliot Bledsoe from the Australian Libraries Copyright Committee gave three examples of how people usually think about copyright.

1 – as pirates, people who steal everything

2 – like lawyers who try and protect everything


3 – as a roadblock where everything is too hard and there’s no way round it.

Happily Elliot took it easy on us and didn’t take any of these methods in explaining some aspects of copyright law relevant to museums.

This presentation looked at the definitions of what is covered under certain types of copyright and recent changes to some areas of copyright rules.

Copyright protection in Australia is free and automatic. Copyright law tries to strike a balance between the incentive for people to create work and the sharing of knowledge.

There are two categories of things protected by copyright:

1) Works – defined as literary, dramatic, musical and artistic. This category includes some awkward things like artistic craftsmanship (designs) as well as computer code.

2) Subject matter other than works – defined as sound recordings, films, TV and Radio Broadcasts and published editions of works (this relates to the format and graphic design of books, albums, scripts etc)

For issues that may relate directly to our use of material – when using books in our collection we need to make sure that the literary content is cleared for use as well as the published edition (cover works or illustration), if we plan to show cover designs or illustrations.

Every producer/maker has moral rights to their work, which includes the right to attribution and the integrity of their work.

Recently the duration of copyright rule has changed slightly.

Anything existing before 2005 is covered for the life of the creator + 50 years.

Works – copyright lasts for the life of the creator + 70 years

Subject matter other than works – copyright exists from the year the work was made or first published + 70 years.

The change has been made to remove the distinction between published and unpublished works from the Copyright Act. The definition is now to ‘make public’ which can include posting on websites or make available in other ways.

Public Domain day occurs on 1 January every year because, under global copyright rules, that is the day that copyright terms expire, legally placing thousands of works into the public domain and making them free for anyone to use. Thanks to the 2006 copyright term extension made as part of the US Free Trade Agreement, no works have fallen into the public domain in Australia for the last 10 years. This will change next year when anything that has been unpublished and remains unpublished as of 1 January 2019 will automatically pass into the public domain.

It is not considered copyright infringement if the use of the material falls under a fair dealing category, including:

– research/ study                             – parody/satire                                  – legal proceedings

– criticism/review                             – reporting news                              – access by persons with a disability

There are also new preservation rules – it is not considered infringement if the copying/reproduction is for preservation purposes and an institution owns the material in its complete form.

Where copyright limits are uncertain, either through inability to track the original copyright holder or unclear limits on duration of copyright institutions can also have a ‘safe harbour’ clause which uses a take-down notice on websites or exhibitions to give an avenue of redress. Something along the lines of ‘all efforts have been made to establish copyright of these images and acknowledge source where possible, if more information is made available to us the publication of these images will be re-assessed/removed as appropriate.”

Additional material is available here on copyright and its duration rules –

Community engagement

The Invisible Farmer project, presented by a team of ladies from Museums Victoria and involving a wide ranging group of universities, museums, community members, school kids and women’s networks was a great presentation. The aim of the project is to challenge stereotypes of who produces our nations food and fibre. Because women are farmers too, and have been for ages. But if you google image search ‘farmer’ guess what you’ll find? Pictures of blokes doing great farming things. It’s something I’d never thought about, not that women weren’t farmers. I happen to be fortunate enough to know a few women who are farmers, but I’d never noticed that somewhere along the way the word ‘farmer’ had become a gendered term which only conjured up images of men with tractors.

So this project is exciting to me as it’s as much about making history as it is about recording history. The plan was to encourage the community to lead change and move into the community spaces to uncover the stories of the current women. The project leads had trouble finding the historic records of women’s roles on farms (partly because there aren’t many) so they were aiming to get women to define their lives as farmers by stepping in front of the camera and show off. Then capturing and sharing these images and stories to create a wider shift in the perception of who is a farmer.

They also had the wonderful project of creating Citizen Historians, which I love. There have been citizen science projects around for ages where institutions enlist the help of the public to record or document different things, like a wildlife count. The same principle applied for Citizen Historians where school kids were trained in conducting and transcribing oral history interviews and worked at the local level to gather stories and crate ways to share these stories.

Shane Breynard from the Canberra Museum and Gallery raised the challenge of collaborations between museums and their communities, and ways which they could do it better. Canberra Museum is the small municipal museum for the Canberra area, not one of the national institutions. Each year the ‘Multi Culti’ Multicultural Festival happens right outside the front doors of the museum. Despite over 200,000 people attending the festival every year it was consistently the weekend with the lowest recorded visitor numbers to the museum each year.

So the battle was to find out what was preventing the museum from getting involved and what could they offer which would be relevant and draw people in?

The answer was partly that the chaos and unpredictability of the vibrant cultural festival outside made the museum staff nervous. The answer was to create a sanctuary within the museum for families to have quiet space for their children to take a break from the crowds and events outside. They began with wearable art workshops, where kids could make their own versions of traditional cultural dress being worn by dancers and performers around the festival. Each year has built on a different multicultural aspect of the festival and tweaked it for children.

Working collaboratively with festival organisers to establish what was not currently being catered for as part of the festival (children) helped the museum staff to ensure that kids activities in their space was a safe environment and welcome respite for parents. Now kids are a carefully planned and catered for audience within the festival, not just an add-on.

Moral of the story is to work with other community groups/events/festivals to establish what a museum can offer which is unique and will contribute to the overall purpose/goal of the event.

Education in museums

The first of our themes for the day was education, in various forms.

Staff from Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) took us through their touring education programs for an exhibition on Shaun Tan’s book The Lost Thing. The exhibition was focused on the behind the scenes process of adapting the book to film. As it was a touring exhibition they needed to develop programs which required minimal staff to run and robust technology. They had some great ideas in teaching kids how to make their own stop-motion animation, these activities only needed two ACMI staff to deliver.

The Lost Thing story includes the Federal Department of Odds and Ends, which has the wonderful motto of ‘sweepus underum carpetae’. The program played on this idea of odds and ends by asking children to draw ‘spare parts’ out of a bag marked with the Department Logo (see below, image courtesy ACMI education resources –

The idea was to get the kids thinking about celebrating difference by taking all these odd parts at random and using them to build their own critters which they then put as characters into their stop motion animation.

I think the concept was great, and the number of kids they reached (approx. 300) with the workshops while it was on tour was wonderful. However I feel like they missed an opportunity for the staff to share knowledge and upskill the staff at the regional venues. This day of the conference is intended to be the Regional, Remote and Community Museum Day and this presentation was more about what one of the biggest institutions in the state was doing in the regions, rather than what the regions can do. If they’d had the chance to train the existing staff at regional sites to run the workshops that would have given them skills which would have a lasting impact on the area and the potential for similar programs to run again with a wider reach.

The next speaker looked at the opposite end of the scale with ‘Mastering curiosity and connection : understanding older visitors. The trend for an ageing population requires museums to think about the needs of their older audiences and the opportunities we provide health and well being. Social inclusion assists in combating dementia, which is one of the leading causes of death in Australia. So this presentation talked about two visitor research surveys conducted which found most senior visitors came as a result of their grandkids, and the next biggest group came ‘in tourist mode’ which generally refers to travellers or grey nomads exploring a new place.

Interestingly a different breakdown of visitor motivation found the regular or repeat visitors said they came because of the stories, the social aspect and a place of comfort. The irregular visitors saw the museums instead as places of learning, engagement and inter generational experience.

Some ways in which museums can improve the experience for older visitors range from the very simple – comfort and ease of navigation, providing enough chairs at different spaces around the galleries, and the right type of chairs (ones easy to get in and out of), to the more in-depth – using older visitors as a brains trust to help develop programs, and boosting visitation by supporting inter generational visits.

The next two speakers were again looking at the younger visitors, this time with the idea of turning them into agents of change (our theme for the conference). The concept of citizenship education was a big theme here, and developing concept led approaches to learning to help kids tackle the bigger themes within a museum. It stretches their knowledge from learning facts and dates, to actually make connections and tackle contested topics.

To achieve this they needed have a shared conceptual focus, narrow and explicit line of enquirer, strengthen critical thinking and get the kids to think ‘so what?, now what?’

Have a look at the ChangeAgents Resource for a detailed example of how they did it –

Finally Caryn Giblin form Albury Library and Museum showed us a beatific project for year 9 students in the form of an e-book. They created an interactive ebook using the World War One letters of local soldier Frank Brown, which were written home to his mate who had been exempt from service on medical grounds. It included scans of the originals, transcripts and investigation questions to ask kids to explore the emotion and tone of the letters as well as the facts. They worked with a local student and the ABC radio studios to do a voice recording of the letters being read and added that in as well. Ultimately it makes for a quite powerful resource which is able to elicit a much more emotional connection from students than just bare War facts.

Full details on the project and a link to download the ebook can be found here

Museums Australia National Conference

Hi again, it’s been a while. It’s time for me to dust this blog off and get it going for the Museums Galleries Australia National Conference. So this time I’m coming to you from (probably) the arts and culture capital of Australia, Melbourne.

I’m also going to be spending the week sitting in a very cold, draughty building freezing my butt off in the name of education and professional development. This is because museum people love history, including heritage buildings which were constructed before anyone had worked out central heating. So our venue for the conference is the old Melbourne Meat Market, which sounds saucy but believe me is not that kind of meat market. If you imagine a nice big warehouse with cobblestone floors, wrought iron work everywhere and figures of cattle heads on the walls you’ll get the general idea. It was the place for buying and selling meat (in cattle form) back in the day. Now it’s a conference/wedding/performing arts centre with no heating.

The conference organisers were kind enough to include hand warmers in our welcome bags, but only one set, so we only get warm hands for one day.

Enough complaining, the conference opening day was actually pretty good. The first day is the Regional Remote and Community Museum Day which brings in all the people from little museums around the country. The presentations were an interesting array including education, community engagement and copyright. Some leaned more into telling us what big museums were doing in the regions rather than what the regional museums could do themselves.

The first session was an inspiring look at how the Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory worked with local community to create a bi-lingual exhibition in Western Arunda language and English. It was a photographic exhibition, the photos of German stockman Otto Tschirn from 1915-1918, taken in and around Hermannsberg in NT. Rhonda Inkamala told us how she had worked to translate the text into Arunda, and how it needed to be true to the historical period they were representing in the exhibition. As with all languages, Arunda has evolved over time so taking it back to the common words in use around 1915 would have been quite tricky. Happily Arunda has been a written language since the 1870s when Lutheran missionaries in the area encouraged the local people to learn to read and write in their own language before learning it in English. There was also an Arunda-German (most of the local European population at that time were German Lutherans) dictionary which one of the missionaries had put together which they could work from.

It’s great to see what can be achieved through collaborations like these, and the results of having Arunda language first in the exhibition, followed by English, showed the next generation that their language is alive and well and equally important. It was accompanied by education programs to assist local teachers in methods of teaching language.

Wendy Pryor from the Technology Strategy section of Museums Victoria then took us for a scary and exciting ride through the idea of SMART cities and how we could develop smart GLAM. Things like artificial intelligence recognising art forgeries, a museum in Paris having a robotic art critic who listens to visitors comments and forms an opinion of the art. He has a bowler hat and white scarf, because of course a French art critic would. She also touched on the Internet of Things, which sounds like a Shaun Tan book, but is actually when all your devices start talking to each other and gradually take over the world. As you can probably tell, it was very big picture stuff and quite hard to relate to what museums can achieve with technology, but gave us all something to think about.

I’ve come to realise that writing up these sessions is going to take me longer than the time I have in the mornings so you’ll be getting these piece by piece over the next week and a bit. But stay with me because there’s some good things coming up.

If you want a more up-to-the-minute idea of what is happening, follow me on Twitter @HistoryMissM. Or follow the official conference feed for everyone else’s thoughts #MGAconf2018. I’m also doing a couple of guest posts on the Museums Galleries Australia WA Facebook page, so check that out too.

Day 16 – Hampton Court Palace

The imposing entrance to Hampton Court

Today we were at one of the biggest and in my opinion best of the royal palaces.

Hampton Court was original built around 1515 for Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York, who was a favourite of the legendary (and not for good reasons) King Henry VIII. As with most of King Henry’s favourites, he didn’t last all that long. Cardinal Wolsey dramatically fell out of favour with the King in 1528 and was stripped of all government offices and property. Not surprisingly this was due to Henry deciding to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to try and marry Anne Boleyn. As Archbishop of York, Wolsey was Henry’s first option of appealing to the Pope for an annulment of his first marriage. Wolsey was unable (some believe unwilling) to secure Henry’s annulment, and some reports believe that Anne Boleyn’s supporters were spreading rumours that Wolsey was deliberately trying to slow down proceedings.

Once Henry seized the Hampton Court Palace for himself he immediately set about making it even bigger than it was before. Later on King William III decided he wanted to go in competition with the French and expanded Hampton Court again, trying to rival Versailles. I’m afraid I don’t think it really worked. I’ve been to Versailles as well and that place is huge, with heaps more gilding, ornate details and fancy mirrors.  It also left Hampton Court with two different architectural styles – Tudor from Henry’s time and William’s Baroque. William ceased work on the palace in 1694 and it hasn’t had too many major changes since.

The Palace now is presented as the favourite residence of King Henry VIII and most of the fittings, and rooms are intended to show how the palace would have been used during his reign. We had a brief walk through the dining hall and a few other rooms before being launched straight into a workshop on preventative conservation.

Kathryn, the Preventative Conservation manager explained to how the Collections Care and Preventative Conservation team manage projects across all six Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) sites. The HRP work under four guiding principles – Guardianship, Discovery, Showmanship and Independence.

Guardianship – Aim to give the palaces a future as valuable as their past. To safeguard the sites for future generations.
Discovery – To explain the bigger picture, and then encourage people to make their own discoveries and draw links to their own lives and the world today.
Showmanship – Do everything with flair! Palaces have alsways been places of spectacle, beauty, majesty and pageantry. So aim to continue that tradition today.
Independence – A challenge to find new ways to do the work. A financially independent charity and therefore have the freedom to operate with their own point of view.

The conservation department is made up of a Treatment Conservation team and a Preventative Conservation team. There are 12 in the preventative team and they work across all six sites. They care for the moveable collections and decorative features of the buildings, including fireplaces, wall paper, bed canopies, tapestries etc. Their aim at all times is to display objects in their original context.
So the Cons team walked us through the risk factors in a site like the Palace and what they do to reduce or remove risk. The normal agents of deterioration are: direct physical forces, thieves, vandals, fire, water, pests, contaminants (like pollution and dust), radiation (UV, unnecessary light) and temperature and humidity fluctuations. There are a few approaches that can be taken to combat these risks which include monitoring the risk, care and cleaning, or blocking the risk as much as is possible. Blocking the risks can include developing safe-use procedures for frost, rain, building works, private functions, filming crews and other events.

The Historical Palaces and many other historic house museums (although on a much smaller scale) have a unique set of challenges that other museums and galleries do not. I’m familiar with some of these from working in a small historic house museum in Australia, but we probably have a slightly more lenient approach than HRP. For one, and this may seem obvious, the structures themselves are historically or architecturally significant. This means we can’t necessarily repaint gallery walls, or re-arrange the lighting in a room as easily as a museum gallery. We place equal importance on the care of the building and the collections inside it. The collections are also often a vital part of the building, there may be only one fireplace surround, or they are unchangeable or irreplaceable. This also means many things are on open display, often for years, and they may have acclimatised to the environmental conditions of the house. It also means visitors could create extra risk as people are less likely to remember that the furniture in a room, or the wall paper is equally fragile as the china vase on display.

The preventative conservation team have a never-ending job of regular cleaning and maintenance, as well as supervision of contractors and events and they use a risk level matrix which weighs up the impact of a risk (mild, significant or catastrophic) against the probability (rare, occasional or continuous) to allow them to prioritise their work. They keep detailed statistics of visitor data and number of times they reach the benchmark standards of relative humidity (40-65%RH), visible light (no more than 150k lux hours per year) ultraviolet light (maximum of 30 microwatts/lumen) and dust (3% area coverage per month, based on visibility and top 10 most dust sensitive objects in the palace). This allows them to bargain for better funding at the management level.

As anyone in a museum will know, especially if it’s managed by a non-museum based group, like local government or a commercial organisation, getting funding for the non-sexy areas of museum work (and believe me dust and humidity control is the least sexy area of museum) is incredibly hard. They always like to see the pretty stuff, the fancy new exhibitions and the children’s events but no-one likes to give money to conservation equipment or storage. The stats seem to speak to management in a way that no amount of “but if we don’t improve the cleaning schedule then that antique feature which the visitors love will be damaged beyond repair” will convince them of.

I particularly loved the two little booklets which HRP have designed to help explain to funding bodies and management why the conservation work is so important and how to protect their collections. One is titled Collections Management at Historic Royal Palaces – Keeping our collections and their stories alive. The other is Protect and Enjoy – Working together to make all our activities conservation safe.

They are a great quick reference guide for not just outsiders, but also other departments who work in the palaces. I have decided that it’s something I’ll draw up for our museum as well. I will be a great way to explain to new volunteers what each of our staff do, especially for our education and visitor services teams who often don’t see a lot of the background conservation work, or the collection stores. So that they understand why I get grumpy when people go to sit on our chaise lounge, or lean on the antique sewing table. It will also help them guide the visitor experience a bit better. These guides will can also be used to explain to our management what we are trying to achieve in museum conservation best practice and the resources required to do it. As I work in local government, the staff who manage our department are generally not museum trained and so I need to learn to translate museum terminology into local government language. Not an easy thing to do!

The HRP registrar, Rebecca, was kind enough to talk us through her main responsibilities. It basically boils down to she needs to know, what is in the collection, where it is at any given time and how it can be used (exhibitions, education etc). She also keeps detailed information on the previous owners, its condition and any stories associated with an object. Any failure in the record keeping can damage their future opportunities, resources and reputation. They have to be very meticulous in their standards, especially to keep their museum accreditation which is the benchmark for collecting institutions in the UK. Keep all these details they first had to ensure that there was a complete inventory of the collection, something all museums struggle with. They full inventory of their 93 storerooms took 18 months with 3 full-time staff and one part-time photographer. It is the first time that there has been a complete inventory which is a massive achievement for any museum. General museum development over time and the change of record-keeping systems and staff rotation means that records are often incomplete, inaccurate or lost.

The HRP are now preparing to condense the 93 storerooms into one facility to be manage access and conditions. That’s one warehouse I’d love to see inside!

Mika, the HRP Treatment Conservation manager gave us an insight into what her team does. They have 18 conservators working in four teams, three teams are textile specialists and the fourth manages the contracts for conservation on other objects. So really the only in-house work which is done on objects is tapestry and textile conservation. All other work for objects (statues, wood, gilding, armour etc) is done by external contractors.

Their aim is to keep the objects in situ to enable visitors to experience the site without barriers. The problem for conservators to limit the risk and need for intervention treatment. They try to treat in situ but if it is for major intervention the object will be removed (if possible) into the conservation studios. Where possible they like to leave things in view of the public as it also helps to demonstrate the care which goes into these collections. For example, with ceiling restorations there is an opportunity for scaffolding tours for people to see the paintings up close and explain the work being done. Where public access is not possible there is a lot of out of hours work instead (late nights for everyone). The team also do installations and removals, it takes at least 12 people to carry a rolled tapestry!

The textile conservation labs have been located at Hampton Court since 1912. After Queen Victoria opened the site to the public and people started flocking to see the site it started causing damage to the textiles, primarily the tapestries. A public letter to The Times newspaper lamenting the damage prompted a royal decree for the establishment of the tapestry workshops.

We were lucky enough to see inside one of the textile labs. But as is the way with the super-secretive museums with their precious collections – no photos allowed! Sorry everyone. L You’ll just have to trust me that seeing the massive tapestry rolls and the delicate stitching two ladies were doing to secure it to a stable backing piece was really fascinating. It’s obviously a job which takes an infinite level of patience and dexterity.

That wrapped up the fun for this excursion. We did have time for a quick explore of the beautiful gardens before finishing up for the day and heading back to central London.

Day 15: Part 2 – Kensington Palace 

The Gates of Kensington

The afternoon session of our first full London day was spent at Kensington Palace, home of Prince William, Duchess Kate and their royal children. It is also the home of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, which is what we had come to see. 

We met Claudia and Isabella two of the Historic Royal Palace Trust staff who introduced us to some of the challenges of working with a costume collection. Kensington Palace is also a little bit of an odd one in the portfolio of Historic Royal Palaces in that it is the only occupied residence that they deal with. All of the other sites they manage are empty, and so they have a little more freedom in how they operate. At Kensington there are all the security, access and privacy considerations to add in when the various members of the Royal Family are in residence. Additionally the Historic Royal Palace Trust usually just manage the buildings, all the furniture and objects contained within the different sites belong to the Royal Collections Trust (remember the guys we met at Windsor Castle?). So for Historic Royal Palace’s to have a large costume collection is unusual and they need a specialist team of textile conservators on hand to ensure it’s all kept as it should be.

Kensington Palace was opened to the public by Queen Victoria in 1898. It was part of an agreement she made with her government at the time. Queen Victoria was born at Kensington and always had a love for the place, she wanted to retain it as a residence for her children but her government was trying to convince her that it was too costly to maintain (it had fallen into disrepair) and they were trying to tear it down. She agreed that if she could keep half of it as a private residence then she would open the other half to the public and through visitor revenue subsidise its maintenance. 

The Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection wasn’t started until 1982 when after Aubrey Bowden, an amateur historian and private collector, loaned Queen Elizabeth II a significant collection of court uniforms on the condition that it would be stored and displayed at Kensington Palace. In 1989, the collection was passed to Historic Royal Palaces, who have continued to expand and develop the collection, which also contains prints, sketches, historical photographs, letters, diaries and scrapbooks. The Historic Royal Palace Trust really started to develop it through focused acquisitions, donations and bequest. They also formalised the collection policy to dictate the parameters of what could be included in the collection. They currently have four main categories; ceremonial dress (things worn for royal ceremonies), royal dress (anything worn by the members of the extended royal family), uniforms (relating to Household staff and military) and clothes worn by anyone for court events. There are approximately 21,000 objects in the collection, including accessories (hats, shoes, belts etc), mostly stored off-site at Hampton Court. Much of the collection was moved off-site when a member of the Royal Family inconveniently requested to live in the apartments where the clothing was being stored. They do try to keep a few examples of each category at Kensington Palace as well as anything directly relating to events or life at Kensington. 

Claudia gave us a quick tour of their exhibition space and an overview of some of the challenges of displaying textiles. A challenge that I hadn’t come across before was floor vibrations. The high number of visitors in Kensington means that the upper levels of the palace can get lots of vibration from the foot traffic and despite things often being housed in very heavy cabinets some of the most fragile items can’t be displayed for long periods. The usual problems associated with clothing were also apparent, just on a larger scale. Clothing is in general the most complicated object to display in museums. There is a long list of risk factors which need to be managed. Light levels need to be monitored as the clothing will fade very quickly if exposed to natural light so nearly all the windows are blacked out. There also needs to be particular attention paid to the artificial lights used. The way the clothing is displayed and the weight distribution needs to be carefully managed so that stress is not put on any delicate seams or stitching. The Historic Royal Palace Trust have specially designed Perspex frames moulded to the specific shape of the clothing so that it just fits, and sits below the neckline so it appears as if the clothing is floating. This is to prevent distraction or the jarring effect that visitors can sometimes get when they see a modern mannequin in 18th century clothing. They don’t look right as the mannequins are clearly not the same proportions as the intended wearer of the clothes. Many small museums, my workplace included, would dream of having these purpose built mannequins however we don’t have the budget so we make do with either adjustable dressmaker’s dummies or recycled shop mannequins and try to pad them out to look as authentic as possible.

Many of the dresses on display for the current exhibition, Victoria Revealed, all belonged to Queen Victoria, and have to be periodically rotated out with different ones to prevent any damage to them from long-term display. The challenge of this is that the exhibition is intended to last for five years, but with one year remaining on it, and having already done multiple changes of dresses, they no longer have any dresses left in the collection which are relevant to the narrative, so some of them have had to be left in place for longer than originally intended. These dresses are being monitored very carefully to ensure they are not starting to show any signs of damage such as strained or torn stitching and colour fading. 

Isabella then took us to have a nosy around the collection stores in the Palace, and see what their limited storage capacity is like. She had kindly pulled out some examples of the different types of costumes they collect and we had a brief discussion about the social context and background of some of them. She also described how the Historic Royal Palace Trust is beginning to become more conscious of needing to have their own object collections to avoid the problems and restrictions which come with loan agreements. They have a solid collection with the Royal Ceremonial Dress collection but all objects at their other sites, as I mentioned before, are owned by the Royal Collections Trust. This severely limits the exhibition methods and duration of display when they are planning major exhibitions, so having their own collections would allow more freedom in terms of what is displayed, how it’s displayed and for how long. Although I do think that they might be a bit late to the game, if they start trying to collect things now they may find that there’s not much around, the Royal Collections Trust have nabbed most of it. 

The costumes shown to us at Kensington were the following –

1) An 18th Century Court Suit. 
They know this one was worn at Kensington Palace, but can’t verify who by. It is made with silver thread and Spitalfields silk. Like with most 18th Century life, looking fancy was your ticket to through the door. If you turned up at a court function in this outfit, you’d be welcomed with open arms, no matter if you were really not a member of the aristocracy or had no money. As we’ve learnt in previous posts, with the Georgians – looks is everything. 

2) An Elizabethan-style George IV Coronation outfit.
This King George is probably one of the most interesting, mostly because he was completely nuts. He was also a passionate collector and understood elements of fashion and design. He decided to design his own coronation, including his own robes, what everyone else would wear and how the ceremony would run. It was crazy expensive, but he didn’t care and he designed these Elizabethan-style pantaloons for his lords to wear in the coronation procession. The poor guy who had to wear this particular set was the Earl of Scarborough. 

3) Children’s shoes
 I’m afraid we weren’t allowed to photograph these ones as they belong to the Royal Collections Trust (part of the loan restrictions I mentioned earlier). However I can assure you that there were several gorgeous pairs of shoes which had belonged to the children of Queen Victoria. 
Our project for the afternoon was one that most of the girls on the course could get excited about – shopping. It was made even better when that shopping meant buying historic clothing. 
Isabella and Claudia gave us a hypothetical conundrum which faces many museum, well at least those lucky enough to have an acquisitions budget. The question was: how much money would we be prepared to spend in one go out of an annual budget?

We were given a budget of £10,000 for new acquisition to the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection for the upcoming financial year. We were also told that there was an auction coming up which contained nine items of interest .Taking into account the Collections Development Policy and the strengths and weaknesses of the different categories within the Dress Collection we needed work out which of the nine lots we wanted to acquire and create a supporting argument for how much we wanted to spend. This was a real challenge as we all seemed to love shopping, but it was interesting to see how many of us were prepared to blow our whole year’s budget in the one auction, meaning missing out on anything significant which might come up for the rest of the year, and how many were more frugal, picking only a few items, and saving some money, just in case something else came up at a later date. As in many cases of budgeting, there isn’t really a right or wrong answer, it all depends on how much of a risk you want to take and how you justify your decision. 

We worked in pairs for this assignment so I’ll give you an outline of which items Gabby and I chose and what our reasoning was, but first a look into the contents of the Dress Collection. 
The Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection consists of around 12, 000 items (depending on how you count them), these include the clothing itself and accessories such as shoes, hats, bags etc. 60% of these objects are female and 40% male. The Royal Dress category contains about 650 items assocaited with the royal family, dating back to the 17th Century. The Ceremonial Dress category is made up of about 1,000 items worn by officials and dignitaries undertaking ceremonial roles, deted between the 18th century to late 20th century. There are about 8,000 items in the Court Dress section, this is fashionable dress worn by the people who attended court functions at the royal palaces from c.1700-1958. Finally the archives include prints, drawings, photographs, letters, and other printed material all relating to the subject of royal or ceremonial court dress. 

We were given an abriged copy of the Collection Policy so that we could ensure our proposal would fit within the guidelines and adhere to the required criteria. There are six criteria for any new acquisitions into the Historic Royal Palace collection, and for the most part they relate to objects associated to the buildings themselves and fittings or decorative elements. As the HRP doesn’t generally have object collections there are really only two criteria which can be seen to effect objects and costumes, and the fourth deals with acquisition of replica items. They are as follows (in priority order):

Original objects with a direct connection to members of the royal family or significant historic figures associated directly with the palaces. These items should be illustrative of the activities that assocaite the figure with an individual palace. 

Works of art, objects or documents that directly inform the re-representation of the palaces for visitors. 

Replicas of missing, unavalable or destroyed original contents of the palaces where the original’s replacement is considered essential for the effective interpretation of a specific palace area. These replicas will only be added to the support collection, not accessioned unless special dispensation is granted. 

Now for the fun part. 
Gabby and I were much more cautious than some of the other groups. We decided on two items, coming to a total of £3,000, and save the remaining £7,000 for any future auctions which may come up throughout the year. We went for Lot 2 – A rare ivory satin doublet worn by a Gentleman Usher to the coronation of King George iV on 19th July 1821. It has a pencilled name on the inside of the right sleeve, but it is not clear enough to make out. This is disappointing as tying it to a specific person would increase its significance. As it is, it would strengthen the collection in terms of representation of male clothing, which currently is only 40% of the collection. It also fits in quite nicely to the Ceremonial Dress category, and has a good connection to the symbolism surrounding coronations.  

We also decided on Lot 3 – Coronation robes for a Viscount and Viscountess, dateing from the first half of the 20th Century. They were worn by Edward Knollys, Governor General of Bermuda during World War II, and his wife Magaret. Both sets of robes were worn to the 1952 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, but the Viscount’s robe could have been made earlier and may have been worn at the 1911 and 1937 coronations. These we thought significant due to being a matched pair, which is quite unusual to have been kept together, and being able to be linked to specific individiauls. They also fall in to the Ceremonial Dress category and can be tied to the symbolism and ceremony of at least one coronation, possibly more. 

Many of the other groups got very excited about Lots 7, 8 and 9 which were all dresses owned by Princess Diana and blew most of their money on one or two of these (they were going for between £4,000 and £9,000 each). This was partly because Kensignton currently has an exhibition on about the fashions of Princess Di and her popularity as a style icon. It also means the dresses are going for higher value than they might at other times as it is also coming up to the 20th anniversary of her death, and objects which relate to people within in living memory, especially a memory so well-loved as Diana, will be in much greater demand. 

At the end Isabella and Claudia informed us that this wasn’t necessarily a hypothetical situation they had dreamed up for us. It was a real scenario that they had encoutnered in the previous year, and interestingly they had also blown their whole budget in the one auction and tried to buy as many of the items as possible. So just goes to show, not everyone has impulse control, even museum staff, and when the opportunity is there to acquire something amazing for the collection, they will jump at the chance. 

Day 15 Part 1 – The Crown Jewels

The back door to the Tower.

Today was one of the highlights so far, and shows just how engaging an enthusiastic guide can be for an audience. It probably helped that the guide we had was not what we were expecting, and I don’t think we were what he was expecting either. 

This morning we were up and out bright an early for our private tour of the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. Those of us who had been to London before, which was quite a few, had generally all seen the Tower and the Crown Jewels, however it was with a huge number of other people as you queue through the building to get on the little moving walkways which glide you past the display cases of glittering crowns. This experience was vastly different, although there were still the moving walkways, but they were turned off so we could stand and stare at the pretty shiny jewels for a while without being elbowed out of the way by other tourists. 

I’m getting ahead of myself; let me start at the beginning. Our guide for the day was the Chief Warden of the Jewel House. We expected one of the iconic men in red uniforms commonly known as Beefeaters, or Yeoman Warders of the Tower, to be showing us around. 

The Yeoman Warders we were expecting to meet.

Instead we met Nivek Amichund, who I’d guess to be about mid-30’s and dressed in a very sharp suit with one of those little secret-service radio wires going into his ear. This guy was probably the highlight guide of our trip, well for me at least. He has a fascinating job and the always exciting air of mystery when he told us that he’s signed the Official Secrets Act and so there are some questions he can’t answer. He was also just generally a very friendly, funny and enthusiastic person. It was interesting to us to meet a heritage professional who happened to be male and under the age of 40 (a rarity on this trip, and in the museum world in general) and I think he was pleasantly surprised to have a group of 20 young women (mostly under the age of 30) who were very interested in everything he had to say. 

Her Majesty’s Jewel House.

Nivek met us at the Tower and guided us to the Jewel House. We were a little late in getting started, so didn’t have as much time as we’d anticipated before they were going to allow the public in. As per usual with these royal collections there are no photos allowed inside, so I’m afraid you’ll need to be content with my external shots of the Tower. Nivek gave us a brief explanation of the concept behind the re-design of the Jewels while walking through the exhibition space before actually getting to the jewels themselves. The exhibition was re-done in 2012 for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee to present the story of a coronation. Upon entry visitors walk into the Hall of Monarchs which shows graphics of all of the monarchs, including a dramatic gap between the executions of Charles I and the re-instatement of Charles II in 1661 to symbolise the period of the Commonwealth. From there you are taken through Sacred Symbols, The Coronation – a very visual experience of the process of a coronation which through music and pictures of previous monarchs including film of Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation in 1953 the symbolism of the different elements is cleverly explained. This includes the procession, recognition, the oath, the anointing, investiture, crowning and enthronement. This section includes the regalia of the ceremony, robes, anointing oil and ceremonial swords before being faced with the cabinet of gorgeous sparkly jewels, at which point you step onto a little conveyor belt and slowly glide past the cabinets to be spat out the other end and carry on to Working Treasures which is masses of gold plate, jewelled salt containers and gilded baptismal bowls. Finally the last section is the Jewels Today which is great because it shows some of the specially designed, slightly worn and battered leather cases which are used to transport various crowns and accessories when they go out to be used. They are still used regularly, not just for coronations, but events including baptisms for the Queen’s great-grandchildren and when she opens Parliament. 

Nivek regaled us with the history of some of the most notable jewels in the collection as well as various superstitions and legends including the Koh-I-Noor diamond which brings bad luck or death to any man who touches it, but good luck and long life to any woman. This has led to the men, including Nivek, refusing to handle it and the Crown Jewellers ensuring that it is always a woman who does the cleaning and maintenance of it. If you think about it objectively, the men who owned this gem lived in a time when it was normal to wear giant gemstones into battle and do other courageous manly things which often resulted in death/injury, while the women generally stayed out of the firing line so were more likely to survive to old age. Its last wearer, the Queen Mother, lived to over 100 so maybe there is some truth in it. 

During this tour Nivek explained some of the challenges of the exhibition design, mainly the volume of visitors they receive and that many of the visitors are what they call ‘time poor and knowledge poor’. Visitors to the Tower are often on a bucket list trip – that is they are trying to see the major landmarks/icons of England, one of the most important of which is the Tower and the Crown Jewels. Many simply want to see the sparkly crowns and don’t have much knowledge either about the history of the jewels or their significance today. This led to the exhibition being designed with minimal text, better lighting, improved access for those with mobility issues and the use of audio and film to illustrate the significance of the jewels and regalia. 

After our tour, when the public started flooding in, we were escorted to another meeting room where we got the chance to bombard our guide with more questions about the logistics of his role. Some of our questions were simply met with a polite smile and a shrug (generally when we were getting to nosy about access and security) but otherwise he was very forthcoming. Here’s some interesting things we discovered: 
- The crown jeweller is the only person allowed to actually touch the jewels, but someone else (usually Nivek) is always there to help out. 
- The Crown Jeweller also only has the contract for five years and then it changes. The jewels are only dry cleaned, meaning no chemicals or other substances are used. Once a year the team spends every night for two weeks in the Jewel House doing a deep clean, this is to ensure that they can remain on display during the day for the public. I’m pretty sure they’d be an outcry if people were told that no-one was allowed to see them for two weeks. 
- The Warders clean the galleries and look after maintenance and upkeep of the display cases, which are high-security to protect from bomb-blasts, anti-shatter and other hazardous events. Nivek did admit that their fire emergency plan was a bit trickier to carry out, and the only other information he’d give us was to admit that they do have a list of the top things that need to be saved in a fire, but he wouldn’t tell us which things they were. 
- There is no public funding used in the display or maintenance of the Crown Jewels, all conservation and exhibition costs are funded through the Historic Royal Palace Trust. 

As well as all of this interesting jewel information we learned a little more about Nivek’s background and how he ended up as one of the youngest Chief Warder’s (his predecessor retired in the 60’s and held the job for 20 years). Nivek has worked in front of house, visitor experience and security areas for many of the major museums and galleries in London including the Tate, Victoria and Albert and the British Museum. He didn’t have a degree when he started, but studied and finished his degree in geography while working. He also mentioned he was thinking about going back to study in the area of the crown jewels and their relevance to contemporary culture. He loves the adrenaline rush of his job, getting to go places and see things that most people aren’t allowed to, even if he sometimes can’t tell his friends and family what he’s been doing at work. His role is a combination of high-level security, tour guide/interpreter and logistics. He is the man who receives the order from the Lord Chamberlain when some of the jewels are needed for use and he has to co-ordinate their safe transport in and out of the Tower. It’s also a bit of anything else which is needed in terms of exhibition and interpretation, conservation and visitor services. He’s also the first person of colour to be a (willing) resident in the Tower, he was in the process of moving into an apartment in the Inner Ward with his wife and new baby. He was kind enough to let all of us traipse up the tiny spiral staircase to check out his new flat and roof terrace. Here are some photos of the view from his rooftop.

The view into the Tower
The view over the Thames

The rooftop door back into Nivek’s apartment.

After this whirlwind morning we all jumped into taxis to race across London to Kensington Palace. There we have an afternoon session with the lovely ladies who look after the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. More on that in the next post.

Days 12-14 – Museum fatigue sets in.

I’m going to combine the weekend together as it was all free time and quite frankly I was getting a little museumed out by this stage. We arrived in London around midday on Friday and after checking into our student housing in Russel Square we were free to do whatever we liked. I’ll be honest, many of us slept – a lot. We were all pretty tired from the constant moving around, a couple of people had been passing around a cold so weren’t feeling too great and we all enjoyed the few days of sleeping in and afternoon naps. 

I think many of us were also starting to suffer museum fatigue. Yes, this is a real thing and I know it seems highly unprofessional for a group of museum and heritage students and young professionals to say they don’t want to see any more museums, but it is clearly an illness which can affect us all. It was first documented as part of a visitor study in 1916 by Benjamin Ives Gilman and is commonly defined as the point at which a visitor begins to feel mental or physical fatigue during their museum visit. 

It can affect people who spend a long period of time in one museum, or people who visit a high number of museums in a short time. We had done both, in the space of 11 days we had visited 10 museums and spent an average of 5-6hrs in each one.  We were also set up to visit another 6 museums in our remaining 4 days. We needed to pace ourselves. Gradually you stop actually seeing the exhibitions and just start wandering aimlessly through the galleries, drifting  between whichever objects catch your eye. Eventually you find yourself lost and confused staring at a case of Victorian medical instruments which look more like the tools of the Spanish Inquisition wondering why people ever thought they were a good idea. Then the nice visitor services assistants come and lead you away to the cafe and try to locate your family,

Courtesy Google Images

So here are my tips to combat museum fatigue (now don’t take my word for it, everyone’s methods are different):

1) If it’s a big museum like the British Museum or the V& A – don’t try and tackle the whole thing at once. Check online for any special exhibitions they’re having or any stand-out objects/stories you want to see and head there first. It’s been found that many people will start off in a museums trying to read most/all of the signs and labels in the first few galleries and then as they get tired/bored they start skipping over things or just looking at the pretty objects. So start in the galleries of the things that really interest you and you’ll still be fresh enough to want to read the information and remember it afterwards. 

2) Take breaks – many breaks. Most good museums have seating spread around the galleries as well as near the entrance and cafe areas (although art galleries tend to be better at this than many museums). Even if you’re not feeling particularly tired, if there’s something pretty cool in one of the galleries, sit down for a few minutes while you look at it. Take a second to think a bit more about what it is, how it was used/designed/functioned and what purpose it had for people. It can be hard to do – for example there’s that many people crowded around the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum that your lucky to see it at all. My favourite type of things are objects which tell a personal story, something that can connect to an individual. I often wonder what their lives were like, did they ever think that their things would survive so long to be stared at by strangers in a museum? Would they have cared? Did they think they were important enough to want to have their things preserved? It’s also helpful to stop for a coffee break every now and then to recharge. You don’t have to go through the galleries at break neck speed. 

3) Talk to the people! Text panels and multimedia are all well and good, some people read them and enjoy them but others find it all a bit bland. Talk to the people and the stories come alive. The staff and volunteers at most museums are there because they love their jobs and they are passionate about their subject, they’re also usually a wealth of knowledge which won’t fit onto those small labels in the cases. If there’s something you’re curious about, talk to them. If they can’t tell you the answer, they should be able to find someone who can. They can probably also tell you the more scandalous and interesting stories which may or may not be completely researched, but which make a topic that much more interesting. 

4) Skip the queues – many places simply say to mentally prepare yourself for the queues. I say skip them entirely! Many big museums (those that aren’t already free) will have two lines for admissions/tickets. One will be for the people who turn up on the day and want to get in, the other is for people who have bought tickets in advance. Check your museums before you go. If you can buy tickets in advance – do it! That way when you turn up you can cruise past all the other people waiting outside in the sun and head straight inside. Another tip is to check for quiet times, a quick google can sometimes reveal the peak visitor times, so that you can avoid the crowds if you want. Some places will do late night openings once a week or month, they are a good time to get in while it’s quest, and even if it isn’t quiet there will generally be less kiddies around if you feel like avoiding them too. 

5) Take a tour – if you’re short on time or not sure exactly what you want to see have a quick look at the tours on offer. They can often be a good way of getting a ‘highlights’ look at the collection, or in the case of Museum Hack tours in the Met Museum in New York, a great way to delve into the scandalous back stories of some of the artworks, you can check out their options here: It also means you can leave knowing you have probably seen a good percentage of the “major” exhibits without wasting time wandering around trying to find them. 

6) Don’t be afraid to split up. Everyone likes to do things at different paces and if you are with a partner or group who goes at a different speed to you, don’t feel like you need to keep up or slow down to accomodate them. I happen to be married to someone who will quite happily spend all day in an art gallery, (once we arrived at MONA in Tasmania within 10mins of it opening and didn’t leave until they were kicking us out and locking the doors behind us). I like art galleries, but I’m not as passionate about art as he is, so we have an arrangement where we go our own ways and meet up every few hours to check in and see how the other is doing. There are usually plenty of other things that you can get interested in if you are first to finish (cake anyone?), take a walk in the gardens (if they have them), museums shop or cafe. We recently went to the Picasso museum in Granada, Spain and while I spent a little bit of time looking at the squiggly pictures I later discovered that in the basement they had an exhibition and archeological remains of the early Phonecian building which they had uncovered when renovating the museum, so that kept me happy while the Mr. spent time analysing the squiggly lines. Likewise when I nerd out over a royal palace and spend ages there, Mr. sometimes takes a sketch book and spends some time outside sketching the building, or wandering the gardens. 

7) Lastly if you are binge-ing on a high number of museums in a short space of time, alternate them with some fresh air and other things. Depending on your enthusiasm/dedication a museum a day can be a big task, take a day off in between and go and see some other sights. I know many of the big cities, London, Barcelona, Paris etc will have no shortage of museums for you to see but don’t feel like you have to get though them all. Pick one or two of the big ones which have the stuff you want to see and then maybe try a little local museum to get some of the smaller stories. There’s often some hidden gems around and little ones are less likely to give you museum fatigue. 

Well that’s it for this one, not much to report museum-wise for my free weekend in London, I did some shopping, explored the markets and caught up with some old friends. I’ll admit I did see one museum (couldn’t resist!) – The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett. It’s tiny, located in the attic of a church and only accessed by a tight spiral staircase but its great. It is one of the earliest operating theatres in Europe, built in 1822,  and a fascinating insight into early medicine. The museum officer there who conducted a short talk was amazing, she clearly knew her stuff but didn’t make the medical terms too technical or hard to understand. It’s very much a cabinet of curiosities, and one I’d recommend if you are in London. You can find out more about it here: 

Old Operating Theatre & Herb Garrett Museum

That was the last bit of relaxation – strap yourselves in for the final whirlwind week of museums in London coming up in the next posts.