Last Wednesday, 20 June, Claire and Emily, museum director and curator respectively, ran an interesting and very informative training morning intended to bring us all up to the same level in areas such as collections management, artefact conservation, and the theory and thinking behind putting on an exhibition. The morning was well attended, and in addition to very useful training also provided an opportunity to meet and share ideas with other taskforce members.
Claire began by briefly updating us on the management situation of the museum and our progress on fully adhering to Spectrum guidelines – the international standard expected of all good museum collections. She also reiterated the museum vision, which remains to preserve and care for objects pertaining to the scientific, technological and medical heritage of Leeds and the surrounding area; to provide access to these to university students and staff and the general public through exhibits and displays; and to train and provide practical experience for students interested in HPS and museum studies. Next we looked at the practicalities of collections management, focussing on documentation and procedure when receiving a loan, or when loaning out an object ourselves.
We then had a very interesting session, also led by Claire, on conservation of objects in the museum collections, and the dangers of deterioration (and how to avoid them). Happily, objects at present in our store are being kept in a pretty good conservation environment; it’s not too warm (objects should be kept at quite low temperatures, with 5°C being the minimum), there are no windows (and so no dangerous UV radiation from sunlight), it’s dry (damp can of course lead to mould), there aren’t any pests (which can eat into various vulnerable organic materials such as woods, fabrics and paper), and the humidity is good (the ideal relative humidity is between 25% and 65%, optimum being about 45%, with higher numbers meaning more moisture in the air and the average outside RH being 75-90%). Good news for our objects then.
We discussed the need to keep objects clean, because dust can get ingrained into some materials, especially wood. However, as Claire pointed out, it is also important to remember to think about what stories we want the objects to tell, and thus how we want them to appear. For example, some dirt is evidence of use. This is particularly relevant when it comes to our medical collections, with lots of instruments, many of which were used in the nineteenth century, hardly being as shiny and gleaming as doubtless they once were. Likewise our physics instruments, made mainly of wood and metal, which were used in late nineteenth century classrooms. The odd bump or scratch on one of these serves to add to our appreciation of its use by generations of school children who we like to imagine interacting with the forces of physics, especially electricity and magnetism, with awe and excitement.
Depending on what we want to say with these objects through our exhibitions, we must consider, essentially, how clean we really want them to be. Nevertheless, modern dirt is bad dirt, and we should be ensuring objects are kept dusted and well wrapped. Metal objects are particularly susceptible to being permanently marked by fingerprints, and so gloves should be worn when handling them. As none of us are, or are likely to become, experts in restoring objects to any semblance of their former glory, we must rather see our job as one of preservation: whatever the state of the object we are presented with, that is how it should stay. We should do all we can to prevent curators of the future wondering whether a certain mark, scratch or discolouration is evidence of wear and tear, or simply of a less careful previous curator.
At this stage, Emily took over to lead a session about the interpretation of exhibitions. In answer to her question of why we should put on exhibitions at all, we came up with several answers. A good exhibition brings people in to a museum, allows for the promotion of the institution and its collections, and encourages public involvement with what are essentially publicly owned collections. Some thought it important to challenge people, others saw a display as a useful pedagogical tool, teaching about a subject through presenting an object that the audience can study, in three dimensions, and relate to. Exhibitions can also be used to tie in with special events, and to get more money for the institution.
Putting on an exhibition will always involve a balancing of priorities; one group requiring consideration are the conservators, who would probably rather that everything stayed nice and safe in the store, and that nothing went on display at all. Any display entails some degree of risk to the artefacts. Another important group are the shareholders of the institution, who may require that a certain emphasis be placed on the story being told. The public, of course, want access to the collections, and what is wanted in terms of information may change depending on the objects and the audience. Ultimately, the organisers will also need to decide whether the objects they have in their collections will guide the shape of the exhibition, or whether some idea or ideal will lead them to seek to borrow other artefacts from elsewhere to help them tell their story.
Emily also pointed out that people have different ideas about what they want to get from an exhibit. In our subsequent discussion, we considered that some people want to be told a lot of information about the artefacts on display, some people want to be able to make up their own minds about what an object means, with minimal context given to them, and some people just want to look at pretty shiny things. In our case, we need to decide how best to present our objects and information about them in order to provide people with interesting stories about the history of science, technology and medicine here in Leeds.
As, unfortunately, Mark Steadman was unable to make it in to take a planned session on object handling (due to car troubles), we wrapped up the training morning about midday with a short taskforce meeting to update one another on the progress of our various projects. The morning’s activities were well received, and all the sessions were informative and well-run, and should provide all who attended with a good foundation for implementing future museum projects.