Curating Workshop

In March 2015, the School of History and Cultures took 32 students to visit Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s Museum Collections Centre for a day-long Curating Workshop. These are the experiences of two of those students…

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In March I was lucky enough to go to the Museum Collection Centre (MCC) on a trip organised by Dr Kate Smith. We had a fantastic opportunity to meet museum professionals from Birmingham Museums Trust, the British Museum, Maritime Museum, and from the National Trust. Learning about their career paths, and getting an insight into how vital experience is, was excellent and has inspired me to seek volunteering opportunities over the summer.

We had an opportunity to consider a group of artefacts based around a single theme and to design an exhibition for them. Guided by a curator this gave a brilliant insight into what goes into a museum exhibit!

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There was also an opportunity to explore some of the great objects which are part of the Birmingham Museums Trust collection but which aren’t on display. There are hundreds of artefacts from cars and vehicles, through statues and furniture, to amazing collections of shoes, masks, toys, and everything and anything you can think of!

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Exploring these unseen collections was an amazing experience, the MCC is open for visitors and I’d recommend going on a tour, but what was unbelievably valuable was being able to speak with museum professionals, to understand their careers, motivations, to get a flavour for the work they’re doing, and to ask questions about how best to follow them into the heritage sector.
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By Rik Sowden, BA War Studies

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A sampler, a doll’s house, a small handmade dress, and other paraphernalia from a 20th Century childhood. In all honesty, I wouldn’t normally touch this subject with a barge pole (I tend to prefer medieval history), so it’s testament to how well-run and useful the Curating Workshop was that I found working with these objects to be highly engaging, informative and interesting.

The task – working in small groups to consider how a collection of pieces could be arranged with text and other features in an exhibition – was the culmination of a thoroughly enjoyable and educational day. There were many opinions and debates over how objects could interact with each other, with a central theme binding them together, to make a display more than the sum of its parts. This exercise highlighted a key lesson from the day: how museums, their exhibitions and their individual objects have great potential to tell stories. Pieces come together in an intertwining narrative (in the case of my group and the toys, how experiences of childhood have developed over time), and it is this storytelling which is a key concern of curators. Making an exhibition is so much more than sticking a few bits of pot in a case and writing when they were found and what they were probably for. Learning and experiencing this on the day was not just fun, but was highly important food for thought for all those considering working in the heritage or museum sectors.

The rest of the day was similarly useful. A tour of Birmingham Museum’s Collection Centre demonstrated quite simply how much stuff a museum has; huge warehouses and rows of smaller pieces housed everything from ancient Egyptian shabtis to Victorian lawnmowers. Choosing what to show to the public from such a large collection is the first hurdle a curator must vault.

We also heard from representatives from the museum and heritage industry, including people who worked in stately homes and in Greenwich’s National Maritime Museum, who detailed how they had got to be where they are today. The point hammered home again and again was the necessity of experience, paid or unpaid, if you have any hope of getting your foot on the museum ladder.

The whole workshop was superbly organised, great fun and incredibly useful, certainly for those who have considered a future in the more hands-on form of history. I’d thoroughly recommend that anyone interested in museums or heritage work should go.

By Chris Rouse, BA History & Political Science

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