At the end of November I attended the Reimagining the Human Conference at the Horniman Museum in London. You may wonder why a conference at a museum famous for its anthropological and ethnographic collections is relevant to a site with a focus on industrial history and engineering, but this event was all about considering the interpretation of unusual or unfamiliar objects and telling the stories of the people who made or used them. With our audiences coming from all over the world, it's important for us here at the bridge to find way to make Brunel, the bridge and Bristol relevant to the rest of the world.
For over a year now we have been working on getting our archives and collection ready for digitisation and now is a good time for us to start thinking about how we might make the objects we hold more accessible to our audiences, either through new displays within the Visitor Centre, through handling sessions and loans boxes - or online as digital resources and it was refreshing to hear how people from museums all over the world had worked with the objects in their collections to tell important stories and re-establish connections with communities.
The Horniman's Object Handling Base is a space where all objects on display can be touched and handled. Two staff are present at all times to bring items out of display cabinets and talk to visitors about them, but unusually for a museum there is very minimal interpretation: it is up to you to discover the obejcts for yourself! In this space, we were introduced to the open access handling boxes, which anyone can open at any time. I am more familiar with boxes like this being loaned out to schools for projects, so it was interesting to see them in the museum where anyone with an interest in a topic could open them up and explore all the objects and activities inside. The boxes were on familiar and unusual themes - the photo shows boxes for 'Home' and 'A Survival Kit for a New Planet'. The Horniman team explained that they had worked with 17 different community groups, each of which had chosen their own theme and selected the objects to go inside. Although the staff were used to putting these boxes together and thought they had a pretty good idea of what would be suitable to go in them, they said they were very surprised by the choices the groups made. Instead of choosing obejcts from the collection which had their own stories, the groups had chosen objects which represented ideas or concepts and provoked discussion. We are very good in museums at deciding what is best for our visitors and choosing the things that we think it is important for people to look at, so it is very good to be reminded that not everyone thinks in the same way as a museum curator and a good reimder for us that when we are ready to begin assembling our own boxes, we shouldn't do this without the input of the people who will actually be using them!
Over the two days we listened to a wide range of speakers and presentations and participated in several workshops about interpreting and connecting objects. I was priveliged to be part of a discussion on emotional reactions to objects; which is an important topic for us here at the bridge. Many people come to see us because they have a personal or family connection - people who remember their grandparents pretending to be in control of the illuminations, people with family members who worked to maintian the bridge, proposals, wedding days - and even births! Many of our visitors come to see us when they are reminiscing about their own childhood or are remembering family members so it is important for us to think about what is important in that moment. Often it is a chance to share that story with others, whether it is other members of the group they are with or our own volunteers - but sometimes it is a chance to reconnect with the bridge and spend some time in thought.
We also toured the new 'World Gallery' with curator Robert Storrie, who explained the rationale behind the new displays. The Horniman is a little different to us as three quarters of their visitors are repeat visitors; people who come to the museum as children and then grow up with it, bringing along their children as adults. At the bridge the majority of our visitors are tourists or holidymakers who visit us once or every couple of years. To suit their audience, the Horniman chooses a dense display with lots and lots of objects on show to keep people interested and discovering new things. To suit our audience, we need to direct visitors to important events in our history, but provide a wide range of topics so everyone can find something that interests them. During their gallery redevelopment, the Horniman had been keen to add more simple, interactive elements to engage visitors with the cultural background relating to their displays and to achieve this they had added lots of interesting ways to encourage visitors to add their own personal stories to the display. Pictured is the 'Your Perspective' board which invited visitors to add a picture of objects that were most important to them, which had gathered lots of touching and interesting responses. Visitors were also able to add their wishes to tree in the folklore section and interact with storytelling posts. If you've visited the bridge you'll know that we already have a number of interactives in our exhibition space - but it is always good to see what other people are doing and how visitors have responded as this is an important way of making sure that your interactives are successful and interesting. For example; we don't currently display the bridge memories that visitors leave for us and I wondered if this was something that we should start to do, particularly as I enjoyed looking at the display of visitor drawings. Another aspect of the exhibition that I enjoyed were the labels specifically directed at families which asked questions and provoked discussion, using the displays and collections as a way of thinking about what was important to the visitor now and today.
In this exhibition I was also struck by the way the Horniman had mixed original artefacts from their collections with works of art inspired by them. Some of the art took key concepts from the displays and reinterpreted them in a modern context to make unfamiliar ideas easier to understand, and some brought more abstract concepts to life. We don't tend to engage with art at the bridge very often but it is something that we would like to do more of. From viewing these displays I learned that it is important to have a very close connection between the art and history. If the art helps to tell a story and provoke an emotioanl reaction then it can be used to enhnace the past and bring 'dead' objects back to life. Contemporary art without context is often seen by the public as a bit weird or unneccessary, but if engaged with correctly it could add so much more to a visit and leave visitors with lasting and positive memories.