There’s a new show in town and we’re excited! Spotlight on Stores Move at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) is a mini-exhibition with a behind-the-scenes twist. We wanted to show you some of the objects which have become close to our hearts over the past couple of years as we prepare them to move to their new home. Read on to find out more.
The Stores Move team’s mission is to unpack, document and care for collections in the off-site store, with the eventual aim of transporting them to the Centre for Material Culture (CMC). Every day, we work with objects which most people inside the museum have never seen, let alone anyone outside the museum. It’s a wonderful privilege to have this kind of unique connection and we’re trying to find ways to share it as widely as possible.
Throughout the project, every single object in the store is being photographed. As our first avenue of sharing, these photographs are uploaded to the database and, within one or two days, are visible online along with any changes we’ve made to the record. Not only does this give museum staff a better understanding of the objects they care for, but it also means that every object has an online presence available to source communities, artists, the general public and subject specialists.
An idea starts to formulate
Another way to share is through exhibitions. In most traditional exhibitions, objects are selected based on their relevance to a topic and for their ability to convey the chosen story. Museums often care for multiple examples of any given object, so naturally the ‘best’ ones make it to the exhibition. They might be selected because they are the most visually striking, in the most stable condition or have the richest context.
Sadly, this means there are thousands of objects which, although fascinating, never get their moment in the spotlight. We wanted to turn tradition on its head and showcase objects each of the Stores Move team has experienced a more personal connection with. The team is quite large, so we knew this would be a very collaborative effort requiring good communication and timely responses.
Although the idea for the exhibition had been brewing in the back of our minds for some time, it wasn’t until May 2022 that a formal plan was created to bring it to life. Time was tight. Exhibitions are usually planned many months, sometimes years, in advance so we had quite a task to pull everything together by the end of July. We were determined to make it work.
The first stage, as you would imagine, was to create a shortlist of objects we would like to include. Each of us went away and thought about objects which had made an impact on us, which had stayed in our memory long after they had been packed away and moved to the CMC. We gathered and shared our ideas, explaining what we would like to express in our caption and thinking about which objects would work well together. We then went on to choose the objects now displayed in the cases.
Captions are usually 50 words long and written in a neutral, third-person voice which can be quite academic or institutional. In our exhibition we decided that writing in first-person was a more appropriate way to express our individual experiences and ideas regarding the objects we chose. In this instance, that meant 15 voices in just two cases! (For the eagle eyed among you, there is a 16th object in the exhibition. A bonus if you will. This object was chosen by the whole team, with the caption authored by several of us from the perspective of the group).
We had a lot that we wanted to tell you about each object, so we decided to use QR codes to link to an extended caption online. Adding these codes to the caption rail meant that we had to wall mount our actual captions text, and we used a small image of the object to help link the two together. The added bonus is that these additional pages are essentially an online exhibition – people can view our object choices from anywhere in the world even if they can’t physically visit the museum.
[If you would like to learn more about the use of QR codes in museums, check out Sarah-Jane Harknett and Richard White’s blog].
Making it work
There have been a lot of opportunities to problem solve throughout the process. Another great exhibition, Colour: Art, Science and Power, was being installed in the next-door gallery at the same time as our mini exhibition. To avoid having a negative impact, we kept our installation simple – modifying pre-existing Perspex (acrylic plastic) mounts where required, and installing in a single day with a minimal team. Another advantage of this was that our exhibition was extremely low budget.
Since the whole team works in the off-site store, we couldn’t stand in front of the case daydreaming about how the exhibition would look. To mock up the shelves, we first had to move all the objects back from the CMC to the current off-site store. We cut rectangles of Tyvek (polyethylene fabric) to the size of the shelves and arranged our objects on them. We tried to take into account the gallery lighting and shadows cast from objects on the top shelves, but knew changes might have to be made on the day.
During the planning process, not one but three (!) of the Stores Move team (including myself) were struck down with Covid. We soldiered on from home, writing captions and keeping in touch about the looming deadlines. We all recovered in time for the installation thankfully, but the rest of the team did a great job of collaborating and keeping everything on track. MAA’s Digital Communications Officer, Caitlin Brooker, was also invaluable in helping us set up the online portion of the exhibition and preparing social media posts to promote all our hard work.
See for yourself
We would love to invite you to visit the gallery and check out our favourite objects! And if you can’t do so in person, please check out the online exhibition where you can see photos of the objects and read all of our captions. We hope to add audio to the pages soon, too, so keep your eyes (and ears) peeled.
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