Milton Keynes - international festival city

Milton Keynes - international festival city

AI PROFILE: Monica Ferguson, chief executive and artistic director of The Stables, Milton Keynes

West Yorks revamp to cost £2 million more

West Yorks revamp to cost £2 million more

Council asked to meet most of extra contractor costs

Blavatnik gets Haymarket

Blavatnik gets Haymarket

The Russian-born billionaire and philanthropist Sir Leonard Blavatnik has acquired the Theatre Royal Haymarket Access Entertainment, for an undisclosed sum.

Opening the outdoor

Opening the outdoor

Outdoor arts have become the sector for bringing together professional performance and community participation, and it’s growing, according to Xtrax and its Platform 4: UK project.

THE WORD     Are selfies art?

THE WORD Are selfies art?

Yes? Hell no! … depends, says Kat Tiidenberg

McPhee’s unforgettable Orgreave images

McPhee’s unforgettable Orgreave images

Today (June 18) is the 34thanniversary of the Battle of Orgreave, the confrontation between police and pickets at the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire and a pivotal event in the miners’ strike of 1984-85.

Great art in the classroom

Great art in the classroom

More than 70,000 schoolchildren from 125 schools are to get world class works of art in their classrooms as part of the largest ever sculpture project undertaken in Britain.

Summer Flight

Summer Flight

Peckham artist Remi Rough has created a new public art installation to welcome visitors to the transformed Wembley Park this summer www.wembleypark.com.

Producer Winter switches West End for Tunbridge Wells

Producer Winter switches West End for Tunbridge Wells

Carole Winter, the West End and Broadway producer with more than 30 shows to her name, is to be the permanent producer at Tunbridge Wells’s Assembly Hall Theatre.

Opera festival’s moving Hope for Grenfell gala

Opera festival’s moving Hope for Grenfell gala

Gareth Malone led a choir of almost 200 children and local residents and celebrities last night in a moving memorial concert at Investec Opera Holland Park to mark the first anniversary of the Grenfell disaster.

Ed Vaizey and Tom Watson to be Achates judges

The third Achates Philanthropy Prize, awarded for first-time cultural giving in the UYK,is to have former culture minister Ed Vaizey and shadow culture secretary Tom Watson as judges.

Guide for museums to diversify visitors

Arts Council England and the Museums Association have launched a new ‘how-to’ guide to help museums increase visitor diversity

Ireland launches international culture strategy

Ireland launches international culture strategy

Seven year programme promises to double arts spend

Murdoch arts charity launches regional artists scheme

Murdoch arts charity launches regional artists scheme

Freelands Foundation will invest £1.5 million

Belfast backs arts funding campaign

Belfast backs arts funding campaign

Councillors support increase in government cash

Top Scottish arts organisation in shock closure

Top Scottish arts organisation in shock closure

NVA blames loss of funding and strains of ambitious restoration plan

Sadiq’s £1.1b cultural vision for Olympic Park

Sadiq’s £1.1b cultural vision for Olympic Park

The Mayor of London has set out plans for East Bank, the new cultural sector in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in the East End, with the BBC being added to the mix.

Museums dependent on blockbusters

Worldwide figures show Louvre back on top

DEA BIRKETT Who do you think you’re talking to?

Dea Birkett takes the British Museum to task over its object labels, and who it thinks will read them

Last month #AskaCurator happened, the annual day on which anyone can tweet a question to a curator. At 10.16am, the Keeper of Asia at the British Museum started answering tweets about interpretation.

@massmuseum

How do you go about designing exhibition labels and information that are accessible to a wider range of people? #AskaCurator

@britishmuseum

Jane, Keeper of Asia: Curators write the labels based on their specialist knowledge and they are edited by our Interpretation departments...

@britishmuseum

...We aim to be understandable by 16 year olds. Sometimes Asian names can be confusing, so we have to be careful about using too many.

Within moments I’d had texts asking if I’d seen these tweets. #AskaCurator is designed to open that tantalising door and take us behind the decision-making scenes
in a museum. This British Museum tweet did just that. We’d been allowed to peek through the keyhole into
the assumptions of our great museums and, rather than finding knowledge and wonder, discovered prejudice and misunderstanding. The response on Twitter was immediate and furious. How could a great cultural institution say this?

How? It’s unimaginable that an Asian person, or someone of Asian descent, would have called Asian names “confusing”. A name isn’t confusing if it’s yours, your parents’, your cousin’s, your uncle’s. So, confusing to whom exactly? Who is the imagined 16-year-old visitor? Not Asian.

I have long argued that language is an access issue.
If you riddle your labels with unnecessarily obscure language, it’s equivalent to removing your ramp. It means many people won’t be able to access your collection.

But language is also a diversity issue. You always write from a viewpoint. And if that viewpoint is always the same – a white, non-disabled, middle-class museum sector – then the museum won’t be accepting of diverse staff or welcome diverse visitors.

Let’s look at some really confusing names. Luciano Pavarotti – would the museum have a problem with that? And as for length, how would they abbreviate Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Robert Baden-Powell or Camilla Parker- Bowles? As the Twitter spat went on, even the title of the Tweeter began to be questioned. Keeper of Asia? Did that come from a Victorian novel?

But how did the British Museum respond? At 11.48am they tweeted they were sorry “for any offence caused”
– not for what they said. The museum then explained why they had to take the Asian-names-too-confusing approach. “Label text to any object is necessarily limited and we try to tell the object’s story ... We are not always able to re ect the complexity of different names”. Oh –
I see. They weren’t being offensive at all. It’s just that
we don’t properly understand the challenges of writing museum text. Quite rightly, the vast majority found this explanation unacceptable. The Twitter debate continued and became a “Moment” – that’s a highlight of the day due to the large number of comments on it. It was the only #AskaCurator thread that did so.

So did the British Museum finally say that it was wrong and it’d look at how a national institution was able to say something like that? That it would learn? No. It issued a second statement. “For any object in the museum we try to make the label as clear as possible, to visitors of all origins, within a tight word limit”. Again, it was our problem. We just don’t understand how museums work.

But we do. And we recognise prejudice when we
see it. We also recognise that when museums refuse to examine their own assumptions, they damage not only themselves but the reputation and standing of the sector as a whole.

The fabulous #AskaCurator may not have intended to reveal this aspect of curatorial work. But in doing so, it has at least given a public platform for response.
We know these attitudes are there – they’re just kept hidden in the stores along with other obsolete and no longer interesting objects. They need to be brought out into the light, dusted down, examined, then dumped. Then we need to employ a rainbow of voices writing museum stories and labels, so none of us are confused at all.

But it’s not only museums. That same September week, a press release went out about “£400K research project launched to help theatres diversify audiences”. There was a picture of the six researchers. They were all white.

Dea Birkett is Co-Director of Text Workshop www.textworkshop.co.uk www.deabirkett.com

 

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