Dundee could follow up V&A with new concert hall

Dundee could follow up V&A with new concert hall

Plans follow successful launch of new museum

ACE appoints South West chair

ACE appoints South West chair

Helen Birchenough has been appointed as chair of Arts Council England for the South West.

Hull wins National Lottery award

Hull wins National Lottery award

City of Culture voted best arts project

Welsh arts ‘invisible’ overseas

Welsh arts ‘invisible’ overseas

Welsh cultural talent is hiding its light from the rest of the world, according to a report for the British Council.

ACE/HLF firm up museums support

ACE/HLF firm up museums support

Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery have signed a new, reinforced memorandum of understanding (MoU) to improve support for museums in England.

Lifting off after novichok

Lifting off after novichok

AI PROFILE    Gareth Machin, artistic director, Wiltshire Creative

Digbeth - 'artistic powerhouse'

Digbeth - 'artistic powerhouse'

Digbeth, Birmingham’s creative quarter, “all the potential to be the UK’s top creative hub”.

 O’Riordan to take over at Lyric Hammersmith

O’Riordan to take over at Lyric Hammersmith

Rachel O’Riordan, artistic director of the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, since 2014, is to be the new chief of the Lyric Hammersmith.

TAITMAIL   Salisbury’s art of recovery

TAITMAIL Salisbury’s art of recovery

Salisbury’s Novichok horror might, perversely, have been a mixed blessing for the city – and for the Arts Council. 

BAC grand hall reopens after fire devastation

BAC grand hall reopens after fire devastation

Battersea Arts Centre today reopens its grand hall following the 2015 fire that all but destroyed it, and also reveals the results of a 12 year development programme for the centre.

Freeman to join Royal Exchange

Freeman to join Royal Exchange

Stephen Freeman is to leave his job as CEO of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, to  be executive director of the Royal Exchange in Manchester.

Labour pledge on creativity in schools

Labour pledge on creativity in schools

Labour is committed to putting creativity back onto the school curriculum, shadow culture secretary Tom Watson said today.

Bush’s Younis takes over at Southbank

Bush’s Younis takes over at Southbank

Madfani Younis has been appointed to the new role of creative director at the Southbank Centre.

McBean and the RSC’s’ golden age

McBean and the RSC’s’ golden age

The photographer Angus McBean, best known now for his portraits of the Beatles, Audrey Hepburn and Vivien Leigh, took some of his finest pictures for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Meet the first ever Pet Poet Laureate

Meet the first ever Pet Poet Laureate

Blue Cross, the pet charity, has appointed Russell Jones as the first ever Pet Poet Laureate.

MY STORY		Trusted with Shakespeare

MY STORY Trusted with Shakespeare

Louisa Davies has been appointed to the new post of head of creative programme for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the independent charity that cares for the world’s greatest Shakespeare heritage in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Stenning leaves Bristol Old Vic

Emma Stenning is stepping down as chief executive of the Bristol Old Vic after nine years at the theatre.

Rescue plan for Farfield Mill

Artists have agreed a rescue plan to save Farfield Mill at Sedbergh in Cumbria.

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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