London’s other rivers

London’s other rivers

The capital has been shaped by its natural waterways, as a new exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands reveals

TAITMAIL    You couldn’t sing an aria about it

TAITMAIL You couldn’t sing an aria about it

Someone HAS to write an opera about opera. Better, a soap opera. Sex, death, plot lurches, vast personalities and gorgeous costumes, it's all there.

Into the woods for Grange Park Opera

Into the woods for Grange Park Opera

There are two Grange opera festivals this summer, based at two different country houses in Hampshire and Surrey, both created by the conductor Wasfi Kani. Simon Tait visited the newest

MY STORY    Helping artists to value themselves

MY STORY Helping artists to value themselves

Jerwood Arts’ new director, Lilli Geissendorfer, has introduced three new funds to the charity’s operations, and for one is announcing bursary beneficiaries whose careers could be shaped by them

Heritage high streets get £62m boost

Heritage high streets get £62m boost

High street buildings are to be turned into creative spaces thanks to a new £62m government fund, the Department of Digital Culture Media and Sport has announced.

Hogarth, the noisy painter

Hogarth, the noisy painter

A new exhibition at the Foundling Museum takes a single painting of 18th century life as its subject

First affordable CEZ artists’ studios open

First affordable CEZ artists’ studios open

Eighty-five affordable artists’ studios have opened in Deptford, South London, as part of the Mayor of London’s Creative Enterprise Zone scheme.

GOOD PRACTICE GUIDE  Dancing into the big top

GOOD PRACTICE GUIDE Dancing into the big top

Clare Limb, head of dance development & learning for Déda, the Derby-based dance and outdoor performance development agency, on bringing dance and contemporary circus together in learning and participation

TAITMAIL   2022, a year of two Roses

TAITMAIL 2022, a year of two Roses

It was a coincidence of fate. At the moment the survival of the oldest Elizabethan theatre against the odds and its bright future were being celebrated, the probable closure of the modern one modelled on it was announced.

Plymouth to reopen Elizabethan House museum

Plymouth to reopen Elizabethan House museum

£2m restoration will finish in 2020

Lottery support for Northern arts organisations

Lottery support for Northern arts organisations

The National Lottery Heritage Fund is backing a new scheme, to be run by Creative United, help cultural organisations in the North with business advice.

Fears over Brexit fuel art exports to EU

Fears over Brexit fuel art exports to EU

The value of art, collectors' pieces and antiques exported from the UK rose to a three year high of £5.4bn in 2018, up from £5.1bn in 2017.

AI PROFILE   Cynthia Corbett and living with art

AI PROFILE Cynthia Corbett and living with art

The Cynthia Corbett Gallery is in a former 1860s convent in a leafy corner of Wimbledon, not the kind of venue you would expect to be a nurturing place for artistic talent.

Peter Hall’s theatre facing closure

Peter Hall’s theatre facing closure

Kingston Council’s withdrawal of funding may see the closure of the Rose Theatre, created by Sir Peter Hall and opened in 2008.

 The Rose 30 years on: how it was saved

The Rose 30 years on: how it was saved

It was on a barmy early summer Sunday afternoon in 1989, exactly 30 years ago, when the Rose Theatre was saved. Simon Tait was there

Export block on judge’s Chatterley copy

Export block on judge’s Chatterley copy

The government has put a temporary block on the copy of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover used by the judge at the novel’s obscenity trial in 1960 – perhaps the most famous Old Bailey trial of the 20th century - complete with his wife’s annotations.

Cabaret’s automata delight returns to London

Cabaret’s automata delight returns to London

The automota show Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, for 15 years a feature of Covent Garden, has a new show in London with the artist Paul Spooner – thanks to the inspiration it gave a teenage visitor

Armitage the new Poet Laureate

Armitage the new Poet Laureate

Simon Armitage has been appointed the new Poet Laureate, following an unexpectedly troubled search for Dame Carol Ann Duffy’s successor.

THE WORD Where are non-western artists in contemporary galleries?

THE WORD Where are non-western artists in contemporary galleries?

Faiza Butt is a Pakistani artist whose work is held in private and public collections including the British Museum and the Kiran Nadar Museum, Delhi

Wales consider arts for core subject

Wales consider arts for core subject

Arts subjects could become a core class for Welsh school children if a proposed new curriculum is put in place.

Bristol's Bricks aim to reclaim police station for the arts

Bristol's Bricks aim to reclaim police station for the arts

Bristol's arts charity Bricks are hoping to create a new arts hub in one of the city's old police station.

Arts Council Northern Ireland pays executive £12k in discrimination case

Arts Council Northern Ireland pays executive £12k in discrimination case

Arts Council Northern Ireland has paid £12,000 to its chief executive Roisin McDonough after settling an age discrimination case.

The David Parr House: Cambridge's Arts & Crafts home opens to the public

The David Parr House: Cambridge's Arts & Crafts home opens to the public

The David Parr House, the Cambridge home of William Morris' Arts & Crafts collaborator, is to open to the public.

Saatchi Gallery covers artworks after complaints from Muslim visitors

Saatchi Gallery covers artworks after complaints from Muslim visitors

The Saatchi Gallery in West London has taken the decision to cover up works by artists SKU that feature an Islamic declaration of faith, following complaints from Muslim visitors that they are blasphemous.

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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