Royal Docks to be London’s £5bn new cultural quarter

Royal Docks to be London’s £5bn new cultural quarter

The mayors of London and Newham have declared the Royal Docks a new cultural quarter for the capital that could generate £5bn in investment over the next 20 years, as a new festival, Royal Docks Originals, opens.

TAITMAIL   Wars of empire as real people saw them

TAITMAIL Wars of empire as real people saw them

TOTAL WAR! the didactic shouts at the start of the Imperial War Museum’s new permanent exhibition: the concept realised for the first time with the Second World War that non-combatants as well as combatants were considered legitimate targets.

Lost Tiepolo drawing turns up in Sitwells’ attic

Lost Tiepolo drawing turns up in Sitwells’ attic

An exquisite drawing by Tiepolo, one of the masters of Venice’s 18th century golden age, has been found in an attic, covered in bubble-wrap.

Anne Seymour Damer: the forgotten ‘female genius’

Anne Seymour Damer: the forgotten ‘female genius’

Horace Walpole described the sculptor Anne Seymour Damer as “a female genius”, yet her work is barely known now, almost 200 years after her death.

Rail boost for regional theatres

Rail boost for regional theatres

A railway company has teamed up with a group of regional theatres to boost their audiences following the Covid emergency.

Tiny Alnwick museum is UK's most friendly

Tiny Alnwick museum is UK's most friendly

The tiny Bailffgate Museum & Gallery in Alnwick, Northumberland, is the winner of this year’s Family Friendly Museum Award.

Cornwall and Durham longlisted for City of Culture 2025

Cornwall and Durham longlisted for City of Culture 2025

The government has announced the eight cities and conurbations that will vie to be City of Culture 2025, in succession to Coventry this year.

GOOD PRACTICE GUIDE    Borough culture power versus Covid

GOOD PRACTICE GUIDE Borough culture power versus Covid

In 2019 Waltham Forest was the first of mayor Sadiq Khan’s London Boroughs of Culture. Lorna Lee, assistant director of culture at Waltham Forest Council, shows how the structure built then helped its communities through the pandemic

Ex-director quits Science Museum board over sponsorship

Ex-director quits Science Museum board over sponsorship

Chris Rapley, the former director of the Science Museum, has resigned from its advisory board in the escalating row over its sponsorship by Shell.

£1m to give the world new British films

£1m to give the world new British films

The UK Global Screen Fund is to give £1m to help 18 new productions to get international showings.

MIMA offers first curating apprenticeship degrees

MIMA offers first curating apprenticeship degrees

In a ground-breaking move for careers in museums and galleries Middlesbrough’s MIMA School of Art and Design is offering the UK’s first combined masters and higher degree apprenticeship (HAD) in curating.

New £2m fund to help museums make ‘miracles on a shoestring’

New £2m fund to help museums make ‘miracles on a shoestring’

Art Fund today announces the first round of a new £2m grant stream, Reimagine, to enable museums, galleries and historic houses to connect with their communities better.

THE ART OF PHOTOJOURNALISM Image of the month

THE ART OF PHOTOJOURNALISM Image of the month

Into the Twilight Zone, 6.45pm, 25th September 2018, by Roger Jackson

Alan Sparrow with an image of St Paul’s and the City a sunset

Museum of Childhood’s £13m transformation – to Young V&A

Museum of Childhood’s £13m transformation – to Young V&A

Work has begun on the £13m transformation of the V&A’s Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, East London. It is due to reopen in 2023.

UK arts councils combine for international fund

UK arts councils combine for international fund

The four nations’ arts councils have collaborated on a new fund to encourage international partnerships on arts projects.

Double sculpture makes Shard London’s international meeting point

Double sculpture makes Shard London’s international meeting point

A new public sculpture by the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa that celebrates both internationalism and diversity has been unveiled at the point where the Shard, London’s tallest building, meets London Bridge Station.

Fund opens for ‘arts for social change’ projects

Fund opens for ‘arts for social change’ projects

Two charities have combined to cdevise a fund that supports arts collaborations for social change.

Courtauld reopens in November after £57m make-over

Courtauld reopens in November after £57m make-over

The Courtauld Gallery is to reopen in November after three years’ closure following its £57m modernisation, the most significant in its history.

Abigail Morris to head Mountview

Abigail Morris to head Mountview

Abigail Morris, the former director of the Jewish Museum and before that of Soho Theatre, is to be the new CEO of the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts.

Cameron gets his own ‘Mack’ - in Peckham

Cameron gets his own ‘Mack’ - in Peckham

The Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts is to name its new theatre “The Mack” after its supporter, the West End producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who has given £1m towards the new building.

Himid wins Government Art Collection commission

Himid wins Government Art Collection commission

Lubaina Himid has won the Government Art Collection’s annual commission, with the result unveiled today.  

Ex-arts minister Gowrie dies aged 81

Ex-arts minister Gowrie dies aged 81

The Earl of Gowrie, arts minister under Margaret Thatcher and later chairman of the Arts Council, has died aged 81 after a long illness.

Robot painting a first for RA's Summer Exhibition

Robot painting a first for RA's Summer Exhibition

A portrait of the artist Yinka Shonibare is the first robot painting to be selected for the Royal Academy’s annual showcase of contemporary talent, the Summer Exhibition.

Tate’s Clarrie Wallis to head Turner Contemporary

Tate’s Clarrie Wallis to head Turner Contemporary

Clarrie Wallis, Tate’s senior curator of British contemporary art, is to be the new director of Turner Contemporary at Margate, succeeding Victoria Pomery who has left to be the director of The Box in Plymouth.

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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