Archives for category: Collections

It’s not often I read a non-fiction book straight through, but I’ve just demolished my copy of Bill Brown’s 2003 A Sense of Things, The Object Matter of American Literature, which now sprouts a forest of page-markers. The book has given me lots to think about, lit some light-bulbs, sent me scurrying after other references, got me to download a couple of nineteenth century pdfs (ah the joys of technology…to be able to sit in one’s sick-bed, accessing 150-year-old volumes in US university libraries).

I was already exploring Mark Twain’s writings about bric-a-brac, but Brown has alerted me to others, including Henry James, who has provided me with lots of interest. Brown points out that although some of James’ characters share a hatred of bric-a-brac, they also demonstrate that even “hideous objects could be loved.” As Brown writes: “…we use physical objects to arouse and organize our affection.” Yes!

Now I’m several chapters into Things, which Brown edited in 2004. This of course is more of a dipping-into read, but still valuable.

I’ve come across this passage referred to in two books in the last week. In her work Homes of the London Poor, Octavia Hill, writing of trying to persuade “the poor” to move from what she regarded as “miserable” accommodation to slightly less horrible surroundings wrote:

“Our plan of removing the inhabitants of the miserable underground kitchens to rooms in the upper parts of the houses, did not, strange as it may seem, meet with any approbation at first. They had been so long in the semi-darkness that they felt it an effort to move. One woman, in particular, I remember, pleaded hard with me to let her stop, saying, “My bits of things won’t look anything if you bring them to the light.” By degrees, however, we effected the change.”

For me, the woman’s concern that her “bits of things” should be seen to best advantage is very revealing, and I believe supports my contention that even the poorest (these were people living in dark and dingy cellars and basements) wished to display some objects (a collection?) that reflected well on their owners.

Hill, Octavia. Homes of the London Poor. Fortnightly Review, November 1866.

Having got up criminally early, I spent today at The Bond Company, Birmingham, at what was called  “Museum Camp 2012” and described as an “unconference.”

About 100 delegates turned up to discuss a range of topics and issues the details of which none of knew about in advance – we made it up as we went along. Or rather we organised ourselves into about 20 different sessions to talk about things that people felt strongly enough about to declare their interest and to volunteer to lead the small group discussions. I put myself forward to lead a session on volunteers  – how to attract and retain them, describing the challenges faced by Nottingham Industrial Museum and my experiences of being a member of the management group.

I acted as rather a devil’s advocate, and was rewarded with a veritable torrent of advice, suggestions and ideas from about 20 vocal and lively delegates who ranged from students through museum volunteers to seasoned professionals.  Great stuff! It was good to hear different opinions and experiences, and to feel supported and encouraged. I shall take a lot back to the management group.

I also attended other sessions which related more to my PhD research. I’m keen to use as great a range of media, digital and otherwise, as I can in both collecting, interpreting and communicating my findings, and so it was good to hear people talking about the roles of play and games (lo-tech as well as digital) in accessing collections and the things in them. It was interesting that we have become so steeped in the digital world that I would say a majority of people had a knee-jerk games=digital response, when in fact, as researcher Rebecca Shelley reminded us, museum play can be as simple as “happy families.” She’s looking at “engaging with heritage through play and performance” and transforming the museum into an “unplayground.”

I’m thinking that I’d like my research to be “playable,” in the sense that a game can have the same cards or dice or tokens but be completely different every time it is played. Perhaps that is unrealistic, but it is worth exploring.  I am far from being able to visualise the end-product of this approach, or even if there is one, but that’s the fun of exploration and being open to, if not only serendipity, but to that lord of games, chance..