As it’s Museum Week, and I happened to go to three museums/exhibitions, and I’m a history student, it seems like an appropriate time to blog about museums. Terrible, I know, but for a long time I wasn’t the biggest fan of museums. I mean, I thought they were alright, and I even did some volunteering for a couple of museum services, but I had trouble shaking off the old ‘school’ mentality of having to memorise everything I saw in case I was tested on it later. It’s only as I’ve got older that I’ve moved into the position of thinking about objects in museums, and knowledge for its own sake (incidentally, I also read more non-fiction now).
One massive tip I would give to someone who’s starting to go to exhibitions of their own volition is to go to ones they have at least a kindling of interest in. In the past few months, I’ve been to exhibitions about Gothicism, the history of sex, the home, forensics, foundlings and dollshouses - all things I have an interest in. Show me a display of ancient tools or coins and I’ll probably be like ‘yeah, it’s nice’, but not think about it all that much beyond that because it’s not really my kind of thing. Show me a painting of a dining-hall full of foundlings (as indeed the Foundling Museum did), and I’ll wonder whether they liked living in such a communal environment or not, how restricted they must have felt by the rules and regulations, and whether they were really as happy and wholesome as the artist made them look. You can get so much more out of an exhibition if you can think of questions to ask of the items on display and/or can relate it to other things you know about. There are so many exhibitions on at any one time, and it’s not mandatory that you go to all of them.
Following on from that, then, I’d recommend not only going into an exhibition with questions you want it to answer, but also to be critical of what you see and ask yourself why you like or dislike it (possibly more applicable in the case of art), and make links between the displayed past and the present. Identifying what you like, for example, might inspire you to look at similar art online or in books or galleries, or give you ideas of things to read - the Gothic exhibition at the British Library was the kick I needed to finally read some Dickens (who I’ll blog about at some point!). Seeing how methods of criminal and victim identification, pathology, and crime scene investigation have changed over time, as I did at the Wellcome’s forensics exhibition, led me to make comparisons between now and then (admittedly as a crime novel addict rather than a real-life forensics expert), and realise that some old methods were actually pretty sophisticated.
I’d also recommend a little harmless eavedropping. Sometimes the other visitors to a museum can offer insights you would never have thought of yourself! And, of course, chat to the curators - not only are they often bursting with knowledge they want to share with you, but if you’re doing some sort of research project, as enthusiasts of history and education themselves, they’re usually quite interested and can offer another perspective. I dismissed it at one point, but maybe I I’d like to be a curator after all - I’d particularly enjoy choosing artefacts for display and writing the information/guidebooks to go with them. Anyone fancy giving me a museum job after I finish my PhD?