Author Archives: Lucy Cooper

About Lucy Cooper

A University of Birmingham postgraduate student studying for an MA in Heritage Management. I blog about my experience volunteering across the world including my university, the British Museum, and the University of Melbourne

Reflections

Almost a month from coming home from the exchange, my work for Melbourne has come to an end. I have decided to post a copy of my report, in the hope that it might benefit future applicants, or for anyone that wanted a quick summary of my time spent in Melbourne.

From July-August 2014 I embarked on a life-changing experience to the University of Melbourne. I was the fortunate recipient of the Universitas 21 Museums and Collections Award, granted to me by the University of Birmingham. I am a postgraduate student studying for an MA in Heritage Management at the University of Birmingham linked with the Ironbridge Institute for Cultural Heritage.  It was a unique opportunity to work with the collections, staff, and students at Melbourne; and to share knowledge, expand skills and use the theory work from my course in a professional heritage environment. Having returned from the placement three weeks ago, this report presents the opportunity to reflect on the experience as a whole, and to chart my personal development before, during, and after the placement.

Firstly, it must be stated that the collections at Melbourne and Birmingham are remarkably similar. Initially a teaching collection, they have diversified to create varied collections which reflect the evolution of knowledge and scholarship with unique material that is often not available to see in a conventional museum. Having volunteered with collections in Birmingham for two years, my placement in Melbourne allowed me to view University Collections with a newly found respect. It has become clear to me how important these collections are, and how integral their place is in the wider picture of cultural heritage. My projects covered aspects of heritage management including documentation and cataloguing, conservation, research, and interpretation. Being familiar with university collections and how they were managed, proved to be a considerable asset.

However, my Mondays spent with the Cultural Collections Projects Unit were illuminating, as I was introduced to several new approaches to collections management designed specifically to suit the universities environment. I arrived at a particularly busy point for the team, with several festivals and event days approaching which were utilising the university collections. I was allowed to sit in on meetings regarding these events, including planning for their next exhibition ‘Aftershocks: Experiences of Japan’s Great Earthquake’. It was fascinating to have a general overview of large scale exhibition planning as it complimented the theoretical approaches I have been exposed to on my MA course. My project was to create an outreach activity for use on community days such as open days or student services events. It was a project that completely removed me from my comfort zone, but it is also one that I took the most from. It taught me about budgeting, resourcing, demographic profiling, marketing, and designing with challenges to overcome and deadlines to meet. The feedback and support from the cultural collections team, with their years of experience, was a fantastic asset. They helped sculpt my vision into what was realistically achievable within the timeframe. The result was an activity where students had to match the name of the collection with a picture of one item from the collection, which was used on the university’s open day.

In contrast, my project with the special collections team was firmly within my comfort zone. My principal duty was to conduct research on William Blake. The analytical and research skills from my undergraduate degree in ancient history and the knowledge of how to interpret information from my MA greatly helped this task. I worked on two engravings – Grandison and The Beggar’s Opera –  both of which he created during his 7 year apprenticeship with Basire that commenced when he was just 14 years old. It gave me an insight into the early, progressive years of the renowned painter and poet, one that I previously was unaware of. I was also given the fantastic opportunity to work with precise, beautifully made facsimiles of some of Blake’s more famous pieces made by the Trianon Press; culminating in a blog about the rare, unique collections held by the University of Melbourne. Furthermore, I gained hands-on experience and skills through making book cradles and exhibition labels. While shadowing professionals, I was able to witness the challenges of having a rare, fragile work on loan. In this case, it was the world famous Guttenberg Bible that had come from Manchester to go on a short term exhibition in the Baillieu Library. There were significant issues such as transfer, storage, security, and access that the team had to overcome, as well as the standard exhibition planning. It highlighted to me how much responsibility curators have, and the attention to detail required to make an exhibition a success.

When applying for the award, the prospect of having my interests incorporated into my placement was exciting. To say they fulfilled my request would be an understatement. I indicated that I wished to work with the Classics and Archaeology Collection at the Ian Potter Museum of Art following my ancient history degree. Upon arrival, I was shown the large teaching collection of antiquities, among which was a large box of 150 cylinder seal reproductions. Nothing was known about the collection, where they came from, how they were made, what they depicted, or what was important about them. I was tasked to uncover their provenance and establish their significance in the teaching collection. Having specialised in Ancient Near Eastern Studies and learnt Cuneiform, the ancient writing system used on the seals, I managed to identify 50 seals; considerably more than the staff at the Potter had considered possible within the 3 day time frame. To ensure that I saw the project through to the end, my 4th day was dedicated to being thoroughly trained in the KE Emu database where my findings became immortalised in catalogue entries that I had created. This project was extremely satisfying as it showed that I could utilise my existing skills in a professional setting whilst knowing that my input was appreciated by the staff. It stands as an excellent example of how volunteer programs can be of benefit to both the student and the organisation.

Another aspect of collections that I asked to participate in was conservation. Prior to the exchange, all of my conservation knowledge came from academic books and brief training in basic paper conservation. Being the area where I had the least experience, it was where I grew the most. The Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation (CCMC) was an astounding hands-on experience in a dizzyingly busy environment. I assisted in a wide variety of tasks including brush-vacuuming, corrosion reduction, solubility testing, humidifying, immersion baths, and paper consolidation using Japanese tissues. It shed light on how the profession has different expectations to meet in the UK and Australia. In contrast to my research projects which were wholly concerned with the historicity and interpretation of artefacts, the work with CCMC allowed me to be immersed in the care and treatment for the object. It made me appreciate materials, textures, and lifespans of objects far more and will inform my consideration of cultural heritage in the future.

Throughout the entirety of the scheme I was given a large amount of creative freedom and was allowed to work independently, knowing that support from the extremely friendly and informative staff was available. This independence was even apparent on my special ‘one-off’ days at the University Archives, and Herbarium. These were two similar, self-contained projects that were principally concerned with updating the material held in the collections. At both, items in the collection needed finding, rehousing into new archive grade storage, then updating or inserting onto the online catalogue. My time here challenged my conceptions that archives were static store houses where items went and were scarcely moved. They were vibrant, busy, ever-changing environments where there was a constant need to improve the service to aid accessibility for users.

The importance of the extra-curricular activities should also be highlighted. The creation and upkeep of blog about my experiences has been an essential tool upon returning to the UK. Not only did it keep a detailed account of what I achieved and my journey to achieving it, it is also a highly sought after skill in an age where social media and outreach is key to the success of a heritage business. Furthermore, the cultural experience of Melbourne and surrounding areas must not be undermined. Although the award is primarily about the placement at the university, the wider cultural landscape of Australia is fascinating for any student engaged in museum studies. The award presents a unique opportunity to see and feel how another culture interprets and engages with their cultural heritage – especially given their inextricable connection to English history. Australia’s cultural landscape therefore added another layer of interpretation, and aided in my understanding of the university’s collections within that context.

It has become clear that one of the greatest benefits of this scheme is the exchange of knowledge. The international collaborations with the U21 network is an ambitious project to see heritage break free of individual, institutional constraints and to engage young, keen minds away from the authorised heritage discourse. I was able to transfer my own experiences and interpretations of heritage, whilst also taking on the expertise and resources from an unfamiliar and culturally contrasting surrounding. The award was designed to cater to my existing skills, but also to lift me away from my comfort zone, to boost confidence, to identify my strengths and weaknesses, to expose me to the daily workings of a university collection, and to give me the tools to shape my experience to suit my interests. Therefore, the award is not simply about the physical collections, but the student. It is symbolic of the relationship between a museum and its audience on a local, regional, national, and international level. The achievement of being granted the award, and completing the placement is not an end in itself, rather it is the beginning of another partnership that is instrumental to the development and expansion of discourse in the heritage industry. The award has not only enabled me to gather research and contacts for my MA thesis on university collections or expanded my skill set, it has also given me something immeasurable and invaluable – confidence and determination. Working with so many enlightened and experienced heritage professionals has been a privilege, and has consolidated my plans to pursue a career in the heritage sector. As a result of this placement, I have an entire new range of skills that I am able to highlight to future employers, and I have applied for collections assistant roles that I would never have deemed myself suitable for before. It has been an honour to be a part of the Melbourne team and the expanding U21 network, and I wish to convey my deepest thanks to all those involved in the scheme in Birmingham and Melbourne. May the award continue to enrich the lives of future participants as it has mine.

Also, a final thank you to everyone who followed this blog during my journey, it’s been a blast!

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The weekend round up

I did promise that I would follow up my first weekend in Melbourne at a later stage. Having concluded my experience, I am now prepared to share a selection of cultural delights from this wonderful city! The purpose of this blog is to look at the Melbourne Museum in a little detail, then list all the cultural attractions I visited during my time to Melbourne.

Firstly, Melbourne Museum. Visited on my first weekend to the city I think it should be everyone’s first cultural stop. The permanent exhibitions cover natural history, social history, aboriginal culture, and the environment.

A few of my favourite elements of this museum were:

  1. Information was not dumbed-down. They had the perfect balance of accessible but informative text panels meaning that everyone could engage to varying degrees. Text panels and interactive sections were also put at varying heights meaning that people of all ages had something to enjoy.
  2. There was a “cabinet of curiosities” feel that was present in all the galleries giving your eyes a true feast as well as supplying the necessary information.
  3. Some of the permanent displays had sections which told you about the collections, the importance of collecting, and the implications of collecting. They also showed the challenges of caring and conserving for such complex collections (this included pests that were both detrimental and advantageous)
  4. Interactive displays which showed you (or made you take part) in what they were attempting to explain, leaving a lasting memory and a much deeper level of engagement when compared with text panels or video footage.
  5. Utilising human voice and experience in the Aboriginal exhibition, First Peoples. The exhibition was created with a huge amount of  community consultation. The method of creation, and the exhibition itself celebrate the strength, vitality, and variety of Koorie people in Victoria. An important feature of this was the extensive use of aboriginal languages that were given precedence over English, emphasising its rightful importance.

Some other attractions and events I went to:

  • Late nights at Queen Victoria Market
  • Melbourne Aquarium
  • Immigration Museum
  • Koorie Heritage Trust
  • National Gallery Victoria (International and Australia)
  • Phillip Island
    • Koala Conservation Centre
    • The Nobbies
    • Penguin Parade
    • Cheese and Wine tasting
  • Melbourne Zoo
  • Melbourne Gaol
  • State Library of Victoria
  • The Laneways and Arcades of the CBD (including Hopetourn Tea Rooms – you must visit it!!)
  • Various parks
  • Lygon Street
  • Docklands
    • Harbour Town
    • Observation Wheel
    • Sunday Market
    • Late night fireworks
  • “Dames of Thrones” – Game of Thrones themed Burlesque show at the Arts Centre
  • Shrine of Remembrance
  • Sydney Road Shopping
  • ACMI (plus the current exhibition)
  • Cooks’ Cottage
  • Mana Bar (a video game themed cocktail bar)
  • St Kilda
  • Most of the collections held at the University of Melbourne

I was not able to spend any additional time in Melbourne once the placement had finished, but I wanted to illustrate the amount that can be done in the 4 weekends (8 days) you have free. Pack as much as you can in while you’re there, you can sleep when you get home! From a critical point of view, it has been interesting to see how tangible and intangible heritage is interpreted and portrayed in cultural setting I am unfamiliar with. From a holidaymakers point of view, it was all fun and really interesting!!

Now for some picture highlights:

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Game of Thrones Burlesque

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Meeting a Kangeroo!IMG_20140802_155244

Hopetoun Tea Room – Have as many slices as you can!IMG_20140802_134444

State Library of VictoriaIMG_20140802_120450

Melbourne Gaol

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Penguin Parade

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The Nobbie

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View of Melbourne from the Shrine of Remembrance – a must seeIMG_20140810_134856

Some Aboriginal art at NGV AustraliaIMG_20140814_121104

The tree at the centre of Koorie Heritage TrustIMG_20140727_154937

Cheese and Wine tasting!IMG_20140727_143535

Meeting a Koala!IMG_20140810_121248

The Shrine of Remembrance IMG_20140726_132415

NGV International IMG_20140726_122421

Melbourne AquariumIMG_20140723_172327

One of the many night marketsIMG_20140814_145318

St Kilda – view to the cityIMG_20140814_144413

St Kilda beach

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Week 4: All wrapped up!

The beginning of the end started with my presentation on Monday. Twenty minutes was not long enough to summarise what a fantastic time I have had here. Not only did it allow me to present all my projects to students wishing to apply for the award, it also gave me opportunity to give a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has made my time here so unforgettable.

After that I was taken out for lunch by the cultural collections team (Helen, Jason, Susie, and Kerrianne) which was a wonderful treat and a great way to conclude my time there. The afternoon followed a surge of work to try and get my outreach project completed in time for this Sunday (it’s almost there!).

Tuesday was my one day placement at the university herbarium. The collection there is superb and still held in the 1920s custom built cabinets. There are over 100,000 specimens of all major plant groups (fungi, mosses, liverworts, lichens, algae, ferns, gymnosperms and flowering plants). Some of the collection dates back to the 1850s and it also holds type specimens. Type specimens is a specimen selected to serve as a reference point when a plant species is first named and is very important in the world of botany. My job was similar to my task at archives – to get part of the collection, reorganise the material, upgrade its storage to archive grade material, and do a stock check as I go! I worked on a tiny portion of the red algae collection which hadn’t been updated in many years so it felt like I was making a huge difference! When the process had ended, they were all wrapped up like a present, ready to be put back on the shelf. 

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Upgrading the specimens and the finished product!

It was my first experience in a collection of this nature and it was fascinating to hear about the unique challenges this collection faces. For instance, are multiples of one specimen needed? How do you allow access to ‘living’ material? How to manage a collection that could be devastated by a foreign contaminant? How do you archive it so that it is easy to access (for instance, there can be several examples of a laurencia nidifica, all the same species but not duplicates). I hope future award winners get to experience this aspect of the collection. It was fascinating and Gillian (Herbarium curator) was lovely and answered all my questions with patience and clarity!

Wednesday was my wrap up day with prints. Kerrianne took me for my final cake and coffee at Brunetti’s (I chose a strawberry tart, delicious!). On the final day of research I uncovered two extra Blake facsimiles from by Nonesuch press to add to my blog about the Trianon press facsimiles. It is still in the process of being written, but as soon as it’s finished I’ll do a feature blog on here regarding my time working with that collection. Until then I’ll give you a sneak peak of my Blake photo shoot. Vogue magazine are using it as next seasons cover.

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Then onto my final day at CCMC. I ended as I began, with paper repair and consolidation! This time it was using a different method. Instead of the heat activated adhesive paper and an iron, I used methyl cellulose and dyed Japanese paper to reinforce some heavily damaged material from the university’s East Asian Collection. It was a really satisfying task to finish on, as I could see the effects of conservation immediately. Due to it being so fragile, the paper strengthened considerably post treatment and was a lot easier (and less frightening!) to handle.

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The girls there took me for a farewell lunch as well (I’ve been treated a lot to free meals this week!) and it was a lovely chance to say goodbye and express my thanks for having me. They insisted I should pop back in whenever I’m in Melbourne to see the team and I fully intend to! 

Looking back I can’t believe how much I’ve done, how much I’ve changed, and how quickly the time has passed. Reflecting my experiences now as I wait for my plane all I can think about is getting back to Birmingham to spread the word. If you can apply for this award, then do it. It will be one of the best things you will ever do! 

Now, although my four weeks have been written and my time has come to an end, keep an eye on this blog! I’ve still got my Blake blog to put up, an advice blog for students considering the award, a weekend round-up, and a reflections blog when I’ve returned home. 

 

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Week 3: Glorified cleaners? I think not!

I thought this week I’d give comment on one of the most exciting aspects of my time in Melbourne. Looking like a cross between a medical practice and a shop on diagon alley with all its pots, potions, brushes, and mists, the CCMC labs are an exciting place to work. 

Being a commercial practice and not solely tied to the University, a large commission of work has come in recently. The labs are full of people at the moment – established professionals, interns, and volunteers all helping each other. They also learn together – as they take students from the course run at the University of Melbourne the established members of the team get told the latest in conservation theory and current debates, while the students learn some invaluable on the job experience. The exchange of knowledge is wonderful to see, knowing that the relationship is beneficial for both partners.

The staff there are, to an inexperienced participant like myself, almost counter intuitively hands on. Getting intimate with objects, touching paint surfaces, putting paper in water is the opposite of what I’ve always been told – minimal access = longer life. They carry out their treatments with the utmost respect and care for the object. However, most treatments they actually employ are therapeutically gentle and simple. For instance, cotton wool can get rid of stains and paintbrushes can get rid of corrosion. You learn that it is not necessarily the change you can see with the naked eye that is important. For instance, when you brush vacuum a textile or smoke sponge a paper you are getting rid of all the surface dirt which can be hugely detrimental to an item in the long term, despite not seeing much of a difference when you are undergoing the treatment. 

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Brush vacuuming an item

I also carried out some solubility tests following on from my first week introduction to immersion baths for paper. Here the lithographs are tested with water, 50/50 ethanol and water, and pure ethanol. Tiny amounts are applied to the lithographs to determine whether any elements will bleed when you put them in the bath. The process is to dab and press where the solution has just been applied with a small square of paper, check to see if anything has bled, and if not place the paper under a weight and check every 5 minutes for approximately 15-20 minutes. If, at the end of that process, nothing has bled then it is allowed to be immersed. 

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Solubility testing

Despite these highly skilled and knowledgeable members of staff carrying out far more difficult treatments than the ones I have just described, Jude Fraser (CCMC Senior Manager/Paper and Photography Conservator) jokes that they are just glorified cleaners!! Somehow, I think not! The work they carry out there is so instrumentally important to the survival of our cultural heritage, and for a volunteer like myself there is a great amount of satisfaction you are benefiting the objects whilst becoming a part of its history.

She also explained to me the differences between the professions internationally e.g. different conservation controls that are needed for the southern and northern hemispheres (in terms of disaster management and humidity controls) and that in the UK is it relatively easy for a person to specifically study one type of conservation, e.g. ceramics, and be able to get a job, whereas in Australia the broader your skill set the better because there isn’t enough of one medium to specialise to that degree. 

It has been so wonderful to get such an access-all-areas look at a conservation lab, and I can’t see what they have in store for my final week! 

 

To continue in the hands-on theme I’ve had practical experience at all my placements this week. On Tuesday with Kerrianne at the prints I learnt how to make book cradles and exhibition labels on top of my Blake research. They are skills I am keen to employ when I return to the UK to install my exhibition at the University of Birmingham. 

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My book cradle holding my book cradle making instructions!

I also finished my Potter project this week as Steve Martin is on leave in my final week. So Wednesday and Thursday I set to finish identifying as many cylinder seals as I could! In the end I managed to find 50/150 they have there, and then I spent the entire final day training on their KE Emu database, learning how to create parties, modules, accession lots, link affiliations, and (most importantly from my perspective) create an accession entry. It was a fantastic experience to get key access to the database, and to see myself forever immortalised as the creator of those records at the IPMoA!

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45 cylinder seals, just before I reached the 50 mark, all bagged and boxed!

Finally, even though I’m in week three I finally started my outreach project with the cultural collections unit! My brief to create a carnival themed activity proved a challenge. In the morning I pitched a series of my ideas to Helen (cultural collections project curator) and Jason (conservation programs co-ordinator) who gave me some great feedback. My most ambitious idea would not be able to be accomplished during the time-frame and resources, but they mentioned that it would be an idea they might pursue in the future. The idea that has been settled upon is a darts-themed game where prospective students approach the stand on open day and are asked what degree they are considering studying. Then the team on the stand tells them to hit a target that is the collection which will be most beneficial to them during their stay at Melbourne. It introduces the students to all aspects of the collection, that they are available to access whether they study at the university or not, and (most importantly) which they can utilise to the best effect when they study here. Unfortunately I won’t be around on open day to see whether it is a success, but I’ve been assured pictures will be taken that I’ll try and include in my final blog!

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Week 2: Measured in miles and megabytes

Aside from my ongoing projects, it was organised for me to visit the University Archives held in Brunswick (off-campus) for a day with Sophie Garrett,co-coordinator of the archives repository.

With approximately 12 miles of shelving, the University Archives holds a considerable amount of material. Its collections do not only house documents pertaining to the university, but manages and provides access to the historical records of Victorian businesses, trade unions and other community and cultural organisations, as well as the personal papers of many individuals prominent within them. They are currently preparing themselves for the arrival of their latest acquisition, the Germaine Greer Archives. Having been born in Melbourne and educated at the university, the acquisition of documents that span almost six decades of her influential life is an exciting prospect. It is almost without doubt that they will be a heavily accessed aspect of the collections.

Archives, especially those associated with a university, have the constant pressure of needing to be user-friendly, easily navigable, and accessible. With changing conservation techniques and with new acquisitions those criteria can be quite challenging to meet. It takes a dedicated team to be updating the collections, their locations, and the online database to make sure access is possible.

So, onto a man called Essington Lewis. Born in 1881, he was an influential Australian industrialist, working primarily in steelwork and munitions. He was a man with an overwhelming desire for order and predictability, insisting on punctuality and obedience that made his businesses successful. A product of this anal behaviour were countless diaries, notebooks, lodgers, pictures, receipts, and cash books relating to both his personal life and public businesses. There are 179 boxes and 51 microfilm rolls associated to him at the archives, it is a considerable amount of material that had to be sorted. My job was to do an inventory check, put material of the same type together, re-arrange the shelves, create lists of the material, swap it into the museum standard acid-free storage boxes, and update the database (KE-Emu) about what was held and its location. It was so rewarding undertaking a task from inception through to completion, and knowing I have assisted the archives in a (seemingly) never-ending digitisation project.

Essington Lewis

 

Essington Lewis (picture credit: http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an24166205)

The benefits of digitisation and the technological age in terms of conservation are well known. When a collection becomes digitised it becomes easily accessible for mass consumption, and protects the item from the detrimental effects of handling and overexposure. Digitisation also satisfies two current cultural attitudes: 1) that everything should be available at the click of a finger, 2) the digitisation process allows for media to be more readily transferred to modern technologies (interactive boards, ipads, etc) that increase levels of engagement.

However, what is not often discussed is the strain this is putting on institutions. Digitisation and technology is fantastic for those that have the resources to utilise it effectively. At the archives, the struggle to drag a pre-technology collection into a digital age is a painstakingly necessary one. Similarly, at the Ian Potter Museum of Art they are dipping their toes in the digital water by purchasing three iPads, but self-admittedly wish they could do more. The speed that technology is advancing does not harmonise with the rate of funding, and time that is needed to install technologically complex exhibition material.

Technology gurus like to claim that the digital revolution is leading museum makeover with the potential to transform dusty display cases into cutting-edge cultural attractions. Visitors are being promised, and are getting used to, adverts for multi-sensory, immersive experiences that can cater to an individuals interpretive needs. Look at my blog if you need an example, Screen Worlds was fantastic and I raved about it. However, is that what I want from every heritage institution? Personally, it is a categorical ‘No’. Their use of interpretive media was reflective of their collections, and I believe there is a danger in the current trend.

Institutions need to look at digitisation and technology by assessing exactly what they want out of it and how it will fit into their organisation. There is no use shovelling thousand of pounds into something that will end up being a glitchy gimmick touch-screen device that people prod violently then disengage with. How will it be paid for? How will it be updated? How will its successes (or failures) be measured? What should be aimed for is a visitor that comes away thinking “that was a great museum experience” rather than “that was a great digital experience”.

With so many current technologies and with future ones being developed, the possibilities for digital expansion for museums seems endless. Furthermore it has been interesting to see how these issues do not only affect commercial museums but university collections. It is especially interesting when you consider that the collections are for both research and enjoyment, have limited resources, and are aimed at 18-21 year olds (typically the most difficult demographic to satisfy) from a wide range of cultural backgrounds. Given these circumstances, to what degree do you employ digitisation and technological engagement over such varied collections? Something to think about!

 

Further information:

http://www.lib.unimelb.edu.au/collections/archives/ – University of Melbourne Archive

http://gallery.its.unimelb.edu.au/imu/imu.php?request=multimedia&irn=1592 – Some of the information I uploaded for the archives regarding Essington Lewis (to prove that I actually do work and don’t just talk theoretical heritage nonsense!)

*edit* After writing this blog, a really interesting article was forwarded to me regarding the issues with collections advancing into the digital age: http://www.museumsandheritage.com/advisor/news/item/3545?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Advisor+newsletter+5+Aug&utm_content=Advisor+newsletter+5+Aug+CID_74f4dedc4e6d87dff72d68edc9c79f5f&utm_source=Email%20Campaigns&utm_term=Museums%20in%20the%20Digital%20Age%20widening%20engagement%20or%20creating%20organisational%20conflict

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Week 1: Introductions, reintroductions, and ‘So my degree has come in useful!’

Many people warned me that my time here would fly and looking at the calender I cannot believe that my first week has been and gone.

Thanks to the wonderful teams at Cultural Collections, Special Collections, Ian Potter Museum of Art, and PROV (Public Record Office Australia) I have felt so welcome here. Many award winners have stated it before but I must echo their sentiment – Melbourne feels like a home from home! The clock tower on the Old Arts building, the pockets of green, and the seamless integration of original and new architecture so fondly reminds me of Birmingham.

Whilst on the subject of architecture I wish to point out a particular aspect of the campus at UoM. The campus is closing in on the final few weeks of a new building scheduled to open on 8th August. It is the Melbourne University School of Design. It is as suitably impressive as any purpose-built modern building you see erected in any great city, but it harbours a surprising and unconventional element.

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The building weeks before completion against the artist’s original rendering of the building design. Picture credit: http://www.igparker.com/

The 1850s façade, designed by eminent architect Joseph Reed, formerly graced the Bank of NSW in Collins Street (now a popular fashion destination in Melbourne). The façade was moved to the University of Melbourne when the bank decided to expand and became part of the new university Commerce building in the 1940s. Now part of the latest construction, this National Trust-listed façade has helped the new build gain 1 of its 10 innovation points by reusing and preserving cultural heritage. It is the universities first 6 Star Green Star Education Design rating, achieving a perfect 10/10 innovation points. The use of cultural heritage in this way is still relatively rare, but one that may have to be considered for the long term survival of culturally important landmarks. Having the façade as part of a new build ensures it will have essential maintenance and conservation work, will still be a vital competent in the landscape of the city, and will continue to add new dimensions to it’s already varied and interesting history. If there is one lesson to learn about heritage it is that change is inevitable (artefacts will be broken, paintings will be lost, architecture will crumble). All you can hope to do is manage change in a way that is advantageous for the heritage in the long term.*

So, with that slight detour, onto my first week!

Introductions…

Up until Melbourne, my work with heritage has been primarily academic. This week I have had the opportunity to undertake an aspect of collections management that I have been itching to experience: conservation. Obviously, there are a huge amount of techniques and materials to cover and not the time during my four week stay so I was introduced to basic paper conservation. I assisted with a humidifying process (to help flatten a print that had been folded and creased for exhibition), an immersion bath (to clean some deep staining on a lithograph) and I even had the chance to reinforce pages of a damaged book using a heat-activated mending tissue!

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Reintroductions…

My time on Wednesday spent with the special collections was the most surprising. My task to research William Blake and construct a narrative for some of his prints forced me to look at the artist in a different light, set apart from the masterpieces we are so accustomed to. The two prints I am working on are engravings from his 7 year apprenticeship with Basire when he was aged 14-21. They represent two important moments in his career – his rebellious stylistic development and the high point of his profession as a commercial engraver. I feel as though I have been reintroduced to Blake, and that through these engravings I am being allowed to peer into the transitional phase of his young life. It constantly surprises me how collections can challenge perceptions and make what was a one-dimensional fact of history (William Blake: Poet, Painter, Engraver) into a three-dimensional human being (William Blake: Student, Rebel, Unique).

Ancient History degrees ARE useful!…

Ah, yes. The proudest moment any graduate can feel. That glorious wave of vindication that overwhelms you when you can stand there and say “I’VE DONE THIS! I’VE SEEN THIS BEFORE! IT WAS IN A SEMINAR IN MY THIRD YEAR I THINK.”

This paints a fairly accurate portrayal of myself at the Ian Potter Museum of Art on Thursday when I was confronted with box of approximately 150 cylinder seals. For those of you who don’t know a cylinder seal looks like this:

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In fact, a lot of cylinder seals look like that – bearded figure, mythical creature, crescent moon, the occasional inscription. I have seen hundreds of them adorning academic material during my undergraduate degree, but I’d never taken the time to study them.

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My duty was to identify these seals and find out information about them so that they could be used as part of a teaching collection. Apart from knowing that the originals were in the British Museum, there was absolutely no data related to these objects.  It gave me an entirely new perspective of items I’d once considered mundane during my undergraduate degree. I had to look closely at the cuneiform inscriptions, the iconography, and the style of engraving. Then I challenged my knowledge – how much could I translate? When was that style of Kassite Cross used? My supervisor had said that if I got one identified it would be classed as a success but by the end of the day 6 were bagged and boxed! I felt a huge sense of achievement! I had managed to apply my existing knowledge and skill set. This is where the Universitas 21 Award truly excels – the use of my academic background has not only created a task that I find rewarding and self-fulfilling, but has let me define my own unique space within the organisation I am volunteering at where I feel I am making a worthwhile contribution.

Finally – it’s not all about me…

Apart from my own week, it’s been a very busy for the cultural collections at the University. As well as housing the world renowned Gutenberg Bible, there have been several events. Wednesday kicked off the week with the Nite Art where several of the universities collections opened for an evening for talks and tours. On Friday night there were three openings – the rare book fair (as part of rare book week), the cultural treasures festival, and Basil Sellers Art Prize exhibition at the Ian Potter. Across the weekend, the cultural treasures festival will be taking over the campus wide range of events, and some of the universities buildings are participating in Open House Melbourne. The best part of all this? All events are public facing AND free! This comprehensive list of events showcasing the distinctive and varied collections here embodies the wider, enriching cultural experience of Melbourne city. It is a collection that simultaneously reflects and welcomes all of its inhabitants.

* Disclaimer: what is “advantageous” for heritage is a fluid (and frankly unstable!) concept which is often completely contextually dependant.

Further information:

http://niteart.com.au/ – Nite Art

http://www.rarebookfair.com/ – Rare Book Fair

http://www.unimelb.edu.au/culturalcollections/treasuresfestival/ – Cultural Treasures Festival

http://www.sellersartprize.com.au/ – Basil Sellers Art Prize

http://www.openhousemelbourne.org/ – Open House Melbourne

http://prov.vic.gov.au/ – PROV

http://rylandscollections.wordpress.com/2014/07/19/from-manchester-to-melbourne-gutenberg-bible-on-the-move/ – Gutenberg Bible

 

 

 

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The first weekend in Melbourne

Firstly, like the rest of the world, I wish to express my condolences to the family and friends of those who passed away on the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. With 37 Australians among those who were tragically lost, Melbourne is in mourning as several groups of people took to the streets of central Melbourne today with candles lit and an invitation for people to join them in reflective silence. I hope they find solace.

Saturday 19th July 

My day began with a thirst for wanting to get the layout and my bearings of the city that I would be calling home for the next month. The first challenge was figuring out which side of the street to catch the tram on, and then thinking I would get run over when I realised I had to go into the middle of the road to catch the tram! Needless to say I didn’t and I headed for my first destination – the Queen Victoria Market. A bustling, thriving market that tantalises the senses, full of fresh produce, gourmet cuisine, and diverse retail. I unapologetically spent 2.5 hours (and far too much money) in the QV market before heading to my first ‘cultural’ destination and the number 1 stop for tourists – Federation Square.

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Picture credit: http://www.cv.vic.gov.au

The angular building in the middle of the picture is the ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image). Advertised as a colourful, interactive experience it fully lives up to expectations. The exhibitions here are truly a feast for the eyes. The permanent Screen Worlds exhibition is a game-movie-tv geeks paradise. There are many oooohs, ahhhs, wows, and OMGs overheard as you walk around. Split into four sections (Voices, Emergence, Games Lab, and Sensation) this exhibition is a state-of-the-art space showcasing the rise of screen culture in modern society. The open-plan interior creates an atmosphere of an adult’s playground, the displays pull you from one to the next with captivating colours and enchanting sounds. There is no guided path, or shuffling from one case to the next. The curators have understood the new dynamics of cultural consumption – there are relatively few text panels which allows the visitor to construct their own experience based on their own interpretations of the displays which makes for a refreshing, non-linear experience. Even where text panels are present they are often short, humorous, informative, and encourage interaction with the objects. The ‘Sensation’ section is truly wondrous and features:

– a matrix-esque ‘timeslice pod’ where you film yourself doing an action which is captured by 36 cameras and played back to you

timeslive

Picture credit – blog.acmi.net.au

– a ‘pong vs tennis’ floor where two players use contrasting technology – one using a retro paddle, the other with the motion sensitive Wii remote.

–  the ‘You and I, Horizontal II’ room which is, in its basic elements, bright lighting and mist. It somehow manages to create an ethereal experience as visitors weave in and out a cone of light. It is simple, pure, and compelling. Words, pictures, and videos cannot accurately describe it, you must experience it (isn’t that what all museums would love to hear!)

All of this, and it’s completely free, meaning people regardless of situation have an opportunity to engage with Australia’s heritage and culture. There are many more displays (around 220 in total) and I could write about this exhibition for hours, but time is pressing and I need to discuss my other cultural exploits!

Sunday 20th July

I started Sunday very similarly to Saturday – with some touristy nonsense! There was design market at Federation Square and history repeated itself – 2 hours later with my purse considerably lighter I headed back into the city, backpack bulging with steampunk watches, bespoke ceramics, and gourmet meringue! After all, what is experiencing a city’s heritage if you don’t take considerable time looking at it’s wider cultural landscape – if gourmet meringue is a by-product of that, then so be it.

I walked 15 minutes out from the central city to Fitzroy Gardens to see a slice of home. Cooks’ Cottage was built in Yorkshire by the parents of Captain James Cook – a British explorer and captain in the Royal Navy who achieved the first recorded European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia.

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It is a small, quaint cottage which feels quintessentially English. This is not just in character, but in the methods of interpretation used. With the ‘self-guide’ tour sheet in hand, you shuffle through the appropriately dressed period rooms, into a perfectly manicured and historically accurate herb and vegetable garden, with an opportunity to dress up in colonial garb along the way. Atmosphere is aided by the voices of two women (sporting a sometimes wavering Geordie accent!) setting the scene by discussing a young James who has joined the Royal Navy at the age of 27. If someone had plonked me, blindfolded in the centre of the cottage I would have sworn I was at an English Heritage property in the heart of Yorkshire itself.

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It got me thinking of three Australians who were on their way home from a holiday in Britain who I overheard on my flight over. They commented that Britain was tired, behind the times, and in a “time-warp” in comparison to the rest of the modern world. They mentioned National Trust properties as being too similar and uninteresting.  It got me thinking about institutions like English Heritage and National Trust. Cooks’ Cottage was proudly advertised as the oldest building in Australia. Yes, you read correctly – the oldest building in Australia. Contrastingly, the UK is littered with sites akin to Cooks’ Cottage. I’ve always thought Bill Bryson highlights this fact neatly (and humorously) in his book Notes from a Small Island:

 “In the centre of town, on a corner that ought to have been a visual pleasure, there stood a small building occupied by a Lunn Poly travel agency. Upstairs the structure was half-timbered and quietly glorious; downstairs, between outsized sheets of plate glass covered with handwritten notices of cheap flights to Tenerife and Malaga, the façade had been tiled with a mosaic of little multi-toned squares that looked as if they had been salvaged from a King’s Cross toilet. It was just awful. I stood before it and tried to imagine what combination of architects, corporate designers and town planners could have allowed this to be done to a fine timber-framed seventeenth-century building… It sometimes occurs to me that the British have more heritage than is good for them. In a country where there is so astonishingly much of everything, it is easy to look on it as a kind of inexhaustible resource. Consider the numbers: 445,000 listed buildings, 12,000 medieval churches, 1,500,000 acres of common land, 120,000 miles of footpaths, 600,000 known sites of archaeological interest. Do you know that in my Yorkshire village alone there are more seventeenth-century buildings that in the whole of North America?

– Chapter 7

And standing in the middle of Cooks’ Cottage the conversation had by the Australian men days earlier rang in my ears. Here, the cottage is unique, quaint, and truly lovely. It is a ‘one of a kind’ and is treated with such respect. In Britain it would not get the same treatment, nor the same level of attraction. It would be another cottage, on another ‘to-do’ list, portraying another period story, with more period actors, and somewhere lost amidst the sea of heritage. It begs the question whether the British method of interpretation is outdated – especially in comparison attractions like the ACMI and Melbourne Museum (which I discuss later). Are visitors disappointed by the seemingly repetitive nature of our heritage sites? Or conversely, are they disappointed that the heritage displayed does not always coalesce with the cultural landscape that surrounds it, as Bill Bryson was?  How do you reinvent the established form of historic house interpretation? Or has this method of interpretation become heritage itself? Whatever the answer (hint: there isn’t an answer) I thoroughly enjoyed the cottage – it smacked with nostalgia and reminded me of the undulating English countryside that I’d left 11,000 miles away.

Following from Cooks’ I also visited Melbourne Museum, but given the amount I’ve written already I’ll save that for another blog post! Not all my blogs will be this long, I promise!

The hard work starts in earnest tomorrow at the University of Melbourne’s Cultural Collections as I begin the outreach project I mentioned last week. Wish me luck!

(On a side note – I did visit Brunetti’s as I promised, it fully lived up to all the hype! I can see a lot of my money going towards eating every single type of cake and pastry they have to offer over the next month!)

 

For more information on sites I have visited go to:

ACMI: http://www.acmi.net.au/

Cooks’ Cottage: www.cookscottage.com.au/

Queen Victoria Market: http://www.qvm.com.au/

 

 

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Hello everyone!

Introductions are in order!

I’m Lucy Cooper, the incredibly lucky and excited award winner of the Museum and Collections award 2014 granted by the University of Birmingham. From July 18th – August 16th I will be charting my experiences working at the University of Melbourne’s Cultural Collections as I embark upon several projects, enhance skills, and discover a world of culture on the other side of the equator! Seeing as a week today I will be boarding a plane for Melbourne I thought now would be a good point to briefly introduce some of the projects I will be blogging about for the next month.

  • Project 1 – Cultural Collections Unit Project: To develop an outreach activity targeting the student demographic. This activity will be used to engage visitors with the museums and collections when they visit the Cultural Collections stand on Open Day.
  • Project 2 – Cultural Materials Conservation Project: An introduction to various aspects of conservation. I will be involved in numerous activities – understanding techniques for conserving a diverse set of objects, reporting conditions, and attending lectures.
  • Project 3 – Baillieu Library Print Collection Narratives Project: Focusing on research regarding the National Gallery of Victoria’s William Blake exhibition for the Blake material held in the Baillieu Library Print Collection. I will visit exhibitions, research and write several narratives . I will also participate in the day-to-day management duties involved with the Print Collection.
  • Project 4 – Ian Potter Museum of Art Management Project: Working with Ancient Near Eastern cylinder seals that are part of the Potter’s Teaching Collection. I will research the backgrounds of each of these seals and identify where the originals are housed. An additional responsibility is to create seal impressions and have a session with a photographer to create professional photographs of the impressions. There will be an opportunity to have a training session on the EMu (Electronic Museum) database to enter and update item details and images.

These four projects look so fascinating and I cannot wait to begin them. The Cultural Collections Unit have tailored these projects to build upon my existing skills and enable me to experience some aspects of heritage collection management that I have never encountered before.

I personally look forward to writing my next update when I will be in Melbourne, commencing my adventure and sampling the finest Brunetti’s (the café that everyone has raved about) has to offer!

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