Tag Archive for: Strategic Development

Deputy Director: V&A Research Institute

VARI

VARI — the Victoria and Albert Museum Research Institute is a new programme of research and teaching partnerships to enhance access to the V&A’s collections and develop new approaches to research, training, display and interpretation. I have been appointed Deputy Director of VARI in its initial development phase over the next year: VARI was was launched in 2016 with generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation following a successful VARI Pilot Project in 2014-2015. 

 

Nestled inside the V&A Research Department, the Institute aims to co-design new research methodologies that can dovetail a range of different approaches, setting out to foster new forms of collaboration between experts in curation, conservation and collections management; academics from across the humanities, social sciences and sciences; artists, designers and performers; and pioneers in the field of research administration.

Of course, research takes place on a daily basis throughout the Museum, in its Conservation and Collections Departments as well as in its Learning Department and in collections management, where information architecture is a crucial spine holding together objects and our knowledge of them.  VARI also aims to accommodate research interests of visitors as well — both to the South Kensington HQ and to the planned Education Quarter in East London, where the V&A are close neighbours with UCL, London College of Fashion, Sadlers Wells, and other significant institutions to be based on what was the Olympic Park.

A portfolio of residencies, Visiting Professorships, Fellowships and Postdoctoral positions will traverse several structured research projects embedded in V&A Collections.  The Leman Album: An Enhanced Facsimile brings together conservation knowledge with textile curators and historians, as well as binding and paper specialists.  Encounters on the Shop Floor: Embodiment and the Knowledge of the Maker seeks to surface and articulate the cognitive aspects of making and knowing, and to position them at the core of the craftsmanship that is everywhere in evidence in V&A collections.  Collections Access and Display Fellowships will experiment with the V&A’s modes and methods for exhibition curation and find new ways of bringing research to bear on the access the Museum gives to its objects.

 

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Further Links: V&A Research Institute Pilot Report; Leman Album in Collections Online; Encounters on the Shop Floor Video by Paul Craddock

[Image References: Facade of the Victoria and Albert Museum; ‘fruit machine’ VARI logo; Album of designs for silk textiles created by James Leman in the first years of the 18th Century — V&A Collection]

‘Beyond Reception’: Nordic Culture Ministers Meeting, Stockholm

Margret-Sara-Gudjonsdottir_photo_Tom-Akinleminu

Nordic Culture Forum 2014: Parliament House, Stockholm (30 October 2014)

Representing the Ice Hot Nordic Dance Platform, I was invited to speak about innovative evaluation practices at the Stockholm meeting of the Nordic Culture Ministers. My talk made three key points:

1)  We must go beyond the study of audience reception alone in order to understand the nexus of value in cultural activity

2)  We must go beyond an ‘audit culture’ of statistical and numerical measures to develop intellectually robust methods that embrace complexity

3)  We must recognise cultural producers as groups of highly trained researchers whose peer ‘findings’ are presented in venues that are socially shared

 

I first started working with Ice Hot Nordic Dance Platform at the invitation of Amy Fee, who was then the Production Director at Dansens Hus, Stockholm. We had met at the Nordic-Baltic Artists Residencies Network Meeting convened by Nordic Culture Point at Subtopia in October 2013, where I had given a keynote presentation about the subject of ‘hospitality.’  What is hospitality between artists, and between nations?

Of course, the conversation quickly ran in the direction of evaluation, and the inadequacy of the metrics that are gathered and used by policy makers to measure cultural experience. Amy was determined to explore better and more nuanced ways of making the case for the value of dance, and set about putting together a working group to brainstorm different ways of thinking around cultural value that go beyond the awful spectre of the happy-to-sad cartoon that haunts the survey form.

 

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The working group met three times, and was supported by Maria Härenstam, who also spearheaded a number of grant applications based on our design for a proper interdisciplinary research project. It proved more difficult to obtain support for such an innovative project than we might have thought, though it did mean that when the Nordic Culture Ministers focused on this very question of the current inadequacy of evaluation methodologies, they turned to us for a contribution.  And so I found myself in the former First Chamber of the Swedish Riksdag to speak about practitioner knowledge and humanities methods and their important place in the evaluation of cultural life.

Cultural policy makers — especially in a period of economic austerity when nothing can be taken for granted — often believe that we have a problematic evidence gap in the case we want to make for the value of cultural activities.  In fact, I believe there is no ‘evidence gap,’ but rather the real problem is that we don’t know how to integrate into our valuation processes the huge body of evidence we have from the reflexive work of arts practitioners themselves and from humanities scholars.

There are analytical flaws in a methodology that seeks to understand the value of something by looking at only one area of its effects – namely, the audience. And yet, since the 1960s, theories of communication have modeled the fact that there is no reception without production, and that these two reciprocal activities are part of a coherent whole that must be analysed over 360 degrees.

Would any economist, macro or micro, imagine that is possible to understand financial structures by looking solely at the demand side of an economic system? To leave out the supply side of the equation? And yet, as a general rule, the evaluation of the arts and culture does not include an examination of the processes by which these events come into being or the reality of artists as audience members themselves in a community of practice.

 

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We cannot uniquely look in one direction towards the audience, hoping to extrapolate from that view towards a generic notion of social well-being, if we wish to truly understand the value of cultural experience.  We need historians and also historiographers. We need self-reflexive, rigorous humanities methodologies to understand the contexts in which both dance and the constraints in which it has developed take place and co-evolve – co-produce each other.

We need to recognise that artists are communities of practitioners striving to contribute to and build upon thousands of years of cultural endeavour, that they are working collectively, as productive groups, to hone their findings in much the same way that scientists work in laboratories. Artists are part of intellectual communities in a way that is similar to those of academic researchers such as biologists and semioticians. What are they doing? What does it mean? Why are they doing it? These questions are also central to answering the question: what are the benefits and values of culture?

Dancers and choreographer train for years in their field, work together in a team, have ‘project leaders’, understand the relationships between physiological memory, muscular electrical currents, post-humanist experiences of technological bodily extensions, the history of gesture, the history of their practice and the work of their peers. We cannot afford to separate this research community from the evaluation of its own progress.

 

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Further links: Cultural policy in the Nordic countries and Nordic cultural co-operation Nordic Culture Point

[Image References: ‘People Counter’ as often used in cultural events as part of metric evaluation; Johanna Chemnitz performing in Soft Target by choreographer Margret Sara Gudjonsdottir (photo Tom Akinleminu); happy-neutral-sad emoticon; Ice Hot Nordic Dance Platform 2014 edition logo]

Navigating Interdisciplinarity

Navigating Interdisciplinarity, Wellcome Trust 75 Event, University of Dundee Life Sciences and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art (2011)

 

The extraordinary potential of interdisciplinary practice often meets bureaucratic obstacles. Enumerating them — and working strategically to eliminate them — is part of the essential groundwork to be done in order to build productive, practical methodological bridges across the arts, the humanities and the sciences. The responsibility of universities to fully support the researchers they engage, and to enable the knowledge that they produce to be truly effective, will of necessity involve a sea-change in the way both universities and research are structured and funded.

That sounds like a very tall order, but it is one that is coming from all sides: this event was co-organised by artists and life scientists. The University of Dundee is big enough to have both an art college and a life sciences department which are both known internationally, and yet small enough that there is real exchange, with respect and cameraderie, between researchers in both fields. With the support of the Wellcome Trust, their exchange projects — from printmaking, visualisation and data-modeling to architectural collaboration and the promise of a shared gallery/research space — are going to lead somewhere very interesting indeed.

University of Dundee is not alone in initiating plans to support interdisciplinarity with real infrastructure. I have also been invited to lecture on this topic at York University in Toronto, which prides itself as having been founded 50 years ago on the very premise of interdisciplinary research. In February 2011, representing the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum, I addressed a number of the same issues in a lecture at Yale’s Peabody Museum. Later that year many of these points came up again at a closed international workshop in which I participated, convened by New York University and hosted by the British Museum — Re:Enlightenment Project.

Navigating Interdisciplinarity draws together knowledge and observations from my interdisciplinary work and experience at science institutions such as the Faculty of Health of University of Copenhagen, the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, the Science Department of the Natural History Museum, and art-science crossovers with the Wellcome Trust.

What then are some of the problems, and what is to be done? Here is an excerpt from my presentation at Dundee’s Shared Imagination event:

Everyone on an interdisciplinary team will have widely differing skills and methods that are in large degree opaque to the other members of the team. Very fundamental project activities and scheduling issues will not even be tabled for discussion at the project’s outset because they are so deeply embedded as to be invisible. This can lead to uneven expectations of each other, bad project management and schedule planning, limited knowledge exchange, projects which do not fulfil their full potential, frustration, anger, disillusionment.

Another challenge has to do with the uneven playing field between art and science in financial terms and in economic models. Even a life sciences lab that is underfunded is actually funded at levels of a much higher magnitude than that of the fine arts — including film and media.

Underinvestment in the project of culture and aesthetics has led to uneven development between the arts and the sciences. This has also forced huge differences in the basic economic models: science does not now start up its research activities without front-end investment, and art often only sees a return on its necessarily speculative investment at the end of its research, when there is a product.

This can mean that it is difficult to align resources in relation to cash flow, as well as to effect fundraising, across varying disciplines. In Universities, budgeting across departments, both for costs and the recovery of overheads, can be very difficult. Managing the sharing of limited resources such as technologies and admin support as well as other infrastructure, is complex across a campus. And yet waste occurs in silos; ineffective communication means shared interests are rarely identified.

For real breakthroughs, it is agreed that joint appointments are essential, and yet nigh on impossible to effect. When they are instated, it often means two full time jobs for the incumbent, whose work then falls between two stools, because REF-based management of research is divided along disciplinary units of assessment and not along the lines of the larger-scale ‘big questions’ that need to be addressed. This means a loss of identity and value both for the institution and the individual.

A further problem comes from the fact that with infrastructure comes bureaucracy. Science often labours under highly competitive conditions and almost unbearable scrutiny. It would surprise artists to know how difficult it is for scientists to access meaningful larger-scale resources and instruments. Detector time on X-Ray telescopes is lined up years in advance and is based on applications and peer judging that is incredibly exacting. If it is not easy to share this kind of infrastructural resource even within a discipline, how much more difficult to carve out the time for something experimental across boundaries, with little funding behind it and unpredictable outcomes?

 

There is much more to be said about how to overcome these problems, pragmatically and strategically. I was able to outline a few approaches that were specific to Dundee in the lecture and also in the ensuing day workshop. By way of inspiration, Navigating Interdisciplinarity ends with a quote from Hermes/The Northwest Passage by Michel Serres:

“It is the link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, through the Great Canadian North. It opens, closes, and twists all through the immense arctic archipelago, all along a wildly complicated maze of gulfs and channels, of basins and straights, between the islands of Banks and Baffin. One enters it by the Davis straight and one ends up in the Beaufort Sea. The voyage is arduous, the openings rare and often blocked.” says Serres.

“It is a difficult trajectory, hampered with encumbrances, a true labyrinth of earth, water and ice. The very image of the crossing between the exact sciences and the human sciences. And it is not a path that is given once and for all, but must be built and discovered each time it is attempted. One wants to go everywhere, build a world where there is almost everything – mathematics, biology, philosophy, painting. The North-West passage is, in the end, the project of one’s entire life.”

 

This lecture has been videocast by DJCAD Exhibitions on their YouTube Channel.

Further Links: Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art Exhibitions (Curator Sophia Hao); University of Dundee Life Sciences (Dean of Research Professor Mike Ferguson)

[Image References: Chart of the Northwest Passage; coast guard icebreaker the Polar Sea in Arctic waters, United States Coast Guard; Martha Fleming speaking at Shared Imagination, Dundee; powerpoint slide from Navigating Interdisciplinarity lecture]

Natural History Museum: CAHR

Vice-Chancellor’s Investment Fund Secondment, Centre for Arts and Humanities Research, Natural History Museum (London):  Kingston University  (2009 to 2011)

 

This key two-year post was central to a small dynamic team developing an arts and humanities research hub inside this national museum with international reach, where 300 scientists are at work studying plant and animal genetics, geology and mineralogy, the structure of the universe, biodiversity, climate change and more.

Having worked at the Science Museum (London) and the Medical Museion (Copenhagen), as well as a number of fine art museums, I was excited to see the advertisement for this post — which was headlined: “Would you like to work in a creative, fulfilling and exciting environment, where you will have the opportunity to explore the world class Natural History Museum collections?”

I felt I could answer that question clearly and succinctly in the affirmative.

The ad continued: this is “an innovative new project, which aims to explore the potential of the Museum collections as a resource for arts and humanities research. With a relevant postgraduate degree and a successful record of applying for and obtaining external research income, you will have the ability to build effective networks within the field of humanities and work in productive partnership with academic colleagues.”  Just as interesting to me as the collections was this opportunity to help operationalise the highly interdisciplinary practice that would be the outcome of a successful integration of arts and humanities researchers into this scientific research institute.

I already had experience of aligning methodologies across arts and science through individual projects, and had been consulted for strategic development advice by institutions such as the Royal Society and the Science Museum vis à vis resourcing the research potential of their collections. This project would be a chance to be directly effective at an institutional scale in implementing change.

The NHM is essentially UK science infrastructure for systematics, taxonomics and biodiversity: the excitement for me was in the potential for enabling productive links between the vast range of biological research methods at the NHM and those of arts and humanities researchers that CAHR, as it came to be known, would bring in.

My work with organic collections and with contemporary molecular and microbiological practices at the Medical Museion was a very good grounding for moving into natural history fields like zoology and entomology. I was at home in both the collections environment and the lab areas: it is an amazing institution and every day of the week there was something astounding to see and understand.

A crucial linchpin of information management about specimens from across the Museum — in Zoology, Entomology, Botany, Mineralogy and Palaeontology — is the incredibly rich NHM Library and Archives. For the 350 pre-digital years of the Museum’s specimen collecting practice, any relevant observations including locations and dates were kept in notebooks and manuscripts, and the trade in specimens involved of necessity various forms of scientific visualisation. Thus 500,000 images of nature from the world over are also part of the collection.

 

 

Taken as a whole, these rich and diverse collections trace a wide spectrum from the history of science to the history of empire, from epistemologies of observational practice to ontologies of data-mining. With associated field notes, films, photographs, diaries, drawings, ship’s logs, correspondence and both GIS and DNA data, the Natural History Museum specimen collections are a rich resource for investigation. Fields as varied as history, philosophy, museology, anthropology, literary studies, film and photo studies, animal studies, cultural theory and area studies relating to South Asia, Africa, China and elsewhere find firm purchase and important primary materials in the NHM collections.

My post involved me in gaining a detailed understanding of the historical and scientific basis of the NHM collections, their management and use. With the generous support of NHM staff, I effected more than 25 specimen collection and laboratory research visits, and produced a 35 page strategy document outlining an appropriate and fundable research programme divided into several interlocking sections:

  • Natural History, Global History
  • Visual Cultures Of Natural History
  • Literatures And Texts Of Natural History
  • Museum As Laboratory: ‘Improving Natural Knowledge’
  • Facilitating Interdisciplinarity
  • Sharing Knowledge

 

Under ‘Natural History, Global History’ I wrote:

The co-production of understandings of the natural world with the development of empires – both financial and geo-political – is the subject of this Research Cluster. The recent ‘material turn’ in historical research is beginning to extend beyond the holdings of cultural museums to address collections whose primary purpose has been scientific investigation, with its attendant specific histories and economies.

The unique qualities of natural history specimens and the geospatial and temporal data which accompanies them means that they function as information-rich pivots for historical investigation. Who collected these specimens – from indigenous groups to Presidents of the Royal Society – and how and why they were collected – from instrumentation and instruction to economic botany – is in essence a history of the world since 1500. The circulation of specimens, ideas and goods is concomitant, and an examination of this nexus over time is a key epistemological endeavour in which the Museum can play a central role.

Humanities researchers are best placed to analyse the often widely divergent and physically disparate sets of written records which can join up dots to plot the movement of ideas and objects through time and space. This would be a contribution not only to history and epistemology, but also to current science, by enabling the reintegration of point reference data with earlier collections.

 

I identified and developed contacts with researchers internationally who have the skills to effect this work, including drawing up a longlist for the Centre Advisory Board, and assisting with its formation. With other members of the team (Julie Harvey, Centre Manager; Dr Charlie Jarvis, Scientific Advisor; Nadja Noel, Project Coordinator) I organised and hosted both pro-active and responsive meetings and collection visits with potential partners, individual and institutional. A considerable part of the post involved enabling and promoting partnerships for CAHR with universities, research councils, foundations, libraries and other major museums.

Zoology, taxonomy and systematics are structurally very interesting activities, with complex institutional and linguistic regimes and instrument practices, and I also developed two research project proposals rooted in these fields. One of them related taxonomic nomenclature to philosophy of language, and another outlined a methodologies-exchange between zoological scientists and animal studies researchers. One outcome of the latter was the lecture programme Unruly Creatures, convened by Kingston Professor John Mullarkey. I also represented CAHR at a range of external conferences, from Scientific Visualisation in the Age of Computerisation to In Kind: Species of Exchange in Early Modern Science and Museums and Restitution.

The Centre ran a number of larger projects during the period of my tenure, some of which I was also directly involved in. I co-organised the conference Science Voices (at the Royal Society) which examined oral history of science as part of Museum Lives — a Kingston University AHRC-funded Knowledge Transfer project to interview 50 NHM members of staff. I also became closely involved in the project initiation phase of ‘Reconstructing Sloane’ — a cross-institutional project between the NHM, the British Library and the British Museum, which intends to reunite, analyse and make accessible the original foundation collections of all three institutions as constituted by Sir Hans Sloane in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Representing the NHM, I worked with Dr Kim Sloan, curator of the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum, and Liz Lewis, Higher Education Partnerships Manager at The British Library, to co-author a 60-page business plan for ‘Reconstructing Sloane.’ Produced in July of 2011, this project initiation document is now the backbone of the project, supporting the Consortium’s unfolding work on Sloane.

Institutional business planning, communication strategy creation and implementation, participation in policy and procedure development advocating for the humanities researcher, lecture series curation and management, mentoring, fundraising and more were also part of my work for the Centre. Working across both the Museum and Kingston University, I helped Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences researchers formulate projects through the Museum, and collaborated with KU’s Museum and Gallery Studies director Dr Duncan Grewcock and NHM Public Engagement Staff to design and deliver postgraduate teaching and learning.

Since the end of my tenure, Kingston University has instated five research Fellowships at the NHM Centre under the rubrics I identified in my CAHR strategy document: I look forward to the outcomes.

 

 

You can hear a podcast of my lecture Natural History, Global History, presented at the launch of the Centre for the Historical Record conference ‘Providing Public History: Challenges and Opportunities‘ (10/06/2011) Kingston University.

Further Links:  Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum; Unruly Creatures 1; Unruly Creatures 2; London Graduate School, Kingston University; Visualisation in the Age of Computerisation; In Kind: Species of Exchange in Early Modern Science; Museums and Restitution; Museum and Gallery Studies, Kingston University; Centre for the Historical Record; Reconstructing Sloane’

[Image References: Lepidoptera Collections, Natural History Museum; Earth Sciences Librarian Hellen (Pethers) Sharman displaying William Smith’s Geological Map of English (1815) for geological historians; the Central Hall of the NHM]

Consultant: Science Museum

Consultant to the Science Museum, London (2003 to 2004)

 

The revival of national museums as research centres, and an increasing recognition of museum culture as inherently a research culture, has been an important feature of the last 15 years in UK intellectual life.  Following my work as Development Manager at the Royal Society, I was approached by the Science Museum for strategic advice on the structuring of their Research and Residencies Unit; on implementing internal mechanisms for research facilitation; on building partnership networks; and on matching projects to fundraising targets.

The corporate importance of ‘museum research’ started to gain real headway in the early 1990s.  The instatement of a dedicated Research Department at the Victoria & Albert Museum, with post-graduate programmes in history of design run jointly with the Royal College of Art, became a model to follow. For other kinds of museums, such as science museums, this was a difficult route to follow, as it pre-supposed a shared understanding of the value of their work to humanities disciplines.

This situation improved in the UK with the creation of the Arts and Humanities Research Board in 1998, which recognised history of science as an important field, and it began to get really interesting when the AHRB made moves to become a full-fledged research council from 2002. As the case for this was made, a number of museums were approached and asked to consider how they could contribute strategically to humanities research and what they would require infrastructurally to effect such a contribution. When the AHRC — for Council — was created, one of the first acts of the Council was to create a status for non-university research centres, known as Independent Research Organisation status, or ‘IRO.’

The Science Museum has a long-standing and productive relationship with Imperial College, and it both serves and benefits from an international group of colleagues in history and museology of science. Funding this activity, and creating a profile for it, was an important goal.  In 2004, before the AHRB became the AHRC, I was approached by Dr Tim Boon (now Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum) as a consultant to help shape the Science Museum’s research programme to be fit for purpose.

I have known Tim since my research residencies at the Science Museum from 1996 – 1999, during which time I produced — with his help and that of other curators — both Open Book (1996) and Atomism & Animism (1999). When I was designing a proposal for a history of science research centre at the Royal Society during the tenure of my post as Development Manager, I asked him to be a member of the proposed Advisory Board* and shared with him my 40 page business plan.  He was thus aware that my knowledge of the intersections between history of science, museums and archives, and funding opportunities, were very much up to date.

By 2005, the AHRC had been created, and in 2009 the Science Museum became (as the National Museum of Science and Industry) an AHRC-recognised Independent Research Organisation — just as I began work next door at the Natural History Museum, helping to set up the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research.

 

 

* Though there is now a fantastic Centre for History of Science at the Royal Society, it differs somewhat from the structure I had proposed in 2001, and does not have an advisory board to my knowledge.

Further Links: The Science Museum; Arts and Humanities Research Council; IRO Status

[Image References: bird’s eye view of the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World galleries (co-curators Tim Boon, Andrew Nahum and Alex Hayward); close-up of the reconstruction of Babbage’s Difference Engine at the Science Museum]

Consultant: Wellcome Trust

Consultant to the Wellcome Trust, London (2003 to 2004)

I have been a judge of the Wellcome Trust SciArt Research and Production Grants and also participated in the international development workshop exploring the form and direction of what was to become the Wellcome Collections exhibitions space in the Euston Road.  I contributed to the evaluation of the Medicine Man exhibition that took place at the British Museum in 2003 prior to its reworking for permanent installation in Wellcome Collections. The Wellcome Trust also sought my views in this period for a Discussion Group formulating grants policy in arts, public engagement, and medical humanities.

 

In 1996, the Wellcome Trust initiated an ambitious and forward-thinking funding stream to bring visual artists, film-makers, theatre practitioners, composers and musicians, choreographers and dancers and more together with their peers working in biomedical practice.  Though this was in the main a ‘public engagement’ activity for the Trust, it began to produce some very interesting artworks that begged as many important questions as they answered.  Granted, not all of what was produced under the short-lived title of sciart was very good — but then, there’s a lot of not terribly good science and not terribly good art out there already!

Sciart ran as a funding programme for a decade, and went through a period of partnership with Arts Council England, Scotland and the Gulbenkian Foundation before being wound down by Wellcome in 2006.  It was then absorbed into the general grants programme of the Trust.  The year I which I was a juror both for Research and Development and for Production Grants (2004), the programme was still run by Bergit Arends, who co-authored with her colleague Verity Slater the book Talking Back to Science: Art, science and the personal (Wellcome Trust, 2004).  Bergit is now Curator of Contemporary Arts at the Natural History Museum, where I met up with her again when I was working at the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the NHM.

Later that year, the Trust led an international workshop with directors and curators from medical museums, broadcasters, artists and others to discuss new uses for the Wellcome Trust building on the Euston Road.  Updating The Wellcome Story: 183 Euston Road gave a clear picture of the Trust’s plans for what was to become Wellcome Collections, and it was an exciting few days in which exchanges helped to finesse and improve the project design and also the potential for partnerships of the centre.  I spoke on the practicalities, advantages and future development of working with artists in science museums and museums of medicine.*

That workshop was the first official working day of the Wellcome Collections’ new curator, James Peto.  James and I had first worked together on my project Open Book, which he curated in 1996 while he was at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.  We also worked together later in 2004/2005 as he straddled his new Wellcome Collections post and his final project at the Design Museum, where he had worked for almost a decade: I assisted James in the curation of You Are Here: The Design of Information.

Ken Arnold, who is now Head of Public Programmes at the Wellcome Trust, directed and co-curated the exhibition Medicine Man. It first opened at the British Museum in June of 2003, while the buildings on the Euston Road were being constructed — and closed for reconstruction.  This first incarnation of Medicine Man was one of the most exciting exhibitions I have ever seen.  Between Ken’s deep knowledge of Henry Wellcome’s collecting practice, and the skills of Caruso St John applied to the exhibition design, a true sense of the collections emerged from the very high density of object display.

It was here that one felt both the enormity and magnitude of the collection, and an inkling of Wellcome’s thinking and his vision for it.  While making Atomism & Animism, I worked at Blythe House where the Science Museum keeps and cares for the remains of Wellcome’s collections; I can assure you that as installed at the British Museum, Medicine Man evoked the real thing.

Here is an excerpt from my written report about the exhibition:

I believe that the choices made for this exhibition’s contents and design were extremely sensitive and intellectually sound, and that the structure of Henry Wellcome’s collection both revealed and reformed itself like a crystal lattice around the organising principles of the show.

It is not a revisionist history of Wellcome’s collecting practice, but one which addresses the mind of the man himself in a way that evokes the intellectual context of his work in this domain, and by extension, how these thought patterns entered the more health-progressive and lucrative areas of his activities.

Echoes of the collecting model of the Pitt-Rivers collection can also be seen in the choice of the curators to use form as a teach-tool for contemporary visitors in the design of the exhibition. This is not just a museological trope or reference: Wellcome would have been very aware of the Pitt-Rivers Museum and it would have influenced his collecting and his rapport with material culture and the culture of health and healing the world over: several of the contributors to the catalogue reference this explicitly.

For the design of Medicine Man to incorporate Pitt-Rivers’ display principles is in fact a way in to the mind of Henry Wellcome. It also happens to be a display form accessible to everyone, regardless of their level of education or the language they speak: one can literally see the evolution of an instrument or an idea unfolding from one object to the next. Thus the curators and designers were able to leap from Wellcome’s mind directly into the mind of the visitor by organising the exhibition this way: it seems to me that this kind of communication is what the Trust is all about.

 

 

* I also gave this talk — Working With Artists in Science Museums — in 2007 at the Steno Museum, University of Aarhus, and am currently preparing it for publication.

Further Links:  Wellcome Trust; Wellcome Trust Sciart Programme Outline; Report; Medicine Man; Wellcome Collections; Caruso St John Exhibition and Museum Design

[Images references:  Mechanical arm (detail), Wellcome Collection at the Science Museum London (1850 – 1910); Installation of Medicine Man at the British Museum, design Caruso St John (2003)]

Development Manager, Royal Society

Manager, Development Office, the Royal Society, London (2001 to 2003)

 

Successful fundraising is always closely connected to exciting ideas — and is vital to enabling ideas to become form. Having been effective in convincing a variety of arts funders to support cultural projects in which I had been involved, I took the post of Manager in the Development Office of one of Europe’s oldest scientific academies, The Royal Society.  The main project was a capital campaign to redevelop the Society’s Nash-designed, Crown Estate home in Carlton House Terrace.

I came into the post after the architects had been appointed (Stefanie Fischer of Burrell Foley Fischer LLP) but before construction had begun. It was a small office, and I worked closely with Treasurer Professor Sir Eric Ash, and then briefly with his successor, Professor Sir David Wallace.

The most exciting part of the post saw me formulating proposals for a Research Centre for Interpreting History of Science at the heart of the redevelopment, a Centre which integrated the fabric of the building with the holdings and collections of the library and archives. In the Introduction and Background to the Centre business plan, I wrote:

The vision is to create a Study Centre for Interpreting History of Science which will broaden and deepen the understanding of the history of science in Europe from 1660 onwards based on skilled interpretation, actual display and digital dissemination of material unique to the Royal Society Archive and Library. This Archive-based interpretation activity would complement both university teaching establishments in the history of science and museum exhibitions, which base interpretation around an object collection. Here, the history of science would be viewed as an essential part of the project of science itself.

The Royal Society is not a Museum, nor is it a University Special Collections Library. And yet it has been making intellectual history year on year for all of its 340 years, and its Repositorie represents an unparalleled collection of archives, objects, manuscripts and institutional documentation which is central to any understanding of science as a culture and a human activity from the pre-Enlightenment to the present day. Founded before the notion of the public Museum was even fully formulated, it is worth mentioning that Elias Ashmole was a founder member of the Royal Society, and the Society’s Repositorie (now on the UK National Register) pre-dates the Ashmolean Museum’s own foundation by some twenty years.

From Wren, Hooke and Newton to Dirac, Hodgkin and Klug, the meeting of minds at the Royal Society has produced unique holdings increasingly in demand as interdisciplinary study has expanded and the discipline of the history of science has burgeoned. If interdisciplinary Humanities study rightly sees the history of science as cross-cutting most social, cultural, political and economic history, it also understands that the history of science’s institutions and academies consequently become an essential window into the intricacy of these interactions. This is why one of the seven strategic objectives of the Royal Society is to encourage research into the history of science.

… and this is what was proposed:

The Study Centre for Interpreting History of Science would be comprised of:

1. New mobile stacks, environmentally controllable storage, and purpose built work areas for the Archive and Library commensurate with its international significance and increasing active current use

2. A three year digitisation programme designed to mirror the first hundred years of the Archive holdings, contributing both to their long-term preservation and their electronic accessibility: this is as a focussed, institution-led digital profile of the history of the Royal Society’s formation and the Enlightenment

3. A permanently endowed post in Interpreting History of Science designed to integrate and highlight the work of the scholar-users of the Archive and Library, the Royal Society Archivist, and that of sister institutions in the UK and elsewhere: the post’s purpose is to create, out of the Royal Society’s archival wealth, timely multi-platform interpretive materials in the form of exhibitions, publications, study/seminar events and other resources for the history of science

and, to that end,

4. Small, versatile Archive study, education and seminar meeting rooms built to integrate with other seminar activities taking place in the larger Mercer Rooms in the new underground redevelopment as designed by architects Burrell Foley Fischer

5. New exhibition space and facilities — both localised as integral to the new underground redevelopment and mobile with tabletop exhibition cases in the Library Reading Room and Reception area as well as in upper floor meeting areas

6. A unique ‘Archive Bridge’ display structure designed by Calum Storrie to address interpretation of notoriously difficult text-based material in rolling, quick-response exhibitions

These assets and resources will enable the Archive to work in tandem with the expertise of the scholars and historians who regularly consult the Archive and Library and colleagues in other institutions in the UK and elsewhere.

 

I also liaised with colleagues at the Science Museum in order to help negotiate a home-coming of sorts for a number of key instruments and objects which the Royal Society had given in care to the institution best suited to look after them. One of the instruments I was most thrilled to see installed in a bespoke case at the Society when it reopened was Hauksbee’s Air Pump, which I had first seen many years before in the Enlightenment Galleries of the Science Museum.

For access reasons, sadly, the architects were not able to integrate the fantastic ‘Archive Bridge’ — designed by Calum Storrie — into the suite of exhibition facilities the building now boasts.  Calum and I worked closely to devise a multivalent display structure for notoriously difficult paper, book and text-based material to be shown in rolling, quick-response exhibitions. Part ‘open storage’, part plan-chest, part merry-go-round, I hope some day to see his elegantly-designed structure installed somewhere that deserves it.

The redevelopment of 6-9 Carlton House Terrace was completed in November 2003, and though not all of the wish-list above has come to pass in the last decade, much of it has. There is now a Centre for History of Science embedded in the Library and Archives at the Royal Society — and when working at the Natural History Museum, I collaborated with its Exhibitions and Events Coordinator, Dr Felicity Henderson, on Science Voices, a conference about oral history of science.

There were other pleasures, too, such as setting up a programme for serious scholarly work on the portraiture collection, which gave me an opportunity to work with Professor Ludmilla Jordanova, (author of Defining Features: Scientific and Medical Portraiture), for the first time. Alongside the then Librarian Karen Peters, and the Archivist Joanna Corden, we also devised a cataloguing programme that was subsequently fully funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, for materials as diverse as the Society’s Early Letters to the penicillin papers of Lord Florey.

And of course, lots of less interesting but quite important things as well — such as a strategy paper on management restructuring of the Development Office for more effective fundraising, and participation in the drafting of the Society’s corporate Business Plan. Over the two years that I was Development Manager, the Office raised more than half of the £7m redevelopment cost.

 

 

Further Links: Centre for History of Science; The Royal Society; Burrell Foley Fischer LLP; Hauksbee’s Air Pump; Calum Storrie; Professor Ludmilla Jordanova; Defining Features: Scientific and Medical Portraiture

[Images: Newton’s Telescope, Royal Society Collection; The Library at the RS around the time when I was working there — no, it is not me in the pic, but yes, my computer really was that big; Hauksbee’s Air Pump installed at the Royal Society, Burrell Foley Fischer LLP]