This is a transcription of a podcast episode, produced and recorded by The Sensational Museum Postdocs,
Dr Sophie Vohra and Dr Charlotte Slark.
Sophie speaks in a clear and considered way, with a lyrical, soft and lower vocal tone… and occasionally some loud laughs! Putting on her more ‘formal voice’, here she speaks with a ‘non-typical’ north-western accent (aka suspend your disbelief that everyone there sounds like they are from Liverpool, Manchester or Bury), with dropped ‘a’s and stronger annunciation. She often wonders if her different code-switching voices that make up critical parts of her identity (day-to-day, Macclesfield, Yorkshire, academic/telephone, British Indian, Spanish) come through.
Charlotte speaks animatedly and talks faster when she’s excited. She has a southern English accent, which a local person would identify as a somewhat polished combination of Slough and Staines upon Thames (think quite hard consonants!). It’s the accent of someone from a working-class background who has spent a lot of time having to fit-in in middle class spaces.
Notes on transcript style
- Punctuation is used to indicate the way the content were delivered, rather than necessarily being how should be correct grammatically. Please try and read it with these pauses (or not as the case may be) in mind.
- Words in square brackets and in italics, [like this], indicate delivery types (e.g. softly; animated), audible occurrences (e.g. laugh; sigh), and sound differences (e.g. quieter delivery) in the recording.
- Ellipses (like… this) indicate a short break between sentences.
- Italicised words (like this) indicate emphasis placed more heavily on the words as they are delivered.
- Quotation marks (“like this”) mean we are suggesting this is something someone might have said (e.g., she said, “oh, that was weird”, and I could see why)
- Whereas quotation marks (‘like this’) mean we are emphasising it as a useful term (e.g. ‘the fourth wall’).
[The podcast starts with The Sensational Museum audio logo: A conspiratorial female voice says ‘The Sensational Museum’. Lower in volume, almost distant, people are chattering excitedly in a large, echoey space. A warm, major chord chimes and fades out]
So, welcome to the first edition of The Sensational Museum Retreat Postdoc Podcast with me, Sophie Vohra.
And me, Charlotte Slark
So today we are going to give you a short insight into our work, to prepare you all for our discussions over the retreat in Belfast. And we thought it might be useful for us to each give a personal description of ourselves which, I think is probably going to cover a few things beyond just the visual, particularly because I don’t think you’re going to be able to see us, but maybe you’d love to know what we’re wearing today! But very much thinking about our own representation, who we are, that affects how we’re perceived and how we project our identities, depending on who we’re talking with.
So, my visual description for today is I’m wearing a white knitted jumper, blue shirt. I have a necklace that I always wear, that’s got rings from women in my family on around my neck, some glasses, curly hair today. And I suppose for an identity description, I am a cis, mixed Asian and white women in my early 30s, pronouns she/her. [trying to visualise where they are on her body] And though you can’t see many of them, I do have some tattoos on my body. The one that you can see is of a train, which I – the Duchess of Hamilton – which I got when I finished my PhD, so often gets a showcase, if you can see it.
So, Charlotte, how about you? How would you describe yourself today?
So I am a white, cis woman, with blonde highlighted curly hair, which is today tied into a bun, because no one can see me but Sophie! I’ve got big red glasses.
I normally have a variety of glasses, but they’re always very large framed. And I’m wearing a very naff Christmas jumper [Sophie chuckles in the background] that says “Merry Chrismarx” on it and has a picture of Karl Marx in a holiday wreath, with little breaking chains [trying not to laugh] as like Christmas garlands [fully laughing now] which I did not think about before I remembered that I’d have to describe myself!
In terms of identity, I think one of the important things, that is not always obvious visually, but I come from a very working-class background. It’s something that sometimes I use kind of semiotic markers for, but it’s something that you sometimes hear in my accent or, kind of, my way of thinking or phrasing things.
I’m also dyspraxic, which, again, not always visually obvious unless you see me tripping over something or occasionally covered in bruises. Or asking you to repeat something because I’ve got audio processing issues. But yes, I think that’s me. Oh! And my pronouns are she/her. I don’t know if I said that [laughs].
[laughing] We have now! But, you know, it’s one of those things that I always tend to forget to tack on. The pronouns. I’m like “obviously I know what I am”, but actually you need to know what I look like, clearly that’s more important. Also, if we were just looking at you visually, all I’d know is that maybe you’re obsessed with socialism and/or communism. And like Christmas. So I suppose, just from a visual description of you, we wouldn’t know that much about you, inclusive of your dyspraxia or your audio processing. So I’m grateful for the extra information that we cannot get from that kind of obvious first glance. And I suppose that’s kind of helpful for us getting the rest of you into the mindset, both kind of linguistically and materially about what we’re trying to do here today, to help get you in the right mindset for the retreat in Belfast, is to say that, actually, visually, we can make a lot of presumptions about people, about stuff, about objects, but actually, if we give more space for more description, for… deeper insights, perhaps we can learn a lot more about what we’re engaging with, and particularly, in… in this case, in the context of what we have in our museum collections.
So, starting off on our first section, we wanted to just give you, I suppose, a basic introduction of what we’ve been doing, and what the purpose of the project is from our perspective, particularly as the people who are getting right into the depths of the research, at the moment. And, I suppose, from my side of it, I’m the postdoctoral researcher on the collections strand of The Sensational Museum. So, thinking about this through an object lifecycle, I look at it particularly from when you acquire an object, and then how it ends up in the systems, the kind of technological systems, the software, the collections management systems, and any other forms of recording. And, I’m looking at what it is that we are actually including in that information, what we have, what we’re missing and, in the context of The Sensational Museum, particularly where we’re missing, I suppose, large amounts of sensory information that the… the technology doesn’t quite allow, us, to, provide. Yet. And also, the policies and procedures and the mindsets that we have at present, don’t really set us up well to account for that.
And then, Charlotte, what’s your side as you feed into this project?
So my strand is Strand B, which is communications, and we’re looking much more at the public facing side. So, how people engage with objects or narratives within museums, in a multisensory way. So for us, it’s very much about how these stories are communicated in a way that isn’t solely predicated on sight. So, it’s about making sure that whoever comes, however they like to engage with something, that opportunity is there. It’s about making sure that if you are blind, partially blind, if you are D/deaf, if you are neurodivergent, even if you’re just somebody who… doesn’t really like reading labels, you have a way to engage with that important narrative and that important story of the exhibition, within a museum.
And then, I wonder whether you could tell me a bit more about how you see our two strands being linked, and how that fits, I guess across the project then, rather than seeing them as two, kind of, separate… entities.
[speaking more quickly than previously, showing real confidence in what she is about to say] Definitely! So they are completely linked and I think that’s something that’s really important. In an ideal world, Strand A would have come first. We would have had… if we were making a museum from the beginning, we would have had somebody come in, and catalogue every single object in the most incredible, multisensory way. But actually in reality, that’s not how museums work. Museums are old institutions, with thousands and millions of objects, with varying levels of categorisation, or catalogues [Sophie chuckles]. And often, museums are constantly trying to play catch up with that. They’re constantly… cataloguing items, they’re adding new information. They’re busy, they’re stretched, often it’s the same person doing the cataloguing and the exhibitions [slight chuckle rounding off the word ‘exhibitions’]. So for me, the two are incredibly linked, because, in order to display things in a multisensory way, you need to know what multisensory information is there. But also, in order to [laughing slightly] know what multisensory elements an object has, you need to be able to catalogue that and have the time to think about that and often, objects don’t get a lot of thought and interpretation until they are picked for exhibition. So it’s really cyclical, it’s really holistic. It’s very much thinking about the way that the two strands can feed into each other to create lasting change within museums.
Hmm. So we haven’t got a small job, is basically what you’ve just [laughing over this word] said.
[laughing] No, it’s not a small job at all, and I think it’s something that we are very conscious of, of the fact that museums… are overstretched. They’re working against, often, time constraints, budget constraints, and this needs to be something that happens museum-wide, it’s something that can’t happen until there is, kind of, institutional backing.
And then hopefully that’s something that we can help create because I… we’ll get into it a little bit, later, but obviously, what we’re creating here is not just, ‘a product’, it’s also the policies, the procedures, the abilities to help people change mindsets, which is really hard, but, if we can do that in a way that allows people to come at it on their own terms, maybe we can create more change, slowly, but more impactfully. And I know that at the centre of what we’re doing here, is the concept of ableism, and particularly intersectional ableism, which again are really big concepts, and can be really hard… to… get people to understand. I mean, I don’t know about you, Charlotte, but I, even the reading that I’ve done on this, there’s just so many ways that you can come at this, and particularly how it then… affects how we understand our work as heritage professionals, and what we need to start including.
And if you don’t mind me waxing lyrical a little bit about why it’s intersectional I’d love to… [loud laugh]
No! I definitely want to hear more about it, [quiet tail end of Sophie’s laugh] because, I think… museums sometimes get a bit scared, because there is so much information out there, and, I think, it’s constantly changing, and they’re scared about offending, and I think, sometimes, as well, they focus on one particular group, in a way that misses the bigger picture. So yes, definitely! [doing a podcast presenter voice] Please tell us more about intersectionality!
Although I almost feel like your Marxist jumper set you up for that one, but we’ll…
[laughing] I’ll come in on the class theory! That’s my thing!
But, I suppose, the basic concepts, or at least the way in which we understand disability, in a kind of 21st-century… through that lens, is very much the ‘social’ versus the ‘medical model’. So, medical, assuming… that… the responsibility is on the individual, that it is something… that is a problem. And that they don’t fit society, that the things that have been designed, it is their fault. Whereas with the ‘social model’ we are suggesting that the… Well, everything! Everything that then becomes a disabling feature has been created by somebody else, which actually then labels somebody as disabled, because they are not able to interact with the world in the same way as this kind of “beacon of an ablest person”, [emphatically] which actually in reality, that person doesn’t exist! And so, I think that’s the absolute goop of it, is that nobody really fits that model that’s been created, and the ways in which we work.
There was a really great piece of reading where they were talking about digital ramps. And… they were saying that [slight chuckle], essentially, if people see a ramp as an entry point into a building, they will use the ramp before they use the stairs, because it’s easier. And it’s a similar thing in a digital sense, why would you pick the harder way to do something if you could use the easier way? And so, I think that it’s about that sense of universal design, saying that we start designing stuff with everybody in mind, rather than, “here’s the able version, and here’s the disabled version”, and saying that’s how we have to start thinking. And at the core of this is something called ‘ability diversity’: recognising that people just be, exist, do, think, know, in different ways, and we need to… start accounting for that better. And the museum sector’s certainly part of that. But also, coming onto the point of why this is intersectional, is that people can be disabled by their environments in a number of ways, that is not related to… any type of learning differences or physical differences, you know, neurodivergency. And actually, we’re kind of failing everybody, when we don’t do this. And so actually, then thinking about what we can gain… from… thinking about how people disabled by their environments have learnt to exist, and to adapt, and to change, is really valuable and powerful.
And I don’t know whether you want to talk a little bit on that, Charlotte, on that concept of the ‘disability gain’, because I think that’s really crucial to what we’re talking about here.
Definitely. So disability gain is something that is kind of almost the foundation of our project. It’s the idea that putting in various things for people with disabilities actually improves the experience for everybody. And going back to this idea of being disabled by society, or various different things, there are so many people out there who wouldn’t consider themselves to be somebody with a disability or identify as disabled who actually have access needs without thinking about it. [fast and excited about explaining this further] So whether that’s somebody who prefers to use a ramp because they’re older, or have had an accident and have a temporary injury, or because they’ve got small children, who… for various different reasons, [slows down here for emphasis] this benefits them, even though it was designed for somebody who is a wheelchair user. So. For disability gain, for us, it really is about thinking about the ways that we can improve museums for everybody, by doing these little things. Yes, they can mean the difference between engaging and not engaging for… somebody with a disability. So say for example you’ve got audio description, that can be the difference for somebody who’s blind or partially blind, between being able to engage with an exhibition or not. However, there’s also loads of research that shows how beneficial that is for people who are sighted. That actually a lot of people, particularly when it comes to something like fine art, don’t know how to look at something, and that can be a class and race issue. If you’re somebody who has experienced structural inequalities particularly in the education system, you might not feel comfortable or confident being in a museum space, and actually it’s about making that space inclusive and accessible for everybody. Not just people that have traditionally been excluded because of disability.
Hmm. [with especially slow and considered delivery] And I suppose one of the things that has been really built into the project is the concept that [deep, thoughtful breath in] the visual and the aural – particularly the visual – are the central way that we have been encouraged to [another deep thoughtful breath in] engage with museums and what they have to offer. [speeds up her pace a little] But I think, and I hope you’d agree with this Charlotte, that actually we have… the more we’ve got into this, is to say that, yes, we recognise that a lot of society, inclusive of museums, is very ocular-centric. But, that doesn’t mean that the work that we’re trying to do should never be visual. I think it’s very easy to assume that something is bad and wrong, but actually… it’s not about knocking down the visual or the aural to the level of the other senses, but instead having that opportunity to engage with multiple senses on a heightened level. I mean, I don’t know whether you’ve got any thoughts on that.
[Talking more slowly, as if to match Sophie’s usual pitch and delivery of speech] Definitely. And this hierarchy has actually got a strong colonial legacy. Museums, traditionally, didn’t always, solely focus on sight. 19th century museums, earlier museums, touch was important. Being able to smell something, even being able to taste something was equally important. But this was back when museums were still quite elitist in terms of who they were letting in the building. So, in terms of experts, but also in terms of white, European. And as museums started to collect more and more objects from their “colonial endeavours”, basically looting and bringing things back, they needed to set out this very strong difference between “us and them”, and this meant that they were starting to focus more on this very perceived civilized – heavily air quoted there – sense of sight. So sight is the [putting on an authoritative “colonial voice”] loftiest, grand thing that we should be doing, and touch being much more primal. Particularly, taste is the basest level. And we what we’re trying to do is, we’re not saying, let’s knock down sight like you say, that’s not what we’re doing at all, what we want to say is that no one sense is sufficient, or necessary, and that actually it’s about having all of the senses present, as much as possible, in a wide variety of ways, so that you can choose how you engage with something. You’ve got the option to either listen to something, or to see something, or to touch something. Less so to taste in a museum – we’re still working on that. [chuckles while delivering this sentence] But that has a lot of other issues. But we’re saying that, even smell as well, these are all very and vitally important things. But. Another thing there is I’ve named 5 [Sophie laughs heartily]. And we’ve talked about this a lot.
[said at the same time as Charlotte’s last sentence] Nearly called you out on that!
Yeah. The limitations. [soft chuckle while delivering this sentence] Do you want to talk a bit about the limitations of five sentences as a concept?
[excited, higher tone and talking more animatedly here – almost matching Charlotte’s delivery] Yes, sure. I mean, I think that we have certainly had this drilled into us by our colleagues on the project, which I’m more than happy to have had that done. [audio dims a little briefly as Sophie leans back in her chair to perform her surprise] That Eureka moment of, “sorry, there’s more than five senses!?”. But thinking about it outside of those confines as well, or letting people know that you can actually experience stuff in a variety of ways, is really [deep breath in after such an animated delivery, and slows down her speech from here] enlightening and empowering to understand, yourself in a variety of ways and also how you engage with your, environment, and the things around you, by noticing that actually, yes though we can think about the senses as ‘the five’, actually there are more well beyond that, that are about our internal sense of self, our external sense of the world around us, how senses can coalesce, come together, to make all different ways of thinking, but also the emotions that we have are very much core to this. And, I think thinking in those much broader ways about how we understand ourselves in space, allows us to then think about how, perhaps inanimate objects, but also other things that we engage with, exist in space too, and how we can think about them in a different way. And actually then to stop saying that we have to, as you said, like about a single sense that we have. So, we can know that something is heavy. But why does that matter? Internally. Emotionally. Why does it matter to know that that is heavy? Do we know that that’s going to cause us strain, or is it a good thing that it’s heavy, does it give us comfort? And if you’re touching it, you know, what does that convey? What’s the point of touching it? If it’s soft, what does that allow you to actually feel,beyond just [almost robotic] the sense of it being soft? What narrative can that tell? And so, we need to start thinking about these things in a much broader sensory logic, which again is not easy, but I think, this is where we start pushing into changing people’s mindsets of how we understand things and, I’m personally just excited to let people know that there are more than five senses, and then see what [laughs], [laughing] see what they try and notice in themselves. So give it a try, like think about all the things you’re feeling right now. It’s really liberating.
I think you touched on something really important there in terms of the idea of the sense of touch and why do we know something’s heavy? [Speeds up her delivery from here] Or why do we want to know that? And that’s something that is really key to, particularly the communication strand, but also, as a consequence, the collection strand, is how do we use senses to tell an important story? It’s not enough to just allow people to come in and touch objects, because there’s a whole host of research that talks about tactile interventions in museums, and actually how it’s not enough just to let somebody touch something, to understand what it looks like visually, that’s not enough, we need to think about, “OK, well, what’s important, what is the story we’re telling?”. So for example, if you have a sword, and you’re looking at it, we know it’s metal, and yes that’s important, but that can be communicated quite easily elsewhere. If actually what is important is that it’s heavy, let us feel the weight of it, find a way to show us: “OK, well this was really heavy, so you had to be really strong to be able to wield this sword. You needed to be able to have the upper arm strength. You needed to have the mobility”. And that’s an important part of… if that’s the story that you’re telling, and that’s why that object’s there, that’s the important part, it’s not enough just to be like: [deadpan] “oh look, feel this sword. It’s cold because it’s metal and it’s in a museum, and it’s in a room that’s actually quite cold”. [slow delivery] That’s not conveying anything. Whereas, you know, maybe if you can see it, and you can see that it looks huge,and it looks heavy. Maybe it’s actually really light, and that’s important as well. But it’s about communicating, the story of the object in a multisensory way.
That brings us quite nicely then I think to talk about how our strands work together in terms of how we know, share, document, reshare this type of information. Because, I think, and I’d love to know your thoughts on this too, Charlotte, is that actually what we’re doing is we should be kind of constantly feeding into the information that we have instead of having this [takes a deep breath in] objective knowledge that is often assumed to exist in… our collections management systems and… our… collections data. Yes, there’s gonna be stuff that is [almost robotic] ‘a truth’. It costs this much. We bought it from that person. But actually, if we’re then to start engaging with the objects a little more holistically, we also need to start recording that information [elongates the next few words] to then feed into our understanding internally. But then also, to then feed into how we can better present that, to communicate that to visitors, and to anybody that’s engaging with the collections. What are your thoughts on that?
[starts quite slowly in her pace of delivery] Definitely. I think you’ve hit a really important point there, that actually, while it’s important for us to know how much it cost and where it came from, that’s not always enough to interpret the object. And really, our goal is for [speeds up pace of delivery very suddenly] people to build A sensational museum very holistically in practice. So, the work is never finished, we’re very aware of that and actually, in a way, we’re not saying it ever should be. Object records need to be treated as an ongoing process. We’re constantly learning about the objects in our care, we’re constantly learning about their stories, we’re constantly learning about different ways to interpret them. And that needs to be fed back into the collections… management system. So, not only do we need that information, ideally, in the record to be able to display this object or set of objects, or to communicate this wider narrative or story that we’re working on for an exhibition. Not only do we need that in the collections management system to begin with, we’re aware that, actually, that’s not a realistic expectation to always have. We’re not gonna magically create records for millions and millions of objects in the way that we would like them to be before we’re ever able to do another exhibition. And sometimes, the only time that museums have to really look at objects is when they’re considering them for exhibitions. And that information needs to be fed back in. And museums can be really good in terms of, like, the academic side of it, the historical interpretation or, the scientific interpretation, but actually, we’re asking for that, for also the multisensory interpretation, so the information that’s been gathered from the display needs to be fed back into the record. But also wider information.
Do you have something to say, Sophie, about what we mean exactly by, when we’re talking about the information we want to go back into collections?
Yeah, it’s quite a broad one, isn’t it? As we started off with, there is that, kind of, objective information that we have to, for legal reasons, and I’m sure many of you can think of an example [chuckle] of late that has been important for that. But, within that, it’s also bringing back. [short sharp sighs] [speeds up pace of delivery] We talk about non-experts, but I mean. Experts. That’s a very… it’s a loaded term, and it’s one that is very situational. So actually, just saying that we want more people to feed into that, but actually, we don’t tend to have the space to give that information. And though there is very much space for information on display, and conservation, and the things that have happened as a result of that. First of all, it’s not necessarily understood in a trans-sensory way, but second, it can be quite separate from the interpretation that then is linked directly into that object record, so if you’re coming at this as an exhibitions person, how hard is it for you to then find the stuff that you need, because it’s not linked in a way that makes sense or is helpful.
So having said that, I think what’s really important is that when we’re thinking about these different strands of information, is that we allow, I think we need to start moving towards a more holistic way of approaching the objects. So thinking about them on their own terms, giving them the opportunity to tell you everything that we need from them at that time, in that situation, and having a much broader list of sensory engagements, that we can add to that, rather than “this community group talked about this”. OK, great, but if we’re having that object in the room, why does it matter? And so, allowing the object to then give everything that it needs, to give it the agency to be part of the conversation.
And I know, Charlotte, you talked a little while ago about the example of a drum, which I just thought was really great, I wonder whether you can just sort of talk us through that a little bit.
Definitely. So, I think sometimes it’s useful to have objects in mind when you’re thinking about these hypotheticals.
[slower pace of delivery to fully construct the hypothetical] Say, for example, you’re looking for drums to use as part of an exhibition. Maybe you’re doing a exhibition on a particular area and you’re looking at the drums of that particular area, maybe you’re doing it on music and percussion, maybe you’re looking at uses of animal products. Whatever it is, you want some drums. How do you go about picking those things? Partly, you go with the narratives and maybe it is about location, maybe it is about where they’re from geographically, maybe it’s from what they’re made of, but maybe it’s what they sound like. Maybe it’s what they feel like, maybe it’s what they smell like, and how do you go about finding that information? Because, yes, it’s often quite easy to say you want a drum from a particular area of, [clearly trying to think of a random example] Africa, that might be on the record, but say you want one that’s going to sound in a particular way. How do you know you can play it, how do you know that it’s in that kind of condition, I mean, you can look at the conservation record and maybe that will tell you that it’s not falling apart, but it will very rarely tell you that it’s playable. Or that it’s in tune, or how it should be engaged with. It will rarely have information related to its cultural background. [speeds up pace of delivery as she relays this interesting conversation] So, something somebody spoke to me about recently was a didgeridoo, which typically, shouldn’t be played by women. It should only be handled by men, and that’s often not in the object record. And it raises really interesting questions about how we care for objects, particularly again, going back to this idea of decolonial collections and the way things have been brought in.
But if we’re thinking back about these kind of drums and how we bring them in, how do we portray this embodied experience of what this object is designed to do? And this drum has been designed to be listened to, it’s been designed to be able to feel the vibrations of it, it’s designed to be part of a cultural moment, or maybe it’s just been designed for kind of having a good time, but it’s very point is to be played, and how do you know that, how are you able to get that information to start with, if that’s not in the record?
But also, if you then go about this exploration and you do all the hard work as the curators or the exhibition designers, and you find the ones that can be played, you… go about having it conserved so it can be, even if it’s only played for a recording that’s going to be played in the gallery or to record the vibrations that are going to be reproduced, how do you then make sure that that information goes back into the record so that in the future, if somebody else wants to do that, they are able to find it, but also so that you’re normalising that, so that you start to do that with other instruments that you that are in your collection, or for other items that make a noise… or… are designed to… smell a certain way or feel a certain way. You can’t tell the full story of an object if you’re missing out of vital part of its function or its purpose.
I know you and I have talked about this and I think this is why, you and I in general work really well together on this project, but understanding why the two strands come together is that concept that the collections management system, though that is the realm of what I am working on, it should very much be that space to allow for those fluid conversations that you’ve just talked about, for people to, input information and tell us about these broader interpretations, including, very much so, the multisensory features, and the context that we’re engaging with them in.
And I think most people who have worked in heritage can empathise with that sense of gatekeeping… narratives, whether it’s from… the side of exhibitions having ways that they have might want to explain an object or who they’re bringing into the conversation, or even from the documentation side, who’s allowed to be part of that, and I think this very much feeds into, well, a couple of concepts. The colonial nature of collections management and also where does the democratisation of this work need to sit, and I talk about that from two sides, one from, communities, which is a kind of nonword, in fact let’s take that out! People that we invite into the conversation who perhaps don’t work in museums, but also how do we then include people who do work in museums but just don’t work in the same departments, and I think that those are two very important, separate but very interlinked parts of how we start using these spaces to talk about this.
And I wondered whether Charlotte, you could talk us through a little bit about why, I suppose colonialism and the concept of decolonisation, are important in what we’re trying to do here as well. Coming back to… that kind of intersectional and ableism and the ways in which museums have been formed, I’d love to know your thoughts on that.
[considered and well-paced delivery throughout this section] Definitely! So I mean obviously, at its most basic level for us, the hierarchy of the senses is deeply colonial as we’ve already talked about, but there’s also other lasting legacies, so we’re talking about institutional and structural inequalities, so we’re talking about class systems, and I’m talking about a very intersectional class system here, because, generally speaking, people of colour are disproportionately impacted by inequalities, but as are people from working class backgrounds, and the two often are very much overlapped. But if you’re looking at who is actually in a museum, the demographics of museums skew very white, middle class, and able bodied. Where you do see people from more diverse background, it tends to be in front of house positions, or it tends to be in volunteer positions, and those are the people that don’t have the power to, contribute, particularly to object records or to exhibitions, despite the fact that their lived experience, often, can contribute so much to our understanding of objects and the way that they are, interpreted and understood and engaged with by audiences. If you talk to anybody from front of house, they’ll often have lots of incredible thoughts about the way that museum visitors and audiences move around the space or embody that space or interact with objects, they’ll be able to talk about the way that there needs to be more seating, or the way that people really struggle under certain lights, or the fact that there’s a particular issue. They are generally fonts of knowledge who are just not consulted. And that does have colonial legacies because of the way that our structures and the way that our museums have been set out and have developed as institutions.
But there’s also lots of implications in terms of colonialism and decolonialism for how we think about our objects and how they’re used, particularly in terms of conservation. I mean, Sophie, did you have any thoughts about that?
Yeah, we’ll come back into my realm of the of the data [laughs].
[slightly quicker pace of delivery] I’m slightly pulling on something you told me the other day about how other museums across the world that you’ve looked into actually aren’t [starts to slow down pace of delivery] quite as strict about the way that they understand and engage with objects in that kind of ocular-centric way, which I think, really pulls into how we are, and it might sound quite heavily negative, but I think we’re failing a lot of objects and knowledge and communities, and again, that C word, I’m so terrible at using it, and people who relate to these objects, globally by treating them in a certain way, and one of the things that always stuck with me is… an absolutely incredible museum professional Wayne Modest, who said that conservation is the last real stronghold of colonialism. And thinking about that, once you sort of dig into it, it’s that actually the way we are caring for these objects, the way we understand them, we are very much taking our Western, white Global North-ways of thinking about care, and mapping that onto collections that perhaps we, and arguably I’d say we are definitely not, best place to look after them, or at least the ways we are looking after them is not the best way.
And so actually, by giving more space for people to be part of that conversation, and, I mean, this is a much broader institutional thing, you want different people in those positions, people who best understand these collections. And actually, if we can’t employ them full time, how do we better give space for them to tell us about how we should be conserving something?
For example, you said with the with the didgeridoo, that shouldn’t be played by a woman, there are plenty of objects that, for various reasons, cannot be interacted with with certain people [extend the delivery of the next few words] based on their various identity qualities. Or letting things degrade, because that’s the way it should be, but we’re so tightly bound to that concept of conserving and keeping and viewing and just existing in, a vacuum, that we’re perhaps losing a lot more that’s there, and I think the conservation side of it, in of itself, is just super interesting and conservation, in terms of the information that they give us in sensory, terms is so, powerful and something that could move across the, all the different parts of the museum as well.
So by giving that space, I think we could do something really, really powerful, really interesting. And then again, coming back to that hierarchy then as you said, we can start to break down whose authority is seen as the most important and instead, as I said earlier, using those collections management systems to be a space for democratised voice and input and all those types of things. I mean, again, we’re not trying to do anything small here but [laughs] I think it’s very much mindset.
Definitely. And it’s changing the mindsets of conservators as well to a certain extent. So, if we go back to my drum example, that actually there’s, lots of evidence that talks about particularly drums, from, various African communities, have been conserved through use for generations before they were then looted and taken, and stolen, and brought to, I mean, the UK is our kind of context, but Europe more generally, and actually by, our ways of conserving them, these kind of Western ways of conserving them, which focus almost solely on keeping them in a condition where they can be looked at, is actually harming the objects in the same way. What if you conserved it in a way that it was still usable? What if you were conserving it in a way that, I mean, obviously this is taking away from the fact that I think we should probably give them back if they’re wanted [Sophie can be heard heartily agreeing in the background] but if we’ve got things that aren’t, actually, how can we make sure that we’re using [starts to slow down her delivery] more traditional methods of conservation, which maintains the heart and the spirit and the story of the object, rather than just making it look good enough to go on display.
And I think central to that, as we start to wrap this up is that, you could just start with that one drum with what we’re trying to suggest here it’s really not a matter of, [short and snappy delivery of the rest of this sentence] we want you to overhaul everything, all of your practices, all at once. I think we both recognise that that’s daunting. And if nothing else, it’s costly; time, people, resources, money, we know as well as anyone, having been in the industry, but you know the research we’ve been doing as well, we see that is a problem, and so [laughs], we’re not asking people to suddenly change everything about their institution, but if you can start with one thing, see what’s possible, and then you can keep moving forward with incremental change and… maybe head towards something that’s more lasting and systemic.
Do you have anything to add to that, Charlotte?
Yeah, I think it’s just really reiterating what we said about it being a practice, and a constantly, evolving changing practice that again we’re not saying, do all this at once. I mean, if you’ve got the money, great, do it [Sophie laughs]. But that’s not really the world we live in, and actually, small steps make great changes. But make sure that you’re thinking about it in a holistic way, make sure you’re then cataloguing what you’ve done if you’ve started with exhibitions, or make sure that your exhibitions can draw on… what you’re doing if you’re starting on catalogues, maybe you’re starting on both at the same time, even better! [much slower paced delivery as she wraps up her point] Just slowly changing… these things will lead to a museum… that is more accessible for everybody, will really be able to create a museum that everybody can access, everybody can engage with, that everybody feels welcome in, and just generally make museums better for everyone, which is kind of our goal!
Which is a great goal, and hopefully we’ll be able to… make that a reality. Because I know from my end, we are hoping to create. Well! Something in line with the collections management system that involves kind of shifts in the data models and the user interfaces, and importantly the policies and procedures.
And Charlotte, what is your side doing to work towards this goal?
So we are creating a toolkit which we will be able to give to museums so that they are able to think about their exhibitions in a more multisensory way. So they are able to think about, OK, well, how can we create an exhibition where no one sense is sufficient or necessary? How can we make sure that people can engage in a whole host of different ways using different senses, using their sense of choice, so it’s not just about telling them they must engage with different senses for different objects, but giving them a choice for each object, each narrative, so that they can go away from that exhibition, having got the same, key information, same key story as anyone else.
Thanks Charlotte for such valuable insights into our research and the purpose of this project.
And thank you Sophie, it’s been a really amazing and interesting conversation.
And we really hope that this has been useful for getting you ready, and excited for our retreat in Belfast.
I’ve been Sophie Vohra.
I’ve been Charlotte Slark.
And thank you for listening to The Sensational Museum Retreat Postdoc Podcast.
[The podcast ends with The Sensational Museum audio logo. A conspiratorial female voice says ‘The Sensational Museum’. Lower in volume, almost distant, people are chattering excitedly in a large, echoey space. A warm, major chord chimes and fades out]
 Strand A refers to the collections strand/Sophie’s strand of research.