19 April 2011

Thoughts from MEG's retiring Chair

The MEG Chair's Chain of Office
Reflections on the last 3 years

By Alison Petch

I started writing this brief account quite early on the Sunday morning after the 2011 Oxford conference. My husband, irritated by my demands that he read and discuss it,* asked why I was writing it, and what my aim was. A valid point  … I hope that this piece will give an idea of how fundamentally I think that the MEG committee has changed over the last three years, and how this was inevitable given changes in the surrounding world.

The first surprise of the 3 years was to find myself Chair of MEG. I have always characterized myself negatively as an iconoclast, rebel and nay-sayer. Not perhaps a natural for the role of Chair, and certainly probably not the first choice. However, in Oxford in 2008, towards the end of the conference ‘Ethnography at Home’ I was duly elected. During the next 3 years I would get many other surprises, culminating in the biggest and most delightful surprise of all, a beautiful drawing … presented to me at conference by my colleagues.

One of the characteristics of the MEG Committee is that it is made up of elected and co-opted members from all parts of the museum ethnographic world in the UK. I think I knew all the members of the committee before we served together but I would know them all much better 3 years later. MEG has always been lucky that it has been able to attract sufficient number from within its membership who are prepared to sacrifice their home lives and down-time to furthering museum ethnography’s cause in the UK. I was amazed, when I got to know my colleagues better, how many different roles most of them were juggling and just how high in their priorities they were prepared to place MEG. It certainly made me realise what a dilettante I had always been.

If MEG chairs were emperors (I can sense a digression coming on) and epochs were named, then my ‘reign’ would perhaps be called ‘The Age of the Email’. Lots of people started using email in the early 1990s, as I did, so it is not a new tool, but during the last 3 years it has become the primary way that committee members communicate.

Email has been used more and more frequently as a means of discussion outside meetings and ultimately the medium through which many (?even most) committee decisions were taken. This has many implications.

On the positive side, decisions can be made much more rapidly, no more waiting for nearly 3 months (potentially) to meet round a table and discuss a matter face-to-face. Many decisions are now made and implemented between meetings. I would say that this has been very beneficial and it has certainly meant that we can react very quickly when opportunities like the possibility of getting £10,000 from MLA as a subject specialist network arise

But it has downsides. There is currently no real mechanism for recording these decisions except in retrospect. I know that Claire Wintle (our Secretary) is concerned about this and I am sure she will find an effective and efficient new solution to this problem soon (if Chantal too comes to rely on email). There is another problem, how will this decision process be reflected in the MEG archive? These issues need discussion and resolution.

There have been other electronic developments. The web was already an important part of all museum workers lives before 2008, but during the last three years it has become ubiquitous, so enmeshed in almost every moment of our lives that without it we would struggle to operate. The dissemination of more and more data via electronic media has become a given, and MEG has reflected this. During our recent SSN-funded marketing project, z3, our graphic designers (never did I expect to write that phrase) pointed out to us the elephant in the room – MEG’s website has become the focus and centre of the group’s activities. Recently the website has been greatly improved by Dan and Chris, and Chris’ innovations of blogs, tweets and facebook pages may well prove the most lasting contributions to the future of MEG of the last three years.

Meetings have become much less important … this may well be exacerbated as the museum sector shrinks as a result of the current economic downturn. Many museums in effect subsidise MEG currently by covering committee members’ transport costs, in other cases the committee members themselves shoulder the financial burden. If the committee is always to have the widest possible spread of representation (geographical, university and non-university, local authority and national museums) then the cost of meeting is necessarily high, not only in financial terms but also time lost to most members’ full-time jobs.

Perhaps my favourite innovation of the last 3 years is the circulation before the meeting of officer’s reports to all committee members and the resultant lack of need to spend large parts of each quarterly meeting reporting on past activities (unless they need discussion). My intention was to shorten meetings and I must confess that in this regard they were not a very successful tool, but they have meant that committee discussion has centred on the future and not the past whilst there is still a good record, written by the officer responsibility, to action taken. These officers’ reports serve as appendices to the minutes.

I wonder if committee meetings will in the end become virtual. Once or twice we toyed with the idea of video-conferencing or skypeing (Neil from Aberdeen often spoke longingly of the advantages these might pose, having by far the longest journey to most meeting venues). If the virtual meeting does become reality then it will reflect the trends emerging in other organizations such as commercial businesses.

Did I imagine I would enjoy chairing MEG ? No. Did I think I would enjoy working with people from across the UK who were interested in museum ethnography? Yes. Did I expect to find such a diverse range of personalities, interests and skill-sets? Perhaps not …  but I did.

I think I am going to suffer a decline for a while as I get used to a future without the MEG committee. I must have served on the committee first as a co-opted member, then an elected member and finally as Chair for at least 10 years. Will I adjust to ‘normality’ - only having my job and home-life to concentrate on? I am sure I will but it might take time.

* The suggested edit here from my household editor was ‘my husband, giving me the benefit of his great wisdom and business experience …’

11 April 2011

UCL events: Voices in (and around) the Museum

A series of four discursive events 

Co-organised by the UCL Mellon Programme and 
UCL Centre for Museums, Heritage and Material 

Wednesdays 6pm, May 4,11,18,25,2011 
University College London

From being perceived as a collective resting place for mute objects and a
silent, ocular-centric space to showcase them, the museum is increasingly
called upon to account for the voices in its midst. Objects are now widely
understood to tell stories, speaking in different ways to different
constituencies. In turn, the voices of visitors, source communities,
curators, collectors and makers – whether in the form of reminiscence,
testimony, storytelling, myth or song – play an increasingly prominent
role in determining the museum’s approach to knowledge production and

This series of oral interventions – by architects, artists, curators,
historians, musicians, theorists, and writers – aims to understand how the
voices emanating from objects and subjects in the museum impact the
institution’s traditional remit of researching, collecting and displaying
objects. How do these voices condition the visitor’s affective and sensory
experience? How do the narratives told by the museum through objects
change over time? Which voices have been suppressed, and why? What can
museums do to preserve the immaterial traces of the voice? And what new
technologies and outreach strategies will be required to listen to and
broadcast voices both in and outside of the museum?

Speakers include:

Sarah Byrne (UCL Mellon Programme)
Debbie Challis (UCL Museums and Collections)
Emma Poulter (British Museum)
David Toop (London College of Communication)
Colin Fournier (UCL Bartlett School of Architecture)
Marysia Lewandowska (Konstfack, Sweden)
Sarah Lowry (Foundling Museum, London)
Steve Cross (UCL Public Engagement Unit)
Toby Butler (University of East London)
Paul Elliman (Yale School of Art)
Seph Rodney (The London Consortium)
Imogen Stidworthy (Jan van Eyck Academy, Maastricht)
Jack Maynard (Tate)
Linda Sandino (V&A and UAL)
Susan Hawkins (Kingston University London)
Hillary Young (Museum of London)

For more information

Or contact Sarah Byrne: s.byrne@ucl.ac.uk; Anthony Hudek: a.hudek@ucl.ac.uk

7 April 2011

UCL course: Ethnographic Object Analysis

University College London
Centre for Museum, Heritage and Material Culture Studies

5th May- 2nd June 2011 
Thursday Afternoons (2-5pm)

This course utilises ethnographic collections at UCL, and provides access to those at the British Museum and Horniman Museum. It provides hands-on training in the skills necessary for interpreting, researching and analysing ethnographic objects.

Sessions will focus on:
• Analytical techniques for examining materials, style and technique of ethnographic objects • Learning about past and current ethnographic collecting frameworks
• Learning how to observe, document and describe ethnographic objects through
drawing, classification and computer documentation systems
 • Handling skills, basic conservation assessment techniques and issues of
conservation practice and ethics
• Practical exploration of issues relating to exhibition, design and representation
• Analytical techniques for ethnographic photographs and their storage

Course Cost: £300, £250 (student concession)
For more information see: http://www.mhm.ucl.ac.uk/training/ethnographic-object-analysis.php
For additional information or to enrol, contact Dr. Sarah Byrne: s.byrne@ucl.ac.uk

5 April 2011

Ruth Phillips lecture: Museums and the Multicultural Modern


5.30 pm, WEDNESDAY 11 May 2011

Professor Ruth Phillips

The Work of Art in Cultural Translation

Chair: Professor Nicholas Thomas, Director, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Venue: Mill Lane Lecture Theatre 9, Mill Lane, University of Cambridge
Followed by a reception at Trinity College, Cambridge
With the generous support of Peter Chapman

Outline: In many twenty-first century museums and art galleries what's
old seems to have become new again. Despite several decades of critique
and self-doubt stimulated by the post-modern reflexivity and
postcolonial activism of the 1980s and 1990s, the distinctive modernist
display paradigms of art and artifact regularly reappear almost intact
in new museum installations. In universities, art historians have been
renewing a mandate to address a construct of "world art history" that
was popular in the early twentieth century as a way of responding to the
challenges posed by globalization and increasingly multicultural
societies. Anthropologists, for their part, have rediscovered the value
of material culture as a site for exploring cultural traditions and
experiences of culture contact.

Yet the conventional 'look' of museum exhibitions can mask real and
profound differences in the social work that museums do today and the
changed power relationships that characterize the ways that they do it.
This talk will examine the deployment of artful objects and works of
art, both historic and contemporary, in a number of recent North
American museum exhibitions and the new processes of cultural
translation they attempt. It will ask questions about the kind of work
that art performs, its efficacy in mediating cultural encounters, and
its significance as a marker of the emergence of a 'multicultural
modern' museum in the twenty-first century that differs in important
ways from the modern museum of the twentieth century.

Speaker: Professor Ruth Phillips is internationally renowned for her
writings on museums, and as a leading scholar of native North American
art histories. Her books include Representing Woman: Sande Masquerades
of the Mende of Sierra Leone (1997), Trading Identities: the Souvenir in
Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900 (1998) and a
forthcoming study, Museum Pieces: Essays on the Indigenization of
Canadian Musuems (2011). She holds a Canada Research Chair at Carleton
University, in Ottawa.

RSVP, inquiries to Liz Haslemere, Museum of Archaeology and
Anthropology, email: eh268@cam.ac.uk tel: 01223 764956/333516