Posted by: philsteele | August 17, 2011

Museum musings

Back in June, Bangor to Cardiff by rail: an erratic route that wanders this side and that of the border,  green pastures, damp woods, red brick.  That  journey always seems to take several months. A fashion student got into the carriage and started sewing an elaborate costume on the table. Those strips of lace were perilously near my Arriva Trains coffee cup… I was relieved when she dismounted at Newport with her work of art  miraculously unspoilt.

The aim of my trek to the capital was a work-related visit to  National Museum Wales  – an institution which seems to have lost a  definite article and a preposition in recent years.  Perhaps they’ve been sent back to Greece.  (‘Give us back our grammar!’).  I hadn’t visited the place for a decade or so.

I definitely approved of the  displays of the early Wales exhibits, redesigned and much improved.  The museum staff  were all incredibly helpful. One might  think that history was a fairly static subject for a writer when it came to research, but of course new discoveries, new science and new interpretations constantly change experts’ assessment of the past.

In the warren  of corridors behind the museums’ galleries were the art and photographic departments. I always love watching artists at work: one thing I missed in my move from in-house editor to freelance writer was the chance to commission artwork myself. Although some of the museum’s illustrative work is interpretive or impressionistic, most of it is a meticulous, highly skilled  recording of artefacts.  I was especially fascinated by past reconstruction drawings for the so-called Cerrigydrudion crown, probably  ceremonial headgear of bronze and hide,  about 2,400 years old. The jigsaw of  painstakingly drawn pieces was covered in notes and queries. What better way to solve historical puzzles than by setting them down on paper and trying to recreate the original processes of manufacture? Aha, so it wasn’t a hanging basket, after all! Hmmm. Perhaps try it the other way up?

I was at the museum regarding work on a book, but the visit did remind me of earlier forays into planning and writing texts for museums and galleries.  It is always very hard to keep the customer satisfied. If you provide reams of detail about exhibits, it will go unread by many. If you offer only a brief summary or an atmospheric caption, any intelligent visitor will feel cheated. The standardised proposals for readability which are included in many exhibition briefs are too mechanistic. One solution is to provide text at two levels, one to grab the visitor’s interest, the other to  provide the necessary detail.

The focus of any display in my opinion should surely  be the genuine artefact in all its glory:  a coin once handled by a Roman soldier, perhaps, or the bronze mirror used by an Iron Age queen. Electronic button-pushing and children’s games are fine in their place, if they work  – and computer modelling of an ancient site can be really informative – but none of these should detract from the object on display. The Victorian glass cabinet did have something going for it.

So: job done. Oh, and a quick tour of the museum’s  international art collection before I left reminded me what a stunning selection there  is on show in Cardiff.  Back to the station.

Museums are our treasure houses. Defend them from cuts, maintain free public access and support them to the hilt! (Actually, is that really a hilt? Or might it be a prehistoric toasting fork…? )


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