Museums and innovative curatorship

Museums, Sierra Leone Heritage website

To anyone that was dragged – complaining – around a museum in childhood, the 21st century museumscape has altered beyond recognition.

Museo Atlantico, 15 metres deep off the coast of Lanzarote, for example, is Europe’s first ‘underwater museum’, Fittingly one of its exhibits is entitled ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ and deals with climate change. ‘Raft of Lampedusa’, another, focuses on the migrant crisis. The sculptured figures on a raft laid to rest among the swimming fish at the bottom of the ocean is a poignant memorial to the countless human beings that have shared a similar fate, attempting in unseaworthy boats to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to the coast of Italy.

With web access it is possible to visit a ‘virtual’ museum from almost anywhere in the world. Curators have seized on the opportunity, creating sites that exist only in cyberspace. China Online Museum, for example, curated by Yu Yibo, was first set up in 2009 and re-launched in 2016:

For historical reasons, many great Chinese artworks are scattered in various parts of the world. For most of us, we would not always have the luxury to travel to museums in Beijing or Taipei or Tokyo or London or New York to view these artworks. Even if you do make it to one of these places, you can only see a very tiny amount of artworks that are currently on display. Although viewing a digital image is in no way close to viewing the actual artwork, it does give us art-lovers a lot of convenience and satisfaction.

Some of the most exciting initiatives have derived from ambitious digital projects in combination with multi-media resources, including one aimed at ‘reanimating’ the cultural heritage of Sierra Leone.

Directed by Paul Basu, the Reanimating Cultural Heritage project has involved collaborations between the Sierra Leone National Museum and British museums to bring together collections dispersed in the ‘global museumscape’.

Physical objects in museums have become ‘isolated from the oral and performative contexts that originally animated them’, states Basu, but:

… a digital project offers the possibility of bringing together multi-media resources – video clips, sounds, texts and other media – reanimating objects in digital space, giving them new life.

Working with an Informatics team at the University of Sussex, the three-year Arts and Humanities Research Council project (2009-12) culminated in the creation of the Sierra Leone heritage website.

The site’s video gallery has a series of 60 short films that recontextualize museum objects and offer insights into Sierra Leonean daily life and traditions, from musical instruments such as the Balangi, secret society masks, including the clown-like Gongoli to the fearful Goboi, as well as bee-keeping, palm wine production and weaving.

As a virtual museum it combines artefacts and resources from five different museums in the UK: the British Museum; Brighton Museum and Art Gallery; Glasgow Museums; the World Museum Liverpool; and the British Library Sound Archive.

If the museumscape has changed beyond recognition so, too, has museum studies.  Current or aspiring curators, and those interested in acquiring knowledge in the critical debates and theories underlying practice, have the pick of at least twelve European and American universities that currently offer postgraduate degrees in ‘museum studies’. Amongst the choices are University of San Francisco; Paris – Sorbonne University on their Abu Dhabi campus on Al Reem Island; UCL on their Qatar campus; and SOAS, University of London, which offers the MA Museums, Heritage and Material Culture degree in London.

The SOAS masters degree is an interdisciplinary one, uniquely taught across the Departments of Anthropology and History of Art and Archaeology, and focusing on the cultural heritage of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It has access to the permanent and changing collections of SOAS’s own Brunei Gallery, as well as the twelve other museums which comprise London’s ‘Museum Mile’ on its doorstep.

Its convenors Paul Basu and Louise Tythacott bring their expertise, and experience of curatorship and consultancy work in the sector, to the degree. Paul Basu has worked alongside the British Museum’s Africa Programme, and the Sierra Leonean Government, as well as carrying out anthropological research on cultural memory, landscape and heritage. Among his books are Exhibition Experiments, Museums, Heritage and International Development, and the soon-to-be published The Inbetweenness of Things.

Louise Tythacott was formerly Curator of Asian collections at the National Museums Liverpool, and continues to work on museum projects and curate exhibitions. In 2016, an AHRC Research Grant of £438,000 for a 3-year project (2016-19) will enable Christian Luczanits and Louise to investigate Tibetan Buddhist Monastery Collections and Museums in Nepal and Ladakh.

Anyone that would like to ask Paul or Louise about any aspect of the MA programme, do get in touch!

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