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Disposal? UCL Museums & Collections and the Consultative Exhibition

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Overview

Who: UCL Museums & Collections

What:  Disposal? An interactive and consultative exhibition about what UCL Museums should keep and what we should get rid of.

Why: University museums and collections hold objects in public trust. When we began to ask ourselves questions about how to run the collections – what should we be collecting? What should we dispose of from the collections? – we thought the only way to come up with valid answers was to ask the public to contribute to these discussions.

Where:  UCL, Gower Street

When:  October 19th – 31st 2009

Project description Visitor casting a vote to dispose of an object

Disposal? was an interactive exhibition designed to consult with our audience – UCL staff and students and the general public – about UCL Museums & Collections about what we should keep and what we should get rid of. Over 940 people visited the exhibition in the two weeks it was open, and the vast majority of them participated in a bespoke voting exercise, posted comments on the exhibition notice boards, and engaged in conversations between themselves and museum curators.

Purpose

By putting on Disposal? we wanted to:

  1. Have a discussion with our audience about how they saw the role of UCL Museums & Collections and what they felt it was important for us to keep and also what they thought we should dispose of.
  2. Learn what criteria people applied when making decisions about what should stay and what should go
  3. Give the people for whom this material is held in trust a voice in how it is managed. Comments from the discussion board and ongoing discussions online will inform our acquisition and disposal policies, e.g. collections profiles and earmarking individual objects for disposal.

Results and outcomes

What worked well

Exhibition attendants – Having the exhibition manned by informed and friendly staff had a significant impact on visitor participation. Of the 942 people who visited the exhibition, 710 took part in the voting exercise. Without the exhibition staff, this level of participation would never have been achieved and we would not have been able to gather this volume of data.

The voting system – By encouraging visitors to vote we were able to engage them at a more meaningful level than in a conventional museum exhibition. The data captured by this system is easy to interpret at will help us to answer a wide range of questions about our audience and their views on disposal.

shall we do with the plastic dinosaurs?

What shall we do with the plastic Dinosaurs?

Working space – Holding the exhibition in a working space created a good vibe and helped to establish a relationship in a department which had little previous interaction with UCL Museums & Collections. The central location combined with the Object Retrieval project put UCL Museums & Collections at the centre of public interaction at the heart of UCL.

Media coverage – We had known that the topic of the exhibition was controversial and that this may make it media-friendly, but the coverage we received surpassed all expectations. We began well with articles in the Guardian and on the New Scientist website. These were picked up by other papers, magazines and radio stations nationally and internationally. These include: the Saturday Times, ‘As it happens (Canadian Broadcasting Company),’ Radio Free Europe, Time, Harper’s Magazine, The National (newspaper in the UAE), and The Art Newspaper.

“Please please keep this exhibition open for longer! A few weeks is not enough to engage members of the public in this important debate. Perhaps “Disposal” can go on as a touring exhibit? Well done to UCL for such a thought-provoking, different and fun events program!” 

“Very thought-provoking and very relevant. We can’t keep everything - there just isn’t room, especially as museums are expected to do contemporary collecting.  Disposal means many things too, not just destruction. There may be places better suited to look after some of the items here.” 

“Thought-provoking and engaging exhibition. Great work! I think a lot of it could go in the bin, but more importantly I now appreciate our museums and collections group. Thanks!”

What didn't work well

Internal procedures – The lack of an appropriate infrastructure for dealing with internal exhibitions (Disposal? was the first inter-collections exhibition to be put on by UCL Museums & Collections) combined the controversial subject matter and poor communication on both sides, made project management an uphill battle.

University space – Although it did create a vibrant atmosphere for the exhibition, locating the exhibition in a working university space meant that we had to invest a lot of time in liaising with the department to ensure everything ran smoothly. It also meant that despite our best efforts, the installation, running and de-installation of the exhibition was inevitably disruptive to teaching.

Resources required

In addition to staff time, Disposal? enlisted the talents of a team of 3D and graphic designers and the exhibition was purpose-built from scratch. Including the salaries for exhibition attendants and evaluation work, the expenditure for this project was approximately £25,000.

Top tips

  1. Consultation works! Public engagement isn’t just trendy – if you want to know what people think, the best thing to do is ask them.
  2. It is crucial to build evaluation into your project, not just tag it on at the end. What do you want to know at the end of the process, and what information do you need to gather to inform this?
  3. If in doubt, chose people over things. Our exhibition contained very few objects, but we were able to get the most out of our visitors (and they were able to get the most out of us!) because we ensured we had friendly, knowledgeable and approachable staff in the space.
  4. Controversy sells (and journalists are lazy). You will be misquoted, but that is no defence for being scared of the media and not getting your message and your project out to as many people as possible.
  5. Expect success and plan for it. If we had known how popular Disposal? would be (and given how much went into planning and resources) we would have run the exhibition for longer.
  6. It is important to keep marketing all the way through your project – good media coverage does not necessarily translate into actual footfall.

Contact

Name: Subhadra Das     

Name of organisation: UCL Museums & Collections

Email: subhadra.das@ucl.ac.uk

Telephone: 020 7679 0664