Who: The Museum of English Rural Life
What: To seek to capitalise on the expertise of the wider research community to give its temporary exhibitions increased relevance and depth.
Why: To invite a series of external researchers to ‘guest-curate’ exhibitions for its changing public programme.
Where: University of Sheffield, University of Sheffield Hallam, University of Reading
In a recent departure, the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) has invited a series of external researchers to ‘guest-curate’ exhibitions for its changing public programme. The intention has been for the resultant displays to more accurately reflect current academic thinking, whilst providing the scholars involved with an opportunity to demonstrate direct and immediate impact.
To date, exhibitions developed according to this model have included the current Farming for the New Britain: Images of farmers in war and peace (Dr Clare Griffiths, University of Sheffield, 2010) and forthcoming Land Ladies: Woman and farming, 1900-1945 (Dr Nicola Verdon, University of Sheffield-Hallam, 2011). MERL is also looking closer to home and will be working with Dr Neil Cocks of the University of Reading to develop an exhibition centred on Ladybird artwork collections (2012).
The impetus behind these linked projects has been, in part, to attempt to reduce the amount of MERL staff time required to develop specialist content for its wide-ranging programme of exhibitions. By enlisting the assistance of subject-specialists it was hoped that the bulk of archival, bibliographic, photographic, and/or textual content might be more easily and readily identified.
With this in mind, the Museum has sought to invite academics who have already conducted extensive work on MERL’s wide-ranging archives. A further advantage was the ability to tap into high level and more detailed research, and to provide a better standard of exhibition content for MERL’s diverse audiences. An extension of this was to resituate MERL’s exhibition output within the framework and context of its role as a publically oriented service, operating as part of a major University and within an HE environment.
The other principal aim has been to provide academics with the opportunity to contribute towards programmes of public dissemination, both in terms of the exhibitions themselves and the broader suite of events associated with them. It was thought that this might offer a low-cost and high-visibility way for them to demonstrate the social impact of their research. With the Research Excellence Framework set to raise the importance of the impact agenda, it was seen as a way in which the Museum might be able to assist others within the wider academy in terms of meeting these new challenges.
Results and outcome
What worked well
Although this kind of model is still in the early stages, it has already delivered one high standard exhibition, comprising research content with a clear and obvious connection to current debates in rural history. The approach has begun to raise the bar in terms of the depth and detail that MERL staff might hope to incorporate into temporary exhibitions, whilst minimising the time they spend conducting (comparatively superficial) research to feed into such displays.
What didn’t work well
Although time may have been saved in terms of the actual research and development of textual content for exhibitions, results so far suggest that more time than anticipated will be spent liaising with guest-curators and providing them with the support and guidance necessary to deliver the kind of exhibitions they hope to be able to provide. In addition, the projects have highlighted a relative paucity of interest in material culture amongst the wider rural history research community. Timescales and lead-in time have also proven challenging.
- MERL exhibition budget
- Staff time
- External guest-curator time
- Turn the research process on its head: Rather than working from specific and detailed investigation to locate more general themes, start with general themes and seek to encourage academics to populate these concepts with detailed content
- Make material culture an exciting departure: Take academics on a tour of the stores, highlighting objects that might be of use or interest, and encouraging them to consider the place of artefactual evidence in the story their exhibitions seek to tell
- Don’t despair if it takes the same amount of time: It’s a learning curve on both sides of the partnership and the potential benefits are much, much more than simply reducing the time spent conducting exhibition research
"In choosing images to include in the exhibition we really were spoilt for choice. MERL has a wonderful collection of photographs covering every aspect of farming life, from quirky pictures taken at shows, to detailed studies of agricultural processes and beautiful landscapes." Dr Clare Griffiths
"These collaborations offer an exciting new avenue for MERL. While the learning curve has been a rapid and steep one for all those involved, I think these projects will prove extremely worthwhile, both in terms of research impact and the delivery of a higher standard of public displays." Dr Ollie Douglas
Name: Dr Ollie Douglas
Name of organisation: Museum of English Rural Life
Telephone: 0118 378 8660