The trainees had a wonderful day in London last week, visiting a range a museums and archives. At the Imperial War Museum, and the Wellcome Library, we met and talked to professionals. Both venues have recently refurbished and installed an area that invites curious visitors to get closer to the collections, and coming from my placement at Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, I was interested to see how both venues are attracting new audiences to research.
At the Imperial War Museum Tim Free the Visitor Engagement Officer kindly showed us around. He explained the new layout of the displays, with the idea of a ‘cluster’ of objections linked together by a story which really appeals to visitors. The new layout has ‘post-it’ style labels don’t reveal a lot about the artefacts, but in the Explore History area the most interested visitors can learn more.
During the time I chatted to the assistant in Explore History, several people popped in to utilise the touch-screens for information on the museum displays. But visitors can go further. The area is full of books that give more in-depth information about artefacts, while oral histories can be searched and listened to on the computers. And yet there is more. The assistant told me about the number of people who are inspired by their visit to the museum to research their family and local history. Via a collection of leaflets and the next door research room visitors can access original documents. This is a brilliant way to connect with visitors who are inquisitive enough to get started with research.
And the story at the Wellcome Library is a similar one. There I was met by Ross Macfarlane who showed me around the ever growing library of medical- and health-related books and artworks. The library was wonderfully spacious and quiet, with industrious students working away in each corner. But my favourite part of the library was the brand new Reading Room. Here, visitors to the Wellcome Collection are encouraged to be curious. Exhibits such as phrenology heads, and medical implements are displayed with very limited labels alongside connected books, copies of documents, images, and even medical equipment, to encourage visitors to search for themselves, to learn more about the objects. For a while we chatted about the area and the ideas behind it, while watching visitors look around and interact with the displays, before I could no longer resist and had to get my own hands on the books and artefacts.
It is such a brilliant idea to have an area in between museum exhibits and research collections. The new areas provide a link between museums and archives, breaking down the invisible barriers between visitors and documents. Judging by the number of visitors enjoying the two London sites we visited, access to documents is popular with the incurably curious.