Stanhope Forbes’ England – Evaluation

It’s been nearly two months since the artworks for Stanhope Forbes’ England went back to their owners and one year since we began the Skills for the Future traineeships, so I have been reflecting on all that I have learned.

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Stanhope Forbes’ England at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum

As part of evaluating the exhibition, I hosted a swap shop, introducing the trainees to the principles of front-end, formative and summative evaluation before we spent a few hours observing visitors to Stanhope Forbes’ England. From these observations and evaluating visitor numbers and the comments book we now know that:

  • There were around 19,000 visitors to the building during the duration of the exhibition
  • 81% of visitors came specifically for the Forbes exhibition
  • 51% of visitors came from outside the WR postcodes

We also received some inspiring comments in the visitor book, including:

“Thank you for bringing this exhibition to Worcester”

“Excellent exhibition. Inspires me to find out more.”

“Chadding in Mounts Bay – one of the great paintings of the 20th century. A fine exhibition well worth the drive from Newlyn to Worcester!”

A particularly lovely moment in evaluating the exhibition came when one of the trainees observed two couples who came separately and did not know each other, but began to talk about the exhibition and then continued around the museum together. These types of comments and observations make me feel so proud of everything that Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum achieves and highlights what exhibitions can bring to the local community.

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Stanhope Forbes’ England at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum

Evaluating my learning while working on Stanhope Forbes’ England has also filled me with pride, in both my own achievements and in the people I work with. I was offered a rare combination of freedom and support from the team here at MAG, which I believe significantly fast-tracked my learning. Curating Stanhope Forbes’ England offered me an in-depth understanding of the complex processes behind loans based exhibitions including project management; securing Government Indemnity insurance; arranging transportation and packaging; managing environmental conditions; planning an exhibition hang; writing interpretation, marketing materials and a companion publication; as well as giving public talks and tours.

I am aware what an incredible privilege this is at such an early stage in my career and the benefits I have gained do not only lie in this widened skills set, but have also had tangible results as I have been offered ongoing curatorial work at Museums Worcestershire. I have also been awarded a position on the British Arts Network’s Early Career Curators Group (supported by Arts Council England and Tate) for the next two years which includes a professional development bursary. I hope to use these opportunities to continue bringing great exhibitions to Worcester and to continue developing as a heritage professional.

Emalee Beddoes

What is eating your collection?

We have turned into fledgling botanists-cum-poachers tracking down and hunting wild beasts – and museum pests are our prey.

insect 1We had no idea there were so many different kinds, all with their personal favourite hiding places, and diets. Some like the dark corners, under cases, where they munch on the carpet. Some venture into boxes and cases for a tasty morsel of skin, fur or textile. Others with a sharper tooth spend their lifetime wriggling through wood. They come in all shapes, sizes and colours, and can nibble at most things you might find in a museum or archive, if you don’t keep tabs on them.

insect from english heritage poster 2Luckily at the Archives there are very few live pests to worry about. A shiny new building with climate controlled strong rooms and carefully followed procedures mean only the most agile spider or fly can make it inside. But the conservator does deal with the evidence of insect attacks, after freezing everything to remove lodgers. Those books and documents scratched and gnawed by silverfish or left with delicate holes by the tiny Common Booklouse can be carefully put back together in such skilful hands, but it was interesting to learn more about the culprits.

At the Worcestershire Museums though the insect detecting now begins. The collection contains many stuffed animals, insect collections, textiles, carpets and wooden artefacts. These provide a veritable feast for biscuit beetles, furniture beetles, vodka beetles, and clothes moths, and require constant surveillance and control.

insect from english heritage posterThe National Brewery Centre in Burton-on-Trent provided the perfect setting for this training course with Jayne Thompson-Webb with great (if repulsive) actual examples and a chance to look around the museum itself to assess any possible pest control issues. This was also an opportunity to network with professionals and volunteers from other midland museums and historic houses, including Coventry Transport Museum, Middleport Pottery and Wightwick Manor. If you are tempted to learn more about museum tests, you can follow this link to the English Heritage pest poster.

Sarah

A musical interlude

I have a love-hate relationship with Regina Spektor’s 2012 song All the Rowboats. On the one hand, it is a cool song about museums and art galleries; on the other, it deals with a concept that cuts close to the bone for museum professionals. The song title refers to The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer that hangs the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the lyrics describe artefacts as imprisoned in museums:

First there’s lights out, then there’s lock up
Masterpieces serving maximum sentences
It’s their own fault for being timeless
There’s a price you pay and a consequence
All the galleries, the museums
Here’s your ticket, welcome to the tombs

And, one of the most galling images:

But the most special are the most lonely
God, I pity the violins
In glass coffins they keep coughing
They’ve forgotten, forgotten how to sing, how to sing

A recent event at at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum made me think of this song and pointed out that while Spektor can write a great tune, she has little idea of inventiveness and care of museum professionals. Thanks to the efforts of Senior Curator Philippa Tinsley, Marketing and Events Manager, Helen Large, and cellist Julia Palmer-Price, on 20th February, the incredible trench art oil can cello in Museums Worcestershire’s collection broke a silence that may have lasted for just under 100 years.

The beautifully and inventively crafted cello was created during the war by Reginald Quelch who served as a sapper with the Royal Engineers. He lived in Pershore and died at the age of 94 and his cello was subsequently donated to the museum. Last Friday, visitors to World War I in the Words of Worcestershire People and members of the press had the privilege of hearing an evocative rendition of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary on this poignant instrument.

To continue to preserve this singular artefact it will certainly be some time before it is played again, but this event is a fabulous example of how as museum professionals we can balance care and calculated risk to both preserve objects and allow them life.

You can still see the cello on display at Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery in World War I in the Words of Worcestershire People until march 14th.

Emalee Beddoes

Stanhope Forbes’ England Part 2

In my previous work in publishing, creating content for marketing and press was a day to day task for me, but there I had the benefit of an existing international specialist-interest audience.  When beginning work on press for Stanhope Forbes’ England, I was conscious that exhibition press is a very different species: it must appeal to both those who spend every weekend gallery-hopping and those who rarely visit, as well was both Forbes newbies and enthusiasts.

Stanhope Forbes' England advert

Stanhope Forbes’ England advert

My previous post, Stanhope Forbes’ England Part 1, gave some of the draft press material I had written to send to our talented PR team: Museums Worcestershire’s Marketing & Events Manager, Helen Large, and freelance PR consultant Helen Annetts. I met with the two Helens last week to discuss the draft and our plans for marketing. I was extremely pleased to find that they were happy with what I’d provided and used the text in various different ways throughout the press materials. Helen Annets also shared all sorts of useful advice about writing for the press, some of the key points that stood out for me were:

  • Begin by writing down bullet points of the key things that you wish to highlight – much like planning keywords before writing a blog post.
  • Including quotes from someone like the curator, a well-known subject specialist or even a member of the community involved in the project can add interest to a media pack.
  • Make key pieces of information easily accessible –the press are extremely busy people!

Working with ‘team Helen’ has highlighted the importance of dedicated marketing professionals in the heritage industry. While curators or front of house staff might be able to tweet, blog and make calls to the local press; the media savvy, contacts, and experience of PR and marketing teams are an essential step in insuring the success of exhibitions.

A Smithsonian Institution report on audience building highlights that “Museum marketing is unique because museums have a mission to educate the public as well as build audience and revenue.”[1] As heritage professionals we have the privilege of working with objects and stories that are entirely fascinating and do much of the work for us. The key duty of museum marketing, therefore, is not simply to stimulate revenue, but as a service that makes these objects and their stores accessible to as many people as possible.

[1] Smithsonian Institution, Audience Building: Marketing in Museums, October 2001 <http://tinyurl.com/l3aytca>  p. 1

 

Emalee Beddoes

 

MAG the Resilient

At the beginning of October, Etta, Rachel and I attended the Museum Association annual conference in Cardiff. Among many of the key themes was one word that I’m sure you’ve all heard much of lately: Resilience. The October issue of Museums Journal contained an interesting conversation between Emmie Kell of Cornwall Museums’ Partnership and Nêst Thomas of Gwynedd County Council discussing this term. Kell points out that one definition is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties”, while in Welsh, it translates into ystwythder – flexible.

From just a few months at MAG, I can confirm that flexibility is something that we have in spades! I’ve begun to understand the changes in physical and management structures, collections policy and approaches that Worcester Museum and Art Gallery has seen since the 1830s. I’ve also been present while big changes have been taking place recently.

Worcester City Library 1963

Worcester City Library 1963

After the library was moved to The Hive in 2012, the city council, who own the building and are the main funders for the museum, kindly allowed us to use the temporarily empty space on the ground floor for exhibitions and activities. This arrangement was never permanent and, at the decision of the city councillors, these rooms, along with areas of the basement, are now being returned to the council and converted into offices. It seems to me that the museum will certainly miss the extra space and, like any building work, it will cause some disruption. But in the spirit of “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties”, the deadline to vacate the space has been treated as a motivation to reassess, re-organize and streamline. While the reduction in square meters is spurring creative thought about how our gallery spaces and stores can be best utilized.

It has been great to see how incredibly positive the MAG team have been in this time of change: highlighting that it will strengthen our relationship with the council, provide customers for our café and shop, as well as offering an in-house audience for lunch-time talks and weekday events – all of which sounds very appealing!

It is likely that we will all be seeing many more service merges and partnerships in the museums sector and public service more generally. Worcester has been very forward thinking in this respect: The Hive, for example, seamlessly combines a university and council library, council customer services and an archives and archaeology service, not to mention a café. Having seen these successes, I’m very much looking forward to getting to know our new neighbours.

Emalee Beddoes

Stanhope Forbes’ England, part 1

I was happy to find that one of the first things on my to-do list here at MAG was to help research and secure loans for our upcoming exhibition exploring Newlyn artist Stanhope Forbes’ paintings of England and its people.  As well as working towards the loans and interpretation, I’ve also drafted press-release for the exhibition. To let you know a little about Forbes and the show, here is a brief extract from my draft:

“Born in Dublin to an English Railway Manager and a French mother in 1857, Stanhope Forbes went onto study painting at renowned institutions in London including Dulwich College and Royal Academy, followed by the private Paris studio of French artist Léon Bonnat. But like many of the cutting-edge painters of his time, Forbes chose to leave the salons and art schools of the city in favour of rural areas of Brittany in France to paint the areas people, landscapes, and beautiful light. Working in France, Forbes adopted the fashion for painting en plein air – outdoors and from life. This practice captured the young Forbes’ imagination and he developed a skill for depicting landscapes and the people who live and work within them.

Stanhope Forbes, Chadding on Mounts Bay, 1902, Copyright Museums Worcestershire

Stanhope Forbes, Chadding on Mounts Bay, 1902, Copyright Museums Worcestershire

After searching for a picturesque town in England with a similar beauty of light, Forbes found this in Newlyn, Cornwall, and moved there in 1884 joining a growing group of artists. Here Forbes became a leading member of the Newlyn School – an artist colony dedicated to seeking out the picturesque and poignant in the lives and landscapes of England.

With the spirit of a colonial anthropologist, Forbes hunted out traditional life to record in paint, as well as documenting the growing rail network that linked these previously remote communities. Through pinpointing picturesque spots, hiring local people as models and painting from life, Forbes’s work tells an idyllic story of English life and character with his own powerful narrative voice.”

The full version of this text is currently in the hands of our marketing officer and I will post again when I have her changes and suggestions. I’m looking forward to hearing how text can be altered to bring out the marketable, popular and exciting.

Emalee Beddoes

Exciting exhibition concepts

In May this year, Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery hosted Skylight Landscape: Paul Nash and David Prentice. I saw this exhibition long before I started work here at MAG and I was immediately impressed by its format. The exhibition explored the spatial and temporal relationship between two painters: modernist painter Paul Nash (1889 – 1946) and local Worcestershire artist David Prentice (1936 – 2014),* highlighting the impact the former’s work had on the latter. Focusing predominantly on the two artist’s works depicting the Malvern Hills, the exhibition celebrated the area’s greatest assets, which created local interest and made the exhibition very accessible to its audience.

Paul Nash and David Prentice exhibition hang

Skylight Landscape: Paul Nash and David Prentice at Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery

While this in itself is an interesting subject for an exhibition, Skylight Landscape went further by drawing attention to twentieth-century landscape painting more generally by highlighting Nash’s war art and Prentice’s background in more hard-edged abstract painting. The art historical dialogue culminated in the real gem of the exhibition: a series of panels, photographs and letters that documented Prentice’s research into Nash’s paintings which lead him to discover the exact window from which Nash painted Skylight Landscape, explaining the previously mysterious geometry which bisects the piece (Prentice’s 1997 article chronicling this discovery in The Artist Magazine can be read online Here). This treasure not only highlighted the joys of art historical research, but also created an interesting temporal link between the two artists and added to our understanding of Nash’s work.

Skylight Landscape was accompanied by Barbarians: The Age of Iron, a collection of images and artefacts highlighting the ongoing efforts of archaeologists to understand the history of the hillforts of Malvern’s British Camp. The coupling of these two exhibitions expanded the impact of both shows, creating a dialogue about the timeless landscape that has been – and will continue to be – personally, intellectually and artistically important to local people for millennia.

Paul Nadh and David Prentice exhibition hang

Skylight Landscape: Paul Nash and David Prentice at Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery

The layering of dialogues achieved so naturally in these exhibitions was quite a feat, especially for small exhibitions. For me, these shows were an example of what can be achieved at regional institutions, so this week I was excited to start work on a 2016 exhibition of a similar format that will display the works of local artist, Bridget Macdonald, alongside paintings that have inspired her by Claude Lorain, Peter Paul Rubens, Samuel Palmer and their followers. In the upcoming exhibition, this format will allow us to open up a discussion about idealised landscapes and the intertextual nature of artistic production. Exciting stuff!

*Sadly, Prentice died on May 7th this year, just three days after the exhibition opened. But the show served as a fitting tribute to the artist’s work, his engagement in the arts and his great love of and skill for landscape painting.

Emalee Beddoes