Untold tales

Revealing hidden histories and making better use of underused collections are at the heart of a West Midlands Museum Development project, as Helen Johnson, Museum Development Officer (Staffordshire), explains.

The Revealing Hidden Histories project supports museums to identify and research untold stories from underused areas of their collections. Its aim is to improve collections’ knowledge, update and enrich documentation records, and ultimately tell these untold stories to visitors. Revealing Hidden Histories is part of the wider programme of support delivered by West Midlands Museum Development (WMDD) and funded by Arts Council England.

Revealing Hidden Histories started life in 2015 as Expert Eye. There is a clear recognition that collections staff are often not, and cannot be, specialists in every area, particularly where museums hold different types of collections. Expert Eye brought subject specialists into museums with the aim of sharing knowledge with staff, improving documentation and staff confidence, and making better use of underused collections.

Calling in the experts

Between 2015 and 2018 WMMD worked with collections teams at 13 museums where collection subjects needed expert input. These included agricultural, costume, ceramics, pharmaceutical and medical collections, a fluid specimen collection, archaeology, world cultures and archives.

A key element of the project was disseminating the knowledge to the wider staff teams through sharing events at each venue. These were very successful, bringing the subject specialist, curatorial staff, front of house teams and volunteers together to discuss key items, reflect on the experience and think about future interpretation.

Royal Worcester plate with Arabic text decoration“Having a more comprehensive catalogue will help us to improve access to these items… If we don’t know what they are how can we effectively display them? The information will help us to make an informed decision about their future.” Brampton Museum & Art Gallery

Evaluation from the first iteration of Expert Eye led to conversations about a natural development of the project and Revealing Hidden Histories broadly follows the same model, but aims to look at the collections in a different way. We wanted to find out about an object or group of objects which had an interesting untold story, something that had not been interpreted before and which might have links to a challenging, emotive or potentially contentious narrative.

As with Expert Eye we wanted to involve staff across the organisation to build research skills and, where possible, make links with other areas of the museum’s collections. Eight museums joined the project in June 2019, three of which had previously been involved with Expert Eye.

Developing a research methodology

Once again, we sourced relevant subject specialists to spend time with museum staff. The experts support the museums with information and knowledge, but also help to identify a way forward for research. They encourage staff to consider some of the implications of telling the associated story and support the museum to do this in an appropriate way.

The expert’s time is limited to a maximum of three days. The subject specialist signposts resources and helps the teams to develop a research methodology, enabling them to continue with the work beyond the timeframe of the expert’s visits.

A good range of collections are represented. These include a collection of indigenous North American objects, military medals acquired by a private collector, bespoke ceramics manufactured for clients in the Middle East during the late 19th century (see image above) and locks manufactured for use in asylums (see image below).

Lock manufactured for asylum“This project will unlock the skills and knowledge to allow us to tell these stories in a full, ethical and responsible manner. It is our aspiration to be as honest with our visitors as we can be. The methodology will inform our future use of the world cultures collection as a whole and inform future ethical collecting, if that is appropriate.” Museums Worcestershire

The projects are ongoing and the outcomes will be shared at an event in spring 2020. The museums will also share their findings through social media, blogs and case studies on the WMMD website.

Images: Late 19th century bespoke plate made for the Middle Eastern market (courtesy of the Museum of Royal Worcester) and asylum lock (courtesy of Walsall Leather Museum).

This post is based on a presentation Helen Johnson gave at the Collections Trust Conference 2019. For more information please contact Helen by email – helen.johnson@staffordshire.gov.uk – or get in touch via @StaffsMDO or @WM_MuseumDev. You can also find out more about WMMD’s programmes on its website.