Museums and Archives Workshop at Bowes Museum 26/3/12

On a beautiful sunny day I was heading to the equally beautiful Bowes Museum but sadly to spend a day inside!  A training day was offered by Judith Phillips on working with archives in a museum context.  As a librarian, rather than a museum person, I felt a little like a fraud but I do manage displays in my organisation and I do have significant archive collections as well as object collections.  I got so much out of the day, I’m very glad I went despite not being in the main target audience.

The session which really caught my eye was “Using Archives in Exhibitions” by Viv Vallack, Exhibitions Curator at Bowes.  I must admit that my current displays tend to be a little dull.  In my defence, I’ve never actually been trained in how to do them and graphic design isn’t naturally one of my strong points…  I tend to have three pieces from the archive on a theme and some print outs on standard white printer paper in nice big Arial font about why they’re important.  Not particularly thrilling.

Viv quickly clarified the main problem of using archives in exhibitions : getting people to read them!  Either you need to get people very close to the document, especially if it is of a small size with difficult handwriting, or you need to copy and enlarge the document which means people are no longer viewing the original.  Is the most important thing to display the original or to be able to read it easily?  If you’re lucky you have space for both, and possibly a transcript.

A really useful hint to improve readability was simply to angle the document.  It’s easier to read something on a slight slope.  To achieve this, a cheap and readily available solution is clear acrylic document holders which can be stood up in tall cabinets or laid flat on a slight angle in flatter ones.  Smaller ones can also be used to display labels, and two taped together makes a book support!  I will definitely be investing in some of these.  Viv also recommended Melinex sheets underneath documents if you aren’t sure about the acidity of the case lining and Melinex tape on a roll to hold the pages of books open at the correct place.

I was reassured when Viv declared that there is no such thing as the perfect way to do display labels!  I always worry I’m giving too much information or not enough.   Practical hints like using size 16-18pt text minimum or giving item numbers on little acrylic cubes then a large sloping panel with all the labels at the front were also helpful.

The day also included sessions on “What Are Archives?” by Judith Philips (which made me worry about our current record keeping and archiving within the organisation…) and some case studies of how to use archives with artists and in education.  Amy Longstaff, the Education Officer at Bowes, had some simple yet effective children’s activities like work with coats of arms, spot the difference with old photos and using an actor who plays John Bowes in character with the children.  Documents from the archives have helped support all of these activities and it was interesting to see the range of options available with the time and energy to exploit them.

Many thanks to the Monument Trust for funding Judith’s continued work at Bowes and enabling this training day to happen.

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