The Social History Curator’s Group is a charity that aims to promote and encourage the use of social history in museums and exhibitions. As part of this mission they run an annual conference which I attended this year. The two day event took place in Newcastle, firstly at Beamish Open Air Museum in County Durham and then at Great Museum of the North: Hancock in Newcastle. The theme this year was ‘A True Reflection?’ which seemed pertinent to the work of the Lanchester Interactive Archive.
As a team we try to accurately reflect Fred Lanchester’s life through the archive, warts and all. Whilst acknowledging his genius, we also try to let people know that Fred was also a human being. He did not garner the material success of some of his contemporaries. He was also a product of his time in some of his social attitudes, such as the famous story of his role in sister Biddy’s incarceration in an insane asylum in the 1890s for ‘over-education’. As a team at the Archive we don’t sanitise Fred’s story. History is difficult and we have to learn from it.
This approach seems validated from some of the discussions had on the first day of the conference. Several speakers spoke about how they anticipated some objections from visitors about challenging subject matter, such as the recent exhibition ‘Tales from the City’ at the Museum of Liverpool. In reality the majority of feedback from visitors had been positive. In this politically sensitive time this is encouraging.
Newcastle and Gateshead is currently hosting the Great Exhibition of the North and Caroline McDonald, the Museum Manager at Hancock, gave an engaging and informative keynote on how the team bid and set up this fantastic event which aims to celebrate the North of England. In light of Coventry’s status as City of Culture in 2021 the aims and lessons of the Great Exhibition of the North could prove valuable, particularly around the idea of whether people are seeing themselves in the exhibition.
Ultimately museums are constructs and traditionally curators do not reveal themselves. Should this be the case? With the Lanchester Interactive Archive we are in the process of working with communities to enhance our pop-up exhibitions and digital assets. At the conference there were many examples of museums across the UK co-curating and engaging with communities to ensure that we reflects our visitors in our museums spaces.
At the LIA we have worked with many schools and community groups to put on programmes of events that take Fred’s story and make it relevant to our audiences. This year’s conference validated that approach and showed that Museums have to move forward and innovate in partnership with communities in order to remain relevant.