Curiosity and coincidence at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Following my visit to Cotton to Gold, I promised myself to make more of an effort to explore regional museums.

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Assyrian Relief from Nimrud

So on a trip to Bristol I visited Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, and found some surprising collections, which coincidentally also linked to another earlier post.

In addition to an object rich Ancient Egyptian gallery, I was surprised to find Assyrian reliefs from Nimrud. Unlike the British Museum’s Nimrud display, Bristol’s small Assyrian gallery actually details the history of the objects, sadly including a new addition in the form of an A4 sheet detailing IS’s recent actions.

The Natural History galleries have some imposing dinosaur skeletons, including several ‘sea dragons’ (Ichthyosaurs) and the biggest leg I have ever seen (Camarasaurus – twice my height to its hip!) as well as an impressive complete Giant Irish Deer skeleton.

While some of the Natural History displays are showing their age, they are no less charming for it:

Display on the Cretaceous Period, complete with painted sea, chalk cliffs and photos of the White Cliffs and Seven Sisters for context.
Display on the Cretaceous Period, complete with painted sea, chalk cliffs and photos of the White Cliffs and Seven Sisters for context.

Having explored the Natural History galleries, and enjoyed some much-needed cafe time, I found an unexpected treat in the form of the Curiosity gallery on the ground floor. The first part of the surprise was that the museum has a Benin Bronze.

Ancestral head of an oba or king, Benin, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
Ancestral head of an oba or king, Benin, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

A lone head stares out of the case, catching the visitor’s eye as they cross the foyer from entrance to the cafe (or the shop or the toilets) and drawing them into the Curiosity space. I had hoped that in visiting the museum I might find some unexpected and exciting collections. But what really impressed and surprised me was the thoughtful way these collections are displayed.

When I saw that there was a space called Curiosity, I was expecting to find a wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosity-type display.These have had something of a renaissance of late; people seem to have developed a real nostalgia for old-fashioned museums, with lots of ‘exotic’ objects crammed into one space, with little interpretation. I was pleased to find that this gallery of Curiosity is quite the opposite. Taken as a whole it is object rich, but the objects are given room to breath. The curators certainly haven’t sacrificed space for interpretation and the exploration of ideas. The information for the Benin sculpture for example, comes right out and preempts visitors’ questions:

‘Why is there only one object in this case?…Sometimes you only need one object to explain ideas about a society and its people. This sculpture from Benin in West Africa is one of the most important yet controversial objects in the museum.’

The colourful and dynamically arranged text panel then goes on to explain why the object is important, how it came to be in the museum and why this is controversial. There is also a replica sculpture for visitors to touch and examine the technique and materials. This is a great example of a layered interpretation which encourages discussion around issues of collection and display.

Other display cases in the gallery look at themes including human remains, cultural appropriation, identity, the value attributed to objects and which objects should be on display in the museum. Just about all the major issues surrounding museum display, then, presented in a thorough yet concise round up, with fabulous objects to illustrate each theme.

As someone who works in and has studied museums, I found this gallery very interesting. Although the ideas and discussions presented weren’t new to me, it was gratifying to see them fleshed out so well in a real world setting, not a museum studies textbook. For example my studies have taught me that it is considered good practice not to shy away from the controversies of colonial collecting practices and display of the past, but to be open about these problematic aspects of museums, in order to create a dialogue. At the same time the objects in question can be re-displayed and interpreted in ways which are appropriate and respectful to source communities. I was pleasantly surprised to find this here, not necessarily because it is a small museum, but because it is something many museums seem to struggle with, in terms of getting the tone of interpretation right. This is something which the Curiosity gallery does extremely well. While showcasing some of the museum’s treasures, the space also manages to become an exhibition about exhibitions.

I wonder what the gallery means to visitors who may not have thought as much about these issues before? One of the benefits of the layered interpretation is that visitors have the option to not trouble themselves too much with the issues, but can enjoy the beautiful objects on display. If they are interested though, this gallery could serve as an excellent primer for thinking about museum collections in new ways. Since visiting I have found out that the interpretation was designed following public consultation and collaboration – and it shows. This has obviously contributed to the accessible and engaging tone of the displays; they are based on what the public wanted to know about the collections, not what the curators wanted to tell them.

The Curiosity gallery is now 5 years old, and showing a couple of signs of wear and tear in some missing letters, but it feels fresh. For me it was a delight to see that regional museums like Bristol don’t just have fantastic collections, they are doing amazing work to make those collections relevant, exciting, and to engage people with the wider issues around museums and display. This is especially important in today’s climate, where we need people to rally behind their local museums in order to challenge cuts and protect their services. If local museums can effectively engage people with everything museums have to offer they have a much better chance of achieving this.

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