Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Museum of London: Taking pleasure in the gardens

Dateline: June 29, 2015 (afternoon)
Place: The Museum of London
Time: 1:30 p.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Temperature: 26°C
Song of the afternoon:  Lass of Richmond Hill by Greenwood Muse

Visiting the Museum of London is a natural “second step” in understanding the importance of archaeological records for the City of London as cultural artefacts. While the LAARC records can be used by researchers doing a multitude of projects all over the world, this archive and research centre is part of the Museum’s Department of Archaeological Collections and Archive. Thus, not unexpectedly, key archival materials find their way into museum displays, used by museum staff to tell the city’s story in an informed and scholarly way.

The Museum has a number of permanent galleries as well as special exhibitions. I had time to make my way through the permanent galleries which tell the city’s history chronologically by beginning with “London before London” and ending with Modern London. Given that we could take photographs during our LAARC tour but cannot publish these images, I found it a delight to walk into the first section, which deals with life in the prehistoric Thames Valley and find samples of butchery tools which Kathryn (Creed) had shown us.

 These butchery tools were created in 300,000 BC.

The installation that I enjoyed the most was the remaking of the Vauxhall Gardens, which tells a slice of the cultural story of London in the late 19th century.  The Vauxhall Gardens (“pleasure gardens”) originally opened in the 17th century and were a site of public entertainment (music, clowns, fireworks) until 1859. I was introduced to the gardens in one too many historical novels set in Victorian England, but Vauxhall has been the topic of serious scholarly works as well, such as Vauxhall, Gardens. A History, by David Coke and Alan Borg. 

The exhibit includes posters such as the one below as well as a series of mannequins dressed in mid-Victorian clothing “promenading” through the gardens as Victorians might very well have done on a fine spring or summer evening. 

As Miles points out (2013), the exhibit was created as part of the Galleries of Modern London which she describes as “a dramatic re-representation of the city’s past” designed to engage museum-goers in the changes that have occurred in London, rather than providing yet another “static illustration” of what has happened over time (p. 152).

Miles contends that by using a mixture of presentation techniques, such as a series of photographs, an audio track and dressed figures, a visitor will feel part of the action, rather than merely a spectator. 

As such, the exhibit is a re-making, rather than a “restoration” or “reconstruction” (Miles, 2013, p. 152) and the direct result of historical research. 

As a visitor to an exhibit such as this, I don’t always think about the underlying scholarship (theoretical framework, method and primary research) that goes into making a museum space such as the Vauxhall Gardens come alive. 

However, as a librarian who will be supporting researchers, I understand that I will need to continue to be attentive to how students and faculty frame their projects and use their evidence in a multitude of ways that include, but are not limited to, writing a paper.

Being at least aware of different disciplinary approaches encourages me to be more sensitive to the interdisciplinary nature of various areas of research and thus more insightful in terms of facilitating the information seeking process (e.g., helping students and faculty find information in both expected and unexpected places). 

For example, recently I did a literature review for a Child Studies professor who is planning an exhibit on children's interaction with museums. I needed to think "outside the box" and look in the history literature and the communications literature as well as the child studies literature. 

Coke, D. & Borg, A (2011).   Vauxhall Gardens: A History. New Haven: Published for 
     The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Yale University Press.

Miles, E. (2013). “‘A museum of everything’: Making the Pleasure Gardens inside
     the Museum of London.” The London Journal, 38(2), 151-65.

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