afternoon, v4

Hans Sloane the art collector

A huge thank you to Isabel at the British Museum Department of Prints & Drawings for hosting a visit today. George II, Harriet and I were very lucky to see some pieces from Hans Sloane’s own collection and it was magic.

Sloane wasn’t just a natural history collector, but had quite the eye for art as well. Apparently there were some 144 Albrecht Dürer prints in that first bequest. We saw one of his drawings today, a study for his later Adam and Eve.

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Isabel is pointing at a set of three different cataloguing systems’ marks in that picture. And each work’s mount is also embossed with the Sloane mark and catalogue reference.

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We were also very excited to see a bound folio of natural history prints, some (if not all?) printed on vellum, and they were so colourful and detailed. Also noted the little British Museum stamps on each one which, while somewhat understandable, seems a bit cheeky.

The space itself, the Prints & Drawings Study Room is beautiful. No pens allowed, and lots of people looking at interesting things. Anyone can do this, provided you have something specific you’d like to see and have made an appointment.

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We’re circling our next few visits to try to see more of Sloane’s collection, and also to hopefully start to trace what he might have acquired as he lived at 4 Bloomsbury Place. It would be brilliant if the display might reflect that sort of history. Could we show things that crossed the threshold in something like the order they actually might have?

afternoon, v4

Proper Historians

Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting two Proper Historians, Ian Foster and Lisa Smith. They both came for a visit to Bloomsbury Place, and it was brilliant to listen to them and bat about ideas for the Small Museum of Hans Sloane.

Ian’s knowledge about Hans Sloane is deep and broad. After studying Sloane for about 12 years, his acumen reaches from Sloane to Jamaica to the Royal Society to London of the period generally to Chelsea to Bloomsbury and back around again. Sloane is such a multi-faceted character, you turn over one leaf and you find ten years of research to do!

Lisa has focussed on Sloane’s medical correspondence primarily and for even longer (since the 90s), but it’s obvious that this work also reveals endless stories about who Sloane met and when, and his position and networks in London and further afield. We wandered upstairs at Bloomsbury Place and were chatting about how there were probably live exotic animals like Arctic Foxes wandering about!

I’m very curious to see how we might be able to paint a picture of what the house was like when Sloane and his family (and his massive collection!) lived here. We had the idea that the Small Museum could respond or echo the actual chronology we might be able to reconstruct. So, in April 2017, you might see who visited or what was brought in in 1697, two years after he moved in.

The other thing I learned meeting Ian and Lisa was that there is SHEDLOADS of material to work with, and that could possibly translate to something completely untenable! But, there was great excitement and interest, so that’s enough energy to keep moving with for now.

Next steps:

  1. Make a simple proposal for Bedford Estates
  2. Go and visit Prints and Drawings at the British Museum to view some Sloane bits
  3. Say hello at the British Library to find out about their Sloane-related activities
  4. Move heaven and earth to visit the Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum
  5. Take a field trip to the Chelsea Physick Garden
afternoon, start, v4

The Small Museum V4

Perhaps if I start writing about it, it will happen.

As you may have heard, my company has found a great little studio in Bloomsbury. The crazy part is that it’s at 4 Bloomsbury Place. That address is significant because it was owned at one time by Sir Hans Sloane, whose brilliant library and natural history collection was bequeathed to the British Museum upon his death in 1753.

I find this hugely inspiring.

Today, the foyer is the epitome of 80s utility, replete with terrible hotel-style art, and if you look closely you can see that the “art” is two copies of the same two terrible pieces.

Imagine the walls covered with things from Sloane’s collections, or letters he may have written here, or specimens from his amazing natural history bits and pieces. That would be better. If you have a look at the things he bequeathed to the British Museum, it’s a rich, colourful, informative, beautiful selection of all sorts of things.


I love that he let people come to visit, and have enjoyed reading various accounts in a handy book called The British Museum: a case-study in architectural politics.

Sloane’s private museum began as a collection of botanical specimens which he brought back from France and the West Indies. John Evelyn noted in his Diary for 16 April 1691:

I went to see Dr. Sloane’s curiosities, being an universal collection of the natural productions of Jamaica, consisting of plants, fruits, corals, minerals, stones, earth, animals and insects, collected with great judgement; several folios of dried plants, and one which had about eighty, several sorts of ferns, and another of grasses; the Jamaican pepper, in branch, leaves, flower, fruit etc.

Even though the idea has been floating about since we moved here in March, I’m calling yesterday Day 1. I went to the National Archives in Kew to start my search to find records about him, and found an ‘office copy’ of Sloane’s will. It’s a bit hard to read, but I’m looking forward to ‘getting my eye in’ as the enquiry desk helper assured me I’ll be able to. I’ll post a transcript if/when I have one. My quick searches there suggest I should go to the London Metropolitan Archives, the Historic England Archive, and the Chelsea Physic Garden.

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Another interesting element about Sloane’s collection is that it’s now dispersed across London. There are bits in the British Museum, the British Library, Natural History Museum, Chelsea Physic Garden, and places I haven’t discovered yet. I’d love it if our foyer could bring some of those bits and pieces back to where they were together, once.

I’ve also discovered that, of course, someone else is interested in Sloane, and has been researching him deeply for years. Lisa Smith, a historian, has been documenting and writing about him on Sloan Letters for some time, focused around his correspondence with his patients. It’ll be good to meet, and hopefully, collaborate.

Does this sound interesting? How could we do it well? Would you like to help?

I guess I should ask the landlord, whose ancestor Bedford probably knew Mr. Sloane.

afternoon, thoughts

The Small Museum V2

Last weekend, I joined in the fun at the BBC HomeLab Kitchen held at the MozFest 2015 event at Ravensbourne in Greenwich. I was invited by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, who was programming the kitchen. She asked if I would construct a “last minute museum” to reflect what had happened in the preceding two days, where last minute was just that, revealing the museum display (and its ideas) to a group at around 5pm on the Sunday to whoever was there, and with prosecco. (Prosecco is excellent presentation bait, by the way.)

All in all, I found the experience of attending and participating in an event to record and report on it good fun and a bit odd. I participated in a couple of the workshops on the Saturday, and listened to what I think was the best session on Sunday – a panel with an architect, a professor and a designer discussing kitchen design and its place in constructing female reality.

Here’s what the space looked like:

Mozfest Homelab Kitchen

Mozfest Homelab Kitchen

Themes for the Last Minute Good Home Kitchen Museum

1. Technology vs Reality

It was especially clear from a couple of the workshops that what’s technically possible with an arduino, a pliable api and a willing participant is often a long way from the reality of the kitchen as a space.

Mozfest Homelab Kitchen

The kitchens I know and love are often a bit of a mess, full of steam and delicious smells, covered in dishes at their cooking heights, and perhaps most importantly, where people congregate, especially at parties. Yet the kitchens we see in work like Corning’s A Day Made of Glass shows a pristine environment that evokes a similar sense as a building that’s designed to never be lived in. The glass/chrome/clean/clinical tech thing just doesn’t gel with a real kitchen. For me, at least.

It was here that I invoked the power of Julia Child, as my talisman of woman expert, a powerful cook, and fully in charge of her domain. I drew upon her kitchen design, now part of the Smithsonian’s collection, as a direct and deliberate design made literally just to fit her. The distance from there to a day made of glass is great.

Anab Jain, a designer and panellist on day two, suggested to the group that we need to look across cultures and families to understand the flow and rhythms of a kitchen and design for it accordingly. She spoke of the dearth of communal food preparation, and its replacement by fast food and isolation.

It also struck me that this XYZ vs. Reality theme is echoed in the work we did at The Small Museum V1, on our day working with Nandi, the lonely steed of Shiva. We made an installation to try to reveal how Nandi lives in the real world (surrounded by people, food, smoke, prayers, colour, flowers, food), and contrast that with his position in the British Museum, in a stark cold blue room off The Great Court.

2. Woman as audience of kitchen

Active male, passive female

Active male, passive female

I knew as soon as Alex approached me that I wanted to incorporate kitchen infomercials somehow. You know the ones, where women are struggling at the start of the commercial with some simple or mundane task like putting utensils away, only to be saved by characters like Chef Tony and his amazing widget. Every infomerical I watched has a woman “host” quite passively listening to a male chef or other saviour who’s here to rescue here from her inability to operate her kitchen.

Julia Child’s strength and excellence was also a useful contrast to this dynamic, and I found this excellent picture of her holding a huge fish and smiling.

Julia Child and Fish

There’s a lot more to this than just that. This idea that women are often the audience to technological wizardry bears further thought.

And now, The Small Museum V2 lives in a single manila folder, this blog post, and two separate Flickr accounts (mine and Peter’s). There may also be other photographs of it (because I saw people take some), but I have no idea where they might be. I incorporated some quotes I gathered as I witnessed the event, and I had collected lots of workshop detritus, including the “Buddhist Carpenter’s Co-operative” emblem. I also kept back a plate and fork (and a bit of cake) from Saturday’s afternoon tea. I’d stashed it away, and popped a sign up that asked it not be removed, but on Sunday, it was gone! (Either that’s my first museum theft, or someone just did a good job of cleaning up overnight.)

Here’s what the display ended up being, a lot of paper and printouts and sticky tape and post-its and sharpie labels, laid out on a table in the space:


The final museum display

Along with Alexandra, the event was hosted by Peter Bihr and we were also joined by Marcel and Harm from The Incredible Machine, who co-wrote the new IoT Design Manifesto. The museum more or less culminated in a point of view, which was to suggest one addition to the manifesto, given the thinking and absorbing of the ethically centered conversations from the previous two days: to keep liberating women as we continue to develop IoT and other technologies.

Upon reflection, making this last minute museum was a lot like the early stages of designing something. It was a bunch of listening and collecting, and then re-presenting what I’d heard synthesised into some strong concepts. Roll on, V3!

afternoon, morning, reading

Music To My Ears

(I should say first that I haven’t forgotten about our Prima Facie write-ups for The Small Museum V1. I really didn’t think through how much effort it would be to take on the format we chose. Perhaps I’ll change it a bit so I can write about everything that’s left before the memory fades!)

I’ve been trying to find examples of Asian museums doing open data-y work because I’m giving a keynote at Museums and The Web Asia in Melbourne this year, and want to build some background. (If you know of any, please let me know!) There I was, futzing about looking over Google results for “china open access museum”. Sort of a ludicrous search in some ways, but, it helped me find the amazing Museological Review, a journal out of the University of Leicester. I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of. I’m sure you have. If you haven’t, go and read it immediately.

As I was browsing past issues, I stumbled on Do It Yourself (DIY) Museums: Study on Small Museums in Estonia and the People Behind Them by Liisi Taimre (PDF). It’s an article about the author’s interviews with the people running (and often funding) their own small museums in the Harju County region of Estonia. Three main notable points emerged for me:

1. The creation of new museums in Estonia was connected to the emerging national identity. 

“Many of today’s small museums were founded in the 1980s. It was a time when the Soviet Union began to collapse and for the first time in 50 years people had the possibility to speak publicly about their past and heritage and interpret it freely. All over the country, different kinds of village societies, heritage organisations and museums were formed… The second wave of small museums and other local institutions began to emerge in 2000. It can be seen as a sign of the developing citizen society.”

2. Small museums are special because they allow personal contact.

The presentation of one’s personal worldview is a good starting point for making contact with a visitor. In DIY museums the head of the museum, curator, collection manager, guide and warden is often the same person. As real enthusiasts, they love explaining how their exhibitions are compiled, how their museum functions and telling additional stories about the exhibition.

(We definitely witnessed this at The Small Museum V1 in Somerset House. It was great fun.)

3. I’ve discovered Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, and her essay, The Museum – a Refuge for Utopian Thought (PDF)

It’s possibly unnatural how well this essay is resonating with me. It’s exciting to gradually discover the academic and intellectual thinking about what museum means, and a lot of the points she raises about utopian thinking, art and museum sit in the centre of what I want to be making.

Museums are important here, first, because those with long histories and old collections are in a good position to illuminate the history of “how intellectual work is saturated with moral, emotional and aesthetic elements at a collective, and not just biographical level.” Museums are not only instruments for the shaping of sensibility, as Tony Bennett and others have argued, but also their collections hold within them a history of sensibilities, their rise, demise, and potential for recuperation. How might an older constellation of wonder, curiosity, and intense attention animate the museum as a contemporary utopian laboratory? This is an invitation to find the utopian potential of the museum not only in the achievements of the past, but also in its history as a materialized subjunctive space. It is in the museum’s capacity to provoke and sustain speculation, reflection, retrospection, prospection, whether reasoned or dreamed, that its utopian possibilities lie.

I feel like I need to find a home for this work, a place. I’m working on it.

There’s this idea of “object as witness,” where objects can reflect some kind of evidence of the world around them. Ms. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s essay made me want to create or represent A Curious Object, one that was looking for evidence and reflections of itself, in particular, on the web. I love the challenge she leaves us with:

How does the museum, despite its best efforts to create certainty, produce unpredictability? Through fragmentation, aggregration, selection, juxtaposition, connection, contrast, excess, and confusion.

Now I’m off to read another of her essays, From Ethnology to Heritage: The Role of the Museum (PDF).


Report from our first Visiting Researcher, Thalia Neilson

We’re in the throes of developing a Visiting Researcher programme at The Small Museum, and we’ve asked our very first visiting researcher, Thalia Neilson, to write about her own research and how it compares with the developing practice here. Thalia visited with us from Dublin in July. Thanks to Ross Parry at the University of Leicester for the connection, and if you’re interested in becoming a visiting researcher, please stay tuned as we flesh out the programme.

I’m Thalia, a soon-to-be graduate of Museum Studies. I connected with George Oates and the Small Museum whilst working on my dissertation, when my supervisor pointed out the similarities between the Small Museum and museum I was focusing on – the Little Museum of Dublin. Aside from their names, the two museums have a lot common! They are both exploring new ways of doing things, and were both set up by non-museum professionals. My dissertation explores whether the Little Museum of Dublin represents an alternative model for Irish museums. Essentially, I wanted to put a finger on what exactly the Little Museum does that sets it apart from other museums, and ultimately makes it so successful. (And it has definitely been successful – since its opening, the Little Museum has enjoyed an excellent reputation in both national and international media, having been named “Dublin’s Best Museum Experience” by the Irish Times, and its ‘City of a Thousand Welcomes’ greeter programme (used by some 1,500 first-time visitors to Ireland each year) being described as the “best free thing to do in Europe” by the Sydney Morning Herald. Additionally, the Little Museum is currently ranked at number ten (out of 608) in the TripAdvisor list of the top attractions in Dublin, and at number five (out of seventy-seven) in the list of the top museums in Dublin.) So, without further ado, in this post I write about some aspects of what I have learned, and suggest ways in which this could perhaps be applied to the Small Museum initiative, or indeed small museums in general.

The first thing that struck me about the Little Museum was the fact that it was set up by two non-museum professionals – much like the Small Museum! The Director, Trevor White, is a published author and founder of the Dubliner Magazine, while Simon O’Connor, Curator, is a composer and award-winning designer, and has worked in the arts and creative industries for over fifteen years. It could be argued that not coming from a museum background has been one of the biggest factors in the Little Museum coming to represent such an alternative model for Irish museums. Being from ‘outside’ the museum sector allows you to think outside the box, something that should be embraced fully. You can look at the situation with fresh eyes, as well as having the freedom to break traditional conventions.

When founding the Little Museum, Trevor and Simon considered the ways in which they could be different to other museums in Dublin and Ireland. They noticed that most had small handling collections, provided private reading experiences, contained rare objects, and had disinterested staff. Noting these aspects, and wanting to stand out, they planned that they would have a large handling collection, provide social vocal experiences, focus on material and social rather than elite cultural history, and have the ‘friendliest museum staff in the world’. The museum, then, encourages its visitors to become contributors rather than passive audience members or ‘consumers’. Traditional narratives have been rejected in favour of person, intimate stories of everyday Dubliners from all walks of life.

The Little Museum has a strong focus on cooperation, co-creation, and community. The launch of the museum was facilitated in a large part by a public appeal for the donation of historic objects. Due to the generosity of the people of Dublin, the museum grew from idea into reality in less than a year; the public appeal went out in April 2011, and by October of the same year the museum opened its doors to the public. Approximately 75% of the museum’s collection is made up of public donations. The ability to co-create to this extent is, perhaps, something that is unique to small museums in terms of feasibility. It is also something that should be taken full advantage of. Being able to create your museum so closely with the people you want to reach is something very special.

The Little Museum also approaches its finances in an alternative way – at least within the Irish context. The museum is funded through a number of channels, and has diversified the risks and moved away from relying upon funding from government sources. 50% of its income comes from self-generated revenue from admissions, private hire, and other sources; 40% is derived from a range of corporate sponsorships and partnerships; and 10% comes from the Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht. With regards to corporate sponsorships, over time the Little Museum has formed strategic partnerships with a number of varied sponsors and local businesses. This is important – especially partnerships with local businesses. The Little Museum specifically focused on developing its relationships with key organisations and amenities within the city of Dublin. As such, the museum has also formed partnerships with Dublin Sightseeing Tours and Luas Cross City (the Dublin tram service). Such partnerships have been vital in highlighting the role that the museum plays in the city, as well as offering direct benefits for both the museum and the companies involved. Again, small museums have an advantage over larger museums here – they cost less to run, and so it is perhaps easier to establish business partnerships!

There is so much more that I could write here – but I get the feeling this post is plenty long enough already! I will finish up by pointing out one of the main similarities between the Little Museum and the Small Museum, and that is that the two are entities that are constantly evolving and determining what works or does not work. This fluidity in function seems, to me, to be one of the most important factors in establishing a successful small museum. What will be interesting is to see whether this fluid and adaptive approach will endure as the two museums become more established. For the Little Museum, four years on, this approach shows no signs of slowing and continues to bring success. I am very much looking forward to seeing the wonderful things that the Small Museum achieves in the future!