Seeing Voices in the Museum

Human beings are incredibly social animals. This manifests itself in a whole host of ways—from our desire to share ideas and conversation, to our tendency to see agency and intention in inanimate objects (‘my computer hates me’), to our ability to form relationships with everything from people, to cats, to cars. If museums are clever, they can make use of this inherent sociability to create some really compelling exhibitions.

This was revealed to me particularly on a recent visit to Manchester Museum, where I was delighted to have a good chunk of time in which to explore the new Living Worlds gallery, which reopened last year. I had been wanting to go ever since seeing the old gallery in 2010 and hearing that the redesign was going to be carried out in association with a fashion design company (catwalk show producers Villa Eugenie). I’d heard good things about the new gallery since it opened, and had been looking for an excuse to travel up to Manchester and see it for myself.

The museum was limited to some extent in what it could do to the gallery, because the wooden-framed cases are listed, and so can’t be removed. But sometimes limitations such as these can force designers to be much more imaginative, which is certainly true here. The thirteen cases cover an eclectic range of themes, from ‘Humans’, to ‘Weather’, and from ‘British Wildlife’, to ‘Domination’, and each case is topped with a very trendy looking neon sign.

The design is, as it darned well should be with a fashion company putting it together, beautiful, imaginative and visually arresting. But what actually struck me was the humanity of the exhibition—it positively seemed to chatter with different voices, and to draw out relationships wherever it could.

As I looked around I quickly noticed that many of the text panels were attributed to named people outside of the museum (fellow museum folks will know it is a sure sign of incurable museum geekery when you start obsessing over museum labels). I’ve come across this approach before, and it seems to be getting more popular (for example at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC). It’s a fantastic thing to do for several reasons. For starters, it takes away the unnamed curatorial ‘voice of God’, which rather dangerously suggests that the museum is an unquestionable authority on everything upon which it speaks. Secondly, in this case at least, it allows the museum to link back to Manchester University, of which it is a part, allowing some of the academics to speak directly on their areas of expertise, and giving them a chance to communicate directly with the public. And thirdly, it allows the labels to be written in the first person, and to convey the real, personal enthusiasm that these people have for their subjects.

But from my perspective, it wasn’t only people who were communicating in the gallery—the animals were doing it too. During my research with children in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, I noticed that the children seemed particularly drawn to animals (models, taxidermy or skeletons) that showed signs of sociability—those which were facing each other, or chasing each other, or which generally looked like they were up to something. I suspect this is our social natures coming out again, that we are inherently more interested in groups of beings (human or otherwise) that look as if they are interacting in some way, rather than those which are neatly lined up and staring at nothing. Our sociable brain wants to know what is going on—do they like each other? Is one going to eat the other? Whose side are we on?

The exhibition designers at Manchester Museum managed to bring out this sociability brilliantly. Groups of animals clustered together in the ‘Connect’ case as if meeting for a councill of beasts, whilst in the ‘Variety of Life’ case, the various mammals and birds seemed to be looking out at the visitors as if it were we, not they, who were on display.

Taxidermy is a weird business, hovering as it does between art and science, and the semblance of life with absolute death. Some might argue that taxidermy specimens are there to study, and emotion should be left out of it, so that lines of skins are more scientifically appropriate than dioramas. But for me, emotional connection is a big part of what makes me want to study. There is a value to helping people to feel connected to these animals, and appealing to our social natures is most definitely an effective way to do this.

By the time I left, (having photographed every case and text panel), I felt hugely impressed by the new display. From the written voices of the experts on the text panels, to the implied voices of the animals, the exhibition genuinely spoke to me. And all of this without making a sound.

See also