The Land of Lost Narratives


There’s a wonderful museum in Craven Arms, Shropshire called The Land of Lost Content. Wonderful, eccentric, frustrating, tantalising, melancholy, funny, amazing, infuriating, fascinating, it fills a former market hall to the rafters with what we sometimes snootily call “ephemera” from the recent past.


The collection…nay…obsession of Stella Mitchell, who appears in order to to greet one from a office buried within the depths of her mountain of stuff, the assemblage of everyday objects is, to a historical archaeologist, a treasure-trove of 20th century material culture. To others it is a palace of nostalgia. To yet others it is “a pile of rubbish” (according to one review on Trip Advisor…very much a minority opinion I have to say).


Stella explains that from her art student days she felt that “other museums were ignoring the lives, experiences and possessions of the ‘ordinary’ people of Britain” and while at art school she created her first small cabinets of curiosities (which, if you look carefully, are still displayed near the entrance). Forty years later the museum, which she calls a “National Museum of British Popular Culture” could be regarded as a vast art installation. It eschews glass cases and labels, and the objects are displayed in 30 or so approximate topic areas identified by paper plates, that reflect the difficulty of dividing everyday life into clear-cut sections. Though Stella has carefully arranged all the artefacts, the overall impression is one of jumble and chaos, which I guess could be said of daily life.


This is a place that is the opposite of a “traditional” museum. There are no descriptive labels, nothing telling us what the object was made from, or when, no Indian Ink numerals surreptitiously applied, no catalogues, no technology, no grumpy custodians (there are “No Photographs” signs, but if you ask nicely…) Because there are no labels, it is left to each visitor to bring his or her own memories to bear in order to provide the objects with narratives. This is both good and bad. It is good because we can feel that our memories and experiences are valued. We aren’t being told what to think, or that nostalgia and sentimentality are bad. We can reminisce and tell stories without feeling guilt or self-conscious. We have to remember in order to play our part in the museum otherwise the objects are dumb. And each object changes from visitor to visitor – we will look at the packets of Daz or Vim and remember different events from our pasts.


But, sadly, people who remember life in the 1930s and 40s are becoming rarer, and everyday possessions from 60 and 70 years ago are beginning to seem as alien as artefacts from ancient Egypt might in a more traditional museum. To a contemporary child, this cornucopia of battered objects must seem very mysterious.


Visitors often share their stories with Stella, but she admits that she can’t remember all of them. A fantastic chance to capture the narratives of everyday life in the recent past is being lost.


For this is a place bursting with memories. And the exciting thing is that those memories are multiplied by the number of visitors who squeeze between the displays. Ironically, even those few who regard the museum as rubbish are experiencing the emotional trigger effect of these bits and pieces from the past.


The museum’s name was inspired by lines from A.E. Housman’s poem A Shropshire Lad. Housman used the word “content” with the stress on the second syllable.

I am going to suggest that the museum, though extraordinary, is an example of lost content with the stress on the first syllable. It is this loss of content, of what objects mean to us as material memories, that is just the sort of challenge that my anti-museum idea is meant to address…


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Museomix and me

Museomix: a mix of people, ideas, creativity and stuff

Museomix at Ironbridge Gorge Museum

I must begin with a bunch of thanks!
Firstly, to my delightful fellow Team 3 members – Emma, Caroline, Kathleen, Laura and Mark – for putting up with me! I thoroughly enjoyed your company, working alongside you and sharing your passion. I hope that we will meet again.

Secondly, to all the organisers of Museomix – you know who you are – for your hard work, energy and enthusiasm.

Thirdly, to all those folks who patiently helped Team 3 and me at various times throughout the event.

 Why museomix?

I wanted to participate in Museomix because it (a) sounded fascinating (b) apparently involved people who were questioning the status quo of museums and museology and who hated blank screens with “out of order” labels stuck to them (c) I might learn what “innovative” means in the museum context (d) I might crib some ideas (e) I might meet some kindred souls and not feel so lonely in my quest to create my topsy-turvy approach to the idea of sharing everyday material culture and its narratives.

 Museums and me

I have always loved museums. My life-long addiction to exploring the past dates from the Saturdays that began when, aged about eight, I was abandoned in Adelaide Museum, South Australia. At that time it was still a traditional Victorian museum, crammed with mahogany cases,  stuffed animals and sleepy custodians. But glassy-eyed, strangely varnished fish, wired-together skeletons and bleached bodies in glass jars just added to a musty atmosphere that seeped into my very being. And one day, wandering randomly amongst its cool, dimly-lit, mostly empty galleries, I discovered a room in which there was a row of skulls of indigenous peoples (this was before the days of sensitivity to such matters) all of which had been trepanned, using a variety of methods, successfully and unsuccessfully. I stared wide-eyed at this quiet collection of pain and anguish, the skulls turned brown from exposure to Australian sun, the Indian ink numbers written where flesh and life once thrummed, the gory illustrations of trepanning, and I was transported into a time before me…

 By the time I was 13 and back in England, my brother and I had created our own museum. I specialised in fossils from the London Clay and the abandoned brickearth and chalk pits near my hometown, and Victorian rubbish dug up from the North Kent marshes, reclaimed during the nineteenth century using garbage from London. I studied for my BSc in zoology at Imperial College, a few steps from the South Kensington museums, which I shared mostly with micro-skirted students from the Royal College of Art. And I painstakingly drew C18th and C19th zoological specimens stored in the long-gone basement museum of the Royal College of Science zoology department.

Throughout my archaeological career I delivered many cardboard boxes filled with bones and pottery to museum storerooms, where they probably have remained, untouched, since. I’ve also worked as a volunteer in museums that ranged from the tiny to the vast.

The museums I’ve always enjoyed most have been those small-town institutions filled with random collections of the everyday, those little museums displaying dusty and often chaotic assemblages of penny-farthing bicycles, typewriters, dolls, stuffed foxes, Roman pottery sherds, Neolithic flints, Hornby clockwork trains, sepia photographs of anonymous people, tattered chairs no longer sittable-on and old bassoons no longer playable, each with a yellowing and curling label either handwritten or typed on a 1928 Remington.

 And then, Museomix

So it was with this mixture of attitudes, enthusiasms and experiences that I came to Museomix, held in the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, Shropshire, a place I’ve been visiting for several decades, and where, truth be told, I have always been slightly more captivated by the great lumps of machinery rusting in the weeds outside the museums than by the exhibits inside them!

Museomix entails a degree of hullabaloo, I guess because we were 60 or so people most of whom hadn’t met before. Also there were cheerful, bouncy French people present. I won’t describe the theory, because that’s done best on the Museomix web site, but in the fashion of “unconferences” the event began with people suggesting projects for which we voted with our feet. At this stage this meant that the brave, the confident and the assertive tended to shine, but I didn’t feel that anyone was majorly put out by this process. In the end I chose a proposal from Emma that exactly mirrored my interest in things, in objects and their stories.

As we began to work as a scratch team the first thing that happened was that the labels that we six had been assigned (user experience, fabricator, graphic designer, communicator, coder, content) immediately broke down. We were all creative types, with experience of at least two if not more of these areas, so our subsequent activities, apart from the rather isolated job of writing code, tended to blur into each other.

We were also all strong, outgoing personalities, willing to state and defend our ideas firmly and sometimes stubbornly. The process of proposal and counter-proposal that followed was a long and at times frustrating one, as we discussed, debated, argued, charged, withdrew, compromised, went down blind alleys, came up against brick walls, had brainwaves, felt stupid, drew diagrams, got excited, got grumpy, went off at tangents, felt twinges of hurt, understood, misunderstood, had fun, got tired… The table was soon covered with overheating technology, scribbled-on paper and crumpled sweet wrappers. There were furrowed brows and there was laughter.

By the end of the first day we seemed to be getting nowhere, either in deciding on a project or in innovation. For me one positive was that I had fallen hopelessly in love with all my fellow team members…well, apart from Mark, for both gender-appropriate reasons and because we had struck up a Tigger (me) and Eeyore (him) relationship, which annoyed us both and probably everyone around us. But by chance I had fallen in with intelligent, inspiring, attractive, imaginative and darling people. With very different backgrounds, we were having to work together without a fixed hierarchy and without a brief, which for me, someone used to being in charge, turned into a very useful learning experience, as how I acted and reacted within this sometimes frustrating dynamic was mirrored back to me. In the end I think we leaned consciously and unconsciously on Emma, the original proposer, to push us in a direction that was going to produce outcomes.

That by the second day we had gelled as a team had a couple of interesting results. Team 3 seemed to be primarily self-sufficient, not giving the coaches much to do, sending out one- or two-person expeditions to request help and advice but mostly just getting on with it. We adopted roles: Emma and Caroline worked on stop-motion animation (using my iPhone), Laura created the sound-track sound, Kathleen worked on content and communication, Mark on code and I on various odds and sods, recording video, taking photos, getting in the way, bouncing up and down, being encouraging and annoying Mark. I seemed to be frenetically busy all the time, though in retrospect I’m not quite sure what I achieved.

But by now we had a plan and a clear goal, and, with help from the technology teams, by the middle of the third day we were able to demonstrate our “prototype.” It didn’t quite do everything we’d hoped for, the Heath Robinson-ish device that Mark was programming worked but not quite in time for the public demonstration, but nevertheless it was an achievement…

And then, all of a sudden, it was over. Perhaps a little too suddenly. One moment we were still (mistakenly) scrabbling to create a video, the next there was a short debrief and then we were packing everything away, saying goodbye and emerging, blinking, into the chilly Shropshire dusk.

The Museomix experience

For me the overall experience was a very positive one. I learned a lot about myself and about the processes, the pros and cons, of brainstorming and collective creativity. I met and spent time with a group of people I came to like and respect and who I’d like to work with again one day. I also learned about the risks of my tendency toward over-enthusiasm and running off with the ball. There were lots of great ideas and examples of inspiration, imagination and ingenuity.

But…sadly, many, perhaps 90 per cent, of the brilliant ideas we had discussed simply evaporated – we didn’t record them. The same probably happened in the other teams. If we conservatively say that we had ten good ideas and that was multiplied by the number of teams, that’s more than 70 great ideas gone down the drain! Perhaps the guides could adopt an idea recording role, a bit like keeping minutes, so that some of those discarded ideas could be retrieved later.

I also regret that we didn’t have enough time or opportunities to get to know more of the other participants with whom the only real discussions I had were, too briefly, in the pub after the event finished, with some exhausted folks who were grabbing a quick drink before catching the train homewards.

I’m also not sure how innovative and/or feasible our prototypes were in the grand order of the museum of the future. Some were perhaps simply updated versions of the little handles I used to turn and buttons I’d press in the Science Museum of the 1960s. Others were digital versions of labels, accessed using tablets or smartphones, technologies that not everyone possesses or that in reality actually work against the user experience (for example it is faster to read a label than to listen to someone reading it or wait around for a video to loop back to the beginning, and technologies are infamous for breaking down). I was however happy that Team 3’s cast iron pot developed a personality, and narrated a story in response to visitor presence. a

But for me the direction of all the projects was ultimately a one way process, from the museum to the visitor. Yes, sometimes the user was given choices, some of them fun choices or choices involving fun new digital technologies, but for me the challenge is to somehow give the visitor the feeling that they are bringing something valuable to the museum experience beyond the entry fee.

I’ll be writing more about how difficult a challenge that is in my next post…

In the meantime, I look forward to my next Museomix…

Something to look forward to

I’ve just heard that I’m going to be taking part in Museomix ( in November (to be held in Ironbridge Gorge Museum 8th-11th November). Because this takes place after the deadline for the initial {Code Creatives} artefact it will provide me with added impetus to continue the development of my ideas. It will also be good to share my thoughts and experiences with other creative and innovative museum-minded people. Very exciting!

Meetings, and progress

Two meetings last week. The first included all those involved in the {Code Creatives} project, (see below) but the second was just me and Ben Lycett, the main man, our coder-in-residence.

I babbled on of course, and showed him some of my ideas, and then Ben calmly (and without patronising me or making me feel inadequate – he after all is steeped in this stuff and I must surely test his patience) reduced my scattered thoughts to a simple flow chart.

I guess that’s why he’s the main man!

Anyway we each finished the meeting with some tasks, and I left energised and motivated…

Here we go!

This morning we {Code Creatives} sat down together to draw breath and check on progress, or lack of it (in my case). My fellow residents talked about their work, which is going well, and has produced concrete interim outputs in the form of drawings and data. Meanwhile my head scratching has produced lots of words and a single sketch.

But all the background thought I’ve put into the project will now (have to) produce results, because (a) I have only ten days free between now and the end of August; (b) I have to spend my huge (only joking) budget by the end of August; (c) we will all be taking part in a week-long workshop event being held in the Art School, Art Lab, during the first week of September, so I have to have something tangible to work with by then; (d) I will be on show during the Art School opening event on 17th October.

We wandered around the brand-new, architecturally pleasing (though empty of students) Art School, identifying spaces that we might use during both Art Lab and the Opening. My favourite was a landing between the fourth and third floors…

Phew! Ten very busy days ahead! To kick them off, I have a meeting with our mentor, Ben, on Wednesday, during which I’ll have to really get down to the digital equivalent of brass tacks!

So the next few blog entries are going to cover my thoughts so far…

Too many typewriters

This project was inspired by a number of different influences.  One was a lifelong interest and tangential involvement in museums, as a visitor, volunteer and storeroom lurker. Another was stumbling across Sven Lindqvist’s philosophy of “dig where you stand,” which explained succinctly something I realised I’d felt for a long time but not been able to put into words. Yet another was my research interest in everyday decorative things, mass-produced knick-knacks, bric-a-brac and the like, which either take a place in museums, or don’t.

Finally, I realised that there existed the phenomenon in museums of the “too many typewriters”. People are constantly offering objects to museums, in this case vintage typewriters, of which they often already possess a large number of examples. Harassed curators are forced to (hopefully politely) reject these donations, sending the crestfallen owners away still lugging their chunk of Underwood iron and steel.  They are judged to be of no value at all to the museum collection, which already has too many typewriters, and would simply add to the crisis of over-stretched storerooms. But to the potential donor the typewriter possesses all sorts of meanings and associations – it belonged perhaps to a recently-deceased loved-one, or they remember a parent or grandparent typing out letters on it, or perhaps it was part of the spirit of a familiar place, an always-there presence on a desk. It was probably a desire to share and celebrate these feelings, and narrative that led to the wish to have the artefact preserved and if possibly displayed. So the object ends up either being sent to landfill or to a charity shop (also likely to have too many), and its story is lost for ever.

What if people could add their object and its stories to a “mega-museum” a museum open to everyone, 24 hours a day, which will never have too many typewriters, no dusty, out-of-bounds storerooms, which has the space and the tools to share everyone’s narratives about the objects they value? Could this digital museum be used by curators to show donors that their everyday possessions are not unimportant, that their grandparents’ typewriter and the stories they remember surrounding it are worth sharing, that their personal material culture is full of meaning? If the object is still discarded,  a tangible memory will nevertheless be preserved. And perhaps the donor will feel that, now that it is an exhibit in a global museum, it has a new and special value.

Hello (museum) world!

It’s the 1st June, my self-appointed kick-off date. With the starting-pistol echoing in my ears I begin four months of frenetic activity, of which this project is only a (largish) fraction.

A digital (anti-)museum

 In April 2013 I was appointed to a student residency in the Designing Our Futures {CODE Creatives} initiative, which, supported by Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design (MIRIAD) and PARC Northwest, aims to create “an open network of creative collaborators who operate ‘beyond the limits’ of conventional software, exposing new audiences to public facing code-based research.”

My over-ambitious, lofty and naïve goal for my (anti-)museum project (working title), is to create a digital artefact — a “virtual museum” — the crowd-sourced galleries of which would be accessible by everyone. My deadline is October 2013. This blogwill report on my experience in attempting to meet that deadline, which is timed to coincide with the grand opening of Manchester School of Art’s new building.

We all curate narratives that illuminate our everyday lives. Many of those narratives relate to objects. However museums-within-walls are historically descended from the collections of elites, can rarely display more than a fraction of their accessioned collections and are by definition fixed in one place (so have to be visited)

I visualise a simple-to-use digital museum to which everyone might contribute both exhibits and, most importantly, their accompanying narratives and through which everyone could browse and search. Using digital tools the “visitor,” wherever they are in the world, would explore within the museum for objects and their stories, and assemble and create personalised exhibitions that match their individual interests.

The {CODE Creatives} brief was to focus initially on a “technology gallery” that would share, explore and display technologies that we have valued, used and experienced together with our stories of our relationships with them. So my digital artefact, whatever that will eventually be, will use that as a central idea. However, because my PhD research is looking at other objects, I’m intending to create something that will be applicable to that field of research as well as many others.

I also see my (anti-)museum as offering a resource to museums that so often have to reject, politely but sometimes hurtfully, the donations of objects that, though not of interest to the curators for entirely justifiable reasons, are hugely important to the potential donors.

Because access to online digital  resources isn’t universal (indeed it could be argued that a significant proportion of those interested in sharing their narratives might be members of generations where online activity is minimal, although I’m going to attempt to leap that hurdle) I also aim to create something that can be accessible in other ways.