Category Archives: Objects

Honesty and illusion in museums

Twitter is brilliant for finding out about really interesting stuff you may otherwise have missed. In the last couple of weeks, to really interesting examples of museum NS displays have been brought to my attention.

The first, from Elee Kirk (@eleekirk) via @RachelCockett

The Opposite of Taxidermy

So in this display in the Exploratorium in California they have decided to take the most realistic view of the decay process possible. Namely, they’ve shoved some dead animals in a tank and left them to rot. This is brilliant.

I’m a great believer that there is nothing wrong with being honest about death. Throughout human history we have sheltered ourselves from the reality of death, and constructed all kinds of myths to try and deny the finality of it. So confronting it, tackling it head-on, is very honest.

I love taxidermy (good and bad), but it’s fake. It’s creating an afterlife, using the illusion of life. The best taxidermists are extraordinarily skilled. But it’s dishonest (not in a bad way). The “Is it real?” question comes about because of that slight-of-hand that taxidermy displays. I wonder if anyone looking at this display would ask the same question?

They might well do, but it would be with a very different tone. It would be in grim certainty of the answer, not as any kind of philosophical pondering.

I worry that no museum in the UK would risk doing this (and I really hope at this point I’m corrected in the comments). There is an inherent conservatism in much of our psyche, and we’d surely shy away from it in the name of protecting children. But in my experience, kids are fascinated when they find dead animals. It’s adults who are really freaked out by death and decay, possibly because they have a greater awareness of their own mortality, and find it an uncomfortable reminder.

I did find an old story that suggested the Science Museum wanted to do this with a human body. I think, as long as all consents were in place and the display was controlled and optional, this is a fascinating thing to do. But I don’t think it ever happened. Maybe they are still pursuing it?

The Honest Label

The second thing I wanted to share has been so widely circulated via Twitter and email that I really can’t credit it to anyone. It seems to be described as a label from an unknown museum, although the HMNH tag clearly indicates the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

The label reads:

“This object has been temporarily removed as we revise its facial expression, which was deemed zoologically improbable and/or terrifying to small children”

I do so want to believe this is genuine, and may try track down the source to confirm it. I have to say though, I worry it’s actually a conscious installation, rather than a true attempt at honesty in natural history displays. There’s an underlying truth though, in that old taxidermy was often displayed in such a way as to indicate the brutal and savage nature of the living world. this is of course at odds with the perfectly peaceful way most animals conduct themselves 99% of the time. All those snarling wolves, bears, apes, etc are far more likely to look pretty serene should you ever see them in the wild. But there was a storyline to maintain, and so displays had to serve that.


I think both of these images talk about the honesty of museum displays. In no way am I suggesting there is a wilful, negative dishonesty in museum displays. But I think we do engage in illusion. I’m fascinated to hear what people think.



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Living Worlds

Guest blogger James writes…

I am on work experience from school and was asked to do a blog on the new exhibition in the Manchester Museum, Living Worlds, after having a look round for the first time.

I thought the way the information was scripted using personal pronouns was very good and made me feel more engaged with the gallery. I also thought that the way the specimens were grouped was interesting and that they gave me a new perspective on how I saw some of the animals; for instance the wild goat that was wearing a jumper, or the jackal that was standing in a box. Some of the exhibits were presented in unique ways as well which intrigued, and kept me interested.

I think the idea of using the tablet PCs to get information is good as long as you still provide the booklets as an alternative way of getting the information because people don’t want to ask a member of staff for information every time they go to a new cabinet*. Some of the cabinets such as Peace, Life, and Disaster seemed empty and a bit dull whereas some displays like the Variety of Life seemed very full. I also thought that some of the titles seemed a bit abstract and didn’t make much sense, such as the Domination display and Connect.

I thought that some of the backdrops used in the displays were relevant and sometimes helped to explain what the cabinets were about. But the sections didn’t seem to link with each other and some things seemed a bit random like the Old Billy (the skull of a horse that had worked on the canal). I thought the way the new displays contrasted with the old building was good but there was a big empty space in the centre of the room which could be filled with something. The information books could also have been a bit more obvious because I didn’t even realise they were there until I reached the last display.





In conclusion, my overall experience of the gallery was intriguing and informative; I thought the way the exhibits were displayed and grouped was new and unique and the way the information was presented was also different. However, I thought some of the displays seemed a bit empty and didn’t really link with the displays on either side of them.

* NB the programme on the tablets is available for download to smartphones

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At the Wellcome…


At the Wellcome Collection in London the other week I was stopped in my tracks by three Japanese wood panels depicting botanical specimens.  The panels are made from the wood and framed in the bark of the trees represented: Chusan palm, Japanese persimmon and Asian pear.  They were on loan from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The display is part of a collaboration between five London museums (Horniman Museum; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Natural History Museum; Science Museum and the Wellcome Collection).  Each museum has chosen an object or group of objects which has never been displayed before.  Each object is displayed in each institution for six weeks and its ‘story’ is written by an expert from each of the institutions.  The stories are printed in a little booklet you can take away.  The point of the exercise, I think, is to show the different stories that are told by different people in different institutions about the same object.  An approach which is close to the heart of New Light on Old Bones.

In fact each story is told from an interdisciplinary perspective which suggests that it is far too simple to suggest that scientists think in one way and artists in another.

What would be fun is to print the stories without their originating institution and see if we can decide their origin simply from analysing the content. I suspect we wouldn’t be able to.  Now there’s a challenge for someone.


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Museums, nature and the five ways to well-being

I’m hoping by this point you are all well aware of the Five Ways to Well-being:

They are:

  1. Connect
  2. Be Active
  3. Take notice
  4. Keep learning
  5. Give

It occurs to me, a museum, working with a conservation body, a local nature reserve, a local neglected green space, can easily meet all five in one activity. So how would that work?

Imagine a project where a group of new volunteers got together to learn about the flora and fauna of the reserve, before doing some work improving the environment there. Does that meet all five?

  1. To start with, you are meeting lots of new people in a social way, so we certainly CONNECT
  2. If you are then out digging, planting, cleaning spaces, walking around the reserve, you will certainly BE ACTIVE
  3. It’s also obvious, if you are thinking about making that environment more suited to wildlife, you must TAKE NOTICE of what is and isn’t working there
  4. Similarly, you are being taught what to plant, what environments are right for what animals, what animals and plants you will be seeing. So you KEEP LEARNING
  5. Finally, you are a volunteer. You are providing your time for free, to benefit your local community. That sounds like GIVING to me.

It’s such a simple and easy link for museums to make. The collections and expertise in the building lend themselves to that social learning side, and by engaging in the wider community you show your relevance. So let’s get on with it!

You should also read up on Green Exercise:


David Craven

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Health Rocks at The Manchester Museum

Hello I’m David Gelsthorpe, the Curator of Earth Science Collections at The Manchester Museum. I’ve been asked to tell you a bit about the great project we’ve been involved in with START called Health Rocks.

Wendy Teal and START approached us to see if we’d like to work on a project using fossils, rocks and minerals to help promote mental health and wellbeing. We naturally jumped at the chance, any excuse to use the collection in new and exciting ways!

Fossil sea floor, 430 million years old

Over a series of workshops we showed the participants some of our favourite objects. These were then used as inspiration for artworks and creative writing. I love these activities as they really open your mind to looking at beautiful shapes and colours.

A selection of activities have been pulled together in a gallery trail and display in the fossils gallery.

Health Rocks: amber and artwork

It was really inspiring what difference the project made to the participants.

I’m delighted to say we are currently working on a new web-based project on mental health and wellbeing which will include a virtual museum… watch this space!

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Say it with…

Leisa Gray, Community Development Manager for Manchester Art Gallery writes…

Say it with was an arts and well-being course with the theme of Flowers. It ran for 12 weekly sessions and involved participants from Start Manchester (part of Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust) and Out in the City (an LGBT support group for older adults run by Age Concern).

Paintings and ceramic tiles from Manchester Art Gallery’s collection were used for inspiration and the group took part in 2 sessions at Manchester Museum’s Herbarium, where they looked at botanical specimens and spoke with the Curator of Botany about the medicinal properties of flowers.

Whilst at the Herbarium people worked with a visual artist, who led them in drawing and painting activities, using the collections as the basis for still life studies.  They also worked with a poet who helped people write their own poems in response to collections, using a variety of poetry techniques, one of which involved using botany books at the Herbarium to “steal” bits of text and then re-work it.

The Occupational Therapist from Start was involved and led participants in “mindfulness” exercises that helped them to really look at plants and flowers. I think this practice relates well to museum and gallery collections which can draw people in to focus on one object or exhibit.  Practising noticing or “seeing the world anew” is something that is recognised as beneficial to mental wellbeing (is listed as one of the NEF’s 5 ways to wellbeing) and I think those of us working with collections could make more of this idea when working with health partners.

There was a lot packed in to Say it with, which at times was challenging for participants and facilitators, but overall the diversity of techniques, plus the different venues seemed to contribute to people’s overall experience and enjoyment of it.  Participants loved visiting the Herbarium and talked about it with a sense of privilege as though they were being given access to a secret world.

The decision to create a mixed group of mental health service users and non-mental health service users was a deliberate attempt to offer an art course that was also a social opportunity, particularly for those who might feel anxious in social situations. Start feel this approach can help their students move from the healthcare setting towards mainstream opportunities and overcome fears around meeting and interacting with new people. For the Gallery working in this way represented an opportunity to offer an in-depth learning experience to a wider audience.

Everyone made a ceramic plaque featuring an impressed flower image alongside a poem about that flower.  These artworks directly referenced the pressed pages of botanical specimens that people had seen at the Herbarium.  They were displayed as one installation at the gallery.  Working towards a display of work helped unite the group and for some it created a “positive pressure”. Those involved gained an understanding of the artistic process, seeing ideas explored, developed and captured as a tangible finished product. This helped people develop skills, but also gave insight into the idea that working at something, stage by stage, makes transformation possible. This understanding is in itself a skill that can be made use of in other areas of life.

The Warwick – Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (WEMWBS)6, which is used for assessing positive mental health was used at the start and at the end of the course. 10 out of 12 participants completed both and comparing their average scores showed a 16% improvement in well-being.

Say it with left participants feeling they had achieved something positive and had been invested in. It helped them feel more at home in the gallery, gave them a range of transferable skills and expanded their social horizons. It encouraged people to connect with others, keep learning and take notice of the world around them. It provides a positive example of how culture and creativity can enrich lives; help people feel good and less socially marginalised.

“I was really nervous and quiet at the beginning, but as time went on I felt more confident and I’ve enjoyed it a lot.”

“I felt energised by being in good company.”

“My confidence and self esteem have improved and I’m proud of what we’ve done.”

“I now can appreciate a little more how intricate the process of getting to a finished product is. I hadn’t realised how much patience I possessed!”

“We’ve been given some extraordinary opportunities to experiment with a wide range of techniques and ideas.”

“My ability to manipulate art and materials means that I can make things change.”

 “I know I look at plants differently now.”

“I intend to do more creative writing and visit more art venues and look at art in a different way.”

– participant comments

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Can Collections Cure?

Wendy Teall, Start, Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust writes…

In our busy lives, visiting a museum or gallery can give us a breathing space in which curiosity, delight and wonder can take shape. Yet it seems  only recently that this sector has come to notice the therapeutic potential of its own practice.

This surprises me. Beautiful and interesting objects, the natural world, history and culture are obvious sources of mental health to me, but then I’m a mental health worker. In the past, I believe there was a disconnection between cultural institutions and their audiences; that the collections were the raison d’etre and visitors came to view them on the museum’s or gallery’s own terms.

But in our times, this outlook is shifting. Of course, galleries and museums are keen to impart learning, and they know that their spaces are viewed as restorative by some, but there is now a real and growing desire to understand how collections can contribute to wellbeing.

However, the cultural sector cannot undertake this journey alone, because they don’t have sufficient skills and knowledge as yet, so it makes sense to turn to partnerships. These might be hard to find, as the report from Renaissance North West relates (Who Cares? Museums, Health and Wellbeing 2011) – not all partnerships work, and not all have the right skills mix.

In Manchester we are lucky to have a cultural sector that seekshelp with wellbeing agendas and a specialist NHS service that can provide guidance. Start, the NHS service I manage, enables people to use arts and cultural activities specifically to build wellbeing, stress resilience and self-help skills. Our team is part of Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust, and  over the last 10 years we have worked in partnership with galleries and museums across the city  and the wider region to promote wellbeing connections.

Recently, Manchester Museum invited us to partner with them to put wellbeing on their museum map. We chose to use their fabulous minerals and fossils displays as our inspiration, and designed a project called Health Rocks. The project involved a mixed media arts course for the public based around this collection, which included art, observation, mindfulness* and natural history, and each participant produced a hand-made book of artwork that went on display in the minerals gallery. We also developed a wellbeing trail leaflet (©Start and Manchester Art Gallery) full of exercises that connect visitors in a unique way with the fossils and minerals. This is now in use at the museum and you can read more about it at where you can also download the wellbeing trail and watch Youtube films about the project.

Most excitingly, the Museum is now supporting Start to develop a virtual fossils and minerals wellbeing museum online, which will form part of a brand new website called Start2.

Start2 will be launched later this year and is designed to help people reconnect to their creative inner selves and build healthy, positive outlooks at the same time. Commissioned by the Department of Health, the site will offer interactive and downloadable activities including animation, music, creative writing and practical art.

The virtual museum will house 360 degree images of fossil and mineral samples with which visitors can interact, they can listen to curators’ talks, try art, music, creative writing and mindfulness exercises and build enthusiasm to visit real museums as a result.

Finding wellbeing connections in everyday life and the world around us is what this project is all about. Can collections cure? Maybe not, but if we work with them imaginatively, they can certainly help.

*Mindfulness, based on Buddhist meditation techniques, involves using the senses to develop an awareness of the present moment, as well as taking a non-evaluative and non-judgmental approach to your inner experience.

Read more about Start at

Read more about Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust at

Read more about five simple ways to help wellbeing at


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