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Volume 1, Issue 3
  • ISSN: 2044-3714
  • E-ISSN: 2044-3722



How many times have we, the museum visitor, stood in front of a display case full of objects and let our eyes glance over them, not really taking in any of them individually? Not understanding why they were grouped as they are, or bothering to read the labels that the curator has painstakingly written and positioned? This is the challenge of temporary (and permanent) exhibitions displays today in our fast moving, social media savvy world. Museum objects have to work hard to be noticed and appreciated. Taking an object out of its ‘natural environment’ is always artificial, even if the museum goes to great lengths to replicate the environment that it would have been used in (e.g. with ‘room sets’). This is particularly the case with functional (and often decorative) objects, like cups and saucers, hosiery, jewellery, barometers, balls of twine or an egg timer. Once they are placed in a case, their use alters. They are elevated far beyond their original function. They become an ‘object’ to be admired, looked at with interest, or with indifference. They have the power to fascinate and inspire. But to do that, they must first be displayed in a way that shows them off advantageously and with interpretation that explains their importance and use without boring or confusing the reader. Add to this an often complex message that the museum wishes to convey to the visitors, and curators really have their work cut out. This was the challenge that I faced when I curated the Enlightenment exhibition at Derby Museums (22 June–25 August 2013). This exhibition was the result of five years of collecting by ourselves, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery and Strutt’s North Mill, Belper. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund Collecting Cultures programme, we collected over 100 eighteenth-century objects to enrich our collections, to develop a better understanding of the Enlightenment period in Derbyshire and to help put the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritages Site into context. So although I and the collections team were in raptures over a plate showing a peculiar looking polar bear and were discussing how this one item could be linked to trade, exploitation, fashion, taste, travel and a fascination with natural history, my challenge was how to display this object so the museum’s visitors were excited by it too.


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