The Scottish Open Palace Programme

The Scottish Open Palace Programme (28th April – 17th May)

For my annual break this year, I chose an excursion that was less of a holiday and more of an educational tour. Although my brain did not get to relax, the change of scene to the lochs and castles of Scotland was very refreshing in itself. 

For those of you who have not heard of the Open Palace Programme here goes my attempt at an explanation: It is a programme designed to give heritage professionals a chance to truly experience how heritage, of all forms, is managed and functions, in a country very different to their own. It is targeted at people based beyond the UK and it works to forge wonderful relationships between the participants so they not only learn from the people running the course, but also from each other. 

My 2019 intake for the Scottish programme was 22 people strong, with one male and 21 females. The group meshed very quickly and despite the head cold that travelled through most of us we all continued to make the most of every presented opportunity. Every day involved a new place, or even two, with tours, tasks and feedback sessions. All sessions had a particular educational focus or desired feedback/discussion topic for us to consider as we explored each venue. (Hopefully, I can attach the digital programme itinerary to this blog so I do not have to list all locations for you).

Now, over 20 days of outstanding sites is a bit much to cover, so I have chosen to share my top three learning wise:

Alnwick Castle stood out to me from the day I saw its photograph in the booklet. This was for two reasons: firstly, it was the one that looked most like your typical childhood, make-believe castle, and secondly, it’s Hogwarts (which is pretty darn hard to beat within my generation of Potter fans). However, on the day we went to Alnwick Castle, no flying lessons were to be had due to the “typical Scottish weather”. Needless to say, this was truly one day that I was immensely grateful for both my hardy southland nature and the large black puffer jacket that I had lugged to the other side of the world. The focus for the day was on education programmes and, to help the education team out, we were to trial two programmes, one very new, and give feedback. So yay, we got to be adults at play, but…… playtime was outside, under shelter yes, but outside, in very cold, very wet conditions.  This couldn’t be altered either as, despite being a well-funded and organised castle, due to its nature as a home first and foremost, there was not a lot of available space, so there was no inside education room.

So, having stood through the storytelling Harry Hotspur experience we were already frozen before beginning activity two, the Fantasy Fortress castle building interactive, involving one of my worst nightmares, math. Combine that with constant cold and I can began to get quite grim. Thank heaven for our programme directors shouting us all hot beverages while we added and multiplied our way through our ideal fantasy castle, within budget. Massive praise to the Alnwick Castle education team though. Not only did they remain positive and judge the dynamics of the group incredibly well, but they are open to constructive feedback and, as a result, have created programmes which keep even me, doing my worst subject ever, amused and proud of my achievements.

Now when I say palace, most people think of Buckingham Palace. Falkland Palace, where we spent two days, is nothing of the sort. It was a hunting lodge of the Stuarts and, after a great fire and periods of neglect, large amounts of it are no longer standing. Rooms are tiny and have been rebuilt and restored to be lived in and not necessary true to the original. Despite all this, the team at Falkland have to tell the sites varied and layered history, without typical museum display techniques. They cannot add wall panels or plinths. They have to also control visitor flow and route, therefore, their main techniques used are tours and in room guides. The Falkland team knew their narrative telling and tours needed some work so they asked us to experience all three types of tours (Self-guided, small group guided and large group guided) and give informative constructive feedback.

Our first tour was a small group tour. We did all available rooms and one stop on the exterior of the palace. Then we were to be secret shoppers and self-tour the site. Then, on day two we divided into groups and pretended to be 100 people and experienced the large group tour, which included less rooms but much more of the grounds. It was quite astounding how difficult it was to gain any narrative about the site on a self-guided tour. If you entered a room without a guide there was little to no interpretation available. Also, if you entered a room mid explanation you had to decide to wait amongst the crowd and ask the room guide to start again or just look and move on. On the contrary, the large group tour, with more exterior inclusions and less internal rooms, generated a much simpler and more complete narrative. However, the success of the narrative coming across does all come down to the skill of the guide. On the large group tour one group had a guide who mainly spoke about their favourite things causing them to learn next to no relevant information; incredibly different to my groups’ experience. Before this site I had never even considered how much a guide or tour can influence your interpretation and takeaway of a site or space. The lesson of how great this can be will never leave me. It was wonderful though to be appreciated as a group of knowledgeable and intelligent heritage professionals and know that our feedback was actually going towards improvements on a site.

Finally, Holyrood Abbey is the Queens official residence in Scotland and one of the past homes of Mary Queen of Scots. It is beautiful but incredibly busy. They have already done wonderful things with their visitor route and flow management with their brand new audio guides that all visitors are expected to use. Usually audio guides bore me to tears, so when I heard we were testing audio guides for the site I was not very enthused. These guides however were incredible and really made me eat my own internal words. They are more accurately multimedia guides as they are on iPod touches with interactive videos, interviews, and activities. The team have clearly taken into account a typical visitors average attention span, language level and the variety of ways that people learn. The language on the guide is variable and there are captions on the screen for those who cannot listen. The images and videos on the screen add information to the room such as comparisons whilst pointing out to you essential things to note in each room. No content is longer than 2 minutes (that I noticed) and I managed to get around the whole house, playing the games and listening to the odd extra all without reaching my information fatigue point, which is simply quite remarkable!  Some of the games and interactives were things such as rubbing the tapestry to reveal its original colours or bringing the ruined cathedral to life with virtual reality. I personally feel Holyrood are leading the way in this field as they also have a children’s version to allow families to progress through at the same pace whilst keeping the children entertained at their level.  This is obviously the product of years of work, research and a lot of money meaning that it is a best practice example that is unachievable by many, but the lessons that museum professionals can learn from this visitor route and engagement technology application are vast. If possible, it is a must experience in my books.

To conclude, I leave you with my beauty pick and my quirky pick. Beauty wise Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute was unbeatable. Zodiac stained glass windows, marble pillars, crystal stars that screw into ceilings, immaculate gardens, and elaborate door hinges; absolutely no detail was spared. Quirk wise you can look no further than the Hill House designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Unfortunately, Mackintosh’s lack of research into his materials and focus solely on overall aesthetics, has left this architectural gem in quite some peril. A massive, first of its kind, conservation attempt to save the house and allow it to dry out gradually has been launched. Hill House is getting a roof built over its head that allows people to walk over the top and see it from many different, usually inaccessible, angles and views. It has mesh sides that allow it to breathe yet remain fairly visible whilst acting as an effective rain shield. Due to open to the public again soon it will be interesting to track the houses progress and how much attention this conservation effort attracts.

Well folks that was a lot of food for thought. Hopefully I haven’t lost you along the way. If there is one takeaway from my Scottish adventure I would say it is the power of the narrative and how much work goes into getting that across in many different types of heritage sites (also, in case you were wondering, I did try haggis and it was darn good!)

Bye bye for now.

Loren Baxter
Assistant Project Registrar

One Chapter Ends and Another Begins (The Best Kind of Story)

On behalf of the team I apologise for our rather large radio silence on the blog front. It has been a massive few months with a long list of events, shifts, and changes requiring our full attention. So here is a pretty quick recap:

For starters, our Don Street home is now a pile of rubble. Many people, including ourselves, have been rather intrigued watching the slow and careful demolition as the old building on the corner was chewed away piece by piece. I relocated my office for the day to the window right in front of the action, in the library study area, for a bird’s eye view of the building coming down.

However, let’s rewind. How did we get here? That is quite a good question. It took all hands on deck and a lot of kindness from the entire GLAM sector here in Southland. The loss of our temporary gallery and the lack of a confirmed new home left us in limbo. The wonderful team at the library knew our situation and took us in with open arms.  After a few of their team members helped us shift our entire art collection over the road, we then helped them clean out a small, fish bowl like office on the second floor of the library, to be our new temporary home. I personally really enjoy being here at the library where I receive lots of morning hellos and have visits from lovely members of the public. For someone who usually hides out the back and works alone I am thoroughly enjoying the social increase. We couldn’t have been made to feel more welcome.

On top of this we have finished shifting the remaining collection out of Anderson House. WOO HOO! Just last week the staff got together at the Black Shag Espresso and Eatery to celebrate (highly recommend the Reuben Sammy there – delicious). It was especially lovely for me to see Chris again who spent many weeks helping me condition report, pack, then unwrap, D-ring and hang the unglazed items of our collection in the library archives. These racks are now full to the brim and the sight of them makes me reflect on the numerous people who helped us get them there. Thank you to you all, from the library staff who held doors for us, or those who helped us carry awkward shaped items up stairs, every little gesture helped. Special mention to the library staff member who snapped a photo of me wheeling in two plaster busts and turned it into a meme of them talking and stuck it near my desk – you rock.

Now that phase one of my project is officially complete I can breathe a sigh of relief. Luckily I am already exactly halfway through phase two – sorting copyright and unframing the works on paper collection so they can receive conservation attention to ensure their longevity from the wonderful Marion Mertens, Paper Conservator. The unframing in particular has been very rewarding. Many dates and even a few artist names have been discovered on the back of artworks. My progress in this area is largely thanks to the delightful Sam, our new volunteer who helps both us and the archives team every Tuesday. Sam is very dedicated and has a very careful and focused nature making her perfect for this task and her other passion of book binding. Thanks to afternoons with Sam I have now developed an addiction to criss cross chips for lunch on Tuesday from the night and Day. If this is the worst outcome of this partnership, I’m not complaining in the slightest.

Speaking of other awesome developments, the ‘Dream it up’ curatorial team for our new collaborative space, which includes Sarah and Gemma from IPAG and David Luoni, David Dudfield, Ari Edgecombe and Lindsay Hazley from SMAG, have been meeting regularly. This group is coming up with some truly wonderful ideas for shows that can happen in this new space. Seeing the two institutions come together and combine brain power and creativity is a very cool thing. IPAG as an institution has, it’s fairly safe to say, never been more involved and connected to the other GLAM institutions in this city (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums). Only good things are coming from this combined team effort and I can’t wait to see some of the final products.

So, even though I had a bad morning, with missing alarms and escaped foster kittens, writing this blog, and recapping all of our achievements over the last couple of months has made me feel very good about our progress. Sometimes you just have to pause and look back at where you have come from as opposed to the rest of the mountain that lies before you. Keep that perspective. Great things do come to those who work for them.

Thanks for sticking by us in this transition.

Loren Baxter
Assistant Project Registrar

Addressing the Fear of Art Galleries

In the last couple of months I have been lucky enough to venture out of little old Invercargill and find a breath of fresh air in both Dunedin and Auckland. While wandering these cities I decided to spend some time feeling warm, safe and inquisitive in Dunedin Public Art Gallery (DPAG) and Auckland Art Gallery (AAG). I must admit that these feelings are fairly new. Now that I work in an art gallery I have suddenly become much more comfortable with them and I suspect I am one of a minority. Despite best efforts and the wonders of modern art galleries becoming much more interactive and hands on for visitors, a lot of people still seem scared of them. I do not know if this a result of assumptions about what will be inside or feeling that it’s above them, elite and confusing, but I feel it is something that needs to change.

In Auckland, I was exploring the city alone on a workday. It was quite cold and I didn’t know the city well so I followed trusty google maps to somewhere where I knew it was ok to feel unsure. When I entered the lady behind the desk was incredibly kind to me and explained nicely that I had to leave my things with her in cloak check. After carting a couple of bags around all day, exploring the space with nothing in my hands but my phone for photos and a map for layout actually enhanced my experience. I felt incredibly in the moment as I wandered around the spaces gravitating towards whatever grabbed my attention.

Many pieces in the collection based shows were by artists whose work we have in our own collection. I even saw two Gretchen Albrecht works very similar to ours. Seeing them greatly helped me understand our Albrecht and how it fits in with its art peers. As someone who didn’t actually study much literal Art History at university apart from the odd paper, I am still learning a lot about the art world. I only know the famous names or ones from the collections I have handled, so it felt incredibly good to recognise some names and artists from what I could see before me without reading labels. I felt like I had gone up a level in art literacy!

Towards the end of my visit I had, as expected, wound my way up the floors to the top gallery space. Displayed here were the finalists in The Walters Prize 2018. I had no idea what the awards purpose and focus was but but from what I could hear I was immediately intrigued. Rounding the corner I could see nothing but naked humans and other psychedelic unusual things swirling in kaleidoscope type patterns on multiple screens which you were invited to stand on a platform in the middle of. After submersing myself in these oddities for long enough I followed the noise I could hear into a full room installation full of green and black hanging tinsel, collages, and loud, unavoidable rap music. It was brilliant. The young children I had been following into this space immediately ran into the middle of the hanging tinsel and smiled something wonderful. This space invited them to make noise and by feeling comfortable being noisy kids they really interacted with the installation. Even I couldn’t help but smile. It seems that noise in the gallery space helped us all relax and engage.

When it came to DPAG I happily dragged my friend along with me. Again it was raining and cold outside and we had time to kill in the CBD before plans at 4pm so going inside was no hardship. This was also eased by the wonderful array of gift shop items lining the entrance, including a very special looking inflatable swan. Our art gallery tour comprised of wandering around pointing out works we liked, names we recognised, the ages of works, as well as the creepiest, ugliest, weirdest things we could find. When it came to some very interesting medieval works we were not afraid to point out he creepy man in the background or the girl with no shoulders and consequently out laughing. The attendants in the rooms seemed to quite enjoy our commentary. One lady even took this as a chance to tell us about the films artist and how when the video of him in super massive pants climbing out windows was first exhibited they actually had all the pants he had made and worn during the month he filmed the content. He never washed them, and rarely took them off, so as you can image she also had numerous smells to describe to us! It was a memorable engagement with modern art and I’m quite pleased the pants are gone now! The moral of the story here is though, that if we had been afraid to speak up and chatter away in the art gallery our experience would have been less. Instead by being comfortable and saying our thoughts we brought smiles to the faces of the workers and heard a rather unforgettable story which brought that art to life for us on a whole new level.

Speaking of new levels, IPAG is moving into a new building in 2019 which will be a collaborative space with the Southland Museum and Art Gallery. It is glorious to feel these institutions working together and I am hoping that, with the joining, people will feel less afraid to enter our doors and explore what’s within. Arts and heritage spaces, whatever their forms, are for the people, the community. We want you to feel welcome and comfortable to the level that you are not afraid to speak up about your experience as you never know how that might just improve it for the better.  

Loren Baxter
Assistant Project Registrar

"I'm a feminist because..."

Last Friday, Invercargill’s Deputy Mayor Becs Amundsen and I were walking to the Kiln to pick up some platters for that evening’s event, a book launch for local poet Cilla McQueen. Interested in her KIND Woman concept, and always on the hunt for cool ideas that the IPAG team can get amongst, we began discussing how we could collaborate on an exhibition for Suffrage 125.

In this five minute period, the concept for “I’m a feminist because…” was born, and five days later it was a reality. At its core, this exhibition is a discussion about equality and also a place where men and women can write, alongside the words of others, why they are a feminist. As I write this, there are only about twenty reasons on the board, but the power and strength behind them literally stops you in your tracks.

Since the inception of this idea, this very question has been running over in my head and I have realized that although I have always been a proponent of equality, I didn’t truly align myself as a feminist until after I had had my daughter.

For me, the question of returning to work after six months of maternity leave had always been a given. I love my job, I enjoy the mental stimulation and I studied for years to be qualified. My career has always been important to me, and whilst I knew becoming a mother would change my priorities and make me look at the world differently, I knew in my heart that it wouldn’t change these things that are fundamental to my being. I also had an extremely supportive employer who did all they could to make this transition easy. They valued my skills and knew that if I was supported and happy, they would get the best of me in return.

That being said, I was shocked by the resistance to this idea that came, both from people who knew me, and from total strangers. From many, I experienced pity, as if I was being forced back to work rather than willingly returning. I also to this day vividly remember a visitor to the gallery, in the first few weeks, telling me my child was too young to not have her mother around and that I had returned to work too early.  Although now I would have a different response to these reactions, I struggled a lot with guilt in those early months.

I’m not going to say that returning to work was easy, as leaving your child, a literal piece of you, is hard. However, my partner and I are equal parents who both work, and make decisions for our child together. Yet, I’m fairly certain no one said the same things to him.

So for me, I am a feminist because I believe in the right to equality and also in the right to choose. Whether you want to have ten children or none, be in paid employment or be a stay at home mum, we live in a world where women can do what is right for THEIR families and THEIR lives and have the best of the many worlds that they can pick for themselves. I just hope that when my daughter grows up she is able to do so with less judgement than what women today currently face.

So those are my reasons, but we would love to hear yours. Please pop into 5 Don Street before the 29th September and leave your mark on our “I'm a feminist because…” wall.  

Our voices are stronger when we speak together.

Sarah Brown

Discovering Hidden Gold

Isn’t it funny how sometimes the smallest thing can be the key to a wealth of information? How one small sentence, in one document, can give you more than hours and hours of dedicated research?  This happened to me recently when I was going through one of the many folders of collection documentation.

While quickly scanning the piles and assessing what sized mountain lay before me, I stumbled across a three page document titled “Sir Joseph Ward a portrait, Van der Velden” and decided to have a deeper look. Inside, one page was dedicated to the artist, one to the subject, and the last was dedicated to the work itself. This latter intrigued me most. It is rare to get any solid provenance or history with an artwork, let alone have it written down all in one source such as this. After reading the attached handwritten letter I learnt that this document was compiled by the Auction House who sold the work to try and help it sell. It turns out that our Van der Velden Portrait of Sir Joseph Ward has quite a colourful history.

For years it adorned the walls of the Saint Albans Masonic Lodge in Christchurch where no one really knew its true worth. When it sold at public auction in 1995 it fell into the hands of someone with a careful eye who recognised it was a painting of considerable merit and sought treatment. They took it to an art restorer who cleaned the work and revealed the Van der Velden signature, top right corner. The subject was then identified by two highly respected art historians, Neil Roberts and Peter Entwistle.

Following this the painting passed into the hands of art conservator John Harper. The document stated that John restored the work and documented the process fully. With one google search containing ‘John Harper’ and ‘Art Conservator’ I had not only found John but also learnt that he was still operating today up in Golden Bay. With high hopes I sent John an email stating that I recently found a document indicating that he restored a Van der Velden work now in our possession. Initially john could not find the records, but after he requested any names that may have been associated with the painting at the time, he located the work in his system. Gold had been struck. John was able to send me a full record of the condition the work came in with and the work he completed. He also had before and after images. I leant details such as what paint colours and types were used for patches and that the work had its original varnish removed and replaced. Now when I notice these details they make sense.

John himself seemed more than happy to assist me with my query and in fact had replied to me in less than 24 hours. Funnily enough he had been having a true “Van der Velden” week, as he was, in fact, about to tell another client that their work also was a Van der Velden after discovering the signature. This family had always been told that their ancestor picked up Van der Velden one night in the pouring rain on a road side. He gave the artist food and a warm bed only to have the artist say I am too poor to pay you for your kindness but I can paint your portrait. Seems this story was in fact, FACT!  

Quite simply, I was incredibly lucky to have noticed that one simple sentence in one rather unassuming photocopied document. This just shows how detailed and focused collections people need to be on a daily basis. The lesson here is, if works can be connected to conservators, restorers, or auction houses you will often be able to uncover invaluable information and hopefully some real hidden gems. It is the breakthroughs in history and provenance of works that really make someone like me smile. It is knowing that I connected the dots even when the second dot I was looking for was fading by the day. Now it’s in permanent marker. 

Loren Baxter
Assistant Project Registrar