How can collaborative techniques alter the dynamics of museum learning and curation?
A participatory project that explores the relationship between collections, audiences and the local environment.
Museum of Lies is an experimental gallery exhibition developed for National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. This exhibition was developed in collaboration with a group of students from Senghenydd during a series of six day-long workshops, during which the team co-created a series of false histories to be exhibited within the museum.
By asking students to “tell lies” about museum artefacts, the project aims to short-circuit the traditional power relationships of traditional museum learning, and offer a project that empowers the students to begin their own process of historical learning and discovery and creative action. Importantly, these lies would not simply be meaningless fictions, but would be designed to raise significant issues which interested the participants - ranging from “what if” scenarios of alternative history to subversive narratives designed to ironise or challenge historical preconceptions of a particular event, cultural group or geographical area.
At the beginning of the project, meetings with commissioning group, local youth group supervisors and museum staff identified a series of key challenges:
Disengagement. One of the requirements of the commission was to work with a student group who were identified as being at risk of becoming NEET (not in education, employment or training). This meant most participants would be disengaged from most formal learning or working activities and exhibit around truancy or behaviour, and to succeed the project would need to overcome such default attitudes.
Same old same old. The fear that many of the normal conventions and power structures of student - teacher relationships would compromise the project, leading to a situation where students did not take ownership of work but would defer to group leaders.
Stuck on the surface. Working with the museum's education department, it was important to engage meaningfully with the collection and learning goals of the museum, rather than simply an exercise in creative writing.
Disrupt the Is. Creating moments of surprise to disrupt established patterns throughout the process.
Shake the Power. Throughout the project, we actively depositioned ourselves as facillitators to encourage students to assume positions of authority. This included actively encouraging students to tell lies at any stage (eg students could choose their names - as the project ended we still did not know the real names of some participants), having flat structures where supervisors were "punished" for misbehaviour as much as students (eg answering phones).
Reincorporation. An important feature of the work was to create a sense of continuity and by returning to content from previous sessions and working with it in new ways. For example, after students assembled fictional animal remains from human bones, they returned the next week to find professional Illustrations of the animals they had invented. The following week, we used an archeological dig location as a Creative Site and used the bones to stage a series of hoax photographs of their animals being excavated.
Curate Everything. This included the creation of a series of Objects within the worksessions that would subsequently feature in the exhibition as well as the use of Journals to capture content for use in the final exhibition.
Human remains, stickerbooks, pinhole cameras, spraypaint, exhibition cases, basements, seal skull, a Celtic village, Youtube.
Museum of Lies was commissioned by Head4Arts and made possible thanks to the generous support of Arts Council Wales.