Monday, January 17, 2011

Great WebSpectations and other adventures in the digital and non-digital domains Part 1

 Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London

In thinking about interesting current happenings in museums here in the U.K., I noticed I was reading about museums using innovative social media and the internet to inspire participation and extend the museum experience. In particular an exhibition at the Cuming Museum in South London appealed to me as someone who loves shoes. The Cuming Museum is currently hosting an exhibition called “Stories of the World: Walking in my Shoes,” funded by the Cultural Olympiad project.

The exhibition features shoes from around the world and the journeys we make in them.  It features designs by area young people alongside displays of historic shoes from the Museum’s collection. The exhibition is augmented by a program in which young people in the Southwark neighborhood have been asked to send in photos of their own shoes and describe their everyday journeys.

Also, the Museum is building up a map of the area, based on favorite places, routes, and methods of travel as well as favorite footwear. Visitors are invited to post photos of their favorite shoes to the exhibition’s Flickr group.

In reading this description, I assumed that the journeys submitted and mapped would be done digitally and posted on the web, which I found quite interesting and was curious to see how museum visitors mapped a neighborhood. I searched around on-line, but was unable to find any maps in conjunction with the exhibition. Since I had never been to the Cuming Museum, I decided to go there in person to check it out and gather more information.

The Cuming Museum is a small Museum located within the Old Walworth Town Hall. It features the collections of the Cuming family, who collected almost anything for over 100 years. In addition to their interesting and pleasantly jumbled collections (ranging from ethnographic and natural history objects - the collection includes both real and fake items), the Museum presents the history of the Southwark neighborhood all the way back to Roman times.

The Museum’s permanent galleries show that great care has been taken to involve the current community, which includes many immigrants and houses people from all over the world. While the galleries were unstaffed, there were many opportunities for interaction with real objects, exploration sheets to pick up and fill out, areas for visitors to leave personal comments, and items you could make within the galleries.

The Shoes exhibition was located in the one room temporary exhibition hall.

When I walked in and saw the map I actually laughed out loud at the difference between its physicality and my expectation that it would be digital.

The map is a physical table top blow up of a Google map and visitors are provided with little Google map pink paper bubbles on which they write their favorite places in the neighborhood and then mount in Lucite photo clips. I loved concrete-ness of the map and appreciated the irony of the times we live in – that it would never occur to me that the map would be a three-dimensional object that sits in one spot on the planet. (Much less one inspired by the internet and made into a physical object!)

The exhibition simple and well executed. One wall contained a display of shoes designed by neighborhood young people along with explanations about why they created their designs. The artists were identified by their shoes (not the ones they created but the ones they wear) and it appeared to me that the shoes they did create were done through Converse. If you are inspired, you can design your own shoes through the Converse website.

There were ample opportunities to participate by trying on shoes, contributing a graffiti map of how you came to the Museum that day, and of course, interesting displays from the Cuming shoe collection.

The exhibition design was comprehensive and the exhibit furniture was all created out of stiff cardboard. A lovely and enjoyable exhibition, even if I wasn’t able to access people’s favorite neighborhood places and trips from the comfort of my home computer.

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