Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Time and Tide Museum, Great Yarmouth - museum as multi-sensory experience

I was recently lucky enough to be shortlisted to be writer in residence at The Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth, and whilst I didn't in the end get the job I did get a chance to have a nose around this great little museum.

The Time and Tide Museum is an interactive museum telling the history of the herring fishing industry in Great Yarmouth. Quite a niche market in terms of visitors you might say, but what the curation of this museum has done is take an interesting subject that most people might not realise is so and bring it to life in a way that goes far beyond the simple display of objects. For starters the actual physical space of the museum has an intrinsic meaning in that it is situated in a converted row of houses that would have been used in the herring trade, so straight away the visitor's preconceptions of a museum space are fundamentally changed. One feels like one is wandering into a personal, private space, rather than a public one, and this immediately aids the sense that one is travelling back in time to a specific point in history. The layout of the museum is also interesting in that it is linear. On entering one is drawn through a series of interconnecting rooms, taking the visitor on a literal journey through the exhibits that I think works in a similar way to a narrative structure - the layout of museum as storytelling - a simple possibly unintentional device that again contributes to the vitality of the exhibits.

In terms of object content the museum arguably cannot compete with a larger space although all exhibits are interesting. There is a particularly lovely selection of model ships that I would love to have had displayed in my own home. But again that is just it - there is a personal touch to this museum - a domestic scale that invites the visitor in and gives them a sense of investment in and involvement with the exhibits, that is echoed by the other more interactive displays within the space. 

Many museums have displays of model figures reenacting scenes from history, and these exhibits can sometimes seem a little fake or clumsy, but here the museum does something interesting that makes its displays stand out from other similar exhibits, and that I find interesting in terms of the new ideas for curation that appeal to museeme. This museum ask us to go beyond looking and reading and to use all our senses. As one walks through a display, smells of how a herring smoking room would have smelled are released instantly changing the atmosphere of the space and therefore how the visitor relates to it. In my own work I am always fascinated by the manipulation of atmosphere and how this changes our perception of a place and also evokes memories, and I love the idea of this being used in a museum. Smell is scientifically accepted as the most powerful sense in terms of triggering emotion and memory and so to use this in the context of a museum seeking to reconstruct a scene from history is I think both bold and brilliant in terms of how it enhances the visitor experience. The visitor's senses are also stimulated by scale - one walks through a display room and then into a room where the herring would have been hung and the ceiling doubles in height so that one's eyes are drawn up to the sky and the old wooden racks as if they are the vaults of a much grander building. The senses are immediately impressed and therefore again feel a new connection to this space and a connection to the stories it triggers. The visitor feels physically part of the history of this museum by how their senses react to it. There are also many educational activities - something I'm always pleased to see. My only small criticism is that I know there is a very impressive archive at the museum that I would have liked to have been used more in the display to balance the interactive displays on models etc, but within the scale of the space I think the museum works very well.

But one thing happened on my trip to Great Yarmouth that really got me thinking in terms of the ideas museeme seeks to explore. I arrived by train across the Norfolk Broads on an incredibly misty day and the atmosphere of the town was therefore beyond strange - I could hardly see more than twenty metres in front of me as I walked the streets! And it was freezing! It created such a strange atmosphere that I began thinking about how the atmosphere of the town itself affected my experience of the museum. Did some of the faded grand architecture almost mentally prepare me for travelling back to a bygone seaside age? Are all museums in a sense site-specific? Not in that they are literally static in one place, but rather that unintentionally how they are viewed is affected by where they are, and could this actually be manipulated intentionally in an interesting way when curating a collection? Site-specific art has long understood the implications of place on how a work is perceived, and I would argue that it would be interesting if museums experimented with thinking in this way. Saw themselves as a site-specific whole rather than a container. Could the atmosphere of the place they are in influence how work is curated and displayed? If I had gone to Great Yarmouth on a sunny day would my experience of The Time and Tide Museum have been completely different and would this have mattered? Okay I know, especially here in Britain, we cannot control the weather so perhaps it is slightly far fetched to think that a museum can be curated accordingly, but in terms of the less changeable aspects of site-specificity, I think there could be an interesting discussion here. Should museums think about the curation of their spaces in terms of their atmosphere as well as their contents is perhaps what I mean. Could more exhibits be brought to life and the stories of objects given more meaning if a more immersive experience was offered? Could this be a really useful tool, especially within smaller museums with limited space, to display their objects to their best advantage for a viewing experience? I guess that is museeme's thought for the day!

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