Come Hell or High Water: Managing Disasters in Museums

Thursday 25 June 6–7.15pm, Live Online

Natasha McEnroe, Keeper of Medicine at the Science Museum

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Portrait of Natasha Mcenroe.
Natasha McEnroe, Keeper of Medicine at the Science Museum

As museum professionals face the unprecedented challenge of caring for their collections during the global crisis of Covid-19, they possess one advantage – they often have previous experience of battling with disasters on a much smaller scale as part of their ordinary working life. Water leaks or pest infestations that might be unfortunate in a domestic setting can reach disastrous heights when applied to precious heritage collections and the fragile buildings that house them. Careful disaster planning can go some way to mitigate risk, but the unexpected can and does happen, often at the most inconvenient times. Times of crisis require very different styles of management to everyday museum life, and especially in smaller museums, curators and directors are required to develop new leadership skills under intense pressure. In this talk, Keeper of Medicine at the Science Museum Natasha McEnroe will share a personal reflection of her own working life in different museums, and the variety of disasters she has flinchingly faced, from rats to raw sewage.

Blast Theory: Reflections on Contagion, Cities and Decision Making in Public Health Crises

A Live Online Event, Tuesday 30 June, 6–7.30pm

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A large parade of people on a night-time street in Philadelphia. They carry placards bearing people's names.
Spit Spreads Death: the Parade by Blast Theory, Philadelphia, September 28th 2019. Photo by Tivern Turnbull.

Led by artists Matt Adams, Ju Row Farr and Nick Tandavanitj, Blast Theory draw on popular culture, performance, technology and games, the work often blurring the boundaries between the real and the fictional. In 2018 they were the first ever artists-in-residence at the World Health Organisation (WHO). They spent time at WHO’s Strategic Health Operations Centre, which monitors epidemics and pandemics across the world and coordinates international collaborative responses. The work prompted by their residency reflects on contagion and cities, and focuses on moments of uncertainty in public health decision making and the 2003 SARS epidemic. A Cluster of 17 Cases, was inspired by the story of 17 unsuspecting people who stayed on the 9th floor of a Hong Kong hotel on the night of Feb 21, 2003. These 17 people were subsequently identified as spreading the SARS virus to at least 546 people around the globe. Blast Theory’s work on infectious disease continued last year with Spit Spreads Death, an interactive parade of light and sound designed to remember the individuals who lost their lives and the health workers who put their own lives on the line in Philadelphia in 1918–19, when more than 12,000 people died in the deadliest flu pandemic the world has ever seen.

Birkbeck’s Centre for Museum Cultures and Centre for Medical Humanities are delighted to present a live, online event during which Blast Theory will discuss their recent work and its implications for the current Covid-19 crisis. An open Q&A will follow the artists’ talk and panel discussion.

Museums in Wartime

Thursday 2 July 6–7.30pm, Live Online

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A live online panel with three curators discussing how their institutions have responded to crisis during wartime, and what lessons might be learned by museums today.

Picturing Crisis: Historic England’s crowdsourced photographic collections

Tamsin Silvey, Cultural Programme Curator at Historic England

A damaged Ionic column capital. Charred wood leans against it and more is visible in the background. A loose wire runs across the bottom of the image.
A charred capital at Montagu House, Portman Square, Marylebone, London. Herbert Felton, National Buildings Record 1941 © Historic England Archive AA44/00941

In response to the Covid-19 lockdown, for the first time since the Second World War Historic England asked the public to capture a moment in time for the Historic England Archive, the nation’s archive for records of England’s historic buildings, archaeology and social history. The Picturing Lockdown project created a visual record of this extraordinary moment. It was inspired by the National Buildings Record (NBR), a Second World War public call out for voluntary help in contributing records of the nation’s heritage under threat. NBR photographs created the nation’s archive for buildings that were lost during the Blitz and featured in IWM’s 2019 Culture under Attack season. As Historic England explores opportunities to share the Picturing Lockdown collection, its curator Tamsin Silvey will discuss why public engagement is at the frontline of protecting heritage during times of crisis.

Choosing what to Protect: The V&A during World War I and World War II

Ella Ravilious, curator in the Word and Image Department at the V&A

A gallery in the V&A Museum. A tall pile of sandbags covers half of the wall. Ornate doorways and other exhibits stand on either side.
A painting protected with sandbags during World War II, Gallery 50b at the V&A.

It is sometimes thought that when an object enters a museum, it enters stasis and its narrative ends. However, some of our objects have led surprisingly exciting lives within the Museum. During both World Wars the V&A selected a range of its most precious treasures and hid them for safety in a bewildering array of places. Curator Ella Ravilious will explain some of the decision-making behind which objects got protected, where and why, and what happened to them during that time and directly afterwards – in particular, how post-war museum practices led to a dramatic object theft. She will also explore the surviving contemporary narratives from staff about what the museum experience was like during wartime. 

Keeping Culture Alive: the National Gallery during World War II

Susanna Avery-Quash, Senior Research Curator (History of Collecting) at the National Gallery, London

The pianist Myra Hess sits at a grand piano on a stage in front of a large audience at the National Gallery in London.
Myra Hess performing at a wartime concert in the Barry Rooms of the National Gallery.

The National Gallery is currently unable to give visitors access to the pictures physically due to the Corona pandemic, however, through digital technology people are still getting the chance to treasure great art. History shows that the Gallery has weathered other national emergencies, the most dramatic of which was the Second World War. During that conflict the Gallery, despite many of its galleries being bomb-damaged, was one in fact of the few places in London where the public could enjoy a programme of cultural activity. Drawing on visual and written records from the Gallery’s archives, this talk will discuss the range of events put on at Trafalgar Square, the motivations behind these activities, the impact they had at the time, and lessons we may learn from them today. The first form of cultural entertainment were the lunchtime concerts organised by Myra Hess which made classical music accessible; exhibitions followed ranging from contemporary war art and one-off shows like ‘Design at Home’ to the much-loved ‘Picture of the Month’ that brought back a series of paintings from the Gallery’s permanent collection from storage in a Welsh mine.