Museums Imagined

What luck (or maybe fate) that there was a theatre and museums conference just before we were about to begin our residency in Mansfield Museum. Judging by the sign up this is a trend that may just be taking off. With representatives from a huge range of museums and theatre companies from the Imperial War Museum to Punch Drunk, this was certainly a room full of interesting people. I would have liked to of spent an afternoon wandering around the conference picking the brains of each delegate as if it were my own museum and they my exhibits. But this might have seemed a bit odd so instead I stuck to the schedule.

I was struck with what Tanya Nelson, head of museums at UCL said…

“Museums are consumed with the past and theatre is about the present”

I realised that what I look for when I go to a museum is a story, I look for an object or person or fact that speaks to me now, in this moment. My interest in history is very much rooted in what it tells us about today. It seems to me that theatre is the perfect way for museums/history to literally come alive and reach out and grab people.


Impropera, an improvised opera company were hosting the event, and took on this attitude to the conference as well. We’ve all been to the dry conference where however much we are interested in the subject matter, it still feels like an uphill struggle. But not with Impropera: they begin with an improvised song (which they get us singing much to my joy) about our preconceptions of museums and theatre and the two working together. How do you feel about artist coming into your museum, perhaps you envisage them smashing vases left, right and centre?

“We prefer the artists dead!” shouts someone with witty brilliance. So the museums begin their day singing this while we reply with ‘Trust us trust us tru u u ust us”. And the room is alive. I can see how Impropera are fantastic at bringing potentially quiet, studious museums to life with a zing. Now normally I’m not a fan of of networking, but the way we did it at the conference really worked. We were each asked to fill in a label with an offer and a request and stick it about our person. That way we could easily see what people were looking for and offering without being mind readers (although when I played a fortuneteller in a durational show I did start to believe I could actually read minds).  Then in smaller groups we had a really good discussion about what works and what could be better in terms of theatres working in museums. It was really useful to get responses from people who have attempted this and made it work. As we are at the very start we could only feed back on how open Mansfield museum have been to us doing whatever feels right. They want our residency to be ‘organic’ although we all hate that word, we want it to respond to the needs of the people of Mansfield, to respond to the museum exhibits and to grow naturally- like the space plants that the museum is currently growing.  We all came to the conclusion that this is an ideal way to work, for a performance to be developed alongside a museum, to be nurtured.

A recurring theme of this discussion and the day in general was about respect and the museums needing to feel that the theatre companies respect their collections and exhibits and as long as they feel that, they may let almost anything happen. Thinking about it now I suppose it works the other way around too. The artists need to feel their work is being respected and that the museums trust them to do their thing. We talked about the importance of being allowed to experiment, how as this is a new venture it might not always work straight away and the chance to try things means you find out what does work. We went on to talk about risk, and how it can be hard to take one, and perhaps it’s a barrier to museums working with artists. Someone clever (I’m sorry I can’t remember who) said…

‘There is no activity that’s not a risk. Maintaining the status quo is a risk”

Post lunch (a very delicious potato was included that I would like the recipe for) we were treated to a dance warm up which every conference afternoon should in my mind!


Ria Ashcroft doing a dance at a conference

We heard about projects from partnerships who have had very successful collaborations, including Punch Drunk and the Maritime museum who made an immersive piece for families. They spent time in the museum, ran workshops, researched till they came up with several ideas for what might work. Their adventure took the audience on a journey around the museum, chasing a mystery and responding to happenings, lead by characters to empower them to connect to the collections and learn in a fun and dramatic way. This reminded me of mantle of the expert, a style of workshop I have used to give children the control, make them the expert, let them work out the problem. This often opens up the subject as they are not being talked down to, they are literally being given the captains hat and told to dive the boat (although this didn’t happen in the punch drunk show as far as I know) We also heard from Katie Green, dancing in Museums, who used eccentric tour guide characters to help the audience to engage with the piece and the more abstract sections of performance.  I was really taken by the feedback that the British Museum got about their Shakespeare exhibition:

“It’s stopped it being something you knew to something you felt”

This is what theatre in museums should aim to do, in my book, to create a deeper connection, an emotional one. At the Mansfield Museum a man came in and discovered his wife’s wedding dress on display. Jodie, our museums development officer had picked the dress at random from five they have in the store. His wife had sadly died not long ago and he had no idea that she had donated her wedding dress. I can imagine this might have been quite a moving moment. He has since contributed his story to their Married in Mansfield project. He obviously has a deeper connection to the museum; a personal one that I imagine will make him a regular visitor. I hope we can do this for people, one or two maybe. We talked later about quantitative versus qualitative feedback and although both important, for us it’s quality over quantity.  We also heard from Theatre na n’Óg who created a piece for the museum, which went out and toured. This is another way of connecting audiences with museums, taking their work out into the community, taking the museum on it’s own journey. Looking at the exhibits in Mansfield Museum yesterday I read that Mansfield sand is such high quality it is used all over the world. It’s a nice thought that there is a bit of Mansfield in New Zealand. This must be how museums feel when their work tours, it’s as if it’s been a passport and can truly travel the world.

The day ended as all conferences should with a sing off summarising the days thoughts, particularly focussing on the feeling that there is not enough time to fit it all in…

“It’s not another thing to do, it’s another way to do things” was the final chorus.

Overall: a very inspiring day. We can’t wait to get our teeth into our residency and bring new life to the museum through theatre.


Hannah Stone ready to make some theatre in Mansfield