Museum objects and non-museum objects: bicycles & chairs

An exploration

This was a project that came out of museum visits in Copenhagen and Munich in May 2006. I liked the idea of a image-led story, part children’s picture book, part Ways of Seeing (John Berger). Many years later having done nothing with it I turned the story into a series of Tweets in 2015, and archived it on Being me I did not however thread the Tweets as I should have done. In late 2017 it was announced that Storify would cease to operate c. April 2018, hence the archiving of the tweets in February 2018 on my WordPress site. Let’s hope WordPress never goes out of business either, right? Oh, wait….

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On the literally transparent FIFA voting booth

At the beginning of 2016 world football’s governing body, FIFA, had an integrity problem. One proposed solution was literal transparency. The June 2015 presidential election had been won by Sepp Blatter only for him to resign days later in disgrace, finally undone through his associations with corruption, cronyism and extravagance [1]. The February 2016 election necessitated by Blatter’s fall witnessed a short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful proposal from one of the reformist candidates, Jordanian Prince Ali bin al-Hussein: transparent voting booths.

Both the problem and the solution were framed around the sanctity of the secret ballot. It was widely acknowledged that during the 2015 election the 209 eligible voters, each a representative of a national Football Association (FA), had been under pressure to document how they voted, covertly photographing their ballot papers whilst inside the voting booth. What was required, claimed Prince Ali, was a transparent voting booth, such that the act of voting could be observed taking place in the absence of any devices for photographing the marking of the ballot paper [2]. In a statement former US President Jimmy Carter, whose NGO, The Carter Center, observes and evaluates elections around the world, not only described the secret FIFA ballot as “essential for ensuring that voters are guided solely by their conscience and not influenced by external pressure”, but also endorsed Prince Ali’s transparent voting booth as “the only way to ensure ballot secrecy” [3]. Rejecting the suggestion that, as in many types of election, banning mobile phones, cameras and other recording devices from the voting booth would be sufficient, Prince Ali insisted that the only way to ensure that the secret ballot was secret was to make it as visible as possible. The traditional opacity of the voting booth did not ensure secrecy, but rather, prevented it. A circulated diagram of a “voter’s cabin” addressed one immediate problem with making the act of voting visible: how to conceal the vote itself, the very point of a secret ballot in the first place. A frosted acrylic hood would obscure the hands of the voter within an otherwise clear acrylic booth, much as some ATMs have a protruding plastic hood to shield the act of entering a PIN, with the effect that whilst the act of voting was made visible, the mark made on the ballot paper itself remained concealed and hence secret. How this would prevent the photographing of ballot papers using tiny, concealed cameras within this small but still opaque space within the transparent booth was, regrettably, not fully explained.

Vigilant observation was critical: the preventative effects of a transparent voting booth would be meaningless if the act of voting was not witnessed. It did not appear that these witnesses themselves needed to be encased in a (much larger) transparent material so that they in turn could be observed by additional witnesses in order to prevent any wrongdoing: the problem of infinite regress was perhaps recognised as, well, a problem. Left somewhat cloudy was the issue of whether or not the witnesses would be allowed to retain their mobile phones or whether it would be necessary to regulate or prohibit the kind of zoom lenses that sometimes inadvertently capture glimpses of sensitive hardcopies of documents being carried by hand from one place to another. One distinction implicit in the proposal was that of appropriate and inappropriate influence; another was the distinction between good surveillance and bad surveillance. “I advocated for transparent voting booths on behalf of FA presidents who want to vote their conscience, without worrying that someone with a different agenda is looking over their shoulder”, Prince Ali noted later, contrasting an invasive and corrupting over-the-shoulder type of seeing with a non-invasive and corrective witnessing-the-act type of seeing. Indeed a certain type of photography was welcomed by Prince Ali, who, upon ultimately conceding that his plan would not be implemented, took solace in the fact that “the media will be closely watching for any evidence that anyone is photographing their ballot”: cameras would be trained on the booth in order to ensure the absence of cameras in the booth [4].

Criticism was not shortcoming. If a voting booth is rendered transparent, its principal function, namely to conceal or make private the act of voting, is redundant. Voting booths are surely definitionally opaque: if a voting booth must be transparent, why have one at all? Why not just have a table? “I have several questions”, sports writer Kevin McCauley noted laconically [5]. Was the entire episode, including the unveiling of an actual transparent (and, incidentally, quite needlessly wheelchair-inaccessible) voting booth in a warehouse in Zürich, merely an ill-thought-out and soon-to-be forgotten stunt? Was this prototype destined to share the fate of British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s 8’6″ slab of limestone inscribed with his May 2015 General Election promises, hastily erected, immediately ridiculed, quickly withdrawn? [6]. The “Edstone” is just the sort of object that should be acquired by a museum, because without the evidence of the physical thing no one in the future will believe that it was actually made. Sadly, it is just the sort of thing that doesn’t end up in a museum because, as an embarrassment and a failure, it is likely to have been suppressed or disposed [7]. The FIFA World Football Museum, one of the last big projects initiated by Blatter before his fall from grace, opened on February 28, 2016, two days after the vote that ultimately saw Gianni Infantino elected president of FIFA (with Prince Ali trailing in third place), but apparently no plans have yet been made to acquire the prototype transparent voting booth [8].

Princes often become patrons or heads of sporting institutions, and their vanity projects are often taken seriously because they are members of a Royal family. Nevertheless I don’t think that it was because as a wealthy Prince he is expected to be indulged that no one at either FIFA or the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), both of whom successively considered then rejected Prince Ali’s demand, straightforwardly rebutted him by simply pointing out that that’s not what is meant by transparency. If Prince Ali had conflated figurative transparency with literal transparency, and furthermore implied that the deployment of a literally transparent medium to replace an opaque one was not just necessary, but in fact sufficient to reform a large and complex institution, he was not the first to do so.

For example, electoral fraud in 1850s San Francisco was revealed when “stuffer’s ballot boxes”, dark blue, opaque and fitted-out with false bottoms and hidden side panels, ready packed or “stuffed” with pre-marked ballot papers, were discovered. Cunningly on hand as a corrective alternative was New Yorker Samuel C Jollie’s new design for a transparent ballot box, recently described by historian Ellery Foutch. “Where the San Francisco box was wooden, dense, and plain, hiding its contents from view, Jollie’s invention offered viewers a transparent glass globe hovering in an architectural armature of iron columns, proudly exhibiting its gleaming, crystalline interior”, writes Foutch. As Jollie’s 1858 patent application put it, “the ballot box shall at all times exhibit the collection of the ballotings, in other words a ballot box so constructed that the bystanders may see every ballot which is put in, see all the ballots that are in, and see them when taken out.” Just as with Prince Ali’s transparent voting booth, visibility and vigilant surveillance were crucial. Unlike Prince Ali’s voting booth, Jollie’s ballot boxes were made extensive use of, in New York State at least, with an estimated 1200 to 1700 purchased, a few of which survive today in museum collections. The deployment of a transparent medium may well have made the act of placing a ballot paper in a box less corrupted or corruptible by making it visible, but it would be, and was, a mistake to conclude that the voting and indeed electoral process as a whole was reformed by this technological fix to one aspect of the process. Jollie’s glass globes were robust and allegedly bullet-proof, but a bullet-proof and transparent ballot box is irrelevant in the face of other forms of corruption such as voter intimidation. Foutch describes an 1874 cartoon in Harpers Weekly depicting emancipated male African-American voters queueing to place their ballots in a glass ballot box, only to be met with a white man with a pistol, whilst male white voters placed their votes unencumbered: “although the New York councilmen were convinced the box itself could withstand bullets, the voters themselves were still vulnerable” [9].

In his 2003 history of computing and the British state, historian of science Jon Agar notes an intriguing difference between different forms of state-run lottery in the UK between the 1950s and the 1990s. ERNIE, the Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment, deployed from 1957 to randomly choose winners of prizes among holders of government-issued Premium Bonds, was a highly untransparent device: enclosed in grey steel cabinets, it’s neon tubes and teleprinters concealed, the mechanism whereby it generated random numbers remained hidden. In spite of this, there was very little criticism by the public or the media of the procedure by which winners were picked. For Agar, this highlights that the government and the government experts who designed and operated ERNIE enjoyed considerable public trust: “the bondholder had to, and largely did, accept faith in the closed verification procedure”. Agar contrasts ERNIE to its 1990s equivalents, the literally transparent National Lottery machines named Lancelot, Guinevere, and Merlin. “These were see-through, low-tech devices. How could one doubt that the process is truly random when the viewer could see directly the bouncing numbered balls? By making the workings visible fairness was demonstrated, and transparency replaced trust in the expert. But Lancelot has only apparent transparency and it has attracted more suspicions of bias than ERNIE. Lancelot is a machine indicative of a culture in which there is a lack of trust: like the spread of the audit, the prompt was a lack or failure of trust rather than a real increase in accountability” [10].

Literal transparency can also be an obfuscation, a way to mask or draw attention away from questionable practices. “Although we do not yet live in transparent times, we do live in an age of transparency advocacy”, notes cultural theorist Clare Birchall [11]. In making public large quantities of data, an institution or an authority absolves themselves of responsibility for that which is revealed by shifting the public’s attention away from the content of the revelation and focusing it on the supposedly inherent virtue of the act of revelation. The ubiquitous deployment of literally transparent materials in governmental and corporate buildings, for instance, operates in a similar way to the sharing of information and data through self-consciously transparent revelations: we’ve been transparent, you’ve seen our inner workings, we have given an account: what more do you want? In the late 1990s the Volkswagen group built what they termed a Transparent Factory, Die Gläserne Manufaktur, for manufacturing the Phaeton car model, using see-through architecture to communicate openly and reveal and display both the manufacturing process and the company’s “values”, with the finished models displayed in a multi-storey glass tower of brand-new cars [12]. As curator and art critic Thomas Thiel notes, the September 2015 Volkswagen emissions scandal should perhaps not be understood merely as extraordinarily hypocritical for an institution that fetishises transparency, but rather itself reveals the limitations of transparency, literal or figurative. The fraud was located in the software, not the hardware: the transparency of the factory was irrelevant, perhaps even a misdirection. Massive and complex financial fraud is executed on a daily basis at computer terminals in financial district offices made entirely of glass, it could be noted. The stress by Angela Merkel in the aftermath of the emissions scandal that it was essential for Volkswagen to be henceforth “transparent” failed to appreciate that being “transparent” hadn’t stopped the fraud in the first place: disclosure, even real-time “dashboard transparency”, will not necessarily empower citizens, prevent corruption or restore trust [13].

The crude literalism that leads to transparent voting booths is not, however, merely an unfortunate interpretation of transparency discourse. Rather, this discourse often demands literalism, in both its claim that we should mistrust that which we cannot immediately see, and its claim that in seeing, conversely, we can immediately trust. “The imperative of transparency suspects everything that does not submit to visibility”, claims philosopher Byung-Chul Han in his recent short book The Transparency Society. “Therein lies its violence,” he ominously adds [14]. A culture that insists on the primacy of the visible and the visual is one that implies that the multiple problems of an institution, namely FIFA, can sincerely be overcome with a specific technical, displayable, fix. In audit culture, the generation of performance indicators is prized, and the indexicality of such indicators is often forgotten or at least minimised: the achievement of the performance indicator becomes the goal in and of itself. Under transparency, that there is indexicality or mediation at all is outright denied: that which is made visible is all that there is, and that is all there is to be said about it.

The nature of corruption within FIFA, which might have multiple, intersecting causes, such as global inequality, post-colonialism, and the nature of corporate multinational sponsorship, were all quite absent in the public pronouncements of FIFA reformers. That 207 of the 209 votes in an election to a body that is supposed to represent both men’s and women’s football across the globe were to be cast by men was unremarked upon; neither was it noted that the most prominent advocate of electoral reform was an unelected Prince [15]. “It’s one of the principles of the Olympic Charter and the FIFA statutes to have the decision within football not influenced by external parties”, claimed Prince Ali’s rival and fellow reformer Jerome Champagne the week before the election, as if global professional sport existed outside of business and politics [16]. One of the ironies of proposing literal transparency as a way to ensure a secret and thus just ballot is that transparency fetishises accountability, whilst the secrecy of a secret ballot has historically been important because it deliberately prevents accountability. A show of hands, an open ballot, making public who has voted for whom: these are all systems where voters are accountable for their vote, and it was this very accountability that historically prevented individuals voting as they desired. In an important sense, a secret ballot is efficacious because of the lack of accountability: the right not to reveal, or give an account of, the manner in which one has voted. Foregrounded in Prince Ali and Jimmy Carter’s secret ballot was a notion of individualism, and liberal free choice, guided “solely by conscience” [17]. As Birchall explains, in supposedly opening government and the public and private sectors to public scrutiny, transparency encourages citizens to be both entrepreneurial but also vigilant with respect to data at exactly the same time that forms of scrutiny and oversight traditionally undertaken by the state are either diminished, outsourced or privatised. In short, transparency is invariably neoliberal, transferring responsibility from the state to the individual [18]. At FIFA, under Prince Ali’s proposals, the 209 voters, analogous to a citizenry, have only themselves to blame if, having cast their vote in a transparent booth, and been seen to do so, they still succumb to influence. We’ve put you on display, what more do you expect of us? This is the danger of the transparent voting booth episode: it is not so much that it is a ridiculously literal device, but rather that it is thoroughly depoliticising, delimiting and restricting the boundaries of acceptable critique or reform of an institution or a political system. Citizen-voters are consumers in this worldview, supposedly empowered, but unable, because of this framing, to question anything other than their rights qua consumer rights.

Anthropologist George Marcus recently proposed an exhibition entitled Making Transparency Visible, based on ethnographic fieldwork undertaken at the headquarters of the World Trade Organisation. Like FIFA, headquartered in Zürich, the WTO, from its base in Geneva, espouses certain types of transparency whilst remaining a discreet and opaque institution. Office doors are pointedly left open, even at weekends, a staged accessibility, whilst the building itself at times remains heavily guarded, inaccessible [19]. Marcus suggests display cases and plastic screens of varying degrees of literal transparency and opacity, sometimes obscuring and sometimes revealing the exhibited objects and documents: an ironical and self-aware exhibition, in which museum modes of presentation, representation and accountability are themselves acknowledged. One conceit of transparency is that it succeeds in giving an account, another is that the act of being presented with an account is intrinsically empowering. Making an exhibition or even a museum of transparency might necessarily entail giving some kind of an account of transparency, literally putting the material culture of transparency on display: to be clear, the prototype transparent booth is an extraordinary object that belongs in a museum. But to see transparency is not to dispose of the problem of transparency. Witnessing a ballot paper being marked, or a lottery number being generated, or a car being manufactured, does not necessarily empower individuals, nor does it necessarily correct or restructure entrenched mechanisms of power and influence. Museum display itself can sometimes be an obfuscation: a claim that to exhibit and reveal is to rationalise, to make sense of, to place, to empoweringly give an account. We’ve put it on display, what more do you want? A museum of transparency that displays the material culture of transparency whilst resisting the seductions of transparency: this, I think, would be interesting.

[1] Andrew Jennings, The Dirty Game: Uncovering the Scandal at FIFA (London: Arrow Books, 2016).

[2] “Prince Ali Sends Transparent Voting Booths to FIFA Presidential Election”, The Guardian, February 22, 2016, accessed August 21, 2017,

[3] Jimmy Carter, “Statement from Former US President Jimmy Carter”,, February 21, 2016, accessed August 21, 2017,

[4] “Prince Ali Fails in Bid for Transparent Voting Booths as CAS Dismisses Appeal”, The Daily Mail, February 25, 2016, accessed August 21, 2017,

[5] Kevin McCauley, “FIFA Presidential Candidate Fights for ‘Transparency’ with Literal Transparent Voting Booth,”, February 22, 2016, accessed August 21, 2017,

[6] Adam Withnall, “Ed Miliband Unveils Stone Carved with Labour Pledges to Be Placed at Downing Street If He Wins,” The Independent, May 3, 2015, accessed August 21, 2017,

[7] This is seemingly exactly what has happened: in November 2015 The People’s History Museum, Manchester, “made tentative enquiries into acquiring the stone for its collection… but everyone they spoke to denied any knowledge of its fate”, and it has furthermore been claimed that it has now been destroyed with a sledgehammer. Frances Perraudin, “The Ed Stone: Where Is Ed Miliband’s Monumental Folly Now?,” The Guardian, December 22, 2015, accessed August 21, 2017,


[9] Ellery Foutch, “The Glass Ballot Box and Political Transparency”, 16(4) (2016), accessed August 21, 2017,

[10] Jon Agar, The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the Computer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 427-429. ERNIE 1 is now on display at the Science Museum in London, more visible than ever before. By contrast, the whereabouts of Lancelot and the other original National Lottery machines, retired in 2009, is unclear. “GPO ERNIE I,” Science Museum Group Collection Online, accessed August 21, 2017,

[11] Clare Birchall, “Radical Transparency?,” Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies 14(1) (2014): 78.

[12] “The Manufactory,” Volkswagen Group, accessed August 21, 2017.

[13] Thomas Thiel, “Opaque Transparency,” in Transparenzen/Transparencies, ed. Simone Neuenschwander and Thomas Thiel (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016), 21-27. For a discussion of the purposes and consequences of making things literally transparent, from Volkswagen manufacture to museum storage and collections management practices see Anke te Heesen, “The Unending Quantity of Objects: An Observation on Museums and their Presentation Modes,” in Aesthetics of Universal Knowledge, ed. Simon Schaffer, John Tresch and Pasquale Gagliardi (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 115-134, and Nicky Reeves, “Visible Storage, Visible Labour?”, in Museum Storage and Meaning: Tales from the Crypt, ed. Mirjam Brusius and Kavita Singh (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), 55-63.

[14] Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society (Stanford: Stanford Briefs, 2015), 13.

[15] The two (out of 209) female FA presidents at the time of the February 2016 vote were Isha Johansen of Sierra Leone and Sonia Bien-Aime of the Turks and Caicos Islands.

[16] Brian Homewood, “Mobiles Banned from FIFA Voting Booths to Ensure Secrecy”,, February 17, 2016, accessed August 21, 2017,

[17] Carter, “Statement from Former US President Jimmy Carter”.

[18] Birchall, “Radical Transparency?”.

[19] George E Marcus, “Making Transparency Visible: Centre William Rappard, Headquarters of the World Trade Organisation, Geneva,” in Curatorial Dreams: Critics Imagine Exhibitions, ed. Shelley Ruth Butler and Erica Lehrer (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016), 28-45.

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The Prince of Wales, the rhino leg waste-paper basket, and the Museums Association’s Disposal Toolkit

In February 2014, Charles, Prince of Wales launched a new campaign to tackle “the demand for and consumption of specific products from critically endangered wildlife”. Elephants and rhinos in particular were being killed for their tusks and their horns by “organised gangs, terrorist groups and militia”. “Most recently, demand from Asia – particularly China – has fuelled the trade, but we also know that the United States and Europe are contributing to it”, he told heads of states and officials from around 50 countries at a conference held in London. Whilst upholding laws, prosecuting poachers and traders, and confiscating profits made from the illegal trade in critically endangered species continued to be necessary, addressing the underlying demand was vital. “When the buying stops, the killing can too”, Charles’s son Prince William explained, flanked by David Beckham and some computer-generated rhinos, in a video that same week to launch a new organisation, United for Wildlife, convened by William and supported by his charity, The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry.

David Beckham asking people to stop buying rhino horn and elephant ivory means something different than when Prince Charles and Prince William make the same request. Unlike the British Royal family, David Beckham’s family (as far as I know) neither possesses large amounts of ivory nor has a history of shooting rhinos. Indeed Charles appears to be the first Prince of Wales who, given the opportunity, has chosen not to shoot rhinos, elephants and tigers for fun. Furthermore, unlike members the British Royal family, David Beckham does not principally demand respect and a platform because of who his ancestors were. All power, wealth, influence and indeed political legitimacy that the unelected Charles, William, and Harry possess and wield stems from their genealogy. If you claim power as a birthright, then what your grandmother, great-grandfather, or indeed great-great-uncle did really matters in a way that it doesn’t for other politicians’ legitimacy. Former US Presidents may well have shot rhinos, for instance, but the US President does not typically claim power by virtue of being the descendant of a former President.

Following the rebellion of 1857, the British East India Company was dissolved and much of the Indian subcontinent came under direct Crown control. Shooting rhinos, pig-sticking, and shooting tigers whilst mounted on elephants, at huge expense, became an essential rite of passage for all Princes of Wales. In the 1890s, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, used to entertain guests at Sandringham surrounded by tiger skins and elephant tusks, “a good record of the travels of his Royal Highness”. The most significant of these travels had been his grand hunting trip to India and Ceylon in 1875-76. On the first day of hunting the Prince shot six tigers, one of which was a female pregnant with 6 cubs. As John MacKenzie describes it in The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation and British Imperialism (1988), it was reported back home that the Prince’s “wonderful sport” made “an impression of manly vigour and power of endurance which pleased everyone, Europeans and natives alike”. “Royal qualities of courage, energy and physical power” showed that he was “the incarnation of the British Raj”.

Edward’s son, whilst Duke of York and then from 1901 Prince of Wales, was regarded as one of the best shots in the Empire. He hunted in India in 1905, and returned in 1911 following his coronation as George V: 18 rhinoceroses were killed during the King’s hunting party in Nepal, during which his rifle handling skills led him to be proclaimed in the dedication of one book to be “a great shikari”.

His son, the future Edward VIII, as Prince of Wales shot a rhino on the second day of his extensive December 1921 hunting party in Nepal. As the Royal tent already had a wastepaper basket made from the lower joint of a rhino leg, it’s perhaps doubtful why he needed to shoot another. If ever there was a exemplar for the word “overkill”, it is surely a rhino leg wastepaper basket within a mess tent set up for the purposes of killing more rhinos:

The floor of the mess tent was carpeted with leopard skins, pieced together as a great mat; the effect, as can be gathered, was extremely rich and striking. The very appointments of HRH’s writing table were all mementos of sport in Nepal, being made up from rhino hoofs, horns and hide, and even the waste-paper basket was made from the lower joint of a rhino’s leg.

Bernard C Ellison, HRH the Prince of Wales’s Sport in India (1925) p.6.

The rhino leg wastepaper basket has probably long been lost, discarded or forgotten, one of the many things that made up the pampered world of the man who went on to be – briefly – King of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India. Nevertheless, large amounts of elephant and rhino products historically collected and possessed by the British Royal family survive. For instance, here’s an elephant ivory fan in the Royal Collection bearing the Prince of Wales’s coat of arms, made in China for export to England in the 1790s for the then Prince of Wales, later George IV. And here’s an ivory, silver gilt and jewelled cup also in the Royal Collection. The cup depicts Diana, goddess of the hunt; when George IV purchased it, he had added extra emeralds, rubies and turquoises. And, here’s a ivory-veneered throne chair and footstool in the Royal Collection, made in India in 1850. Searching for “ivory” within the Royal Collection’s public facing database brings up 2,303 results, which is quite a lot of ivory. There’s less, but still a few, products made from rhinos: rhino-skin shields, for instance, and several walking sticks made of rhinoceros horn such as this one that belonged to Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales.

What do Charles and William think about all this stuff? According to an exclusive in The Independent on Sunday a couple of days after his February 2014 wildlife plea, the Prince of Wales “has reportedly asked for ivory items at Clarence House and Highgrove to be put out of sight over the last few years”. The same article quoted veteran primatologist Jane Goodall as claiming that William has gone further, and that he would “like to see all the ivory owned by Buckingham Palace destroyed”. Although The IoS noted that “a spokesman for the Duke of Cambridge refused to either confirm or deny private comments Prince William is said to have made”, there was no shortage of animal welfare and wildlife charity representatives willing to praise the Duke’s alleged stance; multimillionaire Tory MP Zac Goldsmith furthermore told the IoS that “it’s difficult to imagine a stronger symbol of the horrors of ivory than Buckingham Palace publicly destroying its own”. The destruction of ivory in a public display has precedents. In 1989 Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi lit a bonfire made of twelve tons of elephant tusks confiscated from poachers, an act of destruction broadcast around the world. More recently, in 2015 Mayor of New York Bill De Blasio oversaw in Times Square an equally public and theatrical crushing of one ton of confiscated ivory tusks and finished goods.

Prince William’s is certainly a very radical suggestion, if it is true, but in any case, as was pointed out in many places, it’s not his ivory to destroy. The Royal Collection is displayed within 13 royal residences and former residences across the UK, one of which is Buckingham Palace. “The Royal Collection is held in trust by The Queen as Sovereign for her successors and the nation. It is not owned by her as a private individual”, the FAQ on the Collection’s website insists: if it is not exactly owned by the Sovereign, then it’s definitely not owned by Prince William.

Of course it is possible that there are items made of ivory within Buckingham Palace and other royal residences which are not part of the Royal Collection, but are rather the private property of members of the Royal Family. Prince William could probably destroy those if he wanted to and Grandma said it was okay. Distinguishing between items in Buckingham Palace that are part of the Royal Collection and items in Buckingham Palace that are not is, however, not straightforward. The Collection is not the same thing as the residence or residences, and just as the issue of who owns it is a bit fuzzy, so is the question of what is its extent, scope and content.

Furthermore, of the 13 residences where the Royal Collection is displayed, some are members of the Accreditation Scheme, formerly the Museum Registration Scheme, which sets nationally-agreed standards for collections management at UK museums, and some are not. Hampton Court Palace, Osborne House, the Tower of London, and Kensington Palace State Apartments and Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection have all been fully Accredited since 2010, whilst Windsor Castle, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and Buckingham Palace are neither Accredited nor registered as working towards Accreditation at the time of writing. It is not clear whether items from the Royal Collection on display or in storage at Buckingham Palace are subject to the same collections management standards as those on display or in storage at, for instance, Hampton Court.

All of this is particularly relevant because one of the things the Accreditation Scheme is particularly clear on is the issue of disposal of items within a collection. The Museums Association and the UK Accreditation partnership has published a very detailed Disposal Toolkit to encourage best practice within the sector. Disposal of items within a collection on an ad hoc basis is characterised as unacceptable; Accredited museums wishing to dispose of accessioned objects in their collections must demonstrate how the long-term local and general public interest is served through disposal, and base decisions to dispose on clear, published criteria as part of the institution’s long-term collections development policy. Disposal of an item is not appropriate merely because the item is embarrassing or distasteful, and indeed disposal because the item has become unfashionable is specifically flagged as cause for proceeding with caution.

Offering objects for transference to, in the first instance, other Accredited museums or collections, preferably by gift, is strongly emphasised in the guiding principles on disposal. An Accredited institution which has established a clear reason for wishing to dispose of its ivory collection would be obliged to offer the objects firstly to other Accredited museums, secondly to non-accredited institutions within the public domain, thirdly to individuals or (least preferably) bodies outside of the public domain. The standard way to inform the museum sector and relevant organisations that an object is intended to be disposed of is to place a notice either in the Museums Journal or on the Museum Association’s Find an Object web list allowing at least two months for other institutions to express an interest in taking possession of the object. The guidelines for disposal suggests that recycling of an item can go ahead only if no new location can be found, and that destruction should only take place if an item poses a risk to the health and safety of individuals or the rest of the collection.

Needless to say, taking out a small ad in the back pages of the Museums Journal and then arranging to transfer items to another museum is probably not what either Prince Charles or Prince William have in mind for their embarrassing ivory collection. Putting entirely to one side either the question of destroying often unique things, or indeed the question of what exactly is intended to be achieved by, for instance, crushing or burning a pile of manufactured goods, it really is quite hard to destroy an object in a collection if best practice is followed. The Museums Association guidelines do note that although “a range of views should be sought in the process”, the final decision about whether an item is to be disposed from a collection rests with the governing body; as far as I can tell this would be the Royal Collection Trust, a charity which has several aims including broadening access, making appropriate acquisitions, and ensuring that objects remain available to future generations. There are six trustees, who meet three times a year under the Chairmanship of the Prince of Wales; I suppose this gives him final say.

Ivory’s durability and colour made it a desirable substance at many points in British history, and its widespread availability in Britain as a raw material and as finished goods at certain points in British history tells us important things about the history of the British presence in India, most obviously. Its abundance in collections today, its sheer physical presence, functions as an important and permanent historical record. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s offsite storage at Blythe House in West London, for instance, contains an astonishing number of finished goods containing ivory, stored, catalogued and conserved. From brooches to statues to the dials of navigation devices to the keys of pianos, accredited, nonaccredited, public and private collections are full of ivory goods, some very old indeed. Objects in collections don’t just illustrate historical arguments, but rather they make and assert historical arguments, their continuing existence being evidence and proof of past practices.

The ivory items in the Royal Collection, just like all the jewels and the crowns and the gold and the furs and the paintings and the furniture and the property, records the extraordinary wealth of the Royal family. They furthermore record the specific history of the ritual and symbolic use of objects and collections by monarchs to dazzle and to control. Wishing to destroy Grandma’s ghastly trinkets here would be motivated in part by a desire to suppress the historical evidence of how his ancestors fashioned their identities through the collection, display and consumption of goods and things. This is surely part of the motivation for Charles’s reported strategy of removing ivory objects from display, “out of sight”, at his private residences. This quiet, discreet concealment of aspects of his family’s history that he finds distasteful is characteristic of a would-be ruler who is happy to draw on his genealogy and make ritual use of objects when it suits him, but seeks suppression at other times. Better would be an exhibition about his family’s long tradition of shooting rare animals for fun, perhaps with an audio guide narrated by William. I quite like the idea of making a big, very public pile of ivory goods, not out of sight but rather highly visible, not crushed or burnt but rather prominently redisplayed, obviously only after appropriate collections care considerations and risk assessments have been made to ensure that being in a pile does not damage the objects.

It was of course perhaps-not-brilliant PR that the week before launching United for Wildlife, William had been on a widely-reported holiday shooting wild boar and stags on an enormous private estate in Spain owned by the Duke of Westminster, presumably satisfying his own “demand for and consumption of specific products” such as horns and antlers. Is it hypocritical for William regularly and enthusiastically to shoot wild boar, stags and pheasants whilst, as he did in 2013, branding those who shoot rhinos as “ignorant, selfish and wrong”? Not really, because sincerely believing that different rules apply for a select few by virtue of breeding and inheritance is constitutive of the whole business of a monarchy. Rhinos are critically endangered, and deer and wild boar are not, of course, and an argument could be made that there is no contradiction in protecting one whilst shooting the other. But this is largely only the case because shooting these forms of “game” remains the privilege of a wealthy elite: if everybody shot them for fun in the manner that Prince William does then deer and boar would rapidly become endangered or extinct. It’s not so much hypocritical for a Prince to shoot for fun whilst condemning others that do the same thing; rather, it’s constitutive of being a Prince to consider it correct and natural that different rules apply.

The shift with respect to “big game” from hunting to conservation amongst ruling elites is a frequent 20th-century story, but it is not one where said elites show contrition for their behaviour or their ancestors’ behaviour, but rather one where they find new ways to exercise status and power. The final chapter of MacKenzie’s Empire of Nature notes this shift with respect to the British Royal family. The Duke and Duchess of York, the future George VI and Queen Elizabeth, spent their honeymoon in 1924 shooting rhinos on safari in East Africa. In contrast, when in 1986, their daughter, Elizabeth II, and her husband, Prince Philip, visited Nepal, rather than shooting rhinos, they shot film and observed the tranquillising of a rhino named Philip so that it could be fitted with a radio tracking device. Postcolonial promotion of conservation by Elizabeth and now Charles and William should not be mistaken as an apology or an attempt to make amends for the actions of their ancestors, but rather a new way of asserting their claim to special privileges, a new way of claiming a special and unique proprietorial relationship between monarchs and nature.

Prince Harry rather extraordinarily spent the summer of 2015 dehorning rhinos in Namibia, carefully removing the valuable horn from sedated rhinos in the hope of protecting the animals by making them less attractive to potential poachers. “In the hierarchical hunting scheme it was essential that the most notable hunting feats were performed by those at the apex of the social order”, MacKenzie notes. A hundred years ago on the carefully staged-managed hunt the privilege of inflicting the fatal shot was reserved for the Prince. In 2015 the decisive act, here performed with a small chainsaw rather than a rifle, is likewise reserved for the Prince. Like his brother and father Harry is clearly concerned with the embarrassing legacy of his ancestors’ ivory collections and fondness for killing rhinos. His great-grandparents killed rhinos for sport, collecting and displaying the trophies, his grandparents exemplified the trend for shooting film over shooting bullets, his father actively promoted conservation, and he now has revived the role of the princely hunter-collector, personally dehorning rhinos. What will happen to all of those de-horned horns collected in the field by the Prince is not yet clear, but it’s most likely that, as with most other legally removed horns, they have been stockpiled rather than destroyed, a collection of sorts.

Perhaps in one hundred years time Harry’s sojourns to “the continent that has given me thousands of happy memories” will appear to his descendants as embarrassingly neocolonial, or perhaps with the benefit of temporal distance be considered more similar than different to the behaviour of his trigger-happy ancestors, not neocolonial but just colonial. One could imagine a future Prince in 100 years time embarrassed by his ancestor Harry’s treatment of a romanticised Africa as a playground for white saviour princes, and thus seeking to destroy or discreetly remove the physical or indeed electronic evidence “out of sight”. Finding something in a collection distasteful is not in itself sufficient reason to remove it from a collection, and we need to be on guard as to the motivations of those who wish to suppress those things that embarrass them. If William comes to the realisation that there are several good reasons why he cannot destroy the ivory in Buckingham Palace, he might like to think about advocating for Buckingham Palace being turned into a museum that interrogates his family history. Oftentimes the value of an object changes over time; sometimes that it is an object at all is only appreciated in hindsight. The meaning and indeed ontological status of Harry’s chainsaw, or the horns he dehorned in Namibia in 2015, have yet to be determined; in the case of the chainsaw, it may be too late already for it to be collected and conserved. Personally I think the chainsaw in particular would be an excellent object to display at Buckingham Palace, alongside, perhaps in large piles, William and Harry’s ancestors’ fans, goblets, thrones, walking sticks, wastepaper baskets, mounted trophies, shotguns, rifles, and cameras.

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Moving a Museum

Following the things on a museum decant project


The museum’s entire collection is moving to a brand-new storage facility. Rehousing takes place at a variety of scales: new facility, new racks, new shelves, new trays. In a warehouse on the southside of the city, the palaeontological collections are being processed prior to installation in their new home. Palletised material arrives from the old stores and is then unpacked, sorted and registered, then repacked into clean new trays that are in turn palletised and stacked to await transportation to the new facility.


The old wooden trays and individual card trays are being replaced with new bar-coded plastic trays and new acid-free card trays. As each object is removed from a wooden tray and placed in a plastic one, its accession number or identifying marks are entered into a spreadsheet, creating a skeleton digital record which will allow the object to be tracked. A digital image of each full new tray is additionally captured.


A purple-nitrile-gloved hand transfers a small piece of fossilised material from one tray to another one, and repeats this several hundred thousand times. Easy to describe, yet astonishingly demanding to plan and implement accurately, consistently and efficiently, keeping track of every object and ensuring the well-being of both the collections and the museum workers.


The following images attempt to visually gesture to the scale of the operation in two senses. Firstly, scale meaning a change of perspective, zooming in and zooming out, from the scale of the warehouse down to the scale of a small acid-free card tray, and back to the scale of the warehouse*. Secondly, scale meaning quantity or volume of the task, the number of trays, boxes, labels, sheets of jiffy foam, keystrokes entered, and the number of repeated bodily movements: lifting up, lifting down, picking up, putting to one side, placing, replacing, updating, ticking-off a list, discarding, renewing, again and again and again.

*Yes, I was indeed thinking of Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames.


There are limitations to this sort of visual representation of practices, however. My image selection makes visible certain types of museum work, but not all museum work lends itself to being made visually explicable. Absent, for instance, are the significant hours hunched over a laptop ordering materials and tools, deciding which sort of plastic trays to get, and how many, getting quotes from approved contractors, and wrestling with the not-necessarily-amenable institutional procurement system. All of this is real museum work, but a type of work that is difficult to represent through photographs. Absent too are other workers: we see the skip, but not the workers who remove it, and we see the brand-new plastic trays, but not the workers who construct them. I’ve represented certain types of work in a warehouse, but I’ve not necessarily represented all types of warehouse work.

My image selection and sequential presentation is furthermore somewhat normative. The sequence should not not be mistaken for an authentic revelation of “real” museum work. Seriality is seductive, and implies here a smooth inevitability: of course this is the way that the task should be handled, of course this is the way in which the complex task should be broken down into component parts. This runs the risk of making it look effortless, or at least merely a matter of following a set of instructions. Instruction manuals, with their sequential diagrams, map poorly to our experiences of following them, and the two distinct things should not be confused. Likewise instruction manuals map poorly to the work that went into creating them. Establishing a methodology is an achievement, the successful implementation of which can sometimes efface much of the achievement. Maintaining order is likewise an achievement that is often invisible. My images do look rather too closely like an instruction manual.

So there you go: a genre piece immediately followed by a critique of that genre. I may be trying to have my cake and eat it. Ho-hum.

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Out of storage and on display

“We’ll help the British Museum, the Science Museum, and the V&A move their collections out of storage and on display.”

George Osborne, 2015 Autumn Statement and Spending Review Speech, November 25, 2015

In an announcement that surprised no-one in the museum world, in today’s Autumn Statement and Spending Review Chancellor Of The Exchequer George Osborne announced the sale of Blythe House, a massive former postal sorting office turned storage facility in West London, owned by the Department Of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), currently housing collections from the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum Group and the British Museum.

In line with the current and previous government’s attempt to raise cash through one-off sales of government-owned buildings, the expectation is presumably that the sale of this exceptionally large building in an exceptionally expensive part of London will generate an exceptionally large sum of money. A month ago the Museums Association reported on the three museums and their contingency plans with respect to the possible sale of Blythe House. The V&A noted that they were looking at the option of relocating their “world-class reserve collections to a state-of-the-art, accessible collections centre in London”, preferably near to the new V&A East in the former Olympic Park, the British Museum noted both that it “aims to house more of its collection on the [Central London] Bloomsbury site”, but also that “until these plans are realised, Blythe House is the best solution for housing these objects”, and The Science Museum Group declined to comment and referred all queries to the DCMS.

Museums with enormous collections need enormous amounts of storage. It is a given that only a tiny percentage of the collections will ever be on display; the question is what sort of storage should be provided, and where should it be located. In addition to the possible urban solution (BM) and the possible suburban solution (V&A), is the nonurban solution: something similar to what the Science Museum Group already operates at its former aircraft hangar suite at Wroughton in Wiltshire, where a large amount of its large objects are stored. What is gained through cheaper and larger property is balanced against remoteness: museums, just like libraries and archives grappling with very large amounts of stuff, must consider carefully all the multiple ways in which “access” is desired and facilitated.

Whatever their varied plans, the one term that is seldom used these days to describe a site is “store”. “Collections research centre”, “collections study centre”, “museum support centre” are the preferred sort of terms: dynamic places where collections are located, conserved, researched, made accessible, but never merely “a store” or “the store”. “Storage facility” is just about acceptable, evoking as it does, industrious work, rather than (merely) stationary objects; “vault”, a term that evokes inaccessibility, secrecy, and security, for so long a easy analogy for museum storage, is now taboo. Accessibility, and visibility, two often-related but nevertheless distinct things, are emphasised, as is transparency: the governmental/managerial claim to accountability and accessibility is made literal through the see-through nature of new facilities, where transparent glass replaces opaque walls, and “behind-the-scenes” tours are obligatory.

As I write this the details are not clear, but the Museums Association notes that the Chancellor has today announced £150 million to replace Blythe House with as-yet-unspecified “world-class storage facilities”. That’s not quite how the Chancellor phrased it in the Commons, however. It might be unfair to hold him absolutely accountable to the precise meaning of every utterance he made during a 65-minute speech, but this was a scripted and repeatedly drafted document, wherein clarity and concision were presumably considered at length. How to express the sale of Blythe House as a positive opportunity in a solitary sentence? “We’ll help the British Museum, the Science Museum and the V&A move their collections out of storage and on display.” From storage, to display: what is desirable here is less of the former and more of the latter. This opposition is simplistic, however. Whatever happens to these collections, they will go from one type of storage to another type of storage. They are not going to go “on display” en masse. Yet when forced to summarise and put a positive spin on what will now happen, the Chancellor and his speechwriters rely on the trope that stored objects are not being sufficiently put to work, and that putting them on display is the most obvious and best way to make them accessible. The distinction between what will happen and how it is represented in discourse highlights how currently dominant is the natural framing of the value and worth of collections in terms of visual display, or, how currently dominant is the natural framing of accessibility of collections as the same thing as visibility of collections.

In seeking to emphasise the desirability of accessibility, the Chancellor invokes visibility/display, and he is not alone in this slippage when discoursing upon contemporary museums. Making objects more visible does not necessarily make them more accessible. Many “visible storage” strategies within museums over the past 15 or so years entail the display of a greatly increased number of objects, sometimes making a virtue of revealing what museum storage “really looks like”, but this does not necessarily make the collections easier to research, or comprehend, or indeed critique. A collections centre should provide access to the collections for a variety of end users, but this is quite distinct from making them all on display. Many collections’ long-term value as both historical records and objects of research, teaching and outreach stems from them explicitly not being on display, for conservation reasons, and also because a stored object is often easier to retrieve and inspect, and indeed do things with, than a displayed object. This is all undoubtedly well understood by the DCMS and indeed most museums, yet visibility as an inherently good thing is such an ubiquitous way of talking about museums in public that, ironically, we seemingly can’t see past it or through it. This is my (small) point here: reducing museums to a simple opposition between storage and display is wearying, and this discourse does not do justice to all the creative ways in which museums are thinking about making their collections truly accessible.


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Playing with Museum Representations of 18th-Century American Encounters

In 1763 the proprietors of Pennsylvania and Maryland commissioned a land survey to resolve the long-running boundary dispute between the two provinces. Dozens of “axe men” spent the best part of five years clearing lines through the woods, to enable two Englishmen, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, to use astronomical methods to determine latitudes with unprecedented precision. Whilst in America, Mason and Dixon used their delicate and expensive instruments, shipped specially from London, to measure a degree in the Meridian for the Royal Society, providing valuable measurements from the New World to aid the ongoing attempt by astronomers and mathematicians to determine the exact shape or figure of the Earth.

A Map of That Part of America Where a Degree of Latitude Was Measured for the Royal Society by Cha. Mason & Jere. Dixon. From Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, 'Observations for Determining the Length of a Degree of Latitude…', Philosophical Transactions 58, 274-328

A Map of That Part of America Where a Degree of Latitude Was Measured for the Royal Society by Cha. Mason & Jere. Dixon. From Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, ‘Observations for Determining the Length of a Degree of Latitude…’, Philosophical Transactions 58, 274-328

A 1750 London court case had resolved that the boundary should consist of three principal sections, namely a line west along a parallel of latitude exactly 15 miles south of the southernmost point of the city of Philadelphia, an arc of a circle of 12 miles radius centred on the town of Newcastle in present-day Delaware, and a tangent to that circle, originating at the point where the circle intersected the Western line and extending roughly southward into the modern day Delmarva Peninsula. Earlier surveys had proved unsatisfactory, in part because of the oddity of the defined boundary, and in the early 1760s an astronomical survey was resolved upon. It would use a newfangled telescope known as a zenith sector, made by London instrument maker John Bird, to determine geographical latitudes with respect of the stars. Mason – a former assistant to the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich – and Dixon arrived with their cargo of clocks, telescopes, chains and rods at Philadelphia in November 1763.

By late 1767, the parallel of latitude extended some 230 miles, an arc of circle physically carved out of the woods, uncannily geometric, exactly westward, the land made map-like by the act of surveying. In between the daily measurements and observations, Mason’s Journal, like many 18th-century travel narratives, details enormous trees, extreme weather, awe-inspiring caves, spiritual reflections, and accounts of numerous encountered peoples. As part of an exhibition about navigation, astronomy, trade and empire in the 18th century that I curated in 2012 at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge, I tried to represent the survey with a miniature diorama made of Playmobil. Part of the appeal was that a diorama foregrounds people: often in history of science museums historic instruments of glass and brass are displayed in isolation, with little reference to the people that used to them. Miniature models of astronomers using instruments do exist in a couple of museums, which provided some inspiration, but I specifically wanted to present the Mason and Dixon survey as an encounter between the British surveyors and numerous different peoples, including Native Americans. Museum dioramas, however, can often be viewed at best as rather naff, perhaps because of their literalism, and at worst racist in their displaying of models of humans as if they were natural history specimens. My diorama was intended in part to comment on the problems and limitations of representation, and this blog post describes how I navigated such problems.

Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, English astronomers, surveying the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, c.1765

Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, English astronomers, surveying the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, c.1765

A style of display I was trying to get away from: isolated historic glass and brass instruments

A style of display I was trying to get away from: isolated historic glass and brass instruments

Dioramas and Representations

Here are some examples of mini astronomers and navigators in museums which I like. The early 1970s model of the Endeavour, captained by James Cook, on display at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, does, amongst other things, a great job of demonstrating the important point that it took a very large number of people to sail halfway across the globe to observe the transit of Venus at Tahiti in the late 1760s: observations and discoveries are seldom solo affairs. The details are great, too: check out the tiny telescopes and octants, for instance.

The crew of the Endeavour, c.1768, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The crew of the Endeavour, c.1768, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Note the tiny telescopes and the tiny octant

Note the tiny telescopes and the tiny octant

In the Deutsches Museum in Munich, there are two scale models of historical observatories, one depicting the observatory of Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687), and one depicting Tycho Brahe’s (1546-1601). Like dolls’ houses, these models have pathos and weirdness in equal measure. Hevelius and a colleague are depicted using a wonderfully detailed fixed quadrant. Tycho seems a sad, melancholy and slightly absurd figure, alone on the roof surrounded by his expensive instruments.

Mini Observatories, Deutsches Museum, Munich

Mini Observatories, Deutsches Museum, Munich

The business of astronomy: on the roof at Hevelius' Observatory in Danzig (now Gdansk)

The business of astronomy: on the roof at Hevelius’ Observatory in Danzig (now Gdansk)

Tycho, pondering the heavens

Tycho, pondering the heavens

Life-sized models in museums of historical events can similarly be both informative and a bit weird. Below is a life-sized diorama depicting an encounter between Dutch settlers and Native Americans in Manhattan in the 17th century. It’s on the lower ground floor of the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, home of some of the most celebrated habitat dioramas ever made. I find it quite unsettling viewing, given that it’s in a natural history museum, displaying humans in their habitat in exactly the same manner that bears and bison are shown one floor up. Turning peoples into exhibits has a long and uncomfortable history; displaying models of humans almost as if they were hunting trophies is, well, pretty shocking actually.

Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of New York, receiving a delegation of Hackensack Indians from New Jersey, 1660. Courtesy of,

Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of New York, receiving a delegation of Hackensack Indians from New Jersey, 1660. Courtesy of,

Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark, c.1805, Night at the Museum (2006)

Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark, c.1805, Night at the Museum (2006)

In the Hollywood film Night at the Museum, set in a fictional but close approximation of the AMNH, a mannequin depicting Sacagawea, guide and translator to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in their westward travels between 1804 and 1806, comes to life. Perhaps more than natural history or taxidermy, such dioramas have a lot in common with grand historical paintings, such as this depiction of an encounter between William Penn and members of the Lenape people on the banks of the River Delaware:

Penn's Treaty with the Indians, Benjamin West, 1771-72. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Gift of Mrs Sarah Harrison (The Joseph Harrison, Jr. Collection).

Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, Benjamin West, 1771-72. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Gift of Mrs Sarah Harrison (The Joseph Harrison, Jr. Collection).

This work by Benjamin West was commissioned by William Penn’s son Thomas Penn in London in 1771. It depicts his father solemnly yet cordially coming to an agreement with the locals nearly a century previously, in 1682. If Penn and his heirs successively took possession of more and more land from Lenape and other peoples from the 1680s onwards, the painting suggests it was through lawful, agreed-upon and unambiguous treaties, purchases, maps and surveys. 10 years previously, Thomas Penn had commissioned a different sort of method of civil legitimation of his territorial control, namely the boundary survey of Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Mason and Dixon in the Field

Charles Mason (right) and Jeremiah Dixon (left, with sextant)

Charles Mason (right) and Jeremiah Dixon (left, with sextant)

Mason and Dixon’s six-foot radius zenith sector telescope, designed exclusively for very exacting observations of the meridian transits of stars almost directly overhead, travelled in its own cart, on a feather bed. Sadly you can’t get a Playmobil zenith sector, but they do make sextants, magnetic compasses, pendulum clocks, quill pens, fixed pivoted telescopes, grey wigs and tri-cornered hats. The pendulum clock is a little anachronistic, looking more 19th than 18th century. Remarkably, the actual pendulum clock made in London by John Shelton and used by Mason and Dixon in America survives today in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Most of the navigational and astronomical devices came from the Playmobil Pirates range: evidently piracy is a precision science.

Piracy is a precision science

Piracy is a precision science

I was pleased with the trees: Mason’s Journal, in addition to the daily stargazing (often thwarted by cloud), clock-checking, milepost-marking, and repetitive mathematizing, details the extremes of heat and cold, thunderstorms, terrain and topography, mountains, caves and forests, with occasional asides reflecting upon their spiritual, perhaps providential, meaning. On September 13, 1764, near the River Nanticoke he observed “the greatest quantity of Timber I ever saw”, towering most of all “the lofty Cedar…the pleasing sight of which; renewed my wishes to see Mount Lebanon.” “From the solitary tops of these mountains, the Eye gazes round with pleasure; filling the mind with adoration to that prevading [sic] spirit that made them”, he noted on June 14, 1766.  Three weeks later, on July 7, he described the arc of circle, impressed by the geometry and scale of the survey: “This day from the Summit of Sidelong Hill I saw the Line still formed the arch of a lesser circle very beautiful, and agreeable to the Laws of a Sphere”. Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, back in Greenwich, later remarked of the tangent section of the boundary, that “the country in these parts being all overgrown with trees, large openings were cut through the woods… which formed the straightest and most regular, as well as most extensive, vistos that, perhaps, ever, were made”.

Wagons, trees, instruments, cargo crates

Wagons, trees, instruments, cargo crates

As they proceeded with their survey, Mason and Dixon were attended by an increasingly large entourage of porters, axe men, cooks, and as they ventured west, Native American guides. The country west of Philadelphia was of course neither unpeopled nor uncharted, and the land was already inscribed with lines, trade routes, war paths and boundaries. White Europeans encroached ever further west, whilst, following both the Seven Years War and the Pontiac Rebellion, the Royal Proclamation Line of 1763 sought to limit, without great success, settlement anywhere west of the ridge of the Appalachian Mountains. The English astronomers would have learned early on how close the western frontier was: in December 1763 news reached Philadelphia of the massacre of Conestoga Indians 75 miles away at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, by a mob of Scots-Irish frontiersman known as the Paxton Boys. On January 10, 1765 Mason travelled by horseback to Lancaster. “What brought me here was my curiosity to see the place where was perpetrated last winter the Horrid and inhuman murder of 26 Indians, Men, Women and children, leaving none alive to tell”, he wrote.

Logistics: seven cases of instruments shipped to Philadelphia by Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, December 1765. Royal Society Library, Greenwich Observatory Papers MS 372 item 118

Logistics: seven cases of instruments shipped to Philadelphia by Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, December 1765. Royal Society Library, Greenwich Observatory Papers MS 372 item 118

By late 1766, the surveyors were approaching the Proclamation Line. The Commissioners overseeing the survey appointed General William Johnson, His Majesty’s Agent for Indian Affairs, to gain consent from the Six Nations (or Iroquois Confederacy) to extend the line. The last 80 or so miles of the Western line were surveyed during the summer of 1767 by an increasingly large party accompanied by members of the Mohawk and Onondaga Nations, and interpreter/go-between Hugh Crawford. Back in the 1730s Thomas Penn and his agents had connived to displace the Lenape (Delaware) people from their lands in the Delaware Valley through a mixture of fraudulent title deeds and an extraordinary episode in the history of surveying now known as the Walking Purchase. This involved both a straight line cleared through the woods in advance by axe men, and the extent of a boundary being determined by a race to see how far three men could travel in a day and a half along this cleared vista. Thirty years later, as Mason and Dixon approached lands settled by the Delaware in the Ohio Country, the very people displaced by the Walking Purchase, delegations of curious and/or hostile Delaware visited the party, as did later “Eight Warriors” of the Seneca Nation (part of the Confederacy), heading “in their way to the southward going against the Cherokees”, Mason noted.

As historian Cameron Strang has recently discussed, both the continuation of the survey beyond the Proclamation Line, but also its ultimate extent, was a result of continual negotiation between Delaware, Iroquois and British representatives: “surveyed lines in the borderlands of colonial North America were not just defined by colonial officials or the scientific activities of the surveyors themselves…but were products of numerous on-site negotiations”. The extent of the Western line was determined by the mood of the whole party: “26 of our men left; they would not pass the [Monongahela] River for fear of the Shawanes and Delaware Indians”, Mason noted in late September 1767. His Journal entry for October 9, 1767 begins “Continued the Line to a High ridge. At 231 miles 20 chains Crossed a War Path”. “This day the Chief of the Indians which joined us on the 16th of July informed us that the above mentioned War Path was the extent of his commission from the Chiefs of the Six Nations, that he should go with us, with the Line; and that he would not proceed one step farther Westward”, which more or less brought the survey to an end.

Mason and Dixon in the Museum

Contemplating the map

Contemplating the map

Cigar Store Indians, Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson, Maryland Historical Society, 1992. Courtesy of Maryland Historical Society, [MTM 004].

Cigar Store Indians, Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson, Maryland Historical Society, 1992. Courtesy of Maryland Historical Society, [MTM 004].

There were several different encounters between Mason and Dixon and various different groups of Native Americans I could have depicted: in dialogue, exchanging expertise, leading, following, together, apart, communicating, failing to communicate. I chose to pose my Playmobil figures apart from the English astronomers, contemplating a version of the map that accompanied Mason and Dixon’s 1768 account of their measurement of a degree in the Meridian, published in the Royal Society’s journal, the Philosophical Transactions.

This orientation was inspired by an arrangement of objects in Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson, a now-canonical 1992 exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. Invited to interpret the collections of this venerable, conservative institution, Wilson rearranged, rediscovered and reimagined the Society’s collection, bringing forgotten objects out of storage, and recognising that presenting objects in novel juxtapositions, or with new labels, or even just reorienting them spatially, can furnish radically new or hidden meanings or interpretations. In one display, Wilson placed Cigar Store Indians with their backs to the museum visitors, perhaps suggesting a refusal by the mannequins to be on display, or a rejection of the racist objectification which such wooden models entail. Whilst he was putting problematic objects on display, he quite clearly wasn’t merely recreating or re-enacting past display practices: he was critiquing the display of “Indians” outside of cigar stores, in museums, and elsewhere, rather than merely recreating those modes of display.

The Playmobil figures, just like the Cigar Store Indians, are crude stereotypes: warlike (as purchased, they all come with weapons), nameless, and generically “Indian”, being part of the “Western” range. One way in which a representation of humans can be offensive is when it reduces multiple diverse cultures, separated by time, space and beliefs, into one single representation, for instance reducing the variety of historical Native American peoples into one “set”, as these toys literally do. Despite the fact that it is kind of astonishing that Playmobil produce detailed and in a sense realistic sextants, telescopes and quill pens, I don’t think anyone would consider their representations of “Indians” (or my denoting two figures as Mason and Dixon) to be of the school of realism. In this sense they differ from the models of James Cook at the National Maritime Museum and Tycho Brahe at the Deutsches Museum, which on some level at least are intended to be realistic. Wilson is playing with obviously non-realist iconography: the non-realism of Playmobil characters likewise, I hope, gave a kind of ironic distance to my diorama.

Another reading would be that rather than, or perhaps in addition to, having their backs to the museum visitors, the Cigar Store Indians are facing in the same direction as the museum visitors, animate, with agency, viewing and experiencing the exhibition. Two of the Cigar Store Indians in Wilson’s installation faced, and perhaps contemplated, a map that remained on the wall from a previous exhibition of an American folk-art staple, the decoys used in duck hunting. The map gave the names and locations of historical Maryland/Chesapeake gun clubs. What were the historical origins of these Chesapeake gun clubs, Wilson asked? Whose culture and history have been erased and silenced in this map? Wilson altered the map, reorienting its meaning, by adding to it the names and locations of Native American groups who once lived around the Chesapeake, including, for instance, the Lenape, and the Nanticoke.

This map covered almost exactly the same geographical area as the map by Mason and Dixon printed in 1768, and in my placing of the Playmobil figures contemplating that map I tried to raise the similar question of what it represents and what it is silent about. The erasure of people from historical accounts can be crude, and it can be subtle. Mason’s Journal is full of encounters with Native Americans, yet by the time maps and accounts were presented to the Royal Society back in London, they were absent. That the probing westward suited the territorial expansionist ambitions of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic seems evident; that disinterested, abstract philosophical enquiry was a cover for such expansion seems likewise clear. The oddity of the boundary between the two provinces as defined in the London courts can only partly explain why the former assistant to the Astronomer Royal found himself in the woods, thousands of miles from home, spending nearly 5 years checking and rechecking both one of the finest and most expensive pendulum clocks ever made and what was undoubtedly the most precise zenith sector in existence. Imperialism often happens under the guise of science, and in the memorialising and remembering, the science is bracketed off, and sometimes the subjugated peoples are omitted from the narrative. That the Mason and Dixon survey involved a prolonged encounter with Native American peoples is not a secret, either in historians’ accounts or indeed in Thomas Pynchon’s extraordinary 1997 novel. Yet when such episodes are remembered within a history of science context, for instance in history of science museums, the instruments and techniques tend to be bracketed off to one side, and the engagement with, for instance, Native Americans is bracketed off to another side. I sought to present the human encounters between Mason and Dixon and Native Americans not merely as some kind of context to the “real” science. One of the conceits of the diorama genre is that it gives a totalising view: everything is left in. Of course this is utterly illusionary, but I like the way that it doesn’t try to bracket off context.

It’s still the case that the models of the Europeans in the diorama have names and are depicted as individuals, whilst the Native Americans are nameless. It’s still the case that I put on display a stereotyped representation of historical Native American peoples that reduces them to a homogenous, largely warlike bloc. My display doesn’t recapitulate such representations, however, but rather questions them. Our representations are always reliant upon and constrained by the representational tools and techniques at our disposal. Going forward, however, next time I recreate famous episode in the history of science in a museum using children’s toys, it will be with Sylvanian Families, because they are really really complicated proxies for gender, race and class. Look out for it.



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Felt Tips and Whiteboards

At the Manchester Museum this week I really enjoyed the multicoloured-felt-tip-on-whiteboard design of the small but nicely formed Manchester Gallery, which was developed in collaboration with local communities:


I like the way all of the arrows, underlining, dotted lines, capitalisation are both so lively but also so precise. The looseness and informality of the design, as well as its busyness, does not to my mind produce confusion or disorder.

As one of the wall panels states, “the design of the gallery was shaped by the development process – we’ve used a colourful, lively ‘mind map’ to capture and share the fantastic diversity of information that was generated.” I like this idea of the finished product referencing its own construction. I’m guessing, however, that this design was very carefully and precisely developed: the finished result is a consequence of the development process, not an artefact of the development process.

Something I’ve been pondering recently is how to write museum labels and texts that are clear but which also acknowledge their contingency on current understanding: a label that says, of an object or thing, “this is what we think of this object right now, but we might think something differently of it in the future”. I think the erasable/revisable nature of the whiteboard and felt tip pen look is quite apposite for this.

The recent Large Hadron Collider exhibition, at the Science Museum in London and currently at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, extensively uses whiteboards and felt tip pens, or rather, trompe l’oeil whiteboards and felt tip pens.

This is part of the general aesthetic of the exhibition, namely the attempt to recreate a sense of the quotidian, sometimes grubby, work-in-progress backstage at CERN. Bicycles, hardhats and radios are placed throughout the exhibition, signalling again and again that this is a workplace where things are made and unmade and revised and rejected and developed. The exhibition also acknowledges that the fragments and sections of particle accelerators on display can be very beautiful, but to almost all visitors utterly mysterious. A lot of text is needed to explain them, and it’s an open question as to whether or not there is ultimately any connection achieved between these otherworldly, disarticulated techno-things on display behind glass, and the artfully messy desks, dirty corridor walls, and felt-tip-on-white-board diagrams and text. The exhibition would probably work even without any of the “real” objects.

Otherworldly disarticulated techno-things

Otherworldly disarticulated techno-things

I’d like to see more felt tip and arrow work in exhibitions on contemporary scientific practices, preferably in multiple colours. There’s definitely something the opposite of pompous and certain in the use of multicoloured, childlike, but not childish, felt tip pens, and I’m all for non-pompous and non-certain, or at least non-pompous and non-overly certain, critical display and discussion, in museums, of scientific practices.


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