It’s been a busy, um… year and a bit, and my blogging habit has fallen over a little bit, but hey guess what: I still have opinions about museums! A little while ago, I visited a really cool museum in Lübeck, the Hansemuseum.


(Source) I neglected to take my own photos of the outside, but it’s a pretty striking building, boxy in a pretty way. A lot of stairs, though. Maybe there was another entrance I didn’t see, but it didn’t look like a very accessible place for anyone with movement difficulties.

I was predisposed to like this museum, since I’m from Hamburg, a proud Hanseatic city, and since historical economics and trade is my favourite academic interest. But even with my biases, I think this was a very well designed museum.

A video of me using my ticket to activate a display screen with the German version of its content.

First of all, it had a lot of cool digital toys. The tickets come with a RFID chip, which allows you to select a language at the beginning of the exhibition, and then change many of the screen displays to that language with a touch. Other displays simply repeated the same information in several languages, but I thought the customisable screens were a very clever idea to save space, and also engage visitors.

There were also a lot of infographics. The infographic was a major method of information delivery in most of the rooms. As a very visual person, who gets tired and distracted standing around reading large blocks of dry text on walls, I found this a very effective and pleasing way to absorb the information. Colours, images, and symbols make learning a more pleasant experience.

You might notice that all but one of the images so far have shown light text on a dark background. This is part of the last aspect of the museum that really pleased me. The exhibition was divided into two kinds of rooms. The light on a dark background rooms presented interpretation: concepts, narrative, and reproductions.


The boat of a group of traders travelling to Novgorod. Complete with soundscape.

These rooms were interspersed with lighter rooms, characterised by dark text on light background, and displays of actual artefacts.


A more traditional museum room.

To me, these functioned like an evidence section to the claims made in the darker rooms. Of course, by their very nature they still present interpretation, but I like the break between the two different kinds of information and presentation. Unfortunately they suffer from the problem traditional museum rooms often have, that it’s difficult to tell which order to look at things in to cross the room without missing anything. But overall it’s effective!

If you’re ever in Lübeck, I definitely recommend looking into the museum. Although if you have mobility access needs, maybe check in with them first.

Baby curator’s first exhibit.

Archaeology & History, Museums

This week I installed my first exhibition for the Leatherhead Museum of Local History, where I volunteer as curator*.
During the construction process I felt more like I was back in school making a poster presentation, but now that it’s installed I do like the look of it! Although I continue to fantasise about what it would be like to have the budget for professional printing and acquiring more artefacts.
As it was I relied on the guidance of this very useful book, lent to me by my senior co-curator, and did the best I could:

Exhibit Makeovers: A Do-It-Yourself Workbook for Small Museums by Alice Parman & Jeffrey Jane Flowers

Exhibit Makeovers: A Do-It-Yourself Workbook for Small Museums by Alice Parman & Jeffrey Jane Flowers

Since I constantly have so many opinions about museum exhibits, it seems only fair – and useful to me anyway – to reflect on how this one went.
Mainly, it ended up more text-heavy than I think is ideal. That’s a result of the nature of the topic, though: it’s not based on anything in our collection, rather on a person connected to the man who’s officially reopening our museum next weekend. Even so I probably could have organised it differently to make it less text-heavy, perhaps focus on themes rather than chronology, as I did in this case:
If only I had room for both!

Apart from that I’m pretty happy with it. I’m looking forward to working more with the collection and presenting narratives with objects rather than so much text. Our next project is World War I commemoration, of course, which we have a nice bit of material for.

When we were setting up we also got another case ready, which I think will turn out really good. It has some examples of how we research items in the collection.
The museum opens officially on Saturday the 5th, so if you’re in the area come over and have a look, & tell me what you think.

*Naturally everything I write here is my own opinion and doesn’t represent the museum’s in any way.

Het Grachtenhuis


Museums in general serve  various  purposes: archiving and storing objects, displaying them, educating visitors, propaganda and promoting particular interpretations of the past. Of course, most of them prioritise a mixture of those features and goals. In December, I got to re-visit one of my favourite museums ever, Het Grachtenhuis,  in Amsterdam. It’s a very small museum, but what I love about it is how tightly focused it is on its purpose. Rather than displaying a collection, it provides a coherent educational experience, detailing the construction of Amsterdam’s canals. There’s basically no cases of artefacts anywhere. (There are some cases with letters on the ground floor, but that is the bit I’ve mostly skipped both times I’ve been there. Sorry museums people, but things in cases are just too dull for me a lot of the time. Especially letters.)

Instead, the top floor of the museum is a whole multimedia experience. That sounds like a wankery buzzword sentence, but it’s accurate! You get an audio guide on the way in, and in each room there is a presentation being projected onto furniture or models in synchronisation with narration in your chosen language. The presentation itself uses maps, bits of medieval art, and simple animation in a clever and charming way, just enough to be visually interesting and clarify what’s being said without the images and narration fighting for your attention. I won’t describe the four rooms of the presentation in too much detail so as not too spoil it, but it’s all really cute and excellently engineered.

It gets around the problem of what language to present things in, too – there’s (almost) no writing in the exhibit, it’s all given to you through your headset. Of course, that’s going to be an accessibility problem for some people, and the house itself is not very accessible either, as fas as I could see. Lots of stairs.

Apart from those limitations, though, I’m a big fan of the museum. It doesn’t overload you, it gives you enough to satisfy you for half an hour or so and come away feeling entertained and informed, without being completely worn down and exhausted. If you’re going on a trip to Amsterdam and the accessibility issues don’t affect you, I’d recommend it as one of your first stops. It gives you a good overview of the shape of the city and how it came to be, and whets your appetite for more learning.

But, I am the kind of person who enjoys DVD commentary tracks. The one suggestion I would make, if I was in charge of the thing, was that instead, or alongside of making the lower floor a history of the house itself and the people who lived in it, make a little room for a making of the museum section, showing how the presentations were assembled and how the information was researched. (They do actually have a neat little video on their website, but it looks like it’s only in Dutch.) I like it when museums justify the interpretation and narrative they present.

What are your fave museums?