Lindow Manchester

Thinking Aloud

Joyce Tyldesley, one of the Museums and Academic Joint Appointments or MAJAs, here at the Manchester Museum, popped into the office on Wednesday to say that she’d heard a BBC Radio 4 programme – Thinking Aloud with Laurie Taylor – that quoted part of our report on the public consultation in advance of the Lindow Man exhibition.

The programme was a short discussion about how museum attitudes to human remains have changed. Tiffany Jenkins at the University of Kent and Adam Cooper at  Brunel University took part. In brief Taylor asked the question whether the approach to human remains shown by the Lindow Man project is indeed sensitive treatment of a difficult subject or just plain daft.

Jenkins sketched the history of collecting human remains from the acquisition of curiosities in the 18th century to the rational scientific collecting of the 19th century. Taylor talked about these human remains as objective material evidence, not having any residual meaning for people at the time.

In Lindow Man a Bog Body Mystery we try to show that human remains do have a range of very different meanings for some people. As a university museum we naturally want to provide opportunities to both students and the general public to explore the world from very different perspectives. The Lindow Man exhibition allows people to do precisely that without us saying that any one point of view is right.

We place great importance on public consultation in the Manchester Museum and the Lindow Man exhibition, to a degree, reflects the wishes and requests of the very wide group of people we consulted with in February 2007.  Many of the consultees agreed that Lindow Man should be treated with sensitivity and respect and that different sides of his story  or stories should be told. The Lindow Man a Bog Body Mystery  exhibition is the working through of those wishes, albeit tempered by our own museum experience, bearing in mind what was practicable within our limited budget and design considerations.

In Thinking Aloud our efforts to make the exhibition process more inclusive, more representative and dare I say it, democratic, was passed off as a retreat from traditional curatorial authority in the face of sustained critiscism of the museum’s role.  What we seem to have here is a profound misunderstanding of what is or what should be the role of curators and museums in modern times. There has been a shift in the way museums work partly in response to new thinking about claims to be authoritative and partly in response to national developments.

Government policy and government funding requires us to work with different communities and to bring in communities and voices previously excluded from the work of the Museum. Lindow Man A Bog Body Mystery reflects these policies but it would appear that the Radio 4 presenters were advocating a retreat to an old-fashioned and elitist role for museums.

I think the programme would have been more balanced if someone from the Museum had been invited to take part. I might also add that this is the first time that a report that I have written has ever been quoted on Radio 4!


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