The Digital Museum

Overly Serious Need Not Apply: An Interview with the Ministry of Curiosity

Photo by ryanmilani via Flickr.

Photo by ryanmilani via Flickr.

Ah, your first job at a museum. It can be overwhelming, exhilarating, confusing, and rewarding. For Kristin Hussey and Terri Dendy, their first jobs at London’s Science Museum led to the blossoming of a beautiful friendship based on a mutual love of hazmat suits and an abiding interest in the quirky world of museum workers to which they now belonged. Though Kristin and Terri now work in different museums, their partnership lives on in the form of the Ministry of Curiosity, an entertaining blog—and informative resource—that shines a spotlight on the lively and innovative London museum community. Now, the Ministry ladies have stopped by Museumist to discuss perceptions of museum employees, tricks for staying on top of the London museum scene, and even the power of a pub visit.

To start things off, how did you two meet? How did you decide to start the Ministry of Curiosity?

Kristin: Terri and I met working together in the stores of the Science Museum. She was probably wearing a full hazmat suit, I was probably wheeling a trolley full of Victorian chemicals—it was love at first sight. There was a group of us that started around the same time so we all become quite close—for most of us it was our first paid museum job. You form a really strong bond with other young people struggling to get into the sector.

It was actually Terri that came up with the idea for the Ministry, or as we were first called, the Curiosity Collective. We were always so busy meeting up with our museum friends for exhibitions or events, and then heading for a drink to discuss all the crazy things our jobs involved. It seemed like there was a lack of a forum for museum people that was more about socializing and having fun. Terri had a great idea for a blog that was reviews, but from an insider’s perspective, combined with comment pieces about cake, fashion and whatever else we were interested in. I had some blogging experience and she asked me to join her as a partner! We both agreed that we wanted to do something that was fun and irreverent, basically just not what people were expecting from a museum blog.

Terri: We decided to start The Ministry of Curiosity as a resource for ourselves and our close network. We found that sites like Time Out and Londonist were not providing as much information about London’s museums as we craved. To find out about events we were trawling through each institution’s event pages, rummaging through old emails, and hopefully trying to get a spot on sold out events. So, we decided to make our own listings focusing on adult-friendly evening events and blogging about our museum-centric life.

In your Ministry Manifesto, you note that you hope to change current perceptions about those working in museums. What sort of perceptions do you think negatively influence an outsider’s view of the museum world? What ones positively influence them?

Terri: The usual negative perception that we encounter, and our favorite one to rebuff, is that all museum workers are barmy male curators. In fact, the London museum industry is really a strong workforce of young creative women, and working with museum collections no longer means that you are a curator. With larger collections, stricter rules, and long-term preservation plans, a range of roles now replace what was once the job of a curator, which leaves curators more time to research collections and publish material. Documenting, moving, and storing the collection are now the cogs of the larger museum’s machine.

Museumist: As for the barmy bit?

Terri: We can’t deny that being a bit barmy is a stereotype of museum professionals, but I think that this is really a positive perception and hopefully one that is starting to work in our favour. We are all a bit quirky and creativity is something that museums need to indulge in to encourage different ways of interpreting and accessing collections.

A barmy curator? Photo by museumpreneurs via Flickr.

A barmy curator? Photo by museumpreneurs via Flickr.

Kristin: Films are probably the biggest culprit in giving people the wrong idea about museum people. We are not all crazy old men with frizzy hair covetously stroking our objects and hiding from the public. Well, most of us aren’t anyway. The unfortunate thing is that a lot of what we do for work we aren’t aloud to talk about with the general public, which perpetuates this idea that museum staff are superior and insular. I wish we could get it out there that museum people are fun, enthusiastic and love talking about their work. My experience in the museum world has been one of openness and a desire to share, even if some things have to stay secret for security reasons.

In terms of positive influence, right now museums are enjoying an enormous change in how there are viewed as social space as a result of things like Lates. It’s so fantastic that museums are starting to be seen as places with cool events for young professionals since it starts to change the associations people have with art or history. When I introduce myself as a curator most people’s response is positive, even if they don’t necessarily understand what I do. I used to find saying ‘I work at the Science Museum’ to be a great pick-up line.

What do you think the London museum community is doing particularly well? Where is there room for improvement?

Kristin: I think what the London museum community does so well is exactly that—it’s a very strong community of people. If you go to any of the events you will often see the same people, particularly social media-keen people who have become friends. I think London’s museum staff are really supportive of each other—we do our best to try and go along to our friends’ events and promote for them. Museum people work incredibly hard for little reward, so it’s fantastic that everyone is always there for everyone else.

Terri: I think the London museum community is leading a cultural change in how museum spaces are used. By attending Lates or adult-focused lectures, we are moving away from institutions [being seen as only] child-friendly or research-based. Museums are now places where adults can drink, play, and learn in a sort of post-university Student Union. Young adults are becoming an essential target audience.

Kristin: If there is room for improvement I would say it’s in being more open about criticism. I don’t think loving museums and having something critical to say about an exhibition or an event are mutually exclusive. Perhaps it’s exactly because you know how hard someone worked on something that the community in general tends to be overly nice about things. I think well-meaning criticism can make for even better events in the future. I just wish we could have a more open dialogue about what museums are doing both right and wrong, without worrying about offending funders or seeming to be unsupportive of institutions who are doing their best in tough times.
Your blog strives to keep its finger on the pulse of the London museum scene, have any tricks for how you personally keep on top all that’s on offer?

Kristin: Probably best to let Terri answer this one—she is the events genius! Clearly Twitter is helpful and we’ve built up such a great community now that people tend to come to us with events they’d like included. We also look the normal places you might expect—Time Out, newsletters. Personally I’ve found it’s just that we are always on the look out for things that we’d like to do with our friends and we put those up.

Terri: Ha, I’m no events genius! But, I do strive to keep our finger on the pulse and regularly update the calendar of events with interesting activities across the capital. Following our blog and reading our daily updates on Twitter will probably keep you pretty involved in the community. Our calendar is not completely comprehensive, but it is one of the most focused listings for London museums that I’m aware of.  

Photo by Shemsu.Hor via Flickr.

Photo by Shemsu.Hor via Flickr.

What is your favorite space or room in a London museum, and what is the best time of day/time of year to be in that place?

Terri: There is so much to choose from but I suppose I find the Tanks and the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern the most evocative space. I love spending a late evening after a walk along the Southbank just sitting in the Turbine Hall. Its industrial history makes it a really intimidating space and I love to feel so surrounded by emptiness in one of the leading tourist destinations. I’m really looking forward to the re-opening of the Tanks, Tate 2 and the Hyundai series in the Turbine Hall next year—although I disagree with corporate sponsorship in Museums!

Kristin: The Cast Courts in the V&A and whenever they open them again! I remember one of my first ever trips to London visiting them and being so inspired I actually wrote a paper on them for my MA. There’s something so amazing about the enormous vaulted rooms full of replicas of the world’s most famous monuments. It’s what I love about the Victorians—the audacity of thinking they could just collect the entire world for themselves. Now everything is jumbled together—different periods and nationalities pushed up against each other. It feels like the garage of a great museum—the stuff they don’t want anymore. That’s not true, of course, since now there is a renewed interest in the plaster casts and replicas in museums, but certainly in the past they were unloved. The Cast Courts are closed at the moment for redevelopment, but they are reopening sometime soon, the site says Winter 2014. I’ll be back there as soon as I can! I imagine they’d be lovely and cool in the summer.

You might say that London is a museum in and of itself, where is your favorite place to go and experience the history and culture of the city that is not in a museum?

Kristin: I would definitely agree that London is a museum in itself, and sometimes it’s the walk to the exhibition or the drink after that’s more interesting from a historic perspective. For example, if we are going to an exhibition at the Museum of London I like to walk via St Paul’s, Bart’s and the Barbican, maybe stop off for a chat at one of the great pubs! Personally my favourite spot in London is Highgate Cemetery. I love to take people there and talk their ear off about industrial London, body snatching, the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries and Victorian mourning customs while strolling through the beautiful gravesites. When the weather is warmer the park is a great place to lounge in the grass and feel like you are out of the city.

Terri: A pub! Any London pub tells you so much about the social history of the city; each one chain or independent has its own story to tell, and to find it out, all you have to do is walk in, buy a drink, and have a chat. They are little pockets of social history, culture, and community situated on the corner of every street in London. Crystal Palace is another great place to go and experience the history and culture of the city. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a such a pivotal point in the history of museums and consumerism. When the Crystal Palace moved to the Sydenham Hill, it further inspired collectors like Frederick John Horniman. Standing on the spot where it once stood and seeing the remnants of something so vital to our cultural history is both sad and inspiring.  

What exhibition are you most looking forward to in 2014?

Terri: London has a lot of blockbusters coming up this year. But, I’m really looking forward to the wedding dresses exhibition at the V&A. Their fashion exhibitions can be a bit predictable, but I expect this one will be a really interesting look at the history of a cultural norm. And, hopefully, I can get some inspiration for myself!

I’m also excited to see Matisse at Tate Modern. It’s going to be interesting to have Nicholas Serota—the Director of Tate—curating an exhibition. His reputation for curating and his ability to guess the exact measurements between works precede him. It will be remarkable to finally see his vision for such a prolific artist.

Kristin: I’m excited to see the Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy. I think it’s a pretty bold move to do a blockbuster style architecture exhibition. I’ve been to architectural shows in the past and I get really easily bored with all the intricate drawings—maybe I have a short attention span! The RA is doing away with that idea completely and instead they have made a very physical exhibition. It’s great to see such a generally austere institution doing something really innovative.

Photo by peteaylward via Flickr.

Photo by peteaylward via Flickr.

In one of your recent posts, you mention that while you often visit exhibitions together, you rarely review them together. Why is this? And why did you make an exception for the Cheapside Hoard?

Kristin: I wish I could say there was some sort of really interesting reason for this, but honestly it’s because of how much work running the Ministry is. I don’t think either of us could possibly do it alone—divide and conquer is our motto. We both work full-time museum jobs and do our blogging at night or at the weekends, so it helps to share the work. We’ll usually meet up on a weekend to visit an exhibition, write and scheme.

We decided to make an exception for the Cheapside Hoard because there was just so much to say about it. When we were discussing it afterwards, our ideas were wandering pretty broadly between content and design, so we decided we would each pick one aspect to write about. It was quite fun to do actually because Terri has a background as a technician and I’m a curator so it was good to break the mould of what we normally look for in exhibitions. Plus, we thought it would be interesting to see if people can normally tell who is writing what since we don’t credit the pieces we write alone.

Terri:  The Ministry is something that we do in our spare time. Although we do spend most of our lives working in museums, reading about museums or nattering to anyone who is interested about museums, producing content can sometimes be a daunting task. We aim to at least post one article a week, and to share the load we take it in turns to write up our opinion on a current exhibition. However, the Cheapside Hoard left us with so much to say, the content and design of the show was staggering and we both felt so passionately about it that we decided to combine our thoughts into one post.

Anything else you’d like to share about the Ministry of Curiosity, working in museums, or the London museum scene? 

Kristin: There are two reasons why I am particularly proud of the Ministry. Firstly, it’s the people we have met that have made the blog so fantastic. We have lots of guest contributors who share their experiences in the sector and their talents to make the blog more diverse. Conservators, archivists, curators, and academics—we are always up for collaboration and giving people a place to have their say. As well as our contributors, we also have an amazing circle of friends like the Museums Showoff team, the Horniman crew and so many others that support us. It feels really special to be a part of.

Secondly, I feel really lucky that Terri and I are still such good friends and that we have been able to continue making the blog what we want it to be. We started the blog to be fun and I think we still manage to achieve that even as it’s become more successful and put a greater stain on our time. It would have been very easy to let the Ministry become something that’s stressful or something we felt we were expected to do. It’s amazing to have that sort of collaboration between us so we stay true to ourselves and what we want the blog to be. As we say in the Manifesto, the overly serious need not apply.

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