I'm A Museum Person

I’m A Museum Person: Steve Slack

The British Museum. Photo by gualtiero via Flickr.

My name is Steve Slack, and I’m a Museum Person.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a writer, based in London. I write for museums and about museums. I can mostly be found in a museum or in the bar. Or in a museums that have bars.

After about ten years of working on museum exhibitions, I broke free and now work on my own as a freelance writer, researcher, curator and whimsical thinker. I drink a lot of tea and I like cricket. Yep, I’m British.

Why do museums matter to you?

Take a moment to look back over the millennia of human existence at all the amazing things we humans have achieved as a species: fire, wheels, agriculture, money, government, public art. We’ve even put a man on the moon and figured out how to wrap cheese in red wax. 

Doesn’t it appear strange that for some reason we’ve also ended up setting aside special buildings where we collect things together, put them in glass boxes and then invite people to come view them?

Maybe we’re just naturally hoarders. Maybe we’re scared of forgetting about where we’ve come from. Maybe we’re proud of all the amazing things we’ve achieved. Or maybe we like to root ourselves in time and place – establish ourselves in history for future generations to discover.

It seems to me that museums are incredibly useful time capsules. Today we look at Victorian museums almost as museum objects in themselves – they can tell us a lot about how people interpreted the past, in the past. And in years to come, the museologists of the future will look back at the museums of the first decade of the 21st century and regard our modern art, touch screens, education suites and incessant tweeting through rose-tinted spectacles. So for me, museums are about the past, but they’re also about the future.

What is your favorite museum memory?

I saw Lindow Man on display in Manchester in 1987 – creeping up to the display case where the bog body was laid out was like a magical, almost mystical, experience for me. As a child I was quite apprehensive, but completely drawn in by the body. Even though I’ve surely forgotten many of the details of exactly how it was displayed I remember being fascinated by the fact that a human body had survived so long. Lindow Man had only come out of the ground a few years before, but it transported many people 2000 years back in time.

That stayed with me for many years and then, 20 years later when I was working at the British Museum, I ended up working on the re-display of Lindow Man. After a recent tour of the UK, he’s back on display at the BM in Gallery 50.

What museum would you love to visit?

There are some amazing museums in the world, but there are also some fabulous places opening right now.

I’d love to go and see the newly laid out National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. I’m also really looking forward to the new Riverside Museum in Glasgow (a little closer to home, so more easy for visiting.)

And in a few years time there will be a whole host of new museums in the UAE that I’m sure will be worth the visit.

Scene from Beijing. Photo by Francisco Diez via Flickr.

What is your dream museum job?

I know it sounds cheesy – and I suppose I judge people who say it – but I genuinely think I have the best job in the world.

I currently run a solo operation, but perhaps one day I’ll be a museum guru with a string of books behind me and minions under me. Right now though, I’m pretty happy with where I am. I get to pick and choose what projects I work on –curating exhibitions, writing audio guides, undertaking research projects.

I’m about to publish a second book with Museum [Insider], the online magazine for suppliers to museums and heritage venues in the UK. I’ve also done some TV work recently and I’d like to do more of that in the future.

When you think of the perfect exhibit, what is in it?

I’m not sure there is a perfect exhibit. Just like there’s no one perfect book, movie or menu. I realised a few years ago that no exhibit can ever be all things to all people. And the museum-going public are rather picky, so pleasing them is rather a challenge.

Exhibitions that work well for me are all about balance. Whenever we’re putting an exhibition together we’re weighing up a seemingly endless number of variants – lots of text that explains the story well or less text that more people are likely to read? lots of objects to give a sense of breadth or only a few to make people look? how many computer interactives? what shade of pale grey will we paint the walls? how much light can we put on the objects? how much seating will there be?

As interpreters and designers, if we can strike the balance well and get the story we’re trying to tell across to the visitor then that’s our job done. I think it’s also important that exhibitions continue to push boundaries, so when I go to a museum I’m particularly impressed if I see a new display technique that isn’t necessarily from the collection of display set pieces we’re used to. Write text on the floor; project images through a tank of water; create a soundscape. Make me stand back and think.

And while I like an exhibit that is intellectually robust, I also love a sense of humour.

Who is the funnier museum twitterer…@SUEtheTrex or @NatHistoryWhale?

Sue is hilarious. What a great idea to have a museum object tweet. I’d love to see the Walrus at the @HornimanMuseum tweet sometimes. I’m sure he’d say wonderful things.

The Walrus at the Horniman Museum. Photo by russelljsmith.

What is the most random item that you have bought in a museum gift shop?

I was quite proud of the ash tray in the shape of Mao Tse-Tung I got from the Forbidden City in Beijing. Ironic, as Mao was a keen smoker. But it got broken, alas.

A few weeks ago I got a particularly ugly fridge magnet from the National Museum of Art and Culture in Minsk, Belarus.

To test your museum knowledge, what cities are the following museums in?

  • The High Museum of Art – Atlanta, I think?
  • The Experience Music Project – no idea!
  • Musee de la Civilisation – hmmm, I have a hunch it’s Canada, so I suppose if it’s French, then Quebec?
  • Courtauld Gallery – right here in London
  • Kuntskammer – Berlin. (Oh no, I just looked it up, it’s in St Petersburg. It sounds German, no?)

Huh, I thought I was pretty good at geography. Guess I need to hit the books again on museums of the world.

You may have heard of the Month at the Museum contest recently held at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. What museum would you move into for a month if you could?

The Hermitage is massive. I don’t think I even stepped foot in half of the rooms in the palace in one day, so I’d love to go back and see more of it. And if I was in St Petersburg, I’d go and check out the Kunstkammer and find out what on earth it is.

I figure it’d get pretty scary at night in most museums though. Maybe I need somewhere more comforting – I know a really good couch in the V&A in London that’s good for a mid-afternoon snooze, so perhaps I’ll just go there.

The Hermitage. Photo by Anatolly Prutz via Flickr.

Out of all the museums you have visited so far, which one is your favorite?

The Vasa Museum in Sweden is pretty amazing. It’s a massive ship which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, before it had even left Stockholm harbour. But the entire thing – or what’s left of it – was raised in the 1960s. The body of the ship takes up most of the space in the building and the various floors of the museum are at the different deck levels – right up to the crow’s nest. It’s a story about personal pride, museum conservation and loading ballast – things we could all do with knowing a bit more about.

What is the most bizarre museum you have visited?

The Museum of Jurassic Technology is Los Angeles is one of the most peculiar museums I’ve visited. The strange and spectacular come together with the bonkers and bizarre here. Don’t try to understand it – just go with the flow.

There seem to be a million books and movies set in museums. Do you have a favorite?

I love it that Calvin (from Calvin and Hobbes) insists on making repeat visits to the museum to see the dinosaurs. I imagine @SuetheTrex in the Field Museum would be delighted to see him creeping around the place doing an impression of the T-Rex.

Photo by Unlisted Sightings via Flickr.


Thanks to Steve for sharing his experiences. If you’re interested in participating in the “I’m A Museum Person” series, send us an email at editor@museumist.com, and we’ll get your story up on the site.









One Response to “I’m A Museum Person: Steve Slack”

  1. I’m a Museum Person, officially « on April 12th, 2011

    […] My full interview is online at museumist.com. […]

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