In addition to our ‘Principles for Practice’, across the various tenets of the project, (workshops, blog, international conference), the following findings emerged in relation to the key themes:
Within the project, temporalities and temporal relationships abound at a number of levels of engagement. First, at a historical level, the project revealed the ways in which nineteenth-century universal museums embodied multiple temporalities: offering both a chronological trajectory of universal history and view of the advancement of human civilisation, while also projecting future imaginaries through exhibiting technological and scientific developments. However, the project also revealed the struggles faced by nineteenth-century curators and practitioners from the start to catalogue and display objects by linear chronologies. Second, at a broader level, the museum itself emerged as a site for complex and non-liner temporal relationships through its processes of display and knowledge creation. Participants explored the challenges and opportunities this unique multi-temporal site creates for increasing engagement with diverse publics in the twenty-first century. Finally, participants reflected on the temporal construct (Thinking forward with the past) underpinning the project’s interdisciplinary approach and the role of temporalities within interdisciplinary practice itself. Dialogues, connections, processes and interactions across time and space were debated as cornerstones of interdisciplinary research. Moreover, in light of the many processes by which time and history are materialised in museum display, museology itself can make significant contributions to the theorisation and application of ideas of time and temporality across all sectors and disciplines. Over the three areas, the past, present and future emerged as constructed, porous and fluid categories which exist in complex, non-linear and myriad relations to one another.
2. Visual, Material and Textual Cultures
In examining the creation of universal histories through universal museums, the project brought together textual, visual and material cultures in new and exciting ways. It investigated how elements often associated with ‘textual’ culture, such as the construction of historical narratives, are created, enacted and embedded within the organisation and display of visual culture and material artefacts. The mutually-influencing components of word and artefact was a key component in our archival research on ‘object biographies’ as we tracked the movement of objects between museums and the different ways in which they were displayed. The exploration of the interrelations between verbal and visual in the representations of human universality helped illuminate disciplinary connections between ethnography, history, anthropology and aesthetics both in the nineteenth-century as they emerged within the universal museum, and in the twenty-first century as we reflect upon future directions of interdisciplinary practice and creations of diverse global perspectives.
In teasing out the temporalities at play within the museum and the textual and material elements of universal histories, the question of legacy emerged as a key challenge for twenty-first century museum practitioners at various levels. How might curators renegotiate and remediate inherited historical narratives from previous generations? How do curators entangle the multiple enmeshed histories of travelling objects? Discussion of these complex questions generated suggestions for the future displays of objects which are incorporated into our ‘Principles for Practice’.
4. Transnational Circulation and Exchange of Objects and Knowledge
Our archival research on creating object biographies , our curation of the digital exhibition and critical critique through workshops highlighted the significance of travelling objects, transnational dialogue and the growth of temporary exhibitions in three major areas. First, the categorisation and display of objects in temporary exhibitions contributed to the acceleration of Western subject specialisms, and was predominately underpinned by the historical contexts of colonialism and nationalism. In particular, as nineteenth-century universal museums sought to sort objects gathered during colonial expansion into taxonomies governed by European encyclopaedic values, the examination and interpretation of such objects led to the development of anthropology and ethnography across Europe. Second, travelling objects were instrumental in the creation of competitive future imaginaries, with innovative products projecting the idea of technical and scientific advancement on national and transnational scales. Moreover, such imaginaries led to the development of national identity among European countries both at home and abroad. For instance, at international exhibits, visitors and practitioners often compared displays between countries. Third, the exchange of objects led to wider transnational dialogue (some friendly, some rivalry). As European cultural cities sought to open new museums dedicated to specific disciplines, they often looked to rival museums in other countries for inspiration , and drew on templates of prior temporary exhibitions at international events.
5. Post-colonial Critique of Imperialist Universalities, Histories and Museologies
One of the core aims of the project was to critique the universalities, museums practices and histories perpetuated by universal museums in the nineteenth century which were rooted in Euro-centric western values. Through workshops and the conference, participants examined the ongoing effect of nineteenth-century display practices and taxonomies in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries from handling repatriation claims to reassessing the displays of permanent collections. Debate illustrated a clear connection between the encyclopaedic methodologies underpinning the organisation of objects and the way in which such objects were displayed. Participants sought to develop new approaches to collections management, exhibition display and museums practices to allow for an interpretive framework fit for the twenty-first century, and these suggestions are incorporated into our ‘Principles for Practice’.