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Unexpected stories and incidental objects from museums

A new way to tell the story of museum objects. Instead of the focus, consider the object as a thread in the tapestry of someone’s life; a cameo in their story. By subverting storytelling in this way, V&A Dundee’s article series ‘Scottish Design Icons’ presents authentic and meaningful reflections on Scotland’s design history from unique perspectives. Find out how the series developed organically; how relegating museum objects and themes to the background can yield unexpected connections and storytelling opportunities; and why the singular, authoritarian “museum voice” is no longer relevant.


Russell Dornan
Digital Producer
V&A Dundee

This presentation was filmed at the MuseumNext Digital Summit in Autumn 2019.

Russell Dornan: Hi everyone. I’m Russell Dornan. My pronouns are he and him, and I’m here to talk to you about a different way to talk about or explore museum objects. So I’m going to introduce the museum I work at, V&A Dundee. I’m going to give you a quick overview of our digital content, and then I’m going to focus on an article series called Scottish Design Icons, that we’ve been doing. I’m going to go over how it developed, the unexpected connections and storytelling opportunities it offers, the diverse voices that we’ve included, as well as the challenges and benefits of the series.

So, before I go on… I’m just super curious. Has everyone heard of V&A Dundee? Keep your hands up if you’ve heard of it. Have any of you been to V&A Dundee? Okay. There’s a few, that’s great. Otherwise our friend in South Ken, but that’s fine.

So we are a design museum located in Dundee on the East coast of Scotland. We basically explore Scottish creativity and design from all over the world. We’re very lucky to be positioned in a really beautiful place on the banks of the river Tay. So I get to take photos like this every day, which makes my job really easy. And in fact, before we opened that’s all I had to photograph. So that was quite lucky too. So we opened last year, we’re just over a year old. So we’re still finding our feet and trying to understand exactly who you are and what we are and all that sort of stuff. And we are part of the V&A family. We have our own board and our own director and we’re autonomous, but we have the nice sort of family connection there.

So at the heart of V&A Dundee are the Scottish Design Galleries. I realised this gif is actually really creepy, and I didn’t think the screen would be this big, but anyway, the Scottish Design Galleries explore the last 500 years of Scottish design. And a lot of you might be thinking, what is Scottish design? And that’s what those galleries do, they unpack that concept.

So in these galleries we have 300 objects, some from V&A South Kensington’s collection, and then others from museums and collections around Scotland and beyond. And at their centre is the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Oak Room, which has been painstaking the conserved, and it’s quite a special room to step into. So that’s a little bit about V&A Dundee and the physical side of things anyway.

So a bit of an overview of our digital content. So none of this will be much of a surprise, most museums are doing stuff like this, but I’m going to talk specifically about our editorial content on our website and the stories that we tell. These can either relate directly to exhibitions and sort of explore either gaps in those exhibitions or talk about things in there. They can also just use objects as inspiration, as a jumping off point, or… and probably my favourite stuff is, when they’re completely independent of the programme and instead relate to the museum’s wider themes and aims.

The formats that we use to do this, again, like most museums, our sort of main content is articles, whether they’re short or long with lots of photos or not so much. We also publish weekly web comics created by master students at the university. We have an irregular video series and we’re starting to dabble with fiction and creative writing, which I’m super excited about. We’ve just closed the call out for submissions for this, so I’m in the middle of choosing three creative writers to explore our next exhibition with us.

But what I’m here to talk about mainly is Scottish Design Icons, which is an article series that we’ve been doing for just over a year. So it started because I wanted to find a way to unpack these 300 objects in the permanent galleries, to give people a bit of a tease as to what’s in there and give them a taster, I guess, of what they could see, as well as, as we’ve been talking about today, bringing this content to people all over the world, whether they visit or not, which is super important. So I wanted a regular short form series and I wanted it to represent a range of perspectives.

So, the format I settled on was a monthly article series, short form, about 200 to 500 words, maybe only one or two images and each one would focus on an object from our permanent collection. I really liked Eva’s turn of phrase earlier today when she said, “Acquaintance.” And I think that’s a really nice… It’s not a deep dives of monograph on an object. It’s like you’re just making a new acquaintance.

So, it was time to publish the first one and I thought what would be great would be to publish it in the first week of opening last year in September. It turns out though that opening a brand new museum is quite a busy time and there’s quite a lot going on. And so in the several months leading up to that I just didn’t have the capacity to commission anything for this particular series, because there was so much else that we were working on, but I thought it’s fine, I’ll just do it myself. And again, there were some complications because we hadn’t quite opened yet, so we had a limited number of objects that we had released. The rest were of course being kept and to be revealed later on. So I had a little look through that list of objects and decided to focus on Lemmings.

I chose this for two reasons. The first one was that we’d already done some content around some of the other highlight objects and this is one that we hadn’t really done much with. And secondly, I felt connected to this on a personal level too. So we had some information which you can see on the screen. So it wasn’t very much, it was sort of bite-size info. And although I wanted these articles to be short, I didn’t want them to be 50 words. So I thought, well, how can I expand this? How can I elaborate on this?

And it was quite a desperate time because as I say, we were opening the museum and there’s just so much going on. And I had limited information, which I could totally have spent time on expanding and researching, but I actually didn’t have any time either. So I put on my thinking cap and I had a girdled sort of think. And interestingly also at this time, because it was so busy, I couldn’t really draw on anyone else’s support at this particular sort of a few weeks. And of course, what I should have realised when thinking is, I shouldn’t do this, I shouldn’t do it when I’m not prepared. I shouldn’t start this article series yet, but I really wanted to start our new open week as we meant to go on.

So I had an idea which was essentially a change of focus. So instead of trying to find out more about the game in its design, its legacy, its impact, all that stuff, because I just didn’t really have the time, I started to reflect on my own experiences of playing it as a teenager. And that’s how the first article of the series was born. So you probably can’t read this, but that’s deliberate. I’ve pulled out some quotes instead.

What was really nice was that I could contextualise the facts that I had and sort of bring it into, I don’t know, just a slightly more realistic and relatable format. So instead of labouring over the facts and the figures, it was a much more of a personal reflection of my experience with this object.

And so that was the first one done. And so subsequently I used that Lemmings article as a reference when I commissioned other ones, but at that point, the sort of personal connection still wasn’t set in stone. And it was when I got the second article in, from the person I commissioned, she sort of offhandedly mentioned something that was quite nice and quite personal. And I said, “Well, can you just elaborate on that a little bit.” And then the third article we did was, based entirely on sort of off the cuff comment, which had a really strong personal connection, and that was it. So they launched last September. We’ve done 12 articles so far, and now that personal connection is really embedded in the series.

So I’m just going to talk a little bit about some of the articles we’ve done and some of the objects you’ve covered, really to demonstrate the range of objects, the range of perspectives and those strange unexpected connections that we found.

So the first one is Basil Spence. So the first one we’re going to talk about now. Some of you might know some of these facts, but he was one of Britain’s most celebrated modern architects, he designed Coventry Cathedral. We have a sketch in our gallery of the cathedral. We also have a sketch of this tower block, which was in Glasgow, which was his utopian dream to the sort of tenement problem. And he designed this with really great intentions and it just didn’t have a very happy ending. And so Susan Whyte, our school’s development officer, wrote about these two objects.

And what’s really nice is that instead of just talking about, this is a picture of a thing and it’s by this person and it’s from here and this is what it is, she could sort of evoke what it’s like to stand in the building, the emotional response she had when she was there and bring it to life a little bit. Also, probably her teaching background, I think, brought it round to a nice arc. Dundee is full of… lots of design students and young designers. And so, acknowledging that even the most celebrated designers can face setbacks is quite an inspirational note to end on.

So the next piece is the Doonreay Fast Reactor. In the galleries we have a model of this. And again, we had some lovely information about it and we could have gone into detail about a lot of this, where it is, what it’s for, how it was built, the structural qualities and engineering, there’s so much we could talk about. The piece was written by Nicole Sangster, our assistant digital producer, last year. Just before she left I wanted her to write one of these pieces. So we walked around the gallery and I was like, “What do you relate to? What stands out to you? What do you want to write about?” And she was like, “Oh, I’m just not sure I have a personal connection to anything really.” And then we walked past the model of Doonreay and she said, “Oh, funny story. Without that I wouldn’t have been born.” And I thought, “Well, that’s actually a really personal connection, so why don’t you write about that?”

In a nutshell, her grandfather got a job at Doonreay and moved there with his young family. So her mum grew up there and eventually met her dad there. And so it was really nice because Nicole could draw on her own childhood or visiting her grandparents and seeing Doonreay, but also the stories her mom would tell when she grew up there.

Now to something slightly different. This is a really beautiful gown by Christopher Kane, the celebrated fashion designer. He interestingly has a really close personal and professional bond with his sister Tammy Kane. And that’s something that Ailsa, our membership coordinator, that’s what resonated with her a lot. She studied fashion at uni and she idolised Christopher Kane for years, but when she found out that he also had a really close bond with his sister, just like Ailsa has with her brother, that was something that she found that she could write about in this sort of personal way. So again, we could have gone into detail about Christopher Kane, but instead Ailsa writes about her own perspective and our own support network with her brother, and what that means.

Dish drainer. We’ve heard a little bit about design museums today and I think the double-edged sword of design museums is something that’s really compelling to me. And at once objects in design, museums are really relatable because lots of people have, if not those exact objects, they have similar things in their homes that they use every day. So that related sort of quality is really nice, but it also is slightly domestic sometimes. And I don’t think anyone here has a Jeff Koons in their living room for example, but they probably have a dish drainer in their kitchen. And so this series has been really nice to take a different tack to where we talked about this dish drainer, which most people when they see in the gallery probably don’t think about too deeply. But luckily Jenny Kane, our media officer, did a very hard hitting expose on kitchen gadgets and how her cupboards are full of stuff she doesn’t use.

And this was just a different angle again to explore an object. And so it’s not just about Scott Jarvie and his design and why he’s innovative, it’s actually about someone who looks at this and thinks, I want to buy that. You can buy it online and you can have it in your home if you like and it’s just sort of centering the object in a slightly different way.

So one of my favourite articles that we’ve done as part of the series is related to this object, which is a salt sack. The sack itself was manufactured in Dundee and the salt that would have been inside it was manufactured by an organisation that had factories in Nigeria. And one of my favourite things about this article is that when Maryam approached me to write about this, I didn’t know what she was talking about in terms of what the object was. And when we went up to the gallery, I thought, wow, I’ve never looked at this. I’ve never seen it before and I just entirely passed it by. What’s particularly resonating about it for me as well beyond that is, that Maryam was born in Nigeria, spent a couple of years there, but most of her life was spent growing up in Dundee.

And so in this article she talks about how her ties to Nigeria aren’t as strong as they are in Dundee. And then seeing this piece in the museum that she works in, that harks back to her Nigerian connections was important to her, because despite not feeling like she has strong ties to Nigeria, she also doesn’t feel like she’s part of the fabric of Dundee. So it was a really interesting moment of introspection, sort of self identity and sort of not knowing necessarily where you fit in and then seeing this object that sort of symbolises all of that was quite powerful. And of course, it’s always fun when you can call out colonialism and Western approaches to the terrible things that we’ve done. So, that’s quite a nice by-product of that. And hopefully these examples demonstrate the importance of the different voices that write for the series.

And I think now in 2019 museums are getting much better at representing different voices and sort of moving away from authoritative, sort of singular museum voices. Like we are the museum, and this is what we sound like with little sort of light and shadow. This to me, museums are more like choirs, where the power of a museum comes from the fact that it’s a group of voices all working together to create something really beautiful, really powerful. And of course you still get your solos, everyone gets their moment to shine hopefully, but all too often, it’s a curator doing their curator thing, which is totally valid and important, but equally important is getting these other voices in, and these other perspectives. And that can be marketing teams, and we know how they talk, it could be our learning teams, it could be digital like me, it could be the young people that we work with and showcasing their perspectives and voices.

It’s been mentioned already today, but visitor services are super important, arguably that beating heart of the museum. They’re the frontline speaking to the visitors, experts on the objects in many ways. And also then, really importantly, the visitors themselves, and being able to bring them in to be part of the voice of the museum, which they are. It’s just that we need to give them the platforms. So all of these voices, in particular for this Scottish Design Icon series, has been what’s made it really special. And each person’s unique perspective has been just a bit of a pleasure to work on and sort of coax out their connections and their stories.

I’ve every time been surprised when someone comes up with a personal link, whether it’s, “Oh yeah, I wouldn’t be born if it wasn’t for that,” or whatever it is. Also, there are just so many unexpected connections. What’s so nice is even though it can be a challenge, which I’ll talk about shortly, to come up with that connection, I feel like everyone has one, you just need to work to find out what that is. And really it’s just about showcasing the teams that make up the museum. All too often museums are faceless institutions or sort of big behemoths that you don’t really get to know, or you don’t get to know the people inside them. And this is just one way, one very small way that you can start making it a little bit more accessible.

So we’re going to talk about some of the challenges and benefits of this article series. I’ll start with the challenges so I can end on a positive note. The good thing about it is that anyone can write it, but the challenge with that is, who do you approach? If you were going to write an article about… I don’t know, racism on ocean liners, or something, you’d have a fairly small pool of people that you would approach to write that. If your remit is, it can be about anything, it’s much harder to target someone to write that.

So I’ve had to use some sort of different tactics in my museum to coax these stories of people. The personal connection angle, now that it’s established, can add quite a lot of pressure. I think people… It’s two things really. People either go, “I don’t have one so I don’t know why I’d write about it,” or sort of more sadly, they go, “Well, my personal connection isn’t as good as all the others,” or, “No one will care” or, “It’s not as valid.” Which is another really nice thing about the series is that I can sort of work with people to bring that out. And then when we publish it and showcase it and people get lovely comments on their articles, hopefully it validates what they’re feeling and it lets them know that we trust them and value their perspectives.

Another challenge in some ways is the range of tones. So from some quite profound articles about self identity to, LOL, dish drainers are fun. And so it’s finding that right tone to make it all work together, but essentially that’s my job to make sure it all sort of sits together and is coherent and consistent.

So the benefits of the series though, as I’ve mentioned, the range of perspectives is really great. And it adds a lot of variety, hopefully for readers, but also for me. And I think if the same people were writing in the same style, everything we published, it would just get really boring really quickly. And I think if I feel that way hopefully our audience feels that way too.

The focus is on people, not on objects. That’s sort of a no-brainer. Museums do this… I think that’s their bread and butter now, it’s about stories, it’s about people. And also even though it can be a challenge, the fact that anyone can contribute no matter what their background or expertise is really important to me. And we have amazing curators who can write really beautifully about certain things, but what I really want alongside that is pieces written by anyone who works for us who has a thought or an opinion because it’s as valid as anything else.

I hope in some ways the articles are more accessible, and by that I specifically mean that instead of saying, here’s a vase and here’s 1200 words about the vase, come and read it and become an expert on the vase, it’s more about here’s a person and he… they think this is really funny. What do you think? Or someone’s story about how they identify in the country that they now live in, it just gives people a different way in every month. And I’m sure people don’t read all of these, but hopefully now and again they find one that resonates with them. And of course the opportunities to represent the wider team is really important. And again, just to give voices to people around the museum.

So ultimately this article series is about connections. I think a few of the talks today have explored this in some way. I think this concept of connections with this series are sort of twofold. One is that it connects objects in our galleries back to real people and to their lives. And as a design museum, a lot of the things we have in the galleries people have in their own homes. It’s sort of presenting that in a way that’s quite accessible, so it’s not… Just because it’s behind glass and is lit beautifully doesn’t mean that it’s a distant, irrelevant object. And then the other side of that is, by bringing our objects to life through the powerful connections that we can explore with each author. And like I mentioned, there are a few objects in this series that I never really thought about twice, but through reading someone else’s perspective on that and how it resonated with them brings it into a whole new level for me.

So some of you probably maybe already do things like this, but I just wanted to issue a bit of a challenge that next time you write or commission content about an object, maybe instead of using the object as the focus, maybe consider the object as a thread in the tapestry of someone’s life, a cameo in their story, basically just make the object a little bit more incidental and not the sole sort of be all and end all of the article.

So I’m going to leave you now with a quote from Maryam’s piece, just because when I started this article series, I thought it would just be a quick sort of digestible and accessible way to showcase our permanent collection, but being able to facilitate Maryam to write about her very personal experience and how the object resonated with her and give her a platform to do that is really important to me and I hope we can continue to do stuff like this. So, “Finding something that relates to me has significance.” And I hope that as museums, I guess that’s what we try and do all the time. “With knowledge comes power and more importantly, empowerment of self.” And that’s the end.

Sarah: Thank you Russell. Great presentation, lovely gifs. So we all know Madeleine Albright of course, and she always said, “Read my pin.” And what does yours say, your broach?

Russell Dornan: Mine says, looks at my pin. Don’t look at me.

Sarah: All right. Well, we are looking at you and listening to you, your great story. So, a question. How do curators feel about you opening up for external people to create contents?

Russell Dornan: They love it. They don’t have to do it.

Sarah: [inaudible 00:23:00]

Russell Dornan: Yeah. So they-

Sarah: They don’t have to write the texts.

Russell Dornan: Well, they don’t have… They get oversight of these pieces. So when they’re written… I commission it, I work with the writer and then when it’s done, I’m happy with it, I then pass it to whichever curator and they just give it a once over and say, “Yeah, that’s fine.” Or they might say, “Oh, actually this…” They’ll tell me something that none of us knew about the object because of course it’s not in the label.

Sarah: Right.

Russell Dornan: So they’ll say, “[inaudible 00:23:25] did you know, this? That might be a really nice thing.” And so sometimes we’ll revise a little bit depending on what they say, but it’s really just an oversight, that they get to go, “Oh yeah, that’s fine.” So yeah, I think they’re quite happy not having to write everything.

Sarah: Great. Can you say something about the success of the series?

Russell Dornan: Yeah, sure. The series has been well-received, and we’ve been publishing these articles alongside lots of other different types of content that we’ve been doing. Some are hits and some are misses and I think it’s up to us to think about what success looks like.

Sarah: And what does success look like?

Russell Dornan: With these in particular, what’s been really nice is, a lot of the feedback that we’ve been getting. So when we post it online we get some nice comments from people and they’re just slightly different to the normal stuff. I think there’s that emotional connection and there’s that personal connection. And so, sometimes one of them might not get great views, but they’ll get some great comments. Others might get really good view numbers. I think what we’re also doing now, because we’ve only been open a year, for the first year we’ve been trying lots of different things and we’re now in a phase of looking back over the last year, looking at this content and sort of evaluating that and deciding what our KPIs are and what success means for us and then sort of iterating on that.

Sarah: Okay. To what extent do you edit the stories made by people from the staff?

Russell Dornan: People from the South?

Sarah: This is the question.

Russell Dornan: What does people from the South mean?

Sarah: From the staff. From staff.

Russell Dornan: Oh, staff. Sorry.

Sarah: Personnel.

Russell Dornan: I edit very little. I just make it make sense and correct their grammar or punctuation, things like that. And in the one we published last week, which was about the fourth bridge, the writer started by saying, “When you think of Scottish things, you think of…” and then listed things. And he said, “Ginger people this…” No. And I was like, “No, that’s not really on the right tone.” So I talked to him about that and we tweaked that a bit, but it’s quite rare that we do that. And I think it’s very important that people’s personality comes across in these pieces. Maryam’s piece in particular with the salt sack, even though it’s quite a sort of an earnest topic and sort of self-reflection, she does it in a very Maryam way and it’s quite funny and a bit sort of flippant and so I wanted to preserve that style.

Sarah: Great. And so, final question. How do you send out the stories? Newsletter or social media?

Russell Dornan: We put it all across social. We put them in newsletters, E-news I think they’re called, which I don’t take care of, but I put them forward to be included in that. And that’s it for now. And as I say, as we’re looking into what we’re going to do with them, we’ll see if there’s anything else we can do, but yeah, social mainly.

Sarah: Right. Thank you so much, Russell.

Russell Dornan: Thank you very much.

Sarah: Thank you.


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