For around eight months in 2012-13 I did some voluntary work with the tiny and eccentric Museum of Nottingham Life at Brewhouse Yard, Nottingham. This museum had been a classic victim of the cutbacks that were at that time being viciously enacted on all public services but particularly stringently on public museums and cultural services.
The Museum of Nottingham Life had been set up in the 1970s in the heyday of a certain kind of municipal heritage work inspired by E. P Thomson, Raphael Samuel and others and their focus on working class and everyday history. By the time I started working there however the museum had closed and the museum assistants employed by the council had been laid off. The plan (glossed in a ‘big society’ discourse that was fooling nobody) was to re-open on weekends only with a skeleton staff of volunteers (me included). The museum could just about keep going on this basis–caught in a fairly typical bind between wanting to continue to offer a public service and resisting the charity status that was being imposed upon it. Working in this embattled regional museum was an eye opening experience for me, and one that I would recommend to anyone with even a vague interest in the politics of cultural production/administration.
Shadow of Nottingham Life
Photographs by Gabriela Rogula
The most significant project that I undertook at Brewhouse yard was the production of an event and walk-through installation for Nottingham’s annual ‘Night Light’ celebrations. Working with artists volunteering at the museum, with the Media Archive for Central England (MACE) at the University of Lincoln, and with Confetti Creative College, we created a number of light and film installations designed to uncover the ‘shadows of Nottingham life’ embedded in the museum’s architecture and collections. The event was funded by money from Nottingham City Council and by Arts Council England, and involved the commissioning of a new film compiled from footage in the MACE archive, which was then projected onto the walls of the cave spaces that run under the museum. This was accompanied by a number of pre-recorded silhouettes back-projected onto the windows of the museum. The final installation was seen by over 2, 000 people on the 8 February 2013.
This project was an important one for me, as it showed what can be achieved by working hard on a minimal budget and using existing cultural resources creatively. At the time I was also teaching an MA module on Cultural Policy at the University of Nottingham and the practical experience of working in an underfunded, overlooked and generally struggling museum (in my eyes at least) helped to sharpen my thinking and, I hope, my teaching.
It was also a somewhat conflicted project, however, as I was conscious of working very much within a move towards cultural out-sourcing to the voluntary sector that I was and am generally very opposed to. My hope is that a project like ‘Shadows of Nottingham Life’, by illuminating and drawing attention to a generally muted cultural institution might help also to draw attention to the politics of that muting, and for possibilities for opposition.