University of Cambridge: Unexpected Experiences

George Doji, host of Museum Remix at the University of Cambridge Museums, describes the digital experiment in museum storytelling that began when the collections were forced to close their doors.

I’m George and I work for the University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) as part of the Fitzwilliam Museum Digital and IT Team. As you can imagine, my team and I have been incredibly busy over the past few months as the museums have not only shifted to working from home, but have also been creating family and community activities for our audiences who too have been in lockdown.

A huge part of museum life involves interacting with our audiences and building relationships mostly based on people being there in person. The question of how to make sure people still get to have a meaningful interaction with our museums when those museums have locked doors is an immensely tricky one – and one we were asked to solve very rapidly in March of this year!

One of the projects affected by lockdown was Museum Remix. The UCM has been running Remix since 2018; it’s an annual event in which we invite people from across the museum sector and beyond to come into our museums, explore our collections with our curators, and remix.

We ask them to look at the stories we represent with our objects and how we’re framing them, to ask questions about whether certain narratives are privileged over others, and to respond creatively in ways that push us to look at our objects in different ways.

These have previously been in-person events. Last year, we hosted a group of participants in our museums making puppets, painting, and slipping down to Cambridge’s famous Fitzbillies bakery to help make a risqué display involving Chelsea buns (no, really!).  The atmosphere is fun, subversive, creative, provocative, and we were SO looking forward to doing it all again this year.

Cue the locking of the gates.

This year was supposed to be Museum Remix bigger and better than ever. We were going to have live talks, workshops, art events and possibly even a pop-up exhibition.

We were now facing a situation in which digital – the delivery method intended for a fraction of these, and far out of the comfort zone for many of our staff – was now the only way any of this was going to get done. Ouch.

But honestly, to my surprise and delight, I actually think this has made Museum Remix even stronger in a way I could not have possibly imagined. We went back to the drawing board and reshaped our events as a series of challenges that we could run online.

The live talks we had planned were moved to YouTube, and since there is no travel involved, it means we have a great opportunity to speak to people who may not have been able to come to the museum in person.

We asked our curators to pick their favourite objects and introduce them on video, and we asked people to tell us what these objects inspire in them. What did they feel? We asked them to tell the stories that need to be heard. We shared their poems, artworks and writing on social media, sparking yet more conversations. It’s been a wonderful new form of engagement for us that has given us new insight into the objects we thought we knew so well.

We’ve also mixed things up virtually across the museums: a photograph of a fossil rhino skull from the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences now sits alongside a bust of Queen Victoria from the Fitzwilliam Museum, an Ibo Maiden spirit Mask from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, a pair of spectacles from the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, and so so much more.

Plus, we can share our participants’ creations widely across social media and, in doing so, help give our colleagues across the venues more digital confidence, more tools to create wonderful digital content to share with our global audiences.

This has been a strange and stressful time for all of us, but if there is a silver lining somewhere, it is that adapting to our new patterns has forced us to really examine ourselves and what we do, and truly ask: what really, is the important thing here?

In short, we’ve made Remix more Remix-y than we could ever have hoped it could be. And when we start to go back into our buildings, I know that we can, should and must take all that we’ve learned with us.

Words: George Doji
Design: Zoe Smith
Photography: Lloyd Mann/Sir Cam
Typography: Balvir Friers
Series Editor: Louise Walsh

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