From Scripts to Spell Books: Reflecting on my Experience in ‘Curating Culture’

‘Curating Culture’ is a module available to undergraduates at the University of Manchester via the University College of Interdisciplinary Learning (UCIL).  It is taught by the University of Manchester Library Special Collections in conjunction with the Whitworth Art Gallery and Manchester Museum.  Besides offering an insight into the type of work done by curators, archivists, librarians, conservators and other professionals, it enhances student employability by teaching transferable skills. One of our students, Maissie Killen, writes:

I am student at the University of Manchester, currently in my second year studying ‘Classical Studies’. When selecting my course modules, I was thrilled to see a curating-based course was available as my ambitions for the future involve being a museum curator and so this module seemed like a great way to achieve this goal. I have no regrets choosing this course and have found the differing topics each week enlightening but also a welcomed break from my other essay-heavy modules.

The course Curating Cultures consisted of one two-hour session a week and was led by Janette Martin and Donna Sherman.  Each session usually involved the visit of a guest speaker who spoke on a range of subjects, some being photography and online archives. My favourite session was the visit to the Whitworth Art Gallery where we met with the curator, Uthra Rajgopal. This was a personal highlight of the course as I appreciated the way she explained the meaning behind the artwork; rather than just describing the piece she would provide background information which only made it more interesting. The idea of turning a person’s mild interest towards an artefact into genuine enthusiasm is what encourages me to want to become a curator and this visit definitely assisted this desire.

As for the assessed aspect of the course, our first project was to select four objects and make them into an exhibition case which included an object list and label as well as images and a short blog. The romantic appeal of black and white films, along with a love of vintage clothing, assisted my decision to base my exhibition on Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn.

Little Black Dress
Audrey Hepburn filming Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) wearing the ‘Little Black Dress’.

Before my research, I was aware of Audrey’s success as an actress. However, it was only when I began further study that I found out about her harsh upbringing in Nazi occupied territory and her involvement in a resistant movement during the Second World War. I incorporated this aspect of her life into the project by including a photograph of a young Audrey Hepburn dancing to portray that her dedication to the arts started from young age. Her diligence as an artist was evident in my second object which was a script of Breakfast at Tiffany’s that Hepburn had meticulously annotated herself.

Script breakfast at Tiffanys
Hepburn’s annotated script of Breakfast at Tiffany’s,

As for my third and fourth objects, I attempted to show differing elements of Audrey’s life. I represented the glitz and glamour of her Hollywood lifestyle through the inclusion of her iconic ‘Little Black Dress’ as well as paying homage to her work with UNICEF through the addition of her Presidential Medal of Freedom. Throughout my research, my respect for Audrey grew and I tried to base my exhibition around the lesser known aspects of her life in order to commemorate her humanitarian work rather than solely her Hollywood career.

The second assessment involved working within a small group to create a plan for, and present, an educational workshop. After deciding that our target audience for the workshop would be lower KS3 (12-13 year olds), we referred to the national curriculum to help us select a subject to base it on. We quickly decided that the supernatural would be a good topic and believed the intrigue of the occult would appeal to a younger audience. In planning this, we drew upon the setting of the John Rylands Library to reinforce the theme of magic with its likeness to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.  For the workshop, myself along with my peers Megan Bridgeland and Becca Selby, each selected an object taken from the Rylands collection Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World. I chose an object titled ‘The Three Living and the Three Dead’. This is an illustrative interpretation of a poem that told the tale of three men encountering three corpses who warn them to avoid avarice and urge them to perform the correct funeral rights to honour their deaths. I selected this object as it contains images which I thought would appeal to a younger age range as opposed to excessive amounts of text. I also chose my object as I thought that the coexistence of religion and superstition was interesting and worth further exploration as usually they do not interact however in this instance the supernatural is a consequence of failing to be religious.

‘The Three Living and the Three Dead’, from Incunable 15615

Our educational workshop also consisted of an activity where we presented a mock witch trial. This involved three characters who each read out a case study and the audience would have to decide whether they should be sentenced as a witch or not. This activity allowed for audience interaction whilst it was great fun creating the witch characters.

Overall I really enjoyed this course. It taught a range of valuable skills, from tips on how to change your writing style to cater for a certain audience to creating object labels as if they were for artefacts in a museum. The course allowed for independent research however it offered assistance when needed and I would definitely recommend it to others.

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