After six days, the Speaking with the Dead exhibition at Chester Cathedral has closed. After Sunday services this afternoon, my second daughter and I spent an hour removing the posters, zap-stands and artefacts and comments sheets.
The Exhibition’s Progress
Having set up the exhibit on Tuesday morning, I visited again on Tuesday afternoon when I also took a tower tour. Then I visited on Wednesday and Friday, and for a time today (Sunday). Each time, I took the opportunity to attend the exhibition myself to talk to visitors about our displays and our project. However, for most of the time the exhibition was not accompanied by personnel and it was designed to be effective without my attendance. Indeed, when I was present, I felt I unwittingly interfered with visitors freedom to move around the displays and examine the artefacts on display. Furthermore, it was only when I wasn’t present that visitors added comments.
Having been run at Exeter Cathedral and St Alban’s Cathedral, it was a privilege to bring the exhibit to Chester. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Dean and Chapter of Chester Cathedral for agreeing for the exhibition to take place, and to the the staff and volunteers at Chester Cathedral for their help and support during the week. I am extremely grateful also to the Corporate Communications and the Facilities departments of the University of Chester for their help and support, and my project team for designing the posters and helping me set up the exhibition.
I have learned a great deal from staging this short exhibition regarding what works and what doesn’t work in exhibitions. These include:
- I think we provided way too much text and way too many themes to be readily digestible in a small exhibition. However, as I alluded to in a previous blog, I don’t think this is a problem: we only anticipated most visitors to dip into selected elements of the display and use it as a platform from which to explore each cathedral’s memorials themselves and with new attention to their locations, details and relationships.
- The comments section worked well but I clearly failed to provide enough pens as the ones I left went astray, preventing others from adding their thoughts. I was fascinated by the range of comments, from jokes, to critical comments, from those using it like a visitor book to comment on the entire cathedral, to those wishing to use the opportunity of paper and pen to leave a memorial message for a deceased loved one. Someone even stated the obvious: ‘hello dead people’ and another child’s comment regarding the cathedral as ‘one great coffin’. One left a Game of Thrones spoiler comment. Visitors from across the UK and across the world left their mark, responding to the exhibition in different ways and to its varied facets.
The display of replica wax votives was very effective and despite fears that they might be stolen, all were accounted for by the end of the exhibition. People I talked to were confused, intrigued and opinionated about these artefacts, a contrasting response to the uncritical respect they showed to the information and images on the displays; artefacts provoke varied and fascinating responses.
- A practical failing was that the cloth posters regularly came away from their moorings and despite regular maintenance, I came back on Sunday to find two posters had fallen down. In future, these exhibits will need daily maintenance, if not hourly maintenance, to ensure they are operational in all respects.
- Still, as alluded to above, I remain unconvinced that having a ‘manned’ stall is helpful; those I did talk to were unsure what to say to me, and unsure what the exhibition was about: faith, identity, memory, the dead. Perhaps the exhibition should explore and hear these responses, but also perhaps it is best to not engage in person with visitors and leave them to engage in their own time with the exhibition.
- Tweets about the exhibition, and blogs about it, I believe are an integral part of the physical display. I hope and believe that these will provide a wider dissemination than those willing and able to visit Chester Cathedral in person, whether to accidentally or deliberately encounter our exhibition.
- We thought about whether to explicitly include dimensions on conflict commemoration in the exhibition to coincide with the rash of commemoration over the centenary of the First World War; we decided for better or worse not to do this and instead to think about how conflict commemoration inhabits spaces with other subjects and dimensions of mortuary commemoration in the cathedral.
There are 3 points here.
First, we are in negotiations with a fourth cathedral interested in hosting the exhibition.
Second, it remains unclear how we can accurately and fairly demonstrate the ‘success’ and ‘impact’ of our exhibition. Hundreds of people must have visited Chester Cathedral during the 6 days the exhibition was there, but who look at it? How much and what did they take away? Our visitor comments give an impression, but little more.
Third, it is important to note that work on the project goes on: the exhibition is not a formal ‘closing’ of our research. Rather than a simple ‘presentation of results’, the displays at Exeter, St Alban’s and Chester mark dimensions of unfolding and intersecting research themes that will form the basis of future research outputs. Still, we hope that you will continue to read this blog and the Past in its Place blog for updates over the coming months.