The final week of my project with the Museum of London and Bromley Museum and I am ending on a high. Things have taken a rather weird turn this week. I am not sure if it is all a strange dream. It certainly takes a bit of explaining when I tell people what I am up to today. The nerves kicked in last night, I woke up early, excited and apprehensive as I faced my first full day of public engagement with archaeology. I am on a mission to share artefacts from a Roman villa in Keston with the people of Orpington. But not content with talking to people who have come to Bromley Museum, we are seeking a new audience. It would be too obvious, too easy, to talk to people who have come to our Museum they are already engaged with our local history. We have set ourselves a tougher more unusual challenge.
Today we are taking things to a new level. We are off to Tesco in Orpington, yes, Tesco in Orpington. You did read that right. What began as an interesting concept has now become a surreal reality. I am in the strange no-man’s land of shopping centre foyer. Nestled amongst the bright lights, shiny floors and array of signs, we have set up our tables, our leaflets and books, but most importantly we have bought our museum with us. I never thought I would find myself competing with the car sales woman and the man selling AA breakdown cover. I watch them over the other side of this portal to consumerism, jealously observing their techniques and success rate. We are not selling our goods, but some shoppers eye us with a wary glance or bustle past, head down avoiding eye contact. But we have the advantage, our museum objects are proudly displayed in front of us, the gems to entice and surprise the unsuspecting passer-by, real Roman pieces of life sitting in two trays, released from their store box slumber. Pottery, marked with finger print designs, a coin, a hair pin, a brooch. We even have Neolithic flints, the cool and moody grey of scrapers and knives look out of place in this bright, colourful plastic world.
Why we are here? What we are trying to achieve? How has it all worked out? It is quite hard to put this weird day into order, to make sense of it. But I am going to base this whole post on the ‘Rule of Three’. Sounds good doesn’t it? I am borrowing the ‘Rule of Three’ from our Museum of London guide, I hope he doesn’t mind. I first came across the ‘Rule of Three’ a couple of weeks ago. We were given a masterclass in public engagement with archaeological objects. It is a daunting task when you are a volunteer, to take objects that have dates, history, context, layers, and location and open up these objects for others, to talk about materials, methods of construction and reasons for use. You feel like a novice, not an expert, people may look to you for answers and what if you don’t have those answers?
This is where the ‘Rule of Three’ came in. You need only to know three things about an object to engage a member of the public, to light a fire of interest, a spark of imagination and a quest of recognition. These three things are on the label of our objects, if our minds empty after all these weeks of work and our knowledge evaporates in a puff of panic we can look at that label. It will give us location, context and material and it is the start, it is the opener, the beginning of a story and a conversation. I was dubious about this at first, but now I have completed a day and a bit of public engagement I can see this is true. I am no expert, but that is the whole point you don’t have to be.
So why are we here? ‘Rule of Three’ here we go, three reasons.
1 – To share local history and local archaeological objects with local people. Simple really. Come look at these objects, come hold a 2,000 year old piece of pot. The Romans made it, used it and left it behind so that we would not forget them. Not the Romans from some distant Empire, but the Romans who lived just down the road, just past the A232. Those Romans, your neighbours.
2 – We have come to promote Bromley Museum. We want to say hello! Have you been to see us? Do you know where we are? When you came, what did you think about us? We are interested we want to know. We are going through a Heritage Lottery Bid. Do you have an opinion? Look what we have on at Christmas, come see our next exhibition. These shoppers may have never been to our Museum, they may have never of heard of us. But they certainly have now. It is not every day your museum pops up in the local supermarket and brings real objects that you can hold and touch.
3 – We are here today in Tesco because the Museum of London has helped us get here. They have done this before, they have blazed the trail, made the contacts and pushed archaeological engagement to new levels. We are here because they have held our hand and pointed the way for us. It worked for them and it will work for us. How can this experience be anything but positive for a small council run museum? In a time of cuts and financial pressure, we have to look to new ways to grow our audience and engage new visitors. We are being inventive and creative, the Museum of London have helped us achieve this.
So, “Rule of Three” is working so far. Why are we here? That is dealt with. But I can hear you say – Why Tesco? That is one odd place to be. What do museums and shopping centres have in common? After 6 hours standing in the entrance to a shopping centre and watching shoppers come and go I have decided we actually have quite a lot in common. In fact we have three things in come, boom, ‘Rule of Three’, you knew it was coming. This commonality is all based on engagement.
The type of people who visit museums and the type of people who visit large shopping centres – same or different? Obviously there will be a bit of overlap, we had people come and talk to us who had visited our Museum and we had people who had never been and didn’t know we existed. But what I found much more interesting was the level of engagement we had with our visitors on the day regardless of whether they had been to our Museum before or not. I realised that people engaged with us much in the same way as they engage with their shopping experience.
1 – You have the quick, 1 item, just popping in as we’re passing visitor. In Tesco, they have come for a paper, they don’t really need it, but they are out and about and a bit bored, a bit lonely, they fancy a chat. They don’t have much on to do, a trip to Tesco is in order. Our Museum stand had much the same visitor. Not really interested in our objects too much, just wanted to pop by, see what we were up to have a quick chat. We have Museum visitors like that too, just in the park, just passing, they just pop in to have a quick look round.
2 – Next you have a shopper with a list. They have 10 items to buy, they are just here to get their 10 items, they don’t want anything else, they know where it all is, they go straight to the shelves, get their bread, milk, ham and cheese. They are here a little while but no longer than they need to be. We have the same type of visitor come up to us in Tesco, they look at the things we have, they pick up the pot, they take a leaflet, they don’t stay to chat too long, but they don’t want to miss out so they’ve come to take a look at our objects. We have this type of visitor to our Museum, they have come specifically to see something, a temporary exhibition or event. They have come for that reason and that reason alone, it can be hard to tempt them round the rest of the Museum. They know what they want.
3 – Finally, we have the wanderers and peruses (I think I fall into this category). The ‘lets take a trolley and wander up and down every aisle’ shopper, we are going to be here for hours, and stop for coffee and cake and maybe even carry on afterwards. We want groceries, we want a knife for the kitchen, a basket for the cat and a dvd as well. Well we didn’t know we wanted those things but once we went past we thought we might as well get them. These shoppers look at everything, sample it all, take it all in. They don’t care how long they are. They visit our stand, we chat about Bromley Museum, the Romans, we debate Lullingstone, Crofton and Poverest Road Roman sites, we talk pots and coins. They look at everything we have, they take every leaflet and spend a long time with us. We hear of their own historical connections and interest. This visitor to our Museum, looks at every case, stays all morning, all day. They want to read labels and enjoy they whole experience, there is not a object that escapes their attention or a room they do not see.
There you go -‘Rule of Three’, probably over simplifying things, I bet Tesco’s can break their shoppers down into 15 different groups, but I am going with these three. The similarities are there because people in their nature are very similar. You may think the shoppers of Tesco have nothing in common with our Museum audience but the 60 people who stopped on the day and chatted to us prove this is wrong. So we have lots in common, Tesco and Bromley Museum. We all want people to come and visit, maybe we can learn a little from one another, we are neighbours after all.
Finally what did I take away from my day of “Tesco’s Archaeology”, apart from a pint of milk and some cat food? ‘Rule of three’ (for the last time I promise) – I will keep it simple.
1 – If you are going to do something like this, something a bit unusual, be prepared for the unusual. Questions like – Where are the toilets? Where is the post box? Where can I get a taxi? Do you have any jobs? This is public service archaeology at its best!
2 – Conversation. Our day in Tesco was all about having a conversation. We were not lecturing or preaching, not reeling off facts and dates. We were that to have a chat, a two way street, we were interested in the visitors to our stand, we asked them questions and listened to their stories as well as sharing our own. How can you ever hope to engage the public with your museum if you are not engaged with what is important to them and what they are interested in.
3 – Finally, never, ever underestimate the power of bringing the objects out of the museum and allowing people to touch them and hold them. There is something so powerful about this simple act. I saw it on their faces time and again. It instantly sparks a journey that begins with questions and leads to recognition and connections. I loved the two people who came up separately held the piece of Roman pot with finger indentations on and immediately made the link to pastry making and creating finger marks on a pie crust. One of the last visitors to the stand held our piece of pot, turned it over in her hand and contemplated. She remarked that regardless of the time that has passed, the distance between a strange Roman world and a bright 21st century shopping centre, pots and plates are just pots and plates at the end of the day, something I couldn’t but help agree with as I wondered down the aisles and left our temporary Tesco home at the end of the day.
On my way home I had aching feet but a smile on my face. What a wonderful day. A strange experience, but one worth repeating. Sometimes we need to take the Museum out of the Museum, open up the doors, the cabinets and the boxes. Bring the objects out into the light, take them to a new audience, a new setting, allow people to make their own connections, understand objects in their own way. Laying them out in this new world exposed the old world to scrutiny. I hope this post will inspire you to take your museum down to the local supermarket, give it a go, I think the results will surprise you. My last picture really says it all……
With thanks to the staff at Tesco Extra Orpington for allowing the Museum to come out of the Museum