As a student of Art Gallery and Museum Studies, I was in search of a placement that would better my practical skills and enable me to learn more about collection management as well as understanding the mechanisms of a local authority gallery, as I had no prior experience of working with one. I immediately chose to spend my time at Touchstones Rochdale Art Gallery precisely because of this reason. My academic interests lie in exploring the relationship that local communities have with cultural organisations and after having researched Touchstones, I was glad to realise that the gallery had a strong connection to the community of Rochdale. At my first visit to Touchstones, I had a chance to explore the museum that is a part of the organisation and is affiliated with the gallery above it. Immediately, I was struck by the importance the museum display placed on the history of the area, for example artefacts connected to local actress, Gracie Fields. At this moment, I anticipated the ways in which these curatorial practices were transferred into the policies of the gallery.
For the duration of 20 days, I worked on a project-based placement alongside the exhibition team, towards a contemporary exhibition that would further delve into the concepts of community and gallery dynamics. Prompted by contemporary artist, Harry Meadley, the exhibition titled ‘But what if we tried?’ responded to the issue that majority of collections in museums are kept in storage and hidden from public view. Collaborating with the gallery, the exhibition saw the display of over 400 pieces out of the 1600 that are currently a part of Touchstones’ whole collection. However, bypassing the idea of a final product to be displayed, the process of exhibition making was filmed and also shown in the exhibition. In more than one way, this project made Touchstones’ collection and curatorial processes more accessible to its local audience.
My role as ‘exhibition assistant’ meant that I would aid in the development of this project and research further into this process of exhibition making whilst enacting it myself. I began my time delving into archival material (reports, correspondence letters/emails etc) regarding certain pieces that highlight issues of conservation, logistics and budgets that the gallery have to take into account. From this, I learnt many things about the value of the collection as well as historical data that was central to understanding the role the works played in Touchstone’s identity. After this information was gathered, I created facsimile folders for audiences to read alongside the art displayed.
I was also given the opportunity to exercise my collection management skills. Whilst working on such a large scale project, tracking the movement of 400 pieces was a pivotal task to the whole operation. In order to safely organise this procedure,I helped in constructing a document that would record the original storage location of the works and their place in the gallery. This was also done in part, to ensure that no pieces are lost during the deinstall of the exhibition. Whilst working on these main tasks I was also invited to partake in staff meetings and played an active role in solving exhibition design problems. For example, we tried to create a coherent visual motif that aligned with the nature of the exhibition, and collectively settled on using a material similar to MDF that corresponded to the packing materials shown in space.
After the opening of the show, a lot of my time was spent in engaging directly with visitors in the gallery space. Helping audiences in completing feedback and evaluation forms that asked them what works they would like to see more, was integral in my understanding of the community. Adjacent to this, I was involved in discussionswith local charity groups that formed part of Touchstones’ community outreach programmes. Realising that many individuals have such personals ties and histories with the collection heightened the importance of this self-reflexive exhibition.
Becoming a part of the curatorial and exhibition team at Touchstones made me realise this dynamic in the context of local authority museums. During my time at the gallery, I have been in conversation with many individuals and have received positive feedback about the exhibition from the members of the Rochdale community as well as outside of it. I hope to see how these curatorial policies manifest in the future not only at Touchstones, but in other local authority museums.