The Human Connection: Norfolk Museums Service UK Partner Placement (Yohana Rosales Frias, ITP 2018, Philippines)

I am Yohana Frias, researcher and member of the curatorial team of the Ethnology Division of the National Museum of the Philippines. My work involves a variety of things, as I take on roles depending on the changing needs of my division: archival and field research; collections management including inventory, photo-documentation and condition assessment; preparation of exhibition concepts, layout, text and object lists; conducting workshops and lectures; and a bit of guided tours and administrative work on the side! Among these things, I love photography and exhibition layout the most!

For my UK Partner Placement, I went with my ITP colleagues Suruchika Chawla and Hoda El Chayah to Norwich, to visit Norfolk Museums Service. We were accompanied by Jessica Juckes, BM ITP staff member, from Monday to Thursday.

Norwich is a small and quiet place, not a bustling city teeming with tourists, which makes it easy for me to relax. The narrow streets and the scarcity of people create an intimate environment which allows me to truly feel at home even for a short period of time.

Since Norfolk Museums Service is an organisation comprising museums, collections study centres and countywide services, we were able to go around Norfolk and visit places under their care or those they have partnered with.

Last Tuesday (July 24), we started the day by doing workshops on how to make appropriate museum evaluations and surveys. In the afternoon, our UK Partner representative Sarah Gore (Teaching Museum Manager, NMS) drove us to the University of East Anglia’s Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts where we discussed the process and challenges of curating their permanent exhibition which features the collection of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury.

The next day, we focused on Norwich Castle. It boasts stunning architecture which makes you wonder about the history it holds. I visited the galleries narrating the arrival of different groups of people in East Anglia: Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans. Norwich Castle was founded by William the Conqueror, the first Norman king of England. The Keep is scheduled to be renovated in the coming years to return it to its original Norman layout. This will include a British Museum partnership gallery. I hope I can come again when it is done! Read more about the project here.

More tours happened in the afternoon, which included the mysterious Rene Magritte ‘lost painting’, the current temporary exhibition on the Paston Treasure, and the NMS conservation laboratory.

On Thursday (July 26), we travelled to Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth, where we visited galleries about their maritime and fishing heritage. It is very interesting how they show the process of curing and smoking herring, which shows how they place importance on the community and their roots. They also effectively engage with their visitors: for example, allowing them to vote for their favorite artwork, and putting up labels which includes visitors’ comments about an object.

After having lunch at their cafe, we travelled to see the Museum of Norwich and Strangers’ Hall. I love how inclusive these spaces are. The Museum of Norwich has a programme entitled Dementia Friendly Coffee Mornings, which helps get together people living with memory loss. In the Strangers’ Hall, volunteers who guide visitors inside their galleries mostly comprise of older people.

We went to King’s Lynn on the next day, to visit the Lynn Museum and the Stories of Lynn attraction. The Lynn Museum is home to the Seahenge, a 4,000 year-old timber circle, which was something I was very curious to see even before I came to the UK. Stories of Lynn explores the history of the town, including the story of prisoners in the Gaol House. It is amazing to compare the venues we’ve seen. I have noticed that what they had in common was to always appeal to different kinds of audiences, especially to children. They have specific hands-on areas in galleries for kids to do creative activities such as drawing and colouring, puzzles, dress-up and games.

Some objects they display may seem ordinary, but to me it meant that they place importance on even the smallest of things – that the rarest of objects is not always the most significant, but those that tell stories of people in relation to their personal experiences at work, home, and in their community life.

I think this is very important in a country that has diverse groups of people. Nowadays, the modern world is becoming more and more alienating, as cities and technologies create impersonal environments. People are trying to find the ‘human connection’: something or someone they can connect with. While popular museums usually appeal to researchers, critics, art lovers, tourists and the like, smaller museums like these have a more personal appeal to the communities they represent. The role of the museum expands from a place you visit simply to view works of art, to something you can connect to and can really be part of.

Saturday (28 July) was our free day, so Hoda and I visited the Polar Museum and Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. When we were ‘museumed-out’, we went around the gardens, universities and cathedrals around the city centre.

I am thankful to the British Museum and Norfolk Museums Service for this wonderful experience. It is something I will always remember.