But what if we tried? Bryan Beresford (Curatorial & Community Engagement Coordinator, Rochdale Arts and Heritage Service) and Harry Meadley, Artist
Touchstones Rochdale Art Gallery is part of a larger facility managed by Rochdale Boroughwide Cultural Trust (Link4Life). At the UKRG Magical Mystery Store event at Tate Liverpool, artist Harry Meadley talked about the challenge he set the gallery. Namely, to display as much of the collection as possible in a single exhibition. The collection contains 1600 objects and the exhibition space consisted of 3 galleries. The team at Touchstones knew it was an impossible task, but zealously endeavoured to present both normally unseen pieces and processes to the public. A key element of this involved turning the institution inside out. For instance, staff held meetings in the gallery space, T-frames and opened crates were exhibited and conservators and technicians were filmed explaining their roles. The gallery presented the films shot by Harry in the gallery store, a space that isn’t normally open to the public. The films captured staff members discussing the challenges of producing contemporary exhibitions. They also captured frank discussions about the obstacles the gallery has faced during its transition from a regional museum to charitable status.
The exhibition ultimately contained 360 works and purposely failed to present themes and narratives. Pieces were presented according to selections of accession numbers and resulted in a varied and colourful show. The installation shots captured how the eclectic hang afforded visitors the opportunity to appreciate the diversity of works in their civic collection.
Bryan Beresford (Curatorial & Community Engagement Coordinator at Touchstones) explained that the exhibition engaged visitors and their feedback highlighted that they valued the gallery’s effort to not only hang as much as possible but also to make them privy to the process. Harry and Bryan explained that like other councils under austerity measures, Rochdale Council had questioned selling parts of their collection. I don’t think I was alone in thinking how brave it was of Touchstones to embark on a project like this. It was clear from the presentation and video clips that Touchstones and Rochdale Council were under immense financial pressure. It was encouraging to hear that visitors enjoyed the exhibition and that their feedback along with good press (including coverage in national papers) helped the Council keep sight of the fact that the collection is a cultural asset worth conserving and celebrating rather than flogging.
My take away from Harry and Bryan’s talk was that asking unconventional questions of ourselves like, in this case, ‘But what if we tried?’ can lead to innovative displays, enhanced visitor experience and strengthened institutional relationships.
Written by Rebecca Bailey, Assistant Exhibitions Manager, Royal Academy of Arts