Examining Humans and Animals in Museum Displays: Global History Hacking the Hunterian Museum

The culminating event for this year’s series of Global History Hackathons took place at the Hunterian Art Gallery and Museum on Tuesday, 14th May. The event was well attended despite the beautiful weather just outside and glowing windows that beckoned the perpetually light-deprived residents of Glasgow. The theme of the event developed in conjunction with Hunterian staff was ‘Examining Humans and Animals in Museum Displays’. Hackers sought to investigate any hidden (or rather very obvious) issues with displaying human remains and animal remains in the same space, with the perceived same level of museological reverence.

Overarching questions for the day were explored in three parts:

  • Are there displays in the museum which make you uncomfortable and/or raise difficult questions?
  • What is your response to these particular items or displays?
  • How can we deal with these issues and feelings of discomfort?

 Flow of the day and Phase I:

The afternoon started by dividing the participants into teams with an inventive separation of the museum; with glass display cases scattered around the room, the groups were quite literally immersed in the gallery space. Following the participant dispersal, the heritage team began their series of introductions. Team leaderHannah-Louise Clark, from UofG Economic and Social History gave us our framing remarks and situated the event within the larger context of global history to be found within the ‘local’. Next was POEM associate Franziska Mucha, heritage professional and doctoral candidate in Information Studies who gave her popular spiel about the evolution of the ‘Hackathon’ in the sphere of cultural heritage; no longer relegated to those who use software or coding, the sprint-like nature of these quick discoveries about what’s hidden beneath the surface can be aptly applied across many disciplines.

After this positioning of the event into the heritage paradigm, we next heard from the team at the Hunterian: Lola Sanchez-Jauregui, William Hunter Tercentenary Curator, Maria Economou, Hunterian Digital Curator/Information Studies and Malcolm Chapman, Hunterian Collections Management explained their interest in the event and wished the hackers well in the upcoming endeavour.

Phase II:

Each team was given time to wander around the space to pick out an item that caused them discomfort, taking their initial thoughts back to the groups for a more comprehensive discussion. The next phase required the hackers to come together for brainstorming answers to the three framing questions. The teams worked enthusiastically for an hour to digest all of the flowing ideas. Post-its were practically flying around the space!

Phase III:

The final phase brought the elevator pitches. Time was brutally enforced with a duck-alarm (though the urgency was not lost, I assure you). The exercise emphasised the creation and explanation of a concise ‘business plan’ for how to address their uncomfortable object. One group presentation, led by Global History Hackathon intern Rachel Rowan, PhD candidate in Economic and Social History, reflected on how museums should be updating their interpretations of items to address issues of colonialism, consent, and ethics related to contentious pieces in displays. The pitch proposed revamping museum text, developing special exhibitions to highlight difficult histories, provide more transparency in the museum's aims and objectives as a public institution, and possibly integrating VR/AR tools into the displays.

Final Thoughts:

The goal of this final event was to create a productive format to facilitate creative conversations and new participatory methods for critique of museum displays. It provided an opportunity to suggest ideas and reflect on the difficulties of collecting as well as displaying difficult objects. The Hunterian hack sought to bring together a wholly interdisciplinary crowd to work on unpacking discomforting objects.

First published: 16 June 2019