The Period Room: Museum, Material, Experience

The project built on the momentum and the developing initiatives that emerged as a result of the interdisciplinary, international conference The Period Room: Museum, Material, Experience (18 to 20 September 2014), held at The Bowes Museum.

The conference was jointly organised by Mark Westgarth, Dr Jane Whittaker (Head of Collections, The Bowes Museum) and Dr Howard Coutts (Curator of Ceramics and Decorative Art, The Bowes Museum). It brought together academics, museum professionals, students and members of the public (from the UK, Europe and the USA) to consider and debate the significance of changing attitudes towards the role, function, display and interpretation of Period Room/Historic Interior in the public museum.

The Bowes Museum is a key location for this focus, given the extraordinary collection of Period Rooms at the museum, installed during the 1950s and 1960s. As a result of major capital development, The Bowes Museum dismantled and re-interpreted its collection of Period Rooms between late 2007 and 2011. These changes placed The Bowes at the forefront of the curatorial, museum management and the theoretical and interpretive issues in these debates. The project sought to create further pathways to impact by pursuing the key issues that emerged from the conference, including:

  • Further consideration of the role and function of the museum as the focus for the presentation of history to the public, using ‘Period Rooms/Historic Interiors’ as the catalyst for debate.
  • Reflections on the role of institutional (museum) practices in the interpretation and management of collections. A particularly significant aspect, as far as the legacy of The Bowes Museum’s policy to re-display its Period Rooms, is the issue of deaccessioning (formal disposal) of dormant and/or redundant objects in museum collections.

See the Period Room blog for the results of the conference: https://periodrooms.wordpress.com/

We are also currently producing a volume of essays arising from the Period Room conference, compiled and edited by Coutts, Whittaker and Westgarth (one of Westgarth’s REF2020 submissions).

The aim is to further develop these interdisciplinary conversations through a series of inter-linked projects in order to expand the critical debates and to create further knowledge exchange between academia, museum and heritage professionals, the museum and heritage interpretation design sector, key stakeholders at Bowes Museum (Museum Friends and volunteer guides) and the wider general public. We aim to employ the shared perspectives arising from these conversations as part of ‘research-in-practice’ initiatives, using the virtual and real spaces at The Bowes Museum to reflect on international museum and heritage interpretation strategies and audience engagement practices for Period Rooms and Historic Interiors. In order to do this, our project involves the development of:

  • The creation of a web-based virtual network and research resource located in Scholarship and Research webpages of The Bowes Museum (for which we already have funding and are currently building the website).
  • The development of professional and public engagement and participation workshops, focus groups and events based on the interpretation of Period Rooms and Historic Interiors (for which we seek the Impact Award funding).

A short presentation from Mark Westgarth and Dr Howard Coutts on Re-engaging with the Period Room in Museums (delivered at an Impact in 5 event at the University of Leeds, November 2015) can be viewed here.

Image: The English Interior Galleries, Bowes Museum