Curator of the Month: Alice Briggs, Ceredigion Museum
- 30 April 2019
Assistant curator at Ceredigion Museum, Alice Briggs talks about the satisfaction of running community projects and offers insight into curating the museum's current exhibition, Sheep.
How did you start out as a curator?
I studied at Dartington College of Arts and particularly enjoyed the opportunities to collaborate, facilitate and contextualise art site-specifically and across arts disciplines. After this, I supported in various roles at places including Aberystwyth University with the Centre for Performance Research, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, and as an invigilator at the first Wales Pavilion of the Venice Biennale – and even volunteered at the Ceredigion Museum!
I then enrolled on an MA in Museum and Gallery Studies at Newcastle University, and as part of the course, I spent three months at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London. After this I worked with the public art agency Cywaith Cymru across North and Mid Wales managing artist residencies and public art commissions, and freelancing in the arts and health sector. I also set up my own arts collective, Blaengar, for emerging artists to collaborate and create site-specific work in the landscape.
What is a typical working day like for you?
My job covers curation of the temporary exhibitions which change four times a year, so I’m generally on a three-month rotation of research, development and setup of exhibitions.
We are a small team at Ceredigion Museum and so our roles have a lot of crossover. I am also shop manager and have a small team that runs the shop day-to-day. I deputise for the curator when she isn’t available, support the marketing officer, help deliver events, move objects, give talks and education workshops. Some days can be non-stop with visitors, enquiries or tradesmen fixing a leaking pipe and then other days I’ll spend researching for the next exhibition or project.
The most consistent thing about the job is the museum building itself and the collection we care for. The old coliseum building, a Grade II listed Edwardian musical hall/cinema where the museum is housed, is our biggest asset but can also be the most difficult to care for.
What do you think are the most important skills a curator needs to have?
As a curator I find the skills I draw from most are organisation and multi-tasking. Research skills and an eye for aesthetics, a good sense of place are also really important, as well as an appreciation or empathy for how people interact and move around a space.
An ability to co-collaborate is increasingly important for the way we work at Ceredigion Museum; and being an effective facilitator between the venue and the artist or other partners to bring an exhibition or project together is essential. Evaluation of our work is key to better understanding our communities and visitors – and therefore making the exhibition or displays we curate as relevant as possible to that audience and location.
Can you tell us about a highlight of your career?
Five years ago we delivered a series of community outreach projects at Ceredigion Museum designed to find out more about our audiences, public and their needs and interests in our culture and heritage.
As part of the project we worked with an artist in residence, Janetka Platun, for six months. One of the projects explored how random choice can lead to natural selection of objects and memories. It was surmised that all museums illustrate the evolution of objects, recording why some objects are collected and saved for future generations, whilst others are not. Ceredigion Museum collects Ceredigion-related objects, a selection policy that holds onto local identity and preserves it for the future.
Members of the public were invited to evolve this concept further, looking at what we hold onto and what helps us to remember. Participants were offered a piece from the museum’s archive and then asked to create a reply to the object by choosing an item that they own, which responds to the museum object; anything the original object made them go in search of. The result was a really powerful marrying of the personal object of the individual with the randomly selected item from our museum collection.
It was an exciting task from which I learned a great deal working through the deep engagement of the artist in the collections alongside community participants.
Have there been any particularly challenging moments as a curator, and what would you say are the challenges that a museum curator faces more generally?
Staffing and the need for change-management has been the most difficult aspect over the past few years. We hear every month of more curators disappearing from our museums and galleries and being replaced with lower-paid learning or community-facing roles. We need both curation and learning positions in museums, and cuts to budgets are putting increasing pressure on staffing levels more generally. We have to be versatile to cover all the areas that need to be delivered whilst aiming to deliver the quality of research and level of service that is expected of an institution with a much larger budget. Finding funding to care for our collections is increasingly difficult given that many of the grant streams are moving to fill gaps in social care. We have to be increasingly innovative with our projects to meet the needs of collection care and access for our communities.
Ceredigion Museum is run by the local authority which brings the additional challenges of a large bureaucracy that includes everything from the specific requirements of procurement and recruitment, policies for Welsh language and our bilingual remit (if you are in Wales), and the importance of delivering the vision of the council as part of our responsibility. We have been very lucky that our local authority has been forward-thinking in supporting our vision in developing the museum as an important heritage-tourism site, and we have been able to drive forward a programme of sustainability with the new shop, entrance and café.
Can you tell us about the process of curating the Sheep exhibition at Ceredigion Museum?
Wales’ uplands have a particular history, culture and ecology that many people aren’t aware of that we hope to share through the artists’ explorations of that environment and its communities. There are many artists in Wales exploring the subject of landscape, farming and sheep. The exhibition highlights work from our own art collection and the work of eight artists from or based in Wales.
We have worked directly with the sheep farming community by commissioning a Welsh-speaking artist to collaborate with them to represent their views of sheep farming and ask questions around the future of farming. To explore this further we are having a cross-disciplinary symposium this 9-10 May titled Future Landscapes.
The other most exciting component of the exhibition has been the loan of five works from Tate, including a work on paper by Joseph Beuys, three Henry Moore prints and a print by Menashe Kadishman (all featuring sheep). It is the first time that the museum has borrowed from Tate and the loans have been made possible through a grant from the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund, a Ferryman bursary project with Tate and a grant from Arts Council Wales.
We have used the funds to upgrade our security and buy a new bandit-proof case so that we are now set up to borrow again in the future, and I’m already planning a Treasures from Ceredigion exhibition next year. The support and training I have received from Art Fund and Tate has been fantastic, and I’m really excited to develop those partnerships in the future.
'Sheep' runs until 29 June 2019 at Ceredigion Museum, Aberystwyth, and is supported by the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund.