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Charlotte Holmes is Urban and Social History Curator at National Trust and has been involved in the Gala Pool art project from inception. Charlotte gave a broader perspective on ats and heritage and spoke about her work at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery as well as projects at the National Trust [interview summary to follow]

Interview Charlotte Holmes

by David Viney | Birmingham City University

Interview with Charlotte Holmes on the 24th of May 2019. 

DV. So just tell us a little bit of yourself and your current role.

CH. I am Charlotte Holmes, I am a curator of Urban & Social history with a National Trust, based in the Midlands region. I work particularly with properties in Birmingham so that the Back to Back’s mostly and the Roundhouse, and obviously Moseley Road Baths, as National Trust is supporting the work that’s happening there. I also work with the Workhouse, which is a National Trust property in Nottinghamshire.

DV. Okay, thank you. Ao broad question to start with. In your opinion, what value does Contemporary Arts activity add to heritage sites?

CH. For me the main value is in bringing different and contemporary voices to historic properties, this can really change the emotional way people behave in a space, the emotional tone of space and its historic context. It’s important, we can change people’s behaviours. So particularly when visiting historic houses, there are acknowledged behaviours of visitors, which are often viewers rather than participants, rather than connecting. And I think so I think contemporary art can allow us to stop, to behave differently, sometimes it can invite different and maybe more playful behaviour, or a different emotional resonance or reflection. It can also bring about different voices, by evoking through the archive, or bringing more contemporary voices and opinions into a space.

DV. Can you discuss a project you’ve been involved in recently, where Contemporary Arts activity was used that a heritage site always was programmed or a heritage site.

CH. In my previous role, I worked with contemporary artists to collect what they’ve produced and bring that into the established narrative of the museum.
I thought that was really valuable seeing the bridge between archive and what the kind of established art history gave, accepted and connected in the 80s, for example, what were contemporary practices with that, without that practice, the practice of people like the Black Art Group, and community archivists like Vanley Burke, who I worked with and collect in Birmingham, we wouldn’t have that record. And we wouldn’t have that voice to challenge our understanding of our city. At the time, when they were creating this work, some of the work of the [Black] Art Group was accepted by the cannon. But it’s sat slightly outside the big knowledge narrative. And it’s only now within the last 10 years that some of these words be collected and displayed, and how that the same status as other artists in the Birmingham Museum collections.
So that would be an example. And we a chatted, before you mentioned Matt Smiths work at BMAG. I think those are just really, really strong examples of how the museum either wasn’t ready, or just didn’t have the tools to have those conversations. And also, when you’re talking about the experience of marginalized communities, then you don’t have the archive. But be able to evoke, and challenge the way we say that the acknowledged hetero normative narrative, but why do we think that? Why do we see, you know, objects, and when you talk about some other, you know, think of the pre-Raphaelite paintings, why do we see them in such a particular way?

I love the way contemporary artists can playfully, but sometimes are pretty deadly intense, just challenge the way we see things in an historic space and within museum narratives.

So Vanley’s [Burke] photographs changed the way I understand Birmingham. They probably wouldn’t have been considered contemporary art when they were created, but perhaps now at least considered art. And the same hearing the voice of Donald Rodney now we’re able to collect his work, he’s fixed and his work is established. At the time, who else was talking about race riots? who else was really calling out the art industry and museums. So contemporary artists bravely, go there and sometimes they’re acknowledged and loved, and sometimes not. But they allow us to have those conversations to thinking about kind of Grayson Perry’s work, which is often displayed at Croome [National trust Property]. It not just he’s very popular artists, but take a very subtle look at museum collections, so he’s exhibition at the British Museum, where he created new work but also reinterpreted the existing collection, it really challenged us to think differently about the makers of these objects and the act of collecting and what that means and what somewhere like the British Museum means in terms of of national identity and why we don’t know about the amazing artists and crafts people who made this stuff, but it’s just considered to be ethnography. If it was considered, they were considered part of the western history we’d know all about them.

Something like the the ‘Black Audio Collective’ Handsworth Songs. And when I first saw it in London, I was at Tate and I was like, why don’t I see this In Birmingham? You know, it is not just about time and place and it’s an alternative narrative to our city. It’s a beautiful film and a piece of contemporary art at the time, and now, Birmingham Museum may collect, if they can afford it.

And it felt so strange for me to be sitting in Tate after the riots in 2006. Yeah, talking about this piece of work with people who wouldn’t normally come in and discussion about riots, and that [film] was used as a provocation. So that’s a really great way of contemporary art bringing that voice in a provocation to contemporary society. Okay. And the people who, who, who call the debate, who, who provoke at the moment, you know, and museums try painfully to avoid doing so. And historic properties are often achingly silent, there’s no interpretation. So contemporary art allows that provocation, it allows us to think differently.

DV. So thinking about that work at BMAG. What did it set out to achieve? Did it achieve them?

CH. So the example is not working with the contemporary artists but collecting contemporary work. Our objective was to find objects that resonated with the people, the lived experience of living, working and growing in Ladywood in particular. so we have we collected a mixture of objects, but historical objects, and that really the contemporary works in particularly of Donald Rodney allowed us to talk about things that the museum can talk about. So we were able to talk to we know, we did an open event, we brought people on for tea and cake. Yeah. And we saw some of Donalds Work work, Vivid Projects were having a retrospective of Donald’s work, and we invited people to react and the conversations we had, we had conversations about music industry, about masculinity, about race, about skin lightning. It was just, you know, 10 people from Birmingham. And the great thing about Birmingham is we’re a pretty diverse population. But when do you ever sit down with a stranger and talk about skintone? You know, we had Ras Tread, who’s a Rastafari high priest, we had a retired nurse, we had a lady who’d been to a consultation at a Birmingham Central Mosque and so she’d come down too. We just had this great conversation and his work, it talks really explicitly about race and its very much of its time late 80s, early 1990s, it talks about the customs of the black communities, we were able to share about the Nine Nights and some of those practices, also about death, as well as he knew he had sickle cell anaemia. Okay, so his work just gave us so much to talk about, and it really resonated with those intersections that are Birmingham, and that are Ladywood would you know, and, in a way, a historical piece, you can interpret it, but you have to interpret it in order to highlight the intersections. Where his work speaks of that for itself.

Okay. So that would that would be an example of a fulfilling our objective of resonance, and relevance, and it did that really powerfully. In a way I mean, families work, it feels a different, you know, that’s a counter narrative to the established narrative of Birmingham circa 85. You know, yeah, blackness, and it offers a different gaze. And it’s just peaceful and joyful. And seeing again, the resonance of taking those pieces to some spoken word events and hearing people went mad for these and the way people looked. But these are things we take for granted, but to see how elevated to, to the format. This contemporary photography.
I said, another example would be Mahtab Hussain he’s a contemporary Birmingham artist and photographer. And I know Mahtab, we work together briefly at the V&A. And we both working with the photography archive there. And now he’s going to become a photographer, and to photograph the Asian community, particularly in Birmingham. And again, it just offers a different gaze and a different voice and a tenderness and empathy. When do we see each other like that?
CH. I mean, there’s almost more because of my background in like, social history is kind of how contemporary art actually allows us to understand each other fulfils a really important role in terms of social history. You know, they’re the anthropologists of our time. They record our time and place, but not from an observant participant kind of, you know, not a racialised barrier, you know, an old-fashioned ethnography, but actually, from there lived experience, but they can be problematic you know, some contemporary artists, the appropriation of certain communities.

So we wanted to collect something around sound systems. And we wanted to collect perhaps a natural sound system and an archive, we couldn’t do so. And we were working with a guest curator called Cedar, and he showed us an artist work, but actually, they’re not form the sound system scene and I don’t know how they’re racialised but it felt kind of uncomfortable that actually, this art form, which, you know, in terms of dub music, other forms of reggae music, and how that became something that could become commercially acceptable product. And then we could buy as a museum. And actually, I know, this, I have no problem with buying, obviously, really great quality, contemporary art. But if we want to talk about sounds, we want to talk about sound systems and we can we can get that from the source of somebody who is moving from the point of being within that community. And so I think, you know, Donald’s work is off the community but of society and is bigger, and it evokes questions.

CH The lovely thing about Collecting Birmingham’s, was we got to talk to people about how art resonated. I went to a Marcus Garvey day to talk about the Vanley Burke photographs and people knew everybody in the photographs and it was great. But I wonder how when you’ve had a big sound system playing, how people would have experienced a contemporary art piece like that, in terms of different audiences mean the people at Marcus Garvey day, some people would have come to a contemporary art exhibition. But I imagine for a lot of people, it wasn’t a priority. That’s an assumption. We didn’t ask them.
For a lot of people you could see it was something like again, it’s going into social history now, Wassifa Sound System had created a front room display, typical migrant experience? And you could knew when it was on, because you just saw people who look really different in the museum Yeah, I mean, Birmingham Museum have quite a high level diversity compared to other museums, but still for Birmingham it doesn’t, and so when you see those people, you and I will still know that somebody to we don’t expect to see here and that not a good thing.
But that is the reality. So I’m just interesting, what different audiences different collections can bring and a wonderful piece of contemporary art that bridge both, you know, that resonate to the contemporary audience with a broader audience.

DV. That kind of answers the next question, that if there was an objective around developing new audiences, it was successful. Yes?

CH. Well, I think we have the resonance, but whether they come and visit once you don’t have that on, do they come again? You’ve got a better chance. And I always said to people, we got to do this, please trust us and give us what you can and sell us what you can. I can’t guarantee it’s going to be honoured, you know that the museum or historic house is going to honour that history. But if we don’t collect it, there’s chance. And maybe when their children visit with the school they won’t just see dead old white men, they will see themselves? Or someone like them.

DV. I guess it’s the start of a process for Museums.

CH. Yes and it gives them the tools to have those conversations. So that piece of work [Donald Rodney] was then used in an exhibition about body image. And, you know it was really nice for the first time we spoke about gender, gender identities, about racialised identity, about beauty, things the museum wasn’t talking about. Donald Rodney and things from the collection, allowed us to have those conversations.

And again, I’d be interested to know who visited, again, for a young person who may be more likely to visit with the school, there might be something that resonates a little bit more than in the past.

DV. So what would you do differently? If you could do the projects again? Or how would you evolve the process that was started?

So I think there are the two parts of contemporary art. The wonderful thing is that often contemporary art can be through a particular exhibition, or particular program and event. Often, it’s a temporary installation, which allows different audiences, energy, marketing and happening, so you might get different audiences. But my one criticism, particularly of the country house, when we have installations, something like Trust New Art, is that what happens afterwards? Right. And I don’t know if Trust New Art often brings in new audiences, but it allows different conversations. But then what happens afterwards? So something like, you know, the Collecting Birmingham project was great, because some of those objects went into the museum collection and they still display. And the same with collecting Birmingham that we weren’t thinking about borrowing. I mean, unfortunately, Donald Rodney passed away and there are a limited number of objects that can be collected. You know, do we have a temporary exhibition, and we were able to acquire some things that Birmingham will always have, and that story, that be voice represented.

So I think in terms of differently, museums thinking, and historic houses, how these things are not just a one off how but how they can change the way you do your business, not just business as usual.

The workhouse, I can’t give you a detailed example. Because it’s before I started, but they worked with contemporary artists to evoke the people who passed through the doors of the workhouse and particularly the 20th century building, they have now had some funding to redevelop that and those voices and stories can now go into the permanent interpretation.

In doing so I think they probably won’t be quite as emotionally evocative as the contemporary artists were able to evoke, but they will be there. So surfacing voices from the archive in our consciousness, making sure that there’s a permanent legacy of that, or maybe just some legacy.

DV. So thinking how existing visitors respond to contemporary arts activity. Could you given a positive and a negative response from your own experiences.

DV. I know you talked about challenging existing audiences?

CH. The example we spoke before we started the recording. Berrington Hall had two Trust New Art installations, one called the Pineapple, which was well received and explored by the visitor, but there was also another exhibition by an emerging artist, and I think people just didn’t get it. And there is within I think this is where Trust New Art is quite valuable, that there is a need to invest quite a lot of energy often, and there is a kind of an expectation of an eye-roll.

From a professional perspective there were several things at Berrington that didn’t quite hit the mark. I can see why some people may have been confused about this piece, and maybe the way that it was explained. You know, if it doesn’t hit, not everyone’s going to get it. Yeah, that’s fine. But, you know, people don’t have such a critical eye. When it comes up elements of the display that they’re reading something, which is really biased and only gives one perspective. But that’s fine. We just we just accept that. But when a contemporary artist comes in tries to say things differently. But the fact that we can be encouraged to think differently is a problem to some people. And they seek it out ‘What is this contemporary art’ and you get the eye-roll.
DV: From the Trust New Art evaluation I’ve read, NT do seem to be a test testing out activity and are open to testing things at different ideas, different artists. That feels that feels positive.
CH. And as an emerging artist, that’s a great opportunity for them to be working in a completely different space.

DV: If something doesn’t involve a good experience it’s good for professional development.
CH. I mean, I don’t know what their objective was, but if it was to get people to think and question. I think that was achieved. But there are other expectations people have about those spaces, thinking about production value and contemporary art.

DV. Can you think of any arts activities in the news to support campaigns to save heritage at risk, and you talked about homelessness experiences? I thought that was interesting.

So I struggled to think ofan example of a traditional, you know, built heritage, or naturally occurring site that had been saved or had a campaign. But what I didn’t think about was the intangible heritage. So the Museum of Homelessness actually doesn’t have a museum. But it’s an organisation that is working to collect the histories and stories of people who have been experiencing homelessness, and they’ve worked with contemporary artists to evoke and communicate those stories. So there was a small installation, working with stories of veterans who experienced homelessness. And it was powerful. And actually, how would that story be captured and communicated, and I think contemporary artists really allowed for that heritage to be recognised to raise its profile. So they had an installation in part of the Tate, working with contemporary artists and their archive, and working with actors to read and voice, in a way, those histories. Because he said we are, we witness homelessness and, some of us might have experiences of homelessness that we don’t often want to talk about.

So this really allowed the empathy. So at the beginning, we spoke about the emotion that contemporary artists can bring. And it was pure emotion, you could read a veteran story and know what it was, and that would be impactful. You could hear the story and know, and that would still be impactful.

But to have a visual representation of the soldiers, that was really, really strong and it means that their story, and that heritage, hopefully will be saved and that kind of campaigning, raising the marginalised histories as a form of heritage. I think contemporary art is very strong role to play in that.

DV. That’s brilliant. Thank you. That’s it.
CH. Thank you very much.

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