Discovering Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum : No.3

A Personal ‘Window into the Wilson’

One of the current exhibitions, ‘Window into the Wilson’, at Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum (The Wilson) seeks to involve the general public in understanding the work involved in running an Art Gallery and Museum. The photograph below gives an idea of what visitors are faced with as they enter the gallery – a room within a room, but with glass walls – an ‘Open Store’. Like the proverbial ice-berg there is a great deal of essential hidden work which continuously goes on behind the scenes looking after the very extensive and important collections which belong to the people of Cheltenham.

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Throughout the next six months or so this ‘exhibition’ is on view – useful information sheets explain the idea behind the design of the exhibition and a list and information on some of the items seen on the shelves. On Wednesdays and Fridays, from 11am to 3pm, relevant curatorial staff will be working in the ‘bubble’ and visitors are encouraged to wander in, explore, and have a chat with the specialists.  The exhibition has been open for over a week so it is early days – for it could appear ‘different’ and challenging – and possibly initially incomprehensible!                                                                                            I have, as a Fine Art Curatorial Volunteer, manned several sessions with a colleague and have found the experience mixed but interesting – in fact the work I was doing frequently was interrupted by curious and enquiring, and often hesitant, visitors. What has already been revealed is that, given the opportunity, visitors have very useful and interesting comments to make about a variety of things – including practical things which are very useful as the Art gallery and Museum is constantly seeking to develop and improve its ‘visitor experience’.                                                                                                           One experience in the last few days stands out – a couple who were visiting Cheltenham for the first time had climbed the massive new staircase and having seen the paintings and sculpture in the first gallery to the right  they had ascended further and wandered into the next gallery on the right (Window into the Wilson). After looking around and chatting to us they commented that there did not seem to be many paintings or museum objects which they had expected. I realised that some serious PR work was needed here! I started by showing them a design for a brass candle-sconce and told them that they could see the finished work in the Arts and Crafts Gallery – and emphasizing that Cheltenham held the major national collection of Arts and Crafts items, including not only furniture and metal work but other related objects AND an important and extensive archive of drawings and designs. So I led them in to the Arts and Crafts Gallery and showed them the candle-sconce and then took them on a quick guided tour of the extensive museum galleries, which include important paintings. Sadly the sign-posting for the museum galleries is sadly lacking and nothing downstairs in the entrance space is apparent for any but a regular visitor.  As a postscript to this tale – I saw my ‘boss’, the senior Curator, and told her about this experience. She was pleased – and then asked if I had got them to make a comment in the Visitors Book! I had not! So I quickly returned to the galleries and found that they were still exploring the hidden treasures and, telling them I had been told off by my ‘boss’ (a bit of an exaggeration!!!)  I asked them if they could possibly pop a comment in the book – they assured me they would make some favorable comment (I have not dared to look!).

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