I mentioned in my last post that I had a very enjoyable holiday on Jersey over Easter. As I have explained before, this is not intended to be a personal blog so I will not be showing off my holiday snaps. I suppose I should be offering a description of the public library service on the island but I am afraid that I did not have the time (nor the inclination I must say) to visit libraries while I was there. I did however visit some of the tourist attraction on the island - La Houge Bie neolithic tomb, Mount Orgueil Castle and the Jersey War Tunnels. These are all magnificent sites but I was impressed by the quality of the presentation and interpretation of all three.
I am an inveterate visitor of historic and pre-historic sites and with a degree in archaeology I am happy with "serious" and technical guidebooks but I recognise that sites and museums need to be accessible to a wider public and to be family-friendly. These sites have struck a very good balance. They provide excellent displays and interpretation with plenty of detail while at the same time being interesting, fun and at times deeply moving experiences. (The coverage of Jersey's occupation by the Nazis during World War Two and the lives of the slave workers used to construct the defences are handled with sensitivity).
Not all museums manage to get this balance right. I don't like to use the term "dumbing-down" but sometimes the desire to make a place accessible to children means that a lot of detail can be lost. I'm afraid I feel this about the Sheffield City Museum at Weston Park. Now don't get me wrong. I think that they have done a wonderful job with the refurbishment and it is an interesting place to visit for adults and children but something has been lost. Take the Benty Grange Anglo-Saxon helmet. In the old museum this was presented in a very traditional way - a glass case in a room about archaeology which contained the helmet and a modern reconstruction and some information cards about Anglo-Saxon warriors and the link with the poem Beowulf which describes similar headgear. Today it is presented as an example of how people dressed in olden days with very little contextual information.
I have always thought that there should be a closer link between museums and libraries. Seeing the items on display creates interest and then you should be able to find information and borrow books to give you a greater understanding. It probably wouldn't work to have a branch library co-located with the museum but at the very least there should be on-line access to the library catalogue or a hot-line to the library so that people can find and reserve books.
A modern approach to this was discussed at the Museums and the Web conference in San Francisco recently. (I picked this up from Brian Ferry's UK Web Focus blog which I have recently added to my Bloglines feeder). A paper Bookmarking in Museums: extending the museum experience beyond the visit looked at various Web 2.0 approaches by which museum visitors can record their visit and receive further information. The paper concluded that these high-tech approaches were not always as successful as hoped but the idea that a visit to a museum or site is not just a one-off event but can be the start of further investigation is an important one. Museums should ensure that visitors leave with more than the obligatory souvenir pencil eraser and postcards. They should, if they want, have a list of relevant references or at least a link to somewhere that they can follow up their interest.