Beneath the cardigans and Beyond the label, NML’s Matt Exley on its amazing new curator series
2 weeks ago
“We get the idea that a lot of curators are stuck in a dusty office wearing cardigans with elbow patches,” smiles Matt Exley from National Museums Liverpool.
“But they are actually really exciting, interesting people – and they know so much. To be a curator you have to eat, drink, and sleep your specialism, and dedicate your life to finding out more of what you are passionate about.”
And that is why NML’s new programme of events, he says, will be such a fascinating one.
‘Beyond the label’ is an exciting new series of talks launched this month, where people can meet the experts who care for the vast collections and find out never-before-told stories of beloved objects.
The talks, from railway history to Roman hoards, and disability history to digging at the docks, will explore beyond the museum labels we see and read during our visits and into the incredible worlds of art, history, science, and community stories.
Matt, participation producer who leads on development programmes across all seven NML venues, says: “I worked in the curatorial team myself for three years and it was always one of the most frustrating things, when you’re writing labels for exhibits and you’re given just 50 to 100 words.
“We have got absolute world experts working in different fields at NML.
“So Beyond the label is really about saying, if you want to go to a museum, read the label, and move on and see the next thing, that’s fine.
“But if you do want to connect further with a world-class object with a world-class expert, then you can also do that – and this is the opportunity.”
Beyond the label talks are running once a month at the Museum of Liverpool and once a month at World Museum Liverpool, and there are 20 lined up for 2023: “And we are looking at continuing it next year and having at least 24 in 2024, and maybe adding a few highlight extras,” explains Matt.
“People will be able to ask questions and have conversations and that’s one of the main joys of the Beyond the label series. There will be a classic talk element and the first half is very much here’s some objects, here’s some images, this is my experience and this is my knowledge, but it’s that second half where it opens up to conversation and dialogue that is really exciting and one of the most valuable bits of the Beyond the label programme, and it’s an opportunity we’ve not offered as a museum to this extent before.
“Curatorial talks have never been pulled together under one large programme before. This is committing to it once a month at two of our biggest venues and getting it all laid out for the next 12 months seals that opportunity for people to meet the curators.”
And it might mean some surprises.
Matt goes on: “Some of the things are right up my street. I studied Ancient Egypt so Egyptologist Ashely Cooke’s talk about X-raying cat mummies, that’s going to be fascinating to me. Hearing Jeff Speakman talk about old bits of pot that were found in an old dump in Liverpool doesn’t sound very interesting AT FIRST to me – in March 2007 the archaeology team from the Museum of Liverpool monitored the excavations of a Georgian Dock before the museum was built on the site – but actually speaking to Jeff, hearing his personal experience, his knowledge, and what it all tells us about life in Liverpool 200 years ago IS fascinating. I never thought I would find the archaeology of some dock very interesting, but now I’m hooked.
“We are all a bit guilty of looking at things that interest us and by-passing others.
“Beyond the label gives people the opportunity to learn something new, and find out something different that might spark an interest they didn’t know they had. It’s fascinating stuff, and it’s great that we can offer that to the public in this one programme for the first time.”
The world of the museum has changed so much over the years: “It was always ‘shush this is a scholarly place’, don’t make any noise… but we have moved away from that, and that’s good. If you go to our museums they’re blooming, they’re really busy and full of people. They’ve got a bit of life.
“I hear loads of stories and I think we should be telling people about that more, but you can’t do that in a 100-word label. But by luring the curators out of their offices with breadcrumbs and getting them to talk we are getting those stories out there and I think that’s really exciting.
“It’s opening the door to the back room of the museum.
“And what is impressive about the series is the diversity of it, from diatoms to Roman hoards, from shipwrecks to Ancient Egyptian clothing, mummies, and meteorites, there’s so much in there.”