I’ve lived in York for a couple of years now, but actually know very little about this city. It’s amazing how quickly you stop looking at things once they become familiar – even a building as stunning as the Minster barely gets a glance when you walk underneath it every day! Every so often though, you find something that reminds you to keep your eyes open.
My most recent discovery (thanks to a Visual Media trip) has been Bar Convent – this unassuming building has an impressive history, and a new exhibition to show it off. The rest of my class and I were lucky enough to be shown around by some of the people involved in the project, which gave me a real insight into the amount of work that goes into the design and creation of exhibits.
The Bar Convent was founded in 1686 by Frances Bedingfield, at a time when practicing the Catholic faith could mean severe punishment. The community lived here in secrecy, inspired by the ideas of Mary Ward (1585-1645) who campaigned for the education of women and even crossed the Alps on foot to speak to the Pope about her beliefs. I don’t want to give too much away, as part of the fun of this exhibit is discovering Bar Convent’s hidden past… but it’s well worth checking out!
Presenting the past to a public audience is a challenging business. How do you incorporate the varied needs of different audiences? How do you effectively convey centuries of history in a way that is interesting and engaging? As part of my course, I have been learning to become a ‘critical museum visitor’, questioning decisions made in exhibits and examining the methods used to shape information. There are a lot of factors to consider and I think the Bar Convent exhibition balances these factors well.
The Bar Convent exhibition effectively conveys its themes through its design choices. These include the use of typography inspired by Mary Ward’s handwriting, which creates a sense of personality for this strong female character. Downstairs, lower lighting and darker colour tones are used to create a feeling of secrecy and enclosure, reflecting the Convent’s hidden past. The website advertises the exhibit as ‘state of the art’ and there are plenty of audio-visuals, but they are used successfully as part of the storytelling process rather than as an expensive exhibition filler, which is sometimes the impression given in museums. The visuals are very beautiful, incorporating illustrations by Nick Ellwood.
However, one area in which this exhibit is particularly successful is the way in which the history of Bar Convent is brought right up to the present day. Museums all tell stories but too often, the people that these stories belong to don’t get a say in how they are represented. This building still belongs to the Congregation of Jesus and it’s good that the community here appears to have been consulted so closely in the process of creating the exhibition. Its title of ‘Living Heritage Centre’ is an appropriate one, as the building’s story is still ongoing – perhaps you should go discover a few of York’s secrets there for yourself!