London museum collaboration: 'First Time Out'

What happens when you take an artefact from one collection and ask experts from another to write its story? ‘First Time Out’, a new collaboration opening on 20 January 2011 at the Horniman Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and Wellcome Collection, sets out to answer this question.

Five objects, five institutions, five interpretations. 'First Time Out' sees each organisation select one previously unseen artefact from their archives and display it for the first time. After six weeks, each object moves to a different institution and is displayed with a new label, written by the curatorial team at its host venue. The cycle continues until each of the five objects has been displayed in each institution.

'First Time Out' offers a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes treasures cared for by Britain's leading cultural and scientific organisations, and with each object being presented according to the specific approach and context of each institution, the revolving exhibition highlights the different modes of interpretation and display that underpin museum practices.

The objects on display are:

  • Easter Island (Rapa Nui) dance paddle, early- or mid-19th century (Horniman Museum)
  • Cranium and mandible of a giant lemur (Megaladapis edwardsi), southwest Madagascar (Natural History Museum)
  • Japanese xylarium (painted wood panels), 11 Meiji (1878) (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)
  • Selection of toys, 'The world pictures for children' from the collection of psychotherapist Margaret Lowenfeld, 1929-1970s (Science Museum)
  • Livingstone's Medicine Chest, 1900-1910, Burroughs Wellcome (Wellcome Collection)

Janet Vitmayer, Director of the Horniman Museum, says: "'First Time Out' is a great opportunity to bring some fascinating objects out of storage and to look at them in a fresh light. Millions of visitors across our five institutions will have the chance to see how different experts interpret the same object. We're really looking forward to hosting some intriguing items from other museums, as well as seeing what light our project partners' alternative interpretations can shed on our own object - a mysterious 'dance paddle' from Easter Island."

Sharon Ament, Director of Public Engagement at The Natural History Museum, says: "The Natural History Museum has 70 million specimens in its collections - many of which are used regularly behind-the-scenes by scientists researching important issues relating to the natural world. The large skull we're putting on display as part of 'First Time Out' belongs to the now extinct giant lemur Megaladapis edwardsi. There are only 50 surviving lemur species and research using historical collections such as ours could help conservationists to manage the future of threatened species. 'First Time Out' is not only a great opportunity to show the public these skulls for the first time, but to see how other great institutions would describe their significance."

Professor Stephen Hopper at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew says: "It is very apt that Kew's chosen object depicts trees that are central to Japanese culture through their use. Plants and trees are not just beautiful and decorative; without them we simply cannot survive. At Kew we are using our plant-based collections - one of the world's greatest collections of information related to wild plants - to address the critical environmental issues of our time, such as biodiversity loss, for the sake of our own wellbeing and for future generations."

Jo Quinton-Tulloch, Head of Exhibitions and Programmes, Science Museum, says: "We are delighted to be taking part as a host museum in the 'First Time Out' project. With over 15 000 objects on public display, the Science Museum aims to engage visitors in the past, present and future of science, technology and medicine. This project will provide a fascinating insight into what happens when objects are taken out of their usual context and reinterpreted in a fresh and exciting way."

Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes at Wellcome Collection, says: "Henry Wellcome collected more than a million things in his lifetime, all of which he saw as being relevant to health and medicine. 'First Time Out' provides a great opportunity to find out much more about one of them never before seen in public. It also allows us to uncover the medical significance of four other objects originally collected by naturalists, botanists, historians and ethnographers. This, then, is a project that turns five stored objects into twenty-five exhibits."

'First Time Out' runs from 20 January-21 August 2011.Each object is on display at each institution for six weeks.