Abraham Makanjuola
28 July 2023

Demystifying Acquisitions: label writing, conservation and going against the grain – a look behind the curtain

Abraham Makanjuola

28 July 2023 | Minute read

Project origins

Since May 2021 I have had the pleasure of being a part of the Demystifying Acquisitions project with a group of 6 other Amgueddfa Cymru Producers (ACPs). The project came to be in the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black British-born (Nigerian heritage) artist and Turner prize winner Chris Ofili created a portfolio of ten prints titled North Wales featuring etchings of different places in north Wales in 1996. This series has been displayed globally in places such as the Tate and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) but it had somehow not been displayed in Wales despite depicting Welsh landscapes. National Museum Cardiff (NMC) realised this and began flirting with the idea of acquiring the North Wales series and placing this decision in the hands of a group of young people. The idea of placing the executive decision in the hands of non-Museum staff was massive and a first in the Museum’s history. Naturally as a group we opted to pursue the acquisition and thus Demystifying Acquisitions was born.

Redisplay themes

The project is drawing to a close and the gallery redisplay that we have been working went live on 1 March 2023 as a complement to the Rules of Art? exhibition. The key thread linking the redisplay together stem from works that we like as a group and challenging long standing practices. In the exhibit you can find a number of different Easter eggs and subtleties ready to be uncovered. As a group we chose to spotlight different artists ranging from well-known artists, to those that are up and coming, and finally to those who were not recognised whilst they were active.

The Demystifying Acquisitions process

The project has been a wealth of knowledge and it has truly demystified the acquisition process for me. We have learned about conservation, applying for grants and other funding opportunities, archiving, indexing of the artworks, to name just a few things.

The group of Demystifying Acquisitions ACPs is rich with different experiences and skill sets. This variety among us is what allows us to be successful; there is always a different set of perspectives which ensures that we have thought about the prospective task from multiple angles. It has been relatively easy for us to reach consensus during the project. All voices were listened to and heard. As a group we have met three times in person and 10+ times online. During this process I had the privilege and task of filming our group in-person meetings. My goal was to give a clear understanding of what happened during the in-person sessions and in between them in a way that viewers feel like they were there themselves.

NMC was very supportive of this project; we had minimal pushback against our ideas and an explanation was always provided for rejected ideas. We were provided with many different opportunities that sprung from Demystifying Acquisitions which included the chance to present to the British Museum, a TV appearance on Sky Arts, and speaking to renowned artist Bob and Roberta Smith, to name a few.

OFILI, Chris
© Chris Ofili/Amgueddfa Cymru - Museum Wales

Highlighting emerging Welsh talent

Part of the acquisitions process was to speak with artists to request to loan their work. In December 2022 four of the ACPs welcomed artists Rhiannon Gwyn and Ella Louise Jones for virtual studio visits. During these two visits, we explained the origins of the project, our process and why we felt their work was relevant to the gallery redisplay. We chose these two artists as we wanted to spotlight up-and-coming Welsh artists. Their work also linked in with some of the sub-themes of the redisplay – these include Welsh Heritage and Identity, and Welsh Landscapes.

Project objectives and opportunities

The main point of Demystifying Acquisitions was to provide not just a peek, or glance, but a look behind the veils and curtains that separate the public from the Museum acquisition process. Some parts of the process are completely esoteric and other parts are overlooked. Two overlooked parts of the process and two of my three favourite parts are conservation of the artworks and also label writing. As a group we were able to meet Senior Paper Conservator Fiona McLees to get a greater insight into how artworks are preserved and conserved. We learned that conserving artworks varies from piece to piece; it is a collaborative process that, where possible, heavily involves the artist.

Label writing was the most challenging part of the process for me. Previously I would loosely glance at museum labels when visiting galleries. But since learning how much time goes into writing a 60–100 word label, I have read every label I’ve seen in museum exhibits. Label writing is an art and a skill that takes time to develop and I now have great appreciation for it. My name is even mentioned in the label that I wrote which is unprecedented. Label authors are usually anonymous.

SMITH, Bob & Roberta
© Bob and Roberta Smith/Amgueddfa Cymru - Museum Wales

Leading up to gallery opening

The only challenge that we experienced as a group was selecting which shade of blue we wanted for the feature wall in the gallery. We looked at six different shades of blue before landing on ‘Regal Silk’. It is stunning to look at. We got to see it in person when we installed the exhibit. It was a great day where we got to watch Lee Jones (Senior Art Technician) masterfully install the works in the exhibit. The install day was another opportunity to learn but it also felt like a graduation ceremony as we watched the exhibit physically come together.

This entire process was greatly enriching, and successful. Not only were we able to see behind the curtain, we also were able to freely create in a non-virtue-signalling, tokenistic or tick box manner. We were given complete autonomy, and were encouraged and supported with our group decisions. With this support we were able to respect museum practices but also shake things up and challenge how things have previously been done.

The exhibit was up for three months from Wednesday 1 March to Sunday 4 June 2023 and was a great way to see Amgueddfa Cymru history being made!

A massive thank you to Neil Lebeter, Um Mohamed, Kate Woodward and Jen Dudley for all your support and guidance!

Abraham documented the Demystifying Acquisitions project by filming behind-the-scenes content of the process.

Abraham was introduced to the project by the Sub-Saharan Advisory Panel (SSAP) after releasing a documentary examining and challenging the past, present, and future narratives about the African Continent from a British-based diaspora perspective. Outside of visiting museums, Abraham's other interests include playing basketball, the drums, and learning new languages.

Two people, wearing facemasks, in the stores of a museum with racks and framed artworks around them.
A young man in an art gallery holding a soft, pink, knobbly object about as long as he is tall.
Two people handling a large, landscape-format painting of a dark, industrial scene.
Four framed prints against a deep blue gallery wall; the first print has been hung and the others are lined up on the floor, ready for hanging.



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