Conference 20 - 22 May 2015 

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich


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This conference explores the role of the museum in relation to human engagements with the sea and major water courses such as lakes, lagoons and large river systems.  It primarily intends to address questions in the cultural rather than the scientific or ecological spheres, though it will include responses to environmental factors and climate change. 

Participation is welcome from museum professionals, academics in relevant disciplines, artists and others with an interest in how humans in the present and past have conceptualised, encountered, represented and exploited water masses and adjacent shore-lines and coast-lines. It is intended that the conference should be trans-disciplinary in character.


Among the larger questions to be addressed are:

  • • Can coastlines be thought of as a boundary between two domains and, if so, in what ways do coastal communities stand apart from other terrestrial populations? 

  • • Are or were coastal communities, because of their location, more (or differently) global in their connections than metropolitan centres further inland? 

  • • Are smaller island communities significantly different in their cultural perspectives from on-shore populations? 

  • • Have there been significant changes over time in the ways in which coastal or island communities are defined or perceived?

  • • Are we right in seeing beaches and ports as liminal spaces, as a cultural equivalent to inter-tidal zones where the relationships between the sea and the land - economically, culturally and ritually - are routinely transacted? 

  • • Do the characteristics of different seas or water masses make a difference? 

  • • Do different cultures conceptualise and represent the seas and/or large water zones differently? 

  • • What significance have artists and writers attributed to and identified with both the sea itself and coastlines?

The context of these questions is thinking about the ways in which museums reflect or provide evidence for such discussions, and how they engage their audiences with their implications.  Finally, in view of environmental change issues, what role do museums play in addressing the contemporary problems of a perceived fragility of the coastline itself?   

The conference is the third in a series looking at museum leadership in various fields and is organised by the Sainsbury Institute for Art at the University of East Anglia in association with the Gatsby Trust. The conference will be international in perspective.


Conference Themes

The conference is organised around 4 plenary sessions over 2 days looking at a particular theme, each supported by workshops where wider discussion of the issues raised can be developed.  The plenary sessions, with an indication of the kinds of questions that might arise, are:

21 May

Coastal communities

Is the coastline constructed culturally in liminal terms, as a place of transformation and intersection?  What are the characteristics of coastal communities in different parts of the world?  Do they have common features because of their proximity to the sea and are they, thereby, distinguished from communities further inland?  What are the social consequences of an economic engagement with the sea? What are the challenges facing museums in coastal locations in engaging with local communities?

Fragile Coastlines: The Case of East Anglia 

Given the issues of coastal erosion and the loss of beach fronts around the East Anglian coast, case studies from the region will be a significant if not exclusive part of this session.  What are the changes that are occurring and how are they are affecting people’s lives? How is the loss of beach fronts represented and understood?  What measures are appropriate to preserve coastlines or accommodate the dynamics of change?  What innovative means are available to museums to enhance responses to environmental change on coastlines?

22 May

Water, its Meanings and Histories 

How are different kinds of water mass conceptualised?  Are there, for instance, differences between the ways in which salt and fresh water are configured culturally and symbolically in various parts of the world?  Is the difference between the surface of water and the area beneath significant? If so, what cultural practices flow from these distinctions?  How do they emerge in different mythologies? What significance is attached to the states of water by artists and writers?

Representing Coastlines and the Sea 

Many of the above questions play directly into questions of representations, whether in art, literature or exhibitions.  In summary: How do artists and writers engage with the changes in weather and light at the coast and at sea?    How is the power of the sea, as sustaining yet destructive, represented?  What are the opportunities for museums to participate in strategies of representation?



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