A Tale of Two Cities in Ten Minutes: In Discussion with Tim Pethick, Director of Nomad Exhibitions

A Tale of Two Cities is an exhibition concept developed by Nomad Exhibitions and Historic Environment Scotland in collaboration with host museums around the world. The exhibition was launched at Nanjing Museum, China in 2013 and was recently presented at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland. A new presentation which explores Edinburgh and Lisbon will be displayed at the Museum of Lisbon, Portugal from June 2016. Tim Pethick, who oversaw the project as Director of Nomad Exhibitions, introduces the exhibition and gives us a glimpse behind the scenes.

EM: What is A Tale of Two Cities? 

TP: A Tale of Two Cities is a collaborative curatorial exhibition project which allows two global urban locations and two collections to be presented to local audiences from a fresh perspective.

I think that architectural and city museums can have quite a challenging time appealing to repeat and local audiences, as residents of cities often feel that they already know all there is about their home city. The iconic treasures of a city become familiar over time. People perhaps don’t have that expectation that they can learn something new. In fact, city archives are extraordinary resources with huge amounts of material which the public are not always aware of. A Tale of Two Cities addresses this issue by asking: what techniques can local museums employ to inspire local people to learn more about their city? The exhibition introduces a second city, Edinburgh, to the story, as a point of comparison. Through interest in a new and unfamiliar city, visitors will rediscover and newly discover material relating to their own city. So I suppose there is a paradox lying at the heart of the exhibition concept - it can take material from another city to shed light on our own cities, gaining understanding of the familiar by exploring the unknown.

It is not essential that the cities chosen for the exhibition share precise characteristics or phases of development with Edinburgh. The exhibition is preoccupied with presenting differences as much as it is with presenting similarities. We have found that sometimes there can even be more to learn from contrasting and comparing than from common ground!

Another key aspect of A Tale of Two Cities is the spirit of partnership. The project is always founded on an equal curatorial partnership. I think that the equal contribution is really quite rare in co-curated exhibition development. The result has been the creation of totally unique narratives and the development of valuable relationships, which endure long after the exhibitions conclude.

EM: Why is Edinburgh such an effective city for comparison?

TP: Edinburgh is extremely effective in the context of comparison: it is a significant European capital and it is compact in scale, with around half a million occupants. Within this relatively small city we have very clearly defined areas of development which apply to specific periods in history. We have fewer vertical layers of history; in Edinburgh, as the need to expand has grown, the city has moved outwards - not upwards! Many cities, London or Paris for example, have redeveloped their medieval heart to create 18th–19th century classical cities from the centre outwards. But Edinburgh has created this new development outside of the old town; the old and new towns are separated. Beyond the old and new towns, there is a further modern city. This method of urban development has preserved the evidence of the city’s story. So Edinburgh is very black and white - the development process is plain to see. This makes it easy to compare architectural styles, both within and beyond the city. The archival records which illustrate this history of development are equally clearly-defined. This makes it more straight-forward to find evidence to support that wider narrative.

EM: You have highlighted what makes Edinburgh unique. Are there are also key features which Edinburgh shares with other cities?

TP: Absolutely. In the history context Edinburgh has suffered the same fate as many densely populated cities around the world: poor sanitation, disease, disasters such as major fires. This has all left an indelible mark on the city today, as is the case with so many cities.

I think that many European cities, Edinburgh included, experienced similar patterns in urban development. There is the typical medieval city which has evolved around religion and faith, the whole city radiating from churches and cathedrals, places of worship. In the 18th century there’s this widespread movement towards a more secular, civic, commercial tradition. You can see trade and commerce slowly taking over from the church with the emergence of secular-based urban centres, commercial squares with easily accessible and functional streets. You can see the physical landscape transforming in tandem with social and cultural change. This is a very interesting phenomenon. You see this change in a great many cities around the world.

Today, Edinburgh is a modern, forward-looking city, a major commercial, financial and administrative European centre - a capital city. It needs to continue to grow and adapt in changing times. There are two clear, competing areas of growth: one relating to its modernity, its growing commercial sector. The other, relating to cultural and heritage tourism, which is reinforced by the city’s World Heritage Site designation for its old and new towns, UNESCO City of Literature status and annual international arts festivals. So there is this tension between modernity and heritage. How do you promote both without having a negative impact on the other? This is a tension which exists in a lot of historical cities: how to expand without affecting a key part of the local economy, the charming character of the old city. Neither can exist without the other, yet they are not natural partners. This is a really interesting tension to study in a lot of cities. The exhibition helps to highlight this.

EM: How does the curatorial process work? 

TP: Initially, the UK-based curatorial team developed a narrative structure for the exhibition which would enable multiple partners to be introduced and new content to be prepared within a manageable framework. It was conceived with the idea of having more partners in the future. We knew that there needed to be a simple structure with clear themes and sub-themes - commerce, trade, religion and so on. The team selected themes which would translate across different styles of urban development and different cultures. It isn’t developed with any specific type of city or development in mind. Instead, the themes relate to periods in time - ‘the birth of the city’ for example. They do not presume a specific architectural period or style; they are generic. This framework forms the basis of the co-curation.

Once the Edinburgh material is prepared, we provide content guidelines to our partner - required text lengths, image requirements, content for interactives or digital installations. As the process develops, the Edinburgh material is adapted to highlight specific linkages between the two featured cities. A good example of this from the Lisbon exhibition is how we were able to show direct connections between 18th-century Edinburgh architects and the redevelopment of the Baixa area of Lisbon following the earthquake of 1755.

For each project we hold curatorial workshops in both cities in turn. These workshops involve presentations of archives, guided tours of the city to provide background and work sessions on content development for the exhibition. These exchanges are really valuable in allowing museum professionals and academics to make new connections and open new dialogues for future partnerships and collaborations.

EM: Can you tell me about the collection? 

TP: Historic Environment Scotland are the key Edinburgh content partners. Our team have had a long and successful record of working with Historic Environment Scotland on various projects, leading up to A Tale of Two Cities. As an organisation, Historic Environment Scotland is built up of several different collections: the properties collection, which is artefact-based, the National Collection of Aerial Photography and the manuscript archives. 
This collection is remarkably diverse with over 5 million drawings, photographs, negatives and manuscripts, 20 million aerial images from locations around the world and more than 300 properties in care. It is an excellent basis on which to illustrate the history of a city, using maps, drawings, written records, photography and objects.

Based on the core A Tale of Two Cities framework, we work with each partner to select a collection which tells a parallel story, which will complement and contrast with the Edinburgh collection effectively to bring out the story of the host city.

EM: What is your favourite object from the Edinburgh-Nanjing exhibition? 

TP: There is a series of original design proposals for the Mound area of Edinburgh, which was developed in the 18th century as a connection between the old and new towns. Among other things, it shows the plans for the National Gallery of Scotland. The proposals show these extraordinary Roman-style public baths, complete with plunge pools and steam baths beneath the art gallery. It was this peculiar concept of apparently linking the act of physically cleaning with cleaning the mind, philosophically and culturally, in the galleries which I think is really quirky. If it had been built, this feature of the building would perhaps not have stood the test of time. I think that it is interesting to consider not only the history of cities as they are and have been, but also as they might have been.

EM: What have you found most rewarding about the ATO2C project?  

TP: 1.2 million Chinese visitors came to see A Tale of Two Cities: Edinburgh and Nanjing. The exhibition was extended by two months due to popular demand. This was the first time that Historic Environment Scotland had presented any material in China. So these were great results. It was new territory for everyone involved in the project. This was very challenging and there were great risks involved, particularly for Nomad Exhibitions. So that success was extremely rewarding. This was reinforced further by the honour of receiving an Arts & Business international award in the UK in 2014.

EM: What’s next for ATO2C?

TP: A really rewarding outcome of the Nanjing exhibition was the confirmation that our city, Edinburgh, could be successfully used to draw out the interesting histories of other cities, that this model could be replicated in other locations. That opportunity is now being realised with our current partnership with the Museum of Lisbon, and future planned projects. I am looking forward to discovering the stories that A Tale of Two Cities will bring to light in the future, with the city of Lisbon and other major urban centres around the world.

Learn more with the exhibition press release and homepage

David Roberts