Hold Your Beliefs Lightly

Grayson Perry is my hero. I’d love to be able to claim that I was an early adopter and have been following his practice since the ‘80s, but I’m afraid I arrived fairly late to the party and have only really been aware of his work since he won the Turner Prize in 2003. Despite his best efforts to deify his lifelong companion, Alan Measles, he’s achieved something of a God-like status himself – straddling the insular culture of the art world and the popular consciousness of the British public, like a spectacular colossus in a pastiche party dress.

Perry’s landmark exhibition at the British Museum in 2011/12, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, is one of my top five all-time favourite shows. It was like an enormous playground and recalled the excitement I had running around museums when I was a kid. I was struck by the generosity shown to audiences; there were no ‘intellectual bouncers’ at the doors, you had the feeling that the artist was speaking directly to you and everyone was welcome. I bought both the catalogue and a fistful of postcards in an attempt to take as much of the show home as possible.

One particular postcard, showing a detail from The Rosetta Vase (2011), includes the sensible advice to ‘hold your beliefs lightly’. These words and this image come to mind frequently as I’m working on my Churchill Fellowship and exploring the creative process of museum educators. I like playing with ideas and theories and I enjoy the process of wrangling a sequence of isolated events into some sort of order. For example, I am visiting five arts organisations in the US in September and, in doing my research on each, I couldn’t help but notice patterns and similarities. Perhaps there are unifying trends at work; perhaps their common ground has something to teach us about best practice? When I was writing a blog post summarising my observations on the subject, I was also on holiday with my Dad, who is a retired academic specialising in Strategic Management. Naturally, I asked him to read what I was working on, and he offered me the same advice as that on Perry’s Rosetta Vase.

So that’s what I’m trying to do. It would be such a wasted opportunity if I met these amazing educators in the US and only attended to what confirmed my theories. Besides which, I’m most interested in what I don’t know. I want new stuff to think about, and the best way to achieve that is by ‘getting out of my own way’ (a great phrase). So I will aim to delay judgement and focus on observation and being in the moment.

‘Hold your beliefs lightly’ also feels like useful guidance when thinking about programming. I wonder what fundamentals of practice we cling to, repeat ad nauseam, build our views on, and don’t even consider challenging, because they are perceived as our bedrock. For example, is it the best use of our limited resources to try to cater for all audiences? Is the emphasis on peer-led programming inhibiting other ways of working with young people? Do we need both a core programme and short-term projects – could it be one or the other – could they be integrated? It used to be gospel that reminiscence was the best approach for working with older people with memory loss, but more recent thinking has challenged that. Placing emphasis on memory in creative workshops, when its increasing absence can be causing these participants a loss of self and a great deal of distress, doesn’t sound very constructive, and yet we all did it. With hindsight, it makes much more sense to focus on the immediate, expressive, enjoyable, attention-consuming and multi-sensory nature of making.

So what other beliefs are we holding too tightly?

Design Thinking & Museum Educators

Last week, I wrote about the design process as a useful means of structuring the development of museum learning programmes. This week I want to focus on design thinking as it also has many relevant applications to our work as museum educators.

In the 1970s, the Royal College of Art (RCA) conducted extensive research into Design in General Education and found it to be poorly understood. Design education at that time was predominantly specialist, vocational and skills-based, and its purpose was extrinsic – to train designers. Nigel Cross argues in his article, Designerly Ways of Knowing (Design Studies, Vol. 3, No. 4, October 1982, pp.221-227), that design education also has intrinsic benefits that can contribute to a well-rounded general education, and that ‘design thinking’ is a problem-solving mindset, distinct from both the sciences and humanities.

Cross identifies “five aspects of designerly ways of knowing:

  • Designers tackle ‘ill-defined’ problems,
  • Their mode of problem-solving is ‘solution-focused’,
  • Their mode of thinking is ‘constructive’,
  • They use ‘codes’ that translate abstract requirements into concrete objects, and
  • They use these codes to both ‘read’ and ‘write’ in ‘object languages’.”

I really like Cross’s observation that “design is a process of pattern synthesis, rather than pattern recognition. The solution is not simply lying there among the data, like the dog among the spots in the well-known perceptual puzzle; it has to be actively constructed by the designer’s own efforts”. This brings us neatly back to creativity and the ability to generate ‘outcomes that are original and of value’.

Helen Charman, Head of Learning at the Design Museum, has written a lot about how her team apply design thinking to their learning programmes; she uses the term designerly learning to describe their approach. Her 2010 article, Designerly Learning: Workshops for schools at the Design Museum (Design and Technology Education: An International Journal 15.3, pp28-40) is of particular interest to me because she turns the focus onto the museum educators. Charman interviewed five educators (three Learning Officers at the Design Museum, one RCA tutor who has also been a consultant for the Design Museum, and one freelance museum educator) to explore how they conceptualise their programmes and how that thinking then informs delivery.

Charman structures her findings around three themes: ‘shared perspectives on the content of learning; on the environment for learning; [and] on the process for learning’. It’s great to see museum educators’ work placed into a critical context and discussed against the broader trends of both museum learning and design practice. Charman writes: “All workshops give learners the opportunity to explore and experiment with a range of materials and techniques. This takes a relatively unstructured form that finds its analogy within research on ‘design thinking’ as the process of abductive thinking, that is, space to explore and deal with potentials rather than certainties.” (p.35)

Design thinking has a special relevance for design museums as the teaching is about design as well as through design. As ‘designers’ of learning programmes, I’m interested in how we can apply this thinking to our practice as museum educators in art museums. Learning programmes can feel organic in their development and can grow from a range of sources, such as: the diverse experience of museum educators; opportunities that arise through exhibitions, new funding streams or national initiatives; new thinking across the sector; or a change of staffing that brings different perspectives. These can all be forces for good, but without strategic planning it risks programming that is rudderless and adrift.

Alternatively, some learning programmes can feel set in aspic. A deeply-entrenched expectation from audiences to programme in a particular way, combined with an organisational reluctance to rock the boat and a preference for quantitative measures of success, can lead to programming that provides comfort and familiarity to a shrinking pool of regulars but does little to challenge their views or open up the museum to new audiences.

Applying design thinking to our programming offers a third way, separate from either of these drifting or fixed scenarios. Museum educators have constantly shifting problems (keeping relevant, meeting changing audience and organisational needs, reflecting contemporary practice) and this means we are in a generative cycle of constantly seeking new solutions. The action-oriented nature of design thinking, combined with the creative constraints of the design process, provides structure and direction. It enables us to be systematic and agile in our programming and it equips us with a greater understanding of our process, leading to stronger advocacy for our contribution to the arts sector. The work is never done.

Header image from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Optical_effects#/media/File:PSM_V47_D479_Test_pattern_to_determine_astimatism.jpg

The Design Process for Museum Learning Programmes

When I moved from the world of art and galleries to the world of design and museums, I assumed it would be a short walk between the two. This proved not to be the case and the differences are much greater than I’d anticipated. I thought art and design were close siblings, but really they are more like distant cousins who catch up occasionally at family weddings.

The use of language is an obvious example. The art world is awash with dealer gallery press releases dense with florid, paragraph-long sentences that leave me none the wiser about the work or the artist. The ‘liminal spaces’ that everyone is so keen on must be getting pretty crowded by now. The design world doesn’t allow for such flights of fancy and I find the writing more grounded, pragmatic and to the point. There seems to be less wriggle room in design, fewer blurred and clouded edges that allow vague descriptions to flourish.

Another distinction is between how the creative and design processes are described. I’m comfortable with my understanding of the creative process. Although it retains its mysteries, I trust that it works and I know how to utilise it to work with others and generate programmes and projects. I like that it has an aspect of the dark arts and alchemy to it. When I’m working with artists and stakeholders, there is a leap of faith at the beginning of the process that it will come together, that our ideas will pan out, that audiences will engage, that the work will be authentic. With the right people and the right planning, this is usually (fortunately) the case. Each time, the application of the creative process feels slightly different and specific to that set of conditions. The design process, in comparison, is a step-by-step replicable approach that fosters creativity and ideas generation through the constructive use of parameters and constraints.

Stanford University’s d.school has created a clear Introduction to Design Thinking Process Guide, outlining the human-centred design process. Their website is a treasure trove of tools and tips for using this approach. The steps are:

  • Empathize: audience research – listen to users and understand their needs.
  • Define: ‘craft a meaningful and actionable problem statement’.
  • Ideate: ideas generation – get as many ideas on the table as possible, deferring judgement.
  • Prototype: select a few of the strongest ideas and make examples, quickly and cheaply.
  • Test: this step goes hand-in-hand with prototyping; try out your prototypes with the user/audience. Improve, refine, repeat. ‘Built to think and test to learn’.

This process provides an ideal structure for supporting the development of museum learning programmes. While it takes some of the mystery out of it, I like that it’s still a highly creative and generative process. I also like the emphasis on doing – taking an idea and trying it out rather than just talking about it (I’m often guilty of the latter). There is something liberating about viewing our programmes as a series of prototypes – we can test several ideas with audiences as part of an ongoing process. If this way of working floats your boat, there is a whole blog devoted to it – check out Design Thinking for Museums. A recent post, titled Managing up design thinking: 5 steps for promoting human-centered design in museums, gives a really good overview of the design process in more detail.

Closer to home, ImaginationLancaster is a design-led research centre at Lancaster University and they are doing fantastic work around co-design. Their current AHRC-funded project, Leapfrog, brings together the public sector and community partners to devise consultation tools, all available free for use from their website. The team is very creative and genuinely committed to empowering communities to input into decisions that affect their lives. As part of my Churchill Fellowship preparation, I have been working with ImaginationLancaster to devise an interview format to explore my key research questions:

  • How can museum educators better understand their creative process?
  • How can that greater understanding improve and inform programming?

More information on our work-in-progress can be found here.

Ideas by Association

20,000 Days on Earth is one of the best films I’ve seen that explores the creative process. The loose premise is that a film crew is following around the Australian musician and writer, Nick Cave, on what is supposedly his – yup – 20,000th day on Earth. We watch him working in the studio, chatting with friends, visiting his archive and performing his songs. It’s filled with gems, although I particularly like this observation:

Do you wanna know how to write a song? Song-writing is about counterpoint. Counterpoint is the key. Putting two disparate images beside each other and seeing which way the sparks fly. Like letting a small child in the same room as, I don’t know, a Mongolian psychopath or something… and just sitting back and seeing what happens… Then you send in a clown, say, on a tricycle, and again you wait and watch… and if that doesn’t do it… you shoot the clown.”

Making associations, particularly by bringing together disparate thoughts or making new connections, is often referenced as a key aspect of creativity and ideas generation. Sir Ken Robinson writes in Out of Our Minds that, “Creative thinking is a break with habitual patterns of thought… All of our existing thoughts have creative possibilities. Creative insights occur when they are combined in unexpected ways or applied to questions or issues with which they are not normally associated.” (p.135) As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Stephen J Tepper and George D Kuhn list key components of creativity in Let’s Get Serious About Cultivating Creativity, including: “the ability to approach problems in non-routine ways using analogy and metaphor” and; “keen observation and the ability to see new and unexpected patterns”. A Brain Pickings blogpost from 2012 reviews James Webb Young’s 1939 book, A Technique for Producing Ideas; Young also mentions the importance of associations: “an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements… the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships… To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge.”

Generating new ideas through making connections and associations comes naturally to museum educators because it is such a fundamental part of our work. We are always looking for ways to link audiences and artworks; we seek themes that are relevant and interesting to different groups; we draw out metaphorical potential in artworks to explore a broad range of subjects; and we have the creative challenge of trying to satisfy many competing priorities and perspectives through reaching a unified solution. How often has the command come from above to design an exciting learning programme for under-represented audiences as part of a funding application for a niche exhibition or obscure object? While it can be a struggle to make meaningful links, I also enjoy the weirder combinations as an opportunity to be more playful with the associations that can be made. MCA Denver’s Mixed Taste talks are a great example of how unusual associations can be used in programming to open up audience thinking – and do please get in touch if you have other examples I can share too.

When up against tight deadlines or pushed for headspace by endless to-do lists, I know many peers turn to their collections and exhibitions to re-fresh their thinking. ‘De-focussed’ wandering and pondering through the galleries can be a great way to spark inspiration. I also like using the collections for team planning meetings – using metaphor and associations to explore current issues through objects. And if all else fails, shoot the clown.

Header image from: http://vulturehound.co.uk/2016/03/nick-cave-sings-in-see-that-girl-in-20000-days-on-earth-exclusive-deleted-scene/