Slouching Towards Progress

‘If a museum sees itself… as a responsive agency, meeting its community’s immediate needs… then continuous input from the potential audience is essential.’ (1)

‘Instead of being there for the objects, museums should be there for people. Let us therefore try to analyse people’s needs, both as individuals and members of a group. Naturally, we shall seek to define present, real needs, even potential needs, and not what we think people need.’ (2)

‘The museum, as an object bank, as a university which dispenses knowledge through objects, will become a public meeting-place and a particularly propitious place for the creation of new cultural forms, new social relations, and new solutions to the most down-to-earth problems of individuals and social groups.’ (3)

All of these quotes are from the latest issue of Museum International and I agree with them wholeheartedly. It’s exciting to think that museums are becoming more socially engaged and that out-dated thinking will soon become a thing of the past. Perhaps change is coming faster than I thought? Sadly no. The first comment was made in 1971, the last two comments are from 1976.

On first reading, I found the age of these quotes so disheartening. When I picture ‘the passing of the baton’ from one generation of museum practitioners to the next, I like to imagine the 4 x 100m Olympic Relay final. Each generation dashes a glimmering 100 metres of sweat, graft and toil, powering towards the future, and then passes their momentum and energy on to the next generation, before collapsing to the flash of camera bulbs and glory. Instead, with those quotes still rattling around my head, I picture a progress relay that resembles a very long queue for a Sunday evening rail replacement bus service. It’s raining, and we’re cold, tired and miles from home. Our contribution is to take the baton, shift an inch, then pass it on. Snore. Are we really achieving anything when this is the rate of progress?

On further reflection, however, I think there is hope and we are making a difference. An enormous amount has changed in museum practice since those comments were made, and I believe this has come about as a result of external pressures (eg. changing funding models and growing audience expectations) as well as internal advocacy and programming, often led by Learning departments, with the support of visionary directors. Audiences today expect and demand high-quality and varied user experiences, with a premium placed on socialising with friends and family. Forgo the inclusion of a cafe or a family offer at your peril. To illustrate just how much has changed, I also enjoyed this comment in Museum International, dating back to 1963: ‘Museums are tiring places and rest areas, preferably where smoking is permitted, are essential.’ (4) So the pace may be gradual, even glacial, but if we step back far enough and take the long view, positive change is happening.

I realise that the very concept of progress lost all credibility when Post-Modernism rocked up in the 1970s with its ‘well, it depends’ view of the world.  One woman’s idea of improvement will always be another woman’s idea of backsliding. One woman’s socially-inclusive, participatory museum will always be another woman’s child-infested, barbarian-overrun hellhole. But surely it’s human nature to want things to be better as time passes? Surely breaking down barriers to the arts and creating museums that are more relevant to more people is a good thing? Would we not function better as a society if more people felt entitled to, and had access to, the arts, and found a voice through creative expression? Some would say yes, others would think I’ve loaded the dice and am only seeking self-serving answers.

Perhaps it might be worth looking at progress from a slightly different angle; if the long view is too slow, there is always the ‘here and now’ to improve, starting with how we think about our own programmes. I’m still sifting through the interviews I conducted while in the US, and certain themes are consistently rising to the top. An attribute that many of my interviewees share is an enormous appetite for innovation. There is no resting on laurels with this lot. They put a huge amount of energy into programming that will surprise and inspire existing audiences, and make authentic connections with new audiences. On top of this, tightly refined learning and social outcomes are set for each strand, and, in a shocking move, they then test and evaluate those outcomes against visitor feedback. If the programme isn’t doing what they want it to, it’s either adapted or cut. Not rocket science, but just like healthy eating and exercise, we all know what we should be doing, but that’s not the same as actually doing it. The US museum educators I met are ruthless with their programmes, pruning back and reshaping often to ensure they are keeping in step with their audiences. Standing still in this environment is more akin to moving backwards.

So I think that’s probably enough metaphors for one blogpost. Do please get in touch with any interesting examples of progressive practice that you’d like to share.

NOTE: All of the quotes are from Museum International: Key Ideas in Museums and Heritage (1949-2004), No. 261-264, 2015. Page numbers refer to this issue. Dates refer to original publication; all articles appeared in earlier issues of Museum International.

  1. Museums, Systems and Computers, by Duncan F Cameron, (1971, Vol.23, No.1) pp.39-44.
  2. The Modern Museum: Requirements and Problems of a New Approach, (1976, Vol.28, No.3) by Hugues de Varine-Bohan, pp.76-87.
  3. Ibid.
  4. The Function of Natural History Museums, by J.W. Evans, (1963, Vol.16, No.4) pp.35-38.

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Capturing the Stories of Kettle’s Yard

When writing about museum learning and creativity, I’m aware that theory must be paired with practice to be meaningful. Consequently, I’ve been thinking about my own experience and how this might relate to the ideas I’ve been exploring. As a case study, I’ve chosen the project I’m most proud of – creating ReCollection, an oral history archive, for Kettle’s Yard. Two elements were vital to its success – the input of many people and the lengthy gestation period for ideas to take shape. Both of these aspects are well-documented in creativity theory, which I’ll explore in more detail below.

I was Education Officer at Kettle’s Yard (University of Cambridge) for seven years. Kettle’s Yard had been the home of Jim and Helen Ede. They bought four derelict cottages in 1956 and knocked them together to create one space, which they filled with art, music, furniture, ceramics, and natural objects such as shells, pebbles and plants. Everything was presented in relation to, and in harmony with, everything else. A pebble was just as precious and worthy of contemplation as a Hepworth or Gaudier Brzeska. From 1957, they opened their home to undergraduates who found it a haven of peace and tranquility. The Edes moved to Edinburgh in 1973 and a live-in curator, Paul Clough, in his first job, inherited the all-consuming task of presenting the house. Over the following decades, many artists, educators and curators have passed through its doors as staff and visitors. Currently closed for a site development project, Kettle’s Yard remains a very special place.

I joined Kettle’s Yard in 2006, when its upcoming 50th anniversary year (2007) was the subject of much discussion. I was keen to learn ‘the Kettle’s Yard way’ and met many people who had known the Edes and visited as students, or were visiting for the first time and were blown away by the experience. When I started, the house invigilators were mostly women in their retirement; they were amazingly knowledgeable on both the Edes and the collection, and they used to share anecdotes with me, told to them by the thousands of visitors we had every year. It’s a place of stories, conversations and shared memories – all temporal and ephemeral. I thought about the 50 years that had passed and wondered what the house would be like in 50 years’ time. I can’t remember exactly when an oral history archive occurred to me, but it was the result of wanting to capture and preserve the experience of the house as it had been, and how it was at that time, to create a record for those future generations to come. Once the idea appeared, it took root and then took over – little did I know what a massive project I had taken on.

My initial aims were very modest. I wanted to interview perhaps a dozen key people and I thought it might take six months. I had never done an oral history project before so my first job was to meet oral historians to find out what’s involved. The more meetings I had, the more the project grew. I wanted to document the history of Kettle’s Yard, as told by those who’d been there in the early days, but I also wanted a contemporary snapshot from first-time visitors. I wanted children’s voices as a counterpoint to adult voices; I loved the idea of a four-year-old participating in a 50th anniversary project and potentially coming back as a 54-year-old to celebrate Kettle’s Yard’s centenary in 2057. With some of the key players already in their eighties, I was also aware that aspects of the Kettle’s Yard story would be lost if we didn’t take action and record their memories.

Before I could apply for serious money from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), I had to prove the project’s viability; seed-funding was provided by Renaissance East of England Community Learning and Outreach Fund. This enabled us to spend a couple of weekends capturing visitors’ responses to Kettle’s Yard and their views on the creation of an oral history archive. I then spent an intensive three weeks writing an HLF application. By then the project had mushroomed into a two-year process, including a part-time oral historian post, a series of workshops with a school and children’s centre, and a website with photos and clips from the archive. We were awarded £45,000 and, with some additional support from the Cambridgeshire County Council, we were underway – we launched in January 2008 and the project was completed in January 2010.

On completion, we had worked with a team of 15 volunteers and collected in-depth interviews with 42 people who knew Kettle’s Yard well. We had delivered art workshops and recorded interviews with two primary school classes and a group of four-year-olds and their parents from a local Children’s Centre, many of whom had never visited before. We recorded over 100 hours of interviews. I’m particularly happy that we managed to interview both of Jim and Helen’s daughters – Elisabeth Swan and Mary Adams.

So, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the input of others and a long development period were both crucial elements and there are a number of theories on creativity that chime with this observation. If I’d stuck to my first idea and delivered it alone, it would have been a bit pants. The final result was so much richer than I could have hoped or imagined.

The phrase ‘collective creativity’ is a nice way of describing the benefits of working with others. Linda Hill gives a great TED talk on How to Manage for Collective Creativity and examines the push-pull of innovation when you have a number of chefs in the kitchen. She identifies three forms of collective creativity: creative abrasion (‘creating a marketplace of ideas through debate and discourse’); creative agility (‘discovery-driven learning where you act, as opposed to plan, your way to the future’) and creative resolution (‘decision making in a way that you can actually combine even opposing ideas to reconfigure then in new combinations to produce a solution that is new and useful’).

The Journal of Business Anthropology devoted an entire ‘Opinions’ section (Fall 2015) to creativity and innovation, including articles on the benefits of working with others. I found some articles to be more relevant than others; the introduction by Brian Moeran (pp.1-8 pdf, pp.228-235 journal) and Keith Sawyer’s article, The Zig-Zag Path to Toy Story (pp.25-32 pdf, pp.252-259 journal), were both particularly inspiring. Moeran writes about ‘collaborative engagements’, whether that’s between agents (ie. people), institutions, materials, tools & technologies, or cultural genres, such as a brand identity. Sawyer argues that the creative process is unpredictable and non-linear and is better described as a zig-zag towards something new. An important component for Sawyer is ‘cognitive diversity’, which he describes as follows:

Creativity research has found that when teams and organisations are composed of people with different backgrounds, they are more innovative. The type of diversity that works best is cognitive diversity: people who come with different intellectual backgrounds, and who have mastered different bodies of facts and conceptual material. Having a diversity of skin colour or nationality or ethnic background won’t work as well, if everyone has the same degree from the same university.

Sawyer summarised the traditional approach to creativity, based on Graham Wallas’s 1926 publication, The Art of Thought. Some aspects do feel a bit clichéd now – especially the view that creativity is solely an individual, reflective pursuit – but one key aspect of Wallas’s theory does still hold, incubation. It’s common advice to step back from a problem and change one’s focus to allow the solution to reveal itself. Steve Johnson, in his TED talk, Where Good Ideas Come From, refers to the incubation process as the ‘slow hunch’. He argues that our accumulated experiences, sometimes dating back decades, all feed into our ability to generate new ideas. He illustrates this with the story of Charles Darwin’s discovery of natural selection – apparently all the components were in Darwin’s notebooks, hiding in plain sight, many months before everything slotted into place. In Johnson’s words: “that is actually how great ideas often happen; they fade into view over a long period of time”.

While I’m not going to attempt to put my oral history project on the same footing as Darwin’s theory of natural selection (!!), I like Johnson’s approach to ideas generation and the slow hunch. As with the other authors I’ve mentioned, Johnson also talks about the importance of working collectively to make creative breakthroughs. By moving outside my comfort zone and taking on an oral history project, I had to work with people who brought different areas of expertise and knowledge. As a result, the project far exceeded my original idea and benefited greatly from our cognitive diversity.

Awesome Interactives and Where to Find Them

Following on from last week’s post on play, I want to share a few photos of the artworks, immersive installations and interactives that I enjoyed playing with on my visit to the US. In the name of research, it’s quite liberating to try out the extra bits and bobs, and not something I’d usually do. I feel a bit guilty admitting this, but I also enjoyed having the place to myself. These museum displays clearly get a lot of use at weekends and school holidays, but on your average weekday, there aren’t many other people around so I could play to my heart’s content.

My favourite galleries at the Center of Science and Industry, Columbus (CoSI) depict a street scene of a mythical town called Progress, set in 1898, and then the same street again, but in 1962. The corridor connecting the two has a timeline summarising some of the radical changes that happened inbetween. It was a very immediate way of understanding change over time in only a few generations. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed galleries like this, where you can go into the shops and peer through the windows and have a rich immersive experience.

Center of Science and Industry (CoSI) in Columbus – the town of Progress, 1898

In the 1898 version was a telegram office that looked as though the postmaster/mistress had just stepped out of the room. To one side was a table with a Morse code machine and above it, a caged bird. The simple instructions on the table showed the Morse alphabet of dot-dash combinations and then gave examples of a few simple words, like cow or tree, that could be constructed using this system. The best bit – when you tap in this sequence, the bird then says the word back to you. I found this so engaging, to get the code correct and then the satisfaction of making the bird speak. I tried a few Anglo-Saxon words not on the list, without success, so I think there’s probably a shadow list somewhere of words that the bird can choose not to recognise.

CoSI – tap Morse code into the telegram machine and hear the bird repeat it back to you.

In 1962, I went into a classic diner and found a couple of kids playing behind the counter and their dad sitting (wearily) at a nearby table, pretend-eating plastic bacon and chips. Without batting an eyelid, the girl asked me for my order, so I had an invisible milkshake, which cost me 15 invisible cents. The best bit – a real jukebox in the corner was filled with sixties hits. I played Green Onions, and then Fever, and had a mini-bop because I couldn’t help myself. I left those galleries feeling really happy.

CoSI – the town of Progress, but skipping ahead to 1962
A real juke box in the corner with fantastic sixties tunes.
As you leave Progress (oh the irony…)

CoSI also has a series of ‘Life’ galleries that explore the human body and consciousness. While the decor looks pretty dated, I enjoyed reading a text panel about all the different noises a body can make and what’s going on anatomically. Starting from the top, there were explanations on sniffing, snoring, sneezing and burping before heading further south. Next to this list was a keyboard and when you press any of the keys, they make a different disgusting body sound. So educational AND entertaining. I should have grown out of finding this sort of thing funny by now, but my shonky version of Beethoven’s Fur Elise was really quite special. It also brought to Ferris Bueller faking illness and lining up his legendary day off.

CoSI – an informative text panel on Body Noises, which can be replicated on the keyboard.

Moving back into more sensible territory, I found this postcard-making activity at Denver Art Museum (DAM) really straight-forward and captivating. The activity table had a spine of materials down the centre, including postcard templates, plain on one side and ‘this is from Denver Art Museum’ on the back, and a series of bespoke stamps, each with a detail from artworks on display. The stamps had cattle, cowboys, horses, clouds, birds, and fences that could all be mixed and matched to create a new scene. You could either take your postcard away or display it on the wire clothesline. I imagine this activity is fairly low maintenance for the staff and it did make me look again at the paintings that inspired the stamps.

Denver Art Museum – stamp activity, with text in English and Spanish.


Some of my efforts.

Over the road from DAM is History Colorado, which has also gone all out with the immersive experience, recreating the town of Keota, a tiny Midwestern settlement which no longer exists. You can walk along a re-creation of the high street and go into the chemist, the local primary school or a typical home. My favourite part was clambering into the driver’s seat of a Model T and following an audio-visual narrative – the screen showed us bumping over prairies, while a soundtrack played the voices of a mother, father and two kids, having a conversation about their journey. The car itself jerked around to suggest movement over uneven ground. There was a big jolt when we ran over a snake and a spritz of water vapour in the face when it started raining. You got a good sense of how isolated the town was, the difficulty of crossing the landscape, and how important social connections were between distant neighbours.

History Colorado in Denver – the entrance to the Keota galleries. Keota was a tiny Midwestern settlement that no longer exists.
Bump along the countryside in a Model T.

And finally, I had to include Funky Bones, 2010, by Atelier Van Lieshout. This work is on The Virginia B Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acre, part of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. You really need aerial photography to get a sense of the full piece, and up close each section is the perfect height for sitting on. For me, this was the ideal stepping stone challenge. Hopping from shin to thigh bone was simple enough, and I contemplated making the leap from spine to skull, but it wasn’t worth breaking my own leg in the process and common sense prevailed. It has been so thoroughly drummed into me to never touch the artworks, that I tend to over-compensate in sculpture parks and insist on touching (or climbing on) absolutely everything. And if Robin Williams taught us anything in Dead Poet’s Society, it was that standing on stuff we shouldn’t – be it a desk or a skeleton sculpture – is a great way to get a new perspective on the world. I didn’t YAWP but I could’ve.

Funky Bones, 2010, by Atelier Van Lieshout

A month of playing with all the toys in museums taught me that kids are hogging the fun and a bit of silliness is good for the soul. It’s also useful to be reminded of what it’s like to be a visitor and how a change of tempo, movement or tone can break up a museum visit and refresh flagging concentration. I liked spending time considering artworks, and then working on a half-completed puzzle, and then moving on to read some visitor comments, and then returning to some more art. I’m also interested in how we can incorporate movement into our museum experiences, so that we are considering the whole person, not just their experiences from the neck up. A fully rounded experience generates memories that span head, heart and hand and live in both the mind and the body. A mix of play and contemplation brings these aspects together beautifully.

Header image: detail from Tableau, 2016, by Hadley Hooper, at the Denver Art Museum

The Other Kind of Play for Grown-Ups

Play is often considered the opposite of work and strictly for children. ‘Adult play’, in comparison, is the domain of discreet brown-paper wrappers (or deleted search histories for the more digitally savvy) and would likely be discouraged as part of a museum visit. It’s a shame that play has been tarnished in this way, as either silly and juvenile or sexual and risque. It doesn’t leave much space for the happiness that play can bring to grown-ups (just try frowning on a see-saw), or acknowledging the playful aspects of ideas generation and creativity. I’m running a session on play with museum educators next week, so it’s a subject currently at the front of my mind. I’m interested in playful approaches to museum learning programming for all ages, as well as how Learning teams can be more playful when planning and developing their programmes.

Manchester Museum, with the support of the Happy Museum Project, recently published Rules for a Playful Museum, a manifesto which does what it says on the tin. The museum commissioned play specialists to work with their front-of-house team, with the aim of developing a playful environment for families. The resulting rulebook, which can be read online, offers suggestions and encourages a positive ‘yes, and…’ approach. Across the Atlantic, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) has launched PlaySFMoMA, which takes an interesting approach to play, focussing on artists and games. According to their website…

PlaySFMOMA is a museum initiative that supports the development of avant-garde and artist-made games, and investigates instances of games and interactive play throughout art history. Through research projects, workshops, events, and a designer-in-residence series, the program explores games as a creative medium and means of audience engagement. PlaySFMOMA provides a platform for artists working in games, and introduces museum audiences to the expressive potential of this medium.

At the V&A, the Schools Team has developed a simple and effective analog game called Six Degrees, inspired by the Six Degrees of Separation principle (that we are only six hops away from knowing everyone else on the planet – for example, a friend of a friend is two hops. This principle morphed into a popular movie geek game in the 1990s, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon). Our Six Degrees game provides a starting object and an ending object, totally unrelated and often on opposite sides of the building, and the challenge is, working in teams, to join the two by finding four intermediate objects, like links in a chain. Associations can be straight-forward (ie. both of these things are yellow), but I like to encourage some healthy competition and award a prize for the most unexpected, unusual and elaborate sequence. This leads to some very funny, baroque and surreal object combinations and gives the participants a fantastic new perspective on the collections. We use it with primary and secondary school pupils, and as part of teacher training sessions.

With pressing headlines and heavy workloads, I know it can feel like time-sucking faff to play about with new ideas and approaches when programming. However, it’s worth thinking about the care we put into encouraging creativity in others, and trying to stimulate those same impulses in our own teams. If I have to choose between a flipchart in a bare white room, or having a play with post-its out in the galleries, I know what my preference would be. There’s nothing worse than organised fun and ‘aren’t we wacky’ team-building exercises, but I do think it’s possible to generate an authentic playful atmosphere when planning; where the team feel free to be a bit daft, make each other laugh, and come up with good ideas. If you’re interested in this approach, the fantastic blog Design Thinking for Museums recently posted an article on ‘Why Play is Essential to the Design Thinking Process’. It includes plenty of interesting links to follow and useful tips for injecting play into programme planning – worth a look. I have also enjoyed noodling around the School of Play website; it describes itself as ‘a popup school dedicated to promoting happier adulthood through lifelong play’, and their blog covers many aspects of play, including the benefits for health, happiness and well-being. Who doesn’t need more of that in their lives?

Header Image: Free Basket, 2010, by Los Carpinteros, at Indianapolis Museum of Art