Kill Your Darlings

‘Kill your darlings’ is one of those punchy expressions that on first hearing is shockingly violent but over time loses its impact and is understood only as a colloquialism. It refers to the painful process of editing your own writing. You may have spent hours, even days, creating the world’s most exquisite sentence, but as the rest of the text develops, that perfect wording may become superfluous and it has to go. Death and love – two of life’s biggies are brought together in ‘kill your darlings’, neatly encapsulating the agony and ecstasy of writing. The original quote, “in writing, you must kill all your darlings”, is attributed to author, William Faulkner, who is perhaps best known for his novel The Sound and the Fury (1929). Winner of two Pulitzers, as well as the Nobel Prize in Literature (1949), I think it’s fairly safe to say he knew how to string a sentence together.

I don’t usually think of good writing as an essential skill set for museum education, but it is something we’re required to do on a regular basis. We write teachers’ resources and support notes for collections and exhibitions, we create gallery trails for families, we provide marketing copy to promote our programmes, we submit funding applications, we draw up partnership agreements, we produce evaluation reports and annual summaries of our activity, and increasingly, we blog to demonstrate the human side of our organisations. In each of these cases, we are writing for a different audience, with a different purpose, and the tone must be modified accordingly. Often, we are writing within fairly tight parameters, having to comply with curriculum requirements, funder priorities, style guidelines, or just meeting deadlines. Fortunately, these constraints give our creativity something to push against. Editing might feel brutal at the time, but it will ultimately benefit the text.

I assume the first rule of blogging is, ‘don’t blog about blogging’, however… I have found blogging to be an incredibly useful process for figuring out my own thoughts. I’m finding that the process of writing is like a strange conversation, whereby most of the content is consciously and deliberately generated, but other aspects seemingly appear out of nowhere; I write stuff I didn’t even know I was thinking, and that then leads me to other thoughts and ideas. This revelation is not news to writers or diarists, but it’s been a happy discovery for me. Writing a weekly blogpost is an entirely self-imposed constraint, but it’s had many benefits, not least creating a handy record of my Churchill Fellowship experience.

The final and possibly largest hurdle that I need to clear to complete my Fellowship is the submission of a project report. The WCMT website hosts a library of reports from previous Fellows that provides fascinating insights into a huge range of experiences. The purpose of the report is to summarise my learning from the US, map this to the UK sector, and provide some recommendations for further action.  All of this needs to be shoehorned into a paltry 15,000 words, which is proving a challenge when I have enough content to merrily bang on for 150,000 words. The creative constraint in this instance is the word limit, and I have Faulkner’s phrase ringing in my ears every time I work on it.

I don’t have any problem producing 15,000 words, that’s easy; the difficulty lies in choosing the right 15,000 words and then arranging them in the correct order. I’m currently working my way through the repetitive cycle of write, then cut, then write, then cut. Some changes are made with a scalpel, slicing back sentences and excising poor turns of phrase; other changes are made with a cleaver, savagely amputating whole paragraphs and ideas. Either way, I’ve gone well beyond killing my darlings and this feels more like a full-blown massacre of the innocents. I mourn the loss of what I’ve had to cut out, but I can see the central argument becoming clearer and stronger as I’m forced to get to the point. You can judge for yourself when it’s up on the WCMT website, hopefully from March.
Image: By Kroton – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15333590

The Pushmi-Pullyu of Change

As a Churchill Fellow, I have a commitment to share my learning with peers. Since my research trip to the US last September, I’ve been looking for ways to do this and have gained a huge amount from contributing to London-based workshops for museum and gallery educators, organised by engage and GEM (Group for Education in Museums). I hosted the GEM workshop at the V&A a couple of weeks ago and was one of three facilitators. Working with GEM convenor, Laura Lewis-Davies, we decided to riff off the current exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution? and discuss what kind of revolution we wanted to see in museum learning practice. The exhibition charts five years of radical change in Western society, culture and music, spanning the period 1966-1970. It’s amazing how much can happen in such a short time frame, and this motivated us to think back on museum practice in 2016 and project to where we wanted to be in 2020.

We peppered the whole workshop with ‘revolutionary’ touches: on arrival, participants were asked to fill out a name tag with both their own name and that of a revolutionary hero/heroine; throughout the event, we had large sheets of paper on the wall, surrounded by images of the exhibition, where participants could add post-its that summarised our current position, our ambitions for 2020, and how we’re going to get there; and at the end of the night, we filled out coloured protest banners, recycling an activity that had been devised for the Families programme in response to the exhibition. The name tags proved a popular ice-breaker and I took great pleasure in seeing Geri Halliwell chat with St Augustine. Laura arranged a follow-up Twitter event where we could all share more information on our choices – check out #gemrevhero.

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At the workshop, we split the group in three and each moved from one facilitator to the next. Robert Fleming, Temple Study Centre Manager at the National Army Museum, spoke about the transformation of their museum – due for completion Spring 2017 – and their new interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches to learning practice; Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe, Project Co-ordinator at Heritec, shared her work with The Creative Museum project, which is prototyping new forms of collaboration; and I talked about some of my headline learning from the Churchill trip. This meant we each did the same session three times and unfortunately missed out on seeing the others in action, but it was a great chance to get feedback from the participants. In the spirit of revolution and change, I wanted to explore how the Fellowship has challenged some of my fundamental views on museum learning, I’ve been experiencing an interesting tension between the well-established perceived wisdom of standard museum learning practice, and new approaches that are pushing against this and leading to alternatives.

When planning the workshop, I was discussing these tensions with Laura and thinking about how to engage GEM participants with the subject. I compared these opposing forces to a Pushmi-Pullyu, the mythical, two-headed llama-esque companion of Doctor Dolittle, the equally mythical children’s book character who could talk to animals. The image of a Pushmi-Pullyu randomly popped into my head, and it was a bit of a throwaway comment. However, it ended up being a great way to introduce these ideas and became the basis for my session. I wanted people to have their own views first before I introduced my findings, and hoped to elicit a conversation where people could take different positions on the same topic. To do this, I created ‘The Pushmi-Pullyu of Change’, whereby Pushmi and Pullyu each took a different stance (represented by a speech bubble above their heads on a sheet of A3), and participants were asked to place a small playing counter somewhere along the spectrum in between the two to represent their views. From there, we could discuss the different rationales. It was a quick way to launch into meaty topics and everyone gamely played along and had plenty to contribute.

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There were three ‘Pushmi-Pullyus of Change’ offering the following pairs of opinions:

  • Learning programmes should be inspired by the collections and exhibitions / Learning programmes in museums can be about anything
  • Museums must engage with and present political issues / Museums must take a neutral stance on political issues
  • Our programmes should be educational first, entertaining second / Our programmes should be entertaining first, educational second

 

My only regret is that my questions weren’t quite fine-tuned enough. With more time and thought, I could have offered more nuanced phrasing and been more specific, especially around the claim that museums should be ‘neutral’ – I’m well aware museums are anything BUT neutral, but the provocation was meant to be about whether we should be hosting and/or debating issues such as Brexit. The third pairing was stolen directly from my conversation with Ethan Angelica at Museum Hack; he puts these statements to museum learning staff and insists they choose which one they support. To replicate this hard-line approach, I created a ‘no man’s land’ in the middle of the spectrum so that people couldn’t perch in the middle. The activity did generate some gentle debate, although I suspect our similarities outweigh our differences in many respects. I particularly liked how people spoke about using entertainment as a form of ‘stealth education’ – sneak in the learning when people are distracted and enjoying themselves.

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While it has its faults, I’m quite chuffed with how my Pushmi-Pullyus worked out. They’ve peaked my interest in ‘gamifying’ discussions (it’s a word, I promise, in fact the gamification of learning’ is a whole thing). It’s commonplace to use postcards as a means of prompting conversation, but I like the idea of being able to represent one’s point-of-view visually and symbolically through a quick game before then explaining further. If you would like to share other examples of games that you use as part of discussions, I’d love to hear from you.

I also enjoyed exploring the combination of the metaphorical and the literal. As regular readers may have noticed, I’m a sucker for similes and metaphors. What makes me even happier is when some aspect of the metaphor is taken literally and folded back into the original idea. I could have just asked people their opinions on the questions above, but to put them along the back of a Pushmi-Pullyu takes it to a different headspace. I picked up this trick from the wonderful artist, Sarah Cole. During her residency at Kettle’s Yard a few years ago, she asked the staff where they felt they were ‘walking on eggshells’ and then positioned short trails of broken shell at these locations around the building. The then Director, Michael Harrison, spent a couple of days having to step over one of these trails every time he went into or came out of his office – like all good directors, he took it with good humour and grace.
Header image: https://www.filmclub.org/film/4523/doctor-dolittle

The Fourth Dimension of Good Ideas

I hadn’t heard of the artist Carmen Herrera before I chanced upon her beautiful show at the Whitney last October. Her story is as incredible as the work itself. Born in Havana in 1915, she’s worked and lived in both Paris and New York and befriended the great and the good. Hers is a life devoted to the daily practice of making art. Her longevity is impressive enough (she is still going strong with the help of a studio assistant), but – and this is the crunch – she didn’t sell a single painting until she was 89 years old.  89 years old! I can’t imagine what kind of internal faith and conviction you’d need to sustain such a solitary path. It also goes to show that timing is everything. Beyond the three dimensions of line, plane and form, is the fourth – time. An idea needs to jump through a lot of hoops to become a tangible thing, and one of the trickiest hoops can be finding the right moment. Like Herrera, some ideas have to be very patient.

Herrera was brilliant in the 1950s when the world wasn’t ready. To be both Cuban and female in New York during the Cold War and in a male-dominated art scene put her at a distinct disadvantage. A recent profile of the artist in the Guardian (31.12.16) includes the following anecdote: ‘She recalls visiting one avant garde gallery to discuss her work and as she left, the owner, Rose Fried, called her back. “She said, ‘You know, Carmen, you can paint rings around the men artists I have, but I’m not going to give you a show because you’re a woman.’ I felt as if someone had slapped me on the face. I felt for the first time what discrimination was. It’s a terrible thing. I just walked out”… [Herrera also makes the generous concession] that the men fared better not simply because they were men, but also because they were more streetwise. “They were better than me at knowing how to play the system, what to do and when. They figured out the gallery system, the collector system, the museum system, and I wasn’t that kind of personality”.’

So what changed? She was exhibiting in group shows of Latin American Art in the late nineties and art journalists started to take notice. Slowly but surely, the buzz grew, and she sold her first work in 2004. In 2009, she had her first solo show in Europe – take a bow, Ikon Gallery in Birmingham – and now, in her 102nd year, she has a Whitney show under her belt and is attracting international press coverage. I love stories like this; it’s great to see such dedication rewarded. It also makes my heart go out to anyone struggling to bring new ideas into the world and working in comparative isolation. To bring this back to museum education (and on a far more modest scale), I know what it’s like to be a one-person education department in a small institution. Your interests and priorities aren’t necessarily shared by colleagues (who have their own interests and priorities to worry about) and it’s difficult to benchmark your programme and ideas because there aren’t any immediate points of comparison. I have very fond memories of attending my first engage network events and meeting others who were interested in the same things, annoyed by the same things, and excited by the same things. It’s such a relief to know you’re not the only one thinking it. Watch Blind Lemon’s music video No Rain to get a sense of how happy it made me to find my people.

I have never met a museum educator with time on their hands. It seems that we are always up against the clock, trying to juggle multiple commitments and deadlines. With so many potential audiences, possible partnerships, and programming structures available to us, it can be difficult to channel all of those opportunities into some sort of strategic direction. However, with a surfeit of ideas and a limited number of hours in the day, some tough decisions need to be made. No matter how good an idea is, and how keen it is to be realised (hopping from foot to foot in anticipation), sometimes it just has to join the queue and wait its turn.

The importance of timing came up a few times during my Churchill Fellowship interviews in the US. For example, the events programme at MCA Denver is all about contemporary culture, and in the age of social media, relevance has a short shelf-life. Programme turn-around can be about 12 weeks from idea to delivery. A lot can change in that time, so the team has to work hard to capture those fleeting zeitgeist moments. A few people also mentioned recycling ideas. In the process of brainstorming, many ideas are generated. The goal is to find the right idea for the particular problem at hand. Amongst the debris of ideas that don’t make the cut will be some nuggets of gold that might be just the answer for a different problem. This mindset, that an idea will have its moment, seems to take some of the pressure off the ideas generation process. It’s comforting to know, ‘oh well, if not now, then maybe later’ for ideas.

Being in the right place at the right time is just as true of people as it is of ideas. Herrera’s moment finally arrived, and fortunately within her lifetime. While discrimination is hardly a thing of the past, attitudes have moved on enough that women like Herrera are now recognised for their artistic talent and skill. Some ideas arrive when we aren’t ready for them, and it might not be the idea that has to change, but the context in which it’s received. What won’t work now might work in a couple of years, or with a different audience, or in a different role. So keep the faith and persevere.

Header image: Watch with enamelled gold case and movement by Jacques Huon, Paris, 1640-50, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Footnotes: Walking and Creativity

When I started working in London, a lengthy commute became part of my daily life. Door to door, the return journey is about 4.5 hours – and that’s on a good day, when the train runs on time and the Piccadilly line isn’t changing its wheels. In an episode of Mad Men, Pete Campbell wants to leave the suburbs and return to an apartment in the city; he complains to his wife, Trudy, that “it’s an epic poem for me to get home”. I feel your pain, Pete. Fortunately, my day begins and ends with a 40-minute walk that takes me along a riverside, past rowers and dog-walkers, and down peaceful backstreets of terraced houses. At this time of year, frosty sunrises can be spectacular. I value this quiet time to prepare and plan for the day ahead, or to put distance between the demands of work and recuperating on my sofa. I often compose blog posts while I walk, or mull over some thorny issue. I like the gentle and frequent switching of attention, as my mind wanders from swans to staffing issues to trees to print deadlines, and so on…

Walking is often linked with creativity, especially for its capacity to aid problem-solving and unlock new ideas. For this post, I wanted to explore walking and creativity from a range of perspectives, and was pleasantly surprised by the variety of content online. In fact, you could say that I’m going over well-trodden ground (apologies). So rather than reinvent what already exists, I’ll briefly introduce some articles and websites that I found interesting and leave you to explore further.

But before I do that, a bit of science…

Walking was clearly having a moment during 2013 and 2014; so many of the articles I’ve found date to that period. In 2014, Stanford University published a study that confirmed walking improves creativity. Four experiments were conducted to measure creative thinking. Subjects were tested after walking (on a treadmill) or sitting indoors. They were also tested after walking or sitting (while being pushed in a wheelchair) outdoors along a predetermined path on the Stanford campus. Three of the experiments tested ‘divergent thinking’, and one experiment tested ‘convergent thinking’. Divergent thinking involves generating creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions, whereas convergent thinking is a narrowing of attention to find one correct answer. Their findings show that divergent thinking is greatly improved by walking; the creative output improved by 60% for those walking (either indoors or outdoors). Interestingly, walkers scored slightly worse than sitters for convergent thinking, so it seems that some types of creative thinking are better served by walking than others.

The Stanford research was quoted in an article in The New Yorker (3 September 2014) titled, Why Walking Helps Us Think. The author summarises some of the health benefits of walking and name-checks a number of writers who were known for their urban perambulations (such as James Joyce in Dublin, and Virginia Woolf in London). A BBC article, The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking, also published in 2014, introduces a range of books on walking (such as, A Philosophy of Walking, The Lost Art of Walking, and The Art of Wandering: The Writer as Walker). It concludes with a few tips for making the most of purposeless walking, many of which involve unplugging from portable technology and attending to the immediate environment instead.

Walking has long been established as form of art practice. The handily-titled website, Walking Artists Network, is a useful starting point, and includes content on related fields, such as “architecture, archaeology, anthropology, cultural geography, history, spatial design, urban design and planning”. It was through this site that I discovered Walking Women, a week-long series of walks, talks and screenings that took place at Somerset House in London last summer. Edited audio extracts have been compiled into two podcasts, available on the website. I would also recommend checking out Women Who Walk,  the Walking Reading Group and Walk Walk Walk.

The exhibition, Walk On: From Richard Long to Janet Cardiff – 40 Years of Art Walking, curated by Art Circuit Touring Exhibitions and shown in five venues in 2013/14, captured the walking zeitgeist. It claimed to be, “the first to examine the astonishingly varied ways in which artists since the late 1960s have used what would seem like a universal act – of taking a walk – as a means to create new types of art”. In 2015, the Empathy Museum launched its first exhibition, A Mile in My Shoes, a shoe shop where the public could literally walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. The accompanying playlist included short recorded interviews with the owners of the shoes, offering a glimpse into their lives.

Walking and creativity take on a different purpose in the business world. Walking meetings are de rigueur, and have been popularised by the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama. A recent Harvard Business Review article (August 2015) even offers advice on How To Do Walking Meetings Right, and proves that it’s possible to monetise just about anything:

Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that walking meetings lead to more honest exchanges with employees and are more productive than traditional sit-down meetings. Based on this, we undertook an exploratory study of the benefits associated with walking… In short, we find that those who participate in walking meetings are 5.25% more likely to report being creative at their jobs than those who do not. Additionally, the responses suggest that walking meetings support cognitive engagement, or focus, on the job. Those who participate in walking meetings are 8.5% more likely to report high levels of engagement.

What we found adds support to the notion of walking meetings being beneficial for workers. Is an increase in creativity of 5.25% likely to make or break a business? Most likely not. However, look at these findings through the lens of a cost-benefit analysis. The costs associated with regularly participating in walking meetings are next to nil… There may be no cheaper way to achieve moderate increases in creativity and engagement.

Alternatively, you could try Street Wisdom, “a global social enterprise with a mission to bring inspiration to every street on earth”. I absolutely love this premise – volunteer facilitators, called street guides, are trained to lead a group through a three-hour workshop. The sessions are free and available to anyone who signs up. The format is beautifully simple:

 

  • First, a street guide helps you and your group tune up your senses so you can pick up much more information from the urban environment that you would normally.
  • Then you’re off on a journey by yourself – your street quest – where you ask a question and see what answers present themselves.
  • Finally, you gather together again to share what happened and, more often than not, wonder at how magical an ordinary street can become when you’re really aware of those hidden messages, chance meetings and unexpected discoveries.

The effects of this process are profound: “In just three hours of walking and wandering, participants have resolved problems that have dogged them for years, found new business ideas, changed careers, discovered new directions, and learned how to deal differently with living, learning and loving.”

I also love the premise of On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (2012). Its author, cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, walked around the block where she lives in New York, observing as much of her surroundings as possible. She then repeated the journey, accompanied each time with one of 10 experts (including a geologist, naturist and sound designer, amongst others). You can probably guess the rest. Each walk with a different specialist revealed different aspects of her environment that she wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. It’s an artful way of reminding us to both pay more attention and value others’ perspectives. There is a short promotional film on Youtube which is worth a look, and an in-depth article on Brainpickings.

And finally, I want to include walking as a form of mindfulness. The types of walking that I discuss above are designed to be stimulating, social and generative. In comparison, walking meditation is calming and distinctly solitary. Rooted in Buddhism, there are many different approaches to this practice – Live and Dare’s blogpost, The Ultimate Guide to Walking Meditation, highlights six examples. I also liked Wildmind’s introduction to walking meditation, that gives an indication of what the practice involves.

Given the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other, it’s amazing how much walking brings to the processes of thinking, talking, making, looking and even just being.
Header Image: Pair of Foot Jars, Peru; Inca Valley Paracas, 2nd-1st century BC, ceramic, Metropolitan Museum of Art.