Tacit Knowledge: we know more than we know we know

I have always been interested in the difference between the veneer of the conscious self – the things we think we know and can articulate – and then all the other stuff that lurks beneath that – the memories, biases, aptitudes, drives and desires that exert an enormous influence over our thoughts and actions. What fascinates me most about the latter is that you can never fully look it in the eye, by its very nature it lies beyond conscious engagement. A whole family of trolls lives under the bridge you’re standing on – you can’t see them, but you can sense them. And when you visit a museum, your troll family comes along too (hiding behind pillars, under ticket desks and inside vases). You leave the museum having had two experiences – the one you’re aware of and the one you’re not aware of, but it’s there nonetheless. How can we engage more deliberately with both? How can we encourage your troll family to want to come back too?

A useful way of thinking about non-declarative knowledge is Michael Polanyi’s concept of tacit awareness or tacit knowledge. I once had it described to me as ‘everything you know minus everything you can say about what you know’. Classic examples of tacit knowledge are riding a bike or playing a piano – the more attention you pay to what you’re actually doing, the more likely you are to stuff it up. Polanyi presents knowledge as a construction that is social (for example, both language and tradition come from a shared, collective understanding) and deeply personal (we can only understand the world through our individual experiences). Without ever being able to touch an entirely objective reality – because we assimilate everything through our subjective experiences – Polanyi argues that all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge.

An important dimension of tacit knowledge is the difference between focal and subsidiary awareness. Polanyi describes hitting a nail with a hammer as an example. The nail has our focal awareness (or it should have, to avoid an injury) and the hammer has our subsidiary awareness:

“When we use a hammer to drive a nail, we attend to both nail and hammer, but in a different way… The difference may be stated by saying that the latter (hammer) are not, like the nail, objects of our attention, but instruments of it. They are not watched in themselves; we watch something else while keeping intensely aware of them. I have a subsidiary awareness of the feeling in my palm of my hand which is merged into my focal awareness of my driving the nail.”

Polanyi also uses the example of reading a letter as another way of illustrating the difference; our focal awareness is on deciphering the meaning of the letter, our subsidiary awareness is on the words, grammar and syntax, enabling us to decode the content. In both instances, if you move your focal awareness to that of the subsidiary, it all goes a bit awry: attending to the hammer rather than the nail is asking for trouble; and attending to the shape and length of every word in a sentence loses the meaning. We can flip our focal attention between the two states but we can’t focus on both simultaneously.

Now consider the focal and subsidiary awareness required to engage with an artwork. Like reading a letter, our attention can move between the content and the ‘grammar’ of the object – the ideas themselves or how those ideas have been manifest. When I look at art, I’m aware of a rolodex whirring around at the back of my brain, making connections with other artworks, styles and movements that I’ve seen over the years. I like it when I get the little art historical in-jokes and references. This subsidiary awareness provides me with a set of rules to understand and decode artworks and it’s not something I do consciously. I think we are, as museum professionals, sometimes guilty of assuming everyone has a similar rolodex to frame their understanding. I’ve always been suspicious of the anti-interpretation argument that ‘the artwork should speak for itself’. This is fine for an art-savvy audience with a whopping image bank to draw on – in which case, the artwork isn’t speaking for itself, but lounging around on a pile of the audience’s previous gallery experiences. Without a knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet, the Russian language is just a beautiful collection of curves and corners; without a knowledge of Minimalism, Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966) is just a tidy arrangement of bricks.

Everyone brings their prior knowledge, be it art-based or otherwise, to the experience of visiting a museum. Not all of this knowledge is declarative or conscious, but it does all have an impact on the quality of the visit. As an habitual museum-goer, I don’t think about how I orientate myself on arrival or plan a visit, it just happens. In comparison, if I was doing something brand new, like go to a monster truck rally, I would be attending closely to every step of the process required to get in and seated, and I’d feel like I was on the back foot most of the way. Our museums send out a lot of subtle signals to first-time visitors and their accompanying troll families: some of these indirect messages are welcoming, such as clear signage and relaxed staff; and some of them are off-putting, like hiding the front door and offering scant interpretation. Whether we are aware of these signals or not, our troll families are taking detailed notes. We will leave either feeling good about the place and keen to return, or wanting to never darken its door again, and it won’t always be possible to explain why.

The concept of implicit learning is closely linked to tacit knowledge. As the name suggests, learning is implicit when we are not aware that it is happening (check out Michael Eraut’s work on non-formal learning in the workplace for more information on implicit learning). Alex Elwick’s interesting article, ‘Understanding implicit learning in museums and galleries’ (Museum & Society, Nov 2015) highlights some of the challenges inherent to researching tacit knowledge. Elwick interviewed ‘Friends’ of two galleries and looked for contradictions in their observations of their own gallery-going experiences, arguing that their implicit learning is revealed through these conflicting views. I don’t know if these findings were fruitful, but I did find the introduction fascinating and the references offer plenty of material for further reading.

Tacit knowledge is also frequently discussed in relation to the act of making in art, craft and design, as the skills are often developed over years and can’t easily be described. British writer, Peter Dormer took inspiration from Polanyi’s theories for his book, ‘The Art of the Maker’ (1994). Dormer wrote about ‘craft knowledge’ and its practical/tacit qualities. Through his own attempts to learn figurative clay modelling and calligraphy, he tried to better understand the implicit learning that was taking place.

For another angle on tacit knowledge that considers the workplace, I’d recommend the article, ‘Narrative and Social Tacit Knowledge’ (Journal of Knowledge Management, 5 (2), 2001). Its author, Charlotte Linde, researched an insurance company, looking at how social tacit knowledge was demonstrated and learned through narrative. Her observations are not particular to insurance companies and speak more generally to the experience of working in a team and how one becomes familiar with, and adapts to, the culture of an organisation: “…part of becoming a member of an institution involves learning the stories about that institution which everyone must know, the appropriate times and reasons to tell them, and the ways in which one’s own stories are shaped to fit a new institutional context.”  So it looks like we bring our troll families along to the office as well. They hide in filing cabinets, behind doors and under conference room tables, quietly learning the particularities of working for that specific place.

I love the way tacit knowledge makes itself known; it’s infuriatingly present and absent at the same time and it defies any direct engagement. You can sense it and know it ‘in your bones’ but still struggle to pin down exactly what it is or where it’s located. Declarative knowledge is just one small aspect of museum-going; visitors are picking up so many more micro-messages about our organisations, both good and bad, that contribute to the overall experience – an influence we shouldn’t underestimate.

Image: Outside Weta Workshop in Wellington, NZ.

Bodysnatchers: getting physical in museums

When I saw Frederick Wiseman’s film, The National Gallery (2014), I was shocked to discover that when many people look at paintings, they don’t look like they’re having a good time. They are stock still and staring, then shuffling a bit, then still and staring again. No wonder people who don’t go to galleries assume it’s all a bit dull and boring. How it looks from the outside is absolutely no measure of how it feels. When I’m wandering around a gallery, I am really, genuinely, properly happy. It’s thrilling to discover an artwork that I’ve only previously seen in reproduction; I love works that make me laugh out loud or shed a tear; my skin creeps and I feel a bit unwell when I see grisly or gruesome subject matter; and some artworks are so beautiful it pains me to leave them. Galleries evoke (and provoke) a whole gamut of emotions and sensations, the experience is not just one of mental stimulation and knowledge acquisition, it’s physical too.

The ol’ mind vs body argument goes back a long way (Plato’s Phaedo) and there are plenty of fabulous words – such as ‘somatic’ (relating to the body rather than the mind) and ‘corporeal’ (relating to the body rather than the spirit) – that reinforce the distinction. Dualism also exerts an influence over how we engage audiences with museums and galleries. I can think of plenty of examples of programming that feed the mind – talks, tours, lectures, courses, discussions and film-screenings – and there are plenty more that are tactile/kinaesthetic and improve fine-motor skills and dexterity – practical workshops, handling sessions and drop-in making activities to name a few. Programmes involving the whole body are thinner on the ground and tend to be dominated by cross-disciplinary practice, where dance and theatre practitioners are responding to the museum context. This is an observation rather than a complaint – there’s a lot to be learnt from other artforms that are more attuned to the body, movement and temporality. I’d love to see more programming that heightens visitors’ awareness of the physical experience of looking at art and moving through a museum – it exerts such a quiet but powerful influence over our engagement.

When I think back on artworks that have been memorable as physical experiences, only a handful come to mind. Carsten Holler’s slides at Tate Modern in 2007 (‘Test Site’) proved to be so popular that the experience was as much about queuing as it was about sliding. Because I’m a lily-livered wuss, I only managed the little slide in the Turbine Hall and that was plenty; it definitely raised my pulse. In 2000 and again in 2006, Ikon Gallery in Birmingham displayed ‘Observation Deck’ by Patrick Killoran. To experience the artwork, viewers were required, one at a time, to lie on their backs on a sliding shelf and get gently rolled out of a window, head-first, on the horizontal and at a right angle to the building. I can’t remember how much of me was poking outside, it felt like from the waist up, but was probably more like head and shoulders. It was the most thrilling experience to just stare up at passing clouds and the architectural detail and ponder my possibly imminent demise as the window was a couple of storeys above street level. These two examples probably say quite a bit about me; as someone who gets vertigo, anything involving heights is more likely to stick in my memory than experiences played out closer to the ground.

Thinking about museum learning programming that prioritises the physical, there are some interesting examples (and I’d love to hear more please). Yoga in museums is a growing trend, and the Dancing Museums project is a wonderful European partnership (enjoy those while they last, thanks again Brexit!) that explores new forms of engagement with artworks through movement. While I was researching the Dallas Museum of Art for my Churchill Fellowship, I stumbled across a blogpost about their ‘sensory sacks’, also known as ‘spatial socks’. As the name suggests, the sack/sock is a stretchy fabric tube – a gigantic pillowcase that’s large enough to fit a person. The sensory sack was created to improve spatial awareness and for use in therapy, supporting those with a sensory processing disorder and/or autism. In the museum, participants re-create the form of sculptures in the collection by posing inside the sensory sack. I love the idea of understanding sculpture from the inside out – through the use of the sensory sack, participants transition from being outside the sculpture, understanding the form visually, to being inside the sculpture, pushing up under its skin and understanding the form physically. It’s so simple and elegant, and the experience must generate such different memories from the standard looky-talky model.

While I was noodling around the web looking for examples of museum learning programming that are more physical, I skimmed across all sorts of theories, ideas and approaches that span visual and performing arts, such as somatic theory, affect theory, performative and participatory practice, and the sensory museum. A useful review, in the Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies, of Helen Rees Leahy’s book, Museum Bodies: The Politics and Practices of Visiting and Viewing (2012), shares lots of interesting concepts and provides links for further reading. If you know of any other great examples, please drop me a line.

May The Audience Be With You

If you were richer than God and looking for ways to spend $1 billion, what would you do? I’d build a rocket-launching lair under a volcano in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and surround myself with disposable henchmen.  Not so George Lucas, who has chosen to use his powers for good and to build a new museum to house his enormous art collection. The website for his project raises all sorts of questions – more on that shortly – but what I find most striking is that, more than once, it promotes the future site as a place for “visitors who might be less inclined to visit a traditional fine art museum”. Interesting. Does this mean people who are inclined to visit such museums won’t like it? If the audience he is after doesn’t really fancy museums, why make one? I’m fascinated by this project, and the controversy that surrounds it, because it brings into question what constitutes a 21st century art museum.

Surprisingly, Lucas has struggled to find a city willing to host this venture. Back in 2009, negotiations started with The Presidio Trust for a site in San Francisco, but that fell through and an opportunity came up to build in Chicago. Lucas’ wife, Melody Hobson, is a Chicagoan, and there was an appetite for the project from the mayor’s office, but its location proved tricky. They had decided on a prime spot, shoreside on Lake Michigan, but hadn’t counted on strong local (and wealthy) opposition. Cue three years of legal wrangling and lawsuits filed by Friends of the Park, who were having none of it. An interesting article in the Chicago Tribune, ‘Lucas Museum Drops Plans to Build in Chicago’, summarises the sorry saga. Eventually, a new home was found in Los Angeles at Exposition Park. This site is near Lucas’ alma mater, the University of Southern California, so it retains a personal connection, and it’s a good fit given the city’s strong links with cinema and movie-making. They are due to break ground this year and the project is scheduled for completion in 2021. The 275,000 sqft building, designed by Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, looks like the spaceship of super-stylish modernist aliens. When it finally ‘lands’, it’ll be hard to miss.

Even though the site issue is now resolved, the controversy doesn’t end there. The title of a recent LA Weekly article says it all: ‘Is George Lucas Museum a Vanity Project That Will Leave LA’s Cultural Worse Off?’ Critics feel that $1 billion would be better spent supporting existing arts infrastructure and worry that such a self-contained, self-financed project won’t fully integrate with its peers: “Nothing about the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art’s self-presentation suggests overarching concerns with collaboration or shared cultural concerns.” Even the subject of the collection is scorned; the same LA Weekly article states, “narrative art isn’t exactly a real thing”, and then goes on to quote LA Times critic, Christopher Knight, who wrote, “narrative art is a made-up category”.

I’m afraid the Lucas Museum website doesn’t do itself any favours either in how it describes its collections.  More than once it makes a distinction between ‘traditional paintings’ (whatever those are) and the working drawings and designs of film-making and illustration. I don’t really think the distinction is necessary – surely art and design is a broad enough church to encompass the scope of Lucas’s collection. Compared with the eclectic and extensive collections of the V&A, it’s positively laser-like in its focus. But what the LA critics are implying, and Lucas’s own PR machine is reinforcing, is the distinction between high and low art forms – ‘proper’ art, like the sort you would find in a “traditional fine art museum”, and then all the other stuff that appeals to the man on the street. This dichotomy is so old it creaks. It’s also not helpful to perpetuate the outdated myth that museums are for a certain type of person (all cognac and cravats) and that the rest of us prefer blockbuster movies (all popcorn and trackpants). Lucas claims to be creating a new kind of museum – “One visit may change not only the way you think about museums but what you think art is”. Unfortunately, in order to identify his museum as something different, Lucas is trotting out some very old-fashioned ideas about what a museum is, and who it’s for.

What about the learning programmes? According to the website, “We will make education and access a priority; our programming and education will make pioneering [my emphasis] use of our one-of-a-kind collection”. Well that’s exciting – and it makes sense too. If one is going to revolutionise museums, one may as well pioneer innovations in programming as well. As you can imagine, I read on with great anticipation, looking forward to learning more about the novel approaches they have planned. Brace yourselves, this is the headline list for ‘Collection and Education Programming’: collection presentations; temporary exhibitions; daily film-screenings; film premieres, public lectures; hands-on workshops; school tours and programmes; classes for all ages; and campus-wide festivals. Hmm. Has your mind been blown? No, me neither. There is more detail further down the page on the proposed offer for each audience, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before and could be considered fairly standard programming.

I’m being harsh; I appreciate that a bit of PR puff about a theoretical programme that is still at least four years away is not necessarily going to reflect the quality of the final product. It just grinds my gears that this is a phenomenal opportunity to actually do something pioneering and it would be a shame to squander it. I really want their ‘docent-led tours’ and ‘hands-on art-making workshops’ to change the game, but their aspirations to do something spectacular are currently sitting within a very well-established template.

What the team will have to their advantage is the facilities: state-of-the-art cinemas; production-quality editing; digital and analogue classrooms; lecture halls; library; and practical studios. That lot could be the envy of any learning department. Such high-tech rooms could enable amazing programming that promoted skills development and career-focussed training. And with so many film-making practitioners and creatives in close proximity, there will be plenty of opportunities for setting ‘real world’ design briefs.

It’s not unusual for a rich man to create a museum and have it named in his honour – J. Paul Getty, Solomon R. Guggenheim, Henry Tate, and Charles Saatchi have all made their mark on the art museum world – and rich women have also made an enormous cultural impact, especially Peggy Guggenheim and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. It must be frustrating for Lucas that this gesture of creating a new museum – which he probably perceives as an act of generosity – has been met with so much suspicion and, in some case, open hostility. Perhaps we’ll all end up eating humble pie when it’s a massive success. To date, the project has been a lightning rod for debates around elitism and the patronage of museums. It would be amazing if their learning programmes have the same impact on museums as Star Wars had on cinema. Why aim for less?

HEADER IMAGE: https://www.dezeen.com/2017/01/11/mad-george-lucas-museum-narrative-art-los-angeles-exposition-park-ma-yansong/

 

Design Ventura Summit Adventures

Last week, the Design Museum hosted a one-day event as part of their Design Ventura (DV) programme, a ‘design and enterprise challenge for students in years 9, 10 and 11, supported by industry professionals’. The museum invited ‘DV stakeholders’ to participate in a series of talks and workshops exploring the following topic: ‘Design: the problem and the solution (and the imperative for 21C design education)’. It was a fascinating day, not least because a large majority of the audience didn’t work in museums or galleries. The delegates were predominantly teachers and designers, and we talked a lot about how their worlds intersect. The subjects we covered included: improving the relationship between education and industry; access to tech training for teachers;  the rising trend of ‘design entrepreneurship’; and the skills that young people need for future employment. For this post, I’ve compiled some of my favourite interesting bits from the day – not an easy task as the whole day was made up of interesting bits – if the Design Ventura Summit had been a chocolate-chip cookie, it would have been made entirely of chocolate.

The Summit was particularly timely too. The day before, the new Chair of Arts Council England, Nick Serota, announced a new commission that will identify how young people benefit from an arts education and strategies for improving current provision. Hopefully, they will build on the myriad of existing reports on the subject, not least ImagiNation: the value of cultural learning, commissioned by the Cultural Learning Alliance and published only a few months ago. The Summit also coincided with the day that the UK Government triggered Article 50, marking the official beginning of divorce proceedings from the European Union. This particular cloud cast quite a long shadow over the event, and the potential negative impact of Brexit on the creative industries was raised a few times. And finally, as I was eating my breakfast earlier that morning and listening to the radio, I heard the news that UK schools are working with ever-diminishing budgets which will result in £3 billion cuts by 2019/20. My first thoughts were with teachers and how grim the work of head teachers will be to balance the books. My second thoughts were, naturally, concerned with museum and gallery education. I suspect school trips will be the first item cut from school budgets (who can blame them?) and this will leave our current model of schools’ provision, focussed on site visits, high and dry. It doesn’t matter how great our museum learning programmes are, they ain’t worth much if schools can’t afford to get to us.

With all of these issues swirling around in the background, it was useful to take a design perspective on the confluence of education, policy, and the creative industries. NESTA have been very active in this area and have produced a number of useful reports, including:

  • The Fusion Effect (2016): this is NESTA’s take on the STEAM agenda, looking at how the arts and sciences can work together more effectively;
  • Creativity Vs Robots (2015): how can anyone resist a title like that? This report looks at the future of jobs and what aspects of work are likely to become automated. A recent Guardian article, ‘Science classes won’t future-proof our children. But dance might’, made reference to PricewaterhouseCooper’s prediction that 30% of British jobs will be lost to automation by the 2030s. Fortunately, artificial intelligence still can’t compete with our human creative capacity, so we’ll remain one step ahead of C3PO for a bit longer.
  • Solved! Making the Case for Collaborative Problem-Solving (2017): another title that speaks for itself. ‘Problem-solving’ was definitely one of the day’s key words: it was used as a shorthand definition of design; and it was also name-checked as a 21st century core competency, an attribute valued by employers across a range of industries.

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Brexit and the EBacc – a pairing that sounds more like a novelty music act from the 1970s than a confluence of misfortunes – were subjects that couldn’t be avoided. The Government’s Industrial Strategy Green Paper came up in discussion a few times. Published in January, it sets out planning for the UK’s economic future once we have left the EU. Organised around 10 pillars, the ‘developing skills’ priority was considered pertinent to design education and its value to the economy. One speaker also mentioned Brexit Design Manifesto, produced by Dezeen magazine, which is worth a look.

The sharp decline in pupils studying Design and Technology at GCSE level was a particular cause for concern during discussions. The Design and Technology Association (DATA) spearheaded a campaign last year to raise the profile of the subject. Their short film What is Design & Technology – and why do we need it?, made a connection between the investment in D&T in the 1990s and the pay-off over the following decades as those pupils then thrived and built careers in the creative industries. We risk cutting off the pipeline of new talent when design (either through D&T or Art & Design) is cut from a child’s education.

So far, so sadly familiar – the drop in D&T has been a topic of discussion for some time now. What I found more interesting was hearing another perspective on the issue. Holly Donagh from A New Direction framed the EBacc discussion in relation to inclusion agendas. Pupils who graduate with at least five GCSEs will go on to have greater social mobility and more career opportunities than those who don’t. The aim of the EBacc is to get 90% of pupils achieving five GCSEs; whereas the current figure is closer to 35-40%. Living in my leftie echo-chamber, I only ever hear about how awful the EBacc is. Of course it makes sense that those on the other side of the fence also want a high quality education for the next generation – we just have very different views on the role of art and design in achieving that (I should add that Holly was presenting another perspective for the purposes of a group discussion, rather than arguing against design education). Both sides in this debate are deeply entrenched and Holly’s comments made me realise that a greater insight into each other’s rationale would surely help find some middle ground.

And finally, there was plenty of discussion around career pathways for young people. It’s one thing to be at school, and it’s another thing to be established in a career – but getting from A to B is incredibly daunting when you’re 16 and don’t know what you want to do with your life. A huge range of jobs rely on creative skills, and the creative industries are stuffed with a variety of careers, but these opportunities are not well-known. If young people (and their parents) were better informed about what was possible and available, the value of design education would be better understood. The Sorrell Foundation has created the online resource, Creative Journeys, to meet just that purpose. And I should also mention Creative Quarter and Making It are two large careers’ festivals for young people that the V&A’s Learning department run each year.

Another of NESTA’s projects involves sifting through a mountain of online job advertisements to identify the careers that require creative skills. They have sifted through 33 million online ads (promoting UK jobs, dating from 2011-16) and identified 12,000 unique skills. From this data, they have arranged creative skills into five broad categories –  Tech, Support, Selling, Creating & Designing, and Teaching. The final resource is still being tested, but it will ultimately provide an online facility whereby a young person can identify their skills and interests and match them to a range of possible career options.

The jobs-market isn’t what it used to be. My own career pathway – from administrator to assistant education officer to education officer to management – feels very old-fashioned when I read the CVs of twenty-somethings, dominated by internships, volunteering, placements and short-term contracts. A patchwork of experience now seems to be the norm. Perhaps not surprisingly, initiative and drive are key attributes in this working climate, and the top buzzword of the day – entrepreneurship – is becoming increasingly important.

Julio Terra from Kickstarter gave one of the keynotes and offered great insights into this new world of work. He recommended designer Craighton Berman and his interest in ‘design entrepreneurship’, championing how designers can work more independently and sustainably. Julio also mentioned ‘D2C’, the designer-to-consumer model, made possible through digital technologies that cut out the middlemen of distribution. And of course Kickstarter itself is changing the game for how new products are backed and launched. I can’t quite believe the company was founded as recently as 2009 – it feels like it’s always been there. In this model, storytelling and narrative have usurped conventional marketing. Young designers are attracting backers through engaging and personal short films to promote their work, made using readily available software.

This brave new world of employment has a rich assortment of pitfalls and opportunities, many of which  – for good and bad – are the result of new technologies and a splintered job market. While we need new thinking around education and training to keep abreast of these rapid changes, the path to success remains the same – find something you’re passionate about, word hard, network, and be good at what you do.