For the Love of Things

It’s interesting how an idea can be lurking near the surface for ages – you’re sort of aware of it, but not consciously – and then a tipping point comes along and suddenly everything is thrown into sharp relief. I had one of these mini-epiphanies (a miniphany?) recently, when I was typing up interview transcripts and encountered this fairly innocent sentence: “I think for me, why I became a museum educator, was because I loved art and art history so much that you wanna share it with others…” I don’t know why it flicked a switch in my head – it’s not like I haven’t heard or thought similar sentiments many times before – but it did. I realised I had been overlooking our love of things. My thinking over the past year has been so focussed on the audience-centric nature of our work, that I had neglected the cause underpinning all of it – art.

Like most of us in this line of work, I love art; I always have and always will. I was forever inventing craft projects for myself as a kid – I have clear memories of trying to varnish a stool one morning before school, when I was about eight years old. I ended up with varnish everywhere, and my exasperated mother had to cut a bite out of my fringe because I had a blob of varnish stuck in my hair (and for ‘stool’, read ‘apple crate turned on its end’). Art was my favourite subject at school, and when I discovered art history in Sixth Form, I couldn’t believe my luck. To sit and look at pictures and listen to descriptions about the artists and their times was total bliss. It’s still one of my favourite things.

My route into gallery education was through art history, and I know plenty of others whose paths have been as makers and artists. What we all share is an enormous enthusiasm for the subject. And I think that’s why the above quote made such an impression on me. In my Churchill report, I had described museum educators as being empathetic and curious, and these traits were what made us so audience-centric, but what I had missed was our keen compulsion to share our love of art. It doesn’t matter what your passion is – it could be tennis or Scrabble or anime – there is nothing better than sharing with others what makes you happy, and getting them hooked too. We are audience-centric in our museum learning approach and expertise, but – vitally – our love of the arts lies beneath this and fuels our practice.

My miniphany also reminded me to keep challenging the perception that curators do the ‘art bit’ and learning do the ‘people bit’. That distinction is a blunt measure, and the line between the professions is definitely blurring, but I would also argue that when push comes to shove, we haven’t yet achieved the right balance in our collaborative work. In my experience, Learning is increasingly called on for our audience expertise; this is welcome recognition and reflects a general shift in museum practice, but sometimes that is the only thing we are asked to contribute. Of course we each have specialist knowledge that differs, but both parties have something useful to contribute to the art bit AND the people bit.

I think it’s still pretty common for curatorial projects to be well into development before Learning is invited to identify appropriate audiences. In my dream scenario, that process is inverted – museums take a strategic approach to audience development, set clear priorities for retention and growth, and then develop programmes and projects accordingly. But I would say that, I’m Team Learning. This tussle keeps rumbling on across the sector, and reflects very different solutions to the same problem – how to create high-quality, well-respected exhibitions and displays for a large and diverse audience. No-one wants to be in an organisation where ‘the tail is wagging the dog’, but in this scenario, everyone thinks they’re the dog. All of this brings me back to that quote – “I think for me, why I became a museum educator, was because I loved art and art history so much that you wanna share it with others”. It was a useful reminder that the ‘art bit’ and the ‘people bit’ are inextricably linked in museum practice, and it’s important not to lose sight of one over the other.

I’d love to find a way past the art/people impasse. What would it look like if we got smarter about how we balance those twin priorities, both in our practice and across our museums? Is the tension that exists between these two priorities a mechanism for creativity? Could we be using the tussle more constructively?



I Feel Your Pain – Or Do I?

As hairline fractures across both society and the political spectrum have split into broad canyons, the need for empathy feels very pressing at this particular point in time. Brexit and Trump are symptomatic of some seriously deep-rooted divides, and a breakdown in trust, tolerance and communication. Is it any wonder that empathy is having a moment as we try to find a way forward?  There are plenty of recent publications exploring empathy – ‘Fostering Empathy Through Museums’; Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It’ (its author, Roman Krznaric, also established the Empathy Museum); and of course, ‘The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society’ by the former chair of Arts Council England, Peter Bazalgette. More empathy sounds like a practical solution, but it gets sticky when scaled up to an institutional level. Some have also voiced doubts that empathy is even a thing – it’s impossible to prove that our understanding of another’s perspective is accurate, and is it arrogant and misguided to assume that we could even gain such insight?  

The current emphasis on empathy seems to be as much about reducing our own self-interest as it is about taking an active interest in others. The further we disappear up our own fundaments, the less exposure we have to ideas, lives, and situations that differ from our direct experiences. Consequently, our ability to take that imaginative leap and put ourselves in another person’s position is diminished. Seung Chan (Slim) Lim’s fantastic TEDx talk, ‘How Empathy Fuels the Creative Process’, discusses empathy as a form of connectedness. Lim tells a very personal and honest story about his attempt to empathise with a friend with bipolar disorder. He admits to seeing himself as a problem-solver, and it was only when he owned up to his own prejudices and assumptions that a stronger connection was forged between them.

It is perhaps not surprising that socially-minded museum practitioners have been exploring the role of empathy in their practice. Mike Murawski’s blogpost, ‘The Urgency of Empathy and Social Impact in Museums’ is filled with links to interesting related projects and is a great place to start for an overview of the topic. He makes the argument that we (museum practitioners) cannot separate ourselves from our institutions; “it’s absolutely essential to remember that museums are made of people… Any critique of museums is a critique of us; and any change needing to happen in museums is, therefore, a change that needs to start with us.” Along similar lines, the Empathetic Museum takes a human-centred approach, and promotes institutional empathy as a means of engaging more meaningfully with communities. They advocate for organisation-wide commitment: …the empathetic museum must have a clear vision of its role as a public institution within its community. From this vision flow process and policy decisions about every aspect of the museum- audience, staffing, collections, exhibitions and programming, social media, emergency responses…” They have developed a practical and actionable ‘Maturity Model’ to help museums become more empathetic, measured against the following characteristics: Civic Vision; Institutional Body Language; Community Resonance; Timeliness and Sustainability; and Performance Measures.

Suse Cairns (aka Museum Geek) offers another perspective on institutional empathy and museums. In her post, Can Institutions Be Empathetic?’, she raises the issue of “entrenched oppression” and observes that institutions perpetuate dominant cultures and power structures. Changes to these restrictive working practices are difficult and entangled with the other institutions with which they interact.  I think mapping the traits of individuals to institutions is problematic. I agree that institutions won’t change themselves – it takes people within institutions to drive these changes – but I don’t think it follows that the institution is solely the sum of its staff. Additional components, such as formalised structures, incentivising strategies, leadership models, and institution-specific cultural norms all play a part too. One person can’t be an institution, in the same way that one person can’t riot – and the actions of the collective can’t always be atomised to the individual. To speak of an institution as being empathetic brings to mind the controversial decision of the US Supreme Court in 2010 to “extend to corporations for the first time full rights to spend money as they wished in candidate elections” (see NPR article, When Did Companies Become People?’ for the full story). Obviously, encouraging institutional empathy is not the same as allowing multinationals to influence political campaigns, but in both cases the distinction between the individual and the institution has been blurred.

Paul Bloom’s book, ‘Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion’, offers an interesting point of view – check out Salley Vickers’ review in the Guardian for a useful summary: “Bloom is especially vocal on the need for rational objectivity in political and social policy and the dangers attendant on decisions prompted by empathy because it is ‘innumerate and biased’”.

In another Museum Geek post, On the Paradox of Empathy’, Cairns makes the point that empathy is “highly selective”. Apparently we empathise with some things more than others – “the cute over the ugly, or the person more like us than the one who isn’t” (if you’ve read my post, Other People and their Terrible Habit of Differing Opinions, this won’t come as a surprise).  It seems that our capacity to empathise only goes so far; an article in MISC magazine (vol.24 2017), titled ‘In the Shadow of Excellence: Exploring the Dark Side of Progress’, raises some of the ethical issues linked to self-driving cars:

“Let’s say you are in a self-driving car and the brakes fail. The car can either slam into a wall, killing you and the other passengers in the car, or it can swerve and kill a group of nearby pedestrians. Which people should the car be programmed to harm, and which should it protect? Should the algorithm controlling the car always act in a way that minimizes the number of people killed?… researchers found that most people believed the cars should be programmed to behave in whatever way minimised the loss of life. Yet the study also found that most people would not want to purchase one of these cars themselves. Instead, they preferred to purchase a car with an algorithm that would protect them and their families as passengers at all costs.”

Charming – but can you blame them?

In my Churchill Report, I identify empathy and listening as key attributes of creative museum educators. The depth of interest taken in other people is striking, whether working with the public, or with artists, or with community partners, or with colleagues. So much museum education is built on collaboration, and that in turn requires finding common ground and negotiating compromises. I used the word empathy to summarise what I saw as reduced self-interest and the active effort to really understand someone else’s point of view or experiences. On reflection, perhaps rational compassion is a better phrase. I like how it retains what I consider to be the essential ingredients of empathy, but it removes the assumption that ‘I feel your pain’. Perhaps demonstrating rational compassion is more constructive.

PS – there’s an interesting conference coming up in Amsterdam (26-27 October), Through Different Eyes, that will be exploring empathy and design thinking.


Awe – and then some

I have a lot of time for awe. It’s one of those grand, old-fashioned emotions that seems to span millennia. Ennui and apathy strike me as far more contemporary emotions, but awe goes right back to the beginning. The ‘big three’ awe-inspirers are nature, religion and art. In their presence, we are humbled and the experience is overwhelming and uplifting. Over time, the power of awe has been devalued and an ‘awesome’ experience today could be just about anything. Comedian Eddie Izzard does a wonderful routine about the difference between the original use of the adjective and what it has become, when even hotdogs are described as awesome. So for the purposes of this post, let’s put the hotdogs to one side and focus on the fire-and-brimstone, breath-taking, transformative version of awe.

Like cathedrals before them, museums are designed to inspire awe. Traditionally, they’re big (which by comparison makes us small ), imposing and solid, built to last well beyond a human lifespan. The feeling of awe that I experience in large cathedrals and museums is more about the volume of space than the actual bricks and mortar. Liverpool Cathedral, for example, is quite plain compared with the standard gothic/baroque models, and yet it still inspires awe because it is just so unbelievably gigantic. I always marvel at how much space is contained within its walls. The Victorians were particularly good at awe-inspiring museum architecture – the Natural History Museum and the V&A, neighbours in South Kensington, are both immense structures that impress even before you’ve had the chance to discover all the treasures inside.

When I think about the sort of museum experiences that I want for audiences, I often talk or write about engagement, excitement, enjoyment, entitlement (so many e’s), curiosity, inspiration and – perhaps – wonder, but I can’t remember the last time I promoted awe. I don’t know why not, because I’ve seen countless people experience awe when confronted by an amazing painting, sculpture or gallery. The eyes widen, the jaw falls, and the whole face lights up. If they say anything, it’s usually a quiet ‘…woah…’ I love those moments, they are total catnip for museum educators. So why don’t we talk about awe more? Perhaps the religious connotations are too strong? Is it too worthy? Or does it feel presumptuous to proclaim ourselves awe-providers? (Although it doesn’t seem to stop us laying claim to being inspiration-providers.)

The University of California, Berkeley, has been conducting research into awe, looking at its evolutionary function and how it’s expressed in different cultures. Dacher Keltner is a psychology professor at Berkeley and has done extensive work in this field. His talk, ‘Why Awe is Such an Important Emotion’ and article, ‘Why Do We Feel Awe?’, are both fascinating. Keltner defines awe as the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world”. Perhaps not surprisingly, when we experience awe, our creative thinking opens up too. Berkeley studies have shown that “simply watching short videos of expansive images of the Earth leads people to come up with more original examples when asked to name items from a certain category (e.g., ‘furniture’), to find greater interest in abstract paintings, and to persist longer on difficult puzzles when compared with appropriate control conditions”.

What I hadn’t previously appreciated about awe is that it is a socially bonding experience. When we are in a state of awe, our self-interest is superseded by an interest in others, we become more altruistic, and the division between ‘us and them’ is lessened. Surely we could be making more of this attribute in museums. I have experienced this effect at music festivals and performances, but I haven’t felt particularly part of a collective experience with everyone else in the same museum. Perhaps that is because standard museum engagement is either alone, in pairs, or small groups. I looked after a yoga session in the V&A’s Raphael Gallery a couple of weeks ago and that was a pretty special experience. Perhaps it is through large-scale events at museums, where many people are all engaged in the same experience, that the effect takes hold?

The other thing I took from Keltner’s introduction was that awe can be a regular part of life. It’s not just about sunsets on mountaintops, it can also be about noticing the fall of light while walking through a park, or admiring a friend who has just accomplished a major challenge. According to their studies, on average we experience awe 2.5 times a week. (I wonder what half an awe looks like – a highly-anticipated sandwich that turns out to be a little bit disappointing perhaps?) In Keltner’s presentation, he draws attention to the differences between US and Chinese awe-inspiring moments. Ten percent of the US subjects’ experiences of awe were ABOUT THEMSELVES! This rate is 20% higher than their Chinese equivalents. It turns out that many moments of awe come from our admiration of others – their courage, generosity, wisdom and strength. This makes sense when I think about the collective awe that had the UK in its grip during the 2012 Olympics.

To finish, I want to share this short TED talk by Rob Legato, titled, The Art of Creating Awe. Legato shares some of the behind-the-scenes stories of creating the special effects for Apollo 13, Titanic and Hugo. He is also very funny.


Fewer Horsemen of Mediocrity, More Data Analytics

The Familiar, the Usual, and the Expected are the three mundane horsemen of mediocrity. Dressed head-to-toe in beige and taupe, these horrifying spectres have sensible haircuts, early bedtimes, and identical opinions. If it was up to them, nothing new or interesting would ever happen – it just isn’t worth the risk. Their counterpoints, on the other hand, bring the fun. The Unfamiliar, the Unusual and the Unexpected can be chaotic and destabilising – never leave them in charge of your home, your pets, or your plants. They are also highly energising and inventive, smashing ideas together like atoms and sparking fantastic creativity. Exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure, it’s never boring in their company. They are the gate-keepers to every great idea you want to have.

The importance of venturing ‘outside my comfort zone’ is a cliched truth that I know, then forget about, then remember again, in a seemingly endless cycle. I get sucked into the habits of routine without even noticing, overpowered by the horsemen of mediocrity and their paint-dryingly dull tales of commuter timetables and putting the bins out. Just before slipping into a tedium-induced coma, I either deliberately or accidentally shake up my routine, shake off the horsemen, and welcome in the excitement of doing something differently. Travel is the best way to do this, ideally to a country where I don’t speak the language. Absolutely everything in that situation, from the belief systems to the bus tickets, is compelling. I also like the strangeness of getting back to the UK and seeing my home through changed eyes. What felt like a pokey ex-council flat on my departure can feel like a mansion on my return. And then everyday life re-establishes itself, and that exciting window into otherness closes again.

I wish that the solution to stultifying routine could always be ‘go to South America’, but this isn’t practical on an arts sector salary. There are countless smaller ways to embrace the unfamiliar, unusual and unexpected, and the easiest place to start is by breaking routine (the web can provide you with plenty of ‘brain-training’ and ‘neurobic’ suggestions). It was with this aim in mind that I attended Nesta’s free, one-day event, City Data Analytics: The Art of the Possible. On arrival, I scanned the room, recognised no-one, and was handed a small orange booklet titled, Using data in government and public services: a practical guide. ‘Perfect’, I thought to myself, ‘this is just the experience I’m looking for’. It was a fascinating day, and not least because so much of it was new to me. I left feeling really inspired – my head was buzzing with the potential of applying this ‘data analytics’ thinking to museums, galleries, and arts education.

So here are some of the things I learned…

Data is not just about numbers; it can be utilised as a means of problem-solving, making the case for change, working across services more efficiently and effectively, and preventing problems before they arise (especially around crime and healthcare). For Nesta, ‘information – based on data – can be applied towards two primary goals… making better decisions… [and] enabling better actions.’ The private sector is all over data and uses it to powerful effect, by instilling a need in the customer and then providing the solution, at a cost of course. The public sector is playing catch up, and is currently  investing heavily in using data to improve services. However, there is still some way to go in building trust between services – some authorities feel self-conscious about the uneven and patchy quality of their existing data, and there are also sensitivities around consent and privacy when handling personal information. The point was also made that data doesn’t solve every problem – the first task is to establish whether it is the most appropriate tactic for addressing the issue at hand. It also isn’t necessary to centralise data when sharing across providers. Rather than merge everything into one lump, it seems to be more about making connections and layering different datasets to reveal hidden patterns. There are changes coming to General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in 2018, the full impact of which I didn’t grasp, but it involves consent and the right to be forgotten (ie. to have one’s digital history erased). The ‘privacy impact assessment’ is a useful tool for checking that data usage remains on the right side of the law.

A particularly memorable example was shared by Pye Nyunt, Corporate Insight Hub Manager, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. There are 47 betting shops in the borough, and Pye walks past several of them every day in his commute between the train station and the town hall. Nyunt undertook a mapping exercise, layering the location of the betting shops, secondary schools (as children are a potential future market), the homes of adults with mental health issues, and a range of other categories to get a better understanding of their impact on the area. The bit about ‘kernel density proximations’ went over my head, but I tuned back in when Nyunt was talking about being able to identify hot spots in the borough and the knock-on effect for the community. He concluded that the council had an annual rental income of £300,000 from these betting shops, but the annual cost of addressing the negative consequences of gambling was closer to £800,000. In the words of another speaker at the event, data analytics move the conversation on from ‘I think this is a problem’ to ‘I know this is a problem’.

Katherine Rooney, City Innovation Project Manager for Open Data, Bristol City Council, shared wonderful examples of projects that are directly meeting community needs. Through consultation, it became clear that damp was a big issue across the city’s rental accommodation. To capture and understand the extent of the problem, and then identify a solution, tenants were given devices to record damp levels, with all of the information going back to Open Data for analysis. In an interesting twist, the devices were shaped like small green frogs. Using a friendly frog, instead of a personality-free black box, was a great way to get community buy-in (and the frogs generated possibly most questions at the event). Because this initiative was bottom-up instead of top-down, the level of take-up and community commitment was high. Rooney also shared the great example of Playable Cities, a community-driven initiative that turns Bristol into an enormous playground. Following a suggestion by a member of the public, one of the city’s steepest streets was turned into a huge water slide for the day.

Local authority councils across the country are investing serious resources into utilising data better. They take different names in different places – Office of Data Analytics, Insight Hub, Intelligence Approach, Open Data, Smart Cities – but the aim is the same. I don’t know which rock I’ve been perched on while all this has been happening. Perhaps I’m the last one to the party, but I haven’t heard of this growing asset being used in museums and galleries. Just think how that wealth of data could shape opinions on the value of the arts in the National Curriculum, or how it could help us prioritise communities for arts engagement, or even – the holy grail – measure the impact of local arts initiatives. (Do please get in touch if you have any examples.) If you want to dip your toe into a big dataset, check out the RSA’s Heritage Index, mapping heritage sites across the UK. Their 2016 update includes shipwrecks (!), ancient trees and war memorials, so there’s something for everyone.

As you can tell, I took a lot away from City Data Analytics: The Art of the Possible. It has given me an appetite for attending more events that have an oblique, rather than direct, connection with my work in art museum learning. The creative challenge of making links from their sector to mine was possibly the most mentally stimulating part of the day, and a whole world of new collaborations and ways of working has opened up. It should keep the horsemen at bay for a while…


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