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?

IMAGE: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O139565/pin-cushion-unknown/

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