Easy As 1, 2, 3

All’s fair in love and creativity-prompting techniques. Consequently, I’d like to share with you a quick and easy brainstorming tool that I’ve stolen wholesale from a colleague in the Comms team. I’ve been on the receiving end of it, and found it to be a very efficient way of loosening up my thinking and gaining some different perspectives on recurring challenges. I’ve also used it in a workshop on a department away-day (which I’ll explain shortly) and had positive feedback from the team that this was a surprisingly effective means of playing around with new ideas. It probably has a name, but I don’t know what it is, so I call it the ‘1, 2, 3 Thingamee’.

123 Activity sheet

The tool is on one sheet of A4 paper (landscape format). Imagine the page divided vertically into thirds, creating three invisible columns. The first column has one horizontal line across the middle, the second column has four horizontal lines, evenly spaced, and the third column has four boxes, each box aligning with a horizontal line in the neighbouring column. These three columns, or steps, are numbered 1-3. You’d need a group of at least four people for the tool to be effective – the Comms team uses it with about 12 people, and I used it with a group of 25.

Step One: everyone in the group is given a ‘1, 2, 3 Thingamee’ sheet. They are asked to write one word on the first horizontal line that describes the topic or theme under discussion and then pass their sheet onto someone else in the group (passing to the left if sitting in a circle for example).

Step Two: Having received this one word, the next task is to list four words (in the second column) that come immediately to mind in relation to the prompt – any combination of adjectives, nouns and verbs is allowed. It is best not to overthink it and for the facilitator to only allow 30 seconds for this step to be completed. Pass the sheet on again to someone else, or further around the circle.

Step Three:  Having received these four key words, complete the boxes (in the third column) with four different solutions to the topic under discussion, taking inspiration from each of the words to trigger your ideas. For example, I participated in a Comms team brainstorming around reaching out to more families. As it was marketing, press and learning staff together in the room, we devised a combination of campaigns, promotions and programmes. We only had five minutes to complete this step, and were encouraged not to overthink it or self-censor, but to be quite playful with our solutions. Because the four trigger words were generated by someone else, falling outside of our usual ambit, we had to think differently. It was also fun to use one word as the jumping off point for generating ideas. Often, initial programming ideas are inspired by specific audience interests or exhibition content, so it was liberating to come up with ideas in response to words such as ‘sharing’ or ‘excitement’.

Step Four: Divide the group into smaller teams, ideally 3-5 people in each, and challenge each team to work up one solution, either by developing one of their ideas further and fleshing out the details, or by combining two partial ideas to come up with something completely new. This step is given more time, approximately 30 minutes although it could be longer. In a group of four people, you have potentially 16 rough ideas on the table and four opinions on the best way ahead – so there’s plenty to play with. Habitual thinking has also been lightly disrupted, so the group is warmed up and ready to experiment with new approaches. I really enjoyed working across departments, not least because it gave me an interesting insight into how my colleagues approach the same audience from a different perspective. We couldn’t rely on subject-specific jargon or shorthand, or make assumptions about shared viewpoints, and that also helped to nudge thinking into new territory.

Step Five: Each team feeds back their solution to the whole group. Not surprisingly, there is huge variety across the teams’ responses, which is testament to the 1, 2, 3 Thingamee’s ability to cast the ideas’ net further out than usual.

Step Six is up to you. The Comms team do this exercise weekly, which must keep a steady flow of new ideas coming into the department, but I doubt it’s intended that every one of those must be taken forward. One important benefit will be that a new idea is put into action – and this happens – but I think an equally important benefit is on the participants’ creativity. An hour of ideas-generation aerobics every week must keep thinking flexible and have application beyond just the exercise itself.

I used this process to deliver a 90-minute workshop on a recent department away-day. An opportunity has come up for Learning to work more actively with curatorial colleagues on a small temporary display, exploring the theme of architecture. What can come out of my head alone is limited, so the away-day workshop was a golden opportunity to reap lots of ideas and benefit from 25 creative brains in one space. It was also a great chance to work across teams, so programmers and administrators from adult, digital, families, community, schools, young people, etc were encouraged to mix it up.

The 1, 2, 3 Thingamee was the heart of the session, but I didn’t want to go straight into architecture without some stimuli to get our imaginations going. So I gave everyone a pre-session task (which was deliberately broad) – to print out an A3 image of an example of inspiring and unusual architecture. After a brief introduction on the purpose of the session, we went around the group and everyone shared their image and put it in the middle of the circle. There were examples from every continent (including the Antarctic), using every material you could imagine, and spanning a huge range of functions and scales. There were lots of ooohs and ahhs during our show’n’tell. It was a nice way to ensure everyone had the chance to speak, and it also offered a small glimpse into another side of each other that we possibly wouldn’t have known otherwise.

From there, we went through Steps 1-3 listed above. The Step 3 instruction was to dream up four displays, one per word, that are architectural in nature (so could be installations). For Step 4, I divided the room into six teams and sent them off to collectively develop one idea further. During the feedback session (Step 5) I frantically scribbled down notes, trying to capture each team’s solution. I now have six fantastic, imaginative ideas to kickstart the lengthy process of developing the final display. I don’t know where it will end up, but I’m glad that we’ve started big. There is also the added benefit that the whole department (well, everyone who was there) now knows about this project, and has some investment in its realisation. And finally, I got the impression that the team enjoyed being able to step back from daily demands and bring their creative selves to a playful, low-risk, problem-solving activity. The 1, 2, 3 Thingamee works because it draws out the best of the collective imaginative power of the group. And it’s not because we all think the same way – bumping together different ways of thinking is what leads to more creative ideas.

IMAGE: Jackson 5, http://www.mcrfb.com/?p=54099


From Chimpan-ae to Chimpanzee

The title of this post is taken from a fictional musical production of Planet of the Apes in an episode of The Simpsons – it comes to mind and makes me smile every time I hear the word chimpanzee. With the latest film in the rebooted franchise soon to be released, it felt apt to go ape this week. So what separates us from chimpanzees? In some nightclubs, not much, but when it comes to cultural learning, quite a bit. Over the past few weeks, my meandering reading has taken me into the world of cultural anthropology. I’ve consequently discovered all sorts of interesting things about how we learn from each other, and the species-specific nature of this learning.

For example, Tomasello et al.’s much-referenced article, Cultural Learning (Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 1993, 16:3), distinguishes three levels of cultural learning in children (ie. “the social-learning processes whereby human children acquire the skills and conventions of those around them.”). They are imitative, instructed and collaborative learning. The article explains each mode in depth, and makes a comparison with autistic children (which feels very outdated), and then chimpanzees. My favourite idea in this article is the ‘cultural ratchet’. The basic premise is that chimpanzees develop tools – such as using sticks to collect and then eat ants from anthills – but that’s it. There might be small modifications, but there is no accumulation of knowledge and experience across generations of chimpanzees that progresses the sticks-down-holes idea to the giddy heights of Deliveroo. Humans, on the other hand, do, through the amazing power of culture.  As the authors explain:

“Many animal species live in complex social groups; only humans live in cultures. Cultures are most clearly distinguished from other forms of social organisation by the nature of their products – for example, material artifacts, social institutions, behavioural traditions, and languages. These cultural products share, among other things, the characteristic that they accumulate modifications over time. Once a practice is begun by some member or members of a culture others acquire it relatively faithfully, but then modify it as needed to deal with novel exigencies. The modified practice is then acquired by others, including progeny, who may in turn add their own modifications, and so on across generations. This accumulation of modifications across time is often called the “ratchet effect,” because each modification stays firmly in place in the group until further modifications are made.” (p.495)

More recent work in this field contests the premise that only humans have culture, but the ratchet effect and its role in human cultural learning still appears to hold water (check out these articles if you’d like to explore cumulative culture in more depth: Ratcheting up the ratchet: on the evolution of cumulative culture (Philosophical Transactions B, 2009 364/1528) and Human cumulative culture: a comparative perspective (Biological Review, 2013)). In the context of cultural anthropology, the ratchet effect is a very good thing, but in the world of economics and business development, it can be a distinct disadvantage. The Wikipedia page on the ratchet effect provides various examples of the negatives, such as: when governments create large bureaucratic organisations as a temporary measure in a time of crisis, then struggle to rein back in the expanded infrastructure;  or when more and more features are added to existing products to create a competitive edge, making it difficult to continue upping the ante (just think about the daft situation whereby the three-blade razor is outclassed by the four-blade razor, the pinnacle of shaving achievement and the ultimate… but wait, what’s that? FIVE blades you say?… etc, etc).

As luck would have it, I think both the positive and the negative interpretations of the ratchet effect can shed light on our work as museum and gallery educators. To start with the positive, I like the thought of being one link in a long chain of museum learning practice, having inherited a methodology and way of working from my predecessors, and then hopefully making my own contribution for whoever comes along next. On the one hand, I can see how our work has progressed over the decades, developing from the singular knowledge-acquisition-from-experts approach to the plurality of collaborative, audience-centric engagement and co-creation across a broad range of ages. And as the ratchet effect suggests, we can’t reverse this accumulated experience (although the ‘no interpretation’ brigade might try). On the other hand, some modes of museum learning practice feel stubbornly fixed. The format for interactive gallery-based talks and artist-led workshops (introduce premise, get inspiration from the collections, make, and reflect) has barely changed in the 15 years that I’ve been doing this. That’s a long time to spend poking the same stick down the same hole.

I can also relate to the negative version of the ratchet effect – I don’t think I’m alone in feeling hamstrung by a large programme that only ever gets bigger. Irrespective of budget cuts, the expectation is always one of growth – more people every year and more offers every year – and just try discontinuing a programme much loved by its loyal, shrinking audience, but otherwise well and truly past its sell-by date. The sensation is one of uncomfortable constriction – a bit like getting a blood pressure check. As the armband inflates, it gets tighter and tighter and tighter. I can feel my blood flow restricted and mild panic sets in that the machine is broken and it’s just going to keep inflating until my arm is squeezed clean off. In a similar vein (apologies), an overinflated learning programme restricts the blood flow of new ideas and innovative thinking. The bigger it gets, the less room there is for anything else. Resisting this pressure isn’t easy, but without pushback there is very little space to manoeuvre.  

IMAGE: https://www.bustle.com/articles/53934-the-20-best-simpsons-songs-in-honor-of-the-shows-25th-anniversary-videos

Civic Potential

In May 2016, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (CGF) launched a major initiative, titled ‘Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations’. I latched onto it pretty quickly as it chimed with the reading I was doing around the shifting role of art museums and their relationships with the public. Their research team did a phenomenal amount of consultation and, like the proverbial watched pot, it has felt like a long wait for the findings to be published. So you can imagine my happiness when an email arrived in my in-box this week, informing their mailing list subscribers that the Phase 1 Report, ‘Rethinking Relationships’ was ready.

The report is divided into two sections. The first section provides a broad international and historical perspective, exploring the different ways that arts organisations have worked with audiences and positioned themselves in their communities. It also includes a length discussion on terminology and the team’s rationale for not providing a fixed definition of the ‘civic role’ of arts organisations, but a set of principles instead. The second section  is made up of 20 case studies, sharing inspirational examples of arts organisations championing civic engagement, and the CGF website provides a further 20 case studies.

Like all good research projects, the team has set the bar high: “our ambition has been to find out what would enable the arts sector to move beyond addressing issues of diversity and education, often narrowly and separately framed, to something which feels more holistic and democratic”. (p.6) The consultative spirit that has underpinned their work continues – the report is dotted with further questions and an invitation to email in your thoughts and responses. It concludes:

“when we established the Inquiry, our goal was to have facilitated a strong and growing movement of arts organisations that fully embrace their civic role by 2025. Our aspiration is for these organisations to improve the lives of large numbers of people across England… We want to work with others – arts organisations, funders, policy and research organisations – with ideas and resources to help design and deliver what we hope will be a strong collaborative programme for change”. (p.61)

There will be more reports and consultation to follow, so if this is up your street, there is still time to get involved.

With my museum/gallery educator bias, I saw the fingerprints of learning methodology all over this report, although it was given insufficient credit. It was acknowledged that artists, producers and curators require further training to be able to work directly with a diverse range of audiences, but that thought wasn’t extended to recommend that learning specialists within these organisations could take a greater leadership role. It seems that the largest shift required, both for learning staff and the organisation as a whole, is to elevate the work beyond projects to strategy:

“One challenge that has emerged is the difficulty of getting people to think beyond individual projects to the ‘civic stance’ of an organisation. To illustrate, when we initially canvassed for inspiring examples of arts organisations re-imagining their civic role and at the cutting edge of practice, most suggestions were of individual projects, the majority participatory performing arts projects. Relatively few were examples of arts organisations taking a strategic approach.” (p.21)

This finding says a lot about how organisations engage with communities, and where that work lies in the hierarchy. As the Paul Hamlyn-funded ‘Our Museum’ project made clear, to deliver an holistic approach to community engagement, the whole organisation needs to be working towards that commitment. Bernadette Lynch wrote in her 2011 report, ‘Whose Cake Is It Anyway?’, that the kind of work that the Inquiry aspires to is often marginalised and subservient to other organisational agendas. If you add to the mix the short-termism of restricted funding pots, and the accompanying requirement to always be working with new and different audiences, you end up with the situation that has been observed – smatterings of projects that are not adding up to greater than the sum of their parts, and a lack of interest in transforming the embedded organisational cultures that are keeping this work piecemeal.

The’ Rethinking Relationships’ report, and the Inquiry generally, are a gift to museum and gallery learning specialists – they provide powerful leverage for organisational change, and recognition that learning programming has a far greater impact when it is folded into an organisation’s strategic planning. My Churchill Report includes examples of what incredible change can be achieved when Learning has a seat at the top table.


IMAGE: James Stewart, in ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’,  http://prod1.agileticketing.net/websales/pages/info.aspx?evtinfo=101706~15223d08-6800-42c7-8efa-e42833c17b6e&epguid=ea31e79c-c23f-4080-95b0-4ff83afd56f7&

Tapping into the Research Resource

Last week I went to an event at the British Library that celebrated 10 years of Arts, Humanities and Research Council (AHRC) funded research in culture and heritage organisations. The AHRC is one of several major UK-based funding bodies that supports university-based research. However, in 2006/07,  it became possible for libraries, archives, museums and galleries to gain ‘Independent Research Organisation’ (IPO) status and access AHRC funding. Conveniently, AHRC have produced a glossy summary of this work, titled ‘A Decade of Success’. It showcases examples of how academics and researchers have worked together with public-facing cultural institutions on exhibitions, displays and collections, to the benefit of everyone. It got me thinking about how museums and galleries tap into the research resource.

Academic research affords opportunities to go deeper into material culture, asking the big questions and challenging perceived thinking, all of which fuels the development of collections care and presentation, as well as audience engagement and participation. What I find daunting is the sheer volume of research that is out there – it could inform museum and gallery practice to a much greater extent, if only we had the chance to read it, think about, action it, then feed that learning into further research in the field. In the film, The Matrix, Trinity has the necessary knowledge to pilot a helicopter downloaded into her brain as she walked towards the machine. It is practically instantaneous. When faced with the mountain of research reports on arts engagement, I wish I could have all of it directly downloaded into my head, Matrix-stylie. No such luck. Instead, I browse and graze, finding out about a bit of this and a bit of that, in a way that doesn’t feel at all systematic . As a result, I experience a very middle-aged, geeky version of FOMO (fear of missing out).

The most recent example of interesting research to pass under my nose is the King’s College London report, ‘Towards Cultural Democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’. It’s the primary public output of the Get Creative Research Project, the evaluation strand of the Get Creative campaign, led by BBC Arts in partnership with a range of UK cultural organisations (including Arts Council England, Crafts Council, Fun Palaces, 64 Million Artists, Creative Scotland and others). The central argument is that existing cultural policy promotes a ‘deficit model’ – in which “those who are positioned as non-participants are told implicitly or explicitly, that they should participate more” – and this thinking needs to be overturned, so that broader definitions of creativity and cultural capability are recognised and supported. The report acknowledges the necessity of funding and advocacy for established art organisations and the creative industries, but it also adds ‘everyday creativity’ to this priority list, incorporating the work of amateurs and self-organised groups that is “neither directly publicly funded nor commercially profitable”.

There are many positive and constructive recommendations in the report, particularly around cultural democracy – “when everyone has the power (whether or not they chose to exercise it) to pursue and realise cultural creativity, thereby co-creating versions of culture” – and cultural capability – “the substantive freedom to play (and try things), to spend time with other people (to affiliate), and to make sustained use of our imagination, senses and capacity for thought”. However, I also found other sections of the report to be contradictory. For example, ‘everyday creativity’ is referred to as “invisible” because it flies beneath the radar of cultural policy and cultural organisations, and it is, by its very nature, defined as being outside the structures of the arts and creative industries. The solution to this seems to be to bring it into the fold – “as our case studies illustrate, previously unrecognised, un-institutionalised cultural creativity can come to be recognised, legitimised and supported by arts organisations and funders, or become profitable within markets”. Surely as soon as ‘everyday creativity’ crosses that threshold, it is no longer ‘everyday creativity’ because it has been absorbed into the system. ‘Everyday creativity’ isn’t invisible to the people doing it; and is the presumed gift of being “recognised [and] legitimised” something that is even sought? There is a distinct whiff of ‘deficit model’ to this argument.

On the one hand, the report recommends that “cultural organisations have the potential to go much further in co-creating cultural capability, and to do so more strategically… this includes providing space for people to tell their own stories (metaphorically, and sometimes literally), and providing support for people to set up their own creative groups”; but on the other hand, the report also recognises that “there is an enormous and amorphous grassroots of individuals and groups who are going ahead with their cultural creativity with little or no concern for arts policy discourse or state support [my emphasis]”. Similarly, it also states that, “Voluntary arts groups are a hugely important part of (everyday) cultural creativity in the UK, and yet it seems that a relatively low number of them have signed up for the Get Creative campaign so far. This is likely to be due to a combination of factors, including that there is often little appetite for networking across art forms among these groups [my emphasis]”. Reading between the lines, this suggests to me that many people are happy doing their own thing and don’t wish to be organised, tidied up, or categorised. I agree that it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate ‘everyday creativity’ that happens outside the system, and that the arts and creative industries would benefit from a better understanding of this work, but I don’t think that the characteristics that make ‘everyday creativity’ distinctive need to be disrupted.

While I don’t agree with all of it (or have possibly just misunderstood it), I really enjoy reading reports such as ‘Towards Cultural Democracy’. They introduce me to new terminology and new ideas and prompt me to form an opinion on something I might not have given much thought to previously. It’s also really helpful to get a sense of the ‘direction of travel’ in the sector – what starts in research can flower into policy and become the prevailing logic. Just think of Falk and Dierking’s work on ‘museums as social experience’ – revolutionary 20 years ago and common place today.

If anyone knows of a one-stop online shop to find the latest arts-related academic research, please drop me line.

IMAGE: http://matrix.wikia.com/wiki/Agent_Jones

Keep It Simple Stupid

It never fails to surprise me how great ideas can spring from very simple origins. There is something magical about taking a phrase or fleeting thought and then spinning it into something magnificent. A couple of recent experiences, both music-based, reminded me of this truism and the beauty of simplicity. In June, the Beatles’ album ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was in the press, marking 50 years since its release. The idea to form an alternative band came from Paul McCartney, and his simple desire to stop being a Beatle for a while. In an interview reported in Rolling Stone, McCartney explains:

“I thought, ‘Let’s not be ourselves. Let’s develop alter egos so we don’t have to project an image that we know. It would be much more free. What would really be interesting would be to actually take on the personas of this different band. We could say, ‘How would somebody else sing this? He might approach it a bit more sarcastically, perhaps’. So I had this idea of giving the Beatles alter egos simply to get a different approach.”

About the same time that ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ was being celebrated for its 50th, the exhibition ‘Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains’, opened at the V&A. One of the text panels in the exhibition explains that their album, ‘The Wall’, originated with Roger Waters feeling ‘a wall’ of distance between the band and the audience. Waters gives a fuller explanation in a 1979 interview:

“Well, the idea for ‘The Wall’ came from ten years of touring, rock shows, I think, particularly the last few years in ‘75 and in ‘77 we were playing to very large audiences, some of whom were our old audience who’d come to see us play, but most of whom were only there for the beer, in big stadiums, and, er, consequently it became rather an alienating experience doing the shows. I became very conscious of a wall between us and our audience and so this record started out as being an expression of those feelings.”

Both ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ and ‘The Wall’ are considered ground-breaking and classics of their genre. They are complex, dense, rich masterpieces (you can tell which way my musical preferences lean), and yet in each case the catalyst was so simple and so tiny.  Both albums were born from the consequences of massive commercial success – in the case of the Beatles, it was a desire to escape from themselves, and in the case of Pink Floyd, it was a desire to reconnect with audiences. Without knowing the greatness that was to follow, both ideas may have seemed a bit too simple when first pitched – kinda cheesy and obvious. But maybe that’s why these ideas stuck and didn’t end up put to one side with the many hundreds of other ideas that could’ve – but didn’t – go anywhere. Great ideas always feel so obvious after the fact, it’s hard to imagine they weren’t thought of sooner.

Simple can mean a lot of different things – it can suggest the clean lines and stripped back perfection of modernist design, or a straightforward task that’s easy to do and requires minimal skill, or, at its most derogatory, a lack of intelligence (think of Kate Moss’s famous insult to an EasyJet pilot, calling her a “basic bitch”). Depending on how you cut it, simplicity is honing something to its purest state; cutting out the tricky stuff to make it more comprehensible; or building up from humble beginnings. For people who get caught up in their heads too much, or get overwhelmed and blinded by the details, it can be useful to go through a dramatic pruning exercise, clipping an overgrown, overblown idea back down to its core, or simply starting over and asking ‘what do I really want to do?’ and answering in the simplest possible terms.

I had assumed that the handy acronym, KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid), came from the world of advertising/marketing, but it’s a US Military term, dating to the 1960s. Its exact origins aren’t clear, but it was probably coined by aeronautical and systems engineer, Kelly Johnson, who was lead engineer at the Lockheed Skunk Works and famous for his aircraft designs. For Johnson, simple design had the very practical benefit of enabling an average mechanic with available tools to be able to repair damaged aircraft, a huge advantage when working in combat conditions.  

So simplicity can be the key to both the generation of new ideas, and the successful execution of ideas. Simplicity also plays an important role in the communication of ideas. I love the quote “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” (often attributed to Einstein, although there seems to be some debate about this). I have seen this maxim in action – years ago I attended a Science Festival talk on quantum physics, delivered by the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees. He was such a strong communicator that I came away thinking I was some sort of quantum savant, having understood this incredibly complex and mind-bending subject (I later discovered this was untrue). I loved Rees’s confidence in both himself and his subject – he didn’t bamboozle and confuse the audience, leaving them adrift in a sea of jargon; instead, he knew quantum physics SO well, and was so passionate about sharing his love of it with others, that he could bring the audience into his world and make it look effortless. Total class. Rees often comes to mind when I read opaque and incomprehensible text panels in exhibitions – if he can make quantum physics accessible, we should be able to do the same with contemporary art.

It’s so easy to get bogged down in the complexities and difficulties of delivering our roles, but whenever I reflect on simplicity, a little bit of extra space opens up in my thinking. Like a small clearing in a forest, simplicity creates room to breathe and can provide new solutions to existing challenges.

IMAGE http://www.kissonline.com/news?pg=22