Cultivating Creativity Workshop

In January, I ran a one-day ‘Cultivating Creativity’ workshop, twice over, for the Learning, Digital and Interpretation teams at New Zealand’s Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira. It was a serendipitous opportunity that came about as a result of blogging.  During a trip home in early 2017, I met up with Kate Woodall, Senior Content and Interpretation Developer at Auckland Museum, to discuss my Churchill Fellowship and my focus on the creative process of museum educators. Auckland Museum is going through a huge site development and redisplay process and has a relatively new-in-post director, David Gaimster, who came from leading the Hunterian in Glasgow. There is a lot of change in the air at the museum, and the teams are grabbing the creative challenges ‘by the horns’. Kate asked if I’d be interested in developing a workshop to share my Churchill findings with her colleagues – to which the only possible answer was YES – and, as luck would have it, I knew I’d be in New Zealand for my brother’s wedding early 2018. And so, it came to pass. I want to use this post to reflect on the process of developing the workshop and how it played out on the day(s).

My first ambition was, of course, to make this the most kickarse one-day training session the world had ever seen. I wanted angels to sing and grown men to weep. This didn’t happen of course, but there was a lot of very positive energy in the room and I’m really happy with how it went. In the morning, I focused on defining creativity, the creative mindset and accompanying neuroscience, and then explored planning and delivering creative workshops with peers. In the afternoon, I touched on some design process models and then focused on personal, interpersonal and organisational barriers to creativity and potential strategies to overcome the blockages. I rounded out the day by coming back to my Churchill interview templates, offered as a ‘next steps’ tool for those who wanted to delve further into their own creative process.


Writing the workshop and compiling the visuals, notes, and activities was a slow burn over many months, and it took awhile for the key themes to emerge. I wanted to create something that was entertaining and enjoyable, and deliberately selected images to raise a smile. My blog was invaluable for remembering the many ideas that had once rattled around my brain, but had subsequently done the mental equivalent of falling down the back of the fridge. I thanked my 2016 self many times over for documenting what I was learning at the time.  Repacking all that rich creativity content into a different format – transforming a chain of blogposts into a one-day workshop – also proved to be a useful exercise for me personally; it taught me that even very familiar content can be mined again and again for fresh ideas if considered from another angle.

I have a magpie approach to blog writing, responding to a bit of this and a bit of that and whatever has recently caught my eye. From my accumulation of individual blogposts, I enjoyed noticing new patterns and relationships across the material. For example, it really struck me just how challenging creativity is – you can’t hold it at arm’s length and maintain a safe distance; it really requires poking around in one’s vulnerabilities and insecurities, and risking ridicule and failure. It was also useful to remember how hard an idea has to work to become a thing. A promising idea has to traverse a tough-mudder obstacle course of apathy, stress, resistance, distraction, and competition to be fully realised. The more original the idea, the deeper the mud. But that’s good to know – if it feels like hard work, that’s because it is.


Like everyone who facilitates workshops, I recognised some areas that could be improved. I spent quite a bit of time, before, during and since the sessions, thinking about the balance between doing versus listening. Workshop planning and delivery were the most active parts of the day and, not surprisingly, the parts many participants enjoyed most. However, without the preamble and groundwork that set up the practical activities the breakouts wouldn’t have been so effective. This required quite a bit of listening in the first part of the day, which was to the benefit of the practical component, but perhaps could have been streamlined. On the first day, I delivered the afternoon as a large group discussion and without smaller breakouts, but this felt a bit too passive, especially for the post-lunch slot. I woke up the next morning keen to get the afternoon working better, and rejigged it so the same information was explored in a ‘breakout-then-feedback’ format, which worked better and brought some great thinking into the room. For future iterations, I will also end the day more actively. The workshop planning activity had everyone buzzing as they went off to lunch, and a similar pacy session to round out the day would have carried that energy further beyond the session.

I wanted the powerpoint to double as a toolkit, so that it held the narrative thread on the day, and included lots of website links in the notes for use at a later date. I planned for the content to stand alone so that it would be a resource long after the workshop itself. My intentions came at a cost though. I used plenty of images to illustrate and liven up the messaging, but some slides were still quite wordy – fine to read afterwards as notes, but not ideal when sitting in a group. There is also such a thing as too much information and, in my efforts to give the museum its money’s worth, I may have left a few folk punchdrunk by the end of the day. As Goldilocks discovered, every bear likes his/her porridge in a different way, and it seems every bear likes his/her creativity workshops in a different way too. Judging by the evaluation forms, I hit the mark for the majority but delivered information-overload for some.

I love facilitating – not something I get to do so much anymore – and my approach seems to have connected well with many. That connection was definitely mutual – they are a supportive and creative bunch, and I really enjoyed spending time with such like-minded souls. It was purely coincidental that I was in New Zealand at a time that aligned with the museum’s needs. Many staff were just back from their Christmas holidays, relaxed and refreshed and making the most of the summer. The workshop was delivered in the teams’ ‘situation room’ – the walls were covered with ideas under development, ideal for the purposes of my session. So the group came in with clear heads and I was – hopefully – able to help get the year off to an inspiring start. Kate has reported back that she’s seen learning from the workshop already being put in action, which is a real acid test of its value.



Decolonisation & Narratives of Empire

Hello! A quick note first – I haven’t posted since last October and have missed the discipline of creating a weekly article and getting your feedback. So much is happening in the sector right now, and I would love to have more time to reflect on it all. However, needs must, and I’m afraid my blog will have to be ‘as and when’ for the time being. Rather than the metronome of a regular Monday post, I’m going to post articles when I can. I hope they are of use and interest. As always, do please get in touch with your thoughts and any recommendations for further reading/viewing. Many thanks.


During my Churchill trip to the US in 2016, one of the key things that struck me about US museum practice – placing it in stark contrast with the UK equivalent – was the surfacing of complex, multiple narratives, and the uncovering of so-called ‘hidden’ histories (‘neglected and disregarded’ would be more accurate). I learnt so much about slavery and segregation, the living conditions and poverty of immigrants, WW2 internment camps and broken land treaties. It was a deeply moving experience, particularly to make connections between contemporary social ills and their historical and contextual roots. It also made me realise how many stories UK museums weren’t telling. But this is finally starting to change. It’s been thrilling to discover UK projects that challenge ‘whitewashed’ narratives of empire, and – by almost unavoidable extension – they are simultaneously calling out the complicit and tangled history of museum practice itself.

In March, I visited the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and stumbled across Story Lab, “designed to test different stories and ways of creating museum displays. The exhibitions… will be co-produced, meaning we’ll work with groups from outside the museum who will decide on subject matter, style, and tone of voice… Story Lab exhibitions will use unusual approaches to their subject matter, telling non-traditional stories in unfamiliar ways”. If that doesn’t get a museum educator’s pulse racing, I don’t know what will. Their inaugural display, The Past Is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire (closes 24 June), tackles colonisation head-on. The promised shift in tone is certainly delivered; the introductory text panel makes explicit the co-curators’ intentions: “We acknowledge that there is no neutral voice and so this complex story cannot be told neutrally. This gallery has been co-curated by six individuals with connections to Birmingham who are passionate about challenging the usual narrative told about the British Empire.”

The Past is Now is in a single, relatively large gallery, divided into zones that explore British colonial rule in Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific, and India. Contemporary artwork is displayed alongside historical objects, and Birmingham’s industrial past is neatly folded into the larger narrative. For example, a gun is displayed to illustrate not only the importance of firearms manufacture to the development of the city, but how its commercial success was linked to the Triangle Trade, as these items were often exchanged for enslaved women. The 83 selected objects tells stories of oppression, subjugation, resistance, protest, liberation and reclamation. I particularly liked the free-standing whiteboard and blank postcards, inviting audiences to share their thoughts and add their voices to the mix.

Masters Tools BMAG
Wall text in The Past Is Now exhibition, BMAG

The display has generated a huge amount of positive social media coverage, some blowback from conservative audiences (of course), and many great blog posts, including articles by the co-curators themselves. Sumaya Kassim’s post on Media Diversified, titled ‘The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised’, is so refreshingly direct and honest about how difficult this work can be: “we all deeply felt the weight of responsibility to represent and narrativize the perspectives of our communities. At the same time, we were all wary of being tokenised (plans to have our photos in the exhibition were scrapped for instance). We wanted to be sure we were not being exploited; that underlying anxiety was difficult to shake off. There was always a power struggle at work, and it often felt like there was a scramble for the museum in terms of how the stories would be told, how much we could say, how open we could be”.

For all of our self-appointed leftie, liberal status, museums can sometimes be very slow to acknowledge that we are no longer in the 19th century – institutional racism and unconscious bias have too often been met with ‘fingers-in-the-ears-and-sing-tra-la-la’, an attitude that will hasten our irrelevance and demise if not addressed. So full credit to the co-curators – Kassim, Abeera Kamran, Aliyah Hasinah, Mariam Khan, Sara Myers, and Shaheen Kasmani – and the BMAG team, for leaning in to the awkwardness and discomfort, and working hard to improve the sector.

Along similar lines, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge recently opened its own dominant-narrative-busting exhibition addressing empire and colonisation. Flux: Parian Unpacked (closes 1 July) is curated by artist Matt Smith, a V&A residency alumnus. Smith was invited to interpret the Fitzwilliam’s acquisition of the Glynn collection, 363 pieces of parian ware (a type of porcelain with the appearance of marble. It became popular in the 19th century for making small slip-cast busts of public figures, including the likes of Queen Victoria, Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, and Major General Sir Henry Havelock). A selection of busts is exhibited in front of newly-commissioned wallpapers that reveal, on closer inspection, the grim realities of colonisation, such as the British Army’s technique of execution in India – strapping men to the business end of canons and then firing.

The Flux: Parian Unpacked catalogue includes a fantastic essay by Sadiah Qureshi, Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham. Titled ‘The Violence of Imperial Nostalgia’, Qureshi succinctly states the difference between inclusion and decolonisation:  ‘on it’s own, inclusion will do nothing to change the overall narratives that museums present to the public. Rather, such inclusion enables a few figures or works of art to be woven into existing stories and claims of diversifying are made. This is precisely how inclusion can function as tokenism and protect against lasting, meaningful change. In contrast, decolonisation involves radically rethinking the overall narratives museums use to display their collections. Instead of merely including works by marginalised artists and communities, decolonised displays would co-curate galleries with a broader range of people to incorporate and showcase genuinely different perspectives.’ (pp29-30)

On a smaller scale, the V&A’s current display, Maqdala 1868 (closes 30 June 2019) presents Ethiopian treasures looted by the British Army during a raid to rescue several hostages held by the Emperor Tewodros II. In a gross display of imperial might, British Lieutenant General Sir Robert Napier led 13,000 troops, 26,000 camp followers and 40,000 animals to Maqdala; Tewodros chose suicide over defeat, and the British Army left with the hostages, a haul including gold, jewellery, coptic crosses and ancient manuscripts and – inexplicably – Tewodros’ seven-year-old son, Prince Alemayehu, who was made the ward of Captain Tristam Charles Sawyer Speedy. One of the grimmest objects on display is Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait of Speedy, kitted out with spear and shield, and Alemayehu sitting on his lap, with an expression of utter misery.

For Maqdala 1868, an advisory group from the Ethiopian and Rastafarian communities worked with the curator and learning team on the selection of objects, and some of their verbatim reflections have been integrated into the interpretation. The display has generated quite a bit of press coverage, not least because the museum’s Director suggested the long-term loan of the objects back to Ethiopia. The subject of repatriation has to be one of the most contested aspects of museum culture, and a very direct and thorny legacy of empire. The dozens of comments under the Director’s blogpost on the display illustrate a broad range of viewpoints, many calling for the objects’ return, but other voices (including those of Ethiopians) wanting the objects in London. The only certainty is that one object can’t be in two places at once.

The process of decolonising UK museums is in its infancy. It will be interesting to see how the acts of British forebears – who turned a quarter of the world map ‘pink’ with Empire and created enormous, stately museums to educate the (Western) masses – are tackled as we go deeper into the 21st century. We are living in very different times, with different moral codes, yet the consequences of Empire still hang around our necks like the proverbial albatross. Trying to square the actions of then with the needs of now might feel insurmountable, but as these examples illustrate, decolonisation must be addressed if UK museums are to be relevant and fit-for-purpose for contemporary audiences.

IMAGE: ‘Dejatch Alamayou & Basha Felika / King Theodore’s Son and Captain Speedy’, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868, (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Press Pause

This is my 81st blog post. When I started planning my Churchill Fellowship a couple of years ago, I thought I’d write 3-4 posts during my time in the US and that would be it. But then where would I post them? Off the back of that thought, I decided to set up my own blog. I also wanted to keep track of the process and my learning, so I started writing weekly posts in the run-up to my trip in September 2016. Once I’d gotten into the habit, I was reluctant to stop. I enjoyed the discipline of having to read, think and write regularly about creativity, and I’ve learnt a huge amount as a result.

So far, I’ve been able to make time for my blog around other priorities, but I don’t think that will be possible over the next few months. My line manager left the museum at the end of last month and until her replacement is recruited, I’ll be Acting Director of Learning (while still covering my existing responsibilities). It turns out that what I used to consider ‘busy’ is a walk in the park compared with doing two jobs at once. So something has to give, and I would prefer that it wasn’t my sanity. I need to put my blog on ice for now and I hope this is a pause rather than an ending.

One of the aims for my blog was to meet other like-minded practitioners and that has definitely happened. In fact, it’s probably been the best bit. You, dear reader, are in a select group (‘bijou’ in real estate parlance) and have been wonderfully supportive. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my posts – your feedback and ideas have been a great source of inspiration. A happy side-effect of having ‘kiwi’ and ‘museums’ in the title is that I’ve been able to meet New Zealand peers working in the sector. My focus had originally been on the UK, as that was the purpose of the Churchill Fellowship, but through the international medium of a blog, it has been great to connect with colleagues in different countries and my homeland too.

I started my blog as an experiment, and it’s been a very happy one. I hope to pick it up again, although I can’t yet say when or how often. I have generated quite a catalogue of posts on my chosen subject and I hope that the content continues to prove useful. So – until we meet again – I’ll leave you with my new favourite quote, attributed to Education Consultant, Alistair Smith: “At times of change, the learners are the ones who will inherit the world, while the knowers will be beautifully prepared for a world that no longer exists.”


Artificial Creativity

Few things make my museum-geek-heart flutter faster than a new edition of Trendswatch – not least because it only appears once a year and is always worth the wait. Produced by the Center for the Future of Museums, Trendswatch is a free, downloadable report that identifies five key trends for the coming year, and how each trend relates to museum practice. This year, for the first time, there is an accompanying digital resource, with all sorts of shiny additional content. Perhaps not surprisingly, three of the five trends in 2017 reflect the grim state of contemporary society and the impact of global political forces, namely: declining empathy rates; the need for reform of the justice system and its relationship with civil rights; and the vast scale of mass migration, whether as a migrant or refugee, or by forced displacement. More optimistically, I was happy to see design thinking having a moment as one of the five trends, with the report acknowledging the benefits of learning through failure, and using prototyping and iteration to develop programmes. But I’ve saved my favourite one for last – ‘The Rise of the Intelligent Machine’ is a fascinating insight into the growth of AI (artificial intelligence) and how it relates to creativity.

Mentally, I still file AI somewhere alongside Back to the Future hoverboards and that Star Trek ‘beam me up, Scotty’ transporter – it makes for great telly, but it isn’t really something that will touch my life directly. However, unless a London bus gets me first, it seems highly likely that AI and increasingly adaptable algorithms will become a daily reality. Having said that, for all those early adopters out there – who chat away merrily with Siri on their phones and Alexa in their houses – the revolution has already arrived. Whereas I don’t even own a toaster.

A recent NESTA report, Creativity vs. Robots: the creative economy and the future of employment includes a prediction that 47% of US jobs that existed in 2010 are at high risk of computerisation. It also reaches the reassuring conclusion that “creativity is inversely related to computerisability” so we’re not facing redundancy quite yet. In identifying what makes a job creative, the NESTA report lists an interesting range of relevant skills and requirements: social intelligence; the ability to tackle highly interpretive tasks; being able to generate new ideas of value; and participating in a collective, collaborative effort to make something. You would think that the complexities of these interrelated dynamics would leave plenty of clear water between humans and computers when it comes to creativity, but that margin is narrowing – sort of.

The Trendswatch article includes images from the Next Rembrandt project – a canny piece of marketing that teamed up advertising agency, J Walter Thompson with ING Bank and Microsoft to create a computer-generated, 3D-printed ‘original’ work in the style of a Rembrandt painting. If I had been in charge, it would have been called Pretendbrandt, which is just one of many reasons why I was not in charge. There is a short film on the project website that tells the story of its creation (the film also includes profound insights from the sponsors, such as, “you could say we use technology and data in the way that Rembrandt used his paint and his brushes to create something new”). The statistics for this project are incredible – 346 Rembrandt paintings analysed, over 500 hours of rendering, and the final image is made up of a staggering 148m pixels. It’s 3D because the surface has been built up in layers, creating a height map that apes the rough, textured surface of oil paint. A combination of deep learning algorithms (no idea) and facial recognition techniques (I can guess) were used to create a very passable image that does what any good portrait should do – stare back at the viewer.

I’m equal parts impressed and unnerved by the Next Rembrandt. It’s a well-executed idea and makes me wonder what a whole museum of pretend paintings would look like – an uncanny valley where art historians would go for the equivalent of cheap carnival thrills perhaps? It also raises a lot of questions – Is there artistry in it or am I marvelling at a gimmick? Am I having the simulation of an experience by looking at the simulacrum of a painting? Just because we can, does that mean we should? In five years’ time, will we all be cranking out our own cut-price masterpieces, and what would that do to our understanding of the originals? For all the whizzy technology that has made this possible, I do take comfort from the thought that the most creative part of the whole process was when somebody came up with the idea to do it in the first place. An algorithm didn’t suggest the Next Rembrandt or set the parameters – people did.

Along similar lines, SONY CSL has been investing in AI and music. Flow Machines is ‘a system that learns musical styles from a huge database of songs’. It can take a piece of music, such as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and re-present it in different styles, such as the bossa nova or house music. It has also been used to create new songs, albeit with a spot of human help providing the arrangement and lyrics. ‘Mr Shadow’ and ‘Daddy’s Car’ are two examples of what Flow Machines is capable of, and they both feature on upcoming AI albums.

Another route that AI/music has taken is robotics. Shimon is a four-armed keyboardist that can improvise and respond in real time to actual human bandmates. The YouTube clip of Shimon in action is amazing – ‘he’ bops his head along to the beat and develops a wonderful, strange conversation as the improvisation progresses. At the same event (Moog Fest 2016), a drummer named Jason Barnes, whose lower right arm has been amputated, showed what his two-drumstick-wielding robotic arm was capable of – namely, drumming up to 20 beats a second, controlled by the muscles in Barnes’ bicep. This is technology I can get on board with – it combines the best of both worlds to make something that wouldn’t be possible if either humans or robots were left to their own devices. Unlike with the Next Rembrandt, I feel like I’m having a more authentic experience by listening to Shimon noodling away, but I couldn’t tell you why.

It will be interesting to see how artistic production is influenced by AI over the coming years. In the mid-20th century, minimalists took inspiration from the processes and materials of industrial manufacturing to kick against the gestural, expressive artforms that dominated at the time – I don’t see why AI can’t provide similar grist to the mill and up-end current practices and understandings of creativity and authenticity. And then, of course, there are the consequences for museums – how we collect it, display it, and interpret it. The use of AI to support personalised learning has fantastic potential for museum education. Trendswatch quotes the macho-sounding ‘Educational Dominance program’ as an example of this technology in action – run by the Defence Advanced Research Project Agency, AI-powered ‘digital tutors’ speed up the training of Navy recruits. What if all museum interpretation could be personalised? Imagine entirely bespoke labels and text panels, generated via a portable device for each visitor. The content could be tailored to an individual’s level of experience and specific interests; tours could be created on the spot, built entirely around a visitor’s request; over multiple visits, visitors could be encouraged to try new routes, optimising exposure to objects that were previously missed, or recently put on display. We’ll just have to wait and see.


MuseumNext Portland

Activism is definitely having a moment in the museum sector. Last week, I was in Portland, Oregon reflecting on the theme of ‘revolution’ at a MuseumNext conference. We discussed social action and civil rights in a city struggling with a homelessness epidemic, against the backdrop of news reports about the mass shooting in Las Vegas and Trump’s pitiful response to the humanitarian aid crisis in Puerto Rico. The current state of affairs is pretty grim so it’s reassuring to know that there are plenty of people working hard to make things better. The conference presentations and discussions were wide-ranging and varied, but there was consensus (in the room at least) that museums are not neutral, in either their current engagement with issues affecting their communities, or in their histories and dominant narratives, infused with anglocentric and male biases. Consequently, conversations gravitated towards two fundamental questions: what role should museums play in the 21st century, and what still needs to change in order for that to happen?

There was a lot of information crammed into those three days, and I’m not going to attempt to capture it all here. Instead, I’d like to share a few examples of projects and initiatives that I found particularly interesting:

Museum of Impact (MoI)

MoI defines itself as “ the first mobile social justice museum, inspiring action at the intersection of art, activism, self and society”. Its founder, Monica O. Montgomery, spoke at the conference, and also curated a special display for the event, hosted in one of the Portland Art Museum galleries (where the conference was held). Montgomery is clearly a well-respected figure in the US cultural sector and her involvement in the conference was warmly received. She shared two MoI case studies: #UpstanderLoveLetters, where participants were asked to write ‘love letters’ to those activists, teachers, carers, and grafters who are upstanding members of their community, celebrating their positive contribution to the lives of others; and Every Mother’s Mural, depicting women of colour whose sons have been murdered as a result of racially-motivated violence. As well as the mural, a social/support group was established, where mourning mothers could meet others going through the same experience.

War Childhood Museum (WCM)

WCM is based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. It began as a crowd-sourced book, published in 2013. The museum itself only opened in January 2017, believed to be the only one of its kind. The war ended 20 years ago, and Bosnia remains a deeply-divided and traumatised society. The museum’s director, Amina Krvavac spoke movingly about this project as a ‘peacebuilding tool’ and there is a strong educational component; they worked with over 5000 children in the first six months after opening. There is a lot of content on their website, and they are actively looking for partners and contributors.


This 24-hour social media campaign came about as a witty counterpoint to the ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ that are so closely associated with the Trump administration. Two museum workers, investing their own time and initiative, declared 17 February 2017 the #DaysofFacts and enlisted a range of cultural institutions to share factual information about their collections. Not surprisingly, these often took a political slant (for example, providing evidence of climate change). The tweets are funny and angry and passionate – a moving reflection of how we feel about our work. The Field Museum even created a short film for #DayofFacts that is guaranteed to give you the warm fuzzies.

Museum as Site of Social Action (MASS Action)

This initiative started with the question, “how do you transform museums from the inside out?” It’s the brainchild of Elizabeth Callihan, Head of Multi-generational Learning at Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA). Callihan is an action-oriented person, and has achieved a huge amount over a very short period of time. She started by consulting with leading peers who were also looking to make their museums ‘sites of social action’. This led to a convening of 50 museums at MIA in 2016, where the idea of a toolkit was developed, to support other museums interested in this work. Twelve months on, and the toolkit has morphed into a book, to be launched at the next MASS Action convening (14 October 2017). The convenings go beyond swapping notes and sharing anecdotes, they are used to set goals and chart courses of action. It’s an exciting model and I’m hoping it’s only a matter of time before something similar catches on in Europe.

Second Story – ‘Lunch Counter’ interactive, Center for Civil & Human Rights

Second Story is a design practice with offices in Portland, Atlanta and New York. They started out in web design, and have since moved into immersive and interactive experiences, pushing the potential of digital well beyond screen-based expectations. Their studio hosted conference break-out sessions on the first day, so we were able to hear about projects and then explore some of the prototypes in their workshop. They shared many examples, but the one that really stuck was the ‘lunch counter’ interactive, developed for the ‘Rolls Down Like Water’ American Civil Rights exhibition at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. Museum visitors are invited to sit on a stool at a proxy lunch counter, wear a headset, and place their hands flat on the counter. The interactive aims to evoke the experience of campaigning for civil rights in segregated states in the US. Visitors are subjected to verbal abuse (via the headsets) which escalate to physical intimidation as the stool is ‘kicked’. We didn’t see it in action, but I was told by a friend who had tried the interactive that it is genuinely frightening (and a drop in the ocean compared with what those brave individuals experienced firsthand).

I attended the MuseumNext conference as a speaker, having teamed up with Cindy Foley to present ‘The Quiet Revolutionaries: How Learning Can Reshape Museums’ (which pretty much does what it says on the tin). Cindy’s work at the Columbus Museum of Art featured as one of five case studies in my Churchill Fellowship research and her fantastic insights into creativity pop up throughout my Fellowship report. Thanks to the magic of modern technology, our presentation was online about 10 minutes after we finished speaking (you can find it on Vimeo). We argue that the work of Learning departments has the power to transform museums but it must be embedded strategically; Cindy has lived this transformation and her museum’s new strategic roadmap is a thing of beauty.

While slightly off topic, I also have to mention the Portland Children’s Museum. Located in Washington Park, it is a fascinating venue that houses a museum, a school (Opal), and a research centre. All three strands are heavily influenced by Reggio Emilia, and yet all three need to operate in slightly different ways to meet the needs of their relevant stakeholders and visitors/pupils/researchers. The child and the nature of play are central to their practice, and the walls are covered with examples of the learning that happens there.

Opal School, Portland Children’s Museum
Opal School, Portland Art Museum – one of the responses to the question. ‘what does it feel like to collaborate?’

I’ve returned home with that familiar post-conference feeling of being mentally overloaded and emotionally stimulated. The breadth of the conference provoked a lot of discussion around the ‘so whatness’ of it all – are we preaching to the choir? In this work, are we aiming to provide a safe space for those who are otherwise marginalised, ostracised and without a voice, or are we trying to educate society and eradicate social injustice? And if it’s the latter, whose minds are we changing? Where are the racist, sexist, homophobic, alt-righters and neoliberals in all this? On the other hand, all social change has to start somewhere and museums could be the ideal location to question, challenge and progress social issues (as long as we’re willing to also point the finger at ourselves and face our own institutional prejudices and shortcomings). It’s all so knotty and messy and complicated. The trail of breadcrumbs that I think will guide me through this terrain is the importance of intentionality. When we are asking such big questions, it is even more vital to be clear about why we are doing this work and what we hope to achieve. Aim high and stay honest.

IMAGE: ‘Napping with Monsters’ (2015), by Renee Zangara, Portland Art Museum

The Cynefin Framework

A few weeks ago, I made brief reference to the Cynefin Sense-Making Framework in a post that focused on the RSA’s report, From Design Thinking to Systems Change. Cynefin crossed my path again more recently when I was reading about ‘chaordic leadership’, which is about finding equilibrium between chaos and order: too much chaos and a team descends into ‘chamos’ (destructive chaos and apathy); too much order and a team is over-controlled and their creativity is straitjacketed. The sweet spot lies somewhere between the two extremes. Through my blog, I have poked and prodded at creativity from various perspectives, looking at individuals, groups, and organisations, but I haven’t really discussed it from a management angle; Cynefin offers some useful ideas for navigating this territory.

Besides being a nice bit of alliteration, cultivating a culture of creativity within a team is not easy. Creating headspace for those flights of fancy that could lead to rich new seams of programming needs to be weighed up against KPIs and relentless deliverables and deadlines. Challenging situations and problems arise – sometimes on a daily basis – and a course of action has to be found in response to each one. Apparently Barack Obama kept a basic wardrobe during his time as US President so that getting dressed in the morning was straight-forward and one less decision to make. Annoying, there is no ‘one size fits all’ response to decision-making; the ideal solution in one setting could be disastrous in another, and just because a solution worked well previously, doesn’t mean it will be the right one going ahead. This is where Cynefin comes in.

An article in Harvard Business Review, titled A Leader’s Framework for Decision-Making (Nov 2007), outlines the core principles. One of its authors, David J Snowden, coined the phrase Cynefin in 1999. It’s a Welsh word (ku-nev-in) “that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and our experience that influences us in ways we can never understand”.  Snowden and co-author, Mary J Boone, provide the following summary:

The Cynefin framework helps leaders determine the prevailing operative context so that they can make appropriate choices. Each domain requires different actions. Simple and complicated contexts assume an ordered universe, where cause-and-effect relationships are perceptible, and right answers can be determined based on facts. Complex and chaotic contexts are unordered – there is no immediately apparent relationship between cause and effect, and the way forward is determined based on emerging patterns. The ordered world is the world of fact-management; the unordered world represents pattern-based management.

These four contexts are often presented in a 2×2 grid format, but instead of having four tidy boxes, the interior lines of the grid are curved and droopy, creating space in the centre for the fifth context – disorder – when you don’t even know what situation you’re dealing with. There are a few different versions of this grid and the four categories changed titles as the framework developed. In a 2003 article, simple was ‘known’ and complicated was ‘knowable’. Since the 2007 HBR article was published, simple has become ‘obvious’.

Cynefin table
From ‘Art of Social Innovation’

A little bit more about each one:

  • SIMPLE: there is unanimous agreement about the best course of action, and the response tends to be process-oriented (such as ordering materials, or paying artists). If something does go wrong, it rarely has to be escalated and can be handled by the relevant staff member. The risk here is that habitual processes lead to ‘entrained thinking’ and better alternatives go unnoticed. Snowden and Boone also note that problems can arise when an issue is misclassified as simple (for example, when “leaders… constantly ask for condensed information”). In this instance, management complacency creates blind spots and these can be serious enough to tip the organisation into ‘chaos’ if left unchecked.
  • COMPLICATED: these issues require close analysis because multiple factors will be involved, and there may be multiple potential solutions (think about working with audiences with specific needs, or developing cross-disciplinary projects). In this case, the recommended course of action is to call on experts who can offer informed insights. Entrained thinking can also be a problem here, when the experts are heavily invested in a particular approach or way of working. The solution to this is to balance expert opinion alongside other, possibly dissenting voices. The other risk is ‘analysis paralysis’, where thinking reaches a gridlock, conversations go in circles, and little action is being taken.
  • CHAOTIC: this is the realm of the pear-shaped. Events happen suddenly and are hugely disruptive, and immediate action is required to stablise the situation. The unexpected loss or mismanagement of funding would be an example; more extreme possibilities could include natural disasters or terrorist attacks. These situations are rare, and are best dealt with in the first instance by direct, top-down management. However, once the crisis has passed, an ongoing authoritarian approach isn’t helpful, and there is a risk of managers becoming legends in their own minds. There is a bit of good news though: “the chaotic domain is nearly always the best place for leaders to impel innovation… One excellent technique is to manage chaos and innovation in parallel: the minute you encounter a crisis, appoint a reliable manager or crisis management team to resolve the issue. At the same time, pick out a separate team and focus its members on the opportunities for doing things differently. If you wait until the crisis is over, the chance will be gone”.
  • COMPLEX: this is my favourite one because it’s basically design thinking by another name. Without a clear relationship between cause and effect, pattern-recognition and experimentation are required to find solutions. And these won’t be pre-packaged solutions, but brand new thinking. As the authors explain, “When the right answer is elusive, and you must base your decision on incomplete data, your situation is probably complex rather than complicated… In a complicated context, at least one right answer exists. In a complex context, however, right answers can’t be ferreted out”. This would apply to untested approaches to museum learning programming, when “leaders must patiently allow the path forward to reveal itself”. One of the best ways to find novel solutions is to draw on the collective experience and creativity of the team – no single brain is going to hold the answer. The risk here is when leaders lose their nerve and choose to play it safe, retreating to tried-and-tested formulas that are already known to work well.

My summary is really just the tip of the iceberg, I’d highly recommend the whole HBR article if you would like more information and – if that still leaves you wanting – get into Snowden’s article, The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world (IBM Systems Journal, Vol 42, No.3, 2003) co-authored with C.F. Kurtz. As I mentioned above, some of the category names were different, and the thinking was still being developed, but there is a worthwhile overview of Cynefin’s relationship with complexity theory. The authors also refute assumptions of rationality and intentionality as applied to people – the messy, unpredictable beasts that we are. Both articles include tips for leading team workshops that assess the issues and identify relevant contexts. The trick seems to be figuring out what you’re dealing with – it can be as detrimental to over-simplify a situation as it is to over-complicate it.

IMAGE: Tom Jones,

Visiting a Singular Vision

When I started working at Kettle’s Yard in 2006, one of the first tasks was to learn ‘the Kettle’s Yard way’. The house had been the home of Jim and Helen Ede from 1957-1973, and their collections of artworks, textiles, ceramics, glass and found natural objects were all still arranged just so. Jim had a singular vision for Kettle’s Yard – to demonstrate how life and art could be seamlessly intertwined – and their home became a living, breathing installation. Every afternoon, Jim welcomed the general public and University of Cambridge students. Visitors were invited to sit on the chairs, browse the books, and enjoy the respite and calm. Every object was carefully positioned in relation to the adjacent objects and the available light source, coming either from the windows or reflected in mirrors. There was no hierarchy in the arrangement either – a pebble off the beach was as precious as a Brancusi sculpture – and Jim created an amazing sense of balance and order. The house still has a quiet rhythm to it that rewards slowing down and looking closely.


Kettle's Yard pebbles
Kettle’s Yard: the table in Jim’s bedroom
Kettle’s Yard: entrance and dining room

I moved on from Kettle’s Yard in 2013, but those seven years left their mark and I’m still a bit obsessed with pebbles, shadows and negative space. The experience of working inside one person’s passion project came flooding back to me when I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM) in Boston last week. Gardner (1840-1924) was a very wealthy art patron and a prolific collector. Advised by the likes of Bernard Berenson, and a friend to artists such as James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent, she collected a dizzying array of Renaissance & Baroque paintings, period furniture, stained glass, and religious statuary, as well as substantial chunks of architecture, including enormous fireplaces, stone window frames, marble pillars, and elaborate ironwork. Her museum was built to house her eclectic collections, laid out over three floors with a dramatic internal courtyard in its centre (she lived in an apartment on the fourth floor). The museum opened in 1903, and she welcomed visitors in to explore her own unique vision. It was stipulated in her will that the museum would be given over to a trust on the condition that nothing was moved, nothing was added, and nothing was sold. So what you see today remains faithful to her idiosyncratic plans.

ISGM Raphael Room
ISGM: the Raphael Room
ISGM: the Spanish Cloister

Visiting the ISGM was a strange mix of being very familiar (both Jim and Isabella were obsessively attentive to detail and took total authorship over every aspect of curation) and very foreign. You could not imagine two more different aesthetics – Jim was all cool restraint and muted palettes, while Isabella was a colour-soaked, drama-heightened, ‘more is more’ kinda gal. Jim had a sensitivity to empty space and took great care to put as little as possible in a room, whereas Isabella seemed to have a serious case of horror vacui and didn’t mind if picture frames jutted out from walls or hung over door jambs. And yet, they also had a huge amount in common. Both insisted on no labels next to the artworks, and rejected a chronological or thematic hang, preferring to use their eye and their instinct to determine what should go where. Both liked unconventional approaches to the display of artworks; Isabella frequently hung paintings and panels across the diagonal in the corner of a room, like a Russian icon, and Jim would prop framed drawings and paintings against the wall, but with the lower edge resting on the floor – he liked the implication that they could be picked up and moved at any moment.

ISGM: 13 paintings were stolen in 1990, and their frames remain empty as reminders of the loss. There had been a Rembrandt painting here, located in the Dutch Room.

Both Jim and Isabella had a love of light and shadow, and positioned works and objects with this in mind: Jim was interested in how shadows move at different times of day and during different seasons, and he set up elaborate juxtapositions that would only reveal themselves fleetingly; Isabella favoured the steadiness of northern light (which is more consistent than sunlight coming into east- or west-facing rooms) and positioned her favourite paintings accordingly, close to north-facing windows. Rumour has it that Jim would position in direct sunlight any paintings that he considered to be too colourful, to knock ‘em back a bit. Isabella had her house fully wired – a novelty at the time – but only used electric lights on the first and fourth floors, preferring candlelight (!!!) for the two central floors. She dictated where every wall sconce should be positioned, and aligned the fall of light in the room with the light source depicted in the paintings. Perhaps most importantly, the greatest commonality between Jim and Isabella was their desire to be generous with their collections. They hoped for visitors, both present and future, to be deeply moved – these ‘museums’ deify art and beauty, and wish to convert audiences to fellow believers.

ISGM: ceramic floor tiles in the Dutch Room
ISGM: the Little Salon

Set in aspic, both Kettle’s Yard and the ISGM reflect the times in which they were created, and are kept alive and vibrant through residency schemes, temporary installations, and learning programmes. In a country that prides itself on customer service, I was particularly struck by how happy and helpful the staff were. I got the distinct impression that ISGM has become a passion project for those who worked there, and they probably have their own ‘ISGM way’ too. On the day we visited, the place was buzzing with art students, who were liberally scattered about doing observational drawings and chatting amongst themselves. Even though it was created from a singular vision, it continues to have a broad and diverse appeal.

I was sometimes asked if I knew Jim because I (apparently) spoke about him with such immediacy. I didn’t, unfortunately; he died when I was still in high school. My theory is that when you’re working so intensively in someone else’s passion project, you can’t help but feel that you have a sense of the person too. The energy of ISGM was so familiar, and I’ve decided it’s like a spiritual great-aunt to Kettle’s Yard – slightly bonkers, wonderfully eccentric, and totally fabulous.


Notes from Washington DC

I am supposedly on holiday in Washington DC. I say supposedly because this place – home to the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and a zoo, as well as assorted other state collections – is a museum geek nirvana and I’m endeavouring to see as much of it as possible. It turns out that trying to squeeze a lifetime’s worth of museum visits into four days is a bit of a challenge. So far, I’ve spent most of my time in the National Gallery of Art, which is located on two neighbouring sites: the West Building is all gorgeous 1930s grandeur and absolutely freaking enormous; the East Building is its newer, smaller, 1970s cousin and focuses on 20th and 21st century art practice. The latter was designed by I.M. Pei and it’s worth a visit for the architecture alone – Pei has wrapped his stunning, angular building around the largest Calder mobile I’ve ever seen and the flow of a visit repeatedly returns you to views over the central atrium where it’s located. But don’t worry, I’ll spare you the holiday slideshow. What I really want to share are a couple of things that have caught my blogging eye – the Children’s Garden at the United States Botanic Gardens, and what I consider to be a pretty dodgy interpretation activity at the National Air and Space Museum.

Washington DC, like Canberra, is a capital city built from scratch. Unlike the creeping urban accumulations that are characteristic of cities like London, Washington existed first on a piece of paper. The vista that runs from the Capitol, down the length of the National Mall (lined with museums), to the Washington Monument and beyond to the Lincoln Memorial is of an extraordinary scale. The effect is very impressive, and not exactly subtle on the symbolism – this is nation-building on steroids. The US Botanic Gardens is at one end of the Mall, near the Capitol. It’s most striking feature is the Conservatory, an elegant glass-domed structure that underwent extensive restoration in the late 1990s. The piped-in birdsong didn’t really do it for me, but it was otherwise a total treat and packed with spectacle and wonder – hundreds of plants, big and small, from numerous climates hot and cold.


The Children’s Garden is roughly square in shape, open to the elements from above, and otherwise enclosed on all four sides by the Conservatory. It isn’t an enormous area – you could probably walk across it in about 30-40 paces – but the most has been made of the available space, which is sectioned into different activity zones. The centre is dominated by a small climbing structure that – I can testify – is just large enough for an adult but is obviously best suited to those built lower to the ground. Steps and rope-bridges lead from one platform to the next, and the walls are lined with richly-textured panels made out of natural materials, such as pebbles, bark, seed pods and fibres. To either side of this structure is an installation of gigantic, silver dandelions, and a vine-covered trellis walkway.


Behind the climbing structure was my favourite section, a little workstation with child-sized trowels, shovels, watering cans and brooms. Next to it were some low planting beds and a row of potted basil plants, waiting to be planted.  A sequence of tall, thin poles, located in the furthest corner, didn’t look much until a child started running around them – the movement triggered a cloud of water vapour to burst from the upper sections of the poles and temporarily obscure the view of the garden. This was met with much happy shrieking and was enjoyed by adults and kids alike. Dotted throughout were little seats and benches, some shaped like toadstools. The whole garden was so inviting – and barely a primary colour in sight.


Having seen quite a few child-friendly activity areas in museum and galleries, it was great to see the equivalent in a garden. The same principles of interactivity, hands-on exploration of materials, and open-ended play that are applied in museums and galleries were also used here. The small touches made a positive difference too and showed the close attention that had been paid to their target audience – a hole in the middle of a gate was perfect for crawling through if you were little; and a recess underneath the climbing structure made a cosy den, complete with table and a bench that –  I can testify – was not large enough for an adult. I wish we could have paint, plaster and clay as freely available for drop-in making as the Children’s Garden had earth, plants and water available for drop-in gardening.


A bit further up the Mall is the National Air and Space Museum. It is vast, which isn’t surprising given that it’s stuffed full of planes, rockets and spacecraft. I like any museum that causes my jaw to drop to the floor, and there were plenty of awe-inspiring exhibits. There was one interactive, however, that also left my jaw on the floor, but for the wrong reasons. In the ‘America by Air’ section, the history of commercial jet travel is introduced. The first ‘air stewardesses’ were nurses, a training that could come in handy during the loud, bumpy and unpleasant early flying conditions. It was mostly businessmen and the wealthy who could afford to fly, and the exhibit shows how, over the course of the 1960s and 70s, women’s uniforms got ever-shorter and the advertising for airlines got more lurid.



In amongst this display is an activity titled, ‘Could You Be a Stewardess in the Early 1950s?’ A mocked up ‘Girls Wanted’ poster is next to a full-length mirror where girls are encouraged to look at themselves and then go through the checklist to see if they would make the cut – is your smile friendly and sincere? Is your make-up neat and natural? Is your blouse fresh and pressed? And the final instruction – smile! I don’t understand what a child is supposed to take from this – do girls really need to have the message reinforced that their appearance is all that counts? How are they supposed to feel if they don’t measure up? With the relentless pressure of social media driving young children to become increasingly obsessed with their looks, isn’t this just another twist of the knife? I can see that for an adult audience, it could come across as playful and a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I’m not convinced that children would see it that way too. For balance, I should also mention that the display included the experiences of the first women pilots and even had a pilot’s maternity uniform from the early 1990s. It also told of the transition ‘from air stewardess to flight attendant’, how men entered the profession, and how uniforms became more professional.  





Being able to wander up and down the Mall, from collections of natural history to aeronautics to visual arts to botanics, and all within a stone’s throw of each other, is an amazing privilege. The majority of the museums are free too, so it’s easy to pop in and out. I’d become a bit complacent about free museum access in London, but coming here has reminded me of how lucky we are.

Cerebral Congestion & Mental Load

Congestion is a disgusting word. It reminds me of every gunged-up headcold I’ve ever had, and every unpleasantly snotty toddler I’ve ever witnessed, poking his or her tongue up towards the green ooze streaming down from either nostril. Bleurgh. I feel a bit green myself just thinking about it. The phrase cerebral congestion, therefore, paints a vivid picture. It neatly encapsulates the brain-too-full, hamster-on-strike, need-gin-now sensation that descends at the end of a long day, busy week, or stressful month. It won’t surprise you to know that when we’re in this state, our thinking cuts corners and defaults to the obvious. Creative thinking, by extension, requires a clear head.

Neuroscientist, Moshe Bar and graduate student, Shira Baror have recently published their research into the impact of ‘mental load’ on the capacity for original thinking. Bar has written a short article for The New York Times that summarises their findings. As the name suggests, mental load describes the weight of thoughts that fill your mind: practical tasks such as remembering a shopping list; the defocused wandering of daydreaming;  and the unhealthy ruminations and obsessive, looping thinking that is common during periods of stress, anxiety and depression. It all adds up and can get in the way of more playful ideas generation.

Bar and Baror tested this effect in a series of interesting experiments, requiring participants to engage in a free-association task (commonly used to measure creativity) while “simultaneously taxing their mental capacity to different degrees”. This was less gruelling than it sounds. In one example, half the group were required to remember a string of seven numbers while the other half were required to remember just two numbers – at the same time, both groups played a word association game (or Word Association Football for any Monty Python fans). Those who were trying to remember the seven-number sequence were more likely to choose the most statistically common responses – so for ‘white’, think ‘black’, whereas those remembering the shorter sequence went further off the beaten path, so for ‘white’, think ‘cloud’. And it wasn’t just that it took the busier brain longer; even when controlling for response time, those with the more-taxed minds were still more obvious in their answers, leading Bar to conclude, “the mind’s natural tendency is to explore and to favour novelty, but when occupied it looks for the most familiar and inevitably least interesting solution”.

So our attention is pulled between the novel and the familiar, neatly described by Bar as a tension in our brains between exploration and exploitation: “when we are exploratory, we attend to things with a wide scope, curious and desiring to learn. Other times, we rely on, or ‘exploit’, what we already know, leaning on our expectations, trusting the comfort of a predictable environment”. As I have written about previously (see the Fewer Horsemen of Mediocrity, More Data Analytics) this chimes with the requirements of creative thinking. We need the familiar to get daily tasks done, but without novelty and the unexpected, new ideas won’t come to the fore.  

An article in Scientific American, titled Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime, covers similar ground to Bar and Baror’s research. Even when we are resting, and feel our mental load to be relatively light, there is still a hell of a lot going on up there. The article’s author, Ferris Jabr, provides a huge range of research examples, and argues that downtime is vital to: replenish our motivation and attention; embed fresh learning and establish memories; rehearse how to resolve challenges or social scenarios; and encourage creativity. It was previously believed that our minds went into ‘standby’ mode when not thinking about much, but that couldn’t be further from the truth – when we are pottering about, our brains are also doing the mental equivalent of Saturday morning housework and chores. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this article appeared in an American publication – U.S. workers get just 10 days of annual leave a year, and often don’t take all of it. I can’t imagine a better recipe for burn-out than working relentlessly. It’s reassuring to know that stopping from time to time is possibly the most productive thing you could do.

Both Bar and Jabr advocate for meditation and mindfulness as ways to settle restless head-chatter. By leaving the future and the past where they are, and turning attention to right here and right now, the mental load is lifted. Having done so much reading, writing and thinking about the creative process over the past couple of years, I feel far more conscious of the need to rest and take breaks. Previously, I would have tried to power through, or switched my attention by reading the paper online, or caught up on the latest cat/dog/baby memes congesting (yes, congesting) my facebook feed. I was taking a break from staring at a screen by staring at a screen – not my best idea. A walk around the block, or further afield if time allows, is my favourite head-clearing activity and I can definitely feel the difference it makes. Like just about everything else, balance is key. ‘Doing’ and ‘not doing’ are two sides of the creative thinking coin, and both are vital to the overall process.

IMAGE: The Desperate Man (Self-Portrait), 1845, Gustav Courbet

This is Your Brain on Creativity

While the genesis of an idea remains mysterious, a huge amount has been written about the creative process and how to enhance our own creativity. The advice that is offered (eg. be open to the unexpected, experiment, reserve judgement, disrupt habitual thinking, etc) has been developed over years of practical experience. We do these things because they work. More recently, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have been able to reveal WHY these things work. And when you know the science of creativity, it is also easier to identify the barriers too.

For example, think about the two distinct creative processes, divergence and convergence (mentioned in last week’s post). The former requires openness, playfulness and de-focussed attention, all of which support lateral thinking. When divergence is being encouraged in a workshop or brainstorming session, it usually comes with the ‘yes, and…’ rule. This rule encourages participants to build on suggestions made by their colleagues, rather than torpedo them down with the usual plethora of bald statements that start with ‘no, but…’ I’m sure everyone has experienced the ideas-assassin, who responds to every suggestion with ‘no, but… that would never work… we tried it 10 years ago and it failed so we’ll never try again… and we’ll never get the funding… and the boss wouldn’t let us…’ If the other participants become self-conscious and start self-censoring, nothing new is going to appear. There is a time for judgement and evaluation (ie. convergence) but that comes next, when the group has generated a mountain of ideas that need sifting, sorting, and – often – binning.

So what’s going on upstairs when we are in a positive, ideas-generating environment? There is increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which works to ‘learn associations between context, locations, events, and corresponding adaptive responses, particularly emotional responses’ (1). It is linked with memory, self-expression and autobiographical narrative. It is also part of the ‘default mode network’, which is most active when a person is recalling memories, or otherwise in a resting state that can range from not thinking about anything in particular to sleep. But this is only half the story – as the medial prefrontal cortex fires up, the lateral prefrontal cortex decreases activity at the same time. This area is responsible for ‘conscious self-monitoring, self-inhibition, and evaluation of the rightness and wrongness of actions you’re about to implement’ (2). Psychology professor, Sharon Thompson Schill coined the phrase ‘hypofrontality’ to describe this suppression of activity. Transient hypofrontality has huge benefits, such as for language learning and creative thought, and can even explain the positive influence of exercise on emotion and cognition.

To put it another way: When someone is engaged in a task that requires cognitive control and focussed attention – for instance, solving a math problem or deciding what to pack for a camping trip – so-called beta waves, which oscillate at a frequency of 15 to 20 hertz, usually dominate. When people came up with new ideas, however, researchers recorded alpha waves over the prefrontal cortex. These eight to 12 hertz waves are typically a sign of relaxed wakefulness and diffuse attention. Their presence thus bolstered the notion that idea generation is associated with a state of lower cognitive control. (3)

This explains so much, not just the conditions that we need to generate ideas, but also the conditions that inhibit our ability to come up with ideas too. In layman’s (ie. my) terms – if you’re in the wrong part of your head, you’re going to struggle to think up anything new. ‘Cognitive flexibility’ is the ability to rapidly switch between modes of thinking, and it’s thought that creative individuals are ‘better able to upregulate or downregulate their cognitive-control system depending on the demands of the situation’ (4). This also makes sense to me, as the creative and design processes require a balance of divergent and convergent thinking, and the ability to move fairly comfortably between the two as required.

Another fundamental aspect of creativity is the ability to recombine and mashup existing ideas. I wrote about this in my post, ‘Ideas by Association’, and included the following quotes:

Creative thinking is a break with habitual patterns of thought… All of our existing thoughts have creative possibilities. Creative insights occur when they are combined in unexpected ways or applied to questions or issues with which they are not normally associated.”

Sir Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements… the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships… To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge.”

James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas

So what is the brain up to when we’re doing this? An important aspect is cognitive disinhibition, which is when the mental filters that screen out extraneous or irrelevant details are less effective. Latent inhibition, also known as ‘learned irrelevance’, is one of these cognitive filters; when it is reduced, more information than is needed reaches our awareness and there is a tendency to look for patterns and associations that aren’t necessarily there. In small doses, cognitive disinhibition aids creativity as unexpected combinations of ideas are more readily made; in large doses, it is associated with hallucinations and schizophrenia.

Personality theorists have also made links between latent inhibition and ‘openness’, one of the so-called Big Five personality traits (the others being conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism). In his article, Openness to Experience: the Gates of the Mind, Luke Smillie explains:

Open people tend to be intellectually curious, creative, and imaginative. They are interested in art and are voracious consumers of music, books, and other fruits of culture… Openness reflects a greater “breadth, depth, and permeability of consciousness,” and propensity to “cognitively explore” both abstract information (e.g., ideas and arguments) and sensory information (e.g., sights and sounds)… Learning what to ignore is critical for effective psychological functioning… So we sieve… information for relevant details, screening-out everything else. The problem is, the screened-out information might be useful later, but by then we’re slow to realize its significance, to un-learn its irrelevance.

This process can be modeled in the laboratory by pre-exposing participants to seemingly unimportant stimuli that later form the basis of a learning task. For the average person, this pre-exposure stifles subsequent learning—the critical stimulus has been rendered “irrelevant” and fails to penetrate awareness. Not so, however, for those high in openness, who are less susceptible to latent inhibition. This again demonstrates a more inclusive mode of thinking—a “leaky” cognitive system, if you will—which lets in information that others screen-out. These studies show that open people are less susceptible to the psychological “blind spots” that help us pare back the complexity of the world.

Having large volumes of additional, unfiltered information passing through one’s consciousness must be overwhelming and doesn’t always result in creativity. Both high IQ and strong memory have been linked with reduced latent inhibition in creative people, suggesting that the brain needs highly effective support mechanisms to make productive use of all that disparate content.

I love the relationship between our lived experiences of creativity – what we know works, but couldn’t tell say why – and then understanding the real power behind the throne, and how our brains go about pulling the relevant strings, pulleys and levers to make new ideas happen. It’s reassuring to know that someone in there knows what she’s doing.

IMAGE: The Persephone Chalice, 1914-15, Phoebe Anna Traquair, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

(1) ‘The Role of Medial Prefrontal Cortex in Memory and Decision Making’, Neuron, 2012, Dec 20, 76(6), by Euston, Gruber and McNaughton

(2) ‘Charles J Limb: Inner Sparks’, Scientific American MIND, January 2014, by Alicia Anstead

(3) ‘Your Fertile Brain at Work’, p.88, Scientific American MIND, January 2014

(4) Ibid, p.90.