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

https://www.wikiart.org/en/gustave-courbet/the-desperate-man-self-portrait-1845

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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  https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O62489/the-persephone-chalice-cup-and-cover-traquair-phoebe-anna/

(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.

Blogs and websites and ideas, oh my!

When reading other people’s blogs, I always enjoy following their links to different websites – I’m led to another topic of interest, and links from there lead me to something else again, and so on. I like that a single post can provide a central path of argument with the opportunity to wander off and explore interesting distractions, diversions and rabbit holes. It feels more akin to channel-hopping than article-reading, and results in a wonderfully diverse reading menu. Below are some of my favourite blogs – they are content-rich with plenty of offshoots, and they always show me something new and inspiring.

Art Museum Teaching was exactly the blog I was hoping to find when I started my Churchill Fellowship research. I was looking for information on how museum and gallery educators think about their work and develop their ideas; I wanted insights into our practice – all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes and before the participants arrive. This site does exactly that. Its founding author and editor, Mike Murawski, is the Director of Education & Public Programs at Portland Art Museum in the US. He has assembled a broad range of art museum educators and specialists as contributing editors and actively invites others to contribute too. The site itself is easy to navigate and – due to its collective nature – a diversity of voices and perspectives is shared.

Design Thinking for Museums is edited and run by Dana Mitroff Silvers, who also contributes to Art Museum Teaching. She brings a huge amount of experience to her site, having been Head of Online Services at SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) for over 10 years. Design Thinking for Museums was established in 2012, the fruit of a partnership between SFMOMA and Stanford University’s highly influential d.school (their website is also great for wandering). Design thinking wasn’t a concept I was familiar with before I started working at the V&A. Having always worked in galleries, I was used to talking about – and wrangling with – the creative process instead. Design thinking is a creative approach to problem-solving that can be applied in so many different contexts, including that of devising and developing museum learning programmes. Mitroff Silvers provides a fab mix of theory and practical examples to support museum work – not only with audiences, but with colleagues too.

Createquity describes itself as, “a think tank and online publication investigating the most important issues in the arts and what we, collectively and individually, can do about them.”.  This site is link-tastic and a gift to anyone interested in the relationship between government policy, cultural sector research, and organisational practice at the coalface of public engagement. Although the focus is on the US, they also include plenty of links to relevant UK material, and their reporting is clear and concise. It’s a really great resource for getting into some of the bigger, stickier challenges facing the sector (of which there are plenty to choose from…). For something closer to home, the Cultural Learning Alliance is doing heroic work campaigning against the negative impact on arts education of the Department for Education’s curriculum directives.

The examples above are very work-y and specific to my practice. I also like following sites that are good for cultural rummaging – the online equivalent of going into TK Maxx with no fixed retail objective. Open Culture is an enormous virtual warehouse of articles, images, films, courses and MOOCs, spanning all artforms and featuring loads of lost treasures and hidden gems. The sheer volume can be a bit overwhelming, but it’s ideal for the unexpected discovery. Colossal is for when I need an aesthetic fix – it is filled with beautiful, beautiful things, often impressive in scale and complexity, and created with an incredibly high level of skill. I tend to explore this site with my jaw on the floor. And when I want to read up on creativity more generally, I enjoy Open For Ideas and Can Scorpions Smoke? – two UK-based sites (to counter the otherwise American bias of my online reading) that do a great job of being both informative and entertaining.

When I think about how I found out about stuff as a student – ie. reading books in libraries – and how I find out about stuff now – ie. reading articles online – the difference blows my mind. The ready access to information and ideas, much of which is free and available at the touch of a button, far outstrips anything I could have got my hands on twenty years ago. But with the whole world so close, the next challenge is finding the hours in the day to explore it and unearth the best bits…

IMAGE: http://flavorwire.com/411724/50-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-wizard-of-oz

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

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

Awe – and then some

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMAGE SOURCE: http://waitbutwhy.com/2013/08/creepy-kids-in-creepy-vintage-ads.html

Fewer Horsemen of Mediocrity, More Data Analytics

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

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

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

So here are some of the things I learned…

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

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

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

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

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

 

Image from: http://www.myvintagelife.co.uk/sirdar-mans-classic-cardigan-knitting-pattern-2332b-1960s-4675-p.asp

Creative Ways of Exploring the Creative Process: Interview Two

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been sharing my experience of working with ImaginationLancaster to develop interview formats and associated tools, devised with the aim of better understanding the creative process of museum educators.  The first interview focussed on the individual and their personal approach to creativity; the second interview, which I’ll explore in more detail here, was all about collaboration and group dynamics, and how we nurture ideas from that initial spark to a fully-fledged programme.

No museum educator is an island – not even the ones working as solo learning specialists in their organisations. All new ideas must get bounced around like pinballs, ricocheting off colleagues, funders, partners, artists, and stakeholders, before being launched into the world. This process can go two ways – for better or worse. Some ideas end up subject to ‘mission drift’ by trying to be too many things to too many people. The result? All a bit soggy and no real impact.  However, when it goes well, the opposite occurs. Ideas can gain depth and richness through the input of other people’s perspectives. My best ideas have all started in pale sepia tones and only transitioned to full-blown technicolour after much discussion with many others.

In many ways, interview two was easier to conduct than interview one. In the first interview, museum educators were being asked to reflect on and articulate a process that is very personal and isn’t usually voiced. However, for the second interview, the same individuals were being asked to talk about their programmes and how they worked with others. These kind of questions are often asked of museum educators, whether for marketing, reporting or practice-sharing purposes, so the responses were, generally speaking, more readily available.

To start, I asked interviewees to bring to mind four examples of programming that they had a key role in shaping. I requested two examples of programmes that they felt to be ‘tried and tested’ (well established, popular and work well) and two examples that they considered ‘innovative’ (reflecting new approaches). One of the aims of my Churchill Fellowship was to identify innovations in learning programming, and I was curious to know how practitioners recognised this in their own work. In order to identify what made their innovative programmes distinctive or special, it was very useful to have the counterpoint of the ‘tried and tested’. Interestingly, some of the ‘tried and tested’ examples had started life as innovative programmes and, over time, had become a reliable staple as the museum educators gained confidence in, and familiarity with, how to deliver the programmes successfully. At this stage in the interview, I just wanted a nuts-and-bolts summary of each example, and asked interviewees not to offer any analysis of the creative aspects, because that bit was going to come later.

Next, I introduced the Project Mapping tool. This tool was a modified version of something that came from a previous piece of work with ImaginationLancaster. In 2015, I commissioned them to run a half-day workshop with my then team, Schools, Families and Young People (SFYP) in the Learning Department at the V&A. During our discussions around working practices and how we developed new ideas and programmes, one of the workshop facilitators observed two recurring dynamics – high vs. low risk, and reactive vs. proactive. Inspired by this, we marked out a matrix on a large sheet of paper, using these dynamics as X and Y axes, and then positioned our programmes in the relevant quadrants. It turns out that we perceive our work as being higher risk and more proactive than I realised, which was a reassuring discovery.

Project matrix image

When I was working with ImaginationLancaster the following year, we felt there was potential to use the matrix format again. I was very keen to keep risk on one of the axes, because it comes up so often when talking about innovation, creativity and change. I also wanted to have one consistent measure so that I could collect several different responses to risk in relation to programming. The X axis we kept blank to see what other dynamics would come up. We also wanted the matrix to have a degree of personalisation, so that the mapping would better reflect the circumstances of that particular organisation.  

When the Project Mapping Tool was introduced, the first task was to define what high and low risk meant to the interviewee, to make sure we were both talking about the same thing, and then to label the second axis. Once that was done, we numbered their four examples (1 & 2 = tried and tested, 3 & 4 = innovative) and then each one was positioned on the matrix. It was at this point that we reflected on the creative process and how it related to the chosen coordinates of each example. To read more about my findings from this part of the interview, please refer to my earlier post, Risky Business (12 Dec 2016).

For the final part of the interview, I asked interviewees to select one each of their ‘tried and tested’ and ‘innovative’ examples, and then talk me through how they were developed: What was the original idea? What steps did they go through? Who did they work with? How did they work together? What was the result? For this, we used an existing ImaginationLancaster tool, hexagons, that had been developed as part of a previous project. As the name suggests, hexagons are hexagonal (natch) discs that have a simple linking mechanism around the edges so you can build up a interconnecting map of thoughts and ideas. They were created as an alternative to the ubiquitous post-it notes, and are useful when exploring topics that have an element of progression or development over time. We used colour to differentiate each example – blue hexagons for the ‘tried and tested’; and red for the ‘innovative’.

This task generated an interesting range of responses. For two of the seven interviewees, after mapping their ‘innovative’ example, they declined the request to map their ‘tried and tested’, because they felt there wouldn’t be much difference between the two. For others, the process for each was very different. When this was the case, I asked interviewees to arrange their hexagons in a way that would reflect this (ie – not just a long snake of one hexagon after the other, but a more complex, interlocking arrangement). A particular characteristic of the ‘innovative’ examples was the necessity to keep looping back to earlier stages in the process. As the new programme was finding its form: some components were presumed resolved, went pear-shaped, and then had to be returned to and reconsidered;  some components were extended and further fleshed out, whereas others were dropped; and some components were revisited as the result of input from others or externally-imposed considerations. It seemed to be a process that required closer attention, and more frequent, complex decision-making than when interviewees were working on ‘tried and tested’ programmes. I should note that not all examples were originated by the interviewee; some had inherited programmes and couldn’t talk about the genesis of the idea. I was also warned – and rightly so – that memory is highly unreliable. Was I getting an accurate record of how these programmes were created, or a tidied up, selective, oft-repeated narrative version of events? Ideally, I would have preferred it to be the former, but I think it’s more realistic to assume I collected a fair bit of the latter too.

With the example(s) mapped out in front of us, I then asked the interviewee to annotate, using green hexagons to show moments of surprise or insights, and ‘node’ hexagons (with a white dot in the middle) to show trigger moments where something shifted – ie. innovation. The answers this task generated could be loosely categorised as individual or interpersonal. For example, an individual surprise/insight was when the interviewee noticed a greater self-awareness around sensing boundaries and then pushing against them. In comparison, interpersonal surprises/insights came about through working with audience focus groups, brainstorming with the project team, and – shock horror – having a huge amount of fun and laughing like drains when testing beta versions of new programming with colleagues.

When conducting the interviews, I was always trying to delve deeper into the interviewees’ responses. Like that irritating child who keeps asking ‘why?’,  I didn’t want to accept face-value answers and I would have missed a lot of great material if I hadn’t pushed for more. This rather dogged approach came from a place of genuine interest and curiosity. Having said that, I was also very aware that the interviewees were demonstrating an enormous amount of trust and generosity by allowing me to poke around in their heads and careers. It was important to me to be respectful of their answers, both in the moment, and how I later shared my findings through reports and blogposts.

I had always assumed that the sort of people who are drawn to museum and gallery education are also inherently interested in other people – a Venn diagram to illustrate this would be like an eclipse, with one sphere perfectly overlapping the one behind it. So much of what I learned over the course of my Churchill Fellowship confirms this assumption. It may seem self-indulgent, but I strongly believe that there is a huge amount to be gained from turning that interest in others back onto ourselves. These interview formats are one way of exploring our own creative processes, but I’m sure there are also plenty of others that we could be putting to good use.

Creative Ways of Exploring the Creative Process: Interview One

I am fascinated by the creative process and what creative people think about their own approach to ideas generation and development. In last week’s post, I gave an overview of my work with ImaginationLancaster, and how we devised interview formats to explore this topic. This week and next, I’d like to go through each interview in some detail, explaining how I used it and sharing some of my findings from my trip to the US. Both interviews and related tools are appendices in my report, The Creative Process of Museum Educators and New Approaches to Museum Learning, available on the WCMT website.

The first interview focused on the individual rather than the group. Everyone has their own way of coming up with new ideas – consciously or otherwise – and I wanted to get a better understanding of how people think about their own creativity and how it shapes their work in art museums. So the emphasis of this interview was on self-awareness and personal definitions of creativity and the creative process. Because I was meeting people for the first time, I wanted to start by giving them space to talk generally about their roles. The actual question is: ‘In what ways do you bring value to your organisation – what qualities, skills, experience, and abilities do you have/use?’ This was daunting for some, so I often expanded on it and asked interviewees to speak about the many facets of their work and what they bring to it. We would spend about 20-30 minutes talking about their role, and then I would whip out my first interview tool.

my value image

The tool is in two parts – the first step is for the interviewee to select six key values that they bring to their organisation, and the second step is for them to place each value on a scale, from less to more creative, and then explain their rationale. I didn’t want people getting ahead of themselves and preempting step two, so I folded the page back so only step one was visible. The preceding conversation was a necessary warm-up to enable interviewees to list their top six values, and it was also useful for me to have a more rounded and in-depth understanding of their work before we arrived at these brief headlines. The six values were originally listed in no particular order by the interviewee.

I enjoyed that everyone interpreted this task in a different way and there was an interesting range of identified values. Some of the responses were task-oriented, such as ‘grant-writing’, ‘evaluation’, and ‘management’, and other responses reflected personal attributes, such as ‘process-oriented’, ‘vulnerability and willingness to admit failure’, and ‘pushing boundaries’. A sensitivity to others came up several times (‘listening’, ‘connector’, ‘collaboration’, ‘working with others’). Two of the seven people interviewed expressly stated ‘creativity’ as one of their six key values to the organisation, and a further two made reference to highly creative processes (‘rapid ideas generation’ and ‘vision’).

The next step was to then place each value on a scale. When I was testing the interview format on colleagues in the UK, I asked interviewees to rank each value from 1-10, with 1 = not creative and 10 = highly creative. However, when working on the final template with the ImaginationLancaster team, we wanted to give a bit more flexibility so we created a small grid, with ‘less’ at one end and ‘more’ at the other. As hoped, this resulted in many different responses, such as: a vertical line at the appropriate point on the grid; shaded bar graphs; little pictograms to illustrate each point; and even an arc, using the grid as a measure of time passing and mapping how the creative aspects peak and dip depending on where they were in the cycle of programming.

While the grid didn’t have an explicit scale of 1-10, there were 10 columns so, where possible, I could turn each response into a number and then see how they compared with each other. Two interviewees went full Spinal Tap and ranked their top value 11 out of 10 (for ‘persistent questioning’ and ‘storytelling’). Only one value was ranked 1/10 – ‘high expectations of myself and others’, everything else was 3/10 and above. ‘Listening’ was an interesting value, as it was ranked by different interviewees across the scale (9, 4, and 3). For the interviewee who ranked it highest, listening was felt to be a fundamental and generative part of the creative process, whereas those who ranked it lower felt listening to be more of a character trait, something they did instinctively, and while creative work was linked to listening, it wasn’t creative in and of itself. I found the conversations around their rationales were some of the richest parts of the interview. Having to think about and articulate what makes key aspects of one’s role creative (or not) really puts the squeeze on personal definitions of creativity and gave us plenty of food for thought.

The next part of the interview asks, ‘Describe a way of finding out about the creative process of a museum educator, from before the idea is created and up to the point where the programme is confirmed and advertised’. In my best-laid plans, the interviewee would dream up an approach – and I was open to a broad interpretation of the question. We would then carry out their idea, whether it was a tool or a question or a process, and reflect on what it told us about their creativity. This question would allow me to see their own creativity in action, and it would also give me another perspective on their understanding of the creative process. All fine and good, I thought… However, some of the interviews had to be cut short to fit the available time slots, and this question often faced the chop.  When it was included, some interesting solutions came up; some interviewees suggested a combination of observing programmes in action, and then conducting interviews/discussions to unpack how they had been created, which was a good idea but not something we could try out immediately. Over a longer period of time, I would have liked to follow this question through and play out their ideas.

I was able to explore this question more thoroughly during the testing phase in the UK. I had more time with interviewees and their solutions were things we could try out quite easily. One interviewee came up with a lovely structure, summarised as ‘What, How Why’:

  • Step 1: Ask the interviewee to list their target audiences and five things that they consider USPs (unique selling points) for meeting those audience needs. Further unpack each USP to identify underpinning principles. So, for example, a USP might be that audiences ‘feel heard’ and the associated principle is ‘dialogical enquiry; everyone brings their own knowledge and experience’
  • Step 2: With these USPs and principles in mind, ask the interviewee to map the process of delivering a project. Create a diagram or journey of this process, and think closely about how the starting and ending points are defined. Notate with small icons or keywords, for example, a little twisted knot for those difficult or anxious moments
  • Step 3: Using the diagram/map, continue the discussion to generate clear statements around why the process is carried out in that way. This is the trickiest bit to drill down to, but when we tried it a lot of rich ideas surfaced, such as ‘constant questioning: keep re-visiting and challenging ideas during the project, and always know why a decision has been taken’.

I also really liked the approach of another UK interviewee, who, as a dancer, brought a different perspective to the task. Her solution was to take a sheet of paper and ask, ‘if this was your creative process, how would you play with it?’ When I pulled the ol’ switcheroo and asked her to do her own task, she immediately started tearing the page, working carefully and allowing different shapes to emerge. She then twisted and curved each piece, and fairly rapidly created a small sculpture. It was important to the interviewee that we then didn’t try to explain it and add words to the word-free experience of making, but – and this was my favourite bit – she observed ‘I could dance that’, referring to her paper sculpture, and then demonstrated how the form could be translated into movement. It was so spontaneous and immediate and true to her practice.

6 images of cone

I think the best way to conduct this Leapfrog interview is to use the format and questions as a loose framework and allow the interviewee plenty of space to roam with their thinking and responses. The more informal and casual the setting, the more comfortable the interviewee. I wanted the process to feel like a really stimulating chat, but with one person (ie. not me, for a change) doing most of the talking.

Creative Ways of Exploring the Creative Process: working with ImaginationLancaster

Now that my Churchill Fellowship report is completed, I’d like to revisit some aspects of the process that I only touched on lightly when writing up my findings. The interview format, developed with the help of ImaginationLancaster, had a huge influence on how I conducted my research. As an appendix to my report, I included the interview questions and the three interview tools I used to better understand the creative process of museum educators. I would love these questions and tools to be of use to others, and in order to make that happen, I think a bit more context is required. So this week I’d like to tell the story of how the ImaginationLancaster team turned my initial podgy thinking into a lean, mean researching machine (the classic ‘before’ and ‘after’ photo scenario), and over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be looking at the interview format and tools in more detail, discussing how I used them and sharing some key findings. If this sort of thing is up your street, you’re in for a treat; if not, please come back in a month’s time when it’s all over.

I met staff from ImaginationLancaster at a co-design conference a few years ago and really liked their approach to working with communities; they have such a genuine interest in the audience ‘voice’ and ensuring that the end-user has a hand in shaping whatever service or facilities are being designed for them. In 2015, I invited ImaginationLancaster to devise and deliver a workshop for my then team, Schools, Families and Young People, at the V&A. We used tools to explore: how to generate new ideas for programmes; how to think about our own creative process; and what steps we could take to make our office environment and team-working more conducive to ideas development and programme planning. These themes and concerns – the creative process, ideas generation and development – continued to knock around my head and became the focus of my Churchill Fellowship the following year.

In developing my approach to the Fellowship, I was very aware that the creative process is a tricky thing to pin down. It lives in the shadows and doesn’t ever really let you look it in the eye. I wanted to find a way to sneak up on it, and I knew I’d need help to devise the necessary interview tactics. So I sidled up to Leon Cruickshank, Professor of Design and Creative Exchange at ImaginationLancaster, with this challenge. As luck would have, his team had recently embarked on a new cluster of AHRC-funded co-design projects called Leapfrog, and Leon thought my query would be a good fit for one of the smaller strands. Happy days! So I ended up visiting Lancaster for three full-day workshops in total; once in May 2016 to clarify my research questions and brainstorm interview tools; again in July to refine and confirm the final interview format; and then finally in November, after my month in the US, to go through the information I had gathered, reflect on how the tools had been used, and come up with some data-crunching strategies.

I gained so much more from this process than just the interview format and tools. I was particularly fascinated by how Leon and his colleagues improve ideas and clarify thinking. It brought into sharp relief the difference between the ‘show and tell’ approach that dominates discussions of museum education practice and the analytical poking and prodding of academia. I arrived for my first workshop, with Leon and researchers Laura Wareing and Hayley Alter, thinking I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do. However, at that point none of my ideas had been tested or critiqued. To prepare for the first workshop, Leon asked me to bring my research questions – what exactly did I want to find out? Even this seemingly basic task took quite a bit of thought, not least because I knew these questions would be my touchstone for the whole process, and an important outcome of the Fellowship would be my ability to provide some answers. I ended up with the following: how can museum educators better understand their creative process, and how can that greater understanding inform and improve programming?

Taking my questions as the starting point, we then discussed each one in some detail and ended up with eight further questions, teasing out various lines of inquiry. These questions became design challenges, and we did a series of ‘sprints’, coming up with possible ways of answering each one. This was followed by further reflection, questioning and refining. By the end of the day I was buzzing, knackered, and happily heading home with a much better understanding of what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it (for more detail on this workshop, please see my post on the Leapfrog blog). What I enjoyed most about the workshop was being challenged. Leon, Laura and Hayley asked lots of great questions, the sorts of questions that you can’t wriggle out of or sidestep. They offered different perspectives and would also challenge each other to further explain or clarify their own thinking. Their workshop spaces have wonderful large whiteboards and pinboards that can be wheeled around, and we covered about half a dozen of them with our thoughts – it was very useful to see everything mapped out.

Workshopping ideas at Lancaster May16
Laura and Hayley, surrounded by our ideas

Leon also did a fantastic job of keeping us on track. My brain likes wandering down the side-streets and back-alleys of related anecdotes and amusing asides, as well as indulging in ‘but what does it all mean?’ navel-gazing. Leon was having none of this. Several times, he kindly but firmly steered us back by asking, ‘is this addressing the research questions?’ The invariable reply of ‘no’ brought us back into the fold and refocused attention. Consequently, we achieved a lot over a relatively short period of time. Again, I couldn’t help but compare the loose and freewheeling approach of so many museum education meetings/discussions I’d attended with the focus and discipline that ImaginationLancaster employs to get things done. Both approaches are creative and inspiring, but I particularly enjoyed the additional sleek efficiency of a design-minded way of working.

Between the first and second workshops, I tested out the draft interview format on a few colleagues and friends who work in the sector. The benefits of this were twofold: it enabled me to pinpoint which parts of the interview were working well and which parts needed further work; and it also gave me and the interviewees a genuine insight into their creative processes. The interview is in two parts – the first focuses on the individual (solitary, internal) and the second focuses on the group (social, collaborative). In total, it took 2-3 hours to complete both parts with one interviewee. That’s a long time to spend talking about yourself, what you do and how you do it.

More than one interviewee made the observation that they’d never previously had the chance to talk in-depth about their creative process, and they were surprised by what the interview revealed about themselves. I don’t think I would have achieved the same results with a self-assessment form; a lot of the value of the interview format comes from having someone listen, and listen closely. Just as Leon, Laura and Hayley listened to me to understand my ideas, I tried to do the same with the interviewees, giving them my full attention and asking for more details or elaboration if I felt something significant needed further fleshing out. I was given the good advice to always keep the focus on the interviewee – an interview isn’t a conversation, and the more talking I do, the less I learn about the other person.

The second workshop in July was a chance to reflect on how the interview format was working. I felt that some of the questions needed refining as they weren’t quite hitting the mark, and the draft, hand-sketched tools I was using needed to be turned into the final templates. Again, it was incredibly useful to think about what I wanted to achieve and then make sure that any improvements moved us closer to that goal. Laura and Hayley are InDesign wizards and created the lovely templates that I took with me to the US. As a group, we also devised an additional tool to be sent to interviewees in advance of my visit – the tool asked interviewees to select or create a postcard-sized image that serves as ‘a metaphor for my creative process’ and then explain why. Rather than arrive cold, I wanted to give them a quick activity that would encourage some reflection on the creative process before the actual interview. I sent the tool to everyone I was going to meet; the take-up was fairly low, but I didn’t insist it was used and was happy to give interviewees the choice to opt in or out of completing it.

And then September happened, and I had the time of my life travelling across the US, meeting so many inspiring practitioners and learning about their work. I interviewed a total of 23 museum and gallery professionals, of which seven were in-depth Leapfrog interviews; the others were briefer and more general interviews about innovations in programming, the role of museum educators, and organisational context.  I was acutely aware that I would soon be leaving my contented Fellowship bubble and I wanted to capture as much of my learning as possible before being spat back out into real life. Before leaving the US, I started a list of the similarities and recurring themes that I had noticed come up in interviews, for example: get inspiration from outside the sector; make connections across disparate subject matter; create a culture of experimentation; don’t shy away from disputes and differences of opinion, etc. On my return to the UK, I transferred my findings from the Leapfrog tools into a series of Excel spreadsheets so that I could compare and contrast the range of answers to each question. I took all of the completed tools and my spreadsheets back up to Lancaster for our third workshop.

After so much preparation and planning, it was very satisfying to be able to share the data I had collected with the team. Even though we all knew the templates well, I hadn’t anticipated that the completed tools would be pretty impenetrable for the others to ‘read’. I had the memory and experience of the interviews to decode the tools, but it turned out that it wasn’t material you could browse without those memories and experiences. However, for the purposes of the workshop we were evaluating the interview process rather than the content, so this wasn’t a hindrance.

One of my biggest concerns in November was next steps – how on earth was I going to turn all of this raw information into an organised and coherent report? My answers were buried in there somewhere – how could I find them? Leon, Laura and Hayley helped me with this problem too. As well as keeping a list of similarities across the interviews, I also wanted to distinguish between the mindset or character traits of the museum educators, and their behaviour and actions. I felt the former was difficult to replicate – is empathy something you can learn? – whereas the latter could be fostered. With these factors in mind, the team suggested I create a table, with my list of observations down one side and then three columns across the top, divided into mindset, behaviours, and impact (ie. how the mindsets and behaviours were manifest in the programme/activity). This framework set me up nicely for the following couple of months – I transcribed the interviews and then copied relevant comments into the table, adding more rows as needed. In this way, I was able to follow what the data was telling me – some observations needed to be subdivided to capture further details, other observations fell by the wayside or were collapsed into larger categories. Slowly, natural groupings began to appear and a structure emerged. Populating the table was time-consuming and laborious, but it was also thrilling to discover not only what I was hoping to find, but all sorts of other stuff that I hadn’t anticipated. I had never used Excel to write an essay before, and found it an incredibly helpful tool for ordering my thinking and pushing ideas around. It also felt reassuring to know that my conclusions were reached through a systematic approach; I could write with confidence because I felt the foundations were secure.

So, as you can see, ImaginationLancaster played a substantial role in my Churchill Fellowship, and I can’t imagine how I would have done it without them. As well as being guided through a specific design process, I also benefited hugely from their critique and creative input. And the best bit? It was good fun. Working with people who are really good at what they do always makes me raise my game.