Engage at Tate Exchange: a taster menu

Last week, I participated in a three-day course organised by engage, the National Association for Gallery Education in the UK. For the first two days, we were hosted by Tate Exchange in the new Switch House building. We enjoyed a backdrop of stunning views over the Thames and across East London as we shared practice through talks, workshops, demonstrations and discussions. On the final day, we went on a tour of South London arts venues to see their exhibitions and hear about their learning programmes. We went to 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, South London & Maudsley (SLaM) NHS Foundation Trust, Peckham Platform and South London Gallery. I learnt a huge amount from my peers, spanning a diverse range of topics, and since then I’ve been happily following up on recommended reports and websites. For this post, I’ve compiled a taster menu of interesting reading collected over the three days; it falls into three broad categories: Reports (economic/education); Reports (museum and gallery learning); and Projects & Initiatives. Enjoy!

 

Reports (economic/education)

The Future of Jobs (World Economic Forum)

http://reports.weforum.org/future-of-jobs-2016/

  • This report summarises the ‘direction of travel’ for work in different industries from 2015-2020. It takes a global perspective and highlights inequalities in employment for women. To get your attention, the home page sets a vaguely apocalyptic tone: ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution is interacting with other socio-economic and demographic factors to create a perfect storm of business model change in all industries, resulting in major disruptions to labour markets’. Despite this alarmist introduction, the bulk of the information is presented more calmly, using plenty of infographics that are easy to read at a glance and perfect for browsing.

http://reports.weforum.org/future-of-jobs-2016/shareable-infographics/

  • The ‘shareable infographics’ section compares the top 10 skills required in 2015 and projected for 2020. It’s worth noting that all of them are key to museum education practice and reflect the benefits of arts education.
  • Top four skills in 2015: Complex Problem Solving, Coordinating with Others, People Management, and Critical Thinking.
  • Top four skills in 2020: Complex Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, Creativity, and People Management.

 

Creative Learning Plan (Education Scotland)

https://education.gov.scot/improvement/Pages/cre24_creativityinfographics.aspx

  • While schools in England are struggling with the lack of support for the arts in the national curriculum, it’s a different story in Scotland where creativity is promoted as an essential component of a balanced education. Education Scotland’s ‘3-18 Curriculum Impact Report on Creativity’  identifies four key creative skills – curiosity, open-mindedness, imagination and problem-solving. This report, as well as a selection of bright and engaging infographics on creativity, are available to download from the link above.
Shard from Tate Mar17
View of the Shard from the top of the Switch House

Reports (museum and gallery learning)

Creative Families (South London Gallery)

http://www.southlondongallery.org/page/creativefamilies

  • This intergenerational artist-led project worked with both parents (who are experiencing mental health difficulties) and their children. It aimed to explore the relationship between parenting and well-being, and was designed as an early-intervention programme in partnership between South London Gallery, Southwark’s Parental Mental Health Team and three local Children’s Centres: Grove, Crawford and Ann Bernadt.
  • The final report, Making It Together, is a thorough evaluative study of the project (download via link above). It goes into detail about the methodology and impacts, and places the work in a broader social context.

 

Step by Step: Arts Policy and Young People 1944-2014 (King’s College London)

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/cultural/culturalenquiries/youngpeople/Step-by-step.pdf

  • While I was noodling around looking for Making It Together, I found this report from a few years ago. It was commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary in 2015 of the first-ever UK government arts policy, authored by Jennie Lee. It pretty much does what it says on the tin, charting the history of post-war arts initiatives for young people in the UK over a 70-year period. This may sound a bit dry, but it’s fascinating to see how attitudes towards art education have shifted over time. The authors also make the point that new policy is often devised without an understanding of what has come before, resulting in the proverbial wheel being invented over and over again, a problem that I think we can relate to in museum and gallery education/learning.
St Pauls from Tate Mar17
View of St Paul’s Cathedral from the top of the Switch House

Projects and Initiatives

Youth Enterprise (198 Contemporary Arts and Learning)

http://www.198.org.uk/

  • 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, previously known as 198 Gallery, is located on Railton Road, which was the epicentre of the Brixton rising/riots in 1981. The gallery was founded in 1988 and has always taken an active interest in supporting young people and their creativity. Staunch supporters of new talent, 198 can take credit for giving five of the 12 artists showing at the Diaspora Pavilion (Venice Biennale 2017) their first exhibition. Exciting youth-led social enterprises have also been fostered by 198, and look set to expand as the organisation extends its links with business and the creative industries.

http://hustlebucks.bigcartel.com/

  • Formed in 2010, Hustlebucks is a youth design agency. They predominantly work in fashion design and have recently collaborated with band, The xx, on a range of t-shirts.

http://www.198.org.uk/creative-learning/arts-factory

  • The Factory is a new venture for 198. It will provide studio space for creative start-ups and social enterprises that will work with local young people, offering training, mentoring and employment.

http://afhboston.org/

  • The Factory was inspired in part by Artists For Humanity (AFH), an amazing Boston-based initiative set up in the 1990s. AFH grew out of frustration at the lack of art experiences available in the Boston Public School System, and their aim is, ‘to bridge economic, racial, and social divisions by providing under-resourced urban youth with the keys to self-sufficiency through paid employment in art and design.’ They go on to say, ‘our mission is built on twin philosophies: engagement in the creative process is a powerful force for social change, and creative entrepreneurship is a productive and life-changing opportunity for young people and their communities.’

 

Generation Art: Young Artists on Tour (engage)

http://generationart.gallery/

  • A selection of 40 artworks by children and young people was selected for a national tour (2015-16) that went to Turner Contemporary, Margate, New Walk Museum and Gallery and Soft Touch Arts, Leicester, and Quay Arts, Isle of Wight. The project aimed to celebrate the creativity of young artists, raise the aspirations of adults about what young artists are capable of, and campaign for quality art, craft and design education. The attendance target – 90,000 – was smashed and an impressive 203,000 people saw the show, of which 42% were first time visitors to the host venues.

 

Cultural Education Challenge (A New Direction)

https://www.anewdirection.org.uk/what-we-do/cultural-education-challenge

  • A New Direction works to ensure that all children and young people get the most out of London’s creative and cultural offer. One of their current programmes, the London Cultural Education Challenge, runs from 2015-18 and aims to improve cultural provision for young audiences, as well as creating sustainable partnership models that can continue beyond the lifespan of the funding.
  • There are six overarching themes for the Cultural Education Challenge, each of which has been presented as a handy infographic identifying specific needs. For example, ‘Equity and Geography’ provides data on the division between cultural provision in central London, the large percentage of pupils in outer London, and the gulf between the two – 40% of 11-25 year olds in London have not been to an art exhibition or music event in the past year.

I wish I could include everything we talked about over those three days; my selection is only a small indication of what was discussed. If you’d like to see more, check out #engagejourneys on Twitter for more links, tips and photos.

The Hundred Acre Wood Theory of Change

When I met with Ethan Angelica to discuss his work at Museum Hack, our conversation focussed on creativity and innovation, and also included change management and the importance of ‘bringing people with you’ when introducing new ideas. It turns out that both of our dads are management gurus – his is a management consultant specialising in non-profit organisations, and mine is a recently retired business management academic. Ethan told me about the fantastic ‘theory of change’ model developed by his Dad, Emil Angelica. It’s based on four of A.A. Milne’s characters who live in Hundred Acre Wood – Tigger, Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, and Eeyore. Ethan tells it brilliantly, so the following is a verbatim quote from our interview:

My Dad is one of my greatest role models. He has what he calls his ‘Hundred Acre Wood Theory of Change’… When something changes, you have the Tiggers, who are bouncing – they’re way out in front of everybody, they’re just like, can’t wait to change it. You’ve only got a couple of those, and you need to let them Tigger away. Keep an eye on them, make sure they don’t jump off a cliff or something, but let them Tigger. Then you have the Poohs, who will follow the honey pot. You give them their honey pot, and they’re like, ‘okay, cool, this is where we’re going, I got it, I got it, this is cool, I like what we’re doing here, it looks delicious, let’s just keep going’. So the Tiggers are bouncing and as long as Pooh has its honey pot, it’s going to be okay, Tigger doesn’t really bother him.

Piglet gets really scared of Tigger. The Piglets are like, ‘ohh, I don’t know, man, he’s crazy and that honey pot is not very interesting to me, what are we going to do?’ and so you have to gently guide Piglet there. And then you have Eeyores. And Eeyores are just like, ‘well, I don’t know, like I guess…’ and you’re just never going to win over the Eeyores. Eeyores are always going to be there, and you just have to be like, ‘you’re going to be fine, yes I know this is rough’. I find that distinctly in all of these organisations. Every time I go in and do a workshop, I always see a Tigger, I always see the person who I hand the Five Elements [of a Hack] to and they’re like, ‘ooh, this is pretty’, the Piglets who are like, ‘but, but I can’t say fuck’, and then Eeyores who are like, ‘everything you’re doing is horrible’.

When I asked Ethan if I could share this model, he kindly put me in contact with Emil via Skype so I could find out more. The Hundred Acre Wood theory came about when Emil was working with refugee and migrant communities in Minneapolis in the 1980s. Many in these communities were watching TV to help develop their English language skills, and the Disney cartoon of Winnie-the-Pooh was well known. Emil had been looking for a narrative framework to convey change management ideas, and Hundred Acre Wood was the perfect fit. He has used it regularly with many different groups since then, and it elicits an interesting range of responses. The majority get it very quickly, and then enjoy identifying which character they most relate to, or start attributing characters to their colleagues. And of course there are some who find it juvenile, because there will always be some who take their own adulthood very, very seriously.

In any group, the Tiggers and the Eeyores are the outliers at either end of the positive-negative spectrum. Emil makes the point that leaders often spend too much time focussing on these extremes – they like the Tiggers because they agree with them, and they fixate on the Eeyores as a challenge to be conquered. Time could be better spent, however, supporting the majority that fall in the middle – the Poohs and the Piglets.

Winnie-the-Pooh is motivated by his honey pot – something that is tangible and within his reach. When going through periods of change, the Poohs need short-term goals and quick successes to stay motivated – a long-term vision with positive results in five years’ time just isn’t going to cut it. Piglets, bless them, wants to know ‘will this hurt me?’ so they have to feel safe and protected through the change process. Tiggers need to be kept occupied so they don’t scare the daylights out of Piglets – delegating parts of a project to Tiggers is a great way to channel their enthusiasm. Eeyores can negatively influence both Poohs and Piglets so they need to be managed closely.

Emil also told me about two related change management models that support his own:

Michael Beer’s formula for change = (D*V*1st) < C

  • D = dissatisfaction with the present situation
  • V = vision of how things could be different
  • 1st = First step to bring about change
  • C = perceived cost of going through change must be seen as less than the cost of staying with the current situation, in order for change to happen.

William Bridges’s Transition Model

  • This model maps the transition that people go through over time as they come to accept change.
  • At first, there is a sense of loss, letting go and relinquishing the old way when something comes to an end.
  • A ‘neutral zone’ in the middle is characterised by confusion, direction finding and re-patterning.
  • New beginnings generate commitment and a new sense of purpose and energy.

Beer’s formula is particularly pertinent for the Piglets, who worry about the personal cost of any change and need to be very dissatisfied with their present situation to be open to doing things differently. Bridges’s transition model demonstrates that people’s points of view can change and the Hundred Acre Wood characters are not fixed positions – someone can be a Piglet on one project and a Tigger on another, or can even change characters over the course of a single project.

Emil boiled all of this down to two key headlines: when leaders want change, they need to ensure there is enough dissatisfaction to motivate the team (too much dissatisfaction = Eeyores; too little dissatisfaction = Piglets) and personal barriers to change need to be acknowledged and overcome – the pain of change needs to not be so great that change is too hard. This is such useful guidance for anyone wanting to do innovative work – museums are notoriously glacial in their pace of change and the more strategies that we have to chivvy the process along, the better.

Ethan’s work at Museum Hack is driven by a love of stories and storytelling. It was lovely to see that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, as Emil has exactly the same love of storytelling in his work. Stories are so essential to what it is to be human, and I love that this simple truth can be applied to areas as disparate as museum tours for millennials and change management for non-profit organisations. … So have you decided which character you are yet?

Image source: http://bibliodyssey.blogspot.co.uk/2008/11/original-winnie-pooh-drawings.html

Groupthink: The Evil Twin of Collaboration

In this age of ‘alternative facts’, George Orwell’s classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, no longer reads like a dystopian, nightmarish vision of the future, but a ‘how-to’ manual for the current US government administration. Some of the words that Orwell invented for the book – newspeak, doublethink –  have now become commonplace to describe manipulations of political power. These endocentric compounds inspired research psychologist, Irving Janis, to coin the phrase ‘groupthink’, which he described as follows:

…[it is] the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. Groupthink is a term of the same order as the words in the newspeak vocabulary George Orwell used in his dismaying world of 1984. In that context, groupthink takes on an invidious connotation. Exactly such a connotation is intended, since the term refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures. (Note: I’ve taken this quote from the Wikipedia page on groupthink. The whole article is thorough and fascinating – worth a look for more detailed content.)

Janis was writing about groupthink in the 1970s and 80s, and used “political fiascoes” such as the bombing of Pearl Harbour,  the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and Vietnam War as examples, illustrating how its negative consequences play out on an international scale.  Theories on group dynamics and decision-making have progressed since then and the ‘antecedent conditions’ Janis identified have been contested. Groupthink might make intuitive sense but it has been difficult to establish empirical evidence. Despite challenges to his work, Janis still seems to be held up as the gold standard, and subsequent generations of researchers have used the concept of groupthink as the springboard for their own theories.

What I find fascinating about groupthink is that I know so little about it. Collaboration and partnership-working, on the other hand, are woven deep into the fabric of museum and gallery education. We pride ourselves on our ability to bring disparate voices together and take inspiration from others, and there are plenty of articles and talks to be found online that celebrate ‘collective creativity’ (I included some examples in a previous post, Capturing the Stories of Kettle’s Yard). What I love about groupthink – the evil twin of collaboration – is that it yins the yang of working with others. It’s probably worth knowing more about how to eliminate the negative, instead of just accentuating the positive.

Janis was writing about global political scenarios and high-stakes consequences, so I appreciate that the dangers of groupthink don’t perfectly map to museum and gallery education. I assume most museum educators lack the guile of politicians and billionaires (and billionaire politicians), and we’re also fairly unlikely to rise up and invade Cuba. However, groupthink still has plenty to teach us about decision-making.

In homogeneous and tightly-knit group settings, the pressure to conform can suppress dissenting voices, encourage self-censorship, and reconfirm existing biases. Alternative options are dismissed too readily, and silence is interpreted as agreement. The group can develop a distorted sense of its own rightness, and this illusion of moral superiority and excessive confidence contributes to an inability to accurately mitigate against risk. If the group is insulated from other influences and experiences ‘deindividualisation’ whereby group cohesion is valued over independent self-expression, nothing good (or innovative) is going to come of it.

Thinking back over years of project-planning meetings and team workshops, I recognise shades of this scenario. Dissent is especially tricky when we are all – sometimes – a bit too nice and conciliatory. I can recall group planning situations where it would have felt impolite to disagree. Janis proposed several techniques to combat groupthink, one of which was to nominate a ‘devil’s advocate’; whereby the role is taken by a different person each time the group meets. I can see how this would lead to some interesting and constructive arguments and ultimately improve decision-making.

If groupthink whets your appetite, it would also be worth taking a look at a more recent model, General Group Problem Solving (GGPS). Devised by Sally Fuller and Ramon Aldag (see their article, The GGPS Model: Broadening the perspective on group problem-solving, 2001), GGPS builds on the strengths of groupthink theory, and proposes some alternatives to contested aspects.

And finally, reading about groupthink has introduced me to a fabulous lexicon of compound words. My two favourites are ‘groupshift’ and ‘mindguard’. The following definitions are from Wikipedia (I do read other things too BTW):

Groupshift is a phenomenon in which the initial positions of individual members of a group are exaggerated toward a more extreme position. When people are in groups, they make decisions about risk differently from when they are alone. In the group, they are likely to make riskier decisions, as the shared risk makes the individual risk less.

A mindguard is a member of a group who serves as an informational filter, providing limited information to the group and, consciously or subconsciously, utilising a variety of strategies to control dissent and to direct the decision-making process toward a specific, limited range of possibilities. Multiple mindguards are frequently present in groupthink situations.

The techniques utilised, consciously or subconsciously, by mindguards include:

 

  • time pressure in regard to decision-making
  • bandwagon effect/information cascades
  • reframing situations to increase pressure toward or away from a specific outcome
  • creating a sense that group cohesion will suffer if unanimity is lacking

 

The inventiveness of the English language makes me so happy; you could say – in the spirit of this post – that it’s a happymake. Group-working is predominantly, although not exclusively, verbal, so it’s a dynamic where words count for a lot. The power of words can’t, and shouldn’t, be under-estimated; they are seriously dangerous when used to distort and mislead – an ‘alternative fact’ is not an ‘alternative fact’; it is a lie. What we choose to say and how we choose to say it influences others’ perceptions of us and our ideas, and in group-working, our words can either open up or shut down new thinking.

Image: ‘Evil’ Maria, Metropolis (1927) from https://ufilmanalysisrobinson.wordpress.com/page/11/

Are You Sitting Uncomfortably?

I loathe physical discomfort in any form: pop socks pulled into the toe of my shoes; jersey sleeves bunched up into my armpits from a too-snug winter coat; scratchy shirt collars or labels; basically, anything that rides or slips or pulls or constricts makes me disproportionately grumpy. So it was disheartening to discover that discomfort goes hand-in-hand with innovative thinking. In order to come up with new ideas, your mind has to be wearing the mental equivalent of an itchy woollen hat. Your achievements, accomplishments and known abilities are like those flannel pyjamas you wore all Christmas – they might be comfortable and comforting, but you’ll never bring anything new into the world if your brain is contentedly sitting on the sofa, eating too much cheese and watching Poldark.

More than once during my Churchill trip to the US, the people I interviewed spoke about the unease that comes with new ways of working. It might be a new partnership, a new programme format, or a new audience, but without prior experience to fall back on, they have to feel their way ahead, and this produces some anxiety. Of course, the payoff comes when the partnership is established, the programme is delivered and the audience is developed – that knowledge is hard-won and should be acknowledged. It’s satisfying to know something now that you didn’t know before, but then what? Back on with the itchy woollen hat I’m afraid.

This realisation has changed how I think about my own accumulation of experiences. When I was in my first gallery job, I couldn’t learn fast enough; I was desperate to know ‘the way’ (wax on, wax off) as quickly as possible. With a few more years under my belt, I got quite cocky and thought I had it sorted. I had run enough projects, worked with enough artists, and delivered enough talks to know what I was doing, thank you very much. I thought I had mastered ‘the way’ and was now in a position to show others. I didn’t know it at the time, but by luxuriating in this sense of my own expertise, I was putting on those flannel pyjamas. What has become clear to me from my Churchill trip is that the work is never done, ‘the way’ must be constantly questioned and reformed, and satisfaction always has to lie slightly beyond reach. This is one of those annoying truths that they don’t tell you about as a kid.

I was watching David Bowie: The Last Five Years a couple of weeks ago, and he said pretty much the same thing, albeit classier: If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting. (c.52 mins)

So if we know where the good ideas live, why don’t we go there more often? I suspect it’s because self-doubt and fear of failure live there too (which would make for an interesting sitcom). Because we’re social animals, it’s uncomfortable to be separated from the pack and to vouch for an untested idea – What if it’s rubbish? What if it doesn’t work? What if I make a fool of myself? What if I’m humiliated? Self-defeating thoughts and vulnerability keep us from true innovation. David Jones would have stayed within his depth; David Bowie didn’t.

It’s useful to conduct a career health-check from time to time on one’s comfort levels. The areas of practice that feel most safe and assured are probably also the ones most in need of disruption. Fortunately, the pros of discomfort far outweigh the cons. Doing new things is mentally stimulating and exciting, and tackling fears will ultimately lead to increased confidence. My Churchill Fellowship has been one enormous itchy woollen hat. It was daunting enough to dive into twitter and blog my thoughts, let alone cross the Atlantic to interview strangers, but this experience has changed me, and for the better.

In conclusion: – be more Bowie and stay away from flannel pyjamas.

Image: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/156077943313549143/

Kill Your Darlings

‘Kill your darlings’ is one of those punchy expressions that on first hearing is shockingly violent but over time loses its impact and is understood only as a colloquialism. It refers to the painful process of editing your own writing. You may have spent hours, even days, creating the world’s most exquisite sentence, but as the rest of the text develops, that perfect wording may become superfluous and it has to go. Death and love – two of life’s biggies are brought together in ‘kill your darlings’, neatly encapsulating the agony and ecstasy of writing. The original quote, “in writing, you must kill all your darlings”, is attributed to author, William Faulkner, who is perhaps best known for his novel The Sound and the Fury (1929). Winner of two Pulitzers, as well as the Nobel Prize in Literature (1949), I think it’s fairly safe to say he knew how to string a sentence together.

I don’t usually think of good writing as an essential skill set for museum education, but it is something we’re required to do on a regular basis. We write teachers’ resources and support notes for collections and exhibitions, we create gallery trails for families, we provide marketing copy to promote our programmes, we submit funding applications, we draw up partnership agreements, we produce evaluation reports and annual summaries of our activity, and increasingly, we blog to demonstrate the human side of our organisations. In each of these cases, we are writing for a different audience, with a different purpose, and the tone must be modified accordingly. Often, we are writing within fairly tight parameters, having to comply with curriculum requirements, funder priorities, style guidelines, or just meeting deadlines. Fortunately, these constraints give our creativity something to push against. Editing might feel brutal at the time, but it will ultimately benefit the text.

I assume the first rule of blogging is, ‘don’t blog about blogging’, however… I have found blogging to be an incredibly useful process for figuring out my own thoughts. I’m finding that the process of writing is like a strange conversation, whereby most of the content is consciously and deliberately generated, but other aspects seemingly appear out of nowhere; I write stuff I didn’t even know I was thinking, and that then leads me to other thoughts and ideas. This revelation is not news to writers or diarists, but it’s been a happy discovery for me. Writing a weekly blogpost is an entirely self-imposed constraint, but it’s had many benefits, not least creating a handy record of my Churchill Fellowship experience.

The final and possibly largest hurdle that I need to clear to complete my Fellowship is the submission of a project report. The WCMT website hosts a library of reports from previous Fellows that provides fascinating insights into a huge range of experiences. The purpose of the report is to summarise my learning from the US, map this to the UK sector, and provide some recommendations for further action.  All of this needs to be shoehorned into a paltry 15,000 words, which is proving a challenge when I have enough content to merrily bang on for 150,000 words. The creative constraint in this instance is the word limit, and I have Faulkner’s phrase ringing in my ears every time I work on it.

I don’t have any problem producing 15,000 words, that’s easy; the difficulty lies in choosing the right 15,000 words and then arranging them in the correct order. I’m currently working my way through the repetitive cycle of write, then cut, then write, then cut. Some changes are made with a scalpel, slicing back sentences and excising poor turns of phrase; other changes are made with a cleaver, savagely amputating whole paragraphs and ideas. Either way, I’ve gone well beyond killing my darlings and this feels more like a full-blown massacre of the innocents. I mourn the loss of what I’ve had to cut out, but I can see the central argument becoming clearer and stronger as I’m forced to get to the point. You can judge for yourself when it’s up on the WCMT website, hopefully from March.
Image: By Kroton – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15333590

The Pushmi-Pullyu of Change

As a Churchill Fellow, I have a commitment to share my learning with peers. Since my research trip to the US last September, I’ve been looking for ways to do this and have gained a huge amount from contributing to London-based workshops for museum and gallery educators, organised by engage and GEM (Group for Education in Museums). I hosted the GEM workshop at the V&A a couple of weeks ago and was one of three facilitators. Working with GEM convenor, Laura Lewis-Davies, we decided to riff off the current exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution? and discuss what kind of revolution we wanted to see in museum learning practice. The exhibition charts five years of radical change in Western society, culture and music, spanning the period 1966-1970. It’s amazing how much can happen in such a short time frame, and this motivated us to think back on museum practice in 2016 and project to where we wanted to be in 2020.

We peppered the whole workshop with ‘revolutionary’ touches: on arrival, participants were asked to fill out a name tag with both their own name and that of a revolutionary hero/heroine; throughout the event, we had large sheets of paper on the wall, surrounded by images of the exhibition, where participants could add post-its that summarised our current position, our ambitions for 2020, and how we’re going to get there; and at the end of the night, we filled out coloured protest banners, recycling an activity that had been devised for the Families programme in response to the exhibition. The name tags proved a popular ice-breaker and I took great pleasure in seeing Geri Halliwell chat with St Augustine. Laura arranged a follow-up Twitter event where we could all share more information on our choices – check out #gemrevhero.

img_0566

At the workshop, we split the group in three and each moved from one facilitator to the next. Robert Fleming, Temple Study Centre Manager at the National Army Museum, spoke about the transformation of their museum – due for completion Spring 2017 – and their new interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches to learning practice; Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe, Project Co-ordinator at Heritec, shared her work with The Creative Museum project, which is prototyping new forms of collaboration; and I talked about some of my headline learning from the Churchill trip. This meant we each did the same session three times and unfortunately missed out on seeing the others in action, but it was a great chance to get feedback from the participants. In the spirit of revolution and change, I wanted to explore how the Fellowship has challenged some of my fundamental views on museum learning, I’ve been experiencing an interesting tension between the well-established perceived wisdom of standard museum learning practice, and new approaches that are pushing against this and leading to alternatives.

When planning the workshop, I was discussing these tensions with Laura and thinking about how to engage GEM participants with the subject. I compared these opposing forces to a Pushmi-Pullyu, the mythical, two-headed llama-esque companion of Doctor Dolittle, the equally mythical children’s book character who could talk to animals. The image of a Pushmi-Pullyu randomly popped into my head, and it was a bit of a throwaway comment. However, it ended up being a great way to introduce these ideas and became the basis for my session. I wanted people to have their own views first before I introduced my findings, and hoped to elicit a conversation where people could take different positions on the same topic. To do this, I created ‘The Pushmi-Pullyu of Change’, whereby Pushmi and Pullyu each took a different stance (represented by a speech bubble above their heads on a sheet of A3), and participants were asked to place a small playing counter somewhere along the spectrum in between the two to represent their views. From there, we could discuss the different rationales. It was a quick way to launch into meaty topics and everyone gamely played along and had plenty to contribute.

image-of-pushmi-pullyu-1

There were three ‘Pushmi-Pullyus of Change’ offering the following pairs of opinions:

  • Learning programmes should be inspired by the collections and exhibitions / Learning programmes in museums can be about anything
  • Museums must engage with and present political issues / Museums must take a neutral stance on political issues
  • Our programmes should be educational first, entertaining second / Our programmes should be entertaining first, educational second

 

My only regret is that my questions weren’t quite fine-tuned enough. With more time and thought, I could have offered more nuanced phrasing and been more specific, especially around the claim that museums should be ‘neutral’ – I’m well aware museums are anything BUT neutral, but the provocation was meant to be about whether we should be hosting and/or debating issues such as Brexit. The third pairing was stolen directly from my conversation with Ethan Angelica at Museum Hack; he puts these statements to museum learning staff and insists they choose which one they support. To replicate this hard-line approach, I created a ‘no man’s land’ in the middle of the spectrum so that people couldn’t perch in the middle. The activity did generate some gentle debate, although I suspect our similarities outweigh our differences in many respects. I particularly liked how people spoke about using entertainment as a form of ‘stealth education’ – sneak in the learning when people are distracted and enjoying themselves.

wp_20170113_18_32_07_pro1

While it has its faults, I’m quite chuffed with how my Pushmi-Pullyus worked out. They’ve peaked my interest in ‘gamifying’ discussions (it’s a word, I promise, in fact the gamification of learning’ is a whole thing). It’s commonplace to use postcards as a means of prompting conversation, but I like the idea of being able to represent one’s point-of-view visually and symbolically through a quick game before then explaining further. If you would like to share other examples of games that you use as part of discussions, I’d love to hear from you.

I also enjoyed exploring the combination of the metaphorical and the literal. As regular readers may have noticed, I’m a sucker for similes and metaphors. What makes me even happier is when some aspect of the metaphor is taken literally and folded back into the original idea. I could have just asked people their opinions on the questions above, but to put them along the back of a Pushmi-Pullyu takes it to a different headspace. I picked up this trick from the wonderful artist, Sarah Cole. During her residency at Kettle’s Yard a few years ago, she asked the staff where they felt they were ‘walking on eggshells’ and then positioned short trails of broken shell at these locations around the building. The then Director, Michael Harrison, spent a couple of days having to step over one of these trails every time he went into or came out of his office – like all good directors, he took it with good humour and grace.
Header image: https://www.filmclub.org/film/4523/doctor-dolittle

The Fourth Dimension of Good Ideas

I hadn’t heard of the artist Carmen Herrera before I chanced upon her beautiful show at the Whitney last October. Her story is as incredible as the work itself. Born in Havana in 1915, she’s worked and lived in both Paris and New York and befriended the great and the good. Hers is a life devoted to the daily practice of making art. Her longevity is impressive enough (she is still going strong with the help of a studio assistant), but – and this is the crunch – she didn’t sell a single painting until she was 89 years old.  89 years old! I can’t imagine what kind of internal faith and conviction you’d need to sustain such a solitary path. It also goes to show that timing is everything. Beyond the three dimensions of line, plane and form, is the fourth – time. An idea needs to jump through a lot of hoops to become a tangible thing, and one of the trickiest hoops can be finding the right moment. Like Herrera, some ideas have to be very patient.

Herrera was brilliant in the 1950s when the world wasn’t ready. To be both Cuban and female in New York during the Cold War and in a male-dominated art scene put her at a distinct disadvantage. A recent profile of the artist in the Guardian (31.12.16) includes the following anecdote: ‘She recalls visiting one avant garde gallery to discuss her work and as she left, the owner, Rose Fried, called her back. “She said, ‘You know, Carmen, you can paint rings around the men artists I have, but I’m not going to give you a show because you’re a woman.’ I felt as if someone had slapped me on the face. I felt for the first time what discrimination was. It’s a terrible thing. I just walked out”… [Herrera also makes the generous concession] that the men fared better not simply because they were men, but also because they were more streetwise. “They were better than me at knowing how to play the system, what to do and when. They figured out the gallery system, the collector system, the museum system, and I wasn’t that kind of personality”.’

So what changed? She was exhibiting in group shows of Latin American Art in the late nineties and art journalists started to take notice. Slowly but surely, the buzz grew, and she sold her first work in 2004. In 2009, she had her first solo show in Europe – take a bow, Ikon Gallery in Birmingham – and now, in her 102nd year, she has a Whitney show under her belt and is attracting international press coverage. I love stories like this; it’s great to see such dedication rewarded. It also makes my heart go out to anyone struggling to bring new ideas into the world and working in comparative isolation. To bring this back to museum education (and on a far more modest scale), I know what it’s like to be a one-person education department in a small institution. Your interests and priorities aren’t necessarily shared by colleagues (who have their own interests and priorities to worry about) and it’s difficult to benchmark your programme and ideas because there aren’t any immediate points of comparison. I have very fond memories of attending my first engage network events and meeting others who were interested in the same things, annoyed by the same things, and excited by the same things. It’s such a relief to know you’re not the only one thinking it. Watch Blind Lemon’s music video No Rain to get a sense of how happy it made me to find my people.

I have never met a museum educator with time on their hands. It seems that we are always up against the clock, trying to juggle multiple commitments and deadlines. With so many potential audiences, possible partnerships, and programming structures available to us, it can be difficult to channel all of those opportunities into some sort of strategic direction. However, with a surfeit of ideas and a limited number of hours in the day, some tough decisions need to be made. No matter how good an idea is, and how keen it is to be realised (hopping from foot to foot in anticipation), sometimes it just has to join the queue and wait its turn.

The importance of timing came up a few times during my Churchill Fellowship interviews in the US. For example, the events programme at MCA Denver is all about contemporary culture, and in the age of social media, relevance has a short shelf-life. Programme turn-around can be about 12 weeks from idea to delivery. A lot can change in that time, so the team has to work hard to capture those fleeting zeitgeist moments. A few people also mentioned recycling ideas. In the process of brainstorming, many ideas are generated. The goal is to find the right idea for the particular problem at hand. Amongst the debris of ideas that don’t make the cut will be some nuggets of gold that might be just the answer for a different problem. This mindset, that an idea will have its moment, seems to take some of the pressure off the ideas generation process. It’s comforting to know, ‘oh well, if not now, then maybe later’ for ideas.

Being in the right place at the right time is just as true of people as it is of ideas. Herrera’s moment finally arrived, and fortunately within her lifetime. While discrimination is hardly a thing of the past, attitudes have moved on enough that women like Herrera are now recognised for their artistic talent and skill. Some ideas arrive when we aren’t ready for them, and it might not be the idea that has to change, but the context in which it’s received. What won’t work now might work in a couple of years, or with a different audience, or in a different role. So keep the faith and persevere.

Header image: Watch with enamelled gold case and movement by Jacques Huon, Paris, 1640-50, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Footnotes: Walking and Creativity

When I started working in London, a lengthy commute became part of my daily life. Door to door, the return journey is about 4.5 hours – and that’s on a good day, when the train runs on time and the Piccadilly line isn’t changing its wheels. In an episode of Mad Men, Pete Campbell wants to leave the suburbs and return to an apartment in the city; he complains to his wife, Trudy, that “it’s an epic poem for me to get home”. I feel your pain, Pete. Fortunately, my day begins and ends with a 40-minute walk that takes me along a riverside, past rowers and dog-walkers, and down peaceful backstreets of terraced houses. At this time of year, frosty sunrises can be spectacular. I value this quiet time to prepare and plan for the day ahead, or to put distance between the demands of work and recuperating on my sofa. I often compose blog posts while I walk, or mull over some thorny issue. I like the gentle and frequent switching of attention, as my mind wanders from swans to staffing issues to trees to print deadlines, and so on…

Walking is often linked with creativity, especially for its capacity to aid problem-solving and unlock new ideas. For this post, I wanted to explore walking and creativity from a range of perspectives, and was pleasantly surprised by the variety of content online. In fact, you could say that I’m going over well-trodden ground (apologies). So rather than reinvent what already exists, I’ll briefly introduce some articles and websites that I found interesting and leave you to explore further.

But before I do that, a bit of science…

Walking was clearly having a moment during 2013 and 2014; so many of the articles I’ve found date to that period. In 2014, Stanford University published a study that confirmed walking improves creativity. Four experiments were conducted to measure creative thinking. Subjects were tested after walking (on a treadmill) or sitting indoors. They were also tested after walking or sitting (while being pushed in a wheelchair) outdoors along a predetermined path on the Stanford campus. Three of the experiments tested ‘divergent thinking’, and one experiment tested ‘convergent thinking’. Divergent thinking involves generating creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions, whereas convergent thinking is a narrowing of attention to find one correct answer. Their findings show that divergent thinking is greatly improved by walking; the creative output improved by 60% for those walking (either indoors or outdoors). Interestingly, walkers scored slightly worse than sitters for convergent thinking, so it seems that some types of creative thinking are better served by walking than others.

The Stanford research was quoted in an article in The New Yorker (3 September 2014) titled, Why Walking Helps Us Think. The author summarises some of the health benefits of walking and name-checks a number of writers who were known for their urban perambulations (such as James Joyce in Dublin, and Virginia Woolf in London). A BBC article, The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking, also published in 2014, introduces a range of books on walking (such as, A Philosophy of Walking, The Lost Art of Walking, and The Art of Wandering: The Writer as Walker). It concludes with a few tips for making the most of purposeless walking, many of which involve unplugging from portable technology and attending to the immediate environment instead.

Walking has long been established as form of art practice. The handily-titled website, Walking Artists Network, is a useful starting point, and includes content on related fields, such as “architecture, archaeology, anthropology, cultural geography, history, spatial design, urban design and planning”. It was through this site that I discovered Walking Women, a week-long series of walks, talks and screenings that took place at Somerset House in London last summer. Edited audio extracts have been compiled into two podcasts, available on the website. I would also recommend checking out Women Who Walk,  the Walking Reading Group and Walk Walk Walk.

The exhibition, Walk On: From Richard Long to Janet Cardiff – 40 Years of Art Walking, curated by Art Circuit Touring Exhibitions and shown in five venues in 2013/14, captured the walking zeitgeist. It claimed to be, “the first to examine the astonishingly varied ways in which artists since the late 1960s have used what would seem like a universal act – of taking a walk – as a means to create new types of art”. In 2015, the Empathy Museum launched its first exhibition, A Mile in My Shoes, a shoe shop where the public could literally walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. The accompanying playlist included short recorded interviews with the owners of the shoes, offering a glimpse into their lives.

Walking and creativity take on a different purpose in the business world. Walking meetings are de rigueur, and have been popularised by the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama. A recent Harvard Business Review article (August 2015) even offers advice on How To Do Walking Meetings Right, and proves that it’s possible to monetise just about anything:

Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that walking meetings lead to more honest exchanges with employees and are more productive than traditional sit-down meetings. Based on this, we undertook an exploratory study of the benefits associated with walking… In short, we find that those who participate in walking meetings are 5.25% more likely to report being creative at their jobs than those who do not. Additionally, the responses suggest that walking meetings support cognitive engagement, or focus, on the job. Those who participate in walking meetings are 8.5% more likely to report high levels of engagement.

What we found adds support to the notion of walking meetings being beneficial for workers. Is an increase in creativity of 5.25% likely to make or break a business? Most likely not. However, look at these findings through the lens of a cost-benefit analysis. The costs associated with regularly participating in walking meetings are next to nil… There may be no cheaper way to achieve moderate increases in creativity and engagement.

Alternatively, you could try Street Wisdom, “a global social enterprise with a mission to bring inspiration to every street on earth”. I absolutely love this premise – volunteer facilitators, called street guides, are trained to lead a group through a three-hour workshop. The sessions are free and available to anyone who signs up. The format is beautifully simple:

 

  • First, a street guide helps you and your group tune up your senses so you can pick up much more information from the urban environment that you would normally.
  • Then you’re off on a journey by yourself – your street quest – where you ask a question and see what answers present themselves.
  • Finally, you gather together again to share what happened and, more often than not, wonder at how magical an ordinary street can become when you’re really aware of those hidden messages, chance meetings and unexpected discoveries.

The effects of this process are profound: “In just three hours of walking and wandering, participants have resolved problems that have dogged them for years, found new business ideas, changed careers, discovered new directions, and learned how to deal differently with living, learning and loving.”

I also love the premise of On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (2012). Its author, cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, walked around the block where she lives in New York, observing as much of her surroundings as possible. She then repeated the journey, accompanied each time with one of 10 experts (including a geologist, naturist and sound designer, amongst others). You can probably guess the rest. Each walk with a different specialist revealed different aspects of her environment that she wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. It’s an artful way of reminding us to both pay more attention and value others’ perspectives. There is a short promotional film on Youtube which is worth a look, and an in-depth article on Brainpickings.

And finally, I want to include walking as a form of mindfulness. The types of walking that I discuss above are designed to be stimulating, social and generative. In comparison, walking meditation is calming and distinctly solitary. Rooted in Buddhism, there are many different approaches to this practice – Live and Dare’s blogpost, The Ultimate Guide to Walking Meditation, highlights six examples. I also liked Wildmind’s introduction to walking meditation, that gives an indication of what the practice involves.

Given the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other, it’s amazing how much walking brings to the processes of thinking, talking, making, looking and even just being.
Header Image: Pair of Foot Jars, Peru; Inca Valley Paracas, 2nd-1st century BC, ceramic, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Risky Business

Risk is a word that gets bandied around a lot when talking about organisational change and/or innovation. He who dares wins, and all that. Management Consultant, Peter Drucker, summed it up nicely when he wrote that to do something new, you have to stop doing something old. This naturally brings Tarzan to mind, swinging from vine to vine across the jungle. To grab the next vine he has to let go of the current one; there will be a brief moment when he is holding onto neither and it could end badly. In that moment, there is very little security and quite a bit of faith required that it will all turn out okay. Human nature being what it is, we want the new vine and strive for it, but at the same time, we don’t want to risk losing what we currently have. This is often expressed as, ‘I want things to be different, as long as I don’t have to change anything’. If Tarzan did this and doggedly stuck to one vine, his swinging momentum would gradually slow, each arc slightly smaller than the last, until eventually he’d just be a clingy bloke in a loincloth, stranded high above the ground. No-one wants that. Ironically, avoiding change is often riskier than chancing the unknown.

It’s also worth putting risk into perspective, as it means very different things in different fields. For many people in the world, getting basic needs met, such as finding food and shelter, is risky. In healthcare, the ability to assess risk can save or lose lives. In museums, the risk can range from a programme failing to find an audience, to damaging the brand and losing funding. When I was working in a previous role, and the office was getting stressy, a wonderful ex-colleague used to say, ‘Well, at least you’re not up a tree giving birth in a flood’. Can’t argue with that, and it always served to take the heat out of the moment. Our fears around risk must sound totally disproportionate to those outside the museum sector, which is worth remembering when we’re all disappearing into our own navels. Perceived risk is not the same thing as actual risk. Do the risks that we take in programming involve real jeopardy or are we just over-thinking it and getting in our own way?

 

To ensure consistency when I was collecting information during my research trip to the US, I worked with ImaginationLancaster to develop a set of interview questions and accompanying templates. One of these templates was a project-mapping matrix, where interviewees (museum educators/learning staff) identified two ‘tried and tested’ examples of programming and two ‘innovative’ examples of programming, and then plotted them on a graph. I left the X axis blank so that the interviewee could place their four projects along a spectrum that was of particular relevance to them. For the Y axis, however, I had a scale from low risk to high risk and asked each interviewee to define what that meant to them in relation to their programmes. The following factors were quoted as being high risk:

  • targeting new and unestablished audiences;
  • investing time and money in new approaches;
  • new partnerships with artists and practitioners;
  • doing something that hasn’t been done before;
  • being unable to predict the results and outcomes;
  • injury to a person or damage to an artwork;
  • reputational damage to the organisation, threatening funding;
  • challenging perceptions and being of public value.

Low risk, not surprisingly, was felt to be the opposite; working in familiar territory and delivering programmes that have been done before with existing audiences. There was a very clear division between the known quantity (the current vine) being low risk and the unknown potential (the next vine) being high risk. However, more than one interviewee thought of low risk as boring and ‘safe’ programming; it might be keeping the donors happy, but it’s not doing anything to move the programme forward. Consequently, this felt like a high risk position to be in, because the programme would become increasingly redundant and irrelevant. One interviewee observed that the risk tends to lie in the implementation of the programme, not the ideas themselves. A new idea isn’t necessarily risky, but there will be challenges in delivering it successfully.

project-mapping-image

I was struck by the interviewees’ highly skillful ability to make informed guesses and calculate risk. The unknown is embraced on a daily basis, but not recklessly. Planning, research and experience give their experimental programmes the best chance of success AND they work in organisational cultures that accept the occasional failure as a vital aspect of innovation (which also lowers the risk). These Tarzans aren’t swinging through the jungle blind-folded, but are highly attuned to their environment.

In case you were wondering, the X axes included the following:

  • From low tech to high tech;
  • From closely related to unrelated to the exhibition programme;
  • From simple to complex in execution;
  • From information driven (educational) to socially driven;
  • From ‘museum world’ to ‘rest of the world’;
  • From creative to not creative;
  • From ‘on brand’ to ‘off brand’.

And finally, if you’d like to show your support for my blog in the UK Blog Awards, you have until the 19th December to cast your vote – please go to http://blogawardsuk.co.uk/ukba2017/entries/kiwi-loose-museums  and thank you!

 

Header Image: http://classiccinemaimages.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Johnny-Weissmuller-as-Tarzan-in-Tarzan-the-Ape-Man-1932.jpg 

Known Unknowns: Rumsfeld and the Johari Window

As a rule of thumb, I tend to steer clear of quoting US Republican warmongers, but I’ll make an exception for Donald Rumsfeld’s wonderful “known unknowns”, a slippery phrase introduced to the world during a news briefing back in 2002 when the then Secretary of Defence attempted to explain the lack of public evidence linking Baghdad with terrorist networks. “Known unknowns” comes to mind whenever I think about where ideas come from – I know they come from somewhere (and I’m pretty sure it isn’t an isolated cave in a forgotten corner of Iraq) but exactly where remains a mystery. To quote the late, great Leonard Cohen, “if I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often”.

Scientific research has made some interesting progress in understanding the neurological processes involved in ideas generation. Leo Widrich’s blogpost, Why We Have Our Best Ideas in the Shower: The Science of Creativity, offers a handy summary of some of the more recent thinking on the subject. He quotes a study by Allen Braun and Siyuan Liu, who tracked the brain activity of rappers free-styling. They found that  improvisation shows lower activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which controls ‘executive functions’, “allow[ing] more natural de-focussed attention and uncensored processes to occur”. At the same time, “the medial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible to [sic] learn association, context, events and emotional responses was extremely active”.

I love the idea of ‘de-focussed attention’, for me it perfectly captures the weirdly paradoxical nature of ideas generation. On the one hand, attention and effort are required, but on the other hand, the best ideas seem to sneak up from the sides when I’m not directly focussing on the issue, but playing around with unrelated topics, metaphors, or just thinking about something else. I’ve also encountered a few articles recently about how useful improvisation can be in ideas generation, which would be consistent with Braun and Liu’s findings (check out Art Museum Teaching and Can Scorpions Smoke in particular). I’ve always kept improvisation at arm’s length, but I know others who swear by it. My brain understands that it must be a great way of tapping into ‘uncensored processes’, however, the rest of me would rather hide under my desk than participate.

Thinking about the unknown source of ideas also brings to mind the Johari window, a tool developed in 1955 by American psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harrison Ingham, to improve self-awareness and interpersonal relationships. It’s used frequently in both counselling and corporate team-development settings. The window consists of four regions displayed in a 2×2 grid:

  • Open: known to self and others – declarative, an understanding of the self that is shared.
  • Hidden: known to self and unknown to others – private thoughts that only serious amounts of wine can extract. This area decreases through disclosure.
  • Blind: unknown to self and known to others – the worse one! Aspects of our character or behaviour that are obvious to those around us while we remain ignorant. This area decreases through feedback.
  • Unknown: unknown to self and others – can take everyone by surprise and contains deeply-buried experiences that still exert an influence. This area is the most mysterious and decreases through self-discovery.

johari-window

The aim of self-awareness is to increase the ‘open area’, although in reality these quadrants are in flux and change frequently.  It’s the power of the unknown that interests me most; I think it’s a useful metaphor for discussing how we generate ideas and tap into our own creativity. Understanding the role of others in our own creative process is also useful. When do I need time alone to generate ideas? When do I need others to push my thinking? What role do I play alongside others in generating ideas? These relationships can take many different forms, for example: some people are like an ideas sprinkler system, sputtering and spraying their thinking in every direction; some people require an external catalyst, but can then generate their own innovative thinking by building on those foundations; some people are network builders and generate new ideas by bringing innovative thinkers together; and some people are good at grounding ideas by pulling them down from a floaty place up in the clouds, and transforming them into achievable actions. The more aware we are of our own creative process, the more efficient we can be in harnessing its potential.

In totally unrelated news, my blog has been very kindly nominated for the UK Blog Awards (art and culture category). There is a public vote from 5-19 December; after that, the top eight in each category go forward to a judging panel round. So if you like what you read and can spare a couple of minutes, I’d appreciate your support. To vote, go to http://blogawardsuk.co.uk/ukba2017/entries/kiwi-loose-museums

 

Header image: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.70170.html