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 Museumsis 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 Ideasand 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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week, the Design Museum hosted a one-day event as part of their Design Ventura (DV) programme, a ‘design and enterprise challenge for students in years 9, 10 and 11, supported by industry professionals’. The museum invited ‘DV stakeholders’ to participate in a series of talks and workshops exploring the following topic: ‘Design: the problem and the solution (and the imperative for 21C design education)’. It was a fascinating day, not least because a large majority of the audience didn’t work in museums or galleries. The delegates were predominantly teachers and designers, and we talked a lot about how their worlds intersect. The subjects we covered included: improving the relationship between education and industry; access to tech training for teachers; the rising trend of ‘design entrepreneurship’; and the skills that young people need for future employment. For this post, I’ve compiled some of my favourite interesting bits from the day – not an easy task as the whole day was made up of interesting bits – if the Design Ventura Summit had been a chocolate-chip cookie, it would have been made entirely of chocolate.
The Summit was particularly timely too. The day before, the new Chair of Arts Council England, Nick Serota, announced a new commission that will identify how young people benefit from an arts education and strategies for improving current provision. Hopefully, they will build on the myriad of existing reports on the subject, not least ImagiNation: the value of cultural learning, commissioned by the Cultural Learning Alliance and published only a few months ago. The Summit also coincided with the day that the UK Government triggered Article 50, marking the official beginning of divorce proceedings from the European Union. This particular cloud cast quite a long shadow over the event, and the potential negative impact of Brexit on the creative industries was raised a few times. And finally, as I was eating my breakfast earlier that morning and listening to the radio, I heard the news that UK schools are working with ever-diminishing budgets which will result in £3 billion cuts by 2019/20. My first thoughts were with teachers and how grim the work of head teachers will be to balance the books. My second thoughts were, naturally, concerned with museum and gallery education. I suspect school trips will be the first item cut from school budgets (who can blame them?) and this will leave our current model of schools’ provision, focussed on site visits, high and dry. It doesn’t matter how great our museum learning programmes are, they ain’t worth much if schools can’t afford to get to us.
With all of these issues swirling around in the background, it was useful to take a design perspective on the confluence of education, policy, and the creative industries. NESTA have been very active in this area and have produced a number of useful reports, including:
The Fusion Effect(2016): this is NESTA’s take on the STEAM agenda, looking at how the arts and sciences can work together more effectively;
Creativity Vs Robots (2015): how can anyone resist a title like that? This report looks at the future of jobs and what aspects of work are likely to become automated. A recent Guardian article, ‘Science classes won’t future-proof our children. But dance might’, made reference to PricewaterhouseCooper’s prediction that 30% of British jobs will be lost to automation by the 2030s. Fortunately, artificial intelligence still can’t compete with our human creative capacity, so we’ll remain one step ahead of C3PO for a bit longer.
Solved! Making the Case for Collaborative Problem-Solving(2017): another title that speaks for itself. ‘Problem-solving’ was definitely one of the day’s key words: it was used as a shorthand definition of design; and it was also name-checked as a 21st century core competency, an attribute valued by employers across a range of industries.
Brexit and the EBacc – a pairing that sounds more like a novelty music act from the 1970s than a confluence of misfortunes – were subjects that couldn’t be avoided. The Government’s Industrial Strategy Green Paper came up in discussion a few times. Published in January, it sets out planning for the UK’s economic future once we have left the EU. Organised around 10 pillars, the ‘developing skills’ priority was considered pertinent to design education and its value to the economy. One speaker also mentioned Brexit Design Manifesto, produced by Dezeen magazine, which is worth a look.
The sharp decline in pupils studying Design and Technology at GCSE level was a particular cause for concern during discussions. The Design and Technology Association (DATA) spearheaded a campaign last year to raise the profile of the subject. Their short film What is Design & Technology – and why do we need it?, made a connection between the investment in D&T in the 1990s and the pay-off over the following decades as those pupils then thrived and built careers in the creative industries. We risk cutting off the pipeline of new talent when design (either through D&T or Art & Design) is cut from a child’s education.
So far, so sadly familiar – the drop in D&T has been a topic of discussion for some time now. What I found more interesting was hearing another perspective on the issue. Holly Donagh from A New Direction framed the EBacc discussion in relation to inclusion agendas. Pupils who graduate with at least five GCSEs will go on to have greater social mobility and more career opportunities than those who don’t. The aim of the EBacc is to get 90% of pupils achieving five GCSEs; whereas the current figure is closer to 35-40%. Living in my leftie echo-chamber, I only ever hear about how awful the EBacc is. Of course it makes sense that those on the other side of the fence also want a high quality education for the next generation – we just have very different views on the role of art and design in achieving that (I should add that Holly was presenting another perspective for the purposes of a group discussion, rather than arguing against design education). Both sides in this debate are deeply entrenched and Holly’s comments made me realise that a greater insight into each other’s rationale would surely help find some middle ground.
And finally, there was plenty of discussion around career pathways for young people. It’s one thing to be at school, and it’s another thing to be established in a career – but getting from A to B is incredibly daunting when you’re 16 and don’t know what you want to do with your life. A huge range of jobs rely on creative skills, and the creative industries are stuffed with a variety of careers, but these opportunities are not well-known. If young people (and their parents) were better informed about what was possible and available, the value of design education would be better understood. The Sorrell Foundation has created the online resource, Creative Journeys, to meet just that purpose. And I should also mention Creative Quarter and Making It are two large careers’ festivals for young people that the V&A’s Learning department run each year.
Another of NESTA’s projects involves sifting through a mountain of online job advertisements to identify the careers that require creative skills. They have sifted through 33 million online ads (promoting UK jobs, dating from 2011-16) and identified 12,000 unique skills. From this data, they have arranged creative skills into five broad categories – Tech, Support, Selling, Creating & Designing, and Teaching. The final resource is still being tested, but it will ultimately provide an online facility whereby a young person can identify their skills and interests and match them to a range of possible career options.
The jobs-market isn’t what it used to be. My own career pathway – from administrator to assistant education officer to education officer to management – feels very old-fashioned when I read the CVs of twenty-somethings, dominated by internships, volunteering, placements and short-term contracts. A patchwork of experience now seems to be the norm. Perhaps not surprisingly, initiative and drive are key attributes in this working climate, and the top buzzword of the day – entrepreneurship – is becoming increasingly important.
Julio Terra from Kickstarter gave one of the keynotes and offered great insights into this new world of work. He recommended designer Craighton Berman and his interest in ‘design entrepreneurship’, championing how designers can work more independently and sustainably. Julio also mentioned ‘D2C’, the designer-to-consumer model, made possible through digital technologies that cut out the middlemen of distribution. And of course Kickstarter itself is changing the game for how new products are backed and launched. I can’t quite believe the company was founded as recently as 2009 – it feels like it’s always been there. In this model, storytelling and narrative have usurped conventional marketing. Young designers are attracting backers through engaging and personal short films to promote their work, made using readily available software.
This brave new world of employment has a rich assortment of pitfalls and opportunities, many of which – for good and bad – are the result of new technologies and a splintered job market. While we need new thinking around education and training to keep abreast of these rapid changes, the path to success remains the same – find something you’re passionate about, word hard, network, and be good at what you do.
Te Papa Tongarewa is the national museum and gallery of New Zealand; the literal translation of its Maori name is ‘container of treasures’. When I was a kid, the national museum and gallery was in a different part of Wellington, on a hillside in a 1930s building that looked out over the city. It was great fun to run around the older museum, and I have very fond memories of the ‘under the sea’ diorama, but I appreciate that for the adults who had to work there, by the 1980s it was no longer fit for purpose. It’s replacement, Te Papa, opened in 1998. It’s an enormous post-modern structure located on the Wellington waterfront, a much better spot for raising its profile and luring passing foot-traffic. The interior feels incredibly spacious with high ceilings and open foyers, showcasing the diverse collections and inspiring a sense of awe and wonder. The museum really lives up to its name and feels like a gigantic treasure box. When I was in town, I met with Miri Young, Te Papa’s Head of Learning Innovation, and a member of her team, Museum Educator, Laura Jones, and got a sneak peek at their new Learning Lab, Hinatore (trans: ‘phosphorescence or luminescence – a glow or glimmering in the dark’).
Miri has only been at Te Papa for 14 months – which is about 10 minutes in museum years – and yet within that time she has initiated and completed a total redevelopment of the Learning Lab. Previously, the room had a solid wooden door so activity couldn’t be viewed from the gallery spaces, and there was a display of handling objects behind glass. Miri was keen to create an active, hands-on, experimental space that was flexible (ie. plenty of modular furniture that can be reconfigured) and able to support a wide variety of digital programmes (ie. plenty of new whizzy kit). The entrance to the room is now a glass door and window, opening up the space to visitors in the main galleries, and a large, colourful commissioned illustration by Gwilym Devey brightens up the facing wall. The room has a long rectangular floorplan, with a large window on the shorter wall, looking out over the yacht club and harbour, and a glass partition at the other end of the room, separating a smaller area for ‘messy’ making (judging by the durable flooring) from the larger carpeted space.
I’m afraid my knowledge of the latest digital toys is limited, but I spied four 3-D printers, two large ‘touch tables’ that reminded me of the ones used at Cooper-Hewitt in New York, and a couple of large flat screen monitors. Their website also reliably informs me that Hinatore provides a purpose-built virtual reality (VR) studio and “telepresence technology that connects learners in remote locations”. Sensibly, there are also staff members with a foot in both digital and learning camps who are able to wield all of this amazing new media potential. As well as promoting direct engagement with the collections and exhibitions through working with original objects, Te Papa has also made 60,000+ images freely available online, offering a combination of works with no known copyright and those for use under the terms of the Creative Commons copyright licence. Having both the digital tools of Hinatore and the online resource of the collections at their disposal, the Learning team are well placed to support the development of 21st century core competencies (which they have identified as programming priorities): creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication and curiosity.
As well getting a tour of the Learning Lab, Miri also told me about their approach to programme development – an adaptation of the ‘Lean Canvas’ model, which was adapted in turn from the ‘Business Model Canvas’ to better support entrepreneurs and start-ups. Because I am a massive systems geek, I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to find out about a new strategic planning tool, ideally one devised for a non-arts sector and then modified for museums. Miri explained that they use ‘Lean Canvas’ for all strands of programming to focus and clarify the aims of each offer and for setting clear targets. Because it was designed for business, the language is one of ‘customers/users’ and ‘products’, although I think there is a correlation with ‘audience’ and ‘programmes’. A strength of the model is that it puts the audience first – the aim is to identify the ‘problems’ (ie. needs) of the customer and keeps those front and centre when working out possible solutions. This reminds me of the design process, which advocates for the same thing – keep the end user at the forefront of your thinking to ensure the final product will achieve what you set out to do.
The Lean Canvas Model, as used by Te Papa, is a one-page table consisting of nine boxes:
What is the problem? (ie. what is the audience need?)
What customer segments are you solving the problem for? (an important step for clarifying and defining the target audience)
What is your Unique Value Proposition (UVP)? (this question keeps the focus on audiences; the aim is to identify the marketing offer that would capture their attention)
The solution (what top features or capabilities will address the problems?)
Channels (how will you reach your audiences?)
Neighbours (who are the key partners or people you’ll need help from?)
Cost Structure (what resources will you need?)
Value/Success Metrics (how is value created and what metrics will you use to measure that value?)
Unfair Advantage (what is special or unique about this idea that will make it difficult for the competition to copy?)
Ash Maurya, who devised Lean Canvas in 2009, has written a useful blogpost on its creation that also clarifies some of the finer points around its use and terminology. If you want to find out more about this approach, there are plenty of examples of the Lean Canvas Model online (Canvanizer and Lean Stack both offer templates), as well as further adaptations, such as the Social Lean Canvas for social enterprises. I’m not proposing that Lean Canvas is taken on wholesale, as some adaptation is required to map to the specific context of devising learning programmes in museums, but I can see that there would be tangible benefits to such a systematic approach, especially by putting the audience needs at the centre of the process.
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.
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;
Play is often considered the opposite of work and strictly for children. ‘Adult play’, in comparison, is the domain of discreet brown-paper wrappers (or deleted search histories for the more digitally savvy) and would likely be discouraged as part of a museum visit. It’s a shame that play has been tarnished in this way, as either silly and juvenile or sexual and risque. It doesn’t leave much space for the happiness that play can bring to grown-ups (just try frowning on a see-saw), or acknowledging the playful aspects of ideas generation and creativity. I’m running a session on play with museum educators next week, so it’s a subject currently at the front of my mind. I’m interested in playful approaches to museum learning programming for all ages, as well as how Learning teams can be more playful when planning and developing their programmes.
Manchester Museum, with the support of the Happy Museum Project, recently published Rules for a Playful Museum, a manifesto which does what it says on the tin. The museum commissioned play specialists to work with their front-of-house team, with the aim of developing a playful environment for families. The resulting rulebook, which can be read online, offers suggestions and encourages a positive ‘yes, and…’ approach. Across the Atlantic, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) has launched PlaySFMoMA, which takes an interesting approach to play, focussing on artists and games. According to their website…
PlaySFMOMA is a museum initiative that supports the development of avant-garde and artist-made games, and investigates instances of games and interactive play throughout art history. Through research projects, workshops, events, and a designer-in-residence series, the program explores games as a creative medium and means of audience engagement. PlaySFMOMA provides a platform for artists working in games, and introduces museum audiences to the expressive potential of this medium.
At the V&A, the Schools Team has developed a simple and effective analog game called Six Degrees, inspired by the Six Degrees of Separation principle (that we are only six hops away from knowing everyone else on the planet – for example, a friend of a friend is two hops. This principle morphed into a popular movie geek game in the 1990s, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon). Our Six Degrees game provides a starting object and an ending object, totally unrelated and often on opposite sides of the building, and the challenge is, working in teams, to join the two by finding four intermediate objects, like links in a chain. Associations can be straight-forward (ie. both of these things are yellow), but I like to encourage some healthy competition and award a prize for the most unexpected, unusual and elaborate sequence. This leads to some very funny, baroque and surreal object combinations and gives the participants a fantastic new perspective on the collections. We use it with primary and secondary school pupils, and as part of teacher training sessions.
With pressing headlines and heavy workloads, I know it can feel like time-sucking faff to play about with new ideas and approaches when programming. However, it’s worth thinking about the care we put into encouraging creativity in others, and trying to stimulate those same impulses in our own teams. If I have to choose between a flipchart in a bare white room, or having a play with post-its out in the galleries, I know what my preference would be. There’s nothing worse than organised fun and ‘aren’t we wacky’ team-building exercises, but I do think it’s possible to generate an authentic playful atmosphere when planning; where the team feel free to be a bit daft, make each other laugh, and come up with good ideas. If you’re interested in this approach, the fantastic blog Design Thinking for Museums recently posted an article on ‘Why Play is Essential to the Design Thinking Process’. It includes plenty of interesting links to follow and useful tips for injecting play into programme planning – worth a look. I have also enjoyed noodling around the School of Play website; it describes itself as ‘a popup school dedicated to promoting happier adulthood through lifelong play’, and their blog covers many aspects of play, including the benefits for health, happiness and well-being. Who doesn’t need more of that in their lives?
Header Image: Free Basket, 2010, by Los Carpinteros, at Indianapolis Museum of Art
Last week, I wrote about the design process as a useful means of structuring the development of museum learning programmes. This week I want to focus on design thinking as it also has many relevant applications to our work as museum educators.
In the 1970s, the Royal College of Art (RCA) conducted extensive research into Design in General Education and found it to be poorly understood. Design education at that time was predominantly specialist, vocational and skills-based, and its purpose was extrinsic – to train designers. Nigel Cross argues in his article, Designerly Ways of Knowing (Design Studies, Vol. 3, No. 4, October 1982, pp.221-227), that design education also has intrinsic benefits that can contribute to a well-rounded general education, and that ‘design thinking’ is a problem-solving mindset, distinct from both the sciences and humanities.
Cross identifies “five aspects of designerly ways of knowing:
Designers tackle ‘ill-defined’ problems,
Their mode of problem-solving is ‘solution-focused’,
Their mode of thinking is ‘constructive’,
They use ‘codes’ that translate abstract requirements into concrete objects, and
They use these codes to both ‘read’ and ‘write’ in ‘object languages’.”
I really like Cross’s observation that “design is a process of pattern synthesis, rather than pattern recognition. The solution is not simply lying there among the data, like the dog among the spots in the well-known perceptual puzzle; it has to be actively constructed by the designer’s own efforts”. This brings us neatly back to creativity and the ability to generate ‘outcomes that are original and of value’.
Helen Charman, Head of Learning at the Design Museum, has written a lot about how her team apply design thinking to their learning programmes; she uses the term designerly learning to describe their approach. Her 2010 article, Designerly Learning: Workshops for schools at the Design Museum (Design and Technology Education: An International Journal 15.3, pp28-40) is of particular interest to me because she turns the focus onto the museum educators. Charman interviewed five educators (three Learning Officers at the Design Museum, one RCA tutor who has also been a consultant for the Design Museum, and one freelance museum educator) to explore how they conceptualise their programmes and how that thinking then informs delivery.
Charman structures her findings around three themes: ‘shared perspectives on the content of learning; on the environment for learning; [and] on the process for learning’. It’s great to see museum educators’ work placed into a critical context and discussed against the broader trends of both museum learning and design practice. Charman writes: “All workshops give learners the opportunity to explore and experiment with a range of materials and techniques. This takes a relatively unstructured form that finds its analogy within research on ‘design thinking’ as the process of abductive thinking, that is, space to explore and deal with potentials rather than certainties.” (p.35)
Design thinking has a special relevance for design museums as the teaching is about design as well as through design. As ‘designers’ of learning programmes, I’m interested in how we can apply this thinking to our practice as museum educators in art museums. Learning programmes can feel organic in their development and can grow from a range of sources, such as: the diverse experience of museum educators; opportunities that arise through exhibitions, new funding streams or national initiatives; new thinking across the sector; or a change of staffing that brings different perspectives. These can all be forces for good, but without strategic planning it risks programming that is rudderless and adrift.
Alternatively, some learning programmes can feel set in aspic. A deeply-entrenched expectation from audiences to programme in a particular way, combined with an organisational reluctance to rock the boat and a preference for quantitative measures of success, can lead to programming that provides comfort and familiarity to a shrinking pool of regulars but does little to challenge their views or open up the museum to new audiences.
Applying design thinking to our programming offers a third way, separate from either of these drifting or fixed scenarios. Museum educators have constantly shifting problems (keeping relevant, meeting changing audience and organisational needs, reflecting contemporary practice) and this means we are in a generative cycle of constantly seeking new solutions. The action-oriented nature of design thinking, combined with the creative constraints of the design process, provides structure and direction. It enables us to be systematic and agile in our programming and it equips us with a greater understanding of our process, leading to stronger advocacy for our contribution to the arts sector. The work is never done.
When I moved from the world of art and galleries to the world of design and museums, I assumed it would be a short walk between the two. This proved not to be the case and the differences are much greater than I’d anticipated. I thought art and design were close siblings, but really they are more like distant cousins who catch up occasionally at family weddings.
The use of language is an obvious example. The art world is awash with dealer gallery press releases dense with florid, paragraph-long sentences that leave me none the wiser about the work or the artist. The ‘liminal spaces’ that everyone is so keen on must be getting pretty crowded by now. The design world doesn’t allow for such flights of fancy and I find the writing more grounded, pragmatic and to the point. There seems to be less wriggle room in design, fewer blurred and clouded edges that allow vague descriptions to flourish.
Another distinction is between how the creative and design processes are described. I’m comfortable with my understanding of the creative process. Although it retains its mysteries, I trust that it works and I know how to utilise it to work with others and generate programmes and projects. I like that it has an aspect of the dark arts and alchemy to it. When I’m working with artists and stakeholders, there is a leap of faith at the beginning of the process that it will come together, that our ideas will pan out, that audiences will engage, that the work will be authentic. With the right people and the right planning, this is usually (fortunately) the case. Each time, the application of the creative process feels slightly different and specific to that set of conditions. The design process, in comparison, is a step-by-step replicable approach that fosters creativity and ideas generation through the constructive use of parameters and constraints.
Empathize: audience research – listen to users and understand their needs.
Define: ‘craft a meaningful and actionable problem statement’.
Ideate: ideas generation – get as many ideas on the table as possible, deferring judgement.
Prototype: select a few of the strongest ideas and make examples, quickly and cheaply.
Test: this step goes hand-in-hand with prototyping; try out your prototypes with the user/audience. Improve, refine, repeat. ‘Built to think and test to learn’.
This process provides an ideal structure for supporting the development of museum learning programmes. While it takes some of the mystery out of it, I like that it’s still a highly creative and generative process. I also like the emphasis on doing – taking an idea and trying it out rather than just talking about it (I’m often guilty of the latter). There is something liberating about viewing our programmes as a series of prototypes – we can test several ideas with audiences as part of an ongoing process. If this way of working floats your boat, there is a whole blog devoted to it – check out Design Thinking for Museums. A recent post, titled Managing up design thinking: 5 steps for promoting human-centered design in museums, gives a really good overview of the design process in more detail.
Closer to home, ImaginationLancaster is a design-led research centre at Lancaster University and they are doing fantastic work around co-design. Their current AHRC-funded project, Leapfrog, brings together the public sector and community partners to devise consultation tools, all available free for use from their website. The team is very creative and genuinely committed to empowering communities to input into decisions that affect their lives. As part of my Churchill Fellowship preparation, I have been working with ImaginationLancaster to devise an interview format to explore my key research questions:
How can museum educators better understand their creative process?
How can that greater understanding improve and inform programming?
More information on our work-in-progress can be found here.