Artificial Creativity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



MuseumNext Portland

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

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

Museum of Impact (MoI)

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

War Childhood Museum (WCM)

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


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

Museum as Site of Social Action (MASS Action)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civic Potential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


IMAGE: James Stewart, in ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’,

Tapping into the Research Resource

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


It’s Finally Here!

I have been looking forward to this moment for months and I can’t believe it’s arrived – I’m finally able to share my Churchill Fellowship Report with the world! On my return from the US last October, I started the lengthy process of transcribing interviews, wading through data, and creating spreadsheet after spreadsheet to organise my experiences into some sort of structure. I have crunched what I’ve learnt down into a report format that I hope is both interesting and entertaining to read. It was a labour of love, and I’m really happy with the results.

The two key aims of my research were to better understand the creative process of museum educators and share examples of innovative practice; my findings form the bulk of the report. I focussed on five cultural organisations: Dallas Museum of Art, MCA Denver, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Columbus Museum of Art, and Museum Hack. I made use of verbatim quotes as much as possible, because I believe that the stories of Learning’s successes are best told by those who made it happen. The report concludes with recommendations for putting some of the ideas discussed into practice. I also shared the interview tools I used, developed in collaboration with ImaginationLancaster. The full report is available to download from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust website. To give you a wee taster, I’ve included the executive summary below – I hope you like it.


The Creative Process of Museum Educators and New Approaches to Museum Learning

Executive Summary

It’s one thing to sit down and to make something and be creative, but it’s another thing to reflect on your experience, because it’s through that self-reflection that you really grow and come to new understandings.

Through my Churchill Fellowship, I aimed to better understand the creative process of museum educators and highlight examples of innovative programming. By its nature, museum education is collaborative, collective and collegiate. Audiences are central to the work, and extensive research is conducted to better understand and meet their needs, and ideally exceed their expectations. Ironically, museum educators are so adept at supporting the creativity of others that their own creative contribution often goes overlooked.

The majority of programming formats – talks, tours, workshops, projects and courses – are well-established and used by museum educators all over the world. Over time, however, programmes can harden into fixed orthodoxy, and path dependency can blinker museum educators to alternatives. This risk is particularly pertinent to the UK cultural sector, which is currently being buffeted by economic austerity, restricted arts provision in formal education, and shifting audience demands. In amongst this flux, museum educators need to be flexible in their thinking and experimental in their programming to keep pace with the rate of change.

To address my aims, I visited five US cultural institutions to interview staff and observe programmes. At each, I focussed on three priorities: the programmes (what makes them innovative); the Learning staff (how they generate and develop ideas); and the organisational context (the conditions that enable museum educators to do their best work). My findings are presented in two sections: the first deconstructs the creative process and identifies key characteristics of the individual, the organisation, ideas generation, and ideas development; the second presents examples of innovative practice and illustrates what is possible when the creative components converge.

I conclude that the creative process is intrinsic and vital to museum education; it underpins the practice and fuels innovation in programming. A heightened awareness of one’s own creative process, developed through self-reflection and peer-led critique, equips practitioners to further improve and develop their work. As museums become more deliberately social and audience-centric in their approach, the expertise and creativity of Learning staff increases in value. If museum educators broaden their horizons from the departmental to the institutional, and step up to the challenge of leading organisational change, they are well-placed to define the future of museum practice.

(*) Jessica Fuentes, DMA


Tacit Knowledge: we know more than we know we know

I have always been interested in the difference between the veneer of the conscious self – the things we think we know and can articulate – and then all the other stuff that lurks beneath that – the memories, biases, aptitudes, drives and desires that exert an enormous influence over our thoughts and actions. What fascinates me most about the latter is that you can never fully look it in the eye, by its very nature it lies beyond conscious engagement. A whole family of trolls lives under the bridge you’re standing on – you can’t see them, but you can sense them. And when you visit a museum, your troll family comes along too (hiding behind pillars, under ticket desks and inside vases). You leave the museum having had two experiences – the one you’re aware of and the one you’re not aware of, but it’s there nonetheless. How can we engage more deliberately with both? How can we encourage your troll family to want to come back too?

A useful way of thinking about non-declarative knowledge is Michael Polanyi’s concept of tacit awareness or tacit knowledge. I once had it described to me as ‘everything you know minus everything you can say about what you know’. Classic examples of tacit knowledge are riding a bike or playing a piano – the more attention you pay to what you’re actually doing, the more likely you are to stuff it up. Polanyi presents knowledge as a construction that is social (for example, both language and tradition come from a shared, collective understanding) and deeply personal (we can only understand the world through our individual experiences). Without ever being able to touch an entirely objective reality – because we assimilate everything through our subjective experiences – Polanyi argues that all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge.

An important dimension of tacit knowledge is the difference between focal and subsidiary awareness. Polanyi describes hitting a nail with a hammer as an example. The nail has our focal awareness (or it should have, to avoid an injury) and the hammer has our subsidiary awareness:

“When we use a hammer to drive a nail, we attend to both nail and hammer, but in a different way… The difference may be stated by saying that the latter (hammer) are not, like the nail, objects of our attention, but instruments of it. They are not watched in themselves; we watch something else while keeping intensely aware of them. I have a subsidiary awareness of the feeling in my palm of my hand which is merged into my focal awareness of my driving the nail.”

Polanyi also uses the example of reading a letter as another way of illustrating the difference; our focal awareness is on deciphering the meaning of the letter, our subsidiary awareness is on the words, grammar and syntax, enabling us to decode the content. In both instances, if you move your focal awareness to that of the subsidiary, it all goes a bit awry: attending to the hammer rather than the nail is asking for trouble; and attending to the shape and length of every word in a sentence loses the meaning. We can flip our focal attention between the two states but we can’t focus on both simultaneously.

Now consider the focal and subsidiary awareness required to engage with an artwork. Like reading a letter, our attention can move between the content and the ‘grammar’ of the object – the ideas themselves or how those ideas have been manifest. When I look at art, I’m aware of a rolodex whirring around at the back of my brain, making connections with other artworks, styles and movements that I’ve seen over the years. I like it when I get the little art historical in-jokes and references. This subsidiary awareness provides me with a set of rules to understand and decode artworks and it’s not something I do consciously. I think we are, as museum professionals, sometimes guilty of assuming everyone has a similar rolodex to frame their understanding. I’ve always been suspicious of the anti-interpretation argument that ‘the artwork should speak for itself’. This is fine for an art-savvy audience with a whopping image bank to draw on – in which case, the artwork isn’t speaking for itself, but lounging around on a pile of the audience’s previous gallery experiences. Without a knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet, the Russian language is just a beautiful collection of curves and corners; without a knowledge of Minimalism, Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966) is just a tidy arrangement of bricks.

Everyone brings their prior knowledge, be it art-based or otherwise, to the experience of visiting a museum. Not all of this knowledge is declarative or conscious, but it does all have an impact on the quality of the visit. As an habitual museum-goer, I don’t think about how I orientate myself on arrival or plan a visit, it just happens. In comparison, if I was doing something brand new, like go to a monster truck rally, I would be attending closely to every step of the process required to get in and seated, and I’d feel like I was on the back foot most of the way. Our museums send out a lot of subtle signals to first-time visitors and their accompanying troll families: some of these indirect messages are welcoming, such as clear signage and relaxed staff; and some of them are off-putting, like hiding the front door and offering scant interpretation. Whether we are aware of these signals or not, our troll families are taking detailed notes. We will leave either feeling good about the place and keen to return, or wanting to never darken its door again, and it won’t always be possible to explain why.

The concept of implicit learning is closely linked to tacit knowledge. As the name suggests, learning is implicit when we are not aware that it is happening (check out Michael Eraut’s work on non-formal learning in the workplace for more information on implicit learning). Alex Elwick’s interesting article, ‘Understanding implicit learning in museums and galleries’ (Museum & Society, Nov 2015) highlights some of the challenges inherent to researching tacit knowledge. Elwick interviewed ‘Friends’ of two galleries and looked for contradictions in their observations of their own gallery-going experiences, arguing that their implicit learning is revealed through these conflicting views. I don’t know if these findings were fruitful, but I did find the introduction fascinating and the references offer plenty of material for further reading.

Tacit knowledge is also frequently discussed in relation to the act of making in art, craft and design, as the skills are often developed over years and can’t easily be described. British writer, Peter Dormer took inspiration from Polanyi’s theories for his book, ‘The Art of the Maker’ (1994). Dormer wrote about ‘craft knowledge’ and its practical/tacit qualities. Through his own attempts to learn figurative clay modelling and calligraphy, he tried to better understand the implicit learning that was taking place.

For another angle on tacit knowledge that considers the workplace, I’d recommend the article, ‘Narrative and Social Tacit Knowledge’ (Journal of Knowledge Management, 5 (2), 2001). Its author, Charlotte Linde, researched an insurance company, looking at how social tacit knowledge was demonstrated and learned through narrative. Her observations are not particular to insurance companies and speak more generally to the experience of working in a team and how one becomes familiar with, and adapts to, the culture of an organisation: “…part of becoming a member of an institution involves learning the stories about that institution which everyone must know, the appropriate times and reasons to tell them, and the ways in which one’s own stories are shaped to fit a new institutional context.”  So it looks like we bring our troll families along to the office as well. They hide in filing cabinets, behind doors and under conference room tables, quietly learning the particularities of working for that specific place.

I love the way tacit knowledge makes itself known; it’s infuriatingly present and absent at the same time and it defies any direct engagement. You can sense it and know it ‘in your bones’ but still struggle to pin down exactly what it is or where it’s located. Declarative knowledge is just one small aspect of museum-going; visitors are picking up so many more micro-messages about our organisations, both good and bad, that contribute to the overall experience – an influence we shouldn’t underestimate.

Image: Outside Weta Workshop in Wellington, NZ.

May The Audience Be With You

If you were richer than God and looking for ways to spend $1 billion, what would you do? I’d build a rocket-launching lair under a volcano in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and surround myself with disposable henchmen.  Not so George Lucas, who has chosen to use his powers for good and to build a new museum to house his enormous art collection. The website for his project raises all sorts of questions – more on that shortly – but what I find most striking is that, more than once, it promotes the future site as a place for “visitors who might be less inclined to visit a traditional fine art museum”. Interesting. Does this mean people who are inclined to visit such museums won’t like it? If the audience he is after doesn’t really fancy museums, why make one? I’m fascinated by this project, and the controversy that surrounds it, because it brings into question what constitutes a 21st century art museum.

Surprisingly, Lucas has struggled to find a city willing to host this venture. Back in 2009, negotiations started with The Presidio Trust for a site in San Francisco, but that fell through and an opportunity came up to build in Chicago. Lucas’ wife, Melody Hobson, is a Chicagoan, and there was an appetite for the project from the mayor’s office, but its location proved tricky. They had decided on a prime spot, shoreside on Lake Michigan, but hadn’t counted on strong local (and wealthy) opposition. Cue three years of legal wrangling and lawsuits filed by Friends of the Park, who were having none of it. An interesting article in the Chicago Tribune, ‘Lucas Museum Drops Plans to Build in Chicago’, summarises the sorry saga. Eventually, a new home was found in Los Angeles at Exposition Park. This site is near Lucas’ alma mater, the University of Southern California, so it retains a personal connection, and it’s a good fit given the city’s strong links with cinema and movie-making. They are due to break ground this year and the project is scheduled for completion in 2021. The 275,000 sqft building, designed by Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, looks like the spaceship of super-stylish modernist aliens. When it finally ‘lands’, it’ll be hard to miss.

Even though the site issue is now resolved, the controversy doesn’t end there. The title of a recent LA Weekly article says it all: ‘Is George Lucas Museum a Vanity Project That Will Leave LA’s Cultural Worse Off?’ Critics feel that $1 billion would be better spent supporting existing arts infrastructure and worry that such a self-contained, self-financed project won’t fully integrate with its peers: “Nothing about the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art’s self-presentation suggests overarching concerns with collaboration or shared cultural concerns.” Even the subject of the collection is scorned; the same LA Weekly article states, “narrative art isn’t exactly a real thing”, and then goes on to quote LA Times critic, Christopher Knight, who wrote, “narrative art is a made-up category”.

I’m afraid the Lucas Museum website doesn’t do itself any favours either in how it describes its collections.  More than once it makes a distinction between ‘traditional paintings’ (whatever those are) and the working drawings and designs of film-making and illustration. I don’t really think the distinction is necessary – surely art and design is a broad enough church to encompass the scope of Lucas’s collection. Compared with the eclectic and extensive collections of the V&A, it’s positively laser-like in its focus. But what the LA critics are implying, and Lucas’s own PR machine is reinforcing, is the distinction between high and low art forms – ‘proper’ art, like the sort you would find in a “traditional fine art museum”, and then all the other stuff that appeals to the man on the street. This dichotomy is so old it creaks. It’s also not helpful to perpetuate the outdated myth that museums are for a certain type of person (all cognac and cravats) and that the rest of us prefer blockbuster movies (all popcorn and trackpants). Lucas claims to be creating a new kind of museum – “One visit may change not only the way you think about museums but what you think art is”. Unfortunately, in order to identify his museum as something different, Lucas is trotting out some very old-fashioned ideas about what a museum is, and who it’s for.

What about the learning programmes? According to the website, “We will make education and access a priority; our programming and education will make pioneering [my emphasis] use of our one-of-a-kind collection”. Well that’s exciting – and it makes sense too. If one is going to revolutionise museums, one may as well pioneer innovations in programming as well. As you can imagine, I read on with great anticipation, looking forward to learning more about the novel approaches they have planned. Brace yourselves, this is the headline list for ‘Collection and Education Programming’: collection presentations; temporary exhibitions; daily film-screenings; film premieres, public lectures; hands-on workshops; school tours and programmes; classes for all ages; and campus-wide festivals. Hmm. Has your mind been blown? No, me neither. There is more detail further down the page on the proposed offer for each audience, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before and could be considered fairly standard programming.

I’m being harsh; I appreciate that a bit of PR puff about a theoretical programme that is still at least four years away is not necessarily going to reflect the quality of the final product. It just grinds my gears that this is a phenomenal opportunity to actually do something pioneering and it would be a shame to squander it. I really want their ‘docent-led tours’ and ‘hands-on art-making workshops’ to change the game, but their aspirations to do something spectacular are currently sitting within a very well-established template.

What the team will have to their advantage is the facilities: state-of-the-art cinemas; production-quality editing; digital and analogue classrooms; lecture halls; library; and practical studios. That lot could be the envy of any learning department. Such high-tech rooms could enable amazing programming that promoted skills development and career-focussed training. And with so many film-making practitioners and creatives in close proximity, there will be plenty of opportunities for setting ‘real world’ design briefs.

It’s not unusual for a rich man to create a museum and have it named in his honour – J. Paul Getty, Solomon R. Guggenheim, Henry Tate, and Charles Saatchi have all made their mark on the art museum world – and rich women have also made an enormous cultural impact, especially Peggy Guggenheim and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. It must be frustrating for Lucas that this gesture of creating a new museum – which he probably perceives as an act of generosity – has been met with so much suspicion and, in some case, open hostility. Perhaps we’ll all end up eating humble pie when it’s a massive success. To date, the project has been a lightning rod for debates around elitism and the patronage of museums. It would be amazing if their learning programmes have the same impact on museums as Star Wars had on cinema. Why aim for less?



Design Ventura Summit Adventures

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 & the Lean Canvas Model

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.

Hinatore: the modular furniture along the right-hand wall can be reconfigured.
Hinatore: note the 3D printers on the right.

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.

Hinatore: detail of the commissioned illustration by Gwilym Devey, depicting aspects of the collection (the natural world, technology, engineering, and Aotearoa New Zealand’s history). The large building with the three flags in front of it is Te Papa.

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:

  1. What is the problem? (ie. what is the audience need?)
  2. What customer segments are you solving the problem for? (an important step for clarifying and defining the target audience)
  3. 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)
  4. The solution (what top features or capabilities will address the problems?)
  5. Channels (how will you reach your audiences?)
  6. Neighbours (who are the key partners or people you’ll need help from?)
  7. Cost Structure (what resources will you need?)
  8. Value/Success Metrics (how is value created and what metrics will you use to measure that value?)
  9. 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.

Sizing Up the Competition

Last month, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published Sponsored Museums Performance Indicators 2015/16’. It reported that visits to the 15 DCMS-funded museums, mostly London-based with some located in other parts of the country, have dropped for the first time in a decade. There were 1.4 million fewer visits this year compared with last year – 47.6 million, down from 49 million –  and it was tourists who were staying away. Surprisingly, overseas visitors made up about 47% of audiences to these museums, which Arts Professional reports as down from 49% in 2014/15. Arts Professional also makes the point that visits to the UK by overseas residents actually went up and were 5.1% higher in 2015 than the previous year. What all this adds up to is more people visiting the UK, and fewer of them visiting UK museums. So if they aren’t coming to us, where are they going?

It seems museums are facing some stiff competition for audiences. This would be consistent with anecdotal evidence I heard in the US. Museum staff in both Indianapolis and Denver spoke about the sector having to look beyond just other museums. We have to better understand how people choose to spend their leisure time and take into consideration the broad range of other available options. And it’s not just us having to do this; the power of social media has strong-armed many public-facing organisations into raising their customer experience game. A bad review on TripAdvisor or a pointed complaint on Twitter are seen by the world, making them far more effective tools for change than a letter to the director. Similarly, a glowing review on facebook or a positive photo on Instagram are marketing gold-dust. We have all become little emperors with mobile phones, giving the thumbs up or thumbs down as the mood takes us. In this climate, museums are looking to other types of venue for inspiration, and they are looking right back at us and doing the same.

For example, there is a great cafe in Cambridge called Stir. It has excellent coffee, lots of varied and comfortable seating, tasty food, friendly staff, lovely tiled walls, and large windows to watch the world go by. All of these elements come together to create a relaxed and welcoming ambience. On the back wall in the main room is a large blackboard; it’s covered with a calendar of activities, including weekly, morning, drop-in art workshops for young children. Now, if I had a toddler and was looking for a low-fi bit of creative entertainment that would suit the needs of both my child and me, I could potentially chose between a kids’ workshop at a local museum or a local cafe. The former has the advantage of original artworks, the latter has coffee and sofas. Museum staff might presume the lure of original artworks would trump all alternatives, but if I’d only had four hours’ sleep the night before and had been watching Igglepiggle on a loop since 5.30am, my money would be on coffee and sofas.

Places like Stir are the competition for museums looking to broaden the scope of their audiences. Increasingly, cafes are picking up museum tricks (like kids’ workshops) and museums are picking up cafe tricks (like coffee and sofas – although not near the artworks). Museums are also borrowing from cinemas, gardens, theatres, and bars to create new museum experiences and attract audiences who like those kinds of social offers. As the line between different forms of leisure activity blurs, it can be harder to distinguish the USP (unique selling point) of museums. Libraries have already gone through this process of reinvention. Books are now just one aspect of the library offer, which can include cafes, creches, job centres, and ubiquitous yoga classes. At Biggin Hill, the library was knocked down and replaced by a library and swimming pool on the same site. If such things are possible, I look forward to the first museum-jacuzzi experience.

With so much change in the air, I suspect museums are going through a bit of an identity crisis. We haven’t fully shaken off the ‘dry n dusty’ reputation of our past, and we haven’t fully embraced the ‘down with the kids’ potential of our venues either. Instead, we seem to be going through that awkward teenage phase, sometimes reverting back to what we were and sometimes reaching forward to what we might become. I see examples of incredible, innovative museum practice and think ‘at last!’, but then it only takes a couple of retrograde meetings to realise, ‘ah, maybe not quite yet’.

All of this competition also affects learning programming. Museums are just one of many places that an adult audiences can go for an interesting talk and a glass of wine, or that families can bring their children for an afternoon outing. How can we continue to set ourselves apart from the crowd and convince audiences that we are the best use of their free time? An obvious strength is our collections, exhibitions, and venues. Well, ‘obvious’ only if we make these assets relevant to audiences. Nina Simon’s latest book The Art of Relevance argues that this is a fundamental aspect of audience development.

Personally, I’m a fan of immersive experiences (taking a leaf out of theatre’s book) and anything multisensory or cross-disciplinary that draws on music, dance and performance – Punchdrunk’s work with the National Maritime Museum set the bar pretty high with their installation, Against Captain’s Orders in 2015. Having said that, I’m also keen on quiet, stripped-back experiences where visitors are encouraged to stop, be still and ponder. For example, the National Gallery runs programmes that invite participants to sit in silence and look at a single painting for five minutes. Called ‘Looking without Talking’, the sessions originated in 2013 to support the Vermeer and Music exhibition. The structure of these sessions has also been repeated under different titles, such as ‘Drawing Mindfully’ and ‘Draw Breath’. Similarly, The Photographers’ Gallery has a small gallery space devoted to just one image and encourages visitors to spend time with it and share their responses. I like these different approaches because they are creating experiences that feel special. Those who participate get to do something outside of the everyday and enjoy a sense of wonder – surely that is a competitive advantage.

Image: All About Eve (1950)