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?

HEADER IMAGE: https://www.dezeen.com/2017/01/11/mad-george-lucas-museum-narrative-art-los-angeles-exposition-park-ma-yansong/


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) https://mubi.com/films/all-about-eve


The New Art Gallery Walsall: you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone

I worked at The New Art Gallery Walsall (NAGW) from May 2004 to June 2006. When I got the job, my role at the time was Administrator for the Education Department at the National Galleries of Scotland. Having had applications rejected for several other arts jobs, I’d been experiencing the creeping dread that I’d never break out of administration. But when Walsall said yes, and I reached the dizzying heights of ‘Education and Events Assistant Curator’, I was over the moon. I learned a phenomenal amount during my time there, and acquired a sufficient level of skill to successfully secure my next role, Education Officer at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.

NAGW has always been supportive of staff development and very committed to audience engagement. Those two years were the most amazing training ground, especially for a career in museum and gallery education. Many galleries claim to have ‘education at the heart of everything we do’, but this place really means it. Shockingly, the gallery is currently facing the very real threat of closure, a consequence of Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council having to plug an £85M hole in its budget over the next four years. The long, ugly fallout of the 2008 recession and subsequent government austerity measures are still scorching their way across the country. So with this in mind, I’d like to share a few of the many features that make NAGW a world-class institution and to illustrate the scale of what would be lost.

The Collection

NAGW is built around The Garman Ryan Collection, named after its founders, Kathleen Garman (1901-1979) and Sally Ryan (1916-1968). Garman was the second wife of sculptor, Jacob Epstein, and was a close friend of Ryan’s, who was also a sculptor and Epstein’s only pupil. Following Epstein’s death in 1959, Garman was looking for a permanent home for their shared collection. Raised in neighbouring Wednesbury, she was keen for the collection to be located in her native Black Country. It was gifted to Walsall in 1972 and exhibited in the central library building until the New Art Gallery opened in 2000, where it has been housed since.

Sheila McGregor, Deputy Director at the time of writing in 1999, described what makes the collection so special:

‘The appeal… lies in its idiosyncracy, its intriguing juxtapositions, the domestic scale of its contents and, above all, the almost palpable presence of the personalities whose lives influenced its creation. It is quite unlike any other public art collection in Great Britain… it is unusual  because it has no single thematic or art-historical focus… it embraces work from many different periods and cultures, giving equal weight to the famous and little known… this is a collection formed by two women working closely in partnership, at a time when collecting was still, predominantly, a male prerogative’. (p.17, The Garman Ryan Collection catalogue)

The Garman Ryan Collection is arranged by subject, so there are rooms depicting ‘Animals and Birds’, ‘Work and Leisure’, Still Lifes and Vessels’, etc. The Western canon (Turner, Constable, Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, Blake, Modigliani, Burne-Jones et al.) is interspersed with beautiful, functional objects from all over the world. Some favourites include: a heddle pulley from an upright loom (Ivory Coast);  a comb decorated with an incised face that also doubles as a figure (New Guinea); a Hei-Tiki (Aotearoa/New Zealand); a head-shaped vessel (Peru, Moche); and a tortoise-shaped incense burner (China). The thematic hang is such a gift to museum educators and I must have led hundreds of tours during my time there. In one room alone, you can go from Robert Delaunay’s portrait of Stravinsky, to Epstein’s bust of Nobel Prize winning poet, Rabindranath Tagore, to Degas’ portrait of his sister, to Freud’s portrait of Kitty Garman, Kathleen and Epstein’s older daughter and Freud’s first wife. Somehow, the collection manages to be both global and epic as well as personal and intimate at the same time.

The Exhibitions

The third floor of NAGW is used for temporary exhibitions and it is stunning, all high ceilings and beautiful proportions – a classic white-walled cathedral for art. I enjoyed working with so many great exhibitions there, but two in particular stand out: Hew Locke’s solo show in 2005; and the touring exhibition, Kerry James Marshall, Along the Way, in 2006. Both artists create large scale works that are bold, bright and visually arresting, while also packing a political punch that explores race, discrimination, power structures, and, in the case of Locke, post-colonialism. To support Locke’s show, NAGW published the first monograph of his then 25-year career. His close friend, architect David Adjaye, came up to host a Q&A with the artist. Marshall is a major figure in the US art scene, and he is represented in public collections across the country. Incredibly, Along the Way was his first solo show in the UK. And it came to Walsall. As green as I was to the art world, even I understood that these exhibitions were a really big deal.

Jungle Queen II, 2003, by Hew Locke (*)
The Lost Boys, 1993, by Kerry James Marshall (**)

Deb Robinson, Senior Exhibitions Curator, is the powerhouse responsible for the exhibition programme at NAGW and has a fantastic eye for talent. She spotted a young Conrad Shawcross for a solo show in 2005 and I went back specifically to see her Joana Vasconcelos show in 2007. Vasconcelos is an amazing Portuguese artist who creates enormous sacred hearts out of plastic cutlery, chandeliers out of tampons, and covers life-sized ceramic figurines with crochet. Her work is addictive and joyous, and Deb had been following her career for some time. You could never accuse a NAGW exhibition of lacking ambition. Bob and Roberta Smith, who was artist-in-residence from 2009-2011 and made work inspired by the Epstein Archive, has been a vocal and staunch supporter of the campaign to save the gallery.

The Building

Caruso St John is now a well-established and internationally renowned architecture practice; it was the NAGW commission that put them on the map. Formed in 1990, they worked on the gallery from 1995-2000, and many other successful commissions have followed: ‘Since then the practice has completed many gallery projects, including Tate Britain Millbank, Nottingham Contemporary, Newport Street Gallery, and Gagosian Galleries at King’s Cross and Grosvenor Hill’.  

The gallery was a catalyst for extensive further investment in Walsall – property developers flocked to create apartments near it, the canal towpath has been tidied up, and a huge shopping complex sprung up over the road. NAGW was one of several large millennial arts projects that were designed to re-generate smaller towns across the country. While there are still serious socio-economic challenges to address, Walsall has definitely reaped massive returns on the initial investment (the gallery cost £21M to build and has long been the jewel in the Heritage Lottery Fund crown).

The building itself is welcoming and beautiful. The spaces are so well designed, and you can feel the attention to detail and quality of craftsmanship that went into its creation. And the icing on the cake? Walsall-boy-done-good and Slade frontman, Noddy Holder, is the voice in the elevators, telling you which floor you’re on in his distinctive Black Country accent.

Respect for audiences

The high quality of its learning programmes also contribute to NAGW’s national reputation, and I can see why – the whole team ‘gets it’. Jo Digger, Collections Curator for many years and now retired, has always championed and respected audiences of all ages. In the 1990s, Jo curated a show called START at Walsall Art Gallery (as it was then known) for a target audience of three to five-year-olds. Painting were hung inches from the floor and the emphasis was on interaction and enjoyment. This groundbreaking show led to the creation of the Discovery Gallery at NAGW, the first space you see as you come through the door. ‘Disco’, as it was affectionately known, was designed specifically to introduce children and families to contemporary art practice. Renamed The Family Gallery, it includes works by Laura Ford, Yinka Shonabare, the Singh Twins, Damien Hirst, and many others. Audiences are intrinsic to the thinking at NAGW, not a footnote or an afterthought.


There is currently a high-profile press campaign fighting to save the gallery. A letter from leading directors and artists across the country was recently published in the Guardian, and the paper has run several articles on Walsall’s financial dilemma. It is also worth remembering that it isn’t just the gallery at risk; the Council is looking to close 15 of its 16 libraries as well. Unfortunately, this is not a unique problem, as Lancaster, Derby, and now Birmingham councils are all trying to balance the books at the price of arts and heritage provision. And I don’t envy their bind either; regional councils are being choked by the most horrendous budgetary strangle-holds. So what’s the path ahead? I have no idea, but at the same time, I know that ripping out infrastructure, heritage and employment opportunities for communities might plug a short-term funding gap, but it will have greater long-term consequences.

We are not the owners of cultural heritage, we are its temporary stewards and guardians, and future generations who live and work in Walsall deserve a gallery of this calibre. We will be leaving behind a disgraceful legacy if we allow a project that was a decade in the making and the recipient of millions of pounds of State support to disappear after a cruelly short 16 years. The Guardian has reported that The decision about the fate of New Art Gallery will be made by the council on 23 February.’


After that rather downbeat note, on the upswing I’d like to wish you a Happy Christmas and a restful holiday. I will be spending the next couple of weeks chipping away at my Churchill report and I plan to be back with more bloggage from 9 January.

(*) Source: https://jameswoodward.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/jungle-queen-ii-by-hew-locke/

(**) Source: http://www.artnews.com/2016/03/02/the-painter-of-modern-life-kerry-james-marshall-aims-to-get-more-images-of-black-figures-into-museums/2/

Slouching Towards Progress

‘If a museum sees itself… as a responsive agency, meeting its community’s immediate needs… then continuous input from the potential audience is essential.’ (1)

‘Instead of being there for the objects, museums should be there for people. Let us therefore try to analyse people’s needs, both as individuals and members of a group. Naturally, we shall seek to define present, real needs, even potential needs, and not what we think people need.’ (2)

‘The museum, as an object bank, as a university which dispenses knowledge through objects, will become a public meeting-place and a particularly propitious place for the creation of new cultural forms, new social relations, and new solutions to the most down-to-earth problems of individuals and social groups.’ (3)

All of these quotes are from the latest issue of Museum International and I agree with them wholeheartedly. It’s exciting to think that museums are becoming more socially engaged and that out-dated thinking will soon become a thing of the past. Perhaps change is coming faster than I thought? Sadly no. The first comment was made in 1971, the last two comments are from 1976.

On first reading, I found the age of these quotes so disheartening. When I picture ‘the passing of the baton’ from one generation of museum practitioners to the next, I like to imagine the 4 x 100m Olympic Relay final. Each generation dashes a glimmering 100 metres of sweat, graft and toil, powering towards the future, and then passes their momentum and energy on to the next generation, before collapsing to the flash of camera bulbs and glory. Instead, with those quotes still rattling around my head, I picture a progress relay that resembles a very long queue for a Sunday evening rail replacement bus service. It’s raining, and we’re cold, tired and miles from home. Our contribution is to take the baton, shift an inch, then pass it on. Snore. Are we really achieving anything when this is the rate of progress?

On further reflection, however, I think there is hope and we are making a difference. An enormous amount has changed in museum practice since those comments were made, and I believe this has come about as a result of external pressures (eg. changing funding models and growing audience expectations) as well as internal advocacy and programming, often led by Learning departments, with the support of visionary directors. Audiences today expect and demand high-quality and varied user experiences, with a premium placed on socialising with friends and family. Forgo the inclusion of a cafe or a family offer at your peril. To illustrate just how much has changed, I also enjoyed this comment in Museum International, dating back to 1963: ‘Museums are tiring places and rest areas, preferably where smoking is permitted, are essential.’ (4) So the pace may be gradual, even glacial, but if we step back far enough and take the long view, positive change is happening.

I realise that the very concept of progress lost all credibility when Post-Modernism rocked up in the 1970s with its ‘well, it depends’ view of the world.  One woman’s idea of improvement will always be another woman’s idea of backsliding. One woman’s socially-inclusive, participatory museum will always be another woman’s child-infested, barbarian-overrun hellhole. But surely it’s human nature to want things to be better as time passes? Surely breaking down barriers to the arts and creating museums that are more relevant to more people is a good thing? Would we not function better as a society if more people felt entitled to, and had access to, the arts, and found a voice through creative expression? Some would say yes, others would think I’ve loaded the dice and am only seeking self-serving answers.

Perhaps it might be worth looking at progress from a slightly different angle; if the long view is too slow, there is always the ‘here and now’ to improve, starting with how we think about our own programmes. I’m still sifting through the interviews I conducted while in the US, and certain themes are consistently rising to the top. An attribute that many of my interviewees share is an enormous appetite for innovation. There is no resting on laurels with this lot. They put a huge amount of energy into programming that will surprise and inspire existing audiences, and make authentic connections with new audiences. On top of this, tightly refined learning and social outcomes are set for each strand, and, in a shocking move, they then test and evaluate those outcomes against visitor feedback. If the programme isn’t doing what they want it to, it’s either adapted or cut. Not rocket science, but just like healthy eating and exercise, we all know what we should be doing, but that’s not the same as actually doing it. The US museum educators I met are ruthless with their programmes, pruning back and reshaping often to ensure they are keeping in step with their audiences. Standing still in this environment is more akin to moving backwards.

So I think that’s probably enough metaphors for one blogpost. Do please get in touch with any interesting examples of progressive practice that you’d like to share.

NOTE: All of the quotes are from Museum International: Key Ideas in Museums and Heritage (1949-2004), No. 261-264, 2015. Page numbers refer to this issue. Dates refer to original publication; all articles appeared in earlier issues of Museum International.

  1. Museums, Systems and Computers, by Duncan F Cameron, (1971, Vol.23, No.1) pp.39-44.
  2. The Modern Museum: Requirements and Problems of a New Approach, (1976, Vol.28, No.3) by Hugues de Varine-Bohan, pp.76-87.
  3. Ibid.
  4. The Function of Natural History Museums, by J.W. Evans, (1963, Vol.16, No.4) pp.35-38.

Header Image source: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/201254677071604345/

Awesome Interactives and Where to Find Them

Following on from last week’s post on play, I want to share a few photos of the artworks, immersive installations and interactives that I enjoyed playing with on my visit to the US. In the name of research, it’s quite liberating to try out the extra bits and bobs, and not something I’d usually do. I feel a bit guilty admitting this, but I also enjoyed having the place to myself. These museum displays clearly get a lot of use at weekends and school holidays, but on your average weekday, there aren’t many other people around so I could play to my heart’s content.

My favourite galleries at the Center of Science and Industry, Columbus (CoSI) depict a street scene of a mythical town called Progress, set in 1898, and then the same street again, but in 1962. The corridor connecting the two has a timeline summarising some of the radical changes that happened inbetween. It was a very immediate way of understanding change over time in only a few generations. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed galleries like this, where you can go into the shops and peer through the windows and have a rich immersive experience.

Center of Science and Industry (CoSI) in Columbus – the town of Progress, 1898

In the 1898 version was a telegram office that looked as though the postmaster/mistress had just stepped out of the room. To one side was a table with a Morse code machine and above it, a caged bird. The simple instructions on the table showed the Morse alphabet of dot-dash combinations and then gave examples of a few simple words, like cow or tree, that could be constructed using this system. The best bit – when you tap in this sequence, the bird then says the word back to you. I found this so engaging, to get the code correct and then the satisfaction of making the bird speak. I tried a few Anglo-Saxon words not on the list, without success, so I think there’s probably a shadow list somewhere of words that the bird can choose not to recognise.

CoSI – tap Morse code into the telegram machine and hear the bird repeat it back to you.

In 1962, I went into a classic diner and found a couple of kids playing behind the counter and their dad sitting (wearily) at a nearby table, pretend-eating plastic bacon and chips. Without batting an eyelid, the girl asked me for my order, so I had an invisible milkshake, which cost me 15 invisible cents. The best bit – a real jukebox in the corner was filled with sixties hits. I played Green Onions, and then Fever, and had a mini-bop because I couldn’t help myself. I left those galleries feeling really happy.

CoSI – the town of Progress, but skipping ahead to 1962
A real juke box in the corner with fantastic sixties tunes.
As you leave Progress (oh the irony…)

CoSI also has a series of ‘Life’ galleries that explore the human body and consciousness. While the decor looks pretty dated, I enjoyed reading a text panel about all the different noises a body can make and what’s going on anatomically. Starting from the top, there were explanations on sniffing, snoring, sneezing and burping before heading further south. Next to this list was a keyboard and when you press any of the keys, they make a different disgusting body sound. So educational AND entertaining. I should have grown out of finding this sort of thing funny by now, but my shonky version of Beethoven’s Fur Elise was really quite special. It also brought to Ferris Bueller faking illness and lining up his legendary day off.

CoSI – an informative text panel on Body Noises, which can be replicated on the keyboard.

Moving back into more sensible territory, I found this postcard-making activity at Denver Art Museum (DAM) really straight-forward and captivating. The activity table had a spine of materials down the centre, including postcard templates, plain on one side and ‘this is from Denver Art Museum’ on the back, and a series of bespoke stamps, each with a detail from artworks on display. The stamps had cattle, cowboys, horses, clouds, birds, and fences that could all be mixed and matched to create a new scene. You could either take your postcard away or display it on the wire clothesline. I imagine this activity is fairly low maintenance for the staff and it did make me look again at the paintings that inspired the stamps.

Denver Art Museum – stamp activity, with text in English and Spanish.


Some of my efforts.

Over the road from DAM is History Colorado, which has also gone all out with the immersive experience, recreating the town of Keota, a tiny Midwestern settlement which no longer exists. You can walk along a re-creation of the high street and go into the chemist, the local primary school or a typical home. My favourite part was clambering into the driver’s seat of a Model T and following an audio-visual narrative – the screen showed us bumping over prairies, while a soundtrack played the voices of a mother, father and two kids, having a conversation about their journey. The car itself jerked around to suggest movement over uneven ground. There was a big jolt when we ran over a snake and a spritz of water vapour in the face when it started raining. You got a good sense of how isolated the town was, the difficulty of crossing the landscape, and how important social connections were between distant neighbours.

History Colorado in Denver – the entrance to the Keota galleries. Keota was a tiny Midwestern settlement that no longer exists.
Bump along the countryside in a Model T.

And finally, I had to include Funky Bones, 2010, by Atelier Van Lieshout. This work is on The Virginia B Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acre, part of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. You really need aerial photography to get a sense of the full piece, and up close each section is the perfect height for sitting on. For me, this was the ideal stepping stone challenge. Hopping from shin to thigh bone was simple enough, and I contemplated making the leap from spine to skull, but it wasn’t worth breaking my own leg in the process and common sense prevailed. It has been so thoroughly drummed into me to never touch the artworks, that I tend to over-compensate in sculpture parks and insist on touching (or climbing on) absolutely everything. And if Robin Williams taught us anything in Dead Poet’s Society, it was that standing on stuff we shouldn’t – be it a desk or a skeleton sculpture – is a great way to get a new perspective on the world. I didn’t YAWP but I could’ve.

Funky Bones, 2010, by Atelier Van Lieshout

A month of playing with all the toys in museums taught me that kids are hogging the fun and a bit of silliness is good for the soul. It’s also useful to be reminded of what it’s like to be a visitor and how a change of tempo, movement or tone can break up a museum visit and refresh flagging concentration. I liked spending time considering artworks, and then working on a half-completed puzzle, and then moving on to read some visitor comments, and then returning to some more art. I’m also interested in how we can incorporate movement into our museum experiences, so that we are considering the whole person, not just their experiences from the neck up. A fully rounded experience generates memories that span head, heart and hand and live in both the mind and the body. A mix of play and contemplation brings these aspects together beautifully.

Header image: detail from Tableau, 2016, by Hadley Hooper, at the Denver Art Museum

The Social Museum


I really like it when I learn a new word, believing I’ve never seen or heard it before, and then in the following week it’ll cross my path at least twice. I’ve been experiencing something similar in relation to the social aspects of museums – the idea isn’t new to me, but now that my attention has turned to it as a result of my US trip, it’s all I can see and it’s absolutely everywhere. To be fair, I’m conflating three different ideas of ‘the social’ – social experiences, co-design, and the social role of museums – but they all share an emphasis on people, how we interact with each other, and how we could interact with museums. Some examples…

Social experiences

This idea came up time and again during my trip – museum educators (for want of a better word) are thinking more holistically about the visitor experience and broadening their programme accordingly. It’s no longer just about providing ‘food for thought’, now it may also include actual food, accompanied by a glass of red, live music, perhaps a dance performance and, my favourite, somewhere comfortable to lounge about with friends or family.

Merilee Mostov, Head of Engagement at Columbus Museum of Art, is the patron saint of museum goers with weary backs and sore legs. She has installed many different kinds of seating across the galleries, creating spaces to slow down, chat, rest and reflect.
This inventive seating in the Center for Creative Connections, Dallas Museum of Art, encourages getting cosy with a good book.

Social experiences can be promoted between pre-existing groups of people (families and friends who know each other), or generated between small groups of strangers (such as the Museum Hack tour experience) or, if you’re feeling ambitious, created on a massive scale, such as the CatVidFest, where 11,500 people congregated to watch internet cat videos, part of the incredible Open Field project run by the Walker Art Center. I met Sarah Schultz when I was in New York; Sarah is now a freelance consultant and was previously the Head of Education at the Walker Art Center. It’s Sarah’s vision that made Open Field possible. Her new book, Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong, is a collection of essays inspired by the success of CatVidFest.

‘Open Field: Conversations on the Commons’,  on Walker Art Center website

I love the way Sarah talked about CatVidFest – it sounded like a truly collective, joyous, (a bit silly), and totally uplifting social experience. When I think of equivalent experiences in my own life, where for a brief moment I was one with thousands of others, I recall singing and swaying along to Dolly Parton at Glastonbury, and shouting at a telly in a pub in Cromer to aid Mo Farah’s victory in the 5,000m at the 2012 Olympics. Even the memory of these social experiences gives me goosebumps. They are on the ‘epic’ end of the spectrum, but I think it’s worth considering how we can foster more modest, but still collective, social experiences in our museums. I want visitors to head back out into the world feeling refreshed, relaxed and reliving an amazing moment that they couldn’t have experienced alone.




MCA Denver has a fantastic programme of evening events. For example, B-Side Thursdays offers live music and makes great use of the roof terrace and cafe/bar.


While it could be argued that museum educators have always collaborated, the current trend is pushing this idea further. We’re moving away from playing the role of cultural saviour, applying a tick-box approach, and casually diving in and out of relationships with community partners as it suits us. Instead, we’re moving towards a more complex model whereby: fewer long-term working partnerships are formed; there is an authentic interest in understanding the requirements, priorities and interests of the people we are working with; institutional biases are challenged; and the work goes beyond the remit of learning departments, and becomes core to the organisational mission. Not easy, but it’s  vital that we start to tackle this approach if we wish to remain relevant.

There are many names for this way of working – participatory practice, co-creation, human-centred design – although irrespective of what it’s called, the bottom line is always ‘working with, not at’ (I also like the phrase ‘nothing about us without us’). Nina Simon has been championing this approach for years and her latest book, The Art of Relevance, is filled with practice advice and well worth a look. Speaking at the engage annual conference earlier this month, Tate Liverpool shared their recent co-design approach. Tate Collective is their national young people’s project; Tate Liverpool has expanded this to a Family Collective and a Community Collective, working with adults. Representatives from each of these group spoke to us, alongside the Tate staff. The groups clearly have a good relationship with the team, and have the confidence to critique organisational practices (asking questions such as, ‘why can’t we have an exhibition?’).

Another great example of co-design practice is Our Museum, a five-year research project funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF), that aimed to move community engagement from the margins (ie. learning departments) to the core (ie. senior management and organisation-wide) of museums. There is a whole page on the PHF website that summarises the projects, their progress, and further recommendations. I have also recently discovered a report from the Oakland Museum of California, titled How Visitors Changed Our Museum. It goes into the detail of transforming the Gallery of Californian Art, which involved a huge amount of input from local communities.


Dick and Rick take very different approaches to working with communities. Part of the Citizen Design display at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York

The Social Role of Museums

Cooper-Hewitt’s Process Lab recently had an interactive display, Citizen Design, which invited visitors to go through a social impact design process to explore issues, such as reducing dependence on private cars, improving access to healthcare, or restoring housing after natural disasters. At the entrance, as a means of introducing social impact design, was the wonderfully illustrated tale of ‘Dick and Rick’, and their differing approaches to co-design with communities. Rick finds out what is important to the community and spends a lot of time listening and seeking shared solutions. Meanwhile, Dick thinks he knows better and believes that a few photos of the area will suffice. They both work to create a community park – you can probably guess which project was the success.



Large network organisations and funders are currently querying the role (or roles) museums play in society, which is a sure sign that major changes are afoot. Museum ID & ICOM recently held a two-day conference in London, titled The Future of Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture. I’ve recently returned from an ICOM & La Caixa seminar in Barcelona, which asked the question, ‘what is the social role of museums?’ Case studies, shared by delegates from all over the world, reflected the economic turmoil of the time, the societal pressures of mass migration, and the impact of terrorist attacks on cities. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is currently leading a number of workshops and consultations across England, asking, ‘what is the civic role of arts organisations?’ and politics is again rearing its head (think Brexit) and challenging how we see ourselves – could (or should) museums wade into this territory or would it be better if we just ‘stick to our knitting’ and stop trying to be all things to all people? Personally, I don’t think isolating our work from what’s happening around us is helpful. Museums are no longer cloisters, and no matter how much cotton wool we choose to shove in our ears, we can’t avoid dealing with our contemporary social context indefinitely.

With this social trend gaining momentum, it’s a great time to be working in museum learning/education departments. People are our thing – when something ‘people-related’ comes up in museums, it’s the learning departments that are expected to address it. So how do we make the most of this opportunity? Are we ready? What changes do we need to make to fully engage with this massive agenda? And how much of it do we actually want to take on?

Header Image: As part of the Citizen Design display, visitors were invited to select a sticker. If unwanted, the stickers could be ‘returned’ to a display board on exiting the display.

Blowing the Bloody Doors Off (or having to think differently)

After a very happy month of living in a travel bubble, I’m now back to real life and trying to process the experience. I took copious notes and photos while I was away, and they are proving very useful portals back to the cities and museums I visited. What I’m find most unsettling is that I don’t know what I think, but I do know that what I used to think doesn’t fit anymore. Some of my fundamental principles of museum education have been challenged – which is what I hoped would happen – but I’m yet to land back down on either side of the fence with a strong opinion either way. For example, it has been my mantra since the dawn of time that all programming must be rooted in the collections and exhibitions; I would refer to it as ‘Easter bonnet syndrome’ when programming didn’t respond to its immediate context or encourage direct engagement with artworks. But after what I’ve seen in the US, now I’m not so sure, and I’m excited about the potential of blowing the whole thing open and rethinking the purpose of programming.

I was struck by the more open approach at MCA Denver, where the events programming holds equal status with exhibition programming. The team place a strong emphasis on creating social experiences and platforms for thinking about culture and society more holistically. Similarly, Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) is committed to promoting creativity and provides drop-in studio time for families and young people as well as informal opportunities to make and draw in their Chase Center for Creativity. Both MCA Denver and CMA do respond to collections and exhibitions, but not exclusively.

I also visited science museums during the course of my trip – they have gone quite a bit further, and take an even more relaxed approach to engaging with original objects. The Perot Nature and Science Museum, Dallas, and the Center of Science and Industry (CoSI), Columbus, both have play spaces for young children without any collection objects on display. Instead they provide space to experiment with sand, water, role-play (shopping for fruit and veg seems especially popular), and physical activity such as climbing and crawling, and improving manual dexterity. This approach reminds me of the National Maritime Museum’s new AHOY! Children’s Gallery. We went to see AHOY! on a V&A team outing and the absence of collection objects generated much discussion. While it still makes me a bit twitchy, I’m more open to the idea than I was previously. All of these child-friendly galleries were heaving with families, and they looked like they were having a great time. Those young children must go home believing that museums = fun and want to return. If collection-free spaces provide a gateway into the museum, is that so terrible? Or is it a cul-de-sac, rather than a gateway, for those families who don’t explore further? Or is it just snobbery to judge how others choose to engage? Hmm, dunno, I might need to stay on the fence a bit longer on that one…

The Perot Science and Nature Museum – like all good science museums, there were plenty of hands-on interactive experiences in the main galleries.
CoSI, Columbus – the Ocean gallery had this spectacular centrepiece, surrounded by various splashy activities that introduced the properties of water.

Coming back to the world of art museums and new approaches to programming, Bank Street College of Education, New York, offers Leadership in Museum Education post-graduate courses. I met with Program Director, Brian Hogarth, and he shared their recent report, Leading the Future of Museum Education: Challenges and Opportunities (I haven’t been able to find an online version yet, but there are some good blog posts about it). It summarises a three-day meeting at the Denver Art Museum in May 2015 that invited museum educators from across the country, as well as international contributors, such as our Jane Sillis, Director of engage, to address the pressing issues of the sector. The report includes the following statement:

As educators, we want our institutions to take a more active role of addressing … broader social issues. In the past, the job of museum education was to cultivate learning and appreciation by drawing people into the museum, generating interest and focusing attention on collections and exhibitions. Now, our work is more about connecting and facilitating experiences that visitors, in part, help to determine. Our work has become more collaborative and outward in orientation. (p.5)

This statement feels very consistent with the practice I was seeing. I like the phrase ‘connecting and facilitating experiences’ – it feels far more expansive than focussing solely on objects, and reflects both the complexity and inherent possibility of our roles. It differs from ‘Easter bonnet syndrome’ too; it’s an approach that values the context of a museum to hold all sorts of conversations, and bring together a range of experiences and perspectives (the same could also be said of libraries). It’s an approach that has possibly been driven by audience demand; we are having to rethink the purpose of our cultural institutions because people want to engage differently – stoic discomfort and po-faced beard-stroking don’t cut it anymore.

There’s a whole wide world outside our museums, and what’s going on out there means more to many people than the stuff accumulated inside our buildings – how can we better bridge the two? Don’t get me wrong, I love object-based learning and the pleasure of looking at amazing wonders from around the world; I’m not proposing we abandon our collections. I just think we’re missing a trick if we don’t cast our nets further, and let more of the outside world in.
Header image source: http://www.sky.com/tv/movie/the-italian-job-1969