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.



This is Your Brain on Creativity

While the genesis of an idea remains mysterious, a huge amount has been written about the creative process and how to enhance our own creativity. The advice that is offered (eg. be open to the unexpected, experiment, reserve judgement, disrupt habitual thinking, etc) has been developed over years of practical experience. We do these things because they work. More recently, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have been able to reveal WHY these things work. And when you know the science of creativity, it is also easier to identify the barriers too.

For example, think about the two distinct creative processes, divergence and convergence (mentioned in last week’s post). The former requires openness, playfulness and de-focussed attention, all of which support lateral thinking. When divergence is being encouraged in a workshop or brainstorming session, it usually comes with the ‘yes, and…’ rule. This rule encourages participants to build on suggestions made by their colleagues, rather than torpedo them down with the usual plethora of bald statements that start with ‘no, but…’ I’m sure everyone has experienced the ideas-assassin, who responds to every suggestion with ‘no, but… that would never work… we tried it 10 years ago and it failed so we’ll never try again… and we’ll never get the funding… and the boss wouldn’t let us…’ If the other participants become self-conscious and start self-censoring, nothing new is going to appear. There is a time for judgement and evaluation (ie. convergence) but that comes next, when the group has generated a mountain of ideas that need sifting, sorting, and – often – binning.

So what’s going on upstairs when we are in a positive, ideas-generating environment? There is increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which works to ‘learn associations between context, locations, events, and corresponding adaptive responses, particularly emotional responses’ (1). It is linked with memory, self-expression and autobiographical narrative. It is also part of the ‘default mode network’, which is most active when a person is recalling memories, or otherwise in a resting state that can range from not thinking about anything in particular to sleep. But this is only half the story – as the medial prefrontal cortex fires up, the lateral prefrontal cortex decreases activity at the same time. This area is responsible for ‘conscious self-monitoring, self-inhibition, and evaluation of the rightness and wrongness of actions you’re about to implement’ (2). Psychology professor, Sharon Thompson Schill coined the phrase ‘hypofrontality’ to describe this suppression of activity. Transient hypofrontality has huge benefits, such as for language learning and creative thought, and can even explain the positive influence of exercise on emotion and cognition.

To put it another way: When someone is engaged in a task that requires cognitive control and focussed attention – for instance, solving a math problem or deciding what to pack for a camping trip – so-called beta waves, which oscillate at a frequency of 15 to 20 hertz, usually dominate. When people came up with new ideas, however, researchers recorded alpha waves over the prefrontal cortex. These eight to 12 hertz waves are typically a sign of relaxed wakefulness and diffuse attention. Their presence thus bolstered the notion that idea generation is associated with a state of lower cognitive control. (3)

This explains so much, not just the conditions that we need to generate ideas, but also the conditions that inhibit our ability to come up with ideas too. In layman’s (ie. my) terms – if you’re in the wrong part of your head, you’re going to struggle to think up anything new. ‘Cognitive flexibility’ is the ability to rapidly switch between modes of thinking, and it’s thought that creative individuals are ‘better able to upregulate or downregulate their cognitive-control system depending on the demands of the situation’ (4). This also makes sense to me, as the creative and design processes require a balance of divergent and convergent thinking, and the ability to move fairly comfortably between the two as required.

Another fundamental aspect of creativity is the ability to recombine and mashup existing ideas. I wrote about this in my post, ‘Ideas by Association’, and included the following quotes:

Creative thinking is a break with habitual patterns of thought… All of our existing thoughts have creative possibilities. Creative insights occur when they are combined in unexpected ways or applied to questions or issues with which they are not normally associated.”

Sir Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements… the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships… To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge.”

James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas

So what is the brain up to when we’re doing this? An important aspect is cognitive disinhibition, which is when the mental filters that screen out extraneous or irrelevant details are less effective. Latent inhibition, also known as ‘learned irrelevance’, is one of these cognitive filters; when it is reduced, more information than is needed reaches our awareness and there is a tendency to look for patterns and associations that aren’t necessarily there. In small doses, cognitive disinhibition aids creativity as unexpected combinations of ideas are more readily made; in large doses, it is associated with hallucinations and schizophrenia.

Personality theorists have also made links between latent inhibition and ‘openness’, one of the so-called Big Five personality traits (the others being conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism). In his article, Openness to Experience: the Gates of the Mind, Luke Smillie explains:

Open people tend to be intellectually curious, creative, and imaginative. They are interested in art and are voracious consumers of music, books, and other fruits of culture… Openness reflects a greater “breadth, depth, and permeability of consciousness,” and propensity to “cognitively explore” both abstract information (e.g., ideas and arguments) and sensory information (e.g., sights and sounds)… Learning what to ignore is critical for effective psychological functioning… So we sieve… information for relevant details, screening-out everything else. The problem is, the screened-out information might be useful later, but by then we’re slow to realize its significance, to un-learn its irrelevance.

This process can be modeled in the laboratory by pre-exposing participants to seemingly unimportant stimuli that later form the basis of a learning task. For the average person, this pre-exposure stifles subsequent learning—the critical stimulus has been rendered “irrelevant” and fails to penetrate awareness. Not so, however, for those high in openness, who are less susceptible to latent inhibition. This again demonstrates a more inclusive mode of thinking—a “leaky” cognitive system, if you will—which lets in information that others screen-out. These studies show that open people are less susceptible to the psychological “blind spots” that help us pare back the complexity of the world.

Having large volumes of additional, unfiltered information passing through one’s consciousness must be overwhelming and doesn’t always result in creativity. Both high IQ and strong memory have been linked with reduced latent inhibition in creative people, suggesting that the brain needs highly effective support mechanisms to make productive use of all that disparate content.

I love the relationship between our lived experiences of creativity – what we know works, but couldn’t tell say why – and then understanding the real power behind the throne, and how our brains go about pulling the relevant strings, pulleys and levers to make new ideas happen. It’s reassuring to know that someone in there knows what she’s doing.

IMAGE: The Persephone Chalice, 1914-15, Phoebe Anna Traquair, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

(1) ‘The Role of Medial Prefrontal Cortex in Memory and Decision Making’, Neuron, 2012, Dec 20, 76(6), by Euston, Gruber and McNaughton

(2) ‘Charles J Limb: Inner Sparks’, Scientific American MIND, January 2014, by Alicia Anstead

(3) ‘Your Fertile Brain at Work’, p.88, Scientific American MIND, January 2014

(4) Ibid, p.90.

Overcoming the System Immune Response to Innovation

Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.

Howard Aiken

Great ideas always appear so self-evident in hindsight. But as Aiken’s quote above attests to, we don’t always know a good thing when we see it, and the more original the thinking, the more difficult it is to grasp. For a truly innovative idea to gain traction, a whole host of supportive mechanisms need to be in place around it. When they aren’t there, the idea withers on the vine. Last month, the RSA published a fascinating report, From Design Thinking to Systems Change: How to invest in innovation for social impact, that offers a useful model for overcoming some of these challenges. Rather than discussing the design process in isolation, the authors build a comprehensive picture of the process in its entirety, including the forces that resist change (the ‘system immune response’) and useful counter-strategies. I read it with museum learning programming in mind. It’s one thing to dream up exciting new approaches to audience engagement, but that doesn’t mean they’ll ever see the light of day, so how can we get more of our ideas off the table and in front of audiences?

The report starts with a brief summary of design thinking and how it has been applied to social challenges: ‘solutions are developed, prototyped and tested using iterative, ‘safe-fail’ experiments to gain rapid feedback… it is a method that helps to uncover a problem by using a collaborative and iterative approach, and then reengaging in divergent and convergent thinking to arrive at a solution’. (p.7) The Design Council’s ‘double diamond’ is used to illustrate this – the two diamonds are placed side-by-side and the process is conducted from left to right, like reading text. As the sides of the diamond broaden out, the required thinking is divergent – open, copious, exploratory, and without judgement. As the sides of the diamond narrow back down to a point, the thinking mode shifts to convergence – decisions are made, some ideas are rejected, and a course of action is mapped. The first diamond is to ‘discover and define’ (ie. figure out what the problem is that you want to solve); the second diamond is to ‘develop and deliver’ (ie. generate and test ideas, and move towards a solution). A small note of caution: this is the tidy, diagrammatic version of the process – the reality is less straight-forward. When avenues of exploration turn out to be cul-de-sacs, it’s necessary to loop back to earlier stages in the process, sometimes repeatedly, and try again.

The next step, in the traditional story, is that the solution (be it a product, service or programme) is rolled out, scaled up, and – hey presto! – system change. No such luck I’m afraid. In a wonderful sequence of diagrams, the report presents the idealised step-change process, and then inserts a massive wall between the ideas bit and the successfully-rolled-out bit. This wall can be made up of any of the following: competing incentives; regulatory frameworks; procurement; market readiness; media backlash; and/or cultural norms (insert your own as specific to your context). Judging by the diagram, it is made out of the same material as Wonder Woman’s bracelets, deflecting ideas left, right and centre with a ping and a spark.

This is where systems thinking comes in, defined by Peter Senge as ‘a context for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing relationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots’. (p.11) The creativity and imagination that are brought to bear when solving a specific problem via the design process are also required to influence the systems that will allow new solutions to flourish. Different systems create different barriers, so it is important to know what kind of problem needs to be overcome, and then plan accordingly. The Cynefin Sense-Making Framework, for example, lists four types of problems (considerably fewer than Jay-Z’s 99): simple, complex, complicated and chaotic. Problems can also be thought of as tame or wicked, technical or adaptive; each of which also requires a different response. As you can imagine, it would be easy to get bogged down in all this detail. The authors warn, ‘thinking systematically about problems requires that at a certain point the boundaries of a problem are set. Without boundaries, a systems mindset is at risk of analysis paralysis – where systems maps create overly complicated analyses of problems, which produce so much data it is impossible to act’. (p.16)

The report summarises that the best way to break through the wall is to ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’:

Acting entrepreneurially isn’t just about spotting the best opportunity for change. It is also about maximising the possibility for an innovation to navigate through barriers to change and make an impact at scale. This requires a hacker mentality. Hacking the systems means finding the counterpoints to the barriers to change and creating ways to circumvent them. … The particular action will depend on context, but the entrepreneurial actor is defined more than anything by an attitude that constantly asks, ‘what can I do now to create a better possibility of success further down the line?’ In a fashion similar to the approach taken by market innovators to create demand, socially-oriented innovators should plough every furrow to generate adoption and social impact. (p.18)

Entrepreneurial hacks overcome the barriers AFTER the design process has been conducted, but there is one final, (albeit preliminary) step to consider – the missing first diamond, a shadowy figure that appears before the double diamond (so many diamonds…). This is where problem analysis sits, and the design process is placed in its broader context from the outset. By defining the problem (ie. barrier to system change), determining the problem type, and conducting problem analysis (so many problems….), a stronger, more robust project brief can be written. In a nutshell, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Consequently, tactics for understanding and circumventing barriers are integrated from the outset, increasingly the likelihood of eventual success. RSA’s approach won’t do the work for you, but it does provide some very helpful navigational tools.


From Chimpan-ae to Chimpanzee

The title of this post is taken from a fictional musical production of Planet of the Apes in an episode of The Simpsons – it comes to mind and makes me smile every time I hear the word chimpanzee. With the latest film in the rebooted franchise soon to be released, it felt apt to go ape this week. So what separates us from chimpanzees? In some nightclubs, not much, but when it comes to cultural learning, quite a bit. Over the past few weeks, my meandering reading has taken me into the world of cultural anthropology. I’ve consequently discovered all sorts of interesting things about how we learn from each other, and the species-specific nature of this learning.

For example, Tomasello et al.’s much-referenced article, Cultural Learning (Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 1993, 16:3), distinguishes three levels of cultural learning in children (ie. “the social-learning processes whereby human children acquire the skills and conventions of those around them.”). They are imitative, instructed and collaborative learning. The article explains each mode in depth, and makes a comparison with autistic children (which feels very outdated), and then chimpanzees. My favourite idea in this article is the ‘cultural ratchet’. The basic premise is that chimpanzees develop tools – such as using sticks to collect and then eat ants from anthills – but that’s it. There might be small modifications, but there is no accumulation of knowledge and experience across generations of chimpanzees that progresses the sticks-down-holes idea to the giddy heights of Deliveroo. Humans, on the other hand, do, through the amazing power of culture.  As the authors explain:

“Many animal species live in complex social groups; only humans live in cultures. Cultures are most clearly distinguished from other forms of social organisation by the nature of their products – for example, material artifacts, social institutions, behavioural traditions, and languages. These cultural products share, among other things, the characteristic that they accumulate modifications over time. Once a practice is begun by some member or members of a culture others acquire it relatively faithfully, but then modify it as needed to deal with novel exigencies. The modified practice is then acquired by others, including progeny, who may in turn add their own modifications, and so on across generations. This accumulation of modifications across time is often called the “ratchet effect,” because each modification stays firmly in place in the group until further modifications are made.” (p.495)

More recent work in this field contests the premise that only humans have culture, but the ratchet effect and its role in human cultural learning still appears to hold water (check out these articles if you’d like to explore cumulative culture in more depth: Ratcheting up the ratchet: on the evolution of cumulative culture (Philosophical Transactions B, 2009 364/1528) and Human cumulative culture: a comparative perspective (Biological Review, 2013)). In the context of cultural anthropology, the ratchet effect is a very good thing, but in the world of economics and business development, it can be a distinct disadvantage. The Wikipedia page on the ratchet effect provides various examples of the negatives, such as: when governments create large bureaucratic organisations as a temporary measure in a time of crisis, then struggle to rein back in the expanded infrastructure;  or when more and more features are added to existing products to create a competitive edge, making it difficult to continue upping the ante (just think about the daft situation whereby the three-blade razor is outclassed by the four-blade razor, the pinnacle of shaving achievement and the ultimate… but wait, what’s that? FIVE blades you say?… etc, etc).

As luck would have it, I think both the positive and the negative interpretations of the ratchet effect can shed light on our work as museum and gallery educators. To start with the positive, I like the thought of being one link in a long chain of museum learning practice, having inherited a methodology and way of working from my predecessors, and then hopefully making my own contribution for whoever comes along next. On the one hand, I can see how our work has progressed over the decades, developing from the singular knowledge-acquisition-from-experts approach to the plurality of collaborative, audience-centric engagement and co-creation across a broad range of ages. And as the ratchet effect suggests, we can’t reverse this accumulated experience (although the ‘no interpretation’ brigade might try). On the other hand, some modes of museum learning practice feel stubbornly fixed. The format for interactive gallery-based talks and artist-led workshops (introduce premise, get inspiration from the collections, make, and reflect) has barely changed in the 15 years that I’ve been doing this. That’s a long time to spend poking the same stick down the same hole.

I can also relate to the negative version of the ratchet effect – I don’t think I’m alone in feeling hamstrung by a large programme that only ever gets bigger. Irrespective of budget cuts, the expectation is always one of growth – more people every year and more offers every year – and just try discontinuing a programme much loved by its loyal, shrinking audience, but otherwise well and truly past its sell-by date. The sensation is one of uncomfortable constriction – a bit like getting a blood pressure check. As the armband inflates, it gets tighter and tighter and tighter. I can feel my blood flow restricted and mild panic sets in that the machine is broken and it’s just going to keep inflating until my arm is squeezed clean off. In a similar vein (apologies), an overinflated learning programme restricts the blood flow of new ideas and innovative thinking. The bigger it gets, the less room there is for anything else. Resisting this pressure isn’t easy, but without pushback there is very little space to manoeuvre.  


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.


Keep It Simple Stupid

It never fails to surprise me how great ideas can spring from very simple origins. There is something magical about taking a phrase or fleeting thought and then spinning it into something magnificent. A couple of recent experiences, both music-based, reminded me of this truism and the beauty of simplicity. In June, the Beatles’ album ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was in the press, marking 50 years since its release. The idea to form an alternative band came from Paul McCartney, and his simple desire to stop being a Beatle for a while. In an interview reported in Rolling Stone, McCartney explains:

“I thought, ‘Let’s not be ourselves. Let’s develop alter egos so we don’t have to project an image that we know. It would be much more free. What would really be interesting would be to actually take on the personas of this different band. We could say, ‘How would somebody else sing this? He might approach it a bit more sarcastically, perhaps’. So I had this idea of giving the Beatles alter egos simply to get a different approach.”

About the same time that ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ was being celebrated for its 50th, the exhibition ‘Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains’, opened at the V&A. One of the text panels in the exhibition explains that their album, ‘The Wall’, originated with Roger Waters feeling ‘a wall’ of distance between the band and the audience. Waters gives a fuller explanation in a 1979 interview:

“Well, the idea for ‘The Wall’ came from ten years of touring, rock shows, I think, particularly the last few years in ‘75 and in ‘77 we were playing to very large audiences, some of whom were our old audience who’d come to see us play, but most of whom were only there for the beer, in big stadiums, and, er, consequently it became rather an alienating experience doing the shows. I became very conscious of a wall between us and our audience and so this record started out as being an expression of those feelings.”

Both ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ and ‘The Wall’ are considered ground-breaking and classics of their genre. They are complex, dense, rich masterpieces (you can tell which way my musical preferences lean), and yet in each case the catalyst was so simple and so tiny.  Both albums were born from the consequences of massive commercial success – in the case of the Beatles, it was a desire to escape from themselves, and in the case of Pink Floyd, it was a desire to reconnect with audiences. Without knowing the greatness that was to follow, both ideas may have seemed a bit too simple when first pitched – kinda cheesy and obvious. But maybe that’s why these ideas stuck and didn’t end up put to one side with the many hundreds of other ideas that could’ve – but didn’t – go anywhere. Great ideas always feel so obvious after the fact, it’s hard to imagine they weren’t thought of sooner.

Simple can mean a lot of different things – it can suggest the clean lines and stripped back perfection of modernist design, or a straightforward task that’s easy to do and requires minimal skill, or, at its most derogatory, a lack of intelligence (think of Kate Moss’s famous insult to an EasyJet pilot, calling her a “basic bitch”). Depending on how you cut it, simplicity is honing something to its purest state; cutting out the tricky stuff to make it more comprehensible; or building up from humble beginnings. For people who get caught up in their heads too much, or get overwhelmed and blinded by the details, it can be useful to go through a dramatic pruning exercise, clipping an overgrown, overblown idea back down to its core, or simply starting over and asking ‘what do I really want to do?’ and answering in the simplest possible terms.

I had assumed that the handy acronym, KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid), came from the world of advertising/marketing, but it’s a US Military term, dating to the 1960s. Its exact origins aren’t clear, but it was probably coined by aeronautical and systems engineer, Kelly Johnson, who was lead engineer at the Lockheed Skunk Works and famous for his aircraft designs. For Johnson, simple design had the very practical benefit of enabling an average mechanic with available tools to be able to repair damaged aircraft, a huge advantage when working in combat conditions.  

So simplicity can be the key to both the generation of new ideas, and the successful execution of ideas. Simplicity also plays an important role in the communication of ideas. I love the quote “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” (often attributed to Einstein, although there seems to be some debate about this). I have seen this maxim in action – years ago I attended a Science Festival talk on quantum physics, delivered by the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees. He was such a strong communicator that I came away thinking I was some sort of quantum savant, having understood this incredibly complex and mind-bending subject (I later discovered this was untrue). I loved Rees’s confidence in both himself and his subject – he didn’t bamboozle and confuse the audience, leaving them adrift in a sea of jargon; instead, he knew quantum physics SO well, and was so passionate about sharing his love of it with others, that he could bring the audience into his world and make it look effortless. Total class. Rees often comes to mind when I read opaque and incomprehensible text panels in exhibitions – if he can make quantum physics accessible, we should be able to do the same with contemporary art.

It’s so easy to get bogged down in the complexities and difficulties of delivering our roles, but whenever I reflect on simplicity, a little bit of extra space opens up in my thinking. Like a small clearing in a forest, simplicity creates room to breathe and can provide new solutions to existing challenges.


Fewer Horsemen of Mediocrity, More Data Analytics

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

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

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

So here are some of the things I learned…

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

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

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

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

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


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Creative Ways of Exploring the Creative Process: working with ImaginationLancaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other People and their Terrible Habit of Differing Opinions

Other people eh? What are they like! Everything would be so much easier if everybody else shared my worldview – aka ‘common sense’ – and just stopped being daft. I’m afraid I’m guilty of having this thought, usually when watching the evening news, and it’s pretty typical human behaviour. We surround ourselves with people who think the same way and share similar attitudes and values. Rather than ‘live and let live’, the further someone’s worldview is from our own, the harder we find it to bridge the distance. The gulf of understanding that can exist between people is probably most keenly felt on the subjects of politics and religion, which explains why it’s considered good manners to avoid both in polite conversation. Unfortunately, such a rift can turn into a ‘who can shout the loudest?’ competition, and you don’t have to look far at the moment to see a global epidemic of divisive ‘with us or against us’ thinking. It’s all a bit bloody annoying really.

Is it really so awful to encounter viewpoints that differ from our own? Apparently it is. A recent article in Pacific Standard Magazine, ‘Why We Shut Ourselves Off From Opposing Viewpoints’, shares findings from the University of Winnipeg that liberals and conservatives are ‘similarly motivated to avoid exposure to one another’s opinions’. The research team led an ingenious experiment that gave participants the option to either:

  1. a) read statements that supported their position on same-sex marriage and then answer simple questions to confirm an understanding of the arguments. On completion, participants would then enter a draw to win $7.00, or;
  2. b) read statements that opposed their position on same sex marriage, and then answer simple questions to confirm their understanding and be entered into a draw to win $10.00.

The result? 64% of same-sex marriage supporters went for option a), and 61% of those who oppose it also went for a) – both would rather miss out on cold hard cash than read opposing viewpoints. It’s not just the big issues either; research has also demonstrated the same effect when discussing beverages (Coke vs. Pepsi), airplane seats (aisle or window), and even seasons (spring vs. autumn). Personally, I’ve never had much time for pepsi-drinking, window-sitting, autumn-loving weirdos, and now I know why. It shocks me that we are so petty as a species, and that the need to have our opinions validated is so deeply rooted.

The motivations behind this behaviour are twofold: participants who chose option a) wanted to maintain ‘a shared reality with the speaker’; and avoid cognitive dissonance, ‘the psychological discomfort that arises from simultaneously holding two opposing beliefs’. I have written previously about comfort being the enemy of innovative thinking (Are You Sitting Uncomfortably?) and how group dynamics, including the pressure to conform, can shut down creativity (Groupthink: The Evil Twin of Collaboration). When I think about the homogenity of museum professionals, and museum educators as a subset within that group, we have a particularly high mountain to climb if we are to genuinely meet audience needs and interests.

If I imagine a quasi ‘Logan’s Run’ scenario, where all thirty-something brunette women with MAs in art history/museum studies just disappeared off the face of the Earth, our museum learning departments would be decimated. But as a small sample of the museum-going public, audience demographics wouldn’t be much changed. In other words, it’s very easy for us to avoid conflicting worldviews because we are surrounded by people who are very similar, and yet we are not a representative sample of the public we serve. It is exactly this reassuring familiarity that needs to be disrupted if we want to be innovative in our programming and engage a broad and diverse audience.

The good news is that although the majority chose to stick with their fellow same-thinkers, a healthy 36% and 39% of participants chose option b). These individuals were more receptive to alternative worldviews (or maybe they just wanted that extra $3.00). I will always prefer The Guardian to The Telegraph or The Sun – not much of a surprise there – but this does nothing to challenge or extend my understanding of other people and their motivations. It doesn’t take much to step off the beaten path and increase one’s exposure to different worldviews, it’s just a case of doing it.

PS – The Pacific Standard Magazine article that I have drawn on for my post includes a link to a 2009 article by the same author, Tom Jacobs, titled Morals Authority. It is an absolutely fascinating summary of research into why liberals and conservatives have seemingly insurmountable differences, originating from very different moral and ethical starting points. Well worth a look.

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