Bodysnatchers: getting physical in museums

When I saw Frederick Wiseman’s film, The National Gallery (2014), I was shocked to discover that when many people look at paintings, they don’t look like they’re having a good time. They are stock still and staring, then shuffling a bit, then still and staring again. No wonder people who don’t go to galleries assume it’s all a bit dull and boring. How it looks from the outside is absolutely no measure of how it feels. When I’m wandering around a gallery, I am really, genuinely, properly happy. It’s thrilling to discover an artwork that I’ve only previously seen in reproduction; I love works that make me laugh out loud or shed a tear; my skin creeps and I feel a bit unwell when I see grisly or gruesome subject matter; and some artworks are so beautiful it pains me to leave them. Galleries evoke (and provoke) a whole gamut of emotions and sensations, the experience is not just one of mental stimulation and knowledge acquisition, it’s physical too.

The ol’ mind vs body argument goes back a long way (Plato’s Phaedo) and there are plenty of fabulous words – such as ‘somatic’ (relating to the body rather than the mind) and ‘corporeal’ (relating to the body rather than the spirit) – that reinforce the distinction. Dualism also exerts an influence over how we engage audiences with museums and galleries. I can think of plenty of examples of programming that feed the mind – talks, tours, lectures, courses, discussions and film-screenings – and there are plenty more that are tactile/kinaesthetic and improve fine-motor skills and dexterity – practical workshops, handling sessions and drop-in making activities to name a few. Programmes involving the whole body are thinner on the ground and tend to be dominated by cross-disciplinary practice, where dance and theatre practitioners are responding to the museum context. This is an observation rather than a complaint – there’s a lot to be learnt from other artforms that are more attuned to the body, movement and temporality. I’d love to see more programming that heightens visitors’ awareness of the physical experience of looking at art and moving through a museum – it exerts such a quiet but powerful influence over our engagement.

When I think back on artworks that have been memorable as physical experiences, only a handful come to mind. Carsten Holler’s slides at Tate Modern in 2007 (‘Test Site’) proved to be so popular that the experience was as much about queuing as it was about sliding. Because I’m a lily-livered wuss, I only managed the little slide in the Turbine Hall and that was plenty; it definitely raised my pulse. In 2000 and again in 2006, Ikon Gallery in Birmingham displayed ‘Observation Deck’ by Patrick Killoran. To experience the artwork, viewers were required, one at a time, to lie on their backs on a sliding shelf and get gently rolled out of a window, head-first, on the horizontal and at a right angle to the building. I can’t remember how much of me was poking outside, it felt like from the waist up, but was probably more like head and shoulders. It was the most thrilling experience to just stare up at passing clouds and the architectural detail and ponder my possibly imminent demise as the window was a couple of storeys above street level. These two examples probably say quite a bit about me; as someone who gets vertigo, anything involving heights is more likely to stick in my memory than experiences played out closer to the ground.

Thinking about museum learning programming that prioritises the physical, there are some interesting examples (and I’d love to hear more please). Yoga in museums is a growing trend, and the Dancing Museums project is a wonderful European partnership (enjoy those while they last, thanks again Brexit!) that explores new forms of engagement with artworks through movement. While I was researching the Dallas Museum of Art for my Churchill Fellowship, I stumbled across a blogpost about their ‘sensory sacks’, also known as ‘spatial socks’. As the name suggests, the sack/sock is a stretchy fabric tube – a gigantic pillowcase that’s large enough to fit a person. The sensory sack was created to improve spatial awareness and for use in therapy, supporting those with a sensory processing disorder and/or autism. In the museum, participants re-create the form of sculptures in the collection by posing inside the sensory sack. I love the idea of understanding sculpture from the inside out – through the use of the sensory sack, participants transition from being outside the sculpture, understanding the form visually, to being inside the sculpture, pushing up under its skin and understanding the form physically. It’s so simple and elegant, and the experience must generate such different memories from the standard looky-talky model.

While I was noodling around the web looking for examples of museum learning programming that are more physical, I skimmed across all sorts of theories, ideas and approaches that span visual and performing arts, such as somatic theory, affect theory, performative and participatory practice, and the sensory museum. A useful review, in the Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies, of Helen Rees Leahy’s book, Museum Bodies: The Politics and Practices of Visiting and Viewing (2012), shares lots of interesting concepts and provides links for further reading. If you know of any other great examples, please drop me a line.

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.

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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.

Engage at Tate Exchange: a taster menu

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

 

Reports (economic/education)

The Future of Jobs (World Economic Forum)

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

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

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

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

 

Creative Learning Plan (Education Scotland)

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

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

Reports (museum and gallery learning)

Creative Families (South London Gallery)

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

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

 

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

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

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

Projects and Initiatives

Youth Enterprise (198 Contemporary Arts and Learning)

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

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

http://hustlebucks.bigcartel.com/

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

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

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

http://afhboston.org/

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

 

Generation Art: Young Artists on Tour (engage)

http://generationart.gallery/

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

 

Cultural Education Challenge (A New Direction)

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

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

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

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

 

Groupthink: The Evil Twin of Collaboration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Are You Sitting Uncomfortably?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fourth Dimension of Good Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risky Business

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

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

 

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

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

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

project-mapping-image

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

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

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

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

 

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

Known Unknowns: Rumsfeld and the Johari Window

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

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

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

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

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

johari-window

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

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

 

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

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/