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



Dunedin Public Art Gallery

After a lovely week in Wellington visiting one half of the family, I headed to the South Island to visit the other half in Dunedin. I haven’t lived in this part of New Zealand, but know it pretty well from visiting over the years. The city’s layout was designed in Britain in the 19th century and based on Edinburgh, so the street names are familiar – George, Hanover, Frederick, Castle – but they were slapped down without much regard for the existing terrain. As a result, you’ll find here some of the steepest streets in the world. In Dunedin, the road doesn’t just rising up to meet your feet, but your nose too. The advantage of all this uppage is plenty of fabulous views over the harbour and surrounding hills. It’s a bustling university town and has long held a strong reputation for its music scene. And, like all New Zealand cities now, it is also home to fantastic coffee.

There are a range of cultural offers available in Dunedin, including the Dunedin Chinese Garden, Toitu Otago Settlers’ Museum, and the Otago Museum (Dunedin is the main city in the Otago provincial district). In my limited time here, I focussed on Dunedin Public Art Gallery and met with Lynda Cullen, Visitor Programmes Coordinator, and Robyn Notman, Public Programmes and Collections Manager (who will soon be leaving the gallery for a role at the Hocken Collection). Lynda generously talked me through their programmes and gave me a tour of their learning spaces, including a practical making space, an auditorium, and a welcoming ‘Playspace’ gallery for families, located opposite the main entrance. But before I talk about the programme, I want to give a bit more context about the gallery and its history.

Playspace, located on the ground floor of the gallery, facing the main entrance.

Dunedin Public Art Gallery (DPAG), founded in 1884, is the oldest gallery in New Zealand. By European standards this will sound relatively recent, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the founding document of New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi, was only signed a few decades earlier in 1840, and the city of Dunedin itself only dates back to 1848. When the gallery was founded, the population of Dunedin was a mere 24,000, so this was a major undertaking. The gallery grew out of the Otago Art Society, established in 1875, and it’s ambition, right from the outset, was to collect both European and New Zealand masterpieces.

Today, the collection holds about 8,000 objects across a range of disciplines, including painting, drawing, photography, printmaking, sculpture, new media and design (ceramics, glass, furniture, textiles and costume). In the 1930s, The UK’s National Art Collection Fund (NACF, now known as The Art Fund) – set up to secure national art treasures for public collections – acquired artworks for galleries in the Dominion (ie. part of the British Commonwealth). Consequently, there are some amazing works by British artists in the DPAG collection, including: Professor William Richardson (c.1780s) by Henry Raeburn; Spes [Hope] (1871) by Edward Burne-Jones; and First Portrait of Mrs Betty Joel (1928), by Jacob Epstein. The gallery also showcases work by New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins, and holds an impressive collection of Japanese prints and netsuke, as well as European paintings and prints from the 14th century onwards.

The gallery has been at The Octagon, in the heart of the city centre, since 1996. The building was previously a department store; I don’t know how many of its original features remain, but the entrance is spectacular – a large, light-filled atrium gives a sense of the scale of building, and the surrounding mezzanine and balcony levels offer a range of viewpoints to enjoy the central spaces. The atrium also has a huge installation area, known as the ‘Big Wall’ for good reason. When I visited, the installation on display was by artist Tiffany Singh. The work is a screen of pastel-coloured ribbons, falling the full length of the wall; on each ribbon is written the Buddhist mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ (the title of the work) in gold lettering that shimmers as you walk past it. There can’t be many gallery walls in the country that are large enough to hold such a striking piece and the effect is stunning. Should you find yourself at the gallery on Sunday 2 April, you’ll be able to join a Buddhist Meditation class, programmed to complement Singh’s installation.

Tiffany Singh’s installation, Om Mani Padme Hum, on the ‘Big Wall’.

Lynda’s public programmes are as varied and rich as the collections and exhibitions themselves. Her colleague, John Neumegen, is the LEOTC (Learning Experiences Outside the Classroom) artist educator who delivers all of the primary and secondary school tours and workshops. Judging by the immaculate arrangement of his materials and resources in the practical making workshop, he runs a pretty tight ship. Lynda does some work with formal education groups, giving tours to tertiary students and early years classes (as LEOTC doesn’t include funding for these audiences), and is otherwise responsible for the rest of the learning programme.

The art studio, ready for a school workshop.

Lynda is well-networked and thinks laterally about her offer, which makes for fantastic interdisciplinary programming. I was surprised to discover how many city-wide festivals Dunedin has throughout the year – for example, Wild Dunedin (festival of nature), the Fringe Festival (performing arts), and iD Dunedin Fashion Week, to name a few – Lynda works with all of them, and hosts all sorts of related events at the gallery:

  • for Wild Dunedin in April, she has programmed an aviary curator from the Botanic Gardens and a gallery guide to co-deliver a tour of the collections, focussing on art and the environment;
  • for the Fringe Festival in March, the gallery is having an eclectic range of performances, including throat singing, jazz, Indian dance, and the creation of a ‘pulsing sonic soundscape designed for thinking and dancing’; and
  • an upcoming DPAG exhibition, When Dreams Turn to Gold: The Benson and Hedges and Smokefree Fashion Design Awards 1964-1998, is timed to correspond with Fashion Week, and related programming includes, ‘Be a Fashion Designer’ drop-in workshops for families, ‘In Conversations’ with designers, and fashion-related film screenings.

The University of Otago and Dunedin Teachers’ College run fellowship and residency schemes, offering further opportunities for collaboration and public programming with the gallery.  The Teachers’ College supports writers-in-residence and the University awards six-month Fellowships for several disciplines, including writing (Burns Fellowship), art (Frances Hodgkins Fellowship), music (Mozart Fellowship), and community dance (Caroline Plummer Fellowship). Lynda creates networking opportunities for the fellows and residents to get together, as well as public programming opportunities for them to share their work with a broader audience. For example, Caroline Sutton Clark is the current Caroline Plummer Community Dance Fellow, and she will be running a Butoh dance workshop and then performing solo as part of the International Day of Dance in April. Lynda did her MA in Visual Culture and Gender at the University of Otago, and has sustained great links with the local academic community. Where possible, she programmes talks and events that respond to new thinking and trends coming out of the world of academia and research.

I have highlighted examples from Lynda’s programme that champion partnership working and interdisciplinary practice, which are both areas of particular interest to me. However, I don’t want to give the impression that her programme only runs in parallel to, and doesn’t intersect with, the collections and exhibitions. She offers a huge range of inspiring talks and workshops by guest curators and exhibiting artists, directly engaging with the artworks. The variety of the DPAG public programme is what makes it so interesting, and it’s even more impressive when you consider it is the work of a one-woman learning department!

Te Papa & the Lean Canvas Model

Te Papa Tongarewa is the national museum and gallery of New Zealand; the literal translation of its Maori name is ‘container of treasures’. When I was a kid, the national museum and gallery was in a different part of Wellington, on a hillside in a 1930s building that looked out over the city. It was great fun to run around the older museum, and I have very fond memories of the ‘under the sea’ diorama, but I appreciate that for the adults who had to work there, by the 1980s it was no longer fit for purpose. It’s replacement, Te Papa, opened in 1998. It’s an enormous post-modern structure located on the Wellington waterfront, a much better spot for raising its profile and luring passing foot-traffic. The interior feels incredibly spacious with high ceilings and open foyers, showcasing the diverse collections and inspiring a sense of awe and wonder. The museum really lives up to its name and feels like a gigantic treasure box. When I was in town, I met with Miri Young, Te Papa’s Head of Learning Innovation, and a member of her team, Museum Educator, Laura Jones, and got a sneak peek at their new Learning Lab, Hinatore (trans: ‘phosphorescence or luminescence – a glow or glimmering in the dark’).

Miri has only been at Te Papa for 14 months – which is about 10 minutes in museum years – and yet within that time she has initiated and completed a total redevelopment of the Learning Lab. Previously, the room had a solid wooden door so activity couldn’t be viewed from the gallery spaces, and there was a display of handling objects behind glass. Miri was keen to create an active, hands-on, experimental space that was flexible (ie. plenty of modular furniture that can be reconfigured) and able to support a wide variety of digital programmes (ie. plenty of new whizzy kit). The entrance to the room is now a glass door and window, opening up the space to visitors in the main galleries, and a large, colourful commissioned illustration by Gwilym Devey brightens up the facing wall. The room has a long rectangular floorplan, with a large window on the shorter wall, looking out over the yacht club and harbour, and a glass partition at the other end of the room, separating a smaller area for ‘messy’ making (judging by the durable flooring) from the larger carpeted space.

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

I’m afraid my knowledge of the latest digital toys is limited, but I spied four 3-D printers, two large ‘touch tables’ that reminded me of the ones used at Cooper-Hewitt in New York, and a couple of large flat screen monitors. Their website also reliably informs me that Hinatore provides a purpose-built virtual reality (VR) studio and “telepresence technology that connects learners in remote locations”. Sensibly, there are also staff members with a foot in both digital and learning camps who are able to wield all of this amazing new media potential. As well as promoting direct engagement with the collections and exhibitions through working with original objects, Te Papa has also made 60,000+ images freely available online, offering  a combination of works with no known copyright and those for use under the terms of the Creative Commons copyright licence. Having both the digital tools of Hinatore and the online resource of the collections at their disposal, the Learning team are well placed to support the development of 21st century core competencies (which they have identified as programming priorities): creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication and curiosity.

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

As well getting a tour of the Learning Lab, Miri also told me about their approach to programme development – an adaptation of the ‘Lean Canvas’ model, which was adapted in turn from the ‘Business Model Canvas’ to better support entrepreneurs and start-ups. Because I am a massive systems geek, I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to find out about a new strategic planning tool, ideally one devised for a non-arts sector and then modified for museums. Miri explained that they use ‘Lean Canvas’ for all strands of programming to focus and clarify the aims of each offer and for setting clear targets. Because it was designed for business, the language is one of ‘customers/users’ and ‘products’, although I think there is a correlation with ‘audience’ and ‘programmes’. A strength of the model is that it puts the audience first – the aim is to identify the ‘problems’ (ie. needs) of the customer and keeps those front and centre when working out possible solutions. This reminds me of the design process, which advocates for the same thing – keep the end user at the forefront of your thinking to ensure the final product will achieve what you set out to do.

The Lean Canvas Model, as used by Te Papa, is a one-page table consisting of nine boxes:

  1. What is the problem? (ie. what is the audience need?)
  2. What customer segments are you solving the problem for? (an important step for clarifying and defining the target audience)
  3. What is your Unique Value Proposition (UVP)? (this question keeps the focus on audiences; the aim is to identify the marketing offer that would capture their attention)
  4. The solution (what top features or capabilities will address the problems?)
  5. Channels (how will you reach your audiences?)
  6. Neighbours (who are the key partners or people you’ll need help from?)
  7. Cost Structure (what resources will you need?)
  8. Value/Success Metrics (how is value created and what metrics will you use to measure that value?)
  9. Unfair Advantage (what is special or unique about this idea that will make it difficult for the competition to copy?)

Ash Maurya, who devised Lean Canvas in 2009, has written a useful blogpost on its creation that also clarifies some of the finer points around its use and terminology. If you want to find out more about this approach, there are plenty of examples of the Lean Canvas Model online (Canvanizer and Lean Stack both offer templates), as well as further adaptations, such as the Social Lean Canvas for social enterprises. I’m not proposing that Lean Canvas is taken on wholesale, as some adaptation is required to map to the specific context of devising learning programmes in museums, but I can see that there would be tangible benefits to such a systematic approach, especially by putting the audience needs at the centre of the process.

City Gallery Wellington

I’m back home in Aotearoa New Zealand (NZ), visiting family and enjoying some much-needed sunshine. On previous trips I haven’t made contact with museum education peers, but having had such a positive experience of interviewing practitioners in the US, I felt this was too good an opportunity to miss. I moved to the UK 17 years ago and have never worked in the NZ cultural sector, so I can’t claim any homeground advantage. It’s been fascinating – and a bit strange – to be in a part of the world that is so deeply familiar to me, yet learning about a whole other museum and gallery education context. I lined up a few meetings before coming home and I’m looking forward to sharing my learning over my next few blog posts. First up, the City Gallery Wellington.

The City Gallery was established in 1980. It changed venue twice before taking root in the old public library on Civic Square in 1993. It doesn’t have a permanent collection so the focus is on a rolling, ambitious programme of temporary exhibitions. I can still vividly recall the Robert Mapplethorpe show I saw there in 1995/96 when I was an art history undergraduate. It was thrilling to brush up against the New York art world and see ‘the real thing’, not something you can take for granted when living in a far-flung corner of the Pacific. The City Gallery has always punched above its weight and has presented solo exhibitions by artists such as William Kentridge, Yayoi Kusama, Keith Haring, and Cerith Wyn Evans. This outward-facing interest in international practice is complemented by programming that looks closer to home, showcasing Maori, Pasifika and Pakeha (of European descent) talent.

It was pure luck that my visit to Wellington coincided with the City Gallery’s current show, Cindy Sherman (19 Nov 2016 – 19 Mar 2017), who I’ve admired since I was a teenager. The exhibition focuses on work made since 2000 and includes 52 large-format photographic prints, grouped by theme. The richly-saturate colour and crisply-defined imagery, achieved through the use of digital photography, give the eye so much to explore. It’s possible to examine every strand of hair, every artfully-applied shadow and every prosthetic addition that dramatically alter the artist’s appearance. Not surprisingly, the ‘Clowns’ room is the most creepy, but ‘Society Portraits’ are also pretty unnerving. The main exhibition is accompanied by a display of archive material from Sherman’s own collection of found albums; it includes “over 200 photographs taken by and for guests to Casa Susanna, a 1960s upstate New York retreat for cross-dressing men”. These images of stereotypical femininity, constructed through the use of bouffant wigs, glamorous ballgowns, heavy makeup, and playful poses, are in fantastic juxtaposition with Sherman’s own construction of female types.


One of the large ground floor galleries, showing work from Sherman’s Clowns series

A show like Cindy Sherman is an absolute gift to gallery educators. The work is immediate enough to grab the most reluctant of gallery-goers, yet complex enough to hold those who want to go deeper and explore meaty topics such as identity, gender and feminism. I met with gallery educators, Claire Hopkins and Helen Lloyd – half of the Learning team at the City Gallery – to find out about their programming. Claire and Helen devise and deliver the primary and secondary schools’ offer at the gallery. Their posts and programme are funded by a Ministry of Education scheme called Learning Experiences Outside the Classroom (LEOTC).

This funding is awarded on a three-year cycle, and it supports a huge range of activity across the country, including sites such as museums, zoos, performing arts venues, science and outdoor centres, and historic parks. I was gob-smacked at this level of government support for the arts and it’s amazing that the scheme has weathered the post-2008 economic downturn. Such commitment to getting kids out of school and learning in alternative contexts is impressive. The emphasis of the funding is on broadening access, and attendance targets are an important measure of success. This isn’t the whole story however, and evidence of impact is also valued; every visit is evaluated by the teachers, and their feedback informs the reflective practice of refining and developing programmes. The schools’ offer is also tailored to meet specific learning outcomes for teachers. Interestingly, there is no funding for early years’ provision – hopefully something that can be amended in future planning cycles.

In New Zealand, every primary school selects a theme each term that will be used to scaffold all subject delivery. Claire and Helen clearly have a good relationship with many schools and work closely with teachers to structure their programming and tap into whatever themes schools are using. Cross-curricular programming, especially at primary school level, is common practice so there are opportunities to make connections between Art (as a subject) and English, Science or Maths. Claire and Helen also promote interdisciplinary programming and have worked with a dance educator to run dance/art workshops. Their teachers’ resources, known as ‘resource cards’ are available online. The print version is an attractive A3 exhibition poster on one side, with key exhibition notes on the reverse, including pre- and post-visit activities, information on the artist, terminology, and some headline concepts.

Claire and Helen have the use of an Education Studio, currently set-up for photography workshops responding to the Sherman exhibition. It’s a good-sized room with plenty of natural light. Claire explained that they place the emphasis of their practical workshops on process, critical thinking and ideas. When the kids are creating their own characters to photograph, they are encouraged to slow down and really think about what will make a successful image – the use of colour and layering textures in clothing, how the pose, expression, costume and makeup all have to come together, and how to generate psychological depth, and not just a funny face. Concepts and ideas drive contemporary art practice, so it stands to reason that the talks, tours and workshops that Claire and Helen programme are also looking to get under the surface of the work; one of the key learning intentions of their programmes is to stimulate and facilitate critical and creative thinking.

City Gallery Education Studio

In addition to the education programme for schools, there is also a public programme for general audiences. I didn’t get the chance to meet Tracey and Meredith who run this offer, but the concept-driven, interdisciplinary ethos of the education programme appears to run across the whole organisation and shape the public programmes too. The current events brochure promotes a huge range of activities including: monthly ‘Lates’, evening openings that celebrate all my favourite things, “art, music, film, books, beer, wine, food”; a film series selected by Sherman and City Gallery curator Aaron Lister; a talks programme that explores topics such as celebrity culture, transgender rights, photography, costume, and mise-en-scene; and a panel series on contemporary feminism, with evocative titles such as ‘Feminism: The Morning After’ and ‘Ageing and Agency’. There are also monthly exhibition tours, titled ‘Gallery Babes’, for parents and carers who are welcome to bring their babies along too.

And finally – if that wasn’t enough! – there are some really wonderful interpretation offers also available. A large resource area, located outside the Education Studio and adjacent to the archive displays, has plenty of comfortable seating and tables for further study. There is a film of Sherman talking about her practice, a ‘magazine rack’ presenting copies of Harper’s Bazaar alongside the gallery’s print material about Sherman’s show, and an ‘art cart’ with free drawing materials. One of the large tables has a set of ring binders and cards; each card has a large thumbnail image from the exhibition and the invitation to ‘create a story with these characters, then add it to our collection to share’. I loved flicking through what others had written; it was so interesting to see how much humour and pathos Sherman’s work inspired.


Resource Area (the archive display is through the two doorways on the right)

I also picked up a gorgeous piece of print (which I assumed was for me to take…) of a poem written by Hera Lindsay Bird, responding to her favourite work in the exhibition, ‘Untitled 404’. It was commissioned by the gallery and read at the opening. I felt this was a really generous act by the gallery, to want to give a poem to audiences to supplement their viewing of the exhibition. The whole place has a thoughtful and positive energy about it – open to a variety of artforms and ideas, and actively looking to provide many routes into the work. A capital city should have cultural offers of this calibre and it’s great to have something so wonderful in my home town.


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

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

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

The Collection

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

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

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

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

The Exhibitions

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

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

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

The Building

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

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

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

Respect for audiences

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


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

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


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

(*) Source:

(**) Source:

Awesome Interactives and Where to Find Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some of my efforts.

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

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

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

Funky Bones, 2010, by Atelier Van Lieshout

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

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

Taste Colour With Your Ears: the sensory alphabet

Few things make me happier than theory and practice coming together. I love it when ideas are explored through both language and action, and each understanding brings light and knowledge to the other. I saw this beautifully illustrated when I visited Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). I had interviewed Leah Hanson, Manager for Early Years and Family Learning at DMA about her work, and on the following day I shadowed one of her Early Years workshops. It was wonderful to see how the ideas that we discussed were manifest in the session.

Leah is a natural-born teacher and has a great rapport with young children. Like anyone who’s really good at what they do, she also makes it look easy. What feels like a casual, friendly chat with a large group of toddlers, parents and carers has been carefully constructed. Leah glides seamlessly from one mode to another: she riffs off the kids’ observations to draw them in; she promotes observational skills by focussing on details in the artwork; she switches it up with a combination of drawing, writing, movement, discussion and storytelling activities; and she peppers the whole experience with bite-sized and interesting factoids. It’s a joy to watch. The session I observed focused on colour and was fully booked (18 under-fives plus their carers). We spent an hour in the galleries, exploring one painting, Wasily Kandinksy’s Murnau, Burggrabenstrasse 1 (1908), and for the remaining 30 minutes the group experimented with paint in the Art Studio in the Center for Creative Connections.

Families exploring colour at DMA – the Kandinsky painting is on the far left.

When we’d met, Leah had told me about New World Kids: The Parent’s Guide to Creative Thinking, a book that has been an important influence on her work at DMA over the past eight years (the New World Kids website might also be of interest). Authors, Susan Marcus and Susie Monday, argue that just as we have to learn numeracy and literacy so that we can decode the symbols that form numbers and letters, there is an equivalent sensory alphabet (shape, colour, sound, movement, etc) that supports creativity. Rather than thinking about creativity within the narrow parameters of the arts, New World Kids encourages thinking more laterally and recognising that a child’s creativity can take many different forms and makes use of a wide range of media. The book is particularly strong on mixing up the senses to generate new ideas, something that really appeals. I’ve always been fascinated by synaesthesia, and envy those who can go to a concert and see the music in vivid colour.

Leah’s workshop made the most fantastic use of synaesthesia and I enjoyed making the connection between how she did it and what I’d read in New World Kids. About mid-way through the gallery-based part of the session, when the group were comfortable with each other, the space, and the ideas that she was introducing, Leah held up some A5-sized laminated arrow-shapes that were the same colours as those of the houses in the painting. As a group, the children helped her arrange the arrows (pointing north so the shape replicated a simple house silhouette) so that they were in the same order as those on Kandinsky’s street. We then imagined going into the pink, yellow, blue and green houses and everything in there being that one colour. We pictured having a meal in these different homes and discussed the kinds of food that would be on offer (corn in the yellow house, candyfloss in the pink house, etc). It was funny and surreal and the kids were totally hooked.

After eating our fill of imaginary candyfloss, Leah introduced the idea of a crayon factory – and the fact that it’s someone’s job to come up with the names for the crayons. She read a few out from a brochure  (wild watermelon…) and then handed out a template, covered in crayon shapes, and coloured pencils, inviting the children to blend existing colours to invent something new, and then come up with a name for their colour. Parents were encouraged to take an active role in discussing the children’s thoughts and sharing their own views on colour. Not surprisingly, this was a task that the kids tackled with great enthusiasm and they confidently bounced across the senses as they developed their ideas. My absolutely favourite comment – and the words I want to end on – was from a young girl who told her mother she wanted to invent a crayon colour, “like the sound of the ocean”.

Header image: Murnau, Burggrabenstrasse 11908, by Wasily Kandinksy

Museum Hack: Letting the Right Ones In

Last Saturday, I went on two Museum Hack tours of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Combined, this experience took a total of five hours. That sounds pretty hardcore, even by my museum geek standards, but the time flew by and I loved every minute of it. The company is a relatively young start-up that offers high-energy, entertaining and subversive museum tours. It’s an approach ideally suited to adults who were dragged around museums as children and consequently assume that tours must be boring, tiring and didactic. As with a number of the other organisations that I’ve visited on this trip, Museum Hack understands that offering positive social experiences is a fundamental aspect of audience engagement. Who doesn’t enjoy spending time with friends and family, having a laugh and doing something a bit different together on a Saturday evening? Museum Hack has successfully identified a gap in the market and then developed a strong product to meet that need. They’re going great guns too – the company is expanding at an extraordinary rate.

PixCell-Deer #24, 2011, by Kohai Nawa. Mixed media; taxidermied deer with artificial crystal glass

I started with the Un-Highlights Tour, which promised not to show me all the usual things, but to offer a personal, alternative introduction instead. We were a group of nine (four couples and me, the lemon) and our guide Evan was funny, knowledgeable, and engaging. He’s also an artist and his love for the Met was obvious – we were definitely getting a tour from a big fan. One of the first objects we saw was a huge Roman sarcophagus, unfinished and never used for its intended purpose. It’s nothing much to look at, but it’s interesting because it was the very first object to enter the Met’s collection. Its reference number is 70.1, because it was the first object purchased in the year of the museum’s founding in 1870. That’s cool. The entire tour was driven by storytelling, the cornerstone of the Museum Hack approach, and was filled with all sorts of interesting snippets and factoids. It wasn’t all one-way traffic either; there were little challenges and tasks along the way that encouraged us to talk with each other and explore galleries in the museum that we may have otherwise walked straight through. I looked, I laughed, I played – all great fun.

These lovely objects weren’t included on the tours, but I couldn’t resist sharing them.

In the evening, I joined a VIP tour – I knew it was fancy because my name tag was a silver sticker instead of the usual matt white. We were a group of 13 (six couples and me, the gooseberry) and we had two guides: Ethan, who has been with the company from almost the beginning and leads on the continuing professional development (CPD) side of the business; and Charlotte, who is newer and had more of a supporting role, although she did lead some sections of the tour. It was a 6pm kick-off and we were booted out as the museum was closing at 9pm; I really couldn’t tell you where those three hours went. At some point, the sun had set and the spotlit sculptures looked stunning, especially with the dark sky and Manhattan architecture, visible through the large windows and skylights, forming a dramatic backdrop. All of this was nicely capped off with a glass of red wine, provided as part of the tour – they know us so well.

The Temple of Tendur, from Egypt, Nubia, West bank of the Nile River, 50 miles South of Aswan, Roman Period, 10th century B.C.

Every Museum Hack tour is different because the guides tailor the experience to the group. Fairly early on, there was an ice-breaker exercise where we briefly introduced ourselves. This wasn’t just to bond as a group, although that was useful too, but to give the guides a sense of our interests and world views. For example, if someone in the group comes from the financial sector, then anecdotes would be skewed towards the value of objects or other money-related tales. If there were museum types on the tour (apparently that happens), then there would be some juicy art history nuggets thrown in to keep us happy too. It shows how nimble and well-trained the guides are, and probably plays a big part in keeping their storytelling fresh and immediate.

The Charles Engelhard Court in the American Wing. Facade: Martin E Thompson’s Branch Bank of the United States (1822-24), originally located at 15 1/2 Wall Street in New York City.

So that was my Saturday. On Sunday, I hijacked Ethan’s afternoon for an interview and we had a really great, wide-ranging conversation about the ‘Museum Hack way’ and associated topics. I was hugely impressed by the creativity and hard work that he pours into his role. Ethan loves museums, and he loves the objects in museums, and he really wants others to discover museums and love them as much as he does. Museum Hack is quite a controversial prospect in some circles, not least because it’s seen to be treading on the territory of established museum learning departments, and their subversive spirit has been interpreted as cavalier. However, I was happy to discover just how rigorous and systematic Museum Hack is in its training, planning and programming. Ethan and his colleague, Kate have formalised the key elements of what makes a Museum Hack tour, and trainee guides have a huge amount to learn before they can deliver to a group in such a way that suggests they’ve just rocked up for a chat. Like all good guides, the hard work is hidden beneath a lot of practice and preparation.

I chose Museum Hack as a case study because I find it fascinating that a company outside the museum sector can come in and have such an impact. Moreover, they have museums eager to hire them as consultants to inject their particular brand of energy and entertainment into adult programming. Shifting the focus from them (Museum Hack)  to us (museum educators) for a moment, why aren’t we already doing this for ourselves? I like a bit of healthy competition and I’m glad they’ve thrown down the gauntlet; it means that we have to raise our game. Granted, being subversive is easier when you are external to an organisation, rather than a cog in its machinery; however, there is nothing to stop us from looking again at the format of our key programmes and rethinking them. Tours, talks and workshops are the basic building blocks of museum learning programming and there can be a risk of sinking into the deep wheel-ruts of established approaches. Tours can be done differently and can attract new audiences – Museum Hack have demonstrated that. So what else can we be doing differently? What else can we adapt to respond to contemporary audience need?

Header image: The Arms and Armour Galleries

A Place to Talk Race and Politics


As part of my trip to the US, I’ve been visiting a range of cultural institutions, including art, science and social history museums, as well as the occasional aquarium and botanic gardens. My focus has been on art museums, but an unexpected bonus has been how much I’ve gained from visiting social history museums. I’ve written previously about how objects in these museums affected me – particularly seeing a KKK hood in Dallas and an electric chair in Indianapolis. I’ve been learning about historical instances of deeply entrenched racism and social inequality in these museums, and then I’ve seen the impact of this history when walking down the street and witnessing the differences between the haves and have nots; or when I’m watching the (almost daily) news reports of yet another unarmed African American man, or sometimes boy, shot to death by police. Throw in the surreal election campaign and accompanying braying media coverage, and the whole world seems fit to explode. Fortunately, museums can redress the balance by providing a place to contextualise current events and to present the many ‘hidden histories’ that have previously been ignored and repressed.

Having seen that hood in Dallas, little did I know that KKK objects would be a recurring theme, and I have encountered similar objects in at least four collections I’ve visited. For example, in The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis there was an incredible display, called The Power of Children: Making a Difference, which explores the lives and impact of Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White. White contracted HIV in 1984, aged 13, from a blood transfusion. He did a huge amount to increase knowledge and understanding of the disease before his death in 1990.


Ruby Bridges, aged six, was the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the American South. She was escorted by federal marshals, and had to navigate a mob of angry adults, to get into the school. The Children’s Museum told her story and placed her into the broader context of the role of children and young people in the civil rights movement, who took incredibly brave actions to access education and bring change. And there it was, the KKK again, this time in the form of a ceramic ornament, as part of a display about the racism of the time. Wisely, the museum has provided boxes of tissues at various points in these galleries as the material provokes strong emotions – all three children demonstrated so much courage in the face of so much adult idiocy and fear.

The Ruby Bridges display has information on the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama student protests for equal access to education – and the police response.
The racism that is often associated with the Southern States travelled a long way North.

As time went on, I noticed a stark difference between the social history museums, that are really grappling with the difficult and ugly sides of US history, and the art museums, that are still turning a relatively blind eye and, through omission, staying on the vanilla side of the fence. Hmm. Having said that, there are some examples of good work, such as at Columbus Museum of Art, that has a couple of great collections built around social justice and a gallery that addresses four aspects of this: women’s rights, employment, poverty, and African American lives. However, it wasn’t until I got to the Brooklyn Museum that I really understood how much further art museums could go – I have never seen so many artworks on display by women artists. And not just in the ‘women artists’ corner, but right throughout, almost as though their work was of equal value and worth to the other 50% of the population. Similarly, there are many artworks by African American and Native American artists on display, and the museum also has substantial displays of African, Pre-Columbian, and Native American art. The best bit was the interpretation; I took so many photos of labels because I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading; I’ve never seen such strongly-worded text in an art museum.

Life-Death Figure, 900-1250, by an Huastec artist, Mexico

One of many striking juxtapositions at the Brooklyn Museum was an oil painting of a Native American man on a horse, alongside two ink and crayon drawings of conflicts between Native Americans and US soldiers. I want to quote the label text in full to give an indication of the museum’s approach.


The oil painting is called The Outlier, 1909, by Frederic Sackrider Remington. It is described as follows:

In this nocturnal scene, the Native American appears as something of a lone relic, disconnected from his culture and ambiguously detached from a specific historical moment. Depicted in isolation, the figure simultaneously suggests former glory and inevitable demise, a fate that most European Americans at this time considered to be certain for Native Americans.

Frederic Sackrider Remington painted many versions of the solitary Native American – a motif inspired by the lingering psychological impact of his harrowing experience in wartime Cuba as a war correspondent. However, it is the American Impressionist-inspired style, featuring broken brushwork and lightened palette, that dominates the painting’s narrative content.


The ink and crayon drawings are both titled ‘Ledger Book Drawing’, 1890, and attributed to a ‘Cheyenne male artist’. They are described as follows:

Depicting the Indian Wars

As gold and land lured non-Native settlers westward, Native American fought for their homelands in fierce battles with the US Army, as depicted here. Government pogroms attempted to wipe out Native peoples by deliberately spreading disease and by killing off the life-sustaining buffalo and native sheep. Native warriors, who had traditionally depicted their battles on hide shirts and tipi liners in the 1800s, co-opted ledger books from government agents to draw their war experiences. General Custer’s 1876 defeat at the Battle of Little Big Horn in Montana and other Native victories were overshadowed by relentless US Army massacres in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including the famous one at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890. The wars continued until all Native peoples were driven onto reservations.

This tone of voice felt far more akin to what I‘d seen in the social history museums; it was fascinating to experience such a large art museum through a similar political lens. Brooklyn Museum also houses the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and gives pride of place to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1974-9. I have known this work since I was a teenager and it was incredible to see it in person. The installation is presented in a bespoke gallery with highly reflective black walls and this has the effect of multiplying the triangular table-setting into infinity. It felt like being in a chapel and visitors were especially quiet and contemplative as they walked around and read the names of these 1,038 women.

The Dinner Party, 1974-9, by Judy Chicago

I also want to include a few examples from the Whitney Museum, where women and African American artists are also well represented. I loved Steve, 1976, by Barkley L. Hendricks, for its simplicity which brought to mind nineteenth-century examples such as J.M. Whistler’s Symphony in White, no.1 (The White Girl), 1862. I also enjoyed Byron Kim’s Synecdoche, an ongoing project started in 1991 (see Header Image). There are over 400 panels in the series to date. Each panel ‘records the unique skin tones of friends and fellow artists on monochrome painted panels’. The Whitney is showing a selection from the series, focussing on artists represented in their collection. Again, I liked the simplicity and art historical references (because I’m a big art history geek).

Steve, 1976, by Barkley L. Hendricks

And finally, I was struck by Annette Lemieux’s work, Left Right Left Right, 1995. This piece shows 30 photographs of fists, presented as placards. Ten unique images are each reproduced three times and there is a mix of the famous (Martin Luther King Jnr, Jane Fonda) and the anonymous (a sailor, a preacher, and a concert goer from Woodstock). The label states, ‘together they suggest the united front of a political demonstration whose cause remains unspecified. Taken out of context, the individual fists could be raised in celebration, anger or solidarity.’ This work is over 20 years old and yet it feels very contemporary in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement and the symbol of the raised fist. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened last weekend in Washington DC to much fanfare and I’ve heard glowing reports from those who’ve seen it.

Left Right Left Right, 1995, by Annette Lemieux

Having seen how well these art museums are addressing issues around gender, sexuality, race, and inequality, I’m looking forward to returning home with this particular heightened awareness and looking again at how UK art museums are conducting similar discussions. Do please share any examples of good practice that you’ve seen – I’d love to hear from you.

Header Image: Synecdoche, 1991 – ongoing, by Byron Kim

IMA: Indy’s Best Kept Secret

The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), located on a large site to the northwest of the city centre, is a museum, a mini-golf course, a stately home and gardens, and a 100 acre park. It’s not the easiest place to reach by foot, but it’s definitely worth the journey. I spent many happy hours enjoying the collections and then getting out into the sun and exploring the gardens and park. Mini-golf provokes an irrational rage in me, so I gave it a miss, but I loved the format (each hole has been designed by a different artist) and families were clearly having a good time. The biggest surprise to me was the relative paucity of other visitors. A resource like this in London would be totally rammed. I’m not complaining; I felt spoilt rotten being able to enjoy the spaces with extra elbow room, but this place deserves a large and bustling crowd because it’s so damn good!

‘Vonnegut Doodles’, 14th Hole on the mini-golf course. Author Kurt Vonnegut was from Indiana.

The museum collections and exhibitions are presented over three levels, with a large central atrium that showcases two spectacular installations, Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing No.265, recreated 2005, and Robert Irwin’s Light and Space III, 2008. The first floor has a substantial display of European and American art and design. I underestimated the number of galleries and spent about three hours noodling along, assuming I was almost done a few times, and then discovering another whole section. Far too many favourites to list them all, but it was a treat to see so many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist treasures, and I particularly enjoyed Hopper’s The Hotel Lobby, 1943, and O’Keefe’s Jimson Weed, 1936.

Light and Space III, 2008, by Robert Irwin

Across from the permanent collection is the temporary exhibition, 19 Stars of Indiana Art: A Bicentennial Celebration. The show is a survey of 19 artists and designers either from, or working in, Indiana, and includes fashion designers Halston and Bill Blass, sculptor David Smith, and printmakers Garo Antreasian and Veja Celmins (the full list is here). Effective interactives and interpretation spaces punctuate the show. For example, a craftspace, located in the Nature Lovers section, encourages visitors to make the Indiana State insect, bird or flower (the Say’s firefly, cardinal or peony, since you asked) and add it to a collective display. The exhibition ends with an immersive video installation of 10 contemporary practitioners, each speaking about one of the artists in the show and their influence.

Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing No.265, can be seen in the background
Make your own firefly, cardinal or peony – activity space in the 19 Stars of Indiana Art exhibition

The next floor has wonderful galleries of Asian and African arts, as well as a small display of Greek and Roman art. The design galleries are also on this floor and show examples from 1980 onward. They are so beautifully presented, it felt more like a super-classy retail experience; there were so many great vantage points to scan and browse the whole room. AND, if that wasn’t enough, there was also the stunning temporary exhibition, A Joy Forever: Marie Webster Quilts. Marie Webster is the Elvis of quilting. Her designs first gained recognition when they appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1911, and she had a huge influence on the craft by publishing books on quilting and selling her patterns. A retrospective brochure on Webster is free to download from the IMA site here. Her skill was phenomenal and to see whole rooms of these quilts was very impressive.

Elu face masks, 20th century, Ogoni people, Nigeria
Design Arts gallery


French Baskets, 1930, made by Emma Daughtery, pattern design by Marie Webster

Tucked behind this show is a Textile and Fashion Arts Activity Space, which has a range of activities including a fuzzy-felt quilting activity (joy) and 10 half-size mannequins, showing how women’s dress has changed over a 200-year period. You’re actually allowed to handle this dress display, which amazed me, as the cream fabric still looked immaculate.



The top floor is devoted to contemporary art and has a mix of room-sized installations and large galleries showing a number of different artists. I have more favourites on this floor too – I would have happily taken Tim Hawkinsons’s Mobius Ship, 2006,  home with me if I could, and Do-Ho Suh’s Floor, 1997-2000, which didn’t look like much until I realised it was being held up by thousands of tiny people AND visitors are allowed to walk on it. I try to resist using the F word in this blog, but unfortunately fun is the only way to describe these galleries.

Mobius Ship, 2008, by Tim Hawkinson

So, that’s inside. At this time of year, outside is scorching hot so the garden and park smell delicious, all warm earth and leaves. The garden surrounds Lilly House, the former home of J.K. Lilly, Jnr, the late businessman, collector and philanthropist. The whole estate is known as Oldfields. There is more information on the history of Oldfields and a photo tour of the house here.

Lilly House

The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park: 100 Acres, to use the full title, is immediately next to the Oldfields estate. I visited on a Monday morning, when the museum and garden are closed to the public, and it was nice to see the park being used by dog-walkers, joggers, and cyclists. Dotted with artworks, this was another space that I enjoyed playing in – give me a swing and a lake, and I’m happy as a clam.

Chopstick, 2012, by visiondivision
Indy Island, 2010, by Andrea Zittel. IMA website: About 20 feet in  diameter, Indy Island was conceived as an experimental living structure that examined the daily needs of contemporary human beings during summer. From summers 2010-2013, the island was occupied by commissioned residents who adapted and modified the island’s structures to suit their individual needs.

As I mentioned in my first blogpost on IMA, I wanted to visit because I was inspired by Silvia Filippini-Fantoni’s comments in a Guardian article. Silvia is the Director of Interpretation, Media and Evaluation and has been at IMA for about four years. She’s had a key role in delivering major changes at the organisation over this relatively short period. Most dramatically, she’s devised a new exhibition development process. For every new show at IMA a core team is brought together, made up of a curator, a designer, an evaluator, an interpretation specialist and a project manager.

A sleuthing activity to identify an unknown artist. Part of the exhibition, On the Flipside: Secrets on the Back of Paintings.

The core team thrashes out all aspects of exhibition development and planning, and audience research is absolutely fundamental to this process. This might include: formative research into the viability and interest in an exhibition idea; identifying key learning outcomes; and testing different approaches to interpretation. For every exhibition, there is a ‘Big Idea’ document to keep everyone on track. A hierarchy of learning outcomes is used to plan the type and range of interpretation formats, and to measure success. Since instigating this new approach, visitor satisfaction levels have increased and visitors are more likely to report learning outcomes that are consistent with the exhibition aims. Silvia and her team have such a strong understanding of their audiences and do a great job of using this information to improve all aspects of the visitor experience.

A repurposed interpretation tool that introduces different properties of colour mixing, located in a gallery of pointillist paintings.

These changes have only been made possible with support from the top. Charles Venable joined IMA as Director in 2012 and his leadership is having a transformative effect on how the museum thinks about and works with audiences. He has the unenviable task of needing to improve  financial sustainability and increase visitor figures. This has led to some difficult changes, including restructuring of staff and the introduction of admission charges, both of which have generated plenty of flak in the media. However, I believe that Charles is playing the long game and making decisions that will open the museum up to new audiences and protect its future.  The organisation now places a much greater emphasis on people, and recognises that social, playful events are increasingly what audiences demand of museum experiences. By tapping into the additional potential of the garden and park, programming can also reach out to nature lovers, horticulturalists, gardeners, birders, foodies, and anyone who enjoys the nature-art combo. So much thought and consideration is going into the decisions being made at IMA and I wish them every success.

Free Basket 2010, by Los Carpinteros

Header image: Love, 1970, by Robert Indiana, and Five Brushstrokes, designed 1983-84, fabricated 2012, by Roy Lichtenstein