Let’s Get Ethical

To help pass the time while we wait to see if nuclear war is going to break out, I thought it might be worth stopping to ponder on ethics. In their reference guide, Developing an Institutional Code of Ethics, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) makes the following statement – sound advice to museums and world leaders alike:

Operating in an ethical manner is a fundamental part of being a museum. Having a formalised code of ethics demonstrates to the public commitment to accountability, transparency in operations and informed and consistent decision-making. It positions the museum as reputable and trustworthy, which can strengthen relationships with stakeholders and the community.

Trustworthiness – an area where politicians score notoriously low in surveys of public perceptions  – is also highly valued in the UK Museums Association’s (MA) Code of Ethics for Museums (2016):

Museums are public-facing, collections-based institutions that preserve and transmit knowledge, culture and history for past, present and future generations. This places museums in an important position of trust… Museums must make sound ethical judgements in all areas of work in order to maintain this trust.

Having a code of ethics is a relatively new phenomenon in museum practice. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) produced their first Code of Professional Ethics in 1986. In 2001, it was amended and retitled Code of Ethics for Museums, and was further revised in 2004. Its purpose is to, ‘set minimum standards of professional practice and performance for museums and their staff’. Given ICOM’s global reach, it stands to reason that such a document is top level, and it’s left to individual countries and institutions to sort out the fine-print. It covers all the big stuff: preservation, care and research; provenance and due diligence; disposal of objects and deaccessioning collections; as well as dealing in artworks and conflicts of interest.

What does read strangely in the ICOM Code of Ethics is the relationship between museums and the public. Education is mentioned, but the focus is very much on traditional curatorial channels. For example, point four states, ‘museums provide opportunities for the appreciation, understanding and management of the natural and cultural heritage’, and there is further clarification that museums should attract wider audiences and interact with constituent communities. However, the sub-sections focus on: displays; interpretation of exhibitions; showing sensitive materials; removing objects from public display; exhibiting unprovenanced material: and producing publications and reproductions. Where’s the public engagement through programming events and activities for different audiences?… perhaps I hadn’t got to that bit yet… Point Five, ‘museums hold resources that provide opportunities for other public services and benefits’ – surely this would be the place to capture all the collaborative partnership working and community programming? Wrong again – ‘5.1 Identification of Illegally or Illicitly Acquired Objects’ and ‘5.2 Authentication and Valuation’. Scheesh.

Perhaps the lack of museum learning in the ICOM code is because it’s a nascent (or non-existent) practice in many countries. Having been involved in V&A consultation projects, working with partners in the Middle East and China, I’ve realised how much I take for granted regarding museum practice in the UK. For example, how do you establish a schools programme when there is no precedent for taking classes to museums? In many countries, it just wouldn’t occur to teachers to make museum visits, and it requires more than the Field of Dreams maxim, ‘build it and they will come’ to make it happen. It will be interesting to see if future iterations of the ICOM code introduce museum learning as the practice become more commonplace around the world.

The UK and US have well-established cultures of museum learning, and this is reflected in their codes of ethics, produced by the MA and AAM respectively. The MA code, quoted above, has three core principles:

  1. Public engagement & public benefit
  2. Stewardship of collections
  3. Individual and institutional integrity

That ordering caused quite a bit of controversy in the ol’ objects-first-or-people-first reductive tussle (personally I don’t think we are moving away from being collections-centric, I think we’re moving away from being institution-centric and can no longer put our own interests ahead of the public). Similarly, the AAM’s code of ethics (adopted in 1991 and amended in 2000) uses a lovely turn of phrase to express their dual commitment to the public and collections:

…the root value for museums, the tie that connects all of us together despite our diversity, is the commitment to serving people, both present and future generations. This value guided the creation of and remains the most fundamental principle in the ... Museums make their unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving and interpreting the things of this world.

AAM also offers great advice and guidance for any museum wishing to write its own code of ethics.

Just as the MA and AAM codes go deeper than ICOM’s into their nationally-specific context, a museum’s own code of ethics can go deeper again into the culturally-specific context of the institution. I think there’s also scope for thinking more carefully about the ethics of community engagement through museum learning practice. Both the MA and AAM codes say all the right things about working with the public:


  • The museum ensures that programs are accessible and encourage participation of the widest possible audience consistent with its mission and resources (AAM)
  • The museum ensures that programs respect pluralistic values, traditions and concerns (AAM)
  • Museums and those who work in and with them should actively engage and work in partnership with existing audiences and reach out to new audiences (MA)
  • Museums and those who work in and with them should ensure that everyone has the opportunity for meaningful participation in the work of the museum (MA)







These statements make us feel all warm and fuzzy - they are good values to hold and make clear our good intentions. Keep those words in mind when you read this extract from Bernadette Lynch’s report, Whose Cake is it Anyway? (2011):  

The fault-lines within the museum’s or gallery’s organisational culture were consistently revealed by the process of this study as barriers to proper involvement. Despite best efforts to the contrary, these invisible barriers continue to create and recreate the mechanisms of marginalisation. They include attitudes that, in a number of cases, influenced the following:


  • False consensus and inadvertently using people to ‘rubber-stamp’ organisational plans
  • Policies and practices based on ‘helping-out’ and ‘doing-for’
  • Community partners treated as ‘beneficiaries’ rather than ‘active agents’
  • Project funding leading to non-mainstreaming of participation and pretending things are better than they are
  • Absence of strong, committed leadership and a strategic plan for engagement (p.21)


A museum learning code of ethics could address these challenges and provide clear guidance on how not to fall into these traps. To start, we’d need to be more honest about what we can achieve with the resources available. It’s too easy to promise the moon on a stick - to communities, senior management and funders alike - but is that ethical when expectations then can’t be met? Is it responsible to offer community consultation and involvement if the museum’s leading decision-makers are not involved in the process/conversations? What exit strategies are in place when a long-term community partnership comes to an end? How do we document and share our work with vulnerable groups and underrepresented audiences responsibly? Should we keep trying to be all things to all people?

Scottish Government and the Scottish Community Development Centre (SCDC) have produced National Standards for Community Engagement off the back of the ‘Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, and guidelines like this could provide strong starting points for developing museum learning codes of ethics. I haven’t been able to find the equivalent national standards for England so do please get in touch if you know of it.

The rhetoric around public engagement is positive and optimistic - which you’d expect - but when do the words on the page stop being aspirational and start blindfolding us to what’s actually happening? Just saying it doesn’t make it so - if these are our values and what we stand for in the museum sector, what more can we do about it?
IMAGE: http://www.eightieskids.com/2016/03/10-female-fashion-icons-80s/5/

Blogs and websites and ideas, oh my!

When reading other people’s blogs, I always enjoy following their links to different websites – I’m led to another topic of interest, and links from there lead me to something else again, and so on. I like that a single post can provide a central path of argument with the opportunity to wander off and explore interesting distractions, diversions and rabbit holes. It feels more akin to channel-hopping than article-reading, and results in a wonderfully diverse reading menu. Below are some of my favourite blogs – they are content-rich with plenty of offshoots, and they always show me something new and inspiring.

Art Museum Teaching was exactly the blog I was hoping to find when I started my Churchill Fellowship research. I was looking for information on how museum and gallery educators think about their work and develop their ideas; I wanted insights into our practice – all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes and before the participants arrive. This site does exactly that. Its founding author and editor, Mike Murawski, is the Director of Education & Public Programs at Portland Art Museum in the US. He has assembled a broad range of art museum educators and specialists as contributing editors and actively invites others to contribute too. The site itself is easy to navigate and – due to its collective nature – a diversity of voices and perspectives is shared.

Design Thinking for Museums is edited and run by Dana Mitroff Silvers, who also contributes to Art Museum Teaching. She brings a huge amount of experience to her site, having been Head of Online Services at SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) for over 10 years. Design Thinking for Museums was established in 2012, the fruit of a partnership between SFMOMA and Stanford University’s highly influential d.school (their website is also great for wandering). Design thinking wasn’t a concept I was familiar with before I started working at the V&A. Having always worked in galleries, I was used to talking about – and wrangling with – the creative process instead. Design thinking is a creative approach to problem-solving that can be applied in so many different contexts, including that of devising and developing museum learning programmes. Mitroff Silvers provides a fab mix of theory and practical examples to support museum work – not only with audiences, but with colleagues too.

Createquity describes itself as, “a think tank and online publication investigating the most important issues in the arts and what we, collectively and individually, can do about them.”.  This site is link-tastic and a gift to anyone interested in the relationship between government policy, cultural sector research, and organisational practice at the coalface of public engagement. Although the focus is on the US, they also include plenty of links to relevant UK material, and their reporting is clear and concise. It’s a really great resource for getting into some of the bigger, stickier challenges facing the sector (of which there are plenty to choose from…). For something closer to home, the Cultural Learning Alliance is doing heroic work campaigning against the negative impact on arts education of the Department for Education’s curriculum directives.

The examples above are very work-y and specific to my practice. I also like following sites that are good for cultural rummaging – the online equivalent of going into TK Maxx with no fixed retail objective. Open Culture is an enormous virtual warehouse of articles, images, films, courses and MOOCs, spanning all artforms and featuring loads of lost treasures and hidden gems. The sheer volume can be a bit overwhelming, but it’s ideal for the unexpected discovery. Colossal is for when I need an aesthetic fix – it is filled with beautiful, beautiful things, often impressive in scale and complexity, and created with an incredibly high level of skill. I tend to explore this site with my jaw on the floor. And when I want to read up on creativity more generally, I enjoy Open For Ideas and Can Scorpions Smoke? – two UK-based sites (to counter the otherwise American bias of my online reading) that do a great job of being both informative and entertaining.

When I think about how I found out about stuff as a student – ie. reading books in libraries – and how I find out about stuff now – ie. reading articles online – the difference blows my mind. The ready access to information and ideas, much of which is free and available at the touch of a button, far outstrips anything I could have got my hands on twenty years ago. But with the whole world so close, the next challenge is finding the hours in the day to explore it and unearth the best bits…

IMAGE: http://flavorwire.com/411724/50-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-wizard-of-oz

What’s the Anti-dote to Museum Learning?

As the R&B vocal group, The Persuaders, taught us back in 1971, “it’s a thin line between love and hate”. Only a few years ago, scientists proved them right – the neural circuits that light up when a person looks at a photo of someone they hate are in the same parts of the brain (the putamen and insula) that are also linked with romantic love. To be both drawn towards and repulsed by the same thing is a complicated emotional response. I reckon this love/hate, push/pull lies behind initiatives such as the antiuniversity and unconferences. Their provocative names suggest some sort of polarity or binary opposition, an implicit ‘we are everything that they are not’. There is also a sense of resistance, a challenge to dominant thinking and practice. But if the concept of universities and conferences was being entirely rejected, then surely it would make more sense to use different words to describe them. By making reference to what is being opposed, it shows there’s still some love in there. An effort is made to keep the best and ditch the rest, with the ultimate goal of creating ideal universities and conferences that are all killer, no filler.

Antiuniversity Now! began in 2015 as an idea for a festival, It was set up as “a collaborative experiment to challenge institutionalised education, access to learning and the mechanism of knowledge creation and distribution”. Entirely volunteer-led, the premise is that anyone can pitch an event for the festival, as long as it complies with the ethos of Antiuniversity Now! – “all our activities are firmly rooted in a collective desire to create and sustain safe autonomous spaces for radical learning that follow, nurture and enact anarchist, feminist, anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-homophobic, de-colonial and anti-capitalist values through conversation and direct action.”

In their first year, the organisers had anticipated maybe five events – they ended up with 60. In June 2016, tying in with the Alternative Art Education Summit in London, the second iteration of Antiuniversity Now! had a programme of 120 events across the city. Clearly, there is a huge appetite for this way of working, from organisers and audiences alike. It was inspired by the Antiuniversity of London, established in 1968 in a similar climate of disillusionment and grassroots activism. A fascinating (although condescending) BBC short film on the original Antiuniversity is on YouTube, and there is also an interesting online archive, called – what else? – Antihistory.

Unconferences derive from a similar impulse to break with conventional hierarchies, although they aren’t overtly political. Attendees arrive to no set programme and must make the unconference as they go. Anyone can suggest topics for discussion and debate; these topics are pinned on a board, arranged in a grid of timeslots and break-out rooms, and then the event begins and everyone is free to come and go, attending groups where they feel they can contribute or learn. More sessions might appear over the course of the unconference as discussions spark other topics. There is an expectation that attendees actively engage – no passive watching from the back – and come away buzzing with ideas, having not spent the day staring at dull powerpoints of limited relevance.  If you want to know more about unconferences, check out the Unconference.net website. I also found the article, Welcome to the Unconference (Inc.com) useful to get a sense of how they work in practice.

It was with antiuniversities and unconferences in mind that I went hunting for the unmuseum. I anticipated finding all sorts of online articles, perhaps using the phrase to describe audience-centric, or collaborative agendas in recent museum practice. I found zip. Instead, I discovered two very different versions of the unmuseum: a website for The Museum of Unnatural Mystery, where you can read about topics ranging from dinosaurs and aviation to cryptozoology and UFOs; and a multi-sensory, interactive gallery on the top floor of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center. The latter was created as a space for children to engage with contemporary art, and – unlike in a conventional museum – everything can be touched.

I had more joy when I went looking for the antimuseum. It turns out that being ‘un’ isn’t strong enough – our love of museums runs deep, and so must our hatred. ‘Anti’ seems to do a better job of capturing this strength of feeling. A few examples:

  • The Antimuseo of Contemporary Art in Madrid: “the objective of our research is to make visible the dialectic between institutionality and creation. To challenge conventions and hierarchies. To claim art as a space for possibility and freedom.”
  • The Antimuseum in Moscow, founded in 2016, is an exhibition project by Electromuseum. An open call is put out to artists of all stripes, with the promise of no curatorial control or genre constraints over the resulting exhibitions.
  • The Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky was going to be called the Anti-Museum. It was founded by an Australian called Ken Ham, author of The Lie: Evolution, who took it on himself to rename dinosaurs “missionary lizards” (I think you get the idea). A wonderful review, titled The Anti-Museum, on the National Center for Science Education website, gives a thorough overview of the museum’s founding and exhibits.
  • The Antimuseum is also an anthology, published by Cornerhouse, that addresses the many ways cultural practitioners have tried to break free from the institution.

So what about us? What would a museum unlearning programme look like? What would our work entail as museum antieducators? If we were to lead a radical overhaul of our practice, what would we keep and what would we jettison? Personally, I’d like to stop having to repeatedly justify the value of museum and gallery learning/engagement and just focus on making programmes as accessible, challenging, exciting, unexpected and interesting as possible. I’d like us to surprise each other more too, and move away from our established audience lanes (schools, families, young people, etc) and formats (workshops, tours, talks, etc). I’d take a leaf out of MCA Denver’s book and break away from the exhibition programmes – their learning offer responds to contemporary culture and is more like a sister than a daughter to the concurrent exhibitions. Or perhaps, as unlearning specialists, our role would be to deprogramme audiences – we’d remove all of their expectations and preconceptions about what a museum is and what to think and say about art, and then send them back out into the world reborn as curious, open, questioning individuals, ready to embrace all of life’s grey areas, contradictions and ambiguities.

What would you do?
IMAGE SOURCE http://thesteampunkbuddha.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/alice-in-wonderland-drink-me.html

Easy As 1, 2, 3

All’s fair in love and creativity-prompting techniques. Consequently, I’d like to share with you a quick and easy brainstorming tool that I’ve stolen wholesale from a colleague in the Comms team. I’ve been on the receiving end of it, and found it to be a very efficient way of loosening up my thinking and gaining some different perspectives on recurring challenges. I’ve also used it in a workshop on a department away-day (which I’ll explain shortly) and had positive feedback from the team that this was a surprisingly effective means of playing around with new ideas. It probably has a name, but I don’t know what it is, so I call it the ‘1, 2, 3 Thingamee’.

123 Activity sheet

The tool is on one sheet of A4 paper (landscape format). Imagine the page divided vertically into thirds, creating three invisible columns. The first column has one horizontal line across the middle, the second column has four horizontal lines, evenly spaced, and the third column has four boxes, each box aligning with a horizontal line in the neighbouring column. These three columns, or steps, are numbered 1-3. You’d need a group of at least four people for the tool to be effective – the Comms team uses it with about 12 people, and I used it with a group of 25.

Step One: everyone in the group is given a ‘1, 2, 3 Thingamee’ sheet. They are asked to write one word on the first horizontal line that describes the topic or theme under discussion and then pass their sheet onto someone else in the group (passing to the left if sitting in a circle for example).

Step Two: Having received this one word, the next task is to list four words (in the second column) that come immediately to mind in relation to the prompt – any combination of adjectives, nouns and verbs is allowed. It is best not to overthink it and for the facilitator to only allow 30 seconds for this step to be completed. Pass the sheet on again to someone else, or further around the circle.

Step Three:  Having received these four key words, complete the boxes (in the third column) with four different solutions to the topic under discussion, taking inspiration from each of the words to trigger your ideas. For example, I participated in a Comms team brainstorming around reaching out to more families. As it was marketing, press and learning staff together in the room, we devised a combination of campaigns, promotions and programmes. We only had five minutes to complete this step, and were encouraged not to overthink it or self-censor, but to be quite playful with our solutions. Because the four trigger words were generated by someone else, falling outside of our usual ambit, we had to think differently. It was also fun to use one word as the jumping off point for generating ideas. Often, initial programming ideas are inspired by specific audience interests or exhibition content, so it was liberating to come up with ideas in response to words such as ‘sharing’ or ‘excitement’.

Step Four: Divide the group into smaller teams, ideally 3-5 people in each, and challenge each team to work up one solution, either by developing one of their ideas further and fleshing out the details, or by combining two partial ideas to come up with something completely new. This step is given more time, approximately 30 minutes although it could be longer. In a group of four people, you have potentially 16 rough ideas on the table and four opinions on the best way ahead – so there’s plenty to play with. Habitual thinking has also been lightly disrupted, so the group is warmed up and ready to experiment with new approaches. I really enjoyed working across departments, not least because it gave me an interesting insight into how my colleagues approach the same audience from a different perspective. We couldn’t rely on subject-specific jargon or shorthand, or make assumptions about shared viewpoints, and that also helped to nudge thinking into new territory.

Step Five: Each team feeds back their solution to the whole group. Not surprisingly, there is huge variety across the teams’ responses, which is testament to the 1, 2, 3 Thingamee’s ability to cast the ideas’ net further out than usual.

Step Six is up to you. The Comms team do this exercise weekly, which must keep a steady flow of new ideas coming into the department, but I doubt it’s intended that every one of those must be taken forward. One important benefit will be that a new idea is put into action – and this happens – but I think an equally important benefit is on the participants’ creativity. An hour of ideas-generation aerobics every week must keep thinking flexible and have application beyond just the exercise itself.

I used this process to deliver a 90-minute workshop on a recent department away-day. An opportunity has come up for Learning to work more actively with curatorial colleagues on a small temporary display, exploring the theme of architecture. What can come out of my head alone is limited, so the away-day workshop was a golden opportunity to reap lots of ideas and benefit from 25 creative brains in one space. It was also a great chance to work across teams, so programmers and administrators from adult, digital, families, community, schools, young people, etc were encouraged to mix it up.

The 1, 2, 3 Thingamee was the heart of the session, but I didn’t want to go straight into architecture without some stimuli to get our imaginations going. So I gave everyone a pre-session task (which was deliberately broad) – to print out an A3 image of an example of inspiring and unusual architecture. After a brief introduction on the purpose of the session, we went around the group and everyone shared their image and put it in the middle of the circle. There were examples from every continent (including the Antarctic), using every material you could imagine, and spanning a huge range of functions and scales. There were lots of ooohs and ahhs during our show’n’tell. It was a nice way to ensure everyone had the chance to speak, and it also offered a small glimpse into another side of each other that we possibly wouldn’t have known otherwise.

From there, we went through Steps 1-3 listed above. The Step 3 instruction was to dream up four displays, one per word, that are architectural in nature (so could be installations). For Step 4, I divided the room into six teams and sent them off to collectively develop one idea further. During the feedback session (Step 5) I frantically scribbled down notes, trying to capture each team’s solution. I now have six fantastic, imaginative ideas to kickstart the lengthy process of developing the final display. I don’t know where it will end up, but I’m glad that we’ve started big. There is also the added benefit that the whole department (well, everyone who was there) now knows about this project, and has some investment in its realisation. And finally, I got the impression that the team enjoyed being able to step back from daily demands and bring their creative selves to a playful, low-risk, problem-solving activity. The 1, 2, 3 Thingamee works because it draws out the best of the collective imaginative power of the group. And it’s not because we all think the same way – bumping together different ways of thinking is what leads to more creative ideas.

IMAGE: Jackson 5, http://www.mcrfb.com/?p=54099

From Chimpan-ae to Chimpanzee

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMAGE: https://www.bustle.com/articles/53934-the-20-best-simpsons-songs-in-honor-of-the-shows-25th-anniversary-videos

Civic Potential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


IMAGE: James Stewart, in ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’,  http://prod1.agileticketing.net/websales/pages/info.aspx?evtinfo=101706~15223d08-6800-42c7-8efa-e42833c17b6e&epguid=ea31e79c-c23f-4080-95b0-4ff83afd56f7&

Tapping into the Research Resource

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMAGE: http://matrix.wikia.com/wiki/Agent_Jones

Keep It Simple Stupid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMAGE http://www.kissonline.com/news?pg=22

For the Love of Things

It’s interesting how an idea can be lurking near the surface for ages – you’re sort of aware of it, but not consciously – and then a tipping point comes along and suddenly everything is thrown into sharp relief. I had one of these mini-epiphanies (a miniphany?) recently, when I was typing up interview transcripts and encountered this fairly innocent sentence: “I think for me, why I became a museum educator, was because I loved art and art history so much that you wanna share it with others…” I don’t know why it flicked a switch in my head – it’s not like I haven’t heard or thought similar sentiments many times before – but it did. I realised I had been overlooking our love of things. My thinking over the past year has been so focussed on the audience-centric nature of our work, that I had neglected the cause underpinning all of it – art.

Like most of us in this line of work, I love art; I always have and always will. I was forever inventing craft projects for myself as a kid – I have clear memories of trying to varnish a stool one morning before school, when I was about eight years old. I ended up with varnish everywhere, and my exasperated mother had to cut a bite out of my fringe because I had a blob of varnish stuck in my hair (and for ‘stool’, read ‘apple crate turned on its end’). Art was my favourite subject at school, and when I discovered art history in Sixth Form, I couldn’t believe my luck. To sit and look at pictures and listen to descriptions about the artists and their times was total bliss. It’s still one of my favourite things.

My route into gallery education was through art history, and I know plenty of others whose paths have been as makers and artists. What we all share is an enormous enthusiasm for the subject. And I think that’s why the above quote made such an impression on me. In my Churchill report, I had described museum educators as being empathetic and curious, and these traits were what made us so audience-centric, but what I had missed was our keen compulsion to share our love of art. It doesn’t matter what your passion is – it could be tennis or Scrabble or anime – there is nothing better than sharing with others what makes you happy, and getting them hooked too. We are audience-centric in our museum learning approach and expertise, but – vitally – our love of the arts lies beneath this and fuels our practice.

My miniphany also reminded me to keep challenging the perception that curators do the ‘art bit’ and learning do the ‘people bit’. That distinction is a blunt measure, and the line between the professions is definitely blurring, but I would also argue that when push comes to shove, we haven’t yet achieved the right balance in our collaborative work. In my experience, Learning is increasingly called on for our audience expertise; this is welcome recognition and reflects a general shift in museum practice, but sometimes that is the only thing we are asked to contribute. Of course we each have specialist knowledge that differs, but both parties have something useful to contribute to the art bit AND the people bit.

I think it’s still pretty common for curatorial projects to be well into development before Learning is invited to identify appropriate audiences. In my dream scenario, that process is inverted – museums take a strategic approach to audience development, set clear priorities for retention and growth, and then develop programmes and projects accordingly. But I would say that, I’m Team Learning. This tussle keeps rumbling on across the sector, and reflects very different solutions to the same problem – how to create high-quality, well-respected exhibitions and displays for a large and diverse audience. No-one wants to be in an organisation where ‘the tail is wagging the dog’, but in this scenario, everyone thinks they’re the dog. All of this brings me back to that quote – “I think for me, why I became a museum educator, was because I loved art and art history so much that you wanna share it with others”. It was a useful reminder that the ‘art bit’ and the ‘people bit’ are inextricably linked in museum practice, and it’s important not to lose sight of one over the other.

I’d love to find a way past the art/people impasse. What would it look like if we got smarter about how we balance those twin priorities, both in our practice and across our museums? Is the tension that exists between these two priorities a mechanism for creativity? Could we be using the tussle more constructively?

IMAGE: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O139565/pin-cushion-unknown/

I Feel Your Pain – Or Do I?

As hairline fractures across both society and the political spectrum have split into broad canyons, the need for empathy feels very pressing at this particular point in time. Brexit and Trump are symptomatic of some seriously deep-rooted divides, and a breakdown in trust, tolerance and communication. Is it any wonder that empathy is having a moment as we try to find a way forward?  There are plenty of recent publications exploring empathy – ‘Fostering Empathy Through Museums’; Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It’ (its author, Roman Krznaric, also established the Empathy Museum); and of course, ‘The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society’ by the former chair of Arts Council England, Peter Bazalgette. More empathy sounds like a practical solution, but it gets sticky when scaled up to an institutional level. Some have also voiced doubts that empathy is even a thing – it’s impossible to prove that our understanding of another’s perspective is accurate, and is it arrogant and misguided to assume that we could even gain such insight?  

The current emphasis on empathy seems to be as much about reducing our own self-interest as it is about taking an active interest in others. The further we disappear up our own fundaments, the less exposure we have to ideas, lives, and situations that differ from our direct experiences. Consequently, our ability to take that imaginative leap and put ourselves in another person’s position is diminished. Seung Chan (Slim) Lim’s fantastic TEDx talk, ‘How Empathy Fuels the Creative Process’, discusses empathy as a form of connectedness. Lim tells a very personal and honest story about his attempt to empathise with a friend with bipolar disorder. He admits to seeing himself as a problem-solver, and it was only when he owned up to his own prejudices and assumptions that a stronger connection was forged between them.

It is perhaps not surprising that socially-minded museum practitioners have been exploring the role of empathy in their practice. Mike Murawski’s blogpost, ‘The Urgency of Empathy and Social Impact in Museums’ is filled with links to interesting related projects and is a great place to start for an overview of the topic. He makes the argument that we (museum practitioners) cannot separate ourselves from our institutions; “it’s absolutely essential to remember that museums are made of people… Any critique of museums is a critique of us; and any change needing to happen in museums is, therefore, a change that needs to start with us.” Along similar lines, the Empathetic Museum takes a human-centred approach, and promotes institutional empathy as a means of engaging more meaningfully with communities. They advocate for organisation-wide commitment: …the empathetic museum must have a clear vision of its role as a public institution within its community. From this vision flow process and policy decisions about every aspect of the museum- audience, staffing, collections, exhibitions and programming, social media, emergency responses…” They have developed a practical and actionable ‘Maturity Model’ to help museums become more empathetic, measured against the following characteristics: Civic Vision; Institutional Body Language; Community Resonance; Timeliness and Sustainability; and Performance Measures.

Suse Cairns (aka Museum Geek) offers another perspective on institutional empathy and museums. In her post, Can Institutions Be Empathetic?’, she raises the issue of “entrenched oppression” and observes that institutions perpetuate dominant cultures and power structures. Changes to these restrictive working practices are difficult and entangled with the other institutions with which they interact.  I think mapping the traits of individuals to institutions is problematic. I agree that institutions won’t change themselves – it takes people within institutions to drive these changes – but I don’t think it follows that the institution is solely the sum of its staff. Additional components, such as formalised structures, incentivising strategies, leadership models, and institution-specific cultural norms all play a part too. One person can’t be an institution, in the same way that one person can’t riot – and the actions of the collective can’t always be atomised to the individual. To speak of an institution as being empathetic brings to mind the controversial decision of the US Supreme Court in 2010 to “extend to corporations for the first time full rights to spend money as they wished in candidate elections” (see NPR article, When Did Companies Become People?’ for the full story). Obviously, encouraging institutional empathy is not the same as allowing multinationals to influence political campaigns, but in both cases the distinction between the individual and the institution has been blurred.

Paul Bloom’s book, ‘Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion’, offers an interesting point of view – check out Salley Vickers’ review in the Guardian for a useful summary: “Bloom is especially vocal on the need for rational objectivity in political and social policy and the dangers attendant on decisions prompted by empathy because it is ‘innumerate and biased’”.

In another Museum Geek post, On the Paradox of Empathy’, Cairns makes the point that empathy is “highly selective”. Apparently we empathise with some things more than others – “the cute over the ugly, or the person more like us than the one who isn’t” (if you’ve read my post, Other People and their Terrible Habit of Differing Opinions, this won’t come as a surprise).  It seems that our capacity to empathise only goes so far; an article in MISC magazine (vol.24 2017), titled ‘In the Shadow of Excellence: Exploring the Dark Side of Progress’, raises some of the ethical issues linked to self-driving cars:

“Let’s say you are in a self-driving car and the brakes fail. The car can either slam into a wall, killing you and the other passengers in the car, or it can swerve and kill a group of nearby pedestrians. Which people should the car be programmed to harm, and which should it protect? Should the algorithm controlling the car always act in a way that minimizes the number of people killed?… researchers found that most people believed the cars should be programmed to behave in whatever way minimised the loss of life. Yet the study also found that most people would not want to purchase one of these cars themselves. Instead, they preferred to purchase a car with an algorithm that would protect them and their families as passengers at all costs.”

Charming – but can you blame them?

In my Churchill Report, I identify empathy and listening as key attributes of creative museum educators. The depth of interest taken in other people is striking, whether working with the public, or with artists, or with community partners, or with colleagues. So much museum education is built on collaboration, and that in turn requires finding common ground and negotiating compromises. I used the word empathy to summarise what I saw as reduced self-interest and the active effort to really understand someone else’s point of view or experiences. On reflection, perhaps rational compassion is a better phrase. I like how it retains what I consider to be the essential ingredients of empathy, but it removes the assumption that ‘I feel your pain’. Perhaps demonstrating rational compassion is more constructive.

PS – there’s an interesting conference coming up in Amsterdam (26-27 October), Through Different Eyes, that will be exploring empathy and design thinking.

IMAGE: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O76526/netsuke-sukenaga/