VIPs

Today has been extraordinary. Adrenaline, excitement and pride. Overcome by emotion, keeping going and carrying on – and realising that the reason why I am doing it all, is because I want to get it right for these children, for the people and communities we are entrusted to inspire. And that’s such a huge thing – a privilege and a responsibility – and hard to think about, and hard to write about without raising lots of questions…

I’ve prepared for today more than I would for any academic conference, any MA lecture, any training course for museum professionals, even actually for my PhD viva. Loose preparation, willing to change at any movement.

The reason why… 180 VIPs from West Earlham Infant School in Norwich. It had to be right. I don’t know if it was right, but I think it was ok. It worked I think.

What amazing children.

I’m still settling in here. I don’t know the city yet. I don’t know its politics. But I know that this was for these children. And thank you to all my colleagues at the Sainsbury Centre who knew this and suggested it. All credit – and so much more – to the children – Reception, Y1 and Y2. I’ve never done an assembly for infants. I’ve never really even led a workshop session for this age-group.

Yet they were that wonderful mix – of being utterly excited, yet utterly well-behaved – enthusiastic and full of ideas and questions. We talked about the queen, about Fiji and its objects, about the Sainsbury Centre, and about why the queen loved Fiji, and why she was here today. We passed Fijian objects around, and looked at Fijian coins. We talked about corgis and pets. The queen was the official VIP, but it was actually the children who were the real VIPs. The pride in the crowns and flags and banners and chains they’d made said it all.

My favourite comment of the day was when someone asked the Mayoress if she was a pirate. What an amazing question. (And yes, she did look a bit like one and offered her pirate hat to one of the pupils, plonking it on their head!) The children all answered questions, asked new ones… They met new people, interacted with the student ambassadors, walked through crowds, answered news reporter questions, saw students cheering, saw students still in pyjamas, walked through the whole campus.

This (campus – or new experiences – or asking questions) is for you. One day soon. Now.

An absolute credit to their teachers and families.
I feel slightly emotional about it, but this feels like a direction… so impossible to evaluate or quantify… There’s something about an ethical imperative here.

Learning is for everyone.
It opens doors. It opens imaginations. It opens.

New Year

2017 here we are. Happy New Year!

2016 was a year of change. It involved big life events and big professional events, entangled with big world events, often all occurring simultaneously, both heartening and disheartening. In hindsight, it was hard. Exciting, challenging, inspiring, joyful, new – but also exhausting, sad and hard.

It started with a blustery New Year’s Day walk at Gaddings Dam (Britain’s highest beach). People then here, now not here. Rather too many of them. Warrior Treasures at the Royal Armouries. Working there with some of the most creative and brilliant people I’ve met. And leaving, just as I was settling in. Selling my lovely home in Sheffield. Packing up a life and moving away from Yorkshire after 11 years. Saying goodbye. More loving and leaving. Submitting my final PhD corrections and graduating. Dr Woodall. A German Easter. Hay on Wye. Latitude. Croatia. A few job applications. An interview at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich. Bunnies and a lake. Head of Learning. A new place. New networks. New job challenges. Art at a university. Just what I’ve been looking for? A house to rent in a new city, a new region. New people. New places. East Anglia. Exploring. Not knowing.

And I adopted my cat, Molly, on 23 January 2016. Amidst all the change, she is a constant (albeit never constant herself), and to her I am more grateful than she probably realises. So for 2017, a hope for some more Molly-like constancy, a few more roots, and a bit of flourishing. That should do nicely.

Image of cat on arm of sofa

Molly watching Yorkshire from Norwich during ‘To Walk Invisible’.

But what does music do?

Last night I went to see the wonderful ‘Kreutzer vs Kreutzer‘, part of Music in the Round’s May Festival: Beethoven Revisited. Based on a Tolstoy story of a man who confesses to murdering his wife in a fit of jealousy, this setting is told from the perspective of the wife. A play for two actors (the brilliant Stacey Sampson and Sandy Batchelor), and a chamber music concert in two acts. This performance combined Laura Wade’s wonderful play, with Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata in A Major (Op.47) in the first half, with Janacek’s Kreutzer Sonata String Quartet No.1 in the second. From Ensemble 360, violinist Benjamin Nabarro played in both halves, with Tim Horton on piano in the first, and then with Claudia Ajmone-Marsan (violin), Ruth Gibson (viola) and Gemma Rosefield (cello – and her stock bright pink shoes) forming the quartet for Janacek. And what a clever juxtaposition.

The first half, flirtatious, flighty, light-hearted, funny, and the second half conflicted, complex, dark, haunting. Told initially as the story of an affair between a married woman and her music teacher (one cannot get more intimate, the text insinuates – what does music really do if not inspire the passions?), the second half retells the story as one of unrequited and restrained desire. Both have tragic consequences. What is the real story that led to the husband murdering his wife?

I had never heard much Janacek before this – or rather, I had never deliberately listened to much Janacek before this. The play enabled me to hear his work in a completely new light – a really exciting one. It sparked my imagination in a way that may not have otherwise happened. The discordant yet harmonious sounds told me unexpected things, and I wanted to keep listening. It made it relatable. I think there’s huge potential for making more chamber music like this, or for making more challenging pieces of music accessible through combining different artforms together… I think there’s even potential for using the Object Dialogue Box in a musical setting. And what better way to end the Janacek, and the tempestuous performance, than with a violin string snapping under all the pressure. This is what music does.

 

Imaginative unknowing

Earlier this week, the Object Dialogue Box made the journey from Sheffield to London to meet its curious cousins at the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum. I was delighted to have the opportunity to lead a workshop ‘Extraordinary objects and imaginative unknowing’, with Graham Moore, the Children and Young People Coordinator at Museums Sheffield, as part of ‘Objectively Speaking’, the annual national partnerships conference at the BM.

Here is the blurb we put together about our session:

Museums collect objects so that we can know about things. But what happens if we challenge this knowledge? What happens if we begin from a position that accepts and admits not knowing? And what if we prioritise this imaginative unknowing as a strategy within museum interpretation?

This workshop aims to explore some of these questions through a practical object-based activity using Museums Sheffield’s Object Dialogue Box. Containing a series of extraordinary objects created by artists Karl and Kimberley Foster, the box encourages a sort of imaginative knowing, or, one might say, an unknowing, that often runs against the grain of traditional curatorial readings of objects. Impossibly possible objects act as catalysts for play and imaginary make-believe, which, we argue, is just as important in the work of the museum as c.ontextual object knowledge.

I learnt so much from the process of working together, as well as from the conference itself. Graham’s style of unravelling the box is different from my own. His ritual is a slow, meditative one. A hypnotic, soft voice, and a slow reveal, section by section, with time to reflect on what it is that can be seen at each stage. I loved his quiet and understated approach. I’d love to experiment more with the effect of an individual’s performance on the experience with the objects. Above all, it was fun to work together and share ideas about using the box. Graham talked about how he’d noticed that people often tell stories in the first person, but sometimes (less confidently?) in the third person. I’d never noticed this overtly. We also had interesting conversations about the ’emperor’s new clothes’ phenomenon that sometimes we both worry about. Keen to make sure we went out in the galleries (unlike other conferences which tend to forget their location), off we went with our groups up to the Enlightenment Gallery. We kept disbelievingly saying: ‘wow – we are actually doing this at the BM!’ It felt like the Object Dialogue Box had gone home, even though it has never been there before. The Enlightenment Gallery and all its attempts to catalogue, rationalise, order the world and its knowledge (albeit through mermen) beautifully juxtaposed with this box of irrational, unfamiliar familiarities, and the impossibility of knowing… Unknowing. Hopefully not its last visit there. Our delegates were enthusiastic and full of imaginative thoughts, stories, questions. We left buzzing.

The workshops were part of the day-long conference #objectbasedteaching. Divided into three themes (collections use in academic teaching, creative teaching practice, and digital objects), unfortunately we were limited just to the morning  presentations because we had to deliver our session twice after lunch. Susan Raikes opened the day hoping it would inspire, challenge and stretch. Keynote speaker Claire Brown, whose company Thinking Museum is based in Amsterdam (and who I have chatted to on Twitter but had never met in real life) started by noting just how little people really look and notice in galleries. We had to look at a painting to see what we noticed in a very short space of time, then a bit longer. Her talk focused on the use of objects for three different ends: to develop transferable skills; to stimulate curiosity and wonder; and to combat museum anxiety. She focussed on the skill of looking in particular, drawing our attention to Slow Art Day (today!): the more you look, the more you see. Referring throughout to a tactic called ‘thinking routines’ (which rang slightly cultish alarm bells for me), she spoke about staying curious for curiosity’s sake, playing open-endedly, and using this to develop confidence in museum visiting. I totally agreed with her – for me there was nothing particularly radical (does this matter?) in her presentation. A sort of preaching to the converted. I reflected afterwards though, that her talk would have been probably quite controversial and really inspiring as a new approach for some delegates, and that has to be a good thing. Anything to encourage curiosity-based enquiry. Her thinking museum certainly got a huge amount of positive feedback on Twitter.

Next Claire Ackroyd and Sofia Maskin from Bradford Museums talked about the development of a cross-curricular session there called ‘The Art and Science of Noticing‘. Children make ‘noticings’ on their museum journey. (What a wonderful word!) This session was completely delightful and captivating. A return to the simplicity of thinking through making drawings and using proper drawing pencils to do so.

After this, Sandra Kemp talked about a collaboration between the V&A and Imperial College, making visible the invisible in nanotechnology, taking an MSc cohort out of their comfort zone to think about materiality in new ways by looking at museum objects. Practical ideas included having museum trails on placemats in the museum cafe, and blogging in the first person as if an object. Above all this was a paper about rethinking epistemologies. How do we know what an object is? Indeed, what even is an object?

Next, the brilliant Helena Tomlin talked about a project she has been working on with the University of Manchester – a dermatology visual research project, ‘Under My Skin’, a curious collaboration between dermatology, museology and art practice. Observational skills, she argued, are absolutely essential to all these. The dermatologist has much to learn from the artist. She referred to research at Harvard where doctors had also worked closely with art collections when developing observational skills (see Training the Eye). Doctors gained confidence through this looking in a new way. Studies of materiality underpin all these disciplines. What can I see? What does what I can see tell l me? (And how can a talk which shows a juicy Bomberg oil painting fail to inspire?!) Helena called for the establishment of a national network for using underused collections with doctors and for doctor training (and an audience member suggested medical student too). What a wonderful idea. I hope it comes to fruition. It’s sort of the other half of the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing. The arts as esoteric and therapeutic, and as practically teaching ways of seeing and ways of knowing.

And of course, of imaginatively unknowing.

#MuseumAgender

Who is here to smash the patriarchy? YES I AM! The Guardian recently published Yasmin Khan’s excellent article about inequality for women in the museum sector, and the amazing Space Invaders conference which brought together about 130 women (and 2 brave men) to discuss it at the Imperial War Museum on 18 March 2016. It was without doubt one of the most amazing conferences I have been to. Intelligent, warm, angry, cooperative, inclusive, a challenge. I loved cheering with Shami Chakrabarti that the day on which it was held was ‘tampon tax day’.

It is somewhat ironic that writing this post has taken various iterations before I have felt it publishable. The first time I wrote it (on the train on the way home), I was angry. I talked about the time I was called an ‘utter twerp’ by a male director, the problematic use of the so-called ‘Bradford factor’ to monitor sick leave (look it up – and you’ll see it automatically penalises women), the museum’s collection itself being one of boys’ toys with barely a woman featuring… Paragraph after paragraph. I am still angry. But my anger is more general now, and it makes me want to smash that patriarchy more than ever.

I think comments from the initial talk by Dr Nirmal Puwar were what resonated with me most strongly. How I identified with thinking about the threatening and disorienting capacity of a woman leader. We have to constantly prove our ability: we need to make our leadership skills visible in a way that a man simply does not do. We are made to feel small, child-like – we can only do our jobs because of others. We exist under a burden of doubt, imposter syndrome, a feeling that our authority is misplaced, that we will be harshly judged and criticised. A performance. Sometimes, I have felt this infantilism very strongly. And sometimes, I am glad to say, I have not felt it at all, but have felt respected and valued as a strong, creative, independent woman with ideas, and in a much more equal place.

I don’t want this post to be entirely negative. There is much to be said, for example, for having strong female role models: this is something to have come out strongly from the conference and something in which I believe passionately. The value of surrounding yourself with women, or with those from own own intersections, whatever these may be. Solidarity. I have been fortunate. My AMA mentor, a highly regarded female director, is someone I regularly share thoughts with, and I have a variety of strong intelligent passionate women leaders (both in ‘official’ leadership roles, as well as those who lead from ‘elsewhere’) within my networks. At the last gallery in which I worked, though I didn’t realise at the time, I would argue that the culture was entirely female driven. There have always been exceptional women leaders (both from the top, but also the ‘rebels’ from the bottom up) in organisations where I have worked. There still are now.

Space Invaders has fired me up into taking action. For too long I have sat too quietly on equality. Yes of course I have thought it vital and essential to stand up for what I don’t just believe, but what fundamentally just has to be. I left my teaching job 12 years ago in part because of the men in tweed jackets, gaffawing about cricket and rugby, and the ritual of ‘master’s tea’ being wheeled into the staff room at 4pm every day. ‘Where is my cake?’, I wanted to know. I think there I was branded as some sort of renegade feminist (said in sarcastic tones) even by my female colleagues. And although I didn’t enjoy it much, part of me feels proud now to have been educated in an all female college at Newnham. And prior to that at an all girls school in Dorset where we believed that we could do whatever we wanted to do with our lives. (Although even these admissions, I realise place me in a problematic social/class intersection…)

So what little steps can I take now? I don’t know what other women feel about their own equality (or lack of it?) in my organisation, not just on the executive board, but in its very collections, its policies. I want to find out. How can we bring women’s stories into the museum? I don’t know if the organisation has moved from an equality and diversity model to a diversity and inclusion one (as per Tate’s excellent presentation). The fact that I don’t know what the policies are and who/where they are championed is worrying in itself. I’m cross with myself for not knowing or having sought them, and I want to know. Perhaps some informal lunches with other women to discuss these things, put them on the agenda would be a start…

But I think leadership comes from all places, unexpected ones too. The hierarchical patriarchal pyramid needs to go. It should have gone ages ago. We should be following more organic, flexible, free models, experiments. Skunkworks. Doing things under the radar just to see what happens. It is out of this that I think the most radical change will come. I’d like to gather a bunch of women together, be part of a network, building on what has gone before (with Network for Change), a new generation of women in museums and galleries. Change. For women and for equality. Because this matters. It mattered to the suffragettes and it still matters for women and girls – and for all people – around the whole world. Let’s do this thing.

#MuseumAgender

 

 

The Culture White Paper: A Response

I’ve just finished reading the DCMS Culture White Paper, published yesterday, ‘the first white paper for culture in more than 50 years and only the second ever published’ (p.5). I started reading it on my computer screen, but then had to print it out, realising I needed to scribble over it (violently at times) while I was reading. This response is a very immediate, quite visceral one – my opinions might of course change as I share ideas about it with more people and think about it a bit more – but I just felt moved to pour forth some initial rambling thoughts.

I do laud some things: that there is a government report about culture, for example. That my home city of Sheffield is mentioned for a new £1million arts hub (p.32), and given recognition for its affordable studios for artists at Yorkshire Artspace (p.37). That there is ambition to display the Government Art Collection more widely (p.43), and that access and engagement are central. And particularly exciting for my own rummaging interests, that the Museums Review will consider access to collections in store (p.57). I am encouraged by the paper’s recognition of a digital world (p.38), and the need for more digitisation and access to collections including through crowdsourcing, transferring authority out there (p.39). I learnt that there is such a thing as the culture diary, ‘a master list for culture’ (p.43), and that DCMS will continue to work together with the Wolfson Foundation to fund capital projects (where is the money for infrastructure, though?) (p.53). I really do look forward to the Museums Review, and hope the opportunity is not wasted, but is one with genuine new findings and insights, and with data that can be used for change and action.

But the cynic in me asks why there is now this report about culture. And what is this culture?  By p.13, if not before, I was cross. It is a paper purportedly about culture, yet one which has an extremely dubious definition of culture (if it can be defined). ‘Culture no longer simply means being familiar with a select list of works of art and architecture…’ Really?! Did it ever mean this?! In whose world? Certainly not mine, and not even in the Oxford English Dictionary (a bastion of culture if ever there was one…) where the history of the term is painted as complex:

in modern use… the term is frequently used as a general term to denote the arts and other aspects of intellectual life, without any special reference to their historical development (nor to their connection with any particular society), and hence again with less transparent connection with earlier senses of the word…

But in the White Paper, culture is ‘the accumulated influence of creativity, the arts, museums, galleries, libraries, archives and heritage upon all our lives’. Everything, merged together as though these are all the same. The cultural sectors are defined as those organisations and individuals that ‘together preserve, reflect and promote who we are as a nation, in all our rich diversity’ (italics mine). No no no! Wrong on so many levels. What about those that create, challenge, encourage questioning, making, new ideas, open experimenting? Arts. Culture is not just about preservation. And while the term ‘reflect’ is one I would usually use positively and creatively, here, it is relegated to something didactic: it sounds as though it is the cultural institutions alone that have some sort of authority to reflect to the public who they are. Really? Them and us. And what about culture as ‘promoting nationhood’? Don’t get me started…

So I continued reading. Section 1.1 ‘Culture should be an essential part of every child’s education, both in and out of school’. Yes, of course. But then I despair… What is meant by this? The government returns to Gradgrind’s ‘facts, facts, facts’. For here, ‘knowledge of great works of art, great music, great literature and great plays, and their creators, is an important part of every child’s education’. Knowledge of. What about encouraging the creation of new things? What about responding to? Where is our imagination? How does making art fit in? What is meant by great? Who defines this? Why do we have to know about, rather than just make and do? Knowledge is not just about: it is active, sensory, creative, emotional. Just because I know about Shakespeare does not have any bearing whatsoever on my own imaginative response to the things that are being fed in. And it continues, ‘so too is being taught to play a musical instrument, to draw, paint and make things, to dance and to act’. Now, if this sentence did not include the ‘being taught’ bit, I would like it a lot more. But it does. For in this report, we are passive agents, empty vessels to be filled. Knowledge and skills: what and how. No why. No questions.

This paternalism can be found throughout: ‘The government expects all museums, theatres, galleries, opera houses and other arts organisations in receipt of public money to reach out to everyone regardless of background, education or geography’. Great, and of course this is to be welcomed (despite its extraordinary list of elite cultural places). Organisations ‘reach out’ –but where is the dialogue, the shared understanding, the letting go, the community reaching in and out of the organisation, the empowerment? And where is the funding for this ambition? There is no additional money to support the ambitions of the White Paper. It is certainly not in the local authorities whose sources are being cut constantly. How are the regions, other than a few select places mentioned time and again for various initiatives, to carry out these ambitions without the resources to do so? Resilience is the buzz word of the day (and has been for rather a long time now): ‘organisations… must also think more broadly how they will adapt their business models and financial strategies to deal with potential challenges to funding’. In between the lines, if we don’t become successful businesses, or good at crowd funding, or finding a wealthy sponsor, then this government is actually not interested in culture at all. Hmm.

Ironic too to suggest that ‘national museums are looking to build on their existing regional presence’ (p.35) when we all know of the recent debacle of the NMM photography’s move away from Bradford to London. And what on earth is the GREAT campaign (p.44)? Apparently £113.5 million has been spent on this since 2011. Now I work in this sector, and I’ve never heard of it, and when I consulted my colleagues in the office, neither had they. Whiffs of empire. Moving on to workforce diversity: this is vital, and the ambition to publish data on leadership of chairs and trustees is a significant step in the right direction (p.27), but we have heard this before. Does investing £10million in Skills for the Future really change a culture? There is still so much to do just in terms of women’s lack of leadership in a sector full of women. We need radical change, not just another paper. Words, words, words. Curious turns of phrase litter the document: ‘culturally ambitious young people’ (p.22) – what about just ‘young people’? ‘Soft power’ (p. 42, p.57) – what is this? Where is the action? The list of organisations involved in the report is lengthy, but has some notable exceptions. Where is the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies? Why was it not consulted? GEM and Engage are also missing.

And finally, the Appendix contains the ways of measuring the impact of the ambition. Output indicators are all about ‘increase in engaging in culture’… What does this mean? We all know there is a huge difference between bums on seats and real engagement. A quick visit (or as some organisations literally just count those walking through on their way to somewhere else), is not the same as a long-term relationship. So why is this paper so insistent on evaluating impact through quantitative statistics? Where is the measure of quality of experience? So many assumptions and unanswered questions. But that will do for now. Action is what is needed. Let’s hope the Museums Review leads to change. And of course that this White Paper does too.

Alex Woodall: UGN5.015

Adopt a slide

Oyl Int Ruwad: Part One

Everyone I know who was brought up in Sheffield can remember the ‘ole in’t road’.

It’s ingrained onto the collective memories of anyone who was in the city between 1967 and 1994. A sort of roundabout with escalators leading underground, part subway, part subterranean shopping centre, it housed entrances to department stores, benches for weary shoppers and tramps, and a giant fish tank full of murky water and miserable fish. It is infamous.

Look it up, and you’ll find it has its own discussion articlesforum boards, Wikipedia entry, and even Facebook page

But my favourite thing has to be this brilliant animated Lego video made by Jason Effex for a song by Sheffield’s finest ukulele wielding Everly Pregnant Brothers.

This is the first of three posts in honour of three slides. Tactile pieces of Sheffield’s history living in Manchester.

This slide…

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