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.

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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.

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