‘Stealing with the eyes’

The title of this post is the title of the latest book by my friend Will Buckingham (with the subtitle ‘Imaginings and Incantations in Indonesia’). I started reading it one night this week, and finished it the following day on train journeys to and from Cambridge. Quite a surreal way/place to read it, it turns out. I left the train at a point at which Will was on death’s door having refused an injection, and worried all day about what would happen to him. So it was a relief to get back on the train (after a day of Gormley, Tutankamun and Louise Bourgeois) to find out what happened next.

It is an absolute joy to read. It made me laugh out loud, cry, wonder, want to know more, want to go off to new places… All the things that a gripping – but real – book should be. I love it. It describes Will’s encounters in the 1990s – with people, sculptures, witches, octopuses, histories, insects, ancestors, weather, travellers, anthropologists, illnesses and medicines – I suppose really with life and death – in the remote Indonesian Tanimbar islands. Which I had never even heard of before I started this book.

But above all, it describes a growing concern with the (colonial?) activity of the anthropologist. The title ‘stealing with the eyes’ is a phrase used by one of the people Will meets, sculptor Matias Fatruan, from a place called Ruma Salut on the island of Sera, to describe what he sees outsiders doing when they come to ask questions, take photos, record conversations. How can an outsider ever understand the ways and lives of others, not least when they are entwined with the place, with the ancestors?

Anthropologists are not immune to fantasies of the exotic, even if anthropology has a hard time owning up to that fact… I, too, am guilty. And recognising the fact does not diminish my guilt. Perhaps it augments it. (Buckingham 2018, p.177)

It has made me think hard about my own research in India and my ambitions to return. Perhaps the only way to travel and to explore, is to do exactly that – to see what happens with no agenda? I’m not sure. There’s always bound to be a ‘failure’ in any sort of anthropological endeavour. But there’s still an absolute desire in me to go back and do some more exploring, meeting people, going to new places. But I think this is not because I think we can ever fully understand anything – but because we absolutely can *never* understand it. Going to an unfamiliar place is a way to recognise this. That we cannot know. We can just encounter things and see what happens. (And now am I sounding greedy, pretentious, privileged and like all of those distasteful things about anthropology…?)

Anyway, I highly recommend a read of Will’s book. I might have to read it again now. And think about new adventures.

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The Word Defiant

In the LV at school (Year 9), I was somewhat rebellious. I still love my 13-year-old self. Part class clown needing attention, part provocateur needing to challenge authority. And perhaps because of this, I like the word ‘defiant’. I think teachers used it of me, with deliberate negative connotations. But I took it and owned it. I was defiant and I was proud of being so.

At about this time (actually I think it was the start of the MV/Y10), we read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in our English lessons with Mrs King. The impact of this book was transformative. That books were ordered to be burned in some kind of dystopian totalitarian state was quite possibly the most shocking thing I had ever read. It was the job of firemen to burn books. How on earth could that be? Until the fireman called Montag was defiant. People rebelled. They learnt the books off by heart. And it was reading this that made me realise that books – or the things in them – change the world, and that learning was the most important thing there is.

So, going to see brilliantly titled The Word Defiant at Blickling Hall had a fair bit to live up to. It’s part of the ACE funded Trust New Art scheme, designed to open and shake things up a bit for new audiences, and is on until 28 October 2018. Theatre Company, Les Enfants Terribles have been commissioned to respond to what is the National Trust’s largest book collection in one of their house libraries. The library is about to undergo a massive conservation programme, and this intervention highlights the plights of books – both their environmental destruction, but also contemporary issues around censorship, banning, destruction through war and violence, natural damage,and threat to books by digital technologies.

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From the hushed audio of Chinese people reciting Winnie the Pooh (who knew this book was banned in China?), to an overflowing bath representing a library in Venice where books are stored in baths to prevent flood damage, to a stunning newly opened up room in the cellars full of burnt books representing the ISIS destruction of the library in Mosul, Iraq, this is such a thought-provoking, challenging and captivating creative response – it brings the house alive. I will remember the house because of this: it will not get muddled into a sea of other National Trust properties with their expected walk through dining rooms, four-poster beds, comical loos, and kitchens downstairs.

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At the end of the house, the library awaits, its books spilling out of the shelves and onto the floor. Living? I love the way that the latter times I have visited, more interpretation has been added – as if to explain themselves to the visitors who don’t like this novel approach to story-telling and getting people to think.

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One of my favourite things about this exhibition is the very mixed visitor response. Downstairs, an interpretation room has brilliant creative tasks. A redaction table taking its cue from a morse coded installation in the kitchen corridor.

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A giant scroll for visitor conversations. It would be amazing to evaluate this. I’ve been to visit on three separate occasions, and alas, the grumpy comments of the traditional National Trust going visitors have always outweighed the positive ones. People seem to be quite irate that books have been used, that the house has been contaminated with an artistic intervention, that they can no longer contemplate the great works of art on the walls and rooms stuffed full of antique furniture. I’ve also enjoyed talking to the volunteers – again, with very mixed views. Some of them, I notice don’t even talk about it, but steer conversations onto the actual books in the actual library. I love this almost as much as I love the installation itself. Here are some of the nicer comments I saw:

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Extraordinarily, this is an intervention by a theatre company. Amongst many other things, it leaves me wondering where the boundary is between this and contemporary art. Let’s have more of this sort of thing. Shaking things up. Being defiant.

I think I need to read Fahrenheit 451 again.

States of flux

I am currently in a state of flux. An adventure awaits, journeys to places, pastures new. I’ve left one thing behind and am toying with several exciting ideas about what comes next, whilst trying to enjoy the moment as much as I can.

We are constantly learning. Only this week, I went on an amazing course on how to make Mud Resist Textiles, at Print to the People in Norwich. Our teacher was the fantastic Sevanti Roy, now living in Norwich, but formerly working in Jaipur for textile companies including Anokhi, FabIndia and East. She’s what a good teacher should be: inspiring, trusting and allowing people to get on and learn for themselves. It was brilliant. A bit hot and sweaty, but brilliant.

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My test piece, including laurel leaf, bobbin, lids, door knob and traditional printing block

Anyone who knows me, knows that I have a lot of objects.  Things collected, found, bought, given. I took several of these along with me to see whether they would make interesting prints. I quite liked the combination of natural laurel leaf, plastic lids and door knob, bobbin and small Indian printing block (not for mud resist though, which needs to use bigger blocks with larger negative spaces). And circles were the theme of the day. I love the accidental seepage of indigo dye into mud, leaving a sort of marbled effect. I’m looking forward to making up the recipe for myself and experimenting with my laurel hedge… Is this the start of something?

It’s funny how links to India pop up all over the place. The weekend before, I had kindly been invited by colleagues from Norfolk Museums Service to participate in a visit by three international participants from National Museums on the British Museum’s ITP scheme to Blickling Hall, to see ‘The Word Defiant’ (my third visit to this wonderful intervention by theatre company Les Enfants Terribles – another blog post on that forthcoming). It’s a small world: one of the visitors, Suruchika, works at the National Museum in Delhi which is also home to the National Museum Institute where I’ve worked. Needless to say, we had several friends and colleagues in common, and again, an idea began to spark.

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Hoda Chiyeh (Lebanon), Suruchika Chawla (India), Yohana Rosales Frias (Philippines) – on the ITP scheme, visiting Blickling Hall

So, although I’m not quite sure what will be next, I’m making the most of opportunities to get out and about, meet new people, think new thoughts, learn new things, and dream: que sera sera.

 

What the strikes have taught me so far…

I had never been on a picket line until the USS strikes. It was a terrifying – and very lonely decision to take – to be on strike for 12 days (alas I was ill for the first 2 of the full 14). I took courage from friends and colleagues striking at other universities (especially @amy_ryall in Sheffield and @rotster in Leicester), but I had no idea what my own colleagues would think (and still don’t – I have been the only one striking from my department – the Sainsbury Centre at UEA).

I was consciously leaving piles of work behind (some of it already delayed due to large workload), at a time when I was already incredibly stressed and dealing with things at work beyond the remit of my contract. I was leaving unsupported the team I manage. I was not doing things – my own CPD for example – that ultimately would have left me better off. I was not communicating with colleagues on the management team, including my own line manager. I took striking, withdrawing my labour – not doing any work and consequently not being paid – very seriously. I did not check my work emails, or even use the time for ‘work-related’ research and writing. I have been completely on strike. And it has been stressful.

But as time has gone on, I have understood more and more why this has been important. More and more why this has been the single most significant thing I have done in my post, and beyond it. After years in universities (Birmingham, Cambridge, Leicester), as a student and now working in one (UEA), I couldn’t *not* have gone on strike. What was the point of all that education, of everything I have fought for up to this point, if I didn’t demonstrate and practice what I preach? Fairness and justice.

So – why? The strike began as a pension dispute about a change from a defined benefit system, to that of defined contribution, and a potential loss of £10k per year, or £200k in retirement. Money which is deferred payment for work already done and promised through our contracts, but that was effectively going to be taken from us. This affects worst those setting out in their careers, those on zero-hour AT contracts, those who are still students. Those whose current posts are precarious.

About six weeks ago, I had no idea what DB/DC really even meant, let alone all the other pension details I’ve learnt about, or at least come to recognise, so quickly. And then things began to unfold and crumble in front of us. Thanks to some fantastic academics and journalists, especially on Twitter (@DrJoGrady, @ProfAFinlayson, @JosephineCumbo, @mikeOtsuka, @jntod) things were unpicked very rapidly. The pension valuation was based on dodgy maths. We discovered that the process for voting to accept the valuation was undemocratic, and the number/type of people who had signed it all off was fudged. That Oxford and Cambridge colleges had been counted bizarrely and wrongly. That tiny institutions were part of USS and having the same weight as massive universities. We witnessed a farce on twitter late one night with regard to negotiating meetings with UUK not having a clue what they were doing. And to cut a long story very short, a proposal was eventually put on the table. It was rubbish (check the pension calculator to see how – meaning paying in more and getting less from it, and also including having to reschedule teaching lost by striking – unpaid). There was despondency. It was a horrible day or two of waiting and wondering. Really horrible. There was self-doubt. Despair. But the proposal was overwhelmingly rejected. By all of us. #NoCapitulation

Numerous twitter streams and blogs explain all this far better than I do. So instead of analysing things I don’t fully understand, here’s a list of some of the things I have learnt – lessons for life:

1) Solidarity

I haven’t met so many amazing, interesting, wonderful, friendly people since starting my job 18 months ago. Despite working at UEA, I have never felt such a part of the university. It’s been far better than any one to one meeting, or networking scenario, or trying to work out who does what in which department, when I’ve been to meetings in other buildings on campus. It has been real. Social. Political. Dynamic. Passionate. Coffee-fuelled. Baking-shared. With dogs. And singing. And snow. Gather a group together who are fighting for the future of education and this is what happens. We are the university.

2) The union makes us strong

It does. I had only just joined the union (actually not because of the strikes, but because the safety and unity of membership is important). I am in awe of how I was welcomed in. In awe of the hard work done on our behalf by the union reps and staff and all those working hard to share the latest updates (thank you Brett, Claudina, Trevor, Amanda et al.) We all share a common purpose and a common goal. Strength in unity. And strength in number. And it’s across the whole country. We are part of a big thing. Solidarity with university workers we will never meet, but feel united in this. I watched ‘Pride’ last night and felt it. We are the university.

3) Not just lecturers

This has been a very important rallying cry. Universities are all their people. Not just lecturers or academics, but people working in public engagement, libraries, museums, archives, professional services, teaching and learning, administrators etc etc (and huge apologies to those I have missed). I am only sad that membership of UCU is not open to staff on pay-bands below Grade 6 (I think?), as this meant that many of my colleagues at the Sainsbury Centre who may have supported the strike otherwise could not join in. (This tells me both that my colleagues need to be paid much better but also that the union might rethink its membership criteria so that it’s not so lonely on the picket line for a museum professional?) The support from ATs, PhD and other students has been particularly incredible, often losing their entire earnings to strike. We are the university.

4) Students are absolutely amazing

‘Their working experience is our learning experience’ as many inspiring students shouted, amongst many other brilliant statements on the picket line. Students came forth in their thousands. With messages of support. With banners. With Students’ Unions issuing statements in support of the strike up and down the country. And then they started occupying. Calling out the overpaid VCs with their pornstar martinis. Demanding meetings. Demanding fairness. Demanding what it was that they had come to university for. I will never forget the powerful speeches by students Michael Kyriacou and @MaddieColledge. We are the university.

5) Twitter is transformative

I’m a bit addicted to Twitter at the best of times. But this was something else. The speed at which new news emerged, was shared. Statistics were pulled apart. Documents were analysed in real time by world leading experts – for free, and in their own time. Because this is important. But also we saw Dame Lego VC, the Solidarity Dinosaur, fabulous, funny, creative people doing fabulous, funny, creative things with social media. People began sharing more widely. Their stresses and worries and what it was like to work in their situation, talking openly beyond the pension crisis, and to the general state of being overworked and under-valued, with ridiculous systems and metrics to judge us, from REF/TEF/impact, to cultures of bullying and being stressed and being expected to work 50+ hour weeks. We had conversations on and offline. We made new virtual friends. We are the university.

6) Remember this

Space and time for just chatting to each other is vital. We need to recreate, and ensure this interdisciplinary, interdepartmental socialising, idea-sharing and change-making continues. The creativity shown by so many was inspirational. Banners made. Slogans, puns, fabulous statements of support and rejecting the lies we’ve been fed. One of the highlights at UEA was that Jon McGregor refused to cross the picket line for a lecture, and instead, the Students’ Union held a wonderful ‘Writers for the Strike’ event – with Jon McGregor, Rebecca Scott, James Meek and inspiring words from students. There was the alternative university every day. Coming together for a rally. For rousing speeches, not just by politicians, but by students. Who gave the best speeches by far. Going to the pub together. New friends. Rabbits of resistance. We are the university.

7) University museums are the university

Yet it seems as though university museums currently sit somewhere between. Or even, sadly. apart. I was the only one from my university museum striking. It was lonely. But I discovered many others in university museums elsewhere (through twitter) who were on strike. It is not helpful for us to sit outside the university as some would have us do. We sit in a boundary space – not entirely academics, not entirely professional services – we teach, we research, we work with the public, we develop object-based learning. We are asked both to conform to the university (e.g. through REF processes), yet we are somehow set outside it. What can we learn from this? And what will happen (for example through the University Museums Group) as a result? We are the university.

8) Pension cuts hit women most

And in the sadly male dominated museum patriarchy – where most museum workers are women, but most museum directors are men, this is all the more disturbing. In that sense, it was a joy to be on the university picket line which seemed more balanced in terms of gender than the average museum (although I know the patriarchy is alive and well in universities too). But women will suffer the most from the pension cut proposals. And I learnt about Athena Swan, and wonder why we haven’t talked about it at the Sainsbury Centre yet. We will now. We are the university.

9) Marketisation

This is all part of a wider picture. Privatisation. Brexit. Trump. Where education is a commodity and not seen as having intrinsic value. Where it is something to be bought. A culture of students as consumer versus rest of the university as service provider. This makes me feel sick. Where privatisation means that there are more and more people struggling. Where VC pay goes up and up and the empire is worth more than the staff. This is not what education is. We are the university.

10) Strikes work

See what we have done already? It’s amazing. It’s not too late to join UCU (or whatever union you can join) and fight for what is right. The fight continues.

See you on the picket line. #NoCapitulation #wearetheuniversity

Mendoza Review

I’ve just read the Mendoza Review on the train to the Museums Association conference in Manchester. I haven’t yet read any comments/opinion pieces on it yet, so these are my immediate, rather ill-structured reflections. I am sure many conversations will emerge in Manchester over the next 3 days, and in the coming weeks, and my views that follow may shift…
So, what did I think? Although there is much to welcome (not least the joining of forces between various sector organisations – I really like the use of lottery funding for much needed back-of-house development – p.15, the need to continue diversifying audiences and workforces – p.40, to develop leadership – p.57, ensure digital understanding by senior leaders – p.61, and focus on collections – p.44), I have to say I feel slightly disappointed…
The report asks: ‘What can government do to assist in creating and maintaining a thriving, sustainable and effective museum sector in Britain?’ (p.6) My answer: it can provide funding, enable another ‘Renaissance’. The report states: ‘we estimate that the government provided total funding of approximately £844m in 2016/2017.’ (p.7) But what does this mean? Are we supposed to think this is a lot, a generous gesture from the government? How does this figure compare with the government spending on education, health, sport, defence? Surely that would give a better indication of how much museums are really valued? And what about their intrinsic value?

And then there, in black and white: ‘It is unlikely that there will be significant additional money available for the sector in the immediate future. The main thrust of our recommendations is, therefore, to ensure that we use existing funding in the best way possible.’ (p.7, italics mine). Dash our hopes straightaway. 

Despite trying to think about regional activity and the local placemaking agenda of museums, the report still reads as a very London-centric (or certainly nationals-centric) report. And as such it is hierarchical (and somewhat patronising?) in tone. The section on ‘National responsibilities for national museums’ grated particularly (p.14): ‘The Review team recognises the excellent work already taking place, but would like it to be more strategic to ensure audiences and museums outside London get what they need from the nationals’. Fine – yes, this is of course an important aim – but what about what the regionals might give the nationals? Nationals need things and can learn hugely from the non-nationals/regionals and their approaches. Nationals are still going to be getting the lion share of the funding. ‘Our great national museums are open to all and free to all’ (p.8) – they also benefit from huge numbers of tourists, and while I don’t begrudge free entry in the slightest – would that all museums were free for all? – I wonder at the financial sense here. It’s also fantastic that recommendation 9 is to grant local authority museums more freedom, but where is the funding and support to actually enable this to happen?

Our ‘wonderfully different’ (p.5) museums are exactly that. And there’s a definite recognition here building on things like the MA’s Museums Change Lives that museums can ‘bring people together and promote community cohesion’ (p.5) even going further to suggest that they are ‘integral to placemaking and economic regeneration’ (p.5) This, I would argue, happens par excellence in places other than national museums. It is fantastic that growing and diversifying audiences is prioritised, but I couldn’t help being slightly disappointed that issues around access haven’t been spelt out – mentioning different types of sensory engagements for all, for example – and importantly physical access into spaces (not least for those with disabilities who don’t seem to get a mention), but emotional/intellectual access (including through interpretation – a word not mentioned at all?) for all too.
I enjoyed the brief summary in Annex B – a history of museums policy – but was disappointed by the comments on Renaissance. ‘The MLA took on responsibility for Renaissance, which never quite took off.’ (p.84) Now I’m a career ‘child’ of Renaissance and the DCMS/DfES Strategic Commissioning programmes (the latter not mentioned in this report). Starting out my first paid role in the sector working for a hub museum in 2005, and then moving to a second one in 2007 enabled the most dynamic, risk-taking and exciting work with local communities that I have been able to enjoy. There was funding. I thought the desire and ability to engage with the most disadvantaged communities was the norm, and that there would subsequently always be funding to support such work. How wrong I was. Renaissance funding was abandoned: ‘The 2009 Selwood report reviewed it and concluded that it had suffered a lack of strategic focus, as well as funding. A new strategy replaced the existing nine regional hubs with 22 partnerships funded on merit.’ (p.84)
There is little about the funding crisis for HEFCE funded university museums too, although a review is promised. The mention of ‘over 60 university courses in the UK specialising in museum practice, producing hundreds of graduates in museum studies each year’ but that are not necessarily providing students with the knowledge needed is significant and points towards a new partnership model perhaps.
So – my main thought – some good stuff, but there’s a still a drastic need for regional funding. Anyway, that will do for now. I’ve just checked into the conference and my hotel and am all ready for #museums2017. Here we go.  

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.

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