Keeping Up Appearances

Artist's sketch of new Chambers Street piazza - image © National Museums Scotland

Artist’s sketch of new Chambers Street piazza – image © National Museums Scotland

2016 marks the 150th anniversary of Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, and the institution is gearing up for landmark year of events in celebration of this milestone year. Programming will include the first ever exhibition to fully examine the history of Celtic art and identity, exhibitions on primates and fossils, and a celebration of the Lego creations of local artist Warren Elsemore, which will include a recreation of the original 19th century Royal Museum of Scotland building. Additionally, the second phase of renovation work (the first completed in 2011, seeing the creation of 16 new galleries) will be completed by the summer, providing the museum with 40% more floor space in which to exhibit its magnificent collection.

 

With this bounty of new gallery space, carved out of previously hidden areas of the building, it is understandable that some may question why the museum also needs the creation of a new piazza outside its Chambers Street entrance, which will rob the thoroughfare of around 50 parking spaces in a city centre that badly needs them. Work is already underway though, with the statue of 19th century Lord Provost William Chambers already temporarily relocated to facilitate the works. While the piazza’s creation may be contentious, and its necessity hard to gauge, it may prove to be one of the most important renovations the museum will see this year.

 

While the old Royal Museum building is undoubtedly a masterpiece of Victorian era architecture, it is now 150 years old and the role of the museum is now far removed from what it would then have been. The National Museum of Scotland’s panoptic style grand entrance hall is characteristic of them time, the British government built a similar structure at Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin just five years earlier. The intent being that the full-length glazed ceiling would act as a “window to heaven,” placing the prisoners at all times under the watchful eyes of god in an attempt to reform them.

Left: Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Right: National Museum of Scotland - images © Barry Mason, National Museums Scotland

Left: Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Right: National Museum of Scotland – images © Barry Mason, National Museums Scotland

Its use in Edinburgh was in a similar vein. The Victorian museum was cast in the role of social reformer as well; the idea being that they provided the “cultureless” lower classes of the time with an opportunity to improve themselves through an association with art and objects that were better they were. Early museum architecture all over the world reflects this, generally very deliberately designed with an entrance atop at flight of steps, and with a domed ceiling inside which aimed to place the visitor in an advanced position between the heavens and the earth, where it was considered the objects on display belonged. The old Royal Museum building follows the model exactly, when it opened its doors in 1866 the seventeen steps that led up to them literally placed the museum and its collection above the people.

 

The role of the modern museum however is far removed its 19th century counterpart. No longer to be perceived as a near-celestial treasure trove, tasked with dragging people (fortunate even to be let in) up to its level, the 21st century museum is understood to be a public collection, in service to them. It is an entertainer and above all an educator, and as such it is essential that every institution is accessible, relatable and approachable.

 

The National Museum of Scotland’s 2011 refurbishment made significant changes to achieve this, most obviously through its redisplayed galleries but also through a subtle architectural change too. By moving the doors to the museum away from the top of the entrance stairs to two unassuming glass ingresses at either side, the psychology of the museums façade was vastly improved without any compromising of its grandeur. The museum and its collection are now returned to the same level as the public; we are equals, as we should be.

 

A piazza will be the next important step in achieving the sense of “openness” that museums should be striving to instil. While museums of course no longer view themselves as such, some public perception of them as highbrow and unapproachable is still an issue. The National Museum of Scotland is particularly challenged architecturally, as most large museums in Europe afford the visitor the ability to fully encircle them (British Museum, Louvre, even Kelvingrove) in order to obtain a sense of perspective. The Edinburgh museum however has peculiar sense of fortification, visible from only two sides and badly hemmed in by the clutter of Chambers Street at the front. A piazza will now not only allow the building space to breathe, but it will breathe life out into its environs. Providing space for art and entertainment, the museum will achieve an important state of cultural osmosis, with activity flowing out into the street as easily as people now flow into the museum from it.

 

This issue of “openness” is important and museums all over are struggling to tackle it. Amsterdam’s city council for example opted to retain the cycle path that runs through the centre of the Rijksmuseum in 2013, despite condemnation from some curators, and the British Museum is much maligned by the lack of welcome bestowed by its austere façade (I attended a debate regarding this in 2014). The National Museum of Scotland is fortunate in the changes that it has been able to make without compromising the aesthetic of the original building. Although they may be too small to appear of any significance, they are vastly important. The museum’s building is set to become a perfect fusion: its heritage safely preserved whilst eliciting a clear understanding of its modern role within society. In its very bricks and mortar it will be shining example of everything that is expected of the museum of today.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 5.2.2016

Must Be Accompanied by a Responsible Apprentice

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There are few places more deserving of a visit from the currently touring Game Masters exhibition, created by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, than Scotland. Some of gaming history’s most influential titles were born here, including Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto, the latter of which is now one of the most lucrative franchises in all media and is still developed in Edinburgh today, only a short walk from the National Museum of Scotland, where Game Masters is currently on show.

The rationale behind exhibiting a history of video games is easy to see. It gives an institution the ability to provide a rich and varied, yet at all times fully immersive hands-on experience. There are not many interactive exhibit types that boast such equally high levels of “holding” and “attracting” power as video games. They are also, of course, massively popular these days and have an ever-broadening appeal, providing ideal foil for attracting new audiences to the museum.

A cynic therefore may feel justified in claiming they are an easy and unimaginative option, however the presentation of Game Masters far from evokes a curatorial team of such a mind-set. The trouble with an exhibition about gaming is catering for this aforementioned broad-spectrum audience. Despite what my dad would like the world to believe, video games are not just for children; the content of some of the earliest games in unspeakable (read up about Custer’s Revenge, if you dare), Grand Theft Auto certainly isn’t for children and even Lemmings requires constant user intervention to stop them from walking to their own increasingly grizzly demises.

If anything, there are more games for children nowadays than there ever were when I was one. The introduction of the hugely popular Nintendo Wii opened up the industry to a whole new audience and has seen massive emphasis placed on family friendly video game products. These days video games are truly for everyone, but not everyone views “gaming” in the same way, so I have more and more frequently heard the use of “casual” and “hardcore gamers” as differentiating labels. Creating an exhibition that appeals to these two subsets equally is therefore no mean feat, and the curators of it have done an excellent job. There is a huge and varied range of both populist and obscure game types to suit any and all visitors, and this is supported by detailed and informative ephemera, retrospectives on influential game designers and characters, and a clear historical narrative to “play” your way through. Just as video games are for everyone, this exhibition has something for everyone too.

I can only rate the exhibition from within my own subset however, which I would describe as “casual gamer” and even that is a stretch. My flatmate and I regularly struggle to a 0-0 draw on this year’s instalment of FIFA before he beats me on penalties, but that is the extent of my current immersion in the gaming world. In fact the only video games I have extensively played since leaving home 8 years ago are the Assassin’s Creed titles and only really because through sheer chance they have all been set within the same time periods as my History MA and I found it perversely therapeutic to be able to hunt down and punch in the face the same historical figures who had spearheaded countless weeks of essay-related stress and despair. I had hoped to visit the exhibition with a friend who would define himself as a member of the “hardcore” team so we could compare our experiences however time has not allowed for me to do so. Having said that, as an individual with more of an interest in exhibition planning and design than gaming I was actually more interested in the ephemeral exhibits and interpretation than the games anyway. I do of course appreciate that I’m a difficult breed of visitor, as it’s not exactly easy to cater to an audience that insists on spending half their time staring at the fourth wall, nor should you.

Predictably in keeping with this position, the thing that fascinated me most about the exhibition was actually nothing intentionally exhibited at all. Instead, surrounded by the sounds and flashing lights of over a hundred playable games, my attention was gripped by the sight of a distinct and notable role reversal in the child/guardian museum visit dynamic. There were of course adult visitors at the exhibition too, as I said earlier, games aren’t just for kids, but likely given that it was Christmas eve, the ratio of younger visitors was heavily skewed in its favour. As these visitors traversed the exhibition with whomever their responsible adult may be, it was fascinating to see them discover and then engage with the fact that, possibly for the first time in a museum, they were the authoritative side of the pairing.

It struck me though that this role reversal can only function if said responsible adult upholds a “responsibility” to facilitate an educational and entertaining exhibition experience for their charge, and if this can’t be in the role of “teacher,” then maybe it should be as the “student” instead. I remember as a child, my grandmother taking me to visit Edinburgh Castle and marvelling at her incomparable knowledge of Scottish monarchic history. Had I been in possession of the facts that day instead, I believe our enjoyment of the experience would have been no different, because we were both positively engaged with the exhibitions and their content, and this is the key.

Some parents at Game Masters got this, while some took a little encouragement. It was incredibly heart-warming to watch adults take and interest in the interests of children, and likewise to watch these youngsters revel in the role of educator within the exhibition. So too was it wonderful to see people, initially unenthused by the Game Masters concept, take the time and effort, despite not having a vested interest in the games, to read some of the information panels and interpretation, and spark for themselves an enthusiasm for the content that they could share with their young companion.

This is one of the exhibitions strengths. The curatorial team have done an excellent job of highlighting that games, especially nowadays are more then simply just “games.” Those who read the interpretive material discovered that the history of games is a rich tapestry of attention to artistic and stylistic themes, of morality and decision making, problem solving, and storytelling, to name but a few. They realised, imperatively, that games are universal and can be fun for everyone, and in doing so, improved their experience of the exhibition, and that of their child. In the time I spent at the exhibition, I witnessed only one parent who refused to embrace it, who stood stony faced as his trusts fiddled with control pads and touch screens in silence. This was a responsible adult who had shirked his responsibility, and I fear that the children in his “company” may have lost out because of it.

I would love to see more exhibitions utilise themes that can bring about this fascinating role reversal, and it would be interesting to ponder what these could be. The content of Game Masters lends itself very well to this because of the universal nature of games, and that it is well placed within a time when the younger generations are increasingly literate to the subject while many of their elders lacked the opportunities to become so at their age. For this reason I would implore everyone, especially those sceptical of games and gaming to give this exhibition a visit. But those doing so with young charges must absolutely remember that as much as young visitors to the National Museum of Scotland must be accompanied by a responsible adult, these little game masters must be accompanied by a responsible apprentice too.

A Hall of Mirrors?

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For anyone who is unaware, there is an exciting initiative in the works in Glasgow, and it’s called the Kelvin Hall Project. Although still in the planning stage, the outcome of the project will see the city’s iconic Kelvin Hall become a “centre for cultural excellence,” playing home to the University of Glasgow’s The Hunterian, housing its museum and gallery, providing storage for its collection, and allowing for the creation of new onsite learning facilities such as the Centre for Cultural and Heritage Skills and The Hunterian Collections Study and Research Centre. Other partner organisations in the venture are the National Library of Scotland, who will house their Scottish Screen Archive at Kelvin Hall, and Glasgow Life, some of whose Glasgow Museums collections will share storage space with The Hunterian, and will also operate one of their Glasgow Club health and fitness centres there too.

This month I was fortunate enough to be part of this planning process, sitting on a focus group panel regarding the overall branding of the Kelvin Hall site. To my mind the most imperative task, and possibly the trickiest for the designers is fostering a public perception of the Kelvin Hall as an entity wholly the sum of its constituent parts. Because this is the project’s intent, it is a “centre for cultural excellence,” not just a venue for various disparate and unconnected organisations, and that includes the gym.

The inclusion of a gym next to these other three organisations within this “cultural centre” may seem odd to you though, I know it certainly did to me at first. The rationale is there though. Although many Glaswegians remember the building most fondly as the former home of the Transport Museum, the Kelvin Hall is an exhibition space with a rich and varied cultural past, playing home to everything from concerts, the circus, world championship boxing, Boys Brigade meetings and most recently was home to the Glasgow Rocks basketball team. The Kelvin Hall of the future therefore must respect and reflect this heritage. It has always been more than a museum, and should continue to be so going forward.

The greatest logical inclusion for the gym however is that there is already one there. The leisure industry is one of the fastest growing in Britain and the increasing demand for sports facilities of this kind means its removal would prove highly unpopular. The Glasgow Club facilities at Kelvin Hall are closed at the moment and I remember this being met with much grumbling from its patronage at the time. This ongoing swell in gym usage is something the Kelvin Hall is going to need to be careful about however. There are warning signs only a few hundred metres up the road where the University of Glasgow made the difficult decision to bulldoze five, in no way unsuccessful, bars and a nightclub attached to the Glasgow University Union in order to satiate the demand from the student body for more sports facilities.

With the surge in housing developments in its locality and the continuing gentrification of the Finnieston area, demand for the Kelvin Hall fitness suite is likely to be high. The Kelvin Hall must ensure that this demand is not so great that it translates into demand for more space, as has happened at the University. These potentially frustrated gym-goers may feel they are entirely justified in making such a demand given that their council tax money will be funding much of the Kelvin Hall, as well the resplendent peacock that is the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery already looming from directly across the road.

Therefore, it is imperative to my mind that the Kelvin Hall be viewed by the public as a homogenous entity, the sum of as opposed to a random assortment of its constituent parts. The Kelvin Hall must sell itself as a single wide-ranging cultural experience, where visitors can pick and choose their activities and navigate seamlessly between them, rather than a jumbled series of individual introspective attractions, a hall of mirrors, if you will. The absence of a swimming pool makes this even trickier. A pool, like a museum, can be a family activity. What better time in fact for parents to take their children around a museum than post-swim, filled with endorphins and oxygen pumping to their brain?

The theme of this years Museum’s Association conference was “Museums Change Lives,” and the Kelvin Hall being both a museum and a fitness centre certainly adheres to the “wellbeing” element that was discussed in Cardiff this year. The project will also appease naysayers of the idea of museums as communal centres for social change, such as the late Stephen E. Weil who warned against institutions presenting themselves as second-rate alternatives to better suited organisations. The Kelvin Hall would not be a museum attempting to host fitness classes, it would be a museum and a gym at the same time.

The lack of a pool makes fostering this perception of the Kelvin Hall more challenging though, as swimming pool’s are an inclusive activity whereas fitness suites are not. Glasgow Club gyms require users to be aged 14 or over, and therefore exclude one of the key age demographics for Kelvin Hall’s museums. Unable to market its full range of attractions as a homogenised family day out, the project has the tougher task now of convincing individual adult museum-goers and gym-goers alike, that both can be considered as part of the same “cultural centre.”

A strong brand message for the Kelvin Hall is absolutely key to this. Coming back to the Museum’s Association Conference this year in Cardiff, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop run by Michael Smith of Cog Design. In it, he discussed the thinking and concept behind his company’s much lauded (and deservedly so) rebrand of the The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge in Canterbury, formerly the Beaney Art Museum and Library, and much of it resonates with me now as I think about the Kelvin Hall.

Of particular note is the bold decision to rename the museum. Smith’s reasoning for this was that the Beaney is a unique institution and this needed to be prominently highlighted. By describing the museum as a “House of Art and Knowledge,” visitors would be instantly made aware that a visit to the Beaney offers a different experience to the plenitude of other museums and galleries in the area. The Kelvin Hall is certainly a venue that will boast a similar uniqueness and might do itself a favour to highlight this. As I noted earlier, there is already a vast museum and art gallery literally across the road from it and one might forgive someone for mistaking the Kelvin Hall and Kelvingrove for, at a glance, being two vaguely similar buildings, with less vaguely similar contents, and very similar names.

Smith also discussed how fortunate Cog Design had been in the all-encompassing nature of their design brief at the Beaney. Far beyond simply creating a logo and selecting a colour palate, the company were allowed to design everything from the internal floor plans and way-finding signage to the little male and female signs on the toilet doors. By having a design consistency running through every aspect of the museum, the branding of the Beaney has become less about having a recognisable badge above the front door, and has bestowed upon it a distinct and familiar personality. The Kelvin Hall again, with its seemingly disparate collection of attractions is a venue that would benefit from a similar initiative.

Lastly, the reasoning behind the new logo design for the Beaney was particularly interesting. As you can see in the picture below, the emblem is a large capital “B” with both of its counters removed.

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It is simple, yet incredibly practical. Free from any internal design elements, the blank space within the “B” can then be filled with a variety of different patterns or images. Smith described the logo as being able to act therefore as, “a window” into the Beaney, revealing any and all objects and activities that it has to offer (as can be seen in the image). The Kelvin Hall could undoubtedly benefit from a similarly creative implementation. Without suggesting they copy Cog Design’s idea, but to use it as an example, a similar “window” logo featuring the different elements contained within the venue would both raise awareness of what the venue has on offer, while highlighting the fact they are offered as part of a single “centre for cultural excellence” at the same time.

Clearly this rebrand is far from straightforward, but Cog Design’s work at the Beaney proves that even Kelvin Hall’s unique requirements can be addressed given the right amount of creative thought. Given what I have seen so far, it strikes me that these thoughts currently are focussed too heavily on creating a brand that reflects a “centre for cultural excellence,” when really the necessity should be to shed light simply on what such a centre actually is. Were the Kelvin Hall simply to be the building that houses its contents then maybe the former would suffice, but the idea is for it to be perceived as this homogenous entity, comprised of a variety of cultural organisations. Given the distinct variety of these organisations, the Kelvin Hall will be a confusing concept for some people, so the branding imperatively must be uncomplicated, and if possible, explanatory. The project is a great idea, and that idea must not get lost in a Kelvin Hall of mirrors.

The Reality of Possibility

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Last week I attended the 2014 Museums Association Exhibition at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, and was fortunate to have been able to take in a number of free workshops from a selection of some of the UK’s most forward thinking museums and design companies. One that stuck with me particularly was a presentation from PEEL Interactive and Bill Seaman on their implementation of Augmented Reality (AR) app software at Colchester Castle.

As someone with a passion for envelope-pushing interpretation, to see what PEEL have achieved at Colchester was fascinating. A quick Google search defines AR as:

A technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view.” 

This had been my understanding of the technology up until last week, and I had seen it used to good effect. At Glasgow Science Centre’s Glasgow Tower for example, where 360° views of the city are supported by an AR map that allows you to zoom in on certain landmarks and obtain onscreen text interpretation for them. This, I believed was the extent of AR’s capability; a real time image, with additional text or images layered over the top. So to see some of the things PEEL are doing using AR software was a truly eye-opening experience.

So much so in fact that I would be hesitant to even describe it as AR, not under the parameters of Google’s definition anyway. The reality is that PEEL’s app at Colchester offers so much more. Although they have yet to roll the feature out, attendees at the MA Exhibition were afforded a sneak peak at a few of the things it will be capable of. Some highlights to my mind were portrait plaques that spring into life and speak to the visitor, entire rooms within the castle re-furnished to their original interiors, and ornate Roman wall slabs that are re-displayed in their historical location.

This creates a valuable visitor interactive because the interpretation offers something new. Rather than merely re-displaying what the audience can already see, the visitor is now offered an enhanced visual and at times tactile experience of every exhibit. The talking portrait plaques for example, turn a small, flat and unimposing object, into a lively, personable and engaging attraction. I am a firm believer in technology and informatics as a means of providing exhibits with what Eileen Hooper-Greenhill describes as “attracting power” and “holding power.” Using AR in the manner that Colchester Castle has, provides even the most unassuming objects with attracting power due to the curiosity instilled in the visitor as to what the app can add to their experience of it, and that experience in turn provides holding power as well. It is win-win.

The examples shown to us by PEEL were particularly effective because they provided new and exciting visitor experiences without diminishing or negating the physical exhibits themselves. While Google’s definition of AR places the object and the interpretation on the screen, PEEL’s onscreen product is entirely interpretation, ensuring that people are encouraged at all times to refer to the physical object. This is imperative for supporting material in any exhibition, and Colchester Castle appears to have found a novel and effective method of achieving this goal.

Of particular interest were the AR features relating to the ornate Roman wall slabs that the Castle has on display. Firstly, because the app will allow visitors to view the slabs in their original historical setting. This is incredibly useful for the visitor as it allows them to appreciate the objects as being of both individual and part of a collective historical importance. It’s not a perfect solution, but what the AR app does is afford the objects a small degree of the much-vaunted idea of “archaeological context,” allowing the exhibits to be viewed in relation to their inherent landscape and neighbouring artefacts. I was immediately reminded of a recent trip to see the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum, and how wonderful a similar app would be, that would allow the friezes to be viewed in their entirety, gap and damage free, and in their respective positions on the Athenian temple. Proponents of repatriation claim that the marbles need to be viewed in their original historical and cultural setting to provide a fuller understanding of them, whereas the British Museum argues that they are better contextualised within their displays of the human history of the world. To some extent, an AR app such as that at Colchester Castle could satisfy both demands?

The second thing that excited me about the Roman slab AR features was an interactive element that allows the user, as demonstrated in a short video by PEEL Interactive, to destroy the virtual on screen structures that the slabs were a part of, by tapping and swiping on the screen. This is both a novel and intuitive method of communicating the history of the objects and their provenance to the user, in a fun and engaging manner. In addition, it also provides the visitor with a tactile interaction to an exhibit that they are not permitted to touch, deepening their engagement and providing them with a richer, more rewarding experience.

As a teenager I was fortunate enough to visit the ancient city of Salamis in Northern Cyprus, where I witnessed hundreds of incredible Greek statuary, that for years I was ignorant as to why their faces had all been removed. I have since learned that this was due to the iconoclastic actions of invading Muslim forces throughout history, however there was no interpretation on site to reveal this at the time. The sight has always fascinated me and again, PEEL Interactive’s presentation immediately transported me there, filling my head with ideas for AR features that could complete the statues, bring them to life, and explain their current condition, much in the same way that the features for the Roman slabs at Colchester Castle will.

On the subject of statues, another workshop that really captured my imagination was the Talking Statues initiative, a collaborative effort from Sing London and Antenna Lab. This is yet another interpretive masterstroke. Talking Statues has equipped many of London and now Manchester’s most famous sculptural figures, from the “Unknown Soldier” at Paddington Station to Samuel Johnson’s cat “Hodge” or the Spitalfields Goat, with QR codes and web links that generate a “phone call” from the statue in question to the individual phone user.

The phone call element is effective because it feels more personal than listening through a prescribed audio guide device. In addition, the statues are voiced by familiar figures. Hodge the cat for example is portrayed by Nicholas Parsons, who sneaks in phrases such as “look at me for Just a Minute.” This increases the personal element by providing the listener with a voice they are already comfortable with, and allowing them to draw on snippets of existing knowledge amongst the educational content, giving users an immediate intellectual confidence in their engagement.

Although statues are 3D objects, I have always found them somewhat two dimensional in nature, especially if accompanied by limited interpretation. Talking Statues however, by audibly animating them, breathes life into the cold and unwavering expressions on their faces. By personifying the sculptures in this fashion, the initiative turns the statues into warm and engaging characters. Perhaps most importantly of all, it turns them into familiar characters, because they are. Many Londoners will walk past the “Couple on Seat” at Canary Wharf every single day, and now they can finally get to know them. Voiced by celebrity marital couple Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal, they may just feel like they always have.

There was much to get excited about this year at the Museums Association Exhibition and every workshop truly deserves mention. I have singled the presentations from PEEL Interactive and Sing London out because they are thematically akin, and interpretation is a theme I am greatly passionate about. Talking Statues is wonderful because it opens public artworks up to new audiences through accessible and engaging interaction, whilst PEEL Interactive’s work with Colchester Castle, if the ever-trusted Google search is to be believed, has re-imagined, and re-defined the possibilities of augmented reality technology.

“Welcome vs. Awe”

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The first of the three “Museum of the Future” debates at the British Museum last week, which focus on the future of the institution, this time specifically the building itself, was a fascinating affair. Initially at risk of being misappropriated as an open forum for some “Friends of the Museum” to air their often impractical, and at one point absurdly unethical grievances, the conversation was expertly steered by the wonderful Liz Forgan towards a lively and engaging discussion. Within it, an issue coined as “Welcome vs. Awe” chimed a particular resonance with me.

Arriving at the British Museum for the first time since I was 15 years old, my memory of the exterior of the building served me particularly hazily and I must admit that my re-acquaintance with it was somewhat jarring. Much was made of the perimeter railings of the British Museum by the debate panel, not least from Bonnie Greer who revealed that she has long dreamed of their removal. Austere despite their aesthetic beauty, I would disagree with her stance however as I feel they suit both an ideological, as well as a practical purpose. The British Museum is, has always been, and will always be, “a museum of the world, for the world.” For this reason, I like to view the site as something separate from the city, an extraterritoriality, international ground, and for me the railings help make this distinction. Their strong fortification forcibly holds back the ever-swelling city, preserving the museum as a distinct and visible island of antiquity, effortlessly resistant to the swirling London tides.

Instead, it was what follows the gates that perturbed me. Despite the noisy bustle of people who mill around in the courtyard, there is a deafening emptiness to it. This is hampered further by the colourlessness of the British Museum’s spectacular façade, punctuated only by two advertisement banners which are too disproportionately small to be of any consequence to their environs. The problem with this is simple, I felt far away. In addition to this, the doorway is very small, and everything from the two front lawns that flank the pathway to it, the twelve steps up to it, or the columns that frame it, intensify the tapering of your line of sight, pushing the doorway further and further into the distance.

On top of this, even once the visitor has made their pilgrimage down the path, up the steps and through the door, they are funnelled into the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court. A visually spectacular setting once more, but again one that leaves a sense of cavernous emptiness. Surrounded by people resting at cafes or perusing gift shops, I felt like I was at the end of my journey, not the beginning. From the moment I crossed the threshold of the British Museum gates, I felt as if a large, steely hand had been placed on my chest, forcefully resisting my advances towards its wonders, hoarding its collection behind its back and keeping me always at an arms length from its discovery. “Awe” there unquestionably is, but “welcome” is much less apparent.

This issue of “welcome,” or lack thereof, was best highlighted by a lady in the audience who recounted the tale of a youngster who once told her that they “didn’t know they were allowed” inside the British Museum. The grand stateliness of Robert Smirke’s Greek revivalist façade is potentially an issue. The architectural intent behind museum entrances of this kind was that they are designed to literally “elevate” the visitor above their natural station. To lift them up off the street, and into a space between the earth and the heavens within which to wonder and admire at the art and antiquity that was at home there. Because of this, these museums and their contents are above the people, always.

The National Museum of Scotland however remedied a similar problem during their 2011 refurbishment by simply, yet boldly, sealing off their traditional entrance. Instead, the doorways now sit either side of the stairs that used to lead to them, at street level. I have always been fascinated by the alley-dwelling houses of central Washington D.C. Once used as slum residences to literally “hide” the free black population migrating from the south, the confined space meant that there was no room to separate the home from the street, not even for pavements, so the front doors opened directly onto the road. Now these houses are upmarket “artisan” dwellings, and in an attempt to generate a modicum of privacy, owners are adding a front step to their doorways. These steps create some space between the homes and the world outside them. A small touch and hardly noticeable, yet hugely effective.

A single step can create a sense of privacy. The British Museum has twelve, and the National Museum of Scotland has even more than that. The Edinburgh museum, like the Washington homeowners, realised this, and they did exactly the opposite. They negated their steps and brought their doorways out onto the street, out to the people and the world outside. The grand staircase of course remains, so “awe” is not sacrificed, it remains unblemished, yet a sense of “welcome” is now instilled. These entrances are also made of glass, willingly revealing everything beyond them, and they open automatically, welcoming any and all who approach them. A small touch and hardly noticeable, yet hugely effective.

I am not suggesting the door to the British Museum be moved out onto the pavement of course, the building cannot be moved closer to the street, but what is to stop the collection from doing so? I felt Sir Antony Gormley’s discussion of the courtyard as an underused space was particularly salient. There must be objects in the collection that can be exhibited out there, or the museum surely has the ability to construct display cases suited to such an environment. The British Museum can push the boundaries of how it exhibits its collection, by literally pushing it to the boundaries of its estate. Rather than funnel its visitors directly into ever-increasingly overcrowded galleries, the visit should begin at the gate, at street level, not at the front door. This too would help soften the image of the railings by ensuring people, such as the young child mentioned earlier, are reassured without explanation that they are there to protect a public collection, not just an intimidating building.

Gormley also suggested that the British Museum could benefit from having more entrance points, alleviating bottlenecks and overcrowding, and allowing visitors to better curate their own experiences by targeting specific galleries and exhibitions. The National Museum of Scotland has three different doorways on one street now and they serve just such a purpose. Surely the British Museum could do something similar? Unlike the Edinburgh museum, it has the geographical privilege of being accessible from all sides, so to fail to make use of this seems wasteful. For me, the museum is not the storyteller, the visitor is. The museum is the facilitator, and the setting in which millions of different journeys can take place, and millions of different stories can be told every single year. The more entrances a museum has, the more beginnings a story can have. The British Museum is uniquely positioned to provide these opportunities for intensely personal, intensely individual visitor experiences.

As noted earlier, these stories should absolutely begin from the moment a visitor steps through the museum gate. Should courtyard exhibits be used, they should be used to signpost these different entry points. They should be thematically positioned to guide visitors in the direction of the doorway that will interest them most. Instead of forcing visitors down a narrow channel, the courtyard could become a series of estuaries, welcoming the visitor to steer themselves into the current of their choice, and carve out their own individual, unique narrative paths through the landscape of the British Museum.

Debate panelist Wim Pijbes, director of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum summed the issue up entirely with just one word, “openness.” To cope with ever increasing visitor numbers, and to ensure that the museum is as welcoming as it is undeniably awesome, the British Museum simply needs more “openness.” It should open more doors to let the people flow in, and if possible, allow the collection to flow out. By creating a more permeable structure in respect to the public and the objects, the British museum will provide itself with a living building, a building for the future.

In Touch with Touchscreens

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On a number of museum visits recently, I have noticed that although they appear flashy and exciting, I have very little inclination to sit or stand at a self-contained touchscreen exhibit. They are often big, shiny, with moving images and video content, they are immediately eye catching, but they do nothing to spark my imagination.

 

There is no mystery in my mind as to why this is the case. It never used to be an issue; I have always been interested in trying out new and exciting forms of technology. But this is exactly the point; there is nothing new or exciting about touchscreens anymore. They are progressing to a point of omnipresence, with smartphones, tablets, TV’s and even ATM machines all utilizing the technology. A museum visit should be about experiencing extraordinary things, and touchscreens have become about as ordinary as a piece of technology can be.

 

This is not to say that using touchscreens is no longer worthwhile, it just means that they can no longer be considered as effective exhibits in and of themselves. While a touchscreen 10 years ago was regarded as an exciting object and a valuable experience, they are now retiring into a role of operating simply as an advanced form of interpretation. Their value in this role is undeniable, the quantity and variety of forms of information that they can display, in intuitive and exciting ways is unrivalled at this point in time. But they need to be accompanied now by something unusual. Be that an object or an interactive element that involves a task unusual to everyday life, something has to fill the “extraordinary” void that touchscreens have now stepped out of.

 

A fine example of this is at the Glasgow Science Centre’s recently re-opened Glasgow Tower. The Glasgow Tower is the world’s tallest freestanding, fully rotational tower, and it has a viewing deck at the top, a 105m high gallery that allows 360° panoramic views of the entire city. In this viewing gallery, the interpretation for the sights around you is contained within a series of iPad units, which display an interactive digital version of your view. You can then refer to these to zoom in on visible landmarks to find out what they are, and some information about them. These iPads are no different to the ones many people have at home, and the interpretation functions no differently to most map apps, but they are a valuable and rewarding interpretive method because they are an effective compliment to an extraordinary experience.

 

Extraordinary does not have to mean spectacular though. Obviously standing atop Scotland’s tallest tower, taking in views of the entire city of Glasgow falls into both of these categories. But extraordinary in this case only requires something to be different from the norm. It does not even have to be an interactive experience; it could be something as simple as an archaeological find, a statue or a painting. The National Museum of Scotland for example has several touchscreen interactives in its Connect gallery relating to the science and issues surrounding genetic cloning. The touchscreens themselves do not require any additional material to function as an exhibit, however the presence before them of the taxidermied remains of Dolly the Sheep, elevates an ordinary touchscreen experience, into an extraordinary experience. Dolly is arguably one of the worlds most famous cloning cases, so her presence (even indirectly) as a point of reference to the interpretive material, elevates the exhibit out of the ordinary.

 

The trouble though, is that museums have had it good for quite some time due to the implicit value attributed to touchscreens and getting to use them. It is only a recent development that has seen them become such a prevalent part of our daily lives. Prior to the advent of touchscreen phones and tablets, the act of using touchscreen technology, especially the intuitive forms we are used to now, was still an exciting experience in its own right. Many museums have had these installed at great expense over the past decade, however the unfortunate truth, for me at least, is that they now need to touch base, and find ways to reinvigorate these exhibits by adding another dimension to them. This does not have to be costly and dramatic, the example of Dolly the Sheep proves that it can be something simple, static and intangible. All it has to be is something different from the norm.

 

Museums now have to accept that not only are touchscreens now very much the norm, but they are fast becoming one of the most ordinary pieces of technology available to people. The time has come for institutions to get “in touch” with what makes an exciting, memorable experience, because for me, touchscreens on their own no longer, and will likely never again, provide this.

“Choicepoints” Make Prizes

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This week my attention was drawn to an article written by Stephen Bitgood, a leading psychology professor at Jacksonville State University.  In it, he discusses the orientation of casinos, and their deliberate attempts to disorientate their visitors in order to make them spend more time and money in them.  He then compares the layout of museums and criticizes them, namely the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for being so similar, instead heaping praise on the North Carolina Museum of Natural History for its simple geometric design and its easy, “shopping area” navigability.  But is there really anything wrong with getting lost in a museum?

 

Obviously I am not advocating a funhouse museum filled with trapdoors, moving walls and those stairs that turn into slides that Scooby Do always falls foul of.  But a non-linear orientation that allows the visitor to carve out their own narrative by twisting and turning through an intricate, yet natural web of exhibits will greatly elevate their experience.  Neat, functional grids are ordinary, and a museum should be an extraordinary experience.  Cities use grids because they make navigation simple for the people who live there, and point A and point B can be connected as quickly as possible.  However the winding streets of Edinburgh’s old town provide visitors to the city with a far richer adventure than the endlessly repeating blocks of Glasgow city centre.  Yes they may be frustrating for those who live there, but nobody lives in a museum.  At the museum everyone is “just visiting,” and the purpose of this visit is to explore an interesting, out of the ordinary, environment, and they mostly want to take their time in doing so.

 

A museum should lift people out of the city anyway, elevating them above the sights and sounds of everyday life.  Old museum building deliberately used to do this, that’s why they all had staircases leading up to the front door.  When Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux designed New York’s Central Park in 1857, they deliberately did so without the use of straight lines.  There are few straight paths and right angles in nature.  Central Park was intended to transport the visitor out of the city and back into nature, to the much idyllicised American wilderness (you couldn’t even see the buildings through the trees back then).  A museum should do the same thing; it should elevate its visitors out of the ordinary, into the out-of-ordinary.

 

The visitors should not be afraid to immerse themselves in the museum.  Bitgood talks of how casinos mask their exits from the customers view, but you don’t need to always be in view of the door at a museum either.  As long as it’s signposted properly it doesn’t matter whether you can see it or not.  A museum has bigger problems if its visitors are constantly ensuring they have a visible escape route.  A visitor should never be concerned with leaving, only with what they will discover next.

 

Bitgood is also critical of the over-prevalence of what he refers to as “choicepoints” in casinos.  Their purpose in such establishments is to disorientate the visitor, preventing them from mentally mapping their surroundings and forcing them to spend longer on the casino floor, even when they are trying to leave.  In a museum however, “choicepoints” are wonderful things.  They help personalise the visitor’s experience, and create equilibrium within galleries, with people constantly weaving in different directions, following their own narrative paths.

 

This weekend I visited London’s Natural History Museum where they have in recent years refurbished their Volcanoes and Earthquakes exhibition.  It is however, presented within a long corridor space, with displays down each wall and intermittently in the centre.  The effect here is that you are confronted with two narrow channels and never more than two “choicepoints,” to go straight on, or to attempt to “slalom” between both.  Granted it was an unusually busy day, but what I witnessed was that people, intentionally or otherwise, chose the former, tending to stick to a single channel, drifting through the exhibition within the stiff current of visitors.  This for me is a gallery that would benefit greatly from allowing its visitors to snake, like lava, into the cracks and crevices of a more open, less linear environment, accentuating the unpredictable nature of its subject matter.

 

I do appreciate though that space is not always a given luxury, especially in older buildings such as that of the Natural History Museum, and even there my volcanic grievances were not perpetuated throughout.  In the limited time available to me I visited the Creepy Crawley exhibition, a large gallery space split into four zones that the visitor can slink and sneak in and out of at their leisure, and stood in awe beneath the Diplodocus in Hintze Hall, where I could see objects and exhibits up on the balconies, down grand hallways and looming from behind the cathedral-like columns.  It was overwhelming, it was disorientating, and it was amazing.

 

In order to send the visitor on an adventure, the museum must encourage them to explore.  The Museum of Scotland Building, at the National Museum of Scotland, built in 1999 is very good at this.  Everywhere you look there are small holes in the walls, revealing snippets of things to discover in other rooms.  Sometimes you can even see through staircases to exhibitions on other floors and there is very rarely a clear line of sight to the bottom of a corridor.  The St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Art and Life in Glasgow too, contains wonderful little architectural features that allow the visitor to see through “peep-holes” in the walls behind display cases, giving tiny glimpses of objects to seek out in adjacent rooms.  In both of these museums the visitor is enticed, constantly by teasing sightings of further treasures for them to discover, and encouraged to seek their own pathways to them.

 

The reason Stephen Bitgood has found so many museums with casino-esque orientation is because, for me, they are better for it.  The museum of course is not intentionally trying to trap its visitors, waypoints and exits will always be clearly signposted, but the visitor should be encouraged, just for a while, to ignore these, to voluntarily lose themselves in the museum.  The important difference a museum and a casino should have though, is that everyone who leaves a museum, should do so with their lives enriched.

 

 

In Praise of: A Wildlife Panorama

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I used to hate it.  Having grown up in Edinburgh I was in and out of the National Museum of Scotland (The Royal Museum back then) my entire life.  When it reopened in 2011 following an extensive refurbishment, my first port of call were my undoubted childhood favourites, the animals and the dinosaurs.  I was desperate to see how they had improved upon what an 8 year old me would have described as “un-improvable,” and I hated it.

 

What I found was a “Wildlife Panorama,” with everything from fish, birds, mammals and dinosaurs all displayed as part of a single exhibit in the west wing of the old Victorian building.  What on earth was this?  Why was the tiger no longer positioned to be pouncing towards you from around a corner, where it would scare your parents half to death?  Why was the Megatherium (Giant Ground Sloth), whose terrifying size had on countless occasions kept my younger self lying awake at night, been positioned in such close proximity to an elephant and a giraffe, who forced it into dimensional insignificance?  Where was the blue whale?  I was blinded by nostalgia.  The inner child in me hadn’t been excited by the prospect of change, he hadn’t wanted change at all.

 

In my stubbornness I failed to appreciate what an absolute wonder of modern exhibiting was placed before me, but not now.  What I see now is a diaspora of wildlife, woven together on the floor or hung suspended from the ceiling, locked in a dramatic, never-ending chase.  I see a wildlife display that is, genuinely, full of life.  There are dinosaurs on show, millions and millions of years old and stripped to nothing but their time weathered bones, yet they feel as lively today as they ever presumably once were.  The myriad of skeletons, taxidermy, casts and models are set firmly in place, yet this panorama exhibits an undeniable sense of motion.

 

In the centre, hanging amongst the birds and sea creatures are three screen projections, showing videos of many different forms of wildlife in a variety of different habitats.  They are bright and colourful, and their quick editing and fast-paced action immediately draw the eye of the visitor, and transfer an illusory sense of activity onto any object peripheral to them.  Beneath them, the exhibits are arranged in a non-linear series of islands, causing the visitors to swirl and swell within the ever-changing tides of the gallery floor.  Meanwhile, the balconies that form the first and second floors produce a set of concentric currents as visitors circle and admire the upper reaches of the sprawling display.  There is a remarkable vibrancy within the panorama; this is far from just a room filled with dead animals.

 

The exhibition is a truly multi-sensory experience.  While it is clearly visually stunning, there is also a bounty of tangible exhibits and interactive material to engage with.  On the first floor there is a feature that allows the visitor to view the panorama through the eyes of a chameleon or a dragonfly.  Not only does this provide visual and tactile stimulation, but by casting the visitor in the role of an insect or reptile, they briefly afford an alternative, first-person learning experience, and these animals, too small to be featured amongst the panorama itself, are still represented in an important and worthwhile fashion.

 

Sound too is everywhere and the panorama is as audibly alive as it is visually.  Whether it’s the crashing waves, dramatic soundtracks and intense action playing on the video screens, or the banging, clanging and programmed sound effects of the interactive interpretation, the exhibition is scored by a ceaseless melody of activity.  Most importantly of all, amongst all of this is the sound of people.  Children are excited and adults are locked in conversation.  Everywhere there is discussion, from the simplest “wow” of amazement to deep, informed discussion, visitors are talking all the time.  For me, this is the most important element of any exhibition.  If you can get people talking, you are doing it right.  Visitors to the wildlife Panorama at the National Museum of Scotland are talking all the time, and this is by no means idle chatter; this is engagement, in its purest, most important form.

 

You can lose hours in there.  The moment the visitor walks in they become an archaeologist, excavating their own experience.  Everywhere you look, there is something to discover.  Whether you are on the ground with towering beasts above and beside you, or on a balcony peering across the chasm, through the ribs of a whale skeleton at objects glowing in a cabinet beyond, you are inclined, always, to explore.  I will always hold my memories of the conventional displays of the old Royal Museum close to my heart, they are undoubtedly some of the primary reasons I have such a passion for museums today.  But to say the new wildlife panorama that has replaced them is a positive change is truly an understatement.  It is a breath-taking sight, and every one of those taken breaths, breathes yet more life into the exhibition.  I love it.

 

Awkward Photos, Comfortable Content

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This month the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica opened its latest temporary exhibition, “Awkward Family Photos.”  It features some of the best images from the website of the same name, which encourages its users to give a self-deprecating glimpse into their family photo albums, by submitting pictures of themselves and their kin in a variety of absurd and embarrassing poses, outfits and locations.

 

At first glance this seems like an unusual move for an institution whose previous programming has featured celebratory exhibitions of both historical and contemporary local art and design.  At “Awkward Family Photos,” there are no famous names to seek out (yet), no technical skill to be admired and little to learn from other than what should really be an unnecessary insight into how not to document your household in a manner that makes the Lannister family look functional.  There is no learning to be sought here, only laughter, begging the question of whether such an exhibition truly belongs in a museum at all.  Heritage this undoubtedly is, but cultural heritage?  Maybe not.

 

Closer inspection however reveals this to be a particularly shrewd move from the Santa Monica museum.  The exhibition has already attracted worldwide attention, I read about it in the newspaper here in Glasgow.  Undoubtedly this is somewhat of a coup for the institution.  The logic is simple; give people something they feel comfortable with, then progress them onto something more challenging.  Having paid the entry fee to the California Heritage Museum, one would assume the visitor would be inclined to glean as much value from their trip as possible by taking in the other exhibits on offer.

 

The reason one assumes “Awkward Family Photos” presents a comfortable entry point to a gallery is because it is literally a physical manifestation of a Buzzfeed article, and you would consider it a safe bet that the majority of the 1.23 billion users on Facebook are familiar with those.  Indeed, one might assume they may also be familiar with the sight of multiple additional “to-read” articles in a queue of tabs in their web browser that Buzzfeed seems to so easily manipulate their users into compiling.  Is it too much of a stretch to consider that visitors may take the same approach to seeking out what else the California Heritage Museum has to offer?

 

The sad truth is, many people these days do not even consider spending time visiting museums and galleries.  They feel like the content isn’t “for” them, that they’re “not smart enough,” or that they simply believe they will be bored.  The positive truth is however, that many of these people visit galleries every day, online, in the form of websites such as Buzzfeed, Tumblr and Pinterest.  The “Awkward Family Photos” exhibition has taken a tentative yet important step towards helping people make that connection, and it will undoubtedly attract visitors who would likely not have considered spending their free time there before.

 

I am not for a second suggesting however that every museum should have a gallery of pictures of “27 Cats Who Think They’re Dogs” or “19 Childhood Actors It’s Ok to Fancy Now They’re Older” in order to convince people to visit and then explore their collections.  That would insult people’s intelligence, and those exhibitions certainly do not belong in museums.  Why not go one step further then, than the California Heritage Museum, and target a pre-visit audience, with content they feel comfortable with, from the comfort of their own home.  Most if not all visitors to a museum these days will browse its website before arriving, and museums need to recognise this, and take advantage of it.  In the past, I, as I’m sure have many others, been drawn to an unfamiliar subject simply by the goading language of an article’s title.  I have no doubt that people could be similarly inclined to browse pages called “Salvador Dali artworks that will alter your perception of reality,” “Jack Vettriano paintings that will get you hot under the collar,” or “Gaudi architecture that will make you want to move house.”  You do not need to give away the whole exhibition; people will always want to see more, the proof is in the practice.

 

Personally I have never been comfortable with wording the names of articles in this fashion, I feel it forces an opinion on the reader that they may not eventually share.  As a hook for pre-visit online museum engagement it works though, as it is merely an attempt to draw you to the physical exhibition where you can decide for yourself how you feel about the content and how it relates to you.  You may not appreciate it at all, but you did so on your own terms, that is the beauty of the museum.  An exhibition allows you to be subjective about objects.  It does not insult your intelligence by telling you what you think, or feel it necessary to inform you of the exact number of exhibited items in order to guarantee your continued attention.  Maybe it’s time for some of those people who never set foot in a museum or gallery to start asking themselves who it really is that makes them feel “not smart.”