SMF Blog: The Good, The Bad and The Untitled

image © National Galleries Scotland

image © National Galleries Scotland

This article was originally written for the Scottish Museums Federation blog.

The museum is one of the great educators; this has always been understood to be its primary function. Despite several pedagogical shifts over the 300 years since the first UK institution opened its doors (the Ashmolean in Oxford, 1683), the one typical constant has been the direction of travel in which knowledge and information is imparted, especially when it comes to children. In nearly all circumstances, learning is conferred from a knowledgeable adult upon a recipient young person, and understandably so.

 

There are occasional anomalies though. At the end of 2014 for example, the National Museum of Scotland hosted the exhibition Games Masters, where there was often an observable role reversal in which younger visitors who tended to be more familiar with the content, assumed the role of educator to their accompanying adult. This is why Bad Entertainment, which opened this month at the National Portrait Gallery is such a fascinating concept. The exhibition, a series of films and artwork created by artists as young as 12, puts young people not only in the position of communicating the museums content, but creating and curating it as well. The result however is a distinctly harrowing experience.

 

This is not a criticism. “Legitimately creepy” by its own admission, the show is also an incredibly astute and well-considered piece of work. Centred around the theme of “the actuality of everyday experience and the fantasy world of media culture,” the four films depict a nightmarish future in which masked youngsters appear to rage against the savagery and anti-socialised world that they find themselves a part of. The young artists collectively wash their hands of the responsibility attributed to them by the media for the growing culture of narcissism, where language is deteriorating and anti-social behaviour is on the rise, by suggesting that the media itself is to blame instead.

Bad Entertainment is a declaration from young people that today’s media culture is not a by-product of their behaviour, but is forced unwillingly upon them. Amongst the exhibition’s targets are the dual over-saturation and over-simplification of media via a television set that shows four channels of “scratch” videos, a relentless stream of over-stimulating and almost incomprehensible 4 or 5 second clips. By exclusively donning masks and referring to themselves only under the collective guise of The Untitled, the group also challenges conceptions of the current “Instagram-generation” as attention seeking and vain. Whilst there is also a resistance towards the over-selling that occurs in the consumer world, with an exhibited desire for honestly best exemplified by “Stone,” one of the props from the films, which is presented like art but labelled with the brief catechism: “What is this? A Rock. Describe it? Rocky. What does it stand for? Rocks. Is this art? No, it’s a rock.”

 

The Untitled are a group of young people who have seized the opportunity to inform not only their peers, but also their elders and the results are as effective as they are visually impressive. Demonstrably, despite what the exhibition portrays as a dumbed-down media culture and its resultant society, young people today are now better informed and more in-tune than ever, and credit to National Galleries Scotland for providing them with a platform to prove this. These young artists not only show that a reverse museum pedagogy, where education flows from the young to their elders is achievable, but is valuable too.

 

Through the horror, Bad Entertainment is actually a message of hope. A message from a self-aware generation, conscious of its own flaws but resistant too to a media culture they are unfairly blamed with demanding when they have done no such thing. It is a message from a generation who also fear a future where, “society has collapsed, language has collapsed. Everyone is a stranger,” but will not accept that as their fate.

 

The exhibition too gives hope to the museum itself. Bad Entertainment’s message is a vindication of their necessity and of their approach. Amongst the torrent of “scratch” videos and frustrated creations is a longing for the tranquillity, honesty and respect with which the museum communicates information, and for the breathing space and time that it affords reflection. The beauty of the exhibition is therefore twofold. Not only is Bad Entertainment good education, but it has also provided young people with the freedom to challenge and explore their fears in one of the few places they are not manifest.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 29.2.2016

Useful Work vs. Useless Toil

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The Turner Prize 2015 exhibition drew to a close this week at the Tramway gallery and there is no doubt it has been a great success for the city of Glasgow as much as for worthy winners, Assemble. The show brought a record number of visitors to the venue, increasing its local influence and improving its stature and reputation further afield.

 

It also did an excellent job of engaging the city’s residents, both through Tramway’s complementary in-house programming, and across Glasgow itself. A fine example of this being the establishment by residents of the Pollokshields Playhouse, a community arts space in the formerly derelict site across from gallery itself. The exhibition also facilitated the return of the Assemble group to their continuing project in the east end, an adventure playground for children on Baltic Street, begun in 2014 with funding from the Commonwealth Games. The positive legacy the Turner Prize exhibition leaves Glasgow is clear, however it is the effect it will have on its eventual winners that is most intriguing.

Pollywood cinema at the Pollokshileds Playhouse - image © Glasgow South and Eastwood Extra

Pollywood cinema at the Pollokshileds Playhouse – image © Glasgow South and Eastwood Extra

The announcement on the 7th of December last year that the judges had plumped for Assemble to receive the £25,000 prize was a splash with powerful ripples. The key talking point was that Assemble were the first “non-artists” to win the award. Assemble consists of individuals with varying skills, but predominantly come from an architectural background and by their own admission much of the group do not consider themselves an art collective. This of course provided commentators with both cultural and economic concerns.

 

From an economic standpoint, being non-artists the collective are the first winners to consciously ignore the art market. Assemble’s portfolio is a collection of in-situ community projects, created collaboratively with the people who reside in them. They are therefore, not for sale. Rather than the Turner Prize being a launch pad to fame and fortune, Assemble instead, as they freely admit, saw the exhibition as a perfect opportunity to promote the catalogue from their Granby Workshop. The workshop is part of the Granby Four Streets project in Toxteth, Liverpool that lead to their Turner nomination, and sells handmade homeware created under Assemble’s supervision by the local community. The exhibit created by the group at Tramway was not so much an artwork as a showroom; a physical catalogue to peruse. This is a catalogue however that just won the Turner Prize, and anyone with as little as £8 at their disposal can purchase a piece.

Assemble exhibit at Tramway - image © Murdo MacLeod (Guardian)

Assemble exhibit at Tramway – image © Murdo MacLeod (Guardian)

From a cultural perspective though, Assemble’s non-artist status is blamed by some as the reason for their inability to communicate the social context within which their work is placed. All across the UK families are being torn apart as local councils are being forced to sell off their social housing stock to private developers who replace them with expensive new properties. While a small information panel in their corner of the exhibition explains some of plight of the residents of Toxteth, and Assemble’s work to help the community there, their exhibit in its manifestation as a bespoke home furnishings showroom did little to highlight what is a far wider issue.

 

My concern is that the excellent work that Assemble is doing does not become hindered by a convergence of these economic and cultural peculiarities. Whilst it is admirable to see creatives ignore the lure of the art market and its stratospheric sums, Assemble’s abstention from it assumes that the art market too wishes to ignore them. I am not suggesting that a simple Turner Prize win will put million pound price tags on everything the group have ever touched, but it will certainly raise the prestige value of owning them. Assemble will need to be careful that any perceived financial value in their output does not negate its good intent, especially if they do not improve their ability to communicate the social context that their work engages with.

 

The social housing crises affecting areas like Granby Four Streets for example has been described as “social cleansing dressed up as gentrification.” Oppositely, Assemble do not want to appear complicit in this by having their excellent work in these communities misconstrued as gentrification as well. The worst thing for them would be for 10 Houses on Cairns Street to become viewed as “Turner Prize winning properties,” or the art and studio spaces they have created as Durham Wharf and Sugarhouse as harbingers of the bourgeois bohemian economies that have overtaken other formerly lapsed areas of London.

 

The solution is simple though, Assemble merely have to assume a more conscientious responsibility for their brand. Whether they consider themselves artists or not, they have just been awarded the most famous art prize in the UK. Assemble’s victory owes surely to its clear echoes of the utilitarian principles of William Morris in the unending usefulness of their artfulness. However, as Morris once wrote, “History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.” They can protest, but Assemble have had “art” conferred upon them. They must now accept the responsibility of remembering the people who have helped them create, and specifically, why.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 22.1.2016

SMF Blog: A Modern Desensitisation

© National Museums Scotland

image © National Museums Scotland

This article was originally written for the Scottish Museums Federation blog.

Standing engulfed by the spectacular display of faces and landscapes at the National Museum of Scotland’s Photography: A Victorian Sensation, I am struck by a sensation of my own. Not since I deleted my Instagram account, now two new years resolutions ago, have I been party to such an intensive timeline of portraiture. However there are no filters or fancy effects here. For many of these people this was the only photograph of them ever taken, and as such they have been treasured and cared for by their owners to the point where they have made it into the collection of a museum over a hundred years later. This is why the inevitable, “your selfies displayed here” interactive at the end of the exhibition actually sits a little uncomfortably. After marvelling at a century’s worth of lovingly preserved photography, I was then expected to take one of myself and then exit through the door to the left, never to see it again.

Of course this is a little different, I know for a fact that this is not the only photograph of myself in existence, however it entices you to consider what the eventual fate of those may be too. The last thing you see before leaving the exhibition is a text panel that reads, “More photographs are taken in two minutes today than were taken in the whole of the 19th century.” By this point you have seen hundreds of non-stock, non-commercial, personal photography from this period, but will such a feat be possible another 150 years from now?

The modern photograph has mutated into a very temporary possession. Photographs these days are lost all the time. These can be unexpectedly through computer hardware malfunctions or intentionally, such as self-destructing Snapchat images or, for example, purposefully deleted for certain emotional reasons. The latter is not a new phenomenon however, a fellow student while I was studying for my masters degree once revealed his unusual hobby of collecting old daguerreotypes where people’s faces had been scratched off. Despite their defacement, the continued physical existence of these photographs actually makes them doubly intriguing as artefacts. I was always taught to analyse historical source material using the “Five W’s” method; “what is it and when was it created?” “who created it and why did they do so?” and “what does it say?” My colleague’s collection however had the benefit of possessing a 6th required “W”: “woah, what on earth happened next?”

The suggestion here of course is not that we retain every single one of the millions of photographs that are taken every minute of the day, nor that instead of deleting pictures of undesirable people that we aggressively scribble over their faces in MS Paint. It is simply that we take better care to preserve the important images. From the 50 or so years worth of portrait photographs at the National Museum of Scotland’s exhibition you can learn a lot. For example, for many subjects this was a rare opportunity to be pictured, and the image of themselves they have allowed to be captured provides us with a fascinating insight into the evolving ideals of fashion, manners and etiquette of the time. Nowadays with fashion moving so quickly and the ability to take photos all the time, that “selfie” of someone in last months “get-up” just gets deleted and replaced, meaning future viewers will have no real sense of a community’s changing attitudes to trends on the social level that we can examine in our 19th and 20th century counterparts.

Photography: A Victorian Sensation claims that in 2015 an average of 70 million photographs are uploaded to Instagram every single day, and one would assume the proportion of this that includes portraits and “selfies” is quite high, most of which are destined merely to tumble endlessly down a timeline into forgottenness. A little down the road at the Scottish National Gallery, the David Bailey retrospective Stardust, provides no greater proof that quality trumps quantity every time. Not only are his images iconic, some of them, of Jack Nicholson and a young Johnny Depp for example, are some of the most iconic photos of those individuals. These are portraits that are valued, were treasured, and are enriching to the viewer because of it.

In fairness, the fame of the photographer and his subject make these portraits exponentially valuable, however there are more than just famous faces on show at Stardust. The exhibition displays work from his travels in places like Nagaland, Sudan and Papua New Guinea. In these pictures there are no recognisable figures, simply people, who like those on display at the National Museum of Scotland, may well be experiencing being photographed for their first or only time. Now, regardless of the name behind the camera, you have portraits worth treasuring because they are valuable historical sources, with much to teach the world about other countries, their customs and often their plights.

To describe the “your selfies displayed here” section of Photography: A Victorian Sensation as “uncomfortable” was not a criticism, it is important for museums to provide thought-provoking content. This is what it provided for me. You truly feel when exploring the exhibition that photography in the late 19th century was a sensation, and people valued their pictures to the point where they were framed in lockets, crafted into jewellery or displayed in elaborate albums. But most importantly, they were simply preserved. We live in an age now where people are desensitised to the value of photographs. In Photography: A Victorian Sensation, the National Museum of Scotland has curated the memories of an entire generation. Additionally though, they also inspire a concern that our current, increasingly self-conscious generation has such a wealth of means to curate its own memory to reflect its present concerns, that it could deprive future generations of any genuine sense of its past.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 28.9.2015

Must Be Accompanied by a Responsible Apprentice

gamers

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.

The Reality of Possibility

salamis-ruinen

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.

Living Interpretation

sensational-butterflies-062-310314

I didn’t catch his name unfortunately; I had one eye on the thousands of butterflies in flight around me and one on a flight of my own that I later nearly missed.  It wasn’t until I had, as requested, checked myself for tiny winged “stowaways” and settled myself and my thoughts in the fresh air outside the humid tent of the Natural History Museum’s Sensational Butterflies that I was able to fully appreciate the extent to which the gallery assistant (if you could call him that) had really elevated my experience.

 

Sensational Butterflies is a temporary exhibition, housed in a large white tent on the east lawn of the London institution.  Within the great tarpaulin flutters thousands of butterflies, beautiful, colourful and varied.  The visitor enters through a large plastic curtain akin to those found on old supermarket fridges, and follow a short snaking path around a wonderfully arranged series of flowerbeds, all the while surrounded, always, by butterflies.  It is a truly magical experience.

 

The first sign you encounter as you enter the exhibition informs you not to use flash photography, not to stand on any of the specimens, and finally, not to panic if any of them land on you.  They are harmless after all.  I realised however when I had left the tent that this was the last thing I had read before the sign instructing me not to inadvertently steal any of the tiny fluttering exhibits on my way out.  There had been information panels and other interpretation dotted around the tent, but I hadn’t managed to take in any of it.  More often than not there was so much activity in the air around you that it was difficult to remain undistracted, occasionally the panels were even obscured by specimens who had camped out across the text for a poorly positioned rest.  I’ll also freely admit that I am somewhat “squeamish” around insects (especially winged ones) so I occasionally found myself conflicted as to whether to turn the rotating interactive panels that were intended to reveal interpretive material for fear that something “scary” was resting on the reverse side.

 

I now realise that it was with great fortuity that the exhibition was complimented by such affable, knowledgeable and enthusiastic floor staff.  The individual I spoke with approached us completely unprompted, but was an incredibly welcome interjection.  He was, entirely through his own merit, the most valuable piece of interpretation available to me.  Whilst my eyes were distracted by the forever flickering of wings in my peripherals, I was able to fully focus my uninhibited ears on the information he was so convivially conveying to me.  What I received was far more than an audible version of the text panels however.  Instead, this was interpretation with personality, which in turn made my experience of the exhibition more personal.  I was able to obtain the answers I wanted, received information I didn’t know I wanted, and was even able to broaden the scope of my visit by enquiring about some of the more exotic plant life on display, (including a fascinating discussion about the etymology of the Passion Flower), and about the National History Museum itself.  Most remarkably of all, his infectious enthusiasm for his insect subjects alleviated me of my unnecessary anxieties and for the first time I felt comfortable within the beating wings of my surroundings.

 

In the space of a five-minute conversation, he had achieved everything that good interpretation should.  He had made the content relevant to me personally, made me feel comfortable within the exhibition and with my understanding of it, and had prompted me to further question and discuss what I had learned.  Without the assistance of museum staff, interpretive materials must regularly exploit multi-sensory materials in order to achieve these outcomes (not all do yet, but they should).  Human contact however is multi-sensory in its own right, and it struck me, amidst the endless butterfly ballet, that this “living interpretation” is not only best suited to living subject material, but it is the best asset any exhibition can have.

 

Obviously, a world of museums where every front-of-house staff member knows everything there is to know about the collections and their relative subjects is a pipedream.  Those who do have knowledge of this kind tend to work behind the scenes as curators, collection managers and directors.  People do have interests though that can be exploited to positive ends.  University museums are perfectly positioned to do just that, the Kings Museum in Aberdeen and Glasgow’s The Hunterian for example both use students from sympathetic disciplines to give tours of different aspects of their collections.  At the latter for example, students who study or take interest in Art History show visitors around the Art Gallery, while those of an archaeological bent give talks on the Antonine Wall display in the museum.  This is a hugely effective process as, especially in the case of the Antonine Wall, many of the students have studied the subject directly, meaning they have a deeper pool of knowledge than any object label ever could, and the visitor can choose to dive as far into it as they desire.

 

These initiatives only work in the form of short tours however, as you cannot expect students to work the museum floor all day unpaid.  For larger institutions though, they should encourage their paid staff to take a more active role in exhibitions.  The duty of the museum should be to investigate who the people are who are representing them, find out what they know about, and what they are interested in and encourage them to follow these up.  The staff should then be made to feel comfortable and confident enough to develop a willingness to share their knowledge and expertise with the visitor.  They do not need to know everything about every thing, but a deeper, more engaging understanding of a few exhibits each, will every now and again, provide someone with a more a personal, memorable museum experience, as was the case with my trip to Sensational Butterflies.

 

The essential element here is that the information provided by the staff stems from genuine interest.  Handing out scripts or asking guides to play different characters, fictionalises their role, depersonalising them, and in turn, your experience.  Museums are full of extraordinary things, but they are real things, and they should be communicated to the world by real people, with a real interest in them.  This is what I found at the National History Museum.  The passion that exuded from the staff member I conversed with elevated every aspect of my visit, and an exhibition that at one point threatened to flutter past me, is now an important and affectionate memory.

 

“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.