Show Me The Money

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It’s a museum I have always engaged with, despite never actually setting foot in the door. The Museum on the Mound is the collected history of the Bank of Scotland, situated onsite at their Edinburgh head office where, outside, a sign expertly grabs your attention by simply asking, “ever seen £1 million?” No. Implicit in the question obviously is the suggestion that you should come inside, where you can see £1 million to which I again would say, no, thank you.

 

I’m under no illusions that some people will likely feel differently, but personally I cannot muster any interest in going to look at a big pile of unattainable cash. However the more often I passed the same sign, the more the issue began to bother me, and I eventually started to question whether £1 million in cash should even be a museum exhibit at all? So I asked myself what criteria it needed to meet: Is it of historical or artistic value? No. Can it help me better understand myself, or the community I am a part of? Not in my opinion.

 

Furthermore, is it even ethical for a museum to have £1 million in cash in its collection? To accession an object is an implicit acceptance that said item is not a liquid asset, and cannot therefore be deaccessioned for the purposes of generating funds. But cash literally has no other use. To accession £1 million in cash is to ring-fence money that can never now be spent. The Museum on the Mound is fortunate however in that it is operated by the Lloyds Banking group and is therefore well financed. One would imagine that any other museum that had deliberately written off £1 million in this fashion would find itself particularly dubiously positioned should it then require the reliance of volunteers or heritage funding bodies.

 

To exhibit any amount of cash, especially in that quantity, with seemingly no context beyond “because we can,” seems on the face of it slightly vulgar. It was clear however that I was going to have to see it, and I was surprised upon arrival to discover that it wasn’t part of the museum display at all. Instead, as staff promptly informed me, it is “just on the right” as you enter the building, in a cabinet in the gift shop. To me this was an immediate suggestion that the museum itself had found similar difficulty in actually justifying a position for it amongst the genuine art and ephemera in their collection. On top of that, the cabinet is filled exclusively with cancelled notes, meaning it isn’t even £1 million cash at all; it’s a box of valueless paper.

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All of a sudden this struck me as somewhat of a shame. The cabinet as I had imagined it was at least a thought-provoking piece. Further to that, it would have been a challenging exhibit as it refuses to adhere to one of the key museum conventions: that the price of their collections cannot be revealed. Museum objects are not for sale, so they do not have a price. This is the answer any visitor who asks the tired old “how much is that worth?” question should receive. In a previous job I was often asked how much Pablo Picasso’s The Poet was worth, to which I informed the visitor its value was as a key piece in one of the most influential art movements of the 20th century, crucial to the evolving style of arguably the world’s most famous artist, and provides a perfect historical context to the rest of the museum’s collection. It strikes me now how interesting it could have been for me to direct those visitors, seemingly interested only in the financial value of the museum, to an exhibit simply of £1 million in cash. To challenge them to actually ascertain for themselves whether this really was the satisfaction they were looking for. £1 million in cash not only unavoidably reveals to the visitor its financial value, it even shows them the money. One would hope this might inspire people to see more than just dollar signs in the masterpieces on offer.

 

In a late twist, a second £1 million in cash appears half way through the museum. Were it not for the fact you have already seen it before, this exhibit would make complete sense. The second box of cash, within the museum display this time is simply supporting interpretation for another object, a single £1 million note. The exhibit explains that these notes are solely for transporting large sums internally in the bank, and then uses the same value in £20 denominations to visually depict the practicalities of doing so. This is great. It reveals an interesting internal practice of the bank, as is one of the museums aims, and then perfectly interprets the object to help the visitor understand why, in a striking and memorable way.

 

This purposeful and effective second display however further highlights the elephant in the room that is the first exhibited million. For all of my pondering I still struggle to see what the point of it is. But then, maybe it is in this pondering that it finally finds a purpose. The key to all great museum exhibits is an ability to capture the imagination of the visitor not only during, but to encourage a sustained engagement with it subsequent to, and if possible, prior to their visit. The £1 million cash at the Museum on the Mound has unquestionably achieved this with me, quite possibly to a greater extent than any object before it.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 6.10.2015

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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.

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.”