A Sinking Feeling

Klimt - Judith II (Salome) 1909. Photo © Alamy

Klimt – Judith II (Salome) 1909. Photo © Alamy

As a city and a museum issue close to my heart, it came as disturbing news last week to discover that Luigi Brugnaro, the Mayor of Venice plans to sell off several masterpieces from the city’s public collection in order to help pay off some of its debt. The works considered for sale, which include pieces from Marc Chagall and Gustav Klimt are estimated to sell on the market for somewhere in the region of £300 million. Although Venice’s debt is becoming an increasing burden, the deaccession of public collections to raise funds for alternative municipal initiatives is not, and should not ever be considered the solution to these problems. Brugnaro’s announcement last week is a worrying development.

Deaccession is a dangerous game, as was proven by the scandalous behaviour of Northampton Borough Council last year when then leader David Mackintosh attempted to fund his vanity project, a new wing for the town’s flagship museum, by selling the ancient Egyptian Statue Sekhemka. Despite protestations from the museum itself and various pressure groups, the council forged ahead with the sale of the object which raised just under £16 million at Christie’s in August last year.

The result of this was that, not without warning, the council’s entire museum service (Northampton Museums) lost its Arts Council England accreditation, rendering it ineligible to receive support from various heritage funding bodies and arts grants. It has also been banned from membership of the Museums Association for five years, and seen the winding up of the Friends of Northampton Museum group after 55 years of practical and financial support. It is estimated that the cost of these losses will far exceed the money raised by the sale, leaving Northampton Museum and Art Gallery and now its sister institution, Abingdon Park Museum, worse off than they were before.

The heavy sanctions handed down to Northampton Museums are in line with the disregard for museum ethics that the county council has shown. First and foremost the statue, a gift from the Marquess of Northampton to the people of the city and so held only in trust by the museum, was therefore not theirs to sell. Even if it were, to treat museum objects as assets as opposed to a collection, sets a dangerous precedent. Museum objects are to be preserved for their artistic, cultural or educational value. The actions of Northampton Museums run the risk of changing public perception of a museum collection to what Stephen E. Weil once called, “A Deaccession Cookie Jar,” meaning people view the objects as material of a financial value where the money could and should be better spent on other council services, such as schools and hospitals; a mindset with the potential to strip museums bare.

This is sadly what is now happening in Venice. With the city in huge debt and struggling to fund its municipal services, Luigi Brugnaro has cracked open the Deaccession Cookie Jar and pulled out several important masterpieces from the public collection. While still inexcusable, Northampton Borough council at least intended to keep the money from Sekhemka’s sale within their museum service. Venice on the other hand, should the sale of their works go ahead, will siphon the money into other things, leaving their museums culturally and financially out of pocket. On top of this, by placing other public services on a higher pecking order, the city surrenders all justification for preserving any of its collections should the public demand more sales to be made. Given that such action provides only short-term debt relief, it is entirely possible this could occur.

Brugnaro’s attempts to safeguard the majority of the collection whilst justifying these particular sales by claiming that, “they are not directly related to the history and culture of Venice” is merely further problematic. Using this logic, Venice has created two different sets of museum ethics, one for native objects and another for those of foreign origins. The result of this is that by publicly proclaiming it’s permissible for them to deaccession non-Venetian objects, they surrender one of their key counter-arguments to potential repatriation requests, further endangering their collections.

Above all, this is simply a saddening cultural loss for the city. Venice has long since ceased to be the merchant trading hub that may once have applauded such capitalist endeavour, and is now limited in the way that it functions. It is a UNESCO world heritage site in its entirety, meaning renovation is not permitted, only preservation and restoration. However the city has flourished under these restrictions for a long, long time as a city of art. Its beautiful exteriors are works of art in themselves, while the awkward interiors of its plethora of Palazzi are filled with everything from Greco-Roman antiquity to world famous contemporary artists.

I once heard Venice described as “like a Disneyland for grown ups,” but you could safely bet you would never see a cash-strapped Euro Disney packing up and selling Space Mountain just because it wasn’t related to any of their films. For Venice to sell its art is to sell part of its soul. Brugnaro rightly points out that Venice is a sinking city, but shipping out its paintings will not keep it afloat. In doing so, Brugnaro will be no better than his predecessors who shamefully green-lit allowing cruise ships to sail through the Guidecca Canal, causing irreparable damage to the city for short term financial gain.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 21.10.2015

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Sticks in the Mud

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There seems to be a lot discussion in museum circles of late regarding the infamous “selfie stick,” likely due to the wake of “Museum Selfie Day” and the news trickling in that sensible institutions such as the Louvre have started to ban them. Now, the Museums Association is running a poll asking its membership their opinion on the issue of whether UK venues should follow suit, or stick with the insufferable contraptions, deliciously referred to by Gawker recently as the “wand of idiocy.” I’m sure you have worked out by now which side of the fence I’m on.

 

This is no fresh grievance for me however. I am fortunate enough to be working in Venice at the moment where there are now more “selfie sticks” than there is water. Every day I run the gauntlet over Accademia Bridge between two rows of grinning tourists brandishing their baton-mounted phones into its centre at a 65° angle. It’s reminiscent of an enormous guard of honour until you consider the fact nobody in it has eyes for anyone but themselves.

 

The “selfie stick” has been on my mind for a while, and in my face, and I’ve been smacked in the shin with one, and had a drink knocked out of my hand. This is precisely the reason given by Deborah Ziska of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where the “narcissi-stick” (thanks, Alyson) has recently been banned; they’re dangerous. They’re dangerous to people, and dangerous to the displays. When you take a step back to consider it, the “selfie stick” is essentially a retractable golf club, and nobody complains about not being allowed to bring them to a museum. Obviously I appreciate that nobody is coming into a museum and swinging them around, intentionally. But when your entire attention is focussed on the end of a 5-foot pole, and what’s at the end of said pole is a reverse image of yourself, you cannot possibly have any awareness or comprehension for the people or objects in your surroundings. You are literally brandishing it into the unknown. This is the point where you become a danger, and not just to other people, but yourself as well. As Ziska rightly points out, her gallery is filled with low balconies and stairs to topple over as you unwittingly shuffle around in search of the perfect angle.

 

To further the argument, there is no justification that necessitates their use in a museum environment anyway. People have tried though. One reason I’ve heard is, “you can fit more into the background.” Yes you can, but if that is your chief concern then you’re taking the wrong kind of photograph. If somebody wants, for example, a photo memory of the time they saw Picasso’s The Poet, they’ll remember it better if they don’t insist on obscuring half of it with their face. If they are more interested in remembering what they looked like that day than the art, why pay €14 to go to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection when there’s a boutique home furnishings shop around the corner selling mirrors for the same price?

 

I have also heard, “it’s safer, I don’t have to give a stranger my phone.” True again, but who is going to run off with your camera in the middle of a museum? Even in the street you have a better chance of retaining it by singling out one person to entrust it to than precariously strapping it to a shiny pole and waving it around in a sea of people. The fact of the matter is, the pole gives people greater control over their appearance in the picture. It’s not “I don’t trust you not to steal my phone,” it’s “I don’t trust you to make me look good.”

 

The “selfie stick” gives the photographer complete control, and perhaps most importantly of all, it can give the photograph the illusion of not being a “selfie” at all, by de-necessitating that “slightly too close to the lens and my arm is growing out of my chest” camera angle. “Selfies” are vain and people don’t like to admit to that. You can tell this is the case because some people still at least have the humility to look slightly embarrassed after taking one in public, some people. There is nowhere to hide if you’ve been waving a “selfie stick” around however, but this no longer matters as those who use them have demonstrably ceased to care about the opinions of those in their vicinity.

 

The reality is that the oxymoronically named “selfie” is not for the benefit of the subject at all, but for their connections everywhere else, chiefly those on social media sites. This is why museum people have embraced them. We like to “see” people in museums, and we like that people feel like their visit is one of these “show off” moments that they want to add to the rose tinted timeline of life experiences that they have chosen to share online. That’s as good as it gets though. There’s a reason we have “Museum Selfie Day” and not “Share Pictures of Your Favourite Exhibits Day.” People more and more are insistent on being the subject of the photos they take, and everything else, such as the museum, is secondary.

 

Essentially every “selfie” is the same, except the backgrounds change from time to time, like the “Blue Steel” calendar in Ben Stiller’s Zoolander (see the above photo). A “selfie” is not a memory, it’s a momentary snapshot that is discarded from the photographers conscience as soon as a fresh one is taken, or in the case of Snapchat, discarded from existence after a mere few hours (more on that here). In a museum we can embrace the “selfie” as, despite being the secondary content, we can still benefit from their exposure. The “selfie stick” however only benefits the “selfie taker,” and in fact adversely affects the museum by endangering its collection and the other visitors.

 

I’m sure one day the “wand of vanity” will have a rightful place in a museum, presumably as a key piece in the British Museum’s “A History of the End of the World in 100 Objects,” presented by a robot Neil MacGregor in the year 2110. For now however it does not. The “selfie stick” hazardously facilitates a form of photography that increasingly has no appreciation for memory, for history, for art or any aesthetic external to ones own appearance. They do not therefore belong in museums and those that have banned them already have done so quite rightly. Sometimes it’s good to be a stick in the mud.

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.