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

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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

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.

“Welcome vs. Awe”

bm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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