A Case for the Defence

image © Nathan James Page

image © Nathan James Page

We’ve all been to museums during busy periods, especially if travelling in tourist meccas like London or Paris, and we’ve all at some point therefore been intentionally or otherwise harassed by our fellow visitors. Not content to leave their ill will in the gift shop however is Time Out, who recently opted instead to express its grievances in an article called “Top Five Annoying People in Museums.” Museums if nothing however should be a forgiving environment, and as such I am compelled, despite my own frustrations at times, to make a case for the defence of Time Out’s selection of culture criminals.

 

The first on their hit list in is the ubiquitous “primary school gremlin.” I was fortunate in my childhood to have been regularly taken to the National Museum of Scotland by my parents, and it is undoubtedly these trips that have fostered my enduring love for it (and museums in general) to this day. Some children however are not so lucky, and it is important that primary schools act as a vehicle to introduce young people to museums. This is especially true of national institutions; they belong as much to them as they do to you. For as long as I live I will never begrudge a child, no matter how gremlin-like a visit to their museum. Besides, we’ve all been through primary school and most of us can testify that it was often the front-toothless scruff with the inability to blow his nose that became the brightest and best of their peers.

 

Second on the list is “the know-it-all” who, as Time Out put it, “like to spend long afternoons in museums imparting nuggets of wisdom on [their] specialist subject.” With this I can empathise, but it depends on the nature of your new acquaintance. The author’s real issue here seems to be with the pomp and pretence with which the “know-it-all” insists upon assisting. Remove these however and find yourself approached by a fellow visitor who is genuinely knowledgeable on a subject, with a desire to serve your interests rather than their own, then they will undoubtedly elevate your experience. We go to museums to learn after all, so why turn down the chance to do so?

 

I would instead warn against whom I’ll call “the fraud,” who masquerades as the “know-it-all” despite knowing little about the subject in question. An immediate example that springs to mind is the individual who once insisted to me that a Max Ernst painting we were looking at in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection was likely the work of famed art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, despite my repeated attempts to inform him that the iconic collector was married to the artist for five years and was even suspected to be the subject of the piece. I later learned that a fellow colleague had an identical encounter with him elsewhere in the museum. Beware of the fraud.

Fake Max Ernst painting by Wolfgang Beltracci, titled La Horde (1927) © VBK Wien 2010

Fake Max Ernst painting by Wolfgang Beltracchi, titled La Horde (1927) © VBK Wien 2010

Number 3 on Time Out’s list is “the teenage sceptic.” This is an odd one but appears in the author’s estimation to boil down to a huffy high-schooler, more interested in girls than anything the museum has to offer. I actually think this is preferable to the pretentious philosophical sceptic the name suggests, deep in the midst of an existential crises or attempting to engage you in a needless discussion about whether anything in the museum is even there. Besides, if the lad the author is describing happens to take a shine to the girl in the museum then good for him, she has at least proven by her location to be interested in things other than herself, unlike the one whose “gym progress” selfies he spends all day “liking” on Instagram.

 

Lazily slotted in at number 4 is what Time Out has dubbed, “the cultural castaway.” This is essentially someone trying but struggling to learn in the museum and I fail to see how this can be annoying unless they are badgering you with questions. But why not then become the sincere informant discussed earlier, whose knowledge can elevate their overall experience that day? If you are equally at a loss then simply be polite. Nobody should ever be chastised for trying to educate themselves, especially when they are making use of a public service designed for that very goal.

 

Last in the firing line of course is that eternal scapegoat, the tourist. They have just as much right to attendance as anyone else though, being human beings as they are. Furthermore, many of them are just as represented by the museum as its native attendees. For example, despite its name, the British Museum considers itself a “museum of the world, for the world,” and its retention of contested objects such as the Parthenon Marbles and Benin Bronzes is predicated on the claim that it offers the best platform for the “world” to come and visit them. Tourists therefore are not just welcome, but they are necessary in order to justify the collection.

 

To be fair to Time Out, number five on their list is specifically “the tourist tool,” who spends their entire visit with their noses pressed into their cameras. On this issue I concede. There is no need to take photographs of literally everything on display, and to answer the question posed by the author: they are within their rights to do so, but no, it is absolutely not the best use of their time. Even so, that’s their prerogative. If I would make one request though it would be that they at least turn their devices to silent. Nothing sucks you out of a museum experience quite like an obnoxious cacophony of faux shutter sounds.

 

I do of course appreciate that there is no venom in the fangs of Time Out’s article, and that it is clearly just a bit of fun. However I feel it is important to re-establish that museums are intended to be fun too. Let people enjoy them.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 8.3.2016

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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

Keeping Up Appearances

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

This article was published by The Scotsman on 5.2.2016

What’s In-Store, Glasgow?

Kelvin Hall - image © Page\Park Architects

Kelvin Hall – image © Page\Park Architects

While the atmosphere in museum circles prior to George Osborne’s budget last week was tinged with a distinct air of impending doom, one which is unlikely to have alleviated in smaller regional museums, there was at least some good news. The decision to retain free entry to national museums undoubtedly was the most important, however the most intriguing was a further commitment to public access to some of the UK’s finest collections. In his statement, Osborne pledged £150 million to allow for the construction of a new state-of-the-art storage facility to rehome the hidden collections of the British Museum, Science Museum and V&A. This will not only improve conditions for the objects, but for people too, providing the public with access to their national treasures without having to wait patiently for an exhibition to reveal them.

 

In Scotland we are ahead of this game already. The Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC) has been operating for several years now, allowing the public to make appointments at their leisure to view its collections, and the National Museum of Scotland opened a similar site in Edinburgh this year. There are some who argue that accessible storage is not the answer however, and that national museums should improve the visibility of stored treasures by loaning them to smaller museums in need of fresh attractions. Steven Parissien for example, director of Warwickshire’s Compton Verney gallery this week accused London’s national museums of “cultural colonialism” in their hoarding of stored masterpieces.

Visitors at GMRC - image © Glasgow Life

Visitors at GMRC – image © Glasgow Life

There are few who would refute the argument that a loaning of these objects to smaller institutions would be desirable but the reality is that this is not always possible. Some museum objects are stored rather than publicly displayed because they have stringent conservational requirements, while some others are set aside as research material. In some cases objects can be caught up in red tape making them ineligible for display. Glasgow’s Burrell Collection for example was famously trapped in storage purgatory for 39 years due to William Burrell’s problematic bequest that his treasures be given to the people of the city, but couldn’t be displayed within it.

 

The chief reason larger museum services have so much in storage however is that the collections are simply that vast. Glasgow’s flagship museum Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, even with its cavernous interiors and “salon-hangs,” can only host 8,000 of the 1 million objects in the city’s public collections. Even with a further eight museums across the city exhibiting from the same resource pool, less than 1% of this collection is on display outside of the GMRC. Glasgow Museums could fill all the smaller museums in its vicinity and its need for storage would remain unchanged.

 

This is why the Kelvin Hall Project is so exciting. Set to open in the summer next year, “Phase 1” of the initiative will see the historic venue re-open as a “centre for cultural excellence,” housing publicly accessible collections for The Hunterian, Glasgow Museums (from remaining non-GMRC stores) and The National Library of Scotland, alongside extensive teaching facilities. Additionally, the site will feature areas for objects to be conserved in public view, beginning with the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed suite from Mrs Cranton’s Ingram Street Tearooms.

 

Belgium’s Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp is one institution that has mastered the idea of accessible storage. Opened to the public in 2011, the galleries and storerooms are housed in the same building, with visitors free to transition between both at their leisure. The storerooms function in essence like an extension of the museum, with everything made visible, merely without the flair or interpretation of that which is officially exhibited. This gives visitors a unique opportunity to really engage with the artworks or themes that inspire them by allowing them to immediately discover similar or related objects. In addition to this, the storeroom also seeks to educate visitors about conservation and its other primary functions.

Visible storage at Museum aan de Stroom - image © Filip Dujardin

Visible storage at Museum aan de Stroom – image © Filip Dujardin

Kelvin Hall will share many of Museum aan de Stroom’s attributes. Its public conservations and easy-to-access objects being key, but it is its location that is most desirable. While the GMRC is a little out of the way, Kelvin Hall is directly across the street from Kelvingrove, and following the completion of “Phase 2” of the project, will also house the exhibited collection of The Hunterian (currently displayed across Glasgow University). Following this, The Hunterian would have the ability to emulate Museum aan de Stroom entirely, with only one set of traffic lights preventing Kelvingrove from doing likewise.

 

It is in this period between Phase 1 and 2 of the Kelvin Hall Project that I often worry about public perception of what it actually is. Making the collections accessible is one thing, getting the public to understand the endeavour is another. While an incredible resource in its own right, prior to the completion of Phase 2, Kelvin Hall will function best as an incredible supplement to Kelvingrove Museum, and I hope the public appreciate this; my message to them when it opens next year is simply, use it. Few museums in the world can offer so much of their collections in one place like that; I very much doubt Osborne’s new storage centre in London will be particularly close to its national museums (which are already half an hour from each other). Those stores will make hidden treasures visible if you make time to seek them out, Kelvin Hall meanwhile, will have brought them to you.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 01.12.2015

Duties and Charges

crowds around Rosetta Stone, British Museum - image © Stephanie Pearson

Crowds around the Rosetta Stone, British Museum – image © Stephanie Pearson

A little over a year ago I attended the first in a series of “Museum of the Future” debates at the British Museum. The theme of this particular event was accessibility and how the institution could make changes to its operations in order to cope with its increasing visitor traffic. As you would expect from a public forum, there were good ideas and terrible ones too, and it is interesting to see that both the best and worst of those tabled at the event have come to prominence in recent weeks.

The best idea was undoubtedly that the British Museum needs a bigger entrance. Its current size presents the dual negatives of being both impractically small for the sheer volume of visitors who pass through it, but it is also distinctly unwelcoming when viewed from the gates of its main entrance on Great Russell Street. I suggested at the time that creating new entranceways would negate the aura of privacy created by small doors atop grand flights of stairs, as IM Pei’s pyramid has done at Paris’ Louvre, and by the 2011 refurbishment of the National Museum of Scotland. The British Museum is reportedly considering widening its existing two-metre front door in order to improve visitor flow, which may do little still to increase the sense of “welcome” portrayed by its problematic entrance but it’s an improvement none the less.

Speaking of welcome, a consideration that certainly isn’t is the idea proposed by one member of the audience at the debate that the museum could increase its income by charging “foreign visitors” to enter. This was rightly met with groans of derision at the time so it is surprising to see it now being discussed. To be more specific, the British Museum is considering levying a charge for the admission of commercial tour groups. As annoying as they can often be, standing around looking confused with their matching caps and selfies sticks, this is discriminatory and unacceptable.

Despite its name, the British Museum is, in its own words, “a museum of the world, for the world.” So to charge some of the world and not the other is unfair. I appreciate the grievance that these tour operators in London are profiting from their free service however any charge to the companies will be passed onto their customers, creating an indirect entry fee which is not permissible. If tourists want to pay someone not to tell them how simple it is to get the Tube to Tottenham Court Road and walk around the corner, more fool them.

The continued diversity of the British Museum’s collection is also largely predicated on the fact that it is exhibited for free. Take the high profile Parthenon Marbles for example. One of the museums key counter-arguments in the repatriation debate is that the objects are part of the greater heritage of all civilisation, not just Greece, and they are more ethically placed in an institution that is easier to visit and won’t charge visitors to see them. Having already surrendered the argument that the marbles cannot be moved by loaning the statue of Ilissos to The Hermitage in St Petersburg earlier this year, you would imagine they’d be keen not to surrender a further, and more legitimate claim to their retention.

Jonathan Jones, The Guardian’s answer to an arts Jeremy Clarkson goes further, stating he believes that, “tourists should be giving the British Museum money, and so should the rest of us.” He believes UK museums should be striving to emulate their fee-charging counterparts in France and Spain, not the other way around. He is wrong though. Museums are struggling financially due to government cuts which could see many lose as much as 40% of their funding, not because people aren’t paying for tickets. Free culture is not only desirable, the MoMA’s PS1 in New York for example has recently used a grant from the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation to waive entrance fees to citizens for a full year, but free culture also works.

Glasgow is great example. Currently playing host to the 2015 Turner Prize, the eyes of many in the art world will be in and on the city at a time when a commitment to the arts made during its European City of Culture year in 1990 is really coming to fruition. Glasgow now boasts a world-class civic museum service offering nine different free museums and galleries. Investment in these services was predicated on a trickle-down service economy that would rejuvenate a city struggling socially and economically with its post-industrial status. Take Finnieston for example, it is not by chance that the Kelvingrove Museum’s 2006 refurbishment coincided with what was the beginning of a blossoming bar and restaurant scene. One that has gone on to provide a leisure infrastructure capable of meeting the demands of The Hydro arena and cemented the area as Glasgow’s chief entertainment destination.

While the museum cannot take all of the credit for this, along with the Museum of Transport (then still residing at Kelvin Hall) it provided a cultural spine upon which to flesh out the skeletal area with the “cappuccino economy” City of Culture 1990 had aimed to provide by driving visitors into it. Look at any of the other Glasgow postcodes experiencing similar rejuvenations and you will find cultural institutions close by; Partick and Dumbarton Road served by the new Riverside Museum, Dennistoun in walking distance from the People’s Palace and St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Art and Life, and the Tramway Gallery and Burrell Collection in Shawlands.

Most observable of all however is that all of these venues are free, to everyone, and they always should be. The public funding which has kept them so has helped improve these parts of the city for residents and visitors alike. The cut-happy government should recognise this. Diverting the public money that keeps museums free out of the sector and then forcing them to recoup it through entry fees actually costs people more. Individuals like Jonathan Jones would be wise to remember that it is museums who should be charged with bettering peoples lives, not the public for the privilege.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 10.11.2015

Sticks in the Mud

bluesteel

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.

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.