Monday, 28 July 2014

Pressured Vs Precious Time

Working in family spaces within galleries and museums, I have observed a marked difference in the way parents and grandparents interact with their children and grandchildren. I call this the Pressured Vs Precious divide.

Parents often ask closed questions that allow them to check if their child is reaching those all-important developmental milestones such as: "What colour are you using?" or "How many ... are there?"

Moreover if their child veers off task, more often than not, parents attempt to steer their child back on track, providing direction like a teacher. This approach is understandable given the personal responsibility parents feel in providing as many learning opportunities for their child as possible. They attempt to validate these efforts and perhaps reassure themselves by ticking knowledge boxes. 

Playing games in the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood UK. 

Grandparents, Aunties and Uncles however are often more content to engage in make-believe play with children in their care; be it creating a collaborative drawing together or building a hamburger out of cushions in the foyer. They are more likely to ask open ended questions and allow the child to make choices for themselves such as: "Tell me more about your drawing." or "What would you like to do now?"

They appear to be more relaxed, content to simply enjoy the child's company and be in the moment. Perhaps this is because they have already been through the pressures of life, raised their own children and now they are at a point where time with the next generation is most precious.

Have you noticed the Pressured Vs Precious time divide playing out in your workplace?
If galleries and Museums are so different to school classrooms, how can we as interpretative staff engage families and respond to these different relationship dynamics?

I'd love to hear your observations.

Drawbridge - an interactive theatre and visual artwork by Polyglot, Melbourne Australia. 

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Good Guide = Game Changer

Alice in Wonderland, Illustration by Sir John Tenniel

When visiting museums or historic sites, do you enjoy exploring with a guide or prefer to go it alone?

Whilst working as a guide at the National Portrait Gallery in 2010. I read a blog post by Nina Simon on museum tours. In her own words, Nina is 'not typically a fan' however a participatory experience with an exceptional facilitator proved to be a game changer.

Registrar Alli Burness' also prefers the latter, though a collection of intimate experiences with local guides on her recent European adventures have also prompted her to reconsider. Alli's post on Entropic Museum Tours immediately brought to mind an encounter I'd had with a guide almost 10 years ago, in the Summer of 2004.

I was traveling through Europe as a GAP student with a group of girlfriends. The others wanted to make a day trip to tourist-ridden Pisa and take their token photographs leaning against the tilting tower (on a side note - isn't it unsettling when you compare holiday snaps with friends, only to realise you've stood in the same spot or composed practically the same image?) Having been to Pisa with my family some years before, I opted instead to visit a private house and garden just near Florence (the name escapes me now).

Venturing out alone, I took a public bus to the closest town and then slowly climbed the steep dirt road winding uphill past lazing dogs and crumbling villas. Upon arrival at said house and garden, I rang the doorbell, paid my entry fee and was delighted to find I had the entire property to myself - not another backpacker in sight.

As I sat on a bench eating my packed lunch, a gardener pruning hedges across the way put down his tools and struck up a conversation. I spoke very few words of Italian, and he only broken English, but we bumbled on animatedly for the better part of an hour. He went out of his way to show me around the gardens, revealing hidden grottos, smelling flowers, pointing out twisted old trees and gesturing broadly to indicate the vast olive plantation which his father and grandfather had tended before him.

He was driving back to Florence after his shift and kindly offered me a lift. As a teenage young girl on her own, I considered my parents' stern warnings to exercise caution and never accept rides from strangers. Of course I also ignored them, and gratefully accepted.

About half way home, my driver pulled over without warning. Urging me to stay put, he jumped from the car and disappeared through a nearby doorway. News headlines proclaiming my ill-end reeled through my mind and just as I was about to unbuckle my seatbelt and abscond, my guide returned with a granita (frozen orange juice) in each hand, a local treat. "For you Bella - it's very hot today no?" he said grinning. Little did he know I had already frozen myself half to death with fear! We took off again down the hill and wound our way back to Florence via the backstreets, slurping happily.

A few years later, I visited South America and walked the inca trail of Machu Picchu with a local guide. She spoke candidly and openly, unafraid to share her personal opinion on everything from family to politics as well as discussing the benefits and drawbacks of tourism on the area. She knew the forest like the back of her hand and could point out a toucan perched on a branch some 50 meters away.

Time spent exploring historic cultural sites with local (and at times unofficial or spontaneous) guides has afforded me precious personal memories that linger in the crevices of my grey matter where didactic labels and audio tours have long since faded from memory.

Do you have an insightful guide tale? What attributes or approach did they possess that made the experience relevant and meaningful?

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Head and Heart, Science and Art

I have always been torn between my love of the Arts and my interest in Science. I originally enrolled in a double degree to dapple in both but later dropped the science to focus on the humanities. Many years on, I ‘m finding there's a palpable difference between science and art-based museums (read Nina Simon’s post on this) I experienced a collision of worlds on my recent trip to London.

I arranged to meet and observe members of the learning team at the Natural History Museum where I assisted in the Investigate room. School groups and families with young children are able to explore real museum specimens in a very hands-on way by measuring, weighing, drawing their chosen object(s) and recording their observations/findings.

I spent some time in the live butterfly tent and on the floor in the dinosaur and fossil area where one family (a mum and 2 young children) face-timed dad at work on their smart phones so he could be part of their museum experience. This got me thinking about onsite, offsite and online offerings, and the possible connections between these relatively compartmentalised methods of engagement. 
I also visited the Darwin Centre which I'd studied during my masters degree. Armed with my Nature Plus card (which when scanned enabled me to capture snippets of information to follow up later at home), I spiralled down the cocoon building past collection storage displays, scientists undertaking DNA extraction and tried my hand at packing for a research trip to the jungle via interactive touch table displays. 

Later in the afternoon, I migrated next-door to meet with the head of digital education at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was interesting to compare and contrast the two institutions whilst learning about their respective organisational values, staffing structures and interpretation strategies, especially in light of recent budget cuts in the UK.

The V&A fashion collection was definitely a personal highlight - I found myself gasping aloud impulsively at the exquisite examples on display. I love contrasting styles across the decades but I always settle on the drop waisted 1920s as my favourite era (I grew up watching House of Elliotmy best friend and I renamed ourselves after the 2 main characters Bea and Eve).

I also enjoyed wandering freely around the vast interior of the building. Its sheer scale enabled large artefacts such as fountains and staircases to be displayed in their original context relative to human scale. I really appreciated the very deliberate thought behind the arrangement of these spaces where building and object appeared to make happy bedfellows. 

Visitors seemed equally comfortable inhabiting the museum, taking their time, reclining peacefully on one another's laps and drinking in the atmosphere. With record hot temperatures, culture vultures soaked their feet in the central fountain. I found this informal communion on the green delightfully refreshing as museums are sometimes brandished as formal, foreboding places.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

European Musing - Tate Modern, London

Tate Modern is one of my favourite London haunts. On this occasion the ever-impressive turbine hall was closed for renovation (much to my disappointment as I've previously enjoyed fantastic installations there). However, I was excited to learn of a new building under construction. The vision of the new building is to redefine the museum for the twenty first century, integrating learning, display and social functions (read more about The Tate Modern Project). I liked the way these plans formed a mini exhibit for visitors to explore and that learning was given salient priority. 

I wandered through the permanent collection displays - people watching and eavesdropping in on casual conversations as much as observing the art in this instance. Since making museum studies my career, I'm intrigued as to how people make meaning for themselves within cultural spaces. I find the best way to obtain insight is simply to observe 'real-time' happenings disguised as a fellow visitor and by participating in the same offerings from that 'regular Joe' point of view. As soon as you survey or interview museum attendees their 'honesty' is tainted by expectation or "What do you want me to say?" syndrome. Moreover, it can be hard to maintain fresh eyes when you work in the industry and become embroiled in the backstories behind the scenes.

I hovered in the Surrealism activity room watching visitors try out some of the techniques employed by artists of the period such as 'this exquisite corpse.' The Tate has collaborated with Google and creators Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin to produce a digital version of this game called 
This Exquisite Forest which encourages global collaboration online. Why not start your own tree? Though you'll have to be prepared to relinquish control of your idea as it branches out into myriad interpretations. 

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

What's in a name?

Museo: Spanish word for Museum. 
According to ICOM (the International Council of Museums) a museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

Metamorphosis: A marked transformation in form, appearance, character, condition, or function. To alter, be reborn, change, convert, mutate, remake, remodel, reshape, transfigure, transform, translate, transmogrify.

V&A Museum of Childhood - London, UK
I’m fortunate in that my parents afforded me a strong cultural education. From a very young age I was enrolled in dance, drama, music and visual art classes, which exposed me to a wide variety of creative techniques and media. As a family, we visited many museums and historic sites (which were always at the top of our hit list when travelling). These positive early learning experiences fostered a love of material culture objects. So it’s really no surprise that I later decided to study museums and have come to work as an administrator, curator and educator.

Relationships between museums and their visitors have changed significantly over the past 200 years, indeed even in the last 30-odd years of my own life. From places of worship and quiet contemplation to ‘hands-on’ exploration sites providing 'edutainment' (though that’s putting the transition far too simply!) There's been an ongoing debate in both print and social media about whether this shift is a good or bad thing, but I’m not convinced it has to be an either/or scenario. I believe participative cultural citizenship has myriad forms and that meaningful museum experiences can be as diverse as the very visitors who seek them out.

My motivations for creating the museomorph blog are multi-fold:
  • To think: writing provides precious pondering time. It encourages reflection both on my day-to-day practice as a museum worker and first-hand encounters as a visitor.
  • To connect: blogging is a great way to link-in with likeminded professionals and bandy ideas about, even if we work with different collections or in opposite hemispheres.
  • To make a record: I’m curating my own collection of posts in an effort to capture significant turning points for museums as they shape shift alongside the societies they serve.