The joy of text

In Museums on November 10, 2015 at 3:20 pm

Someone told me recently ‘I can’t write.’

She can write – I’ve received emails from her and I once even saw her use a pen. I think she meant she doesn’t think she can write. I don’t believe this for a second.

I don’t consider myself very (at all) good at drawing. But I can still pick up a pencil and have a go at making a mark. That doesn’t make me an artist, but I can draw.

The same isn’t true for writing, I don’t think. While we might not be writers, many of us write every day – much more often than we pick up a pencil and draw. Updating a facebook status, making a shopping list, emailing a friend or colleague.

We write more and more text digitally today, of course, which means that when we write we are actually often typing on a physical or virtual, rather than writing. And maybe that perpetuates the myth that we’re not writers, but actually typists.

We’re constantly learning about how we write text, honing our skills all the time, without even noticing what we’re doing. I teach a course about museum text – I’m part way through a series of workshops about writing display copy for a museum which is about to embark on writing a whole new gallery. It can be a good time to stand back and look again at the process of how we put text together in the heritage sector and who we are actually writing for. It’s interesting to take museum people through the process of museum writing. The majority of copy is generated digitally, of course, but visitors will see it in a whole range of different outputs – from panels and labels to touchscreens, multimedia guides, projected on the wall and sewn into the carpet.

As part of the course we review lots of examples of text from other museums, which I’ve gathered together over the years. It’s all rather fun as we get to be (constructively) critical of other people’s work and, ultimately, come up with a ‘voice’ for the a project.

While I am passionate about words and text, I find that sometimes when I’m in a cultural institution I find it difficult to switch off my professional brain – I have to remember that I’m at play, not at work. Rather than enjoying an interpretive experience I find myself looking at interpretation, words, font, lighting, production techniques and the like, rather than immersing myself in the experience. And in the text. I should be bathing in the words, not judging them.

And so, from here on, I am going to try and embrace the joy of text as a treat. Words need to be a treat, rather than a work commodity.

We’re all writers. Never say you can’t write. Power to the words.

What did you un-learn at the museum today?

In Museums on October 28, 2015 at 1:25 pm

Museums spend a lot of time thinking about ‘learning’.

Learning is a loaded word, of course, with connotations of school, teachers and exercise books. And there has been plenty of good work done in the last decade or so to overturn that.

In a heritage setting we now think of learning as something much more than simply acquiring new knowledge or facts. The question ‘what did you learn at the museum today?’ has been almost eradicated from audience research questionnaires, at last.
Instead we think of learning as more holistic. The imparting and receiving of new knowledge and information, yes. But also of the exploration of understanding, insight, values, feelings and attitudes. Museums are places we can be inspired – to act, to create, to take on new skills, to dream. And all of this, I reckon, is learning.

So I was intrigued to see the word ‘un-learning’ the other day – the idea that we can change the way we think about something we already claim to ‘know’ and to re-learn it as something else.

I wonder whether un-learning ought to be something we add to the museum agenda?

Of course the museum can be an agent for helping people to think differently. Visitor outcomes – the objectives we set ourselves for what people will experience as part of a visit – are often written in a way that affects some form of attitudinal shift. Using objects with powerful emotional, historical or scientific stories, we can seek to alter the way people think about a subject.  Visitors might ‘un-learn’ in this scenario.

And we can also un-learn behaviours and attitudes towards heritage and history. I love it when I see a visitor who didn’t really intend to have a good time in a heritage setting, engaging to a high level and clearly enjoying themselves. Challenging preconceptions of a museum visit is just as much un-learning as is addressing misconceptions.

Some will debate whether ‘un-learning’ is learning. But I think I might start adding it to my checklist of visitor outcomes when I’m planning how to engage with visitors in the future.

How we evaluate what people have unlearned? That’s a different matter …

Reconnecting with the north

In Museums on August 23, 2015 at 10:15 am

Over the last few months I’ve been exploring Manchester and the north, reconnecting with the place where I grew up. Much has changed here since I left for the bright lights of London in the 1990s, but it’s great to be back. I find I’m loving (re)discovering such a wide cultural offering here and that the lights are just as bright as in the capital. Everything from museums and galleries, to sport and live gigs.

Part diary – and part to establish myself as a heritage consultant here – I’ve been writing a few articles about what I’ve found.

For The Skinny I wrote a review of Show Me The Money, a new temporary exhibition at the People’s History Museum exploring how artists have used money and finance as inspiration for creative work – from the South Sea Bubble right up to the current Greek debates about financial futures. I also skipped over the Pennines to York to write a piece for Northern Soul about the recently reopened York Art Gallery.

Back in Manchester I previewed the next exhibition at HOME – the new arts space. I Must First Apologise … is the work of two artists responding to scam emails. Since 1999 they’ve collected thousands of emails asking for our help and are now inviting us to think about who sends those emails and how we react to them.

But it’s not all been focused on life in the city centre. For the online magazine Creative Tourist I wrote a series of articles about how to get out of town using a handy £12 day ticket called ‘Wayfarer’. The day routes are themed around exploring nature, finding great food, walking in the hills, family activities and, of course, a day around exploring museums and heritage in the region.

And I selected some things to see at RHS Tatton’s flower show last month for The Manchester Wire.

I’ve also been keeping up the tweets and Instagram posts of things I find as I go about my life here.

Someone asked me recently if I’ve fallen back in love with Manchester – I actually don’t think I ever fell out with the city. But’s it’s been great fun getting back to grips with it. And there’s even more to explore …


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