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Celebrating rejection

In Museums on August 17, 2017 at 3:46 pm

The life of a consultant means regularly pitching for work.

My freelance CV over the last decade or so in the museum sector looks pretty good. But I don’t win every project I apply for and sometimes the news of an unsuccessful pitch can be a blow.

Rather than glossing over those projects that I didn’t win or hiding them away in the corner, I thought I’d share them, in the spirit of being open and honest.

Today, I stuck my rejection emails to my office door, in an act of celebrating my own failures.

Why am I doing this?
It’s partially in response to a twitter post by Nick Hopwood @NHopUTS and subsequent blog post sharing some of his rejections for academic papers and research projects.

He says:
“the effect of not sharing our rejections publicly is that we (often unintentionally) uphold the illusion of uncompromised success.”

And I think Nick is right.

Challenging perfection
There’s a belief held by some that we consultants are problem-solvers. We swan in, offer a solution to a problem and swan away again. Well yes, we do do that – especially the swanning.

That doesn’t mean we know all the answers, though. This might come as a surprise to some, but it turns out I’m actually not completely perfect.

By choosing not to explore our own vulnerabilities or failures we consultants are, I think, contributing to an idea that we’re actually any better than anyone else working in the heritage sector. Often, museum consultants simply have wider experience, not better experience, than their clients. We offer perspective and we try to share the best practice that we’ve gathered by moving around within the sector, but we certainly don’t know all the answers.

Being humble
I’d like to think that by sharing a list of projects that I didn’t manage to win, it shows I have at least an ounce of empathy for others when things don’t go quite to plan – your rejected exhibition proposal, your failed HLF bid, your disappointing visitor numbers or shop sales. Life’s a competition, and sometimes we don’t win. We have to learn to deal with that.

It’s also good to take a dose of humility sometimes, and to learn some compassion for when I have to let others down gently. Some of the recurring phrases in the feedback listed here are a rather trite and I’d like to think that in the future I’ll be conscious of how I present negative feedback to others.

Celebrating failure
It turns out there’s nothing new in taking time to reflect on our failures within the heritage sector. There’s even a twitter account already dedicated to museum gaffs. @Museum_Oops is well worth a visit. And, of course, the Museum of Failure is a lesson in eating humble pie.

Go on, have a gawp
For clients of mine, potential clients, and other museum consultants, this post is perhaps a moment to enjoy some schadenfreude while looking at the bids where I wasn’t successful – especially if you won some of these nice gigs. If you did, my wholehearted* congratulations.

If you want to know about my successes, it’s very easy to see. My CV is right here for anyone to view – a half-decent array of projects over the years, I think, and I’m justly proud of it.

But if you want to see the other side of it, then here are my rejections.

Celebrating rejection

*half-hearted

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Being a critical friend

In Museums on April 11, 2017 at 3:31 pm

Sometimes we all need some tough love. Friends who tell it to you like it is are perhaps the best friends.

I’ve started work on a new project to create a forum for sharing best practice in photographic collections and archives – the Photographic Collections Network. I’m going to be their critical friend.

Subject specialist networks are funded by the Arts Council with the aim of creating a platform for the exchange of ideas, expertise, research and best practice in specific areas where no other body currently exists.

To date there’s not very little that’s brought together the vast range of photographic archives across the country. There are some big players in the photographic collections world such as the V&A, the Imperial War Museum, Tate and the newly rebranded National Museum of Science and Media. We’d expect these organisations to be networked and to know each other.

But what about the smaller archives of photography? Local studies libraries and county archive services hold enormous numbers of photographs. As do museums, businesses, community groups, places of worship etc.

The Photographic Collections Network aims to provide a forum that can bring these collections – and the people who care for them – together. A project co-ordinator and a researcher, both based in London, are now in place, working away on developing a programme of activity. And the whole project is being overseen by a steering group and managed by Redeye, based in Manchester.

My official title is ‘Evaluator’ but I don’t want to be seen as someone who’s going to test or examine the staff or members of this new organisation. Instead I’ll be keeping a watchful eye over the development of the network, asking some questions along the way and providing feedback as the project develops. So I think in this instance I prefer the title ‘Critical Friend’ to evaluator.

As an independent researcher I can offer an outside perspective – a fresh pair of eyes over the network’s plans and activity. But as someone who understands how collections and networks operate, I can also offer a little advice as we go.

I’ve created an evaluation framework, so that I’ve got something to judge their results against. Getting the organisation’s buy-in to this was important, so that we all know what I’m going to monitoring against. By describing now what we think success will look like in a year’s time, we can see whether the SSN achieved those goals – if so, how? – and if not, why not and what can we do better?

Over the next year I’ll watch the development of the network closely, talking with the staff and members, observing events and meetings and providing feedback on how it’s going. There might need to be some tough love, but there’ll also be some celebration of what’s gone well.

Friendly, constructive criticism. It’s quite straightforward to dole it out. I could do with some of that myself.

Museums can be intentionally provocative

In Museums on March 15, 2017 at 5:52 pm

Museums are great places for us to look at the world in a new way. The collections they hold are portals that allow us to view art, science and history with a fresh perspective and to think about the world differently. Museums are places of discovery where our minds are allowed to wander.

At least, that what’s they want you to believe.

I believe this is what museums aim for, but that in reality many museums regurgitate the same stories and the same views they have been doing for years. Centuries even.

I wonder if they museums could be intentionally provocative?

Provoking audiences
Received wisdom is a dangerous thing when it comes to creating museum interpretation. All too often the heritage sector plays it safe. Museums write what they think they ought to write and don’t necessarily push the boundaries. The words on the little pieces of card by the artworks are going to be read by the public, after all. And also peers from within the heritage sector.

What if museums didn’t write in an academic tone and tried to rock the boat a little? What if museums challenged not only their own versions of history, but provoked us as visitors to challenge ourselves? What if they made us uncomfortable??

Here are a few examples of what I mean by gentle provocation.

A Roman frontier
Hadrian’s Wall was built in the AD 120s as a frontier. It runs for over 70 miles right across England on the borderline of what was once the Roman Empire to the south and land occupied by Ancient Britons on the north. The Emperor Hadrian was marking the edge of the empire with a heavily fortified construction – a symbol of Roman power and control. It also acted as a defensive shield and an economic control zone.

Hadrian's Wall (Steve Slack)
Today Hadrian’s Wall is presented to the public as a frontier and as an architectural marvel. The tourist sites along it tell stories of the construction of the wall, Roman military and social life and also the landscape in which it sits. It’s displayed as a feat of design and engineering and of something the Romans were proud of.

It’s also a great place for a walk, with splendid views along the UNESCO-protected site.

If we in the heritage community are really as bothered about learning from history as we say we are, I wonder if we ought to also be encouraging visitors to Hadrian’s Wall to think again about what the wall represents?

Walls and barriers throughout history tend not to have worked out that well. Berlin. Gaza. Belfast. And now the US President wants to build another one?!

The custodians of Hadrian’s Wall could, if they wanted, invite us to overturn the idea that walls that keep people out (or in) are positive forces. By showing stories from both sides of the wall, we provoke people to challenge their own preconceptions about the monument, but also to reflect on our own lives in a different way. What do walls and barriers mean to us today? Should we celebrate Hadrian’s Wall?

Industrial heroes
Further south in England is the city of Manchester. Today it’s home to world-famous football teams and media companies, but 250 years ago it was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.

At the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester the men – and they were all men – whose technological advances made the revolution possible are celebrated. Their various scientific inventions that harnessed the power of nature and turned it into products – and money – show how the rapid explosion in production and wealth changed the world forever.

1903-212|LW_SCMU_1903_212   1860-4|TEXC100072|10307358

Take Richard Arkwright, for example, described by the museum as ‘Father of the Factory Age’ – and he well deserves this title. His cotton spinning machine and his early steam-powered factories allowed for production of cotton to increase rapidly and for money to flow into the country from across the British Empire.

But what also started right here in Manchester is the workers’ rights movement.

While we celebrate Arkwright as an industrialist, we need to remember that nearly two-thirds of his employees were children, who started work at the age of seven. He graciously allowed employees in Cromford, Derbyshire, a week’s holiday a year, on condition that they didn’t leave the village.

The conditions in which those grafting workers were expected to spend long periods of time are presented in Manchester’s People’s History Museum but they don’t get such a high profile in industrial museums. Or how about the fact that the whole Industrial Revolution was propped up by the Transatlantic Slave Trade. All that cotton came from somewhere, right? But that gets glossed over.

And so to does the role that the industrial revolution played in climate change.

In the slavery museum, the social history museum, the natural history museum and the people’s rights museum the Industrial Revolution is presented in a very different light.
Surely we all have to admit that a cotton weaving machine – as much as a technological advance as it may have been – has many more stories to tell than one of how we learned to process cotton in industrial quantities.

It might make for uncomfortable reading in an industrial context, but it’s true.

Why provoke?
There’s a question about whether museums should be challenging their visitors in this way.

Should they provoke visitors with alternative histories or ones that go against the norm? Or should the toe the line?

If you believe that museums have a mission to fulfil of being spaces of learning, reflection and change, then it’s fairly easy to say ‘yes’ to that. And if museums are repositories of collections that have multiple histories, surely they have a duty to explain them as fully as possible.

So Hadrian’s Wall becomes a place where we provoke visitors to challenge the idea of enforced borders. And industrial history provokes us to ask questions about human rights and the environment.

But a question remains about how far they should they go in being intentionally provocative.

Challenging environment
There are, of course, factors that need to be considered when taking this approach.
To start with the museum sector is a place where change tends to happen slowly. There will be traditionalists who don’t want to upset the academics and don’t want to rock the boat.

This much we know and this much we have been working with to persuade of the public benefit.

Taking this approach will require being brave – and for some that will be a challenge. It’s difficult to be provocative if you’re still insistent on being vague. And there’s always a risk that there’ll be some negative feedback – from visitors, from the media, from trustees and from peers.

Personally, I think these are all brilliant reasons FOR challenging the established story, not hiding away from controversy.

Being provocative
It’s worth acknowledging that many places are doing great work already, telling multiple stories – including the heritage sites I’ve mentioned above. These institutions are savvy – they know that by not acknowledging alternative histories they open themselves up to criticism and that by engaging with potentially difficult subjects they can create new conversations.

By showing new perspectives – and by provoking visitors – museums can generate conversations and potentially change attitudes. They can gain traction and media coverage. Positioning yourself as a museum which provokes might even attract a new audience and you could even end up becoming a source of inspiration to other institutions.

But if we are going to be provocative, we need to be brave.

Ways forward
Given these concerns, how then might museums start on their journey to visitor provocation? Here are a few thoughts on how it might happen ….

Have a go and see what happens
Write a label with a different history that challenges the norm and place it on public display for a day. Did anyone complain? Try it up there for two days and see if you get letters from angry visitors. Try it for a week.

Provide multiple viewpoints
Rather than simply describing something in a completely new way, you could provide two interpretations offering different perspectives, rather than just one. Be traditional and be provocative at the same time. Show the multi-vocality of museum collections.

Say it, don’t write it
If you’re not brave enough to write something provocative on a label and leave it unattended, try adding it to a tour or a live event. Museum tours have gone from strength to strength in recent years. The people at Museum Hack have a great knack for this and are exploring ways of engaging visitors by using guides, games and gossip.

Pass the buck
Rather than taking the risk yourself, try getting someone who doesn’t represent the mainstream museum voice to be provocative. Get a journalist or someone from a different organisation to write in a new way about an object in your collection and watch what happens afterwards.

Make it digital
Your social media community isn’t a hostile place – they’re your friends. Periscope your provocation, tweet it, Instagram the freak out of it. Stick it on you tube. And if you don’t like the reaction you can take it down.

Will you be provocative?
Being provocative in the museum space doesn’t mean being revolutionary. This kind of work could be quite simple and subtle. It doesn’t require rebranding an industrial museum as the National Museum of Human Exploitation, Slavery and Injustice. And it doesn’t involve spray-painting Hadrian’s Wall with a slogan about evil wall-builders.

Museums are cleverer than that. They can do it subtly. And they can certainly provoke their visitors for positive results.

Go on. Be a provocateur.

Images:  Richard Arkwright and Arkwright’s prototype spinning machine, 1769 both from Science Museum Group Collection Online. Accessed March 15, 2017. 

While writing this blog I thought it might be of interest to Museum Hack’s writing contest, so am entering it here.

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