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Carving beautiful things

In Museums on July 8, 2016 at 10:35 am

If you live or work in a British town or city, the chances are you are surrounded by a range of buildings, representing a range of styles. We have a strong architectural heritage in this country – from mock-Tudor beams to modernist clean lines and everything in between.

Sometimes it’s not the form of a building I’m struck by, but the decoration and ornaments on it. And something I’ve started to look more closely at is carved stone.

I never realised there are so many carvings around us. You’d think Neo-classical and Victorian buildings have most of this, but there’s also relief carving and lettering on buildings right up to today.

I’d not thought much of this, until I went on a relief stone carving course recently at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, for an article I was writing for the Northern Soul online magazine.

It took me a whole day to create a pretty awful relief carving on a large brick. Looking again at a swathe of hand-carved lettering on a war memorial or a huge carved mural now makes me stand back and appreciate the time and skill that goes into chipping away with a hammer and chisel.

Carving stone is a remarkably therapeutic process – taking something hard and cold and trying (in my case not all that well) to turn it into something smooth and beautiful.

But perhaps more important than the carved slab at the end of the day, what I appreciated most was the chance to stop, to think and to create something. In a busy world of hectic urban life and continuous news cycles, it’s important to stand back every so often and enjoy the process of making something.

Have a go – you might like it.

Museum objects as travel agents

In Museums on April 20, 2016 at 10:25 am

For me, museum objects are inspirational things. And I like to think that museums can seek to inspire visitors to do all sorts of wonderful things as a result of looking at the things in their collections. They can even inspire us to travel.

It’s the theme of a little film I’ve made, currently screening at The Museum and the Global Contemporary conference at the University of Leicester, which starts today.

There’s little point us seeking to be places of inspiration just for the sake of it. Here’s an example of what I mean …

A few years ago I was working on a museum exhibition about ancient Rome. When we were putting the project together someone in our team said “wouldn’t it be great if visitors to the exhibition were inspired to travel to Italy after leaving the exhibition?”

Of course, we’d no real way of measuring whether visitors did indeed book flights after seeing the exhibition. But it was a great way for us as a project team to think about what we wanted visitors to experience as part of their visit.

In museums we talk a lot about ‘visitor outcomes’ – what we want our visitors to know, understand, experience and feel when they are with us. In this little video I argue that we ought to place just as much emphasis on what they are inspired to do as a result of a visit as we do on communicating facts to them.

Museums can be didactic, sure. But let’s make them intentionally inspirational places too. Let’s get people so excited by museum objects that they are inspired to book flights.

Could artificial intelligence curate an exhibition?

In Museums on March 16, 2016 at 7:20 pm

The computers are rising up and stealing our jobs.

They can drive our cars.

They can beat humans at Go (reputedly the most complicated board game in the world).

Computers control the light and water on our vegetables as they grow; they pick our orders from warehouses and they know when to send us special offers or reminders to go back to the gym.

With the roles of the driver, the game player, the farmer and the personal trainer all under threat from the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), I was wondering what other jobs and roles computers might replace in the future.

Museum staff already rely on computers in many ways. We use them to store information about objects in collection databases; to monitor environmental conditions; to design exhibitions and of course to communicate with the wider world.

But could a computer do the job of a curator? Could a computer with AI put an exhibition together?

So much of the exhibition-making process is digitised. A computer could quite easily scan a database of objects or artworks and pick out a selection to put on display. Whether it chose them at random, or if it looked for something specific would be up for debate.

In a world, probably not too far away, AI could look at the facebook profiles of everyone who follows a specific museum and identify a trend in their activity – then look back at the collection and find some objects that are related to that trend. A computer could filter the objects to make sure they are all available for display or all in a certain format. It could probably make a suggestion as to how the items might be ordered in an object list and then, with the information in the database, come up with a piece of text about each one.

(Of course, the data in database is only ever going to be as good as that which has been entered by a person, but indulge my whimsy for a moment here.)

Space-planning software is quite widely used nowadays, so a computer could use AI could easily arrange the objects on a plan of the exhibition gallery so that people could actually see them.

Whether AI could choose an appropriate colour for the walls, generate a marketing campaign, put together a public programme of events or select which canapes to serve on the opening night are all still debatable.

But surely some aspect of the curatorial process – the part that many might argue is the most important – could potentially be handed over to the AI overlords, when they rule the planet. Humans will simply need to turn up to put the pictures on the walls and open the champagne.

This is of course fanciful thinking for the moment, but I wonder if anyone is ready to run a simulation of this yet? And are they brave enough to let a computer with AI free on their collection?

The results would be really interesting to see … or they could be terrifying. What if AI comes up with better ideas for exhibitions that we do?!

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