Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

Another audio guide – for a factory?

In new content on December 24, 2010 at 10:02 am

Since becoming my own boss a few years ago I’ve picked up some strange pieces of work. But this has to perhaps be the strangest.

I’ve just finished writing an audio guide for a Stannah factory – that’s right, the people who make the chair lifts for stair cases.
Do you know, it’s been an absolutely fascinating process. No word of a lie. They are such lovely people at Stannah – it’s been a family-owned business for over 100 years. They’re based in Andover and it’s been a joy to go and visit them a few times, to see how their world-famous stair lifts are made.

I never thought I’d know as much as I now do about steel fabrication, paint plants, rail bending technology and light-industry in general. It’s fascinating how many processes and checks and balances go into producing something like a stair lift.

The question everyone has asked me is – who is it for? Who wants to go on a factory tour? Good question. It’s not as if it’s Cadbury World. They asked me, through the lovely people at ATS Heritage, to put together to create a cohesive tour of their factory that told a story, rather than what they offered before which was rather disjointed. While the guys on the factory floor know a lot about how their machines work, they are not professional story-tellers – which I guess I am. So, with them, I structured a tour that I thought made sense and wrote it all up.

We’re recording an audio version of the tour now, but we’ve also provided Stannah with cue cards, so that they can listen to the tour and then deliver it themselves.

I’ve learned a huge amount on this project and I’ve met some lovely people. In fact, if anyone else wants a tour writing for a place that you might not think needs one, I’d be happy to come and have a nosy round!

Happy New Year all.


New museum for Oxford

In Museum [Insider], Museums, new content on December 21, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Oxford has been the centre of much museological interest in recent years, with major redevelopments taking place at the Ashmolean and the Pitt Rivers and with countless smaller museum and library interventions and world-class exhibitions. Now the city is set to play host to another new museum – The Story Museum.

It’s being housed in a building in the city centre which has already been secured. The revamped structure will open to the public in 2014. The plan of how they will get to that point is covered in an article on Museum [Insider].

The museum aims to be a place where children and adults can explore stories – old and modern and from around the world – and learn about their creators. There is mounting evidence that enjoying a rich variety of stories as they grow helps children to fulfil their potential. It can even break cycles of deprivation.

This won’t be just a museum, though. The Story Museum is already taking story performances, exhibitions, activities and ideas to schools and communities. We will watch with interest to see what happens there next .

Word of the Year

In Awards on December 21, 2010 at 9:41 am

The final instalment in my annual award ceremony is here. Unlike the other awards Word of the Year 2010 hasn’t simply been decided by me in my ivory tower. Instead, I invited some other people round to my ivory tower to tell me what they think the most important word of this year has been.

I was looking for a word that will sum up the spirit of the last twelve months when we look back at 2010 in, say. a decade or so. Will we remember this year for a landmark shift in British politics, for the ash cloud which dominated and disrupted our travel plans or for a previously unheard of musical instrument?

It turns out there is a three-way tie between the largest words in this picture:

You can view the wordcloud (which is one of my favourite words of the year) in full at

Thanks to all those who took part. The voters are all freelancers who I’ve met through various connections over the years. They are lovely people who, like me, celebrate the freedoms (and appreciate the frustrations) of being a self-employed creative. They all deserve a quick mention, so if you fancy a browse of the cream of the creative and entrepreneurial talent in London right now, just scroll down here and take a look at their websites.

The voters were:
Alan Shaw, developer of the iPhone app GPSMS
Tegwen Tucker, actress and voice over artist
Alyson Webb of the cultural app consultancy Frankly, Green and Webb
Ann Curtis, editor of the online magazine Museum [Insider]
Gerlinde Gniewosz, owner of educational app developer Zuztertu Ltd
Yang-May Ooi, business coach at ZenGuide Coaching
Sue King, designer of bespoke glassware pieces
Kath Cockshaw, freelance curator and project manager
Debbie Bartlett, 3D design guru
Catriona Ryan, director of the Armchair Theatre Company
Cathleen Taylor, Events Director at the Association of Celebrity Assistants
Kate Paul, author of many museum and gallery audio guide scripts
Tim Groves, theatrical marketing guru
Angie MacDonald, owner of ZenAngie website design studio
Maria Blyzinski and Sian Flynn of the creative cooperative The Exhibitions Team

Exhibition of the Year

In Awards, Museums on December 15, 2010 at 9:48 am

What has been your favourite museum/gallery exhibition of 2010? Here are my top four…

Runners up:

Henry Moore (Tate Britain, London) – This beautiful show brought together a huge range of Moore’s work into one space – not an easy task when there are some enormous sculptures needing to be displayed alongside incredibly detailed drawings. But I hugely appreciated the sensitive juxtaposition of both large and small sculpted objects along with his moving drawings of the lives of miners and people living in the London Underground in the Second World War. The display even persuaded me to invest in the catalogue, which is almost unheard of.

The Science of Painting (National Gallery, London) – This exhibition was a real diversion for the gallery in terms of their temporary displays. It unpacked the conservation stories behind some of the paintings in the Gallery in an engaging way, explaining complex terminology and really making visitors look at the pictures. The lively and well-structured interpretation meant that viewing the exhibition was effortless and I even saw someone using the printed glossary leaflet next door in the NPG to look up an art term she didn’t understand in one of their labels! It’s a shame there’s no online legacy for the project. Nothing, not even a page on their website for me to direct you to. They lose out.

Haus der Musik (Vienna) – This interactive exploration of the nature of sound – with lots of toys and musical interactive to play with – is followed by an explanation of Vienna’s significance in the history of Western music. The culmination is a chance to get up on the rostrum and conduct the Vienna Phil!

And the winner is…

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes (V&A, London) – There was a good chance I was always going to love this exhibition. I remember getting excited about seeing it when it was first announced a few years ago. But because I’m interested in the subject matter it did make me somewhat nervous going in. Would it be the same as all the other V&A exhibitions? (I like them, but I rarely rave about them.) Would it match my expectations?

Wow, it did. And more. It’s a really well-told story about the development of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes project. Although not that many objects belonging to him remain, the V&A have managed to bring out some of the back story of the man – his personality, his foibles, his peculiarities.

While the exhibition does tend to stick to the V&A’s usual interpretive format of ‘storytelling –> pretty dresses –> storytelling –> pretty dresses’ (I’ve ranted before about how I’d prefer to see costume and fashion used as storytelling devices, rather than illustrative of the point they’re trying to make) it manages to present a strong and – I think – captivating story through art, posters, design, personal belongings and fashion. I finished each section with the same question – what happened next?!

The star of the show – and indeed the year, for me – was the ‘staging’ of the V&A’s largest object in a dramatic audio-visual presentation (by Newangle). That has to be one of the finest combination of sound and images I’ve seen in 2010. I won’t ruin the surprise, but do go and see it.

You’ll have to hurry though as the exhibition closes on 9 January.

The newly inaugurated Interpretive Catastrophe of the Year award goes to RMS Titanic Inc. They clearly have some great objects in their ‘collection’ and they’ve put on a very showy display at the O2, but they completely forgot to tell a story in their exhibition about the ship. Boo – that’s £15 I won’t get back.

Other awards already announced this year are:

iPhone app of the Year
Museum object of the Year
London terminus of the Year

More to follow before Christmas…

We’ve turned back time

In Museums on December 12, 2010 at 6:23 pm

So it’s all finished. The BBC TV series Turn Back Time ended this week, having taken a group of shopkeepers back to six historical periods between 1870 and 1970, testing their abilities to run their own business in a different climate. The results made for really interesting programmes which I think helped people to understand more about the pressures of daily life of independent traders on our nation’s high streets. It also reinforced for many the links between economic and political history and how they affected the social fabric of Britain over time. (You can still watch episodes from the series on iPlayer. And there is a round-up of some of the blogosphere response to the programmes online too.)

The travelling exhibition, which I curated for the BBC with the live events company Innovision, has also come to an end. The interactive history pop-up-shop has been on the move around the country of late, visiting 11 towns in the last seven weeks. Visitor numbers have been huge – much more than we anticipated in many places. The last shop closed this evening in Armagh.

What has been most gratifying is seeing people engage to an incredibly high level when in the exhibition. People weren’t just coming in for a moment and then disappearing – they were sticking around and enjoying the space, reminiscing, interacting with the live interpreters, reading the displays and contributing to the local timeline.

It’s a credit to the BBC that the project was ever conceived. The Hands On History project is looking to help people engage with history in an interactive way and at a much deeper level than they might be used to. This exhibition has really helped people to turn back time.

Here’s a quick round-up of some of the online reviews of the exhibition:

Yorkshire Post – featuring a video of behind the scenes
Cornwall’s Coolest
Norwich Heart
Bradford Telegraph & Argus
Frost Magazine
The Express
Stockport Story

Museum object of the year

In Awards on December 11, 2010 at 10:04 am

The third instalment of my 2010 awards is a new category for this year. It celebrates an iconic object I’ve seen for the first time with my own eyes in the last twelve months. It is, of course, completely dependent of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. And what I find impressive.

Runners up

The Alfred Jewel (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
I’d never really wondered about why it was so significant, but it’s actually a hugely beautiful piece. And it’s one of the most significant archaeological finds in the UK, ever.

Gutenberg Bible (Lambeth Palace Library, London)
There’s something strangely humbling about being in front of one of the first books ever printed. It looks just like any other book, but it’s certainly got a special something about it. It was printed in 1455. As our American cousins might observe, that’s so old!

Titanic bell (O2, London)
This object, on its own in a spotlit display case, was a great way to start an exhibition. Raised 2.5 miles off the Atlantic seabed, it’s an amazing icon of the fated ship. It’s just a shame that the rest of the exhibition was such a let down.

And the winner is…

Michelangelo’s David (Accademia Gallery, Florence)
Well there aren’t many more iconic pieces of sculpture in the world than this. Of course in Florence we saw countless other masterpieces, but this one really does stick out (no pun intended). I’ve marvelled at the cast of this in the V&A for years, but it’s even more special when it’s in the beautiful setting of the Accademia, where it belongs.
(NB: if you’re ever there, don’t forget to turn around and look at the collection of amazing half-finished Michelangelo sculptures , also known as the Gallery of the Slaves.)

Getting to see such amazing objects as these is one of the reasons I love working in the museums and heritage sector.
What have you seen this year that impressed you? Drop me a line with your favourites.

London rail terminus of the year

In Awards on December 9, 2010 at 9:10 am

As a freelance museum consultant I spend a lot of time on the road – or more precisely the rail – travelling around the country to see clients. I’m based in London, so I find myself quite regularly using the various terminus stations around the edge of the city centre to get trains out to farflung places. At the moment I’m spending a lot of time in the southwest region, working on audioguide and multimedia guide projects.

So, for the next instalment in my annual awards, which started earlier this week with my favourite iPhone apps of the year, I ask you to consider your favourite London train station (no really). Here’s my verdict…

Runners up

Paddington – The judge(s) noted the excellent range of facilities and shopping opportunities when en route to the west country. Favourites include a very compact – yet well-stocked – M&S Food and an outlet of Paul.

Waterloo – ten years ago you wouldn’t have rated Waterloo as one of the top stations in London, but it’s sharpened up its game of late. I find it particularly good for promotional freebies. Best win this year was a pot of hot porridge on a cold morning.

And the winner is …

St Pancras – An easy choice, really. We all know you can have champagne before a train journey. But did you know there are TWO M&S Food stores in the station? It’s an iconic building in London and it will be for years to come. Plus with trains about to run direct to Germany in 2011, it’ll be even more useful. And the building work taking place next door at Kings Cross means it’ll soon be even better.
Do you agree? Got a better nominee? Let me know.

iPhone app of the year

In Awards on December 7, 2010 at 11:25 am

It’s December, which means it’s time for the award ceremonies to kick off once again. Last night saw the announcement of the Turner Prize at Tate Britain, and I know you’ll all be watching eagerly for who wins the World Stupidity Award, and Postman of the Year.

Last year I launched my inaugural online awards, giving prizes for my favourite museums, books, sandwiches and facebook status updates, amongst others. This year I shall be awarding more of the same, plus some entirely new categories, along with details of the runners up in each field. First up are what I consider to be the finest apps of the year for a geek with an iPhone.

Runners up …

GPSMS – your friends will always know where you are with this mapping app, which pinpoints where you are and sends a message with your location to a contact in your phone. It’s particularly useful when meeting up in a large or crowded place, such as Hyde Park on a summer’s day or at a music festival. And it’s also good if you’re lost and want to show someone where you are. Or if, like me, you live on a street with an unconventional numbering system.

Words with Friends – a highly addictive scrabble-like game to play on the move. Download it at your peril.

FlightRadar24 – what’s that plane in the sky? Why, it’s a British Airways A320 on its way to Heathrow from Madrid. Instant informational gratification. Amazing for plane geeks!

And the winner is …

London Cycle – always know where the nearest Boris Bike is, and where you can drop it off. Vital if you’re running late for a meeting and need to hot foot it across the West End.

Hands on History to two more locations

In Museums, new content on December 3, 2010 at 3:43 pm

The BBC’s travelling exhibition about the history of the British high street opens today in two more locations: Bradford and Louth. The show has already been to 8 other places around the UK and next week makes its final journey to Northern Ireland where it will go on display in Armagh.

The exhibition coincides (on purpose!) with the BBC ONE series Turn Back Time: the High Street, which also finishes next week. If you’ve been watching it you’ll have seen the families involved moving through different time periods each week, trying to run their business in a new era. Last week was the swinging 60s, when the first supermarket opened on the recreated high street. Next week might be more austere however, as the Winter of Discontent comes to life.

Regular viewers will also now know Karl Sergison, who I got to interview when I was curating the exhibition for the BBC – we ran a little story about him and his family in a timeline about the history of British grocers. He’s just let me know that his new website is up and running at He’s certainly quite a character!