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Archive for 2017|Yearly archive page

Belarus doesn’t get many tourists

In Museums, Places on November 13, 2017 at 2:20 pm

“Why have you come here?”

“Tourism.” I smiled a hopefully at the Belarussian border guard.

He inspected our passports at length, only the creaking of his leather boots and the crackle of his cigarette breaking the seemingly endless silence. This uneasy welcome was to be repeated during our stay in Belarus.

It gets perilously cold in Minsk in the winter and the windows of most bars and restaurants in the city are covered over, meaning tourists can’t peek in to see if a venue has any customers, or even if it’s the kind of place one would want to be in anyway. I lost count of the number of times I turned on my heels at the door, realising I’d stumbled into yet another strip club or casino. As soon as we found a place where the waitress wasn’t dressed in underwear we’d use basic Russian and melodramatic pointing to order dumplings and cheap beer.

At the National Art Museum we managed to communicate – via schoolboy French and yet more pointing – that we wanted to enter and, despite the reservations of the cashier, purchase tickets. The only person we found who spoke English in the otherwise empty gallery was the cloakroom attendant. As she took our coats she asked, “Why have you come here?”

“Tourism and museums,” I proffered, and, now emboldened by a few days in the city, “and to see your many beautiful buildings.”

She shrugged. But the buildings are part of why I was there.

Minsk is an architectural time capsule. Looking down the central highway of Nyezhavizhimosty Avenue that links Independence Square and Victory Square you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Soviet Union’s plan for a grand boulevard to rival the Champs-Élysées had been realised. Despite being essentially flattened in the Second World War, Stalin rebuilt the city at speed and in a modern, yet grandiose, style.
The huge concrete blocks don’t quite fit with the classical columns though, the garish colour choices aren’t in keeping with the grand European vista they seek to imitate, and the prominent KGB head office is slightly unnerving. But the endeavour is impressive.

It turns out that even the most hardened fans of lurid concrete and Brutalism can have too much of a good thing. In a moment of weakness we ventured into the Grand Café, somehow untouched by the Belarussian design palette, where we happily found smoked salmon, sirloin steak and Italian espresso for just a few roubles. We also found a bored waitress who spoke fluent English.

“Why have you come here?” she asked, while we gorged ourselves on treats. Sensing she was the first person we’d met who wasn’t an informant we replied honestly, explaining our fascination with Soviet design and architecture and with museums in the post-Soviet world.

“I would love to go to London one day,” she told us, while acknowledging quietly that a trip outside Belarus would be highly unlikely.

“This is a dictatorship,” she concluded while preparing us more martinis. “I still don’t understand why you’ve come here.”

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The arts are thriving across the north

In art, galleries, Museums on October 31, 2017 at 3:48 pm

For a few years the predominant news story about the UK arts sector has been about constraints, cutbacks and cost-effectiveness (i.e. doing the same but for less money). But a clutch of new and refurbished art galleries opening across Yorkshire and the north of England have given us all hope that the future for the cultural sector is brighter than might have been thought. Indeed, there’s a sense of optimism in the air. Investment in the region is paying off …

Leeds Art Gallery has just reopened after an extensive refurbishment at a cost of £4 million. While restoration work on the Victorian building was underway a barrelled ceiling was uncovered and has been transformed into a beautiful top-lit space for displaying sculpture. The gallery is once again at the heart of the civic centre of the city, sandwiched between the library and Henry Moore Institute.

Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery also reopened in October after a £3.8 million redevelopment. Here Edwardian architecture has been polished up and combined with new spaces for exhibitions and public events. Their opening exhibition Pioneers of Pop seems to be as fresh faced as the institution now is.

A few miles south, the town of Bishop Auckland is home to a brand new arts venue. The Mining Art Gallery is the first institution of its kind to celebrate art made by miners who worked underground. In an area that has seen so much uncertainty and necessary economic diversification since the decline of coalmining in the area, celebrating the mines and their creative output is seen as a hugely positive step. It’s the first venue to open as part of The Auckland Project which will see more exciting museums and galleries opening in Bishop Auckland in coming years.

Developments such as the revamped The Piece Hall in Halifax and the refitted JORVIK Viking Centre in York are creating economic income for the region from increased tourism, which always benefits the wider arts sector.

And while Hull’s year as UK City of Culture is coming a close this part of the country is also looking forward. The Great Exhibition of the North in summer 2018 will be another focus of artistic talent and activity to keep momentum in the region going.

So rather than doom and gloom, the artistic future of the north is looking rather positive.

Keep the funding, and the visitors, coming.

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

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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Posters and protest at People’s History Museum

In Museums on January 2, 2017 at 11:20 am

As revolutionary fervour spread across central and south America the USA had few reservations about encouraging dictatorial regimes which kept the people in their places. It’s now firmly understood that the CIA was directed to support counterrevolutionary activity in Latin America in the 1970s and 80s, although the exact nature of US involvement is likely not to be uncovered for some time.

cia-cia-cia-by-paul-peter-piech-collection-of-jim-reed-steve-slackThe message of this poster ‘CIA CIA CIA’ is, however, unambiguous. The artist Paul Peter Piech (1920–96) made this print in 1983, responding to events that were unfolding in Nicaragua and, in particular, to the CIA’s involvement in the country. He raises his own hand – that’s his arm printed on the paper – directing attention to what was happening.

In 1979 the Sandinista National Liberation Front toppled the regime of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The Somoza family’s control of the country had been backed by the US for over forty years. Following the revolution commentators around the world weren’t really sure who had taken over the country – guerrillas? Leninist revolutionaries? Social radicals? Nationalists? Communists?

Amidst the confusion, the USA decided to intervene. By 1983 there’d been a huge escalation of US action in Nicaragua conducted by CIA-organised counterrevolutionaries, known as the contras. American intelligence was accused of placing bombs in public places, of plans to murder high level individuals and of plotting economic sabotage, all with the aim of destabilising the new, revolutionary government.

The US provided millions of dollars in support of the contras and the death and destruction that ensued has left a mark on Nicaragua’s relations with the successive administrations.

‘CIA CIA CIA’ doesn’t leave much to the imagination about the artist’s response to US involvement in Central and South America. This is art with a clear message.

Born in New York to Ukrainian parents, Piech initially trained as a graphic artist. After a posting to Britain during Second World War he studied printmaking at the Royal College of Art and settled in the UK. His work as a graphic designer saw him create schemes for BP, ICI and British Steel, but away from the corporate world he formed his own printworks where Piech was able explore his political beliefs and expand the art of typography. By the end of his career he was known as much as a humanitarian and campaigner as he was an artist, creating striking prints, posters, woodcuts and linocuts for the likes of the CND and Amnesty International.

The arm raised up here has ‘NICARAGUA?’ emblazoned across it.

In March 1983 Pope John Paul II visited the country and refused to condemn the contra terror. Piech takes the opportunity to move Nicaragua back into public perception.

He’s well aware of recent events in the region, hence the other arm featuring the word ‘CHILE!’

The CIA was suspected of creating propaganda and economic pressure ten years previously in Chile and there are claims the Nixon administration attempted affect the outcome of a general election there in 1973, by both hard and soft means.

Piech is taking a moment remind us that, despite warnings from history, some lessons are never learned. ‘Never again’ is a refrain we hear related to the Nazi atrocities of the Second World War – a message the world has clearly not heeded. His choice of iconography here and its suggest link to the CIA is clearly making a reference to unlearned lessons of the past.

By the time this print was made in 1983, Piech had moved beyond simply calling out something in the world he wanted to change. He’s highlighting an ongoing problem – that which he saw of American interference and imperialism.

It would be difficult to evaluate the specific impact this poster had on the US government’s multi-million dollar project to influence politics in Latin America. But Piech despised apathy and saw printmaking as part of his response to injustices and atrocities taking place around the world as part of the wider international peace movement.

Art can play a strong role in active protest. The artistic responses of the likes of Ai Weiwei, Grayson Perry and Banksy today provide us with alternative commentary on current events. Artists have sought to make us think differently about the world around us for generations. And in the case of this poster, they even seek to remind us of relevant historical events.

It’s important, therefore, that the pieces like this are allowed to make their way into collections. Artistic responses to events are evidence for the historians future to interpret how we respond to the world around today.

A selection of Piech’s posters, including this one, is on display at the People’s History Museum, Manchester. Dedicated to all Defenders of Human Freedoms, The Art of Paul Peter Piech is open until Sunday 17 February 2017.

Image: Collection of Jim Reed, with thanks.

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