Archive for the ‘what i’m reading’ Category

Comics at the British Library

In Museums, what i'm reading on May 2, 2014 at 10:52 am

Today the British Library opens a new exhibition about comics.

What I found really refreshing was that it takes us well beyond stereotypical comics such as Superman, Dan Dare and the Beano to new, dynamic and sometimes subversive places.

The comic art form is presented as a means of expressing the other, the underground, the non-conformist view, be it politics, anarchy, sex, gender, magic or identity. Comics have, for generations, been much more than teenage escapism and superheroes in tight outfits. From Andy Capp and the Fat Slags to heroes hanging out in gay saunas and even comics about generation rent.

I picked out a few of my favourite pieces and wrote them up into an article for Vada, an online magazine who have allowed me to grace their pages. Here’s the article …

Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK is at the British Library until 19 August


Shocking Shakespeare

In what i'm reading on April 30, 2014 at 4:26 pm

We’ve been treated to lots of Shakespeare of late, celebrating his 450th birthday last week. I marked the occasion with a trip to The Globe.

Titus Andronicus is surely Shakespeare’s most gruesome play. There’s blood, gore, the removal of tongues and hands and almost everyone dies. Some of the characters get cooked up in pies.

The Globe’s current production does justice to all of these, but also manages to tell a ripping good yarn. I didn’t think the blood and stumps – which were rather convincing – got in the way of the storytelling. There’s obviously comedy in the tragedy, but this is a production which seems to understand where to draw the line.

Or so I thought. But it seems 5 audience members last night perhaps took suspending disbelief a step far and passed out, right there in the theatre. I just thought the staff were carrying more dead characters off stage, through the standing crowd not paying punters who had fainted. The Globe say it’s not unheard of, especially in the summer months when people have to stand for a few hours in the heat. Or when there’s loads of fake blood.

The Telegraph ran a story about last night’s droppers today.

They picked up on a tweet I posted last night during the interval and included it in their piece, which was jolly nice of them.

And the Daily Mail too.

Titus Andronicus plays at The Globe until 13 July.

How do we know social science is ‘true’?

In Museums, what i'm reading on March 16, 2013 at 2:17 pm

I undertake quite a bit of audience research – helping organisations from the cultural sector to better understand the people who visit their buildings and consume their content.

We look at how people ‘learn’ when they are in an arts-based venue and how we can create the best content we can for them.

I was presenting some findings back to a client recently – it was a piece of research where we’d asked the same set of questions to around a couple of hundred people. The client asked me “how do you know these findings are true?”

I was a bit thrown by this.

What I think she meant was something along the lines of “how reliable is your data?” or “did you ask enough people “or this to be representative?” or even “are you sure your research wasn’t biased in any way?” I must have given her a good enough answer about my research methodology and the ways we try to ensure that our findings are as robust as possible.

I found myself pondering this question further. It took me back to my first journeys into the world of epistemology – how do we know anything is true?

I hark on to my clients all the time about the only real way to know what visitors are thinking is to ask them. It makes sense, logically. One can’t find out about another person’s thoughts and experiences with logic alone. But then I was suddenly getting rather nervous that my a posteriori research methods – which Descartes and Bentham would call anecdotal, at best – have the potential to be riddled with inaccuracies and could be very far from what the ‘truth’ might actually be.

But then I found myself listening to a thought-provoking – and dare I say it rather jolly – podcast by my good chum Nick Hopwood, an academic at University of Technology, Sydney who set my mind straight. If you’re interested in social science and how people analyse information, have a listen to the podcast here.

To cut a long story short, I came to the conclusion that doing research – talking to people, writing down what they say and then analysing that, flawed as it may be – is better than not doing it all.

I tend to get rather nervous whenever staff in cultural institutions start sentences with words like “Visitors think …” or “Visitors come here for …”. Unless I’ve planned the research project I’m sure I’ll be able pick holes in the methodology somewhere – but surely it’s much better to have done the research in the first place and to ‘know’ a bit more about what visitors really think, than simply sitting in a meeting room, closed off from the outside world, making a priori statements based on hot air.

Power to the social researcher. And to the heritage venue that commissions them!

25 words you wished were in the English language

In what i'm reading on June 21, 2012 at 2:57 pm

The English language is an amazing thing. It’s a truly international language – over the centuries it has gathered, stolen, pilfered and otherwise acquired new words from other languages, devouring them and assimilating them into itself at a rapid pace.

This evolving language is not without its absences, however. This article got picked up on the So Bad So Good blog earlier this year: Alex Wain’s 25 Words That Simply Don’t Exist in English.

These are all words that I wish we had in our language – words that would be really useful to writers and linguists. Instead we have to explain our meaning in long sentences. Such as the Japanese word age-otori (to look worse after a haircut) or the word from Easter Island tingo (to borrow objects one by one from a neighbor’s house until there is nothing left).

I only knew three of these words, some of which have passed into common parlance in English as far as I’m concerned:

Schadenfreude (German) – the pleasure derived from someone else’s pain;

L’esprit de l’escalier (French) – translated as ‘staircase wit’. The act of thinking of a clever comeback when it is too late to deliver it;


Waldeinsamkeit (German) – the feeling of being alone in the woods.

But there are many more here that I wished I knew. I’ll be trying to drop them into my writing in the future – with explanations of course.

Do go and read it – it’s rather fun.

The ever-changing nature of the English language was covered in an excellent exhibition at the British Library last year, called Evolving English. There are some remnants of its content available to read and podcasts to listen to online here.

Museum Gallery Interpretation and Material Culture

In new content, what i'm reading on May 31, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Hot on the heels of the new Museum [Insider] book, I’ve published again, just a week later! And just like the last one, this is just as niche and almost as costly.

I have a paper published in a new book called Museum Gallery Interpretation and Material Culture, published by Routledge. The book is an edited version of a conference I spoke at a few years ago with my colleagues David Francis and Claire Edwards from the British Museum. The three of us wrote our paper up into a chapter of the book, which appears alongside other people, including museum interpretation guru George Hein, who we got to share a stage with during a Q&A at the conference – a definite career highlight so far!

Our paper discusses how museums might create an object-centred interpretive approach to interpretation and how that is balanced with a more traditional story-led approach. We had undertaken some research at the British Museum and reported our findings here.

It’s quite a wide-ranging book:

1. Introduction . Juliette Fritsch

Part I: Situating Interpretation in the Museum Context
2. “The Museum as a Social Instrument”: A Democratic Conception of Museum Education. George E. Hein
3. Invoking the Muse: The Purposes and Processes of Communicative Action in Museums. Paulette M. McManus
4. Interpretation and the Art Museum: Between the Familiar and the Unfamiliar. Cheryl Meszaros, eds. Jennifer J Carter, Twyla Gibson

Part II: The Role of Interpretation in Art Galleries
5. Towards Some Cartographic Understandings of Art Interpretation in Museums. Christopher Whitehead
6. Art for Whose Sake? Sue Latimer
7. The Seeing Eye: The Seeing “I”. Sylvia Lahav

8. Part III: How Can We Define the Role of Language in Museum Interpretation?
Juliette Fritsch

Part IV: Interpretation, Personal Experience, and Memory
9. “I loved it dearly”: Recalling Personal Memories of Dress in the Museum. Torunn Kjolberg
10. Welcome to My World: Personal Narrative and Historic House Interpretation. Mariruth Leftwich
11. Narrative Museum, Museum of Voices: Displaying Rural Culture in the Museo Della Mezzadria Senese, Italy. Marzia Minore

Part V: Evidence-Based Practice
12. An Evaluation of Object-Centered Approaches to Interpretation at the British Museum. Steve Slack, David Francis and Claire Edwards
13. The Other Side of the Coin: Audience Consultation and the Interpretation of Numismatic Collections. Effrosyni Nomikou Part VI: Interpretive Strategies for Specific Audiences
14. Designing Effective Interpretation for Contemporary Family Visitors to Art Museums and Galleries: A Reflection of Associated Problems and Issues. Patricia Sterry
15. Interactive Gallery Interpretation for Design Students: Help or Hindrance? Elizabeth Dyson
16. Empower the Audience! How Art Museums Can Become Enriching Creative Spaces for a Wider Audience through Deliberate and Strategic Use of Experience and Learning Theories. Karen Grøn Part VII: Process and People
17. “Reading the Walls”: A Study of Curatorial Expectation and Visitor Perception. Sarah Ganz Blythe and Barbara Palley
18. “Education is a department isn’t it?” Perceptions of Education, Learning and Interpretation in Exhibition Development. Juliette Fritsch

How do you ‘lose’ a museum?

In Museums, what i'm reading on May 24, 2011 at 9:21 am

We are set to see plenty of new museums open this year. But have you ever wondered about museums that don’t exist any more or that have closed down? I went to a conference on Saturday all about ‘lost museums’.

It was presented by the Hunterian Museum, along with the Museums and Galleries History Group (of which I am a recent member) and hosted at the Royal College of Surgeons. There was an emphasis to start with on the history of medical museum. Although collections of specimens in jars used to be very popular, especially in the teaching of anatomy, the Human Tissue Act put an end to many of them and now only a few survive. But they are perhaps on the rise again, given the outstanding quality of displays at the Hunterian.

We also learned about Victorian anatomy shows – plaster and wax models of the body with removable organs – aimed at the general public rather than the medical profession. Again, the 1857 Obscene Publications Act put an end to those and many of the beautiful models were melted down in front of magistrates.

There were papers about Henry Wellcome‘s massive collection of objects (over 1 million when he died in 1936) which took 50 years to sort through and John Ruskin’s lost museum in Sheffield, aimed at inspiring artisans and cratsmen of the city. The museum was disbanded long agao, but has recently been recreated at , so it’s perhaps not as lost as we think.

Two papers on natural history covered the lost menageries of animals and birds in Regency London and the history of four museums of sconomic botany at Kew Gardens, all of which have now disappeared.

Perhaps the most poignant paper was from Tim Knox, director of Sir John Soane’s Museum, who recounted the collection of medieval art belonging to a contemporary of Soane. The architect Lewis Nockalls Cottingham (what a name!) collected pieces or art and architecture together in his house in Waterloo and opened it up to the public for a fee. Unlike Soane his collection disappeared when, after his death it was sold off by his family – and then the house was demolished in the 20th century to make way for the Festival of Britain.

It’s all a bit sad really – these museums which have been lost forever. But people are still writing and talking about them, so perhaps they aren’t ‘lost’ completey. Their memory lives on in some way.

I was struck by not only the physical void that the ‘loss’ of these museums created, but also the social absence that comes about when a museum closes down. If we celebrate the new Turner Contemporary as a force for good in Margate because it is set to bring about social cohesion in the town, does the closing of a museum remove something from the social fabric of a place? What happened to the visitors who no longer got to see the objects on display have social, intellectual, beautiful experiences?

Hmmmm, I can feel a conference paper of my own coming on …

In the meantime, the exhibition Lost Museums continues at the Hunterian Museum until 2 July.

Tweeting museums

In Museums, what i'm reading on April 19, 2011 at 3:12 pm

I follow quite a few museums on twitter.

Most of them put out the same kinds of content – information about events and exhibitions coming up, along with the occasional interesting retweet or information about intriguing objects in their collections. But many of them are delivering rather similar content.

But recently I’ve seen a few institutions being more creative with their tweets – getting objects from the collections to tweet. (To be honest, it looks like this idea has been around for a while and I’ve only just noticed it.)

@NatHistoryWhale is the whale from the ceiling of the Natural History Museum in New York. He (or she?) tweets about American politics and the state of affairs in the arts sector, along with notes about marine conservation.

@SUEtheTrex describes herself thus: “I’m a Leo, I like meat, Chicago, the movie Jurassic Park, and what else? Oh yeah, I’m the world’s greatest apex predator.” She’s the hilarious Tyrannosaurus-Rex at the Field Museum in Chicago who writes haikus for followers and makes jokes about visitors and other museum objects she doesn’t like. And it must be working – she has over 3000 followers!

@William_Kidd was the most infamous pirate to be executed in London. He’s also the subject of a temporary exhibition this summer at the Museum of Docklands, Pirates: The Captain Kidd Story and tweets regular updates about life as a swash-buckling adventurer.

Other favourites of mine include @YuffyMOH, the official twitter feed of the learning team at the Museum of Hartlepool and @EmperorHadrian who updates us all about what’s going on at the various tourist sites along Hadrian’s Wall.

There are many more out there. You can check out more of them on this twitter list or just have a search and see what you can find.

Who – or what – will we see tweeting next?

British Museum evaluation reports online

In Museums, what i'm reading on February 4, 2011 at 9:13 am

If you’re interested in visitor research in museums, read on. The British Museum has recently published a selection of exhibition evaluation reports on its website. These documents are the results of investigations, mostly by the Manchester-based consultancy Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, into the exhibition programme at the Museum over the last few years.

The Museum generally commissions research about its exhibitions with members of the public in three stages:

Front end evaluation is undertaken when an exhibition is still a germ of an idea, to help the Museum understand if the subject appeals to its key audiences and what people’s existing knowledge of the theme is like.

Formative evaluation takes places once the exhibition is in development and helps to inform or test out the interpretive devices that have been suggested so far. It’s a progress-check with the public that the exhibition is on track.

Summative evaluation is then commissioned when the exhibition is open. This process tests how well the exhibition performed in terms of the objectives set for it, and also informs future exhibition projects.

Evaluation reports from a selection of exhibitions dating from 2006 to 2008 are now online on the BM website. I worked on the interpretive process for a few of these, including Ikebana: living flowers of Japan, Divine Cat: speaking with the gods in Ancient Egypt and Conservation in Focus.

Since leaving the BM a few years ago I now carry out this kind of evaluation, on a smaller scale, for a variety of clients. I work at all three stages of the process, testing ideas before they are put into commission; soliciting responses to exhbitions in development and evaluating exhibitions that have already opened. It’s a fun process, recruiting and conducting focus groups and testing out ideas in face-to-face interviews. If you want to know more about this process, just drop me a line.

5.3 million tune in to Turn Back Time

In what i'm reading on November 3, 2010 at 4:24 pm

5.3 million people watched the opening programme in the BBC’s new timeshift documentary Turn Back Time: The High Street, according to a ratings article in The Guardian.

But what did the critics make of it?

Tom Sutcliffe, writing in The Independent, thought it was a fun history lesson, but it sounds like the jury is still out for Lucy Mangan in The Guardian, who seems to have warmed to the participants in the programme, but not the concept itself.

Memorable TV likes the concept. Liam Tucker, writing for TV Pixie, thought the show was going to be tedious, but ended up being rather absorbed by the historical commentary.

And, oh dear, the Metro didn’t like it.

So it didn’t get panned, but it didn’t get raved about. I don’t suppose it’s ever going to take on the X-factor in terms of ratings, but to get over 5 million people to watch a social history programme on a Wednesday evening is pretty good going, if you ask me. Let’s hope all of them don’t turn up at the pop-up-shops we’ve built around the country! After a good start in the south west last weekend, the exhibitions are on the road to Clacton and Chatham ready to open on Friday.

School trips research

In Museums, what i'm reading on September 22, 2010 at 11:02 pm

We had a meeting today of the informal learning reading group, organised by King’s College, London. We’re a group of museum professionals – mostly involved in learning somehow – and  academics involved in learning who meet up 4 or 5 times a year to discuss an academic paper or book chapter. It’s organised by Jen de Witt, an amazing and energetic researcher at King’s who keeps us all in check.

This time she chose a couple of papers written in the last year or so which look at approaches to investigating outcomes from a school trip to a zoo. We’ve been playing with ideas about to evaluate how people learn in museum/gallery/zoo/science centres for years now. There have been countless seminars and conferences, books and books written about it, even a research centre established at the University of Leicester and a government-backed model for how to measure learning. But somehow we still can’t get to the bottom of how to figure out the true impact of a museum visit on someone, especially in a learning context.

Perhaps that’s why it’s such an interesting group to be involved with. We always have lively conversations about what we’re doing in the workplace and how the papers we read might impact on that. And it’s a good chance to get together and have a chin wag with other people in the museum learning sector.

This time we read: Learning on Zoo Field Trips: The Interaction of the Agendas and Practices of Students, Teachers and Zoo Educators by Sue Davidson, Cynthia Passmore and David Anderson and Students’ Perspectives of a Science Enrichment Programme: Out-of-school inquiry as access by April Lynn Luehmann.

If you’re working in the museum sector and like meeting people who want to discuss ideas and share contacts/projects, I’m hosting a little event on 6 October in London called Not the Museums Association Conference. It’s for people who can’t afford to go to the MA conference in Manchester this year, but still want to do some networking in a bar, somehwere.