Challenging Exhibitions

Although I have worked in the museum sector most of my adult life I am still frustrated by how many of them still fail to make themselves relevant to their communities (despite constantly saying that they are).

I was therefore hugely impressed by this exhibition in the University of Kansas. It takes the testimony of sexual assault victims and places their words beside clothes they were wearing at the time of the assault (as the victims describe in their witness statements).

OK, this is not in a museum or art gallery. It is in a students’ union building. Even better!

And not all museums will have costume collections and/or exist to express the history of criminal justice and/or sexual health and wellbeing.

But what a fantastically simple, yet harrowing and highly-impactful idea for an exhibition. Dispelling the myth that victims of sexual assault “were asking for it” by the way they dress.

I’d like to see more bold, confrontational, community-situated exhibitions like this in the UK.

If you know of any please detail them in the comments section below.

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Full Fat Yoga #1

OK, I have a confession to make. I tout myself as a specialist in adult learning (and the cultural sector) but I have not been an active learner myself for some time. Returning to learning is scary. You get things wrong. You feel stupid. You are out of your comfort zone. All the things in life that we tend to avoid. But the benefits, once you accept that there is nothing wrong with being wrong, it’s stupid to feel stupid, and it’s quite comforting to be uncomfortable (within reason), are very real.

So. How am I pushing my boundaries? What comfort zone am I stepping out of and what am I letting myself in for?

Yoga.

Yes, I’m going to unwind by tying myself up in knots.

The day after Boxing Day 2016 I suffered an agonising lower back spasm. I’ve had them before (comes with the territory of being 6ft 4ins and not standing up straight. Ever…) but this one was a doozey. It incapacitated me for two months and the opioid painkillers I was on affected my mood and judgement so badly that I lost a significant piece of work (mainly as I could not string a coherent sentence together when talking to clients). The drug issues eventually faded, as did the terrible back pain. But, since March 2017 I have been going to the gym a couple of times a week and trying to strengthen my core muscles in order to better protect my vertebrae. Top tip#1: if you clench your buttocks you engage your core and protect you lower spine. That was an easy lesson to learn. Clenching your buttocks is easy, especially with all the practice I’ve been getting every time I read the BBC News website (“Trump/Daily Mail/Kim Jong Un/Boris Johnson has said what!!?”)…

But I wanted to do more. I wanted to build strength and flexibility. I wanted to be able to wrap my ankles around my ears and levitate whilst strumming a sitar (nice image! Perhaps I’ll buy a small one. A baby sitar…).

So I metaphorically bit the imaginary bullet and went, today, to a yoga class.

I was nervous. I felt outside my comfort zone. I didn’t want to look stupid.

The class leader welcomed me warmly and I gave her my back’s back story. “Age-related wear and tear (blah, blah, blah), strengthen my core (blah, blah, blah), are these shorts ok (blah, blah, blah)…

Introductions done I set my newly-purchased yoga mat out beside a fellow student. I was the only guy there.

We got started.

Flippin heck! I didn’t know when to breathe in, when to breathe out, when to hold my breath. But I was beginning to feel stretched.

Hang on!? Dog head what? Upward dog what? Pint of Cobra? Sideways ferret? There’s a lot of animal references going on here. More stuff to learn.

Best part of the session was when the straps came out. Using them to pull your leg and get a hamstring stretch. Oh that was lush!

By the end I was a sweaty heap but I was stretched and relaxed. I will return and learn more.

Main lesson learned for next week is: wear pants under my shorts. Noone wants to see my giblets as I attempt clockwise rabbit or whatever the heck it’s called…

Onwards and upwards

 

Joy Division 

I was out walking my dog yesterday. Up ahead I saw a small group of pre-school children being taken for a walk by nursery staff. They were tiny against the adults holding their hands. Suddenly a council tractor drove past them. A big green and yellow thing. The children were too far away for me to hear but I could see them judder with excitement and point at this wondrous toy made real. That moment of innocence touched me, following a day of such horrendous news.

Bully for you. But not for me….

Some of you might know that I recently decided to stand for election to Cardiff Council in the upcoming May local elections in Wales. The vast majority of you will not.

However, I have just resigned from that position as I cannot bear the prospect of potentially being part of a party group (were I elected) with a powerful, proven bully. A bully of women nonetheless (proven by a recent adjudication panel for Wales, to which the case was referred by the Ombudsman for Wales).

Now if you want to find out what party I was standing for, who this bully is and all the nefarious details of the case then you can (because you are clever people and can use Google) but this post is not about party, personality or politics. It is about bullying.

Wednesday 8 March is International Women’s Day 2017. A day when all of us, irrespective of which gender we identify as, celebrate women’s successes and protest against the inequalities they face.

And one of the biggest problems they face is workplace bullying.

This is not to say, as a man, I cannot have a robust argument with a female colleague. Goodness knows I have, and have indeed experienced workplace bullying from a female manager myself. However, if I’m in a position of organisational power over a woman then I have to respect that position. Also, there’s the physical fact that I’m 6ft 4in and weigh the same as a prop forward (although I do try to de-emphasise  with stripes…).

It is important for all of us to respect each other.

If I’m guilty of bullying then I should apologise and seek to ensure it does not happen again. In the case to which I have nebulously alluded above, the man in question has yet to apologise. This I find inexcusable.

To potential bullies everywhere I say, taste your words before you spit them out.

 

Ghosts in the Machine?

Museums Association’s Patrick Steel (Museums Journal 14 Dec 2016) has drawn my attention to the fact that museums have been entirely left out of the Welsh Government’s diabetic coma-inducingly-titled “Light Springs Through The Dark: A Vision For Culture In Wales” (who on earth comes up with these report names…!?).

This is, as the pretentious title suggests, a “vision”. For culture. In Wales.

A vision that has a blindspot when it comes to museums.

The Welsh Government itself commissioned an Expert Review of Local Museum Provision last year. But has done nothing with it. Now it has conveniently forgotten about it and left it out of “Light Springs…” (Or should that be “Sh*te Springs…?” Perhaps the name will stick….).

Patrick’s full article can be read here.

One specific point leaps out. The Welsh Government are currently consulting on their suggestion to create an organisation called “Historic Wales” to combine the commercial operations of Cadw, National Museum Wales and The Royal Commission. In “Sh*te Springs…” (see, it DID stick!) the Welsh Government states it will create Historic Wales. No ifs, no buts, it will create. Nice valuing of consultation there WG!

I am appalled by Welsh Government’s attitude to the museum sector. Initially interested but, ultimately, callously indifferent to the contribution museums make to Wales economy and soul.

2016 was a bad year for all sorts of reasons. Museums in Wales will not be looking forward to a prosperous 2017.

Bah humbug….

Wish You Were Here

I’m a cultural consultant. My finances are subtly balanced. So why have I splashed out on attending a conference in Germany rather than one in the UK? I must be loaded!? I must be a senior level professional!? I must be a huge Europhile!?

Well it’s kind of a mix of those. Apart from the money and the senior thing.

I am a strong believer in the sharing of ideas. Of listening to others. Of giving your own opinion too. Networking…

I’ve been a consultant in adult learning and museums for two years. Prior to that I spent 10 years working for an adult learning charity called NIACE and a longer period within education and marketing in the museum sector. Part of my role at NIACE was to represent the organisation on EU projects. As a result I, for the first time, began to travel to continental Europe to attend, and sometimes speak at, conferences. I found, early on, that leaving the UK gave me an almost palpable sense of being on the outside and looking back in at my home’s museum sector. For good and ill.

So I am definitely in the Europhile zone. Over the years I have made friends in many countries and I have learned a great deal from them. There are wonderful learning projects happening across the rest of the EU. The UK does not have a monopoly on innovative ideas in the cultural sector.

Each year, as a consultant, I attend one major conference as an opportunity to develop myself as a professional and to make new contacts that might lead to work in the future. This year I looked at my main three targets: GEM, MA and AIM. None of them fitted well. One because of timing and the other two because of cost. Then I received notification of the annual NEMO conference in Karlsruhe.

NEMO is the Network of European Museum Organisations. Basically its membership is comprised of each country’s museum association. It’s the network that the UK’s Museums Association goes to.

I have attended two previous NEMO meetings in Berlin and Ljubljana. I spoke at the latter on “adult learning and the museum sector” (an insightful exploration of the relevance the two sectors have to each other).

NEMO conferences are attended by an interesting mix of senior-level museum directors right through to early career museum professionals. Conference themes are always on interesting/engaging issues of the day. Workshops are led by some of the most highly regarded professionals on the continent. And, critically, the three day conference is refreshingly cheap! This one has cost me just over £100 and includes all food and drink (at the time of writing I am still in Karlsruhe and attempting to drink my weight in red wine).

About 160 delegates are attending this conference so it has a nice feel to it. Not too big.

Over the last two days I have met up with old friends from Sweden, Denmark and Italy and caught up with their fascinating work around engaging adults in learning. I have also met some lovely people from The Netherlands, Russia, Finland and Liechtenstein. Surprisingly I have only spoken to one UK attendee. From what I can see I am the only UK delegate who is not a speaker/workshop leader.

The lack of UK delegates saddens me. I appreciate it is immediately after the MA Conference but I’m sure there are many museum professionals in the UK who would benefit from being at this one. I have done my best to promote the conference to my networks back home but noone has reacted positively. A few have got back to me to say that it sounds really interesting but they could never justify a “jolly” .

There does, of course, have to be a cost/benefit analysis each time you look at attending a conference but to write one off purely because it is on continental Europe is so wrong. As I mentioned above the conference has cost me a little over £100. I paid for a flight to Frankfurt, a train from there to Karlsruhe and the cheapest hotel I could find. I estimate this conference has cost me no more than attending MA or GEM in Scotland.

So much for the cost. What about the benefit of NEMO 2016?

I was stimulated by the keynote address from Pier Luigi Sacco, Professor of Cultural Economics at IULM University, Milan and visiting Professor at Harvard (no relation) University. He posed the question “how do museums create value?” Surely the most crucial question facing all museums as they face death by a thousand cuts. An appeal to any conference organisers reading this article: book him!

Other presentations included “creating partnerships with scientific, social and artistic sectors”, “measuring the value of museums”, a fascinating and rigorously-researched “critical reflection of Guggenheim’s return on investment in Bilbao”, a moderated discussion on “Business models of museums: what works and what doesn’t?” and an enlightening “museum cooperation with colleagues from Europe: How to apply for EU Culture funding”.

Informal discussions, usually over a glass of wine, inevitably gravitated towards Brexit once delegates realised where I was from. All were horrified.

So, did I make new contacts? Yes. Did I learn new things? Yes. Did I find work as a result? Short answer is “no”, longer answer is “no, but I am in a better position to offer my services to a wider range of countries than I was before”. Did I have fun? Yes, apart from finding myself with 5 hours to kill in Karlsruhe on a Sunday due to my poor calculations re return flight tickets (there’s only so long one can stand in sub-zero temperatures, clutching a Starbucks coffee, outside H&M to piggyback their wifi signal…).

If you think conferences on continental Europe are “jollies”, think again. Broaden your mind and your horizons will follow.

(This review is also available on the ICOM(UK) website: http://uk.icom.museum/news/view/?title=/nemo-conference-2016-wish-you-were-here/ where you will find information on the Working Internationally Programme)

 

 

Whip Crack-Away

Below is the unedited text of my review of a current exhibition in National Museum Cardiff. The review appeared in the May edition of The Museums Journal:

The marketing for this exhibition has heavily used the imagery of Indiana Jones, the jauntily-hatted, kangaroo-hide whip-wielding hero of Hollywood scriptwriters. Whilst I am a fan of the Steven Spielberg films this did worry me as I expected to encounter more style than substance. More story than objects. However I was to be pleasantly disappointed.

Treasure: Adventures in Archaeology is the National Museum Cardiff’s first temporary exhibition, for over 20 years, for which an admission charge is levied. £7 per adult is not cheap (35 concessions, 16yrs and under go free) for a museum which has done much in the last decade to grow its reputation as a museum which provides access to all. So I donned my museologists hat, stowed my whip of cynicism on my belt and entered…

The exhibition is housed in the museum’s east wing temporary exhibition gallery which is a long rectangle in plan. Visitors enter via one of the long sides of the rectangle. The first thing to notice is the excellent, large, narrative panels which introduce visitors to some of the basic principles and issues to be found in the rest of the exhibition. The panels are mounted at a relatively low (but not too low for my 6ft 4in frame) height and use language which is both appropriate to a wide range of visitors and as much challenging as it is informing. The size and style of these panels is consistent throughout the gallery and greatly enhance the objects on show (some of which, for me, were stronger than others).

The very first case-mounted objects are poorly lit from high above and shadows spoiled my viewing of them. Throughout the gallery there are some issues with the individual object labels and lighting for the same reasons.

On entry I turned right and started to view the cases and panels. After a few minutes I arrived at the exit! I realised, with the help of a museum attendant, that I should have turned left. A simple problem which could be simply rectified by some kind of panel-, or floor-mounted instruction/arrows.

Once back on track I noticed the exhibition itself only took up about half of the temporary exhibition space, which was a disappointment for a paid-for exhibition. Having visited the museum many times over the years I assumed the whole space would be taken up.

I found my stride and started to read and view. The exhibition adopts an intriguing and stimulating approach of taking the visitor on a chronological inquiry of archaeology, using key archaeologists as the hook.

Did you know that Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1823), one of the first real excavators of Egyptian sites, had an earlier career as a strongman and was also known as “The Sampson of Patagonia” and described later as “archaeologist and weightlifter”? I love these kinds of facts and couldn’t have been more surprised and entertained if I’d learned that Geoff Capes had joined the Time Team..

The displays continued on through William Matthew Flinders Petrie “Father of Egyptian Archaeology”, Heinrich Schliemann (discoverer, and plunderer, of Troy), Hiram Bingham the discoverer of Machu Pichu (at this point the large narrative panel asked the question “What’s the biggest thing you have ever lost? Have you lost a city?”, which made me smile) and more.

It was good to see information about Adele Breton who, apart from William Petrie’s wife, was the only female archaeologist I could see. Her obsidian tool cores, from Mexico, were beautiful and my favourite objects).

This trail of historically important archaeologists continued through to include early British examples and some from Wales.

The story of these individuals was cleverly interwoven with the story of a small number of cultures from around the world. Mycenae, Ancient Greece, Pre-Columbian, Rapa-Nui (Easter Island), Egypt and Wales.

One or two of the intermediate level narrative panels were placed at different heights and some were too high for the smaller visitor or those who may be seated. But this is a minor point in what otherwise is a good execution of a text-writing which is highly engaging. The several interactive screens around the gallery are simple, intuitive and work well. They flesh out the story told by panels and objects and give the visitor a deeper engagement. Their use of illustrations and text was crisp and uncluttered.

At one point, for some unknown reason, there is a 2ft diameter brown ball (mounted in a side panel) which is constantly revolving to reveal a skull embedded within. This didn’t bring anything to the experience other than a loud “click” each time it turned.

As a Welshman I was fascinated by the displays of archaeology and archaeologists from Wales. Finds from the wreck of the Ann Francis, the Tregwynt Civil War hoard and hoards from Bridgend. All clearly displayed.

Near the end of the exhibition (now that I knew where that was…) there are cases which explore the cultural impact of archaeology through time. Books, ornaments, stamps, jewellery etc. Another exhibited archaeological “fakes”, challenging the visitor to think about what archaeologists do and the finding of “truth”.

A panel on 1920s archaeologists and their relationships with newspapers and the writing of regular articles was used to draw parallels with “bloggers” of today. Another took the opportunity to explain the importance, and impact, of responsible metal detecting with an explanation of the finding of a Viking burial in Llanbedrgoch, Anglesey.

A children’s area contains paper, crayons, workbooks and textured panels from which to take rubbings. A simple, but well delivered area which will entertain children and adults alike. The workbooks contained some activity which asked children to think about what is meant by “treasure”. I think the exhibition could have been a bit more explicit about this too, but that is a minor quibble.

Finally, framed by the two bronze exit doors, is the case containing the “real” Indiana Jones’ hat, jacket and whip. He is a Hollywood hero to many, but the case label politely pointed out that he wasn’t necessarily the best at careful, logical, scientific excavations and research.

The visitors’ book comments are universally positive and I have to agree with them. I spent an hour in the exhibition and learned many unexpected things.

As I walked down the steps outside the museum I couldn’t resist glancing back to see if I was being followed by an enormous stone ball….

 

Apathy in the UK

I haven’t written a post in this blog for some months. I only tend to write when something moves me and I feel I want to share. Well today I have most certainly been moved (if by “moved” you mean “angered”).

It’s election time in the UK. Devolved government elections and some local authority elections in England as well as the media circus that is the London Mayoral Election.

I have always exercised my right to vote. I see it as a duty. However, today I spoke to someone from high up in a South Wales Valley and asked them, in all innocence and just as part of the general chit-chat, had they voted yet.

Their response was “Oh no, I don’t vote. I’m not into politics”.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!

I didn’t challenge them as I felt it unfair that the two of us should argue over this issue, rather than our government take action to sort out voter apathy.  The pundits/polls predict a very low turnout for the elections in Wales

It CAN be done. Look at the Scottish Independence Referendum. In the run-up to that I happened to be in Edinburgh and chatted to a taxi driver about what he thought of the whole thing. I expected an angry, semi-literate, right wing response from him (after all I have experience of Cardiff taxi rides…) but no. He started to tell me about a heavy political tome he was reading by a well-respected academic. We discussed the pros and cons and I left his cab energised by his commitment to learning more about the potential political and economic impact of independence.

Voter apathy is a symptom of a lack of engagement with society. A feeling that there are things that we need not worry about because nothing ever changes. A feeling that politics is irrelevant.

Well, see those potholes in your road? That’s politics. See those homeless people begging in the street? That’s politics. The 3 week wait to see a GP? Politics. The new estate built on a Greenfield site? Yep, politics.

In the absence of a revolution we need politicians to grasp this nettle of self-disenfranchisement. We need more adults learning about the importance of action at a personal, family, community and national level. We need more adults learning. Learning empowers people. But then again, maybe that’s exactly what the ruling classes don’t want…?

Right, I’m off to vote. It happens once every few years but I am going to make a promise this time. I promise that I will do my best to get more people to vote next time (for whatever colour of political party). I don’t know how I’m going to do it but I’m going to try. It’s my duty.

 

Cardigan reclaims its past

Here is the unedited text of a review I wrote for the Museums Journal. It appears in Issue 115/10 (Oct 2015). The printed review actually reads better, but here’s the original: literary warts and all…..

I was born in Cardigan and brought up a few miles away. It has always been a part of my “cynefin” (habitat) and, although it lies 11 miles north of my hometown I still count it in my “fillitir sgwar” (square mile).

My use of a couple of Welsh phrases and words here is an indication of the cultural and historical importance of Cardigan and its Castle as it was here, in 1176, that Lord Rhys (a famously liberal and cultured Prince) held the first Eisteddfod (a festival of Welsh singing, poetry, dance and art). The Eisteddfodau (plural of “Eisteddfod”) are a central pillar of Welsh language expression to this day.

Lord Rhys’ was the first stone-built castle to be raised by a Welsh Prince and, over the centuries, has been attacked and rebuilt several times. The current fortifications are only a few hundred years old and in the central courtyard lies a Georgian country house of decent size.

The Georgian house inside the walls of Cardigan Castle
The Georgian house inside the walls of Cardigan Castle

As a child, my memories of the castle are of an imposing, dark, inaccessible, decaying fortification which was central to the one-way traffic system of the town. A 12th century council roundabout if you will. The last surviving member of the last family to own the Castle lived in the crumbling, damp, kitchen of the Georgian house from the 1940s until 1984 when she moved into a caravan in the grounds. Ultimately Miss Barbara Woods moved into a care home in 1999 and the Castle was bought by Ceredigion Council in 2003. In 2011 the Cadwgan Building Preservation Trust (who now own and run the site on behalf of the community) secured a total of £12 million from HLF, ERDF and Welsh Government to restore the Castle and develop it for tourist and local use.

One enters the restored Castle through the gift shop (the weakest point in any castle’s fortifications, according to comedian Bill Bailey…) which is well stocked with locally-produced materials, although the wooden shields emblazoned with the Cross of St. George seemed a little out of place at a site with such a place in the history of Welsh opposition to Norman Marcher Lords, King Edward, and the English Civil War. The latter dispute resulted in the Castle being dismantled so it could not be used as a defensive structure in future.

On exiting the shop one emerges immediately into the central courtyard, which was a revelation. A huge amount of work has been carried out to conserve, restore and stabilise existing stone fabric of the Castle. Gone are the crumbling crenulations of my childhood. Gone are the rainforest-dense overgrowth of generations of neglect. In their place are crisp stonework and a simple central lawn with newly-planted borders.

Central courtyard viewed from the front door of the Georgian house. Cafe in background
Central courtyard viewed from the front door of the Georgian house. Cafe in background

One gets a sense of openness and renewal. This is a space I’d like to return to again and again. For this reason Cadwgan offer a special, one-off, season ticket price so that local people can return on multiple occasions and, hopefully, build a relationship with what is a tremendous new local resource. My mother was with me on this visit. She spent her younger days in Cardigan but now, as an 85 year old who is dependent on wheelchairs for mobility, doesn’t get to return too often.

Before exploring further my stomach got the better of me so we adjourned to the cafe. This is a starkly modern construction of slate, glass and polished steel which opens to the central courtyard but also has views over the High Street in Cardigan. One gets a feeling of floating above the town. Its modernity sits very well with the restored stonework of the Castle, after all the walls have themselves been built and re-built several times over the centuries.

Cafe interior. Tasty baguette in foreground!
Cafe interior. Tasty baguette in foreground!

The choice of food was a bit limited, but I put that down to the fact that the catering is a new venture and will, like many other aspects of the Trust’s work, develop with time. The service was great and one gets a sense that staff are proud to be working in such an iconic place.

Sculpture of Lord Rhys' throne. Situated in Castle courtyard
Sculpture of Lord Rhys’ throne. Situated in Castle courtyard

The paths around the central courtyard are well suited to wheelchair use, if a little steep in one or two places, and my mother enjoyed the short journey around the battlements (taking in the WWII pillbox overlooking the bridge over the Teifi river). We then visited the Georgian house.

Again, staff were very welcoming but sadly the building was not. The opening ceremony had taken place only a few weeks before but already the lift was broken and the top floor was also closed due to “health and safety reasons”. Newly-restored buildings do have teething problems but I was not overly impressed with a broken lift which resulted in us being able to see less than a third of the house. Still, we explored the ground floor.

Some parts of the house have been left unrestored and house enigmatic remains from its latter years' history
Some parts of the house have been left unrestored and house enigmatic remains from its latter years’ history

In the kitchen (in which the last owner lived for many years) there was an excellent bilingual video presentation, voiced over by the Welsh actor Matthew Rhys (no relation to Lord Rhys…). The video gave a very clear description (through 3D animation, still photography, music and narration)of the Castle’s history. However, the experience was spoiled by a combination of the echoey acoustic of the room and the voices of visitors in the corridor outside. This made it impossible for my mother, who has a hearing aid, to hear. Indeed I found it hard too.

There were a couple of other rooms to visit which told the story, through panels and displays of objects, of the history of Cardigan and also that of the Eisteddfodau in the town. The overall “feel” of these rooms was good. Airy, uncluttered and containing good cases, interesting objects and clear panels. Sadly a couple of interactives had already ceased to work, there was an interactive map which was horizontally mounted (making it inaccessible for children below a certain height or indeed for any wheelchair user) and some of the label text was tiny and mounted far from the objects and down at skirting board level. In a nutshell there were some classic errors made in design and a lack of durability in the interactives.

On a more positive cultural note, as a Welsh speaker I was pleased to see Welsh and English text always had the same point size and emphasis but the Welsh came first and the English second. This is not a nationalist point, rather it is good that a tourist attraction in Wales sees that the language is a. critically of service to locals and b. gives tourists a signal that they are visiting somewhere “different”.

Built into, and growing out of, the walls of the Castle on the town side are a number of buildings which, as part of the restoration, have been resourced for room hire and for accommodation. Although £12 million has been spent on reclaiming this iconic castle from the clutches of nature there is no secured revenue funding and the whole project needs to income-generate to survive. So, once again, as in the 12th century, Cardigan Castle will become a centre for cultural events for visitors. Despite some teething problems with displays and technology I think Lord Rhys would have been pleased….