Happy St. David’s Day!

Dydd Gwyl Dewi Hapus!

It seems an appropriate/auspicious date on which to post a blog about another famous Welshman, Dylan Thomas.

I was commissioned, by the Museums Association, to review The Dylan Thomas Centre’s new permanent exhibition on Dylan Thomas. The review will be in this month’s Museums Journal (out today) but here it is too:

So, to begin at the beginning….

Dylan Thomas famously dubbed Swansea an “ugly lovely town” and this rings true as one approaches the Dylan Thomas Centre, situated beside the fishboat bobbing marina. This part of Swansea is still undergoing development and the car park, and its environs, could do with upgrading to create a better impression. However, the Dylan Thomas Centre itself is an attractive pile, constructed of honey-coloured limestone.

On entering, the staff are friendly and welcoming and exude a pride in their work and their workplace. They oriented me, pointing out the Dylan Thomas exhibition and the temporary exhibition and education spaces.

First impressions of the new permanent display, telling the story of Thomas’ life and works, are of a rather traditional, if shiny and new, space. A circular gallery chronologically arranged from, on the right, Thomas’ birth round (anti-clockwise) to his tragically early death in New York. One can see many tabletop glass cases and text on walls. “Oh dear” I thought.

However, how does one tell the story of a writer if not through his, and others’, writings? So I liberally sprinkled benefit over my doubt and began to engage with the exhibition…

The walls are peppered with quotes from the appropriate stage of the exhibition’s story (a timeline stretches along the edge of the ceiling from start to finish) and these begin to draw visitors in to the unravelling tale. “The memories of childhood have no order, and no end” struck a chord with me as did the description of the Kardomah Gang “…drinking coffee dashes and arguing the toss” (which could easily have described the MA Conference in Cardiff. Apart from the coffee…).

Throughout the space there are flip-up panels which invite inspection. They reveal further quotes, facts, and general information and, whilst a simple idea, the physicality actually enhanced the experience. There are smaller, lower, flip-up panels whose contents are more abstract and I was puzzled by these as there is no explanation of what they are for (one assumes they are for children and/or wheelchair users but this is not obvious).

Working further around the timeline one reaches a seating area where one can use headphones to hear Dylan Thomas’ writings in his own words. This was a special moment as I had only heard one or two recordings of his before. The headphones are essential in this position as there is significant sound “bleed” from an art installation around the corner which makes the exhibition feel more alive but also, sadly, does annoy slightly.

I was blown away to learn of his association with the Surrealist movement and his links with Dali, Picasso etc. It is this kind of informational gem which this exhibition delivers.

The whole exhibition is design-heavy, with objects, graphic panels and labels combined. It is, on the whole, a good design but there are one or two zones where it is difficult to make the link between object and label.

The designers have made the exhibition as interactive as possible (a challenge given the nature of the written word, photographs and other printed ephemera) with touch screens and flip-up panels. A model of a radio engages visitors in selecting, via a rotating knob, different broadcasts of Dylan Thomas’. I found this informative and entertaining until my selected broadcast ended and the radio emitted a loud, sustained hiss which I could not switch off (I sloped off, hoping no one noticed me…). All exhibitions featuring such interactivity are going to suffer from wear and tear and perhaps this is what’s happening here.

The art installation in the centre of the gallery mixes video and audio from various broadcasts of his works into an immersive experience with the visitor standing in the middle of three video screens. I found this piece a welcome artistic accompaniment to the rest of the informative gallery. Working further round one comes to objects associated with his most famous work “Under Milkwood”. They are held in cases whose design is redolent of medieaval reliquaries. Given the nature of the cases’ contents I felt this was highly appropriate and, hopefully, intentional.

Throughout the exhibition there is, where possible, primary source material which either was created by the hand of Thomas or is closely associated with him, his family and his story. Understandably, since his death, a great deal of other primary source material has been acquired by other collectors and it was wonderful to see this addressed through the temporary exhibition gallery close by which, at the time of this visit, contained a fascinating set of original writing from an American University’s collections.

The exhibition reaches a poignant end with a case showing Thomas’ tweed jacket and trousers and, finally, his death mask. I found this, and the photograph of the poet in his coffin, terrifically moving. It stimulated me to find out even more about the great man.

As a proud Welshman I was more than a little ashamed at my ignorance of the spectrum of Dylan Thomas’ work. Perhaps more than any other Welshman Dylan Thomas belongs to the world. This exhibition, despite minor glitches, admirably introduces visitors to his life, times and works. It takes them from his cheeky happy childhood, through his creative blossoming and, finally, on to 9 November 1953 when he died aged only 39.

Do Not Go Gentle

You know when a few, seemingly disparate, things come together in one’s mind? Well that’s how I feel today. Museums, music and dementia.

A friend of mine on Facebook (he’s actually also a real friend and not just one in a social media context. I do have a few…) posted a moving video of what is being regarded as Glen Campbell’s “last song“. It’s a ballad recorded very recently and, almost immediately thereafter he has moved into 24 hour care as he has now entered the final stages of Alzheimer’s.

Glenn Campbell is one of the greatest guitarists and song writers, of any genre, of any time. Before he stepped out on his own he had been a member of The Wrecking Crew, an in-house band of musicians who are the actual players on hundreds of other, more famous artists’ albums. (The story of The Wrecking Crew is fascinating and I’d urge you to check it out if you can).

But Alzheimer’s, and any other cause of dementia, does not respect creativity and fame. Its insidious tendrils fan out through the brain and, slowly but steadily, they switch off the lights as they go (watch Grayson Perry’s excellent Channel 4 programme “Who Are You” for a typical, yet hugely moving, case study).

I was fortunate, a couple of months back, to attend a session at the conference of the Group for Education in Museums which looked at how museums can provide services to people with dementia. The “Portal To The World” workshops at The Fitzwilliam Museum were an excellent example of museums being used as safe, creative places where both people with dementia (I hate the phrase “dementia sufferers” and the implied sense of pity that comes with it) AND their carers could come together and make, talk, see, hear, discover, be……

Such programmes cannot easily be put together and need collaboration between museum and specialists. However, when it works it really works!

This is where Dylan Thomas comes in. Having seen the story about Glen Campbell and having experienced the work some museums are doing, it got me thinking about his famous poem “Do Not Go Gentle“. I have always associated that with the sense of loss that one feels when a loved one dies. The anger it generates. The raging against “the dying of the light”. But I now view it as a call, not to anger, but to action. In the context of dementia (and I’m not going to give it the honour of a capital “D”) it is the call to not give up. To find that spark of creativity in all of us and keep nurturing it until the very last.

Whilst I’m pretty sure no one reading this blog will have the impact of Glen Campbell in their lifetime, we are all creative beings. We can all benefit from activity in a museum/art gallery context.

So, whether you are the lineman for the county or the linesman for your local rugby team, however frail your deeds have been, however often you caught and sang the sun in flight, when dementia comes knocking I hope that your rage can take you to a better, creative place and that you blaze like a meteor and be gay.

Ooh! Get EU!!

A few years ago I was very fortunate to be offered the opportunity to undertake a study visit to Sweden, under the (then) Arion Scheme (EU funding for “mobilities”). This enabled me to spend a week learning about the Swedish Folk High School model of adult learning. I had not heard of it before but I was blown away by its simultaneous simplicity and depth of impact.

The Folk High School model was invented by Nicolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, a Danish polymath, in the late 19th century. In essence it was based on the German philosophical concept of “Bildung” which was about the development of the human individual in the round, not just as someone to be trained for a particular job. Cultural learning is an important part of the Folk High School system.

The latest round of funding for such mobilities has just been launched. This is now under the Erasmus+ scheme.

If you want to secure funding to allow you to travel to other EU countries to expand your personal and professional horizons, I’d urge you to apply. This strand of Erasmus+ is for adult learning professionals. Quite clear cut if you work in an adult learning institution. If you work in the cultural sector, but focus on adult learning and learners, I’d be interested to see you securing this funding. Let me know how you get on!

Bon chance!

Greenman. What Next?

Bit late with this one, seeing as Greenman Festival was about a month ago, but I have been very busy since (honest).

For the uninitiated, Greenman Festival is a musical and artistic smorgasbord served up in the stunning scenery of the Brecon Beacons in Glanusk estate near Crickhowell. Surely there is no better backdrop to a mainstage than Greenman’s?

I have attended this festival, with my family, for the past four years and have experienced the gamut of weathers and emotions. However, one thing is for sure, we never leave Greenman without having learned something new. A new band discovered, a new joke gleaned from the comedy tent, a new (and usually very tasty) food, and the usual collection of soon-to-be-regretted festival tat (ponchos, felt hats, native American birthing blankets woven from the finest garlic etc etc etc).

On the music side, this year I was blown away by performances by Jonathan Wilson, Mercury Rev who performed their “Deserter’s Songs” album in its entirety), First Aid Kit (great band, silly name. I mean, there wasn’t a triangular bandage in sight anywhere!), Kurt Vile, The Waterboys and The Gentle Good.

I go to this festival to unwind. To enjoy the music and a few beers in the shadow of Crug Hywel and Llangattock Hill. Not to work. Certainly not to network. But that’s what happened on day 2 of Greenman.

We were sitting in our beloved VW campervan, called “Sheldon”, discussing what we would go and see that day, when my wife pointed out a session called “What Next?”. It was a 45 minute panel discussion in the Babbling Tongues (spoken word tent) and was billed as: “…a movement bringing together arts and cultural organisations from across the UK,to articulate and strengthen the role of culture in our society”.

“Sounds interesting” I said. I’ll just dust off my felt hat, don my poncho and be off…

What Next?” is a “movement”.  A loose (not in the biblical sense) association of individuals and organisations who want to discuss the role of the arts and culture in today’s society. Given recent funding cuts to the arts and culture (with surely more to follow) this movement is potentially highly valuable to helping raise the public profile of arts and culture.

It was a stimulating discussion. So much so that I have now started to attend the What Next “chapters” (sounds a bit masonic but I assure you there wasn’t a bare kneecap to be seen). For me it is early days but I will continue to engage with this movement. I’d urge you to check it out too. The more the merrier!

Missing the point

Two Lib Dem stories in the press this week have reduced me to a quivering, fuming wreck. Firstly Nick Clegg announces a commitment to investment in treatment for mental illness. “What’s wrong with that?” I hear you cry across the ether. Surely this is a good idea? Well done Nick! Well yes, it is broadly to be welcomed but his emphasis on “treatment” and anti-depressant drugs development is, to use a hoary old chestnut, bolting the door after the horse has already fiddled his expenses (oops, bit of politics there…).

Adult learning has been proven, time and time again, to have significant benefits to participants’ mental health. Adult learning is a low-cost, high-impact solution to many mild to moderate mental health issues. Anxiety, agoraphobia, depression etc. Look at Manchester Museum and IWM North’s “In Touch” volunteer programme which was simply designed to get local community members to volunteer in the museums. An unexpected result was that some became less reliant on prescription medication and others even returned to employment.

This paper from NIACE, back in 2003, expresses the impact of adult learning on mental health too. This is nothing new. The research is out there. Nick Clegg is to be lauded for raising the profile of mental health issues but he, and all parties, need to develop a deeper understanding of the BEST ways to tackle many mental illnesses.

The drugs don’t work for everyone….

The second Lib Dem faux pas (and I hasten to add I would be as exercised about this if any other political party said these things) is Peter Black MP’s quotes in today’s Telegraph re the Welsh Government’s record of effectiveness through the Communities First programme.

Communities First is a very expensive economic and social development programme for the poorest areas of Wales. It has cost in the region of £400 million over 12 years. There are many who question its effectiveness but Peter Black has chosen to illustrate this by questioning the worth of a tattoo art course (costing £170 per person) in Bridgend. He says, of the course and fees, “These funds are being allocated to create sustainable communities and to get people into work. It is difficult to see how this venture can be justified in those terms”.

Well, putting the big picture of Communities First to one side Mr Black, why are you picking on a perfectly appropriate course which not only engages adults who have not been in education for a long time, but also introduces them to a potentially lucrative career!? Art, of whatever type, has the power to empower. Tattoo art has the power to employ.

Once again, politicians, please engage your brains before engaging your mouths. Adult learning in, and through, the culture sector makes a difference. Stop knocking it and start funding it….


It’s not rocket science (actually, some of it is!)

National Science & Engineering Week commissioned andco to produce a review of the event and recommend future developments. It identified that women, some ethnic groups and lower socio-economic groups were disproportionately under-represented (compared to UK population demographics). It also found a need for events to be organised where people were, rather than expecting participants to visit science centres, and a need for much better marketing. The excellent report is much more detailed and analytical but, demographics aside, how often do event organisers assume people will come to them? How many event organisers put 90% of effort into building events and only 10% into marketing? Sadly the voice in Kevin Costner’s head in “Field of Dreams” was wrong. If you build it, they will not necessarily come…

We DO love to be beside the sea…!

If you missed it back in May, here is a study by Nick Ewbank Associates which explored the “cultural value and social capital” of culture-led regeneration in three English seaside towns. It concentrated on individual, community and health & wellbeing impact of culture-led regeneration in the three towns.

What leaps out from this report, for me, is the need for cultural organisations to collaborate with other sectors (e.g. Health) in order to successfully measure outcomes and plan appropriate interventions/support for individuals and communities engaged.

It eloquently expresses the culture sector’s “instinctive” (my word, not the report’s) appreciation that what it does has a positive impact on cultural value and society and highlights the need for some kind (or kinds) of planning and measurement frameworks that clearly recognise cross-sector impacts of this kind and provide the measurement tools that can be understood, and appreciated, by funders and policy makers at all levels.

In many ways this report does not say anything I didn’t know already but it does so in a clear and rigorous manner which is hard to ignore.

To hopelessly mash up a phrase from a jowly British Nobel Prize for Literature winner: We need more jaw, jaw AND Waugh, Waugh…..

Making museums work (and work at museums)

Last week I had the great good fortune to meet with Reethah Desi and Jackie Winchester at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery to discuss how museums can contribute to delivering employability skills. We had (I hope Reethah and Jackie agree!) a very stimulating discussion on how museums can help the unemployed back into work. I’m sad to say I was blissfully ignorant of the museum’s excellent project Moving Forward which is delivered by M Shed in collaboration with South Gloucestershire and Stroud College and local employment support agencies. The project gives young people the confidence and skills to obtain customer service/front of house style jobs. For many this is simply a stepping stone to future, wider employment options.

This project drew inspiration from Manchester Museum and Imperial War Museum North’s In Touch Volunteer Programme which developed adult’s employability skills almost by accident!

The museum sector needs more of these projects. Whether large or small, national or independent, rural or urban, Roman history or geology, whatever your museum is about you can turn your hand to helping adults gain the confidence and motivation they need to re-engage with society and employment. Oh, and they might just become new visitors while they are at it…

Where do you go to my lovely?

Far from being a reference to Peter Sarstedt’s rather stalker-esque pop hit (just Google the lyrics…), this blog post aims to promote an interesting, free, publication from NIACE on how to track learners once they have left you. Whilst this is of direct relevance to providers of formal, accredited adult learning it should also be of interest to all providers in the adult learning and culture sectors as it gives ideas on following (in a non-Peter-Sarstedt way) those adults who have previously engaged in your learning provision.

Now, more than ever, both sectors need to prove “impact”. What better way than to do this than to be able to show key stakeholders (ie funders…) that you know exactly what happened to people immediately after they did some learning with you?

Anyway, it’s not for everyone but I thought it might be interesting. I’m off now to my apartment on the Boulevard of St. Michel to listen to some Rolling Stones records with my mate, Sacha Distel…

Our Museum: Your Future?

As Director of ALACS it was my great pleasure to be invited to Chair the annual peer review conference of the Paul Hamlyn-funded “Our Museum” project. The conference took place in Bristol and ran very smoothly thanks to the organisational skills of the project Director Piotr Bienkowski and Gurdeep Thiara (the power behind the throne…).

The project aims to, over a three year period, change the organisational (and perhaps also philosophical) culture in 8 museums (large and small) from across the UK, with the aim of making them more responsive to, and inclusive of, their communities.

It is a bold project. Not an easy one to deliver but with huge implications for the future of all museums.

Who was it who said “If you love someone, set them free”. I think it was David Cameron. Or Sting. Anyway, what I’m getting at is that one of the key themes that emerged was one of “letting go”. Museums letting go of their instinctive desire to protect and collect. Letting go of their belief that they, and only they, know what is best for their communities.

It was a fascinating conference, greatly enhanced by my superb chairing and timekeeping skills (!) which were aided by the proflagate use of a WWII air raid warden’s rattle from Belfast (ah, how delegates thrilled at it’s harshly wooden ululations. Not!).

Is Our Museum the future of ALL museums?