First encounter with the Duddon

This post was originally published over on the By Duddon’s Side project blog: http://byduddonsside.wordpress.com
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I travelled up to the Lake District for a preliminary meeting at the Wordsworth Museum. Having a bit of time to spare I thought I’d take a detour to check out the valley that will be the main focus of this project.

Visibility was somewhat reduced and it was quite squelchy underfoot, but after 10 minutes strolling around on the banks of the Duddon near Ulpha I could understand that this place is a little bit special – I’m very much looking forward to having a proper explore.

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R&D at Coventry Transport Museum

In amongst all the excitement about the Orrery project, I’m also one of 4 artists who have been commissioned by Coventry Transport Museum (CTM, working with QUAD Derby) to respond to their collections. Unsurprisingly, I proposed that I worked with their cycle collection, so things will be a bit bike-tastic around here for a while!

Wheels

Super spokes

The commissions are to spend 10 days on research and development for a larger proposal that the museum may then choose to take forward later in the year. We’re being asked to “create something that will enhance the visitor experience and help to engage with new audiences for CTM”. I did a small amount of unpicking during my interview, but needless to say there’s a lot more work that I need to do before I understand exactly what the words ‘engagement’ and ‘audiences’ mean for the museum.

My residency doesn’t start properly for another couple of weeks, but finding myself in Coventry the other day with a spare hour or two I decided to do a bit of a recce to start my brain off.

It’s clear there are some interesting curatorial challenges to be worked with: I had been told during my interview that there’s an ongoing struggle to try and stop people from touching the exhibits. (I can’t deny this is hugely tempting, given the number of cranks and levers just within reach!) There are signs everywhere asking people not to touch and explaining that to do so would damage the items, however thankfully there are only a few items shielded behind a protective layer of glass and you can still peer at the details that catch your attention.

Chain

Difficult to resist turning the pedals and watching these chains in action

Figurehead

For when a head tube badge just doesn’t cut the mustard

You know how it is with supermarkets and museums: you often end up in sync with someone and your paths cross in every other aisle. On my visit one of the people I kept finding myself near was this man, and it was fascinating to watch how he interacted with the collection – mostly by leaning on it, it seems…

Handy man

Handy man

I’ll try and resist too much speculation (is it a territorial thing? were the descriptions too low down for him?), but it was a good reminder that whatever ‘engagement’ I propose – and let’s face it; it’s unlikey to be passive – will have to work hard to flag up what’s an acceptable mode of interaction and how this might be different from the other things in the same space.

So, back to my experience as a visitor to the museum…

[Insert caveat about not having paid attention to anything but the cycles and also having no better suggestion as to how I’d organise the museum if I were given the task.] The collections are presented chronologically and mostly with an eye on the evolution of design. There’s some historical context, but in that broad brushstroke, dry, text book kind of way: wars, rational dress reform, unemployment as a result of the collapse of the ribbon industry. My engagement with it was mostly on an intellectual level.

This bike shone out in amongst the talk of step-through frames and pneumatic tyres:

Gulson

1926 Gulson Touring Bicycle

Or rather, this story shone out in amongst the talk of step-through frames and the development of pneumatic tyres:

Love story

1926 Touring Love Story

This bicycle was purchased in 1928, by a Mr S.A. Lee. In the same year he cycled to Reigate where he began a romance ith a young woman.

He then regularly travelled the 120 miles form Coventry to Reigate on this bicycle to continue the courtship.

A story about a person! (Two people!)

Apparently I said something eloquent in my interview. I’m not sure I can remember it now, but I think it was along the lines of describing my job to be “to find the hooks that help people to link stories relating to the collection to the stories within their own lives and then to use that as a springboard for engaging with the objects inside the museum”.

Something like that. The importance of stories we can relate to, anyway.

As well as my own experiences of cycling, which I expect I’ll be able to link to things within the collection, after my two-week stint helping with the research on Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers project, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of the back stories behind the inventors and what the details in their day-to-day lives were that led them to try and design something differently. (For Bikes and Bloomers one of the things we were interested in was a patent for a transformable cycling dress designed by Alice Bygrave, I spent some time investigating her family history and we started to discover she was surrounded by a family of watchmakers and racing cyclists. And I would love to know more about the sort of experimental tinkering that it seems she was probably surrounded by as a matter of course!

So, first declaration of intent: I’m interested in the stories a layer or two below the surface.

Second declaration of intent is all about the making.

production

By the 1890s the cycle trade was booming and Coventry had developed the largest bicycle industry in the world. 248 cycle manufacturers were based in Coventry, and the industry employed nearly 40,000 workers.[source]

I’m reading statements like these a lot as I do my background reading to try and get my head around how important the cycle manufacturing industry was to Coventry and how important Coventry was to the cycle manufacturing industry. There’s something niggling away at the back of my brain though (or perhaps it’s in my sculptor’s fingers) and it’s the feeling that there’s something that gets hidden behind the words and the numbers. What does it actually mean to make a single bicycle, let alone 1,369 of them?

I want to better understand the time and skill that went into making the objects on display at the museum.

Probably all this will change once I have a chance to meet with the museum staff and find out more about what it is that they want to get out of the residency, but that’s where I’m at going in and I can’t wait to get started properly!

~~~

Walking home from the museum, I spotted this in one of the subways under the ring road:

?

?

Having spent the previous few hours looking at things like this:

sociable

Sociable

…my first thought was that it was obviously a cycle lane intended for use by riders of sociables, but on getting closer I think one of the bikes is probably facing in the opposite direction to the other one.

Q1: Which direction do the painted bikes near you face?
Q2: What happens when the effects of the museum leak outside and into the wider world?

Museum Camp: interesting digital stuff that doesn’t involve screens

On Monday I attended Museum Camp. As with MuseumNext in 2009 it was a) rather marvellous and b) a stimulating place to discuss ideas that relate directly and indirectly to my practice. Thanks to all involved!

Hello. We are interested in Museums and we want to think about...

I hadn’t intended to lead a session, but as a spur-of-the-moment decision I offered to instigate a session on ‘interesting digital stuff that doesn’t involve screens’. This was largely from a desire to carry on the conversation that had begun with my recent residency at Coventry Artspace linking in with Heritage Open Days, but also fly the flag for this other face of digital that perhaps institutions aren’t aware of.

I was really happy to see so many people come along to take part in the session. Sitting-on-tables-or-the-floor room only! This post is intended as a reference for those that were in the session and those that weren’t able to join us: pulling out the main areas of discussion and linking to some of the examples mentioned.

I started off by talking a bit about my background and why I was interested in interesting digital stuff that doesn’t involve screens: my journey through gradually more expanded forms of people+place and then influences from pervasive games (I like this definition) and the hackspace/makerspace movement.

I sat on a table and waved my hands a lot as I talked about two recent digital installations that encapsulated a lot of stuff I’m passionate about: making people look up; affecting how people interact with a space; instigating collaboration; making people think and speculate and do experiments to try and find out.

Trapeze Monkey from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Secret Police Disco from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Rebecca Shelley took some comprehensive notes on the conversation that followed as has been kind enough to share them, so here’s where we went from there…

But how much does it cost and is it something we can realistically implement?

Your local hackspace as a resource for know-how and possibly people with skills looking for an interesting project to use them on:
Birmingham: www.fizzpop.org
Coventry: Tekwizz
Hackerspaces wiki (includes a listing of active spaces around the world)
Hackspace Foundation has a UK list

Not got a local hackspace? Why not host one?
Museum 2.0 post
At the time of MuseumNext 2009 The Life Science Centre in Newcastle had got a long way towards planning to host one, not sure how far they got with implementing it.

Arduino is the platform I use: a small computer but also a community that shares a massive amount of information. A standard board costs about £25 and a lot of the sensors are available now as things aimed at a hobbyist market. It’s probably people’s time that’ll be the main expense.

Sensors include distance-measurers, motion sensors, noise detectors, humidity sensors… You can link up sensor inputs to a variety of different outputs, with some decision-making in between if the result is this, then do this.

Remember…

Later on we reminded ourselves that the behaviour or effect we wanted to induce should lead the design, rather than the technology.

Use what you have in terms of resources and the space.

Low-tech is as valid as high tech.

Other technologies you can harness

Magic vests, silly hats and balloons.

Secrets, missions, games, small groups of people who are in-the-know and pantomine (as seen with the Secret Police Disco as people who had found it tried to enable others to make the discovery too).

How do you set/stage the space?

How you describe what’s going on and the process by which people enter that activity (or not).

Do I see it as performance? No – mostly because the idea would terrify me! – but I do see it as performative sometimes, and I’m interested in spectacle and different types of audiences that observe it.

I tend not to emphasise art (it’s scary to a lot of people!)
I tend not to emphasise technology (it’s scary to a lot of people!)

Can you pique people’s curiosity? Reward those that seek out the hidden things?

The Heritage Open Day event that Trapeze Monkey and the Secret Police Disco were a part of had a short paragraph and the end of the heritage-orientated handout that said I’d been in residence and things were ‘available for discovery’.

Question from Nikki: How does this sit with pedagogical aims of institutions? Does it matter if only a small number of people make the discovery?

[Silence…]

How do you connect these experiences with the outside?

One participant talked about experience using gamification, linking in to people’s online social networks and harnessing the technology people carried in their pockets.

Another reminded us that not everyone has smart phones and I reminded us this was a session about non-screen-based approaches!

We then talked about the urge to share stories/experiences and possibly also how to close the feedback loop and do something useful with the contributions coming in from social media (or I might be conflating that with later discussions).

Education and fun

I noticed a few undertones that seemed to suggest these two are mutually exclusive…
(I disagree.)

Flows of visitors

Institutions are aware that visitors tend to stay in the areas that are more populated. Can we use interactive installations to draw people into the less well-trodden areas?

We talked about conferring agency, and how this brings people back if they can see their actions are having a direct effect on the space.

Someone talked about the audio piece Shhh… at the Victoria and Albert Museum and how it had enabled things like men transgressing into the ladies loos.

Can I give some examples of exemplary projects?

Um, this threw me a little as I think this is what I’m trying to move towards understanding through getting more of the museums’ points of views. I fell back on describing things I had encountered that had resulted in me having a powerful experience.

Symphony of a Missing Room, Lundahl & Seitl part of the 2011 Fierce Festival Hannah Nicklin’s thoughts and a This is Tomorrow article.

Ran on blindfolds, binaural recordings and the gentlest of touches leading you down the rabbit hole.

We talked again about spectacle, and returning to see what things look like from the outside. Also buying in to an activity and submitting to the experience.

Blast Theory were mentioned as the technology big guns. I’d seen some of their control room for I’d Hide You. It’s a lot of tech!

Reminded me to say that things will go wrong. Embrace it! (And design for it!)

This linked us back to an open approach and fostering a sense of agency and ownership – you can playtest your prototypes and people will appreciate it, it doesn’t matter if it’s not polished and flawless.

Hide&Seek’s Sandpit approach (and use of low tech).

I also mentioned the previous week’s Heritage Sandbox showcase and the Ghosts in the Garden project at the Holburne Museum. Smartphone technology wrapped up in an intriguing interface and an engaging narrative.

I’m totally into this as an approach and have used cardboard and simple electronics to replace touchscreens and turn using what’s basically a satnav into a team activity for 5 people.

Worried about a lack of budget? Cardboard props are great because they flag up that this is something running on imagination-power and you can do anything with that!

A Song for Skatz: using The Anticipator from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Routes, Roles & Rules

Following the success of my Ministry of Rules project with The City Gallery back in February [Museum 2.0 interview], they’ve asked me back as project manager for their Summer programme of activities.

This time we’re linking in with the 2Player exhibition at New Walk Museum & Art Gallery (“exploring the abstractions of game play and computers as a form of communication”) and I will talk with anyone who will talk with me at the LCB Depot (“looks at the nature of conversations, the creativity that can come from the gaps, stutters or breakdowns in speaking and the spontaneous production of new ideas that can occur when people meet for conversation and collaboration”).

The Graham Hudson installation housing the exhibition at LCB Depot

From my starting brief I’ve put together a framework to allow us to really explore the potential of the gap and journeys between the two exhibition sites. Loosely based on the idea of a Choose Your Own Adventure gamebook, rather than getting a bit grumpy about having to shepherd people to an unfamiliar venue, or even just working on a fixed route between New Walk and the Depot, we’ve defined a group of possibilities. The workshops will work with these to explore the layering of stories and characters over the top of the routes and the decisions made along them.

The workshops will run for the two weeks between the 15th and 26th of August, with different workshops aimed at different age groups ranging from 0-2 years through to 12-17 years. We’ve got an absolutely top-notch team of artists lined up to lead these sessions: Graham Langley (storyteller and one of the Traditional Arts Team), Lindsay Jane Brown (who has worked on early years programme with the REP), Sian Watson Taylor (a narrative-weaving artist who’s worked with more galleries and schools than you can shake a story dice at) and Ashley Brown (digital artist to be found in ludic rooms of all sorts). That’s a pretty amazing collection of skills and expertise we’re unleashing onto the streets of Leicester!

If you’re under the age of 17, you and your responsible adults can sign up for workshops here. (They’re all free, most will include BISCUITS! and most will involve exploring outdoor space – be prepared!)

The Routes, Roles & Rules programme also has its own blog where you can read more about the artists and the workshops as they take place. We’re very much interested in the idea of building on themes that come out of the workshops, so keep an eye on the activities section where we’ll be posting stories, tasks, and trails that you can download and do yourself. Here’s the first one – Story detectives – to get you started.

The Story detectives worksheet - can you find all the story clues and mark them on the map? Bonus marks if you can then make a story using them. Suitable for all ages!

Don’t forget to share your results with us!

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Oh, and whilst we’re on the subject, I also had a bit of a hand in planning the activities for The Herbert‘s Wild Worlds early years summer exhibition. You know it’s a good sign when you’re sat in a planning meeting trying to figure out what small children you can borrow to be able to take part yourself!

The Play Ground residency draws nearer

The Play Ground residency draws nearer: on Monday next week this corner of the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester, will have been cleared of the trestle tables and retro computer games (don’t worry, they’ll not have been moved far!), and the Ministry of Rules will have set up their new headquarters there instead.

The soon-to-be Ministry of Rules HQ

I’ll be inviting visitors to the exhibition to join me in becoming Inspectors for the Ministry of Rules and together we will shape the investigations that will take place over the 5 days of the residency (21st – 25th of February). Our main task for the first day is therefore to construct the hugemongous mind map that will help us decide what we collectively want to focus our energies on for the remainder of the time.

On Monday afternoon we also have a sign-writing activity that will see the more adventurous amongst us surreptitiously placing new rules around the museum building. We wouldn’t want it to be too much about the paperwork now, would we?

From that point on I have no idea how things are going to evolve. Personally, I’ll be looking to explore physical spaces, unspoken rules, looking at things from a different angle, emergent playfulness, and poking the edges of conventions. If you’ve enjoyed the work I’ve done previously around pervasive games and interventions in public spaces then I strongly recommend you try and get over to New Walk Gallery over half term. Also, there’s a bouncy castle!

The only non-blurry photo I have from the inside of Mungo Thomson's Skyspace Bouncehouse.

I know the hours of 11-4 may be unfriendly to those with day jobs, but fear not: we’ll be making the most of the MoR blog at http://ministryofrules.npugh.co.uk/ and there could well be more chances to get involved remotely such as the Find-an-Interesting-Sign challenge that readers of this blog so wonderfully road-tested last week.

I’ve ordered the Inspector ID badges, requested the colourful wool and located the large box full of assorted sticky tape. We found a fox in a box, too, but apparently that’s just normal museum stuff…

Fox. In a box.

Testing, testing…

Please ensure the gate is bolted after entry and exit.

I’m test-driving a few ideas and approaches in preparation for a week in residence at New Walk Gallery as part of their Play Ground exhibition programme:

What rules do we follow in galleries? What rules would you most like to break? What new rules would you write?

The Ministry of Rules (MoR) is a fictional organisation that will be based in the Play Ground exhibition. The MoR needs your help to research, observe, explore, enforce and re-write the rules people may or may not be following in the art gallery and museum.

As part of this I want to check having a Flickr account that people can post to. Would you help me out, please?

I’m looking for examples of signs and notices with some sort of imperative about them. The theme is rules, so the sorts of things that tell you to do this, or not do that or that such-and-such is forbidden.

I suspect road signs and other massively mass-produced signage might get a little dull, but there are loads of examples out there that are custom-made or more interesting because of their context. Can you help me hunt them down and then email them to church20arts@photos.flickr.com ?

Just add the photo as an attachment and, if you want, put a title as the email’s subject. The photos will get posted to this photostream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/therepositoryofrules/

I’ll leave it running for about a week to see how it shapes up. Get noticing!

Things we have learned #1:

You can add descriptions for the photos in the main text of the email. If your email automatically adds a signature with your contact details etc, you may wish to remove it…

Things we have learned #2:

If you don’t add a title via the subject line, Flickr will use the file name of the image.

We are the experts. Who are we?

An open sketchbook post in preparation for 5 days residency-style alongside Play Ground. See this initial post for more background. Open to influence, rather than just on display: all constructive conversations and contributions welcomed. All posts in this series can be found under the Play Ground tag.

In this post I ask for suggestions for the name we will work under. Probably some sort of government ministry, but we don’t know yet. What do you think?

***

We work closely with professionals from affiliated departments.

We are the experts in how the public behave in cultural institutions. We work with theory, observation and practical experimentation. We work in large groups and small teams. We work alone. We sometimes go undercover. We make the decisions about what is proper behaviour within museums and art galleries. We enforce those decisions.

Who are we?

Please add your suggestions for the name of this group to the comments, or tweet @genzaichi

Getting stuck into The Participatory Museum (part 2)

An open sketchbook post in preparation for 5 days residency-style alongside Play Ground. See this initial post for more background. Open to influence, rather than just on display: all constructive conversations and contributions welcomed. All posts in this series can be found under the Play Ground tag.

In this post I continue reading The Participatory Museum to get a critical foundation in different approaches to… participation in museums.

As before, below are fragments from the book that seem particularly pertinent. I’ve copied and pasted them across to here as a sort of scrap book as I’ve come across them. Sometimes I’ve added notes, sometimes I’ve added italics, sometimes I’ve added nothing. In an attempt at making things easier to find again later, I’ve organised the cuttings under links to the sections of Nina’s book that they came from.

***

http://www.participatorymuseum.org/chapter2/

This technique, like all audience-centric initiatives, requires staff members to trust that visitors can and will find the content that is most useful to them. When staff members put their confidence in visitors in this way, it signals that visitors’ preconceptions, interests, and choices are good and valid in the world of the museum. And that makes visitors feel like the owners of their experiences.

Reminds me a little of the saying “the pictures are better on radio”. Leave space for people to make their own meaning etc etc

Cultural institutions are often terrible at this, especially when it comes to visitors. Even at museums where I’m a member, I am rarely welcomed as anything but another body through the gate. This lack of personalization at entry sets an expectation that I am not valued as an individual by the institution. I am just a faceless visitor.

To some extent, ameliorating that facelessness is a simple matter of providing good guest service. Vishnu Ramcharan manages the front-line staff (called “hosts”) at the Ontario Science Centre. He trains hosts with a simple principle: hosts should make every visitor feel wanted. As Ramcharan put it: “The hosts shouldn’t just be excited generally that visitors are there, but that you specifically showed up today. They should make you feel that you are someone they are thrilled to see at the Science Centre.” This may sound trite, but when you see Ramcharan’s smile, you feel as you do in the hands of any accomplished party host—desired, special, and ready to engage.

Magic vest! Can I wear a magic vest?!

The small presentation of self-expression becomes a kind of beacon that links me to others in a loose social network of affinity.

Aspirational stickers :)
Which behaviour do you secretly most harbour a desire to do when faced with a staid gallery setting?

These kinds of profiles are only useful if the institution can deliver an enhanced experience based on them. In Heroes, the enhancement was the opportunity to find and explore hero-specific content threads throughout the exhibition, and to connect with other people about their different identities.

hmmmmm. What enhanced experience? Link aspirations to the exhibits?
Will people chant together at Sculpture for Football Songs if they’re all wearing stickers saying they want to be noisy in galleries?

Rather than focusing on extending single visits with a pre- and post-visit, it can be more valuable to link multiple visits with offsite experiences.

Starting to sound very transmedia!
(I also think I’ve started reading this through the lens of other projects, since a lot of this chapter is way beyond the scope of my 5 days in the corner of a room. Will be good to see what I can apply, though.)

There’s no “delete” button for the postal service

:)

establish an expectation that you might visit multiple times

See you in a day or two for the next chapter!

Getting stuck into The Participatory Museum (part 1)

An open sketchbook post in preparation for 5 days residency-style alongside Play Ground. See this initial post for more background. Open to influence, rather than just on display: all constructive conversations and contributions welcomed. All posts in this series can be found under the Play Ground tag.

In this post I do some research to get a critical foundation in different approaches to participation in museums.

***

Nina Simon‘s writing on the subject of participation in museums – and the communities that I have been linked to from it – have been a stimulating influence on my work involving games, schools and more for a few years. Now I’m actually responsible for participatory activities in a museum it seems like a very good prod to get on and read her book The Participatory Museum.

Below are fragments from the book that seem particularly pertinent. I’ve copied and pasted them across to here as a sort of scrap book as I’ve come across them. Sometimes I’ve added notes, sometimes I’ve added italics, sometimes I’ve added nothing. In an attempt at making things easier to find again later, I’ve organised the cuttings under links to the sections of Nina’s book that they came from.

http://www.participatorymuseum.org/preface/

I define a participatory cultural institution as a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content. Create means that visitors contribute their own ideas[1], objects, and creative expression to the institution and to each other[2]. Share means that people discuss, take home, remix, and redistribute both what they see and what they make during their visit[3]. Connect[4] means that visitors socialize with other people—staff and visitors—who share their particular interests. Around content means that visitors’ conversations and creations focus on the evidence, objects, and ideas most important to the institution in question.

[1] Another reason to do a signtific brainstorm at the start of the residency? (see previous post). Preferably leave it up for the duration, too, so it can keep evolving.
[2] Make exchanges with spaces! 2 way exchange. (Ref Counsel for the Artist.)
[3] Seeing, making… different modes of engagement – provide different ways in.
[4] Makes me think of the “sense of community when it snows” example (see previous post)

http://www.participatorymuseum.org/chapter1/

visitor co-produced experiences.

Need to do prep-work and have a few ideas in back-up, but mostly focus on providing the platforms that enable the visitors to be creative.

Like schools work! “It’s not your job to be creative”!

This may sound messy. It may sound tremendously exciting. The key is to harness the mess in support of the excitement.

How much mess can we get away with?

But people who create content represent a narrow slice of the participatory landscape, which also includes people who consume user-generated content, comment on it, organize it, remix it, and redistribute it to other consumers.

creators are a small part of the landscape. You are far more likely to join a social network, watch a video on YouTube, make a collection of things you’d like on a shopping site, or review a book than you are to produce a movie, write a blog, or post photos online.

When designing participatory components to exhibitions, I always ask myself: how can we use this? What can visitors provide that staff can’t? How can they do some meaningful work that supports the institution overall?

What happens to the results? What’s the point? How does this translate to 5 days straight in and straight out? Might be about making it relevant to my practice?

If you focus solely on participation as a “fun activity,” you will do a disservice both to yourself as a professional and to visitors as participants.

As Geoff Godbey, professor of leisure studies at Pennsylvania State University, commented in a Wall Street Journal article: “To be most satisfying, leisure should resemble the best aspects of work: challenges, skills and important relationships.”

Games researcher Jane McGonigal has stated that people need four things to be happy: “satisfying work to do, the experience of being good at something, time spent with people we like, and the chance to be part of something bigger.”

Make them just tricky/taxing enough. How to make the museum activities just taxing enough? (esp for all age ranges!)

to collaborate confidently with strangers, participants need to engage through personal, not social, entry points.

People in; slightly different people out

Museums as experience machines

So far my 2010 has been very focussed on schools and learning as I first spent a week responding to the second wave of Creative Partnership calls for this academic year and then attending interviews as a result.

Roughly half of the interviews I am invited to involve having to deliver a short activity (10-20 minutes) to a small group of the children. Considering my whole approach to projects is based on collaboration and a particular process aimed at responding to each individual context, it’s quite strange to find myself being judged on solo delivery of something workshoppy to a group I’ve not had any previous contact with!

I’d like to think that with my cross-disciplinary background one of my main selling points is that with pupil-led projects I’m pretty well equipped to be able to bring in practical skills that relate to wherever we end up. This too makes it tricky to decide on just one activity to represent me, because I’m not working from a starting point of offering a particular medium in response to a brief. Again all about the process.

Anyhoo, irony of the situation aside, these activities can be very interesting in their own right.

On Monday I was in a school that was looking for someone to help facilitate Year 5 (9-10 years old) in designing and making their “Museum of Water”. I was really interested in this call because of the way it had been presented as very pupil-led and also because, through my work with pervasive games and hackerspaces, I’ve been involved in various conversations coming from museum professionals that resonate strongly with those of schools. We all want meaningful interactions.

15 minutes isn’t really enough time for introductions and then anything much in the way of making, so I decided to aim for something much more feasible …like a paradigm shift!

I wanted the school to see their museum-to-be not as a collection of objects, or of documentation of learning objectives, but as a process. People go into the museum and the museum has some sort of effect on them such that the people leaving the museum are slightly different to when they went in. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I started the session in my favourite manner – by getting things wrong.

Hi, my name’s Nikki and I do all sorts of creative stuff. I’m here because I saw your advert for someone to help you make a Museum of Water.

Well, I thought that was really very easy, so I just went ahead and made it for you. [places 2 litre lemonade bottle partially filled with water on table]

Can I have my £3000, please?

[Silence]

Oh, hang on!

[Places bottle on top of cardboard box pedestal]

[Silence accompanied by glances]

What’s wrong? Can I have my money please?

From this starting point, we were able to have a conversation where the pupils explained to me that, even if I labelled the water, just to have a bottle of water on display wasn’t good enough – they wanted a museum that was interactive and taught people interesting things. They weren’t very impressed with my offering at all.

My next move was to invite everyone down to the other end of the room where I had cleared some floorspace. Within the context of what they had just told me, I introduced the idea that I wanted them to think of their museum as an experience machine. I wasn’t interested in what was inside it right now, but I wanted to think of who went in, and what we wanted them to be like when they left.

Quick profiles of incoming and outgoing museum visitors

Quick profiles of incoming and outgoing museum visitors

Two of the children lay down on some large pieces of paper and struck appropriate poses whilst we drew around them. First of all we gathered around the outgoing visitor and noted and sketched our thoughts about what we wanted people to be doing and feeling after visiting our museum. I was really impressed at the contributions made in what I think was less than 5 minutes.

At one point I announced I was going to write down the obvious and added “happy”. This triggered a conversation about whether we would ever want people to leave the museum feeling sad. Yes they said: there were some very serious things relating to the topic of water and they might want people to be moved by these. When I asked for an example, one boy said that sometimes people drown in water. We agreed it would be important to teach people how to be safe.

With very little time left, we quickly added some thoughts to the picture of the incoming visitor. These were very illuminating in terms of how they perceived museums. Or how they thought museums were perceived – anyway, a very stark difference to the very positive picture they had painted in the previous two activities!

And that was the end of the session ..or it was supposed to be: it took a bit of effort to get the children to stop adding to the picture!

A few pupils helped me take photos of the drawings before I departed (I left the originals with the school – along with the bottle of water, for which I kindly waived the £3000 fee). Below is a slideshow of some of the images…

They’ve set themselves some very high standards in light of what appears to be a somewhat challenging target audience – I hope they can realise them.



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