Put ten people in a museum gallery with one object, and they’ll all react differently to it. One object, ten different preconceived notions of what it represents. One artifact, ten separate opinions about its meaning for current and future generations. One thing, multiple responses. And really, that’s a good thing. Multiple interpretations of a single object add layers to its history and narrative. Museums have even developed programs centered around the idea of finding new, creative ways for visitors to interact with objects. Often these include multimedia displays, artistic workshops, and special guided tours.
But what happens when visitors interact with an object that may prove harmful to the object itself? Museums attempt to mitigate this possibility with security measures: display cases are locked, exposed objects are surrounded by stantions, invigilators periodically patrol galleries, alarm systems and CCTV cameras are installed. These methods only prove sufficient in controllable environments, however. What does one do in the case of an object–or monument or heritage site–that is completely exposed to its visitors and the elements?
The Great Wall of China was built in the 14th Century during the Ming dynasty as protection against northern invaders. It stretches from Gansu Province in the west to the Bo Hai Sea in the east, though its expanse is not continuous. Several areas of the Wall have been eroded away, or simply have not been adequately located. And despite popular belief, it is not visible from space.
A popular activity for Great Wall tourists is to carve names and messages into the Wall’s rough stones. Graffiti is rampant all over the Wall, but it seems to be concentrated (at least from my own observations) in the watch towers. The messages people may write are different, but everyone who carves his or her name reacts to the Wall in the same manner: it is an object through which one can be immortalized, just as it has been.
This has caused significant destruction to the Wall itself. Imagine removing a Ming dynasty vase from its display case and visitors scrawling their names all over it. Most people would be appalled. Yet the Great Wall seems a different object simply by nature of its exposure and expanse. Why do people react differently to museum objects rather than heritage sites? We are socially trained to behave according to specific mores in museums; why do heritage sites fail to have the same effect? The Guardian published this article, which states that the Chinese authorities are planning to introduce prepared areas where tourists can graffiti the Wall, either physically or through multimedia. Cynically, I do not believe this will make much of a difference; I imagine that the next generation (or even the current) of tourists will be enticed to graffiti the areas of the Wall now deemed “off-limits”.
Assuming this is an uphill battle that can never be won, is it necessary to prevent tourists from interacting with the Wall via graffiti after all? Should we give in to the inevitability of vandalism and instead focus on creating the same inherent social training via heritage site visits as we do in museums? After all, until attitudes are changed, behaviors will remain much the same.
Friday night I went to a concert on campus. It was standing-room only and my ears are still ringing, though whether from the rib-rattling bass lines or the hundreds of people singing along with the band, I’m not sure.
Concerts are interesting spaces that draw together people with perhaps absolutely nothing else in common except music taste. Different personalities and walks of life are united by the performers on stage, who themselves know nothing personal about the fans before them. It’s like a family gathering, except it’s made up solely of really distant relatives whose names you can’t remember for the life of you. Nevertheless, there’s a sense of camaraderie that fills the room.
At least, until this happens:
Now suddenly, instead of watching your favorite band on stage, you’re watching your favorite band on stage on someone’s palm-sized smart phone screen. Sometimes if you’re really lucky, you’re watching the band on someone’s phone on someone else’s phone, because inevitably there are more people using their phones in front of the person in front of you, who captures the preceding phones on his or her phone. It’s like gig Inception.
As much as friendly camaraderie might rule the concert, it’s difficult not to feel the least bit impatient about a phone in your line of sight. The same frustration crops up in other public arenas as well, museums not being the least of these.
In a blog post titled “Museum Photo Policies Should Be As Open As Possible“, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History Executive Director Nina Simon implores museums to consider why they have the photography policies they do, and to ask themselves if the policies are visitor-focused. She cites five reasons why museums may restrict photography in certain galleries (or museum-wide), one of which is “aesthetics of experience”; some visitors may find other visitors taking photographs of objects or art distracting, or they may feel it undermines the true value of the piece.
Simon contends that by allowing visitors to take pictures within the museum, the museum is empowering its audience to “memorialize” its experiences, as well as interact with the museum on different terms. Additionally, public museums hold objects and art in trust for its audience, making their visitors co-owners of their collections. If museums restrict what the public can or cannot photograph, then that co-ownership is undermined, perhaps unfairly.
Of course, there are inappropriate times to take pictures in galleries, especially if photography would cause harm to a piece of art or an object. But protective and licensing contingencies aside, is there a legitimate reason why visitors should not be allowed to take photographs in the museum? Are the preferences of a few justification to restrict the actions of all? Museums promote enculturation; we are taught to behave in certain ways when we walk through the doors, and we adhere to those social norms without much thought. Is this another “lesson” that the museum must teach us? Personally, I agree with Simon on this point: photography in museums not only allows visitors to document their experiences in ways meaningful to them, but it can help promote the museum through social media. Naturally not everyone will interact with the same object in the same way, but restricting how people can interact with the museum isn’t benefiting anyone, and it may actually harm the museum’s reputation by making it seem elitist.
I’m interested to hear others’ takes on the subject. This is an ongoing debate, and it won’t be approached the same way in every museum. When you visit museums, do you photograph what you see? Why? Do you think photography in museums is permissible, or is it a distraction that should be replaced by some other form of experiential interaction?
I’ve always believed that writing matters. Words are important; the ones you choose, the order you put them in, the subtle effects they have… and I seek out allies who feel the same way. That’s why I recently spoke to Dany Louise about her Arts Council funded project Interpretation Matters.
The project is all about written interpretation in art galleries; the indispensible interface between audience and artwork. Whatever live events and interactives you offer, the majority of your visitors will come into contact with labels, text panels and booklets.
As a writer Dany understands the skill involved in writing about art in a way that is accessible and enlightening for a broad audience. But it was her personal experience as an audience member that sowed the seeds of the Interpretation Matters project:
‘I’ve been visiting exhibitions for years, and I’m someone who is drawn to the writing as well as the artwork. I look at the art, then I look at the writing, then I look back at the art, then I think about it. But what I’ve noticed… not every time; there is a lot of really good writing out there… but often enough I’ve noticed myself thinking; oh, that’s not really worked for me.’
Dany was quick to point out that what she wants from written interpretation – insight into key concepts and artists’ thought processes – won’t be the same for everyone; we all have different preferences and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. But then it’s even more surprising that written interpretation is virtually absent from national discourses on gallery practice.
‘I’ve also been involved in the arts funding system and arts management for 20 years, and my overwhelming impression is that written interpretation has been overlooked in favour of other interpretation techniques. And that’s partly to do with the way national policy and funding has been emphasised, but I’ve never seen a funding bid that said; ‘we want to look at how we do our written interpretation, and find out if we’re doing it the best way, and talk to our audiences about how they find it’ etc.’
So, why is it so difficult to get right? Why do we see so much ‘artspeak’ on the gallery wall?
‘I’m aware of how difficult it is when you’re immersed in the artworld to put yourself in the position of the audience member – any audience member, old, young, educated in art, or not – it’s difficult to find ways of talking about art that doesn’t use that kind of insider language.’
As Dany enumerated all the different professional interests involved, it became apparent to me what a contested site the little interpretation label is. Traditionally it’s been the domain of curators, whose job it is to think and write about art in quite intellectual ways; problematising, juxtaposing and opening up new and unexpected insights. Education departments come from the opposite end of the spectrum, with an audience-focused, pedagogically-driven approach to writing about art. Marketing writing is different again, aiming to bring new people into the gallery. And of course there is the artist: ‘They’ve put however many years’ work into refining and defining their creative ideas, they want those ideas to be properly represented– but it can be very specialist stuff.’
‘It’s a matter of negotiating all these different perspectives to come up with a final text. And that’s really hard. I think probably a lot of teams don’t have the time and resources to really bottom it out.’
This is where Interpretation Matters comes in; the project aims to provide spaces for professionals, audiences and artists to share what works for them, to start talking about written interpretation. For example, the professional workshops Dany will be undertaking with her project partners, including the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool, and De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill.
‘We’ll be taking some time out to look at all of these issues. We’re going to sit in a room, we’ve got four hours, let’s talk about your current process and what you want to achieve, and figure out how best to do it. Of course we won’t work it out in one session, but it’s about starting a process.’
And this is much wider than agreeing how to write text panels; it’s about defining ‘organisational voice’.
‘So, it’s not about putting any one professional perspective on the spot, it’s about asking; how do you want your organisation to be perceived through the written word? And how is that expressed in very specific language? What phrases do you think represent the ethos of the organisation? And what phrases work against it?’
This really struck chord with me; the apparent minutiae of the words you choose to include on a descriptive label has a direct relationship with much wider organisational mission and values. It reminds me of the organisation-wide ‘letting the story lead’ strategy at MOSI that I wrote about here. But what speaking to Dany really emphasised was the importance of seeing the issue of interpretation in the round, acknowledging the different, even opposing, viewpoints and objectives, and taking the time to reconcile them into a public interface that works for everyone.
After a year of research and development, the Interpretation Matters project will be kicking off in a big way over the next few months, with an art-text exhibition at the Bluecoat, publication of the Interpretation Matters Handbook and workshops to explore written interpretation through organisational voice and audience need. Plus development of the website into a dynamic and collaborative discussion space for audiences, artists and professionals. There are a number of useful resources already available there – I especially like Writing Matters; five common pitfalls to avoid when writing about art for the public!
Dany would love contributions, comments and involvement from anybody, individuals or organisations, interested in the visual arts. Interpretation matters, doesn’t it? Let’s kick-start a national conversation about those little words with big meanings.
My name is Hans Svennevig. I am in my second year of my part time International Disaster Management masters course. I am a teacher, and my aim is to bring together my decade of teaching experience with disaster management preparedness. That is why my work placement fit so well – the purpose of which was to work on BCM and develop a BCP from using a BIA for the GMRF AGMA CCRU at GMPFHQ while also visiting the ECC. As a teacher there are a great deal of acronyms – but I was in a new world of letters with this placement! My task was to create and consult on Business Continuity Management (BCM) and create a Business Continuity Plan (BCP), the purpose of which is to prepare people within a business for a situation that reduces or limits the service of an organisation – by having a plan the organisation can get back on track. I was to provide this service to the Greater Manchester Resilience Forum (GMRF). Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) Civil Contingencies and Resilience Unit (CCRU). Their job (it took me quite some time to work out) is to support and provide guidance to the ten local authorities in the Manchester area in a disaster or other critical situation ensuring that members know how to appropriately respond, and deal with aspects such as welfare and to be compliant with the civil and Contingences Act 2004. The CCRU are based at the Greater Manchester Police Force Headquarters (GMPFHQ). Every organisation should have a BCP. Without, it is difficult to know what critical concerns a business has in order to get that business back on track in the event of a disaster. The CCRU team provide support to AGMA organisations in development of their own BCM. However until my work placement, the CCRU did not have its own BCP. From initial meetings in GMPFHQ and deep in the basement of Manchester City Hall at the Emergency Control Centre (ECC). Working with the Head of CCRU and a CCRU business partner we had a series of consultative meetings after which I worked remotely to develop a business impact assessment (BIA) to determine the core critical functions that the CCRU needs in order to function. This highlighted some key risks to these functions and so with this information we created a BCP demonstrating the tactical strategies the CCRU can take to mitigate against the risks highlighted in the BIA.
This experience has given me a sense of the complexity that is involved with consulting on a project. It has left me with a deep sense of achievement as I have utilised theoretical knowledge gained during my MA programme, and produced a real BCP which the CCRU will use. A valuable tool I can use in future employment.
If you’ve been into Selfridges in the past three weeks you’ll have seen Genesis; Jacob Epstein’s large, bold, controversial sculpture of a naked, heavily pregnant woman. With her African mouth, Asian eyes, prominent breasts and swollen stomach she fills the department store’s main entrance and is the pièce de résistance of the Whitworth Art Gallery’s latest display; Pop-up Whitworth.
It’s taken me a while to get my head around this. Selfridges doesn’t seem like the obvious home for the Whitworth’s collection. I love the idea of the collection ‘popping up’ (while the gallery is closed for redevelopment) in unexpected locations, sparking off new interpretations and reaching new audiences, but why choose this palace of high-end consumerism?
Collaborations between art and retail are not unheard of. Apparently the V&A has had exhibitions with Habitat, Burberry and Harrods. The Louvre, of course, has an entrance in a shopping mall. Such ventures can reinforce anxieties about dumbing down and blurring boundaries; about cultural institutions pandering to an audience that is no longer able to appreciate a uniquely aesthetic experience, but consumes culture in the same way it consumes high street fashion – driven by desire, scanning the horizon for the next aesthetic fix, in an attempt to fill the void in our fragmentary postmodern lives.
But there is another way of seeing it. In Having One’s Tate Nick Prior describes the most successful twenty-first century museums as ‘reflexive allotropes’. ‘Reflexive’ meaning responsive and self-aware, and ‘allotrope’ meaning something that is capable of existing in two or more different forms. Art galleries don’t have to respond to our hyper-modern culture by either becoming populist, disneyfied distraction machines or by retreating into elitist narratives of high culture. They can do/be both. And everything in between.
Having spent some time working at the Whitworth I know how good they are at being many things to many people. Academics, students, families, toddlers, home schoolers, asylum seekers, teachers, hospital patients; they all think of the Whitworth as their own. The gallery redevelopment is driven by the need to provide space for this increasingly diverse audience.
The Selfridges venture provides a way in for a new audience. This might be well-off professionals who are never in the Oxford Rd area, but might be inclined to go there for an After Hours event. It might be non-residents who visit Manchester for the shopping but don’t know about the city’s cultural attractions. And this allows the Whitworth to show its glamorous side, to borrow a bit of glitter and glitz. It turns out a Picasso print looks surprisingly good next to a Gucci handbag…
That last comment is a bit flippant; it is more complicated than this. Looking at the vulnerable little female figure in one of Tracy Emin’s monoprints, alongside eye-wateringly expensive clutch bags, is a complex and contradictory experience that deserves a bit of time and reflection. I suppose my uncertainty about this exhibition comes from knowing that, if I was in shopping mode, I wouldn’t be stopping to spare this time, in fact I’d probably walk straight past the glass case which dissolves too easily into the visual noise of reflected lights and polished surfaces. I’m not certain the works on paper in this exhibition entirely work. Maybe they’re too small, too subtle; they don’t quite stand up to their new surroundings.
But happily, the same can’t be said about Genesis; she literally stops people in their tracks. Apparently she has elicited a huge range of reactions from passing shoppers; curiosity, enchantment, revulsion, excitement, bafflement… But whatever people think of her, the important thing is they think something – they are momentarily forced out of a consumer mindset into an aesthetic one: Who is she? What is she doing here? Why does she make me feel angry/happy/confused?
She carries the contradictions of her new setting well. In her nakedness, caressing her belly, back turned on all the material desires and exchanges of the store, she challenges those going inside to think about the things that are more important than shoes and handbags. But at the same time she basks in the spotlights and the glamour of her surroundings, her white skin echoing the white interior of the store. Dare I say it; she looks more at home here than she did in the gallery.
I think this is a fearless move by the Whitworth: Striking out into an arena of society that is, in many ways, anathema to what art galleries try to do; exposing some of the most important pieces of the collection to an alien context; creating an experience that is contradictory and perhaps not entirely successful… It shows just how confident and innovative the Whitworth is as a reflexive allotrope –able to embody both populism and elitism, challenging anyone and everyone to engage. I urge you to go and see Pop-up Whitworth before it vanishes on 14th February, leaving empty handbags and crumpled cashmeres in its wake.
As part of my placement at the Whitworth art gallery for the AGMS course I have been researching the studio spaces of artists in the Whitworth collection and local practitioners. As part of their redevelopment project the Whitworth are going to be opening a new studio, funded by the Clore Duffield foundation, where they hope to host a range of learning and outreach programmes. I am writing a blog about my findings and so far the project has highlighted a variety of interesting ways that studios can be used to encourage creative learning. Here is the first blog post that I have written, there will be more soon on http://whitworthstudiothinking.wordpress.com/:
Images of the Owl Project’s Studio, and an example of their work.
Over the next few months we will be exploring how some of the Whitworth’s Creative Practitioners use their studios to be creative, as well as looking at the studio practices of artists in our collection to help us develop ideas for our own new Clore learning studio leading up to the Whitworth’s reopening.
Many of the artists who work with the Whitworth on our learning programmes have their own studios around the city. The Owl Project is a collaboration between artists Antony Hall, Simon Blackmore and Steve Symons who share a studio in central Manchester. Here they work on collaborative projects that blend sculpture, computer technology and woodwork to create interesting machines and instruments that comment upon artistic and commercial practice. The three have worked on large commissions for international institutions as well as working closer to home at the Whitworth and Manchester Museum.
Take a look at these links for their current projects, including a residency at Manchester Museum:
Their studio is at the heart of their work and is used by all three as a space for creative thinking and practice. The studio is divided into their workshop, stocked high with materials and equipment, and their studio, where the artists develop their ideas using computer technology and smaller pieces of machinery.
The group are experimental with their work and as a result their studio is the site of much of their research. They use whiteboards in the studio, rather than sketch books, so that ideas can be quickly developed and explored. Each of the artists has their own desk in the studio where they experiment with various technologies and mechanisms that interest them, but a major part of their work involves bringing these individual expertise together to work collaboratively. Their studio is organised in order to incorporate both their personal and collective practices and offers a great example of how studio spaces can support the work of art groups. By organising their studio into spaces for independent and collaborative work, and designating areas for either conceptual and practical work the artists are able to utilise their studio effectively throughout their creative processes.
The trio also run their own workshops that centre around their principles of producing art that explores the relationship between humans and consumer technology. Their ilog workshops allow participants to work collectively in order to produce idiosyncratic artworks that resemble modern day high street goods such as ipods. The process of making the pieces takes the form of a production line, and at the end participants have created their own individual product, as opposed to purchasing a mass-produced item. Through their workshops the team not only demonstrate their values of craftsmanship and materiality, they also reflect the organisation of their studio, where collaborative thinking and production are promoted by their creative space.