Why “Turning the place over” is just so good

When you first see the architectural intervention by artist Richard Wilson as you walk around the back of the Liverpool town hall, you get a feeling of well being.

There is just something very satisfying about the precision with which the opening has been cut out of the front of this old derelict building. It is a work of art, in both senses of the word.

People stop and stare, not quite sure if it is okay to laugh, which of course it is. There is a lot of humour here, a lot of play and some serious engineering. The illusion is magnificent as it is so subtle. The building in unchanged except for a huge oval that has been cut from its front and is spinning and turning on a vast sort of propeller blade. The kind of thing you imagine being used on the rotor on a wind turbine or submarine engine.

You have no choice but to take the time to wait for the cut-out section to return to its original place and for a brief moment return the building to a whole. But, no sooner is it back, then it moves on again, always turning, always changing, like any great urban cityscape.

There are thousands of views of the numerous youtube videos that the public have posted and if you can’t make it to Liverpool to see the real thing, they are a must.

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Excellence, good practice, failure and the McMasters report (oh yea and audiences as well…) Museums Association conference Liverpool 2008

The debate at the Museums Association Conference, Liverpool 2008 about reactions and issues from Brian McMasters report started to define some of the substantial challenges the DCMS are going to have in implementing the recommendations.

On a panel were Mick Elliott (DCMS), Andrew Whyte (ACE), Mark O’Neill (Culture & Sport Glasgow) and Journalist Maev Kennedy. Unfortunately, Brian McMasters was not able to attend at the last minute but was replaced by a colleague who has worked on the report with him.

As the session went it it became clear that there was an undercurrent of fear coming from some in the Museum sector, articulated best by Mark O’Neill, of this all ending up with a return to the kind of elitism that the Arts Council have been criticised of before. Not so, was the reply from Andrew Whyte, this was about professional judgement and there was a need for the sector to trust those professionals who might be in the peer review process to be just that – professional. He also said that is was up to DCMS to balance judgements with measurements, one providing the context for the other.

As an optimist, I am inclined to give him this trust as my concerns from this debate about how DCMS is going to translate McMasters ideas into reality, lie elsewhere.

1) The focus of the debate was on the user (hopefully) being at the receiving end of some sort of excellence in terms of an experience. But for me its not just about considering the user at the end of a piece of work. You need to start with the user at the beginning. If you don’t start here, with can you know what the user might need or care about? How can you assess the potential? How can you assess impact or reach?

2) Good practice is not just something that falls out of the blue, it is learned. So, if excellence is one step up from good practice then one step down from it is failure. However in this session the debate on the value of failure was missed out and there was no talk about what we can learn from failure. This is a area where I think peer review could play a key part, not just to assess excellence or good practice but also failure (and failure as part of the journey all organisations are on towards excellence). If this kind of shift in thinking could be embraced and the understanding of failure seen as a success, it may also help to counteract the fear of elitism that some feel.

Christopher Frayling at the Museums Association Conference, Liverpool 2008 – the historical and the contemporary.

Liverpool Docks
Liverpool Docks

Sandy Nairn called it an ‘historical moment’ which makes it sound very grand but in one way it was. The chairman of the Arts Council addressing the Museums Association conference for the first time is a bit of a shock for an event whose focus is largely inwards and whose speakers are usually on the same side of the fence. But this was a refreshing change and overdue.

The vision to mix the ‘historical and the contemporary’ (see Arts Council Turning Point strategy) for me is the bleeding obvious. Christopher Frayling puts it very nicely as to view the past through the prism of the present. Something I think most people actually do in their everyday life anyway. When we look back, reflect, remember, investigate it is through the eyes and body of who we are in the ‘now’. That ‘now’ is always shifting, much as a lens has to refocus as you move further away from its subject.

The context of his speech was the much-discussed McMasters report (see my other session notes from the same event) and the commitment from both the Arts Council and MLA to work together more closely.

Much of his speech focussed on some beautiful examples of commissions and interventions that contemporary artists have made into museum and heritage spaces. Stuff like the New Visions programme at National Maritime Museum. Sarah Lucus at Freud Museum, the Science Museums “Listening Post, Carl Clerkin’s “ Short Crawlies” in Derby, or Susie MacMurray at Pallant House.

He drew a comparison between artists and curators calling them both creatures of curiosity. Both brilliant at looking not just seeing, both understanding visual drama and narrative and the powerful effect of the plinth and the frame.

He talked about what he sees as their shared interests and how it results in different approaches and values towards the same things e.g. a curator may handle a thing in white gloves or not at all, but an artist will wants to hold it and feel it..

Obviously this is a generalisation but usefully within the comparison is a real recognition of the comparative value of both, a notion that some may feel is new for the Arts Council who have in the past focussed more on the artist as the only central figure in any work.

Mostly his comments focused on the good stuff that curators have learned from artists and the ways in which artists have brought new interpretations to old stuff. He said “By introducing arts into the equation, the meaning of objects doesn’t end when they enter the museum”. Sadly, there was little reflection on how the meaning of art is influenced by the historic or by the curator. I would have liked him to have gone further into how artists can learn from curators or the museum space. What perhaps you might call looking at the present through the prism of the past perhaps?

Matt Locke & Andy Budd at the MA conference 2008: From Measurement to judgement in the digital world

I chaired a session at the Museums association conference in Liverpool yesterday called ‘From measurement to judgement in the digital world.

My two speakers were Matt Locke and Andy Budd. Matt is a commissioning editor at Channel 4 and their Head of Learning working principally on materials aimed at teenagers and younger audiences. He was previously Head of Innovation at the BBC and before that worked in the cultural sector as a curator. Andy is User Experience Director at Clearleft. His expertise lies in understanding user experience both in terms of building sites but also as consultants.

I asked both of them to talk about what digtial innovation is and to show us examples of things they thought were innovative.

The context for the session was the recent DCMS report by Brain McMasters. The report champions a move away from measurement to judgement. The idea is that arts funders and policy has become overly concerned with quantitative, bean counting type measures. McMasters suggests that it is time to refocus on strategies that embrace innovation, risk-taking and peer review.

However the McMasters report does not explicitly address the digital world and it is to address this gap in his report that my session sought to explore and ask questions.

Matt started by talking about his belief that if you are working creating online stuff now then the real issue is about attention. Where is your audience’s attention? How do you grab that attention and how do you keep it?

“It has never been so easy to be ignored” he said. A mindset away from the ‘build it and they will come’ mentality that often happens in the cultural sector.

His work at Channel 4 is focussed largely on a teenage audience, which means their attention is largely ‘within’ social networks. As a result a lot of Matt’s work is about delivery through these channels. What was interesting about how he described this work was not just what we can all learn about how museums might use social media. He also unpacked the processes he used through the build of a project and explored what lessons can be taken from that which are generic and can be applied to any audience.

His point was the need, before you begin, to define the user experience you are trying to engender and crucially, who you want to have this experience. When you have done this, you can then work backwards to find out how to lead people to this experience (marketing) and how to find out if they liked it (feedback).

A question from the audience unwittingly helped to clarity this approach by wondering if all of Matt’s examples, as they were for teenagers, were not relevant to an appreciation of fine art. The questioner wondered if all this online work was all just too fast and too teenager led and nothing to do with the people that he wanted to reach. He wanted to get people to study a painting, to reflect, dive into an intimacy and depth of consideration about a painting.

What struck me was that this was such a clear vision for an experience for a user and it would be a great place from which to define and build an online experience. How might you do this online? If you could do this, well maybe that would be an example of innovation or excellence? I have never seen an online project that succeeded in doing this (yet) but it is would be a great challenge to try.

Andy suggested that true innovation is a terrible strategy and rarely works outside a handful of companies. He looked the development of the iPod and the Diamond Rio. The Diamond Rio was the first consumer mp3 player in the western world and was hugely innovative. The iPod didn’t come out until 3 years later and it was already a saturated market. It had less storage capacity, less battery life and less features than the majority of its competition. So in reality there is nothing innovative about the iPod. What makes it great is the design, the simplicity and the over all user experience “Best to market almost always trumps first to market.”

Andy’s view is that innovation is a costly exercise and you will fail a lot more times than you’ll succeed, especially if you don’t have a culture of innovation, which few people actually do. So his advice to the museum sector is rather than being innovative, it’s much better (and more cost effective) to learn from others mistakes and aim to create the best experience possible.

Matt’s advice was to be decide to do one of two things: either try and tell a story – or – build a bit of the web. His example of telling a story was Yeardot – teenage narratives and shared experience. His example of trying to create a piece of the web was School of Everything – an architecture that is about connections and a service.

His advise to those without a lot of money was to understand your objects, try and tell a story using your date and make it easy to join and participate.

The epiphany moment for me came when I realised that when thinking about the cultural sector and digital stuff I mix up innovation and good practice and that they are really not the same. Innovation is not just doing something well. I think my confusion comes from the fact that so much of what I see being done digitally is ‘not good’ that when I find something that works well, it feels like innovation.

Time to redefine.