How do you save a museum?

Brilliant post on the human cost of museum cuts, and the frustration of not knowing what will actually make a difference. What can we do?

Tincture of Museum

Bromley Museum under threat Bromley Museum under threat

Hello, Can you tell me how to save a museum? I don’t know what to do. There are petitions, and letters, questions to put to councillors, concerns and worries, but does any of this work? Budget cuts loom large, councils have to make savings. I don’t know the figures, I don’t know where the savings can be made. I don’t know how to save my museum.

I know things about my museum, they are the emotional, well being, happy things about my museum. They are not the costs, expenditure and salaries. I don’t know how to speak the words that councillors understand, reduction, cost cutting, savings.

But I do have something to say, I wish they would listen, but sadly I don’t think they are. I have written letters, I have attended many meetings I have asked difficult questions but I don’t think it is enough…

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Perhaps Found, Perhaps Not: Art and archaeology in Orkney

On Saturday morning, I chummed my storyteller friend/mentor/partner-in-crime Tom Muir to the opening of -Perhaps Found (Perhaps Not)* at Orkney Museum, where Tom works as Exhibitions Officer (told you we all had day jobs), before heading off on a tiny plane to the wonderfully bizarre Papay Gyro Nights art festival. The exhibition poster had caught my eye on social media, and I was keen to see it. The artwork is by Rik Hammond, who in 2011-12 was the Orkney World Heritage Site artist-in-residence (I like the idea of this post, a way for someone to explore in an imaginative and hopefully accessible way what it means to be a heritage site, what heritage is and why we like to make such a big deal about it.) He used the time to work closely with archaeologists and museum professionals to create his art, testing the boundaries between researching and creating. This new exhibition continues on similar themes, with Orkney’s human landscape at the centre. Rik spent considerable time at the Ness of Brodgar digs last year, and this work seeks to get under the skin of the digging process itself (so much more than digging these days, of course – all sorts of surveying equipment is in evidence.)

Perhaps Found, perhaps Not: 1-75
Perhaps Found, Perhaps Not: 1-75

The colour scheme is, as one visitor remarks, Orkney in winter. Stone, mud, grey sea. Colours in photographs are deep, powerful but also muted. On either side of one long wall of the exhibition space hang two groups of 75 tiny paintings, all different combinations of stone, earth, sea. These square fragments of art are hung and coded in specimen bags, and you must come close to examine them. Perhaps at first glance they are almost abstract, but the Orcadians and archaeologists passing through the exhibition keep pointing them out as this hill, this mound, this excavation. Whether they represent horizon, artefact or site, they are all equal size, all equally important. Small finds, put together to make a theory about a site. Small moments, sights, put together to make an idea of a place and where it came from. But when you’ve lost the map, the story, the community, it’s hard to put them all in order and see what they meant.

Perhaps Found, Perhaps Not 93
Perhaps Found, Perhaps Not 93

Site Orientation is another series of moments, photographed this time, showing the archaeologist’s (Martin Carruthers, in this case) position as human in the site, hands feet and eyes interacting with landscape but also tools, presented again as individual finds, the photographs becoming the archaeology of a movement. But not all is still here. The Field Drawing pieces, named individually after the sites as archaeologists call them – Structure 1, etc – are the opposite of an archaeologist’s precise drawings (yet no less accurate?) As well as the still shape emerging from the ground, the movements of diggers and surveyors, walkers and seers, are captured through soft, light lines, which strengthen into tides through repetition. Again they may not look quite like anything at first glance, but every visitor who knows the dig can name them easily without reading titles.

Field Drawing (Structure A)
Field Drawing (Structure A)

Movements in space are given a different temporal perspective – GPS tracking data is consolidated into lines and black pools that look (to a non-archaeologist) like the ritual paths through a landscape that we try to find and analyse in Neolithic remains. (Clearly, ritual.) Methods of research and knowing are played with again in Walkover Survey, Skaill, Orkney, in which extracts from James Moore’s PhD thesis (Landscape and Society in Orkney During the First Millennium BC) are shaped along GPS tracking lines to re-create outlines of the site they discuss. These are different ways of understanding: the physical experience of walking and being in a landscape, the conclusions reached after deep thinking, cultural knowledge passed on through reading and writing. James Moore also appears in one of the portrait photographs which give more presence to the people involved in digging. ‘Total Station Epiphany’ features James, arms spread, Moses-like against a moody sky, maybe in the grip of some thesis-defining revelation. Another work uses black and white photography of the dig to fill the outline of Structure 10, Ness of Brodgar, on a stark white background. The process of the structure’s re-emerging from the landscape is as present as the structure itself. The discovery of the past through any means – survey or reading or telling stories – can never really be anything but a re-creation, a new making of our worldview, always surrounded by that unknown space.

Rik talks about the exhibition to an archaeoologist; I make notes for this post. (Photo by Sweyn Hunter)
Rik talks about the exhibition to an archaeologist; I make notes for this post. (Photo by Sweyn Hunter)

Representing archaeological findings in a meaningful way is a constant challenge for Orkney heritage bodies, what with new excavations shifting understandings on a daily basis (summer months only, winter revelations sail twice a week if pre-booked). Time and money, though, are short, as is true for any museum at the moment. The Orkney Museum in Kirkwall has been unable to update its archaeology displays significantly in around 30 years… during which time things have changed somewhat. They’ve recently hired an Archaeology Project Officer, Jennifer Allison, to entirely redesign the displays in a much more flexible and reflective way, and a way which can keep up to date with . She’s been talking to locals, scheduling opportunities across the islands for interested lay people to get ideas, rather than only asking the ‘experts’. I look forward to seeing how this turns out, and hope to write more about the project here in the future. Rik is currently working on another project which focuses on the history and physicality of Orkney – a year spent creating art inspired by the Orkney museum. So far this has included imagery inspired not just by the dramatic, beautiful or mysterious objects of the past, but the everyday processes of dealing with these things. Dehumidifiers and CCTV cameras remind us of the process of museum-creating, the decisions and preparations which go into the displays through which we meet our past.

All heritage is created – we can’t go back, we can only look from where we are now, and use our best ideas to build something meaningful. Letting artists into the museum to play with the boundaries of what we think we know might just spur us on to new discoveries.

#Churchill2015 – History for Our Time

from Getty Images

50 years since Churchill’s funeral. In a way that seems a remarkably short space of time, considering that we associate him with his finest moments in the Second World War, still in living memory but fast retreating for it, a world away from the way we do war now. 1965 sounds to us like pop culture, plastic, the pill: different fashions, sure, but somewhere recognisable as a predecessor of today’s society. The time when the Union Jack became a fashion statement, a marketable brand, as well as ‘our national pride’ and ‘the Butcher’s Apron.’

But there’s been programme after programme, plenty of news articles, and now a hashtag – so 50 years since Churchill’s death must be an event. Do we have shorter memories now?

Of course, I am all in favour of examining history while it is still in living memory. I never thought I’d find myself blogging in defence of Jeremy Paxman (normal service will be resumed later), but his programme on Wednesday included oral testimony from many included in the original funeral – including a man who worked in London’s dockyards in ’65, when the cranes made their iconic, moving gesture of bowing their heads to the barge carrying Churchill’s coffin. Was this a sign of deep respect from an area hit hard during the Blitz? Well, the docker (I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten his name) explained – we didn’t like Churchill much, he was a Tory, no friend to the workers. And we wouldn’t have normally been working on a Saturday, but they paid some people to go in and do that. (They, unless I am mistaken, being the BBC.) And those who went in were frowned on, cause if you didn’t like him you’d shouldn’t do it, but if you did respect him you should’ve done it for nothing.

Now, discussing more than the official perspective of an event, especially one in living memory where multiple views are more easily found, should be the absolute sodding minimum for a history programme, but with my drastically lowered expectations I was pleasantly surprised to see this included. It’s far enough in the past now not to do lasting damage to anyone’s reputation at the BBC, of course. You’ll notice I said ‘original funeral’ in the other paragraph there. Because that’s the strangest part of all this. The BBC organised a re-enactment of Churchill’s funeral and its procession, to take place exactly 50 years to the day after the original. As someone who trained as an ethnologist and folklorist, my initial reaction was: EH? You don’t … re-enact … a funeral. Especially not of someone whose friends and family members are still here to remember the original. (Though I have to say, they seemed okay with the TV coverage.) A funeral is one of these rituals which does something, it has a unique function, to lay that person to rest. Even from a secular and entirely un-supernatural perspective, funerals are still seen as an essential, one-off part of the death and grieving process. While memorial services are common, re-enacting a funeral is something I am only aware of happening on this occasion. (I am willing to stand corrected, please let me know.)

So, why the extravagant, unprecedented commemorations of a not-particularly-memorable event? (To paraphrase my favourite doctor, everybody dies. It was about the least memorable thing Churchill ever did.)  Is it because this is a convenient time to have a Historical Event, especially one which unites us in blitz spirit, and reminds us that ‘we’re all in this together’? Remind me, is there an election coming up?

On Twitter, Churchill has become another blank canvas to support any cause you choose to name. His words are being used on Twitter to support Euroscepticism, and to justify the EU. He would have joined UKIP. He would have hated UKIP. He would have joined the BNP. We’ll never see his like again, which is tragic. We’ll never see his like again, thank the Lord. His natural successor is Boris Johnson (granted, a view mostly promoted by Boris himself.) He was a racist, Empire-lover who sympathised with Hitler til it made political sense not to. He was Of His Time. We could use him in our time.

My own opinion on the man himself is not well-informed enough to be of use to the debate here. I came here not to praise Churchill, nor to bury him (again), but to point out that today’s popular history is far from de-politicised. It suits certain people in positions of power to rekindle a cheery, old-fashioned, ‘us against the world’ Britishness, and this is done not just through giving UKIP inexplicable levels of coverage and demonising immigrants and benefit recipients on the cover of every newspaper. It’s also done by ‘celebrating’ the centenary of the incomprehensible waste of life which was the First World War, with events focusing on anything but the reasons it happened in the first place. And by fostering nostalgia for a time fifty years ago which in some ways never existed (as the dockers can tell us), but in some ways hasn’t really gone away (the champagne budget in parliament is as high as ever). Churchill may indeed have been a man of his time, but this is heritage firmly designed for our times. The only way to deal with any heritage safely is to keep asking whose it is, and where we might find the other stories.

– Erin Farley

Building for the future? : January Roundup

#mewseumselfie: from @Cutorialcats Twitter feed.
#mewseumselfie: from @Cutorialcats Twitter feed.

What a month!

Following on from a previous Nae Boundaries post last year about sporting heritage, it was announced this month that a new group of institutions could form Sports Heritage Scotland (a working title), which would benefit from a new funding partnership with Museum and Galleries Scotland (MGS). It will care for the protection of Scotland’s rich sporting legacy, coverying everything from village sports to the international arenas. More details will be announced in February of the new funding programme developed by MGS.

It’s been a notable month for starchitecture, for the right and wrong reasons. (Where to begin…) St Peter’s Seminary is the focus of a bid by Glasgow based creatives NVA (those wonderful imagineers behind Speed of Light) to transform the former college (built in 1966) into a new arts venue, respecting its Brutalist form (more details here). Meanwhile, Dundee’s V&A development requires an extra £10m of funding, and has set it’s opening date back to 2017; John Swinney has pledged the additional funding to the project leading presshounds to question the purpose and worth of having such an institute in Dundee.

The new  £12m development of Dunfermline Library and Galleries is well underway, but it has emerged that nearby Abbot House (also run by Fife Council) is running at a loss and may face closure by Easter if it cannot find £5000. The Dunfermline Press is currently running a campaign to support the house here.

Edinburgh is continuing it’s fight against turning the UNESCO protected city into a glass cube – with work on the steely St James Quarter beginning this year. Our friends at Lost Edinburgh are currently raising support to reinstate the ornate sphere on the tower of the Forsyth’s building (now Topshop), which was removed in 2011 due to structural damage. You can sign their petition here.

In art news, the future of a public piece from one of Scotland’s finest YBA’s has become uncertain due to London’s infamous Cross Rail development  – sign the petition to save Eduardo Paolozzi’s mosaics at Tottenham Court Road Tube Station here.

I could go on… But I shall end on one of the months more exciting stories.

21st January marked International Museum Selfie Day, where world museums encouraged their visitors and staff to strike a pose in the name of culture. Just as gangs tag their names in colour to the boundary walls of areas, culture vultures are taking to social networks to quite literally capture the castle. Perhaps 2015 will be the year of a newly found responsibility for shared cultural heritage – and if this starts through a hashtag, I’m all for it.

Some thoughts on ‘professional storytelling’

Recently (ish), I stumbled upon a tweet from a conference in Edinburgh in which the twitterer proclaimed “I hate the idea of professional storytellers.” Instead of succumbing to my basest instincts and tweeting back “I hate the idea of ur face,” I stopped to think. After all, this wasn’t some random, it was someone who I’ve met and respect for their work in academic outreach. And it wasn’t the first time I’d come across a similar attitude, though never expressed quite so succinctly (Twitter is good for bluntness.)

It’s not like the idea of having people whose function in society is to remember, entertain, inform, provoke is anything new. And the once-common attitude that tradition is an amorphous mist of history passed on through some sort of osmosis, rather than by any effort on the part of the tradition bearer, has hopefully been well laid to rest. And yet the idea of having professional storytellers can still rub people the wrong way. Perhaps some of these may be the same people who expect bands to play their wedding for a fiver and ‘exposure,’ in which case this may only be solvable with more internet memes comparing the price of storytellers to the prince of plumbers. (Is anyone good on Photoshop?) But I feel like there are other issues at play here, and as storytelling in Scotland and elsewhere finds itself in the midst of both a revival and a transformation, it’s time those of us who’re in too deep to get out had a conversation about it.

Storytelling, I’m always saying, is more than a performance. It’s a conversation, in which the audience are as important as the storyteller. It’s not something which is easily defined – the line between ‘being a storyteller’, recounting anecdotes, and pointless blethers. Storytelling, as a word, is applied to everything these days, from novels to business strategies. Put a video on your website and you can call yourself a digital storyteller. Let me clarify that I am talking here about people, alive people, in the same physical location, using voices or hands or other means of non-technological communication, to say something meaningful to one another. (This doesn’t mean it has to be noble myths. Meaningful is in the experience.) I’ve discussed what I mean by storytelling a little more here. My experience is mainly within the Scottish/British storytelling scene, so this is the context my discussion takes place in.

So, with storytelling being so open, so much part of everyone’s life at one point or another, how can we say that some people are professionals? Shouldn’t we leave this experience as open to everyone as possible? Shouldn’t we be encouraging everyone to embrace what they can do themselves? I passionately believe that we should. This puts me in mind of my old pal Antonio Gramsci’s definition of ‘professional’ intellectuals. Every human being is capable of independent, original thought, though not all of their thoughts are valued equally by those who put themselves in a position to give out value. Though all people are intellectuals, not everyone’s function in society is that of an intellectual. Thus, while everyone makes their own tea or sews on a button from time to time, not all people are considered to be professional chefs or tailors.

We need unprofessional voices – because no one is born at professional standard, and if you think you were, you’re probably really annoying  – but also because many unprofessional voices have stories well worth listening to. Is this confusing the value of the story and the storytelling? How, though, could we do otherwise? The story and the storyteller are not easily separated – your life experience and personality shows in the way you tell even the most widely-known folk tale, never mind before getting onto stories which directly connect to your own life. You couldn’t give a precious family memory into the hands of a stranger, no matter how well trained, and expect it to retain all meaning and nuance. We need unprofessional storytelling, and storytellers, and we need to listen to them. It could be said that the entire spectrum of human relationships is held together by it.

So why should we respect an art practised in every pub and bus stop? Well, the glib answer is that people draw willies on bus stops and in the Tate Modern, so go and call someone else unprofessional for a change. The main difference between storytelling and other arts is that the current perception of it is different. It’s seen as something you can do without much education or practice, something you grow out of. Folk tales are still seen as ‘less’ than literary, the spoken is still seen as worth less than the written, and the colloquial as less than the intellectual.

Storytelling as a discipline is currently emerging into the public view, and is open to criticism from both devotees and detractors when people try to drag the ugly matter of money into the beautiful world of art or tradition. A recent article about performance poetry discussed the common feeling that if you truly love something, you should do it, no matter whether you get paid, and that people who insist on decent remuneration are shallow and self-absorbed. The author described their realisation that in fact, this insistence was not just about an individual performer’s self-worth but about their respect for poetry as a whole. Whether or not this is a good thing, money is how this society shows it values people’s time and work.

As long as we have any sort of cultural activity within a capitalist economy, it’s hard to see how these awkward questions can be answered. People need to live, and it takes time and work to tell stories often and well. Hearing stories often and well has a tendency to improve people’s quality of life. If you think it’s okay to treat a musician or stand up comedian who has worked at their craft as a professional, consider – why not a storyteller?

My point is not that we should ‘professionalise storytelling’ in that we should create new rules for how to do it and smooth out the rough edges of the tradition. If that was what I thought this was about, I’d be on the hate train too. This is about respecting the work which goes into maintaining a tradition which is hugely beneficial to people. It’s about re-drawing the boundaries of what we think ‘work’ is and what we think ‘value’ is in monetary and non-monetary terms (while we’re here, money is a communal fiction, no ‘realer’ than magic beans but a lot more dangerous.) There is a much, much wider conversation which needs to be had about work and value, preferably in parliament, preferably yesterday. In the most general terms, this economy needs to stop turning everything which isn’t City Business into a hobby for those privileged enough not to need to be paid properly for what they do (see also: heritage). In terms of storytelling’s place within the other arts, people need to start thinking about whether they’d hold a professional painter or writer in the same disregard they hold someone who tells stories for a living, and why they think that’s okay.

And how do we make sure that, in this world where someone’s always holding the purse strings, where a group of people with certain tastes decide who can be considered a professional, that we remain open to hearing new voices, that we don’t become a self-serving hegemonic elite? Well, we have to pay attention. As do the listeners. The only way there is to keep any professional group in check, fulfilling their societal function, is for the masses to be snapping at their heels. (But please, throw things at the politicians first – they’ve done more to deserve it lately. Then Damien Hirst, and if you’ve got any eggs left after that I’ll be ready for you.)

And, a final aside – in case you’re reading this defence of storytellers’ pay with the impression that the state is throwing vast amounts of money at anyone with a book of Jack tales and an inflated opinion of themselves, allow me to disavow you of that notion. Even the people who’ve been raised with generations of stories, who can turn your worldview upside down with a well-placed phrase and give you images that  will stay with you for years, still have day jobs.

In case you’re reading this, Creative Scotland. Lend us a tenner. Just to tide us over til the revolution.

– Erin Farley

Turner in Tracksuits? Re-assessing cultural diversity

This was originally published on naeboundaries.moonfruit.com on 25 September 2014.

Tracksuits often carry stigma. ‘Neds’, ‘Chavs’ and general sporting holligans – labels applied by mass media – are often deemed as the wearers of such uniformed garments. The Casual tribe of 80s and 90s Britain propelled this fear into being. Wear a tracksuit into a sports centre, and you’ll be fine. Wear a tracksuit into a nightclub, you’ll be kicked out. Wear a tracksuit into a museum, and you’ll be glared at severely until you leave.

Upon recently attending a lecture about the remits and portfolio of a large cultural body, the speaker refered to his surprise when ‘lads in tracksuits’ came to view an exhibition on a local sports team. The said region in which the cultural body operates has a high percentage (between 37-57%) of citizens who are in low to mid income jobs, or who may rely on state support. So why then is it such a surprise, when the whole aim of this exhibition is to unquestionably attract people who wouldn’t usually step through the doors?

Museums everywhere are currently tackling the issue of social exclusion: particularly attempting to accommodate people from diverse and interesting ethnic backgrounds and groups with additional support needs. But sadly, there seems to be a lack of attention to the eradication of class issues within British society. Those less fortunate than others in terms of education are still sneered at when they ask a perfectly normal question in public institutions. Community groups are rarely given the chance, or funding to visit museums, instead, being sent boxes of items they’ve not been shown how to use; the term ‘outreach’ becoming a non-physical experience which tick the boxes of the annual report. If visitors are simply branded as ‘men in tracksuits’, the only blow is to us – we are surely limiting the potential of the museum to reach out to new visitors in-house. These are debates which are undoubtably circulating board meetings everywhere.

Sports history is a fairly new field for exhibiting; but it’s an exciting one. It’s sparking new interest in museums from groups who are usually lumped with false labels – particularly when it comes to football. September 30th marks a new initiative, National Sporting Heritage Day, where institutions will use their collections and stories to mark the commemoration of World War I. (http://nationalsportingheritageday.co.uk/about/)

I severly hope those glares turn into smiles.

– Graham Webster