Mia just posted on her Open Objects blog with full notes of the UK Museums and the Web conference. She says that she hopes I put the full notes from my paper on my own blog (and links here). So, here is what I said. It’s an overview of issues faced when cultural collection organisations collaborate together on social and educational projects.
Mark Ravenhill is arguing that the UK should follow the example of a US scheme and send reproductions of our greatest paintings into schools:
He describes the scheme, championed by John Updike, in which 40 of America’s iconic paintings have been distributed to schools for their edification and increased awareness of American history. Critics are not pleased that it doesn’t reflect the cultural diversity of America but Ravenhill defends Updike’s focus on the early history of American painting. He believes we should do the same, because his own visual art education was deprived by progressive art teachers who thought children shouldn’t learn from past art but should just express themselves with materials.
He says he approves of Film Club, which helps distribute the best films into schools as part of the Film Education Strategy , which aims to develop young people’s skills to interpret and use moving images. However, he says there is a greater need to promote schools’ access to visual art (as distinct from moving images) but he doesn’t justify this at all. I suggest that moving image education has really taken a back seat in the classroom, although it is such a crucial part of contemporary culture which young people need to engage with critically. On the other hand, the past 15 years have seen a number of national visual art education schemes, many of which I have been involved in. These include the Artworks Awards, the National Gallery’s Take One Picture (which does send reproductions of great paintings into classrooms), and Enquire, not to mention the national reach of the education programmes of museums and galleries such as the Tate, V&A and National Portrait Gallery.
I can see some value in the introduction of any mass art education scheme, because promoting visual literacy is a passion of mine, although I do think some schemes are old-fashioned, not building on previous initiatives and too politically motivated. Sending reproductions of 40 paintings of British history (especially if not acknowledging cultural diversity) into schools would be in danger of falling under those negative descriptors.
The reason I suggest a version of this scheme would be politically motivated is that the US one would seem to be a reinforcement of American heritage. It appears to be more of a Citizenship scheme than a promotion of aesthetic education, and is part of the US cultural literacy movement which lays down a cultural canon: ‘What every American needs to know’. Or ‘to be American, what you need to know’. The UK Government is nurturing a plan for a Museum of British History and is encouraging cultural education providers to deliver Citizenship. There are two approaches to Citizenship, one is to see it as critical literacy and contextual enquiry, the other is to see it as an inculcation of British values through a didactic (or insidious) programme. Whilst reading art of the past is a fantastic means to engage critically with history, there will be subtle but significant damage to this enquiry process if the selection of images is chosen as part of a scheme to define a canon and to instruct about British history.
The reason I suggest it would be old-fashioned is that ‘sending posters’ into schools is old-tech, marketing-led and not at all green. Yes, I know teachers like to put stuff up on their walls, but they can print on demand these days into any format that suits them. Teachers need to be helped to make better use of cultural collections on the web and to use connected print services (for example, moo.com with Flickr). And of course, they can also use their white boards.
Teachers need more Continuing Professional Development that develops their skills and confidence in art history and visual literacy. Teachers of all subjects need to build visual resources, visualisation techniques and graphicacy into their everyday practices. Now, that’s an idea for a national scheme. Maybe it can be part of the Cultural Offer?
The committee have made their decision about the next artists to do their thing on the Fourth Plinth. It will be Antony Gormley (or rather ‘we, the people’ taking their turn) and Yinka Shonibare.
This Guardian piece and another commentary by Charlotte Higgins are both a bit flat about the decision and the programme in general:
Whatever we might think about the quality of the work on the plinth over the years (and I think it’s been pretty good) it has done a great job at raising the profile of public art in the media. Although the choice of artist is made by a ‘great and good’ committee, the public have been encouraged to have their say and it is accompanied by a creative education programme. See the links on the Fourth Plinth website:
Although there has been a great increase in public art in the last decade, there are no other programmes that reach such a huge audience in such a central space of the capital with such topical contemporary art. We should value it while it lasts because it is under review. Munira Mirza, the new head of culture, arts and creative leisure for Boris, has said so:
This interview was soon after her appointment, so she was speaking out rather early.
“No decisions have been made yet,” she said. “Because I haven’t started, I can’t say. We will review everything.” It’s clear that the top of the list of ‘everything’ is the Fourth Plinth because of Boris’ wish to see a statue of a war hero. The programme is set to run for 3 years more, with a temporary war memorial in the Olympics year. But after that, it’s not clear.
Update: Jonathon Jones reveals that the plinth is being kept warm for a statue of the Queen!
I’m organising the second Hillaballoo festival, celebrating the environment and creative community of Telegraph Hill, near New Cross Gate. See more about the event. Telegraph Hill has a brilliant view of London, and most evenings you can find people up there observing the turning of the earth. Many nights there will be someone up there with a tripod and camera trying to capture the view. See the Telegraph Hill Visions Flickr group.
The Hill gets its name as it was the location of an optical telegraph in the Napoleonic times:
One impetus for the Hillaballoo events is to generate ideas and funding for public or participatory art that maximises the view and reinvents the idea of the optical telegraph using digital media and social networking. So I was really excited at the Goldsmiths degree show last week to come across artist, Ellie Chaney, who is exploring the optical telegraph in her own work. She is walking and filming the routes of the telegraph out to the coast.
Happily, she has agreed to install her video and sound pieces as part of Hillaballoo.
I was intrigued by the story about the photographs of the ‘uncontacted’ tribes of the Amazon. It feels terribly intrusive to be looking down on them, obviously from a noisy plane. It’s no wonder they are aiming at ‘us’ with bow and arrow. The National Geographic report says that the dyed orange and black skin of the people signals aggression, underlining the point they make that these tribes may not be as ‘uncontacted’ as is thought. They (or their ancestors) may have had some unfavourable encounters with modern people such as rubber tappers in the 19th and 20th centuries and have maintained a defensive stance, resisting integration and the possible loss of their habitat or of their whole tribe due to exposure to diseases they are not immune to. There are debates about what ‘uncontacted’ means, and how many uncontacted tribes remain, in the context of the need to protect them as the rainforest is rapidly depleted. The photos were taken “to show they are there, to show they exist” in response to doubts that were previously expressed by a leader of the Peruvian oil industry. Some say that it is inevitable that they will be contacted just as it is inevitable that the pipelines and loggers will need to go through. Is photographing them and showing that they exist the first step in contacting them?
There are echoes of Edward Curtis making thousands of photographs and sound recordings of native North Americans hundred years ago, to preserve their heritage at least in documentary form while they rapidly died out. Curtis said: “The information that is to be gathered … respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.” The project has been criticised for portraying native tribes as tragic, the loss of their heritage inevitable. They are fascinating records and it is far better that they exist than that they don’t, but it would be far better if America hadn’t lost 90% of its wilderness.
The financier J.P.Morgan gave Curtis $75,000 to do this job in 1906, which was a fortune then (although Curtis was not without money troubles in later life). It’s a little like the multi million pound budgets spent on films aiming to move and educate us to care more about the environment and our fellow creatures, but meanwhile the great behemoth of capitalism munches on and little changes.
Last summer, Bob Geldof and the BBC announced their plans to make the Dictionary of Mankind, or the ‘Domesday book for humanity’, a vast online social network and archive of mankind’s evolution, our natural and cultural history.
The press release contains this story of how Geldof’s vision came about: “He recalled sitting on a tree stump, gazing out over a “moonscape”, and being told by a regional governor in northern Niger that more than 300 languages had disappeared in just two years during the famine that prompted Live Aid in the mid-1980s. “I thought, why don’t we compile a record of every single culture that exists?” “
I can’t find any evidence of this project since the press release so it’s difficult to know how it’s coming along. It’s a pretty massive project so plans are probably being hatched still. It can’t be easy to scope. It is just possible that the power of the crowd could help to pull this off as we have seen happen with Wikipedia, but how will it be possible to gather and capture knowledge about those past and declining ways of knowing from the people way on the other side of the digital divide (so far over many of them are long dead)? One way is for the project to make multiple complex connections with cultural organisations so that their collections can fill those gaps. I wonder if anyone in the cultural heritage sector is talking to Bob?
Update on 21st June, this news report reveals that the tribe photographed were already known.
Good for Philip Pullman in his stand against age banding for books. It seems that many publishers now believe that it’s an industry standard to place an age guidance figure on all their books, so they are all following suit. Pullman, against the conformist tide, has said ‘Not on my books’ and has drawn Anne Fine and Adele Geras into a campaign you can find on www.notoagebanding.org
You might argue age banding is a long overdue application of the film classification system, but it’s not being applied to protect children from ‘adult’ content. It is more about marketing, creating a market niche to sell a book to, wrongly implying that the author wrote that book for that tiny age group. Underlying this is a narrow assumption that children must be able to read that book independently, without acknowledging the importance of people of different ages reading books together, or for that matter, engaging with any kind of culture in mixed age groups. This narrow view is related to the idea that when children read books all they are doing is learning, or being tested on, how to read. Supposedly, as the pictures and font size decrease and the book weight and word length increase, so, incrementally, does the reader’s age increase.
The Government is releasing £650 million for family learning through the Lottery and other sources because family learning is seen as the key to overcoming educational and economic disadvantage. Age banding of cultural experience is antithetical to family learning.
We’ve just watched Dr Who as a family – the excellent double episode written by Steven Moffat set on a Borgesian planet of books. Blimey, it stretched my adult brain – and I’ve even got experience of trying to understand and then escape from a gigantic library! Our 8 year old was captivated despite the complexity of the plot and the ideas about virtuality, mortality, memory and knowledge. Even if she doesn’t have metacognitive understanding of those ideas, the story is now inside her mind. I know over the next few months she’ll make associations to it when we read books or play games, and we’ll talk about those ideas in the story.
It would be of great benefit if more commissioners of cultural products, including book publishers, overtly requested that a significant number of them be for everyone and if they encouraged people of all ages to experience culture together.
Update on 27th June: An email from Philip Pullman says that the campaign group has a meeting with the Publishers Association. To inform this meeting he is calling for specific examples from researchers in reader development on how age banding causes problems. Send examples to: