The Labour Government has put in place countless policies and funded projects to tackle the deprivations faced by children and young people living in poverty. They cannot be accused of not caring about this issue. However, the gap between rich and poor is worse now than it was when they came to power in 1997, and is as bad as it was in 1961. 1.4 million children in the UK now live in severe poverty, which means that their families survive on an average of £19 a day. Meanwhile, the middle classes are growing a fat upper layer, with more families whose lives are over-rich with ‘accomplishment classes’, long-haul holidays and home extensions to accommodate their cupboards stuffed full of…stuff. The growth of the financial industry against the decline of more traditional industry has led to some people growing much richer while others grow poorer. Labour’s flagship policies of tax credits and the minimum wage are welcome but do not go far enough without a reform of taxation. The Labour target of halving child poverty by 2010 looks even more impossible with the threat of recession.
Many of these initiatives have affected education and culture. Teachers and cultural educators have been expected to measure outcomes based on the economic (and related) wellbeing of children and their communities. Whilst many of us have been very happy to try hard to engage disadvantaged children and to pay more attention to their needs, it has not always been easy to focus on the delivery of good education and cultural services in this context. Teachers are expected to deliver educational excellence (with enormous pressures on them if they fail), and in order to do this they feel pressured to save children from the effects of deprivation that make success at school so difficult. But saving children from hunger, stress, abuse and so on are impossible while these inequalities remain and without more pastoral support in schools. Many of these initiatives are too partial, patchy, bureacratic and not always reaching those most in need. In the cultural sector, despite the Government’s requirement that museums, arts agencies and libraries turn their attention to disadvantaged audiences, it is precisely those organisations who focus attention on the poorest communities, often by being located in them, that are being threatened with budget cuts and closures. The Livesey Museum for Children is one example, closed by Southwark this year despite the Museum’s work with many single-parent families through Sure Start, with its Youth Council, with schools and the wider community in what is one of the most severely deprived parts of London. As local authorities cut non-discretionary services, these museums and arts organisations will now be looking towards charities, many whose incomes depend on share prices, and on corporate sponsors, many who will be reducing their CSR budgets.
Hopefully the financial crash will lead the Government to look at more radical approaches to inequality before they lose the next election to a party that is hardly likely to consider higher taxes and stricter controls on the financial sector.
We went to Drawing on Life, the launch of the Big Draw 2009, at the weekend. This year’s drawing festival took place at the Wellcome Institute and University College London. The theme was ‘life’: Biology, bodies, health, wellbeing, evolution etc. Quite a few of the sessions were booked up, so we just wandered around the open access activities, and there was still too much to do. We had hoped to do life drawing. My 8 year old has expressed interest in doing life drawing, as her dad has done so much of it, but the opportunities for children to draw from nude models are pretty limited! However, the life drawing workshops were fully booked from the get-go, so that was out. Interesting that the most traditional activity in a festival full of visual experiment was so popular.
The highlights were:
- Drawing whilst singers made extraordinary sounds in response to your marks – and controlling someone’s voice is quite strange.
- Making votive objects from wax and sheet metal to add to a shrine. Rather than your sick bits you were asked to make a votive of the body part you most appreciate. I’m kind of proud (I think) that my daughter made a bottom. I guess if you didn’t have one…
- Wandering round the UCL building, a hive of activity, drawing from animal skeletons and just drawing whatever you liked on a vast sheet of paper.
- Talking to Finlay Taylor, an artist who lets snails make drawings in books – The Origin of Species and other Darwin-related books.
- The biggest highlight of all, the Skeletons exhibition, too rapt to draw, just looking and talking about growth, disease, decay, bones, mortality, change, time…
Before the event we got warmed up by playing with the digital drawing games on the website, especially Sketch Swap. This is quite addictive, as every time you submit a drawing, you get one back from another player. The only thing we don’t like about it is the predominance of Japanese Manga big-eyed characters in the drawings you get back. The best manga is great, but stereotyped monomaniac conventionality is not.
We do a lot of drawing in our family. We’ve invented at least 90 drawing games or collaborative drawing challenges, still needing to be taken to a publisher! As a result, my daughter feels entirely comfortable with drawing (or visual communication of any kind) and isn’t suffering from the ‘getting it right’ complex that sets in for most 7 year olds. I’m convinced that primary schools neglect visual communication, causing this complex. Drawing only happens in Art & Design, timetabled for short sessions once a week or less, and only when the activity IS drawing. Occasionally, children might be allowed to add an illustration if they finish their written work early. If we accept that education is about enquiry into the world, and creating new ideas to affect the world, rather than learning to read, write and add up, then drawing and visualisation have a major role to play in this. It should be happening as often as children open their mouths to speak or put pen to paper to write.
I’m niggled by this report about a teacher, parent & children survey that will feed into the Rose review of the Primary Curriculum. It may be that the reporting is oversimplifying, but it seems to me that the survey is too unsubtle. Apparently, stakeholder views suggest that RE, geography, design technology and history should shift to make room for guidance on sex, drugs and relationships, and personal development in general. Why should we always think in terms of room in the curriculum? Why do we always approach curriculum change as shuffling factoids like packs of cards? Why don’t we think about how content is taught and explored, so that it can be more powerfully and meaningfully delivered?
The Primary Curriculum currently delivers detailed fragments of relatively unconnected subject content. The school day skips around topics, from Dr Barnardos to electricity circuits to spelling tests, with no connections made between them. The process of planning schemes of work is about ‘covering content’ rather than developing children to engage with the world. The learning opportunities do not give enough agency for children to use what they have learned to help solve problems for their schools, communities or the wider world. If children need ‘personal development’, it should be about their agency to affect the world, not just guidance on how to protect themselves from the risks of violence and sexual disease. The greatest risk they face is coming from the methane chimneys shooting out of the melting Arctic, against which the risk of chlamydia pales into insignificance.
It’s 10 years since the publication of the Crick report into Citizenship, which introduced it as a subject in the National Curriculum. The trouble Citizenship has faced in gaining acceptance is that it isn’t a discipline but is a radical approach to how pupils can be treated as thinking individuals who can make a contribution to their world. The next ten years should see Citizenship becoming an essential dimension across the curriculum, without losing the distinctive nature of its contribution to education. It offers the key to a more powerful and meaningful delivery of the National Curriculum in England, one that should look to Scotland for their simpler and more coherent approach to subjects.
Thanks to a new comment on my post about Rebecca Birch’s Happisburgh work, I’ve been thinking again about the value and limitations of photography for capturing or re-evoking a place or culture as it passes. Where photographs alone provide highly textured fragments, evocative in themselves, they need context and animation. Rebecca’s performance is an integration of drawing and conversation, an effective way of visualising ideas and physical phenomena, with visual and verbal language weaving together each doing their job, remaking a landscape dynamically between two people, witness and questioner. The shape of this imagined landscape shifts and grows with new knowledge, linking together the clear fragments, the mental snaps. This thought coincided within minutes with three other things entering my inbox:
- Freeze Frame: National Maritime Museum’s set of old photos of Inuit and Arctic exploration on Flickr Commons.
- Rebecca’s exhibition of her new work, Great Northern, a film she made while resident in the northernmost town in the Canadian Arctic. This town is about to undergo radical expansion as a new pipe will feed gas to Edmonton.
- In my mental inbox, reading the section on the Arctic in Jay Griffith’s Wild.
I was also working on a paper I will be giving at a conference on Digital Archiving, about recontextualisation of cultural artefacts, and how this has changed with the shift from analogue to digital curating. Recontextualisation is linked in some ways to the repatriation of cultural property and to an ameloriative restoration of lost ways of knowing. These photographs of Inuit could simply be contextualised with a geotag and a date, but if we open our eyes to the importance of the Arctic for our planet and rapid changes taking place there, these photos cry out for far richer contextualisation.
The images of Inuit are interspersed with photos of the explorers and their ships, showing us the context in which these people were seen. The photographs are crackled and smeared around the edges, as if the lens we look through is frozen, reminding us that we are seeing through a device to bring us these images from such a forbidding place. We see, and are struck by, the extraordinary Queen Amidala hairstyles of the Inuit women, surprisingly exotic and decorative. What we don’t see is what they are saying and what they know about their landscape.
One valuable aspect of Flickr Commons is that comments and tags are invited from anybody, hopefully increasing the demotic knowledge about the images and their context. I wonder what knowledge can meaningfully be appended to these images, particularly whether Inuit or people with expertise about the Inuit and the Arctic will engage with them. We are free to write whatever we like and most comments will be simple appreciations, emotional responses and perhaps questions, but other Flickr Commons sets added earlier have generated responses that do add to curators’ knowledge.
I also wonder about the gap between what collections curators need to know and what ‘we’ (everyone) needs to know about the Arctic, how people used to live in it, how they should continue to live in it, what its future will be and what will be the impact around the planet. It has become a cliche and joke that the Inuit have hundreds of words for snow. Griffiths describes how essential for survival are these precise terms for the many features and changes in their landscape. However, children are not taught these words at school. “As the words for ice and snow are melting away with each elder’s death, so the knowledge they contain is melting…The elders are word-artists of a melting world.” Is it possible to help the Inuit retain their knowledge or will it inevitably go as the ice melts and Arctic people survive instead on supporting the oil industry (if they are able to)? If the many words for snow are recorded in some crystalline digital repository, such as Bob Geldof’s Dictionary of Man, will they ever be taken out and used again in their rightful context, or only in nostalgic novels and films that show us what we have lost?
Incidentally, the National Maritime Museum website does have a good range of resources that provides context to the Arctic photos. This one, devised and written by Flow for the NMM, about the North West Passage provides up to date context about global warming and changes to the Arctic map.
Another Southwark-based museum is threatened with closure, this time the London Fire Brigade Museum. Val Shawcross was chair of the London Fire & Emergency Planning Authority for 8 years, and although the Museum didn’t get a lot of money throughout this period, it survived and did great work with schools, elders and ex-firefighters. It has rich collections to support learning and reminiscence of the Blitz in particular and 20th Century London history in general, including paintings and 300,000 important photographs. Val Shawcross is a strong supporter of museums and their educational work and has been a really marvellous help to the Friends of the Livesey Museum for Children. Now, Tory Cllr Brian Coleman is the new chair and he has outlined plans to cut the LFB, with the Museum at the top of the list. This article gives an insight into the ‘thinking’ that informs decisions to cut museums that have been underfunded.
He says ‘we shook the cobwebs off the door as we opened it’, suggesting that nobody visits the Museum. One supporter wrote to him in protest and received a curt response saying that the Museum is stuck in the 50′s and has no disabled access so it doesn’t deserve to stay open. Despite describing it in such paltrifying terms he also calls it an indulgence. He seems to think that the Museum (or collection) should not stay in such a luxurious historic building near to the tourist hub of Bankside, yet that the Museum doesn’t attract visitors because it is in the wrong place. There is no other place for the collections to go: The Museum of London can’t take in 7 fire engines and all the rest, and if they can’t, who can? Coleman wasn’t suggesting “that we shove the stuff on eBay or whatever”, but if there is no alternative home that is the equivalent of what will happen. This is the lead museum in the Subject Specialist Network for collections relating to fire services. The network’s collaborative work would surely come to an end if the LFB Museum is closed. The annual operating budget at £84k is one of the smallest in the sector I have ever come across. The cost of dealing with the distribution of the collection, redundancy payments, the sale or repurposing of the building, the reputation damage, the alternative provision of its services and so on needs to be factored in. Above and beyond these pragmatic considerations, the crucial factor is that the Museum provides a place for collective memory and celebration of the role of the Fire Brigade in London, in particular during the wars. To support the Museum sign the petition here.
The links on my blog posts are looking a little varied these days. That’s because I’ve started using Apture to make it much easier to link to more varied content and to make the linked content more interactive within my webpages. You can embed media such as videos or photos so that you don’t need to import and store media in your blog’s library. When you’re reading, because an Apture weblink comes up within my website you can skim it in a small window rather than leaving my site. Also, when I’m editing and adding links, I don’t need to open lots of new browser tabs to source them. It isn’t perfect, or rather, I’m not yet a perfect user. I would like del.icio.us to be one of the options in the media hub. The auto function, where it applies Apture to all your links automatically, is very patchy. If you want to change the colour of your linked text it annuls the link. But, apart from those quibbles, I think it’s really exciting.
Mark, my co-director of Flow Associates, returned from the BA Festival of Science saying that Professor Michael Reiss, the education director for the Royal Society, had said some really sensible things about religion and science. He had said teachers should be able to respond to questions from students about creationism and not prohibit critical talk about key issues in science. Nothing shocking about that, I thought, considering the importance of science literacy in the new curriculum. I did wonder how Reiss could negotiate his own active Christianity alongside his hard-science belief in evolution, but I accept that it is entirely normal for people to fully take on some aspects of a faith tradition whilst rejecting some of its more archaic tenets. Personally I couldn’t do that, and can only identify with an ecological mindset as its more archaic tenets of living in harmony with nature seem to me entirely rational, but I tolerate the fact that others live with contradiction.
Just as I was musing on this I saw a Guardian report from the Festival stating that Reiss had said creationism should be ‘taught’ in schools, fanning the whiff of a scandal. Then, today’s Observer reported that Reiss’ ‘Creationism call divides Royal Society’ and that Nobel laureates Sir Harry Kroto and other big-hitters in the Royal Society are calling for his resignation. In the same paper was an opinion piece against Reiss from Robin McKie, ‘Our scientists must nail the creationists’. McKie sniffs at Reiss’ claims that he was misquoted and does not engage with the core issue Reiss was dealing with, that is, the place of science ethics in the curriculum and the world-views of pupils from different cultures. None of the reports consider the distinction between ‘teaching’ and ‘exploring’ a subject. They only voiced assertions that creationism has no place in ‘school laboratories’, only in Religious Education. This way of thinking assumes that school learning actually goes against the scientific method of hypothesis, experiment and enquiry. It assumes that young minds can only be empty vessels into which proven facts, canonical within each discipline, can be poured. The Guardian did give Reiss space on its blog to set out his stall, in ‘Students must be allowed to raise doubts about evolution’. If I was in his situation I might have said quite a bit more. For example, what he could say is that it is now the legal right of children to express their views and to request any information that they wish for. If all teachers foster a culture of questioning, discourage dogma and ensure that enough time is spent exploring the richness of biodiversity as evidence of evolution, it should not be necessary to ban discussion of different world views. It is more likely that open-minded discussion of creationism will take place in the science curriculum because it is now essential that teachers encourage debate of science and society. If it is relegated to Religious Education, it will be treated as a valid perspective with no proper exploration of the scientific evidence against it. National Curriculum Religious Education, however open-minded many of its teachers may be, is structured according to a heirarchy which privileges Christianity and the other ‘beliefs of the book’, which makes rigid taxonomical distinctions between interconnected world views and which will not accept Humanism within its discourse, as evidenced here: ‘Humanists sue as exam agency blocks GCSE’.
The latest news in ‘Professor steps down over Creationism row’ is that Reiss has resigned.
I popped into the Natural History Museum to catch the exhibition about their Darwin’s Canopy commission. With Darwin 2009 coming up, the Museum wants to replace the painted ceiling in its vast entrance hall with a contemporary work inspired by Darwin. They have commissioned proposals from a number of artists, including Mark Wallinger, Christine Borland, Richard Wentworth, Rachel Whiteread and so on. The usual YBA suspects, though thankfully not Tracey Emin. The exhibition is big and considerate for the visitor, with well-designed sections about Darwin, videos about the architecture of the museum and the commissioning process, a reading section, volunteer interpreters and ‘trees’ for you to pin your thoughts on.
Some of the canopy proposals are interesting and well produced. I liked United Visual Artists evolving computer drawings made into 3D forms that would cover the ceiling like gorgeously erupting foliate growths. I thought Rachel Whiteread’s animal footprints were uncharacteristically sweet, as if some animals had been padding around on the ceiling. I was entirely underwhelmed, though I usually like his work, by Mark Wallinger’s scroll of illegibly dense and seemingly random words. (I think I would have been more engaged if I hadn’t been there with a dyslexic who was immediately repulsed.)
The winning proposal was by Tania Kovats, for a giant cross-section of a single tree stretched across the grid formation of the canopy. I love trees (almost more than anything else in nature). I love the symbolism of the tree of knowledge. However, I was fairly unimpressed by the way this proposal was presented and found it hard to visualise how it would work in the space and how it would be materialised. Before leaving I took a good look at the current canopy paintings. They mostly show trees and bushes, and William Morris-like tesselated patterns of flowers. The gilding, muted colours and the Victorian styling are beautifully appropriate to the Gothic architecture. It may be less striking than a single tree, but it provides a much better evocation of the context in which Darwin was working: The 19th century institutionalisation and ‘boxing up’ of knowledge, the encroaching secularism and backlash against it, the use of sacred architectural forms to edify and formalise new scientific knowledge. Partly because of this foyer the Museum is called a ‘cathedral of nature’.
The only publicity I’ve seen for this exhibition and commission in general was this critical piece ‘Why don’t art and science mix?’ by Jonathon Jones in his Guardian blog. He writes that the artists have trivialised the science, simply used ideas as springboards for their own indulgences, and questions whether this art does anything to make us think about evolutionary science. It would be an interesting challenge to carry on this commissioning process by opening it up to public participation, but using virtual space to show the ideas. How can we improve on the artists’ proposals and extend scientific and philosophical understanding too?
I’m reading Jay Griffiths’ Wild: An Elemental Journey. At last. What took me so long? It is proof that we still need literature in our multimedia culture. Maybe Griffiths would be just as poetic and say just as much as in this book if she had been commissioned to make a TV programme like Bruce Parry’s Tribe. But I doubt it because she would have been subject to the commissioners, the editors, the whole TV business that doesn’t truly let authorship flourish. I loved Tribe but it had only a fraction of the politics, the passion, the contextual richness and the poetry of Wild.
Griffiths says ‘there is something in me that detests a wall. Or a fence, reservation or golf course. That detests the tepid world of net curtains and the dulled televisual torpor of mediated living, screened experience in two senses, both life lived via screens and life itself screened out.’
Screens show us the world. We are grabbing more images of the world, and creating more stories and conceptual systems with them, than ever before. I would hope that screens, i.e. wired multi-platform multi-media, can offer us a way to more fully and sensitively understand the world as it really is. The images and the voices of travellers and residents in the world provide the evidence. I believe in the potential of digital culture to raise awareness. However, we can all identify with that torpor of mediated living, the sense that the media is controlling the dull formulae for our narratives and restricting our agency to connect in the raw and to make real changes in the world.
There is another irony here. ‘Wild’ is literature. Griffiths is extraordinarily literate, thank goodness. She describes how her lust to travel was fed by the books that she couldn’t reach on the high shelves as a child. But she also says ‘Literacy is an epistemology of the built world, physically, in libraries in towns, but metaphorically too, the constructed artifice of our written culture, book-bound, which encourages our philosophies and values to move ever farther away from nature.’ She is not against books or literacy. She means that we ignore and destroy the intelligence in nature, its wild language.
So, this is our challenge. How can literacy turn towards nature? How can our literature, in becoming more multimodal, immaterial and dialogic because of new technologies, give us more connection to the raw and the wild, in ways that will not further harm or exploit it, but the opposite?
I went to the if:book group last night, to discuss the future of books and reading in the digital age. Chris Meade, ex director of the Booktrust and the Poetry Society, is now director of if:book London, the UK wing of the Institute for the Future of the Book, founded by Bob Stein in New York.
He opened by wondering if 'this is it?' Has the era of digital books finally arrived? He described how enraged some people are at the prospect, yet he reminds them that they read on a screen all day (don't we all?). Is the e-reader (e.g. the Kindle) really that exciting, more than a paper book? We've become used to mixed media and interactivity on our computers & mobiles, which are allowing new forms of creative reading and writing, so is this going to cut it with our changing expectations?
First the publishers (Random House and Pan Macmillan) talked about the market potential of e-readers. From a commercial perspective, they really need to know if people will pay proper money for e-books. There have been strong sales of e-readers, more than i-pods in their first year, but the potential market is not as great as for music MP3's. As the e-reader is currently fairly limited in interactivity and features, there is great potential to evolve the devices as sales improve, and also to use the web (e.g. where e-books are downloaded) to increase interactivity and creativity, for example with games, blogs or discussions around extracts. I look forward to seeing a wired e-reader, with each page or paragraph having its own URL, mashed-up with Twitter to enable 'social marginalia'. Maybe?
Kate Pullinger spoke from a writer's perspective. She feels disappointed by the e-readers, even though she is annoyed by the media exaggerating that 'this is the end of books'. She embraces the digital, but feels that increasingly commercial book publishing is narrowing the range of literature at the same time that we are seeing a great expansion of possibilities for literature offered by new media. She asked: Where is the exciting multimedia project that is exploring new content for e-readers? What a great challenge!
Naomi Alderman, novelist and ARG designer, enthused about her Phillip's Iliad, an e-reader that you can write marginalia and notes pages on, and also connects to the internet. She wants to see writers be more proactive and play with content for digital media, and also extend commercial practice by being 'The Arctic Monkeys of literature'. Her challenge is also to publishers to take a more dynamic approach.
Before we all got too thirsty for a drink, a few other things were discussed:
Chris Meade mentioned a very exciting project called Songs of Imagination and Digitisation. It asks 'If William Blake was alive today what would he use?'
He also mentioned a report he has delivered for ACE, called Read:Write about digital reading and writing.
I inserted the dimension of cultural collections, in that publishers and writers were not the only people responsible for producing and innovating with digital literature. There is a 3,000 year old heritage of digital texts that are out of copyright, being digitised en masse by Google and until recently by Microsoft. We have only scratched the surface of the creative possibilities of presenting and interpreting those texts. For example, see my idea above for 'digital marginalia', and I was also fascinated to meet Tim Regan from Microsoft who is exploring ways of visualising the structures of books, i.e. the plot, themes and characters.
Update: A great piece in the Independent on this subject: Can intelligent literature survive in the digital age?