Last night, Southwark Council’s Executive voted to take forward to the Charity Commission Theatre Peckham’s proposal to take on the Livesey building, rather than the proposal of the Friends of the Livesey with Novas Scarman Group (NSG). I am genuinely upset and shocked. I feel as upset as I did, three years ago to this day, when the British Library’s management asked me to close down the entire learning programme, leading me to resign on principle with no prospect of any income for my family. My feelings are the same because both decisions represent philistinism and lack of vision, a failure to recognise the importance of quality and innovation in cultural learning provision and a growing tendency for public bodies to make decisions based on corporate survival rather than public good.
The Friends are philosophical, pleased at least that their campaign saved the Livesey building from sale. We are not intending to appeal. We will continue as a voluntary charity, with the mission to extend the legacy of the cultural learning for children delivered by the Livesey staff since the 1970′s. The Council have asked that we work with Theatre Peckham (TP) to enrich their work to this end.
Personally, I am philosophical too, but in a more critical way. It is clear that the Council chose the TP option for face-saving reasons (in their role as a Council) rather than for the best interests of the community (in their role as Trustee of the Livesey). The Friends proposal is much more viable given the financial commitment of NSG to underwrite it and invest in the building. It can claim much greater local support. It is in keeping with the original George Livesey bequest that the building be used as a free learning resource open to the public (whereas TP’s proposal is to use it for workshop space for 400+ young people who pay for classes). NSG offered to take on the entire responsibility of the building as a community asset, but also offered to do this on a leasing arrangement if preferred. It offered to take on the asset transfer, not to profit as this would be impossible, but because the Council closed the Museum to sell the building and did not wish to invest in it. Ironically, TP’s presentation made much of the contrast with ours in that they do not ask for an asset transfer. However, given that TP would have to redevelop the building to function differently from a museum, would have to maintain their own theatre building too and have never undertaken a capital fundraising programme (in contrast to NSG), the Council would need to underpin their choice of TP by maintaining active trusteeship and investment in the building and its development. TP already costs them almost as much as the Livesey Museum had cost them to run, so there will be no saving from this choice. As a Council, they would lose face by backing down on their decision to close the museum and gain face by supporting a project that works (admirably) with young people in Peckham.
Of course, the Charity Commission may yet judge that the TP proposal will not deliver to Livesey’s bequest. If so, Southwark will then put forward the Friends/NSG proposal. We need to accept that this is unlikely to happen. The Council have cleverly presented to the Commission that the need for a Cy-pres scheme is due to their breaking the conditions of trust in the 1970′s by changing it from a library to a museum, whereas the real reason is that they closed the museum and needed to find another trustee (or preferably a purchaser). Whereas our proposal envisioned a way of reverting to the original conditions (a free learning resource), the TP proposal will focus on justifying the supposedly erroneous shift of use from a library to a children’s arts space.
This may be the dullest post I have ever written but this a story that won’t be told elsewhere. Fundamentally, I am concerned to promote quality cultural learning, which could take place in any space. The Livesey Museum approach could live on and it will.
Jim Rose’s interim report of the Review of the Primary Curriculum has been published. Comments are invited by the end of February to inform the final review. Before reading it, I read the Guardian piece which announced an end to history (though not in the Francis Fukuyama sense). This said that Rose proposed replacing subjects with broad areas of learning. I thought that sounded a little unlikely.
I also heard a crack-of-dawn Radio 4 story, in which Stephen Heppell was interviewed about the Rose Review. The interviewer asked Heppell something like ‘So surely primary-aged children can’t cope with research. They need to be taught subjects and given some facts first, don’t they?’ Heppell replied by describing some wonderful creative enquiry-based learning which showed how valid such an approach is. Children (and adults) learn so much more effectively by projects that are focused on solving a problem, working collaboratively, using a range of tools and skills, and crossing into different knowledge fields, as appropriate to the problem. I was heartened. If this is what Rose was promoting then, hallelulah!
In fact, the report doesn’t mention methods of organising learning, simply saying that pedagogy is up to teachers. It doesn’t refer at all to enquiry-based learning. It says that there are four main approaches to delivering the curriculum: By subject; by broad area of learning; by skills; and by themes. Whereas most countries tend to focus on one approach, most often choosing ‘areas of learning’, the report favours mixing them based on Rose’s observation of successful schools. It doesn’t advocate doing away with discrete subject teaching, as The Guardian reported, but combining this with cross-disciplinary teaching. Of course, that’s what happens in many schools. This is really about disseminating the practice seen in successful schools, where they don’t exhaust themselves trying to teach every subject separately and to the letter. As such it is a restatement of the 2004 DfES Excellence and Enjoyment report.
That said, the final report is likely to see a stronger presentation of a new curriculum structure. It suggests that more work is needed now to describe a new framework in which subject teaching would underpin the following six broad areas of learning: Understanding English, communication and languages; Mathematical understanding; Scientific and technological understanding; Human, social and environmental understanding; Understanding physical health and well-being; Understanding the arts and design. This structure would replace the current separation between Core subjects (English, Maths & Science) and the Foundation subjects, which makes sense, and means that in fact there could potentially be more history and geography, as Science would not be a Core subject and there would be less repetition of science learning at KS2 & KS3. One thing that may raise questions is the inclusion of ‘environmental’ in the Human & Social area of learning. Either ‘environmental’ is implicit in Scientific and Technological area of learning, or it is a separation, implying that science and technology is knowledge that overcomes and exploits the environment. Let’s hope that ecological thinking has a place across all the areas of learning, in the sense of understanding complex systems.
The new structure would place ‘core’ emphasis on Literacy, with Speaking & Listening acknowledged as crucial, a more multimodal approach to literacy and also ICT enhanced and integrated more into other learning. I find this is a really sensible approach. But, it needs to go further now.
To influence the next phase I would like to see an injection of some of Futurelab’s and Stephen Heppell’s thinking, evident in their Beyond Current Horizons research for DCSF. This is due out in Spring 2009 and will argue for an improved comprehension of ‘systems thinking’. The best way to achieve this, I believe, would be to ensure that a new curriculum structure is supported by investment in CPD and pedagogical action research which transforms learning into creative enquiry.
I'm writing this in the Paul Hamlyn Library of the British Museum. It's been some time since I've been in a shared workspace where most people read books. I'm the only one of 20 people here not touching paper. But this is a specialist collection of cultural books, expensive visual tomes, not yet digitally available. There will be a role for such libraries for some time, if only for a narrow user group. However, we are on the cusp of a revolution in digital reading. 'Books as things' are being replaced by digital information. Digital reading is already more compelling than print reading, and will become more so, because information will increasingly be available in a social and connective context that allows for interaction with other readers, with authors and with the text, and there will be more choices to read in multiple modes and languages, not to mention the many creative possibilities for the co-creation of texts. When it comes to reading devices, the buzz is already shifting from e-readers to books being available on mobiles.
I used to be a regular library user. I would borrow books that went beyond my normal interests, rather than buy them for a quick read, but now that's how I use the internet. I used to hang out in the children's library with my daughter but now we find web play and museums more appealing (and now she's older she gets through fewer books). I would use libraries to rent DVDs and CDs, but now I get film and music from Lovefilm, Film4, Last FM and i-tunes. I have just been invited to a focus group to inform the design of a new online library loan service. This is a long overdue service and I may well use it, if I can't get the stuff more easily or cheaply elsewhere. But if the items are posted to you, which would be desirable, it will reduce yet further the role of local library buildings. I decided to pop into my local library yesterday, as I haven't been there for months and was thinking about it, and I was given a card like the ones you get in coffee shops - if you get 6 stamps for every item borrowed, you can have a free DVD loan. But I will probably lose the card before I go back. I do love libraries, theoretically. I just don't use them.
In the digital age to come local libraries will have to justify their continued existence by becoming places of social activity, dialogue and learning. Those with unique or specialist collections will become accessible conservation archives. The question is, how (apart from the archival function) will a library significantly differ from a hotdesk workspace on the one hand or a community cultural centre on the other? And if in a post-book world, libraries don't have arts programmes, interactive displays, free wifi, licenses for free use of charged digital content, youth clubs, one-to-one civic advice, courses or cafes (as many don't now, at least not of significant quantity or quality) how will they measure up against the facilities that do provide those things often with more specialised focus? As the recession bites, local authorities are considering the relative merits of libraries and museums alongside other public services, and looking to preserve those with most utility. When Southwark Council made the choice between cutting either two small local libraries or an exceptional childrens museum, without measuring or consulting they assumed that libraries were more well-used and popular, and so they closed the museum. But it is debatable how much people do value their small local libraries, compared to more playful cultural spaces (apart from some extraordinary new libraries), and it will be interesting to see how these values change in the future. So we are seeing three things happen: Libraries being transformed into vibrant learning centres, where the money and vision allow for it; libraries closing where money and vision don't; and services such as access to digital information and ICT skills being delivered through national policy (e.g. Digital Inclusion) and online services.
In the light of this context, the Living Libraries project is intriguing. If it is described for what it is, a scheme in which volunteers go to public places and have conversations with students about topics they care about, it would seem to have little to do with libraries. These conversations could take place in any community space, or in Second Life or through a videoconference. But the dialogue takes place in libraries only and the volunteers are called 'books'. When you talk to these 'books' you are borrowing them. I like the promotion of talk in libraries and of dialogue around different values and experiences. Something about it very slightly troubles me, which is to do with the limitation that is imposed on the dialogue when one person is described as a book. It gives a licence to the 'living book' to hold forth, to stick to a thesis, as a book does. The account in the Guardian article suggests that some volunteers promote a particular viewpoint. If dialogue is the purpose, those that come to borrow the living books should have an equal chance to act as books too. If the books are living, there needs to be some exposure or exploration of the way that the dialogue has rewritten the 'book'. Also, given that the borrowers are groups shipped in from colleges, there might be a question about how much a scheme like this affects the library users and rewrites the library.
Here are two projects that involve creativity with stones, environments and digital media. It’s quite interesting to compare them.
The first is the V&A Museum’s World Beach Project. This is a global art project open to all (but as long as you have access to a beach, with stones on it, and to a camera & computer). It is the idea of Sue Lawty, who was an artist in residence at the V&A. She wanted to expand participation in her own practice of making patterns with stones, which inspires her weaving. She says ‘whether a line of quartz splitting a rock face or a huge folded mountain range, the structure of rock talks of the structure of our planet. It is like a map of time – the earth drawing itself on a massive scale’. You are encouraged to make a patterned work on a beach, using only stones, and photograph the beach, your process and the finished work. You are then asked to upload three photos to the map on the V&A website.
I love this project and I can’t wait to play. I love the idea that it makes us think about and notice the various rocks beneath our feet. I love the idea that the ephemeral work is captured in photographs but washed away by the tide. It connects with my own interests (for example see my Flickr group on Threatened Coastal Heritage, and Flow’s delivery of Our Coast Our Sea, an integrated learning programme and website). I do have some questions about the project however.
One I asked 2 years ago in a Museums Computer Group conference when Gail Durbin of the V&A first mooted this project. I asked ‘why do you need to raise funding for this project and create functionality within the V&A site when you could create a Flickr group and get participants to geotag their photos?’ I do like the way this website looks and the map works well. But there would be advantages to it being on Flickr: Lower cost; it would attract more participants; it would be easier for them to contribute their photos; it would enable participants to connect with each other better around or beyond this project. It is possible to plug Flickr groups/sets and maps into your own website so that the content appears in your own branded context.
The other question is about the restrictions imposed on creativity. ‘That means no seashells, seaweed, driftwood or other flotsam or jetsam’. I accept that an artist has the role of ‘creative director’ in a participatory art project and also that ‘rules of play’ with certain limitations can be helpful to creativity. I also understand that this is a project about rock. However, what if your beach has hardly any stones? I would be so tempted to sneak in a bit of non-rock material just to resist those limitations. The beach as a canvas represents the meeting of ecosystems, the shore and the sea, and also the water brings material from other places. One of the pleasures of exploring the beach is seeing combinations of different kinds of material from different environments, different sea-depths, from beneath the soil, from other countries. This is what I would want to make beach art about, and not just about rock. I suppose the answer is to create your own Flickr group that has more relaxed rules. There are already some Flickr groups for beach art, including sand sculptures, messages, found objects and landscapes, but I found none that focus on images made with beach flotsam. Creativity begets more creativity…
The other project is Britglyph. It aims to use the power of the crowd and new technologies to create a contemporary geoglyph, or earth drawing, across Britain. This showcases the potential uses of Shozu, an application that makes it easy to share images and video taken on a mobile phone. It is also a partnership with Moblog, a site where people post content created on their mobile phones. The image chosen for the geoglyph is based on the chronometer, John Harrison’s invention which cracked the problem of how to navigate the seas. So, an image related to technology and maritime trade will be created with rock from the earth. You take part by going to a defined location (you can do a postcode search to find one near you), leaving a stone or pebble there, taking a photo of yourself doing it, and posting the photo on the website map. Given that your stone can be a tiny pebble (even a grain of sand, I guess), and that you could be 2km out from the waymarker, this isn’t going to be much more than a symbolic earth drawing. The drawing itself will be visualised on the website rather than in reality. The primary purpose is to take part and to use the technology.
I like the ideas that this project stimulates. I’m not sure, however, that I will be taking part whereas I will definitely be making a piece of rock art for the World Beach Project. In comparison, the act of leaving a pebble at a marker and taking a photo of myself doesn’t involve a great deal of creativity. I’m also rather dubious about the choice of the chronometer, an invention which symbolises the expansion of maritime trade and global capitalism and also by implication Britain’s role in slavery.