Three things have cropped up this week which raise some thoughts about photography and its relationship to museums. There’s something about photography that seems to encourage museums and heritage organisations to move out of their comfort zones and to innovate. For example, I come across quite a few heritage organisations who won’t generally embrace web 2.0 and use third party sites for their content but they will make an exception for using Flickr, especially considering entering Flickr Commons.
On the one hand this is about the popularity, fun and accessibility of photography. On the other, this is about its use to support research and observation about our material world. It’s a great tool for crowdsourcing because so many people have cameras but it’s also possible to use that mass-created visual data for scientific understanding.
I was thinking about the relationship of science to photography yesterday because it was announced that the National Media Museum had agreed a deal with London’s Science Museum to have what amounts to a photography museum within a science museum. The report here
says that there will be two exhibition spaces and a shop. I was wondering whether the exhibitions would be all about science, or whether ‘art for art’s sake’ could thrive within the Science Museum. The agreement is that the larger display space must always be for shows about the history and technology of photography, referring to the fact that the Science Museum is also, even mainly, about industrial technology. The smaller displays can be more arty or open. It’s an interesting decision. Having major open-ended shows of extraordinary photography could be a way to draw in a non-techie new audience, people who gravitate to the photography shows at the Victoria & Albert Museum next door. On the other hand, that might conflict with the Science Museum brand, even though the National Media Museum is actually part of the corporate brand of the National Museum of Science & Industry (which includes the Science Museum & National Railway Museum). One wonders too what the V&A makes of the decision!
The second news was a Flickr blog article about Astronomy and Flickr.
It highlights the work of Jim O’Donnell at the National Maritime Museum & Royal Greenwich Observatory, in using Flickr to create an accurate photographic map of the skies using Flickr members’ contributions. He has worked with astronomy.net who have built a robot that adds ‘astrotags’ (like geotags, but more spacy). Jim has created a tool that allows you to see astronomy pictures from the Flickr group correctly positioned on a map of the sky. It’s fantastic to see museums shifting out from their normal practices of creating exhibitions in buildings and counting the numbers of people through the door, to contributing to science in such creative and democratic ways, and literally reaching for the skies.
The third piece of news is the extension of the Smithsonian Institute’s Click programme. This is a new online space or outreach programme called ‘Click, photography changes everything’.
It invites the public to contribute photos and stories about how photography has changed their own lives, working practices and society. I really like the breadth of themes in this site, providing a really wonderful overview of the power of photography. I like it because it covers both the technical and pragmatic role of photography (‘it’s changed the way we collect mushrooms’) to deeper questions about how it is changing our memories and psyches. I think this breadth of enquiry could be inspiring to those in charge of developing the new photography space at the Science Museum. No topic needs to be excluded from a science museum if you can explore it with rigour and go beyond simply aesthetic considerations.
Last week was the launch of the National Museums Online Learning Project. For those who don’t want to read the detail on that link, it’s a £1.7 million project that links 9 national (UK) museums, enabling people to search across collections and either to follow structured Webquests on topics or to create their own groups and networks in Creative Spaces. Over the past two days a small but fierce storm of debate has been brewing on the Museums Computer Group e-list and expanded on blogs like the Electronic Museum (Mike Ellis).
I won’t go into any detail here about those debates. Some of it is juicy practical feedback that can feed into future articulations of the sites. Some of it is more provocative and profoundly questioning about purpose, which might be more useful in helping those of us plan future museum collaborations and social media for cultural content, though it may not feel very helpful for those people who have worked hard to deliver the project. As I don’t do web development but strategy, research, communications and content, I’m more interested in the provocations about purpose. I feel awkward about articulating my own thoughts here as I really don’t want to upset anyone. I really appreciate the effort that Carolyn Royston and colleagues have put in to draw together the nine museums and think this is a major achievement. But I do agree with Mike Ellis that we should be asking the difficult questions, whether your style is grumpy or sweet.
So, here are my thoughts. I go back to the original idea for this project: The national museums now have collections on their websites; if we help people access these through topics of interest to themselves and to the National Curriculum we will maximise people’s use of collections, reduce the silo effect and increase web traffic. The primary idea of the funding bid was the webquest – a research task that encourages a learner to explore content across several sites. As I was running a learning programme at the British Library based on an enquiry-based methodology, with many action research projects evolving the methodology in a rigorous and creative way, I was really encouraged by this project idea and interested in how we could contribute to a national Webquest offering. I was very unimpressed by the existing webquests online, mainly on US sites, and felt that this was a great chance to develop international e-learning practice. So I was quite disappointed that our requests to join the consortium weren’t encouraged. This raised questions for me about the co-ordination and ownership of a national collaboration. I felt it would have been better if it had been co-ordinated so that other organisations (Renaissance hubs, other nationals etc) felt that they could contribute in a future phase or benefit from learning gained by the inner circle of partners. This is by no means expressed as a grudge. I simply believe that national projects should be run as openly as possible. The broader the network, the more learning is shared and listened to, the more cost effective and efficient a project is likely to be.
I also think that the major way the offering could improve for users is if it can embrace more collections and focus even more on the user rather than on a cluster of museums. Despite it covering 9 nationals, the search really does feel very thin if you are exploring a particular topic (apart from something very generic such as portraits). Given that the search is so lightweight (Opensearch), it should not be very difficult to apply it to more databases.
It is intriguing that all the publicity and feedback surrounds Creative Spaces rather than Webquests, even though Webquests surely involved more investment in content development. This one-lens spectacle makes it seem as if the £1.7 million was spent on Creative Spaces. I wonder if this is due to a marketing strategy which separates public/life long learners from schools audiences and assumes that Webquests should only be marketed through specialist education channels. I found it intriguing then that Seb Chan, in defending Creative Spaces on the MCG list, reminded us that the primary audience for it would be teachers and students. I think this is probably the case, although Creative Spaces has been scoped as for ‘life long learners’ (aka you, me and everyone else).
I think it will be of most use for secondary, higher and adult education groups or networks, those educators who are more able to promote an enquiry-based learning methodology. I’m very interested in what stimuli and structures most enable enquiry-based learning and my research around this suggests that what works best is:
- opportunities for dialogue with others
- openness to allow learners to choose their own paths of enquiry
- guidance in terms of the required skills or concepts for research-based learning, offering possible routes for structuring an enquiry
- playful and creative tools that allow you to gather and communicate your research.
So, which part of the NMOLP delivers this: Webquests or Creative Spaces? Creative Spaces delivers it, potentially, far better. In my view, the Webquests are too linear and prescriptive. They offer, at best, a practice run in enquiry-based learning. Creative Spaces provide a much better opportunity to explore enquiries with others and by making your own choices. What would help it deliver better is a more overt address to educational audiences and more guidance on different ways to organise enquiry-based learning. Creative Spaces and Webquests should contain mutual references to each other so it is possible for educators to use them progressively. I would like to see the functionality of Notebooks develop so that they can be used to organise a presentation or discussion in a more structured way, rather than just be a gathering place of content around a theme.
It’s worth noting that the federated search was not originally in scope. It was imagined that users would skip from site to site to explore collections. On the one hand, if we acknowledge that this was scoped as a learning resource which needs to be mediated by educators rather than a sophisticated piece of web development, it defuses the criticism that this cannot have the same mass appeal as a social network tool such as Flickr. (It isn’t meant to.) On the other hand, if when initially scoping it, it was realised that learners are human & that learning resources need to work both mediated and unmediated, and so they need tools such as good federated searches and understandable URLs, it would have evolved more efficiently as both a social and educational resource.
This report from the MLA provides sensible recommendations in response to Gordon Brown’s interest in the idea of a Museum of British History.
Thankfully, support for a traditional, London-based museum building was limited. Instead they recommend a federated Museum Centre for British History, which would co-ordinate learning, digital and outreach exhibition programmes. They propose a pathfinding project over the next 2 years. Hopefully this will tailor into the digital strategy work that MLA is doing with the Collections Trust, Culture 24 and others, and will build on our (Flow Associates) National Collections Online Feasibility Study and the National Museums Online Learning Project.
Potentially, this could be an extraordinarily unifying initiative. It could be the force that brings together the MLA sector organisations to collaborate and share their resources and expertise. It could also be the major focal point for collaboration across the four ‘nations of our nation’.
If one does take a very open and diverse view of ‘British History’ then it could encapsulate all our cultural heritage in a global context. It could be everything that the MLA sector is about. In which case, why call it the Museum of British History? Why not call it something like Access to UK Cultural Heritage?
(Update – Jan 2010, I’ve now inserted the link to the manifesto, launched back in September 2009.)
The Arts Council, The Reading Agency and the MLA are collaborating on a manifesto for Creative Reading to be launched this summer. There’s no publicity for it yet. The only information available is this tender advertised over Christmas. The term Creative Reading was first used by Chris Meade, director of if:book and ex-director of the Booktrust and the Poetry Society. When the term was devised Chris was working with Rachel van Riel, co-ordinating innovative literacy projects for Sheffield Libraries in the 1980′s. So, it’s not a new concept but it is still an unfamiliar and slippery term. It is hard to understand because we assume that reading is a passive experience compared to writing and inventing stories. Encouraging creative reading is not new practice either. There have been numerous imaginative experiments and campaigns, including the great work of the Booktrust, currently with Michael Rosen as Childrens Laureate in the vanguard. His BBC4 programme, Just Read, showed his extraordinary ability to inspire schools to embrace a new approach to literacy.
But, despite all that activity, in the past 10 years, literacy education in primary schools has become ever more procedural and confined. The Primary Review, published on 20th Feb 2009 http://www.primaryreview.org.uk/index.html provides us with convincing evidence of this fact. The report shows that the majority of schools now spend 50% of the day on maths and literacy, meaning that the rest of the curriculum is squeezed out. Too often, literacy is not a route to learning across the curriculum and not enough time is spent in creative reading and writing, or reading real books. Children now report enjoying reading much less than they did in 1998, which is very telling.
Last night, I went to my daughter’s parents’ evening. Her school is exceptionally creative, enriched with many arts-led projects. Some of their teachers have been trained at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education and consequently use the most wonderful books as a stimulus for a wide range of imaginative work across the curriculum. However, the teachers still feel they must focus on targets relating to the most procedural and dull aspects of literacy; handwriting, spelling and sentence structure, rather than meaning-making and interpretation. This is what they think we as parents want to know about.
A fantastic outcome of the Manifesto for Creative Reading would be if a greater number of parents used the term and asked their childrens’ schools: ‘What are you doing to promote creative reading?’
I’ve come up with a framework to start defining creative reading, in order to help people recognise and promote it: http://www.box.net/shared/rs4ag42obc
I’d be very grateful for responses and further thoughts.
I’ve just sent this complaint to The Guardian about Simon Hoggart, who generally, I quite like. He writes a Saturday column musing about his week which covers a full page in the main section, so gets a lot of eyeballs. Very often he finishes the column with a moan about environmentalists….
“I’m beginning to get more than a little frustrated at the free rein you are giving Simon Hoggart in sounding off about ‘these people’ – these muddle-headed environmentalists – and his offerings of ‘proof’ that they are like religious cult leaders. I read The Guardian because you respect science and you acknowledge complexity. In recent years your environmental coverage has improved considerably as you have realised just how significant are the challenges of climate change and ecological degradation.
I understand that your brief to Hoggart is simply to reflect on his week and the results are generally amusing and insightful. Given such an open brief, it’s entirely acceptable that he should touch on environmental issues. Indeed I’m glad he doesn’t sideline them. My problem is that he does not deal with them responsibly. He does not give enough space to examine the evidence and theories behind his claims. If you were to challenge him to write in more depth about environmentalists as religious leaders his claims would collapse under the merest scrutiny. I know that he has written a book about irrational beliefs so he should be qualified to write about it. Therefore, you would think he would see that there is a great difference between a dogmatic cult centred on a mystical narrative and a movement that is utterly rooted in empirical science and utterly focused on the most pragmatic actions to ensure that biodiversity and human civilisation can be sustained. Any thought-leadership which addresses massive global issues is inevitably complex, exploratory and changeable, and is also bound to be surrounded by a larger mass of people who put some level of faith in the leaders of that movement. So, environmentalism is bound, superficially and anthropologically, to resemble some aspects of religion. However, unlike mystical believers, the people within and around the ecological movement are highly heterogenous and questioning, always seeking the latest evidence about environmental changes and solutions.
Hoggart’s assertions about environmentalists are insulting because he does not acknowledge that one of the biggest obstacles to achieving scientific certainty about environmental solutions is the lack of funding and support for research over the past three decades. One reason for this lack of support is that over this period the media has hidden scientific coverage in back pages whilst headlining celebrity writers who question anthropogenic causes of climate change. Politicians craft their policies to win elections. The majority of voters are older people who follow this media and propagate those ideas at their dinner parties. People like Simon Hoggart and his friends. I urge you to ask him to shift his tone from ‘dinner party chat’ when he deals with environmental topics.”