I went to a fascinating workshop at the October Gallery yesterday with George Nuku, a Maori, an artist, a collaborator with museums and champion of young people. He was also the first contemporary Maori with a complete body tattoo. The trail that led me there started when I was wandering round Sheringham, my Norfolk ‘ancestral home’. I’d just visited the newly opened Sheringham Museum and seen a photo of my great great grandfather, who had been coastguard and promenade inspector. He had also been to Japan & the Pacific as a naval officer, training the Japanese navy in British ways. I was thinking about how I had his eyes and nose, about my belonging to that place, yet also my distance from the town now. My relative (‘the Old Chap’) must have felt an odd dislocation travelling East, and I was wondering what he saw through his eyes and what stayed with him, what knowledge he brought to Sheringham and how it infused the place. That led me to reflect on my husband Brian’s ancestors who went from Scotland to settle in New Zealand. I wondered about what changed in them, despite always looking Scottish, in becoming part of a place that was another people’s.
I was carrying my camera, as I have on and off in Sheringham for 30 years, looking for something different to photograph. As it happens I always find something different even in a small place like that: evidence of change, of erosion of the coast or evidence of moments in time like the 1st World Cup English game. But, then I saw George. I’d never seen anyone in Sheringham like it before. I was stunned because in a second I knew he was Maori, and realised the resonance with all my thoughts at that moment. So, that sense of interest led me to his workshop in London. He’d been working at the October Gallery with young people related to the EthKnowCentrix exhibition, which included his work, and the resulting Cut it Out exhibition can be seen there now. He’s a sculptor who brings traditional Maori forms into new materials and locations. For example, he reconstructed missing parts of a war canoe, using perspex rather than wood, for the National Museums of Scotland, and he loves to carve in polystyrene.There has been some criticism from Maori for this, that he’s not using proper traditional materials. He says to them ‘don’t worry, plastic will be traditional by this afternoon’.
The first words he spoke to us were in the tongue of his mother’s people, the Ngate Kahungunu from the Heretaunga region of the North Island. It was an incantation to draw in our ancestors to the meeting. I was reminded of the way that many indigenous people make decisions, consulting with generations of ancestors and successors, not just the living. Immediately I was struck that agency was a central theme for him. He talked about the relationship of his people with the British. The Maori were honourable and generous, to be in a position of agency, to give and ‘treat’ in order to be equal. They have been disenfranchised and alienated but he feels the story isn’t over yet, that having no hope for equality would make all that suffering in vain. When the ‘knives and blankets and tables and chairs’ started coming, Maori saw they must be part of that change, to see the value of those things and deal in them. ‘You had to be part of that change, to direct change rather than be directed by it. Nobody is more equipped to deal with these changes than yourself’.
He showed some images from a ceremony in which he performed, at the Pasifika Styles exhibition in Cambridge, associated with the birth of a child and he talked about how creativity and procreation are the same thing. He feels that men in particular have a longing to create, to be closer to the miracle of creation of people which women are blessed and pained with. Creativity is an utterly human power, and human agency is all around our potential to convert materials and to ride change. One kind of material at the moment that is giving the planet a lot of grief is plastic and of course the oil that it’s made from. I asked if those who object to his use of modern materials most object to the use of plastic for reasons of marine pollution causing biodiversity loss and climate change. He said that plastic is from the earth, it is indigenous, and that through art we can give it its divinity. It was an optimistic moment for me, in a week in which I felt mired in worries about the unrepairable cracks in the ocean leaking millions of gallons of oil. I don’t know yet what reasons for optimism there are but I felt stronger for his example.
This week Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, was allowed for the first time to appear on BBC Question Time. For non-UK readers, the BNP is an all-white, far right party which promotes sending non-whites (especially muslims) ‘home’ and which has denied the Holocaust. In June this year, the BNP won three council seats and two European Parliament seats, with Griffin representing the North West of England. A shocking poll in 2006 showed that 59% of UK people share their views on immigration, although they don’t all vote BNP. As we come up to Remembrance Day, many of those 59% people will be wearing poppies to remember the war against unthinkable fascism, without thinking of the irony.
In response to Griffin on Question Time there has been a lot of Twitter action. Quite a lot of comments were about the role of cultural learning and museums in changing the hearts & minds of those 59%. @51m0n (Simon Berry of the Cola Life project) tweeted: “In Anne Franks’ House. Harrowing. Nick Griffin where are you?” @KevAdamson suggested Griffin should go on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’
The realisation that so many share these views, or versions watered down by blithe ignorance, has thrown into sharp focus the purpose of proposals for the transformation of the museums sector. These proposals under the Open Culture banner are about driving digital inclusion into communities and harnessing the digital for cultural participation. Put like that, it sounds a little uncompelling, more than a little perhaps. But when you look at the context, the urgent need for co-operation and problem-solving in communities, and when you have experienced of the power of museum learning and engagement, the success of the proposal seems essential.
In the same week as Griffin’s appearance I started working on a project for the Equalities & Human Rights Commission. This is the Young Brits at Art awards, which are about using culture and creativity to promote the values of respect, dignity, fairness, equality and autonomy. When Griffin came on screen I had just been writing about the scientific facts proving that the notion of a human subspecies is a cultural construct not a biological one. In other words there is only one human race, though many cultures. The science is complex and the history of cultural and genetic interweaving on a global scale is massive to understand. You need to grasp the complexity to get the basic facts. One of the best ways to grasp the complexity is to explore museums (real or virtual) and to participate actively in cultural learning, for example, getting into archaeology.
This is all intensive work, intensified by the many other requirements of museums to solve all social ills. Cultural tolerance isn’t the only value we need to develop. We also, urgently, need to support people to develop adaptability to face a disrupted future due to climate change, not a need yet fully acknowledged by the Government. We’ve spent the past 10 years revamping our displays and buildings, building new ones, expanding our shops, and spending quite a bit of money on it all, including a bit of digitisation. Cultural and heritage institutions are more often driven by trustees and managers from hard-nosed business backgrounds, who help spend this kind of money and attract more. You might wonder then why, despite all this expansion of cultural provision, and its claims of effectiveness, are we still seeing these intolerant attitudes in so many of the population? Three reasons (amongst many) come to mind, the first two on a big scale: Global inequality has exacerbated extremist terrorism, leading to greater mistrust of ‘others’. Labour has not tackled the root causes of economic inequality, despite many non-economic initiatives. Thirdly, there has not been enough investment in the most effective kinds of cultural learning in the museum sector to make good work reach enough people and to be sustained. The bulk of investment has been in bricks and mortar, style, spectacle, collections, marketing and so on. The dominance of the business-and-tourism-led management of our cultural sector, fails to adequately value the relational work of those who deliver educational and participatory engagement.
There are, however, many success stories and good things happening within all this investment. These good things tend to be where there is integration between the display (or accessibility) of collections and the relational work to interpret them. For example, the Ashmolean Museum has not only created a new building but has altered the structure of displays and all the interpretation to reflect the formation of cultures through exchange. It’s a shame then that the first press coverage of this revamp by the Times has been to accuse the Museum of ‘dumbing down’ and catering for ‘half-wits’. Kathy Brewis sees museums exclusively as a place to switch off at the weekend from her busy ‘digitally included’ life, to wander the old cabinets of curiosity in a graciously vacant but already well-educated manner, gazing on the otherness of heads shrunken by barbaric people who are not like us. She says she doesn’t want to “discover how civilisations developed as part of an interrelated world culture”. She may already understand the complexity of cultural connections so well she has no need of learning further, but I suspect if she did understand she would realise the responsibility she has to disseminate this knowledge and would make better use of her privileged position as a commissioning editor of The Times in doing so.
There is some truth in what she says, albeit expressed in a way I find offensive. I believe that we have put too many words on the walls, sometimes stating facts too baldly, which has reduced the emotive and aesthetic effect of collections and heritage spaces. The most effective learning takes place through dialogue, mediated in relational and creative ways. A plan to transform the sector needs to focus on making this kind of learning available to all, and that has to mean using digital technologies in many new ways and also working in partnership with public service broadcasters.
Here are my photos on Flickr
They’re all travel photos. Why is that? I suppose because I’m not a photographer – I don’t feel I can share my photos just on aesthetic merits. Also, it’s not appropriate to share lots of family photos. Travel is a genre that fits in between. And I’ve been lucky enough to go to some amazing places recently. Marrakech is a photographer’s dream. But you also feel a little bit the classic tourist in pursuit of the authentic costumed Orient, snapping away at all the signs of difference. It’s very much an easy, stylish, visually rich experience of an Islamic country and you can’t help but just enjoy the spectacle.
In Skyros, we were there to document the oldest Pagan festival in Europe. I felt a real pull between the position of observer behind the camera and the position of joining in the dancing and enjoying the sense of trance. There were virtually no tourists (non-Greeks) visiting for the festival. It was a homecoming for exiled Skyrians. We were quite conspicuous with our film cameras, but everyone wanted to bring us into their circle dances in the bars at night (though not in the more formal community dance once Lent had begun). We met an English woman who had married a Skyrian man – she talked movingly about being allowed to wear the precious traditional costume on Clean Monday, learning how to do the deceptively difficult circle dances, feeling a great affirmation of her belonging when the visitors gradually leave on the ferries, and yet also her bewilderment at the way the community can isolate others with their bitchiness and at the strangeness and patriarchal force of the Yeros figure and the Apokreas festival. We also met a woman coming in on the ferry from Athens, whose family lived in Skyros. She was planning to dance as Yeros, a very contraversial thing to do. Because Yeros’ face is covered with the skin of a kid and the entire body is transformed by the costume she could hide her identity. But Yeros has a hugely important ritual of dancing and stamping on the earth with 50 kilos of goat bells around him, in order to release Persephone and bring on the Spring. The masculine energy of this act is very important, something that can’t be perverted by a woman acting it. On the other hand, Apokreas is carnival, topsy turvy time, so anything goes…
I’ve been enjoying reading the brilliant ‘Watching the English’ by Kate Fox. (That is, until I lost the book at the weekend in an involuntary act of ‘bookcrossing’.) She says the English are pretty much incapable of talking directly and earnestly, that to talk without humour and self-deprecation is seen as total pretention. I think she’s right and it’s a really useful insight for all those delivering cultural programmes for an English audience. Most museum visitors and readers do seem to prefer a light touch, no pomposity and arcane metaphors, but, confusingly, they do also like hidden messages presented in ironic creative ways. It’s a hard balance to get right. But to make it harder, it’s a very rare scenario these days where most of the audience are English. It would be interesting to know what people from different backgrounds, especially those who are un-anglicised, make of the exhibitions, websites & TV in the UK.