My heart was in my mouth when I read “All public exhibitions would close, along with schools learning programmes. ” in this cutting about the British Library:
A minute later I realised the Library was holding up all its most popular services and all those things the DCMS hold most dear, as hostages to fortune and to provoke an outcry. They wouldn’t have a great case to keep hold of 7% funds if they pledged to turn down the heating and cut taxi bills. There have been a few statements of support. For example, Joan Bakewell focuses on the value of the British Library in the search for ‘demonstrable truths about the world’.
And there is some debate on the blogs: For example, the Guardian books blog http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/01/can_we_afford_cuts_to_the_brit.html which, apart from my own post, is mainly about researchers. The only comment about public programmes comes on Susan Hill’s blog http://blog.susan-hill.com/
“Public exhibitions to close – not the worst idea. There are plenty of exhibition spaces in London…But it would be a grave error to cancel the schools learning programmes and extremely short-sighted.”
However, a schools learning programme without exhibitions and treasures galleries would be a very thin thing indeed, with only digital images to inspire learning. Web resources do provide valuable broader access to collections but there is little substitute for a real experience of a well designed workshop in a well-designed exhibition with hundreds of amazing real old things. The Library displays sacred and ancient books and other artefacts from most of the world’s cultures. Moreover, a public cultural body of the BL’s magnitude should run learning programmes on the ‘Inspiring Learning for All’ principles, with provision not just for schools but for all levels and needs.
Having put a great deal of passion into building the learning programme, and a lot of work into its exhibitions, I want to urge people to support it. Please post on blogs and, if you’re a teacher, ring to book a visit (and do be nice to the staff). There is no other UK organisation that can possibly run a public learning programme like it, with such rich potential to explore cultural knowledge, in all recorded forms, over three millennia.
I was really proud of all the Pearson Creative Research Fellowships in British Library Learning but it’s exciting to see it continue with current fellow Lizzie Ridout. She has this great way of finding the extraordinary in the archives of the most demotic, banal and domestic items. At a time that the British Library is focusing on innovation, exploiting the assets of its patent collections and opening a business centre, Lizzie reminds us that many innovations can be very silly – such as backward-walking shoes. We need to learn from forgotten mistakes and wasted efforts as much as we learn from the iconic inventions. Just as Jonathon Swift (in Gulliver’s Travels) cautioned us with his institute of inventors in Balnibarbi, trying to make ice from gunpowder, ploughing improvements using pigs and so on. I’ve been thinking about innovation this week having been to a NESTA conference about how to nurture future innovators. I’ll post about that some more soon, but for now enjoy Lizzie’s work on her new website.
I wrote this essay when I was at the British Library. It’s far too long for a blog entry but I haven’t time to cut it down. I still find the ideas interesting and want to invite comments to help me explore more ways to display books engagingly in exhibitions and multimedia.
I’ve been thinking about books as objects of display, not disposable books that can be read in exhibitions but precious books in cases. The essential feature of the book, its binding of pages to allow so many thoughts to be shared and carried, is that which makes the book the most inaccessible form of written document when put in a case.
When we see books on display do we read them? How do books work in the spatial and social experience of an exhibition or museum?
Underlying this topic, which I admit is narrow, are bigger and more interesting questions:
What are the differences between reading and looking?
What are the relative purposes of museums and books?
And more practically:
What are the alternatives to books on display, to overcome their limitations?
In museum displays, books are inevitably received as visual objects, even if they are otherwise understood to be containers of words and ideas. Your fingers might itch to turn the pages as if you’re in a bookshop but you know that here you can only look. The main criteria in decisions to display books are about showing, rather than enabling reading, even if a book has a full provenance of interpretation and the exhibition is rooted in scholarship. It usually makes a better show to foreground significant illustrations, changes in production technology, decorative bindings or different formats. ‘Artist’s books’ or special editions, intended to be seen as artefacts, might be chosen for display over ordinary reading books.
Books may be used as exemplars, to represent the idea of literacy or to show the significance of ‘the word’ for a culture. Most often books are included in thematic displays alongside various artefacts, so they are received as things in a visual context. Books can be ordered on shelves or in tottering piles, as set dressing to show the enlightenment of a society, as in the British Museum’s Enlightenment Galleries, or of an individual such as a novelist.
Certain books, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Golden Haggadah, must be displayed to give the public sight of unique and priceless icons that resonate with more meaning than they contain in either their fabric or their words alone.
Is looking at books on display the same as reading them?
Certainly visual objects, and therefore books as visual objects, can be read for meaning. But for any act of reading to be meaningful it has to be a hermeneutic process. For this, the contents have to be recovered and shared. The time needed to digest texts, not normally available on an exhibition visit, is an obvious hampering factor. You can’t get far interpreting a closed book unless you have other means of access to its contents or if you’ve already read it. Even if a book is displayed open it is still virtually closed. The more the contents are widely known (the Bible, Pride and Prejudice…) the more there can be shared hermeneutic activity, yet this is usually away from, or despite, the experience of the iconic book on display. Conversely, such a book (Shakespeare, the Qu’ran…), when displayed, becomes even more of a visual icon that is so already known it isn’t calling to be read as if new. There is little need to use that particular artefact to recover the fundamental message or story of its text.
The value of such an iconic book can be either emotional or academic, or both. The book displayed would not merely be ‘a Shakespeare’ but his First Folio, not merely the Qu’ran but the beautiful one commissioned by Sultan Baybur. As an emotional experience it can be a touchstone to prompt memories and new recoveries of known words. As an academic experience, it can offer ground to search what is visible of the whole artefact for clues as to its context, its making or provenance. Both, for the exhibition visitor, are arguably more about looking than reading. I have always asserted that looking is equivalent to reading, or rather that there is more reading in looking than we assume. I still believe this. My point here is about how your reading is disabled by having only partial access to contents, so you are forced to look only with your eyes. The more prior knowledge you have, the more you can make an interpretation of what little is visible.
Those who would passionately commend the display of books would draw attention to the possibilities of seeing differences between editions or between manuscript and print versions. A particular text might be displayed to draw attention to scholarly disputes or discoveries, such as marginalia added by other writers or evidence of redrafting between editions. (This can apply to John Lennon’s lyrics scribbled on a birthday card as much as to the writings of Coleridge or Hume.) In these cases you read the caption to know what is being highlighted then you look. It may be fascinating, even awesome, but basically the reading or the interpretation has been done for you.
The best reading experiences are when you are drawn to read between lines, inspired to visualise more than is given and more than you already know, when you are solving a mystery, hypothesising and predicting, when you are engrossed in another world, when you are provoked through satire or revelation. Visual art can allow a depth of engagement equivalent to a reading process, but the difference is in the time you are in contact with the stimulus. It can have a quality of taking seconds to swallow but hours or even years to digest. The reading occurs in reflection, conversation and remaking. Books on display do not, quite in this way, provide the initial stimulus for further interpretation, although they may make you want to go and get a copy of that book. Books may be richer to mine for meaning than a visual artwork but not via a momentary affective experience suited to an exhibition visit.
So why do we display books as visual objects, if they struggle to provide the cathartic affect of reading a good book or the cathectic effect of seeing an artwork? These might be some answers:
If the only objects considered worthy of display were the most spectacular or grippingly narrative, we would have a very limited culture of display.
Books can be a useful device for inserting ideas into an exhibition that may be in danger of slipping into pure aesthetics. Some of the very best exhibitions of all are curated by Ken Arnold for the Wellcome Institute, in which books play a central role but combined with contemporary art and curious objects.
Many people love books for various reasons and love to look at them, the more rare, quirky or authentic the better. The British Library’s John Ritblat Treasures Gallery may seem very low key but the word on most visitors’ lips is ‘wow’.
Artist’s books, exquisite illustrations or page openings that show a profound poem or thought can, with some effort, be as rich to mine for meaning as any painting or sculpture. (Choosing that single page opening is fraught for the curator, of course.)
I would be sad if all books disappeared from displays just because of the negatives I have raised. Part of their attraction lies in the fact that you are barred from reading them at that moment, as if you are looking at curiosity cabinets with only a whisper of one drawer open. Some visual objects allow a deeper hermeneutic process than others – they may provoke more questions or have more layers of conflicting meaning. They might offer these deeper readings, paradoxically, by veiling their meanings. The more ‘meaningful’ a visual object in this way the more it might be defined as art. It is possible to say that a book on display holds more resonance, and becomes a work of art, precisely because it does veil its meanings within its hidden pages. Perhaps putting a precious book in a display case is an adequate way to share it widely because at least it can have resonance in this way.
Why do we ‘museumise’ so much when knowledge, experience and culture can be conveyed in reproduction in books, films, websites?
If we have books and their high-tech equivalents, why do we need to go to the expense of making exhibitions?
Why might we want a ‘museum of books’?
The most popular exhibitions are not necessarily those on popular subjects but those that offer a unique experience or sight of strange or iconic artefacts, of ‘the real thing’. Some argue that the ultimate function of a museum is to conserve collections for posterity, with display or access as a bonus. What is true in this is that the collections are what make a museum. (I’m wary when a new museum is suggested for a political or therapeutic purpose without a strong base of collections, such as the USA wishing to establish a museum of the Iraq conflict, in Iraq.) However, this is not because the collections must be kept but because they must be seen and wondered about, now. When the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, only gives humanity a 50/50 chance of survival into the next century, this puts a new gloss on the meaning of posterity.
An exhibition is superficially like a book in that both aim to make any subject meaningful and to memorialise experiences and thoughts. Neither aims entirely to recreate reality. A museum may use real space and real things but uses them to create deeper inroads into your imagination and to make virtual worlds. However, museums do respond to the human need for the authentic, the tactile and the auratic in a world that is increasingly awash with reproduction and information. Books or written documents have occupied such an important place in many world cultures for over 2,000 years and in many private lives for at least 200 years (these dates are all qualifiable), that they must have a place in our museums. They can provide an experience of authenticity. Because the profound significance of ‘the word’ has long been understood, the physical carrier of the word has been celebrated, even venerated. I suspect that hundreds of thousands of items in the Library’s collections are more ‘visual’ than vast numbers of artefacts you may see in a museum (pot shards, anyone?) The main difficulty is how you expose all of that to the eyes of those who cannot easily get access to turn their actual pages.
Are exhibitions for art or for didactics, for looking or reading?
In an exhibition designed for an aesthetic experience, you are more likely to be encouraged to read each object on display as you read a poem, each one on its own, though each linked to the others by your own associations? In a more didactic exhibition you might be encouraged to approach it just as you read a book or watch a TV documentary, with ‘exhibit A’ as evidence in its argument, each object just a bead in its narrative chain. To generalise to an extreme, art museums or galleries have tended to display unique objects that can be interpreted in many ways, contextualised through juxtapositions of objects or by loose themes, whereas history or science museums have been forerunners in an ‘educational’ trend in which objects are examples in a narrative, concretising a message. These tendencies do not arise because of the nature of the institutions or the people that work in them, but because of the nature of their collections. Generally, I find art objects, and objects exhibited as visual poems, more effective for my learning and teaching than displays which aim overtly at learning or teaching. The resonance is stronger and the wondering lasts longer afterwards. Such a display can still be ideas-based, but the ideas are more intriguing if they are a cluster of possible threads, or if a single idea is chosen that has the greatest propensity to spark new ideas. This idea might be a ‘what if…?’ or an oxymoron or a twist on our usual thinking (such as Joseph Beuy’s ‘bandage the knife’). The more unreadable an object or the more one-dimensional it is, the more likely it will be treated as a synechdoche and the extratextual storyline will dominate.
What are some alternative ways of making books accessible and exciting when they are on display?
You can use multimedia technology:
Turning the Pages http://www.bl.uk/collections/treasures/digitisation3.html is a technology developed by the British Library to provide a realistic virtual experience of some of our books. The developer, Michael Stocking of Armadillo Systems, takes such great pains to be realistic that he researches and recreates the typical light readings for the kinds of buildings and locations where the books were created. He films the turning of the pages with the exact weight, drop and slide of that particular kind of paper or vellum. Turning the Pages was developed to sit alongside the real thing in gallery displays, though it is also available online. The British Library intends to develop animation that places these books in contexts of production and use, connected to further learning tools.
You can be sensitive about different cultural paradigms of sacred space and the use of texts:
I said earlier that the public must be given sight of sacred texts. However, it is not a simple fact that sacred books must be displayed. Objections have been raised that the secular context of a public museum and the mingling of sacred texts from many faiths may not be appropriate for a spiritual experience. Because the act of showing does not fully open the text for interpretation and teaching, it is primarily an act of enabling spiritual contact – a kind of touching with the eyes. I will qualify this assertion, however, because sacred books have always been displayed for worshippers in sacred places, as a means of conveying scriptures and stories. Pages of illuminated manuscripts were opened on appropriate pages for the calendar. They incorporated vibrant illustrations so that those who could not read the words could read the pictures, not just for the sake of enjoying the decorations. Muslim children are taught to read Arabic from all angles as they sit around the Qu’ran. Having said this, people do come to see and be in the presence of significant books. In Hinduism, darshan is when the divinity of the text or figure is awoken and connects with the devotee through their eyes. Although the ritual of darshan may not be practised in other religions, it is a useful concept for understanding the intensity surrounding looking at icons in all cultures, the way viewers believe or sense the icon to be animated with an originating spirit.
There are things we can do to free such books from their habitual context. The Guru Granth Sahib (or Adi Granth) is a compilation of the writings of the ten Sikh Gurus (with scriptures of Islam and Hinduism), begun by the 5th Guru Arjun and completed by the last Guru Gobind Singh. Khushwant Singh in the catalogue for ‘Warm and Rich and Fearless’ (exhibition at Cartwright Hall, Bradford) writes ‘it is the source and not the object of prayer’. However, as the symbolic source of wisdom, the book itself is still treated with devotion. It is seen as the living embodiment of the Guru. No living person can be a Guru and idol worship is forbidden in Sikhism, so the Granth Sahib is the only Guru. Therefore it is venerated not as an object but as a living person. It was taken out of the British Library gallery into a Sikh school in Middlesex and treated with appropriate respect as part of the Anglo-Sikh Heritage Trail. 10,000 Sikhs visited to see it over one weekend. It was not in a museum case but placed on a canopied seat spread with special cloths. The Guru was awoken and put to bed each day.
You can take a poetic approach to interpretation:
There are many possibilities for involve artists and creative writers in exhibition interpretation and design, so that viewers are prompted to see the displayed books less as examples in an authoritative story but as resonant texts with many readings. Artists and writers can draw attention to the many ways you can connect one book to another, they can raise questions without using many words and they can stop you in your tracks before you move on to the next book. Rachel Lichtenstein’s book ‘A Little Dust Whispered’ produced from her Pearson Creative Research Fellowship might inspire you to think along these lines. See the online bookshop on http://www.bl.uk/
I’ve discovered this stunning blog because it’s owner Paul K contacted my husband, printmaker Brian McKenzie, to say he liked the prints he’d seen on Brian’s blog and wanted to copy images into Bibliodyssey. (The image here is Brian’s ‘Flightless Moth’ – strictly his copyright.) It shows how blogging can generate interpretation of cultural collections in such a fluid and personal way, whereas cultural institutions might spend years and many thousands of pounds creating something with the same richness and accessibility. This kind of site is what I hoped we could achieve with www.bl.uk/learning (though with more structure, dialogue and interactivity). I’m amazed that Paul has managed to source so many images without being too concerned about copyright (?). Maybe this kind of blog is only possible now because cultural archives have got to the stage of digitising & making their content accessible without charging. Or perhaps, it’s the very nature of the book to have been produced in multiple copies, that these digitised images come from copies in private collections or on the open market, whose owners are not concerned to exploit the images for profit. I’d be interested to know more about this.
If you want to see more of Brian McKenzie’s work, here’s his blog http://bdmckenzie.blogspot.com/
I just looked for my webpages from my recent role as head of learning at the British Library but found they had been taken down. On it were several essays, including one that summarised our ethos and approach. I don’t have access to this essay but here is an article that is similar, published in the current engage review (details on http://www.engage.org/).
Quests Driven by Questions
For British Library Learning, research is not just the rarefied occupation of the academics working in the Library’s Reading Rooms. Creative Research is at the heart of our learning methodology and the key skill that we hope all our programme participants will develop. We also hope to have a wider impact by promoting and resourcing research-based learning, working in partnership with others with common purpose.
Because the British Library has vast and extraordinary collections across all subjects and cultures, including maps, art, music, magazines and more, and because it is so widely networked with partners across many sectors, we have been overwhelmed with possibilities for interpreting the collections and developing new projects. We were reluctant to limit potential by focusing on one subject such as history or one campaign such as literacy, yet as a small team we did need to focus. In 2002-3, some idealistic principles quickly emerged:
1) We would not operate too reactively. Developing the Learning programme would itself be a matter of principle and a form of research. All team members would try to do research. Bigger projects would be underpinned by professional or academic research.
2) We would not distance the Learning programme from the corporate direction and the core function as a research library. We might have decided to create an outreach unit, with a distinct identity from the Library (which had always been perceived as elitist). We might have decided only to work with the ‘museum’ created through the Library’s digital and real exhibitions of heritage treasures. However, as it happened, the Reading Rooms became open to a much wider range of readers. We also realised that mining the collections below its exhibitions would reveal more demotic and popular material (comics, sport fanzines, pop music and so on), and that the iconic items in our galleries (Magna Carta, Lindisfarne Gospels…) were not always so familiar or meaningful to young people.
3) We would balance and illuminate the historical with the contemporary, employing contemporary creative practitioners to explore the collections and facilitate others to learn with them.
4) We would focus on the individual, for example by exposing personal research paths through the collections, by respecting diverse interpretations of our collections and by looking for ways to support the idea of ‘personalised learning’.
We have hypothesised that Creative Research is a key to effective learning because it is about students taking control of their own learning, making it more relevant and productive, and opening it up to new ideas and stimuli. After 3 years of exploring Creative Research through artist-led projects and workshops, we have encountered a great deal of enthusiasm for this vision, but also a few challenges.
The crucial challenge is that we have not always found it easy to agree and explain what Creative Research is. Is it a niche part of ‘information literacy’ or is it a complete solution to obstacles to learning? Is it only accessible to gifted students or open to everyone? In making claims that it is the solution and that it is widely accessible, we have felt some pressure to raise our game and prove it. The success of Ultralab’s http://www.notschool.net/ proves that disaffected or disadvantaged children can thrive if they are respected and called ‘researchers’ rather than pupils. I will describe some of our Creative Research ideas and projects that I hope will add to this evidence.
First, why don’t we just teach research skills? Why ‘creative’ research? What do we mean by creativity? By it we mean divergence, openness and imagination. The reason usually given for creativity in education is that the UK will need innovation and exploited intellectual property to flourish in a global economy. More compelling for us is that creativity is the opposite of caging and mechanising the person. Children who are not able to expand their horizons, for example because they have to do repetitive work or fight, are often said to be propelled fast to adulthood. In fact they are just dehumanised, neither fully adult nor child. We don’t want adults only capable of destruction and methodical work. Avoiding this gives us the impetus towards creativity in education, more than any economic or national reasons. Fundamentalism is an intellectual form of dehumanisation because it cages and mechanises the imagination. It negates the very abilities that separate us from animals:
- to conceive a future
- to communicate about things that are absent, using metaphors and abstractions
- to imagine ourselves as others
- to fabricate new solutions.
To be creative is to be as human as we can be.
Is Creative Research only concerned with research to support artistic products? It may seem so in that we mainly employ artists as educators. For example, our Pearson Creative Research Fellows explore the Library collections, sharing their research in workshops and by making a creative product. Artist and writer Rachel Lichtenstein produced a book and exhibition, ‘A Little Dust Whispered’; artist Ming Wong explored experimental drama in the Sound Archives and staged a performance ‘Homofonia’; playwright Diane Samuels is working on a manifesto for magic. When Creative Research feeds into an artistic product, if it is driven by questions (e.g. why did women wear corsets?) rather than simply data retrieval (e.g. ‘I need corset styles to authenticate a period drama’), the product will not be a commodity but will continue the dialogic process. For example, Rachel Lichtenstein worked with film-maker Chloe Ruthven and Muslim students from Quinton Kynaston school to research the differences within and between Islamic cultures. Communicating their discoveries and remaining questions about difference and commonality was the purpose of their film. Ming Wong supported the Silk Road Tales project, which explored exchanges between Turkic and Chinese cultures. With him, the participants gathered images and sounds from North London’s markets and sacred places to make video pieces that provoked questions about cultural trading.
The purpose of research (and learning) is to understand the world in order to change it. If Creative Research is seen only as data retrieval in the service of making better art, it denies the importance of learning and limits the scope of what art can do. Creative Research can expand arts-based education to be more engaged, harnessing art processes for enquiry into the complexities and problems of the world. In this expanded scope, it also applies to science, though its effects might be different in science. For example, a science or technology enquiry might be more engaged if its goal is the production of a device (invention, campaign, system…), or if artistic learners are allowed to present ideas more imaginatively. A Google search for the term Creative Research yields only references to science, to awards and projects that promote collaborative and visionary science. In other words, it is good science, enhanced by divergent thinking. Science is inherently a form of enquiry with its disciplinary practices rooted in testing and hypothesis, and with its bodies of knowledge continually changing. When journalists cover debates about whether Intelligent Design should be taught alongside Evolution, they beg the question about how science is taught. If students use enquiry methods without ideological pressures, then they cannot be damaged by misguided or subversive theories. Ideas do not need to be censored in a culture of enquiry.
Creative Research is about transferable skills, primarily those that enable people to access and use knowledge in ways that take risks and make meanings. The ‘knowledge skills’ include:
- Asking questions to find the most crucial problems
- Dialogue with others: Listening to different views, imagining yourself as other, taking knowledge and questions from others
- Dialogue with recorded knowledge: Reading texts, images, sounds and objects, including those that do not immediately yield their meanings
- Testing your ideas with surveys, prototypes, experiments, and visualisations
- Generating dialogue: Communicating your ideas to others through creative presentation (for example, by connoting rather than denoting meanings, by aiming to generate questions, or by telling stories.)
These skills are mainly about interacting with others. One of our principles is that we focus on the individual, but with the proviso that the individual learns by engaging continually in dialogue, that the individual can be changed by others’ knowledge whilst maintaining their integrity. Paolo Freire, in his model for a problem-posing education, suggests that enquiry in dialogic interaction with others is not unnatural, that it can be suppressed by education systems, but it does not need a great deal of encouragement to thrive: ‘For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world and each other.’ (P.53 ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ Penguin, 1st pub’d 1970.)
Academics might say research is the rigorous formation of new knowledge. Entrepreneurs or artists might see it as background, technical or market research for innovation and production. Librarians and teachers might say it is seeking information on a topic. The Old French source ‘recerchier’ means ‘to search closely’ and thus in dictionary definitions research is always thorough, rigorous, sustained and purposeful study. This chimes most with the academic definition. Is it possible for young people and non-academics to do research if this is what it is? Or, is it the case, as we like to believe, that a sustained quest inspired by an urgent question is what motivates anyone of any age to learn? However, to inspire people of different ages and intelligences to do research, some of the rules need to be broken and some of the language adapted. Guidance aimed at post-graduates, when research as a method is deemed to begin, emphasises rigour.
This is a typical model, found on http://kancrn.kckps.k12.ks.us/guide/research.html
1. Research originates with a question or a problem.
2. Research requires a clear articulation of a goal.
3. Research follows a specific plan of procedure.
4. Research usually divides the principal problem into more manageable sub-problems.
5. Research is guided by the specific research problem, question, or hypothesis.
6. Research accepts certain critical assumptions. These assumptions are underlying theories or ideas about how the world works.
7. Research requires the collection and interpretation of data in attempting to resolve the problem that initiated the research.
8. Research is, by its nature, cyclical; or more exactly, spiral or helical.
This is a sound starting point. A Creative Research approach might expand it thus:
1. Research starts before the articulation of a question. It is important to acknowledge the value of what can be learned in the time it takes to find a problem. The more attention given to finding the problem, the more useful the research might be. Creative Researchers can be driven by ignorance and failure. They admit fallibility and expose what they don’t know, as this helps them seek answers from others.
2. The research process throws up many potential goals, applications or potential products. Although you need to focus on the best one, you also need to consider other spin-offs.
3. A specific plan of procedure might include trying multiple methods and being flexible enough to switch to a more effective procedure.
4. Research problems cannot always be divided into sub-problems that are more manageable than the over-arching question. These unmanageable sub-problems can often lead you astray. This might not always be a bad thing.
5. Research is guided by the specific question, undoubtedly, but it is also directed by the new discoveries made which in turn raise new questions. The trick is to find an originating question that is open enough to be swayed in this way. There can also be significant changes in the person or people conducting it (e.g. revelations or disputes) and or in the context around it (e.g. political research changing with current affairs), which means the original question has to be reviewed.
6. Challenging the critical assumptions on which the research is based can be fruitful, sometimes essential.
7. The data informing research can include personal feelings, hearsay, travel, sensory experiences and artworks and so on.
8. A Creative Researcher may be very alert to this helical process, enjoying (controlled!) perusal of tangents.
Some might challenge this to say that all these creative diversions make the research process even harder and less controlled for young people. Perhaps this is true, but our projects only stretch aspects of this expanded model. Also, they rely on fully engaged educators who plan intensively and support children to feel safe and to play with challenging ideas.
Reading Patterns summer schools are a good example of this. They have been offered to 40 children aged 8-9 from Camden primary schools over the past 3 years. Each week’s course is intensively facilitated by four or five artists. Despite most of these being visual artists, it is made clear to the children that they won’t be making finished personal art works. The artists are employed as problem-posers to help the children use patterns in order to think and analyse the world. All the exploration of ideas is achieved through activities in which patterns are sought and made in words and images. The educators’ questions are implicit in the activities and the children’s questions that spring from the activities are made overt. The questions that might arise include:
How does this pattern contrast with that? How does this link with that? Can I find patterns in unexpected places? Can I find patterns in the Library’s collection items? How can I make a pattern? Can I make a game with patterns? Can you always read a pattern to find meanings? Are those meanings in the pattern or in my head? Do other people read them the same way? Do patterns in nature have an intention? Where do natural patterns stop and manmade patterns begin? Why would I make a pattern? Why do some cultures illustrate their books with patterns but not with representational images? Do these patterns mean anything? Can we find patterns in our behaviour, in our relationships, in the places we make, in our different languages or in the stories we tell? Which of these patterns are common and which are rare or unique?
Most importantly, the children are helped to think about their own learning: Can I use this pattern-finding skill to explore any subject? This skill is the starting point for doing research.
Another project, Young Explorers, makes research accessible by minimising ‘book learning’ and emphasising physical exploration of the urban environment, looking for clues in it, for example to explore how history is layered in it and how people affect it.
Young Explorers emerges from the practice of ‘geocaching’ which is an international leisure pursuit, comparable to a high-tech treasure hunt, using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and the Internet. As part of a global network, individuals and groups create and hide themed ’caches’, publish clues as to their whereabouts and then use these clues alongside GPS technology to follow the trails and uncover the caches. Young Explorers is exploring the creative potential of this activity by engaging and motivating young people (13 -18) through creative research and practice. Three projects have run so far: Autumn 2004, with White Hart Lane School, Haringey; Spring 2005, with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School for Girls, Islington; Autumn 2005, with South Camden Community School. The projects are led by digital artist and researcher, Rebecca Sinker, and artist Lottie Child. Elizabeth Garrett Andersen students explored a British Library exhibition about literature and gardens, and explored King’s Cross as a regenerating environment. They found gardens and wastelands, and planted bulbs that would flower in the Spring. South Camden students have been exploring the Library’s Sound Archive and Lottie’s sound art works. They have recorded their own sound art into sound pads that can be ‘cached’ or hidden in the environment. You can find the co-ordinates for these tours on http://www.geocaching.com/. One principle of Geocaching is exchange – you are invited to leave a comment, an object or another question, so in itself it becomes a metaphor for dialogic and creative research.
Creative Research projects are underpinned by an assumption that cultures are complex, situated and formed through exchange. Although it is important to support young people to ask their own questions which might emerge from given ideas about cultural identity, we would aim to model open forms of questioning. For example, rather than ‘what is the definitive Islamic style?’ we would ask ‘is there a definitive Islamic style?’ and guide them to explore the weaving of particular contexts.
Inside Story has raised questions for us about the interaction of story and context. It is funded by DCMS National Regional Museum Education Partnerships and we are working with Yorkshire Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the University of York. Primary schools in Leeds, York and Rotherham are working with storytellers Sally Pomme Clayton and Pamela Marr to explore stories in cultural contexts drawing on visual sources from the Library’s collection. These include the Golden Haggadah (an illustrated Jewish sacred text), images from the Ramayana (the epic of Rama & Sita) and the Shahnama (Persian Epic of Kings). Immersive Media Spaces are designers who have worked to a brief developed by the school children to create a highly visual and sensual installation that is currently touring the three cities. Visitors are having encounters not so much with the entire epics or books, or their background cultures, but are enticed themselves to explore the stories and cultures through key images, characters or symbols that mattered to the children.
In any Creative Research project, it is important to assess the balance of the ‘intratextual’ and the ‘extratextual’. How much are you using knowledge of cultural background to interpret a text or how much are you using sources to understand a culture (or even, going beyond this, to solve a contemporary problem)? The sources are important because they provide specific, situated and multivalent information, but we also try to avoid sources being interpreted too much in isolation, with children making only personal associations and not encouraged to dig into cultural context. An initial response to a text or work of art is a creative starting point for making an interpretation, not an interpretation in itself. This can only come about through a process of dialogue, enriched with play and making, stretched by a big question, and this in a nutshell is Creative Research.