I’m having a really confusing day, because almost everything on my To Do list, for several different projects, paid and unpaid, is to do with the review of the English National Curriculum and the role of culture and creativity in it. I’m contributing to the Cultural Learning Alliance response to the DfE consultation on the National Curriculum. I’ve been at a project pitch this morning about the role of art in Primary National Curriculae across the four home nations (and the fact that we have four National Curriculae, with culture & creativity placed differently in each, is confusing enough in itself). We’re about to start a project looking at how the review of the National Curriculum and changes to teacher training will affect provision of museum education. We’re also looking at how teachers network online to develop professional practice in the arts.
And now, in a very timely manner, I hear from the tweets of the RSA/ACE conference State of the Arts 2011 that Darren Henley has been asked to follow up his Henley Review of Music Education with a second review on cultural learning. The task of this next report seems confused as it was described in two ways; ‘how children can receive a solid cultural education’ and ‘defining creative education’. These scraps of information raise more than a few questions that I hope will soon be answered. Is this review intended as a diktat on the need for a Hirschian cultural canon, ensuring that children emerge from school knowing the story of their island nation and how it rests on the finest artefacts and ideas of human civilisation? Or is it intended to be a restatement of the value of creativity in education and for the economy, given Ed Vaizey’s talk today promoting a ‘creative ecology’ – a context in which value can be more rapidly propogated from the public and commercial creative sectors? Or, both?
The background to all this is the Government’s three priorities for cultural & creative education, which were stated to be: That every child should have access to a good music education, that every child should learn to sing, and that every child should have a solid cultural education. If we translate this to Science as a metaphor to explain why this is category-oddness, it would be like saying: To have a sound education in human biology (above all); to have a chance to conduct experiments in human biology; and to have a solid scientific education.
It might have been more sensible to review the whole domain first (‘a cultural education’) then to ensure the health of each subject which helps delivery of cultural learning, including music. Instead, the Government focused first on one particular artform and have assumed that lessons can be applied to all other domains of culture, as number 36 of recommendations for the Music Review is: “As suggested in the recent White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’, it is recommended that the lessons from this Review be applied to other areas of Cultural Education including Dance, Drama, Film, the Visual Arts, Museums, the Built Environment and Heritage.” (Notice, by the by, that literature, libraries and design are missing from this list.)
It would be interesting if they actually did extrapolate the lessons from the Music Review, although I doubt it would extend to pledging to spend £82.5 m spending on each area.
Is it possible to apply these lessons in similar ways to two distinctly different categories of culture: a) forms of art practice (including the histories of those practices) and b) institutions or environments in which we can experience culture and find their histories archived?
Is this about creative practice in schools or is it about the role of cultural organisations as service providers?
I welcome the fact of a review of cultural learning, and in particular I like the fact that it is embracing the MLA & heritage sectors alongside the Arts to consider cultural and creative learning in a broad way. This is essential in the light of the merger of the MLA into ACE, and may be a great opportunity to consider consolidation of infrastructure to serve providers and schools. I think it is possible to consider creative learning and cultural partnerships in synthesis, as long as care is taken not to conflate them. The danger is that the terms of the report will use music as its starting point, and open out to describe ‘the arts’, without addressing the cross-curricular role of the nation’s extraordinary cultural and heritage resources. So, despite welcoming this news, I’m concerned about its scope. It seems not to be a neutral consultancy exercise but an extrapolation of lessons from a synecdoche (music) to the whole (culture), in order to generate a neat statement about the need for cultural knowledge.
Moreover, what kind of power will this statement hold if the arts become non-statutory subjects in the new National Curriculum and if the capacity for delivering cultural learning beyond the classroom is diminished by cuts? I think that’s another blogpost.
This is a combined reflection on two events in which Ed Vaizey, Minister for Communications, Culture and the Creative Industries, was a central feature. The first was the Big Link Up from the Cultural Learning Alliance, mentioned in previous posts. The second was organised by the Collections Trust, yesterday at the ICA, a more intimate event in which Nick Poole posed his own and our questions about the future of collections-based cultural organisations.
The Cultural Learning Alliance event involved the whole cultural sector (with a bias towards performing arts), with a focus on the cultural offer to children and young people. The Collections Trust event was focused on organisations with cultural collections, with no particular focus on functions or audiences, though with a slight bias towards digital innovation. But the themes of discussion were very similar at each event because when it boils down to it, the Government has a very simple message for the cultural sector, and the cultural sector finds itself in a very complex situation. So at both events, the Minister repeated what we already knew: This country’s culture is wonderful, public engagement in culture is very important, but there is no money, we have to face that fact, the cultural sector more than others should be expected to be imaginative in facing this challenge, we have to consolidate and collaborate, use digital services to be efficient, work with small businesses to innovate, ask bigger businesses to fund us. I would say ‘and so on’, but really, that was it in terms of the simple message. Now, for a bit more detail about the questions and responses of the distinct audiences at each event.
I hope the Honorable Minister will forgive my familiarity in shortening his name to Ed in this account. It’s to save time.
I’ve interspersed my challenges throughout, and I hope my opinions are distinctly expressed.
The Cultural Learning Alliance Big Link up
I’m very optimistic about the Cultural Learning Alliance as I feel it’s the main opportunity to bring together the organisations that drive policy and fund cultural and creative learning, to ensure the kind of efficient delivery we need. However, I was disappointed by this event, and interestingly, Ed Vaizey said to the Collections Trust audience that he felt it had misfired. I think it misfired because the audience were so aware of what’s about to hit in terms of funding cuts, but the structure of the event didn’t enable positive problem-solving together. We were assured it would use digital media to be interactive, but the audience’s submissions in response to three questions were nowhere visible, the chat system disappeared after the event, and there was no mobile signal or wifi in the room. Because of the tension about funding cuts, Ed was led to accuse the audience of caring more about the agenda of our cultural organisations that want to be saved than the needs of children and young people. This didn’t go down well, as those in attendance care more about people being changed by culture than saving their own skins, and they passionately believe that culture needs space and sustenance.
The tone of the event was characterised by a defence of the arts and their intrinsic value, and Ed Vaizey’s (and Mick Water’s) efforts to get the panel to define and quantify the value of cultural learning were resisted. This would have been so useful given that the DCMS plan for cultural learning focuses on music (instrumental opportunities, singing, and a general cultural education), showing a lack of awareness of the breadth including libraries, the built & natural environment, museums, creative science, digital creativity and so on. In attempting to broaden the definition of cultural learning himself he he only listed some performing art practices and then focused entirely on the Henley Review and music education. In my view, music education was established as healthy by David Miliband’s Music Manifesto and the resulting initiatives. But now starting to affect its health are the cuts, affecting local music services and more. It doesn’t need a review, it needs some protected funding.
He wants to see more consolidation yet on the other hand he wants to see a ‘thousand flowers bloom’. For example, he said if he had asked Nick Hornby to set up his (wonderful-sounding) monster shop for creative writing, he would have run a mile. But to be clear-eyed about it, in my view, there are a great number of extraordinary literacy projects for disadvantaged young people, without wealthy celebrities to give them media coverage, which are losing public funding. How do we ensure that such vanity projects link up to form a full cultural offer meeting needs all over the UK?
He announced that he wants to establish a cross ministerial group about cultural learning, which is excellent to hear. However, I was slightly concerned that he emphasised this involving the Department of Work and Pensions, to ensure exploration of links between culture and employability.
The panellists took turns to give responses, some more pertinent to the political situation than others.
Mick Waters was excellent. He expressed concern about the Education White Paper (The Importance of Teaching) with its ‘high stakes testing, narrow accountabilty, regressive approach to curriculum’. He asked ‘what will DCMS do to ensure that learning is enriched in the face of this?’ Ed’s response was to defend Michael Gove as passionate about rigour in learning.
Shan MacLennan explained that at the SBC, their overall concern is well-being. The Government has decided to have a happiness index, but what do they think is the role of culture in that? He agreed, thankfully, that culture should be front and centre of the happiness index.
Andrew Nairne asked: what’s the most compelling argument you’ve heard to convince you of the value of Cultural Learning? Ed said that he was passionate about it, and that he prefers the intrinsic rather than the instrumental argument for cultural learning. This belief in culture is encouraging. However, I worry that in upholding only intrinsic value he might not listen to or extend work to develop better ways to measure the value of culture (e.g. this report published by DCMS this week.)
John Knell asked him: Why is there no statement about Cultural Learning in the business plan? Ed said that it’s not right to set up an organisation to do Cultural Learning, just give them a cheque and abandon them. (I think he must be referring to CCE.) He wants to see more localism, with Government just providing overview and support. It seems to me there is room for a great deal more conversation about how this happens in a context where he won’t ensure that cultural services are statutory in local authorities.
There were some voices that we must face up to the cuts and thrive in austerity. I agree partially with that but also agree with the voices that cuts are happening too fast, without a strategic overview of need, and stripping assets in the process.
Someone from the floor raised an important question about a unified digital infrastructure for cultural learning. I was pleased to hear this as I’ve worked on such a strategy for ACE. I was a bit disappointed that Andrew Nairne didn’t embrace the question more fully. He responded that the arts is not about the web, it’s about live experience, and John Knell reinforced this view. My counterpoint to this, which I know Andrew would agree with, is a) that Cultural Learning is not just the arts, but knowledge b) digital can enhance the exploration and production of the live experience and c) the questioner was not suggesting delivering art online but information services, training, using data to inform planning and so on. In my view, the use of digital networked information is undeveloped and could be extremely useful in facing the big challenge.
I’ll just finish with some more suggestions from panel and the floor about ways forward:
Every school should make a formal link with 3 organisations representing arts, science and history. (I hope the CLA’s Cultural Learning Ambassadors will take this broad approach.)
Every arts organisation should get behind the Arts Award.
We need some quality assurance brokers.
We need some proper funding for innovation.
The Collections Trust at the ICA
This was an odd situation. Nick Poole has extraordinary insight into how the cultural sector and its policy bodies might better organise and innovate, yet he was in the position of asking the Minister. Ed Vaizey didn’t have the answers, he could only outline the constraints and ask us to find imaginative ways through. It might have been interesting if the tables had been turned and Ed Vaizey had asked Nick (and us) for ideas. Maybe next time?
Q: Museums and the Arts Council
Nick asked how he might ensure the MLA sector don’t feel they are swallowed up by the Arts Council. Will it become a Culture Council to reflect their interests? Ed felt the move to ACE was positive because it has an overview and a strong regional presence. He didn’t understand the question about a Culture Council, as he felt that MLAs are a strong fit with the arts, and didn’t see why it should have to change wholly. Confusingly, he explained how he hadn’t wanted to dilute the identity of ACE by moving the Film Council to ACE, which is to be merged with the BFI to create a body more strongly focused on the creative industries. He implied that ACE would therefore be less about creative industries and more about public engagement in culture. (At the same time, he wants the whole cultural sector to be more entrepreneurial.)
I’m actually quite positive about MLA being absorbed into ACE, because there is so much wasteful duplication. However, I do think bringing libraries, archives and science and history museums into the mix means that the agendas and naming of ACE will need to change. ACE’s 10 year strategy will need to be re-released to reflect them, I believe. Jane Finnis later pointed out the irony that ACE had a clear strategy yet its arts organisations tended to be poor at strategy, whereas MLA (and museum sector overall, because fractured) has a poor strategy, yet the museums themselves tend to be excellent at strategy.
Q: Nick asked about his position of support for investing in digital culture to ensure a democratisation of access. Ed says he’s passionate about this and sees massive opportunities for participation. (It would have been wonderful to have been able to do a 5 minute video of all the future potential of Open Culture at that point, as I wasn’t sure he was fully aware of these massive opportunities from the examples he gave of what inspired him.)
Q: Nick asked how he felt about cuts to local authorities threatening cultural services first and foremost. ‘Are you happy to see die what’s an important part of our industry?’ This was the most disappointing answer (on the day that the Localism Bill was going through): Ed said that central Government should let LAs decide what they want. He respects the right of local councils to make decisions themselves because he sympathises with them having to make such difficult decisions. He can’t make culture a statutory service. He said ‘we can advise’ but then on the evidence I wonder whether his advice would be useful. He advised that Local Authorities should talk to HLF about whether they can fund their cultural services before they are cut. (Unless HLF changes its processes entirely, and makes them less fair, this would be impossible.)
He recommended that we consider forming consortia to digitise collections and create shared websites. Of course, this is what we have been doing, or trying to do. But there is much more to it than that. Also, the slow progress we’ve been making towards a really strong national strategy of digital culture is now in danger of being derailed.
Q: Nick asked him if he would you consider a national museums strategy? His reply worried me just as Nick’s question worried him: “I’m a bit worried if you think we don’t have one. We have clear positions on most of the major issues. We don’t believe local authorities should have cultural services as statutory. We want to protect free admission. We want ACE to take on MLA. Isn’t that enough of a strategy?” He seemed to be denying any knowledge of the history at DCMS. For years, DCMS had been working towards, or intending to produce, a national museums strategy, to deal with a range of intractable issues, to clarify muddy relationships between nationals and regionals, to establish clear terms by which national museums are custodians for local authorities to help protect the nation’s valued collections, to modernise terms of funding agreements and so on. We absolutely still need this. Nick outlined some problems that occur with the lack of such a strategy but Ed asserted that ‘things are OK as they are and we’ve made our decision’. Basically, national and local museums will rely on the goodwill of ACE to ensure that they are drawn into strategic partnerships and not neglected, and he has faith in that goodwill.
There were five questions from the floor, but I’ll just pick up on two:
Jane Finnis of Culture24 asked: How can the DCMS work more substantially with DfE to co-ordinate and deliver cultural learning in efficient digital ways, for example, now that BECTA (and its planned digital content ecosytem) has been axed?
He said he was going to talk to Michael Gove now, and would mention it. I hope he did!
Jack Gilbert asked: Given the vitality of engaging with local heritage for delivering social outcomes, could there be guidance from CLG to ensure that as we shift to ‘Big Society’, heritage has a place in localised and outsourced services?
Ed cited as helpful the Heritage Champions policy at English Heritage where one councillor in every Local Authority is supposed to be a heritage champion. He didn’t mention that English Heritage has had to axe its Outreach department (and probably other public engagement initiatives given their 30% cut.)
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 post is published a day late hence it starts ‘today’ rather than ‘yesterday’)
Today the media will be reporting announcements from the Minister for Culture, Olympics, Media & Sport, Jeremy Hunt, on the new Con-Dem Government’s priorities and funding decisions for DCMS. Their reports will be headlined as ‘arts funding’, the arts sector will be asked to comment and the uninvited responses from the arts sector will circulate. ‘The arts’ is often used as a synecdoche for heritage, tourism, museums, archives, libraries, creative industries & arts (give or take sport). It seems that ‘the arts’ is used in preference because ‘culture’ is seen as too vague a term. True, ‘culture’ is a floating category. Its meanings can be so relative they can become opposed: It means ‘sort of heritage and broader’ to the arts sector and then ‘sort of arts and creativity’ to the heritage sector. To anyone outside those two poles it means ‘sort of everything that humans do and what ties a people together’. Maybe it would help if we could agree new terms for our sectors and domains of activity, that help us be both more inclusive and also more precise. Maybe these terms could also be set within a framework that helps us rethink and advocate the value of culture?
Bill Ivey has noted the problem that ‘the arts’ is too narrow and ‘culture’ is too broad. The effect of this seems to him (especially in the US) to put arts or culture projects at the bottom of the funding pile. He has come up with the model of ‘the Expressive life’ as a more inclusive and singular definition of arts and culture which helps with their advocacy. In the UK, this has been published in a DEMOS pamphlet and in the latest RSA magazine. I appreciate what he is aiming to do but not sure that his model hits the mark, for our cultural institutions and attitudes. Instead I propose something which still needs to be properly named, which I call for now ‘a creative and critical life’. I will have to write in more detail about it, but in short it goes beyond the notion of an ‘expressive life’, because it places more emphasis on knowledge (e.g. the assets in our collections or, more broadly, the importance of enquiry). My proposal includes lifting the assumption that ‘heritage’ means things that are conservative and old-fashioned, to a more positive meaning: ‘caring for, using and reinventing what we have’. It also recognises our integration with nature (or rather it includes the notion of ‘biosphere capital’). Ivey has created the Expressive Life model to advocate the arts/culture to compete against funding for the environment or health, whereas I think the future for culture is to integrate it into work towards biosphere and human wellbeing.
I have heard frequently that Conservatives describe culture as ‘a nice to have’, not essential. If we can demonstrate and enact culture as a vital force for environmental (and therefore human) wellbeing, that’s a bit more than a ‘nice to have’. The argument will then revolve around why Government should give it public subsidy, given that there is a market demand for culture. My answer would be that the market can’t enable the kind of shift that is needed to make culture such a powerful force. (Woops, I’ve slipped into using ‘culture’. I mean ‘a creative and critical life’ or something like that. Suggestions welcome.)
I’m at the National Symposium of Photography in the new Quad in Derby. (Quad is a centre for contemporary art and film, opened in 2008). I’m here to speak about climate change and the role of photographers. I’ll blog about that and share my presentation on my other blog, Climate Action in Culture and Heritage. This post is about two speakers I found interesting.
Charlotte Cotton is new creative director for the National Media Museum, leading on its new photography satellite at the Science Museum in London. She spent 12 years at the V&A where she was able to develop a curatorial narrative, within a fairly encyclopaedic museum. Then she went to Los Angeles to be the head of photography at LACMA, where she aimed to reinvigorate and broaden the programme. At LACMA she curated a project called Words Without Pictures which invited people in many different ways over one year to share views about photography, now in a book just published. She organised a great project called Field Guide allowing Machine Project to organise 10 hours of all kinds of marvellous activities. Here’s a free book to download from the event. She organised another project with a folk singer doing religious protest songs in front of religious artworks, and another project with the Fallen Fruit collective, who do things like gather fallen fruit and have communal jam-making sessions.
She saw this experience as really opening up her practice and not having to be so defensive about programming. She feels that photography is an incredibly pluralistic form, increasingly so in the digital age, and that big institutions couldn’t keep up with the mode of curating it requires. That’s why she left for LACMA to try these ‘happy’ projects. But now, she’s been attracted back to the National Media Museum because of the potential, that she doesn’t have to use guerilla tactics to try this exciting practice. She’s very perspicacious about museology and critical practice in curating, and listening to her I feel really excited about what she might achieve with the new London photography galleries. I applaud her view which is that rather than making learning complementary to display programming, the new approach is to foreground it. It’s really heartening to hear a curator say that.
The other talk that interested me was Francis Hodgson, the photography critic at the Financial Times (with whom I’m doing my session on climate change). His talk was provocative and a few people didn’t agree with him on a number of issues, especially on his view that photographers must be culturally literate about the artform. I was interested in his comments about the lack of co-ordination and policy overview by DCMS (and MLA, ACE etc) about collaborative acquisitions, digital strategy and programming. His focus here is on photography, seeing it as suffering through neglect. Of course, we know that the same lack of co-ordination happens across many other collection types, but it may be true that photography is a particular victim. From the audience in Charlotte Cotton’s talk, Francis asked her about the competition between the V&A as a national centre for photography collections with the new NMM photography galleries just over the road in Kensington. She doesn’t see it as a conflict at all but as a great opportunity. She feels it could help make national collections really national, and sees digitisation of the collections as playing a big role in aiding collaboration around a research-based community of enquiry. I think that’s the most positive way of tackling this problem.
However, in his opening keynote, Francis did speak convincingly and captivatingly about the importance of photography yet its dire state in the UK. This is a summary of pretty much everything he said, missing out a few extrapolations and lacking the articulacy of his expression:
He once said that photography was a practice that tried out new things and represented new things, before other cultural forms. That you could run up against new stuff, make images of novel things, without seeking to understand them. Photography doesn’t have so many priests and keepers as fine art, for example. It changed the way that imagery could have such currency in our wider world (not just in galleries or privileged spaces), and now other kinds of culture are following in its wake. Photographs are like soundbites, as they stay in the memory, and can be reused and circulated.
It is the originator of a way of thinking that other artforms have followed. However, there is a low level of intellectual dialogue between photographers and audiences, compared to more literary forms. He is shocked that professional photographers are illiterate in history of their own artform. It’s now questionable what remains in the very centre of photography. If we don’t know we share same definition of it then who is there to stand up for it? It’s hard to say what is intellectually and properly photographic. We used to define it by its machinery, by being made with a camera (which, by the way, belittled it). An example of what happens with this lack of clarity around what it is: That £20 million has been given to the British Library for digital archiving of digital visual culture, and not by the National Media Museum, who anyway have changed their name to leave out ‘photography’.
A photographer must ask: Is my work understandable for what it is by an audience that isn’t primed? If it isn’t for communication it isn’t photography. There are tiresome numbers of photographers who have nothing to say.
You must have a position about the imparting or receiving of ideas and information. Photography is wonderful but it is also a perfectly ordinary activity. Photographers think the analysis will take care of itself. If they do analyse they produce meaningless theoretical waffle. But images and their analysis must mean something to people. It is an ordinary activity but that doesn’t mean it has to be banal or of little value.
The state of the nation for the profession is dire. Work is declining. The UK reputation is on a steep downward curve. Systemically we don’t support photography anymore. Museums don’t do what they should do to support it despite new initiatives from Tate, NMM, the V&A and the British Library. Teaching programmes are very poor too. It’s a scandal that the British Library curator of photography, John Faulkner, has always had to get funding for his role and only for the first time now is he on the payroll. It is one of the major holding libraries of photography in the world (if you count the images in all its content, such as newspapers and magazines) but it has only one curator.
He now believes the Photographers Gallery should be closed. We need to put more resources into more regarded institutions that include photographs within their collections. The Imperial War Museum has a duty to accept all war photos, for example taken by soldiers, so it has more war photos then any other institution, but is shabbily underfunded in caring for them. The Porthcurno Museum of Telegraphy has photography collections but they are left to rot.
He told a story about 8 public museums competing to buy the same photographic items at Sothebys. Because of their competition the price went so high they left the country. Why not form a purchase partnership?
Photography education is a joke in this country. It’s popular, so is a way for universities to get punters in. It’s an easy degree to do and to suggest that standards are higher than they are. Shared cultural standards between education instutions is non existent. You don’t come out being culturally literate in photography. There is only one MA in UK where you can study the culture of photography.
Tate is now turning serious attention to photography. He is pleased about that but has doubts about how serious it is, or rather how authentic the commitment to photography is. Where has the policy come from to turn the tanker round, surely not a directive from DCMS, MLA or ACE. There is a pathetic failure of policy, leaving all institutions to do their own thing. Birmingham City Libraries are doing good things but this institutional framework will only work properly if it reflects what we demand.
He isn’t pessimistic about the change to digital. It’s a bit late to worry now. Old fashioned photographic skills will come back again, just not a mass medium. Photography has remained a producer-led industry compared to publishing or music. A cultural position around photography should primarily make a clear definition between a picture of something and a picture about something. This should be the marker around which we define quality. We have had a 50 year old emphasis on techne, and judged quality by technical adequacy.
I’ve been commenting on a few articles in the past week so thought I’d blog to share what’s been exercising me. The first was a piece by Jonathon Jones, art critic at The Guardian. He asked whether art critics should only critique the exhibitions they see or should expand their view to critique programming policies. Some curators had felt that he shouldn’t challenge their decisions about what and how they programme. I commented that he is right, that more public debate, leading to greater understanding, on how our cultural institutions deliver best value is extremely helpful to our sector. It seems a no-brainer to me but I may be wrong. Maybe people aren’t interested enough? Maybe it could lead to too much interference?
The other story was about Glaciergate. Robin McKie exposed the process by which the IPCC gathers and reviews climate science, suggesting that their systems have not embraced the open innovation, agility and transparency that is enabled by ‘we think’ technology. Errors can be challenged and new findings absorbed at a much faster pace. I didn’t comment on that aspect of his article though I do agree entirely. In my naivety I assumed that global research as important as the IPCC’s would have been entirely agile and open. Shifting it to be so should be a priority. Glaciergate has followed the. UEA email scandal in providing lighter fuel to the vandal fires of the climate deniers. The hacked emails referred to a blurring in a slight dip in one of several indicators that show a hockey stick-shaped (i.e. extremely steep) rise in temperatures. The glacier error seems to have been a mistake in transferring a date of 2350 to 2035 (the date when Himalayan glaciers may be entirely gone). My comment was that the Glaciergate coverage had ellided the real scandal of the IPCC 2007, that it didn’t account for methane emissions from melting tundra or, more startlingly, from polar melting, because of uncertainty about precise figures.
The third comment was on Mia Ridge’s blog Open Objects. Mia blogged in response to a laughable article by Simon Jenkins which set up heritage against technology, and was generally pretty negative about attempts to make collections more accessible through media. I commented that he is or has been a key player in heritage policy not just a journalist, implying that his view that technology threatens heritage is prevalent amongst the advisory class in culture and heritage. There is some important work to be done in advocating and demonstrating the validity of a new agile approach to technology applied to heritage.
There were lots of other interesting posts too, that I didn’t get round to commenting on, for example, Nick Poole predicting the post-digital age to come very soon, Mia again on why museums have preferred to put collections in Flickr Commons than Wikimedia, and Tony Butler writing an important post about museums in a no-growth economy.
I’m going to be writing a response to Tony’s post next, which will also be an article in the next Museum-ID publication.
I’ve been thinking about the relative validity of creativity and culture in education, what they mean together and how they interact. In many ways, perhaps as a reaction to the overemphasis on bodies of knowledge in the National Curriculum, culture has come to be seen to represent the status quo (continuity, knowledge, authority, heritage, national identity) whereas creativity represents something far cooler and acceptable (innovation, joy, productivity, challenge, individuality, style). They seem to operate in the following pairs of concepts, with the number 1′s more about creativity or activity and the number 2′s more about culture or education:
1) Cultural Studies (‘them’, other cultures, diversity)
2) Cultural Heritage (‘us’, our history and values)
1) Skills (virtuosity, doing, showing)
2) Entertainment (consuming, seeing, interpreting)
1) Creativity (imagining, inventing, making new culture)
2) Critique (questioning, researching, analysing)
1) Aesthetics (form, design, quality)
2) Values (meaning, ethics)
I have a hunch, supported by observation of a lot of creative learning initiatives, that creativity is meaningless without culture and vice versa. Projects that focus on creativity often suffer by not exploring specific themes (except ‘what is creativity?’), not developing critical enquiry with cultural artefacts and not doing research.
I’m not at all opposed to creativity. I just feel that without application to knowledge, history or values there is no effect and no dialogue. Creative activity remains superficial, a kind of marketing of itself as a concept.
Anyone who has worked with me will be shocked. I’ve said ad nauseam that museums are all about learning more than any other function. So what am I saying? I’ve been thinking hard about learning in the process of setting up a new company Flow Associates. What if we said that schools and other learning centres are not about learning but about making, if their purpose is not primarily to impart & test facts & skills but to make makers? But how can making be valid in the information age when craft is less important than abilities to access information across many modes? I mean that we need makers of:
Self: Reflecting, growing, relating
Things: Texts, artworks, products
Meanings: Seeing patterns, links, purposes
Solutions: New ideas and applications
Enterprises: Creating projects and businesses
Changes: Sharing ideas, applying solutions
The world: Expanding realms of action
At the weekend I might say to my daughter, what shall we make today? We’ll make cakes, pictures, dancing shows or plaits in her hair. I might also say, what shall we play? We might invent a new skipping game or a display of cuddly toys. I don’t think I ever say to her, what shall we learn today or what skills shall we practice today? That isn’t natural in a conversation between adult and child. As a fairly academic learner myself, I still struggled to be motivated by formal learning which is driven ultimately by prospects of certificates or good marks or by the threat of failure. Some rare people may be disciplined and able to practice skills for the sake of proving that they’re getting better at them or to be able to read a book when ordered. But what are they disciplined by? I would guess they are either disciplined by fear or they have an extraordinary ability to see a longer-term application of their efforts now, or an uncomfortable swing between the two depending on the particular activity. How many times have children heard teachers say ‘You come here to learn’? What if we changed the record to ‘You come here to change the world’?
I’ve been meaning for a while to go through this whole essay and challenge the author but I wonder if it’s worth it, as he is so much in the minority. Even the more traditional curators who believe like he does that the prime purpose of museums is to collect, study, preserve and display heritage artefacts, are more open than he is to different (even relativist) interpretations and many are beginning to recognise the benefits of working closely with education staff, widening access and trying new interpretation techniques and technologies. It’s a too simple dualism to see a battle in museums between those who believe the purpose is to collect and those who believe the purpose is to educate and entertain everyone. Those who care about museum’s educational role are often also passionate about the collections and the role of conservation. They want to expand the definition of purpose from ‘collect, preserve, study, display’ to ‘collect, preserve, study, display, interpret and invite new interpretations’. It is an enrichment of the role of museums. Post-modernism is not just a trendy French theory, and it’s not the only theory that helps us rethink museums. Post-colonialism provides us with tools to examine how cultures are formed and reformed through exchange and how artefacts play a significant role in this. Yes, some museum displays can be a bit brash, a bit too noisy, a bit daft and dumb. But I know that, compared to TV, most museums and exhibitions make me think more deeply about big issues, provide more chances for people to provide their own views, stimulate me to learn more. Museums in the UK are a great success story and don’t deserve such a carping review. Ignore this essay and look out instead for the Guardian’s Kids in Museums campaign, the nominees of the Gulbenkian award or Museums & Galleries Month now (May).