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.
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.
I’ve just got in from a seminar at the Japan Foundation about the challenge of displaying Japanese art in museums. The first speaker was Timothy Clarke, describing the process of revamping the newly-opened Japanese galleries at the British Museum. Interesting points were:
- the break up of the ethnography department released lots of ‘non-art’ artefacts to display, helping them shift it from a ‘fine arts of Japan’ display to a more historicised display
- that simultaneously they had made the display more aesthetic, giving more space to works of art, including contemporary art.
- yet, some of this contemporary art was less ‘art’ than had been seen in the BM’s collections previously, including more manga, film posters and ephemera
- some of the items were old storytelling boards as used by storytelling men in these pretend TV boxes they carry round, (see this link
- that they have tried to reconnect the cultures of Japan with the wider world (whilst retaining it as a Japanese gallery)
- that the more modern the period the more stories they needed to tell. The structure goes like this:
Ancient Japan – one story
Medieval Japan – one story
Edo Japan – two stories
Modern Japan – four stories
- the contextualisation includes a tea house in which the tea ceremony will be enacted regularly
- that curators worked closely with the Interpretation team, using devices such as ‘pebbles’ (raised plinths for simple & illustrated information inside the cases), based on substantial visitor research
- that the prints and paintings will be changed every 4 months for conservation reasons so they will be continually working on interpretations of the items, offering opportunities to rethink how Japanese art is presented.
The second speaker was Yoshi Miki, senior curator at the Kyushu National Museum. Miki showed a few slides of the most sleek black, beautifully lit galleries, empty of people, in this contemporary Porsche of a museum. Then I was really heartened when he suddenly switched mode, announcing, ‘but education is my background and where my heart is’. Then he showed the amazing education facilities. The main facility is called Asippa (not a yawnsome ‘education centre’) and it looks, deliberately, like a shop in the main entrance. It’s a big glass market, full of colour, pattern, texture in hundreds of handling objects and crafts from seven different countries. There are musical instruments, toys, costumes, puzzles, big prints reproduced on screens, artefacts displayed in domestic scenarios. There’s also a climbing frame that incorporates object display cases. You might say this all sounds familiar but this was done with such beautiful care and taste (mitate). Also, they employ a huge number of voluntary facilitators so there appears to be a calm-but-excited engagement between children and adults.
Another facility is the Visual Study Storage area. Again, this is beautifully arranged. The artefacts lie on pristine folded cloths in perspex cases. Children can study and handle the objects. They can write their own labels and then create their own displays, learning how to place things on different display stands, discussing their choices. This puts them in a particular frame of mind when they go into the ‘adult’ galleries. Their experience also includes an interactive tour through the conservation science department.
A key thought I’m left with is to do with cultural exchange and boundaries between cultures. Yoshi Miki said that they showed objects from China, Holland, Portugal, Korea and Japan, avoiding too many ‘walls’ between the countries, emphasising how the objects rub together in the past contexts of trade and the current context of the museum collection. The assumption at the British Museum is that we go there to learn all about a particular culture (nation, religion…), and great care has been taken to give a comprehensive picture of Japanese culture within one gallery, albeit a picture that integrates connection with the world. Masaaki Morishita (Handa Fellow, Sainsbury Institute) commented that the Japanese don’t mind if anybody interprets Japanese culture and mixes it with other cultures. I wondered if museum visitors expect to learn ‘all about Japan’ (or any other country or culture) when they visit a museum. Perhaps they go to roam a kind of global marketplace, or perhaps they go just to find things that sing to them, almost as if they’re visiting a very precious kind of shop.
This is a very patchy summary of a talk I gave at the British Museum on narrative in museum and gallery education. It misses out whole chunks, explanations and examples of projects. Not the whole story but you get the gist.
The museum as a story or as a random container of things?
The museum is a cabinet of curiosities, a container that encloses things from disparate environments. It’s always boxed or enclosed like a story, but never complete as a collection – it’s a neverending story or a collection of story ingredients.
The definition of an archive as a beginning or origin, that is always open to new additions.
How do I define my field/our field?
I used a diagram, because I think in systems (sectors, connections, overlaps…) to show how my field of work encompasses:
· Collections/subjects: museums, galleries, archives & libraries, participatory arts
· People: interpretation, education, interdisciplinary arts, user experience
What is narrative? What is it for?
Philip Pullman described how poetry is what gets lost in translation whereas myth is the story that survives any narrating or poetic translation.
At root of my talk was about whether story helps you conceptualise, what kind of story helps you conceptualise, and how much is story separate from more systematic learning.
I think that museums, especially art & culture museums, contain a deep tension between:
- a taxonomical presentation of knowledge through artefacts as parts of a whole story, a scientific distance from the past
- and the artefact seen as a symbolic or metaphoric wonder, as a whole containing many possibilities, and a nostalgic preservation of a past mythical way of knowing
Also education (in the West since mass education begun) has a deep tension between:
- creating rationalists, trained for systematic work, trained out of childhood
- nurturing whole people, not losing the qualities of the child
What are some ways of doing narrative in cultural interpretation?
- A grand narrative with a mix of iconic (art) and illustrative objects
- Communicating a complex idea with several stories. Abstract concepts aided by the particular virtues of stories that make ideas real or personalised. (e.g. science museums)
- Telling the stories that originate in cultures. The myths of past & other cultures both as ‘museum artefacts’ to be preserved, and as context for understanding the artefacts they relate to (e.g. audioguides & interactives in anthropology museums)
- A story making a loose framework for experience. The artefacts are central, the narrative is simply a linking or shaping device. Often there are several narrative threads
- Providing several stories to explain discrete objects e.g. captions in permanent displays
- Providing tools for visitors to add stories about artefacts e.g. Every Object Tells a Story
- Collecting people’s stories as artefacts e.g. oral history
- A grand narrative made from people’s stories & voices e.g. Imperial War Museum North
- Storytellers & theatre companies making & performing stories in loose relation to artefacts and museum spaces
An example of this, Unfolding Andersen by theatre rites at the British Library summer 2005
This was a very contemporary reading. Rather than telling Andersen’s life story or one of his stories, the team created a story about two visitors to the exhibition who began by exploring books and ended up making origami shapes, puppets & entire sets from them, which enabled the characters to ‘tell’ the stories of the Tin Soldier mixed with the Ugly Duckling. It was a perfect example of breaking apart the text to interpret it, making a creative reinterpretation at the same time.
What are some ways to do narrative in cultural education?
By education, I mean structured engagements with learning groups as opposed to presenting objects in spaces with information. I don’t mean to imply didacticism by the word education.
•‘Jumping off’: Not attempting an interpretation, but using artefacts (or only elements within them) as a springboard for ‘tangential’, personal or contemporary storymaking or storytelling
•‘Reading out’: Interpreting an artefact through a careful examination of what is communicated by it, and finding out about its context to uncover what isn’t communicated.
A desirable mix of the two:
• ‘Reading in’: Interpreting an artefact by bringing your personal stories and contemporary knowledge to bear on your exploration of its mysteries.
For a full account of the project http://www.bl.uk/learning/cult/inside/story.html
This raised debates for us about:
how much context the children needed in order to really understand the stories, what were the key concepts needed
how definable these stories were in terms of their originating context or how much they are universal
how important or not it was for the teachers to be familiar with the stories
· how much they learned about the historical, geographical and contemporary cultural context through the stories themselves or how much they needed to do extra investigating
how much of the long & multilayered stories they could embrace, yet how much they could actually gain from the fragments and iconic characters they did focus on
how much the ancient books we had, and the digitised fragments they saw, were actually able to convey the stories or how much they needed mediating,
how meaningful it was for the children to make new stories and new art works from the iconic characters and key ideas they were introduced to
What about digital storytelling?
We are starting to see an enormous impact of multimedia & the web in terms of visitors being more in control of making new narratives and inserting their own, both within and beyond museum spaces. The digital realm enables meetings between an individual perspective & the complexity of global heritage because of its systems for both taxonomy and spectacle. Three examples are:
http://www.whatwashere.com/ – a map-based tool to enable capturing of everything interesting that ever happened. It enables heritage organisations to post photos & sounds, as well as information, about the history of places. But mostly it’s for ordinary people, working through partnerships with libraries & learning settings.
http://www.movinghere.org.uk/ – new developments are to be launched in Spring, including education resources and more audio & video clips resulting from intensive projects with diverse community groups & museum & archive partners around the UK.
(Through my new company Flow Associates I’m helping with marketing & planning strategies for both these examples.)
Is it possible to conclude?
Richard Kearney in ‘On Stories’ says that a story humanises time by transforming it from an impersonal passing of fragmented moments into a pattern, a plot, a mythos.
We can apply this to our field by considering how cultural artefacts are the lasting moments, the objects that remain from past times, the remnants of particular narratives, that we are compelled to organise into patterns, plots or myths. We have huge opportunities to humanise and allow people to make sense of our real & virtual spaces.
My blogging style is like London buses, you wait for ages then four come along at once. I’ve added so few posts lately so was rather shamed to find my blog so blogged. To get motivated to write more on mine I’ve been looking at other people’s blogs.
The best place to look is http://www.museumblogs.org/ – it’s good to see some from museum staff like the Science Museum and the National Museums of Liverpool.
And some funny ones like this list of wierdly specific museums
I like the Museum of Giant Shoes and the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices.
And I was stimulated by this piece about the difference between museums and libraries, in terms of how visitors/users are trusted, in a context of increasing convergence between them. You can see for example from this summary of research by MLA North East http://www.mlanortheast.org.uk/nemlac that the term used for the public is ‘users’, which has never been applied to museums (who use ‘visitors’) and galleries (who tend to use ‘audiences’). There is such a great difference between public libraries and cultural exhibitions & programmes that it is hard to apply the same policies about engaging the public.
On Saturday, we visited the Hunterian museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. http://www.rcseng.ac.uk/museums
It was recently refurbished, beautifully, and is just one of those perfect museum experiences. It is small enough not to be exhausting, rich enough not to be exhausted in one visit. It stretches your thinking about the history of education, about looking and disgust, about the representation of difference and disease, and about museums as curiosity cabinets. It makes you marvel at the skill of surgeons (there’s an interactive where you try your skill at keyhole surgery – impossible!) It offers accessible interactivity (discovery drawers and so on) without spoiling the aesthetic integrity of the displays. There are some really quite shocking objects, for example a realistic model that shows many possible plastic surgery operations. For all its realism, it looks at first glance like a monster. You feel your mind reeling away then control yourself and pull your eyes back to the wounds and distortions to learn more. I was wondering whether many teachers would resist organising a visit there because they would worry about the children’s reactions. I’d be interested to know how school groups behave there. Our 6 year old daughter has no squeamishness whatsoever but was happy to sit and draw ghostly bats and the Irish giant’s skeleton (see picture). I wonder whether she is completely unsqueamish because she takes after her father (who does lots of anatomical drawing) or because she has become inured by visiting the Bodies exhibition and so many medical museums. It is a little of both perhaps…
Brief update: Flow Associates helped the Hunterian with fundraising for a fantastic project called Exhibiting Difference. This was recently successful so watch this blog for more news as it takes shape.
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/
How to choose one image to sum up a feeling about a place? The Dordogne is green yet rocky, authentic yet touristy. This image doesn’t say any of those things, except perhaps authenticity. This postbox in Limeuil was still being used, quietly rusting away in the square. Authenticity is a really slippery concept. I didn’t manage to visit Lascaux, or rather Lascaux 2, which is a totally faithful copy, created, I believe, by a fascinating artist and conservator I once met called Adam Lowe. (He’s also been working on a reconstruction of a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. See his amazing website here http://www.factum-arte.com/eng/artistas/lowe/default_en.asp ) The original caves are closed for conservation reasons. We didn’t go, in the end, because we kept saying ‘yes, but it isn’t the original Lascaux caves’. We were being lazy, it was hot, canoeing and swimming seemed more appealling. It is interesting how if you work in museums, when you’re a tourist you often do give cultural attractions a miss. Actually, I’m sorry I missed Lascaux 2. I would have been interested to explore how it felt to be visiting a copy, using the height of reproductive technology, of a place that is such an icon of human image-making.
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).
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.