I popped into the Natural History Museum to catch the exhibition about their Darwin’s Canopy commission. With Darwin 2009 coming up, the Museum wants to replace the painted ceiling in its vast entrance hall with a contemporary work inspired by Darwin. They have commissioned proposals from a number of artists, including Mark Wallinger, Christine Borland, Richard Wentworth, Rachel Whiteread and so on. The usual YBA suspects, though thankfully not Tracey Emin. The exhibition is big and considerate for the visitor, with well-designed sections about Darwin, videos about the architecture of the museum and the commissioning process, a reading section, volunteer interpreters and ‘trees’ for you to pin your thoughts on.
Some of the canopy proposals are interesting and well produced. I liked United Visual Artists evolving computer drawings made into 3D forms that would cover the ceiling like gorgeously erupting foliate growths. I thought Rachel Whiteread’s animal footprints were uncharacteristically sweet, as if some animals had been padding around on the ceiling. I was entirely underwhelmed, though I usually like his work, by Mark Wallinger’s scroll of illegibly dense and seemingly random words. (I think I would have been more engaged if I hadn’t been there with a dyslexic who was immediately repulsed.)
The winning proposal was by Tania Kovats, for a giant cross-section of a single tree stretched across the grid formation of the canopy. I love trees (almost more than anything else in nature). I love the symbolism of the tree of knowledge. However, I was fairly unimpressed by the way this proposal was presented and found it hard to visualise how it would work in the space and how it would be materialised. Before leaving I took a good look at the current canopy paintings. They mostly show trees and bushes, and William Morris-like tesselated patterns of flowers. The gilding, muted colours and the Victorian styling are beautifully appropriate to the Gothic architecture. It may be less striking than a single tree, but it provides a much better evocation of the context in which Darwin was working: The 19th century institutionalisation and ‘boxing up’ of knowledge, the encroaching secularism and backlash against it, the use of sacred architectural forms to edify and formalise new scientific knowledge. Partly because of this foyer the Museum is called a ‘cathedral of nature’.
The only publicity I’ve seen for this exhibition and commission in general was this critical piece ‘Why don’t art and science mix?’ by Jonathon Jones in his Guardian blog. He writes that the artists have trivialised the science, simply used ideas as springboards for their own indulgences, and questions whether this art does anything to make us think about evolutionary science. It would be an interesting challenge to carry on this commissioning process by opening it up to public participation, but using virtual space to show the ideas. How can we improve on the artists’ proposals and extend scientific and philosophical understanding too?
I’m reading Jay Griffiths’ Wild: An Elemental Journey. At last. What took me so long? It is proof that we still need literature in our multimedia culture. Maybe Griffiths would be just as poetic and say just as much as in this book if she had been commissioned to make a TV programme like Bruce Parry’s Tribe. But I doubt it because she would have been subject to the commissioners, the editors, the whole TV business that doesn’t truly let authorship flourish. I loved Tribe but it had only a fraction of the politics, the passion, the contextual richness and the poetry of Wild.
Griffiths says ‘there is something in me that detests a wall. Or a fence, reservation or golf course. That detests the tepid world of net curtains and the dulled televisual torpor of mediated living, screened experience in two senses, both life lived via screens and life itself screened out.’
Screens show us the world. We are grabbing more images of the world, and creating more stories and conceptual systems with them, than ever before. I would hope that screens, i.e. wired multi-platform multi-media, can offer us a way to more fully and sensitively understand the world as it really is. The images and the voices of travellers and residents in the world provide the evidence. I believe in the potential of digital culture to raise awareness. However, we can all identify with that torpor of mediated living, the sense that the media is controlling the dull formulae for our narratives and restricting our agency to connect in the raw and to make real changes in the world.
There is another irony here. ‘Wild’ is literature. Griffiths is extraordinarily literate, thank goodness. She describes how her lust to travel was fed by the books that she couldn’t reach on the high shelves as a child. But she also says ‘Literacy is an epistemology of the built world, physically, in libraries in towns, but metaphorically too, the constructed artifice of our written culture, book-bound, which encourages our philosophies and values to move ever farther away from nature.’ She is not against books or literacy. She means that we ignore and destroy the intelligence in nature, its wild language.
So, this is our challenge. How can literacy turn towards nature? How can our literature, in becoming more multimodal, immaterial and dialogic because of new technologies, give us more connection to the raw and the wild, in ways that will not further harm or exploit it, but the opposite?
I went to the if:book group last night, to discuss the future of books and reading in the digital age. Chris Meade, ex director of the Booktrust and the Poetry Society, is now director of if:book London, the UK wing of the Institute for the Future of the Book, founded by Bob Stein in New York.
He opened by wondering if 'this is it?' Has the era of digital books finally arrived? He described how enraged some people are at the prospect, yet he reminds them that they read on a screen all day (don't we all?). Is the e-reader (e.g. the Kindle) really that exciting, more than a paper book? We've become used to mixed media and interactivity on our computers & mobiles, which are allowing new forms of creative reading and writing, so is this going to cut it with our changing expectations?
First the publishers (Random House and Pan Macmillan) talked about the market potential of e-readers. From a commercial perspective, they really need to know if people will pay proper money for e-books. There have been strong sales of e-readers, more than i-pods in their first year, but the potential market is not as great as for music MP3's. As the e-reader is currently fairly limited in interactivity and features, there is great potential to evolve the devices as sales improve, and also to use the web (e.g. where e-books are downloaded) to increase interactivity and creativity, for example with games, blogs or discussions around extracts. I look forward to seeing a wired e-reader, with each page or paragraph having its own URL, mashed-up with Twitter to enable 'social marginalia'. Maybe?
Kate Pullinger spoke from a writer's perspective. She feels disappointed by the e-readers, even though she is annoyed by the media exaggerating that 'this is the end of books'. She embraces the digital, but feels that increasingly commercial book publishing is narrowing the range of literature at the same time that we are seeing a great expansion of possibilities for literature offered by new media. She asked: Where is the exciting multimedia project that is exploring new content for e-readers? What a great challenge!
Naomi Alderman, novelist and ARG designer, enthused about her Phillip's Iliad, an e-reader that you can write marginalia and notes pages on, and also connects to the internet. She wants to see writers be more proactive and play with content for digital media, and also extend commercial practice by being 'The Arctic Monkeys of literature'. Her challenge is also to publishers to take a more dynamic approach.
Before we all got too thirsty for a drink, a few other things were discussed:
Chris Meade mentioned a very exciting project called Songs of Imagination and Digitisation. It asks 'If William Blake was alive today what would he use?'
He also mentioned a report he has delivered for ACE, called Read:Write about digital reading and writing.
I inserted the dimension of cultural collections, in that publishers and writers were not the only people responsible for producing and innovating with digital literature. There is a 3,000 year old heritage of digital texts that are out of copyright, being digitised en masse by Google and until recently by Microsoft. We have only scratched the surface of the creative possibilities of presenting and interpreting those texts. For example, see my idea above for 'digital marginalia', and I was also fascinated to meet Tim Regan from Microsoft who is exploring ways of visualising the structures of books, i.e. the plot, themes and characters.
Update: A great piece in the Independent on this subject: Can intelligent literature survive in the digital age?
Back in April I wrote a post about the Ofcom report which criticised museums’ web offerings. Its commissioner, Tom Loosemore, later spoke at the UK Museums and the Web conference saying that museums should follow the lead of Tate and see themselves much more as media organisations.
(Whenever I write about museums, this is shorthand for museums, galleries, archives and heritage libraries.)
Ross Dawson, an Australian commentator, said in a piece on the future of museums that “it struck me that museums are basically media organizations, providing and editing (i.e. curating) content”. Someone from a media background may not be very affected by being struck this way, but the ‘striking’ does affect museums and archives because they have so resolutely defined themselves as organisations for collecting, caring about and understanding objects. Public programming revolves around and emerges from the collections and research about them, and themes are often chosen in order to raise profile and further funds for that work. So, it’s a semi-shift and therefore there is tension. (Incidentally, I’ve noted a change in the use of the term ‘curating’ along with this semi-shift: From meaning ‘caring for collections’ to ‘programming interpretation’. Notice Dawson’s use of the term.) Even if we need to rethink the entire politics of collecting in such a way that we are almost ‘uncollecting’ (unlocking our stores, randomising or changing taxonomies, returning collections to original ownership etc) we still have duties of care for these objects and our traditional tasks and practices remain the most practical.
In response to Dawson, Angelina Russo says the notion of museum as media organisation has been with us a long time but that she despairs of museums considering the role of technology as central to museum communication. I agree with her that: “The museum sector would do well to move away from a sense of its own importance to demonstrating the true value it can bring to lives. As cultural networks proliferate, the museum is ideally placed to lead discussion and debate, to create participatory media and develop the role of the active cultural participant.”
Seb Chan (who I am kicking myself not to be meeting today as he is leading a seminar in London) also deals with the museum as media organisation here. He implies that this does not mean museums learning the ways of the old media, rather that because of blurring definitions between types of media and types of cultural collection, both media and cultural collections organisations need to develop new skills. In particular, he points to skills in facilitating interpretation not just within your own channels or sites but out there where people are congregating.
Looked at one way, it is easy to agree with all this. Yes, we should be engaging and communicating as widely and innovatively as possible. But there is something too that rankles about being told to become a media organisation (apart from the ‘being told’ bit).
Partly, it’s about resources. Mal Booth’s long comment in response to Seb on Museum 3.0 makes this pretty clear. He says “we can never really hope to compete with the huge media empires, it simply isn’t feasible. We are not Newscorp, Disneyland, Nickelodeon or Fairfax. They might be useful models for us to mimic on a much smaller scale, but we don’t have a stack of journalists sitting around waiting to engage in online conversations. Nor do we have the media expertise and savvy of the BBC or the ABC. In reality, most museums are pretty stretched just developing and caring for their collections, researching and describing them adequately, providing access to them and curating exhibitions that might interest the public.”
Partly, it’s about our perceptions of what ‘media’ means. Museum discourses revolve around the twin poles of ‘collections’ and ‘education’. The two have become more connected in many organisations but even they remain twins. Museum education has expanded its range to include outreach, audience development, participation, exhibition interpretation, access and creative projects, more often defined as ‘learning’. The distinction of museum learning is that it involves conversations and engagement between real people in real places, not lecturing or pushing out knowledge. Our experience of the media, traditionally, is that it involves lecturing or pushing out knowledge. Of course, this is changing with the internet but on the whole, ‘media’ still connotes to us a certain distance between content provider and audience. Perhaps museum learning professionals have a great deal to teach ‘the media’ about dialogic engagement, as we become the media or become more like the media.
Partly, it’s about the cultures in which we operate. We could form vast consortia of cultural collections in order to pool resources and collaborate to create media channels. But, cultural organisations have been primarily intent on establishing their unique brands, engaging with their specific localities and specialist communities and developing their buildings to improve the visit experience. Modernisation has meant learning how to be competitive.
However, there are signs that this is changing in the UK. The National Collections Online Feasibility Study that we have just undertaken for national museums and Culture 24, and the forthcoming digital strategy for the MLA sector, are both asking: What will happen if we collaborate? How can we reach more audiences more efficiently by sharing and repurposing our infrastructure? How can under-resourced organisations become curators of media, and increase resources for their collections work too, by co-creating and sharing those media channels? The digital strategy is aiming to support these developments through guidance and working alongside collaborative initiatives.
The Guardian (and perhaps other press?) has been jumping up and down about the ‘banning’ of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Education for Leisure’ from the GCSE English syllabus. It has run at least 6 articles on the topic. Why such a fuss? It is symptomatic of a culture of prohibition, which does seem to be coming upon us, perhaps creeping across from the US where in some states so many books are being banned from schools that it wouldn’t be a surprise if they decided to shut those darned dangerous libraries altogether. For evidence of this mindset look at the list of books, including Shakespeare, that Sarah Palin wanted to ban and forced a librarian to resign over it.
It also raises important questions about the role of art in education. Should art be made or used with the purpose of enabling exploration of sensitive issues? Is it true that if the poem is taught there would be less knife crime? Does this reduce, or on the other hand elevate, the role of literature?
The Duffy story developed such a profile it ended up with a front page article with a poem by Duffy in response to the saga. The article just sneaked in the fact that AQA has said that schools were not being urged to pulp the anthology: “This is not about destroying books. They are allowed to continue teaching the poem, if they wish, but they are not going to be examined on it,” it said.
So, it’s not a ban but a removal from the official syllabus. It’s quite hard to know what this means in reality. On the one hand, given what we know about the pressures on teachers, it’s clear that pupils during the exam years are not going to explore texts in any depth which aren’t on the syllabus. On the other hand, the changes in the National Curriculum would seem to be overtly encouraging teachers to make their own choices about curriculum content, to mix non-canonical material with requisite material, and to enable students to follow their own enquiries too. Ofsted really do want teachers to be less wedded to delivering curriculum content and more engaged with finding the best methods to support students to follow their own enquiries.
I’m not sure how much freedom there will be in English GCSE (let’s assume not very much) but it does seem that there will be a very great change at A Level. This article about the changes in the National Curriculum and 14-19 assessment says “Teachers of English Literature A-level will be free to choose any texts they like for pupils, which could include those recommended by breakfast TV couple Richard and Judy, the exam board OCR said.”
This looks positive but it does raise two concerns: One is that many teachers must be worried about how their choices will relate to their exam results. Will they blamed if they made the wrong text choices and their students don’t do so well? Teachers already feel too much responsibility for their students’ results.
The other is that we can’t assume that these freedoms issued from the QCA and exam boards will necessarily mean a wider range of texts, topics and viewpoints being taught. I’m thinking specifically of the increase of faith schools and the freedoms accorded to the sponsors of new Academies to influence the ethos of their schools.
I went to Cardiff last week to visit the Ffotogallery to meet their Education team because Flow is helping them expand their service into a pan-Wales agency. I was dead impressed. Their work reaches out to so many different audiences with such innovative and thoughtful practice. They showed me some great projects they have delivered. They go way beyond the craft of photography to draw in and connect with other media and artforms, to help people look again and think more deeply about the world around them. For example, ffoto:story did pilot projects in 3 primary schools to develop a free online resource for teachers in digital storytelling, connecting sound and image. They are about to advertise an opportunity to work with them in an exciting role that is developing new media work with communities and learners, so look out for it.
I had a really interesting meeting today with an Ofsted inspector, Patricia Metham, who is conducting a study into creative learning in science. It involves going into 47 schools and talking to lots of experts, and the report will be published next November. Our discussion ranged around questions like:
Are the current modes of assessment stopping teachers from using creative approaches or is it just that they lack confidence and tools in using them?
What impact has Creative Partnerships had on creative learning in science, and what other initiatives are having an impact?
If the agenda of STEM and the National Science Learning Centres is basically to encourage young people to become scientists, how is that supported by creative approaches, or is that agenda at odds with one that seeks to develop creative and critical skills in general?
If students are allowed to follow their own paths of enquiry, how can teachers structure projects to ensure that curriculum content is still delivered?
Is it a false and unhelpful dichotomy to oppose a creative approach with a hard science approach? Are we conflating many kinds of practice under the heading of ‘creative’ which can include imagination, enquiry-based learning, cross-curricularity, working with artists, systematic thinking, using cultural stimuli, producing creative outcomes, which can include very rigorous work?
This article provides some context to this issue. I look forward to reading the report.