As a film-maker and textile designer I passionately believe in the power of light and materials to shape our experience of space, to shape how we learn, and to shape how we connect with ourselves and with each other. On returning from my Churchill/British Council Travelling Fellowship I wanted to experiment with some of these ideas and to practice what I’m preaching in my book Made you Look, Made you Stare, by designing an installation to tell the story of my journey in 3D form.
Our FCBS London studio in Fitzrovia includes a wonderful ‘Front Room’ and ‘Cornerhouse Gallery’ where we host events and mount exhibitions, so I was lucky to have a slot here to create a small but provocatively-formed series of installations which invite visitors to participate in a sensory experiment during their busy day.
One of the key threads that runs through the book is the rocky terrain between permission and prohibition that museums have to navigate. So I was keen to bring this core idea to life in my own exhibition through making and commissioning a set of visual interventions that would play with these ideas. Museums and art galleries compete on a daily basis for audiences who have an ever-increasing choice of immersive entertainment, but the need to protect precious objects from too many curious fingers means that museums have to work harder than most to engage their audiences in contemporary and meaningful ways.
As I travelled across the world I was struck by this inherent tension that museum-makers have to deal with and, while crossing the street in New York City, I had the idea that the celebrated WALK/DON’T WALK sign could be transposed to express this tension of TOUCH/DON’T TOUCH.
I commissioned a neon-sign which hangs in the window of the exhibition space, using this very familiar idea of the New York street sign but provoking a curiosity by transposing it into something much less familiar. Once through the door, the other installations are equally ambiguous and rely on the individual to react according to their whim…
Inside, the sound of a typewriter clicks away and animated type flicks across a white wall, expressing provocations from the book. Illustrations by Stephanie Sandall, also featured in the book, are writ large on the columns and walls and smaller extracts provide thought-provoking content for a sequence of laser cut picture frames that play on the key themes of storytelling, memory and museum-making. What does John Steinbeck mean when he says “If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen.”?; “Is the future of museums in an out-of-town warehouse?,” and “ What is the relationship between story and the place in which that story unfolds”?
All these elements provide a context for the main event. Working with my architect colleagues Dave Harris, Ashley Clayton and Harry Hewlett, I experimented with making a labyrinth from red rope. After many late nights modelling red thread, and finally realising I would need several thousand kilometres of rope to achieve what I wanted, we settled on some deliciously sensual ‘doeskin’ fabric. The idea was to create a piece that would visually and sensually interrupt the digital, head-driven space most of us inhabit in our city lives. The soft and tender feel of the doeskin on your face brings you quite literally to your senses; the repetition of the hanging strips plays with your visual perception, as you move so does your perspective and your very way of seeing is transformed.
The ambiguity of the neon ‘Touch/Don’t Touch’ sign continues as you approach the labyrinth. The rows of suspended fabric ask ‘do you dare to touch, to make your own way through or do you feel obliged to follow the implied route?’ Choose to follow the narrow pathway which opens up between the fabric strips, or allow your curiosity to lead you through the hanging strips in whichever way you please. The softness of the fabric makes this transgression seem easy and yet many people still confine themselves to the existing pathway.
I’ve entitled the piece ‘Détente’, because it evokes the sense of relaxation and loosening of strict formalities: the vertically suspended strips tease and subvert the tradition of the red velvet rope, while its repetition emphasises the enduring need for barriers and boundaries. ‘Détente’ also evokes the notion of ‘untented’, because the labyrinth resembles a tent-like canopy that has been fragmented, or broken down. The ordered geometry is still in place, but the spaces in between the draping fabric allow us to follow our senses, to connect with a moment in time and to move without constraint.
This piece is a physical expression of a core idea from my fellowship research that I feel passionate about. Although conservation and scholarship in museums must remain central to their purpose, there is increasing urgency for museums to be relevant to the communities they serve. To do this they must create connections with people and the human senses are a very good place to start that connection. Inspired by what I learned on the Fellowship, I want to re-imagine the very language of exhibition making, moving away from labels and glass cases and video screens towards a more playful, haptic and story-based design.
Alongside my own explorations I also commissioned fellow FCB Partner (and Royal Academy-winning) model-maker Ken Grix, to create some chairs for visitors to sit and read. My brief to him was simple: ‘Explore the idea of ‘Touch Don’t Touch’ and I want it to be made of soft red rope’. True to form, Ken disappeared into a cloud of material tests and modelling and then taught himself to weave! First he made a small desk loom to test the model chair and then built a furniture-sized loom in the workshop on which he wove two beautiful pieces of red rope tapestry.
Ken’s rope chairs embrace this tension of Touch/ Don’t Touch by suspending the woven rope tapestries within a large steel frame. Designed to resemble a display case but without the glass, these structures dare you to break the taboo of that implied case and sit inside. The rope itself is soft and appealing to the touch, its woven design beautiful to look at and complex enough to make you curious as to how it was made. Et voila! Two highly original pieces of furniture that look fantastic and that invite you to over-ride that tension – is it ok to sit inside or is it a work of art not to be touched?
Although playful, these installations ask some serious questions. In the coming year I will be exploring these questions of permissions and prohibition, of story and connection and the metaphor of the red velvet rope in various collaborative projects across the UK. In the meantime, the public is welcome to visit the gallery at 20 Tottenham Street on Monday-Friday between 9.30-5.30 until early March 2017.
The proceeds from every book sale will go to the Foundling Museum, which celebrates the ways in which artists of all disciplines have helped improve children’s lives for over 275 years. If you'd like a copy please click here. The donation is £20 plus postage.
When I was a child we spent most of our school holidays trailing around innumerable historic houses, museums and art galleries throughout the UK. My mum used to do what she called ‘homework’ before we went so we had thorough briefings about what we were going to see. It was great fun for me and my seven siblings as we wandered around, making up stories about the people who used to live in the house or who featured in the paintings or used the tea services or stoneware we used to gaze at in the glass cases.
But at some point or other, no matter how thorough my mother’s homework, we would always come up against a red velvet rope, suspended quietly but unmistakably between two golden stands. We would of course stay obediently on the visitor side of the rope, but I always yearned to jump over it and install myself by the fire, or reach across and feel the thick oil paint in the frame in front of me.
While I understood the reason for the red rope it nonetheless frustrated me because it would somehow disconnect me from what I was seeing – it would puncture the balloon of my imaginary world. Now I’m grown up and working in museum and exhibition design I see up close the pressures on museums. They have to be all things to all people and also have to compete with a phenomenal range of entertainment and learning offers. So the idea of any barrier, however soft, can be problematic. When you think about it, most museums were founded principally to look after a collection, preserved in boxes in dark rooms. Today that function of caring for collections is only one of a dozen or more that museums have to fulfil in 21st century society.
So the red rope symbolises this tension deep at the heart of modern museum-making, which is essentially a tension between the need to protect objects for eternity and the desire to connect with human beings in the present.
With the aid of a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship I set off in search of new ideas for relaxing that red velvet rope, whether metaphorically or physically. My mission was to visit museums who are managing to make strong connections with audiences, while at the same time honouring their mission to safeguard important objects and collections for current researchers and future generations.
It was a tale of three cities: Berlin, New York and San Francisco. Each city embodies a strong national narrative, and I was keen to learn how those narratives are expressed, implicitly or explicitly in the cultural voices of their museums. Berlin, a city of great culture, defined and redefined by war and reconstruction;
New York, a city of immigrants, self-determination and finance;
San Francisco, gateway to the Pacific, home of the counter-culture and now capital of tech.
In each city I met a whole range of museum professionals, as well as working closely with a number of design studios. Sometimes I visited museums on my own, eavesdropped on conversations around me, and sometimes I met with the museum director or designer or talked to one of the room guides. Although the subject sometimes felt overwhelming I framed my enquiry by focusing on three main questions:
1. What is Narrative design : the power of good storytelling in space
2. What is the role of materials in shaping experience?
3. How can we improve the all-important relationship between architecture and content?
My experiences − whether tinkering at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, gazing across the city of Berlin from the glazed dome of the Reichstag, looking at the world of design through the eyes of an eight-year-old at Cooper Hewitt, or commemorating 9/11 amid the very mortar of the Twin Towers, raise some provocative questions. Are museums ready to move from the ‘object’ being at the centre to putting the visitor at the centre? Or indeed, is it really that story is at the centre?
My discoveries were varied, relating to technology, to education, to artistic ambition, but the most inspiring places all seemed to have one thing in common: they understood the power of human connection. It may be a connection with the self, like when a child’s imagination is sparked to see herself in a new way; or a connection with a new idea in a tinkering session; or connecting with matter and colour making a fresco; or connecting with strangers when you bump into each other trying to see yourself in a crazy reflective sculpture. Or it might be connecting to a deep vein of humanity through some textile or photograph or ancient ceramic.
Museums must help us to connect with each other, with our own imagination or with worlds and ideas beyond our own quotidian horizons. They have long been temples to the past, offering connections with objects and stories from long ago, but the true power of museums lies in their capacity to help us make sense of our present; to make sense of each other and, with that understanding, to create a better future.
To find out more you can order my new book Made you Look. Made you Stare: inspiration from a museum road trip that recounts my adventures and offers some great reflections on all that I learned.
Click here for more information about the book and other projects related to the Fellowship.
Story has never been more fashionable. Everything from insurance sales to football to toothpaste is sold using some kind of story.
But what do we really mean by “story”? And how can it help in designing museums and exhibitions? There’s a very famous short story dubiously attributed to the American writer Ernest Hemingway
For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn
This kind of short story is known as “flash fiction” or, in Chinese it’s called “smoke long” because the story only lasts as long as it takes the listener to finish a cigarette – although you’d have to be a pretty fast smoker to get through a cigarette in six words!
These six words are a helpful reminder of the basic ingredients of story and what I consider to be the basic ingredients of a good exhibition. You can see the first four words are neutral facts: For Sale: Baby Shoes. It’s really the two final words that make it a story.
Those two words: “Never Worn”, suddenly deliver a whole world of pain that is not present in the first four. These two words make meaning and create an emotional connection for the reader.
It is this connection which is so vital in good story-telling and so hard to achieve in designing exhibitions which have to appeal to a wide audience. John Steinbeck talks about the need for good stories to create connections for everyone:
“If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen. And here I make a rule - a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.”
You’re probably thinking that’s a very difficult thing to achieve. But I think what Steinbeck means is that a good story has to offer hooks for different people and if it is to have impact it must connect with each person’s own story in some way.
Where were you on 11th September 2001 - otherwise known as 9/11? The day Al Quaeda attacked the World Trade Center in New York City?
I remember very clearly where I was. Standing on a former battlefield in northern France with a group of archaeologists. They were using new DNA techniques to identify the remains of unknown soldiers killed during World War One. It was a bleak, cold day and the landscape around me was desolate. My colleague’s mobile phone rang and I was annoyed with him for answering because the place where we stood felt sacred and his phone seemed to violate the memories of what had happened there.
“Twin towers; airplanes; attacks; collapse”….the disconnected words continued to tumble from his mouth and slowly the horror began to dawn. I actually thought “World War Three is beginning and I’m stuck on a battlefield from World War One”.
Now, 14 years later, a new museum has opened on the site of the World Trade Center. The National September 11th Memorial Museum is designed to remember those who died and seeks to tell the complex story of what happened that day. Stories don’t get much more powerful than 9/11 but, unlike our story about the baby shoes, what happened on September 11th is massively complicated and it takes great skill to shape it into pieces that are manageable for visitors from all over the world to connect with.
I’d heard very differing opinions about the Memorial Museum. This is inevitable with almost any museum but particularly so with such a politically complex and emotionally charged one. While I found the spaces to be shockingly real – still ringing with the sounds of a global theatre of war, hatred and irreconcilable difference, others have told me they found the museum alienating, difficult to relate to and sanitised.
These arguments are interesting in themselves as they show how subjective any museum experience can be. But here I want to explore five ideas that grew from my experience at the 9/11 Museum and to show how they can be applied to shaping stories in space.
The Power of the Real
The National September 11th Memorial Museum is a great example of where the space itself tells a very powerful story. By simply arriving at Ground Zero and seeing the Memorial Pools on the footprint of each tower of the former World Trade Center you are embarking on a narrative journey. Some people feel this is enough and are deeply moved by the simplicity of the waterfalls, by the names inscribed on the bronze walls.
But for those who want to venture down into the foundations of the World Trade Center there is a powerful narrative expressed in the very fabric of the foundations, the remnants of the steelwork, the retaining wall of the Hudson River.
All these elements of “the real” create an incredible theatre within which the detail of the story unfolds. This “power of the real” is a great virtue in creating narratives as the place itself tells a story before you even begin to communicate the detail.
To visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum is to go on a physical journey as well as an emotional one and I was really interested to understand how these two relate in designing spaces for exhibitions. Where narrative and physical spaces work together each reinforces the other and here at the 9/11 Museum I felt they were fairly well aligned.
The visit begins with a steep descent - a powerful threshold with all its associations with death and loss but also has a very tangible message because the museum itself is situated within the foundations of the World Trade Center. So as I descend further into what’s called Foundation Hall I get a sense of the height of these buildings and of the great abyss into which they fell on that terrible day.
Part of the descent takes me alongside the Vesey Street staircase that was one of the few means of exit for people escaping the wreckage. During the construction of the museum this staircase had been scheduled for demolition but those people whose lives had been saved by it protested vehemently and the staircase was saved from demolition and incorporated into the museum.
The opening exhibit of the museum reminded me of John Steinbeck’s advice that a “great story must be about the listener”. While most of the visitors to the 9/11 Museum were not directly involved, the designers nonetheless created connections to allow everyone to bring their own story of that day. The opening exhibit shows how people all around the world were affected by the attacks. Right from the start I am drawn in, I’m told “it’s not just our story, this story is also about you”. As the visit continues this message is reinforced. We are all part of this conflict and as human beings we can all participate in its resolution.
A story as complex and as emotionally upsetting as 9/11 presents a real design challenge – just how do you go about layering so many complex narratives without baffling or overwhelming the visitor?
I choose to follow a tour where the guide speaks to the group through individual headsets. This allows the guide to speak quietly, avoids any imposition on other visitors and gives me the freedom to wander as I please while still being able to hear the tour guide. We are also invited to switch off our headsets at any point if the story becomes too overwhelming.
The strength of the guide was to lead us with her voice from a tiny detail in a fire truck to a huge philosophical thought about transformation without our really noticing it. The layers of narrative were visible if we chose to analyse them but actually seamless if we chose to just go with the flow. I was particularly impressed with this overarching narrative around transformation which was expressed through many different stories, some heart-wrenching and tragic, others uplifting and positive. The lesson here is the power of a big narrative which creates the lens through which the detail can be viewed. It provides a hook upon which to hang so many different layers throughout the visit and allows different people to connect on different levels.
Finally I think it’s really vital to remember that “narrative” is not always expressed by a linear description of a definable sequence of events but can sometimes be more powerful when it is simply be about firing the imagination or making a visceral in new or unexpected ways. I’m thinking of exhibitions or artworks where the object itself embodies the meaning and to see it is to submit to what it provokes inside you rather than to seek a long explanation.
When it works this can be the most powerful form of storytelling because the listener is creating the story for themselves inside their own bodies and minds. The memorial pools are a great example of this as is the art work in Foundation Hall. These letters spell out a line from a poem by the ancient Roman poet Virgil:
“No Day Shall Erase Thee from the Memory of Time.”
The letters are made of steel from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. The blue ceramic tiles represent the bright colour of the sky that September morning in New York while their varied hues represent each individual who lost their lives on that day. The story of the day dwells within the very fabric of this artwork.
So for me narrative is not about a linear story but rather a means to create connection and make meaning. It’s the difference between information and communication as or, author Sydney J Harris says:
“Information is giving out; communication is getting through.”
In spite of the adage, most of us do judge a book by its cover, and most of us also judge a museum by its entrance. The front door of a museum is like the opening sequence in a film or the first page of a book. It sets the tone, frames how you arrive in the building, makes you feel ready (or not) for something to happen.
I think most of us perceive this process, perhaps intuitively or through experience, but, either way, we understand and respond to the grammar of an elevation, a front door and an entrance hall, whether in a church, a courthouse, an art gallery or a private house.
The early generations of museums tended towards powerfully articulated entrances. Often products of 19th century philanthropy, scholarship and largesse, they pronounced their civilising mission with great confidence and clarity. The museum itself was often the expression of a "grand narrative" (further expressed by the collection displays inside) and the architectural language, both externally and internally, is rich with references to the classical, sacred or natural worlds. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (above), the Harvard Arts Museum (below) and of course The Met (top) in New York all present a clear and strong face which frames an almost ceremonial transition for the visitor crossing the threshold.
Personally, I love this ceremonial procession. It fills me with a great sense of anticipation, a feeling that I am about to enter another world. But that’s probably because I’ve always adored theatre and I experience many museums as a form of civic scenography and collective storytelling. However, I am conscious that my feelings are not shared by everyone and I understand that plenty more people feel intimidated by the grand narratives explicit in these monumental entrances. They feel excluded, they have a sense that this other world is not welcoming to them and don't believe it could give access to anything relevant to their lives.
The question of ‘relevance’ is absolutely critical to museums today. It is part of a major shift from 19th century singular certainties to 21st century multiplicity. It is part of the acknowledgement that the ‘Grand Narratives’ of the 19th century were not telling the whole truth; that so-called ‘truth’ is always multi-layered and must have multiple voices to be expressed. In museums this has manifested in major efforts to democratise access to art and culture, to attract bigger and more diverse audiences and to engage those audiences in more direct and more personal ways.
This of course adds up to major increases in visitor numbers and the hard truth that visitor facilities in many existing museums are simply inadequate. As a result, many are remodeling their 19th century-style entrances while most new museums are designed around a welcoming and convivial entrance space, unmediated by symbolism and narrative. Equal access to ideas relies on getting people over the threshold and so museums the world over are seeking to dissolve what Elaine Heuman Gurion calls “threshold fear” by creating less formal, multiple and more relaxed entry points.
During my Fellowship travels I observed a huge amount of resources being invested in not simply expanding the museum entry sequence but in actually reinventing the entire language. And given that architecture gave up on grand narratives some time ago, it’s hardly surprising that the current wave of building and rebuilding museums should harness the democratic voice of modernism and hi-tech (see previous post on Renzo Piano's reworking of the Harvard Art Museums).
The Clark in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is a superb example of this process. A neo-classical art gallery and research centre, the former ‘Sterling Clark Institute’ has been reinventing its language and multiplying its narratives for well over a decade.
Set in the hilly and forested landscapes of the Berkshires, The Clark was designed in 1955 by Daniel Perry for Sterling and Francine Clark to display their personal collection of European art (including works by Renoir, Monet, Degas,) and American paintings (including Sargent and Homer,) as well as sculpture, and decorative arts.
A second building was joined to the first in the 1970s in the brutalist style to house the growing research and study facilities. Since then the institute has continued to grow and has become an internationally important centre for research in art history and conservation as well as a strong focus for communities in the Berkshires who use The Clark for a whole range of activities and encounters throughout the year.
In 2004 The Clark engaged Japanese architect Tadao Ando to design a third building – the Stone Hill Centre, standing alone at the top of the site which introduces a new architectural language of planes, floor to ceiling glazed spans and the resultant embrace of the natural landscape.
This building, it turns out, was merely a rehearsal for an even more impressive show.
Ando’s most recent contribution, the 2014 Visitor Centre, has succeeded in entirely redefining the institution and the visitor experience.
In contrast to the classically symmetrical composition of the 1955 building, framed elegantly at the head of a sweeping lawn and highly visible from the main road, Ando’s low-lying addition has taken up a large, sunken footprint to the rear. Its concrete, ground-scraping form reveals itself slowly from the car park where the entrance route is drawn by a long granite wall leading to a pair of distinctly unceremonial glazed sliding doors.
The extended promenade along a granite wall is also processional, you could say it's a sequence not unlike climbing the steps on 5th Avenue to enter the Great Hall in the Met, but, significantly, the procession is flat, the threshold is not elevated and the doors are entirely transparent. (So much so, it was impossible to capture a photograph without total burnout.) Furthermore, the building is almost achingly devoid of meaning or reference. It is framing the experience for you but not defining it or prescribing it and, significantly in a rural art campus, the framing is designed to draw attention to the landscape, not to the collections.
After first allowing myself to absorb the gorgeously framed views of the Berkshire landscape, the controlled play of architectural line and the bold intersections of horizontal and rectilinear forms, I began to ask myself how else might Ando’s design language be communicating a different message from the 19th century museum aesthetic we are all so accustomed to.
The Japanese minimalist aesthetic inevitably draws comparisons with meditative sacred spaces and certainly the whole building feels deeply calm and quietly welcoming. But the interest here is how Ando has created a calm and simple building which nonetheless communicates great complexity.
The defining characteristic is most definitely the multiplicity of viewpoints from both within and without the building. Ostensibly simple in plan, the building comprises two concrete and glass pavilions connected by a long gallery – Ando describes it as “a swan with its wings spread.” But the experience of moving in and out and around the building feels much richer than this implies, and this because of Ando’s great skill in manipulating layers of form, of voids, of light, of shade and his skill in swallowing the landscape and drawing it into the simple, almost monastic interiors.
Ando’s summary of his approach is the perfect definition of the modern museum:
"In both the visitor centre and Stone Hill Centre, I have tried to express a deep respect for the landscape outside and an equal reverence for the art inside. It is critical that the art speak for itself and that viewers experience it in their own way." (my emphasis)
In other words, at The Clark Ando is expressing a new language of museums which has let go of any grand narrative and whose forms invite a panoply of narratives. It is a language of multiple contexts and stories: natural, urban, social, economic and architectural. It also happens to be stunningly beautiful.
I'm beginning to think the control of light - both daylight and artificial - could be the single most important factor in museums and exhibitions. Having been so deeply affected by the beautiful artificial lighting at the Musee Guimet in Paris, I was bowled over by an entirely opposite experience in Renzo Piano’s reworking of the venerable Harvard Art Museums near Boston.
The scheme has brought together three existing museum collections under one roof of the refurbished and extended 1927 Fogg Museum. The architectural context includes not only the Ivy League elegance of old Harvard but Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center as immediate neighbour and a James Stirling building as the former home of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum whose collections are now incorporated in the extended Fogg Museum.
Piano has retained the Georgian Revival brick exterior and the Italian Renaissance-style interior courtyard but has quite literally lifted the lid on the whole structure and extended to the rear to create truly uplifting and largely daylit spaces. While appearing very natural and incidental, in fact the daylighting is of course highly controlled.
Seeing artefacts in daylit spaces has the remarkable effect of making these pieces of sculpture seem somehow more accessible, less numinous than the beautiful depth of shadows of the Guimet. With the additional views and reflections of buildings outside the daylit art pieces look more like expressions of daily life.
Of course there’s nothing new about glass and steel hi-tech extensions to existing historic museums but exactly how that glass and steel are interposed with the old stones is crucial to the museum’s success as a venue for art and design. Piano expresses these new relationships with a glass seam which sews the new addition to the 1927 building, a seam which is both legible and open throughout the visit.
While the impact of such permeable internal spaces is uplifting, the impact externally is intriguing as the new addition appears to dissolve in the reflections of the neighbouring buildings, as though it were trying to be subservient to the architectural context. At the same time, Piano’s additions are resolutely contemporary and impose a strong presence on the street. Piano himself describes it as “neither arrogant nor timid.”
The huge gesture of natural daylighting permeates the museum, draws visitors through spaces and up towards the upper floors. This permeability between street, inner courtyard and display gallery is matched by an openness and permeability in the museum's working spaces. Below, a cabinet of pigments used by conservators is on display from the Lightbox Gallery and elsewhere visitors can see conservation work going on through generous windows and programmed events.
I’ve discussed in previous blogs how often museum design is at odds with the design of the content on display. But my feeling at the Harvard Art Museums is that Piano and local architects Payette have succeeded in creating a truly holistic design where building and content speak in interesting and varied dialogues, all moving toward the same end: the appreciation of form, whether urban, architectural, sculptural or painterly.
When I began this journey to reimagine museums I was determined that, however limited for time, I would try to take inspiration from places and people outside the world of museums and collections. So, last Saturday morning, I set off to explore what new and wacky ideas the neighbourhoods of San Francisco might reveal to a curious mind. This is the first of a series of posts capturing those ideas....
I kicked off in the Mission District (famous for its colourful murals) because I’d been told it’s a neighbourhood in transition, shifting from Latino family communities to young “tech” wealth. Colourful, bohemian streets with a chequered mix of minimalist restaurants alongside gaudy taquerias bear witness to this transformation. So far so global..... But then I came across 826 Valencia and that’s when I woke up.
It took me a while to work out what was going on. The graphic mural above the storefront looked intriguing but indecipherable from the sidewalk (I learned later that it depicts a complex history of communication) while the storefront window tells stories of the "2015 Scholars" : awards given to outstanding public school students in the Bay Area.
So it looks like an educational charity of some sort but, step over the threshold, and you land in a pirate supplies store selling anything and everything the modern buccaneer might need. What on earth....?
I interrogated the cashier and learned that 826 Valencia is a creative writing space which invites writers, editors and educators to volunteer one-to-one creative tutoring with school kids and high school students. Created by the writer Dave Eggers, the idea was simply to help them with their homework by giving one to one attention (virtually impossible in a school classroom) and allowing them to experience their own capacity for thinking and creating. How 826 Valencia came to be, why the pirate supplies storefront, and how it has grown is a superbly inspiring story that makes you want to set up an 826 everywhere in the world. And that’s just what Dave Eggers wants us to do. His TED talk called Once Upon A School is really inspiring - and very funny.
Getting one to one help with written homework was just the start. Through this kind of creative coaching students begin to discover their innate abilities to express imagination, humour, story and now the best work is published in the 826 Quarterly. A group even wrote to President Obama giving him 100 tips for a good presidency! Talk about finding a voice....
Creative writing, making up stories, finding a personal voice gives young people permission to let go, to run with ideas and to have fun. After all, there is no right way to write a story.
So, Mission Accomplished in the Mission. A new idea for education in museums by connecting with young people from a crazy store in a random neighbourhood.
Museums are first and foremost places of creativity and of learning and while most museums do masses of educational programmes, the richness of 826 Valencia made me wonder how many get down and dirty and help kids who are simply struggling with their homework…? If you know of any please get in touch! That might not be their primary role and some would be better placed than others to offer more creative and individualised empowerment. But in the meantime, 826 Valencia is going in my bag of treasures from the "New World" which has fired my imagination to help museums make more of an impact on people's lives.
This Churchill Fellowship brings challenges and surprises on so many different levels. I'm now on the second leg, currently in Boston where I was expecting to spend my time with boffins at MIT. Instead I have been captured by unexpected beasts and beauties. A short trip out of the city to the old town of Salem Massachusetts brought surprising inspiration at the Peabody Essex Museum with Theo Jansen's captivating Strandbeest (Beach Creatures).
Having seen his beasts in action on the beach (here online) I was worried that seeing them "in captivity" inside an exhibition space would be much less exciting. I was wrong. The exhibition is both playful and deeply enquiring. It tells stories about process and cleverly deconstructs the beasts so visitors can understand why and how these marvellous creatures not only move (using wind power through recycled plastic bottles) but can also detect water and rescue themselves from dangerous waves.
Jansen restricts his palette to materials available in your average Dutch hardware store. The main components are plastic conduit piping for electrical wiring, plumbing joints and plastic ties. That such beauty and wonder could emerge from such utilitarian parts adds another layer of pleasure to the awe-inspiring experience of seeing how his Dream Machines actually work. This approach speaks powerfully to the work of the Exploratorium in San Francisco where art is science and science is art. There is no distinction between the two disciplines. Both are processes which help us understand the world and the universe around us and inside us.
The exhibition may at moments feel like a kind of zoo where creatures that were meant to be in the open air are confined between suspended ceiling and carpet. But what really gets unleashed here is the power of the imagination, a call to explore, to be curious, to try things out and above all to try to KNOW the world by using our hands.
To say “museum” and “empty room” in the same breath may seem like madness but I’ve recently been preoccupied with the question: “If museums didn’t already exist, how would we invent them, starting today?” Full tabula rasa. What would we want them to be? It made me think of Peter Brook’s famous description of the essence of theatre:
"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged".
I’m wondering what’s the equivalent essence of museums? Is it enough to place an object in space and an observer to see it in order for “an act of museology to be engaged”?
On a recent visit to Germany, I learned with great delight that the Modern Literature Museum and the Neues Museum both opened to the public without any objects at all. But was this a museological experience? There is a great pleasure in denuded space, a sense of privilege, of a special moment that is snatched from the usual duty of that space to be full. I remember the extraordinary feeling I had wandering freely around the vast open spaces of Wells Cathedral, briefly emptied of its furniture for the annual deep clean. It was full of drama, narratives everywhere in the stones around me. Sounds of singing underpinned with the susurration of hushed speaking voices.
But, on the whole, museums were invented to be the very opposite of the empty room: they were designed to celebrate society’s attics, to preserve the best of things that were once important but no longer of use. The purpose of museums today is much more complex. They are still repositories of “stuff” but how they share that stuff with others has changed enormously. Places like the Pitt-Rivers and the Horniman retain the “stuffed attic” aesthetic as part of their much-loved and rather glorious identity but many museums are seeking a broader remit and see their role as crucial civic spaces, radical learning institutions and participatory organisations.
Given the unquantifiable number of objects in all the collections in all the world, would it be absurd to venture the idea that museums might learn something from Peter Brook’s idea of the Empty Room? Just to entertain the idea as a metaphor to see what might emerge as the essence of museology? And to see museums as full of potential for drama, for human interaction, for surprising narratives and for new interactions with the audience?
The potential connections between theatre and museums are exciting. The ongoing work around "scratch" theatre at Battersea Arts Centre, whose mission is no less than "reinventing the future of theatre", is inspiring me to think that if their theatre-making can impact upon every aspect of community life - from building to heritage to economics to the school curriculum - then so can museum-making.
I’m meeting with the artistic director David Jubb in a couple of weeks and I’ve been reading a lot of his very inspiring blogs. Jubb quotes artist Chris Goode who describes theatre “as a place to create real liveable experiences of models for political and personal change. Theatre can have a crucial role in reimagining our social relations. What we do all day has never felt more important.”
To replace the word "theatre" in this sentence with the word "museum" is to reflect what some of the more socially-driven museums are already doing - museums as far apart as Derby Museum and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. According to David Jubb, such creativity and innovation can only emerge if organisations are willing to make themselves vulnerable.
This brought me back to the question of the empty room. Museums come with such baggage (literally in many cases) so what would it be like to think of them as empty spaces waiting for drama to unfold rather than a stuffed attic with no room to move?
Of course, to complicate things a little, we might ask "what does Peter's Brook's "Empty Room" look like?" Like the white cube image above or the last image below? Empty of objects and people does not necessarily mean empty of narrative, as evinced in Massimo Listri's work below which expresses the qualities of inhabited but momentarily empty space. To play with these different qualities of space: white cube and historic building, is part of museum-making.
So I'm not suggesting Brook's Empty Room as a literal spring-board for museum-making but as a playful metaphor to help us arrive at new ways of creating meaningful museums for the 21st century.
The first part of my field research is over and I'm back at my desk and my life, trying to make some sense of all the things I saw and heard and thought while I was away. The blogs have been a helpful tool in encouraging me to make some shape out of it all but I'm conscious there are lots of random sights and scenes that don't fit into a big scheme just yet. Some appeared on my twitter feed, others are just sitting on my laptop waiting for their moment in the sun. So I'm planning a series of "divertimenti" to capture some of the details who knows, may turn out to be the key to my research...
I got to noticing the impact in public buildings of a well-designed and generous stair. Here are some of my favourite sightings:
“You can’t download the experience of being in a particular building” said the architect. Well, he would say that wouldn’t he. But, the research so far on my Churchill Fellowship makes me inclined to agree that the qualities of museum buildings and spaces contribute a huge amount to the experience of looking at art or learning about objects from the past.
Although some "experts" argue the future of museums lies in pure knowledge connectivity housed in Amazon-style warehouses, my belief is that the physical experience of being in a particular building is something that digitised knowledge and virtual reality cannot offer.
It comes down to Alexander Pope's idea of "genius loci" or "spirit of place". For Pope that spirit of place derives from the latent intelligence within natural landscapes and the idea that designers should work with rather than against that intelligence.(1) When applied to architectural space, a spirit or sense of place comes from a whole range of gestures and interventions: context and orientation; lighting; internal and external views; use of materials; patterns of use; iconography... I could go on.
To create a strong sense of place within a contemporary museum is a big challenge and, from my recent visits to museums in Europe, sometimes comes at the expense of other important elements such as spatial flexibility and dynamic storytelling.
The Neues Museum in Berlin is an excellent example of this. Designed by Friedrich August Stüler and built from 1843 to 1855, the building suffered severe damage during World War II. Its reconstruction from 1998-2009 by David Chipperfield Architects was much lauded for retaining the scars of war and for making a virtue of the many layers of uncomfortable history to which the building stands testament. It is a breath-taking piece of work where walls, ceilings, materials, light, volume all come together in various different ways throughout the museum to create a very powerful sense of place and time.
Having worked for a long time with historic buildings I was particularly gripped by the seemingly effortless junctions between new and old. Indeed, that distinction seemed to dissolve, not because it was disguised but because each element stands beautifully in its own right and in its own time, cheerfully conversing with each other. Although some in Germany would have preferred a more straightforward reconstruction, I found the scheme to be a wonderful and discursive work of art in its own right - richly complex, thought-provoking and difficult. And yet, in other ways, beautifully simple. The museum’s website quite rightly describes the renovations as “…a sensitive discourse on beauty, time, impermanence, and change.”
This rich, subtle, yet palpable, discourse creates a physical experience that visitors immerse themselves in and are beguiled by. So, ten out of ten for sense of place Mr. Chipperfield. But, having spoken at length with the museum’s current director, Professor Friederike Seyfried, it seems much lower marks to be awarded for spatial flexibility and storytelling through the collections.
Professor Seyfried, an esteemed Egyptologist, inherited the scheme from the former director, an art historian by training, who worked with Chipperfield to deliver the renovation project.
Although, like us, she admires the quality of bronze plinths and weighty vitrines she also finds them frustrating as their heavy permanence limits options for changing displays or reconfiguring the galleries. Although, like us, she is enchanted by the charred pillars, bullet-scarred plasterwork and the faded 19th century paintwork, she also finds the archaeology of the building can overwhelm the archaeology of the collections.
Seyfried was candid about the challenges she now faces. As an archaeologist she believes the objects in her collection were not created as works of art but rather as expressions of different practical and social aspects of an ancient civilisation. She wants to use these objects to share the culture of ancient Egypt with visitors but has very little space or means to do so. There is an audio-guide but few people were using them. Digital tools would provide the obvious solution here but the director asserts that works to install wifi would be very costly and potentially damaging to the building. She also enjoys the idea that visitors have an unmediated experience with the objects that tablets and mobile phones might spoil.
The biggest frustration is a lack of flexibility. Seyfried asserts, " This latest scheme was built for eternity. We are not here for eternity, I am not here for eternity and we need a much more flexible approach to share our knowledge and the collections."
In (tentative) conclusion, it seems the perfect alignment of space and content is something of a Holy Grail for now and my visit to the glorious Neues Museum has left me with some very challenging questions to explore:
- Does flexibility in museum space necessarily come at the expense of a palpable "spirit of place"?
- Is explicit storytelling at odds with the expression of a strong architectural identity?
- What are the elements necessary for space and content to work together to create satisfying narrative spaces?
This piece is likely to be the first of many on the subject so I leave you with some words of wisdom from Nick Serota's book on Experience and Interpretation:
“Our aim must be to generate a condition in which visitors can experience a sense of discovery in looking at particular paintings, sculptures or installations in a particular room at a particular moment, rather than find themselves on the conveyor belt of history.”
To be continued....
I learned a while ago that a large number of visitors to the Imperial War Museum in Manchester have complained about feeling upset by some of the audio-visual material transmitted during their visit. As a big fan of direct and emotional ways of learning about history, I was very surprised. What do you expect to feel at a war museum? This set me thinking about how we curate spaces which tell stories of human sorrw. What are audiences actually expecting to feel in learning about events where humans treat each other cruelly and sadistically? And how do we go about measuring “enjoyment” of tragic events?
Given the events of the 20th century, Berlin has more than its fair share of misery to recount and while staying here on the Fellowship I’ve found simply choosing which of the dozens of terror and horror sites to see is a major ordeal in itself. To kick off I decided on the big architectural hitters of Libeskind's Jewish Museum and Peter Eisenman's Holocaust Memorial followed by the more modest Berlin Wall Memorial, a curated outdoor route which traces the impact of the Berlin Wall on a particular neighbourhood.
To my great surprise, (and with the important exception of two specific zones of the Jewish Museum), I found the external memorials to be more engaging and more moving than the highly wrought conceptual scheme by Libeskind. Of course I’m comparing apples with pears here but at their core they are all telling stories of terror, fear, prejudice, control and all are designed to engage with visitors who know a little or a lot about their subjects.
The Jewish Museum is a highly complex and stunningly clever building but – dare I say this? – the architecture and the content are not happy bedfellows. Libeskind’s scheme is an expression of absence and loss: an absence of Jewish lives through wholescale murder or forced emigration. Where once there was a strong Jewish community in Berlin now is an empty space.
The narratives of absence, of torn fabric, of disruption are expressed at every turn and the subterranean space is haunting with very few objects on display. Elsewhere, the Holocaust Tower and the Memory Void are deeply moving, again for their expression of absence and repression. But that is only a fraction of the museum. I wondered if Libeskind’s building should be left empty of exhibits to express its ideas without the additional and contradictory job of telling the story of 2000 years of Jewish History.
The conventional museum scenography of the main exhibition, which is much too long and lacking any architectural narrative of its own, battles against the disjointed, angled and asymmetric spaces of Libeskind’s concept. So either the architectural narrative of the building is too overpowering and leaves no room for the important stories of Jewish history or the exhibition designer is failing to live up to the great challenge set by such a strong narrative space. Whatever perspective you choose, the result is the same: a lack of dialogue between content and space. The visitor comes away feeling overwhelmed, and frustrated at the lack of connection to most of the stories or the lives being narrated.
I’ve found this relationship between architecture and content to be surprisingly contested and is at the heart of my work to reimagine museums. In contrast to the profound conceptual ambition of the Jewish Museum, the Berlin Wall Memorial tells a more focussed tale and its architectural expression is moving precisely because of its restraint.
The Power of the Real
Tracing the route of the actual wall was a powerful experience in itself. Seeing the apartment blocks from whose high windows 80 year-old Olga Segler fell to her death, and many more trying to flee across the border, hearing the voices of experience of life in the GDR and seeing the route of the escape tunnels it was easier to imagine what life was like there.
But the power of the real is not always or necessarily enough and the important question is how to interpret that real place, what to impose, what to imply, how to edit the manifold stories that emerge there.
A high point on the tour is a visit to the Chapel of Reconciliation. A breath-takingly beautiful rammed-earth building which marks the site of a 19th century church destroyed in the 1980s to allow the East German authorities to widen the border patrol. Memorial services are held daily to remember the many victims of the Berlin Wall. Sitting in the quiet oval chapel I could almost hear the voices and chaos of that time and was deeply moved at such an explicit and unvengeful intervention. Architects Peter Sassenroth and Rudolf Reitermann worked with Austrian rammed earth specialist Martin Rauch to create this sanctuary, a contemplative space chock-full of narrative and meaning while being wonderfully restrained and minimal.
The Confidence of Abstraction
The power of the real is often best translated through embodying an idea rather than representing it and this takes more courage. Here, the route of the wall could have been replicated but instead it is marked by dual lines of corten steel poles. They have a strong presence but are permeable, artistic structures through which you can see trams passing and children cycling along the pavement. They are both heavy and light at the same time and seem to express the hideous complexity of the Cold War while beautifully embodying the ghost of the Wall.
Equally expressive, without having recourse to reconstruction, is a corten steel watch tower, simply constructed from 4 right angles shooting impossibly high into the sky. Here the material is less dynamic but feels intransigent and its endless height seems to offer the authorities an all-seeing gaze over the neighbourhood.
Simple, allusive and restrained interventions along the 2km route of the memorial were enough to evoke 20 years of mayhem and repression that destroyed many lives and ruptured a city for generations. By contrast, the Jewish Museum’s complex forms and exhibitions are designed to evoke 2000 years of history – a much more difficult task. While there is no neat solution to spatial narratives, I come away persuaded of the need to create space for the power of the imagination and of the maxim that, not only in architecture but in storytelling too, less can so often be more.
Although I came to Berlin to study the city’s museums, actually the city itself turns out to be the most interesting and engaging museum of all. Of course it's not full of glass cases and video screens and multi-media labelling. The stories are told through entire buildings, sculptures and squares and lots of human traces from graffiti to urine to soldiers in historic uniform on the street.
I can't begin to capture the complexities of the urban forms that make up this crazy city so for now I'm just going to share some of the "objets d'art-chitecture" that populate the urban theatre that is contemporary Berlin.
Berlin is a very “noisy” place, by which I mean there are a great many different visual voices from the past and the present that positively screech at you in an architectural mash-up whose frequency goes up and down depending on the neighbourhood. But of course, unlike a museum, the city does not have a curator, an overseeing intelligence to edit and arrange and draw the eye. For the most part, the encounter with curiosities and urban forms is incidental and organic. However, I did come across one fabulously deliberate intervention near the Sony Center : a large glass structure encasing a piece of historic architecture.
The incongruity is almost farcical and had it been proposed as a work of art would no doubt be considered trite and overplayed. But as a museological intervention within a city whose every element speaks of a hundred untold stories I took real delight in its lack of subtlety. The chap in the photo seems to be scratching his head, unable to know what to make of it. I loved its theatricality and told myself it could only be Berlin.....
If you really think about it, my Churchill Fellowship is basically about looking at rooms with stuff in them. Well, to be precise, I’m looking at how we humans look at rooms with stuff in them. Thus stripped of all detail and context my endeavour sounds rather baffling, but earlier this week I experienced just such a stripping back of detail and found it to be one of the most uplifting days of the trip so far.
There’s something of the temple about David Chipperfield’s Literaturmuseum der Moderne (aka the German Museum of Modern Literature). The entrance pavilion stands like a neat acropolis high above the Neckar valley and design pilgrims like me, arriving from the nearby metropolis of Stuttgart, make their way up through the medieval streets of Marbach to a pair of museums dedicated to Literature. The 1903 Schiller National Museum dominates the summit and is flanked by the 2006 Modern Literature Museum : the one looking like a classic piece of Baroque civic architecture, the other like a confident and highly-controlled piece of modernity. (There's also a 1970s groundscraper of an archive on hill but the less said about that the better.)
It was early in the day for a museum visit and as I made my way through the quiet volumes I could feel my twitter brain calming down and my senses begin to take over. There was a spiritual, almost monastic simplicity about the spaces, the circulation, the furnishings and the gathering of light in special places. I felt connected to the building in its rawness and its openness in ways that are unusual within a museum whose rooms are so often heavily mediated.
My focus on the architecture was in part due to my lack of German as I was unable to dive into the content without assistance. I was blessed by a guided tour from one of the researchers, Richard Schumm, who skilfully translated some key exhibits like the “Memory Faces” and Marlena Dietrich’s telegram to Erich Kastner congratulating him on his joyful novel Emile and the Detectives ( I loved that book when I was at school!). He also showed me the wonderfully-named “phantasiebauplan” or “construction plan” for a novel by Von Niebelschutz. These visual displays were much more compelling than I had ever imagined and answered some of my questions about how to go about displaying "flatware", the museum term for what I thought were two-dimensional objects.
Experiencing these spaces and exploring some of the exhibits before learning about the rationale of their design was really useful as it gave me an unmediated experience of the objects themselves, how they were displayed, how they related to each other spatially and materially. And that’s exactly what the design rationale turned out to be – to create an unmediated experience of archive objects! Might not sound like the most exciting brief but, believe me, it really was…..
Now, a poem may be a two dimensional piece of paper to you and me but, to the brilliant and allusive mind of Professor Heike Gfrereis, director of the Modern Literature Museum, a poem takes up quite a large space in the world and, as for a novel, well, it’s a positively towering three-dimensional object that should be seen in section as well as in plan. As Gfrereis described the idea behind the flickering banks of documents, stacked in sectional displays, vertically lit by gorgeous LED wands, I began to see the wider worlds embodied in each of these objects.
The new permanent exhibition is, rather fittingly, called Die Seele – The Soul – and it’s this idea of the spirit of place, the spirit of the author, the spirit of ideas that Gfrereis is wanting visitors to connect with in the museum. And it was this spirit of place that Chipperfield’s team had so clearly understood in their winning submission. Gfrereis told me 95% of the submissions proposed a building underground, a bunker to act as a functional and a symbolic archive but, Gfrereis said, they were completely missing the point. She wanted a building that would stand shoulder to shoulder with the existing monument to Schiller and a building that would create spaces to allow visitors to feel the immanence of each object. The object itself is thus the medium to access the imagination and the world of characters and structures beyond.
I had expected this building to be based on a concept derived from narrative structures and literary allusions, and indeed that was what many of the client team initially wanted. They were attached to the idea of creating a building with “meaning”, of a building like Libeskind or Gehry produces with a referential language and a legible concept. But Gfreries was adamant that the building be about only itself: about the music of architecture, about the sound, about the materials, about the tone of voice in space and, of course, about the light and the landscape. In the opening week, visitors experienced the museum without any objects on display – their experience was designed to be of the spaces themselves.
As Professor Heike described her poetic vision I began to understand why I had felt the semi-religious and temple overtones in and around the building. There is an uncompromising clarity about the brief and an uncompromising clarity about the building. That clarity is about the immanence of the senses, about being drawn through dark spaces towards the light, about glimpsing a huge view through a small opening, about allowing the imagination to touch other imaginary worlds.
I saw the museum four days ago and had planned to write a blog that same evening, and then the next day and then the next, but each time I struggled to know how to get hold of the subject. How to talk about such a bold yet simple structure, about such a dynamic yet subtle museology, about such a complex set of histories on this beautiful and symbolic site. And then there's the landscape and notions of authorship and the different approach to display with the historic museum.... Too many stories for one day. So, finally, today I followed the example of the building itself and settled on telling just one story of many. Perhaps another day I’ll tell a different story but for now that’s what it’s all about, a Story of Rooms.
A visit to the Musee Guimet in Paris last Sunday was an important reminder that being in a Museum is first and foremost a physical experience. I had been having a bit of a rough time in the city and was really hungry for a spiritually uplifting day. This Museum of Asian Arts in the 16e arrondissement not only lifted my spirits, it fired my imagination, soothed my heart and transported me to worlds and ages far beyond the city outside.
Learning and intellectual engagement are understandably high on the agenda of most museums these days and I’d be the first to promote that but, being in those sculpture halls, I didn’t need to know the date and the provenance of the objects, it was enough just to stand and stare.
They key ingredients here were the same ingredients all museums have at their disposal. Space, light and objects. The skill, of course, lies in weaving these three together. From the welcoming embrace of the atrium - which draws you into a top-lit, triple height space - to the generous staircase giving views up through the section of the galleries, this museum invites you to explore.
But the stand-out move at the Musee Guimet is the lighting, particularly in the sculpture hall. The beautiful play of light and shadow across walls, across floors, across statues seemed to add a fourth dimension and an unfathomable depth to my experience. Being here put me in mind of Jun'ichirō Tanizaki’s essays “In Praise of Shadows” - not simply for the title as I enjoyed the effect of shadows all around me - but also for the reminder that museums often strive to shout louder, to shine brighter and to move faster in order to attract new audiences. Tanizaki welcomes subtlety, light and shade and an appreciation of the integrity of both made and natural things.
I guess you could call this a “being in the museum moment” and I’d like to congratulate the lighting designer of the sculpture halls for an exceptional piece of work. I’m also enjoying the irony that, in the City of Light, my most enlightening experience was among the subtlety of the shadows.
On my way to a meeting in the engine room of the Pompidou Centre yesterday, I was caught short by two very powerful posters carefully blu-tacked to some office doors. The first simply said Je Suis Charlie.....
And the second said "ART MUST DISCUSS, MUST DISAGREE, MUST PROTEST".
It may seem obvious, but these two posters made me realise just how much time cultural organisations spend thinking about how to allow people to have fun - which is great - but very little time thinking about how they might influence our world for the collective good.
On the other side of those postered doors I had a really interesting discussion with staff from the Pompidou about the impact of the French Government's long-standing commitment to providing state-funded cultural activity. It sounds idyllic to have such generous public funding, particularly to us in the UK who are catching up with the American model based on private philanthropy. When I asked which system worked best for people my interlocutor put down his pen, looked me square in the face and said "Listen, it is the duty of the French State to provide education and high level cultural activity. It's as simple as that."
His clarity echoed the clarity of those posters - art and democratic freedom of thought and freedom of expression are completely essential to the life of the nation and therefore it's the job of the government to make sure art continues to thrive. C'est évident, non?
Of course, the discussions over "art for art's sake" versus "committed art" have been raging for centuries and my blog isn't going to bring these two poles together. But the horror of the recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo do affect us all and we should remember how priveleged we are to enjoy such freedom of expression through our many cultural institutions. The morning left me with a feeling that "museum selfies" aren't really enough to engage people in the power of art and culture. That while cafes and toilets and push chair access are hugely important, there also needs to be room in the conversation to talk about the purpose of art and its great potential to change lives, to change the world for the better.
So my "Thought for the Day" is to add the voice of American sociologist Steven J. Tepper to that of Charlie. Tepper teaches the importance of cultural activities that go beyond personal experience and immediate gratification and asks his students to engage with ideas and images and worlds that are "Bigger than Me" .
If a child came home from a school trip one day and said, "Mummy, I danced my way to Mondriaan today" you'd be justified in thinking they'd had one too many bottles of fizzy pop. But that's exactly what I did and all I drank was tap water! It's day two of my Churchill Fellowship (see the Intro) and already I've found a brilliant example of how play and learning can come together in a powerful mix.
This is the Gemeente Museum in The Hague by Dutch architect Berlage. The linear galleries are beautifully lit white boxes with natural daylight from an internal courtyard which lights the art works in a fairly conventional manner. But, in the basement, a sequence of artificially-lit black boxes provide the setting for some very unconventional and very serious play.
The Wonderkamers are aimed at kids between 12-16 - the age group characteristically difficult to please in museums. Through a very clever mix of digital and physical games the curators have proven that it's possible to have a lot of fun while you learn stuff. And I for one will never forget dancing the Boogie-Woogie with Mondriaan.
Did you know all those lines and colour blocks were inspired by New York skyscrapers and the strict geometrical rhythms of Boogie Woogie tunes?
Here you get to feel the rhythm of the music, follow the steps and every time you make a mistake (which was often in my case), you get a Jackson Pollock splat all over the clean lines of the Mondriaan. It's fun, it's physical and it's memorable. I'll be posting again about this amazing kids museum but for now I'm still tapping my feet to the boogie woogie and I'll never look at a Mondriaan painting in the same way again.
Only just arrived in Amsterdam. Nothing to report so far except what a great city! It only took a ten minute tram journey through the south of the city to remind me of the pleasures of good urban design and culturally distinctive architecture. Not sure what that has to do with the price of eggs but I guess you could say it's about having time to really look and to be in the moment. Very exciting to have time to "stand and stare". Watch this space....
Urban intervention "iamsterdam" is not just a clever piece marketing but also a means of connecting strangers in a city. These giant letters spelling Amsterdam provide playful human interaction and a new way of experiencing the city itself. Picture by John Dawson