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What is a ‘science’ exhibition?

23 Aug
Santiago Sierra, 5 Anthropometric Modules Made From Human Faeces.

Santiago Sierra, 5 Anthropometric Modules Made From Human Faeces.

It’s a gift to work with people who know what they want to do and how they want to do it. This is more or less verbatim from a recent email exchange with Wellcome Collection Senior Curator Kate Forde. I can’t disagree with a single word of it. She says:

“I’m committed to producing inspiring and thought-provoking exhibitions that make people think differently about science (and indeed art). I think exhibitions can be life-enhancing and can open up conversations about themes which are sometimes difficult or complicated.

“I believe that the integration of history, philosophy and art in exhibitions that are ostensibly about ‘science’ can help us ask questions about what science is or could be now and in the future. I am basically persuaded by those who argue that science is a cultural practice and I think this is an accessible way in for non-experts to discover more about subjects they may have had little access to in the past. 

“I hope that our exhibitions can give people a sense of confidence and ownership when discussing issues that affect us all and I think the collection is key to this because its sheer scale and variety offers us the opportunity to apply such thinking in virtually any direction. The 3-dimensional objects in Wellcome’s collections are crucial because they can help communicate on another level altogether.”

Gaming the suffragettes

12 Aug
Pank-a-Squith board game. Courtesy Museum of Australian Democracy

Pank-a-Squith board game. Courtesy Museum of Australian Democracy

In a provocative post about museum games, Kevin Bacon asks the $64k question about applying game mechanics to historical subjects. He observes that military and economic history may be amenable to the same kind of rule-based play that made Launchball such an incredible physics-learning game, but that social history is much harder. In short: “how do you tell the history of the suffragette movement through a video game, without becoming crass?”

It’s a very good question, and the women’s suffrage movement is a particularly good example. A contentious cause whose supporters used bombs, arson and violence to achieve their ends, the achievement of which is now regarded as part of our national narrative of progress (in which we acknowledge the role of those militants, a far cry from the way in which the struggle against the slave trade was presented at the bicentenary of its abolition).

So what kind of games can you make from the struggle for votes for women? The National Archives have a game about the suffragettes as part of their online ‘citizenship’ exhibition. A policeman on a bike waggles his truncheon rather nastily and chases a cyclist with a ‘votes for women’ banner across the screen. The player must answer at speed trivia questions about the battle for suffrage and related human rights advances. Answer enough correctly and the suffragette will escape. Too many wrong answers and the policeman catches her, bicycles colliding in an ugly heap. Crass? Perhaps (it’s certainly dull) but I think I learned something about the role of police violence (as ever) in opposing progressive political movements.

That’s about all I can find online. But it turns out that games about the suffragettes are not as popular now as they were then, if we can stretch the definition of ‘video games’ back to include games-as-popular-culture in the form of Edwardian board and card games. ‘Suffragettes In and Out of Prison‘ is a ‘game and puzzle’ produced in 1908. The player must escape Holloway Gaol through a maze, landing on open doors and escaping both policemen and wardresses who will hinder her bid for freedom. It’s simple, cheap, has basic production values and is highly topical. Perhaps ‘newsgames‘ aren’t such a new idea after all?

It wasn’t only professional games-makers who sought to make a game of the battle for women’s votes. In 1907, the Kensington branch of the WSPU (the official suffragette movement) produced a card game called ‘the Game of Suffragette‘ with 54 cards in sets featuring both heroes and opponents of the women’s suffrage movement. The ‘Pank-a-Squith‘ board game, produced by the WSPU in 1909, pitted Emmeline Pankhurst against Herbert Asquith, again on a spiral board. This time, progress was made from the outside (‘home’) to the central goal of the House of Parliament, avoiding Holloway along the way.

Many more games and toys were produced by the suffragettes themselves, for propaganda purposes as much as fundraising, and as Kenneth Florey points out, toughthe ostensible justification for their production was to introduce children to the aims of the movement, many of these toys and games actually were aimed at adults” (ain’t it always the way?). So here might also be some of the modern ancestors of our contemporary Games for Change and Persuasive Games.

But merely pointing out that suffragism entered into popular culture, of which games were a part, at the beginning of the twentieth century isn’t to answer Kevin’s key question, which is how engaging with the idea of the suffragettes and their movement might fit into the ‘pleasing feedback loops’ of actual gameplay without appearing to be a crass bolt-on to a generic game. As Martha Henson and I have spent a lot of time saying, making successful engagement games relies on finding a sympathetic entanglement between how the game is played and what it’s trying to get across.

Cataloguing some of the games and toys of the suffrage movement, Elizabeth Crawford talks about “the translation of the mechanics of the women’s suffrage campaign into board and card games”. But what mechanics? The Game of Suffragette could be played in sides. Collected cards equalled points in the form of votes with which a suffrage bill could be passed: politics played as a balance of forces. One could playfully take a political position not necessarily one’s own in the safety of one’s own home.

The key mechanic of the board games seems to be progress. Whether escaping from jail or making your  way from the ‘home square’ to the House of Commons, the aim is to propel the suffragette forward to achieve her aim. ‘Progress’ towards democratic equality for women forms part of the narrative of both the WSPU and our own historical understanding of the suffragette movement. The satisfaction of a narrative completed and a goal achieved, is embedded in the game board and rules.

Kevin’s right that it’s hard to make all this work in contemporary video games, which are complex to create and to costly to make, and that ‘smaller, more casual games will struggle’ in games’ overcrowded attention economy. Modern technology might well better be employed in making facsimiles of these Edwardian games via colour reproduction and 3D-printed game pieces than in trying to create new video games about the suffragettes. But I think that finding such a cornucopia of historical gaming culture attached to the suffragette movement, and the creation of both persuasive and commercial games in suffragism’s own moment, suggests that the social history might not be such an outlier when it comes to making games.

Seven takeaways from Museums and the Web 2013

23 Apr
Digital curating panel, illustration by Paige Dansinger

Digital curating panel, illustration by Paige Dansinger

I didn’t have any takeaways in Portland; one night I didn’t even eat dinner, and I didn’t get any Voodoo Donuts either. But I did go to some great sessions, meet some great people, and learn some interesting stuff. What follows is personal reflection as much as dissemination; there’s stuff to return to here.

The instrumentality of strategy. I’m writing a digital strategy at the moment. It’s not the most fun I’ve ever had. I’ve heard a lot of people in other organisations say that you don’t need a digital strategy: you need an engagement strategy, a communications strategy, or just an institutional  strategy. But one of the themes that emerged during the session on strategy was the use of digital strategies within institutions as a means of acquiring resources, attention, or recognition. It might seem arse-about-face, but the commonality of the experience (and I can feel the truth of it in my own situation) suggests that it’s not necessarily perverse, perhaps just part of the growing pains of digital departments. Sarah Hromack‘s excellent Institutional Strategy Digest zine launched at the session added a much-needed dose of humour to a topic that’s highly susceptible to pomposity.

Gamification fireworks. In a session variously titled ‘Let the Games Begin‘ or ‘Put a badge on it’, the debate kicked off as soon as the panellists started speaking. Bruce Wyman put the case for a behavioural economics of museums based not on the bottom line of cheap entry and bargains but on meaningful long-term relationships with museums. Sharna Jackson retorted that whatever the merits of the approach, it had nothing to do with games, and that badge systems often lead to karma-whoring behaviour that has serious consequences in situations like the Boston bombings. Kate Haley Goldman (who knows her games) valiantly tried to steer a middle course, but the debate was already spilling out onto the floor and into the backchannel. It was agreed at least that we may be approaching ‘peak badges’. It’s reassuring to see the critical spirit alive and kicking at Museums and the Web, not merely accepting every new innovation that the Masters of the Valley hand down.

Collaboration rules. Both the workshop I ran and the paper I presented were collaborations with people from othe institutions; the workshop with Sharna Jackson, the paper with the redoubtable Suse Cairns. Both were facilitated by the standard suite of cloud-based collaboration tools that we take for granted: gdocs, skype, dropbox. More importantly, collaboration was essential to the development of ideas. When you’re working with someone towards a definition of a shared project, there are many modes in which you can operate. Sometimes you try to write down what you think they’re already thinking (and sometimes fail); sometimes you get to try your ideas out before they’re fully formed; you can take it in turns to lead the process. Most importantly, your paper or presentation goes beyond just trying to fill your audience’s cup with the knowledge you have, and moves towards making and thinking new things.

I curate, you’re irate, we debate. The presentation Suse and I made of our paper on curation was a show of two halves. I tried to outline some art and museum-based models of curation, from Harald Szeemann to Iris Barry, that should inform what people do when they seek to ‘curate’ the plenipotent digital world; Suse offered a set of models from that very world that we might better take cognisance of within museums. It was gratifying that the ideas had some traction – Koven proposed a salon session immediately following, to carry on the discussion. Some of the debate felt stuck at the level of defining expertise; Seb Chan perhaps struck a nail on the head when he said that the difference between inside and outside museums was an question of the scale of the material. The best moments for me were when professional curators from outside the web/tech milieu made interventions stressing the importance of understanding curation historically rather than as a static practice. There’s an itch there that needs to be scratched some more.

Conversation as inspiration. Jennifer Trant always used to say that if you have the option of going to a session or having a conversation with a fellow delegate, have the conversation. I’m not scoffing at that after I randomly fell into a mind-blowing 90-minute conversation with Aaron Cope on Saturday lunchtime that began with Roombas then took in curation, artisanal integers, design chairs, savage modernism, raging at the sky, International Art English, rogue routers and the nature of collections data. Other excellent conversations were had with Annie Conway, Doug Mcfarlane, Ian Edelman, Ryan Donohue, Alan Hook, Oonagh Murphy, Seb Chan, Tim Lee, Paul Rowe, and Dave Patten.

All the world’s a stage. Larry Friedlander’s opening keynote proposed immersion as the keystone of on-site digital experiences. If some of his AR examples were unconvincing, the logic of the argument that in a world swimming in images we need to see anew through strength of experience was watertight. The closing plenary brought Punchdrunk producer Diane Borger to the ballroom via Facetime to discuss the success of Sleep No More as an immersive experience. Though the idea of bringing theatre to museums is undeniably thought-provoking, the MW audience was perhaps conditioned to see theatrical productions in terms of sets: the object as prop. I wonder whether there might be other kinds of less glamourously fictive theatre that we can also learn from, such as the verbatim theatre work of Jonathan Holmes, that begins with some of the same concerns as museums (history, evidence, people) to deliver theatrical experiences.

An arcade epiphany I’ve been producing & commissioning games for Wellcome Collection for 3 years now, but I’ve always had a touch of imposter syndrome about not being a real ‘gamer’, just someone who ‘gets it’. On Saturday night in Portland’s Ground Kontrol (in the company of genuinely awesome games people Sharna and Erica), a retro arcade bar stacked with classic pintables and original video game cabinets, as I aced the first light bike level on the original Tron game, I realised that video games really are and have been my thing. My own embodied understanding of ‘low latency’ is the fire button on Galaga, hammered with a flat hand. Arcade classics like this are islands in my childhood, in the brutalist concrete shopping mall I grew up near, in the strange hotels we stayed at on school trips. But I’m still shit at Donkey Kong.

Finished!

29 Oct
Wordle from the final text of my dissertation.

Wordle from the final text of my dissertation.

I finished my Masters. Completed my dissertation on a laptop trembling on the verge of implosion, handed it in and…. even the expected anticlimax (no mark or overall grade for several months) was anticlimactic. In a few days my library card runs out and I’m back to being a pleb, begging for articles on #ICanHazPDF. In lieu of any tangible sense of achievement, I only have reflections on the experience.

I think I made the right choice of course. Not only because studying bang on the doorstep of work makes it easier to get to the library in the lunch break; I’m glad I didn’t choose  distance learning. There’s something about the immanent presence of other people that makes learning easier for me. People to bounce ideas off, to contradict , to find out more about, with different backgrounds and opinions, make all the difference. There were only a couple of places this didn’t work. The core course was taught by ten tutors in rotation, so none ever really got as far as getting the hang of the classroom dynamic; one other course was taught lecture-style rather than seminars. Facing front, we could hardly see each others’ faces, let alone start conversations.

I’m also glad that I chose an interdisciplinary course rather than a ‘museum studies’ course. The genesis of the Birkbeck course seems to have been a shared interest in something like ‘the problem of museums’ across several departments, rather then being rooted in archaeology or curation (although a lot of it was broadly in the area of art history). It didn’t feel like a museum career course as much as some others I looked at. Nevertheless, as part of the core course we did have to sit through a couple of slightly painful practical sessions on ‘how to get a job in a museum’. If I wanted to ‘get a job in a museum’ I wouldn’t start by doing any kind of museum course – I’d start by learning to do something useful that a museum needs, like being a press officer, a marketer, an educator, a conservationist, or even a website editor.

I was lucky enough to be able to do a module at UEL; Birkbeck organised the exchange of students with another new kid on the MAs-in-cultural-heritage block. How different two London universities can be. From the 19th century cosiness of Bloomsbury to new buildings on freezing docksides, rattled by planes landing at City Airport every few minutes. UEL felt part of a different London: less affluent, less white, less secure. But classes were twice as long, discussions longer and more divergent; sometimes watching entire films. Tutors who were more politically committed, practicing artists. Even the idea of ‘visual culture’ seemed to mean something different, more steeped in an explicitly political legacy of cultural studies, than it did at Birkbeck.

There were some crossovers with my day job – I wrote module essays on the Wellcome Library’s collection of AIDS posters, and on video games. A few colleagues very kindly read chapters of my dissertation. But in most ways, my professional and academic worlds remained separate. Something about being a student made me keen to present at academic conferences, and to extend my thinking about my work into areas closer to my study. In other ways the situation that Suse Cairns describes herself in, the critically engaged museum outsider, was reversed for me – attached to an institution I have a solid but non-academic authority to speak or write about my professional practice; being a postgraduate student changed a lot of my feelings and motivations, but added little to any authority I have to talk even about my own work.

On a mundane level the technology of study had changed immensely since I was last writing academic essays; and yet a lot hadn’t. Literature scrobblers like Mendeley and bibliographic management tools like Zotero make a huge difference to discovering and managing sources, but when it comes to spitting those sources out into footnotes and bibliographies, the limitations of referencing seemed painful. Such fine distinction between different types of printed journal and so little between vastly varying types of online sources (and a feeling, somehow hammered in an academic induction, that tutors would regard too many URLs-as-references as a sign of laziness). I spent a lot of time wishing I could just add hyperlinks to the text.

Writing the dissertation was a lonely business. Weeknights reading until my coffee-bulging eyes defocused; Saturdays spent spreading my papers out across a meeting room at work instead of playing with my son. (Protip for Bloomsbury-based students: work in the Wellcome Library. It’s spacious, peaceful, quiet and free to join.) Academic writing itself has both pleasures and pains. Precision requires discipline: you can’t afford to gloss over fuzzy thought with clever language; but few kinds of writing are worse than essays that have never been read aloud to hear how they sound. One of the biggest pains is that the writing you try so hard at is ultimately read by so few people.

Given the tedious way in which some quarters  of academia never stop banging on about it, it pains me slightly to say this, but twitter was really useful. People answered questions, responded to provocations, lecturers shared reading lists, artists put me in touch with curators, and researchers shared articles I didn’t have access to. An academic I have still never met in person gave me the most useful and detailed feedback on a chapter I had. Sometime I should make a separate list of people that I follow just because I quoted them in essays (based on what they actually tweet, it would be a very odd list).

I find myself asking what difference it’s all has made. I’ve learned a lot, including how to study; but study is really only its own end. Though it wasn’t really intended to, it might have opened up new career possibilities, even if I’m not sure exactly what. I met many interesting people, both students and tutors, and got a chance to put on a film show, which is always fun. Now, after nearly two years, I can read novels again without either guilt or impatience. In the first week after I submitted, I found myself wandering around bookshops and libraries, looking for things to be interested in next. Processing, insects, microbiological images all suggest themselves. But no more essays just yet.

Screening the Museum

3 Jul
Elizabeth Price: User Group Disco

Elizabeth Price: User Group Disco

Screening the Museum, a programme of artists’ film and video about museums, took place at the Birkbeck Cinema on Gordon Square on Friday 29th June 2012. It was programmed by me and presented by Suzannah Biernoff and me, with Laura Mulvey introducing the second session.

The films in the programme all took museums and collections as their subject in one way or another, from the examination and animation of objects to the museum as a site of interaction, to the critique of museum institutions.

The running order for the first session, a compilation of shorts, was:

Mouse Heaven, Dir Kenneth Anger, 2004, 11 mins

While Darwin Sleeps, Dir Paul Bush, 2004, 5 mins

The Phantom Museum, Dir Quay Brothers, 2003, 12 mins

Narrative Remains, Dir Karen Ingham, 2009, 12 mins

Museum of Stolen Souls, Dir Chris Elliott, 1993, 7 mins

Historia Naturae (Suita), Dir Jan Švankmajer, 1967, 9 mins

Monkey King Causes Havoc in the Heavenly Palace, Dirs Cai Yuan and Jian Jun Xi, 2004, 10 mins

Every Painting in the MoMA on 10 April 2010, Dir Chris Peck, 2010, 2 mins

Museum Hours (Preview), Dir Jem Cohen, 2012, 7 mins

Hole, Dir Adam Chodzko, 2007, 12 mins [excerpt]

User Group Disco, Dir Elizabeth Price, 2009, 15 mins

After a short break, Laura Mulvey introduced a fascinating film she made with Mark Lewis at the moment of the USSR’s collapse in 1991:

Disgraced Monuments, Dirs Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis, 1994, 50 mins

and discussion of its implications continued apace over wine and food in the Gordon Square basement.

Links above to online versions of the films screened are offered in the following spirit:

The difference between watching a postcard-sized, poor resolution image of a film and truly experiencing that film can be correlated to students with seeing a photograph (or photocopy!) of a painting vs. the genuine item. Teach this as a form of media literacy.

which is from Jem Cohen’s The Double {+} Anchor: Notes Towards a Common Cause, a manifesto for the support of independent artists’ moving image well worth reading (we were very pleased to be screening films from LUX artists moving image collection and to have their support for the programme).

You can download the programme notes (pdf).

My interest is (natch) particularly in the work of (experimental) moving image artists who take the museum as their subject of representation. If you’re interested in the broader field of interaction between cinema and museums, check out the programme of last year’s conference Moving Image and Institution: Cinema and the Museum in the 21st Century to see who’s working on what in the field.

Prehistories of New Media Art

16 Jan
Ben Laposky, Oscillon 4.

Ben Laposky, Oscillon 4.

Notes (mostly) from class, Wednesday 11th January 2012.

This term, my final module is ‘Museums and Galleries in the Digital Age’, taught by artist and researcher Nick Lambert. The format looks like it’s going to be quite lecture-driven, and so I’m hazarding a return to blogging to try and process thoughts and ideas coming out of the class.

Week 1’s class and reading was entitled ‘Introducing New Media in Art’, but looked largely at the developments of technology in relationship to art throughout the twentieth century. Individual art movements have their foundational myths: Tristan Tzara at the Cabaret Voltaire, Kosuth’s manifesto, and even Hirst’s Freeze, that posit a rupture with the past, a definitive new way of seeing and making. Not so much with ‘new media art’. While it implicitly begins with the use of computers in fine art in the 1960s, most histories of it tend to look back to the beginning of the 20th century to establish both precedence and continuity for the use of technology in fine art, and in particular to Kinetic and Op(tical) art for aesthetic approaches. In this respect, media art history as a discipline shares something more with academic parvenus like ‘visual culture’ or the ‘digital humanities’ that seek to establish both their necessity and their legitimacy as a focus for research and teaching. The slightly grudgeful tone of Oliver Grau’s introduction to Media Art Histories has something in common with Nicholas Mirzoeff’s to the Visual Culture Reader.

Peter Weibel’s ‘It is Forbidden Not to Touch’ in Grau’s reader makes the case for ‘algorithimic’ art (governed by rules) emerging in Kinetic art and Fluxus both before and contemporaneously with computer-based art. The principles of virtuality, immersive environments and interactivity, all to become core characteristics of computer-driven art had, he argues, been established by kinetic art well before the introduction of the computer itself as an interface. Edward Shanken’s introductory survey in Art and Electronic Media is broad in and light on theory, but similarly makes the case for the manipulation of light (from impressionism onwards) and shape (Duchamp and Gabo) in fine art preceding the use of digital technology.

There’s something slightly recursive about this legitimacy-seeking. ‘New media art’ is considered to have receded from importance in the artworld between the 1960s and the 1990s. (Charlie Gere’s ‘New Media Art and the Gallery in the Digital Age’ is particularly good on this, identifying 1970 as the year in which Jack Burnham’s ‘Software’ at Jewish Museum in NY was followed by Kynaston McShine’s ‘Information’ that set an agenda eschewing the art of systems for the aesthetic of administration). The emergence of net.art, enabled and made accessible by the internet, re-introduced computational art to the art world. Art historians then sought to contextualise it in the history of digital and technological art.

Reading older works about media art, it’s always tempting to see what predictions they ‘got wrong’. Brian Winston’s ‘A Mirror for Brunelleschi’ (1987) [JSTOR£] in fact predicts the development of television though digital to HD fairly accurately. Winston stands against technological determinism, and for social understanding of representational technologies (his explanation of the way in which Technicolor film was effectively a racist technology in Technologies of Seeing still blows my mind a little). In ‘A Mirror…’ Winston offers ‘six slogans’ for artists working with technology that are less timebound:

  1. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush – technologies that are prevalent and socially embedded can be more powerful for artists than bleeding edge developments.
  2. Fear the Greeks – new and more impressive technologies may not prevail in the marketplace
  3. Festina lente (‘Hurry slowly’) – technological progress is much slower than it seems. Holographs have been in the scientific imagination since 1947.
  4. Carpe Diem – seize and use whatever technology is available and works
  5. Fight the good fight – technology does not exist in isolation: use what is socially beneficial
  6. Horses for courses – don’t let technology master art; use what is appropriate for the project

Theoretical touchstones for the lecture were CP Snow’s ‘Two cultures’ (I’m intrigued by the way i which computer technology sometimes stands in as a proxy for, or as access to the abstract idea of ‘science’); Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (does it or doesn’t it also apply to digital reproduction?) and Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’ (communications technology’s impact on our cognition).

Beyond that, it was an enjoyable romp through some interesting twentieth century avant-garde art. Marrying sound and music was an early impetus: 19th century ‘colour organs’ used musical keyboards to control the generation of light, and Oskar Fischinger sought to manifest ‘visual music’ through the cinematic movement of animated light, as did Mary Ellen Bute, who used oscilloscope images in some of her works. Ben Laposky’s Oscillons, photographs made from waveforms on oscilloscope screens coloured with filters are not only beautiful, but also solve the mystery of where Stereolab acquired their album title. John Whitney crossed the line from using an ‘analogue computer’ used to generate rhythmically precise images on film to pioneering the use of digital images in film. Some kind of ‘virtual space’ is evident in Naum Gabo’s Standing Wave and Alexander Calder’s kinetic mobiles.

Whether this constitutes a convincing pre-history of ‘new media art’, I’m not sure. Personally, much of the moving image stuff I’ve encountered as ‘experimental film’, a form that I’d consider to be still going strong in both black and white cubes. For my money, while given scant attention in many media art pre-histories Len  Lye’s work embraces both the kinetic principles of Calder and the visual music of Fischinger and Bute (while also being just more bloody beautiful), but fits less easily into the pre-media art paradigm, partly perhaps because Lye’s underlying philosophy was more humanistic and mystical than algorithmic. When establishing legitimacy with historical precedents, what you exclude can be as telling as what you include.

How useful can you make a micro-collection online?

18 Oct

Badges

Badges by Ellen Munro, on Flickr

This term I’m not at Birkbeck, I’m at UEL. The MA Museum Cultures has a module-swap arrangement with UEL’s MA in Heritage Studies, and so I’m going to Cyprus every week to study the Heritage and Visual Culture module with the artist and photographer Roshini Kempadoo.

The second coursework option has a ‘creative’ path, for which I’m going to attempt to create a very small online archive of my own, of (mostly political) badges that I wore during the 1980s and 1990s. Each badge will be accompanied by two stories/narratives: one about the campaign that the badge represents; and one about why I wore it, and what I was doing at the time I wore it. I’m planning to host the images of the badges and the campaign stories on Flickr, and then embed the images together with the personal stories on a hosted wordpress.com blog.

Now I’m not expecting a call from Europeana or the Culture Grid anytime soon. But one of the things I’d like to use this project to explore is how useful/usable to others a micro-collection like this might be. Should I be trying to make it possible for others to search and access my tiny collection alongside other collections large and small? In my professional milieu there are lots of debates about the pros and cons of aggregation — but if I were serious about making this available for others to use in the context of cultural heritage, what should I do?

In particular, I’m thinking about:

Licensing: What’s the most useful licence to apply to both images and text? I’d like to be credited for the texts I’ve written if they’re used elsewhere.

Linked data? Does this have any application here, or is that a thing for big institutions? How would I even start?

Specialist aggregators? Is this a Community Archive?

Other repositories? I’m planning to create quite nice hi-res images of the badges. Should I also put them somewhere like the Wikimedia Commons (where they’ll be divorced from the stories I’ve attached to them)?

I’d be really interested in your thoughts and comments about this, from whatever angle they come. Thanks.

Public photography in museums: a survey

14 Sep
The Coral Reef

The Coral Reef by Doilum, on Flickr

I’ve been thinking a lot about personal photography and museums recently. As a civilian photographer it’s become a habit to ask, as soon as I enter a museum, ‘what’s your photography policy?’ And while I’m frequently pleasantly surprised to find that the policy is ‘please take photographs’, I’m also often surprised to have to sign a contract or wear a special sticker to be able to take photographs in a (usually publicly-funded museum). It’s sometimes baffling, and a little frustrating.

At the same time, in my professional life I run more than a few Flickr pools, where I actively solicit photographs taken in or around my museum.This is a bog-standard activity for most museums these days, and for museum staff who prize ‘social’ (which is usually to say: online community-based) interactions with their audiences, photography can be very important.

In order to try to unpick this apparent contradiction, I recently disseminated a short survey to museum professionals in an attempt to understand the current status of public photography in museums. I particularly wanted to find out what the factors determining permission to take photographs are, and whether they were in flux. The sample wasn’t particularly large or scientific [1], but I think I got a large enough set of responses (52) to get a sense of some interesting answers. I asked four questions: results and short commentary follow; there’s a longer interpretation at the end.

As a civilian photographer, I found the results encouraging — it looks like the pendulum is swinging towards greater permission for photography. As a museum professional, I found it slightly less encouraging: I think there are some barriers to greater photographic freedom that I have less power over and will be harder to dismantle.

1. Is photography permitted in permanent exhibitions in your gallery?

Over half the museums responding indicated that photography was permitted, and that their understanding of ‘personal’ use included posting photos to social websites. Reasons for complication included loan objects in permanent collections, and official ambivalence:

“allowed for non-commercial purposes”

“officially it’s prohibited but staff are allowed to turn a blind eye”

2. Is photography permitted in temporary exhibitions in your gallery?

Temporary exhibitions present a very different picture. Prohibition and complication together form the majority of cases, with less than a quarter of museums freely permitting personal/social photography.

The reason for complication? Overwhelmingly, restrictions are external to the institution itself:

“depends on the owner(s) of the displayed objects”

“photographic restriction from the lender”;

“depends on the temporary exhibition and the policy of the lender of individual objects or whole exhibitions”

“depends on the restrictions required by borrowers”

“depends on any restrictions placed by artists, funders or lenders”

“some touring exhibitions don’t allow photography”.

The significant difference between permanent and temporary exhibitions suggests that this isn’t a conservation issue but one of intellectual property rights. Particularly where a temporary exhibition involves loans from multiple sources or commercial galleries and  contemporary artists, public photography seems tricky to broker. It probably isn’t at the top of most exhibition organisers’ priority lists either.

But is this a static state of affairs? I also asked:

3. Has your photography policy changed in the last three years?


The results suggest that the situation is in flux, and that museums and galleries are moving towards a more photographically permissive environment.

Lastly, I asked for general comments.

4. Is there anything else about photography in your gallery or museum that you’d like to add?

These fall into a number of categories.

Straightforward issues of access:

“Especially for paper objects it’s a wonderful non-damaging way for people to take copies away with them.”

Institutional complications:

“For loans from other institutions we need to change the policy”

A suggestion, opposed to the general utopian current of capturing and sharing, that photography might be a mildly antisocial activity:

“A lot of visitors do not even ask if photography is permitted, but assume that they have a right to photograph any thing that they wish. Are there any suggested formula for a notice explaining the restrictions especially if other visitors are captured in the shots”

The disproportionate use of institutional resources in policing any policy.

“It may be all well and good to have a policy but policing it, especially if restrictive, is another matter entirely! Resource intense”

An awareness of the online ‘social’ environment.

“We have several Flickr pools into which we invite images, some of which are of the venue/gallery”

Resignation:

“Very hard to stop now with the spread of smartphones.”

A recognition of the distinct natures of photography and museums (my personal favourite)

“photography posted online or in print is neither a substitute for the museum experience, nor threat to attendance”

Interpretation

What might all this mean? Photography is rapidly evolving as a digital and social artform. ‘Personal’ photographs aren’t kept in lonely handfuls in albums any more waiting for their annual viewing to relatives; they’re published, labelled, tagged and discussed, part of an ongoing flow of conversation involving text and images. Perhaps you could say that ‘interpersonal photography’ has replaced ‘personal’ photography.

Photography in museums can therefore also be a complex thing. When you’re taking a photograph, you could be doing any one of a number of things, not just ‘capturing’ but also interpreting. You might be:

  • Making a ‘copy’ of the artwork/object you’re looking at for later contemplation
  • Capturing a moment: the moment of the visit; or a temporary exhibition
  • Sharing the experience of visiting a museum with friends, communities of interest, and strangers
  • Interpreting a work or object that you’re looking at: using a photograph to understand what you’ve seen

The results of the survey seem to me to reinforce an almost cruel irony. The museum objects which you are allowed to photograph are often those least in need of personal capture and interpretation (they’re always there, many images of them already exist, they have been catalogued and interpreted) whereas the things that might benefit most from personal photography are those to which there is least access.

It’s quite easy to take pictures of objects at the V&A, for example: individual objects which are on permanent display and have already been photographed many times before.  By contrast, Michelangelo Pistoletto’s temporary exhibition at the Serpentine is large, complex, immersive and will soon disappear, but photography is strictly forbidden.[2] You just have to look at the selection of photos on Flickr taken in Mike Nelson’s Coral Reef installation to see the layers of meaning and interpretation that mass social photography can bring to a rich, allusive work of contemporary art.

The ubiquity of multipurpose mobile devices makes things more difficult. It’s going to be hard for museums to be plastering their objects and displays with QR codes at the same time as attempting to restrict the use of the only device that can make sense of a QR code (a digital camera).

Outside in the real world, street photography is booming, but pervasive digital imaging has also become cause for conflict. In some places photography is seen as an essentially suspect activity, framed by an ‘anti-terror’ agenda. The response from amateur photographers has been to organise pressure groups, and also to inform themselves of their rights, sometimes in the form of a ‘bust card’ that contains a lawyerly summary of photographers’ rights which can be used in negotiation with representatives of authority. Interestingly, this particular bust card includes a passage that could easily be taken to refer to most public exhibitions, whether permanent or temporary.

It is not an infringement of copyright to take photographs of buildings, sculptures and works of artistic craftsmanship that are permanently situated in a public place or in premises that are open to the public.

So while the results of the survey seem to demonstrate that museums understand that the issue is ‘rights’ in the intellectual property inside the museum; whether this is compatible with the ‘rights’ of the public to capture and interpret their world, including its cultural heritage, through photography is less certain.

I’d be very interested to hear of others’ experiences and viewpoints, both from photographers and museum professionals. Post in the comments below, or talk to me on twitter.

[1] I disseminated the survey through my personal networks of professional contacts on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, The Museums Computer Group JISCMail list, and the Museum 3 community. The small sample was balanced, including both big and small museums, art galleries and social history museums.

[2] I’ve been inspired by this exercise to try and make a much clearer and more welcoming statement about photography for my own institution. (Now everybody else just has to do the same thing & make them machine-readable using a universally-agreed XML standard.)

Welcome to the dolls’ hair house

5 Jun

The former London home of Sigmund and Anna Freud, now the Freud Museum, is enveloped in a cats cradle of rope made of dolls’ hair. Standing as it does on a prosperous suburban street of imposing redbrick villas, the bound house looks like a scene from a dream itself, a dream of home denied. Such dreams are typically untangled on a therapeutic descendant of the very couch that sits inside the museum; the fairytale Rapunzel tress-ropes also suggest the kind of psychological decoding of myth and culture that Freud indulged in.

Alice Anderson’s ‘Childhood Rituals’ invades the inside of Freud’s home too. Balls of doll’s hair, looms and figurines invade the rooms of artefacts; in Freud’s study itself the hair is spun into a web through which visitors are forced to regard the domestic interior. Anderson’s work refers to childhood trauma, re-enacting the neurotic pulling of dolls; hair that she would perform as a child when left alone by her mother.

Anderson studied with Christian Boltanski, an artist whose work frequently references the structure and display of museums and archives, who appears in both Kynaston McShine’s Museum as Muse and James Putnam’s Art and Artifact. However, as an intervention in a museum space, Anderson’s work seems to have moved on from the practices of institutional critique where the work’s critical relationship is to the gallery or museum that frames it. Anderson’s work instead relates directly to the subject matter of the museum (that is, the psychoanalytic interpretation of everyday life).

The Freud Museum is modestly sized as a museum, yet has an established track record of artistic exhibitions and intervention that supplement the object displays. This actually isn’t all that atypical for object-based museums these days. While the orthodox view of museum collections continues to be that ‘objects tell stories’ (a curious misascription of agency: it’s rather that we tell stories about objects) many object-based museums (that is, not art galleries) are increasingly looking to contemporary artists to do something for them. What is that something that they are doing?

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