I’m so upset i can hardly type. I cannot believe that UK is heading for leaving the EU. Living in Australia, I’ve got used to the idea of two homes; but it’s really hard to see the UK as home at the moment.

Australia is far from perfect. Refugee policy, treatment of aboriginal culture, extractive industry, sexism… There’s lots to dislike. But the trajectory is towards better: there are active conversations about building new futures, a sense of hope, a self-reliance that it can be done. Anger is motivating positive change.

I left the UK in the afterglow of the 2012 Olympics & Paralympics. When a multicultural, hopeful Britain at ease with itself as a post-colonial nation felt like it was just round the corner. But now, the impetus for change looks like in reverse: into a small-minded, xenophobic and evidence-free bubble of petty hate and blame. It looks like a majority of people hold the EU responsible for the Austerity measures that they voted for.

So while I can’t say either culture feels perfect, I’m much happier with the Australian trend than the British one.


What can I do to be a better collaborator?

My working group in our adaptive leadership training program is looking at collaboration: within our museum’s context, what is it, how can it be effective and deliver value to our public. Challenged to arrive at three questions that get to the core of the issues, I reflected on advice that a colleague received from a 360 reviewer recently, that ‘the only thing any of us can ever really influence is our own behaviour.’

Which led me to these three points.

  1. How can I better forgive, and work with the grain of, your foibles of personal style, professional codes and pressures of role in order to collaborate with you effectively?
  2. What can I do to overt my foibles of personal style, professional codes and pressures of role so that I am easier to collaborate with?
  3. How can I forgive myself for the inevitable remaining consequential negative impacts of my approach on my collaborator, in order that I may remain in an adult, not parent/child/codependent, state of interpersonal behaviour?

The last is hardest. However hard we try we won’t always get it right. And as i have learnt over the past three weeks of conference challenge, there are many reasons why someone may find collaboration really hard. But it will not serve our goals if I am too riven with fear and guilt to continue to act. And it cuts both ways – my difficulties in collaboration are likely to be my problem, not yours, and it is up to me to fix them. Remaining Adult-Adult (in the transactional analysis sense) is essential – I must notice and resist the push from guilt and fear to enter into a non-Adult state.

Easy to write. Hard to do.


An idea: Director of Inclusive Practice

First all the caveats. I’m not well read in this, I don’t know how I may be misunderstanding issues or behaving offensively, doing all the white- and man-splaining. Please believe I mean well; I’d love to know who/where has done this thinking already. I asked one colleague for advice – they added loads more to this – but any residual wrongness is mine alone (& not my employer’s either).

The MA16 conference left me reeling with heightened personal awareness of the systemic privilege I had in my attaining my job. Moana Jackson and David Garneau’s keynotes, then the tone and volume of so many speakers, questioners from the floor and on twitter, have all given perspectives with huge generousity. They’re gifts I don’t yet fully (may never) understand the value of.

So prompted, I’m working through an idea. Continue reading “An idea: Director of Inclusive Practice”

Advocating for digital and the finite bowl problem

Reflecting on watching the MuseumNext conference. How different a conference looks when followed on twitter from another hemisphere!

As always, this post is a half-formed thought; I write to clear my head and see what others have to say. Critique nicely 😉

I see a great deal of powerful advocacy for more/better digital work in museums. But I’m uneasy about its impact. I’m not critiquing the vision; rather critiquing an underlying assumption in the method: that better advocacy will lead to more/better digital.

Anyone remember being a student at the Pizza Hut salad bar? You have a bowl, you can fill it up as full as you can, get your money’s worth (so you’re fed with cash to spare for beer text books). Using onion rings to hold another tomato worked well.

The current digi advocacy seems to be ‘we need more…’ – similar to ‘squeeze more into the salad bowl’. We’ve just been through annual budget planning. There’s not a single department in the museum who can’t make a case for needing more – to fulfill statutory and moral needs, to serve our audiences better, to generate revenue… But no-one is advocating for less money in their field. No-one is saying ‘yes, you’re right, you need it more than I do’.

Museum’s generally agree we need more digital stuff – we all want more salad in the bowl. The problem is, if you want more peppers, you have to leave out some tomatoes. Who decides, in what framework, with what benchmarks? Someone has to lose, and Museums are generally made up of nice people.

The argument I often see is looking at superfans setting up communities with youtube channels and saying ‘why can’t we do that, it’s free?’ What this misses is that management attention is also a finite bowl. The senior team’s heads only have enough space for a certain amount of salad. What should they stop focusing on?

I would love to hear thoughts on what Museums should stop doing in order to do more digital. Fewer exhibitions, less scholarship, less outreach, less conservation…? Because until that’s the discussion we are having, i think a lot of advocacy for digital activity will remain a face/off between a preacher and a wall, in which the choir is passionately singing the same chorus, but hears only echoes.


Thinking about museums – back to source…

I love this and I’m posting it here just to never forget! From The Museum Experience Revisited, Falk and Dierking, 2013.



The activities of a museum should be designed to answer one single overarching question:

“How will my community be different in positive and recognized ways because this museum exists?”

To accomplish this, the following key issues need to be addressed:

1. Why do you exist? Who are you serving? In other words, who is your public (or publics) and what are the specific needs they have that you, as a museum, can satisfy better than anyone else?
2. What assets do you bring to the table? What are the internal assets your institution has, such as the human resources of staff, board and supporters; also the assets of collections, building and brand? How will you forge and maintain external partnerships and collaborations with like-minded organisations in the community that support and leverage your impact?
3. How will you support your mission? What is your business strategy? What is the unique combination of products and services you will provide to the public in order to satisfy specific public need and generate sufficient funding to keep your door open?

Stage Struck

This article was published in Museum Practice in July 2013. I was Head of Exhibitions at the National Railway Museum during the creation of the project, and curated a session at the Museum Association conference 2012 on this topic with colleagues from Historic Royal Palaces and the Natural History Museum.

Stage Struck

There’s a major redisplay of a quarter of a national museum in the offing. Perhaps we should start some research, select some objects? We certainly wouldn’t invite in some theatre consultants, and play games and make collages…or would we?

In 2010, the National Railway Museum started a major redevelopment of its Station Hall building. Twenty-year-old exhibits were removed, new visitor circulation routes introduced and the railway vehicle display was refreshed. The new vehicle arrangement created trains that could tell stories – a Royal train, a goods train – and installed minimal interpretation.

We then focused on the visitor experience across the entire hall – and ways we could bring to life the story of station.  There were myriad challenges, including the wide open space, and  low budgets (as ever!). And we realised that while we are experts in the railways, we are not experts in the experiences of passengers and how they use stations. We knew we needed to involve our audience – in the production and in the visitor experience.

Three things led us to theatrical thinking. The stories we felt we should explore were always choreographed against the clock, with the succession of players and choruses represented by the early morning freight traffic, rush hour, the confusion of day trippers. We had seen the success of our co-production (with York Theatre Royal) of The Railway Children, a traditional play within a non-traditional museum setting. This certainly told us that in people’s minds trains were more than historical narratives, and that a station’s role is that of a portal to other experiences. When we saw Enchanted Palace, we saw how evocatively real stories could be woven into a romantic and playful setting. In short, theatre was on our minds as an exciting approach.

But we did not want to turn the space over to artists, as we knew we required something that would last for many years. And we would not have actors – this was to be a permanent installation that must stand alone without facilitation. But how to pair theatrical thinking with strong exhibition design skills? The one thing we did have was time and freedom to experiment. Knowing this, we decided to begin with theatre, and appointed an experienced set designer, Ben Gerlis, and producer, Daljinder Singh, to help us develop our design brief.

We had five workshops, about a week apart. A cross-section of staff attended, some going to all five. We did things which were new and surprising to us, but quite normal to theatre companies – playing games; walking at different speeds around Station Hall’s ‘platforms’; looking at props. And eventually, from these workshops came a shared understanding of what we were trying to achieve, the stories to tell, and a suite of collages that expressed the content and emotion of each area. We were then ready to begin a more formal development, appointing designers and so on.

But now our research and development activities were highly targeted. We needed stories of lovers lost and found, of stoic goodbyes to sons off to war, and of commuters jostling for a seat. We sought these in the archives and through reminiscence work with community groups. Our design development focused on making spaces in which these stories could be experienced, and planning the props that would be needed for visitors to participate themselves.

We learnt much from our theatrical colleagues. Firstly, they challenged our assumptions about exhibitions. Theatre projects do not end until after closing night – each performance is a dress rehearsal for the next, and the director will try to improve the show during the run. They found our approach – exhibition team hands over to operations, and moves onto the next project – bizarre. What would it mean for us to consider the exhibition opening as a beginning rather than an end?

Our objects became props; tools to service a story, to assist an actor. Rather than displayed for their inherent meaning, the objects were chosen to support the narrative and spark emotional responses in visitors This broke down the barriers between the ‘authentic/real’ museum objects and ‘exhibit infrastructure’ – models and words.

The theatrical approach paid attention to the spaces between objects more than the objects themselves. Thinking about how people could move through the space, and become part of the story just by their presence, was a direct legacy of the workshop time spent walking, running, pausing, loitering on platforms.

Most of all, we learnt to stop worrying about audience reactions – the idea of appealing to everyone is absurd to theatre professionals. Rather, do one thing honestly and well, and allow an audience to find it.

I left the NRM halfway through the project. Going back to see the end result is an interesting experience. My concerns had been that the experience may overload or trivialize the objects, or that it might fall flat and fail to engage. Actually, it does neither.

The space is still wide and open, with grand vistas offering long views of trains and a chance to promenade through the space. In places, gently lit exhibtry blends real artefacts with quirky props and minimal explanatory text. The overall architectural feel is one of a station environment. But at a smaller scale, it feels decidedly ‘unfinished’, inviting a visitor’s participation to complete the picture.

There is a hectic mix of design styles, and a plethora of different voices. It is initially puzzling – little guidance is given on how this gallery might be different to others – or how one might ‘use’ it. But, as I watched other visitors it became clear that people were intuiting their own ways to engage. The ‘gaps’ in the interpretation – the stories hinted at but untold – seem to provide a mental space for visitors to inhabit.

The trolley of wrapped parcels, of odd shapes and sizes in brown paper, conveys the idea of the ‘common carrier’ better than any text could. It is prompting conversations between visitors, and is also proving a hit with key stage 1 teachers, who are using it to encourage imagination and creativity in their visiting pupils.

The gallery is now more encouraging of reminiscence. There are many forms, but overheard phrases start with ‘I remember when…’ and ‘do you remember…’ Some unintended photo opportunities have emerged too – particularly the ‘just married’ display.

There’s a world of difference between the stage, the script and the performance. Museums attend to space and objects (or ‘props’) and neglect the notion of the audience as performers. Some visitors ignore the interventions and simply look at the trains and read the labels. However, some join in enthusiastically, playing the commuter footsteps game and arguing what the big pile of wrapped parcels might contain.

An idea we kept throughout development – differentiating between main characters and extras – creates space for different modes of engagement. Visitors can throw themselves into the action, or hang back a little, relying on the props or other visitors to occupy the stage.

It doesn’t work for everyone. Some of the audience do not enter into the playful spirit, and are clearly seeking out the more traditional displays and technical information, available elsewhere in the Museum. But this is ok – the Museum is large and diverse enough to provide different modes of engagement across the site.

Bringing the passenger experience into the gallery humanises and makes relevant the museum experience, complementing the other technical and engineering focused spaces of the Museum.

The space now reflects the transient and disposable nature of railway station experiences (tickets, parcels, a five minute wait) and contextualises this material culture far better than a traditional showcase display ever could. The deliberate lack of comprehensivity in the experience allows visitors to find/make their own place – as an obviously incomplete story it doesn’t make you feel you have to ‘get to the end’ or ‘know something’ at the end. It also offers fertile ground for the museum to exploit in its events and programmes over the coming years.

All too often museums have confined risky innovation to their events and programmes, but this shows the value of bringing this approach to permanent displays. Most importantly, it shows the value of self-reflection on our working practices, and the liberation that can come from stepping into the unknown.

my thanks to all those who assisted with the project, and commented on drafts of this article; @RebeccaA_MA , @rutheleach and @savage_joey2 in particular.

Audio Obscura

Experienced Audio Obscura, the Lavinia Greenlaw sound piece, at St Pancras Station today. It is beautiful on so many levels.

Wandering around in noise-cancelling headphones, the first thing I feel is a dislocation from my surrounding, but also extreme awareness of my footsteps. Each step creates a thump in my ear. My choices to move or not become important for their sound, not their movement.

The artificial background noise is persuasive, and the mini-narratives emotive and confusing. But for me, these playlets aren’t the point.

I begin to believe I am eavesdropping on strangers, with no embarrassment. And so I begin to stare at people. If I can listen, I can look, right?

It takes me a while to realise what I was doing. When I do, though, my guilt is focused on my listening – I take the headphones off. When I put them back on, I resolve to only listen, and sit down to concentrate.

Then I realise why it’s a station setting – the characters are all emotionally stationary. The conflict of listening to emotional stasis while watching movement becomes disconcerting again. (yes, I’m staring at people again.)

Re-entering the normal is weird again. It doesn’t feel as real; my superpowers are gone and travellers are once again opaque.

What could we do with this in museums? The idea of eavesdropping on visitors in the exhibition environment is interesting but obvious. I’d like to put recorded project team discussions within the finished space – arguments between conservators and developers about whether an object could be touched, for instance.

It does demonstrate the need to move even further beyond the audioguide, anyway.