If there’s one thing you do in September…

…  visit Lightscape at Houghton Hall (Norfolk)

Why? Houghton Hall is a place like many of those the National Trust looks after, but still family-owned and managed. David, the current Marquess of Cholmondeley, is, like generations before him, a patron of the arts. Houghton Hall gives us a glimpse of some National Trust places might look like, if patronage and collecting had continued up to the present day. The gardens are a place of surprise and delight, with contemporary sculptures including a Richard Long (above) and, from Jeppe Hein, Waterflame, a burning fountain. But of special interest this year is a retrospective of works by James Turrell, including two permanent commissions for the Houghton Hall landscape. Turrell’s deceptively simple works are incredibly powerful, and you’ll likely never again have a chance to see so many together in the same place.

But it’s not just the art, the service is exemplary. And for the late night openings on Fridays and Saturdays, there’s a pop-up café, in keeping with spirit of place, that we can all learn from.

Yes it’s a little bit out of the way for those of us who don’t live in Norfolk, but make a weekend of it, it is worth it.  


Heritage Jam 2015 – sign up soon!

Heritage Jam at York University – registration opens on 20th August

I had a great Skype chat today with Neil and Paul from Info-Point. I’d first met them a couple of years back, and wrote about their product here. In fact, I’d put them in touch with one of my client properties at the time, Saddlescombe Farm, that had a problem which I thought Info-point might be the perfect solution for. It was – and Info-point have now supplied solutions to a number of out-of-the-way (and out of signal) National Trust sites across the country.

Their challenge is that they are technologists, not storytellers, but sometimes places come to them hoping they can supply the content, not just the platform. To this end, they are working hard at building a network of interpretation designers and content providers, who they hope will use their technology when heritage sites come calling.

We were chatting idly about setting up a two-day “hacking” event, to bring together heritage custodians, storytellers and technologists. While we were talking I thought “we could call it something like Heritage Jam!”

Afterwards I thought – “Heritage Jam… that too good an idea to be mine. Where have I heard it before?” and a quick Google later, I knew where. York University will be hosting Heritage Jam towards the end of September. I missed it last year, and made a mental not not to miss it this year. OK, so that mental note came back a bit garbled, but it came back in time for me to get myself on the mailing list. Registration opens and closes on the 20th August. So if you want to go, set a reminder in your diary! If you can’t get to York, there’s and on-line participation month kicking on the 20th of August too, so check that out.

Let’s talk about “affect” – part two

Maurizio Cattelan, HIM, 2001 installation view, Haus der Kunst, Munich.
Copyright: Maurizio Cattelan.

Last week, I introduced, from the essay by  Michelle Henning, Legibility and Affect: Museums as New Media in Exhibition Experiments, the concepts of remediation and affect. She quotes Brian Massumi‘s book Parables for the Virtual, which “describes affect as distinct from emotion and expression and in terms of intensity of sensations.” So, in the case of the introduction of spotlighting at the Gesellschafts-und Wirtschaftsmuseum in the 1930s, “it seems that the exhibition lighting increased the intensity of the viewing experience, without necessarily determining the exact emotional content or meaning of the charts and models.”

Now, this seems a little suspect to me. Here, she appears to be suggesting that “affective” lighting works as an amplifier of emotion response, having set it up, in her earlier discussion of theatre lighting, as a trigger of emotional expression. Admittedly she does also say that “other writers on affect see less distinction between affect and emotion.” But, continuing her theme of affect being more about intensity of emotion that the emotion itself, she goes on to talk about affective multimedia, describing the thrilling rides and technologies of the mid-twentieth century worlds fairs, and experiments in interaction at art exhibitions of the 1930s (apparently the use of peepholes at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery was mocked by critics as “a kind of artistic Coney Island”).

Another essay in the same book, Exhibition as Film by Mieke Bal also describes affect as an amplifier of emotion. She compares the 2001 artwork Him (pictured above) by Maurizio Cattelan as a cinematic close-up:

A close up immediately cancels the whole that precedes it, leaving us alone, thrown out of our linear time, alone with a relationship to the image that is pure affect.

In her definition of affect, Mieke Bal at least admits that she is understanding affect “without resorting to psychology”. She describes affective media (mostly images) as those which give us pause: “between a perception that troubles us and an action we hesitate about, affect emerges.”

All of which makes me think of the more prosaic “wow” moments or “anchor experiences” mentioned in my two recent posts on Interpretive Planning. So is that all affect is? A fancy “academic” word for “wow”? Maybe, in cultural theory it is. But, unlike Bal, I want to resort to psychology to see if I can understand it a little better.

I’m on holiday next week, but I’ve found a great book to take with me for a bit of light reading. It’s called The Archaeology of Mind, by Panksepp and Biven. It is, I hasten to add nothing to do with archaeology, but as I study in an archaeology department, I just had to give it a go. Lets see what they think “affect” is, or even if they mention it at all…



Let’s talk about “affect” – part one

An example of Otto Neurath’s Isotype system

I’ve been reading Exhibition Experiments edited by Sharon MacDonald and Paul Basu. It’s part of my effort to fill the gap in my literature review on modern museum interpretive planning. It hasn’t been brilliantly helpful in that regard. The editors point out “the exhibition experiments described in this volume are not experiments in didacticism. The purpose of their experimentation is not to innovate ever more effective ways of disseminating knowledge,” which is a bit of a slap on the wrist for me because, as one researches storytelling in cultural heritage spaces, one tends towards the didactic and the patronising or “perpetuating illusory securities” as they put it.

So most of the experiments described take place in contemporary art spaces, because as the editors’ introduction continues “exhibitions are generally expensive and this may make some  museum directors, managers and trustees reluctant to allow experimental exhibitions to go ahead.” These exhibitions are therefore temporary in nature, challenging and ideologically sensitive. They discomfort the visitor and expect visitors to “play and active role as navigators, way-finders and meaning makers; drawing their own observations and conclusions without the reassuring presence of an “authority” to defer to.” (p16)

That’s said there are two concepts that leap out of the book and are applicable to all exhibition design. The first is “Remediation“, from Bolter and Grusin’s eponymous book. They are cited by Michelle Henning in her essay Legibility and Affect: Museums as New Media (pp 25-46). She explains that “they outline various ways in which new media remediate other media, from being a supposedly transparent means of accessing other older media forms, through to absorbing older media so that they appear as their technically updated descendants.”

She goes on to describe how museums are remediated, most obviously through “virtual museums,” but also through the introduction of new media and computer technologies “in the form of new media art, information kiosks and touchscreens, and databases.” She also says that remediation might be found in exhibition design:

For instance, I have noted elsewhere now natural history exhibits relating to biodiversity seem to resemble networks, and “branching tree” structures. In their use of diverse exhibitionary techniques, many contemporary displays take on a a multimedia character similar to new media.

Her argument is that museums have been “remediating” since long before the term was coined. “In dioramas, for instance, realism and authenticity are underwritten by the use of the conventions of Romantic painting, combined with representational conventions drawn from photography and film. In other types of display, the authenticity of artefacts in enhanced by supplementing them with video footage or sound recordings.”

But her defining example of remediation is the introduction of spotlighting to the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in the 1930s. “It shed light not on artworks or artifacts in the strict sense, but on posters, charts photographs and models.” In a effort of communicate better with the museum’s intending clientelle, the working class population of Vienna, Otto Neurath, the director of the museum has worked with graphic designers  to create the Isotype system, a visual language for communicating statistical information around the museum. It was these framed black and red posters that were the exhibits of the museum, and the first items to be lit with what we now think of as museum lighting.

Neurath had a practical reason for this – the working classes only had leisure to visit the museum at night. But Henning argues that such lighting “was already understood as an expressive and dramatic medium” since its introduction in theatre fifty years earlier. Shining a spotlight on an actor or an object, bringing them out of the darkness, enhances the emotional content of Wagnerian opera, and even social statistics.

The use of spotlighting is, in other words affective.

In my next post I’ll look in more detail at affect, and whether or not it is distinct from emotion.

Whose history?

New Museum Theory and Practice, published in 2006, is more theory (and by that I mean Theory, in an academic sense) than practice, and so not really what I’m looking for to fill the gaps in my literature review. But one piece in particular struck a chord. Eric Gable wrote a chapter entitled How we Study History Museums: Or Cultural Studies at Monticello. It sells itself as an ethnography, studying the social culture in and around the historic home of Thomas Jefferson, and a time when it was in transition from telling a story that was exclusively about Jefferson as author of the Declaration of Independence, to a more inclusive story telling that spoke of a working, slave-owning estate and (in particular) Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings, a mulatto slave.

The piece speaks of the conflict between museums’ implicit role as creators and communicators of state ideology, and the new (though not so new, now) “bottom up” history. A lot of what I read resonates with my experiences in the National Trust.

But it was the very last sentence that really hit home, because it reflects the current arguments and discussion around the Confederate Flag after the white supremacist attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

As a result Monticello, perhaps because of its desire for consensus, ends up producing two parallel landscapes that together add up to the terrain of modern democracy: a visible landscape of shared knowledge without controversy or conflict, and an invisible landscape of suspicion, mistrust and paranoia.

Interpretive Planning – Part 2

In my continuing quest to catch up on the latest thinking on interpretive planning, I’ve got hold of the second edition of The Manual of Museum Exhibitions. Published just last year, this must contain the cutting edge of modern museum thinking…

Or not. Maria Piacente’s chapter on Interpretive Planning very reasonably starts off with three essential questions: “What meanings do we wish to communicate? To whom do we intend to communicate these meanings? What are the most appropriate means of communicating these meanings?”

She says proper planning leads to exhibitions that are “Relevant, Meaningful and Relatable: because the majority of visitors are not artists, curators, historians, scientists or members of a special interest group, museum professionals need to find better ways to communicate complex and unfamiliar ideas.” She invokes the grandfather of Heritage Interpretation, Freeman Tilden:

Information, as such, is not interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information

A good plan will also be visitor centred, and Piacente points out that “Visitors attend as individuals or in groups, as tourists, as part of a school visit, or as a family. Each grouping or type or visitor learns and behaves differently in a museum setting.”

Which leads in to a piece on learning styles contributed by Christina Sjoberg. Now, there has been a lot of discussion about the validity of Learning Style models in recent years, which I’ve touch in previous posts, but what is definitely true is that museum visitors are in a very different learning mode to academics or schoolchildren. As Sjoberg says, “Museum learning is: informal; voluntary; and, affective.”

This last is important, Sjoberg argues that museum learning focusses “on our feelings, attitudes, beliefs and values” rather than being purely cognitive. Later in the chapter, learning styles come up again, when Piacente identies the “means of expression” a designer might use. I like this phrase, because it doesn’t just straight to defining the medium – though of course each means of expression does steer one’s thoughts to specific media. She lists four:

  • “Didactic means of expression include text panels, cases of artifacts and displays of works of art […]
  • Hands-on/minds-on activities are often low-tech interactives that incorporate mechanical devices, comparative exhibits, feedback stations and open-ended questions […]
  • Multimedia […] from videos to touch-screens and from augmented reality systems to simulators or even large-format theatres […]
  • Immersive environments include walkthrough experiences and dioramas that may incorporate sound, video and hands on experiences.”

Piacente expands a little on Spencer’s discussion of the thematic framework, re-introducing the idea of a linear, or “sequential” structure, giving as examples a simple chronology, and spacial sequences – room to room, or traversing a country. Of course she also explores nonlinear structures, which she says “accommodate more complex exhitions that require the presentation of multiple voices and perspectives.” She offers a number of examples of nonlinear structures:

  • “Focal specific structures establish one major topic or theme around which are clustered a number of subthemes that radiate from the core, much like the petals of a flower or or the layers of an onion […]
  • Parallel thematic structures establish a set of themes or subthemes that are used over and over again to explore many topics. Natural history exhibitions often employ this type of interpretation[…]
  • Independent Structures are frameworks in which individual loosely related or unrelated topics are addressed within a single area or gallery. […] such Structures are sometimes employed by science centers”

So far, so good. I’m not seeing anything new here, which on one hand, is good, as it doesn’t appear I’ve been particularly old fashioned in recent years (always a worry when the years as an undergraduate, where you think you’re inventing everything, recede into the distance). But on the other hand, I’m disappointed there apparently hasn’t been much development in thinking over the last ten years.

For example, even though Sjoberg speaks of “our feelings” and mention is made in a later case study of “anchor experience or ‘wow’ in each thematic area,” there’s no discussion of the relative merits the various structures have in manipulating visitors’ emotions. (I’ll tell you for free – linear structures are better at engaging people emotionally, because of the narrative paradox, not withstanding the problem that in real life, away from the exhibitor’s drawing board, visitors skip all over linear exhibitions, doubling back, taking shortcuts and and missing chunks out. )

I’ve got some more books to read, and if I find anything interesting, I’ll report back, but here’s a plea. Does anyone out there know of any papers with some really fresh thinking on interpretive structures and narratives?

Museums and Heritage Show 2015

I spent most of yesterday volunteering at Clandon so, in a middle of catching up on writing my literature review, just a short post today.

The Museums and Heritage show seemed more exciting this year than last, with a healthier buzz among both participants and exhibitors. Last year I left the show after only a couple of hours. This year I stayed all day, and was so engaged in conversations with stall-holders and with old and current colleagues that I’d happened to meet, that I missed out on a couple of seminars that I wanted to attend.

Apart from the free seminars, the show floor itself was alive with master classes run from the stands themselves. Like these two:

 on being a better guide;

 and, on writing for interpretation.

It was refreshing to see that the show wasn’t infested with companies offering “apps” as it had been for the last two years. And I spoke to most if not all those companies that remained and came away feeling confident that most of these “get it” and, to varying degree, are willing to push at the technology to better serve the visitor.

Bletchley Park review

A label from the reconstruction, sadly not of a German disco, but a wartime observation post.
A label from the reconstruction, sadly not of a German disco, but a wartime observation post.

This Easter I finally managed to visit Bletchley Park. And left wanting to return. It’s a hodge-podge of experiences, a legacy of the site’s struggle for recognition, and then funding. Many individuals and organisations have worked to preserve, open and support the site, and one gets the feeling that some don’t work brilliantly with others. So the National Museum of Computing for example, rents space from the Bletchley Park Trust, but operates as a separate entity, with a separate fee (we didn’t go in). Even within the Trust’s own pay-perimeter, modern, minimalist museum quality reconstructions and interactives jostled for space alongside enthusiasts’ collections of (for example) carrier pigeon memorabilia.

We were one of the last cars allowed into the car park, before thy closed the gates and directed people instead to the nearby railway station for park. We had to queue for some time, to pay our admission, though I have to say, the staff were very efficient at processing the crowd, and we were taken to the shop’s till to buy our tickets, while other families in our (large) party were dealt with at the normal admissions points.

The initial reception building was bustling with people, and with aged relatives in tow, we took respite from the crowds with a grab-and-do drink and sandwich lunch and a sit down in the Block C cafe. We didn’t spend much time looking around the exhibitions in Block C but sought out instead the narrative heart of the story: the codebreaking Huts 3, 6, 8 and 11. (An aside – a family friend, Val Knight, worked at Bletchley during the war in Hut 7, which sadly seems to no longer exist.) It quite gratifying to walk into Hut 8, and the first thing you see is a panel explaining that Alan Turing’s office is though the next door. There were some great interactives in Hut 8 too. I was particularly impressed with four tables, that explained probability, with more and more variables, from flipping a coin, through rolling dice to drawing Scrabble letters. These interactives came into their own on this busy day, each one was short enough for users to get the point very quickly and move on. The only difficulty I observed was a tendency of users to replicate the finger pointing habits of modern smart-phone users, when the system required users to use their whole hand to make their choices.

From that point on though, the interactives had to explain more difficult concepts, and I observed users sightly impatiently “helping” each other, while others were struggling to get their head around the activities. In hut 11 I found myself stumped by a couple of interactives (one of which, I realized later, was  actually out of order) and with the press of people politely waiting behind me to have a go, I had to leave “the Bombe” un-configured (and likely lost the whole second world war). Cryptography is a complex business especially if, like me, you aren’t a particularly brilliant mathematician, and I left the place, a) slightly frustrated that I hadn’t understood as much as I wanted; and b) determined to go back for a quieter mid-week, non-school-holiday visit.

I wasn’t sure that our aged relatives would make it as far as the mansion but we managed to have a look at the costumes and props from the recent Bletchley/Turing film The Imitation Game, before heading back down the hill to what felt like an older set of museum galleries in Block B. The exhibitions here, were wordy but professionally produced, somewhere between the sublime minimalism of the Codebreaking Huts and the enthusiasts’ collections.

Here though was where the importance of the enthusiasts in the development of Bletchley as a visitor attraction was most evident: a working rebuild of a Bombe, was being operated and interpreted by experts the like of which no organisation can just go out and hire. And they had the biggest crowd of the day gathered around them. Again, I’d like to visit on a quieter day to better hear and see what they were explaining.

What impressed me most about the site as a whole is that we took a large group of diverse interest, male and female, geek and casual, from 10 to 87 years old, and everybody, but everybody found plenty to enjoy.

The Van Dyke Vanishments

Photo: Richard Lakos By kind permission The Milo Wladek Co.,
My son helps turn two dimensions into three Photo: Richard Lakos
By kind permission The Milo Wladek Co.

Last weekend I went to Games Expo, East Kent, or GEEK as it’s more commonly known, in “London’s Famous Margate”. What drew me there was The Van Dyke Vanishments. Billed as an immersive experience through “art, theatre and gaming,” how could I not go? With limited availability we snapped up the last tickets for Saturday and drove across to Margate after lunch. At the Turner contemporary, we had just enough time to scout round the Self exhibition gathering clues for the password that we’d need on our adventure, have a cup of tea while we tried to solve the anagram (the answer was sunflower, but I liked slower fun), then head off to the storefront of Endless Horizons Ltd, the art tourism company.

To be honest, they were a bit unprepared. Their TranspARTation machine was still at an experimental stage, so my son and I, and another family, had to sign extensive waivers before we were allowed into the lab. Which was empty. So we waited, but didn’t have that long to admire the photos of the frequent employee of the month winner before something came lumbering up the stairs…

Helmeted, with a mirrored visor and breathing apparatus,  the humanoid creature moved strangely about the lab as it … made a cup of tea. “It” had to take the helmet off to drink the tea of course, and we saw it was a young woman who introduced herself as Smith and after reciting the terms and conditions, led us down into the basement, and the machine…

Which wasn’t working. Of course. So, we had to remind Smith of the password, witness the machine have an existential crisis and shut itself down, rewire it (using the handy artist/colour code we all learned at school – Klimt = yellow apparently), thump it  and literally deface two valuable self portraits (this one, and this one) before we got it working. Then the third painting took us (through quantum mechanics and a brightly painted tunnel) into the very mind of Anthony Van Dyke.

He was somewhat surprised to find us there.

Smith had the brilliant idea of getting the old master to restore the damaged portraits (which we’d had the presence of mind to bring with us). Of course he was disgusted by them – the scrawlings of children he said. So the answer was no. But Smith persisted, and suggested, that now the TranspARTation machine was working, she could open another quantum warp into the mind of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and we could all, Van Dyke included, explore the thinking behind his art. Tony (I don’t think he liked me calling him that) was intrigued enough to agree, and so we found ourselves in a cubist hell.

Van Dyke didn’t like it at all, but we found flat panels among the geometric shapes on the wall, and points to thread strings from, and together we built a 3D fish out of 2D shapes, giving Van D (and ourselves) a quick lesson in cubism. Then we were off through the Quantum Wormhole into the very white mind of Patrick Heron. There we constructed a deconstructed picture of St Ives, and in doing so, freed Van Dyke “from the tyranny of reality.”

Thus educated in the modern movement, he agreed to restore the paintings we’d defaced. All was well. Until we got Van Dyke’s own portrait back out of the TranspARTation machine, to find he’d become a Modernist a few hundred years too early…

Overall it was a great experience. My son enjoyed it, and the other family I was with got right into character as we helped Smith smooth over her mishaps. I felt I learned something too which, given I’ve already had four years of art history under my belt, suggests they managed not to dumb-down the learning while making it accessible. I could get picky about the details of Van Dykes clothes, and part of me of a bit disappointed in the “game” element of the experience – apart from solving a few puzzles, the ludic element ran “on rails” and was more of an immersive theatre experience.  But, there was a board-game version on offer, which sadly we didn’t get time to have a go with when we spent the next day at GEEK. There was a digital game version too, which I wasn’t even aware of that until after the event. I’ve found a beta version of it on-line, if you’d like to give it a go. It seems to use the same script, but of course the performances aren’t quite as good 🙂

I follow Van Dyke into a wormhole Photo: Richard Lakos By kind permission The Milo Wladek Co.
I follow Van Dyke into a wormhole
Photo: Richard Lakos
By kind permission The Milo Wladek Co.

The talk I gave for York Heritage Research Seminars #YOHRS

I had a great time in York on Tuesday evenings. It was a lovely audience with plenty of comments and questions afterwards. And it was international with people watching from the States (and maybe elsewhere) via Google Hangouts. And then afterwards on to the pub, where the conversation continued with the likes of Nigel Walter, Don Henson (member of the National Trust’s learning panel) and gamingarcheo herself Tara Copplestone, over delicious pints of Thwaits Nutty Black. (The bit in the pub wasn’t livestreamed.)

The advantage of being on Google Hangouts is that all my stumbles, stutters leafing through notes, umms and errs and slideshow reversals are recorded for ever on YouTube’s massive server farms. If you missed it, you can enjoy it now:

The sound is out for the first minute but fear not, it’s not delivered entirely in the medium of mime. This is (approximately) what I said between Sara’s introduction and when the sound kicks in:

I’m going to keep this story simple, and tell it in three parts – the beginning, the middle and the end. In the beginning I’m going to explain why heritage professionals should be interested in digital computer games.In the second part, I’m going to explain why they shouldn’t. And finally I’m going to explore the state of madness to which this dichotomy has driven me.