Dance and museums: some works, some doesn’t and how ‘services management’ thinking can help

I’m currently contributing to work by a partnership of museums and dance agencies to develop a project that will test different models for dance residencies in museums. The idea is to compare the approaches that work in two very different localities and to embed good practice.

So, I’m putting some time into supporting the group to shape their project and secure investment in it, and this is prompting me to think about on the dance/museum collaborations I’ve had contact with recently and to reflect on what works and what doesn’t.

In the past year, via events, blog posts and social media, I have showcased a range of dance/museum collaborations in my work to encourage South East museums to work cross-culturally. At the Dance and Museums conversation in Southampton in June 2016 I attempted to classify some of the different opportunities:

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As an audience member I have greatly enjoyed the diversity of approaches. From figurative, accessible interpretation of collections personified by Made by Katie Green’s ‘Imagination Museum’ to more abstract creative responses to collections themes such as Bethan Peters’ and Stacie Lee Bennett’s National Maritime Museum dance film installation  ‘Who is the Land’ or more tangental relationships between museum collections and dance like Akram Khan’s Giselle Takeover of the Whitworth Art Gallery or the ballet Children of the Mantic Stain presented in conjunction with British Art Show 8.

And I loved all of it. In every case, I felt my own experience of the museum was improved and saw evidence of positive engagement from other audience members. I have been utterly convinced by the evidence of audience development benefits generated through museum-dance collaborations.

In short, I’d become a bit of a fanatic.

In my mind, I had framed my weekend visit last November to see the Dancing Museums residency at the National Gallery as a zenith of museum/dance experiences. This is, after all, a major international project of strategic significance. My expectations were high.

I had shared my excitement with others and persuaded family members S and B to come along with me. They are lifelong culture vultures, keen supporters of both museums and the performing arts, early investors in what is now one of the leading independent dance companies and former committee members of theatres and museums. So they were bound to love this – weren’t they?

As it turned out, not so much.   And so this Sunday visit to the National Gallery became one of the most valuable lessons in museum/dance partnership working that I’ve had this year.

What became clear to us during the visit was that we were not seeing activity aimed at the visiting museum audience but a piece of research in progress. S and B are intellectually curious (case in point: S’s current bedtime reading is ‘100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists’) and would probably have entered into the project of observing research being carried out with some enthusiasm, had they understood this to be the situation. However, the understanding that we were watching research, rather than performance, was hard come by.

The web information about the event stated: ‘Following a week of research and workshops at the National Gallery, the Dancing Museums artists share ideas developed during the residency in the gallery spaces.’  On arrival at the museum, on enquiring at the Information Desk staff gladly provided folding stools for S and B and we were helpfully signposted to Gallery 32.

Once there, we saw that there were three people dancing in the gallery. In every day dress, they moved around the space, always connected, one of them always looking at the paintings on the wall. They were discussing and developing the movements as they moved around.

S and B were keen to discern whether there was any link between the poses and shapes being created by the dancers and the paintings in the gallery. Sometimes they thought they saw an echo, sometimes not. I said not all dance/museum collaborations are about that, the approach could be something completely different. ‘Like what?’ asked S. I said I’d go and ask.

At this point, we bumped into C, a museum sector friend and admired colleague who knows her stuff. Also visiting with relatives. I was relieved to find that she was also unclear about what we were seeing. Her teenager was enjoying it very much, and of the opinion that not having context was fine. C was probably at the ‘curious and confused’ stage with me. B and S were beginning to get fed up. B was getting tangled up in his folding stool every time the action moved.

A number of Gallery staff in green tops were around. I asked one of them if there was any information about what was happening. ‘No,’ she said, ‘But there is an evaluation form, please can you fill it in?’ She offered me a pen. It seemed a little early to complete the form, given that I had only just arrived and didn’t know what I was looking at. So I offered to take 3 forms, one for each of us, and promised that we would return them later on.  S, B and I scrutinised the blank evaluation form for clues. There were four questions:

  • Why have you chosen to attend this event today?
  • Can you describe the event for us in three words (just words – not a sentence)?
  • Has the presence of dance artists in the Gallery today changed or enhanced your visit, and if so, how?
  • Do you think that choreography can offer an interesting alternative to written or verbal explanations as a means to engage with a painting?

Now, I know a bit about evaluation and one of the things that I know is that, if it’s done well, it will link strongly to the objectives of the activity being evaluated. This being the case, we considered that that we could take a hint from the form that the presence of dance artists in the Gallery today was intended to change or enhance the visit and to offer an interesting alternative to written or verbal explanations as a means to engage with a painting. Re-energised by this possibility, B and S continued to scrutinise the activity, looking for links to the paintings.

Then something happened that momentarily created a positive buzz. The three dancers moved alongside either side of the row of benches. their arms linked over the seated visitors. Adults and small children moved to accommodate the passing of the dancers, there was laughter.

Then that bit had finished. S was getting more vocal about her fedupness. Not finding the dance satisfying in itself, nor finding that it was shedding any light on the works in the gallery. Didn’t think all of the dancers were actually very good. ‘I think I’ve seen enough,’ she said.

At this point, I noticed that C was chatting to someone with an NG bag. Maybe she could help? We went over and were introduced – and indeed she could. It turned to that this was Gill Hart, the National Gallery’s Head of Education. Gill helpfully and cogently explained what we were watching. Not a performance designed to enrich our experience of the pictures but something more complex. Not a group of three professional dancers. One of the ‘dancers’ was actually a member of the public, she explained. By being involved in the dance, his position and perspective were being changed.

This was an ‘Aha!’ moment for me. I could now understand that what I was observing was an approach not yet captured on my tentative model, nor explored in any of the dance/museum collaborations I had previously showcased. For S, B and me, our position was not as audience members whose experience of the visit was being changed. Rather, we were observing an audience member for whom this was happening.   This was fascinating stuff for me.

And, had it been clear from the outset to S and B it probably would have been fascinating to them too.  But by this point, they had frankly lost the will. A sign was put in place interpreting a dance piece by Lucy Suggate, which she now performed in the gallery. I encouraged S and B to give it one last shot. S read the sign and harrumphed. Reluctantly, they unfolded their stools and sat down to watch. After a few minutes, B was fiddling with his mobile phone. B is not a teenager, he is 88. S said ‘I think I’ve had enough. Can we go now?’

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We walked through to another gallery where we sat down to complete the evaluation forms. ‘I’d rather not fill it in, I don’t want to be unkind to them,’ said S. ‘They are researching,’ I said. ‘It would be unkind not to respond to their request for feedback. Best to be honest.’   If any of the Dancing Museums team read this, please be aware that S is someone of strong opinions, not ashamed of the fact that in her professional life she was more than once referred to as The Dragon. I hope you had a cup of tea to hand when you read the form.

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So, what are my takeaways from this experience, relevant to shaping the residencies project I’m involved in now? Several.

Firstly, it’s reinforced and expanded my understanding that dance/museum collaborations can change perceptions in a range of ways. I’ve now added this one to my model. SEMDPmodel2At the outset of a collaboration, it’s worth the partners bottoming out which of these approaches – or others not yet captured here – are being talked about.

Secondly, that for our professional practice to move forward, we need bold experiments and that these will not be comfortable or enjoyable or interesting to everyone. So we need to consider the impact on other users. Not everybody will want to understand what is going on or to engage with it. But in the right circumstances, an experiment can benefit not just those involved in it, but others who happen to come across it.

Thirdly, that for such experiments to be effective, their interface with the visiting public needs to be carefully managed. The visitor has an active role to play, if only to provide the feedback that will be used in evaluation. The visitor can only play this role if their involvement is suitably structured and supported. When unexpected things are happening in your museum, it’s worth thinking about how these things are explained or illuminated for visitors who might not expect them. There are lots of practical things that museums can do to help visitors to have a positive experience of changes and experiments. Museums can signpost that there is a gallery closed for redevelopment, and provide helpful images or information about the change to come. Likewise, museums can helpfully guide the audience’s expectations of experiments, so that their visit is enhanced.

This third point rang a bell with me, and brought to mind insight from my business school days. To use the management jargon, a museum visit is a ‘Service experience’ – in contrast, for example, to a purchase of tangible goods. It has long been recognised in business schools that service experiences are the result of interactions between the customer and the service organisation, with customers frequently having an active contribution to the success of the interaction. This being the case, a museum should be thinking not just managing the ways that the displays/facilities/volunteers/staff contribute – but also managing the ways that visitors contribute. If you’d like to explore these ideas in more detail, you will find this International Journal of Service Industry Management article from 1997 a good place to start.

The Creative Case for Diversity

With fellow members of the South East Museum Development Team, I spend a most rewarding day in the inspiring setting of the Brighton Museum working with Arts Council England’s Ashai Nicholas on the Creative Case for Diversity. It was gorgeous weather out there but the quality of discussion meant we didn’t mind being indoors. And we had a great view of the museum’s gardens through the window.

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You’ve probably heard about Arts Council England’s work on the Creative Case – a re-imagining of the Arts Council’s approach to diversity and equality, setting out how these areas can and should enrich the arts for artists, audiences and our wider society. If not, these Heads Up short film portraits give you the flavour as a group of arts leaders discuss their individual interpretation of the Creative Case for Diversity.

The point of the Creative Case is that diversity shouldn’t be an add-on or box ticking exercise that museums and other arts organisations embrace from a moral duty or to access funding. Being truly inclusive brings intrinsic benefits to the arts and culture – the creation of better work that benefits and inspires more people.

In 2014, Arts Council Arts Council England’s Chair Sir Peter Bazalgette set out a new approach to this agenda:

“Diversity needs to go mainstream…. While we focus on increasing opportunities for people from protected characteristic groups, we are also challenging the barriers to participation and engagement across socioeconomic barriers and across geography. Public funding of arts and culture should be invested for the benefit of everyone. It should offer opportunity and draw on all talents.”

During our stimulating workshop with Ashai we worked to explore ways that more museums can benefit from embracing diversity. We discussed some of the great work that is already happening in the sector. Then we discussed what diversity is and what it isn’t. We agreed that it is about being open, reflecting our community in all its richness and letting external voices influence and change what we do. We agreed that it isn’t about measurement, tokenism or just about race which many discussions of diversity seem to focus on.

We explored some useful frameworks for thinking about diversity. For example, the Equality Act 2010 which legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society provides a useful legal reference point and museums must ensure that they meet its standards. But to get the full benefit in terms of creativity, leadership and community support, organisations need to go further.

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For example, making ‘reasonable adjustments’ such as information about the museum’s services available in large print and audio guide for people with visual impairment is a start. Some people with visual impairment who come to the museum will be better able to access its offer. Involving people with visual impairment in decision making about the museum’s programming takes the relationship further: for example linking with a local support group of people with visual impairment to explore their suggestions about what would make the museum better for them. This approach moves the conversation from a transaction to a relationship, opening the door to further conversations and visits.

Two, interconnected fundamentals are key in this approach: Partnerships and leadership.

Partnerships expand a museums ability to refresh its relationships, audiences and talent pool. A museum that is well linked to other organisations in its community is likely to have a ready source of ideas, visitors and collaborators.

Leadership sets both the direction and the culture of a museum. If diversity is not embraced from the top, it is less likely to flourish in other parts of the organisation.

Having a diverse range of trustees helps to ensure that the museum reflects the diversity of the community it serves, increase public confidence and accountability. It helps to ensure that the Board has the full range of skills it needs and to ensure that fresh ideas are generated. Many museums lack sufficient Trustees to ensure the sustainability of their organisations. They find it difficult to recruit new Board members when someone retires from the Board. Many also lack diversity in their Trustee populations. The two issues are closely linked. When museums look for new Trustees from within their existing networks of contacts, both the number and range of potential Trustees are limited. Partnerships are a great way to expand networks and many great Trustees sit on the Boards of more than one organisation.

At the South East Museum Development Programme we’ve been developing support opportunities to help museums to embrace diversity at the top and through the whole organisation and the expand partnerships.

The Mainstream Diversity project  will provide focused support for Boards to recruit, fill skills gaps and become more reflective of their communities. You can find out more about the customised support for available to your museum via our website and then talk to your MDO about how this important project can best help you.

The Arts Business Models project gives museums the opportunity to learn from some amazing arts organisations that have diversity at the core of their success. For example Graeae Theatre Company whose mission is Graeae is to be a force for change in world-class theatre, breaking down barriers, challenging preconceptions and boldly placing disabled artists centre stage. In their case study for our programme, Graeae have shared how their assumptions about working with non-arts partners have been challenged, and they have found the relationships rewarding and flexible enough to allow them to remain true to their vision. If you’d like to be partnered with Graeae or one of the other exceptional case study arts organisations, you still have time to apply.

Enabling a Culture of Innovation

Another day, another grand day out – this time to speak at the Risk and Reward: Enabling a Culture of Innovation conference organised by Oxford Museums Partnership at the glorious Pitt Rivers Museum/Museum of Natural History and to hear a fantastic suite of innovation stories, many involving Universities.

Having secured the after-coffee-mid-afternoon-graveyard slot it seemed sensible to ensure some energy in the room through a game of Better Business Bingo – and I’m delighted to say that the fabulous group of delegates came up with some brilliant ideas to improve our beloved (and entirely fictional) Bugsley Museum and secure a more sustainable future for its important collection of military widgets. The point being, of course, that creating an environment of playfulness and fun is one of the important things that leaders can do to create a culture of innovation in their organisations. It was a point that reverberated through several of the presentations.
I was also there to fly the flag for the South East Museum Development Programme and museum development generally – a valuable source of support, ideas and seed-funding for innovation that not all museums make the most of!
After a thoughtful opening message from convenor Lucy Shaw @LVShaw, first up was Paul Smith @museumsmithery, Director of our host Museum of Natural History, who shared his personal viewpoint as a leader, responsible for enabling a culture of innovation in a University museum. Paul shared a series of case studies from the delightful 2015 ‘Dodo Roadshow’ a successful profile-raising exercise that went from conception to completion in 22 days with a total budget of £3,000 – to a series of significant exhibitions experimenting with new ways of connecting contemporary science and society. Start small, make the most of the assets you already have (in their case a van, a dodo, enthusiastic staff and warm links with museums from Land’s End to John O’Groats) and don’t assume senior staff have all the best ideas. Be playful, to get ideas flowing but don’t neglect the need for serious, useable data to underpin decision making and evaluation. Paul’s personal leadership journey has required him to dig deep, to maintain energy and momentum, and to be resilient in resolving problems when experimentation goes wrong. Which it sometimes will if you are trying new still. Paul and his team try to keep these occasions to a minimum by identifying a ‘risk envelope’ – an area of unexplored potential for new activity but within manageable risk parameters. How do you identify that risk envelope? By knowing your operating environment really well – that calls on data, data, data again.
Next speaker was Liz Hide @themuseumofliz who shared a fascinating series of stories from her experience of facilitating the cross-disciplinary University of Cambridge museum consortium. Original support from the former MLA and more recently the carrot of MPM funding and encouragement from Arts Council England have created the environment for museums that in the past had minimal contact to work together at a strategic level to create a joined up cultural offer. This level of collaboration doesn’t just happen and Liz set out the menu of joint activities that have progressively deepened the partnership and enriched its outputs: joint programming; capacity building (e.g. creating shared posts); organisational development (creating networks and communication mechanisms; collective audience/non-user research; partnership and workforce development. Through this thought-through, strategic approach the museums now, together, have a much stronger voice in the locality’s cultural sector and are creating projects and opportunities that benefit a wider range of cultural partnerships. Lovely stuff.
We then had a great example of smart use of a national investment mechanism from outside the cultural sector to drive innovation. Alice Purkiss @alicepurk is a Knowledge Transfer Partnership Associate, funded by AHRC to enable knowledge exchange between University of Oxford and the National Trust. Alice presented jointly with Oliver Cox, Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University. They gave examples of how partnership is helping to channel the deep understanding of academic research to be shared with staff, volunteers and visitors to historic properties and landscapes, enriching audience engagement and understanding. It was fascinating to hear how much work is involved in enabling the two disciplines of ‘academic’ and ‘curator’ to talk to one another. To the average museum visitor or non-visitor the academic historian and museum curator may appear much of a muchness. But Alice and Oliver have discovered, through their work with curators and academics, that these two groups often feel that they come from very different worlds and speak different languages. Fortunately, through initiatives like the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, Knowledge Exchange, Share AcademyOxford University Museum Partnership and a number of Museum Development-facilitated Higher Education/Museum link-ups there are plenty of valuable ‘Babel fish’ being created and shared to smooth communications. This was possibly the presentation that prompted the most heated discussion. How diverse are the perspectives when two not-so-dissimilar worlds meet? Do collaborations with people we get on with offer as much grit for our oysters as dialogues with people we don’t get on with? How can we expand the diversity of voices, to prompt more innovation?
After lunch, Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust’s Director of Operations Traci Dix-Williams @dix_traci gave a very real picture of the leadership graft involved in nurturing a culture in which volunteers and staff are empowered to innovate. In a gloriously visual presentation, The examples of workforce engagement initiatives Traci shared included: a project to involve people in making the organisation’s vision statement clearer and more concise; smart use of support from West Midlands Bridge organisation Arts Connect to bring creative practice into the organisation, communication days involving the whole workforce and campaigns raising the profile of customer service. Traci’s presentation showed just why it’s worth organisations investing in leadership development as she acknowledged the Oxford Cultural Leaders Programme as the source of many of the approaches and techniques that she has implemented with her teams.
Next up were Rachel MacFarlane @MacfRachel, Projects Development Officer at Colchester and Ipswich Museums and Scott Collins, Museum Trainee, talking about the Arts Council England Museum Resilience-funded Training Museum. What a great way to invest in a future workforce more representative of the community the museum serves. As well as learning a strong range of skills (both museum-specific and transferable) the trainees are clearly making strong networks, contributing valuable capability, capacity and insight to the museums and having a great time. Many of the trainees had not previously considered museums as a career. They are now actively involved in communicating the idea of working in the sector to school students, through meeting school groups in the museums and going back to their own schools to make presentations.
The next presentation was also about an exciting workforce development project, this time Jo-Anne Sutherland of Heritec Limited on the Erasmus+-funded Creative Museum involving partners in seven European countries in enriching museum practice by expanding professionals’ sphere of experience through links with other sectors – including creatives, universities, hackers, grassroots groups and makers. Making this kind of thing work well means: connecting activity strongly to your core purpose, says Jo-Anne – who are you doing it for and why?; opening up to explore new friendships, partnerships and funding streams; be brave and persistent; prototype and learn from mistakes. Discussion of the challenges of European funding bids that followed this presentation gave me a welcome opportunity to plug the useful EU funding ‘top tips’ and ‘jargon buster’ that we’ve recently commissioned through one of our projects.
After the break it was my turn and I was delighted to find that in spite of a very filling lunch the promise of chocolate worked its magic as an incentive to creativity. As well as introducing a creativity matrix as a simple tool to involve people in generating ideas that address a museum’s key challenges and maximise its assets and opportunities, through my session I showcased just a few of the great examples of how museums in the South East have used our support programmes as a springboard to experiment, innovate and take risk. I specifically mentioned the Hampshire Cultural Trust museums that took part in our Lean Systems Thinking project, the Mary Rose Museum’s current Young Museums Shapers project and the Bloxham Museum’s use of a Development Grant to introduce low energy LED lighting to its displays. Loads more case studies on our website. Of course I also took the opportunity to promote our Business Innovation Grants scheme, which museums to experiment and take risks to create new business services and products, drawing on learning from an approach developed at Oxford University Museums Partnership.
One of the innovation approaches I’d included in my creativity matrix was ‘fresh eyes’ and the final speaker, Elvin Turner of DPA, @elvinturner came from outside our museum/University bubble to share valuable approaches from the world of business, in particular the idea of ‘Minimal Viable Product’ drawn from the Lean Startup suite of methods. He showed how Sony has been using MVPs to test new ideas in low-cost experiments. Keeping the experiments quick and cheap and extracting the maximum learning from them means risk is reduced, senior decision maker confidence maximised and more staff are able to get involved in developing innovations. For Sony, low-cost means doing pilots that cost £500 instead of £50,000 but the same idea can be scaled for the skint museums sector – by asking yourself ‘what can you learn for £50?’Elvin also referenced the powerful Business Model Canvas by Osterwalder and Pigneur that also informs the very useful report by we’ve just published on how museums can learn from other arts organisations.
One of the recurring motifs was about evaluation. How can you measure the success of your innovations? So now I’m curious to see how the event organisers will evaluate this energising event? What new things will happen down the line, because we were part of this conversation?

What can museums learn from other successful arts organisations’ business models?

We’ve long believed that there was much for museums to learn from looking at how other culture sector organisations do business. In particular, the idea that a cultural product should be offered to the public for free has persisted longer in the museums sector than in many other areas of the arts. People don’t expect to be given free theatre tickets, do they? But there is a widespread idea that museum entry should be free. Other art forms seem to have got a grip sooner on how to demonstrate value and generate income from consumers.

So last year we started shaping an intervention to help museums to learn from other successful arts business models through a peer-to-peer learning approach. By ‘business models’, we mean the model by which an arts organisation operates as a business, including its value proposition, sources of revenue, customer base, services or products, operating systems and processes, financial arrangements, relationships with suppliers and partners, workforce arrangements and organisational culture.

We realised pretty soon that to  make this work well, we would need to invest in some pretty robust groundwork.

We needed to make sure that our identification of ‘successful’ arts business models was up to date. The cultural economy is undergoing rapid change with many organisations under significant pressure. Reductions in public subsidy mean that some arts organisations considered beacons of effectiveness are now struggling. So ‘successful’ organisations we might have identified a couple of years ago might not be in that place now.

Additionally, reduced capacity means that some organisations once willing to commit time and effort to collaboration and to peer support via networks and mentoring are withdrawing from such activities in order to focus on internal core delivery.

We commissioned arts business experts Alchemy Research & Consultancy to undertake a significant piece of research to identify 6 case study arts organisations with successful business models, willing to share their learning with museums. And we asked them to do an important, up to date report answering some key questions:

  • Why are museums thinking about business models?
  • What do we mean by business models?
  • What are other cultural organisations doing?
  • What do museums need to do?

The results of their work have now been produced and they are very exciting. The case studies and reports are now available on our website and the opportunity for museums to bid to be partnered with a successful arts organisation for peer learning is now open, closing on 20 June.

Through the research project, six case studies have been written and warm contacts brokered with the case study organisations:

Alchemy’s powerful and insightful report is really important and timely, outlining key business models found in the cultural sector: what are established and new approaches, which models are emerging as ‘successful’ in the sense of enabling organisations to continue to deliver on their missions in a sustainable way? How can museums improve their own sustainability by learning from other arts organisations’ business models?

They demonstrate a really diverse range of approaches to success in the arts. But some key messages emerge. The arts organisations that have achieved continuous innovation have a range of characteristics: strong leadership; a clear vision; appropriate values; a dynamic board; strong teamwork; access to external resources; and active inter-organisational networks. Whilst museums face some specific challenges in implementing new business models, they also have a number of advantages over arts organisations that can be exploited, not least their collections which provide a rich source of content for creative work.

We are publishing this report to provide valuable learning to the wider museums sector, along with the case studies.

As the next stage of the project, we are now offering the opportunity for six museums to each be paired with one of the case study organisations, in order to embark on an 8-month partnership of peer learning. Details of how to apply are available here: http://southeastmuseums.org/arts-business-models.

‘The restrictions a site offers are the key to finding original solutions and developing one’s practice in ways we wouldn’t have if they were no constraints.’ Inspiration from Tara D’Arquian’s Quests at Borough Hall, Greenwich – an interview with the choreographer

February 2016

Interested in site specific performance in your museum?

Increasingly, museums are embracing the opportunities of partnership with performing arts – including theatre and dance. Sometimes the partnership projects are fairly simple – for example a theatre company is touring a production and is looking for a venue, the museum can provide a suitable space and facilities. But other projects are more complex and require deep commitment on both sides to collaborative development.

In most cases, site specific performances fit at the latter end of the partnership scale. This is performance (such as dance, theatre, music or opera) that is specifically created to take place in a particular space – a different kind of space from a theatre or performance hall. Typically, this kind of work responds to, exploits and illuminates the physical features, meanings and stories of the site. All kinds of spaces have been used from sports fields to railway stations to factories to prisons. And, of course, museums.

Like many forms of cross-cultural practice, site specific performance offers fantastic opportunities to engage with new audiences as well as to interpret collections and sites in new ways.

My half term family break took me to two very different immersive performance pieces. The first, ‘The Wedding Reception’, performed in a West End hotel, was a light hearted theatre piece by Interactive Theatre International, the Australian company behind ‘Faulty Towers: The Dining Experience.’ It’s immersive (in the sense that you become one of the guests – including being served a 3-course chicken dinner) and site-sensitive in the sense that it works in a place where a wedding might be held. The interaction between the play and its setting is at times hilarious – as when passers by on the street outside started filming on their mobile phones, thinking that they were seeing a real wedding going wrong – but not truly site specific. It’s designed to be performed in any venue that could host a wedding reception and so tours to hotels, social clubs and sporting clubs around the world. It would be great in a museum that hosts weddings.

By contrast, the second piece was serious in intent, truly site specific and created over time in response to a particular venue. This was Quests, the second site sensitive performance in a trilogy of work by Belgian choreographer Tara D’Arquian, performed in . the Borough Hall, Greenwich.

It’s not a museum, it’s a former municipal building with historic features and historic resonance for the local community. Built in 1939 as part of the council headquarters complex that replaced the Victorian Greenwich Town Hall, Borough Hall is Art Deco in style and Grade II listed – described by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the only town hall of any London borough to represent the style of our time adequately.’ It was used for municipal purposes until the 1960s when a local government reorganisation moved the headquarters to Woolwich. It’s now home to the Greenwich Dance arts agency. As such, it’s been used in much site specific work.

Experiencing Quests is different to most experience of ‘going to see’ dance. The audience is part of the piece from the beginning and as the story unfolds, we moved from space to space through the building. The rooms of the Borough Hall had each been transformed by the production designer, so that the spaces told part of the story. The piece built on the features of the original building but also changed them. The company included both professional performers and community members, who formed a bridge between the professional cast and the audience.

Reflecting on the experience of Quests, I was keen to help museums considering a site-specific performance project to understand the creator’s perspective on the experience of bringing the piece to reality. I was also interested in giving museums a picture of some of the practical considerations involved. Choreographer Tara was generous in her time in responding to my questions and I am reproducing our email interview here, so that museums can learn about the performing artist’s perspective on the process:

LM: How did the project come about?

TA: Quests was the second site-specific piece of a trilogy which was initiated by In Situ, a Greenwich Dance & Trinity Laban Partnership Compass Commission.

Quests revolves around the second state of consciousness in Nietzsche’s Three Metamorphoses, the state of the lion who deconstructs all truths that he has been inculcated.

In order to support this theme and to transmit it to the audience, I wanted for it to be performed in a site which possessed a timeless feel and which could be transformed and made multiple, passing from the inside of a boat to a hotel lobby for example.

I thought of the Borough Hall of Greenwich and when I approached Greenwich Dance, they didn’t hesitate and embraced the project.

LM: How was the project funded?

TA: Quests was commissioned by Greenwich Dance and supported by Arts Council England, Trinity Laban and Dance East. In addition, I raised a part of the fund through a Kickstarter campaign and also invested in the project myself.

LM: What is special to you about developing site-specific work?

TA: I am very sensitive to space, places, buildings. I am moved by how light and textures meet to structure the space. I am the daughter of two architects and I grew up in an old water bottle factory which they transformed into our home. So I guess I understand space by creatively interacting with it. As an artist today, I like to share this with an audience and highlight the multiplicity of perception of Space. I am interested in using the identity of a site as a metaphor for human identity. It’s a sort of personification of the site.

LM: How did the setting influence this piece and the trilogy as a whole?

TA: The composers, Bruno Humberto and Philippe Lenzini, one of the performers Anne-Gaëlle Thiriot and myself carried out a few weeks of research and development at the Borough Hall of Greenwich before the beginning of rehearsals. During these weeks of R&D we did a lot of improvisations and worked a lot with memory. The simple fact of being on site for this phase of the process hugely influenced us on a subconscious level. The outcome of these R&D weeks established the mood and tone of the piece.

As for how this site influenced the trilogy as a whole… I am not sure yet. It is still a bit early to say.

LM: How do you feel Quests acts to reinterpret/bring new audiences to appreciate the historic building?

TA: I think Quests did bring quite a lot of new audience members at the Borough Hall of Greenwich. I must say that Yann Seabra, the set designer, did such a wonderful work that it was difficult for people who had never been on site before to actually experience the “real” site. What they experienced rather is the “fictive” site. The character we superimposed on the site. It might be quite an interesting experience for someone who had not been at The Borough Hall of Greenwich to return on site. I am not sure they would recognize it!

LM: What (if any) have been the challenges of working in a Grade II listed building?

TA: The challenges were technical ones such as the limitations with power for example. Lighting the many spaces demanded to be creative and Genevieve Giron, the lighting designer, did a fantastic work. This is another parameter of site-specific performance making which I love. The restrictions a site offers are the key to finding original solutions and developing one’s practice in ways we wouldn’t have if they were no constraints.

‘New Dimensions: Contemporary Art Inspired by Hidden Collections’ at the Museum of Somerset, Taunton

February 2016

One of the many bonuses of being invited to facilitate a residential of the Women Leaders in Arts and Heritage, South West network, was the opportunity to visit the host venue, the Museum of Somerset in Taunton, with a highly knowledgeable and thoughtful group of arts and heritage colleagues.

Our thought provoking Saturday morning guided tour from the museum’s exhibitions curator, Sam Astill, focused on the ways in which the museum’s redevelopment and programming are working to secure its long term future. Sam explained how different areas of the museum, which is housed in Grade 1 listed Taunton Castle had been redeveloped both to provide enhanced display and interpretation of the collections and to enable income generation.

An example of this was the Great Hall, where careful space planning, robust display cases and the installation of audio visual equipment have all been implemented with corporate event hire in mind.

As part of the tour, we visited the museum’s first temporary exhibition of 2016. Entitled ‘New Dimensions: Contemporary Art Inspired by Hidden Collections’ Museum of Somerset in Taunton this was introduced by Sam as following an established model whereby new work by contemporary is displayed alongside the museum objects that has inspired it. Artist/curator Tim Martin co-ordinated the exhibition, working with both the exhibiting artists and museum curators. Arts Council England and Somerset Art Works provided funding and support.

This is indeed an established model of practice – indeed I well remember curating shows with a similar concept back in the last millennium – but one that is worth discussing here for two reasons: the model, when well implemented, has stood the test of time; and for many of the museums in our region that are early on their journey towards cross-cultural working, it can be a great place to start. Whilst ‘New Dimensions’ is a professionally produced project and clearly represents a significant investment if time and resource, scaled versions of the same idea, working with local artists from the museum’s community, can be developed at low cost by even the smallest volunteer-run museum.

At whatever scale, this type of collaboration can offer significant benefits for visitors, artists and museums. The approach offers fresh perspectives on collections, new ways to share knowledge about them and significant potential in audience development. Artists can find new inspiration for their work and gain profile through their association with the museum.

The exhibition features work by six local artists working in a range of practices – filmmaker/sound artist Laura Aish; sculptor Chris Dunseath; painter/printmaker Jenny Graham; poet Ralph Hoyte; photographer/filmmaker Richard Tomlinson; and textile artist/ printmaker Jacy Wall – all of whom were given the opportunity to explore reserve collections and find out more from curators about material not usually on show.

The design of the exhibition aims to recreate some of the feeling of museum stores, with an installation representing storage racking and interpretation texts and object lists designed to the theme. The exhibition combines the cool feel of a contemporary art show with the interactive elements that museum visitors come to expect.

For me, this mostly worked well. In particular, Richard Tomlinson’s piece features anaglyphic composite photographs of imaginary machines, viewed by the visitor through peep holes in archival storage boxes. Short films and images shared via the museum’s website and social media and a project blog give additional insight into the artists’ experience behind the scenes and their dialogue with the museum and its collections.  In his video portrait, Richard Tomlinson explains how he was intrigued both by the museum’s collection of historic machinery when behind the scenes and by the storage boxes and shelves he found there. So his work explores both the objects and the museum’s process of keeping them.

In a short visit, I perhaps did not have sufficient time to thoroughly get to grips with the interpretive approach. The clipboards were clearly intended to help find out more about each piece, however I took a while to spot them and was rather confused as to whether the colour coded sections of the wall signage was meant to be reflected in the paper on the clipboards.

The museum has used its events programme to diversify the exhibition’s visitor base, from February half term family arts activities to a private view attended by a large number of creative practitioners.

To me, one of the tests of a museum display is its ability to provoke conversations amongst its visitors. ‘New Dimensions’ certainly got the Women Leaders group talking – but not much could stop them. It has also gained the museum attention in the local press and stimulated discussion amongst other local artists via social media.

As with any collaboration, to make a project of this sort successful, it is really important to develop clarity between the partners about what each wants out of the partnership, what success looks like to the different partners, what contributions each will make and how the costs and benefits will be shared.

I’ll be interested to hear further along the run the extent to which ‘New Dimensions’ has brought new audiences to the museum or to contemporary art. I hope many find it – this lovely museum does not shout its presence in the surrounding area. Indeed the brightly coloured signage of Taunton’s Mecca Bingo is much more eye-catching than the museum’s discreet monochrome and glass sign on Castle Green. Some flags or banners would be a great addition and the Museum of Somerset clearly has good links with local creative practitioners who might help them with this.

Study visit to ‘Mythology’ exhibition at Brading Roman Villa

January 2016

It was my great honour and pleasure to spend today accompanying a ‘museum cross cultural practice’ study visit to the ‘Mythology’ exhibition at Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight.

Set within one of the finest Roman sites in the UK, ‘Mythology’ is a major exhibition of new works by research-led artist, Howard Hardiman. Through digital drawing and storytelling, the work explores well known myths in, perhaps, unfamiliar ways. The trip was suggested by the museum’s Chief Executive Adam Watson. Adam is a member of the Hampshire Solent Museum Development Advisory Panel and was aware that we were looking to share examples of practice in museums’ cross cultural practice for others to learn from.

The visit was designed to give a small group of museum people the opportunity not only to view an example of an artist-museum collaboration but also to engage in dialogue with both the art practitioner in order to get a deeper understanding of the success factors and challenges of working together. The plan for the day was to pick the ‘study visitors’  up at Southampton station, cross on the car ferry, meet artist Howard Hardiman and museum boss Adam Watson for an introductory chat before a tour of the exhibition and then an intensive discussion over lunch, followed by the opportunity to visit the rest of the museum.

The dialogue began way before we even got to the museum, though. The study visit opportunity was taken up by two different museums and their representatives, who had never met before, found that they had much in common and many ideas to share. Both work in small independent Hampshire museums, and both are themselves involved in artistic practice.

Anne James, General Manager of King John’s House in Romsey, is also a textile artist and has managed a series of community arts projects and activities for adults and children at the museum. Anne wore an example of her own work to the visit, a gorgeous felted necklace. Margaret Marks, volunteer Development Manager at the Diving Museum in Gosport, is also an artist who has worked in textiles, as well as film and other media. Margaret was key in the production of the pirate movie that wowed the last meeting of the Hampshire Military Museums Network.

The ferry trip saw Anne and Margaret avidly comparing experiences and ideas over cup of tea: about everything from holiday activities, to interactive museum displays, to staff and volunteer management policies to Accreditation to the use of social media: both busily capturing notes of the ideas.

We arrived at Brading in chill weather to a warm welcome from education officer Spencer Brown and were take through to the museum’s Forum Cafe where Adam and Howard awaited, along with Artist / designer / Educator Ian Whitmore, who had contributed to the production of the Mythology exhibition.

Over a pot of tea, our introductory discussion explored Howard’s previous work and the original impetus behind the ‘Mythology’ exhibition. Who had approached who?

Howard had approached the museum, he said. It was far from his first artist-museum collaboration and he is to some extent a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, with experience working in museum access and interpretation at institutions including the National Maritime Museum and National Gallery. Howard has explored an exceptionally varied range of practices to bring museum collections to life for diverse audiences – from British Sign Language interpretation  to book illustration. Museums present a unique opportunity for the research-led artist to engage deeply with experts around a subject of common interest, says Howard.

Howard showed us his recent comic book Badger’s Day Out  and then told us about his earlier work The Lengths Developed from original interviews with male sex workers, the graphic novel explores their concerns and experiences.

Howard had asked the museum about the possibility of a collaborative exhibition, inspired by the villa’s mosaics and had also approached Arts Council England about potential funding via Grants for the Arts, its Lottery-funded grant programme for individuals, arts organisations and other people who use the arts in their work.

So, we asked Adam, how easy was it for Brading to say ‘yes’ to Howard’s proposal? Adam explained how the exhibition fitted in with the museum’s journey of change over the past 10 years. An ambition to encourage repeat visits through top quality temporary exhibitions had led to the museum achieving the Accreditation standard and creating a new high-security exhibition gallery capable of attracting significant loans from national museums. The new gallery opened in 2014 with British Museum’s travelling exhibition – Roman Sexuality, Images, Myths and Meanings, including the world famous Warren Cup  Since that time, the museum has hosted diverse exhibitions in the space, including other national museum touring shows – it’s a member of the Touring Exhibition Group and has found this a helpful network in developing the exhibition programme.

Building on this progress, it was easy for the museum to say ‘yes’ to ‘Mythology’ as it enabled the museum to host its first exhibition of new site-specific work in the gallery, whilst maintaining a strong link to the museum’s own collections. Howard had shown the museum two 2014 works – ‘Asterion’ and ‘Impenetrable’ – and used these to explain his idea and his approach to the exploration of mythology.

The key challenge was a logistical one. What if the museum committed to scheduling ‘Mythology’ in and then Howard was unsuccessful in his Grants for the Arts application? The risk was worth taking, they decided. It would be mitigated by a good long lead-in time, contingency options and paying close attention to the Grants for the Arts guidance provided by Arts Council England’s helpful Relationship Manager for Combined Arts South West, Nick Green.

Fortunately, the application was successful and the exhibition was supported with a grant of £11,920.

So why had Howard approached this particular museum? On moving from London to the Isle of Wight following a major back injury, the Roman Sex and Sexuality exhibition had initially drawn Howard to Brading. Howard explained the creative process whereby in ‘The Lengths’ he chose to draw the human characters with dogs’ heads, using different breeds to represent characters but creating a distance between the published story and the real individuals who had shared their experiences with him. At Brading, Howard had discovered the mosaics and been struck by the similarity between ‘The Lengths’’ dog-headed men and the villa’s enigmatic mosaic chicken-headed human figure. He saw the other mythical characters depicted in the mosaics, including the Medusa. He was also impressed by the museum’s highly developed disability provision, which meant that he was able to access the site fully on days when he needed to use a wheelchair. You can tell a lot about an institution’s attitude to different sorts of people from its disability access, observes Howard.

Having explored the background to the collaboration, we then headed into the gallery for the amazing privilege of an artist-led tour of the ‘Mythology’ exhibition,  which features 12 large (59cmx84cm) framed gelee prints, all produced in 2014 or 2015.

Some artists prefer not to talk about their work. Howard Hardiman is not one of these people. His research-led practice is such that the physical work of art displayed is just one manifestation of his profound engagement with his subject matter. In creating ‘Mythology,’ Howard read voraciously around the different myths explored, about the myth role of myths in society as narratives that support particularly understandings of reality, about different perspectives on the nature of myth and reality, devouring the works of writers from Plato to Mary Beard.

Touring the exhibition with Howard is an extraordinary experience. Whilst each work is designed as a standalone piece in its own right, the artist’s vivid verbal exploration of the myth that inspired it, the exposition and interpretation of that myth through Howard’s distillation of his research and then his explanation of the creative process between the research and the finished image are, in themselves, a work of art.
Like his near contemporary Grayson Perry, Howard is an artist for whom the commentary is a significant element of the work as a whole. This raises significant questions. Clearly, Howard was not able to offer all visitors over a four month run of the exhibition the benefit of a personal guided tour. Yet the labelling in the exhibition is almost minimalist. What steps had the artist and the museum taken to ensure that visitors could gain insight into the artist’s process? As well as an artist’s talk in October 2015 and notes available to be borrowed in the gallery, there is a specially produced booklet, available for sale in the gift shop, includes all twelve of the images, with Howard’s ‘companion stories’ and an introduction from Adam Watson and an essay by artist Jonathan Parsons.

The final element of the tour was a discussion of the two Roman artefacts displayed in a case in the exhibition. We discussed how they had been chosen by Howard and the museum’s Assistant Curator Jasmine Wroath working together. We learned that their presence in the exhibition was due to the fact that the case is a permanent fixture of the gallery and so drove a decision to present 3D objects alongside the 2D works. This led to an interesting discussion of the practical challenges of mounting this principally 2D art exhibition in a gallery designed specifically to hold high value 3D objects. We were shown how solid panels had been installed screening the gallery’s permanent high-security wall-mounted display cases and heard about some of the logistical issues of delivering such change to the physical space in a limited time window. This led to a discussion of other challenges that had arisen in terms of museum staff capacity and the extent to which Howard had needed to adapt his plans and involve his assistance team (including Ian) to ensure the installation was completed in time. Both Adam and Howard acknowledged misunderstandings around the respective commitments of museum and artist at this stage led to some tensions. However both have now learned from this, they will be better placed for a future collaboration. The solid panels are also now available to be reused for future displays of 2D work. These are just two of the ways in which ‘Mythology’ has created capital that can be employed in future artist/museum collaborations.

Back in the Forum Cafe, we talked about the technique used to produce the show. Howard and Ian showed us how use of a graphics tablet and Manga Studio software enable Howard’s exceptionally detailed and delicate line drawing. This led to a discussion of the relationship between the work in this show and the world of comics. Howard talked about his recent visits to comic art festivals in northern England  – the ‘Mythology’ booklet had sold very well there, he said – and in this way the exhibition had unexpectedly reached an off-island audience.

By now it was well past our scheduled lunchtime. A sustaining bowl of the Forum Cafe’s excellent home made soup accompanied our final discussions of the day.
We returned to Howard’s experience of working with Brading as a disabled artist who experiences chronic pain and impaired mobility. He faces structural barriers to fully engaging in many art work activities. For instance, a typical Private View – often a key networking opportunity in the world of contemporary visual arts – is prohibitive, involving standing and turning for a significant time.

I gathered the group’s thoughts on 3 questions: What’s the best thing about museum/artist collaboration? What are the main challenges to be overcome? What one top tip would you give to someone thinking of undertaking one?

What’s the best thing about museum/artist collaboration?

Opens the museum to wider creative thinking and displays/exhibitions which otherwise may not have been considered

Bringing to life objects, especially that may be overlooked. Turns dusty objects to something now special.

Chance to get really excited about the subject with experts.

Access to stimulus.

A new/different view of the artefacts – bringing a new perspective to the exhibit.

What are the main challenges to be overcome?

Expectations around what can be provided by museums and staff around hanging materials and staffing. Make sure everyone is clear about what can be provided.

Not knowing what you are going to get at the end of it. Being able to trust artist to produce more or less something that you have in your mind.

Museums are not galleries, very little prior interaction and different audiences. Oh, and funding when it’s not a selling exhibition!

Expectations and assumptions. What artists do, how they think, what they require. Ditto – what museums do, think and require.

Overcoming preconceived views by museums as to what is art and the relevance to the museum artefacts.

What one top tip would you give to someone thinking of undertaking a museum-artist collaboration?

Tip for museum: Don’t be afraid to try.

Don’t take the first artist that comes along. Investigate and see other work.

Plan. Lots. To know subject, logistics and needs. Lots of planning!

For museums and artists to meet to develop ideas/projects together.

Keep talking to each other – try to understand other’s viewpoint.

The fact that our two ‘study visitors’ are both themselves artists as well as museum people added richness to the discussion that followed, with participants switching perspectives as they explored the issues. We shared experiences from around the table and also learned more about the economic model for ‘Mythology’ – which is a selling exhibition, with commercial benefits for both the artist and the museum. Howard explained how the Arts Council’s funding is structured to encourage this aspect, a positive approach to supporting the economic sustainability of arts and museum activity.

All too soon, it was time to dash for the ferry, reflecting on the journey on the learning from the day and thinking forward to Margaret and Anne’s plans for future artist collaborations in their own museums.

A huge thank you to all involved in a most stimulating and enjoyable day.