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.

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