Three seminars that have something to do with museums

So, over the past few weeks, I attended three seminars. They all share something in common as they are all in some way related to museums.

The one that most impresses me was at my faculty (Faculty of Education) by a famous British illustrator: James Mayhew. I have not been brought up in this country, so I should be forgiven for having not heard him before. But his old work Katie’s Picture Show seems to be very famous. It is about the adventures of a little girl in red in art galleries where she interacts with the characters and landscapes in the paintings. Many of James’ later works also embody his central philosophy of making art: to make classic work more accessible to young audience. Well, maybe all audience. His presentation was straightforward and he seems to be a very genuine person. The highlight of the seminar was his demonstration of his recent projects: in situ painting in response to classic music. He first narrated the story behind the Finnish piece of music: a folklore story about a young Finnish guy in a village. The scene he depicted within less than 10 minutes proved to be the darkest place as described in the story where the hero was confronted by a swan in a lake. If he fails to shoot the swan before hearing the swan’s voice, he would die miserably. Magically, James used watercolour to create the horrible dark place on a piece of black paper. He simply used the colour of blue and white.

If this seminar is centred around the question: how to make classic work (be it fine art work, music, famous literary piece) more accessible in the form of illustration, then the second seminar organised by the Digital Humanities at Cambridge seeks to address the concern: what are the challenges and promises of the application of digital tools in evaluating visitor experience at arts and cultural events? The big philosophical assumption is: we have best access to our subjective feelings. But how can research approach visitors’ experience? The researcher from the Warwick university claims that traditional computer programmes fail dramatically in marking twitter comments. But beyond their failure of ‘correctly’ coding the comments, I wonder to what extent the portion of negative/positive/neutral can tell us about visitor experience? As the researcher mentioned, when people make comments on twitter, they usually have their own readers in mind. They could be talking to their friends and close families and use a lot of slang words. Therefore, many comments could have little to do with their actual feeling about the event. And though we are now better equipped with digital tools, can they really help us? When people smile within the visual fields of the machine that captures automated smiles, does it really mean that they are ‘happy’ with the event? Maybe the picture is that technology does help to ‘obtain’ massive data with relatively little effort, it is after all ‘fragments’ and even ‘false impressions’. Digital tools can only be ‘add-ons’ and it is almost impossible to replace human-involved research with computers, Apps and other smart technologies.

The third seminar is the one I attended this afternoon at the English Faculty by the Cambridge Performance Network. Usually, the seminars they organise are about dramas and theatre. But this time, it was by an independent curator who worked at the Natural History Museum, London. Well, honestly, I didn’t like the seminar. The drama studio is not a proper place for such seminars. The chairs are quite uncomfortable and the seminar is basically a lecture, and a very long one. I would agree that the presenter might be a very good curator, but she is certainly not a good presenter. The powerpoint slides are full of words and she just talks in such a monotonous tone and it was really hard to get myself focused for over one hour. And though they arrived 15 mintues before the seminar (I was even earlier), they still hadn’t done enought preparation. She didn’t test the CD-Rom and she didn’t even connected the power. So, we had to wait for quite a long time twice in the middle of the presentation. Fortunately, there were drinks to direct people’s attention. But not my drinks… The talk was filled with professional terms and was not organised in an engaging manner. She promised to talk about her ‘curating’ as a process, but the major focus seems to be on the introduction of how the artists worked on the project. She didn’t talk too much about her efforts during the process, which I was most interested in. So, it was rather disappointing and I left once the Q & A session kicked off.

Anyway, all these seminars are helpful and it is good and pleasant to know that many interdisciplinary works are being done in connection with museums. And I come to realise that being a good presenter is extremely crucial. Otherwise, it is difficult to communicate one’s thoughts and works. Well, I have to work on that. And I have signed myself up for two occasions already. More preparations and more practices ahead!

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