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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Museum (House) with Lots of Chairs

Yesterday, I wasn’t very productive with my writing. I was just a bit agitated and I knew I should just get away from my desk and do something else. The sun shines and what a pity if I could just stay indoors staring at my computer screen. I suggested to mum that we could go outside but I wasn’t sure where to go. We already did much shopping, and I could not think of anything special.

Anyway, we finally walked out and I took my mum to Kettle’s Yard. We actually went there the other day, but it wasn’t open yet by then. So, that was around 1 p.m. and the gallery was open. We saw the exhibition of Victor Skipp, a collector and artist who bestowed his collections to Kettle’s Yard. I had expected that mum would not be used to contemporary art galleries. She had hardly been to one. I was watching a video, about the countryside house owned by Victor and some of his collections. I called mum over and she wasn’t as excited as I was. And she simply commented how a video like that could be an artwork on display. I totally agree that the gallery is a very typical contemporary art space–

White wall with small sometimes tiny black characters simply ‘announcing’ the name of the ‘artpiece’.

I don’t know Victor Skipp. But I could imagine how the collections would look very differently when they were displayed in his house. Or maybe ‘display’ would not be a proper word. They would simply be there, as part of his house, his surroundings and his everyday life. But then, in the gallery, everything looked so lonely. The video was beautifully shot and the display was carefully arranged and there were leaflets for visitors on which the general outline of the display was mapped out. The leaflets became a kind of ‘portable labels’. But apart from the silhouette and the numbered title of each object, I didn’t find any information on the stories of how Victor collected and treated these objects when he was alive.

Mum seemed to get impatient and she asked me to confirm that ‘that was it’. Nothing more. Yes, nothing more. I told her I would take her to the house, which would be very interesting as it was the real residence of a ‘friend of artists’. When I was in the gallery, I discerned those white doors where I used to walk in and out as an volunteer. But they were all locked then. And I now had to find my way to the house as a visitor. There was no shortcut.

We went outside the gallery and found the door to the house. I had never enter the house by that door before and it seemed that I need to pull the bell. I tried and soon someone opened the door. A friendly face welcomed us and we went inside the house. She told us that we could store our bag and hang our clothes by the hooks under the staircases. She also helped us to put our bags in a locked closet. It was truly like visiting a friend’s flat. We were the only visitors and I signed on the visitors’ book as the volunteer asked me to. And she explained the rules and said that we were very welcome to sit on the chairs but that we were not allowed to touch anything.

I walked mum all the way to the bathroom on the ground floor. I pinpointed a few aesthetic arrangement to her: the swirling pebbles, the lemon on the plate against the dark background, the three stones that resemble a family of three, a few feathers elegantly lying in a glassware … We then went upstairs and the staff who welcomed us was talking to another guy. They both said hello to us. Again, I highlighted a few things to mum, especially the little ‘greenhouse’ with a magnifying glass plate. It was a pity that the sunlight was gone when we were inside and the lighting effect was not that perfect. I also encouraged mum to sit on one of the sofa chair, but she didn’t have much interest and only symbolically seated herself for a few seconds after I insisted. We seemed to cover all the areas, including the attic with lots of artworks.

If I was there alone, I would really like to lie in one of the sofa chair and read books. It was a short visit. Not too bad though.

What reminds me again of those chairs is an article I read today. Bradburne was memorating Kenneth Hudson who once talked about museums with charm and museum with chairs. It is a very short article, but it just touches me. The whole philosophy of museum with chairs is so different from that linear viewing method by the traditional ‘walking’ route. How come that this simply, succinct, but wise idea hasn’t been picked up by the museum world?

But the house of Kettle’s Yard is one living example. As visitors, we are invited to sit down, to just relax ourselves, to have time and space to look and think and ‘feel’, to just enjoy a moment of peace, to ‘look’ at the objects from different angles.

Why can’t museum be a space to just sit back and enjoy? A space that encourages meditation? I would certainly want to visit the house at Kettle’s Yard again, alone or with some other friends: to sit down and relax myself. And maybe I would see the place differently. Maybe that would be a totally different experience.

But aren’t we tuned in that way of ‘walking through exhibitions’ that we would naturally ‘reject’ to sit down, as what my mum did?