Data day at the museum

Teamwork and Strategy in the Museum... Lewis Chessmen, Scotland, 12th-Century, British Museum. Photograph by Andrew Dunn. Sourced from WikiCommons/Creative Commons

Teamwork and Strategy in the Museum… Lewis Chessmen, Scotland, 12th-Century, British Museum. Photograph by Andrew Dunn. Sourced from WikiCommons/Creative Commons

“What does data have to do with me?”
British Museum
Great Russell Street, London, WC1
5 June 2015

One of the bonuses of working on an AHRC funded doctorate is being able to attend conferences, workshops and seminars that introduce me to subject areas which at first sight might seem tangential to my core subject, but as my research actually crosses disciplinary boundaries I shouldn’t be too surprised when they prove to be incredibly useful. Signing up to the AHRC mailing list and taking notice of emails sent by University of Brighton Doctoral College alerted me to such opportunities. Events that fit this category include a two-day workshop, hosted by Northumbria University Newcastle and Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums, on the subject of “Digital Histories: Advanced Skills for Historians” (review to follow), and “Using Museum Archives” supported by the Museums and Galleries History Group and the British Museum Collaborative Research Studentship Programme (also, to be reviewed).

I was particularly impressed with another British Museum event, “What does data have to do with me?” and am writing this up in detail because it signposted numerous projects that I wouldn’t otherwise have been aware of. The packed programme featured stellar speakers including representatives from Adobe, the Arts Council, Culture24, Dallas Museum of Art (by Skype), Google, The Guardian, Nesta and News UK. Crucially, though, the day introduced a new resource within the museum…data.
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From the Archive; revisiting The Gladstone, Toronto

Not everyone in the museum world thinks that the key to growing audiences is inclusivity and diversity. In some quarters, exclusivity and elitism are the order of the day, used to attract audiences of a different character; people too busy to queue or who don’t like crowds and prefer a “private view” atmosphere, albeit one they pay for rather than access on merit. At this point I’m not judging the trend, but will return to it in a group of posts inspired by recent events, including the opening of fashion- and luxury-brand museums and the launch of new concierge and “passport” services.

But today’s re-post was inspired by an aspect of this trend, news of the “Museum Oscars”, which came via a tweet from CNN. Reporter Maureen O’Hare ponders “surprises” on the short-list and asks why certain “giants” of the museum world are absent. Her copy answers that question without spelling it out; these awards “honor the world’s most visionary art institutions and emerging cultural hotspots”, meaning places that change rather than those that stay the same.

The Leading Culture Destinations Awards boast a glamorous list of “Ambassadors”, a coterie of “cultural nomads” who exercise their taste in judgement, and such a media-friendly ploy guarantees high profile coverage. It may reek of hype (or is it just be a slow-news day) but the LCD website is sleek and impressive, suggesting that a substantial investment underpins the enterprise. Aside from organising the awards, LCD combines a luxury travel agency, publishing company (albeit online) and event management.

More on this phenomenon in the next post, but I’m mentioning it here because of the category “The Best Art Experience in a Hotel”, which got me excited as museums and hotels are two of my favourite things, so put them together! One nomination, The Gladstone, had just opened when I wrote about it and its near neighbour, The Drake Hotel, during Toronto’s Alternative Art Fair, which happens every November before winter weather sets in. Being “art hotels” the two venues give themselves over to installations and happenings. Back in 2006 I spent a couple of days at The Drake Hotel enjoying the gloriously balmy autumnal glow, culminating in a hotel-take-over by Peaches no less, who played an extraordinary set throughout the hotel, her exploits relayed via video link to screens dotted around the public spaces. The queen bee had the room next to ours, and after all the excitement was gracious enough to kick out her groupies, which lowered the decibels, so everyone got a good night’s sleep.

The Gladstone room that CNN rates with a mention is by Ghost Design, aka, Barr Gilmore and Michel Arcand. Suite 318, The Blue Line room works on the same principle as movie special effects, allowing guests to doctor-up their selfie shots by adding digital backgrounds. With this year’s Nuit Blanche, the all-night art rave, coming up on Saturday, perhaps it’s time to get a room…

Screen Shot of “The Blue Line” room in The Gladstone

Screen Shot of “The Blue Line” room in The Gladstone

Meanwhile, back in the day…

Art Houses
Design Week
2 March 2006, p.18

Standfirst: Two trend-setting hotels in Toronto put the city’s classic Victorian architecture to good use — they have kept their accessible, bohemian roots, while offering a quirky design. Unique, rather than boutique is the way forward.

For one of the world’s most cosmopolitan and diverse cities, Toronto has a surprisingly unpretentious attitude. Even in the designated Art and Design District, identified by fancy street signs and a concentration of galleries, boutiques, designer eateries and creative businesses, the atmosphere is more inclusive than elitist, as you can tell from afternoons people-watching on (well-heated) café terraces.

Based on the North American urban ‘block’ model, with long boulevards and narrow cross streets, much of the city centre’s 19th-century architecture is deliciously ornate and on an industrial scale. The fortunes of some neighbourhoods declined, so that many buildings were left mercifully alone. A profusion of building stock, ready and waiting to be renovated and reused, is what drew artists and savvy developers to the Art and Design District, located at the western end of Queen Street, or West Queen West to its friends.
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Denmark for design museums; a discussion

Design Museums for the 21st Century, roundtable discussion
Trapholt Museum and University of Southern Denmark
Kolding, Denmark
23 January 2014


When your PhD supervisor tells you to go to Denmark in freezing January, you go; the icing on the cake was that it started snowing as we sat in the Trapholt Museum’s meeting room, with its giant picture window, and everyone went “aaaahhhh”. The Museum is housed in a playfully modern building, boasts an unrivalled collection of Danish chairs and is next door to Arne Jacobsen’s summer house (sadly I didn’t get inside, this time), so that made up for the weather. I also got to see the thought-provoking and unprecedented touring exhibition, Out to Sea? The Plastic Garbage Project, which seemed totally appropriate in a country that loves fish.

I’m reporting what the speakers said, from my notes, but have added my comments too; where they are short and in the same paragraph, they’re in [square brackets].

My supervisor is University of Brighton’s Professor of Design Culture, Guy Julier, and he is also Visiting Professor at University of Southern Denmark. He’d gathered his grad students from Denmark and Brighton, along with “expert witnesses” from the museum world in Denmark and the UK, to discuss design. Guy opened the proceedings by telling us that design museums were “mushrooming”. He counted 45 European design museums with more projects for new, expanding and relocating institutions still in the pipeline, mentioning that Mexico City’s MUMEDI, tripled its visitor numbers by rebranding as a “design museum”. He talked about the tension in museums between the contemporary and history, design and design history, and that a contextual approach to design in museums was the way forward, mixing the excitement of innovation with the pragmatism of solving problems, and heritage and continuity with new technology and innovative design fields. Finally, he pointed to the Index Awards (a Danish initiative) as evidence of design shifting away from a fascination with “heroes”. […and by extension, a recognised canon?]
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From the Archive; Furniture, Jerwood Applied Arts Prize 1999


Furniture: Jerwood Applied Arts Prize 1999
Jerwood Charitable Foundation
Crafts Council Gallery
441 Pentonville Road, London N1
26 August to 3 October 1999

I wrote an essay for this exhibition catalogue (produced by the Jerwood Charitable Foundation and the Crafts Council, designed by Pentagram) while I was a nomad, living and working between two continents. I remember the irony of writing about furniture when all I owned was in storage, but I was an unrepentant collector, even buying pieces from fellow students while at the RCA (Allison Jane Thomas’s Tutti-Frutti stool (1990) is in the V&A; mine is upholstered in tan leather).

Coincidentally, 1999 was when auctioneer Alexander Payne first coined the term Design Art; he later ditched it due to “misuse” as reported in ICON (8/2/08). So, when I say in the essay, “furniture has no pedestal”, that was about to change, although the turn towards narrative and meaning beyond function was acknowledged.

Another shift of emphasis has occurred in the career trajectories of new designers. Where I listed migration to Milan, the epicentre of the contemporary furniture trade, as a right of passage, subsequent diversification of production has widened the geographical spread of design activity. “Eleven years ago UNESCO launched the Creative Cities Network to recognize cities around the world whose creativity has an impact on their social, economic, and political development”; Business Insider spotlights 16 design-focused cities, here. Through a mix of city council initiatives, the presence of museums and universities (with students travelling to study and then relocating), and Design Festivals and Biennales that disperse the power of promotion, designers are living and working beyond the industry’s powerhouse cities (Milan, Paris, Tokyo, New York, London), in places like Oslo, Cape Town, Istanbul, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Hints of that trend were evident in the career choices of the designers selected for this award, perhaps because they foregrounded making in their practice as opposed to mass-production. The shortlist featured Jane Atfield, Robert Kilvington, Mary Little, Michael Marriott, Guy Martin, Jim Partridge, Simon Pengelly and Michael Young.
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Turning the century; contemporary design at the V&A


Design Since 1945
Permanent Display, Room 76, Level 3
Victoria and Albert Museum
Cromwell Road, London SW7
27 August 2015

The other day I popped into the V&A for a quick refresher. It was a busy weekday near the end of the school holidays, and while there were queues outside the Natural History Museum and the V&A’s ground floor galleries were full of bodies, the upper floors were relatively quiet. I took the opportunity to see how the permanent display of contemporary design might have evolved since I last too a look (not sure when that was). On the V&A’s website the Design Since 1945 gallery in Room 76 (one of three rooms labelled “Modern” on the Museum Map) is described as showing art and design from the end of the Second World War to the present day; it also aims to present contemporary developments. Continue reading


From the Archive (& now): a moment of manga

Manga is a popular choice for museum exhibitions and displays: with boundless variations in content and style, it’s accessible but (still) culturally exotic; it mixes scholarly research with contemporary collecting; and whether PG-rated or not, attracts a diverse audience of geeks and gawkers of all ages. Not for the first time, the British Museum gives over the high profile Room 3 (can’t miss it, first stop on the right) to a manga-moment with Manga now: three generations, which features new and specially commissioned work by Chiba Tetsuya, Hoshino Yukinobu and Nakamura Hikaru. I’ll pop in to inspect it next time I’m on the hallowed ground.

Manga now, three generations
The Asahi Shimbun Displays, Objects in Focus
British Museum
Great Russell Street, London WC1
3 September to 15 November 2015

Screen Shot from the British Museum’s website; three manga artists

Screen Shot from the British Museum’s website; three manga artists

Previously that room featured the stunning display, Manga, Professor Munakata’s British Museum adventure (5/11/09-3/1/10), by Hoshino Yukinobu (also featured this time). Jane Cheng reviewed that show on Eye Blog, here: “The juxtaposition of hugely enlarged with minutely detailed asks visitors both to lean in closer and to step back”. Jane’s post features great images of the life-sized cut-outs in situ – like walking through a giant pop-up book — and she highlights the interactive nature of illustration exhibitions (something I recognised too at the V&A’s Memory Palace show, and featured a conference paper, soon to be posted). Loving a museum-based-mystery, especially one that showcases perfectly rendered images of museum objects (and hat’s off, what a tie-in, when’s the movie?), I ordered said graphic novel from the BM’s online shop having received a timely email reminding me of the publication on the same morning that the new show opened; now that’s what I call museum marketing. The online shop also tells customers, “Every purchase supports the Museum” (rather than Amazon).
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From the Archive (& now); catching up with knitting

A new exhibition, What Do I Need To Do To Make It OK?, features Freddie Robins and the arts of stitching and knitting, which reminded me of a review I wrote a decade ago, for an exhibition fanfaring the reinvention of knitting, Knit 2 Together at the Crafts Council Gallery.

Back in 2005, knitting was in the vanguard of a DIY/Maker Movement, and while that movement is going from strength to strength, the boom in all-things-knitted points to how commerce and the media can hitch a ride on even the most unlikely bandwagon. As I mention in the article, a decade ago yarn shops were closing. But now it can be argued that, along with other independent shops run by enthusiasts and local-entrepreneurs, crafting shops are spearheading a high street revival; while ‘public knitting’ was once deemed radical, now it’s helping shopkeepers build communities (‘user groups’ even) with knitting circles that ‘keep the lights on’ after closing time. Crafting events in libraries, schools and museums are guaranteed crowd-pleasers; Craft Fairs and Maker Faires draw in punters looking for unique items (which chain stores could ever supply), and all of this helps fund the ‘freelance’ economy. Another knock on effect of knitting is the boost it has given publishing; from how-to books to anthologies of radical craft, publishers, magazines and newspapers are benefitting from the expansive-yarn-economy. And while it’s a decade since Design Week published my article, the message is still current; Susan Jones recently declared, ‘Our future is in the making’ in The Guardian (19/3/15).
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Conference Paper; The Contentious Constance Spry, or, ‘Not in My Museum!‘

I’m taking some time this summer to document activities over the last few years, including occasional academic papers delivered at conferences and workshops. Images are from PowerPoint presentations and include quotes projected so as the audience can read along with references in the text. This paper was delivered “live”, and although it’s been re-edited for the page, I decided not to include footnotes or formal citations; all documents referred to are in the Design Museum archive, which is being catalogued, and mentioned texts are listed at end. This is a work-in-progress relating to my doctoral thesis, so if it feels truncated that’s because I’m using this blog as an “ideas store”, with the intention of expanding and deepening my arguments in the thesis.

Curating Popular Art
Whitechapel Gallery
77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1
14 June 2013

Organised with the University of Brighton Design Archives; a study day to accompany the exhibition
Black Eyes and Lemonade: Curating Popular Art
9 March to 1 September 2013


As the recipient of an AHRC Collaborative Doctorate Award, pairing the University of Brighton with London’s Design Museum, I’m looking at how definitions of design are produced and evolved within museums.

Good Victorian that he was, Henry Cole’s aim as founder of what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum, was to create an institution that informed manufacturers, workers and the public about the benefits of “good design”, so as to encourage the production, consumption and export of well-designed and efficiently-made “everyday” products, which would reinvigorate British industry. Jump to 1917, and Hubert Llewellyn Smith, Head of the Board of Trade and an early advocate for design education and design promotion suggested that a new museum of industrial design would help this cause. (The Board of Trade went on to set up the Council of Industrial Design, later the Design Council, and administrated the Victoria and Albert Museum up until the early 1980s). Such rhetoric around design promotes a series of promises; that “good design” will facilitate economic development, cultural innovation and social improvement. This discourse of design promotion has been central to the growth of institutions dedicated to the collection and display of designed objects. I’d suggest that now there is a more pressing need to present a truly comprehensive vision of the role and benefits of design; instead of “good design” might we consider “design for good”? But are design museums still fixating on Cole’s vision? Promoting individual designers and showcasing “the best” products of the year may fulfil the aims of a design museum, but explaining the design process and its multifarious activities and outcomes – showing design to be a tool for engagement and change – would more closely demonstrate “what design is now”. So, when it comes to design in museums, we are on the cusp of change.
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VitraHaus, displaying design for sale; implications for design museums


This gallery contains 28 photos.

VitraHaus Vitra Campus Ray-Eames-Str. 1 Weil Am Rhein, Germany October 2014 In relation to design objects and the museum, VitraHaus, the close neighbour of VDM, is worth pondering. Sited on the Vitra campus, it opened in 2010. As the … Continue reading

MUSCON at Vitra; and a summer of design exhibitions


European Museum Network Conference
Vitra Design Museum
Charles-Eames-Str. 2
Weil Am Rhein, Germany
15 to 18 October 2014

Last year I was invited to attend a MUSCON conference hosted by the Vitra Design Museum, the institution that instigated the network back in 1996. I was present as an observer (along with fellow researchers Sabina Michaelis and Rosita Satell from the University of Southern Denmark) as the event is intended for staff from member institutions to pitch and negotiate the “buying and selling” of upcoming exhibitions as touring shows (here’s how VDM do it). Every year or so there are regional MUSCON conferences in Europe, the US and Asia. As a crash-course in museum programming and an introduction to a wide range of institutions (from Finland to Italy, Kilkenny to Ljubljana), the conference offered an opportunity to underpin my research with the kind of real-world issues facing museum staff…and put names to faces. Although not every MUSCON institution is a “design museum” they’re all keen to include design in their curatorial offer.
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