Thursday, 8 January 2015

1. How do you think dance can help young people to make sense of objects/enjoy and engage with collections?

I have been working specifically with dance in museums and heritage sites for nearly two years now, and one thing I can certainly say about working in this environment is that there is always more to discover: museums are such a rich source for creative dance activity.

However, what I have learnt during those two years, and throughout my work as a professional dance artist and choreographer more generally, is that dance has the capacity, if introduced in an appropriate way, to engage all individuals, regardless of ability or previous experience.
“There are some people in the group who I wouldn’t have believed could do that.” (Teacher feedback from a Dancing in Museums workshop)
Photo Benedict Johnson; courtesy of the British Museum
In many instances when I work with dance with young people in museums, I can see a greater transformation in a shorter space of time than I might in another context. Many young people go from being disengaged, not knowing what to expect or lacking in confidence to really enjoying themselves, and in the past, the young people with whom I’ve worked have also been also able to reflect on that change, including one participant who wrote this feedback for me: “I enjoyed when we did the warrior dance and I thought I wouldn't enjoy it but I did. Thank you very much”.

Of course, every individual will take something different away from every experience, but I think dance can have such an impact when working creatively in museums because, for example:

it takes young people out of their usual learning environment and into a different space, a space which is in itself a place of enquiry, curiosity, reflection and interpretation; a place where, if given the encouragement and the tools to do so, they can ask their own questions without the same sense of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ they might experience in other contexts and start to find some answers.

in the museum environment there is so much cross-over between different facets of life and ways of responding to the world; young people are able to engage with objects in their fullest sense – scientific, historical, geographic, literal, poetic, mathematical, technological and so on. So even if a young person may not ordinarily engage with dance/physical activity, or, on the other hand, maybe they don’t usually engage with history for example, something about bringing two or more elements together makes it more likely that every individual will be able to take something away from the experience. I always maximise this opportunity for working in an interdisciplinary way by introducing lots of other activities alongside the dancing in my workshops – drawing, writing, acting, measuring, discussing, photographing, filming for example.

Photo Benedict Johnson; courtesy of the British Museum
Photo Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the British Museum
dance can be a great tool for interpreting artefacts, and a way in to helping young people to tell stories and make sense of the world around them.
Artefacts in museums, especially those which are incomplete, can only tell a part of a story. If we want to tell the whole story, we have to fill in the gaps in understanding, and we can do this by using the facts we do have to make educated guesses, or by reimagining our own version of events.
Neil MacGregor writes about this in his A History of the World in 100 Objects:
“Thinking about the past or about a distant world through things is always about poetic recreation. We acknowledge the limits of what we can know with certainty, and must then try to find a different way of knowing, aware that objects must have been made by people essentially like us – so we should be able to puzzle out why they might have made them and what they were for”
This interpretative act is an ideal scenario for initiating creative movement exploration: we take a starting point or a series of starting points, we look at them from a range of different perspectives to try to find the themes, connections, points of interest, and begin piecing together a bigger picture using movement that may be a combination of more literal representation and completely new invention.

dance provides individuals with a way of connecting specifically with the personal story of the object. Conservation issues mean that is most often necessary for museums to present artefacts in a formal way, behind glass, but because of this it can be difficult for young people to access the idea that in its time, the artefact may have belonged to an individual e.g. it might have had great personal significance to that person, or it may be that they threw it away (for countless possible reasons). Dance, and in fact any interpretative act/creative activity, can help us to get back to that personal connection. I went to the recent 'Dance and museums working together' symposium (Trinity Laban/Horniman Museum) at which Dr Bettina Zorn from the Weltmuseum in Vienna said that in a museum, “the living part of the object is missing” and dance enables us to access or re-imagine that missing part, and by experiencing it physically, to be able to grasp it more fully. I often encourage the young people with whom I work to think of the artefact as a portal through which they can time-travel to another period in history. It can also provide a way in to talking about that individual’s place within the history of an area that’s important to them, their family, within the world, or in the future for example.
“Amazing, really amazing – fantastic for the children, brought their personalities out and allowed them to be who they are.” (Teacher feedback from a Dancing in Museums workshop)
“Dance can embrace multiple narratives around an object, encouraging visitors to think about the object in a more complex way. The dancer can become a living embodiment of the object. When presented well, the contrast between the impermanence of a human body dancing and the static, enduring nature of an object is a compelling one. It also offers a space in a museum for human interaction, where visitors can feel more free, challenging some of the older ‘codes’ of museum etiquette. While this can present its own challenges, it may encourage new and more diverse visitors to museums and encourage existing visitors to be less passive in their engagement – to experience the Museum as ‘alive’. It also helps to meet the growing demand for more immersive, interactive work which engages people with a wide range of learning styles.” (Emma MacFarland, report on ‘Dance and museums learning together’ symposium)
both artefacts and the dances they inspire can be non-verbal, and I have found this to be particularly significant when working with young people who have a range of needs that mean they find verbal communication challenging.

as well as using dance to respond to artefacts, it can also be a tool for interpreting the museum space itself and to draw on (or contradict) the behaviours that might usually happen there. Dance can be used to interact with the museum space in a different way e.g. going under, behind, around things, watching through glass, going behind the scenes. I have found that young people really enjoy using something they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to access as a creative stimulus (i.e. an object or a space in the museum that is usually out of bounds), and they can also enjoy responding to objects that are permanently on display but may be overlooked (in the British Museum, for example, the collection is so vast that it can be very difficult to take it all in, meaning some things may be undiscovered until given time for closer inspection). What is important is that, even for a limited period of time, the museum ‘belongs’ to those young people given permission to interact with it in a different way (which feels all the more exciting and special because they aren’t ordinarily allowed to do it), and a lot of feedback I receive relates to this:
“I loved the fact that we were allowed to dance in a museum.”“I loved making our mystical world. Thank you!” 
Photo Benedict Johnson; courtesy of the British Museum

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