Monday, 16 November 2015

Notes from Irish Museums Association 'Creative Museum' Event - 23rd October 2015

I was very pleased to be invited by the Irish Museums Association (IMA) to present my work on the Dancing in Museums project at their 'Creative Museum' Event in Belfast on the 23rd October 2015.

I took a few notes during the day which I've tidied up a bit and am sharing here as part of my ongoing research around ways of using dance in museum contexts:

Brian Crowley (Chair, IMA and Curator, Pearse Museum) introduced the conference by talking about how museums might approach opportunities to work in partnerships with artists. Brian encouraged museum representatives to say yes, to try different things, to try things that they had never tried before.

Dr Victoria Durrer (Lecturer, School of Creative Arts, Queen's University Belfast) talked about the
of artists and museums working together

Dr Emily Mark Fitzgerald (Lecturer, School of Art History and Public Policy, Queen's University Belfast) described the way in which museum/artist collaborations might:
expand creative practice
cultivate new engagements with artefacts and historical institutions
transform the way in which collections are seen

She talked about the way in which engagement of audiences and visitor participation became central in museums in the 1980s and 1990s instead of a marginal concern. She described the way in which collaboration between artists and museums could produce powerful “disruptions” in museum spaces (but in a constructive way), new forms of attention and new forms of public experience.

Professor Pedro Rebelo (a sound artist and composer; Director of Research, School of Creative Arts and Sonic Research Centre, Queen's University Belfast) introduced his Som da Maré project. He particularly highlighted the participatory strategies at the core of his project and the importance of not thinking of the artist as the centre of the project. He talked about the long term commitment of the artist to build a relationship with the audience over time; he also described “horizontal [management] structures” – so everyone participates in his work at an equal level, the participants are also the owners of the work. This corresponded with the equality within the organisational structures of the museums in which Pedro was working (in Rio de Janeiro).

I was interested in hear about
an activity in which Pedro encouraged participants to write or draw on the ground in response to the sounds they could hear in the space around them as a way of annotating what was happening
the role the museum had to play in incentivising young people (aged 17/18) to carry on in education/their learning
the way in which Pedro’s project with the museum reached out into the ‘city’ through guided walk sound work, as well as working within the favelas in Maré – bridging communities. The concept of the museum that Pedro described was a museum without walls, extending out into the community rather than situated within one specific building.

Nigel Monaghan (Keeper, National Museum of Ireland, Natural History Division) introduced a great variety of artists (some of whom had engaged with museum staff, some who had not) who had responded to the Natural History collection at the National Museum of Ireland. The artists included:
Conor Walton
Paul Gregg 
Ciaran Murphy 
Eva Walsh
Karl Grimes

Nigel also talked about the fact that the museum was full of ‘artworks’ – artefacts that were constructed and replicated; taxidermy as an example of craftsmanship. He reminded me of the Blaschka studio: Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolf produced beautiful glass casts of underwater creatures; visualisations of creatures that couldn't be photographed and shared in the time the Blaschkas were working.

Dr Hugh Maguire (Director, The Hunt Museum) put forward an alternative perspective in which The Hunt Museum (which he wanted to be seen as a ‘permeable’ space) was in fact so busy engaging with artists that he had to ensure that the core collection wasn’t getting neglected. In the later Q&A session, he also talked about visitors becoming 'blind to the collections', because they were so busy 'engaging with the space in a different way' e.g. participating in a workshop or visiting the café. However, he suggested, if even a few 'cross over' from one 'world' to another, could that be considered to be a success?

He talked about negotiating the needs and expectations of artists with expectations of “traditional visitors”. He wanted the space to be permeable, but he was now in a position where he wanted to put mechanisms in place for selecting the artist responses to be presented within the museum, rather than sharing everything from everyone.

I thought Hugh gave a valuable reminder that projects that are solely artist-led could become as “arcane” or “exclusive” as the more traditional museum collections the artists were seeking to interpret in a different way because they thought they were similarly arcane. He also talked about the responsibility the museum had for explaining to their visitors how the artist responses were relevant to them, which actually I think is a shared responsibility with the artists, and is one of the things I love about the ‘Dancing in Museums’ project: I find that audience members are more likely to come up to me and talk about the work in a museum than they would in a more conventional theatre performance context. As Kate Coyne described at the PDSW/Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives event, the presence of the dancing body seems to make people feel that they have licence to see and interact with the space and with the dancers in a new way.

After lunch, Michelle Browne described her work with Dublin Castle (These Immovable Walls: Performing Power at Dublin Castle) and Louise Lowe (ANU Productions) and Lar Joye talked about the remarkable PALS project – both were really compelling case studies for artists working collaboratively with museums.

Michelle described her work curating a group of performance artists who responded to the Dublin Castle site. She talked about opportunities for participants to be allowed to hang their portrait in the building, to run along the hall, to sit in the formal chairs, to wear slippers. She also talked at length about the process of negotiation with the collaborating heritage site being an interesting part of the artistic process, and the potential challenge of the “unknown” – where she couldn’t necessarily describe to the people with whom she was working what the artists might do, because their work was unpredictable.

Michelle talked about Dublin Castle’s ‘shifting’ history, with (surprisingly) no definitive version of certain historical events that were supposed to have happened there (e.g. Margaret Thatcher’s visit) and the process of uncovering lost histories - things that happened, but with no plaques to indicate them.

Louise Lowe talked about the relationship they wanted to set up with their audiences in their PALS project. She facilitated opportunities for the audience to participate or observe (without dictating to them what they had to do) in order to encourage them to think about how they would have responded to things her characters were facing. The work wasn’t just about giving a historical account, it was also about emotional engagement:

“We are not interested in simply reenacting or recreating events that we think may have happened in the past, but with a desire to reimagine and remake everything that was radical and alive about the past in the present.”

ANU Productions were in residence for 17 weeks at the National Museum of Ireland, Colllins Barracks when they were creating the PALS project, and they continue to work on-site, using the North Barracks as studios. Louise described that lots of people from the heritage world came into rehearsals to contribute to how the work was made, and the project needed a much more hands-on experience from the partner museum, it wasn't just a case of them saying ‘yes’.

Louise also said that the PALS project engaged audiences in an unprecedented way, and the company had an unsolicited response in terms of people sending their photos of the performance via social media for example.

Margaret Henry (CEO of Audiences NI) gave a valuable insight into museum audiences in Northern Ireland at the end of the day.

She described that a lot of the reasons around people not attending museums were because of perception, and museums perhaps not ‘singing loudly enough about what they were doing’.

She gave some pointers to consider when collecting information from audiences:

  • be clear about what exactly you need to know and why
  • check what already exists
  • identify who owns the process for your museums
  • road-test and practice with IT
  • motivation and engagement - share results, regular contact, DIY (collect information yourself so that you understand the practicalities and issues around it and can motivate the rest of the team who may be involved in collecting audience data), deal with issues promptly
  • momentum is vital
  • internal and external benefits

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