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From The Vyne to the divine

Published on June 28, 2012 by

Two completely different sorts of visitor experience in as many days.  The first was a trip to a country house in Hampshire, very near where I grew up but which remained shamefully unvisited by my younger self – I blame the parents.

The Vyne dates back to Tudor times and has (I think estate agents would say “it boasts”) its own chapel, unusual for a house so small.  Although it is small, there’s much to see and the house has an intimate, homely air.  In one of the drawing rooms, a 19th century occupant decided to raise the ceiling.  When he discovered that the structure prevented his planned improvement, nothing daunted, he simply raised the centre of the ceiling by eight inches and decorated the edges.  The whole effect was a bit eccentric but charming, rather like the house itself.  In the same room stands a Broadwood piano, commissioned by the unsuccessful interior designer.  When I mentioned that I’d learned on a Broadwood as a child, I was invited to sit and play.  I had to admit that perhaps “learned” was an exaggeration; “had lessons” was more accurate, so I declined.   But what a pleasure it was to visit a house where the attendants – all volunteers, one assumed – were actually attentive, eager to share their knowledge, proud of The Vyne, but not pushy, really adding to the pleasure of the visit. It’s some time since I visited a National Trust property, and perhaps they are all as well staffed as this one, but if so, they are an object lesson in how to enhance the visitor experience.  The laminated sheets one carries round have the bare minimum of information, really just what each room is and perhaps one or two things to look out for.  In this way, one actually engages with the building just as one does with any other house.  Logical  too: after all,  how often does one enter someone’s home to be greeted by a lengthy explanation of each room’s fixtures and fittings?

The grounds are beautiful and beautifully kept, too, and there are lots of events throughout the year.  A lovely summery day, so people were lounging in (National Trust) deckchairs, gazing at the swans drifting past on the lake.   An excellent tearoom, too, with local produce, and a second-hand bookstall, suggested donation 50p.

I wonder if they’re looking for any more volunteers?

And then, yesterday, to Goldsmiths Hall in the heart of the City, to see Gold: Power and Allure.  It’s hard to imagine a more different experience than that of the previous day.  The free exhibition takes up several galleries and has been well thought out and organised thematically (sporting gold; military gold; religious gold; jewellery; money; and so on and so on).  Goldsmiths Hall itself is extremely imposing, no doubt designed to impress and intimidate, and where visitors were talking it was in the most hushed tones imaginable.  I’ve heard louder voices in church.  I’m not sure whether it was the building or the gilding that provoked such a  decorous response, but it was definitely not a situation that invited exuberance.

The artefacts themselves were overwhelming, not just the workmanship or the antiquity or the history or the sheer beauty, but the number and volume.  I felt completely Midassed by the end, but each case had something to offer the weary eye, and the exhibition makes clear why man has always lusted for this material, for its purity, its malleability, its  haughty indifference to being buried underground for thousands of years until someone thinks its grave might make a good car park.

The objects, gleaming enticingly in showcases, were well lit but not, alas, well labelled.  The resistance to assigning a numbering system to the artefacts so that one can deduce which object the label describes, results in visitors having to guess, or count up and down or from left to right (it wasn’t consistent either), and quite possibly get it wrong.  There were also typos (“Nepolean” Bonaparte), and an assumption that visitors would know the ins and outs and technical terminology of goldsmithing, and would therefore not need definitions or clarification.  Some of the objects are more compelling because of their associations – a toothpick given away by Charles I on the night before his execution, as a thank you for kindnesses rendered during his time in the Tower; a cigarette case presented to the Duke of Portland in 1913 by the ill-fated Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  Others had a timeless quality, particularly the Anglo-Saxon torcs, which looked as modern as any necklace made today, pieces simple or elaborate and breathtakingly gorgeous

In the end, the exhibition was a bit like the subject itself: rich, intense, concrete and abstract.  But only with the personal objects did I feel any real connection; I could imagine wearing that ring, using that coffee spoon, opening that snuffbox; but I couldn’t engage with the formal ceremonial gold – the maces, plate, swords, coronets.  No doubt it’s my problem, but I can see myself swanning around a grand country house, just not eating off gold plate day in, day out.


Clothes, emperor, new; rearrange

Published on June 22, 2012 by

To the Hayward to see Invisible: Art About the Unseen, which The Guardian calls ‘a seriously brilliant jest’.

No.  It’s not.  I didn’t laugh once.  The exhibition consists of a series of white galleries with a number of drawings, concept artefacts, text, plinths; a totally dark black gallery; also a couple of completely empty white galleries – well, empty apart from ‘Sumo’ air conditioners; and the final exhibit/experience: headphones which gripped above your ears and responded to invisible walls in the gallery by buzzing disagreeably, thereby guiding you round an invisible maze.  There are two empty plinths.  One had been in some way blessed by the brief presence of Andy Warhol, and the label read ‘Mixed Media’, which was actually quite funny.  The other had had the air above it cursed by a witch, apparently.  Right.  Coincidentally, my daughter worked on the installation of this exhibit in Cardiff about eighteen months ago.  When I told her I was going to see it at the Hayward and asked her whether it was as spooky as everyone said, she looked at me pityingly.  ‘Mum’, she said, ‘it’s a plinth’.

There were one or two interesting ideas, including Claes Oldenburg’s proposed memorial to JFK, a statue buried upside-down, a sort of modern, instant equivalent of Ozymandias, with something important to say about celebrity, history, power and memory.  Needless to say, it was never realised.

Be afraid, be very afraid . . .

When I tried to describe the exhibition to my son his response was ‘that’s not art; that’s the art of marketing’.  If so, it’s selling itself very successfully, judging by the reviews; but if so, I don’t think I’m buying.


The Last Time I Went To The Albert Hall It Was For The Messiah

Published on June 20, 2012 by

There aren’t very many people who are unequivocally qualified to hold the title of ‘living legend’, but His Holiness the Dalai Lama is one of them.  The seventy-seven year old spiritual leader of Tibetans – and millions of followers worldwide – is currently making a limited number of appearances in the UK in what we are warned may be his last public visit and therefore our last chance to hear him in person.

Yesterday he rocked up at the Royal Albert Hall.  I’m not being snide or facetious: the atmosphere on a perfect summer day in London was party; the sell-out audience was beaming, the love was palpable, the superstar radiated a genial benevolence to all he smiled upon.  A crowd gathered at the stage door to greet and be greeted by him as he entered, and from there the love never stopped.

The afternoon began with a performance by Tibetan musicians of all ages and tiny children, who sang a folk song for His Holiness.  He was clearly as charmed as we were, particularly when some of the infant performers understandably struggled with the distraction of seeing themselves projected on giant screens above the stage.  Finally the star of the show took his seat in an enormous orange armchair, leaning forward rather in the manner of Ronnie Corbett embarking on one of his shaggy dog stories, and wearing a stylish visor to fend off the spotlights and constantly popping cameras.

And then he spoke, for about an hour and a half, without notes, off the cuff.  His text was ‘Real Change Happens in the Heart’.   To say his talk was wide-ranging would be an understatement.  We learned quite a lot about his gall bladder, for instance, as well as how he bullied his mother as a child by pulling her ears to direct which way to go when she carried him piggyback.  One can hardly believe that every one of her 16 children enjoyed such free rein; indeed, he admitted that she spoiled him in particular.  But he was not spoiled, either by circumstance or in effect.  And that was the curious thing about his talk: although he wandered all over the place, what it came down to was that the way to happiness is through love and connection with others, through breaking down barriers between ourselves, ridding ourselves of the negative that is anger; ‘only connect’ as Forster has it.  So the message was, despite being dressed in motley, really quite simple.  His injunctions would have been platitudinous, coming from anyone else.  After all, His Holiness didn’t say anything we haven’t heard before.  Perhaps Jesus with his ‘love thy neighbour’ admonitions was simply restating old saws; the medium was as much the message as the message itself.  The Dalai Lbama is so charismatic that he can make you believe that all is possible, that it’s worth seeking perfection, not as an end in itself, but as a path to inner joy.

We came out into the afternoon sunshine smiling like idiots, hoping that His Holiness is right, that we are moving from ‘an era of bloodshed’ into one where war and conflict will abate, as we realise that material goods don’t bring happiness and we turn to each other for help and comfort.  He also made a point about women’s natural sensitivity fitting them for leadership, to counteract male aggression, a conviction he must have had reinforced in his earlier meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi.  If anything goes to prove his point, it is the Burmese Lady.  Sometimes change happens not just in the heart but in the wider world.


Events, dear boy, events

Published on June 10, 2012 by

By the end of the Jubilee weekend I was there right alongside those Britons who survived;   who survived the Blitz, the Harrods January Sales of 1973, the Glastonbury Festival loos (2002-008).  We had watched, queued, bunted – for Britain, Gawd bless ‘er.  And what came over, besides the genuine enthusiasm, emotion and patriotic fervour, was the importance of event organisation.

Our business – in fact that of all of us in the museum world – is events.  We know that any visit to a museum, a science centre, a church, a public park, is an event for the visitor.  But the difference is, that we don’t normally have to orchestrate the entire thing.  One can just about imagine it for ten or twenty people – come on, we’ve all given parties – but for a million?  And it seemed to go well.

It?  No, I mean them, lots of different things going on a dozens of different venues.   The Thames, St Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace , Hyde Park, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow;  you name it, we were celebrating!  Not to mention the endless street parties and informal gatherings that were initiated to bring people together for the Jubilee.  Despite the rain, the carping (though one didn’t hear much of that) and the – let’s be honest – overkill, it was a fantastic weekend and every event, even given superannuated pop stars and the later regrettable absence of Prince Philip, had its own magic.  The whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and it succeeded partly because we wanted it all to succeed,  the public were all behind it.

So what can we learn?  Tough one, that. Perhaps that we have to engage with the public, to make them – us – feel as though all public spaces are actually, by definition, ours, and therefore that we have a right to enjoy them, to criticise them, to bring our own experiences to bear upon them.  Like the Queen, these places belong to us.  Although one might hope that visitors respect our institutions (in a please-don’t-drop-chewing-gum kind of way) the more important point is that the public should feel that we respect them and recognise that every interaction is an event. And if so, that even the smallest events should be managed, behind the scenes, so that the participants gain maximum interest/information/joy, without being aware of strings being pulled.  We want visitors to feel at one with what they have come to see and experience, and to feel at one with each other, if that doesn’t sound too soppy.

The Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan was reputed to have remarked, when asked why governments got blown off course, ‘Events, dear boy, events’.  Maybe all of us in the museum and heritage industry should embrace the concept, both the organisation and serendipity.

It’s history, it’s science, technology, psychology; it’s magic.

It’s the theatre of the event.


So, What Exactly is Interactivity?

Published on June 8, 2012 by

Didn’t get the chance to attend too many sessions at Ecsite, but did catch one on Thursday, led by Maarten Okkerson of Museon.  It was like herding the proverbial cats, which was only to be expected, perhaps, given the audience, number of participants and subject.  The problem  is that there really isn’t a quick or easy answer to that one, and the  idea of voting on each participating delegate’s idea as presented on a large flip chart, although it probably sounded like a winner in the planning, didn’t work in practice, despite Maarten’s brisk enthusiasm.

Okkersen fared better on Saturday, presenting the new Museon exhibition, Hi tech Romans, which combines a hi-tech, metal frame design style with Roman technology  as a way to make the principles uuncerstandable and immediate to a modern visitor more familiar with iPods and superbikes.  Another contribution from the Netherlands, is the co-production of Technopolis and, among others, Museon (again), entitled Imitation.  This sounds compelling and will almost certainly be a hit – who can resist the idea of being able to tell the difference between a forged painting and a masterpiece, or a real and a fake diamond.   Asger Høeg described Experimentarium’s touring exhibition about the mind, Your  Brain – Use it or Lose it!, a fascinating subject  and one which, given that some of us have  a more immediate concern with the onset of old age and its dangers.  It would be interesting to know how successfully the exhibition uses the information input by the visitors.  There were also two exhibitions, one from Dusseldorf and the other from Montreal, about music, both of which treat the subject in entirely different ways.  We also have an exhibition about music, and I know from personal experience just how difficult it is to convey the beauty, physics and emotion of music.  I look forward to learning more about both of them.


Henry's Comedy Rocket

It wasn’t  all work, of course.  We couldn’t make the gala dinner, but had a great time at the Cité de l’Espace on Friday, on the most perfect evening under warm, clear skies.  The exhibits were impressive and the fireworks weren’t half bad either.  Conferences are (almost) always interesting, though having to man a stand means that one has to miss a lot of what makes them worth going to.  Sometimes you happen upon a session that has nothing immediately to do with with your area of interest, but provokes more ideas than those of more obvious import.  Falling into that category was a presentation on social media and the visitor experience, which pointed a way forward for museums and science centres, using Facebook, Flikr, tweeting and Pinterest, and probably, by this time next year, something as yet unheard of, but which will make billionaires of its inventors.  Who knows?  Maybe those future entrepreneurs got their first taste for scientific experiment in their friendly local science centre.  Maybe they’ll cut us in on their loot.  I’m not holding my breath, though.