Museomix: a mix of people, ideas, creativity and stuff
I must begin with a bunch of thanks!
Firstly, to my delightful fellow Team 3 members – Emma, Caroline, Kathleen, Laura and Mark – for putting up with me! I thoroughly enjoyed your company, working alongside you and sharing your passion. I hope that we will meet again.
Secondly, to all the organisers of Museomix – you know who you are – for your hard work, energy and enthusiasm.
Thirdly, to all those folks who patiently helped Team 3 and me at various times throughout the event.
I wanted to participate in Museomix because it (a) sounded fascinating (b) apparently involved people who were questioning the status quo of museums and museology and who hated blank screens with “out of order” labels stuck to them (c) I might learn what “innovative” means in the museum context (d) I might crib some ideas (e) I might meet some kindred souls and not feel so lonely in my quest to create my topsy-turvy approach to the idea of sharing everyday material culture and its narratives.
Museums and me
I have always loved museums. My life-long addiction to exploring the past dates from the Saturdays that began when, aged about eight, I was abandoned in Adelaide Museum, South Australia. At that time it was still a traditional Victorian museum, crammed with mahogany cases, stuffed animals and sleepy custodians. But glassy-eyed, strangely varnished fish, wired-together skeletons and bleached bodies in glass jars just added to a musty atmosphere that seeped into my very being. And one day, wandering randomly amongst its cool, dimly-lit, mostly empty galleries, I discovered a room in which there was a row of skulls of indigenous peoples (this was before the days of sensitivity to such matters) all of which had been trepanned, using a variety of methods, successfully and unsuccessfully. I stared wide-eyed at this quiet collection of pain and anguish, the skulls turned brown from exposure to Australian sun, the Indian ink numbers written where flesh and life once thrummed, the gory illustrations of trepanning, and I was transported into a time before me…
By the time I was 13 and back in England, my brother and I had created our own museum. I specialised in fossils from the London Clay and the abandoned brickearth and chalk pits near my hometown, and Victorian rubbish dug up from the North Kent marshes, reclaimed during the nineteenth century using garbage from London. I studied for my BSc in zoology at Imperial College, a few steps from the South Kensington museums, which I shared mostly with micro-skirted students from the Royal College of Art. And I painstakingly drew C18th and C19th zoological specimens stored in the long-gone basement museum of the Royal College of Science zoology department.
Throughout my archaeological career I delivered many cardboard boxes filled with bones and pottery to museum storerooms, where they probably have remained, untouched, since. I’ve also worked as a volunteer in museums that ranged from the tiny to the vast.
The museums I’ve always enjoyed most have been those small-town institutions filled with random collections of the everyday, those little museums displaying dusty and often chaotic assemblages of penny-farthing bicycles, typewriters, dolls, stuffed foxes, Roman pottery sherds, Neolithic flints, Hornby clockwork trains, sepia photographs of anonymous people, tattered chairs no longer sittable-on and old bassoons no longer playable, each with a yellowing and curling label either handwritten or typed on a 1928 Remington.
And then, Museomix
So it was with this mixture of attitudes, enthusiasms and experiences that I came to Museomix, held in the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, Shropshire, a place I’ve been visiting for several decades, and where, truth be told, I have always been slightly more captivated by the great lumps of machinery rusting in the weeds outside the museums than by the exhibits inside them!
Museomix entails a degree of hullabaloo, I guess because we were 60 or so people most of whom hadn’t met before. Also there were cheerful, bouncy French people present. I won’t describe the theory, because that’s done best on the Museomix web site, but in the fashion of “unconferences” the event began with people suggesting projects for which we voted with our feet. At this stage this meant that the brave, the confident and the assertive tended to shine, but I didn’t feel that anyone was majorly put out by this process. In the end I chose a proposal from Emma that exactly mirrored my interest in things, in objects and their stories.
As we began to work as a scratch team the first thing that happened was that the labels that we six had been assigned (user experience, fabricator, graphic designer, communicator, coder, content) immediately broke down. We were all creative types, with experience of at least two if not more of these areas, so our subsequent activities, apart from the rather isolated job of writing code, tended to blur into each other.
We were also all strong, outgoing personalities, willing to state and defend our ideas firmly and sometimes stubbornly. The process of proposal and counter-proposal that followed was a long and at times frustrating one, as we discussed, debated, argued, charged, withdrew, compromised, went down blind alleys, came up against brick walls, had brainwaves, felt stupid, drew diagrams, got excited, got grumpy, went off at tangents, felt twinges of hurt, understood, misunderstood, had fun, got tired… The table was soon covered with overheating technology, scribbled-on paper and crumpled sweet wrappers. There were furrowed brows and there was laughter.
By the end of the first day we seemed to be getting nowhere, either in deciding on a project or in innovation. For me one positive was that I had fallen hopelessly in love with all my fellow team members…well, apart from Mark, for both gender-appropriate reasons and because we had struck up a Tigger (me) and Eeyore (him) relationship, which annoyed us both and probably everyone around us. But by chance I had fallen in with intelligent, inspiring, attractive, imaginative and darling people. With very different backgrounds, we were having to work together without a fixed hierarchy and without a brief, which for me, someone used to being in charge, turned into a very useful learning experience, as how I acted and reacted within this sometimes frustrating dynamic was mirrored back to me. In the end I think we leaned consciously and unconsciously on Emma, the original proposer, to push us in a direction that was going to produce outcomes.
That by the second day we had gelled as a team had a couple of interesting results. Team 3 seemed to be primarily self-sufficient, not giving the coaches much to do, sending out one- or two-person expeditions to request help and advice but mostly just getting on with it. We adopted roles: Emma and Caroline worked on stop-motion animation (using my iPhone), Laura created the sound-track sound, Kathleen worked on content and communication, Mark on code and I on various odds and sods, recording video, taking photos, getting in the way, bouncing up and down, being encouraging and annoying Mark. I seemed to be frenetically busy all the time, though in retrospect I’m not quite sure what I achieved.
But by now we had a plan and a clear goal, and, with help from the technology teams, by the middle of the third day we were able to demonstrate our “prototype.” It didn’t quite do everything we’d hoped for, the Heath Robinson-ish device that Mark was programming worked but not quite in time for the public demonstration, but nevertheless it was an achievement…
And then, all of a sudden, it was over. Perhaps a little too suddenly. One moment we were still (mistakenly) scrabbling to create a video, the next there was a short debrief and then we were packing everything away, saying goodbye and emerging, blinking, into the chilly Shropshire dusk.
The Museomix experience
For me the overall experience was a very positive one. I learned a lot about myself and about the processes, the pros and cons, of brainstorming and collective creativity. I met and spent time with a group of people I came to like and respect and who I’d like to work with again one day. I also learned about the risks of my tendency toward over-enthusiasm and running off with the ball. There were lots of great ideas and examples of inspiration, imagination and ingenuity.
But…sadly, many, perhaps 90 per cent, of the brilliant ideas we had discussed simply evaporated – we didn’t record them. The same probably happened in the other teams. If we conservatively say that we had ten good ideas and that was multiplied by the number of teams, that’s more than 70 great ideas gone down the drain! Perhaps the guides could adopt an idea recording role, a bit like keeping minutes, so that some of those discarded ideas could be retrieved later.
I also regret that we didn’t have enough time or opportunities to get to know more of the other participants with whom the only real discussions I had were, too briefly, in the pub after the event finished, with some exhausted folks who were grabbing a quick drink before catching the train homewards.
I’m also not sure how innovative and/or feasible our prototypes were in the grand order of the museum of the future. Some were perhaps simply updated versions of the little handles I used to turn and buttons I’d press in the Science Museum of the 1960s. Others were digital versions of labels, accessed using tablets or smartphones, technologies that not everyone possesses or that in reality actually work against the user experience (for example it is faster to read a label than to listen to someone reading it or wait around for a video to loop back to the beginning, and technologies are infamous for breaking down). I was however happy that Team 3’s cast iron pot developed a personality, and narrated a story in response to visitor presence. a
But for me the direction of all the projects was ultimately a one way process, from the museum to the visitor. Yes, sometimes the user was given choices, some of them fun choices or choices involving fun new digital technologies, but for me the challenge is to somehow give the visitor the feeling that they are bringing something valuable to the museum experience beyond the entry fee.
I’ll be writing more about how difficult a challenge that is in my next post…
In the meantime, I look forward to my next Museomix…