Saturday, 27 April 2019

Reading list, 27 April 2019 / different from usual edition

I spent much of Easter writing a preface for a forthcoming book that I will share more information about here when I can (it's really, really good though).

As part of writing the preface, I spent a good deal of time of thinking about how the development of the contemporary web - as tool and ethos - has tracked alongside the development of the contemporary visitor-focused museum. As the web has afforded new communication and social abilities, it's also created new metaphor - myths, in Roland Barthes' term - that shape the way we view and describe the world.

The text that first articulated this for me was actually from 1998, when the web was still in quite a restricted state. It's an address given by Neil Postman, an American cultural theorist and educator, to a group of theologians and religious leaders in Denver. It's called 'Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change' (I suspect this talk was given often, and tailored to this group) and it's about patterns you can see playing out in society with each introduction of a major new piece of technology.

Postman's third Thing is the argument that embedded within every technology is one or more ideas that we may not consciously grasp, but which have massive potential to influence us. He writes:
The third idea, then, is that every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards. This idea is the sum and substance of what the great Catholic prophet, Marshall McLuhan meant when he coined the famous sentence, “The medium is the message.”
Writing my preface, I did that thing where you get so off track that you've basically started a PhD thesis, all because you're desperately trying to cram that one perfect quote into your text. I was trying to make an argument about how web / digital development and technology has seeped over from tools to mental frameworks.

Eventually I discarded the quote but kept some of the thinking. But in pulling my train of thought together, I revisited some really influential pieces of writing that illustrate this timeline I was seeing inside my head:

Richard MacManus writing at the launch of the influential tech blog Read Write Web, about what that phrase means in terms of a new era of the web where the tools of publishing are embedded in the medium, and newly available to 'ordinary' people. The metaphor comes from computer science - something that is read / write can be displayed (read) and modified (written to). There is something powerful in that metaphor that speaks to me about the way a generation of experience designers in museums started to create interactive museum displays - not just buttons that people could push, but new techniques to elicit opinion and contributions from the public. Still a really enjoyable short read.

Tim O'Reilly's What is Web 2.0 - the codification of the design patterns and business models he and his collaborators saw as characterising the tech companies who survived then thrived after the 2001 dot-com bubble burst. It is both a group of technical processes and approaches (constant deployment, web as platform) and conceptual approaches ('harnessing the collective intelligence'). So much of the exciting museum work I saw when I first got involved in the web in 2006 at the National Library of New Zealand was enabled and inspired by this moment. It seems almost cheesy now, but holy shit - remember when Web 2.0 was new and changing the world?

Alexis Madrigal, The Weird Thing About Today's Internet, his comeback article for The Atlantic and a reflection on his 10 years covering technology, starting as a writer for Wired in pre-GFC 2007. I'd read this 2017 article sometime around when I was first approached to write this preface, and I pasted this paragraph into the Google doc I fired up to start collecting ideas:
But then in June of 2007, the iPhone came out. Thirteen months later, Apple’s App Store debuted. Suddenly, the most expedient and enjoyable way to do something was often tapping an individual icon on a screen. As smartphones took off, the amount of time that people spent on the truly open web began to dwindle. ... The great cathedrals of that time, nearly impossible projects like Wikipedia that worked and worked well, have all stagnated.
I felt that shift in play when I went to the States in 2015 on a Churchill scholarship, visiting museums renowned for their digital leadership. I noted then a move from the big projects of 5-7 years ago, which were driven by those ideas of the open web, universal access, all people contributing knowledge on an equal footing, to the new hot experiences, designed to enrich the physical visit. The 21st century web had driven the first round of innovation, and the smartphone & widespread wifi the second, but I couldn't help but feel there was some evolution in ethos as well (partly, I suspect, from the funders and granters, who might have been starting to question the value of reaching a global audience, and becoming easier to convince on projects that were about value for the exclusive, on-site visitor. However, I also see the natural curiosity of digital leaders playing out in this change: minds adapting to and making use of each tech advance in the museum. Chicken and egg stuff really).

This 20-something year history sits within a wider context of the successive eras of thinking about the social purpose of museums, as articulated by Seph Rodney here. It's not surprising then that I had to spin my wheels through about three days of writing what was basically the outline of a thesis before I could relinquish enough of my treasured quotes and observations to get down to the guts of the piece. I'm not going to tell you how the preface ends, because that will give it all away. But I'm really looking forward to sharing that book with you.




Saturday, 20 April 2019

Art News New Zealand, Autumn 2019

Pursuit of knowledge 

Earlier this year I was invited by the Royal Society of New Zealand to deliver one of three ‘provocations’ at their annual strategic gathering, speaking from the perspective of both my new(ish) role at Te Papa as Director of Audience and Insights, and as chair of Museums Aotearoa.

I met with the Royal Society’s chief executive to ask what he was trying to achieve by bringing these provocateurs in. One of the things he noted was that while the Royal Society’s Act had been amended in 2012 to include the humanities, the society as a whole had not made significant progress on that front. Membership is still made up largely of research scientists (with an increasing number of engineers and other applied science aeas); the Council is still made up of scientists, and the public did not perceive the society as having a focus beyond science. This despite the Act’s very wide definition of the humanities, ranging from philosophy to media theory to te reo Māori. As the Royal Society’s website states, “Our act talks about science, technology and humanities. In practice that includes engineering, applied science, and social sciences; and effectively the pursuit of knowledge in general.”

I spent about a fortnight mulling over what I would say, testing it out with colleagues at Te Papa, and during various other meetings and conversations, including a hui of art gallery directors conveniently held at The Dowse during my prep time. Finally, I spent the evening before the event drafting my ten-minute talk.

What I didn’t anticipate was that writing a provocation would feel so depressing.

One area where the sciences have excelled is the establishment of science communication as a contemporary field of study and applied endeavour. The growth of this area has tracked quite closely with my own entry to university and then the workforce. In fact, if I had known such a thing existed when I was in my final year at high school in 1997, it’s a career path I may well have taken. From within the arts, I’ve watched this development with envy. I look at the Masters in Science Communication at Otago, the Science Media Centre, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, the Science Communicators Association, and I feel deep envy for a sector that seems to have collectively and successfully committed to bringing expert knowledge into the realm of everyday conversation, and thereby promoting the importance and validity of scientific research and investment.

When I questioned this envy, I realised that what lay at the bottom of it was worry. Because I’m worried about the arts. I’m worried about what’s happening at our universities with their support for the humanities. To write my provocation I googled the phrase “Cuts to the humanities at universities” and opened tab after tab after tab of media reports. As I paged through the coverage I felt paralysed by the consistent song of decline: declining enrolments, declining staff numbers, declining job prospects.

I’m worried because I graduated with a MA in Art History in 2004 and in five years’ time I question whether anyone will be able to do that at a New Zealand university. I worry because Te Papa employs about half a dozen art curators, and I don’t know where our talent pipeline is going to come from in the future. Extrapolate this over all the humanities disciplines represented in museums, and we have a small-scale future crisis. This might seem a luxury problem. But in the biggest sense, I’m worried because what I think we are truly at risk of losing with the changes at our universities is the education of our educators, our communicators, our thinkers and advocates; our interested audiences and our informed citizenry. What is at stake is our ability to support the visual, cultural and historical literacy of New Zealand society.

That was February. Since then, the urgency of this endeavour has been sharpened in the most horrific way. Now I am writing in the wake of the terror attacks in Christchurch, and in the midst of museums and museum workers seeking to understand their role in documenting this tragedy, supporting the Muslim community, and playing our part in building a better, safer society for all.

Under Te Papa’s Act, we are charged with the responsibility to be a forum in which the nation may present, explore and preserve the heritage of its cultures and knowledge of the natural environment, in order to better understand and treasure the past, enrich the present and meet the challenges of the future. This responsibility is not unique to us – the kaupapa is shared across our sector. In February, I was asking the leaders of the Royal Society what we could do to influence universities together, to protect our ability to serve and support the diversity of thought and diversity of communities in Aotearoa New Zealand. Today, this responsibility feels all the more urgent, focused, and meaningful.

Reading list, 20 April 2019

Lined up for post-deadline listening: Hrag Vartanian interviews two artist estate managers about how families should cope with a dead artist-relative's legacy.

Also on Hyperallergic: a write-up of a new transcription project from the Smithsonian, focused on female figures from 19th century art history, including the diaries of Anna Coleman Ladd, an American sculptor who made custom prosthetics for soldiers injured during the first world war.

Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, has the most tricked-out office I've seen to date.

Another "must read later" - The Happy Museum project's list of tools and resources for measuring organisation's impacts on social wellbeing.

I'm sure you used to be able to download the AAM annual TrendsWatch survey for just the cost of your email address? At least you can still download the exec summary. This year's five key trends - "truth and trust, blockchain, decolonization, homelessness and housing insecurity, and self-care".

A nerdily detailed article on the review and decommissioning of minimal and conceptual artworks from the Panza collection at the Guggenheim museum.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Reading list, 14 April 2019

One of the recent issues of The Gray Market newsletters (looking at how museums in England and the US refusing sponsorship from the Sackler Foundation, now deemed too toxic for brand association) introduced me to the concept of the Overton Window, from media theory, which describes the 'window of discourse' in which a politician can suggest policy changes (the window of discourse on military-style weapons in New Zealand, for example, has shifted dramatically following the attacks in Christchurch). When yet another article about an art museum selling collection items off to finance more diverse additions (this time the Art Gallery of Ontario) floated across the transom, it made me reflect that the window of discourse on this particular topic has shifted markedly in recent months, from radical to acceptable, possibly almost sensible (though without a concerted collective decision from the sector, still falling well short of policy).

A similar shift (and dramatic increase in publicity) has happened on the subject of repatriation from museums collections over the last couple of years. The latest piece I've read is by museum curator Chip Colwell, a letter to the editor in the NYT that talks about what museums have to gain, rather than lose, from repatriation.

Ticketed for future reading: Response to the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report: Statement on Intellectual Property Rights and Open Access relevant to the digitization and restitution of African Cultural Heritage and associated materials

I learned a massive amount from this NYT article, which describes how 12 linked exhibitions in Spain are exploring the art of its former colony Peru (which gained independence in 1821):
“This is the first time we’re showing a painting from colonial America,” Miguel Falomir, the Prado’s director, said in a telephone interview. The Prado owns “between 15 and 20” paintings made in Spain’s former colonies, he said, but they are kept by the ethnographic Museum of the Americas. They have never been shown alongside European old masters. 
For centuries, “we’ve considered this art as second-class,” Mr. Falomir said. “That, thank God, has changed.”
Smart work at SFMOMA: Tracing the Roots of Photo Sharing, From Mail Art to Instagram

One of curator Okwui Enwezor's final interviews: “There are code words to push back against change”

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Reading list, 6 April 2019

A history of working class protest: Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, via the Guardian

Farah Nayeri, 'A Museum Tackles Myths About Jews and Money' in the New York Times, on a new exhibition at the London's Jewish Museum.

Siri Hustvedt on why Duchamp's urinal should be correctly attributed to Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

Susan Tallman's 'Painting the Beyond' for the New York Review of Books:
But the claim for af Klint as an inventor of abstract art runs into two serious problems. The first is that it doesn’t seem to match how she thought the work should function. The second is that abstraction was “invented” in the same sense that the Western Hemisphere was “discovered.” Millions of people knew about both for millennia, just not the people who counted. It is a myopia that art historians have helped sustain through their habitual “canvas or it didn’t happen” bias, but once you look beyond easel painting, it becomes clear that af Klint’s seemingly unprecedented visual language had been circulating for centuries in the diagrams, illustrations, and serial formats of books and prints.

Ela Bittencourt's review of Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s new anthology Photography after Photography: Genre, Gender, History for Hyperallergic

The Art Institute of Chicago has pulled a show of Native American pottery:
"The principal thing that we have not accomplished is to have an aligned indigenous perspective, scholarly and curatorial, with the project,” [president and director James Rondeau] said. “And I think that ultimately for us has been the crucial realization that our ability to reflect back what we were learning needed to be done in multiple voices, not just our voice."