In all the uproar of the last few weeks (war, cuts and terrorism) only a handful of people outside Burnley seem to have noticed that Queen Street Mill is closing.

This small mill on the edge of the moors never had the grandest architecture nor connections to famous people.  It is in fact a few sheds, a millpond and a tall chimney on the edge of the Lancashire moors.  But what it does have in bucket loads is that most magical of things – atmosphere and more than 300 weaving machines, every one of them in working order, and pretty much as they were left when they locked the doors to the Mill in 1982.

Queen Street Mill is the perfect example of what we lose when we close a heritage site.  Because – much as I love words – there are some things that are better learnt – maybe only learnt? – through feel and touch and things, learnt by listening, learnt by feeling, learnt through the soles of your feet and the tips of your fingers, leant by being there in the place where something happened.

And so when we close Queen Street Mill we lose the knowledge of the noise and power of the weaving machines, the sense of all the different parts working together in a clunking, whirring, deafening cacophony of movement.  We lose the ability to look inside the cubby hole where the engineers sat and drank their tea, and into the boiler room where the boiler man named the boiler after his wife Prudence. And we lose the ability to step outside and feel how cold it is up there in winter and how icey cold the mill pond looks in the twilight, and how the darkness swallows up the streets from half past four each evening.

‘As many of you will now be aware, your Directors have reluctantly decided that the Company should cease trading and close down its business . . . ‘

Queen Street Mill, started by the Queen Street Manufacturing Company back in the 1890’s was closed in 1982, defeated by cheaper imports from abroad – and then reopened four years later as a place to visit.  It’s amazing how fast we all forget.  Round the corner from the Mill are the terraced houses of Harle Syke. These were once the workers’ cottages but are now much-sought-after housing for Manchester commuters.  We may know the history of Lancashire from books, but do we really know the past until we stand there and feel it?

And to put all this in a bigger context: – the Museum of Marco Polo’s Business Correspondent has been unpicking the Spending Revue and tells us that although the DCMS-funded museums have got off better than expected it’s another story for those funded by the Local Authorities.  Here the cut in central government funding will be 56% and although there have been gains – such as the right to keep the money from the sale of assets – this will only help councils who have assets in the first place.  Some of our best museums are in the north where money made from the Industrial Revolution was spent on museums that look like Greek temples and have stunning artefacts inside them.  (Try Preston or Blackburn Museum, for example.)  Now many of these museums sit in post-industrial towns, which are facing big bills from social care and have no assets to sell.  And so the winding down of their heritage will continue.

One thing is for sure, there will bother Queen Street Mills.

Why I Want Less Thinking In Museums

Maurice Davies: The Big Debate

Ladies and Gentlemen, I wonder if I might have your attention, please.  Arriving here, on my second trip to Buyukada and the Museum of Marco Polo, I bring important news.  This news may worry some of you, although I feel others of you will have suspected it for some time.  If you are alarmed then please try to remain calm;  and try not to fear too greatly for your professional identity.

What then is my startling discovery?  With a somewhat heavy heart, Ladies and Gentlemen, I can reveal that museums are not encyclopaedias.  Nor are they text books.  Furthermore, my detailed investigations have proven beyond all reasonable doubt that museums are neither television documentaries nor classrooms.  For these things are all places of the word. Books, documentaries and classrooms burst with words:  words to be read;  words to be heard;  words, words and words.

In sharp contrast, museums burst with things:  natural things;  things made by people; specimens, artefacts and objects. In museums people look at things; they sense that they come from different places and ages;  if they are lucky then they might touch or smell them, too.  Mmmm, breathe in deeply and smell Ai Wei Wei’s ton of tea.  Quick, touch it too, while no one is looking.

Sometimes we museum professionals talk about people ‘reading an object’. Well, that might be true for art historians, archaeologists or social historians – those people with great knowledge of things.  But most visitors simply look. This might lead to a sense of wonder, or to an interest being piqued.  If they are with someone else it might lead to a quick conversation. And one of those might lead a visitor to read a label.

If it’s a good label it will lead the visitor quickly back to the artefact, specimen or object, perhaps by drawing attention to a visible feature that could otherwise be missed.

If it’s a bad label it will draw the visitor’s attention away from the object, perhaps by discussing an aspect of history or science that the object illustrates. In this case, the visitor is dragged from the world of things into the world of words.  This risks sending the visitor on a hard-work label-reading and learning marathon, when they could instead be mindfully engaging with things on a stimulating stroll.

Two tendencies have led museums to overvalue reading and undervalue looking, to overvalue education and undervalue experience, to overvalue understanding and undervalue feeling.

One is what I call the Triumph of Social History.  With the best of intentions, social history curators have used collections to tell stories about other people’s lives.  The contexts of objects:  the histories of their use, their socio-political meanings and especially the people associated with the objects, have tended to be given primacy.  The objects often served as illustrations to words.  Perhaps it would be better the other way around, with the words serving as supporting cast to the objects.  This social history, contextual, people-rich approach appeared in other disciplines:  archaeology, art history, science, ethnography.  Of course I am not arguing for people to be hidden from museum displays but I am suggesting that in a museum (as opposed to books, documentaries or classrooms) things should lead words.

The other tendency that unintentionally turned museums wordy is the growth of interest in museum learning.  Now museums are great places to learn lots of things.  You inevitably learn about textures, surfaces and sizes.  You learn about the diversity of nature and of humanity.  And you learn that many things are similar, even though they may come from very different times and places.  You learn all this without reading many words – although a few words, carefully chosen, can often help point you in a fruitful direction.

Museums can also stimulate people’s interest in new areas, new subjects, new times and new places. This sometimes leads people, later, to read a book or attend a classroom. But many museums have made the error of trying to provide that book or classroom in their galleries, often on the wall, drawing attention away from the things.

Museum learning sometimes makes the mistake that museums should be about cognitive, factual learning.  But museums are much better at affective, impressionistic learning,

something Nick Winterbotham told us more than a decade ago in a keynote address to the Museums Association Conference (sadly unavailable online).

Museums can be brilliant at motivating people to want to learn, and at changing perceptions of a subject.  However, museums are not good places to learn facts and figures or kings and queens. Visitors are often standing, rather uncomfortable, distracted and getting tired.  Evaluation of museums and gallery displays reveals that little is learnt by most visitors.  Typically most visitors miss most displays’ key messages.  Most visitors even remain blissfully unaware of a gallery’s carefully chosen main themes.

What about Inspiring Learning for All? I hear you cry.  Don’t get me started, but in a nutshell ILFA incorporates such a wide definition of learning that finding the museum’s toilets without falling over your shoelaces can be categorised as learning.

And finally, we need to remember that most people don’t come to a museum in order to learn.  Colleen Dilenschneider told delegates at Museum Next in Indianapolis that the main things that people rate visiting cultural organisations for are:  to ‘spend time with family and friends’ and to ‘see or interact with the exhibits or performance’.  Learning comes fourth, beneath ‘interacting with staff/volunteers/performers.  She’s written more about audience antipathy to education here.

So, good people of Marco Polo, in designing your galleries focus on the objects, the social interactions.  Use words to briefly set the scene, but use words primarily to gently encourage more looking and interacting.  Do that, and the learning will take care of itself, largely outside the gallery.

In Defence of the Tell-me-More-ists

Rachel Morris: The Big Debate

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that if you are looking for a point of view laid out with flamboyance and conviction then Maurice Davies is your man.  And so, for a passionately argued account of why museums should be more about feeling, less about thinking, and definitely less about words on the walls, can I refer you to Maurice Davies’ article, ‘ Why We Should All Do Less Thinking In Museums’ on the front page of this website.

But if, like me, you sometimes come out of exhibitions puzzled and thinking, ‘I want to know more, it’s just that I don’t want to know what they are telling me and I want to know things differently,’ then stay with me for a moment.

After fifteen years of museum-making we must have met every approach to museum interpretation possible.  We’ve met the ‘Tell-me-nothing-ists’ (and let the objects speak for themselves, but honestly, when did an object ever talk?).  We’ve met  the ‘Big Story-ists’ (laying out the displays to tell an overarching narrative, an approach liked by some and much disliked by others);  and we’ve met the ‘Small Story-ists’ (no story bigger than the object to which it belongs, which sounds convincing except that since every object can tell a thousand stories which one will we tell?).  We’ve met the ‘Minimalists’ (who believe in just a handful of plain words to explain the objects) and the ‘Kitchen Sink-ists’ (who believe in throwing everything at the object, film, sound, graphics, everything they can lay their hands on).  We’ve met the ‘Technologists’ (who believe that without digital no child will ever come into a museum), and the ‘Extreme Technologists’ (who say let’s dispense with interpretation altogether and let the visitor google the answers on Wikipedia), and the ‘Low Technologists’ (who say that children spend too much time on screens so let’s put everything into the analogue world instead);  and the ‘anti-Wordists’ (which may include Maurice?) who believe that words and things are fundamentally from two different worlds and will never sit comfortably together.

Science Learning, 1830, from Museum of History of Science, Oxford

Science Learning, 1830, from Museum of History of Science, Oxford

So how to choose between these different approaches?  And here, although your choices are partly dictated by what you think your audiences want, the fact remains that there’s an awful lot of personal taste involved – or, to be more accurate, an awful lot of ferociously held opinions.  Interpretation and Story is where all the arguments spark in the museum-making process.

And it’s all made more heated by the very small physical spaces with which we have to work – a graphic panel here, the edges of the showcase table there.  It’s like a war between eight different armies for the smallest amount of real estate in the world.

So where do I stand in all this?  Not usually with the ‘Tell-me-nothing-ists’ and nor with the ‘Kitchen Sink-ists’ and not with the ‘anti-Wordists’ either.  (I like words and I don’t see why they can’t work with objects.)

But if we are going to defend the rights of visitors to learn less – which seems only fair – so also we should defend the rights of the ‘Tell-me-more-ists’ of which, it seems, I am one.

Now add two more thoughts to the mix. When museums became institutions in the 18th century they adopted a plain, direct and authoritative voice, one that doesn’t reveal its doubts or the workings out behind what it is telling us.  And that was fine then, but now that the world is a riot of opinions, passions and irony,  how much longer before the cool, impersonal voice begins to seem clunky?  Likewise from the visitors’ point of view, for how much longer will all visitors be happy to learn the same things and to learn them in 150 words or less?  Aren’t you ever curious to know more?

So I would go in the opposite direction to Maurice, not towards less knowledge but towards more, just so long as it comes in more human, more varied, more imaginative ways.

And how, you ask, will that happen?  And here I would nominate the concept of the Museum’s Publishing department, if you are lucky enough to have one. Suppose we bring it up to date so that it encompasses film and podcasts as well as books, and digital as well as paper (because there’s far more elbow room in the digital world than in the real one) – a multitude of ways of thinking, some inside the gallery but lots outside of it, and a multitude of voices, not only the museum’s curators but also writers, poets, artists and film-makers.  Think how interesting that could be.

I am, as the kids would say, just putting it out there on behalf of the ‘Tell-me-more-ists’.

When a Manuscript is a Museum

Museum of Marco Polo

We are in Venice, standing by the Grand Canal on a sunlit, choppy morning and I am having a moment of identification with a 10th century Byzantine scribe.  So bear with me here for a moment because this doesn’t happen very often.

It all begins with a beautiful, book-y story that is woven through the history of Venice;  and that goes like this.  The Cardinal Bessarion was a Greek who was born on the edge of the Black Sea way back in the 15th century. When he saw that the city of Constantinople couldn’t survive he brought his collection of Greek manuscripts here to Venice, chief amongst them being an exquisite 10th century version of the Iliad, copied out by a scribe in the time of the scholar emperor, Constantine VII.

The manuscript is so rare (like the manuscript equivalent of the last tiger) that it lives alone in an air-conditioned vault, only a few metres from where we are standing, which is outside the Biblioteca Marciana.  Only a handful of people have ever seen it – though there are images of it online.  It is called the Venetus A.

Two decades later a printer called Aldus Manutius comes to Venice and sets up a printing house to print the Greek and Roman classics, like the Venetus A.  With him is his typesetter, a man called Francisco Griffo, artistic enough to create typefaces of great beauty but bloodthirsty enough to bludgeon his son-in-law to death with an iron bar. (Manutius also invented the semi-colon;  I like it a lot.)

Venetus A revised
It was Manutius who first interested me – my father was a maverick printer with a thing for Renaissance printers so printing haunted my childhood – but it was a glimpse online of pages from the Venetus A that really entranced me.  Look at the image just above these words and you’ll see that each page is a miracle of 10th century information technology.

There is the creamy surface of the parchment, the text of the poem running down the page in one kind of handwriting, the titles in their red-brown ink, the scholia (the scholarly notes) in a different handwriting, forming a deep band on three sides out of four, like a deep band on a length of woven fabric.  All this the scribe had to lay out without ever making a mistake and yet he was so confident of fitting it all in and making it look beautiful that he sometimes laid out the scholia in the shape of a cross or a column.

The manuscript is 1,000 years old;  the scholarly notes which discuss variants on the text are more than 2,000 years old;  and the poem itself is more than 3,000 years old, going back (in parts) to the Bronze Age.  So the whole thing is a museum inside a manuscript.

And why my moment of delighted identification?

Because if you are reading this posting on an iPad or a laptop (this isn’t true if you are reading it on a phone) you’ll see that the shape of this web page is largely similar to the Venetus A. The main body of my text runs downwards, whilst the Twitter feed, the History of the Museum, all the metadata – our equivalent of scholarly notes – occupy their own band to the right.  As with the 10th century manuscript your eyes are meant to look both down the page and sideways across it.

Now this is a common way to lay out websites and I doubt that the Museum of Marco Polo’s designers and programmers knew about the Venetus A. (Take a bow here, Su Koh, designer at Metaphor and David Williams and Tracy Miles from Somerton Computing.)  But even so I am charmed to see how my 21st century website echoes the form of a 10th century manuscript.  And I am doubly charmed because I spend a lot of time standing up for websites, arguing that they’re an art form (my friends are mostly into books) so it is nice to be able to say,

‘It’s true this may not be a book, but –  more interestingly – it’s like a 10th century Byzantine manuscript.’

But there is something else going on here, as well as a visual coincidence.   When the 10th century scribe laid out his text he was still living in the old, oral world, a world that predates the world of printing. It was a world of many voices and many opinions, and the scribe included them all on the page. But when Manutius started printing two decades later he laid out his texts in two simple columns, and discarded all the scholia and with them all the different voices and variants on the text. Thus he ushered in a new world in which there was only one expert voice and only one right version of the text.  Manutius wanted you to read downwards and onwards and nowhere else;  the scribe wanted you to read sideways as well.

It’s a world of the expert voice in which we still live, the same world that made museums, but it’s a world that may not be around for long, since many people believe that the internet is returning us to the old, oral world, a world of many opinions but no one right one, the world of the 10th century scribe.

The image at the top of this page shows the street in Venice close to the Campo di San Agostino where Manutius is said to have had his workshop.