Professional Practice & Study: Getting started (LAUMACUP705)

Last week (22.3.18) I presented my draft research proposal to the MA Curation Practices cohort.

In brief, I plan to research blind and partially sighted people’s experience of galleries and what can facilitate / improve this. I feel this is an issue that I have somewhat neglected in my practice.

For my thesis, there is a lot of literature to go on, particularly concerning museums – key texts in references below.

A curated project informed by this will involve conversations with a small number of visually impaired people, who are interested in art. At first I was thinking of getting them together in a focus group, but now I think it will be more realistic to have individual conversations: walk round Leeds Art Gallery, record discussions.

I am challenging myself to take a more experimental approach – reflective, iterative, continually planning and evaluating. No “end product” planned, let’s find out where it takes us! Potential for talk, tour, workshop, paper, small exhibition.
(Influenced by Aggregate, Fritha Jenkins’ recent exhibition and live curation at LAU Gallery, pictured below).

Borrowing from community development / social policy – taking an asset based / strength based approach: What do visually impaired people bring to the gallery? But grounded in the social model of disability (of course) (Barnes, 2012).

 

 

References

Aggregate: Fritha Jenkins and Edna Lumb (2018) [Exhibition] Leeds Arts University, 14 February – 29 March.

Art Beyond Sight http://www.artbeyondsight.org/index.php (Accessed: 16 March 2018).

Barnes, C. (2012) ‘Understanding the Social Model of Disability: past,
present and future’, in N. Watson et al. (eds.) (2012) Routledge Handbook of
Disability Studies London: Routledge, pp. 12-39.

Chick, Anne (2018) Inclusive exhibition design and curation: Improving intellectual access for blind and partially sighted visitors to non-permanent exhibitions through co-creation and co-assessment. The Design Journal, 21 (2). ISSN 1460-6925.

Hayhoe, S. (2017) Blind Visitor Experiences at Art Museums. London: Rowan and Littlefield.

Sensing Culture (2017) https://sensingcultureblog.wordpress.com/about/ (Accessed: 30 March 2018).

Vocaleyes (2016) Museum Access Information Guidelines 2016. London: Vocaleyes.

Vocaleyes (2016) State of Museum Access 2016 A survey of UK museum website access information for blind and partially sighted visitors. London: Vocaleyes.

Woodhall, A. (2016) Sensory engagements with objects in art galleries: material interpretation and theological metaphor PhD Thesis, University of Leicester.

Leeds sculpture collections

The latest major exhibition in Leeds opened last week. The Sculpture Collections (2018) showcases the best of Leeds’ significant collections, exhibited in both Leeds Art Gallery and the Henry Moore Institute.

Ahead of the opening was a talk and tour in the Henry Moore Institute. I particularly enjoyed the work in Galleries 1 and 2, which provided a survey of British sculpture in the period 1945 – 1965. I find this an interesting period for art in Britain, the tension between the post-war optimism and hope for the future, contrasted with the horror and the aftermath of what had gone before, is evident in much of the art. Featureless or blank-looking faces nonetheless can suggest a range of emotions. In their simple forms they represent humanity.

In this period of political upheaval many artists from across Europe came to Britain, and the collection has many works from Eastern European artists whose style influenced British sculpture. Political and social themes were strong at the time. Many of the artists were members of The Artists International Association, which was established in 1933 to promote and support left-wing causes.

The echoes in today’s social and political contexts were clear: socially engaged and activist practice, treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, conflicts and war, the establishment of the Artists Union England.

Gallery 2 showed more work from the post-war period, both abstract and figurative, some of it quite light-hearted in appearance and subject. It was great to see women sculptors well-represented in the exhibition.

Illustrations

  • Featured image: Reg Butler (1955) Model for the Unknown Political Prisoner.
  • Betty Rea (1956-7) Girls in the Wind.
  • William Turnbull (1949) Playground.

Reference

The Sculpture Collections (2018) [Exhibition] Leeds Art Gallery and Henry Moore Institute, 22 March – 2 September.

 

Rethinking disability in museums & galleries: activism is the solution

“Museums don’t think enough about disabled people’s human rights – they don’t represent it” (Dodd, 2018).

A symposium titled Rethinking Disability: What Needs to Change in Museums and Galleries? at the Museum of Liverpool on 9 March, organised by History of Place, set out by asking the same questions that have been asked for years:

  • What needs to change in museums and galleries so that disabled people are more fairly represented in the collections and in the workforce?
  • Why do the challenges of representing and employing disabled people persist?
  • Why is change so slow?

Esther Fox is head of Accentuate, the organisation that delivers History of Place and other projects that promote the talents of disabled people in the cultural sector (Accentuate, 2018).  She set the scene by quoting statistics from the Arts Council’s recent report Making a Shift (Arts Council England, 2018):

  • disabled people make up 4% of the workforce in National Portfolio Organisations, far less than in general employment
  • museums are at the lower end of the scale with just 2.6% disabled employees.

In this climate of public spending cuts, activities involving disabled people tend to suffer as they are not prioritised (Fox, 2018).

Keynote speaker Jocelyn Dodd, Director of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester, has been involved in many exciting projects that show what is possible when disabled people are involved in presenting and interpreting objects in museum collections. She ran through some highlights, which include:

  • the brilliant Mat Fraser’s Cabinet of Curiosities (2014), a performance that used a unique presentation of museum objects and their histories to challenge the way people think about disability
  • Exceptional and Extraordinary (2016), where disabled artists, performers and film-makers again responded to museum collections and presented them in a way that encouraged debate and discussion, amongst professionals and the public – as well as being entertaining.

Many audience members at the symposium would have been familiar with these projects and with Dodd’s writing, so it felt at times that the answers, as well as the questions, concerning representation of disabled people in museums, were well rehearsed. We need to hear more about new and current projects, led by or in partnership with disabled people, such as some of the Unlimited commissions; DASH’s Awkward Bastards symposia  in 2015 and 2017; Art as Advocacy, Jade French’s recently published research (2018).

What was bang up to date, and delivered with conviction by Dodd, was the case for museums to act and to represent disabled people’s rights and struggles. She set out how disabled people still face discrimination and human rights abuses. Hate crime is up 148%. Benefits are being slashed. It’s harder for disabled people to get jobs. Yet they are portrayed as benefit scroungers. This “toxic, pernicious behaviour has fatal consequences”. On top of this, capital developments of museum venues still don’t always integrate accessibility, mistakes are still being made.

This is the reality of disabled people’s lives and must be reflected in the museum. Work around disability is more significant than ever.

Dod has written about how museums can be agents of change and how their influence spreads far beyond the museum walls (Sandell and Dodd, 2010). Visibility absolutely matters, museums don’t operate in a vacuum. They need to be “more political, more activist, more challenging in their thinking” (Dodd, 2018). Quoting Mat Fraser at the 2014 Museums Association conference: “It’s in your hands to make change”.

Continuing this call to action was Sharon Heal, Director of the Museums Association. Echoing Jocelyn Dodd, she reminded us that, in the context of our current society, “museums don’t exist in a bubble” (Heal, 2018).

Acknowledging that museums can use their collections to challenge preconceptions and misconceptions and that they need to do more to foster debate about inequality, she confronted the lack of diversity in the museum workforce. The vast majority of workers, often recruited after gaining an MA in museum studies, are not diverse. The museum workforce is much more white, with more women (but not at senior management levels) and less religious than the UK population. One way to change this picture is for people to become trustees of arts and heritage organisations – “sometimes you have to stand up for what you want to change”.

Artists are often the ones that challenge in society, but now museums are becoming more activist. The Museums Association conference this year will have the subject of Dissent.

“Museums should not be content to just look after the past, but to shape a better future” (Heal, 2018).

References

Accentuate (2018) About Accentuate. Available at: www.accentuateuk.org/about (Accessed: 22 March 2018).

Arts Council England (2018) Making a Shift: Disabled people and the Arts and Cultural Sector Workforce in England: Understanding trends, barriers and opportunities. London: Arts Council England

Dodd, J. (2018) ‘Untitled’ [Presentation] at Rethinking Disability symposium, 9 March. Museum of Liverpool.

Fox. E. (2018) ‘Untitled’ [Presentation] at Rethinking Disability symposium, 9 March. Museum of Liverpool.

French, J. (2018) Art as Advocacy. Available at: www.artasadvocacy.co.uk (accessed: 22 March 2018).

Heal, S. (2018) ‘Untitled’ [Presentation] at Rethinking Disability symposium, 9 March. Museum of Liverpool.

Sandell, R. and Dodd, J. (2010) ‘Activist Practice’ in Sandell, R., Dodd, J., Garland-Thomson, R. (eds.) Re-presenting Disability: activism and agency in the museum. London: Routledge.

Looking, listening, feeling and remembering in the gallery

Eighteen people came together for Art Chat at Leeds Art Gallery on 16 March to talk about “art for the senses”. The session got us thinking and talking about different ways to experience art.

It’s important to engage a range of senses so the gallery is accessible and interesting to more people, including visually impaired people.

It was, however, difficult to find works in Leeds Art Gallery that engaged senses other than sight. There were a few videos, but no sound artworks, for example. We used our imagination, and thought about memory, atmosphere and emotions and this gave us more food for thought.

By placing your ear near the perspex cones of Naum Gabo’s sculpture, Construction in Space: Soaring (1929-30), the sounds around you were distorted. A bit like listening to the sea in a seashell.

One room was described as cathedral-like, a retreat. It was a quieter space, but not silent. You could hear noises from around the whole gallery, but at a distance. The atmosphere of this space was important, even if it was difficult to describe or put your finger on.

Sounds can be heard differently in different areas.

Being able to touch sculptures is so powerful. For visually impaired people it really helps to connect. But it’s the same for other people. Touch tells you about texture, material, weight, size.

Touch also provides a direct link to the artist – they made this with their hands and now you are touching it with yours.

What prevents us touching artworks is the need to protect and preserve them. While the desire to touch things in the gallery is strong, it is rarely allowed. Perhaps developing technology such as 3D printing will mean that replicas or other alternatives can be available to touch. Or a touchable sample of the material used could be placed beside the artwork.

Leeds Art Gallery held an event, many years ago, where anyone could come and touch sculptures, with gloves on. It wasn’t just a special session for visually impaired people. The idea of having open sessions for all, rather than just for particular groups e.g. visually impaired people, was popular. Although effort may need to be made to include the people or communities who would particularly benefit.

Other senses are powerful – sound can be engaging, annoying or repelling. It is being used more and more by artists. The sense of smell evokes memories. Olfactory art, art made to be smelled, is a relatively new and developing art form. And we talked about how you can smell some artworks, due to the materials or treatments used by the artist.

img_0054
Bruce McLean “I Want My Crown”. Photo: Mel Dewey

We also thought about performance, gesture, movement – inspired by Bruce McLean’s film I Want My Crown (2014), where the artist is shown dancing and gesturing to the song of the same name.

While we weren’t focusing on sight, it was noted that artworks that included or were made of electric or neon light had a very different effect than paintings. You view them in a different way, they are intense in a different way to paintings.

img_0055
Photo: Mel Dewey

Most people in the group got to experience Anne Hardy’s installation Falling and Walking (2018) and lots of people enjoyed it. Although there was a feeling that it wasn’t immersive enough – you couldn’t touch things or step over / through many of the parts of it. It seemed the rules shut down the enjoyment for some people. People responded positively to the sound element of the work which many felt was immersive and atmospheric. One woman said how disoriented she felt in the installation. One visually impaired visitor’s experience was greatly enhanced by a member of staff / volunteer guiding them round the installation.

Conclusions:

  • Lots of people’s experience of artworks would be appreciated by being able to touch them.
  • Art galleries aren’t just for looking at things. It’s great if artworks engage other senses, but the venue can also be used to have a broader sensory experience by paying attention to the gallery’s sounds, echoes, smells and atmosphere.
  • Talking about art together helps to bring senses and emotions into play.
  • Having staff or volunteers available to guide people or to discuss artworks with them is a great idea.
  • Different ways of appreciating art make for diversity and interest. They are assets to the gallery and to everyone’s experience.

Thanks again to Leeds Art Gallery for inviting me to host Art Chat. And thanks to everyone who attended and embraced the topic.

References

Gabo, N. (1929-30) Construction in Space: Soaring [brass, plexiglass, wood]. Leeds Art Gallery.

Hardy, A. (2018) Falling and Walking [Exhibition] Leeds Art Gallery 21 March – 26 May 2018.

McLean, B. (2014) I Want My Crown [Film] Leeds Art Gallery.

Blind School exhibition at Museum of Liverpool

The chance to see disabled people’s lives reflected in the museum is a rare one indeed. Even rarer is the chance to see those lives represented realistically and with respect. If you visit the Museum of Liverpool before 15 April you’ll therefore be able to experience something unusual.

The Blind School is an exhibition that follows the history of the Royal School for the Blind in Liverpool. The exhibition is part of a national project, History of Place, delivered by Accentuate, that reveals disabled people’s history via eight significant buildings. Liverpool’s Blind School is significant because it was the first school for blind people in Britain, and only the second in the world, founded in 1791.

While History of Place takes buildings and institutions as its starting point, the stories of disabled people are to the fore. The school in Liverpool was founded by Edward Rushton, a blind human rights campaigner and abolitionist. While the exhibition therefore starts with a remarkable story, it shows what life was like for pupils throughout the school’s history.

The hidden stories of ordinary people are ones that capture our attention because we can relate to them. It’s vital that the diversity of our communities is reflected in social history projects like this – disabled people have always been part of the community and their stories are engaging and interesting, if only they can be told.

The Museum of Liverpool is an ideal venue for this exhibition. Not only because of their commitment to accessibility, but also because The Blind School’s displays fit in well with the bright, modern building. The bold contrasting colours and the clean lines of the exhibition ensure that it is accessible as well as attractive to a wide audience. Extra touches include a yellow “guideline” at a uniform height that leads you through the exhibition, scented items and objects that can be handled. This enhances the experience for everyone, not just visually impaired visitors.

Oral histories accompany wall panels and display cases. Sign language interpretation, clear text and display cases that can be viewed from a wheelchair are integral to the exhibition design, and are so unobtrusive that they are unnoticeable to most visitors.

The stories and recollections of the school are not all rosy, and it’s good to see that the exhibition doesn’t avoid some difficult issues. In aiming to “care for” disabled people, large institutions were often guilty of segregating them and instilling dependence. In The Blind School, former pupils remember the misery of being separated from family and of sometimes harsh treatment by teachers. The tension between charities for disabled people and disability rights is also mentioned, although I would have liked a more robust examination of this: I’m not sure I would describe the annual trip provided by Liverpool taxi drivers as a “partnership”, however well-meaning.

But more importantly than this, History of Place, and therefore The Blind School, is led by disabled people. Having disabled people in control of telling their history means that they are never shown as tragic victims, nor as brave heroes. Instead they are portrayed as members of the community, with ordinary, worthwhile, and interesting lives, This exhibition showcases disabled people’s skills, independence and determination through sharing the facts of their everyday experiences and revealing their little-known histories.

http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/mol/exhibitions/blind-school/

If you don’t get to the exhibition, there’s plenty of material about The Blind School and the other seven venues in the project on the History of Place website: http://historyof.place/location/liverpool-school-for-the-indigent-blind/

Reference

The Blind School (2018) [Exhibition] Liverpool: Museum of Liverpool. 26 January – 15 April.

Art Chat 16 March: art for the senses

I’m pleased to be hosting another Art Chat at Leeds Art Gallery on 16 March, 11am – 12 noon.

The theme this time will be art for the senses, further information below:

Which of our senses do we use in the gallery?

Do any artworks in the collection engage our senses other than, or as well as, sight?

For example: ‘Falling and Walking’ by Anne Hardy has been the subject of a previous Art Chat. This new installation is described as a “sensory landscape” and fills one of the downstairs galleries .It is only open to four people at a time, so we won’t all be able to go in together. You might want to arrive early or pop in another time.

But don’t worry if you haven’t experienced it yet.
We’ll be discovering and discussing other artworks that appeal to different senses.

Art Chat is open to everyone regardless of how much you know about art. We particularly welcome disabled people to join us.

Meet at reception at 11.00 am.

Booking isn’t essential, but it’s nice to have an idea of how many people are coming, so register here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/art-chat-art-for-the-senses-leeds-art-gallery-tickets-43720124068

Hunslet Grange: An experiment

Text of context, MA Curation Practices LAUMACUP703

Hunslet Grange: An experiment and its victims by Hunslet Grange Heating Action Group (1976)

Background

2007108_164879Hunslet Grange, also known as Leek Street flats, was a huge public housing estate in Leeds of 1200 flats, built 50 years ago and opened in March 1968.

It was built to replace a large area of back-to-back housing in south Leeds. Hunslet Grange was hailed as innovative and modern, because it used new building methods and materials. The new tenants were delighted to move into their flats, with hot and cold running water and indoor toilets. They soon discovered, however, many serious faults resulting from the prefabricated structure, causing severe damp and draughts.

These problems were compounded by the electric heating system that was too expensive for many residents to be able to heat their homes properly. Following a long campaign for improvements to living conditions by its tenants, Hunslet Grange was demolished in 1983 – a mere fifteen years after it was opened by the Lord Mayor.

Why this text?

I discovered a number of interesting documents, along with news cuttings, in the Local History Library within Leeds Central Library. These were in addition to archive material used in Module 704: animating the archive.

img_5919From these it became clear what a disastrous project Hunslet Grange had been, not just in terms of the damp and heating problems. The designs of the balconies, stairwells and lifts meant that many people, particularly women, felt unsafe walking there. The view from many of the flats was onto other flats and people found the uniform grey concrete oppressive and depressing. Emergency services had trouble reaching or finding the right flats. Play facilities were small and of poor design.  And many have noted that the place stank – urinating in the lifts and stairwells was common practice by some people.
The most pressing issues for tenants however, were the cold and damp and the fact that many were unable to keep their homes warm, or were having to pay extortionate electricity bills.

Hunslet Grange: an experiment and its victims grabbed my attention. Its bright yellow cover with an illustration of a large drip of water enclosing the word ‘DAMP’, plus its title, were designed to catch the eye and to shock. The intention of the report is very clear.

I was also interested in this report because it was written as a result of collective action by tenants. They had been calling for action since 1972 (Hunslet Grange Heating Action Group, 1976 p. 1) and formed a tenants’ association. They also linked up with tenants on other estates in Leeds who were facing similar problems. Later on they met with tenants from other developments build using the same methods under contracts with the Yorkshire Design Group – a partnership between a number of local authorities.

While the title of this text refers to the tenants as ‘victims’, they did not just rollover and accept their unjust situation. They became researchers and experts in construction methods and housing policy. They took action and fought back.

The context

In the course of my own research, I learned that there is a small monument to Hunslet Grange, on what would have been the edge of the development.

 

The editor of local newspaper South Leeds Life told me he had come across it by chance: a brick plinth with two plaques, on Prosper Street. The first plaque marks the beginning of the building contract in 1967 (although the text is obscured by graffiti). The second, from 1987, notes the traditional housing that was built to replace Hunslet Grange and commemorates cooperation between Leeds City Council and tenants. It bears the names of Councillor Gunnell and other council representatives, along with Ms P. Tallett, Chair of Hunslet Grange Tenants Association.

Prosper Street is a short cul-de-sac off Joseph Street, so very few people pass these plaques. A question to a Facebook group of people who used to live in the flats (‘the leek street flats rocked society’) as well as asking members of Hunslet Remembered, a group that meets monthly in the local branch library, revealed nobody who knew about the memorial. Later, via twitter, I was sent a photograph from a few months ago showing that the monument had been completely obscured by bushes.

By choosing this as my context, I have been able to bring this monument to the attention of a wider audience.

Instances of curation

  1. Presentation at Heritage Show and Tell, 6 March

Heritage Show and Tell takes place a few times a year in Leeds. It’s open to anyone with an interest in local history and heritage and invites people with an interesting project to give a lightning presentation about it. The format is strict: three slides and three minutes to put over your project – what’s exciting about it, how can people help or get involved?

My presentation’s title clearly referenced the Heating Action Group’s report. I called it ‘Hunslet Grange: a short-lived experiment’.  But, rather than characterising the tenants as victims, I emphasised their collective action, their resilience and tenacity. In the end, this got results as Hunslet Grange was finally demolished.

The tenants association and Heating Action Group called for the council to work with them from the beginning. At the time of the report they were still demanding this, and wrote about a lack of cooperation at that stage.

That came later, and the Prosper Street monument recognises the cooperation.

Once the flats were demolished, however, the tenants didn’t let the council off the hook (Leeds Other Paper, 1983 p.3).

  1. A new plaque

I took a new plaque to add to the monument, along with the report. The new plaque read:

This plaque pays tribute to the tenacity of the Hunslet Grange tenants
in fighting for a better standard of housing – for themselves and other residents’ groups.

In the words of HUNSLET GRANGE HEATING ACTION GROUP in 1976:

We have not jumped on the “Knock-Them-Down” bandwagon, but we do consider it an alternative that must be seriously considered along with others.

We also stress that any solution to the problems of Hunslet Grange must be worked out and implemented in an atmosphere of full co-operation between the Council and residents.

And we want action now.

This act emphasised that it was the tenants who endured the conditions at Hunslet Grange, and who campaigned tirelessly for change.

 

Conclusion

The dominant narrative about Hunslet Grange is grim.  Richard Hoggart (1989) described:

Some of the worst, most crass and inhumane public housing I have seen in any developed country: industrial-unit building in concrete blocks of several stories, much less human than the old back-to-back streets, suggesting an attitude to or vision of those who were expected to live in them like that of a farmer using the cheapest mechanised methods for cattle rearing in uniform units.

And there are many other descriptions of the poor conditions of the flats. However, others have happy memories of living at Hunslet Grange, typified by the Facebook group: the leek street flats rocked society (2018). Many of the members of this group remember playing and growing up in the flats. Others experiences a sense of community where friends were always nearby.

In stark contrast, the report, Hunslet Grange: an experiment and its victims, relates many negative experiences. Yet it is also evidence of tenacity, resilience, and organisation. Tenants groups gained skills: research, negotiation, campaigning, report writing, talking to the press. They learned about their community, local democracy, public finance, construction and engineering. And eventually they were successful in their campaigning, as Hunslet Grange was eventually demolished, and the area reverted to “traditional housing”.

This has been a fascinating project. I was pleased to be able to find an inspiring narrative within the texts.

References

Hoggart, R. (1989) A Local Habitation: Life and Times Volume One 1918-40.  Oxford Paperbacks.

Hunslet Grange Heating Action Group (1976) Hunslet Grange: An experiment and its victims. Leeds: HGHAG.

Leeds Other Paper (1983) ‘Three cheers from tenants’, Leeds Other Paper, 7 January.

The leek street flats rocked society (2018) the leek street flats rocked society [Facebook] Available at:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/333104160630/ (Accessed: 6 March 2018).

 

This essay as a Word document (20KB): Text of context overview