It’s been a year of deep thinking around play in museums. I adore the concept of playful interactions; bringing joy and wonderment (often with a sneaky side serve of history) to visitors. I personally love finding spaces that encourage me to play inside them; from chasing butterflies across an interactive wall to bumbling my way around puzzle rooms.
I stumbled across Dr Conway’s article this week, and I just wanted to share it immediately. “From monologue to dialogue: towards playable cities” explores some of the differences between games such as PokemonGo and Hello Lamp Post.
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I'm almost in my last year of University! Joy! Happiness! Immense bloody relief!
Occasionally, as I rocket my way towards the end now, I find myself in first year topics that I somehow managed to leap frog in my excitement to get to the end. Last semester, due to this, I found myself in the delightful "Global Ethical Challenges". Suddenly, all the lessons from 'The Good Place' became useful!
Part of the unit included a creative response to a topic. I thought I would give it a bit of a museum twist and wrote this short story:
Admittedly, I may be finding myself spending a lot of time at the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) at the moment. Three times in 12 months is surprisingly high, but the topics they have been covering just tickles my brain into thinking more creatively and more broadly.
Digital Directions is an annual symposium, now in its fifth year of existence. The purpose of the symposium is designed to consider the future of our collections in the digital age. Like all good events, the NFSA collaborates with several other excellent institutions including (get ready for some alphabet soup): ABC, AIATSIS, ANU, AARNET, NAA, NLA and NMA.
This year’s speakers were fabulous, and the topics were broad and exciting. Will I go again? Absolutely! This is my very brief summary of the talks I managed to get to
Today, I have had my mind mind officially blown away by the coolest piece of data visualisation! I know, I’m probably slow to the scene, but you should immediately go and check out: http://listen.hatnote.com
No seriously. Right now... Okay, maybe after I have finished raving.
The website is Listen to Wikipedia, and it’s purpose is to create audio that represents the creation and removal of data on Wikipedia. The sound and strength of the notes depends on the size of the edit and who made it. The sound is absolutely lovely, and somewhat meditative. While the music plays, the titles of the pages being edit pop up on the screen like soft bubbles.
What an engaging and lovely way to display this data!
I can’t help but wonder what this would sound like connected to Trove. Or if it could be the sound in an entrance to a museum, being triggered off by people using the website or the data. This style of visualisation could provide a beauty that connects people to the importance of research and information creation.
A bit of research tells me that this isn’t the first amazing visualisation project that has been created the designer Mahmoud Hashemi. Working with Hatnote and Wikipedia, the designer has been a part of a number of heritage based visualisation projects, that are just very cool.
I hope this brings a little joy into your life this week.
Just before Christmas, I had the pleasure of being invited along to a session at the Recycling Discovery Hub in Hume (a suburb of Canberra). The centre is normally only open to educational groups and special interest sessions, so I was super excited to go and check it out with a bunch of other enthusiastic museum and heritage educators.
The Recycling Discovery Hub is an ACT government project, led by Robbie Ladbrook. I was very lucky to have Robbie as my program leader during the Open Palaces Programme, and loved having a chance to see the project she has been working on in Australia. Opened in May 2018, the centre was created as a educational facility to enhance public understanding of how recycling and waste is processed.
The space is connected to the actual recycling centre and has a pretty incredible view over the inside of the plant. What can’t be seen easily is displayed on large TV screens - the cameras are able to be refocused on the topic of discussion for the presenter. It’s a small space, which at first glance seems too small to hold much information. I was blown away by exactly how much of the space is interactive and the sheer amount of information is conveyed in easily understandable chunks. I walked in thinking that I already knew a lot about recycling, and walked out thinking “You know nothing, Amanda” but completely invigorated to know keep learning.
When looking up information about the centre on the internet, what you will find a lot of information about the virtual reality interactive tour of the facility. Risk dictates that taking small people into the actual facility would be a terrible idea, so instead the tour is conducted via virtual reality. The experience included the participant sorting garbage, learning about the different symbols on plastic and driving forklifts. All very impressive and seemly enjoyable for the person driving the simulation.
In Robbie’s paper at Waste 2018, she mentions the importance of capturing imagination to tap into curiosity. As much as I love virtual reality, the rest of the centre totally tapped into my curiosity. The space is devided into areas which discuss different types of waste and what happens to them. Almost everything is touchable. There are samples of waste, examples of what waste is turned into, low tech versions of waste organisers, drawers to go through, things to open. It’s a tactile learners dream. I have added a large number of photos below with my absolute highlights.
Together with a great presentation, I left knowing far more then I did before entry. I found the experience engaging and highly enjoyable. I also think that the space would work for pretty much any demographic, which is an incredible feat by itself. I found myself at the end, not only wanting to be better at handling waste, but also inspired to find more ways in which to inspire curiosity in museums.
Waste 2018 - Building a better platform for community engagement (Robbie Ladbrook): https://www.coffswasteconference.com.au/QuickEventWebsitePortal/2018/waste/Agenda/AgendaItemDetail?id=48192932-2ece-a1a6-dd3e-39e0470f4b38
ACT PS News - Recycling won’t go to waste: https://psnews.com.au/2018/05/10/recycling-lessons-wont-go-to-waste/
Media moment demonstrating the space: https://twitter.com/actgovernment/status/994857228707430401?s=21
Last night I enjoyed the discussion panel at the National Capital Exhibition focused on ‘Has Canberra evolved into the city Walter and Marion envisaged?’. Hosted by Amanda Whitley, the panel members created some lively discussions around the past and the future of Canberra as both a city for the people and for the nation. The panel members were Chris Uhlmann, Catherine Carter and Dr Dianne Firth, which certainly gave the panel a variety of opinions and backgrounds. Points that I believe did reach consensus were that the Griffin Plan is still relevant and was a master piece of design. There was some varying opinions on whether it was still achievable and what it would mean for the future of Canberra.
I really tuned in while the discussion revolved around how the plan could (or should) evolve. Having recently visited Leitchworth in the UK (the spiritual birth place of the Garden City movement), it was interesting seeing how global and national concepts around Garden Cities are developing.
It was exciting to see the exhibition space being used, after being closed for so long!
What can actively fighting discrimination look like?
After my post on reenactment and discrimination, I started thinking about a few of the practicalities around what options are available to people to actively fight discrimination. I thought a lot about how these ugly situations bleed into the museum and heritage world. It can be tempting to get involved in something that looks suspiciously like a ‘thoughts and prayers’ situation, where there are lovely thoughtful words but no forward momentum. It can be tempting to think that saying nothing is better because everyone should ‘know better’ or ‘know that you support people and stuff’. Or it can be tempting to want to walk away from the whole thing. Leaving will be the right move for some people, but reenactment (and the heritage sector) can be brilliant fun. So, if we never get the chance to witness an actual act of discrimination happen (fingers crossed), what are ways that we can be actively involved in promoting inclusivity and developing strategies around preventing discrimination?
Education is a key factor. It doesn’t need to just be about educating yourself on what discrimination is and how it can appear; it can be about finding the hidden voices inside societies. If you have a particular interest in the year 1456, and have been toiling to create the perfect button from the period, look up from the project and wonder “I wonder what it was like to be a child during this period”, or “Who actually made all of these things that I am recreating?” or “If I wasn’t from a wealthy family, what would that mean if I was disabled?”. In museum practice, it is often called finding the hidden stories, and we use it to humanise collections and bring a greater depth to narratives. You don’t need to make yourself miserable, but understanding what a time period might have been like without privilege can help to not only broaden understanding of the time period but also develops empathy towards modern causes. Try researching other cultures that might have brushed up against the one that you are most interested in, that maybe had a different level of freedoms or rights. Read about what religions or political ideologies existed. Find the humans in the clothes or behind the swords, they are what makes history actually come alive.
Be a thought leader. Did that person just say something that made people nervous laugh with how ‘controversial’ a ‘joke’ is? Maybe have a chat to them about that privately, or try to shut it down publicly if it is particularly heinous (be careful with this tactic, producing public shame is a double bladed dagger). Talk about other cultures in positive ways and don’t promote the use of tropes or stereotypes. These are straight forwards options. You can also share knowledge on hidden stories or ask people what they know about in their period of interest. Take a moment to ask whether everyone is having fun, and be okay if someone says no. Inclusivity can be difficult, and feeling like someone is accusing you of excluding them can bring about complex feelings of hurt and shame, but leaning into that discomfort and finding common ground with them can really cement a person into the group. Be aware of your own privileges and own that you have them, build others so that they can stand at the same height as you. It’s also powerful to verbally say how you want to be inclusive; it doesn’t matter if you assume everyone knows that, because the more we say it out loud and be visible as someone who cares, the more it pushes back some some of the darkness.
Create change. Or as I like to call it - destroy the joint. Change can only happen through people positively interacting with community. This is where it becomes particularly complex, because no one wants to look like they are rocking the boat. One of the very reasons I left was because I felt that I could no longer have a voice without being labeled a trouble maker. But staying in can be powerful, and creating change can be sublimely gratifying. Write letters, write ideas down, make a fuss politely (because I think gentle words are often louder words). If someone tells you that they feel excluded or discriminated against, help them write it down and send it through. If you can, back them up. Don’t belittle someone’s lived experience because yours has been different - everyone’s lives are relevant and honestly everyone is just trying to survive the best way they can.
Be open to the fact that maybe you have not always been a shining beacon of inclusivity. Even typing this now, I know I have not always been amazing and cringe thinking about some of my past thoughts and deeds. I have learned and explored and changed my mind and will likely never stop doing those things. Be open to the idea that people can have been a prat in the past, but are trying to learn and be better at inclusivity. Read articles from different view points and open yourself to the truth that writer is living in. It’s easy to be dismissive, it’s much harder to face our own biases and challenge whether they are the ‘truth’. Try and lean into the discomfort of having challenging conversations. None of these things are easy, but we only develop skills via practice and failing. Try and foster growth by being someone unafraid of it, because we need to keep growing, so that we can continue to push back the gilded words of the past and replace them with honest history.
My interesting read of the week popped up from Medium, with a fantastic article by Ben Freeland titled “When Does Good Art By Awful People Become Untouchable?”. My current fascination with discrimination and history certainly was looking for interesting articles around that topic, and this article had me thinking deeply.
Today in my collection, one of my multitalented coworkers (the lovely Tash) found a rice tin in a box of items we had been considering for an exhibition. The rice tin is likely the right time period, is in surprisingly good condition and completely unable to be used. Why? Because it’s trimmed in swastikas.
As someone who wants to teach good history and stare unflinchingly at challenging narratives, part of me rails against not displaying this, purely because someone might interpret it as an item that supports Nazi symbolism. I want to have deep conversations about the rich history that the symbol has and explain that it’s only problematic when used in conjunction with white supremacy.
This symbol is a little like an artist that has become undone by their own criminal behaviours. Admittedly, the symbol itself has never committed and act, but people have used it with intention and now it has this contextual history linking it directly to harm and pain. Would I display this in a war exhibition? Absolutely yes to create those strong links to that period. Will I place it in an exhibition knowing that the symbol causes fear and distrust? Absolutely not. The conversations about how a swastikas can be used is not necessary in a cute little cottage talking about early Australian life.
The article asks when is too soon, to allow art to become seen almost separately from it’s creator. I think this is really tided up with how long that person, or art, or thing, is used as a potential rally to arms for those who seek to justify a moral corrupt position. Richard Wagner, mentioned in the article for his strong links to the Third Reich, is likely not being listened to in reverence by those who currently ascribe to Nazi leanings. Swastikas certainly are. Even if something is no longer used for potential harm, historical narratives should not ignore that history but use it as part of it’s diverse history. Embracing the power of Wagner’s music, does not mean we should ignore that he was, likely, an awful person. His skills in music should not equate a get out of jail card for the impact he had on the people he effected. It may not be too soon for Wagner, but it still is for many others.
That rice tin may never go on display. Or it could stop being actively used, and with some distance maybe we can have some of those discussions in unexpected museums and heritage houses. Maslow hierarchy of needs tells us that you can’t be an open learner and deep thinker if you are afraid of being damaged. For the moment, it’s too soon. That very average tin could inspire even one person to not feel safe in an environment, and that is one too many for me.
Ben Freelands article can be found here: https://medium.com/@benfreeland/when-does-good-art-by-awful-people-become-untouchable-b24b8fdd118f
As a disclaimer, a number of years ago I joined a historical reenactment group called the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) . The medieval age as it should have been, sounded ideal as a hobby. I would spend weekends swanning around in a lovely dress, eating food and watching knights in shining armour. For many years I enjoyed playing, but I started to feel disillusioned by a brand of discrimination that made me distinctly uncomfortable, and decided that it was time to find a new hobby. I went back to gaming and doubled down on my career. At times I have a pang of regret and longing for the hobby, because while it was good it was amazing. As long as I could disconnect from the feeling that the ‘game’ was not balanced to support people from all backgrounds.
Fast forward to now, and the ugly rise of white supremacy into the public eye, reenactment of all types are finding themselves uncomfortably linked to discrimination on a grander scale then I personally saw within my little group. I have sat on the sidelines watching friends I adore grapple with what this means: what were the groups doing to attract these members to their fold? Are you a (insert descriptor here) if you liaise with a (insert descriptor here). I can see the pain that it causes the vast majority of people within the SCA, a group stemmed from a group of slight hippy uni kids with romantic Arthurian legends on their mind and a set of elf ears they were dying to try out.
Today I found myself reading a fascinating blog post by Guy Windsor, a mover and shaker in the Historic European Martial Arts (HEMA) group, condemning discrimination within their group. While I read it, I found myself again thinking about how this keeps occurring. In pondering it, I found myself drawn to his explanation of the name HEMA “It stands for Historical European Martial Arts, and a sad and disgusting number of white supremacists, nazis, and other scum have latched on to the “European” bit (at the expense of the historical, the martial, and the artistry) and are bringing the term into appalling disrepute.”.
Historical Reenactment is tricky. On one hand, it can be a fabulous method of learning and teaching history. There is nothing like actually trying to walk in someone else’s shoes to get the full effect of what it means to live in a different culture or time period. Museums often use character actors to great effect to get a message through; immersion is a wonderful tool and can create a long term love affair with history. In the wrong hands though, it is extraordinarily easy to completely miss the reality of a time period. Brain Sarnacki (way back in 2011) touches on some of the danger points with this fabulous quote: Bad reenactments can innocently allow specific details, like clothing, to overtake the importance of understanding the meanings of the event being reenacted or, more sinisterly, whitewash history with patently wrong interpretations of history.
My first thoughts around this are: maybe all historic reenactments are a bad idea. After all, no mater what era you look at, there is a history of minorities not faring well. Sometimes the minorities change a bit, but generally speaking human rights and dignities is an ever changing land scape. Ideally, each generation is trying to be better then the next. Thus, maybe the smartest thing is to just avoid trying to recreate time periods so that we can avoid glossing over the inequalities and nasties that would have made living in those times a lot less comfortable. There are certainly groups that can achieve whole truth scenarios, but I’m not certain anyone specifically does them for fun. As people living in a modern world looking for enjoyable pastimes, maybe focusing on our current or future society and not romanticising the past would be wisest. This has the benefit of just not having reenactment groups for discriminatory practices to hide in, but certainly seems heavy handed.
My second thoughts were around history reenactment groups that have not publicised problems around harbouring secret Nazis. Admittedly, just because I haven’t heard about it doesn’t mean they are not struggling with it. However, I think two points might contribute towards groups avoiding discrimination: Exclusivity and Knowledge. Groups such as The Companie of St George specialise in very specific time periods and require members of the group to be experts within that. There is no space for romanticism. The requirement to apply to join means that the group can be selective and chose people who are educated within their field.
Which brings me to my next point: reenactment and lack of education is a terribly bad mix. Where groups like the SCA formed from history loving geeks inspired by Arthurian legends and university textbooks, this is particular to geek pop culture from the 70’s and 80’s. I think I would be hard pressed to find members from the era who weren’t part of the geeky minority that was reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Their inspiration came from the ideal notions of chivalry and the hero of the day. I’m sure many new reenactors may have come from this as well. However, there is a growing number of people inspired by “historical” shows such as “Vikings” or even “Game of Thrones” (don’t even get me started). These are just examples, and I’m sure there are plenty of other options available in different mediums. These individuals find themselves caught up in a history that is dubious at best and highly damaging at worst. Before I go any further, I do want to acknowledge #notallreenactors, please don’t flame me. Connection however to “Might is right” is flowing into reenactment groups through people choosing to be Vikings, or Crusaders, or whatever conquering group that appeals to them, because it dials in with the ideals of a white strong Europe. A simple google search will find an assortment of articles approaching this topic for many different history based groups, with one I have linked below written by David Perry, that I think succinctly sums up some of the problems.
So, how do we fix this giant problem? Honestly, today I started to wonder something that would have made my mentors within the SCA go grey over night. I’m going to say something that people are going to think is me either trolling or throwing a grenade into the room and running away. But hear me out.
Maybe it’s time to stop trying to be ‘realistic’. Maybe those elf ears should come back out from the cupboard. Maybe it’s time to stop being serious unless you have very specific and restrictive recruiting processes.
Live action role play (LARP), has had a chequered past. LARP is where you will find people however remaking history in a fantasy style setting. In the SCA over the last year I have listened into the fairly serious conversations of whether a swastika should be allowed to be worn in public because some research proves that it has been worn by non-nazis 1500 odd years ago. That’s correct, but hiding behind historical ‘research’ completely ignores the fact the the world has marched on. It ignores that history happens in context, and sometimes things are inextricably tangled up in different events (particularly when those events happen in living memory). LARP has the benefit being able to say “Not in our make believe system” and bypassing those problematic conversations altogether.
In discussing the Richard Iott controversy in 2011, Robert Slayton explores some of the dangers in War Reenactment, and I think makes an excellent point in saying that “reenactments on American soil fail to reflect the historic record. They work against the noblest aspirations of the historian. By cleansing war of ideas and policy, they purge history of human meaning and of its moral dimension”. Most reenactments are going to be toeing this uncomfortable line. People will hide behind what they argue is a legitimate historical position with out understanding the full context of the history they are interested in. Or they will twist historical ‘facts’ and research by latching onto the small points that can back their opinions. The more we fall down the hole of defining history through the small details, we lose track of the big picture of why it’s good that we don’t live in the past. It’s not educational, it isn’t good representation, it the corruption of truth through good intentions and the search for connection.
I used to wonder why historians and museum professionals were so rare in the reenactment community. I think I understand now, and suddenly my occasional pangs for community based games with fun costumes makes me wonder if it’s time to check out a different course of action.
I also stumbled on an amazing article about LARP and consent culture that further sent my mind reeling while connecting up some ideas. When we enter into a historical reenactment event, we are in a sense placing ourselves in a position of vulnerability. We dress up and hope that we fit into the group. In Sarah Bowmans article, she touches on the problem of the ‘Cult of Hardcore’ within LARPing communities, and I have certainly seen these problems regularly in a number of historical groups. The answer that the Hardcore will give to a perceived slight is, in a nut shell, eat a spoon of cement and harden up. In a community where we ask people to trust that they will not be abused or hurt while being vulnerable, this style of interaction further damages the whole. It creates an atmosphere of distrust and agitation. To foster creativity and empathy, we need an understanding of group consent and personal consent within what is effectively a giant community led game. Learning how to accept that we will, inadvertently and sometimes deliberately, hurt others is paramount to developing the skills to appropriately address some of these extremely delicate conversations. Instead of bullheadedly sticking to “This totally isn’t a swastika and people are stupid”, opening ourselves to vulnerability and empathy by saying “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable and I want you to be having as good a time here as I am”. It’s hard to face our own failures, but owning them outright means we have any chance of learning from them and building the bridges we (generally) accidentally burn.
I have waxed lyrical now for almost 2000 words, and only touched on the tiniest part of this iceberg. I have linked below to some of the articles that I thought of while typing this up. I’ve made an additional list of extra things that I have gathered up while thinking this over as well. Please keep in mind, that I am not an expert on this topic, just a curious bystander hoping for the best and enjoying a good thought exercise.
Articles actually used:
Sarah Bowman: A Matter of Trust – Larp and Consent Culture
David Perry: White supremacists love Vikings. But they've got history all wrong.
Brian Sarnacki: My View on Historical Reenactments
Robert Slayton: Reenacting Evil
Guy Windsor: Fascists are poisoning HEMA. Here’s one small thing I’m doing about it.
Articles I found interesting along the way:
If you have the time, the Public Medievalist has some really interesting articles that delve into some of these topics: https://www.publicmedievalist.com/race-racism-middle-ages-toc/
Jameson Adame: Why living history matters in teaching
Maury Brown: The Consent and Community Safety Manifesto
Joshua Green: What’s Wrong with Nazi Reenacting
Jamie MacDonald: Larp and the joy of collective bullshit
Kate Townshend: Role play, chivalry and a world without sexism: Welcome to the ultimate female fantasy
Clayton Willets: Reenacting in a Modern World
Yesterday, I found myself daydreaming about solutions to personal heritage and community in a world that increasingly becoming filled with small spaces. Personally, I love the concepts behind a lot of new developments in apartment building design: shared spaces on levels for socialising, community gardens, gyms, private cinemas shared by tenants. I wonder if apartment buildings will become as socialable as the street party scene that my parents remember.
I thought that a natural step in this social movement, was to create a new position within an apartment block of a Heritage Officer. Paid from the yearly strata fee, the purpose of the position is to create community through displays and exhibitions about occupants in the building. By linking people to these often hidden or overlooked heritages, apartment designers could create a greater depth of connection and empathy amongst occupants. Occupants could be as involved (or as disconnected) as they chose, with the Heritage Office requiring skills in privacy and sensitivity. The likelyhood is that it would take quite some time to create the traction for people to be willingly involved, so the Heritage Officer would need patience and people skills.
Some examples of displays/exhibitions that could be achieved:
- Wedding dresses: Some displayed in museum style cases, other reproduced for display in corridors or common spaces. Interpretive panels with information about the dress and potentially the wedding day for the person involved.
- A digital resource with favourite recipes from apartments, with a different meal show cased on the website regularly. This could be expanded into multicultural food days or teamed up with a company who could delivere all the ingredients for the show cased meal in a box for those who want to try making it.
- A book with the favourite children’s stories from around the apartment block
- Large interpretative vinyls, tracking the distances that people have come to live in these apartment blocks
- A collection display in the foyer of apartment dwellers favourite tea cup or coffee mug
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.