A short personal essay on my path
Some thoughts around growing up, shame and challenging thought processes during #BlackLivesMatter.
There is some language in this post that might make people uncomfortable. It certainly made me feel uncomfortable saying it. But I think it's importance to acknowledge my own failures in the past and how I hope to be a better person. But if you feel uncomfortable with derogatory slang, just be aware it's there. Otherwise, get ready for some 'heart on my sleeve' stuff!
You would think, as someone who is hired to protect and represent history, I would be quite fully against people destroying sculptures. But this week, as I gleefully read about Edward Colston's sculpturing being dumped into Bristol harbour, I reflected on how many sculptures must come down. I have read comments from well-meaning people, trying to rescue these monuments of stone and metal. I have wondered whether they would ever be able to look within themselves to move into making better histories without being bogged down in the past.
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.
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
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.