Monday, October 12, 2015

Bowie, ACMI and the Verbaliser

I’ve finally cracked my long standing inability to understand song lyrics – I’ve discovered most of them are nonsensical anyway! This revelation comes courtesy of the V&A’s exhibition on David Bowie currently showing at The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Federation Square, Melbourne.

From the early 1970s Bowie conceived of an idea of mixing random phrases together mostly taken from short news clips. He co-authored a smart piece of software known as ‘the Verbaliser’ which rearranges words to make this happen and create some of his lyrics. I think the technical term is ‘cut-ups’ and it’s a technique that went on to influence Kurt Cobain's songwriting. I guess we would call it a mash up these days, but one of the highlights of the exhibition for me was hearing Bowie talk about how he used words in this way. 

Whilst this is not an exhibition I would have rushed to see based on its subject matter, I came away having thoroughly enjoyed it and seeing Bowie in a completely new light as an extraordinarily creative person. It’s slick and well presented, with a clever Sennheiser audio system (headphones are provided as part of the ticket price) that responds to where you are by playing songs and information relevant to what you are viewing. There’s a great review at Sadly, I understand Sennheiser is not interested in replicating the system for other exhibitions.

This is all part of a big V&A push into Australia with no less than three of their exhibitions currently touring, David  Bowie is…. at ACMI, Undressed at the Powerhouse, and soon the Queensland Museum and Bendigo Art Gallery and Inspiration by Design currently at the State Library of NSW and soon to be at the State Library of Victoria.

ACMI is a bit of a hidden performer in Australia's cultural sector. It's been around now for over ten years in its current location, though it actually dates back to 1946 as the Victoria State Film Institute. In 2013 it attracted over 1.15 million visitors. That's an impressive statistic, and based on the current offerings it deserves to do well, and can only play a bigger role.

This is going to be significantly helped by the recent appointment of Seb Chan to a newly created role of CXO - Chief Experience Officer - a position he takes up this month, returning from 4 years in New York at the Cooper Hewitt, where he was the Director of Digital & Emerging Media, and the lead player in the development of their new interactive pen (see my blog from June 2015 for more information). Listed in 2009 as amongst Australia’s 100 most influential people (see my blog from January 2009), Seb is not going to sit quietly in his new role. Watch the ACMI space!

Friday, September 18, 2015

London offerings

London is always offering up challenging new art installations, and though it may not be the centre of the universe for contemporary art aficionados, it manages to regularly juxtapose the old with the new in exciting ways.

I hot footed it to two such artworks this week, with mixed results.

In the fabulous plaster court at the V&A there is an installation entitled 'The Tower of Babel', in the form of a 6 metre cone of nearly three thousand ceramic houses with photographic images of street fronts on them. It sounded sort of interesting, but, well it sort of wasn't, failing for me to engage in anyway with the rather bemused statues around it. Perhaps I can cite the label to explain why I moved on rather smartly: "Barford playfully likens our efforts to find fulfilment through retail to the biblical Tower of Babel's attempt to reach heaven. His seemingly precarious Tower poses questions about our society and economy, celebrating London's retailers, yet exposing the divide between rich and poor." MONA has a word for such stuff.

'The Tower of Babel' at the V&A

Down the road however, the great Ai Weiwei has installed half a dozen massive trees in the forecourt of the Royal Academy, and the juxtaposition of that rich 18th century Palladian mansion and these stark bolted leaf-less limbs is breathtaking. They are part of a major retrospective exhibition, and alright perhaps I am a little biased, because I haven't washed my hands since I found the great man himself wandering around and shook his hand, but others seem to agree (see this article published in the Guardian).

Tree sculptures by Ai Weiwei 
installed in the courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts, London

What is particularly interesting about the trees is that their inclusion in the exhibition only came about through crowdsourcing. Working with Kickstarter, the Royal Academy raised 123,500 pounds from 1,319 backers, all of whom are listed on two great banners as you go up the main stairs.

Inspirational on two fronts - the art itself, and the action by which it came to be in London.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Crystal time at the Australian Museum

The Australian Museum has a new entrance, built in double quick time by its dynamic new director Kim McKay.

Named the 'Crystal Hall' for reasons of both its design and its ability to house the Museum's outstanding collection of crystals, it was opened last week by the Premier of NSW. Interestingly, this is where the entrance was always meant to be, instead of the slightly awkward entrance from College Street, which has been the way in for the last 150 years. And to emphasize this, the Museum has changed its street address to No 1 William Street - neat marketing.

The Australian Museum's new Crystal Hall entrance

The closure of the College Street entrance has allowed the realisation of the original concept for the entrance area, namely as a major gallery. And the result is spectacular, with truly one of the great internal public spaces in Sydney revealed as it was originally intended. For years this space has been a mixture of cafe, shop and entrance way, dominated by the blue whale skeleton to remind visitors this is predominantly a natural history museum.

The blue whale remains but now beneath it is the new 'Wild Planet' exhibition displaying the Museum's taxidermy collection with specimens large and small. My favourite exhibition on this theme is the Paris Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle's 'Gallery of Evolution', which first kicked off the concept of using stuffed animals in an artistic rather than wholly naturalistic way, though I also love the Melbourne Museum's 'Amazing Animals'. 

This is however a beautifully presented exhibition and space helped by two spectacular vault ceilinged glass cases (vitrines for the initiated) made by the doyen of such creations, Goppion of Milan. 

Take a walk on the wild side and enjoy a buzzing museum.

The 'Gallery of Evolution' at the
Paris Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle

Melbourne Museum's 'Amazing Animals'

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Canterbury Museum Tales

I was delighted to be back in Christchurch last week for the first time since the 2011 earthquake, not least to find one of my favourite museums, the Canterbury Museum, virtually unscathed and bustling with visitors. Why one of my favourites? Well first up must be that it is unique, as far as I know, in having a delightfully obscure biblical text from the book of Job inscribed over its main entrance, "Lo these are parts of His ways but how little a portion is heard of Him".

Secondly, it has one of the world’s greatest Antarctic collections from the Heroic Era, in which pride of place must go to the vehicles. There is a wheel from the Arroll Johnston motor car that Shackleton took on his 1907-09 expedition in which he hoped to cruise to the Pole at a modest 25mph. There is the extraordinary plywood boxed motor tractor that was used on Shackleton’s second expedition, with skis at the front and a big paddle wheel at the back (remember that the tank had not yet been invented). This vehicle proved far more trouble than it was worth, and vastly less efficient than the humble Manchurian pony and huskie. And then there are the two vehicles that featured front of stage in the Trans Antarctic Expedition of 1957/8 - Vivian Fuchs’ lumbering great snowcat, and right beside it the canvas wrapped cab of one of Edmund Hillary’s’ converted Ferguson tractors. Each set off from opposite sides of the continent, and what an epic story it was as they fought their way to the South Pole. You will have to read the best book on the expedition to find out who (sort of) won or check out my blog from March 2015

Shakleton's Arrol Johnston, 
a wheel of which survives at the Canterbury Museum

Fuchs' Snowcat with Hillary's Ferguson tractor behind

Thirdly, the Museum has some very fine dioramas. The film Night at the Museum (and its endless successors) largely works through the scenes where its dioramas come alive. They were actually invented by Louis Daguerre (he of the Daguerreotype), and became in the early part of the 20th century a common museum technique for showing an historical event or a natural history scene. At their best they can impart a highly realistic view; the battle scenes in the Australian War Memorial’s World War One Galleries (see my blog from April 2015) providing a point of access for the visitors that few other mediums can provide. The fact they survive in so many museums is a testament to their interpretive power. At the Canterbury Museum they are principally used to depict pre-colonial Maori life and bird scenes. Both types in their own way are spectacular, notable because of the quality of the artwork.

One of the Canterbury Museum dioramas

So, when you are next in South Island, New Zealand do take time to visit the Museum – it’s a real treat.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

What museums need to learn from the social aspects of the digital revolution

Fascinating talk at Remix Sydney recently by Dr Genevieve Bell, the Australian born cultural anthropologist and now director of the User Experience Group at Intel. Her talk responded to the question 'how will the technological revolution going on outside the walls of cultural institutions transform the environment in which we operate?''

Genevieve talked to the dichotomy we are dealing with on six issues:
  • Connectivity: We want to be connected all the time and get to where we want online instantly but we also want to be able to disconnect and have our own space. This leads into;
  • Privacy: We want to share information and images all the time, but we also really worry about our reputations and what people make of us. We particularly worry about what has been collected in the past which might surface in the future, and interestingly the current generation (millennials) worry about it most.
  • Big data: We all want more data as we think it will tell us more truths. In reality data is only as good as the data fed into it, and since we inherently tell lies a lot of the time ("you look great today" etc.), it's often not good data. We advocate transparency in others and yet jealously guard our secrets.
  • Algorithms: Algorithms are required to make sense of big data, but are all based on what has happened in the past. The surprising thing about so much data is how poorly we predict what it will tell us.
  • Memory and storage: The world is building unlimited storage and therefore memory - soon nothing will be forgotten. Yet as humans we are conditioned to (and indeed need to) forget some things in order to be able to move on. We should remember the big stories (e.g. the Stolen Generation), but we need to be able to forget the little stories about how we may have behaved with each other.
  • Innovation: We crave new technology and are culturally wired to consider it as a good thing, as a mark of the progress of humanity. However, we also fear it because we are conditioned by books and films that human hubris will overwhelm us, and the technology will go feral and kill us.
Genevieve concluded by advising us to weigh up new tech solutions against the following criteria:
  • They must be market inspired, solving problems that we care about
  • They must be experience driven, delivering experiences we want
  • They must be people centric, acknowledging that we are human and by our very nature a mass of contradictions
As the museum sector continues to grapple with new technologies and how to use them, this is salutary advice from someone right at the heart of the social dimension and impact of these technologies.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Conference time and the museum of the future

Back to back conferences on like themes are always interesting, if only to see how much stamina is required to keep engaged. Sydney has just hosted the Museums Australia Conference, followed by Remix Sydney.

The former is self explanatory, the annual get together of the local museum fraternity, always useful for catching up with old friends and meeting new ones, but this year a bit predictable and uninspiring in programming and discussions. Highlights for me were:
  • Xerxes Mazda, formerly of the British Museum, currently at the Royal Ontario Museum and about to be head of collections  for National Museums of Scotland. Xerxes is always worth listening to on how to maximise the visitor experience, by integrating exhibitions, education, web, publications, design, front of house, visitor research, marketing, membership, volunteers and programming.
  • Mega museum project updates with Gunther Schauerte from the Humboldt Forum in Berlin and Michael Lynch on M+ in the West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong. Large though these are, we should not forget the New Museum that is arising in Western Australia. I blogged about this when it was announced in July 2012, and amazingly the monies ($428m) still seem to be there and the project is gaining significant momentum with an opening scheduled in 2020. 

I gave a paper boldly entitled 'Conservation in Museums – Whereto from here?', inspired by my own perception of the journey that conservation worldwide has undergone between the ICOM CC Conference in Sydney in 1987 and 27 years on the same conference in Melbourne in 2014.

And interestingly it was Remix that turned out to be in many ways a more appropriate forum for this discussion with the first session asking ‘What functions of museums are best served by external providers?’ Remix is a series of global summits on the future of cultural industries currently taking place annually in London, New York City, Dubai and Sydney, which aims to pull together cultural leaders, corporate directors, technologists and entrepreneurs.

It was a buzzy place to be around, reinforcing how the world of social media is fracturing at an ever increasing pace. With ever more platforms and media to share content on, the move to video as a medium, and mobile as the principal point of access, museums are scrambling to understand how to respond. Inevitably the focus on providing digital content continues to drive decision making on funding, but with it came reinforcement of the urge to see and value the real thing that is continuing to bring people into cultural institutions in increasing numbers.

Pick of the conference for me was Seb Chan’s keynote on the Future of Museums. Seb was at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney for many years before taking up the role of Head of Digital and Emerging Media at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, which has just reopened after a $81 million refurb. Described in the Atlantic as the museum of the future, Seb has lead the charge at the Cooper Hewitt on integrating the digital and the real seamlessly. He and his team have done this by ensuring:
  • Everything on exhibition is also online, i.e. not just a representative proportion
  • The online data provides a rich array of extra information, so offers significant extra value that can be accessed later
  • Visitors select objects they find interesting by touching the label with an interactive pen they are provided with on entry

  • These selections are then downloaded upon exit and can be accessed, researched and manipulated at home via a unique url on each ticket
  • No time consuming downloading of an app, pre visit or upon arrival
  • No privacy issues over requiring an email address
  • This is a REALLY NEAT solution


What I came away with is that we are now seeing the next iteration of visitor access through technology, the leader until now being MONA and the O. The ground breaking nature of the O is reflected in how long it has taken to see it superseded, but look to the Cooper Hewitt for the future of this aspect of museums. Read all about it at Museums and the Web 2015

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Conservation recognition and the Gilbert Doble story

I blogged a few weeks ago about the Marrickville Winged Victory conservation project and I am delighted to report that our work won a National Trust Heritage Award at last Wednesday’s Award presentations.

What is interesting about the project is that we still have not worked out how Gilbert Doble made his sculptures. A local Marrickville lad, he was clearly a bit of an oddball. At a time when any significant bronze foundry work had to be sent to England, he developed a home grown electro-deposition process that he perfected himself in his own studio in his back garden in Marrickville. Even after we have been intimately involved with the Winged Victory we still can’t quite work out how he did it.
The Winged Victory conservation team inspecting the sculpture 

The interesting thing is that, despite the failure of his Winged Victory sculpture (it only lasted 40 years before coming apart at the seams and needing to be brought down for safety reasons), his other public sculptures have lasted well. These include the Evans Memorial in Bathurst, notable according to the local guidebook for “its respectful depiction of an Aboriginal man crouched at Evans' knee - representing one of the Aboriginals who acted as a guide for Evans on his surveys.” 

George Evans Memorial, Bathurst

As well as Winged Victory, Doble was also commissioned to undertake two other memorials, for Wellington and Pyrmont. At a time when war memorials were either a block of stone or had a soldier atop them, his approach was distinctive, avoiding the militaristic nature of such and concentrating on the mix of grief and motherly support to the fallen that his female figures depicted.

Wellington Cenotaph, NSW

Pyrmont War Memorial

A fun side story of this project is that it has all been filmed as part of a 5 part documentary on the Australian War Memorial called 'The Memorial: Beyond the Anzac legend' put together by the Eye Works team for the History Channel. Neil Oliver (he of ‘Coast’ fame) fronted the cameras and kept us all entertained with his charming Scottish accent. 

The Winged Victory conservation team with Neil Oliver

And while we are on awards, I will just slip in that we also won a Highly Commended for our work on the Sydney Town Hall Air Raid Shelter signIt was a good day for recognition of expert conservation practice.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

First World War memorials in Australia

Last year I was asked to write an article on First World War memorials in Australia for the UK National Trust’s Views Magazine. It was published in September 2014 and it seems apposite to retell in my blog today. 

By the time the Great War ground to a close in November 1918, 416,600 Australians had enlisted out of a population of 4 million, representing almost 40 per cent of men aged between 18 and 44. Australia's casualty rate was amongst the highest in the war at 65 per cent, including almost 59,000 dead.

The impact on a small and new nation (Australia had become a federation only in 1901) was profound. One of the most difficult issues to come to terms with was the remoteness of the battlefields. Whereas Britons could easily cross the Channel to visit the graves of their loved ones, the high cost of travel to visit Europe was beyond most Australians. As with Britain (but unlike the USA), the Australian Government made the decision not to repatriate any bodies from the war. The only exceptions were the body of an unknown Australian soldier and Major General Sir William Throsby Bridges, killed in Gallipoli, who was the country’s first major general and the first to receive a knighthood.

The war memorial scene in Australia
War memorials and their honour rolls therefore became critical points of remembrance for grieving relatives. They were not new to the country as Australians had died in relatively large numbers in the South African War in the 1890s and even in the New Zealand wars of the 1840s. But it was the sheer number of Great War memorials that transformed Australian townscapes.

Their form followed those created in Britain. They range from statues of soldiers to obelisks to arches and cenotaphs. Some of the designs were uniquely Australian, such as depicting Australian Diggers (soldiers), and almost without exception they used local stone except for imported carved figures in Carrara marble.

The city response
In the capital cities, Melbourne chose a vast Shrine of Remembrance with an inner shrine surrounded by an ambulatory where books in glass-topped cabinets record the names of the 114,000 men from Victoria who went to the war, a fresh page turned every day to this day. Sydney also chose to record all those who had gone to the war in its Anzac Memorial, not by name but by a gold star attached to the domed ceiling, some 120,000 in all. Beneath them, in the so-called Well of Contemplation, lies one of Australia's greatest bronze figures, a naked warrior carried on a shield supported by three women sculpted by Raynor Hoff, a Royal College of Art-educated Englishman of Dutch descent who had migrated to Australia in 1923. Considered somewhat shocking at the time of opening in 1934, it was heavily toned down from the original bronze concept entitled the Crucifixion of Civilisation, which had been denounced by clergyman for depicting tastelessly vivid horrors.

A mile from the Anzac Memorial, Sydney commissioned a stone cenotaph outside the City's General Post Office designed by Australia's most eminent sculptor of the day, the Royal Academician Sir Bertram Mackennal. Mackennal chose to place a bronze soldier and sailor either end of a large block of local granite. Brisbane initially commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to replicate the Whitehall Cenotaph with the addition of bronze servicemen but when this proved too costly they went for a Delphic-colonnaded temple designed by local architects.

 The Cenotaph, Sydney. Photo: Julian Bickersteth

The Anzac Memorial, Brisbane. Photo: Julian Bickersteth

The National Memorial in Canberra, known as the Australian War Memorial, was conceived and developed by an Oxford-educated Australian journalist, Charles Bean. Bean had reported from the Western Front and after the war ended was determined to do all he could to help Australians commemorate their loss. Principal amongst his means of doing this was the creation of the Australian War Memorial, which is actually a war museum centred on a Hall of Memory. This vast domed space is covered by the southern hemisphere's largest mosaic, designed by Australian artist Napier Waller. Waller was himself a war veteran; having lost his right arm on the Western Front but, undaunted he taught himself to draw again with his left hand.

Placement of guns
Bean also struck upon the idea of shipping back to Australia large quantities of captured ordnance. Again he saw the power in the tangible form of these weapons in bringing the battlefields a little closer to Australia. In all some 500 pieces of artillery, 400 mortars and 4,000 machine guns were shipped back and held in Melbourne for cities and local councils across Australia to apply for them. Due to over demand, a complicated system of ceding where each item of ordnance would end up was developed based on the number of men that had enlisted locally, the number of medals won and whether the particular gun had been captured by a local battalion. The allocation did not please everyone, with some councils complaining that they had only been awarded a machine gun when their war contribution surely justified at least a mortar.

Trees and arches
Avenues of trees are a particular feature of Australian war memorials. They came about as a reminder of the avenues of trees that lined northern French roads, beneath which the Australian Diggers would have marched. The avenues serve the useful purpose of allowing individual trees to be planted as a memorial to a slain relative or platoon. Occasionally these avenues begin with triumphal arches, a form which does not seem to have become widely popular due almost certainly to its celebratory tone.

The Ballarat Arch of Victory and Avenue of Trees. Photo: Chris Betteridge

Conservation issues
Conservation work undertaken on war memorials reflects the broad approach taken in Great Britain and generally involves careful cleaning, repointing to keep them weather tight, re-gilding of incised lettering and protective waxing of bronze honour rolls and figures.

It is the guns shipped back from France and placed on top of many an Australian war memorial that often prove to be the most problematic element for the memorial's conservation due to the metal elements corroding and the wooden elements (e.g. wheels) rotting. The numbers of the most fragile of them, however, the machine guns, were dramatically reduced during the Second World War when they were removed and refurbished for action.

With the passage of time, war memorials have inevitably deteriorated, but it is a testament to the resilience of the materials selected and the care with which they were built that they remain in remarkably good condition.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Winged Victory rises again

Seated in the sun outside Marrickville Town Hall in Sydney on Sunday morning to witness the unveiling of the Marrickville War Memorial I was thinking back 93 years to the same ceremony. The great difference of course was that the audience then included mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters and even children of the 458 local lads who had so recently given their lives. 

Marrickville War Memorial Opening Ceremony, 1922

That said almost 100 years on it was a very moving experience to be part of, but, you may well ask, why was a war memorial being unveiled now.

The original Marrickville Soldiers’ Memorial was unveiled in 1919 by Sir Walter Davidson, Governor of NSW, before 15,000 people. The monument for the top of the Memorial was created by local artist and sculptor Gilbert Doble. Doble created a hollow Winged Victory sculpture, surrounded by a copper cast that created a dominant artwork within the tight constraints of the Memorial Fund’s budget. The instability of the resulting artwork became apparent as early as 1927. Within 40 years, the condition of the sculpture had deteriorated so badly that it had to be taken down in 1962. Despite being returned to the Memorial in 1988 following restoration work, the continued instability of the Winged Victory sculpture saw its removal a second time in 2008.

Gilbert Doble's original Winged Victory sculpture

Here at ICS we considered various options for restoring and reinstalling the statue but in July 2013, Marrickville Council voted to commission a new sculpture for the Memorial. Council also endorsed the transfer of ownership of Doble’s original Winged Victory to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. We undertook the complicated restoration of the original and oversaw its transfer to Canberra, where the sculpture has now become the focal point of the Memorial’s new First World War Galleries, which opened in November 2014. 

Doble's Winged Victory sculpture 
now on display at the Australian War Memorial

Meanwhile Winged Victory, 2015 was commissioned from Melbourne's Meridian Sculpture with lead artists Peter Corlett and Darien Pullen in cast bronze. Reflecting and respecting the original Doble sculpture, there are subtle changes, most noticeably with the position of the sword changed from being raised in triumph to pointing down to touch the earth (‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes’ etc). Along the way it stopped the sword from being a lightning rod, which we had discovered was a significant cause of the damage that had been inflicted to the original. 

Winged Victory, 2015 by Peter Corlett and Darien Pullen

So Doble’s legacy lives on, both in original form at the Australian War Memorial and in reinterpreted form in its original location, and the citizens of Marrickville once again have a focal point to honour their local war heroes.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why we take audio tours

I must be honest that the audio guide desk is not something I regularly head for in museums. Why? My immediate response would be that a) I don’t have time and b) I have listened to too many overly didactic and drawn out commentaries. I have blogged before on the technology challenges to the traditional audio guide (January 2011February 2011, August 2012February 2015). A few years on from some of those blogs, the predicted smartphone take over has not happened with the audio tour still very much alive and well. My view is that visitors have decided the distraction of a further visual aid in what is already a highly visual experience, particularly in an art museum, is too much of a sensory overload.

Technology aside, it is fascinating to see what drives people to take up audio tours through new research by the British Museum, entitled 'An audio state of mind: Understanding behaviour around audio guides and visitor media'. Their starting point was the perceived low take up (160,000 out of nearly 7 million visitors) with the aim being to increase this and also understand how visitors use the audio guides.

Amongst a number of interesting discoveries:
  • Time plays a key role (I can empathise with that) with many visitors presuming the audio tour will take a long time (though the definition of ‘a long time’ varied between three and six hours) and force them to spend more time than they had.
  • It appears that the traditional visitor segmentation of streakers, strollers and studiers (see my blog from October 2011) is poorly servicing our understanding of visitors, with people moving between segments during visits, displaying much more personalised and flexible motivations and identities.
  • Confidence plays an important role, namely whether the visitor feels they can successfully negotiate the museum unaided, relying on labels.
  • Many visitors come knowing what they want to see, but once they have done so, they tend to wander aimlessly, a perfect time to take up an audio guide, if they could be corralled to be offered such.
A couple of other points. This research is from a paper due to be given at Museums and the Web 2015 in Chicago next week. Having been to three previous ones, the MW annual conference, now in its 19th year, remains for me the most wide ranging of the mainstream museum technology get-togethers, the others being the more US based MCN (Museum Computer Network) and the more European based MuseumNext.

Also I liked the way this project was put together. Described as an ‘agile‘ project, it had a small team of one staff member, three free lancers and an intern, a defined time scale, a project room, daily ‘scrums’, an initial research phase, and then a prototype testing phase, resulting in some really useful outputs.