Triangular tensions: style, substance and openness

Triangular tensions: style, substance and openness

Style versus substance.

An old debate that is especially important to those presenting cultural, heritage or scientific ideas beyond expert communities. Even if you are very familiar with this stuff, indulge me while I sketch a little caricature.

Some people cling to the notion that as long as the substance – the core idea, the intellectual meat – is solid that style, presentation, tastefulness simply do not matter: if people are sufficiently interested they will do the work necessary to consume the material. Hence, the classic academic journal: dry, formal, deliberately unemotional and with some of the most eye-wateringly ugly graphic design and layouts you will ever see. Standardised presentation is seen to level the playing field and prevent ideas being oversold.

At the other end of the spectrum (typically) are television, games, toys and so on. These may be loosely inspired by a notion drawn from academia (Pokemon owe a debt to Darwin) but are often casually panned as having no depth. Dismissed as being shallow mimicry of their inspiration and little more than fluff, requiring nothing of their audience but passive, slack-jawed ingestion.

Each of these extremes are built on the false idea that it is worthwhile to separate our intellectual pursuits from our embodied, emotional and narrative experiences. In the former case this is due to a sense of rarified idolisation of abstract thinking as the only consistently valuable mode in which to understand the world (the legacy of Plato’s ‘Realm of Ideas’?). In the latter case, the motivation is simpler – mass appeal equals mass market – feed a simple set of desires with the most effective material. Examples that counter each of these extremes abound – in fact, the entire fields of applied and fine art powerfully demonstrate the falseness of the distinction. More pedagogically, we have illuminating data visualisations, the finest, holistically designed museums or joyfully, explorable maps of historic place-names.

Human engagement is nearly always most powerful when it works across this spectrum – on hearts and minds at once. In the museum sector this could be ultimate goal – to share a little rarefied, specialist knowledge in such a way that it is remembered with pleasure. I like to think we’re getting pretty good at it – there is nothing better than the sense that you are being led competently and empathetically through a complex and detailed subject by an expert. I tell student archaeologists– creating public presentations of their first ever excavations – that they are chefs: their fieldwork created an array of ingredients, now they have to make them delicious.

What then of openness? Well, first of all let me clarify that what I’m talking about is the whole myriad of projects and movements loosely collected under the banners and ideologies of Open Source and Open Access. Projects which involve not only the end results but works-in-progress (code, articles, content of many kinds) to be be witnessed, understood and even altered by all who have the inclination to do so.

This openness offers what I think is a new aspect to the old style/substance debate. Generally, there is still a fairly hard boundary between creators and consumers: the academic book or article was the product of a research process that took place behind closed doors and even the most deconstructed reality TV has little of the creative process exposed. Museum sector products – exhibitions, popular books, shows, websites – are also generally created by small, specialist groups with, at best, the consultation of a select community of consumers. Audience research generally takes place as a separate component before or after the creative process.

For academia I think arguments are really gaining force on the side of open access – not only of research products but of research process (I wrote more academically about this amongst archaeologists – long version in my thesis). Fantastic projects such as Shaun Graham, Ian Milligan and Scott Weingart’s public digital history book: The Historian’s Macroscope , research-oriented blogs in science and elsewhere are helping lift the lid on academic thinking. I’m well aware that there’s still a long way to go, but for me the benefits are very clear: fundamentally, and most obviously, transparency. The social effects are also worthwhile: increased dynamism, connectivity and the blurring of boundaries between expert communities. Scholars are realising how much their practice, quality control and even ideas were dictated by 20th century publication media. In the shift away from this falsely-levelled playing field, thinkers are reflexively engaging in the new problems the transition entails.

What then of works intended for wider audiences, for non-experts, for people who have never encountered a topic, want a moment of inspiration and then will get on with their lives? What does open production practice have to offer them?

Champion of public science Neil deGrasse Tyson:

A soundbite is useful because it triggers interest in someone, who then goes and puts in the effort to learn more. Take the moment to stimulate interest, and upon doing that you have set a learning path into motion that becomes self-driven because that soundbite was so tasty- why do you think we call them bites?
Neil deGrasse Tyson – being the best he can be. Source – Full presentation

This quote isn’t really about brevity: there is huge value of starting at the end (or, perhaps Homerically in medias res) of a story.

While academic exposition begins with aims and hypotheses then progresses through to conclusions, any headline-writer will know to start with the hook:the stylish presentation of something wondrous – provoking curiosity. This curiosity can then be sated with information, the wondrous factoid, conundrum or sensory experience can be contextualised, built upon and explored.

I’ve already argued for the openness – or permeability – of the online resources museums create. Having openness here allows people’s ‘learning paths’ to progress freely – it breaks down the hard boundaries between experts and non-experts. However, permeable resources are one thing, open production processes are a much bigger challenge. Not least psychologically – I’ve been writing this post in fits and starts for nearly four months – never quite ready to expose it before a basic sense of completeness.

It would be a major shift for a museum to simply ask its users/audience: what should we do next? Or even, to open up – in the germination stages of a project – the planning documents, meetings and musings of its various experts. Followed, by public, documenting of the precarious and pragmatic decisions that lead to funding, design and production. What museum, in today’s fragile cultural sector, would be mad enough to take on these risks?

We tend to expect a big launch, premiere or unveiling of any new – secretly created – project. These ingrained cultural patterns that are often unquestioned but the drama and delight they cause is real. There are genuine questions – as in the reflexiveness of open research processes – that need to be asked when trying this. If museums want to engage in new ways they need to be bold. Perhaps, despite the positive elements of old methods that will be lost, some experiments need to be made. The tensions between openness and production – stylish and substantial – need to be explored in practice. Who is going to take the plunge? post: The herd, the crowd and the forum – Real participation online post: The herd, the crowd and the forum – Real participation online

This post was commissioned by and written for They have generously allowed me to syndicate it here.

In 1832 philanthropic publisher Charles Knight exalted working-class readers of his Penny Magazine to visit and appreciate the British Museum:

“[H]ere there is nothing to pay. Knock boldly at the gate; the porter will open it … Go on. Do not fear any surly looks … You are upon safe ground here. You are come to see your own property. You have as much right to see it, as the highest in the land.”

The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge 1832 p 14

It still thrills me to read this strident Victorian call for participation in cultural and natural history at a museum: we must not forget that, though society is utterly transformed, egalitarian advocates for museums are far from new.

Unfortunately, Knight goes on to remind his audience not to touch, talk loudly, ask questions or take children under eight years-old.

We have definitely come a long, long way to improving museum experiences but, given contemporary expectations, are our means of creating participation and diversifying audiences genuinely better than those in the 1830s?

At a push, I think the answer is; probably. But there is still plenty to learn and plenty to be done to improve how participation works in the arts and heritage (I use ‘museum’ as shorthand for the range of institutions in the sector). Building on Mia Ridge and Helen Weinstein’s post, I want to introduce some concepts that I think are key to successful participatory projects and warn of some potential traps. I’ll throw in as many links as I can, but I hope to be accessible rather than an exhaustive reference.

Participation traps

The sense of losing control felt by museum staff and leaders when creating fully participatory projects is well acknowledged (Daniel Spock on museum authority). There are also potential traps that projects may encounter due to a misunderstanding of their audiences:  which can lead to audiences disengagement with experts, on one hand this comes from too much deference and on the other, through rebellious disrespect. These can be most clearly explained with traditional face-to-face examples and then I’ll explore the added complexities of moving online.

Disengagement through deference

“But you’re the expert!? You tell me!” – Every keen, egalitarian, museum expert who has tried to engage a visitor with questions about an object has encountered this attitude. There are many visitors and online users who struggle with their confidence at openly engaging with cultural material: If the anointed expert from an august institution is claiming not to know the answers, what hope is there for the visitor encountering an object for the first time?

For me, these moments encapsulate a huge amount about the shifts taking place in museums around participation. They are small, symptomatic examples of issues around how museums are perceived, their social roles, the nature of the ‘casual visit’ and the thorny problem of whether museums exist to provide answers or to create questions.

Fundamentally, this issue is about an unproductive attitude to, or perception of, authority. In this case, people’s sense of exclusion from the expertise leads to undue deference. In other circumstances, reactions to that sense of exclusion can be more volatile.

Disengagement through disrespect

Museum projects, open to community comment and interaction, come with inherent risks. Given the opportunity to participate in a museum project, not every individual finds it in themselves to show the respect and care for others that is being extended by the museum – or the deference discussed above.

Online it is frustratingly easy for unhelpful or irrelevant dialogue to dominate. This has even led to an informal maxim ‘Don’t read the comments!’ explored by anthropologists. True ‘trolls’, however, are rare and as the maxim shows, most readers will identify and ignore negative comments. Also, there is plenty of simple advice on dealing with trolls on a personal and institutional level. However, its also worth noticing that those making the comments clearly feel that their views are far from trivial and gain some satisfaction from simply posting them: there is a spectrum between misinformed, well-intentioned irrelevant contributions and the rare examples of truly psychotic ranters. With the right tools and community, users in the former group may be brought around to learning respect and fully engaging. Their abrupt rejection of politeness, good intentions or the validity of the host-sites expertise is the inverse of the undue deference discussed above.

 Avoiding trolls, fostering respect

Fundamentally, the ‘culture’ of any online discussion space, can be (partly) shaped through architecture – like real-life space. Therefore, by creating the tools and resources that attract engaged users and cultivating respect, a site’s operators can do a great deal toward shaping positive interactions. For example, the Mumsnet’s forums, though infamous for their judgemental attacks on celebrities en masse, generally have users who are respectful of one another and keen on providing informative or honest opinions. On Mumsnet anyone can read the forums but only registered users can post. This barrier (user accounts) is well used in this circumstance to ensure that those wishing to participate have made a small investment, are accountable and have signed a user agreement.

Respect, as we all know, has to be mutual. Building it into online participation requires respect from the museum of its users to start with. It’s worth noting that, despite the best intentions, it isn’t always felt by participants: even in face-to-face projects. In Whose cake is it anyway? Bernadette Lynch warns museums of ‘empowerment-lite’ in which tokenistic participation is used to further institutional aims. Rather than respected, community members may often feel used – avoiding this is crucial to projects at any scale, and the only hope for preventing this is to design and manage the framework and it’s initial interactions as equitably as possible.

Shared authority: experts as facilitators

A myriad of outstanding projects exist demonstrating how participation – from square one – can not only increase access, but change attitudes to the arts and heritage. Two offline-focused projects provide core lessons in this context: Waulud’s Bank in Luton and theHomeless Heritage project.

Luton Museum staff were confronted with a problem: a visually unexciting Neolithic henge (stone age earthwork contemporary with Stonehenge) in the middle of a mixed residential area and, in their stores, the finds from the henge’s 1890’s and 1950’s excavations. Rather than simply take the collection and repackage it, stick a sign by one of the footpaths or let the collection gather dust, the team engaged a local year 9 (13-14 year-old) geography class to produce their own designs for a low-cost exhibition and resource pack. They engaged the students as equals and co-curators and avoided fixed ideas of the output (a risky thing on a grant proposal!). Further, they performed a reflexive assessment of the project in summary and detailed evaluation reports. These resources add sustainability to the project at a strategy level, while the exhibition’s re-use keeps refreshing the outputs.

Mike (left) and Rich take a break during Homeless Heritage excavations in York. Student archaeologists and homeless archaeologists working as partners. Credit: Homeless Heritage Project

Mike (left) and Rich take a break during Homeless Heritage excavations in York. Student archaeologists and homeless archaeologists working as partners. Credit: Homeless Heritage Project

The Homeless Heritage project has engaged people almost never reached by arts or heritage institutions; those perhaps least likely to feel welcome or confident in a traditional museum. The project has facilitated homeless people to document their own heritage through mapping, excavation and curation of objects – from crisp packets to 17th century pottery. The project made its participants into experts in homelessness and placed their accounts on equal footing with other historic accounts of their cities (Bristol and York). After initial invitations, participants were given a significant voice in the research agenda of the project at all stages. This inevitably led to tensions but much of the project’s real worth came from the honest discussion of these. The project cumulated with academic articles, on which the homeless participants were given equal author credit, several films and two temporary exhibitions.

Despite their successes on shoestring budgets, it is hard notto notice that both these projects were driven by charismatic, enthusiastic specialists with the courage to challenge norms (Timothy Vickers and Rachael Kiddey respectively). Passion and energy are difficult to extend and maintain beyond projects of this size and we need the lessons from such forerunners to be embedded in wider practice before real participation can be scaled-up across arts and heritage institutions.

Moving online: Crowdsourcing myths

Crowdsourcing has emerged in the last few years as one of the most hyped elements of the social web. Conceived in corporate circles as outsourcing to the crowd – in which the crowd are online and have minimal connection to the host – it is best suited to accomplishing tasks with a high volume of repetitive steps that can be easily distributed amongst a huge ‘workforce’.

Though it may be used to perform tasks – such as tagging documents with author’s names – hosts may be more interested in user’s ideas or creations and the results might be used to shape marketing or product development. It is concieved of in the service of a commercial goal, rather than for user’s benefits.

Image of the Mechanical Turk from a copper engraving by Karl Gottlieb von Windisch's (1783). Public Domain - Source

Image of the Mechanical Turk from a copper engraving by Karl Gottlieb von Windisch’s (1783). Public Domain – Source

This brings us to another bit of history: the Mechanical Turk. This chess-playing automaton wowed Europe and America, beating all challengers. However, it relied on clever cabinets to hide chess masters that would operate the machine: a hoax! In 2005, Jeff Bezos of took the name ( for an online service that would connect big businesses with thousands of human brains to perform repetitive tasks not yet solvable by computers (categorizing complex images, writing captions and so on). ‘Artificial artificial intelligence’ is the slogan that captures the process very well. Google’sreCAPTCHA service which provides website security whilst digitizing books operates at a similar level.

Online ‘Participation-lite’?

Both services are object lessons in using the web to create and maintain distance from users whilst using their skills for a central, controlling institution. It is the most shallow and tokenistic form of participation and the opposite of what many museums intend. However, its outputs are easy to anticipate, measure, use and build upon – for those not wanting to take risks when planning online participation it can be tempting to limit the scope for interactions.

For example, the British Library have crowdsourced the georeferencing of scanned maps (BL Georeferencing project), the Bodleian have a project describing musical scores (What’s the score?) and the V&A are doing well with a project allowing users to select better images for their online catalogue (V&A crowdsourcing).

However, none of these projects allowed users to engage one another. Indeed, they limit users engagement to a single process with the material and are completely determined by institutional objectives. The projects’ values should not be underestimated but neither should they be over-hyped as fully participatory, if the participants have no voice in the shape of the project.

These, etter projects can be seen within the Zooniverse framework (although this also contains the Bodleian score project) many of which allow users to engage one another, discuss the material, share it beyond Zooniverse (to social media sites) and learn together about the material they are collectively annotating, describing or improving. Benefit gained by these users is ancillary to the institutional objectives, although there is an understanding that access to a community is a motivation for many participations.

Some of these projects clearly have demonstrable success at ‘harnessing the crowd’ – but they do exactly that: treat users like domestic animals to be exploited for their labour. Very few put users engagement or benefit on equal footing with institutional aims or allow audiences any input, let alone control over the aims themselves.

Steps in the right direction

Three key elements: permeability, sustainability, scalability

To facilitate more effective participation, especially online, there are three concepts on which any project must be founded.

The first of these – permeability – is about creating projects which are outward-looking rather than walled-in and fixed. This means thinking through potential partners and participants carefully, they may be found where least expected. Engaging with ambassadors outside the sector and building upon their knowledge is often an excellent first step. Online, technological steps toward permeability include enabling social media share buttons on all content, enabling commenting and feedback and good cross-linking.

More fundamentally a permeable project enables the repurposing of it’s content and methodology in order to be reused, built-upon and remixed by users both during the project’s lifespan and for its legacy. This is virtually impossible without some form of open licensing such as  Creative Commons (CC), necessitating a well-thought-out approach to the intellectual property involved in the collections and their sharing. It is worth noting, however that consensus is moving toward proactive open licensing across much of  the sector. Evidence is accumulating to show that open licensing has no negative impact on the sale of images (Rijksmuseum case studyMuseums & the Web reportlist of institutions using CC).

All the learning in the sector shows that what is fundamental to the participatory success of a project is that a bigger resource commitment is required in making staff time available for engaging online audiences directly through social aspects of internal web spaces or third party social media. This has to be integrated as a fundamental aspect of the project and is obviously a big demand on over-stretched curatorial or educational staff and may require people to learn new technological skills. However, it is hard to underestimate how profound a shift this might be able to facilitate for a museums digital presence. For a member of the public (or interested colleague) the gap between a museum’s homepage and a staff-led blog (eg, Inside the Museum of London) or project wiki (eg, Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy Wiki) is much smaller than the one between its front door and basement storerooms! Beyond single organisations, national and international participatory projects become possible. For example, #askacurator and the Day of Archaeology demonstrated hundreds of the wonderful stories and ideas that can be told by people whose jobs normally keep them behind the scenes. Permeability, therefore, is about organisational transparency and building skills, confidence and infrastructure that enable two-way communication throughout a project and organisation.

Sustainability has become such a buzzword in environmental and social policy that it’s regularly ridiculed (my favourite). However, the idea’s utility comes from opposing the idea of growth for growth’s sake and resisting the creation of shiny, new projects with fleeting outcomes and no long-term public impact.

From this perspective, sustainability takes many of the ideas necessary to make a project permeable and extends them over time – particularly beyond the active lifespan of a project. Digital preservation is fundamental to this and open licencing should be considered as part of this issue. Philosophically, a view to sustainability requires creating scope for future interactions and reuse and deciding how to record the intangible or transient elements of a project (such as performances or workshops). Deciding how, what and why to preserve ancient things is at the core of museum thinking but terrifying anecdotes about poor recording of projects or daily practice are legion. Good sustainability comes in many forms: the Science Museum (London, UK) lidar-scanning a beloved gallery before a refit. The Waalud’s Henge reflexive assessment discussed above appears basic and obvious but gives scope for a local project to inform the wider sector. Ideally, every element of the project, data, media, reflection, analysis will remain open and accessible in order to be reused and remixed as a building block of future projects.

At the Smithsonian Institution wrangling 20 public-facing institutions into the digital universe has taken a great deal of thought about scale (their report on the process: Best of Both Worlds). In fact, their head of strategy Michael Edson has been known to perform a beat poem on the subject! Planning for scale is a big challenge. Scalability means that a volunteer-created spreadsheet of information on a collection of Victorian china really ought to exist in a database which could record compatible information about Haida totem-poles. Scalability means that this database should be as stable containing 100 objects or several million. It also means that this information should be accessible online, globally and not just through a museums own site but through aggregators such asEuropeana.

Even larger institutions struggle to get sufficient IT support to implement this sort of thing with core collections, let alone small museums working on shoe-string, volunteer-led projects. Further, when commercial firms are paid to provide such services there are risks of getting ‘locked-in’ to software that isn’t actually designed for scalability.

Scalable systems are a major investment but can affect every aspect of a museum’s work. For the volunteer participants recording the imaginary Victorian china above, scalability can mean a great deal. Rather than logging information into notebooks or spreadsheets, these enthusiasts can become part of a global inter-connected network analysing ceramics collections and creating data that can be used in a myriad more ways.

Sources of inspiration

Some readers may have noticed that the three principles above – permeability, sustainability and scalability – are at the core of one of the most positive and disruptive movements of the internet age: Open Source Software. This movement has created tectonic shifts in computing, utterly changing the way software is created and sold – even in the still solidly commercial sector. The ideas, ideology and mechanics of Open Source (for a anthropology/history see Chris Kelty’s Two Bits) are also embraced by a project based around knowledge. Early computing also took an ancient name ‘forum’ for the spaces in which projects were discussed – often chaotic spaces in which participation is paramount.

The sorts of knowledge – cultural, historic, scientific – which are at the core of institutions such as museums. This project is, of course, Wikipedia. Everyone’s favourite first-step resource has a natural affinity with the public-knowledge aims of museums and has fascinating scope for fostering participation.

In order to help negotiate relationships between the sector and wikipedia’s editors, a project known as GLAMwiki (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums). By working with GLAMwiki museums can make great strides toward integrating these three principles into their knowledge-sharing strategies. There are a range of model projects covering text, data, images and multimedia and huge scope for reaching new and diverse audiences.

However, as a participatory tool GLAMwiki is less obvious – precisely because of it’s permeability, sustainability and scalability. Fostering participation through Wikipedia is completely unlike the small, face-to-face projects typified by Homeless Heritage and Waalud’s Bank. To use a crude metaphor, traditional, onsite participation projects are zoo-based studies of animal behaviour, interacting with the wilds of the internet is just that – tagging animals and setting them free.One favourite example of this is from the Dutch Tropenmuseum (Tropical Museum). Which released nearly 50 thousand rights-free images onto Wikimedia Commons in 2009. Many of these are naturally of former Dutch colonies, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, leading curators to debate the possibility that sharing these online was neocolonial. However, the statistics show that it is actually Malay and Indonesian language Wikipedias that are by far the biggest users of the images. This means that the thousands of articles which use Tropenmuseum images were processed, discussed and thought about by groups of Wikipedians across the world. To me, there seems to very little that could involve more sophisticated participation in a collection.

Further, one example stands out for me as a perfect example of what sharing on Wikipedia (and these principles generally) can achieve.

‘Diana’ (foreground) and ‘Retvisan’. Russian Navyships in the harbor of Sabang on the island Weh (1903) - C.B. Nieuwenhuis. From the collections of the Tropen Museum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT). Hosted on Wikimedia Commons

This mildly diverting image of early 20th century ships languished in the Tropenmuseum’s archive with no details beyond a year and a place name. This is all it was annotated with when uploaded in November 2009. By the end of December Wikimedia Commons user and (apparent) naval history enthusiast Alexpl had made tentative identifications of the two ships, enabling the images to be used on the ship’s own Wikipedia pages in multiple languages. Almost a year later, user Freekc34 adds the name of the photographer. Connecting the photograph with the rest of C.B. Niewenhuis’ work available on the site – most of which is also from the Tropenmuseum.

By August 2013 two users have also made the effort to do some photo-retouching.

In all, the photo has gone from being an abandoned, unusable image in a dusty storeroom to an informative and evocative image at the nexus of a number of stories: Two warships, full of Russians far from home. The Retvisan was built in Philadelphia and is on its way to its final battle at Port Arthur. It illustrates the history of the harbor (for both the Frenchand Malay Wikipedias) and it is a point in the life and work of the photographer. Unfortunately, C.B. Niewenhuis has yet to be covered (beyond the basics) on any Wikipedia, but it’s surely just a matter of time. Maybe someone reading this will do it!?

From one perspective, the Tropenmuseum example could be seen as a crowdsourcing case: getting disparate volunteers to do work curators have no resources for. However, I find it much more inspiring to think of each of the moments at which readers became editors and thereby participated in a history that began more than a century before. The best part is, there are now massively fewer barriers to this image (and the rest) being used in a myriad of other circumstances.

Online, it may be harder to measure and experience participants engaging in a museum’s materials (and long may direct contact continue!) but the freedom creates fantastic spaces for serendipity. Open, online participation is the next step in relinquishing unnecessary control – the digital equivalent of a sign which says ‘Please touch!’ and takes the spirit of Charles Knight’s 1840’s exultation into the twenty-first century.

Thanks again to for commissioning this post and allowing me to post it here.

Any job, project, course or endeavour that we undertake is always a compromise. A compromise between what we get now (paying the bills) and where it gets us in the future. More profoundly, it’s a compromise between fun and values: between whether it gets us out of bed in the morning and whether it lets us sleep soundly at night.

My PhD – a project investigating public engagement in the Mesolithic (the early stages are still visible on the project wiki) began as a compromise that felt right for me. It allowed me to investigate public engagement in archaeology, museums and media/information design. Most importantly it had a practical component – I could play around with events and media creation – and remain true to my nerdy fascination with Holocene hunter-gatherers.

However, as I went along I became aware that my frustrations with the project went beyond the normal frustrations with work, problem solving and research that are felt by any PhD student. I became aware that I was a poor fit for the task and, though this took a while, came to believe that the PhD structure was poorly suited to the questions the project entailed.

That’s not to say that it didn’t create some fantastic opportunities. I made two trips to museums and heritage-parks in Germany and Scandinavia to see how the Mesolithic (and prehistory) was presented there. I also took part in and co-organised public events with a Mesolithic focus, either working in Yorkshire with the Star Carr team (the case study site) or at bigger events with teams from other universities. My findings were inspiring but frustrating: I began to realise that the reasons prehistory gets such short shrift in UK museums and public discourse were beyond the scope of a PhD. Worse, I felt that the sorts of outreach and engagement work necessary to bring Star Carr to a wider audience – though worthy of work – were not complex enough to provide doctoral-level problems: presenting Star Carr was just a case of getting stuck in.

I ended up caught in a slow, problematic research write-up of various analytic chapters whilst other members of the Star Carr team, did get stuck in to creating public output – a small booklet, a coffee-table book, and eventually an exhibition. These were great successes for getting the material out there but did little to shift or expand any ideas about the really thorny problems of presenting prehistory over other archaeological material.

So, where does that leave me?

I took a lengthy break from the project (to look after my Mum who eventually died from her illness – 2013 has been a little bumpy all round) and realised I couldn’t possibly go back to a project I didn’t believe in.

So here I am, turning aside from directly tackling a problem which I think is very troubling – the failure of British public discourse to engage in prehistory – not because I find it uninteresting or unworthy but because I felt that a PhD was the wrong tool for the job: like using callipers to measure wind speed. This is just my feeling though – the PhD has just been re-advertised and I genuinely hope it produces some fantastic results in new hands.

My plan, though, is to investigate more practical ways of engaging with all aspects of cultural heritage (hence the eclectic list on the front page) and arm myself with new ideas, and approaches to an issue I will always find fascinating. Better still, I hope I’ll find new people with fresh ways of working and new energy to charge my own endeavours. To find better compromises.

Engagement through estrangement: Barthes and Brecht visit the prehistoric museum

Engagement through estrangement: Barthes and Brecht visit the prehistoric museum

Engagement through estrangement:
Barthes and Brecht visit the prehistoric museum

An 'extra' caption on a display case containing boar remains and boar's-tusk necklaces in the National Museum of Denmark
The belief of wild boars.
The same belief appears to have been held among wild boar, that were often buried with strings of human teeth tied around their necks and right front paw.

Bear with me…. this might be a long one. Hopefully, I’ll manage to be engaging while discussing engagement! This post draws together responses to recent blog posts about one big thinker (Barthes) and finally gets some thoughts from my undergraduate work about another big thinker (Brecht) into the open. Woven between these, is some stuff about prehistory in museums that I’ve been thinking about recently. By the end, you probably won’t know any more about the beliefs of Danish Mesolithic wild boar…. but that may be the point.

Barthes and punctum

Engagement has become such a buzzword in cultural and heritage studies that it sometimes becomes useless. For me, engagement means much more than just getting people-through-doors, bums-on-seats or clicks-on-pages. Engagement means that a person (museum visitor, website user, whatever) actually switches on and interacts with the presented material – critically and imaginatively.

I’m not remotely alone in this. For many friends and colleagues this appears to be the holy grail of any work with/for the public. In fact, this post was triggered by reading posts by John Coburn and Mia Ridge on Understanding Compelling Collections and ‘I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think’  respectively.

Cover of the Vintage edition of Barthes' Camera Lucida

Mia’s piece builds on John’s and incorporates Roland Barthes concepts of studium and punctum (nice summary by photographer George Powell). Essentially, studium is the basic, accepted ‘cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph’ (Wikipedia’s definition): an understanding of what a photo depicts, where and when it was taken, and the reasons it was created. All photographs, argues Barthes, exist within a framework of this rationalised, fairly unemotional studium.

Barthes contrasts this with punctum: the arresting, personally touching, emotional or transcendent detail that reaches ‘through the photograph’ to establish a direct relationship between the viewer and the depicted. Punctum is a useful term for identifying a far-from-superficial element in the sorts of historic photographs that John discusses, the sorts of elements that are picked up by sites such as RetronautPunctum is the element that launches an exhibition, that creates curiosity, that bridges our way to the past. Mia points out that both studium and punctum can be useful concepts when discussing a broader range of images or artefacts, and on reading this I realised that I had been using the concept and renaming it ‘transcendance’ in a talk I gave at EAA 2012 in Helsinki.

Punctum and prehistory

At my talk – which was in a session of the Stone Age Bog Group – I talked about the fact that wetland sites are virtually the only sources for archaeological remains from the deep past that can create moments of transcendence (or as I now recognise Punctum). Footprints, head-dresses, sculpture, human remains: each of these create a flash of instant, emotional connection to people thousands of years ago. As such, I argued that they are an absolutely crucial tool for those trying to engage people with Stone Age hunter-gatherers because, as we all know, there aren’t many of us that can get excited about a load of old flint!

However, there is a danger that the emotional and imaginative response to such objects is overwhelming and that this becomes an obstacle to understanding and further engagement. The lifeways of Stone Age hunter-gatherers are unimaginably different from our own: no matter how far we get with the most sophisticated or sensitive syntheses of archaeological evidence and ethnographic comparison we cannot imagine our way back into the deep past. We would be projecting a myriad of assumptions about all sorts of things from gender to power, ownership to personhood, place, home and many more. The temptation to project ourselves into the deep past created by a sense of Punctum is very strong and it is in opposition to this temptation that I would like to place our next useful concept: this time stolen from playwright and theatre theorist Bertolt Brecht.

Verfremdungseffekt ‘an estrangement effect’

Galileo being interogated by the cardinals in Brecht's 'Life of Galileo' 1971 Berliner Ensemble production

Brecht developed the notion of Verfremdungseffkt as part of his aesthetics of epic theatreThe technique is designed to collapse the suspension of disbelief, to deliberately break the ‘fourth wall’ : Essentially to force the audience to realise that they’re witnessing a fictive narrative, a performance, a construct. As they do so, it is hoped that their critical faculties will be engaged, not only with the drama and narrative but with the process of it’s construction and the material behind it. In Brecht’s Life of Gallileo estrangement is designed to help the audience reflect on the themes of dogmatic oppression and intellectual freedom – particularly striking when imagined on opening night in Zurich in 1943.

So, Verfremdungseffekt counters the too-easy emotional immersion in constructed narratives, while punctum creates an arresting emotional response to otherwise rationally understood images or objects. Punctum is, by its very nature, difficult to control. As Mia puts it:

Punctum is often personal to the viewer, but when it occurs it brings with it ‘a power of expansion’: ‘I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think’.  You cannot design punctum, but can we design collections interfaces to create the serendipitous experiences that enable punctum?  Is it even possible with images of objects, or is it more likely to occur with photographic collections?’

Well, I would argue that for certain forms of evidence from prehistory the objects themselves have the strongest form of punctum and even with the sparsest framing, many people pick up on this very quickly. Often, however, those presenting the deep past create rich, immersive and seductive multimedia narratives on top of these objects which though captivating, do little to engage a viewer’s critical faculties. For example, it has long been argued that many forms of creative visualisation actually seduce audiences into a form of ‘archaeological tourism’ that completely hijacks any critical engagement (for more see my undergraduate thesis – if you must!). Cinematic 3D CGI is one of the most contentious forms of this:

The technical accomplishments and attention to detail of German studio Faber-Courtial is hard to fault but their material exemplifies an attempt at complete visual perfection. Anecdotally, I have found that this leads many viewers to either passively and totally accept such work as ‘fact’ or to pick on one detail “How can they know what the hairstyles were like!?!” and thereafter reject the entire piece and feel that their trust has been abused – disengaging them from the interpretation and the material.

It is here that the potential of the Verfremdungseffekt becomes clear. If, in our interpretive framing of past materials, we can construct devices that reawaken viewers critical faculties we can (perhaps!) maximise both the imaginitive connections built through punctum and a critical awareness of the past as a construct.

Punctum Verfremdungseffekt = engagement?

My favourite example of Verfremdungseffekt in heritage presentation was at the Skabt af tiden (Shaped by time) exhibition in the prehistory galleries at Denmark’s National Museum. At this, 28 contemporary artists were asked to create works to go in the gallery, responding to the objects and displays. For me, the stand out works were the ‘extra’ captions provided by author, poet and journalist Merete Pryds Helle.

Merete Pryds Helle's 'extra' caption on Mesolithic harpoon points in the National Museum of Denmark
Fishing spear.
This fishing spear was used by fishermen Skæl and Søle one May morning in the year of 8232 BCE to catch a tuna fish off the coast of Fænø. In view of the fact that rice was not yet grown in the region, Søle was forced to produce their tuna sushi exclusively using wild grains and the bitter horseradish that Fænø remains famous for. It is possible to order a meal in Copenhagen’s restaurant Noma based entirely on Søle’s original recipe.

These captions brilliantly satirise both the tone, content and form of the original captions and are far more subversive than most of the visual or sculptural works. In the original captions, the museum has deliberately decided not to separate basic empirical facts (where something was found, what material it is) from more interpretive statements. One caption, under a case of antler tools and objects, is a particularly clear example:

Deer antler – a magical material
Antlers are symbols of power. The stags shed them every spring to grow a new and larger set. Stag antlers in the hunters’ graves show that the material was ascribed magical properties. Men’s weapons like axes were made of antler and the material was used for shafts, harpoons etc. Antlers shed in the woods were also used.

Though they are all placed on the outside of cases, the ‘extra’ captions are in the same typeface as the originals and a little surreptitious watching made it clear that many visitors were unaware that they were not official at first. However, as incredulity kicked in many visitors reacted in similar ways: at first laughing at the captions, then at their own credulity and then re-engaging with the original captions in a far more critical and active manner.

This then, is a brilliant victory for both punctum created through the careful framing (literally and semantically) of transcendent artefacts followed by an estrangement created by cleverly placed fictive narratives layered onto both the objects and their original framing.

Sadly, the Skabt af tiden captions were removed on the 1st October 2012. I think they should have kept them. Would you put them in your favourite museum?

Unpacking chronology – why time depth matters to archaeology

Unpacking chronology – why time depth matters to archaeology
Screen capture from ChronoZoom
Portion of the zoomable timeline on the ChronoZoom website

I think about time rather too much. The Mesolithic began 400 generations ago – give or take a dozen or so. You could sit hand-in-hand with your mum on your left, and if the process could be continued, you would get around the perimeter of a running track and have a Mesolithic person within reach on your right. So near, and yet…..

… yet I seem to be among the deluded few who think that chronology is not just a conceptual coat-rack but can stimulate the imagination.

Museums ‘are all doing the same thing; almost every display starts at whatever the beginning is for them and ends at the more recent stuff…. it’s always chronological… and our experience in Edinburgh, when we talk to people in focus groups, is that people don’t care about chronology. Their chronological world was themselves, their children, their parents, their grand-parents, and then there was the past, and all sorts of things floated around in this big, black area called The Past. So, most of the people we had on our focus groups didn’t know whether the Romans came before the Vikings – and, what was interesting was, none of them cared.’

That quote is from David Clarke (former Keeper of Achaeology at the National Museum of Scotland, NMS) and was typical of the attitudes from the panel at the third UCL Institute of Archaeology 75th Anniversary Debate entitled Presenting the Past.

The message from this seemed to be: people today want to connect with people in the past through stories and stuff  (hearing, seeing, feeling, touching, experience). In essence they want to time travel – they want to go to somewhere such as JORVIK, experience an authoritative, authentic ancient world, that is totally alien yet full of people who are ‘just like them’. Then they can have a cup of tea and go home.

This makes no sense. Museums are meant to stimulate the imagination and tweak preconceptions, not neatly capitulate to them. In fact, later in the Presenting the Past session, the panel were asked whether they believed that museums were part of the entertainment industry. It was David Clarke who was first to point out that:

‘while I agree that museums are entertainment… the danger with entertainment is [just] giving people what they want. I think it was Montebello (director of the Metropolitan Museum) who said that if we were really going to maximise our take and the number of people through the door: we would have a permanent, temporary exhibition on Impressionism. But, he had the decency to say (in $100 million funding bids) we aren’t going to do that – we’re going to show them something they don’t know they want to see. So, in that sense we are in the entertainment industry but we’re in that element of the entertainment industry that says “You may not have heard of this but when you come you’re going to love it!”. And that’s quite a difficult trick to pull off, and my guess is most museums don’t pull it off.’

What prevents chronology from being one of these stories? Science museums (and even art galleries) have to contend with chronological connections – sometimes at vast scales – and often lack the luxury of a ‘human interest story’ to fall back on.

Chronology may be seen as processualist, macroscopic, disconnecting, challenging and unpopular but it is a core element of understanding the past and unsettling preconceptions. It’s not just NMS visitors who struggle with the Romans and Vikings: I met someone with a first in Modern History from Oxford who confessed ‘Oh! I always thought the Vikings came first because they were so much more primitive’.

Chronology connects past peoples and events to one another and to us. Without it we are merely window-shopping through a plethora of cultures that are the eternal ethnographic other. Also, through radiocarbon and other tools we can  begin to strip away Euro-centrism and contemplate Grahame Clark’s dream of a ‘World Prehistory’. Further than this, we can connect beyond the narrow horizons of the human world.

The Big History Project is using tools such as ChronoZoom to tell the story of the entire universe in one, interconnected way. While the archaeologist in me wishes they hadn’t hung quite so much on the origins of agriculture as such a simple tipping point in the human story – most of me applauds the project. Here’s there TED talk. What do you think?