Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Cultural heritage systems?

Italian cultural heritage is all about systems. Or rather, professionals in Italy (and politicians) who work in culture and heritage and museums etc often refer to a national system of cultural heritage. My own post-grad course of studies (completed in Milan more years ago than I care to remember) turned me into (I kid you not) a "strategic planner of integrated cultural systems"... and I confess I have spent the last 18 years of my life striving to reach the heady heights of the job description.

In no way, however, does Italy seem to support a cultural system. I take this word to indicate a group of interacting, interrelated or interdependent elements, or elements that are functionally related, and form a complex whole. From my point of view, at the heart of any cultural system is the visitor, who experiences heritage, ultimately becomes its patron and protector, funds it and - most importantly - gives it meaning. Many visitors to Italy's incredible cultural sites are not seen in this way - mostly, they are overwhelmed (see above).

The word 'system' in Italy often refers to the country itself: the sistema-paese, describing the whole country as if it were a seamless, well-oiled engine that works across everything: political thinking, financial planning, infrastructure, education, culture... I shall let this lie for the moment since anyone who is abreast of current affairs or has ever lived in Italy for a short time can testify that the more Italians speak about systems the least systemic and organised is the blob they are referring to.

Sometimes the word system is used to indicate a set of disparate things which Italians naively consider become a single entity once they are referred to in the collective.

So while Italy as a whole is referred to (in cultural terms) as a single, continuous, open-air, diffuse museum system (sistema museale diffuso), in actual fact it is not physically possible to visit any attraction in Italy that is in any way connected to another, either thematically or functionally; nor are heritage sites grouped together because of their management structures or operational models; nor can you book tickets to attractions that belong to the same municipality or are state-owned via a single website; nor can you find out about all of - say - Milan's cultural attractions on one portal. How can we honestly consider Italian cultural heritage to be a system?

The PIXAR mouse - Copyright PIXAR - expresses my frustration (-;

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Theatre and history: Decade and 9/11

Museums, as institutions of public memory, fail for the most part to engage with contemporary perspectives on history. In trying to understand why this is the case, I was fascinated to go to the theatre – actually, to a disused conference hall in an office block in Katherine’s Dock in east London, a short walk from Tower Bridge and the Tower of London.

Decade – headlined “Two towers. Ten years. Thousands of opinions” – presents a selection of scripts by 19 playwrights, produced by Headlong Theatre, directed by Rupert Goold. The world premiere welcomes the audience through a security check which resembles an airport lounge – body scanner gates and bag checks with US uniformed guards. This is truly site specific theatre.

Once past the interrogation, we were shown to a red carpet area where waitresses clutching clipboards showed us to our tables – exactly like an expensive American resaurant – the World Trade Centre’s Windows on the World.

Weirdly, they greeted us with a too bright “Good morning” which chilled me to my bones. Menus on each table “Welcome to America’s most famous and highest grossing restaurant” are themed to include prices for the breakfast offerings – omelettes, seasonal berries and papaya, griddle cakes with butter and maple syrup – as well as information on the restaurant itself: The boundless landscapes seen from the towers inspired the thinking and planning of the menus. The stage set is incredibly convincing, and unsettling – the views are indeed boundless, and recall convincingly those bright sprakling blue skies of New York that infamous day.

This is strong theatre. The production is intense, well choreographed, fast moving. It blends dance routines with slow motion movement sequences, and spans different writing techniques and styles harmoniously. The acting is variable, but the tension is constant. We time travel back 10 years, with the annual memorial day get-together of 3 widows over coffee helping to pace the calendar for the audience and providing an anchor for the other episodes on stage.

This is a strong interpretation of history. I know of no museum or interpretation centre which reflects on the impact of 9/11 in quite such a sweeping manner, allowing reflection, criticism, alternative viewpoints, dialogue, interpretations. If possible for theatre, why do museums find it so difficult to reflect in a similar open ended way?

I have come to the conclusion that often, although peculiarly well positioned to help reflecting on and critiquing history, museums are stuck in their interpretations because they focus on their collections – sometimes exclusively so. The material history they preserve seems to stifle their capacity for new interpretations. They fail to make that all important leap to writing the history of the big picture, considering their collections only tangentially.

This is what I herald in terms of narrative museums. This is a strong interpretative lesson: do not think about what collections can do for you, but what you can do with the collections. In other words: think what you want to say, not what the collections can say. Only then, extrapolate how best to say that using them.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Remembered history, living memory

The bookshop owner’s personal memorial on this corner of Dubrovnik that I blogged about in my previous post is one of the only testaments to the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia 1991-1992 that I could find in the city. I found it poignant, and alarming – there is no other official history or public reflection on the events, but this man’s personal effort to remember and document.

The black and yellow panel, written in Croatian and English, reads:

Our city was savagely attacked early in the morning by the Serbian and Montenegrian army on St Nicholas Day, 6th December 1991. It was the saddest Friday in the history of Dubrovnik! At 7 o’clock that morning, the cross on the mount of Srd was destroyed. Already at 7.10 am a shell, one of the first to hit the city, hit our house, at 7.20 the third fateful one set our house on fire! I tried to extinguish it in the attic with a few buckets of water, but I failed. Shells kept falling and we had to abandon the burning house! I carried my old mother (aged 88) to the groundfloor and then to the neighbourhood. I ran twice to the second floor to take the most important documents, butane gas canister, the lamp, and my sister’s shoes. My sister Merica managed to run to the neighbour’s house with blankets over her head. Somehow, I too managed to run across a little later with a pot on my head. We threw pots, pans and bottles filled with water into the burning flames in a delusive hope. By the nightfall, 7 mortar shells fell on the house, three of them incendiary bombs.

Thank God we were not hurt!

A reminder that whether museums are wary or scared of reflecting on events, public history is always very personal. So the choices for institutions of public memory are either to face the interpretative challenge, or, by avoiding it, censor it.

Friday, October 7, 2011

“Militant” public memory institutions

Le musée militant is an expression coined in the 1970s by Tomislav Sola, a Croatian museologist who is the driving force and philosopher behind the Best in Heritage movement, a yearly conference which takes place in Dubrovnik in Autumn.

At this year’s edition, Professor Sola stated that political and social engagement is something museums and heritage institutions are called on to provide a platform for. Public memory institutions – and I would say all forms of public interpretation – must respond to the language of everyday life. How else can they claim to be public? How else can they become relevant to more and more people, from more and more diverse backgrounds?

He harked back to the 1970s, when the militant museum movement was embodied by the increasingly popular ecomuseums. These institutions, riding the long cultural wave of democratising history and its interpretation, brought together people’s stories, community narratives, folk traditions and launched a new policy of collections acquisition which meant something for the communities in which they operated. Some museums today continue that tradition – the ethnographical museum in Frankfurt being one. Others have misplaced their mission, and stagnated. The Ethnographic Museum in Dubrovnik, pictured below, which I visited during the conference, is just one example of a forgotten museum, a lonesome repository of something past which provides no fresh interpretation relevant to the present.

The idea behind militancy in a public memory institution (I like this expression because it brings together museums and heritage for their joint mission of communicating rather than separating them for their specialist forms of collection) is about being upfront with presenting dilemmas which we face everyday, and offering different interpretations.

The issue was brought home to me while walking around the streets of Dubrovnik, a site which was martyred during the ex Yugoslavia conflict in 1991-1992. The so called ‘pearl’ of the Mediterranean, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is absolutely beautiful: a walled city accessible only to pedestrians, medieval in its conception and planning, built around a market and port, a city state to rival Venice in the 13th and 14th centuries. Its deep red terracotta roofs are pristine: they have all been replaced in the last 20 years, and look very new and modern. It has been beautifully reconstructed from the ravages of war, which are visible only in photographic books available in some bookshops, in a tiny display in the Napoleonic fortress which overlooks the city, and a strange personal memorial corner in one of the beautiful side streets. Stuck on the wall by the bookshop owner whose books, manuscripts and editions were charred and burnt when his house and shop were bombed.

Where did Dubrovnik hide its recent history? Who wished it be swept under the carpet of tourism? Is it admissable, today, to retreat into silence? Is it simply more comfortable this way?

The recently re-opened Ulster Museum was awarded the 2010 Art Fund Prize for, among other things, being passionate about its public: “We were impressed by the interactive learning spaces on each level that are filled with objects which visitors are encouraged to touch and explore, and by how the museum’s commitment to reaching all parts of its community is reflected in the number and diversity of its visitors. The transformed Ulster Museum is an emblem of the confidence and cultural rejuvenation of Northern Ireland.”

The museum presents, among many other themes, the Irish Troubles which ravaged the northern tip of the island of Ireland and had long tentacles radiating into mainland UK between 1969 and 1990s. The museum’s interpretation strategy was to avoid object selection – they intentionally did not want to present a history by dividing communities around questions such as which objects are most prominent and most important and – of course – which have been left out. The story is too raw, too recent, too real to do this. So the interpretation perspective shifted. The museum team sought not to present a perfect, neutral survey of information – perfect but useless - but rather provide a new depth and a new breadth to the content, to carry a metamessage around its re-presentation of history: this space is a space for community, where content must remain purposeful in order to continue meaningful.

A new meaning of militant. Lessons we still have to learn.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Excuse number 4: understanding that to be a business person in Italy you need to become a social entrepreneur

I spent a lovely week on a farm in southern Italy recently. The farm - a semi ruin - was bought a few years ago by two British business partners who have sensitively restored the original features of this beautiful masseria and turned it into a high spec, luxury retreat - it also boasts a swimming pool and art studio.

Jan, the owner, has done so much more, though. She is a "donna vera" ("a real woman") said her 83 year old neighbour to me, while grabbing my arm and looking straight into my eyes. She has, as a foreigner, completely taken on the whole community - which is a very unusual attitude for (Italian) buyers of second homes in Italy. Living most of her time in south east London, Jan travels with booked groups to her Masseria della Zingara - and once there, she has coffee with her neighbours, most of whom are older couples, some with their children as carers, still living the rural life. These are people living in relative poverty, with a simple way of life - chickens in the back yard, a guard dog on a leash, cherries on the trees, olive groves and vegetable plots. It is a hard life, and they are proud of their sons and daughters who have moved away from the land into the town. But their link to the countryside is central to who they are.

The region of Puglia is known as Italy's vegetable garden - my own recipe for minestrone (Italian vegetable soup) comes from my greengrocer - who set up shop in Milano but was originally from Puglia.

While enjoying the wild fennel salad, the fresh broad bean coulis, the chocolate and caramelised broad bean mousse... I started to think about what it takes to make a difference to the Italian heritage sector. Especially, I have been perplexed about why in Italy it is so rare to consider culture as a catalyst for the economy, and for regeneration generally, not simply a side benefit of the tourist industry.

Jan's approach to the restoration of her ancient masseria was to have the side chapel (the view above) reconsecrated by the parish priest on Easter Sunday, to return it to its original role for this countryside. Once upon a time, the chapel brought people together from across the land, who would gather and socialise, exchange news and gossip, organise their weekly trip to town and to the market to sell their produce, mingle with the landowners, catch up on new births and deaths, on the news from town... a civilta' contadina marked by hard work and strong relationships, carved in the sweat and heat of this land.

She told us of the trickle of locals who came by that day, some dressed in their black Sunday best, the older women with their heads covered in black head dress, each bringing something to share, and each with memories and stories of when they were children, of the hard times on the land. One old gentleman brought pictures of him standing proud next to his ravaged older father, next to the chapel of the Masseria. (The picture above is from an Italian website http://tradizionipopolari.splinder.com/post/1970140/la-festa which gathers archival material on traditional farming in Molise, one of the poorer regions of Italy. Unfortunately, I have no old pictures of the Masseria della Zingara)

Jan has built a formidable business, but not by pillaging the land, stealing its beauty and secluding it for luxury retreats - rather by injecting back into it what makes it a part of our living heritage. She has brought back meaning to a civilisation that is fast disappearing, and refreshed its value for other people who, though not born here, all have memories of grandparents and ancient roots. If the Italian state understood that this is the point of conserving heritage and history, Italy would not simply be a conservation society, but a living society built on its history.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Excuse number 3: my first time in Sicily!

Sicily is a beautiful, vast, lonesome, surprisingly green, rugged island. The picture above is of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ragusa, high on the hills close to Catania in the southeastern corner of the country, just south of the Etna volcano. I say 'country' in the same way we refer to Wales or Scotland as countries - its story so different, its people so culturally identifiable, and yet its history significantly intertwined with that of mainland Italy. I was visiting an archaeological museum in Ragusa, this beautiful Baroque town, which is planning its transferral to a refurbished 4 floor convent complex.

While there, I learnt a lot about the philosophy of conservation as it is described and regulated by the Sopraintendenza. This is the regional representative office of the Italian Ministry of Culture, whose function it is to regulate historic conservation on listed buildings, protect built heritage, carry out major surveys, put a leash on architects, manage many of the museums and monuments with nationally significant collections, promote and fund exhibitions, manage the multiple conservation and restoration academies spread around Italy, cooperate with the police forces dedicated to stopping the illegal trafficking of archaeological remains ... It is a very complex organisation, peopled by highly specialised experts, advisors, academics, with tortuous links to local and national politics, and what appears to be a very convoluted decision making process. Viewed by most Italians as a necessary evil that often is detrimental to their way of life because of its powers to stop building sites where there are historical remains – for indefinite periods, with little regard to the economic implications of such powers etc it is the only champion of heritage in the country. A necessary evil, as I say.

The particular building which will house the new archaeological museum survived the 1693 earthquake which wiped out most of this beautiful city - at the same time favouring its Baroque renaissance.

In Italy all architectural interventions on listed buildings have to be identifiable and reversible, the Sopraintendente told me.

So I looked around and saw a huge red brick wing, erected in 2001 to the side of the building to replace a wing that came down in the 1950s. Identifiable, certainly. Distinctly modern, definitely. A carbuncle? Prince Charles would agree. Reversible? Was it reversible? I asked. (Ie - could we pull it down?) Absolutely not, came the answer - that would be perceived to be using public monies to undo what public monies ten years ago were spent doing up.

Aha I said. Not reversible then.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Excuse number 2: marketing the business

In the last year I have been trying to build up my business in heritage interpretation and museum development - and I should have blogged about the challenges throughout the process... don't remind me.

The photograph above is a interpretation device which frames a "view that isn't there", ie a historic landscape that exists in a painting (reproduced below the frame) of the same spot that the viewer is staring at. I think it is a powerful symbol, in my business, of what Shan Preddy talks about in her book How To Run a Successful Design Business - which came out earlier this year. The importance of vision, of seeing things that might not be right there right now. Just keep staring into the frame, and remind yourself what it is you can see.

For a budding business, this is a crucial lesson - and I have to remind myself every morning, at every meeting, on every project.

Even though mine is not strictly speaking a design business Shan's insights into the sector in which I move - which involves working closely with designers and architects, as much as with curatorial and content driven people - are invaluable. She reminds her readers that the key to success lies somewhere between engaging freely in the unpredictable creative process of exhibition design and interpretation, and maintaining the rudder pointing straight in order to deliver successful projects, and ultimately make a financial breakthrough.

One key challenge in the creative world is the different skill sets involved in all aspects of the process: in interpretation, my challenge is to see beyond the detail of the academic expert and focus on the main message of communication; in planning terms, it means understanding who the audiences are, what they want, what they relate to, and what I can offer to engage them in something they might not be interested in; in design terms, the challenge is the coherence of logical/thematic and spatial values... different perspectives, different skills required to address them.

In terms of BT Museum Consultancy, my vision is to approach projects the way I have approached life: with a bilingual mentality, forever bouncing from the creative to the rigorous. Questions prompted in Shan's book, include -
• will the type of work I do be the same as now, or different?
• who will be on the client list?
• where will the business be located?
• what skills, qualities and seniority do I need for staff?
• what is my personal commitment to the business in terms of my role?

A lot of these questions are still open ended - and maybe they should remain so in order to be useful as business development tools.

The vision for BT Museum Consultancy however, in general, is to grow into a leading interpretation consultancy, across Europe, providing strategic advice for museum and heritage development. In countries - including Italy - where interpretation is a word used only in relation to translators, I would like to see it understood as the only way of engaging visitors, as part of the core business of heritage attractions - putting communication at the core of what museums / parks / archaeological sites / industrial heritage attractions... do.

In terms of expanding the business, my last few years sitting on the Committee for London of the Heritage Lottery Fund, deciding on projects in this great city that are worthy of receiving funding from the National Lottery, has made me reflect significantly on the public use of monies, as well as what the criteria for awarding those monies should cover.

This amazing city has more museums and galleries than Paris and New York combined! A dozen historic palaces; 2,500 historic green spaces; 15 million international visits and a population set to rise by 1.25 million people in the next 20 years... its creative and cultural sector employs more than half a million people, making it London's 3rd largest employment sector. And yet, establishment culture does not reflect the diverse make up of the population, the projects that come to HLF for funding don't reflect the variety of the peoples who live here.

Any other suggestions for business development?!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Excuse number 1: the FIAT 500

This car has the same age as me. Her name is Bianca, and she lives on a farmhouse in Apulia in Southern Italy. Now, I am not oversensitive about cars, or engines, or technical stuff, but - how can you not love her? She is compact, friendly, very fuel and space efficient, and was designed by someone called Dante, in the 1950s. Driving her is like driving your sofa... a comfortable seat with wheels and a teeny engine. She is as much a part of Italian industrial heritage as well as a key ingredient of Italian common phantasy. A recent PhD thesis at the University of Urbino states that:

"The Fiat 500 is much more than a car. The car is a synonym for Italian-ness, design, freedom, youth, love, work, the future, children"

All still recognisable as key values for Italian society past and present. Driving her around the countryside was the most enjoyable experience of the last year. The relationship between this car and its memory is an emotional, Italian thing. And yet - this is probably the only car that has gone round the London Eye in one of its capsules - the official UK launch of the new 500, in 2008.

It is uncanny, but a model of the FIAT 500 (Cinquecento in Italian) is also displayed on Park Lane in central London - as a public art initiative for the city of London in the run up to the Olympic games in 2012. Designed by Italian sculptor Lorenzo Quinn, its title is "Vroom Vroom" - the cartoony sound effect or onomatopaeia which in Italian indicates an engine revving up. A tiny little car, put in perspective by that huge hand. What a wonderful sculpture, what a wonderful little car - truly, it gave me back a sense of unadulterated fun!

Where have I been this last year?

For some reason, June has got me excited about museums and heritage once again. So apologies to my one reader for having absconded for the last year, but here are my top five excuses why that has happened.

1. learning to drive a vintage 1973 FIAT 500 - the photo above is called DRIVING INTO THE FUTURE

2. marketing my interpretation planning business

3. a new project in Ragusa - and my first time in Sicily!

4. understanding why to be a businessperson in Italy you must also be a social entrepreneur

5. readin' readin' readin'...

Brief photographic posts will follow on each excuse. And so hopefully you will forgive and forget...my absence!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

How architects view buildings – and how normal people understand them

As an interpretative planner, I work with architects on a day to day basis, on most of my projects: conservation architects, new build architects, signature architects, repair and restoration architects... I am intrigued by their inspired genius and also by their sometimes extraordinary lack of insight into how people who are not architects understand spaces. Actually, we don’t – and that’s the issue. People do not “understand” spaces – we do not tend to think conceptually about them. We inhabit them, we move through them, we are enveloped by them, and we generally think that a space that does not mould around us and change with us is...uncomfortable.

The picture above shows the inside of the Beetle's House by Architect Terunobu Fujimori - which is as small as a sauna, and has a wonderful smell of charcoal. It is on display for active visitors who love rung ladders at the V&A.

As visitors to museums and heritage sites, we browse around elements inside spaces, walk toward colour, are attracted by physical interventions within the space, we are magnetically drawn to sofas when we are tired, and to windows when we are lost – and none of these apply if we are accompanied by children or bored partners.

This is why an interpretative designer, who designs to communicate, is generally more conscious of visitor interaction and patterns of behaviour than an architect. Interpretative designers choreographthe visitor experience within museums, galleries, heritage sites etc – they are less interested in iconic voids and structures, but more focused on understanding spaces as narrative environments – not just because they are full of stories (about objects and research) – but because they are the stories: those stories that unfold around the visitor, as he or she explores and brings them to life. The visitor with the Midas touch.

At the V&A last night it was interesting to reflect on the architectural exhibition on the 4th floor. It functions as a continuation of the Architecture Galleries, but it's about the temporary building installations within the Museum I mentioned in my previous blog.
It is an exhibition by architects for architects.

The exhibition presents a series of models. In essence, curatorially, it manages to enclose external models of buildings into glass showcases. The models are boxes, seen from outside, inside another sealed box, seen from outside – and through a glass screen. I am sure a postmodern philopspher would have an appropriate comment to make here.

What the exhibition does is to unwittingly confirm the introductory leaflet’s own critical view of what architecture exhibitions should not do:

Architecture is intrinsically part of our everyday experience. Yet architecture exhibitions, with their emphasis on drawings, models and photographs, sometimes deny their audience an engagement with actual buildings.


So while attempting to subvert how we understand spaces by building climb-in full scale models to explore, the V&A seems to place at the heart of its interpretative effort when reflecting on its practice, a very traditional approach to buildings – seen (and presented to the public) as perfectly formed, miniature objects that you look at from outside. If you would like to see what I mean, applied to museums and heritage in general, google image any name of any museum/art gallery you might know – and I will buy you a coffee if your first image is not of a building, seen from outside.

As an interpretative planner, I find working with interpretative designers an easier fit than working with architects as designers and communicators of content to visitors. Interpretative designers think of movement through museum spaces as a rhythmic beat, an evolving, diversely paced experience, with emotional highs and lows, dramatic surprises, points of suspension, intellectual climaxes and sensory features. All this is woven into the content of the Museum, inextricably.

I struggle with the view (some) architects have of architecture – which is just as well, since, at the end of the day, I am not an architect.


Yesterday evening I attended the opening of the free exhibition 1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces at the V&A, on until August 30. The exhibition features seven full scale installations of mini buildings at key points in the Museum: inside the newly opened Cast Courts gallery, inside the stairwell that leads to the National Art Library, in the John Madejski gardens, in the inside/outside space of the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries of which I have already posted a blog, outside the Architecture Galleries on the fourth floor, and in the entrance foyer.

I was quite happy to wonder away from the star studded champagne-drinking crowd. This was an exciting mix of architects, fashionistas, designers and creative professionals, cultural trendy characters – the V&A’s secret visitors, those whom you would not catch sight of in the middle of a Saturday afternoon looking lost and slightly overwhelmed… but who turn up at the glitzy events.

All the structures can be climbed into – although bare feet are required in some – they have restricted capacity, sometimes for only 6 people at one time, and the wooden bookshelf building by Norwegian architects Rintala Eggertsson on 3 floors is wobbly when you get to the top. Which makes for a slightly seasick reading experience, but a visually exciting and imaginative connection between the inside of the house and the see-through bookshelves through which you stare at the National Art Library. I peeked through the books while holding onto the real stairwell banister – and the quote was... appropriate:

A surreal moment.

I found the Beetle’s House by Japanese Architect Terunobu Fujimori an exciting intervention for it seems to tug at our heartstrings, and it reminded me of something I have never actually built or owned personally – a tree house, a primeval children’s adventure.

The outdoor Ratatosk by Norwegian Architects Helen and Hard was great for people watching, and struck me as very empathetic to the extraordinary red brick facades with their Victorian Gothic arches which surround it. (The snapshot of the yellow heel which opens this blog belonged to a lady who was picking her way carefully over the soft cushion platform made from wood and bark chips on which the structure sits.)

In terms of the politics of space - and I base this on my viewing of the drawings and visuals from all the entries which are on display in the Architecture Gallery on the 4th floor - I think the original competition may have asked architects to visualise their minibuilding in one of the premium spaces of the Cast Courts – next to the plaster cast of Michelangelo’s David. This statue, which stands at 17 feet tall (5.7m), was the first major cast in the Museum’s collection, and is one of my true loves - the first picture below shows it before the 1:1 installation.

The installation that has landed what I consider to be the prize spot is by Indian Architects Studio Mumbai. It takes inspiration from the so called unauthorized structures that exist in Mumbai, narrow slithers of buildings “basically sandwiched between the outside wall of a warehouse and the boundary wall of a property”. (The images below are from the audiovisual in the entrance foyer - and express the architectural inspiration.)

The location of the structure - called In Between Architecture - in the Cast Court seems to create an unexpected conversation between two opposing ideas of public space: that defined on the one hand as the grand, sun filled, open piazza in Renaissance Florence, and on the other by the circulation thoroughfares in Mumbai today, that run through private dwellings, in between spaces, drawing the light in from slits above. Private spaces that symbolise the pressures on public space. (This is a view from the inside of the structure looking up - a plaster cast of a real tree, an organic form absorbed within the concrete shape sits central to the building.)

David stands taller than the structure, seeming to contemplate it with a certain wariness – and the dialogue is electrifying.

If you're in London, go and see it. If not, the website is: http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/architecture/smallspaces/index.html

And... on a final note.

Walking past the V&A’s enormous halls in the evening, peering into the darkened galleries, contemplating the sleeping showcases and the objects inside them, quiet and still, is a beautiful, calming experience. I enjoyed this as much as the structures – and the other stunning architectural specimens which seem passé, redundant giants: the cast of Trajan’s Column for example, unceremoniously chopped into half to fit the void. What wonderful places museums are!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Highlights from a National Correspondent

Just back from a long week in Finland where I was attending the European Museum of the Year Award. This same event started me blogging about a year ago – so it is time for celebrations as an eventful year rolls around, and a thank you to followers of this blog who are so patient with its inconsistencies and randomnic posts.

Cheers! – or, as I learnt from my Estonian colleagues: terviseks, which stands for health and sex!

The event is a highlight of my professional year – and it was absolutely wonderful this year, full of exciting professionals and creative thinkers. Tampere is a small city, called the Manchester of the North for its textile industry. The industrial area founded by the Scotsman James Finlayson bears his name to this day and has been wonderfully readapted as a multifunctional cultural, cinema, restaurant, exhibition quarter. 210,000 people live in Tampere, and there are 100 museums (!!) including the only extant Lenin Museum in the world. As the Mayor of the City mentioned during an opening speech, Finland's rapid progress as a post industrial economy is founded on its profound respect for its industrial heritage, and its ability to transform them into new and inventive public places. The whole experience made for a certain self satisfied, mouth watering museum glut – for which I do not apologise.

I was overjoyed to be offered to become the UK National Correspondent for the European Museum Forum, the organisation that awards the prize annually. I walked into the Sara Hilden Modern Art Gallery in Tampere on Thursday night, a normal person – and came out two hours later honoured by the title. (The photograph above relates to a previous visit to the Gallery).

Talk about the transformative power of museums!

My role will be that of encouraging UK museums to apply for the award and generally make intelligent connections between them and the European museum network. So let’s hear it for diminished isolation of the British museum scene from our European counterparts! Terviseks!