Friday, 1 August 2008

Green Drops and Moonsquirters: welcome to the world of the under 7's

'Green Drops and Moonsquirters; the utterly imaginative world of Lauren Child' opened at the Manchester Art Gallery in June.

Lauren Child is an artist best know for children's illustrations and books. Anyone who keeps pace with popular culture in the world of preschoolers will know that one of Lauren's creations; Charlie and Lola, have been a runaway success. Other characters include the lovable Pesky Rat and Clarice Bean. Lauren's career started by painting spots for Damien Hurst until her own books and artwork took off enough to support her.

Green Drops and Moonsquirters is not just a gallery exhibition for children; it's truly for families. Whatever your age, you just can't help yourself but play in this environment. Collaborative play is a key success of this exhibition and it is truly an excellent example of family learning at its best. It's accessible approach has created a friendly welcoming environment where there are no questions in your head like 'Am I allowed to touch this?', 'Is it ok to talk in here?'.

It is obvious that the exhibition designers have invested time in understanding their audience and developed a coherent and relevant theme. The result is a memorable, immersive and inspiring learning environment for family visitors. It's a rare occasion when a heritage venue gets all the ingredients for the perfect visitor experience in place but Green Drops and Moonsquirters is a definite contender.

The venue as a whole has excellent family friendly facilities and a welcoming tone to its literature. Events accompanying the exhibition include 'I absolutely MUST do dancing now' and 'I really do extremely like sticking things'. Manchester Art Gallery have their audience pegged without sounding patronising or dull. It offers a complete visitor experience including a cafe where you can actually sample the pink milk, green drops and moonsquirters consumed by your favourite characters. And of course there's the opportunity to complete the visit by buying one of Lauren's books in the gift shop.

I think this gem of an exhibition should be on everyone's 'to-do' list this summer.

Also check out 'Neverland: Rediscovering child art' at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. A family focussed exhibition that aims to stimulate the minds of art loving parents as well as their children.

Seen anything family friendly recently?

A few useful links:

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Guerrilla art

Last weekend I visited the Hayward Gallery on London's Southbank to see its latest offering; Psycho Buildings. The exhibition explores the complexities of architecture through the work of contemporary artists.

One of the installations is by the well practised guerrilla artists; Gelitin. For those not familiar with the concept, guerrilla art in a nutshell is unexpected art in unexpected places. Also know as street art, it is often unauthorised and often gives a new perspective on a place, event or collective feeling.

Gelitin is an Austrian artists' collective and their work at the Hayward (rather formally called 'Normally, Proceeding and Unrestricted With Without Title') is actually a playful attempt to change the architecture of the Hayward itself. The artists actually flooded one of the outdoor galleries with 90cm of water to create a boating lake - I can think of more than a few museum building managers who would have a coronary just thinking about this! Visitors can launch off from a pontoon and paddle around in boats all made by the artists from scrap - an old chair leg here, a curtain pole there...

Other artworks by Gelitin have included The B-Thing (an improvised and highly illegal balcony on the 91st floor of the World Trade Centre) and Rabbit (a giant rabbit sculpture in the Italian landscape).

Phycho Buildings probes our relationship with architecture and this was especially evident with the artworks that visitors can interact with. Being able to become part of the artwork seemed to bring a whole new richness to the experience.

My only criticism of the exhibition is its interpretation. The gallery provides visitors with a hard to navigate leaflet (which even had a whole in the middle for no apparent reason - am I missing something?) filled with art jargon; incomprehensible to the non art buff. Why is this complex shroud of words needed - why can't it just be plain English? The concepts were perfectly easy to grasp once you had navigated your way through the jungle of their words - why make it harder than it needs to be. The leaflet certainly wouldn't win a Crystal Mark for plain English!

On our way home from the Gallery we stumbled across some more guerrilla art. An group of artists making a giant sculpture of a sleeping dragon and some furniture in the sand of one of the beaches on the Thames. Again, the viewing public were invited to participate by lounging on the sand couch or even picking up a trowel and helping mould the sculpture.

Other subsections of the guerrilla movement include guerrilla gardening (illicit cultivation, often in the dead of night on neglected corners of our isle - see the Parliament Garden) and guerrilla marketing (check out the Smart car vending machine, Amnesty International's portable cell and Ikea's cardboard apartment).

Monday, 23 June 2008

Do you know your grinding from your zerging?

Well don't panic if not, it shouldn't stop your museum or organisation joining the games revolution.

The China in Yorkshire project dipped a toe into the world of gaming recently when it developed a new addition to its the regional museums learning website; My Learning. Yong's China Quest follows the young disciple Yong on his journey to enlightenment in 500BCE.

Like all good platform games, he has to collect items, skills and knowledge along the way. Some of the eccentric characters in the game share their wisdom (if not somewhat grudgingly) whilst you muse at the quirky puzzles and admire the beautiful artwork of the game. But it's the items that Yong collects that will draw the attention of the museum fraternity - Leeds Museums and Galleries, Museums Sheffield, the Thackray Medical Museum and the National Railway Museum have all 'virtually' loaned objects to the game. Gamers can explore items from Beijing Olympic mascots to ivory figurines, dragon robes and even fight with authentic swords.

Computer games are seriously big business

In 2004 the UK computer and video game industry recorded sales in excess of £2 billion (According to the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association or ELSPA). We have the third largest games market in the world, only after the US and Japan. In short, as a nation, we looooove computer games.

So China in Yorkshire may have been very canny in tapping into this huge and eager market. Only time will tell if this new venture will open up new audiences for the museums involved and engage young visitors more deeply with their objects.

Play Yong's China Quest for yourself.

Hungry for more? Yong's adventure joins a host of other museum and heritage games already out there. You could also try:
  • You could also try My Culture Quest where you travel the world collecting objects, developing themes and finally curate your own exhibition (we all know this isn't as simple as it sounds!). Created by Weston Park Museum
  • The slightly addictive Penguins in Peril from the Natural History Museum - I just can't bear any penguins getting lost
  • Being a Librarian has never been so noisy and stressful as in Nanw's Great Adventure - see how far you can get
  • The National Archives try at gaming is truly harrowing as you act as a messenger in WW2 Trench Mission - don't play this one if you are scared of rats. It was all too much responsibility for me
  • There are yet more rats in the highly amusing (if a little unimaginatively named...) Church Game by English Heritage which puts you in the shoes of a restoration builder battling against graffiti, leaking roofs and broken windows - how very realistic. Not to be missed!
  • The National Museums Scotland Egyptian Tomb Adventure brings archaeology bang up to date
  • But my all time favourite and recommendation for Friday afternoon in the office entertainment has to be RoboPoop - yes this is a game about poop from the brave people at Scottish Water. Billed as science in the sewers, you are tasked with blasting away the items blocking the sewers
Will modern gaming help us to engage with new audiences in the future? Leave your comment.

Still unsure when to grind and zerg?

Thursday, 19 June 2008

New audiences; new threads of interpretation

Last weekend saw the opening of an exciting new exhibition at Bradford One Gallery; My World My Things. This was a cutting edge costume exhibition with a difference; it's an extension of the audience's wardrobe.

This is one of the projects that I assist in my role as Renaissance Yorkshire Community History Partnership Coordinator (what a mouthful!!).

For the past year, Bradford Museums and Galleries, Mojo Media and the Yorkshire Film Archive have been working together with a group of young people. The project recruited this often ‘hard to reach’ audience through an advertising campaign, a My Space site and open auditions campaign.

Each of the five enigmatic and captivating young participants chosen went out shopping with the film maker to purchase their own outfits. The Curator then matched their outfits with historical pieces from the costume collection and added some 'light touch' interpretation (which included quotes from the participants and famous fashion gurus). Historical and contemporary are juxtaposed side-by-side in an exhibition; along with the short films showing the young people's experiences.

I think that the project has successfully captured snapshots of youth culture and fashion in Bradford. Another key feature of the project is that it's not just a 'one-off'. Bradford Museums and Galleries are using the project to inform their collecting policy and duplicates of the young people's outfits have gone into the costume collections.

I must admit that I was quite nervous when picking my outfit for the opening; after all, what does one wear to a fashion exhibition? My resulting outfit was very 'Lucinda' (from the Apprentice) according to my husband, minus the beret (note to self, buy beret at nearest possible opportunity).

This self reflection only reflects how the exhibition makes the visitor think again about their relationship with their own clothes and what they say about them.

The exhibition is running until 31st August so there's still time to catch it.

If you liked this, you might also like... the Vivienne Westwood exhibition at Sheffield Millennium Galleries.

I am keen to hear about other projects that have used social networking sites like My Space to engage with their audience...

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Let's go hunting for big, fat, old trees

This week I am very excited because I am planning a new series of workshops. I have been asked by the Woodland Trust to run training sessions for teachers and group leaders about the Ancient Tree Hunt project.
I always love the planning bit because I know that delivering these workshops is going to be so much fun! I ran workshops for the fantastic Nature Detectives programme in 2006 which were a huge success and we had over 100 delegates.

There's lots of great free resources on the website and all the lesson plans are linked to the new Key Stage 3 curriculum which launches in September. The aim of the project is to get thousands of people finding and mapping all the fat, old trees across the UK. It is right at the heart of the Woodland Trust’s ancient tree conservation work.

What are ancient trees?

In the words of the Woodland Trust, they are the ones that make you go 'wow'! They are living relics, support a multitude of wildlife and are part of our heritage. Officially, ancient trees are four 'hugs' or more wide (yes a hug is just what it sounds like).

What's the link between the Hunt and interpretation?

One great thing about the Ancient Tree Hunt is that the clever people at the Woodland Trust are empowering ordinary people to record their own memories and feelings about trees that are special to them. On the project website, you can record the location of ancient trees but you can also record other 'notable' trees that have other stories attached to them. You can even upload photos of you hugging your tree and blog entries about it. The Hunt is helping to actively engage the public in their natural heritage and building their own personal meanings and interpretations of it.

So now my search is on for the perfect venues across England and Wales; they need to have lots of trees and at least a couple of really old ones, a nice indoor room and a friendly welcome. Ashridge Estate (National Trust) in Hertfordshire is the first confirmed venue with more to come soon.

Is there an ancient tree near you?

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Poison in the garden...

Murder, intrigue and an intoxifying mix of interpretation at Alnwick Gardens

I recently made a long awaited visit to Alnwick Garden in Northumberland. First stop on arrival was the Poison Garden. The Garden is only accessible by guided tour which was immediatly a challenge for me because I am a weak auditory learner. However our guide held our attention by weaving the stories of the plants into the everyday experiences of his audience, asking questions and including his own funny anecdotes. He used a microphone and waist slung speaker to make sure his voice was heard by the whole of our group.

Many of the plants tread a fine line between 'kill' and 'cure'. For example, I learnt that the familiar deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is not only steeped in legend and folklore but was used by Venetian ladies as an eye drop to enlarge the pupil (giving an excited look). This is how it got its name 'belladonna' or beautiful lady. However, if indested all parts of the plant can be deadly poisonous.

Our tour lasted approximately 30 minutes (although we were told it would be 15 minutes on entrance). It was well paced, entertaining and memorable. My only improvement would be for the tour guide to have a few selected props to enrich his patter further.

The whole experience is enriched by a well designed and illustrated take-home guide to the Poison Garden. This guides you through the garden plant by plant, giving a run down of their uses and abuses.

There is also an wonderful children's fiction book called 'The Poison Diaries' set in Alnwick Gardens. It is the diary of 'Weed', an unconventional boy hero. The book is brimming with enchanting illustrations by Colin Stimpson. The book is published by Anova Books.
Poison, intrigue and murder - what great topics for interpretation to hook the audiences attention from the start. Do you have any examples of terrific topics and themes?

Monday, 2 June 2008

Beginning at the start

The aim of this blog is to air views, highlight good practice in interpretation, discuss issues and share news.

My job takes me around the country and further afield to help my clients. Along the way I encounter a lot of interpretation;

the good,

the bad

and the downright ugly!

But thankfully there is plenty of wonderful interpretation of our heritage out there (some of it produced by readers of this blog). I hope that this blog will be as interactive as possible! Please leave your own views, comments and resource, interpretation and website recommendations for others to see.