Exhibition Notes: Nottingham

At the weekend I paid a visit to the Nottingham Contemporary.  Now I’m not Nottingham’s biggest fan, I think it’s a bit of a dull soulless city (sorry to anybody who lives in Nottingham).  If I had to describe it as a colour I think it would be grey.

I think my biggest beef with it, is that it contains my beau in a state of landlocked despair (he likes the seaside and windsurfing – Nottingham has neither). This, I add, is not Nottingham’s fault.  But it does taint my view somewhat.  However there are a few things that Nottingham has done which has sparked a bit of technocolour into it.

Firstly, the caves of Nottingham (brilliant place – you can read my blog post about it here); secondly The Park with its gas street lamps, impressive architecture and Tunnel; thirdly the Anish Kapoor Sky Mirror installation which is hidden down a side street; fourthly the Bodega Social Club (an excellent music venue where I got to hear the Detroit Social Club last week (Good Northern lads, one who has an awesome voice, and quite possibly the bestest drummer I have heard live) and finally the Nottingham Contemporary (my initial response is it’s a bit pretentious but has an excellent shop).  I think I will have to go see more exhibitions at the Contemporary before I make a more informed opinion.  To be honest, I think most modern art is a bit pretentious, and actually that’s what I kind of like about it.  That it is slightly inaccessible, and it makes you question it, and then yourself for trying to like it.

In attempt to understand some of the pieces on display, I picked up the exhibition notes.  They had a hand with butterflies on the tips of the fingers on the front cover, it’s hard not to pick it up when you are faced with a hand of butterflies.

Two things really stood out for me in the Notes –

Anne Collier stating she was interested in “how photography is employed in relation with everyday objects…can absorb – and illuminate our own narratives.”


Jack Goldstein stating “Technology does everything for us, so that we no longer have to function in terms of experience.  We function in terms of aesthetics.”

Both of these things are integral to my PhD. How digital objects, such as photography, or other ways of visualising objects (in the case of my PhD museum objects) can illuminate narratives and how this affects our experiences of things.  And if technology is supposedly doing everything for us, how important is that experience? Is it negated because we as individuals no longer have to function that way, does is all come down to aesthetics? Do we lose the experience of the object and focus on the technology?

I didn’t really think that at this stage, or at a visit to a contemporary art gallery in Nottingham on a Saturday afternoon, I would find myself leaning towards Walter Benjamin and his ideas on Art in an age of Mechanical Reproduction, yet here we are.

So yes, it’s official, I have PhD brain.  I don’t think I will be able to go anywhere cultural again without wittering on about sensemaking, user experience and digital reproductions.  Sorry!

disillusioned, disappointed and empty.

I am not a one for protest, I much prefer writing letters and speaking to people to get my point of view across. Because for me, protests don’t work due to the sensationalism of the media, and the violent actions of a few, the message gets lost. The media report what they want to report, twisting and turning the truth, hanging on points that aren’t particularly accurate or at all relevant. And in some instances not reporting what is really going on.

I am disillusioned, disappointed and left empty from political parties that care more about their political standing then the society they are supposed to represent. From the Media who care more about the fact that a royal armoured car was attacked, then the kettling tactics of the police on Westminster bridge till late on in the evening or the mounted police charging at crowds.

The majority of students who attended the protests were well ordered, polite, witty, (check out @UCLOccupation’s ConDem 12 Days of Christmas– it’s excellent) and well educated, particularly the ones which started their peaceful if not a little loud protest, right outside my office yesterday lunchtime. It was a proportionate response to government actions, a model for the exercise of freedom of speech in a supposed political democracy.

Now I don’t believe that there shouldn’t be fees; I don’t particularly have a problem with students contributing to their education, not to the extent to which is now expected however. I was lucky enough to not have to pay top up fees or soon to be just ‘fees’ to go to university. I still did have to pay to be educated at a good university, took out a loan, and now a significant proportion of my wage goes to the Student Loans Company, every month, for what is likely to be the next 30 years.

What I don’t agree with is this (something which the media doesn’t seem to remember very often): that increased fees will not complement Government funding for teaching, but substitute for it. Withdrawing funding from universities for providing undergraduate education, except in some instances for STEM subjects, (science, clinical and laboratory) and certain modern languages subjects. Apparently culture, arts and humanities don’t deserve support from the public purse. So for most subjects the student fee becomes the only source of funding, rather than a ‘top up’ contributory source. This represents the final transformation of our education system into a commercial venture. I do not wish to be a commodity.

So yes, I am left disillusioned, disappointed and empty.

However, I was very impressed with the UCL Occupation. They utilised social media amazingly. Taking tools which have classed the Google generation as mediocore, distracted, apathetic and unable to think critically and have used them to their advantage. UCL Occupation has over 4000 followers on Twitter, utilise flickr, vimeo and youTube and yesterday they used a Google live map of police activity and reported the whole protest live. Even the bits that the traditional media chose not to.

They give hope to what is a bleak future for education.

Is life over as we know it?

I love my life.  I love my job. I love working at one of the top universities, in an amazing discipline.  I love what I do.  I have worked hard to get here. Some people think I am too young to be at this stage in my career, but I have worked my socks off to get where I am today.  I have always known what I wanted to do, there has always been a plan A.  People yesterday during the aftermath of the CSR were joking about what their plan B was going to be when Plan A gets slashed by the coalition government. But what if you don’t have a plan B? I have always wanted to do what I am doing now; I don’t have a plan B. At best I have two plan A’s. Both involve museums and learning and digital technology.

What was announced yesterday is frightening; people say it could have been much much worse. I’m sure it could have been.  Regardless what has been announced is going to change our society and culture significantly. Especially if you work, in fact work doesn’t cover it, if you love higher education and the cultural sector.

Government funding for higher education is to be cut by 40 per cent over four years, with strong indications that public funding for teaching in the arts, humanities and social sciences may come to an end. The Comprehensive Spending Review unveiled yesterday a reduction in the higher education budget from £7.1 billion to £4.2 billion – by 2014-15. Science and other STEM subjects are safe.  However, no mention is made of other subjects.  Following from the CSR live in the Willetts’ press briefing the minister was asked whether funding for arts would be cut. He didn’t answer. That makes me sick to my stomach.

Not only that; but culture is being slashed.  It’s all well and good that parliament cheer when the statement was made that National Museums will remain free. I am thankful for that. But there are only a handfull of national museums and hundreds of non national museums and galleries around the country. What about them?  Arts funding is being cut by almost 30% and what about the local authority museums? It is looking increasingly grim.

So much for my plan A’s.

I am not concerned about my short term future, I am lucky that I have a safe and secure cocoon of a 3yr PhD studentship to go into. What I am concerned about, is what will have happened when I emerge from that cocoon. What will the state of cultural heritage be? Will arts and humanities in higher education still exist? If it does will it just be an elitist endeavour for those privileged enough to attend?  I am worried about people who are ten years younger than me, who love history, museums and heritage.  What is to become of them? What is this government indicating to them? That it’s a pointless endeavour? That cultural heritage and arts and humanities don’t matter? What is to become of our museums? Of our heritage? Our cultural pursuits?  Is life over as we know it?

Also I am worried for the people who are just coming out of the cocoon of PhD’s what is to happen to them? If you haven’t read Matt Hayler’s harrowing account of his fears, you should. It puts a chill down your spine.

the zoo, digital identity, and a logo

Yesterday I read a interesting post over on Leoville entitled Buzz kill, it discussed the idea that social media doesn’t really matter, and people don’t notice if it not working. It’s an interesting post and well worth a read.  But after that I didn’t really think much about it. Until I logged into gmail this morning, and it came up with a warning about what would happen if you lost all your emails! Disaster.  It can’t be a coincidence that in the space of 24hours I’ve been given signs that the social media and electronic mail apocalypse is nigh. Yes I doubt it too…

But it got me thinking, social media and emails are the background to my life. It’s how I transmit and receive information, it’s where I converse and network, it’s where I learn and engage.  But what would happen if I was without it?  Would I use the phone more? Would I write more? Would I actually talk to real people in the street? Rather than hiding behind a laptop or iphone? Well to be honest I would probably be out of a job. Researching social media and cultural heritage is going to be quite hard if a substantial part of the research no longer exists.

It’s also quite interesting that many people in my life I either know digitally or in ‘reality’ there’s only a few that overlap into both.  For the lucky devils who get me in both, they have me in suroundsound, pretty much 24hours a day.  And I’m there or thereabouts the same person online as I am off, so if you know me in only one world, then don’t worry you’re not missing too much of my personality. But what you are missing is the content.

So in an attempt to have some record on what on earth I have been up to in the world of social media just in case the end is nigh…

Zoo Lates

Every Friday in August, ZSL London Zoo keeps, its doors open late so visitors can take an after-dark potter about the grounds, meeting its various creatures.  The first thing you notice is how excited everyone is. Visiting places that are normally exclusively daytime activities is brilliant.  The success of Museums at Night shows how many people are fascinated to explore at night.   I was very excited, as I get about most things, animals in particular.  What was great was that so was everyone else!  There was an air of exuberance and excitement, giving visitors a very different experience of the attraction. At every corner there were hyper adults with cameras snapping, pointing excitedly at giraffes and penguins and getting giddy about face painting.

Later in the evening the silent disco really got going, arms weaving and mouths singing along to a beat only they could hear, until everyone started singing along to YMCA and Bon Jovi, disco classics to be sure. The event was great fun, and I’d definitely recommend it, although you need to go see the animals you really want to see first, because once it gets dark you can see diddlysquat. Trying your hand at balancing like a monkey in the dark could have potentially disastrous consequences.

Digital Identity

Following on from a post by the Web Innovation Project at Exeter Uni about identity, social media and university which suggests that multiple personas are a good idea.  A discussion ensued on Twitter as whether or not this was a good thing.  Apparently there’s a gender question attached to it: having one digital and physical identity merged together is a very female view, whereas lots of men like to separate work & home life.

Decoding Digital Humanities snazzy new logo

The very talented Rudolf has designed a fantastic rubix cube logo for the DDH meeting that myself and my colleague Kathryn have set up.  It’s a monthly get together to discuss all things digital humanities, in the pub. What’s not to like? And now we have a brilliant logo!

HASTAC Scholars Program

HASTAC stands for Humanites, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory. It is a network of individuals and institutions inspired by the possibilities that new technologies offer us for shaping how we learn, teach, communicate, create, and organize our local and global communities.  My particular research interest is in user experience in digital cultural contexts. I am fascinated by the nature of participation and engagement possibilities provided by digital spaces and social media and whether online interactions with cultural content provide engaging experiences for users, supporting inquiry and meaning making. HASTAC sounds just up my street.

The more I delve into academia the more the concept of academic reputation keeps coming up.  Interesting questions have been raised about the nature of scholarly activity and academic reputation, the factors that have traditionally lead to recognition and promotion and whether or not these are changing in an increasingly socially networked world.

In the past I asked if blogging was damaging my academic career as on the whole it seems that using web 2.0 tools to disseminate your work and to create a dialogue are frowned upon, and my research indicates that the majority of academics never ever use social media.  I posed the question “ Does that mean, because I have this blog, I contribute on the Centre’s blog, and my tweeting habits are actually detrimental to my academic career??”

I never believed that to be the case, but it was a question that had to be raised, as there are some strong traditionalists settled in their ivory towers quoting the mantra of “publish or perish”  and “peer review”.  The web is changing this view dramatically.  Academic culture is being transformed to a more open, inclusive and accessible environment, where sharing and dialogue are commonplace.  Right now Digital Humanities is a very exciting place to be.

So I am very excited to announce that I  have been nominated and selected for the HASTAC Scholars Program.  I’ll be part of a really vibrant and more importantly digital academic community, which already has more than 145 scholars from around the world who will share their adventures in digital academia through blog posts, tweets, forums and other online resources.  Both myself and the lovely Ernesto Priego will be University College London’s representatives this year.

HASTAC believe that digital spaces provide huge opportunities for informal and formal learning and for collaborative, networked research that extends across traditional disciplines, across the boundaries of academia  and community; across the two disciplines of humanities and technology; across online and offline…  It is a fantastic opportunity and a privilege to be part of it.  I can’t wait to add my research into the pot and see what people make of it.

(image taken from the HASTAC About page)

‘I Don’t Know Much About Art But I Know What’s Online’: a quick and angry rant

This article on Read Write Web made me mad.
It starts wit the obvious:

“No one can have a “museum experience” without stepping foot in a museum. Let’s just get that out of the way. It doesn’t matter how digitally precise your online version of “The Forge of Vulcan” is, tilting your head to draw the light across the raised ridges of paint is not an electronically duplicable experience. That doesn’t mean digital art collections don’t have great value. After all, art books do.”

And ends with:

“No Stand Outs The collections of museums are making their way online, if for no other reason than they serve as a kind of advertisement. I have yet, however, to come across an outfit, small or large, whose goal was to make their entire collection, or even a substantial majority of it, available online. The few that tried did not hit the trifecta of navigational ease, resolution and information that would make it the most useful.”

This makes me angry. So many people access interesting tit bits of information every day form Read Write Web. Yet you would have thought they would do their homework. Undoubtedly you cannot fully replicate a real object in a digital space Walter Benjamin told us that in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. And the idea of trifecta is kinda cool. But My work revolves around understanding what users think of online museum collections, why museums use them, their purpose their usability and god damn it, not one person I have interviewed, observed, surveyed and stalked ever suggested that an museum online collection was an ‘advertisment’ and there are several museums whose goal is to make their entire collection available online. The British Museum is one of them, and I quote:

When complete the database will contain a record of every object in the Museum collection, with associated conservation and scientific reports where available…. The information in the records is made available in its entirety. … The database is the result of 30 years work but is still in its early stages. We are continuing every day to improve the information recorded in it and changes are being fed through on a regular basis. In many cases it does not yet represent the best available knowledge about the objects. This is being added as fast as possible, but will take many years.

If that is not a goal to make the entire collection available then I don’t know what is.

The article doesn’t point out how time consuming and not to mention expensive digitising museum collections is, and in this day and age of ongoing government cuts, its not going to get any easier to digitise. Also seriously museum collections are VAST, digitising every object can take years. Museum online collections are utilised every single day for digital resources which cannot be accessed anywhere else. It is discouraging that the article didn’t mention, all the ongoing research into information seeking and usability of museum websites, that it did not quote that much is being done by researchers and conferences like Museums and the Web to dispel the generalised myth that museum websites are a bit crap. They are not. End of. Maybe I am bias, but I don’t care. I love museum websites for what they have to offer, not just as digital museum researcher but also as a museum lover. The wealth and depth of what is available is outstanding, they are extensive, informative and most importantly enjoyable. Rant off.

Moore, Coral Reefs and Cardboard Robots: My first visit to Tate Britain

On Friday evening I went to the Tate Britain for the first time, many thanks to Anne and her magical members card.

We went specifically to see the Henry Moore exhibition, well Anne did, I kinda just went along for the ride, I pretend to no nothing about art. I love museums, but I find art galleries a bit of a mystery. Particularly when they are filled with modern art. However, I was incredibly glad I did go. I had heard of Henry Moore, I was even able to recognise some of his work before visiting the exhibition, but I didn’t know anything about the man, or why he went into sculpture or just how much he actually did. The first thing that struck me was just how many different sculptures Moore created. There were hundreds in the exhibition, all different shapes, sizes and materials. The longer you look, the stranger they become. A lot of what Moore’s sculptures had an almost feminine (albeit abstract) feel to them, also a lot of the sculptures were influenced by early non-western cultures particularly Mexico. It was interesting to find out that he took a lot of his inspiration from the British Museum collections.

I entered the exhibition with an open mind, and was really enjoying looking at the strange shapes and pondering whether or not he had a bit of a Oedipus complex… to many abstract mothers and babies than I am comfortable with, can you say mother fixation about one of Britain’s best artists? The sculptures are extremely beautiful and Moore’s ability to create smooth shapes out of stone is outstanding, shapes that just cry out to be touched. But then you get into the war time and post war rooms and it becomes very strange, there are dismembered bodies, sharp edges, darkeness and uncomfortable shapes. I can appreciate his experimental nature and that art should provoke an emotion, but the sculptures in these rooms left me feeling cold and awkward.

What I did enjoy was going around with Anne; because Anne is incredibly creative, she takes art in her stride and it was brilliant talking to her about the pieces and what they meant, in some instances what on earth they were. I particularly enjoyed describing a section of the sculptures as walrus basking in the sun. Look at me being an art critic.

After Moore, we went to the Mike Nelson’s Coral Reef. This freaked me out no end. Rooms, doors, passageways, all with traces of habitation, abandonment and decay. This left me feeling very on edge. I did not enjoy the experience at all, as I hate the idea of not knowing what’s behind a door, and that anything can jump out at me. I was not good in fun houses or ghost trains as a child. I have too much of an overactive imagination. It was fascinating to go through, but I don’t think I took very much of it in, acting like a big scaredy cat on a Friday night… in an art gallery is not cool.

We then went to see some Pre Raphaelites. And I was happy and peaceful and serene. This is the type art that I enjoy. Regardless of some of the uncomfortable art, I really enjoyed my visit and certainly will be going again.  It was also great going to Tate Lates, it was a fantastic atmosphere filled with some interesting and loud live performances and music, and some random cardboard shaped robot dressed people – I dont quite know why, but hey.

What I sadly admit to is, despite being a museums geek and a culture vulture I haven’t been to as many awesome museums and galleries as I would like to. This is going to change, and I am going to make a real effort to go to a variety of museums, ones that have been on my list for ages but I have never had time to visit, rather than going again and again to my old favourites.

The Decline of the British Butterfly

I have a fascination with most things, for as long as I can remember I have been interested in things. All sorts of things. When I was growing up that particularly focused on history, geography, museums of all shapes and sizes and natural history. I used to be able to recite and identify any dinosaur, bird, or constellation put in front of me, my knowledge of these things hasnt remained fully intact but I’m proud of the fact that once knew these kind of things. It’s interesting, now that I work in the digital humanities discipline with its feet firmly planted in both the science and humanities camps, I can see more and more why I fit in here. I was a mishmash of a child fascinated by everything and anything. I tried specialising in pure humanities, but I never felt totally comfortable, and I always enjoyed science, particularly as a little person, but never felt confident of my ability to understand it completely. Now, being able to work in both camps is brilliant, it opens up perspectives to things that I didn’t have the opportunity to consider when I was solely a humanist.

What’s this got to do with the decline of the British butterfly?

One summer, when I was about 10 I think, I became obsessed with butterflies, catching them and identifying them and attempting to understand the patterns on their wings. So I was particularly interested in an article I came across randomly in an old magazine in the local hairdressers. It was an interview with David Bellamy and he was enthusing about butterflies.
I tried to find the article online so I could link to it, but of course it’s in the Times Science Magazine, so the Eureka archive is trapped behind the paywall. Fail.

The article spoke about people’s favouritism of bees over butterflies due to their economic importance, and that everyone is aware of the decline of bees whereas no one is really that bothered about the significant decline of the butterfly. Are bees and butterflies polar opposites; bees are disciplined and industrious whereas butterflies are ‘creatures selected as the types of airiness and frivolity’ as Henry Walter Bates the 19th century naturalist, discoverer of mimicry and all round cool dude stated.

I find naturalists and antiquarians fascinating, because they are so inquisitive and engaged in their subject of choice, and they collect lots and lots of things. Walter Bates felt that butterflies would become one of the most important aspects of biological science, according to this article. This time is now.

In all ecosystems there are some organisms that are more sensitive to change than others: for example at Geevor due to all the mine drainage pollution there is a mosaic of natural and man-made habitats that has led to a colourful post-mining environment. There are a wide variety of weird and wonderful Lichens, which are a brilliant early warning indicator of pollution. But lets be honest if they disappeared normal people wouldn’t be that bothered. But what about the butterflies? What shocked me was that the article highlighted the 97% loss of mature grass meadows since the 1930s, that’s insane, and that has lead to more than three quarters of the 54 butterfly species resident in Britain to have declined in the past 20 years . The Guardian highlights the 12most threatened species.

However all is not lost! Butterfly world is here! The 27 acre site is designed in the shape of a giant butterfly’s head, with a 100m Biome (to be completed in autumn 2011) as its geodesic eye. Its like the Eden project for butterflies and its off the M25! Awesome.

I’m planning a trip to release my inner child naturalist.

The aftermath.

The past 48hours have been quite something.

You may or may not have noticed the large amount of press coverage about a certain Mr Murdoch, involving opinions on creativity, culture, humanities, digital content and in particular the British Library; that were flying around online today. I don’t think a bunch of overly tired, yet still buzzing digital humanists have been so excited in a confined space with flower pot muffins before. (some coverage can be found here, here, here, here, and here and many many more places)

Why? Well…  We officially launched the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities yesterday evening! Hooray!  James Murdoch, Chairman and CEO of News Corporation, the guest speaker gave a really interesting speech with some strong opinions (you can read the full text of the speech here).

It’s going to be really interesting to hear the alternate view of what James Murdoch spoke about.  There are a lot of strong opinions flying around, particularly with regards to cultural heritage institutions and electronic publishers and digital humanists.  I have yet to get my brain in gear about my thoughts on what James was suggesting.  It will be very interesting to hear the responses from others, particularly those championing freely available digital content .  ucldh are seeing what we can do to facilitate that response. watch this space. If you want to respond do let us know.

For me though, it wasn’t the speech that was the highlight of the launch, for one, I didn’t actually get to see James speak. I was running (well walking quickly whilst trying to maintain an air of decorum –most likely failing) with a clip board and an iphone trying to make sure everything went smoothly. Yes, I can now add, major event planning to my repertoire. No, this isn’t my job. For the past month as well as working on three research projects I have been juggling quite possibly the biggest (I don’t think I have ever seen as much bottles of champagne in my life) event I have ever been a part of. Crazy. Myself and my colleague Simon took up the organisation  of the launch after another colleague had to take leave unexpectantly. I don’t think we really knew what we were letting ourselves in for. I’ve organised conferences before, but nothing like this! We have been so busy, I think I have forgotten what hot tea tastes like as I never had time to drink it. But it all came to a head this week. Its been stressful, but brilliant. Yesterday involved so much running around, phone calls, emails, sticky wotsits, logos and name badges.  During the day, what could go wrong did go wrong. Thank goodness for  iphones – they were our life saver yesterday, also my ability to memorise securities multiple phone numbers (my number memory response is now at all time high). But the event itself was a triumph! (i hope)  we may have been paddling furiously under the water, but on top we had the elegance of a swan! It was the people who came to the event, the people who helped, the people who gave us their time and energy, and most importantly the people who gave their smiles yesterday, that was the highlight for me.  I cannot thank enough all the people who helped on the night, and on the run up. We couldn’t have done it without you!

I have also seen so much more of UCL than I ever thought possible, a special lift in the library and the roof! Oh my the roof is amazing! ( I took some pictures from the roof with a very cool app called Hipstamatic, I will post them as soon as I find the usb cable).  I must also add that none of this would of been possible without the genius of Claire Warwick and Melissa Terras, they are quite simply amazing.

But that was only the first event. Oh yes. Two events, makes Claire a very dazed girl. Today saw the Time Trust and Authority: is web 2.0 the tool for you? event, which I have been working on with Anne and John. I fear I let the side down on this, I was a incoherent mess after all the running around at the launch yesterday. But nevertheless a brilliant day! I learnt some really cool stuff, UCL is really flying the flag for social media content and distribution, with some interesting research projects and technologies already in place.  Utilising social media in an education institution is always frought with difficultly with questions about trust and authority not to mention copyright and ownership of content. Despite this, UCL is doing some brilliant work; creating digital content, encouraging discussions and collaborations and broadening audiences for our research and teaching (possibly a controversial thing after the launch speech).

There is likely to be many more posts about the past 48hours to come. But right now I am going to have a sleep. Drained is not appropriate for this. Drained but happy.