#If You Lived Here…
How does a public museum respond to a world that is experiencing rapid change?
Where are museums currently placed in a world where global events, images and media are transmitted to us almost instantaneously.
What does the expected or traditional heritage experience offer within this context?
We live as networked individuals within a globally networked society. It is a society where we have the world’s knowledge in our pockets. Data and information are the key commodities.
We have never had so much individual technological power, we have never been so connected to knowledge, information and each other. Yet ironically, we live in a world that is increasingly divisive and reactionary. It is a world with evidenced and ever growing inequality and intolerance.
65.3 million people around the world are displaced. A displaced person is someone who has had to leave their home because of war, famine, poverty or environmental disaster. This is the largest displacement of people since World War II.*
Eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity **
In the parliamentary constituency where Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums is based - Newcastle upon Tyne Central - 38.2% of children are living in poverty after housing costs. that’s 8102 children living in households where income is less than 60% of the average.***
What are museums saying about this and what are we communicating to our audiences?
Social media can connect and bring people together but it can also create echo chambers and feedback loops. It can confirm bias, reinforce narrow world views and create division.
Where do our public museums position itself in this world?
The mission of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM), who I work for, is to enhance self respect and respect for others. It is also about helping people determine their place in the world.
What have people determined across the last decade?
What if…in a society of rapid change their place and world view is fixed? How do we challenge that?
A passive museum experience is no longer relevant. At TWAM, we work for a civic, public organisation designed to serve and work for the benefit of the society we live in.
We need to be constantly challenging ourselves and our audiences about what the purpose of a museum is in the 21st century.
The most important aspect our work is not the material culture of objects or our collections, it is language and how we use it. Language determines our place in the world.
In February this year we embarked upon a series of interventions at Discovery Museum that challenge the expected museum and heritage experience. They are not exhibitions in the traditional sense and intervention seemed the most appropriate description. Plainly speaking they are messages. They are messages that can be repeated and replicated in a number of ways.
The press release, tweet, facebook post are as much part of the project and message as the physical presentation within the museum — these things are not separate.
Our phones, tablets and computers and the information we receive through them do not live in a virtual world, they are real, they have mass and energy. They exist.
Three interventions have taken place so far this year. The first in response to a large demonstration that took place in Newcastle in January addressed racism and intolerance. The second — gender inequality and the third — global displacement — which also formed part of a wider programme within the museum and coincided with Armed Forces Day and Refugee Week in the UK. This particular programme which we called #IfYouLivedHere… included the temporary installation of a UNHCR shelter outside Discovery Museum, furnished with a basic core relief kit and dressed to illustrate basic living conditions.
Each intervention has developed as an iteration of the previous. An initial theme is proposed and framed around simple direct questions. Drafts are worked and redrafted collaboratively across staff. The main body of work goes into the message and the language used.
The design and production is delivered by me, as opposed to it being outsourced or produced by our internal design team. It happens very quickly and is inexpensive. The interventions utilise previously unused wall space within the main entrance atrium. They have a very prominent and visible location in the museum.
They take their cue and influence from European and British 20th century graphic design; the visual communication strategies of pioneers such as Jan Tschichold, Abram Games and the neoteric work of Peter Saville and The Designers Republic.
“The aim of every typographic work — the delivery of a message in the shortest, most efficient manner.”
“I wind the spring and the public, in looking at the design, will have that spring released in its mind.”
The first was conceived; designed and produced within 2 weeks, in response to sudden and unexpected global and local events, it was an experiment and from this a programme formed. It is unusual for large public museums to work in this way — it’s usually the preserve of artists, independant galleries or design agencies. Museums are institutions not known for their flexibility.
The response and impact on both staff and visitors has been notable.
“There was a distinct change in mood in staff after the first intervention, it felt like we were actually about something and making that clear to people. It felt radical and revolutionary.” TWAM staff
“It feels like we are standing up for what we believe in and actually challenging our visitors for once.” Discovery Museum staff
“An increase in empathy (for displaced peoples) would be of great impact” Visitor comment (#IfYouLivedHere…)
“…a shelter in front of a museum is good since a museum is for seeking knowledge.” Visitor comment (#IfYouLivedHere…)
“I strongly resent the publically funded Discovery Museum displaying political propaganda — respect Democracy” Social media comment (#NewcastleProtest)
These interventions are provocations and also clear statements about what we believe in. They present a challenge to our audiences to think for themselves.
They are rooted within the mission of the museum and guided by social justice and social equality. The three interventions so far have provided future opportunities and a new model of production in order to create powerful and meaningful engagements with visitors — they are responsive, quick, collaborative and creative.
The language is simple. These are not partisan messages, they are balanced but not passive — they demand an engagement from our audience — these are human issues and not unique to our time.
Is this a curatorial project? Outreach? Community engagement? Exhibition? Event? Intervention? Museum activism? Does it really matter what we call it?
It is simple iterative production and focused audience engagement from a public museum.
*UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) 2015