Monday, 16 November 2015

Notes from Irish Museums Association 'Creative Museum' Event - 23rd October 2015

I was very pleased to be invited by the Irish Museums Association (IMA) to present my work on the Dancing in Museums project at their 'Creative Museum' Event in Belfast on the 23rd October 2015.

I took a few notes during the day which I've tidied up a bit and am sharing here as part of my ongoing research around ways of using dance in museum contexts:

Brian Crowley (Chair, IMA and Curator, Pearse Museum) introduced the conference by talking about how museums might approach opportunities to work in partnerships with artists. Brian encouraged museum representatives to say yes, to try different things, to try things that they had never tried before.

Dr Victoria Durrer (Lecturer, School of Creative Arts, Queen's University Belfast) talked about the
of artists and museums working together

Dr Emily Mark Fitzgerald (Lecturer, School of Art History and Public Policy, Queen's University Belfast) described the way in which museum/artist collaborations might:
expand creative practice
cultivate new engagements with artefacts and historical institutions
transform the way in which collections are seen

She talked about the way in which engagement of audiences and visitor participation became central in museums in the 1980s and 1990s instead of a marginal concern. She described the way in which collaboration between artists and museums could produce powerful “disruptions” in museum spaces (but in a constructive way), new forms of attention and new forms of public experience.

Professor Pedro Rebelo (a sound artist and composer; Director of Research, School of Creative Arts and Sonic Research Centre, Queen's University Belfast) introduced his Som da Maré project. He particularly highlighted the participatory strategies at the core of his project and the importance of not thinking of the artist as the centre of the project. He talked about the long term commitment of the artist to build a relationship with the audience over time; he also described “horizontal [management] structures” – so everyone participates in his work at an equal level, the participants are also the owners of the work. This corresponded with the equality within the organisational structures of the museums in which Pedro was working (in Rio de Janeiro).

I was interested in hear about
an activity in which Pedro encouraged participants to write or draw on the ground in response to the sounds they could hear in the space around them as a way of annotating what was happening
the role the museum had to play in incentivising young people (aged 17/18) to carry on in education/their learning
the way in which Pedro’s project with the museum reached out into the ‘city’ through guided walk sound work, as well as working within the favelas in Maré – bridging communities. The concept of the museum that Pedro described was a museum without walls, extending out into the community rather than situated within one specific building.

Nigel Monaghan (Keeper, National Museum of Ireland, Natural History Division) introduced a great variety of artists (some of whom had engaged with museum staff, some who had not) who had responded to the Natural History collection at the National Museum of Ireland. The artists included:
Conor Walton
Paul Gregg 
Ciaran Murphy 
Eva Walsh
Karl Grimes

Nigel also talked about the fact that the museum was full of ‘artworks’ – artefacts that were constructed and replicated; taxidermy as an example of craftsmanship. He reminded me of the Blaschka studio: Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolf produced beautiful glass casts of underwater creatures; visualisations of creatures that couldn't be photographed and shared in the time the Blaschkas were working.

Dr Hugh Maguire (Director, The Hunt Museum) put forward an alternative perspective in which The Hunt Museum (which he wanted to be seen as a ‘permeable’ space) was in fact so busy engaging with artists that he had to ensure that the core collection wasn’t getting neglected. In the later Q&A session, he also talked about visitors becoming 'blind to the collections', because they were so busy 'engaging with the space in a different way' e.g. participating in a workshop or visiting the café. However, he suggested, if even a few 'cross over' from one 'world' to another, could that be considered to be a success?

He talked about negotiating the needs and expectations of artists with expectations of “traditional visitors”. He wanted the space to be permeable, but he was now in a position where he wanted to put mechanisms in place for selecting the artist responses to be presented within the museum, rather than sharing everything from everyone.

I thought Hugh gave a valuable reminder that projects that are solely artist-led could become as “arcane” or “exclusive” as the more traditional museum collections the artists were seeking to interpret in a different way because they thought they were similarly arcane. He also talked about the responsibility the museum had for explaining to their visitors how the artist responses were relevant to them, which actually I think is a shared responsibility with the artists, and is one of the things I love about the ‘Dancing in Museums’ project: I find that audience members are more likely to come up to me and talk about the work in a museum than they would in a more conventional theatre performance context. As Kate Coyne described at the PDSW/Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives event, the presence of the dancing body seems to make people feel that they have licence to see and interact with the space and with the dancers in a new way.

After lunch, Michelle Browne described her work with Dublin Castle (These Immovable Walls: Performing Power at Dublin Castle) and Louise Lowe (ANU Productions) and Lar Joye talked about the remarkable PALS project – both were really compelling case studies for artists working collaboratively with museums.

Michelle described her work curating a group of performance artists who responded to the Dublin Castle site. She talked about opportunities for participants to be allowed to hang their portrait in the building, to run along the hall, to sit in the formal chairs, to wear slippers. She also talked at length about the process of negotiation with the collaborating heritage site being an interesting part of the artistic process, and the potential challenge of the “unknown” – where she couldn’t necessarily describe to the people with whom she was working what the artists might do, because their work was unpredictable.

Michelle talked about Dublin Castle’s ‘shifting’ history, with (surprisingly) no definitive version of certain historical events that were supposed to have happened there (e.g. Margaret Thatcher’s visit) and the process of uncovering lost histories - things that happened, but with no plaques to indicate them.

Louise Lowe talked about the relationship they wanted to set up with their audiences in their PALS project. She facilitated opportunities for the audience to participate or observe (without dictating to them what they had to do) in order to encourage them to think about how they would have responded to things her characters were facing. The work wasn’t just about giving a historical account, it was also about emotional engagement:

“We are not interested in simply reenacting or recreating events that we think may have happened in the past, but with a desire to reimagine and remake everything that was radical and alive about the past in the present.”

ANU Productions were in residence for 17 weeks at the National Museum of Ireland, Colllins Barracks when they were creating the PALS project, and they continue to work on-site, using the North Barracks as studios. Louise described that lots of people from the heritage world came into rehearsals to contribute to how the work was made, and the project needed a much more hands-on experience from the partner museum, it wasn't just a case of them saying ‘yes’.

Louise also said that the PALS project engaged audiences in an unprecedented way, and the company had an unsolicited response in terms of people sending their photos of the performance via social media for example.

Margaret Henry (CEO of Audiences NI) gave a valuable insight into museum audiences in Northern Ireland at the end of the day.

She described that a lot of the reasons around people not attending museums were because of perception, and museums perhaps not ‘singing loudly enough about what they were doing’.

She gave some pointers to consider when collecting information from audiences:

  • be clear about what exactly you need to know and why
  • check what already exists
  • identify who owns the process for your museums
  • road-test and practice with IT
  • motivation and engagement - share results, regular contact, DIY (collect information yourself so that you understand the practicalities and issues around it and can motivate the rest of the team who may be involved in collecting audience data), deal with issues promptly
  • momentum is vital
  • internal and external benefits

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Thoughts from Dance and Museums discussion event (M Shed, Bristol, 15th September 2015)

Yesterday I had the pleasure of being invited by Pavilion Dance South West and Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives to speak about the Dancing in Museums project so far and some of my plans for the future.

I came away really excited by the discussions I'd had and the other work that had been presented during the day. There is so much potential to continue exploring possibilities for dance work in museums, and I am very happy to be part of this conversation.

I wanted to just note down a few of the key things that struck me during yesterday's discussion. These are very early, unedited thoughts, something to refer back to in the future:
  • Deryck Newland, Artistic Director of Pavilion Dance South West, started off the day by talking about the importance of dance organisations and museums having a "shared purpose" for their work in collaboration, rather than coming together because of a "funding imperative". The work that Trinity Laban and the Horniman Museum have done together is exemplary in showing what can be achieved through a longer term relationship with very clear shared goals. Emma MacFarland's report describing some of that work and the 'Dance & Museums Working Together' symposium that took place in November 2014 is here
  • John Orna-Ornstein, Museums Director for Arts Council England, spoke about three significant things that can happen in museums: he spoke about the possibilities for tackling difficult subjects, for remembering, as well as opportunities for discovery and learning new things
Photo Pari Naderi, courtesy of South East Dance; dancer Jessamin Landamore-Coyne
  • John also referred to the need for sufficient time to develop partnerships between choreographers/dancers and museums fully, which came up at several points during the day, including when questioning how to avoid tokenism with dance work in museums
  • Following on from this, I want to know more about the possibilities for having dancers-in-residence in museums, and longer programmes of collaboration, even dancers on the staff teams at museums, which would help to build trust as well as influencing the quality and integrity of any choreographic outcomes.
Photo Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the British Museum
  • In break out discussions we talked about the potential for using museum handling collections in new ways, perhaps integrating objects within performance, certainly using them as a starting point for creative workshops (which I also mentioned in my writing for the British Museum), and arts organisations hosting museum objects, as Trinity Laban did during 2014 as part of the Horniman Museum's Object in Focus programme
Image from early research for the Dancing in Museums project (March 2013)
  • Judith Robinson from Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery and June Gamble from Plymouth Dance spoke about their work together and a forthcoming commission that will combine a live solo and a film - this made me wonder about the possibilities for dance entering the permanent collection of a museum in the way in which, for example, the work of artist Claire Twomey is now part of the permanent collection in Plymouth City Museum?
  • Kate Coyne talked about the new Siobhan Davies Dance Company Dancing Museums project, and I was interested to hear that the project would not necessarily have a dance performance outcome, and was expected to culminate in a series of participatory activities rather than performances. Again I was reminded about the importance of taking time and the necessity of challenging what dance in museums could look like. Kate talked about it being easier, when working intensively over short periods of time, to do something that felt comfortable and safe when working in a new museum context, rather than doing something completely different. Now that I have built up a wealth of experience of working in museums through the Dancing in Museums project so far, could I return to some of the museums with which I have established a relationship in order to explore some shared questions in new ways? Which museums, what questions and what new ways?
  • Kate also quoted dance artist Lucy Suggate, who said "It no longer feels appropriate to hold the audience hostage in a black box" - at least I think from memory that the quote referred to the 'audience', but I actually wrote 'dancer' in my notes, and think that it could be equally relevant. It is increasingly possible to encounter dance in an unexpected way in a range of places outside the theatre, with "dance [entering] the museums and exhibitions spaces more and more" (Katja Vaghi). In the same way that dance is moving out of theatres, museums are also changing:"Museums are no longer places where objects are simply displayed in cases alongside factual information for visitors / audiences to see and read. Museums are increasingly focussed on 'bringing objects to life', helping visitors to interpret and understand their wider context and significance. Dance can provide an interpretation of objects which is kinaesthetic, engages the audience's emotions and imaginations and which addresses themes in a more abstract and tangential way" (Emma MacFarland, report on 'Dance and Museums Working Together Symposium')
  • As the previously clear-cut distinctions between dance and the more conventional places where dance happens, and museums and all the wonderful things they contain are increasingly broken down, hopefully there are more opportunities for exchange. Kate Coyne finished her presentation by talking about 'something about the presence of the moving body (in a museum or gallery context) that gives you licence to stop and look at things in a different way'. I was reminded of the contrast between the fluidity of movement and fixity of historical artefacts (particularly when they are contained within display cases). I was also reminded about how often audience members go back to the beginning of The Imagination Museum tour to look again at the artefacts to which we have responded, taking their own time. 
Photo Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the British Museum
  • Judith Robinson spoke about working with June Gamble and Plymouth Dance as one of the ways in which the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery could remain visible while the building itself is closed due to the development of the new Plymouth History Centre. This reminded me of the Curating Cambridge Festival which aims to move the act of curation beyond the walls of the Cambridge Museums themselves. I suspect there might be other projects and festivals such as this one...
  • Towards the end of the day we spoke about training opportunities for practitioners (I'm using this as a collective term to refer to people who work in heritage and/or dance backgrounds, but I could also use other words like facilitator, or maybe even curator? There was some discussion about the 'curator-as-artist' during the day.) to share methods and skills that could be useful when working with dance in museum contexts. However, we discussed that there couldn't be a 'one size fits all' methodology, as everyone would have their own variations, have different motivations for working with dance in museums, would want to work with different people and would therefore produce different outcomes. 
  • We also talked about the fact that the way in which a practitioner sets up a task is just as important as the task itself - so, if sharing the example tasks I give here (based on my experience of working on the British Museum Exploring Objects Sharing Cultures project) with other practitioners, it would be just as important to talk about the way in which I introduced the tasks as it would be to get into the practicalities of each activity. 
  • This discussion led on to me thinking that it would be helpful for people working in museums to observe dancers in the studio (particularly as a precursor to a collaboration) and vice versa - I would like to test out a kind of 'exchange programme' for museum practitioners to come into the studio and dancers to observe what happens behind the scenes in museums. Other people also spoke about this, and about the possibilities for minimising potential conflict, particularly with members of museum staff who might be wary about inviting choreographers and dancers into their spaces, by ensuring all parties were involved in the creative process from the earliest stages, therefore developing trust.

Finally, while I was putting together this blog post I came across the Manifesto for a Dancing Museum by Boris Charmatz, which is another very interesting read.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Thoughts from 'Dance and museums working together' Symposium, hosted by Trinity Laban/the Horniman Museum

On the 27th November 2014 I attended Trinity Laban/the Horniman Museum's Symposium entitled: 'Dance and museums working together'. The full report from the Symposium by Emma McFarland is available online here, but I have also jotted down some of the notes I made during the day. I have not edited these notes, they are in no particular order, and they are necessarily partial as I was only able to attend some of the discussion sessions on the day.

Notes from ‘Dance and museums working together’ Symposium: Horniman Museum/Trinity Laban, 27th November 2014

Joyce Wilson (London Area Director for Arts Council England)
Importance of cross-sector working
Arts and culture are at the core of what it means to be human
Delving into the practices of different disciplines can bring new things to light
Now (facing more cuts to arts funding) is the time when we need to share resources
Joyce sign-posted the new Arts Council Create journal

Dr Bettina Zorn (Weltmuseum, Vienna)
in a museum, “the living part of the object is missing” and dance enables us to access or re-imagine that missing part
Dr Zorn spoke of collaboration with Impulstanz including a 2 week ‘Occupy the Museum’ workshop, and live performances/exhibitions, which were often durational
Dr Zorn talked about different people working in museums viewing dance performance work in different ways, asking:
- How do museum curators experience work?
- How do dancers experience work?
- How to people outside the museum and dance sectors experience work?
- What do different people take away from their experience?
She suggested that there is not always an easy dialogue between the different departments.
Dr Zorn spoke of the value of being able to use ‘lost objects’ as part of dance performance (objects that are not often on display), and of using empty spaces in museums
She also spoke about one project in which an established choreographer created a response to a particular museum artefact or collection, and then a group of young people were invited to create their own responses to the work of that choreographer, thereby creating a chain of interpretation and discussion.

Kate Coyne and Alison Proctor from Siobhan Davies Dance
Kate and Alison spoke about examples of the company’s work in which choreographers/visual artists have been invited to come together to respond to similar starting points
They also (like Dr Zorn) mentioned the value of opportunities to bring out artefacts which don’t get examined very often in galleries and museums
They discussed Siobhan Davies’ work Table of Contents as a ‘collection’ of movement pieces, like a gallery or museum collection, in which the human body is the artefact, and audiences are engaged in a conversation with that artefact
Kate and Alison described the value of durational work, enabling interaction with audiences over a period of time: in order for this to happen, the gallery/museum with whom the company are working have to be very open to the work happening, and this kind of collaboration requires the gallery/museum’s generosity in allowing a performance to exist in an exhibition space for a longer period
Sometimes there has to be a long introductory conversation before a collaboration between the company and a gallery begins, and often that takes place through the Events Programming Team rather than the Curatorial Team (although that is changing)
There are different things to consider when the suggestion to collaborate comes from a museum/comes from an artist, and the two parties have to hear and respect each other’s perspectives
Kate and Alison talked about trying to be clear with the audience about the way in which the dance work related to the work on display around it, and how much the artist needed to lead on this
In a gallery/museum there are opportunities for the audience/visitor to be close to the dance work, and there are lots of different perspectives from which they can watch
They spoke about Siobhan Davies’ collaboration with Clare Twomey, and the movement in Clare’s live visual art response: Is it madness. Is it beauty. 
Kate and Alison also spoke about:
- the element of surprise when working with dance in gallery (non-conventional performance) spaces
- the intervention can make people stay longer in the museum
- asking the audience to appreciate the body as a living artwork/artefact
- the care that Curators will take about having that body in the space, and concerns they may have about how to look after the body-as-artefact

Horniman Museum (Georgina Pope) /Trinity Laban (Veronica Jobbins), speaking about the Curious Tea Party Event that took place in July 2014 (; we’re featured in this video from 3.09 with extracts from The Imagination Museum)
The Horniman Museum/Trinity Laban will be publishing a full Symposium Report and also sharing their evaluation of the Curious Tea Party Event in due course
I was particularly interested to hear about how the project brought together youth panels from both the Horniman Museum and Trinity Laban to curate work (as part of their Arts Award work)
The event created connections between inside and outside spaces around the Horniman Museum and Gardens
The Horniman Museum sent some of their artefacts to Trinity Laban ahead of the Curious Tea Party event, and these inspired a range of off-shoot projects in different spaces
The success of the Curious Tea Party event relied on close partnership between the two venues at all levels of the organisation, and a clear mutual understanding of the ethos/aims of both organisations at all levels
Developing funding bids in partnership took much longer than it would have if the applications had been made individually, and needed a longer lead-in time than an individual application
Importantly, the two organisations monitored the outcomes for audience members e.g. asking whether they had attended the Horniman Museum before; asking for information about whether audiences would think about engaging with dance experiences again in the future (this information will be available when they share their full evaluation). This kind of evaluation is easier when given the opportunity to work collaboratively/share work/build audiences over time, rather than as part of a one-off performance experience.
The organisations worked together to co-commission artists
Artists responded primarily to the museum as a site-specific location, the museum as a stimulus for artistic work, or the museum artefacts as a stimulus for artistic work
The Horniman Museum/Trinity Laban didn’t want to differentiate between performance/participation, and integrated both throughout the Curious Tea Party event

Some thoughts from panel discussions later in the day:
There was much discussion about audience choice in relation to dance performance in museums, and ways to take this into consideration: we talked about the fact that when you feel physically closer to a performance as an audience member, you may feel like you are more ‘on show’ and may therefore also feel less likely to behave as you wish. We talked about acknowledging this in the rehearsal process, considering the audience’s potential ‘discomfort’ (although of course this won’t be the same for everyone, and audience members always have the choice to engage or not engage with something, no matter what the choreographic intention). How can we encourage audiences to do something different – i.e. not sitting down passively in front of a performance?
If there are challenges to bringing dance into museums, why are we increasingly working in this context?
- Museums are more interactive spaces, and allow a different way of engaging with the audience
- Working with dance in museums creates access to new audiences
- They also allow a new method of interpretation
- It is a human instinct to make sense of the world around us, and we can do this in museums
- Bringing dance into museums can be an entry point to talking more about difficult subjects (although again it was suggested that we have to be mindful about what the audience might be feeling, and have empathy)
- Work with dance in museums can have lasting impact on audience members
- Working with dance in museums is often about new things – breaking from the norm, thinking differently, working in a new way, offering alternatives, offering non-verbal responses to artefacts
How can we use the movement of visitors around a museum as a choreographic stimulus?
How can we use the increase in dancing in museums as an opportunity to analyse, critique the process of dance-making, an opportunity for dance to engage with its own history?
Are audiences getting used to seeing rather than experiencing dance work?
Is there an obligation on the part of the museum/heritage site to re-introduce movement into places where movement used to take place?
Martin Joyce from Icon Dance spoke about not advertising their performances at the British Museum in advance, and putting in place a social media campaign to encourage audience members to also engage with the performances through photographing/filming on their phones.
It is important to work with Front of House staff as a fantastic resource for learning more how audiences are engaging with dance work in museums.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

4. Practical tips for engaging young people with dance within a museum context

Work with handling collections: there was an excellent handling collection at the British Museum, and at most of the other museums with which I have worked to date (which include replicas and real items). These can sometimes be taken away from museums in Loan Boxes, often for a relatively small hire charge, so they can be used as inspiration for dance workshops in schools where those schools are not able to work on-site at their local museum for whatever reason.

Being able to handle items reintroduces the tactile into an environment that young people can often associate with not getting too close and not touching, and that’s why this handling activity can be so useful in setting the tone for a project aimed at engaging with museum collections in a new way.

Allow time for the young people to familiarise themselves with a particular gallery/series of galleries that will be the focus for the project: for the British Museum ‘Exploring Objects and Sharing Cultures’ project, we spent the full first day doing this, and again it set the tone for the project and excited the young people about what was possible in that space.

Photo Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the British Museum
Write things down and come back to them, especially if working over a longer period of time (or document in other ways e.g. film, photography, as long as you have obtained the necessary permission of course). It’s a useful resource to come back to as ideas develop, or to use when reflecting about the work at the end of the project. This documentation is even more effective if the young people are involved in it, or take charge of it altogether.

Photo Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the British Museum
Skills/information-sharing are important when setting up dance activities in museums, particularly when working with individuals that don’t have a great deal of movement experience. It is useful to have an alternative workshop space you can use to try things out away from the gallery. You can use this alternative space to be able to warm up thoroughly, and it’s a place where the young people can test things they aren’t confident about, where they won’t be watched by the members of the public passing through the galleries. It is also a place to talk about shared expectations for behaviour before moving into the gallery space, and to prepare the young people for what to expect when the general public is sharing the same space as them. I usually introduce an attention signal as well so that the young people know what to listen out for when they’re spread out around the space and I need to get their attention.

Photo Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the British Museum
I always emphasise what a privilege it is to have the opportunity to move in the museum space in a different way, but I have found that generally young people realise that anyway and are very respectful.

Work closely with museum staff to understand the potential challenges of a space e.g. times when tours might be happening, areas that are out of bounds, any display cases with particularly sensitive alarms

Photo Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the British Museum
Also, work closely with museum staff to understand the great benefits of working in a particular space, and create opportunities for them to share their knowledge of both challenges and benefits with the young people involved in a project, so the participants feel included and understand what happens behind the scenes at the museum.

As well as preparing the young people for how to behave when sharing the space with the general public, prepare the group leaders to be able to interact with the general public appropriately e.g. make sure there are enough members of staff/support staff for the number of participants; perhaps consider making flyers to hand out with information about the project

Most importantly, having outlined all of the potential challenges and mutual expectations for a project with a group of young people, find the most creative way of working in a space bearing in mind all of the limitations given, so they don’t feel like limitations, but opportunities.

Photo Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the British Museum

3. Gallery Activity suggestions for encouraging dance, including specific objects and/or themes that were interesting for your group

The following ideas are based primarily on the ‘Exploring Objects and Sharing Cultures project’ that I delivered with the British Museum in response to the Roman galleries (particularly Room 70) and particular artefacts associated with Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, but there are of course many more possibilities. In this instance the group were particularly interested in the busts/statues displayed throughout the gallery, as well as the smaller objects such as coins, and more personal items such as pieces of jewellery.

The object-handling activities described in the previous post served as a great introduction to looking at our selected artefacts in more detail and building up a fuller picture of the time the objects came from and the broader context: after our first examination of those artefacts, guided by a member of museum staff (but never only restricted to the facts or what we could certainly know), we began collecting historical themes, characters, relationships and key events that provided starting points for our creative dance activity. We used these to set up tasks:

Responding to the form of the object, and embodying the idea of that object coming to life e.g.

Prior to going into the museum gallery, we spent some time in a studio space doing warm-up activities to prepare the young people for working in contact with each other, during which we introduced example movement vocabulary they could use and spoke about mutual trust.

When we first went into the gallery, we then gave the young people some time with a partner to select a sculpture/bust to which they wanted to respond, and asked them to draw/write down ideas about who they thought this person was and what they were like (responding particularly to their facial expression and body language).

Photo Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the British Museum
Using these ideas, we then asked the young people to take on roles within their pairs: one in the ‘sculptor’ role, and the other as ‘the sculpture’, or the clay ready to be moulded into shape. We asked the ‘sculptor’ to rebuild their selected statue/bust by manipulating their partner into a static position at first, and then as a development activity the dancers started to bring these re-imagined sculptures to life, moving with them and in some cases building more of a story for those characters e.g. developing the relationship between the two partners in response to the relationships we had identified between Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony.

Photo Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the British Museum
During this activity we noticed that the young people really liked a mystery, and particularly enjoyed responding to incomplete or damaged artefacts; they saw the fact that they were broken as an important part of their story, and of the way in which they interpreted their character.

Photo by Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the British Museum
Responding to the quality of the object or what the object represented

The young people with whom I worked on this project responded particularly to the theme of power in the Roman Empire, and we spent time exploring how we could embody this particular theme e.g. deciding how power might feel in our bodies, and therefore how it might make us move and what the rhythm of that movement might be. We used all this information (through improvisation) to generate movement vocabulary consisting of sharp strong movements with all parts of the body, and shared this in small/large groups so that we could use it to create overall images e.g. two opposing armies performing their ‘power’ movement towards and around each other, like they were marking their territory.

Photo Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the British Museum
Connecting our interpretation of each object with our understanding of the world now

The young people really connected with the idea of loyalty in this project (between Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar for example), and we used this as an initiation for an activity in which we collected a series of ways in which we could physically support each other, building structures in groups of 3-5.

They also engaged with the idea of status, hierarchy and competition between political opponents, and we talked about ways in which the participants observed this competitive impulse in modern politics as well, using this image to set up a movement task in which a group of four dancers travelled across the space as if in a race, trying to get one step ahead of each other and to leave the others behind them. Their movement became more inventive as the idea became clearer to them.

Responding to the place where the artefact was located within the museum

Photo Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the British Museum
We looked at where our stimulus artefacts were situated in the museum, and designed a procession of movement to begin our final performance that began with the dancers starting in small groups amongst the artefacts that had inspired them (so they could be seen to be ‘coming to life’), and then moved along the aisle down the centre of the gallery, the main thoroughfare for movement through the space. The dancers were in groups of only two or three people, so this movement wasn’t disruptive and members of the public could move around them, but we found that most members of the public felt compelled to stand aside as the dancers travelled past them, which created quite a spectacle and coincided nicely with what we had discussed about Cleopatra’s great processions.

2. What have you learned from your experience of working with The British Museum/Talking Objects Collective project? How might this learning change the way you work with young people?

Photo by Benedict Johnson; courtesy of the British Museum
I have learnt some fantastic introductory/ice-breaker ideas for working with museum objects from the British Museum staff that I will be able to feed into my delivery of dance work in museums in the future, and this just goes to show how much can be gained from artists working collaboratively with museum experts, and engaging young people in that exchange of skills and ideas. For example:

a ‘mystery object’ game in which young people had time to handle and talk about an usual artefact before guessing what they thought it was and then imagining who they could be in the life of the object e.g. the person who made it/who excavated it/who looks after it in the museum. We also asked the participants to come up with a physical embodiment that could represent their imagined relationship with the object.

an activity in which two people sit back to back, one of whom is given a piece of paper and a pen, the other an artefact. The person with the artefact has to describe the object for the person who can’t see it, and they have to draw their impression of the object from the description alone. It encourages young people to look at objects very closely and I found the task incredibly challenging when working with my partner!

in one session small groups of young people were given three or four museum artefacts and asked to create a story connecting those objects, which encouraged them not only to think about what those objects were, but also to think imaginatively about what they could represent, and to begin thinking about how to use them to make an exciting story. It was then a very easy step to go from here to asking the participants to bring their story to life through movement.

Photo by Benedict Johnson; courtesy of the British Museum
in another, museum objects were placed around the room, and each participant was given a series of descriptive words printed on small pieces of paper, and asked to allocate those words to appropriate objects. It was really interesting to see where people interpreted objects in the same way, allocating the same word as someone else, and where some more unusual artefacts had a greater range of responses. It reminded us of the very different ways in which we can see the world.

As well as these tips for practical activities, during my time with the British Museum I also observed:

the extent to which the participants were at their most focussed when handling artefacts, and when working in the museums galleries themselves rather than in a studio. I might have expected this to be the other way round, as there are many more distractions in the galleries, but the majority of the young people intuitively seemed to understand and respond to the fact that there was something special about this environment that required their full attention.

Photo by Benedict Johnson; courtesy of the British Museum
that the young people produced their best material when they are playing/improvising. Even though the project I worked on with the British Museum led to a performance, and therefore involved the ‘setting’ of some material, I was reminded that the process, and setting up opportunities for the young people to explore their own ideas in their own way, was incredibly important.

Photo by Benedict Johnson; courtesy of the British Museum
In our closing circle at the end of the project, when we asked the participants to reflect on the project as a whole, I was struck by how many of them talked about the extent to which their confidence had grown. Again, this just served to emphasise the importance not only of the themes, ideas and creative content of a session, but also everything about the way in which it was managed that could contribute to young people feeling empowered and therefore free to create.

Photo Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the British Museum

1. How do you think dance can help young people to make sense of objects/enjoy and engage with collections?

I have been working specifically with dance in museums and heritage sites for nearly two years now, and one thing I can certainly say about working in this environment is that there is always more to discover: museums are such a rich source for creative dance activity.

However, what I have learnt during those two years, and throughout my work as a professional dance artist and choreographer more generally, is that dance has the capacity, if introduced in an appropriate way, to engage all individuals, regardless of ability or previous experience.
“There are some people in the group who I wouldn’t have believed could do that.” (Teacher feedback from a Dancing in Museums workshop)
Photo Benedict Johnson; courtesy of the British Museum
In many instances when I work with dance with young people in museums, I can see a greater transformation in a shorter space of time than I might in another context. Many young people go from being disengaged, not knowing what to expect or lacking in confidence to really enjoying themselves, and in the past, the young people with whom I’ve worked have also been also able to reflect on that change, including one participant who wrote this feedback for me: “I enjoyed when we did the warrior dance and I thought I wouldn't enjoy it but I did. Thank you very much”.

Of course, every individual will take something different away from every experience, but I think dance can have such an impact when working creatively in museums because, for example:

it takes young people out of their usual learning environment and into a different space, a space which is in itself a place of enquiry, curiosity, reflection and interpretation; a place where, if given the encouragement and the tools to do so, they can ask their own questions without the same sense of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ they might experience in other contexts and start to find some answers.

in the museum environment there is so much cross-over between different facets of life and ways of responding to the world; young people are able to engage with objects in their fullest sense – scientific, historical, geographic, literal, poetic, mathematical, technological and so on. So even if a young person may not ordinarily engage with dance/physical activity, or, on the other hand, maybe they don’t usually engage with history for example, something about bringing two or more elements together makes it more likely that every individual will be able to take something away from the experience. I always maximise this opportunity for working in an interdisciplinary way by introducing lots of other activities alongside the dancing in my workshops – drawing, writing, acting, measuring, discussing, photographing, filming for example.

Photo Benedict Johnson; courtesy of the British Museum
Photo Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the British Museum
dance can be a great tool for interpreting artefacts, and a way in to helping young people to tell stories and make sense of the world around them.
Artefacts in museums, especially those which are incomplete, can only tell a part of a story. If we want to tell the whole story, we have to fill in the gaps in understanding, and we can do this by using the facts we do have to make educated guesses, or by reimagining our own version of events.
Neil MacGregor writes about this in his A History of the World in 100 Objects:
“Thinking about the past or about a distant world through things is always about poetic recreation. We acknowledge the limits of what we can know with certainty, and must then try to find a different way of knowing, aware that objects must have been made by people essentially like us – so we should be able to puzzle out why they might have made them and what they were for”
This interpretative act is an ideal scenario for initiating creative movement exploration: we take a starting point or a series of starting points, we look at them from a range of different perspectives to try to find the themes, connections, points of interest, and begin piecing together a bigger picture using movement that may be a combination of more literal representation and completely new invention.

dance provides individuals with a way of connecting specifically with the personal story of the object. Conservation issues mean that is most often necessary for museums to present artefacts in a formal way, behind glass, but because of this it can be difficult for young people to access the idea that in its time, the artefact may have belonged to an individual e.g. it might have had great personal significance to that person, or it may be that they threw it away (for countless possible reasons). Dance, and in fact any interpretative act/creative activity, can help us to get back to that personal connection. I went to the recent 'Dance and museums working together' symposium (Trinity Laban/Horniman Museum) at which Dr Bettina Zorn from the Weltmuseum in Vienna said that in a museum, “the living part of the object is missing” and dance enables us to access or re-imagine that missing part, and by experiencing it physically, to be able to grasp it more fully. I often encourage the young people with whom I work to think of the artefact as a portal through which they can time-travel to another period in history. It can also provide a way in to talking about that individual’s place within the history of an area that’s important to them, their family, within the world, or in the future for example.
“Amazing, really amazing – fantastic for the children, brought their personalities out and allowed them to be who they are.” (Teacher feedback from a Dancing in Museums workshop)
“Dance can embrace multiple narratives around an object, encouraging visitors to think about the object in a more complex way. The dancer can become a living embodiment of the object. When presented well, the contrast between the impermanence of a human body dancing and the static, enduring nature of an object is a compelling one. It also offers a space in a museum for human interaction, where visitors can feel more free, challenging some of the older ‘codes’ of museum etiquette. While this can present its own challenges, it may encourage new and more diverse visitors to museums and encourage existing visitors to be less passive in their engagement – to experience the Museum as ‘alive’. It also helps to meet the growing demand for more immersive, interactive work which engages people with a wide range of learning styles.” (Emma MacFarland, report on ‘Dance and museums learning together’ symposium)
both artefacts and the dances they inspire can be non-verbal, and I have found this to be particularly significant when working with young people who have a range of needs that mean they find verbal communication challenging.

as well as using dance to respond to artefacts, it can also be a tool for interpreting the museum space itself and to draw on (or contradict) the behaviours that might usually happen there. Dance can be used to interact with the museum space in a different way e.g. going under, behind, around things, watching through glass, going behind the scenes. I have found that young people really enjoy using something they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to access as a creative stimulus (i.e. an object or a space in the museum that is usually out of bounds), and they can also enjoy responding to objects that are permanently on display but may be overlooked (in the British Museum, for example, the collection is so vast that it can be very difficult to take it all in, meaning some things may be undiscovered until given time for closer inspection). What is important is that, even for a limited period of time, the museum ‘belongs’ to those young people given permission to interact with it in a different way (which feels all the more exciting and special because they aren’t ordinarily allowed to do it), and a lot of feedback I receive relates to this:
“I loved the fact that we were allowed to dance in a museum.”“I loved making our mystical world. Thank you!” 
Photo Benedict Johnson; courtesy of the British Museum