Special: A study visit in Glasgow
My full immersion in Scotland starts here, in the historical centre of Glasgow, in the rain.
Katie Bruce of Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA)welcomes me and explains how and why GoMA is an “engaged gallery”: for years it has worked in collaboration with local associations and agencies which are active in the social justice field and which have developed very important projects on human rights, for example:
- Elbow Room, and Rule of Thumb on Violence Against Women
- Sanctuary, on asylum seekers and refugees
- Blind Faith, on sectarian issues
These projects involved both internationally renowned and local Glasgow based artists, who worked with target groups in different sub-projects.
The chosen artists have developed their languages and poetics within their practice to facilitate access to difficult and often unspoken and unexpressed domains, working in direct collaboration with community participants.
The project allowed GoMA to enter the heart of the local communities, because it involved people. For example, refugees felt welcomed, valued, worked collaboratively with artists, and had the opportunity to speak to the wider community through their own work. GoMA didn’t limit itself to simply widening its audience, but reached publics who probably didn’t believe that an art gallery could become a place of ordinary life and social redemption. What struck me most is that the project was so beneficial to GoMA: the community changed its opinion with regard to the importance and value of an art gallery. In the eyes of the people, the work of GoMA acquired an even greater importance.
One should really reflect on how a socially engaged policy benefits not only those people which it addresses directly but also the organisation that proposes and carries out this kind of work.
Every Saturday morning there is the Saturday Art Club, which offers laboratories using the works of arts displayed in the gallery.
The working space is fantastic and we shouldn’t underestimate the importance for children - but not only children - to work in a beautiful space.
Light, colours, the possibility to do and experiment, whilst all around beautiful windows look out onto the city roof line. The laboratory overlooking the skyline was almost taken for granted…
Children are given valuable and rich materials and what struck me was the way in which they used it sensibly, with no need of rules. According to my experience, there could have been the risk for some materials to be used inappropriately, almost in a bulimic way.
In the workshop I attended, the activity proposed to the children (creating a play sculpture) was possibly too rich: the artist had made precise choices and it would have been maybe better to provide the children with elements connected to the artwork, for example as far as the colours and the shapes.
Gallery 2 offers a permanently furnished space for children: with a large mirror, sofas to cuddle a little, a place where to rest – take a break, draw.
In the basement there is a library and a cafeteria, which reinforces GoMA as a place for well being, somewhere to spend time in a pleasant way.
It strikes me that Glasgow Museums are places for the everyday life of ordinary people: to have a coffee, meet, read the newspaper, see an installation, take shelter from the rain (unbelievable, they do it too…), spend time with the children.
In Tramway, new mothers take advantage of the Hidden Gardens to learn how to do children’s massage; at the People’s Palace a group of grandmothers was touring the museum’s displays where they attended a language course. A magnificent greenhouse of white iron trellises (a Winter Garden) from the beginning of the 20th century offers shelter to plants and flowers, but also to summer camp children with their educators, families, disabled, older people with carers. The museum is almost as crowded as our shopping centres: how is this possible?
People look at the displays and tell each other stories, because in this museum captions are pieces of memories and guided tours are shared narratives.
At 1 pm (also times are rather strange to me) the workshop door opens and the children come in to draw, using both colours and textiles: there are beautiful, multicoloured textile papers and also on this occasion children use them appropriately and with great care.
They sit in groups or alone, with parents, nannies or grandparents and start working by choosing the materials which inspire them and tap their creativity the most. The subject is “the summer I’d like“: it is been raining uninterrupted for eight days.
Activities at People’s Palace take place without a facilitator, although there is Laura Clark who welcomes the children, shows them the table and the material and proposes the theme.
In the meanwhile she keeps an eye on the entrance, does other things and finds the time also for me.
I receive the same impression here: the museum is a place integrated in everyday life, where you can do something at any age, using any ability.
One could maybe think that the museum forgets to be a museum: what do refugees have to do with contemporary art, children’s massage with a garden which is also an artwork, speech lessons with a local historical collection?
The answer comes from Rosemary James (Tramway) and Siobhan McConnachie (from Glasgow Museums Resource Centre): there are so many communities that don’t even consider entering a museum. It is fundamental to reach them and try to start a dialogue with them.
How? Facilitating access with workshops and special projects. But, even if you identify the needs of your neighbourhood, or those of a larger community, even if you understand people’s lifestyles and habits, how can you make the museum become part of a daily routine, of everyday life, of recurrent habits?
The answer is: networking and collaborating with communities, groups, associations.
When Rosemary joined Tramway, thanks to research on target groups, she realised that the gallery was addressing a specific public: amateur artists and citizens practising art at different levels. It was not possible to go on like that. Focus groups were then launched, social networks were activated and three main target groups were identified: families (and family days were launched), young people under 25 (gallery nights were initiated), communities and minorities.
Tramway is located in an area where conflicting communities live: from Maghreb, Eastern Europe and India-Afghanistan. Tramway started to look for artists living in Scotland, but coming from those communities to bring people closer to the gallery.
Work is still under way, but also in this case, next to a more artistic strand (the collaboration with the 5 art schools in Glasgow, for example) the gallery is trying to achieve a more socially engaged profile.
Siobhan mentions to me the “real competencies” people need: which real competencies do migrants, need for example? They need to develop or improve literacy and would like to feel welcome. The museums work on these basic needs, looking for qualified partners to collaborate with, but also making an effort to reach individuals, through new technologies, for instance.
In English the term is much more effective than in Italian: “embedded audience”. This is the objective currently pursued by Glasgow museums and 60% of their audience is made up of locals. People who attend an activity come back, come back again, participate.
I have witnessed different kinds of involvement, others have just been reported to me. GoMA works with the children’s hospital, with youngsters aged 12 to 18 and one exhibition developed out of a project (titled “I propose”) was shown in the hospital lift, a place where visibility was at the highest.
GoMA itself becomes an exhibition space for the city, hosting the outcomes of special projects.
Another very engaging project is the Open Museum, which originates at Glasgow Museums Resource Centre in south Glasgow and uses objects in the stores to produce kits, - there are now about seventy – to elicit different activities based on storytelling.
The boxes deal with many subjects and facilitate the development of activities with local communities, in particular in the areas where exhibition spaces are lacking.
With the Open Museum I went to Castlemilk, an area in the south east of Glasgow with a high level of unemployment.
Due to a storm, a centenary tree had fallen and a series of bottles were revealed, which became the protagonists of an archaeology weekend. The Open Museum will have the task of curating a hands-on exhibition evoking the “fairy”. Other initiatives developed in collaboration with local associations will be the heart of a two day archaeological event.
The Open Museum in fact creates museum exhibitions where there is no museum, choosing the pieces to display in collaboration with the community, depending on the subject chosen.
I would like to underline the role of the curators-conservators, who have to find a compromise between accessibility, (which means for the objects also the possibility of being touched, of touring the city, etc.) and conservation.
At GMRC conservators are involved in this: their laboratories are all open and visible and some works under restoration are accessible to the public: if the stuffed animals are attacked by parasites, we will see them wrapped in isolating plastic bags, ready to go into refrigerated cells.
It is possible to see interventions on paintings - on the frames, or on the canvases - and to discover the secrets of the conservators’ fascinating profession.
Personally, I thought it would be nice to develop a project like this on the web, so that the “museum behind the scenes” could be updated at any time. What do we conserve and how? Interviewing the restorers of frames, canvas, paper, those who intervene on animals, insects… which tools, which procedures…
It could be fascinating for adolescents –teenagers to see how much competence is spent in those places which sometimes are perceived as boring… and, why not, it could be useful during school orientation, because it throws light on professions which have to do both with culture, arts and crafts.
Another aspect which struck me is that (in Italy!) we have museums which have to close because they are just outside the city centre and are not visited. In Glasgow, museums are scattered everywhere, but in none of them you will find that dusty atmosphere that is so often to be found in our museums. How do they do it?
Here the understanding of what a museum should be seems to be shared by all staff: a place in ordinary life, a place of well being, of support to the individual.
Also: it is not sufficient to develop a project in a one-off way, it is necessary to retain the audience. It is not enough to work with the disabled, it is necessary to develop a workplan which includes them in the life of the museum, which can become part of their life.
This is what happens at Trongate 103 with one of the projects I loved most.
Project Ability, is a superb space where disabled people paint, do ceramics and glass work.
But also in this case, we are not in a typical laboratory of the social cooperative, sometimes a bit gloomy (because it is good enough to be good) and in any case always and only attended by disabled people. Project Ability is a workshop where people (disabled and not disabled) work together and this is the best choice. A space where I can paint, where you can paint. The “you” and “I” depends on who decides to meet and use the space at a certain point in time.
There is of course also a much more structured programme the museums offer to schools and which is described in three brochures. Speaking with Harry Dunlop I discover they have a template for each initiative and this becomes the basis for a shared programming of what to do and how.
I had the opportunity to experience the workshop on the sea: lying on a beach towel in a storehouse in Glasgow, I really had fun commenting on the paintings hung at the children’s level, pretending I felt the warmth of the sun rays coming from a light bulb, the smells of the seashells and the sounds of the waves. Inspiring for me too, living on the sea!
Adolescents are also an important target.
At Tramway I attend a workshop with a group of teenagers working on the subject “Moving Image and digital art”, where they use different art techniques and software (photoshop, final cut, I can animate) to produce animation.
Another interesting project, again managed by Tramway and addressing young people in their leisure time, is the production of a cultural magazine, published both on line and on paper, together with a blog. The youngsters of the editorial team go to exhibitions and shows, read books and write reviews to be published on the magazine.
Tramway works also with people in prison, thanks to an association which promotes the artistic expression of offenders .
The works produced by the offenders are displayed, and it is possible for the public to comment them.
These comments are then be sent to the author.
I conclude my week at GoMA with the Saturday Art Club and this time I like the workshop even better. It is about working on the three dimensions by using only cardboard. Children have to think of how to make structures, solids, sculptures, and they produce really nice works.
The most convincing workshop to me was the one organised at the Scotland Street School Museum, on Sunday, 15 July.
There were two events on the programme: one addressed to children younger than five and the other to children between eight and twelve.
There weren’t very many participants and this was a pity, because the facilitator was really good and her offer very well designed.
The museum is in the middle of nowhere, so to say, between trafficked highways and there was a very cold wind blowing. Luckily the small Glasgow metro stops right in front of it. During the morning (between 12 and 1pm) the workshop for the little ones (under 5) offers the possibility to experiment with printing using wooden blocks and Lego.
The children first of all familiarise themselves with the shapes: circular, square, rectangular, cubes, cylinders... bridges.
The children handle these shapes, which later become elements of the composition. With rollers and colours the children prepare the little blocks to be used for printing on a sheet of paper. The facilitator is very good in proposing one game-activity at a time and making sure that children are ready to advance in the experience.
The workshop is very clearly organised. Children, although very young, understood immediately how they would play.
The workshop for the older ones instead started at 13:30 and consisted in experimenting with monotype on plexiglas, using ear cotton tips; the other technique available consisted of engraving thin sheets (3 mm.) of polystyrene with a pencil. The children were offered images representing details of the school designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh; after choosing their favourite detail, they reproduced it on the polystyrene sheet, which was later inked and printed on paper.
The smaller children, having more difficulty with drawing, were given the possibility to texturise the polystyrene sheet with lines and dots, or using the lego blocks which would leave a print.
At the Riverside Museum industries/corporations are also involved in the project: they provided materials and pieces.
About fifty retired engineers collaborate as volunteers.
There are five target groups:
- children younger than 5
- people with disabilities (visually impaired, deaf, autistic, Asperger’s syndrome... )
On Fridays the museum opens one hour later to give autistic children or children with the Asperger’s syndrome the possibility to visit.
On those occasions, the museum becomes a silent place, respectful of the needs of those children.
About 1,000 residents have been involved in the planning of the museum and this points to participation as one of the museum’s main strategies.
From a technological viewpoint, the museum is a nice example: touch screens (all working, almost unbelievable) contribute to make the objects interesting for those who are not so keen on technology: stories, films, original documentaries, images, renderings, allow the public to explore what is not visible.
The narratives are always colloquial and originate from a question, from something which stimulates the desire to know and to learn.
For the children younger than five, but I think also for those who are seven or eight, there are e-books telling stories and adventures related to the objects on display.
Another interesting feature is the sound which accompanies actions and objects: it is not simply a soundtrack, but the sound of the object itself, as if it were still functioning.
This aspect was most enjoyable at the very opening of the museum, then a crowd entered the museum and took over, something comparable to what happens in shopping malls at Christmas time.
Backpacks and trails are the most interesting things I saw at the Burrell Collection.
All suitcases are different: one is dedicated to a tour around the world and allows children to play with oriental wands and a compass to find the Mecca, starting from different cultures.
The theme of another suitcase are tapestries: soft toys and a blanket are there to support the child in inventing a story starting from the animals portrayed in the tapestry and contained in the suitcase.
A backpack dedicated to the exploration of nature invites to play in the beautiful park surrounding the museum; a folder contains colours and paints for teenagers to produce drawings inspired by the museum objects and collect them therein.
At St. Mungo I took part in a session of the project “Curious”, one of the most interesting for the cultural life of Glasgow at the time, also because it was part of the Olympics programme.
Curious is an exhibition connecting objects and people through stories, in an intercultural and interreligious perspective.
Objects coming from specific geographical areas are re-interpreted by the participants in the programme. One can discover that the “butter beater“ typical of the Scottish islands is present also in Russian fairy tales and very similar to an object used in South Africa to make wine.
Discovering and sharing, listening, being curious and open minded are the pre-requisites and at the same time the objectives of this project.
Together with other people I took part in a workshop on multicultural dialogue. Through objects, activities and discussions we reflected on our way of positioning ourselves, of making a guess about other people, on the cognitive processes used to pursue our objective.
The facebook page is also interesting: every week the picture of an object is published, along with a text which raises and nurtures curiosity. At this point, people are invited to open a debate on the object.
Another nice way of using the camera is represented by a blown up photograph in the exhibition, which visitors are invited to use as a background to take a picture of themselves with a mobile phone and then send it to the exhibition. A monitor nearby shows all the pictures sent. This is a way to actively engage people and leads to an extraordinary feedback from the public.
The most exciting experience took place at the end of my stay in Kelvingrove.
In order to attract adolescents and thanks to an important donation, the museum realized a spectacular project.
It is a video game where the players are young people who become avatar of themselves.
You enter a room in the basement which looks like a disco. The space is attractive and very well arranged. A computer takes your picture, matches you with a partner, gives you a mission and transfers the data to a tablet.
At this point the game starts: the timer tells you how many seconds you have to, in my case, find a marble statue. When I get there, the infrared rays signal your presence and the game challenges you for the first time: try to comfort the little girl in the sculpture, who has just lost her mother. You have to write a story choosing between different options to try and make the little girl smile
I succeed, am thanked and invited to move on to my second trial, in the gallery with the children's paintings. The game becomes more complicated, because the two tablets –that of my partner and mine - are linked: he sees an object and I have to decide which child in the painting will need it. Only when I guess, both my companion and I will be able to proceed. We now have to stop, but this taster has been exciting. What is there behind it?
The generous donor wanted to create something which could inspire young people, but was not in the least interested in museums. The museum team proposed him to attract and engage young people starting from museum objects.
The target group was at first questioned on their opinions: what do you admire in others?
- self assuredness
- compassion, the capacity to do something good for others
- ability to overcome difficulties and problems
Each museum department revisited their collections looking for stories about trust, compassion, determination, overcoming difficulties.
This gave birth to the missions and sub-missions young people will have to achieve, running with passion along the museum corridors and experiencing the cultural bridge between reality and virtuality in a really positive way.
It is also a splendid example of how technology and video games can be important allies of a museum to attract a museum target which is very difficult to reach.
I said goodbye to Glasgow thankful for the wonderful things I saw, for the kindness with which everyone welcomed me and sharing with me the successes and difficulties of their work.
Thank you also to the LEM project which made this experience possible.
(Casa Rossa di Alfredo Panzini and Centro Zaffiria)