I attended the second Dance and Museums conversation event today in Southampton, organised by Pavilion Dance South West (PDSW), with whom I'm now very pleased to be a Discovery Artist, Lucy Marder from the South East Museums Development Programme and Sally Williams.
Following on from the last conversation in Bristol in September last year, which I wrote about on my blog, here are some further key points that I took away from today's discussion and sharing of practice. As before, these are just some unedited thoughts, but I hope they'll serve as a reminder for me to return to in the future:
Deryck Newland (Artistic Director, PDSW) spoke about PDSW's motivation behind investing in the dance and museums conversation over the period of a year since September 2015. Collaborative work between dance and museums is one way in which PDSW sees potential to deliver its 5 key strands of work. Deryck talked about the organisation's belief in the "democratisation of dance", the idea that "everybody could and should be able to dance", and his desire to "invite everybody in". He therefore talked about PDSW's responsibility to test new ways of working that could allow that vision of dance to happen; working in new contexts with new audiences, and drawing artists in to those new contexts. Having observed the way in which dance in museums could engage a new audience that might not already encounter dance in a theatre context, Deryck talked about setting up an open space for "coinvestment [from arts and heritage partners] to happen", facilitated with help from museum consultant Sally Lewis, and this event represented the second of three opportunities for discussions around new "coinvestment" to take place.
Amongst other thoughts, Deryck also made the first mention of the day about a potential future drawing together of dance, museums and higher education. My Dancing in Museums project came about as a result of an undergraduate student project I was delivering in partnership with Ipswich Museum, and I have heard of many other great examples of work that has developed from research in higher education contexts, so I am sure there is capacity to build on this going forward.
Anneliese Slader (Relationship Manager for Dance, Arts Council England, South West region) reminded us of the Arts Council's five goals for arts and culture, and talked particularly about the challenge of bringing high quality art to as many people as possible, persuading people who may not ordinarily engage with arts and culture that this could be 'for them'. I spoke to several people during the day about the fact that many of their potential audience members were put off from attending museums because they didn't think they were 'for them', particularly (but not exclusively) young people aged 16-25. What if dance work with museums and heritage sites could help to provide access to this audience? The Kids in Museums Takeover Day model could be a good place to start with this. I also worked recently with a young choreographer local to one of our partner museums, Megan Otty, who created her own response to the Discovery Museum (Newcastle) that we integrated into our performances of The Imagination Museum there. This introduced five 19-20 year olds (Megan and her dancers) to the opportunity to work in a museum they hadn't visited before.
"The performances enabled me as a choreographer and the
audience to delve into learning about the museum and its exhibitions which you
don’t always pick up on when wandering around the museum yourself." (Megan Otty on the process of creating work for the Discovery Museum)
I'll be adding video highlights of this collaboration with Megan to my blog when I have an opportunity.
Even though there continue to be barriers to attendance in certain areas, or in terms of certain audience groups, Anneliese described that half of the adults living in the South West region are attending museums - a substantial number of people. She identified this as an audience that dancers are not currently getting to, but described that museums in the region were interested in 'innovative interpretation, digital practice, engaging audiences in new ways' in spite of challenges around distribution of the work (the area "relies heavily on market and coastal towns, served through Rural Touring networks") and the diversity of work being toured.
Anneliese closed with two thoughts I wanted to hold on to: how important it was to celebrate what is being done well, and for the the work being done to become central to communities and to be valued by those communities.
Kathrin Pierin (Curator and Manager, Petersfield Museum) went on to talk about their 'Gone but not forgotten' project, which came out of a workshop offered by the South East Museums Development Programme and an initial expression of interest in collaboration from what was then Hampshire Dance.
Petersfield Museum were a small organisation wanted to try something big through working in partnership. They used the project as a way to access new knowledge that came about through working in partnership with a new organisation, and enabled it to develop over an extended period of time. Working from shared aims, and over an extended period of time - two of the key components of effective partnership-working that were mentioned repeatedly throughout the day.
- involved school children, and then also identified broader community groups
- integrated Arts Award opportunities very straightforwardly
- integrated opportunities for open discussion and play with ideas before 'a more concerted effort to pin down key concerns'
- resulted in the development of a new body of research which has already been used for other performances (I'm interested in the potential non-dance outputs of a dance/museums collaboration; this came up at several points during the day)
- developed new audiences, and then provided opportunities for those new audiences/participants to continue engaging with the museum through workshops
- built on local pride/interest in local history
- also required other partnerships, including with several local festivals (which resulted in the sharing of knowledge around how to present the final work most effectively)
- was overseen by a single choreographer, although several artists worked on the delivery of the project, which meant there was an overall coherent artistic vision
- culminated in a final performance that happened in the main town square as the museum was too small, but the overall project did increase local people's awareness of the museums in Petersfield
- also increased the profile of Hampshire Dance/Dance UP and the Hampshire Youth Dance Company
Associated work with schools (which made me think of the work I'm doing with support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation researching ways of using dance to deliver the primary school history curriculum through dance):
- integrated written and practical work
- encouraged the young people to consider their connections with the personal story of people involved in WWI, and to explore the emotions that came out of their discussion of the source material
- integrated work with artefacts from handling collections as well as photographs and written accounts
- resulted in some more literal and some more abstract movement responses
Feedback from the workshop element of the project indicated that this way of working gave the children and younger people involved a clearer insight into the historic starting point at the heart of the performance.
Ken Parry remarked on the great success of the project being the fact that it really felt like a celebration of the town and not a project that was 'parachuted in', and therefore didn't have a legacy. Several people used this phrase throughout the day - collaborations are most effective where they are genuinely developed in partnership, over time, and in partnership with the community as well as the organisations delivering the work.
Kathrin's four notes of caution about working in this way were:
- to make sure there was a partnership agreement in place
- to "make recourse to the experience and knowledge of the people around you"
- to have a contingency plan (in their case, what would happen in the event of bad weather)
- to have a strong financial plan in place
Georgina Pope (Head of Learning at the Horniman Museum) talked about the Horniman Museum's successful ongoing collaboration with Trinity Laban that grew out of her working relationship with Veronica Jobbins at Trinity Laban and a shared desire to work together when the opportunity arose. She spoke about the relatively 'light touch' way in which the collaboration began, and how it then built into ambitious events such as the Curious Tea Party, which Georgina described as being very expressive of the feeling of the Horniman collection and its eccentricity. Again, Georgina described that the work felt very true to the Horniman Museum and not 'parachuted in' because it was developed over a lengthy period of discussion.
Georgina talked again about a part of the Trinity Laban/Horniman Museum partnership that really fascinates me, which was the 'touring' of several Horniman Museum objects to the Trinity Laban building (once they had navigated the sheer volume of bureaucracy involved in this!). In later discussions we talked about the possibility of also touring dance responses/artefacts or replacing objects that were 'on tour' with a danced response (wouldn't it be amazing if empty glass display cases were filled temporarily with a danced response).
Georgina described that the Curious Tea Party was designed to:
- be fun, free, familiy-friendly
- integrate all the elements within a mixed programme, with no head-lining of professional works
- encourage the audience to move around the museum and gardens, and see the site in a new way
Through partnership with Trinity Laban, the Horniman team developed skills in commissioning arts work, meaning that on later collaborations they had more confidence to take more of a lead in this process, and devolve less of the budget to Trinity Laban for commissioning artists.
On the 3rd July the Horniman Museum will host its next event developed in partnership with Trinity Laban (and others), Festa Julina.
Sally Lewis (museum consultant, working with PDSW) then introduced her action plan for a Dance and Museums Network, following on from PDSW's last Dance and Museums conversation at the M-Shed in Bristol in September 2015. This served as a starting point for discussions after lunch and I believe that notes from those discussions will be shared at some point as they will inform a new draft of the action plan (which I will add here when it's available).
Sally's action plan as it stands consists of three key aims:
Aim 1: Establish resource for sharing e.g. the resource page on the PDSW website is an early version of this, and there was discussion around setting up a designated Dance and Museums Facebook page, which might be a precursor of a designated website
Aim 2: How to reach a new audience for this work
Aim 3: Developing access to museum collections
Bethan Peters (Choreographer in Residence at Royal Museums Greenwich) gave a wonderful presentation that evidenced just how much could be developed (including in terms of Bethan's choreographic practice) through a year-long residency with a heritage organisation, in this case the Royal Museums Greenwich. Some key points I took away:
- Bethan found it useful that there was an existing context (the 'Travellers' Tails' project) to which she could anchor her ideas when beginning her residency
- museums provide an environment that nourishes the multi-faceted interests of a dance artist
- Bethan was encouraged to take risks and to try out lots of different ideas (Deryck talked later about the need to balance trust and risk when bringing together dance and museums; Emma McFarland also talks about this on p.31 of her report here)
- Bethan developed a series of choreographed responses based around the theme of exploration; artists have historically been an important part of expeditions, documenting what was found on international trips
- rehearsing on-site was "an exposing process", but one that Bethan found liberating in the end - I hadn't really thought about this 'exposure' before, but there certainly is something about rehearsing in a museum while it is open to the general public which means there's nowhere to hide! I love this part of the work, and the fact that it presents an opportunity for conversation about the work with passers-by
- Being part of the museum team meant that opportunities presented themselves to Bethan that she hadn't considered before
- Part of Bethan's residency resulted in an exhibition element/display that explored Bethan's practice and a dance film Who is the land - something tangible within the museum that could be present when Bethan wasn't there during the period of her residency
- Bethan integrated multiple participation strands to her work: postcards she took on tour when creating Who is the land that enabled her to collect people's stories; work with the Royal Museums Greenwich 'Explorer' family programme including facilitating informal discussion opportunities about things happening in the museum; primary school projects, all of which also fed into the National Maritime Museum's 'Re-think' exhibition space
Bethan only described a couple of challenges she had faced:
- around developing an audience for her work; she did encounter some people who felt that the dance was interfering with their experience of the museum
- how to facilitate a certain level of engagement with the work when the audience only dips in and out of it?; this might mean offering other opportunities for audiences to engage with the process before and after the performance
Bethan will share her final work as part of her residency on the 26th June at the National Maritime Museum at 1pm.
What have I taken away from today's discussion?:
- the importance of having shared values at the heart of a collaboration
- projects are more able to express those shared values and genuinely capture the feeling of a museum collection for example where they are developed over time
- the relationship between an individual choreographer, company or arts organisation and a heritage organisation (and also engaging the local community, who will take pride in interpreting their local history in a new way) must be a two-way street (which can only come about due to a sharing of values)
- I am very interested in new thoughts around curating artefacts through performance e.g. work being developed at the New Museum in New York (thanks to Sara Wookey for the tip), and the possibility for dance to become part of the palette of resources available to curators when telling a story through a particular exhibition
- artists working as part of a museum team (and the opposite should also be enabled to happen i.e. museum practitioners working in residence with arts organisations) during a longer residency benefit from opportunities that may not have occurred to either party independently
- rehearsing on-site is exposing, but a way to develop choreographic practice, particularly through discussion with members of the public
- dance and dance-making can and is entering into the permanent collections of museums e.g. through exhibited artefacts from the work-in-progress, on film, and through development of new bodies of research which can then be used as a resource for follow-on events (all three of the case study projects today indicated this)