Drawing from the Foreshore

Sophie Charalambous, 'On the Foreshore'

Sophie Charalambous, ‘On the Foreshore’

The Thames foreshore is a mysterious place. It’s full of history but also dangerous. A potential treasure trove of historical artefacts, but unpredictable, where the sands can give way and the tide can change quickly.

As a historian interested in London I’ve always had an appreciation for the importance of the Thames, but my interest in the foreshore was only really aroused whilst working for the Royal Armouries at the Tower of London. The Tower is one of the most iconic images of the Thames foreshore and through a project looking at archaeological finds I discovered the fascinating history of armouries and gun manufacture that took place just in-front of the Tower, on the foreshore. In this project I worked with four amazing volunteers to repackage and catalogue this collection of artefacts that had not been touched since the 1980s. I became fascinated and blogged about it for the Royal Armouries here, and as part of the Day of Archaeology here.

One thing I love about history is that when you find something that intrigues you, it’s likely that you’ll find a whole group of people equally, if not more, curious that you. I subsequently came across the Thames Discovery Programme, who run FROG, and, of course, the Mudlarks.

More recently, I’ve discovered an artist with an obvious fascination with the foreshore. Her name is Sophie Charalambous and she currently has an exhibition called ‘From the Foreshore’ on at  Jessica Carlisle until 8 March.

Sophie Charalambous, 'Pageant'

Sophie Charalambous, ‘Pageant’

Jessica Carlisle, who is curating and hosting the show, has described Sophie’s work as a ‘poetic interpretation’ of the foreshore, and I agree that the images appear to capture that magical quality of the foreshore. They are almost wistful, portraying a single moment somewhere between the past and present day.

If you’re keen to know more, Sophie Charalambous will be giving an artist’s talk on Saturday 7 March at 3pm. The gallery is on Kinnerton Street, just off Knightsbridge, and the exhibition runs until 8 March.

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MuseomixUK 2014: Some reflections and a chart

MuseomixUK 2014 6-9 November 2014

MuseomixUK 2014 6-9 November 2014

It’s over. After months of planning, countless emails and a few trips to Derby, it’s over. MuseomixUK 2014 ran from Friday 7 November through to Sunday 9 November with a showcase of the prototypes on Monday 10 November. And what a weekend!

Lots of carbs and caffeine saw us through the long days and I’ve been in awe of what the teams made. It was odd not being on a team this year, but it was nice to be allocated to one team to keep them informed of their deadlines and help progress where I could. This meant I didn’t really feel ownership of any of the prototypes, but I did get a better idea of what was going on elsewhere rather than being in the bubble of a team. I was also looking after evaluation which meant I got to work with Derby Museum, as well as our student volunteers, to develop a visitor evaluation. I was also attempting to monitor the changing emotions of the participants, but more of that later.

Team “Museums as Conversations” see their Tumblr here: http://museumasconversation.tumblr.com/

Firstly, I want to mention the team I worked with. They were ‘Museums as Conversations’, and as a facilitator I was very fortunate that the team worked very well together from the start. I’m not saying it was plain sailing from the get go. Saturday morning was a particular challenge as the team wrestled with their ideas and how they could be realised into a physical prototype. In that, I am also grateful to Dominic and Fraser from Mixed Reality (one of our sponsors) who helped talk them through the variety of tech possibilities. But I have to say that once that got their idea, and agreed, I did very little. I helped put together a to do list, gave them jobs and off they went. I was occasionally asked for tape or post-it notes and had a sing-along, but apart from that they got on with it. Amazing!!

Museums As Conversations map and projection

Museums As Conversations map and projection

And what did they make? It was a tactile 3D map of Derby with particular places of interest available to be selected by pushing them down on to a touchscreen. This activated a projection displaying historic information on the building and a twitter feed that represented memories of that location submitted by the public.

The central point of the prototype was that it stimulated and invited memories from the public.Consequently the group envisaged that a final product could have an interface that allowed people to contribute memories there, through a keyboard etc. The history of locations could also be connected to museum objects, so visitors could simply enjoy learning the history and seeing personal connections or use this as a stimulus for their memories or thoughts. Beautiful!

The other teams were also impressive and it would take me too long to explain them all, so if you want to know more please see their Tumblr sites:
http://museomixuk.tumblr.com/teams

Before I mention the evaluation process I was also looking at over the weekend I should also say a huge thank you to Dr Cath Feely and her five students from Derby University who gave up their time to help us. There were times when there wasn’t much to do, but having them there for the sudden ‘we need this’, ‘can you get this’ and as roving reporters was brilliant. They were also essential to putting together the brochure and tour for the public on the Monday, and they led some tours on the Monday and helped me monitor and think about evaluation. One of the students was keeping blog over the weekend, see here.

Talking about evaluation, the important part of this is yet to come, and we’ll be sending out a post-event evaluation to participants soon. This will be the most important part for our feedback for our sponsors, the Arts Council, but we have also done a couple of other this. A pre-event evaluation for a baseline of thoughts and feelings. Also, over the weekend I put together a visitor evaluation for the public on Monday. A quick look at this shows that the prototypes were very positively received and words to describe the exhibits included:
Intriguing; Fun; Interactive; Tactile; Thought-provoking; Alive; Inspirational; Innovative; Crazy; Left-field; Exciting and Future!

I was also using emotion boxes to attempt to monitor the emotional rollercoaster of MuseomixUK.

Emotion Boxes at MuseomixUK - they always started with one small block to encourage others

Emotion Boxes at MuseomixUK – they always started with one small block to encourage others

This is probably not the most scientific method, but from the feedback of a few participants over the weekend, many found them therapeutic. Many people called for a tired box, I said I knew they were all tired and didn’t need a box to tell me, and other said the size of the blocks really mattered to them, so they’d put in a large block for inspired and a small one in frustrated. I hadn’t planned to account for the volume of the boxes, but may include it an anecdotal in my final evaluation. So far I’ve standardised the results and made this graph. What do you think??

MuseomixUK 2014 Emotion Boxes Standardised Graph

MuseomixUK 2014 Emotion Boxes Standardised Graph

Local history comes to Life – Enfield Life

Enfield Life Exhibition at the Dugdale Centre. copyright Kathleen McIlvenna

Enfield Life Exhibition at the Dugdale Centre. copyright Kathleen McIlvenna

Recently the Enfield Life exhibition, looking at the history of the modern London Borough of Enfield, which includes the historic boroughs of Edmonton, Southgate and Enfield, was officially launched. It was curated by Enfield Museum Service and has been open and receiving visitors for a number of months, but as part of the redevelopment of the first floor of the Dugdale Centre in Enfield Town, it was officially launched with the availability of meeting rooms and community spaces in the heart of Enfield Town.

Enfield Life exhibition including room sets. Copyright Kathleen McIlvenna

Enfield Life exhibition including room sets. Copyright Kathleen McIlvenna

Now, I should immediately admit my bias to this, and declare that I was part of the team that put this exhibition together. It is something I am immensely proud of and can only claim to be a small part of the team that put it together, my two other colleagues, who were full time, put in a lot of time and effort and I think this is evident in the final display.

The exhibition is generally chronological, using aspects of life across Enfield to draw out themes. It largely follows a standard panel and case format, which results in the first couples of cases looking at the pre-history, ‘Early Life’, and also the Early Modern or ‘big house’ era called ‘Aristocratic Life’. However, I think a few touches have gone a long way to make the display more dynamic drawing visitors into and through the space. It was also a great excuse to exhibit some of the larger gems in the collection. A Roman coffin sits in the middle of the floor and two room sets demonstrate changes and continuity from Georgian to 1930s homes.

Community Life case in Enfield Life exhibition. Copyright Kathleen McIlvenna

Community Life case in Enfield Life exhibition. Copyright Kathleen McIlvenna

The people of Enfield are at the heart of this exhibition and the cases looking at the later history of the area become more thematic looking at Suburban Life, Industrial Life, Municipal Life and Community Life (not in that order). Most of the objects in Enfield Museum Service collection were donated by local residents and hopefully the exhibition will facilitate a connection between the people of Enfield through the ages by translating how life has changed. From the Belling cooker, to a 1930 Toucan dinner gong and from a turn of the century silk women’s cooperative banner to a t-shirt created by the Enfield Island Village Mothers and Daughters group to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee in summer 2012.

The exhibition was also a great excuse to put up some of Enfield’s art collection depicting various aspects of Enfield’s people and places, and most of the press coverage of the exhibition has focused on the Constable drawing that has also been put on display. I won’t say much about that as it has been said elsewhere, but I will urge to take the trip to Enfield Town and the first floor of the Dugdale to have a look.

The Artist-Scientist in the history of the Submarine Telegraph

Samuel F. B. Morse’s painting “Gallery of the Louvre” from Art Knowledge News

Previously I’ve briefly discussed some thoughts on the links between art and science through the telescope of history. Through my research into the history of submarine telegraphy I’ve been struck by a continued link, and not just through representations and display, but through professions.

At least two telegraph engineers (that I’ve come across so far) had a previous career as an artist before turning to a life of experiment and science. One is probably one of the most famous men linked to electrical telegraphy, Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse’s career as a painter brought him to England in 1811, where he studied under Washington Allerton, and was eventually allowed into the Royal Academy. Morse went back to America in 1816 and enjoyed a successful career painting portraits of many prominent politicians. In 1830 Morse decided to return to Europe to improve his painting skills, and it was on this trip that he began to develop his concept of the single-wire electric telegraph.[1]

The second artists turned engineer was John W. Brett, one of the pioneers of submarine telegraphy. . In 1831 it appeared he was on the cusp of breaking through as an artist himself, but in October, a few days before the infamous Bristol riots, a fire broke out that destroyed his entire collection which included his own work as well as rare works he had acquired.[2] It appears that this personal disaster spurred Brett on to achieve success in an alternative way, through study and collecting Old Masters, this wide-ranging collection of fine art was highly credited and Brett consequently loaned works to exhibitions held in Manchester, the South Kensington Museum and the Royal Institution of British Architects.[3] However this wasn’t the only source of his fortune, like many people Brett’s imagination had been ignited by the recent success of the overland telegraph. In a conversation with his younger brother, Jacob Brett, it was suggested that if cables had been laid underground, why not underwater. The seed had been sown, but France wasn’t the first location the brothers wanted to connect via submarine cable, in 1845 Jacob Brett registered a company to unite Europe and America, when this was deemed too risky and large a scheme for such a young business the Bretts suggested a cable between England and Ireland, but this was declined by the British Government. According to the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography an agreement was eventually made with the French government in 1847 and it was decided to lay a telegraph cable between Dover and Calais.[4] A cable was eventually successfully laid in 1851, and was the first international submarine telegraph cable.

I’m sure there are many more artist turned scientists, there is after the Jungian Archetype of the Artist-Scientist, of which Wikipedia suggests Su Song, Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin (another pioneer of electricity). Perhaps it is the showman ship early electricity experiments encouraged, or the creativity of invention that attracted the cross-over, or perhaps it is some sort of psychological trait and there are many modern and ancient examples that I haven’t discovered yet.

History: an Art or Science? How different are they?

Conrad Shawcross is the Artist in residence at the Science Museum, London. The Science Museum is one of many scientific institutions that see a value in having artists in residence to engage their audience.

This is an age old question, and as I was trying to put together a presentation on it for University, I’m not planning on trying to answer it at length here.

But while mulling it over I began to realise just how intermingled the two disciplines are today.

History is a bit of a confusing subject, it sits under the branch of learning called Humanities (defined as the study of human culture), different History masters courses can get you a MA or a MSc, and funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Council comes from the Science and Innovation Group, part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. None of these points help.

Most arguments of this nature seem to focus on whether or not History is a science, assuming that if you are not a science you must be an art. But I’m not entirely convinced they are exact opposites. Both generally speaking build on previous knowledge or thought, and Postmodernists are able to demonstrate cultural influences on scientific thought as much as artistic, I’ve included a picutre of a piece of work by Conrad Shawcross, and here is a link to an interesting article about Salvador Dalí’s relationship and interest in science. Some of the most interesting pieces of modern art can come out of scientific influences, and scientists can get inspiration or that spark from the arts. Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that even scientific discoveries have been influenced by cultural factors, and it is clear that some sciences are heavily influenced by interpretation. It seems to be increasingly important for science to borrow from the arts to help engage a wider audience with their work and from the large amount of ‘popular’ science books out by authors like Brian Cox and Robert Winston it seems to be a healthy relationship.

I’ll finish up with a letter by Gregory Petsko, a Professor in Biochemistry and Chemistry, recently published in the Genome Biology journal arguing that science needs the arts and humanities:

One of the things I’ve written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn’t a question for science alone; it’s a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including – especially including – the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You’ve just ensured that yours won’t be one of them.

The rest of the letter can be found here.

This letter was written in reaction to the State University of New York at Albany deciding to get rid of its departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts. As cuts loom over the UK and both the sciences and arts feel the need to defend their purpose and position it is worth remembering the similarities and benefits of both.