The Learning Planet

17 08 2011

I’ve decided to archive this blog, as well as my other blog (Culture, Learning and Innovation), in favour of having one new, integrated blog. This is called The Learning Planet.  I’ll be migrating some of the more enduring articles from both old blogs onto this new one. It was getting confusing having two blogs, not to mention all the other special project blogs I’ve set up, or the co-authored ones I contribute to, like New Public Thinkers. So, there will be no new posts added here – all new stuff will be on The Learning Planet. But I will keep this one up online for a while, as there might be a few incoming links. If you link here, or subscribe, you might want to change it to The Learning Planet.

Shared Horizons and New Stories

8 05 2011

Four things cropped up yesterday, to slow me down and make me reflect, on what was otherwise a fretful day. I was fretting because it was the day of the AV referendum and most people were voting against a small step towards better democracy. Also I had heard all the bad news, again, but this time worse than ever. (The Arctic melting faster than thought, higher temperatures predicted than thought, clearer realisation that time is running out…) The four arresting things were:

1. The Hot Science conference in Australia, about the role of museums in climate change communication; 2. George Monbiot’s article responding to Paul Kingsnorth about the role of stories in helping environmentalists find their way; 3. Finishing Keri Facer’s book ‘Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change‘; 4. Ending up with late night discussion on the power of the media in influencing people’s political decisions.

So, I was reflecting on the role of: museums and heritage; the narrative arts (or all the arts, if you want to say art is all about stories in the broadest sense); education; and the media…in both their institutionalised and informal states, in dealing with the problem to end all problems, that of the planet’s state of health.

I was struck by how difficult it is for everyone, in each of these sectors, to tell a story that is big enough, and to bridge technology and imagination in ways that are nuanced and practical enough. In many debates about how to change attitudes towards the environment, too often we conflate all the contributing sectors into two sides: ‘science’ and ‘communicators’, and call for more interaction between the two. Will that be enough? Do we understand enough what that looks like? What might it look like in these four domains?  First, museums.

Hot Science Global Citizens is a major partnership project between museums and researchers in Australia of a scale that we can only dream of in the UK. It explores the agency of the museum sector in climate change interventions. In the UK, work in this area is patchy, small scale or specialised. Examples include the Science Museum in their planning of climate exhibitions, research by individuals such as Lucy Veale, the Happy Museum project (albeit with a focus on wellbeing) and some work by MLA/Renaissance including a training toolkit I’ve written called Museums for the Future (soon to be launched).

I was keen to follow the Symposium proceedings, which included two admirable UK speakers, Mike Hulme from UEA and Giles Lane from Proboscis. I could only follow by Twitter, trying to stay awake for their day/my night, so I can’t accurately report proceedings (while awaiting papers to go online). The talk was mainly about how to communicate the science of climate change, and how museums might need to broaden their horizons to help. I commented that the whole museum paradigm needs to shift from one of communicating knowledge to one of problem-solving. Elaine Gurian had said that our idea of museum communities needs to change from being place-based to ideas-based. I think the shift needs to be from ideas to problem-solving (in places, with ideas). Museums are the right places for situated problem-solving because of their unique three-fold function: 1) they are places to experience culture and to gather with others, 2) they expose us to knowledge beyond ourselves (increasingly, with digital culture, forming part of a global knowledge ecosystem), and 3) they conserve material heritage so that we combat destruction and promote learning and creativity.

The Twitter discussion also hovered around a question about the need for new climate icons, to draw attention to the potential loss of things that people really care about. I wonder though about whether we are already fatigued with too many icons. I suspect people believe they could actually bear the loss of things they might simply appreciate but don’t know that they need, such as birds, trees or coastal beauty spots. I think people need to know how the whole damn lot of icons is connected, how they all go down together in environmental collapse. Alongside that, people need to understand that climate change is not separate from other aspects of environmental disruption. The debate seemed a little limited by focusing on the role of science museums and on the challenge of communicating climate science. Engagement needs to broaden from climate to planet, but retain meaning in people’s lives by focusing on how we live in places.

On to the narrative arts…

George Monbiot wrote an interesting piece, responding to Paul Kingsnorth, the founder with Dougald Hine of the Dark Mountain project. Monbiot summarised the big problems tearing apart the environmental movement encapsulated in his point number 7: We have no idea what to do next. I feel his desperation sometimes, but I think it was interesting that he didn’t mention the adaptation, resilience and transition movements that are making positive headway in bridging technology and culture to know what to do next. However, I was heartened that he admitted the potential in Kingsnorth’s call for new stories, as the environmental movement is too led by numerical strategy. I felt, though, that Monbiot’s notion of stories needs expansion. Stories are powerful not so much because they give us answers but because the narrative arts, in treatments that are not too dogmatic or closed, offer opportunities for people to reach a shared horizon of understanding. So, this is stories not telling us what to do but being a way to work out what we should do. The call for new stories has to be for content that relates to this extraordinary crisis, and moreover for new forms of engagement. The forms of engagement have to be powerful enough to push against the mainstream stories that quietly or overtly endorse consumption, innerism and violence against the other. The Passion, by Wildworks, performed at Easter in Port Talbot, is a good example of the kind of participatory storytelling that could be powerful enough. Richard Kearney explains the role of stories in terms of mythos (plot), mimesis (recreation), catharsis (release), phronesis (wisdom) and ethos (ethics). If we can expand this to how narrative engagement might help tackle George’s problem:

– Mythos: using plotting to devise new futures, imagining ways that we might overcome conflict and resolve problems

– Mimesis: holding a mirror to the state of the world as it rapidly changes, showing us what we cannot see

– Catharsis: providing an essential therapeutic function to help us be resilient and calm

– Phronesis: recording and channeling deep knowledge, so that we might better know how to think in systems, make decisions and apply innovations

– Ethos: shifting our ‘deep frames’ from values that are self-enhancing to values that are self-transcendent and altrustic.

The other two domains (media and education) will have to be dealt with in a much more cursory fashion, but I have written about them in more depth elsewhere.

On media, while the BBC was covering the referendum and elections, there was some Twitter discussion with Dougald Hine and others about the need for new TV and radio formats that don’t reinforce political differences through antagonistic debate, but which enable more creative problem-solving. I like this idea very much. My Flow co-director,Mark Stevenson, is already focusing  his attention on some ideas for broadcast media to enable people to reclaim the future, solve problems in positive ways and take action.

On education, I will just urge you to read Keri Facer’s book on Learning Futures. This makes a very strong case for schools as centres for community problem-solving. She argues that we have been developing our vision for education with a far too narrow vision of the future, and that we should be embracing:

– The emergence of new relationships between humans and technology

– The opportunities and challenges of aging populations

– The development of new forms of knowledge and democracy

– The challenges of climate warming and environmental disruption

– The potential for radical economic and social inequalities

I entirely agree with her thesis but my only disappointment is that the challenges of climate warming and environmental disruption in particular were not actually addressed, albeit listed as not commonly considered. The book helped us imagine a future school, but it didn’t actually help us imagine the future. That is the challenge for us now, for new stories and learning structures, which help us imagine how bad the future could be whilst simultaneously imagining how we can work it around to provide the means to thrive.

Reviewing Atmosphere

6 01 2011

In December I visited the new Atmosphere gallery at London’s Science Museum, which is their new permanent display about climate change. I used the opportunity to see the new galleries to meet up with a colleague, James Aldridge, who I’d not met in real life before that day. This meant that, although we were both really interested in the exhibition, we were a bit distracted by discussing work projects. Since then I’ve been meaning to do a post on it but I didn’t have full presence of mind to make helpful sense of my vaguely critical thoughts. On our visit, though we did walk round the whole thing we didn’t spot any opportunity to leave our thoughts, to have any dialogue with the Museum about questions or solutions but apparently there are Tell stations where you can leave comments.

I will need to return to do a more thoughtful analysis, and next time will take my 10 year old daughter as a guinea pig. In the meantime, you can read a comprehensive description of it on Lucy Veale’s project blog, which is all about museum collections and their potential for public engagement about climate change. And below, a very brief summary of my first impressions:

I definitely enjoyed the exhibition and really commend the Science Museum for doing it and thinking so hard about the difficult issues involved. I liked the links made between the in-gallery interactives and the web. I liked the depth of the information.

There are a number of elements that I’m more critical about. The criticism is not necessarily negative. It’s more that I was aware of certain decisions that had been made and wasn’t sure if they were quite right. Perhaps this is because it seemed to be designed for a very particular audience which didn’t include me.

It seemed to be a kind of game-like environment aimed at 14-25 year olds. On the other hand, it wasn’t quite as targeted as the Science of Survival touring exhibition which is a much more youth-oriented involving narrative. So it seemed to fall between two stools of being for everyone and for a certain kind of person. The designers had consciously created an area that felt like a virtual world up at the top of the Wellcome wing. It felt rather like having been abducted by a spacecraft and injected with knowledge. However, at times, the pace of injection wasn’t accelerated but rather slow. It took some time and patience to listen to many of the presentations and to work out how to play some of the games, especially as the exhibition progressed.

The science seemed to be scrupulously researched in the first three sections, and I suspect the exhibition team were more confident in this area. However, the final two sections ‘What Might Happen?’ and ‘Our Future Choices’ seemed to be rather bland, decorative and reassuring, perhaps because it is so difficult to confront the severity of the crisis and to portray such variable predicted scenarios. For example, a rather pretty mosaic screen (a Natural User Interface) invited us to move around until a square opened up to give more detail about the impacts of climate change on the planet. It took some time for this to work so we only revealed one square. This told us that a particular kind of bird in Italy was changing in size. You might think ‘so what?’ and move on at that point.

Overall I felt that the exhibition lacked both poetics and politics. So, I’ll return to this review and explore my thoughts in more detail. If you’ve visited I’d be interested to know whether you think it is effective in engaging people, in terms of the use of objects, visual design, storytelling and involving people in dialogue.

‘Arts funding’ and ‘a creative and critical life’

21 05 2010

(This post is published a day late hence it starts ‘today’ rather than ‘yesterday’)

Today the media will be reporting announcements from the Minister for Culture, Olympics, Media & Sport, Jeremy Hunt, on the new Con-Dem Government’s priorities and funding decisions for DCMS. Their reports will be headlined as ‘arts funding’, the arts sector will be asked to comment and the uninvited responses from the arts sector will circulate. ‘The arts’ is often used as a synecdoche for heritage, tourism, museums, archives, libraries, creative industries & arts (give or take sport).

It seems that ‘the arts’ is used in preference because ‘culture’ is seen as too vague a term. True, ‘culture’ is a floating category. Its meanings can be so relative they can become opposed: It means ‘sort of heritage and broader’ to the arts sector and then ‘sort of arts and creativity’ to the heritage sector. To anyone outside those two poles it means ‘sort of everything that humans do and what ties a people together’. Maybe it would help if we could agree new terms for our sectors and domains of activity, that help us be both more inclusive and also more precise. Maybe these terms could also be set within a framework that helps us rethink and advocate the value of culture?

Bill Ivey has noted the problem that ‘the arts’ is too narrow and ‘culture’ is too broad.  The effect of this seems to him (especially in the US) to put arts or culture projects at the bottom of the funding pile. He has come up with the model of ‘the Expressive life’ as a more inclusive and singular definition of arts and culture which helps with their advocacy. In the UK, this has been published in a DEMOS pamphlet and in the latest RSA magazine. I appreciate what he is aiming to do but not sure that his model hits the mark, for our cultural institutions and attitudes. Instead I propose something which still needs to be properly named, which I call for now ‘a creative and critical life’. I will have to write in more detail about it, but in short it goes beyond the notion of an ‘expressive life’, because it places more emphasis on knowledge (e.g. the assets in our collections or, more broadly, the importance of enquiry). My proposal includes lifting the assumption that ‘heritage’ means things that are conservative and old-fashioned, to a more positive meaning: ‘caring for, using and reinventing what we have’. It also recognises our integration with nature (or rather it includes the notion of ‘biosphere capital’). Ivey has created the Expressive Life model to advocate the arts/culture to compete against funding for the environment or health, whereas I think the future for the arts is to integrate it into work towards biosphere and human wellbeing.

I have heard frequently that Conservatives describe culture as ‘a nice to have’, not essential. If we can demonstrate and enact culture as a vital force for environmental (and therefore human) wellbeing, that’s a bit more than a ‘nice to have’. The argument will then revolve around why Government should give it public subsidy, if there is a market demand for culture. My answer would be that the market can’t enable the kind of shift that is needed to make culture such a powerful force. (Woops, I’ve slipped into using ‘culture’. I mean ‘a creative and critical life’ or something like that. Suggestions welcome.)

Facing the bad but preventing the worst

14 05 2010

I went to a talk this week at the RSA called ‘Facing climate change’ by Clive Hamilton who has written an essential book called Requiem for a Species. I’m not writing in this post about the cultural and heritage sectors, except to say that his position is vital for us to consider, and so I’m just summarising his speech. The book addresses cultural shifts, the need to reimagine all our political and lifestyle decisions. It’s not yet another essay to prove anthropogenic climate change but is about why we can’t move forward, why the responses to science are either hostile or inadequate.
He described the vicious cyberbullying of climate scientists, how death threats, break-ins and hackings of senior scientists have escalated. Science (which has also been championed as a tool of progress) has now been characterised as left wing ideology and climate denialism has been funded by right wing thinktanks. Now that the BNP has adopted climate denialism it’s now inextricably linked with right wing ideology (though he also notes that the left wing has also been dismissive of environmentalism.)

He described how the 4th IPCC report (2007) seriously underestimated climate change impacts and now how the evidence of increasingly rapid warming has been buried in avalanche of reports around Climategate. (One statistic out of many he showed: Warming of 3 to 4 C is now associated with 360 to 420 ppmv of CO2 rather than 500 to 600, as previously thought, Schneider and Schneider, Nature Geoscience, Dec 2009). The sustained and media driven assault on science led to public surveys of more disbelief in climate change than before Copenhagen.

He tells us that it is virtually impossible to avoid dramatic change to the climate this century. It is already happening. (We knew this before but it hurts to hear it again and so convincingly.) He talks about some of the research that explains the modelling. For example, the Tyndall Centre has explored a range of two figs defining the curve upon which our future depends, of when emissions peak and how quickly they decline. How likely are we to peak at 2020 and decline by 6 to 7 % every year afterwards? The Stern review looked at some historical precedents to work out the answer. When and where gas and nuclear were introduced you would expect a big rate of emissions decline but it was minimal. The best incidence was when the Soviet Union’s  economy collapsed.

So, the likely scenario is 4C by 2070, which is hotter than the planet has been for 15 million years. To avoid this level we must have reductions of 9% annually. But this has been seen as impossible because it’s equivalent to global war mobilisation on the scale we saw in the 2nd world war. I feel incredulous that this is seen to be impossible: we did it before to resist a dictator, we can’t consider it now to resist the loss of a planet most species can live in? The reason why we don’t mobilise is that the majority response is denial, including casual denial and disengagement. Others might attempt to ‘do something’ but with maladaptive strategies, for example with minor diversions, greenwashing, blame shifting, reducing the problem in scale or distance, or by creating benign fictions. Adaptive strategies are the only helpful approach (and even so, without global radical political action they won’t avert some catastrophe) as the only healthy way we can deal with the situation is to express and manage our emotions, to solve problems and to readjust our values. He cited something called post-traumatic growth theory: if you see your mortality you’re more likely to seek material comfort but if you’ve had major trauma you’re more likely to be more empathetic, less greedy. So, we need to experience despair in order to develop generosity. You must ‘move forward in the dark’ with small steps even if you can’t see your victories.

Someone asked him: Should we be allowing people to despair? His belief is that if you don’t despair you’re not listening to the scientists. Being optimistic might have been a defensible position a decade ago.  He said: ‘I’m optimistic that it’s going to be bad, but also that we can do lots of things to mean it’s not as bad as it can be.’ USA is especially allured by optimism but this isn’t so far leading to radical breakthroughs in reducing emissions.

Another question: What would you do if you were a politician? He said that we have to completely reimagine how we deal with it. He noted that climate was not mentioned in our election because 3 parties don’t differ in their policies very much. Many scientists thought that the IPCC and Stern reports would blow away the denialists but climate science is too much of a fundamental challenge to the enlightenment conceit.

Another question: There’s all this emphasis on climate change but why not tackle biodiversity decline, as it’s a far more serious issue. Hamilton’s response suggested that biodiversity is entirely wrapped up with it, it’s not a separate issue. Ecocide in the oceans and forests is causing climate change and in turn climate change destroys biodiversity.

In my next post, reflecting on my presentation on climate change and photography at the National Photography Symposium, I’ll draw on my thoughts in response to this talk. At the moment I’m just having feeling despair and thinking again and again about the future for our children. But hopefully, I’ll have converted this into problem solving in a few days.

Creative learning and ecology projects

10 04 2010

Flow is developing an ambitious new project that is international, digital, creative and ecological, and which will provide a platform or channel for any other world-changing, planet-saving campaigns, content assets and ideas. I can’t really say too much right now but want to share three lovely projects that involve creativity, young people and ecology that I’ve discovered. One is in an extraordinary field, the second is on bikes and the third is on a boat.

terra incognita present Bolly-Woods
“From March – May 2010, arts organisation terra incognita with support from Ernest Cook Trust invited a group of British Bengali young people to ‘The Field’, in rural Essex. The group, most of whom have not left Tower Hamlets before, are known to each other, as they learn and perform Bollywood dance, under the tutelage of respected young choreographer Amith Chowdhury. In a series of sessions, run by artist and educator Jean Campbell, inspiration for a new dance piece is being found in the environment of rural England. Learning new things – notation of dance, natural history of England, woodland management; gaining new experiences – tree felling with hand tools; and bringing their experience together to reflect the relationship between traditional rural activities and movement used in Bollywood dance. The project culminates in a performance in May 2010. ‘The Field’ is 13 acres of mixed open space and woodland which has over the last year been a space for conservation, culture, allotments for Londoners, and a meeting space for the unexpected.

The Othesha Project

This is a much more nomadic project, taking theatre and creative activism on bikes to young people round the country.

“We’re taking sustainable living personally. Sometimes we’re nomadic cyclists, other times we’re improv theatre wizards and every so often you can find us shamelessly sowing seeds. We want to spread and share good ideas – from cycling to free-cycling; from free-range to fair trade – and create social and environmental change through our everyday lives. At the heart of the Otesha Project you’ll find a two-wheeled revolution. Every summer, teams of wonderful young people are hopping on bikes and travelling across the UK, stopping at schools, festivals and communities along the way to perform the Otesha play and generally make the world a better place. And that’s not all. We work with young people in schools, colleges and youth clubs, helping them to set up projects that will make it easier for other people in their schools and communities to live in a cleaner, greener, fairer way. ”

I especially like the monthly challenges to young people on the website.

Finally, another ambitious and travelling project, Atlantic Rising

This is “a charity on a 32,000km journey circumnavigating the Atlantic overland along the 1m contour line. This is the level scientists predict sea levels may reach in the next 100 years. Along the way we are creating an educational network between 15,000 students in low-lying coastal communities. Through our photography, films and writing, we are also documenting what will be lost if these predictions come true.”

Please do share any other great examples in the comments here.

#CACH week digest

28 03 2010

The week of awareness of Climate Action in Culture & Heritage is at an end. Considering I did very little but tell a few sympathetic people to tweet & blog, and tweeted a lot myself, it generated quite a lot of interest.

It started with Tate Modern’s Age of Stupid screening and then their Royal Society climate futures symposium. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend, so couldn’t amplify and report them, and there was only one tweeter, the stalwart Susan Poupard. Given that there don’t seem to be any papers published or media reports (though please send any you know of), I wonder what impact this event had. Are we becoming tired of symposia on how artists can work with scientists to tackle problems like climate change? Do we need to broaden and enrich the discussion? What is the wider educational legacy of all these gatherings of great minds?

One event that was a key reason for holding the week was cancelled so there were fewer events to report from than hoped. However, I did present at Museum-ID’s event on Greener Museums, along with Rachel Madan and others.

The week concluded appropriately with Earth Hour at 8.30 on Saturday so at least it was bookended nicely, starting with a hard reminder of how stupid we’ve been, ending in a positive global action.

Despite the reduction in event attendance, there was plenty of news to report, for example, the ‘neutrality’ issue regarding the Science Museum’s new climate science galleries.

Also, Axis, RSA Arts & Ecology and the Ashden Directory all wrote articles and tweeted about them for #CACH. They were:

‘Eco-bling‘ by Lucy Gibson on Axisweb

The thing we shouldn’t be asking artists to do‘ by William Shaw on RSA Arts & Ecology

‘When science meets art…successfully’ by Kellie Payne on the Ashden Directory

One thing I noted here was that we have three articles from some of the leading UK networks or initiatives on art and climate change/ecology. There are no ongoing bodies or networked initiatives, at least none which responded in the same way, and none of the same breadth, from the museums and heritage sector.

Of course there is a bit of local and specialised activity in museums and heritage, and some of that can be seen in the #CACH tweets.  Also, I hope that the CACH website and framework can start to fill that gap in pulling together culture and heritage on this issue.

One organisation that is trying hard to engage museums and galleries is the Visual Arts and Galleries Association. They are keen to support curators (in general). They used CACH to ask: What kind of ‘stuff’ would be useful for culture and heritage sectors in terms of climate action? Tools? Advice? Links? Seminars? That call out still stands so tweet (in 1st instance) Trevor Horsewood on @horsewoodcc or go to the VAGA website for more traditional contact details.

To finish with a few more highlights:

Tony Butler tweeted from a wellbeing & museums conference in Oslo and then from a conference of the Alde & the Ore Futures Project, which is looking at impacts of rising sea levels on all dimensions including heritage, tourism and the arts.

Tony also passed on some examples of coastal art projects such as Fly in the Face.

We published a guest post by Claire Adler on young people’s views on climate change and museums.

I learned that M-Shed (Bristol Museums) are working with Transition Bristol on involving the wider community in sustainable development. And, just in, here is a post by Tony Butler about how we can set up ‘transition museums’ or museums inspired by the Transition movement.

I learned that ACE restructuring means ‘letting go’ of their Arts & Ecology officer, John Hartley. However, he’ll not be letting go his interest in this and I look forward to seeing what he does next. I had a great conversation with him about the need to redefine the meaning of sustainability for the sector. I think that is a key next step for the taking forward the Framework for Climate Action.

And there was more…Please add a comment if you learned or did anything during the week, or if you have thoughts about what next.


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