Monday, August 8, 2011

Sensitive treatment for human remains

Travelling in Mexico in July, I visited every museum and historic site I could manage. Given the Mexican cult of death in history and today, I came across a lot of human remains.

I was particularly impressed by a very sensitive display of a carved skull from pre-Aztec culture in the Oaxaca region. At Monte Alban, a hilltop city dating 500BC-750AD, I explored the ruins and looked through the small but exquisite site museum.

This is what I saw through a doorway opening off the main gallery – a large panel that screened a small display space.

Screen across gallery doorway
 My Spanish isn't good enough to know that 'Un Craneo y un Caracol' means 'A Skull and a Shell', though I could work it out afterwards. So I entered the room with no idea what it contained.

Passing by the screen, I saw that the room had only two objects in it, along with information panels on the walls. This intriguing object caught my eye.

Human skull carved

Walking around it, visitors can see the intricate carvings from all angles.

Human skull carved

The other object in the room was this large shell carved in a similar manner.

Carved shell
I already knew enough about prehispanic religion to know that water was venerated as life-giving and that sea motifs, like this shell, were associated with this religious practice.

I knew, too, that death featured strongly in religious life, and that human sacrifice through suffering and death were ritual practices. So it seemed fitting that these objects relating to life and death were displayed here together.

I thought that the sensitivity shown in protecting the skull from accidental viewing was very much in line with contemporary museum practice.

Of course, we saw very different norms in current religious practice. Many Catholic churches display and venerate human remains.  In the Cathedral in Mexico City, one of the side chapels is a reliquary and features this prominent display of San Vital, an early Christian martyr.  Apparently the bones were exhumed from a Roman catacomb in 1819.

San Vital Martir

It is fascinating to see that museums and other cultural organisations reflect living cultural practices, each in their own way.

Posted by Gillian

Friday, May 6, 2011

Not for everyone

The opening of MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, in Hobart adds a new element to the landscape of Australian art galleries. Unlike public galleries, MONA doesn't have to  appeal to a broad audience.

MONA exhibit

 MONA is funded by David Walsh who does exactly what he likes as the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
 We were led underground to a lecture on "David's" intentions. There is a bit of a cult of "David" on the promontory. "It's David who makes all the final touches, everything ultimately comes down to his say," says Mark Fraser, late of Sotheby's Australia.

Cristina Ruiz from The Art Newspaper reported for Utne:

Imagine a museum that overturns virtually every accepted notion of institutional practice: an underground museum with no natural light, with a deliberately confusing design so visitors get lost as they wander through its halls; a museum that, in places, is incredibly noisy and very, very smelly.
What are the risks of ignoring accepted practice? From the Visitor Research point of view, we know that every place will find a following – ranging from broad popularity to niche. I'm predicting that MONA will attract a small passionate audience that is drawn to the intensely individual experience it offers. The process started with strong media interest before the gallery was open. Now MONA has 10,000 followers on Facebook, one of whom, Vance Joplin, said.
I'm from Sydney, I was there the 2nd day MONA opened. I'm flying back on the 27th till the 29th, and spending both the Saturday and the Sunday from open till close crawling over the museum.Thank you David, for letting me inside your head, and now I'm here, I like the way you think man.
MONA will survive because it has a benefactor who doesn't need the entry fees or the approval of a large audience. In contrast, publicly funded museums and galleries are answerable to the taxpayer and there are strict limits on what taxpayers are prepared to fund. In effect, the mandate of publicly funded galleries is to appeal to everyone without causing TOO much offence.

Of course, the practical realities mean that many galleries remain as quietly elite as they always were. A notable exception is the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art (QAG/GOMA) which has programmed some stunning and popular shows. It leads Australia in offering high-end experiences for families in all its exhibitions as shown by this lego table in the recent exhibition 21st Century, the First Decade.

GOMA – 21st Century, Art in the First Decade

And here is the Catch 22.  If galleries take the elitist road, like MONA, they won't get public funding, but if they take the popular route, like GOMA, the critics will ask, "Is it Art?" as The Australian did in this article.

QAG/GOMA has decided to attract and serve broad audiences and it is suceeding splendidly. With 1.8 million visits last year, it is quite a way ahead of its nearest equivalent, Melbourne's NGV, which attracted 1.5 million visits.

If MONA can continue to pay its way, it will find a loyal niche audience that loves the shock of controversy. This means that the new kid on the block will play nicely with its peers by doing something entirely different from them.

For a while, that is. MONA is more-or-less programmed to self-destruct as David Walsh notes: 
If I cared about longevity I wouldn’t have built a museum a couple of meters above the sea level. The Derwent is a tidal river. In 50 years, a lot of money is going to have to be spent on MONA or it’s going to be underwater.

Posted by Gillian Savage

Monday, April 11, 2011

Listening Post

The topic of Redfern in an earlier post has raised some interesting discussion from readers, some of whom debate the merits of the logo.

Regular readers will recall that the logo looks like this and is intended to represent a smiling welcome.

Logo for Redfern/Waterloo precinct

One reader questioned whether this logo would communicate the concept of a smiling welcome. Instead, they wondered whether the plain black and white image looked bland and stark.

We were commissioned to provide research as a foundation for the design process and we were not asked to gather feedback about alternative design options. So we can't say how different kinds of people respond to the logo design that has been adopted. 

It will be interesting to see how the design is used and how it 'settles in' with locals and visitors to the area. Hopefully we will get the chance to carry out follow-up research to gauge the impact of this visual identity.

Posted by Gillian Savage

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Urban Design and the Principle of Least Effort

Looking out the window of an office in Macau and seeing the paths worn in the grass by pedestrians taking the shortest route available reminded me of two things— George K. Zipf’s 1949 book, Human Behavior and the Principle of Least effort, and urban walkability.   

Zipf, a linguist, was initially interested in the relationship between the rank order and frequency with which words appeared in written language. The mathematical relationship he observed became known as an example of Zipf’s Law. Of relevance here was that he found that a similar relationship between aspects of urban design. For example, ranked city sizes and their population, telephone calls and geographic proximity and so on. 

Recently, there has been a flurry of interest among mathematicians in the way the characteristic curve identified by the late Professor Zipf reflects the link between the size of cities and the resources needed to operate them. And this observation allows me to segue to talking about walkability. I would put money on there being a Zipfian relationship between urban density and walkability. The implication being that if we know the density of an area, we should be able to have a fair crack at estimating the extent to which people will walk rather than use their car for the daily errands of life.  This would be one step in estimating the economic value in health and wellbeing that would be achieved at certain densities. (Of course, this assumes that the density includes the shops, playgrounds and services people need.) 

Some people are already working on this issue of trying to find the “sweet spot” for urban density at which social benefits might occur. For an example, see Shaping Suburbia

Another contribution to the field is the online tool at WalkScore. The tool lets you calculate a Walkability Score for any address in Australia and the U.S. based on urban density and location of amenities. 

Posted by Rob Hall.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Social policy

Society as a whole is a messy system of intersecting influences. Like all systems, societies feature scarcity of supply and competing needs, along with real-time adaptation and feedback loops. I picture it like a squiggly mass of inter-coiled tentacles.

Governments steer this messy system along, trying to avoid the worst feedback systems that create economic boom and bust and the attendant misery. Then something blows up and the whole squiggling mass writhes and spasms. Today the Bank of Japan poured a record 15 trillion yen ($183 billion) into the financial system to avoid ... something economists and bankers know about.

We mere mortals hope that the highly trained treasurers, economists, bankers and finacial experts see some orderly processes under the squiggling mass of contemporary economic societies.

In our humble corner, we make our own contribution to social well-being and order through the social impact studies we conduct. Social impact studies set out to describe and delineate the social costs and benefits of places and services. Whether it is a new gambling service or a new museum, we can document its social consequences.

A new book by Lois Silverman is a welcome addition to the field. In The Social Work of Museums Silverman describes some of the ways in which museums are socially healing places.

She points to the scope of her work in the preface:

Museums have long been institutions that care for the world's treasures. It is my passonate belief that the most important and essential work museums do is to use their unique resources to benefit human relationships and, ultimately, repair the world.

She sets out to provide a theoretical framework as a foundation for future practice. Along the way she examines the ways that museums foster social functioning, human well-being, favourable social conditions, and social change.

Taking a social work perspective, Silverman gives specific examples of ways contemporary museums help individuals, pairs, families and groups achieve the needs essential to a healthy individual and society.
In Silverman's hands, society no longer looks like a messy clump of writhing tentacles. It looks much more orderly and more human. Which is just what good museums do – they reflect our greater potential. Who can put a price on that?

Posted by Gillian Savage

Monday, February 14, 2011

Redfern Brand

Over the past few years, Redfern has had special attention from the City of Sydney as it has worked to foster improvement in the area. Major infrastructure upgrades to the park, oval and  main street, and new artworks have been an important catalyst for change.

Environmetrics has supported this on-going work by carrying out social research studies that captured visitor profiles and the perceptions of locals, visitors and potential visitors.

As a support for the fresh new streets and parks, and to communicate to the wider world that Redfern is changing, Frost Design were commissioned to develop a graphic identity, a visual brand, for the Redfern/Waterloo area. Here is the new brand that was launched last week.

The image will be used on street banners and communications that promote events and activities in the local area. And there are tee-shirts, caps, etc. available at the Rabbitohs shop in Redfern.

Can you see the brand image as a smile? The idea behind the image is to represent a smiling welcome. There were certainly plenty of smiles at the launch.

Clover Moore and Kristina Keneally show off the merchandise.

I think that the brand also alludes to Redfern's industrial heritage, especially the railway. It's certainly a strong image.

Cat Burgess, strategic director of Frost, said: “Our idea came down to the need to capture a ‘welcoming spirit’ that encourages people to come to Redfern and the surrounding areas of Waterloo, Darlington and Eveleigh to discover all the area has to offer. This was based on the insight that people’s perceptions of Redfern change significantly once they visit, but many currently don’t find it inviting due to outdated beliefs about the area. The idea of welcoming is also deeply connected to the rich indigenous history of Redfern and traditions of 'welcoming to country'."

These insights came from the research we carried out. Our research into perceptions, values, barriers and opportunities can underpin the strategy behind brand development.

Posted by Gillian Savage

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Five points for service. What does that tells us?

We, along with a lot of other people consult the SMH and Age “Good Food Guides” from time to time to check out places we might eat. These guides score each eatery out of 20. Five of the 20 points are allocated for service and 3 for ambience. In describing the review process (SMH Good Food Guide 2010, page x), the editors say, “If we wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending a restaurant to a friend, we won’t include it.”
This comment raises an interesting question—how well does the review process capture the full range of reasons that the friend might go to a restaurant and so, how useful is the recommendation?
Based on extensive research and consulting in the food & beverage sector, we have developed a framework for evaluating restaurants and cafes; a framework that has been useful for our clients in helping them to establish a clear perspective when assessing how well their own venues are functioning.
Among other things, the framework highlights the fact that people go to restaurants for a range of reasons. Indeed, the same person might go to the same restaurant for quite different reasons on successive visits. The important thing about this observation is the implications that it has for the kind of service a person experiences.
For example, a group might go from the office to have a working lunch. In this case the restaurant is an extension of the office and the group wants to focus on the work they are doing. The last thing they want is continual interruption from waiters hoping to discuss food, wine and “how is everything?”
One member of the group might go to the same place in the evening with a prospective client. Now, they want to be recognized; they want to have the waiters congratulate them on their knowledge of the wine list. The aim during this meal is to impress a guest. 
Food court restaurants and cafes can usually get away with a service monoculture. People typically drop in for a quick pit stop to revive while shopping or waiting for a movie and they are in the restaurant to satisfy basic needs rather than savour the experience. Restaurants and cafes that set out to provide a memorable experience need to be more adaptable. This adaptability means training staff to recognize when a client sees the motivation for the meal as work, as an opportunity to make an impression, as a celebration and so on. Staff that make these kinds of distinctions and respond appropriately go a long way toward building customer loyalty.
I wonder exactly what kind of service culture is reflected in the Good Food Guide score?
Posted by Rob Hall