Category Archives: reading

Timelines – onto ‘the conveyor belt of history’?

Sara Fanelli's timeline at Tate Modern. Source:

Sara Fanelli’s timeline at Tate Modern. Source:

In his article for Curator: The Museum Journal, (2013) US academic Steven Lubar argues that although timelines seem like a ‘natural’ approach to museum display, they present an over deterministic narrative structure. He warns that the timeline should be ‘used with care’ (p.169). For Lubar a new approach is needed that retains the usefulness and accessibility of the timeline but which opens it up to more visitor interaction and personalisation. In the article he makes six suggestions for how the timeline format might be expanded upon (p.185):

  1. use it to highlight key ‘decision points’ and pivotal moments;
  2. complicate it historically by intersecting with other topic timelines;
  3. make it ‘lumpy’ by focusing on defined periods;
  4. use it to connect events across the world, rather than in one place;
  5. focus it on geography, rather than on time;
  6. invite visitors to remix it to fit their own stories and personal interests.

Prompted by Lubar’s article, I’ve started to use the content curation platform to compile a collection of museum based timelines. This is to help develop my own thinking about how a timeline architecture and Lubar’s ‘six suggestions’ might be applied to my research into the public art ‘collection’ in Newcastle-Gateshead. Interestingly, as Tate is one of the timeline rejectionists of the 1990s/2000s that Lubar discusses in his article, a lot of these examples actually come from Tate. Here the timeline is fully present again, as artist designed gallery souvenirs, as in-and off-galley interpretation and as exhibition design – the new ‘Walk Through British Art’ display at Tate Britain.

Following my own initial data collection work in Newcastle-Gateshead I’ve been visually grouping individual artworks into a rough chronology using the free visualisation software Easy Timeline. I’ve also been researching other web-based ‘timeline’ applications. Some of these have the capacity to link time and place through image geo-tagging. In visiting other public art ‘collections’ (online or physically), it seems that it is through this frame of place and location that public artworks are more usually interpreted rather than through the lens of ‘art history’. It is the map, rather than the timeline, that is the ubiquitous form of presentation for a public art ‘collection’.

References and links:

Lubar, S. (2013). Timelines in ExhibitionsCurator: The Museum Journal56(2), 169–188. doi:10.1111/cura.12018 [Online. Accessed: 25 October 2013].

Note: the title for this post is taken from Nicholas Serota’s (1996 statement) quoted by Lubar in his (2013) article.


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Quality of experience of art

I’ve just been reading a new discussion paper commissioned by Arnolfini and Turning Point South West on audience experience of the arts. Researched and written by arts consultants Annabel Jackson Associates, this sets out a potential new model for understanding the “dimensions and determinants” of the quality of experience of the arts. In devising this model Jackson has drawn from her own earlier work on visual arts exhibition evaluation, but also more broadly from concepts of ‘experience quality’ within the museums, tourism and business sectors. The intention is to develop a model that can be applied across all art forms, not just the visual arts, and interestingly for my own research also for “incidental encounters with public art and street art”.

How might this model work within a public art context? Which of these characteristics or determinants might have most bearing on the experience of a public art ‘encounter’? And are there other ‘public art’-specific determinants that should be added to this? My first thoughts are that environment and context, external events and personal awareness would be heightened elements within an arts experience which is so enmeshed within everyday public life, rather than being necessarily framed as an ‘arts experience’.

Visual Arts South West have an open call out (closes end of September) for arts organisations to partner them in developing and testing this experience evaluation model, so it will be interesting to see how this work progresses, and if anyone from the public art sector takes this up.

Source: Jackson, A (2012) Quality of experience in the arts: a discussion paperAnnabel Jackson Associates Ltd. [Accessed 10.09.12]

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What’s That Thing?

I’ve been reading a variety of mentions recently of ‘What’s That Thing?’, a new report from art critic and journalist Igor Toronyi-Lalic on the current ‘state’ of public art in Britian, yet haven’t so far managed to track down the full text. The promotional article published in The Daily Telegraph (10 May 2012) is pretty strong stuff (with plenty of focus on the profligacy of public spending on public art) and, with the further extract published by The Arts Desk (4 June 2012), offers a flavour of the probable blasting to come..

Apart from the admission of the success of art works such as NewcastleGateshead’s own ‘Angel of the North’ and Liverpool’s ‘Turning the Place Over’ the report extract presents contemporary public art as very much between a rock and a hard place – disliked by (an enraged) public and largely shunned by the art world. There’s not a lot new in this analysis, but its a healthy reminder, if one was needed, of the public and media controversy that has always gathered around public art commissioning. While I certainly agree that few public artworks match up to the quality of Richard Wilson’s hypnotic ‘Turning the Place Over’ (sadly now decommissioned), I’m not sure here how Toronyi-Lalic’s call for a return to 19C style subscription based commissioning (crowdsourcing perhaps?) as opposed to public sector-funded projects, will improve the artistic quality and ambition of public art practice or actually ensure a more positive audience engagement. But I look forward to reading more on this research when the full report does become available.

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Audience response

It’s been really interesting (and encouraging) for me to see that the new issue of the US based journal Public Art Dialogue (Vol.2. Issue 1, 2012) is dedicated to the theme of ‘Audience Response’, one of the research areas that I am focusing on in my own work here in NewcastleGateshead. In this post, I make some initial observations on two of the articles contained here, expecting to return for a closer read of these texts and the whole issue as part of my formal ‘Public art and audience’ literature review.

Among the different perspectives gathered in this issue, Kate MacNeill’s article ‘Narratives of Public Art: Yellow Peril, Vault and a Large Yellow Object’ was a particularly informative and engaging read. Focusing on a 1980’s sculptural commission for the City of Melbourne, MacNeill combines tales of political controversy with a new ‘human-object’ centred approach (drawn from ‘material culture’ studies) to trace the 20 year agency and mutation of ‘Vault’ from unique ‘artwork’, to ‘discursive object’, to physical play-thing/functional structure and back to ‘artwork’ status again. A current state, which in MacNeill’s words seems more emptied out than celebratory: “No longer climbed upon, rarely sheltered under except perhaps on a rainy day by those making their way from the gallery to the Victorian College of the Arts, the large yellow object is acknowledged as an artwork and defined by its sheer uselessness.” (p.29). 

This object-oriented view is further explored in Quentin Stevens’ well illustrated article ‘Visitor Responses at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial: Contrary to Conventions, Expectations and Rules’. In his case study, based on extensive first hand observation of the memorial, Stevens offers an analysis of “the interpretive, emotional, and bodily aspects” (p.37) of the work’s reception. In the article he describes four key factors that shape audience experiences of this work: the architect’s original vision which deliberately intended to elicit a bodily (rather than a contemplative) audience response;  the specific physical and ‘minimalist’ (block/grid) form of the work; the publicly displayed rules for use of the site; and the size and presence of the audience itself as an observer/regulator of the site and of others’ interactions with it. Having set out his observations and analysis Steven’s concludes by suggesting that “these parameters might also prove useful for studying, predicting, and shaping the reception of public artworks generally, with emphasis differing according to the materiality, placement, and meanings of any given work, as well as the anticipated size and composition of its audience, and how their behaviour is managed.” (p.54.) An analytical structure that I may well pick up on in planning and carrying out my own observational case studies.

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The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

I was introduced to the work of William H. Whyte  in Jamie Allen’s Media in Public seminar series at Culture Lab last year. I wanted to include a reference to Whyte’s work here both as an interesting public realm observation study and as an example of ‘unobtrusive’ visual methods in action. Working primarily in New York City, Whyte was an influential advocate for the design of ‘sociable’ urban spaces. Whyte is best known for his detailed observation study of daily pedestrian life in New York City, particularly in the public plazas of central Manhattan  in the 1970’s-80’s. His work was the inspiration for the establishment of the New York based Project for Public Spaces, a not for profit urban design and educational organisation dedicated to helping communities create and sustain positive public spaces in the City.

This short film by Whyte made c.1980 provides an entertaining and stylishly retro visual summary of his research approach, ideas and findings based on his work on the New York City  Street Life Project, including (for my own research project) a particularly relevant section reporting on pedestrian encounters with public artworks (including di Suvero’s Joie de Vivre, Dubuffet’s Groupe de Quatres Arbres and Nevelson’s Night Presence). You’ll have to watch through or skip to the end to find this.


Whyte, W. H. (1998) City: Rediscovering the Centre. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Auckland: Doubleday

Whyte, W. H. (1980) ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’, in  Orum, A. M. and Neal, Z. P.(ed), Common Ground. New York, Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 32-39.

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Objects and icebergs

As a starting point for my initial reading and with specific recommendations from Chris Whitehead and my supervisory team I’ve begun to explore some of the literature around museums and ‘collecting theory’.

Material I’ve read or dipped into so far over the last two weeks includes: Susan Pearce’s book ‘Museums, objects and collections’ (1992) and her short piece ‘Collections and collecting’ in ‘Museums and the Future of Collecting’ (Knell, 2004); also Martin Wickham’s chapter ‘Ranking collections’ in the same book; and Samuel Alberti’s article ‘Objects and the Museum’ from the journal Isis (2005).

The following are some notes on my initial reactions and thoughts about how some of the concepts I’ve discovered here might relate to or help guide my future research around public art collections. (Note to readers: Please remember that this is only my fourth week on my new ‘PhD research job’, so these are very early thoughts. I’m bound to be returning to and reworking these notes, and perhaps discarding them too, as my research progresses.) Inevitably at this stage my notes are mainly questions.

Models for object study

Included as an appendix within Pearce’s (1992) book are  six alternative or overlapping diagrammatic models for analysing or interpreting museum objects as a stimulus or guide for future student study.  Pearce’s own model (1986) used with students at Leicester University sets out 8 levels for gathering information about an object: 1. Material – construction. 2. Material – design. 3. Material – character. 4. History – original and subsequent. 5. Environment – context. 6. Environment – location. 7. Significance. 8. Interpretation – social role. How far might all or any of these apply to a public art work? What might a new bespoke model for analysing public art work look like? Do any particular study models for interpreting and collecting data on public art exist already? How contemporary or flexible are these? Should designing a new model for public art works be a specific objective of my research?

The ‘iceberg’ view

This is Pearce’s 2004 metaphor of the heritage collection as an “iceberg” – 1/10 visible object that can be measured, compared, photographed, exhibited, but 9/10ths is below the water, invisible, the “dark side” of the collection, much more difficult to analyse or display. The stress here is on the people, the characters who have created or assembled the collection. Pearce assets that both elements should be equally recognised in the study  and understanding of meaning making within a collection – “…collections, like icebergs, inhabit both elements and the end result is an intrinsic whole, which has followed its own growth pattern and taken its characteristic shape whatever that may have turned out to be.” (Pearce, 2004, p.49) I rather like this image – should I be looking at the evolution of public art in the city in terms of a distinctive “growth pattern”?

Cultural biographies

This is Alberti’s argument for the exploration of objects as living entities. Things that can be studied in terms of their individual “careers”, their “key moments” or changing status and value in their journey from “acquisition to arrangement and viewing” within a collection and the accumulated “web” of collectors, processes and exchanges that have contributed to this. It’s an appealing viewpoint I think and an attractive way of writing about art works. Could you describe a public art work and its processes in this way? From commissioning, through creation, fabrication, installation, and continuing but changing public presence? What would this look like in terms of a temporary rather than a permanently sited work?

Ranking objects

The association of a tank museum with a public art collection is not perhaps an obvious one to make, but I thought that Wickham’s practical and “rational” approach to ranking or “grading” objects within a collection might offer an interesting tool for categorising public art works in the city. The mathematical “weighting” model takes things a bit too far for me but the key processes he suggests for designing such a system certainly seem valid for my study. Could I work collaboratively with other public art professionals to devise a similar list in grading works in the NewcastleGateshead public art collection? Is something similar already in use perhaps by local authority officers or company asset managers in relation to their own commissioned works?

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