A Design for Learning

By Kenn Taylor

Youth Studio in Wellcome Collection
Youth Studio in Wellcome Collection

The architecture of learning spaces within cultural institutions has followed a similar trajectory to learning as a whole within them. Even ten or fifteen years ago, education was frequently viewed as something marginal and add-on, to be fitted in wherever space was available, as long as it wasn’t intrusive and didn’t affect the ‘core’ work of the organisation. Inevitably, this meant that the spaces provided for education were equally marginal. If any dedicated facilities were available at all, it was often in unwanted rooms hidden far away from main areas and usually fitted out in an ad hoc way. Places unloved except perhaps by those who used them as participants or practitioners.

This really began to shift with the plethora of new cultural institutions that opened in the New Labour era. One of my previous employers, FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) has a renowned education and engagement programme. Yet when it opened its brand-new permanent site in Liverpool in 2003, arguably the first in the UK to have given deep consideration in its design for displaying media art, dedicated spaces for learning programmes were not envisaged. Consequently learning activity had to be creatively undertaken in whatever space was available, be it computer labs, reception areas or within gallery and foyer space. While this to an extent prevented the ‘ghettoisation’ of education, having to use such spaces around wider programming and commercial imperatives inevitably reduced the flexibility and scale of what could be achieved.

While FACT didn’t have a dedicated education area when it was built, it did however contain a flat for visiting international artists – since removed for office space. This highlights perhaps the shifting perception of what the priorities of a cultural institution should be in the relatively short period of the 2000s. As more and more arts centres of various forms opened during this time in more diverse and deprived areas, increasingly they had to prove their worth beyond narrow circles of existing interest and any potential impact from creating a new ‘signature’ building.

Now in an era of harsher scrutiny, there has been a shift in focus from supporting artists and their work to that of engaging the public with art. Today it would be largely unthinkable to open a new publicly-funded cultural facility without providing a learning programme and space allocated for it. In the current climate for funding, this space may be small and learning staff may have several other functions, but in most cases education and engagement is now part of the core mission statement the majority of public cultural institutions.

As this has occurred, so the space allocated to learning within the architectural fabric of institutions has shifted. A clear example of this is the Design Museum, currently in the process of leaving its home since its founding in the 1980s in Shad Thames and moving to the former Commonwealth Institute building in the heart of West London. The overall footprint of the museum is being expanded, but of particular note will be an increase in the space allocated to education from 90m sq to some 600m sq, including a dedicated design studio.1 This is a clear example of how far museum education has come in a short time in terms of the recognition of its importance and need for space.

There has been a change though not only in the amount of floor space given over to education, but in the design of learning spaces within the wider architecture of institutions. Education rooms have come a long way from the often-windowless magnolia spaces of old. Funders who are backing an institution at least in part on the basis of education want due attention paid to it in the buildings that they finance, and this has been reflected in many recent new builds and refurbishments. For example, BALTIC in Gateshead, which opened in 2002, has since added the Quay Learning Space, which hosts a range of activities and showcases work by schools and communities, at the heart of the gallery in full view of visitors. This was of course though, a post-opening retrofit.2

Now it is typical for heavily-designed, prestigious earning spaces to occupy some of the best spots within a cultural venue, elevating the status of education within the architectural hierarchy of institutions. For example, the Museum of Liverpool, which opened in 2011, is the largest new build museum in the UK since the V&A opened in 1909. The Museum of Liverpool has several education spaces, but its largest, Education Area 3, occupies one of the most dramatic locations in the building. Constructed out of almost floor-to-ceiling glass, it places learning activity in view of visitors on the inside and outside of the building as well as giving those taking part stunning views across the ever-changing skies and river of the Mersey estuary, with sun and distractions easily blocked when required by electric blinds. These changes in design also reflect the shifting uses of education spaces to a degree. Once, learning in cultural institutions was largely about formal sessions for school children, along with perhaps the odd lecture. Now, learning facilities can find themselves being used for everything from youth panels to family craft workshops,reminiscence sessions with older people and evening talks in British Sign Language.

This has seen an increase in the creation of dedicated spaces aimed at specific audiences in some organisations. For example, when the Wellcome Collection in London first opened its new public venue in 2007 the only learning space provided was a general performance and events area. Now, as part of a large expansion programme, they are developing a dedicated youth events studio. The new studio will be an activity space for people aged 14 to 19 to engage with the Wellcome Collection and produce work that contributes to the organisation’s programme. Consultation with both staff and young people who would use the space was carried out by external facilitators, with the young people visiting learning and youth spaces across London. The main outcome of these consultations was a set of reports which were used by architects involved in creating the space to refer back to at the design stage.3

This is wise. Despite this improving design, location and space allocation, not all new education spaces function as well as they might and so often this stems from a lack of serious consultation with end users – be they education staff or participants. In some cases it seems also that the prestige of spaces has started to become a little removed from the reality of a learning facility – inevitably a changeable, messy, ‘live’ space.

From my experience of cultural education facilities in numerous venues as a staff member, freelancer and participant, I have developed a few ideas around what goes into making a great learning space. The key concept for me is that of flexibility. Learning spaces will inevitably be used for a myriad of activities, often for things that they were never envisaged for, as priorities, programmes, technologies and audiences change. Designing a space for a specific audience or activity can be great, but care should be taken to future-proof things. How quickly has a suite of Macs come to seem a little antiquated in the face of tablet computers?

Sizeable open plan spaces are great and flexible. However, cavernous spaces can sometimes be overwhelming and distracting, so if a space is large, the ability to break it up, with sliding doors or moveable partitions, is invaluable. In this respect Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini had it right when they created the Pompidou Centre in Paris back in 1977.

Quay Space in Baltic
Quay Space in Baltic

Lighting is another vital and often over-looked component. Natural light wherever possible is desirable, especially if, for conservation or display purposes, other areas of an institution are dark most of the time. However, views outside windows and people peering in can also be distracting and unnerving for participants. Windows can also detract from showing videos, slides etc, so suitable and reliable blinds are a must. Strong lighting is also vital when working with disabled audiences, for example partially sighted people or visitors who lip-read or use sign language who rely on clear sightlines. When artificial lighting is used, the ability to raise and dim and split lighting into sections is easily achieved and really increases flexibility. Similarly the easy availability of points for power and data cables throughout a space is simple and vital but too often overlooked.

Soundproofing is another issue. I have witnessed in several venues the distracting sound bleed from audio-visual exhibits into education spaces, while the inability to cut off areas from public address systems can also be hugely undermining to activities. This is a wider issue in galleries in general, but has a particular effect on learning provision. It also highlights the wider challenges exhibition designers and architects face when trying to create new displays simultaneously as a building is being constructed or renovated.

The fittings and furniture of an education space are also important to its success. Flexible storage solutions and durable, lightweight, collapsible or stackable furniture is a must. While we have come a long way from piles of uncomfortable, ugly plastic chairs, unfortunately what has replaced them is too often fragile, easily marked, heavy and awkward. A piece of furniture may look great, but if it needs two people to move it, is impossible to get paint off and difficult to store when not needed, it is of little use in education spaces. A kitchen space with running water is also a big plus. A dishwasher and a dedicated separate sink for washing paint pots is great, but somewhere to at least fill a water jug and wash out a cup might not be glamorous but it is very useful.

A great learning space should also have some capacity to display things. Even something as simple as magnetic paint or a display board can be preferable to heavy cabinets and inflexible hanging systems, though these also have their uses if space and budget is available. Retractable screens and integrated projection units can also be good, similarly interactive whiteboards. However the flexibility of a white wall with hard-wearing paint should not be underestimated.

This leads us into interior decoration. While magnolia walls can be un-stimulating, too much going on in a design can be distracting from whatever activity happens to be taking place. A blank canvas to a degree allows creative activities to fill the space in their own way and for a future project to start the process all over again. Walls don’t have to be bare, but again, flexibility is the key to success, and the design of such spaces should respond to the overall design context, be that a radically shaped piece of ‘starchitecture’ or a refurbished older building. That said, the tendency for architects and those commissioning them to place education spaces into the ‘awkward corners’ of a building’s footprint once the ‘core spaces’ have been allocated has sadly not disappeared completely.

As learning within cultural institutions has moved towards the core, we have seen education and engagement programmes increasingly influencing or in some cases even becoming the ‘mainstream’ offer in certain sections of institutions or for dedicated periods of time. For example, the young people in Tate Collective and Student Ambassadors from University of the Arts London are involved in programming the June editions of the popular Late at Tate events for other Tate visitors to consume. Late at Tate has recently been moved into the overall Young People’s Programme and there are plans for Tate Collective to be involved in all such future events though to a lesser degree than the June sessions.4 It has become a norm for engagement teams and participants to influence or even create content for core exhibition and programmes, and displaying community produced work or curated objects in main galleries is now rarely questioned. As a phenomenon, this is to be welcomed, as it helps to validate the contribution made by those taking part as well as demonstrating their perspectives to other audiences and staff within an institution.

The recognition afforded by becoming part of the ‘core’ is undoubtedly valuable. However, such integration should not be at the expense of having dedicated space that is always for learning and engagement. Space away from public observation, precious objects and carefully laid-out displays is vital. Somewhere there can be a degree of freedom to experiment, where mess can be made and ideas, and lunch, can happen. Somewhere also that anyone who might be nervous about being in a cultural venue can have respite from often busy and stimulating galleries. Without this, the ability for learning and engagement projects to generate interesting new perspectives and new work will be reduced and what is contributed to the core will inevitably be diminished.

Even in institutions which now have plenty of well-designed, functional learning space, a potential new undermining of their use has emerged. Flexibility in such facilities may be the key to their success, but it can also be their undoing. In small institutions it can be vital that such spaces have uses beyond education, for everything from meetings to packing leaflets or temporarily storing objects. However education now often has to fight for space with revenue generating activity. This is to an extent inevitable in a time of reduced public funding and while a happy medium can be found, it could represent difficulties on the horizon. Larger institutions may have the luxury of dedicated spaces, but how long will such fine, purpose-built learning facilities keep education as their core function during the ever-increasing need to host commercial events, which themselves demand suitably ‘prestige’ spaces within institutions? We have come a long way in the architecture of spaces for learning within cultural institutions, but it is important that education programmes and the space they are afforded don’t slip back during these times. When it comes to allocating, designing and fitting out facilities for learning, it is crucial that education professionals are part of the conversation at the beginning. That way they can advocate at the highest level for the needs of both audiences and professionals and make sure that spaces are suitable, stimulating and practical. Active involvement of educationists is also perhaps the best way to ensure that once such facilities are created, they can continue to be used for their intended purpose and enable participants to continue to make interesting contributions and generate new perspectives in the organisations they are learning in.

This piece was published in engage journal 34: Experiencing Gallery Architecture in summer 2014.
Notes
1. Helen Charman, Head of Learning, Design
Museum, email interview, 3 February 2014
2. Wheeldon, I. (2012), ‘The Culture of Staff in &
the Contemporary Arts Centre’ in Thomas, E. (ed)
BALTIC Learning on the Frontline. Gateshead:
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, p.67
3. Clare Carlin, Youth Programme Manager: Public
Programmes, The Wellcome Trust, telephone
interview 11 February 2014
4. Laura Turner, Assistant Curator: Young People’s
Programmes, Tate Britain and Tate Modern

‘Our Changing Neighbourhood’

Millman

By Kenn Taylor

Sir John Soane’s Museum in London is the former home of architect John Soane, and has been largely unchanged since his death in 1837.

The Soane has developed links with the older people’s reminiscence group at the nearby Millman Street Resource Centre. However, with the museum’s history and collection dating far beyond living memory, using reminiscence as an engagement tool seemed problematic.

One project that worked around this was Our Changing Neighbourhood. Reminiscence sessions about the local area selected different places that were important to members of the group. The museum then sourced maps and images of these places at different times in history.

In later sessions we looked at how these places had changed over two centuries and then worked with an artist to print some of the images we had found onto calico along with people’s own personal memories of the sites. These were then attached to our large map to show their locations.

The project worked well by connecting people’s memories to wider periods of history. The project was delivered over four sessions. In hindsight one or two more may have been preferable so the participants could have had more time to work on their artwork, especially due to the mobility difficulties of some group members.

The artwork that was created will now be used as a resource by the museum to undertake sessions with other older people in the local area to encourage their own reminiscences about their changing neighbourhood.

This piece appeared in the July 2014 edition of Museum Practice.

A Culture of Participation

By Kenn Taylor

When it was announced that Liverpool had been chosen to be the 2008 European Capital of Culture, there was an outpouring of emotion in the city. After so many years of being the UK’s pariah city par excellence, the importance of the accolade to Liverpool’s collective psychology and how it was viewed externally cannot be underestimated.

Beyond the city itself though, of greater importance was how, whilst hosting Capital of Culture, Liverpool became the focus of intense debate and a subsequent sea-change in the way that many people think about concepts of culture, community, participation and regeneration.

Long before 2008 of course, Liverpool had a strong cultural output despite, or perhaps because of, its continual economic struggles. Even Liverpool’s bohemian enclaves are only a short walk from the most grinding poverty and this has always lent something of a DIY and a socially and politically aware spirit to arts in the city.

Arguably the first ‘arts centre’ in the UK was Liverpool’s Bluecoat, founded at the turn of the century in an abandoned school by rebellious spirits called the Sandon Studios Society, unhappy with the then traditional arts establishment in the city. Sixty years later a group of idealistic Liverpool University students set up the Everyman theatre in an abandoned chapel. They wanted to create a space for drama that would reflect ordinary lives and take radical perspectives, in doing so helping to pave the way for socially concerned writers like Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale.

In another abandoned chapel, a group of radical creatives set up The Great Georges Community Cultural Project in 1968, arguably the UK’s first ‘community arts’ project, now still operating as the Black-E. Later, in the 1970s a group of photographers ignored by the art establishment set up shop in an abandoned pub. They called part of it the Open Eye Gallery and helped bring photographers of everyday life such as Martin Parr and Tom Wood to attention. Whatever public money was spent by the city itself on the arts in the post-war era was nearly always through the lens of ‘what will it do for the community?’ and ‘how will people connect to this?’ long before audience participation was a section on every Arts Council application form.

It was into this tradition that the UK’s choice of host city for the 2008 European Capital of Culture came into view. The hope in Liverpool was that winning the title would celebrate the city’s cultural achievements, so often forgotten or ignored, and also that it would help attract investment and create much-needed jobs. It was very much in line with pre-Crunch era Blarite ideas of turning post-industrial areas into centres for the ‘creative economy’ that the city’s bid went in. Liverpool was arguably the starting point for the application of such ideas of cultural regeneration in the UK. After the 1981 riots, the regeneration schemes in the city initiated by the then Conservative government included the opening of Tate Liverpool in 1988 in the city’s abandoned docklands. This long before London’s Tate Modern and Gateshead’s Baltic also turned redundant riverside industrial space in centres for culture.

Ultimately Liverpool was to beat favourites Newcastle/Gateshead to the Capital of Culture title. The judges who made the decision said it was Liverpool’s strong cultural heritage, future plans and most of all, the sheer enthusiasm of the city’s population for the bid that won the day. Yet, as that faithful year got closer, more and more people began to ask, what is it for and who will it benefit?

The criticisms tended to be two-fold. The property boom which was already engulfing the UK was accelerated significantly in Liverpool by the title. Soon grassroots music venues and artists studios began to be displaced by luxury flats. Capital of Culture it seemed was indeed helping to re-make the city’s fabric, but was it in a good way for its cultural scene? Secondly and perhaps more fundamentally, many people had objections to what they felt was too much focus on bringing an ‘international’ culture aimed at attracting tourists to the city and not doing enough to encourage local creative expression and involvement.

Accusations of the Liverpool Culture Company, who were tasked with running the year, being remote and lacking understanding of the local arts community were rife, if sometimes unfair. With art it is of course hard to please all of the people all of the time. However, these criticisms were perhaps summed up when a popular local Banksy work on an abandoned pub was covered over with Capital of Culture branded hoardings, something which even made Newsnight.

A whole swathe of independent fringe projects sprung up alongside the official 2008 cultural programme, often using creativity to highlight the above issues. In a city with such a tradition of DIY, rebellion and politics in art, this was perhaps inevitable. As time went on, more and more people began questioning the whole idea of the then dominant mode of cultural regeneration. With these issues highlighted by activists in Liverpool, national critics who had previously praised the cultural regeneration of Britain’s Northern cities began to write of their wariness of the ‘dropping in’ of art from on high to change things in post-industrial areas. There was a realisation that such initiatives were not necessarily bringing benefits to deprived communities, that in some ways they were making things worse and were perhaps ultimately unsustainable.

For a time, it seemed the whole Capital of Culture project was heading towards disaster. In the event, sterling work by all involved pulled it back. Ultimately delivering a programme that was varied and popular, ranging from experimental electronica to a Gustav Klimt exhibition and a play about Liverpool FC. Most local people felt, by and large, that it was a successful year, but also that how the city did culture in future would have to be different.

Yes, culture can bring up the visitor economy; witness Liverpool’s huge growth as tourist destination since 2008, recently nominated by Condé Naste Traveller as its third favourite UK destination after London and Edinburgh. Yet if the same type of art is available in London and New York, why go anywhere else? Uniqueness is what attracts visitors, culture they cannot consume elsewhere. Gaudi’s architecture brings many more people to Barcelona than the works in its contemporary arts centre, for example. More fundamentally, there was also a realisation of the need for a change in how cultural services interact with local communities. That publicly funded culture should not be just imposed from the top down, it should be developed with thought given to how different audiences can connect and become involved at different levels. In Liverpool this was perhaps just a return to the way things were done before, back to the era of the founding of the Black-E, the Open Eye and Everyman, but such thinking is beginning to embed itself within wider cultural policy and thinking.

Liverpool of course didn’t do this on its own, but the city has played a big role in debates about culture, participation and the urban environment over the last thirty years. A line could be drawn from the opening of Tate Liverpool with its ‘international culture’ coming North and its luxury flats next door, the beginning of the property and ‘new economy’ boom and the speeding up of the international art world to Capital of Culture and the Crunch and onto today’s greatly changed arts landscape, with funding reduced and audience criteria higher than ever.

Liverpool’s biggest cultural event since Capital of Culture was The Sea Odyssey Giant Spectacular in 2012 and it demonstrated some of the changes that had taken place in the way the city went about its cultural programme. Delivered by renowned French street theatre experts Royal De Luxe, the project was several years in the making. Much time was spent developing the story so that their giant marionettes, which have been seen around the world, had a local connection, in this case via Liverpool’s links to the Titanic. The procession also took in a route that encompassed Anfield and Everton, two of the city’s most deprived wards, not just the shining regenerated city centre and waterfront where so much of the 2008 programme had taken place.

Plenty of opportunities were given for local people to be involved via a Wider Participation Programme embedded from the start of the project. The Sea Odyssey Spectacular included volunteer roles ranging from ‘local advocates’ who promoted the event in the community to people actually operating the marionettes. In addition, much partnership work was undertaken so that local cultural organisations, community groups, schools, colleges and businesses could interlink their own initiatives to the event. For example, there was an accompanying festival in Anfield’s Stanley Park arranged by local partners. Consequently this event is much more fondly remembered in the city than the not dissimilar La Machine from 2008.

Similarly, while the Liverpool Biennial festival had always worked to encourage participation and engagement, for the 2012 event more focus was given to creating in-depth participatory projects. This included the Homebaked/2up2down initiative in Anfield, led by Dutch artist Jeanne Van Heeswijk. Over a period of two years, the project worked to embed itself in the local community and developed the ultimate aim of re-opening a closed-down bakery and restoring abandoned housing in the area. For the period of the Biennial itself, the group that had been formed around the project also created a tour for visitors based around meeting local people which highlighted what had happened to the area in recent years with the failure of various regeneration schemes. Thus the project helped to bring abandoned space back into uses that benefit the community and tell local stories to visitors.

Similarly the Biennial commissioned Los Angeles based artist Fritz Haeg to work with the local community on creating a new garden at the stunningly-sited but somewhat rundown Everton Park. Both the Anfield and Everton Biennial projects had aesthetic outcomes, but ones which also addressed real local issues and needs whilst still working with international artists in an international context. Indeed, these ‘community’ projects attracted as much if not more national press attention than some of the ‘mainstream’ art shows in the city centre held at the same time.

Thinking about culture in the city is also increasingly turning towards sustainability. As a legacy from the Biennial initiatives, the bakery hopes to be fully re-opened by the end of 2013 and plans are underway with the local community for the further development of Everton Park, including a new pavilion.

Liverpool as a city appreciates the power and importance of art and culture, but knows that it can not sit in rarefied isolation from reality and shouldn’t just be dropped in and expected to improve a community by its mere presence. This isn’t to say that all art must be totally instrumentalist; as much as Sea Odyssey had regeneration ideas behind it, it was also something that was in and of itself fun and interesting to watch, but with just changing how things were done a little, it became much more than that.

A culture of participation is healthy and necessary, especially as funding cuts continue to bite and publicly funded arts organisations are more than ever responsible to and reliant on their audiences. Projects such as these undertaken in Liverpool can show the way. That it is possible to commission and create work that benefits local people, entices visitors and excites the art world all at the same time and in doing so, create the possibility of changing lives and communities for the better.

This piece appeared on Mailout.co in April 2013.