In what follows here we will try to draw out the shared learning from the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive with a view to imagining what might best serve the next cohort of Young Curators. We will at least try to broadly signal some coordinates for J.K. Rowling’s Room of Requirement: how can the next Young Curators project be ideally equipped for the seekers need?
Ideal User Profiles
In this first iteration Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive was presented with a crucial question: how to bridge the axis between the desire to engage a ‘diversity’ of audiences as meaningful participants within the museum and at the same time open up real pathways for diverse youth constituencies to take up leading positions in the creative and cultural sector, and the museum industry in particular. Naturally in the case of such a hybrid formation there will be tensions around the configuration of what designers would call ‘the ideal user’. In Young Curators II it should be possible to be more precise and more confident about those tensions, for example, between the privileging of cultural identities over the nurturing of creative pathways. Our reflections and understanding of the recruitment process would suggest the following formulation of the ‘ideal user’. If we start then with ‘young people’ as an uncontested criterion of participation and add a second: young people who have an already established creative practice. And here creative practice can encompass the broadest spectrum from writing, photography, painting, filmmaking and the many design disciplines such as fashion. Having strongly signalled those combined frames of reference (young person-creative practitioner) it should be possible then to consider how a third register of other identity formations could be reached through the networks and circuits of connectivity. By circuits of connectivity we mean to indicate those networks of association that might exist between a museum and its potential audiences and a whole range of other networks in education, culture and advocacy where the invitation might reach constituencies of specific interest. In short, we propose reversing the selective sequence. So in the case of Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive at the Chester Beatty the sequence Chinese-Young-Creatively Engaged would become Young-Creatively-Engaged-Chinese.
Securing the Psychological Contract
In the field of youth work the term ‘buy-in’ is a well established construct for judging the gap between the available programme opportunity and the young person’s psychological commitment to engage. We also need to consider how to build into the invitational process those small tests of participant commitment that might establish some minimal degrees of self-determination. What do we mean here by small tests of participant commitment? We are concerned here with developing the agency of the participant precisely in that space between the initial invitation to engage, however that is encountered, and their arrival for day 1 of the module. What we have in mind is a series of very modest assignments that test both levels of commitment and establish degrees of understanding around the programme. For example, the open call might invite a simple statement of interest as a first step. The exploratory interview might be followed by request for an image(s) connected to a relevant theme along with a short text on their understanding of the programme. Such assignments might encourage the young person to get beyond the passivity of ‘being invited’ and take more and more agency as they move towards the proposition of Young Curators II. It should be possible with such devices to take a number of readings on the motivations and enthusiasms of the potential Young Curator as they move ever closer to engagement. This may help to ensure that by the time each participant encounters the module itself the psychological and social contract with the creative proposition of the programme has already been secured.
Rooms with a View
During the course of our review certain questions of connectivity emerged, that is to say that some agents within the process had a clear view of the part of the programme in which they were involved but a less clear view of what went before or what lay ahead. We ourselves began by understanding Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive as a series of spatial movements: from the space of the
museum into the space of the city, from the space of mentoring into the space of post-production and the space of public display in the museum into the virtual. The sense of connectivity between these spaces, from room to room, if you will, was doubtless coherent as a pedagogical sequence for those agents involved from start to finish (the sequence from curriculum design, recruitment, module, mentoring, post-production and display). For those whose involvement is contained to just one of those programme elements it seems there is a need to reinforce certain connectivities. For example, the mentor needs to be connected back into the space of the module so that they can make the conceptual, pedagogical and thematic shifts from the workshop frame into the individual project frame. And the same for the post-production process. The post-production editor equally needs a reading back into the modular space in order to anticipate the nascent forms of representation already taking shape in the latter stages of the module. And of course the connectivity between the exhibition, the archive and the curatorial agency of the participant needs to be secured.
Networks as Audience
The programming constraints surounding Culture Night have been well rehearsed. However, they should not obscure the opportunities which present themselves for engaging new audiences via the footprint of the Young Curators Digital Platform in the space of the museum. Each participant brings with them an assemblage of familial, social, educational and cultural networks that are themselves constitutive of precisely those ‘hard to reach audiences’ that traditional outreach strategies so often fail to engage. We can imagine here the potential of a more extended presence of the work of Young Curators in the space of the museum as a device to enter into dialogue with those ‘hard to reach’ communities of difference. This optimising of the space of exhibition is also connected to a basic economy of investment and return. Given the significant investment of human resources and energy into the staging of the show there should be no hestitation in optimising engagment through mobilising the networks of the interested and obliged.
On that very question of getting the most out of the experience of Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive it is important to note that for the Chester Beatty Library and Pivotal Arts Sudios the creative engagement with participants has not ended with Culture Night. Since then both project partners have considered further opportunities for both review and exhibition. On completion of this review of Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive, Pivotal Arts Studio will bring the Young Curators together with mentors to present and reflect on their work. This will coincide with the launching of the project online through social media. In addition, Pivotal Arts Studio through the Arts Council’s Young Ensembles programme will be enabling the Young Curators the opportunity to participate and contribute to an event they are organising this coming April which will bring a wider network of young creative people together. The Chester Beatty Library restaged the Young Curator’s work in the Exchange Arts co-operative in Temple Bar in February 2013.
There is of course a broader question concerning the structural relation between the museum space (as an inside) and the pedagogical tools and resources external to it that a programme such as Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive brings into play. The tools and resources we have in mind here include curriculum design, digital media know-how, the range of knowledges and practices encompassed by workshop leaders, mentoring, post-production support and no doubt a range of other less visible but equally vital capabilities. How should that inside-outside relation be framed from the point of view of sustainability? One of the early aspirations expressed by Pivotal Arts Studio was that the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive approach could be embedded into the architecture of museum policy and practice. In short, the idea that the model could be mainstreamed within the repertoire of museum education. But is this possible? Is it not the case for example, that one of the positive features of the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive process was precisely that dynamic tension between an external set of pedagogical coordinates and the museum itself? It may be useful here to consider the idea of institutional change generally as a systemic, ecological question. As those who have tried to effect change will know, the possibility of change in any organisation is very much connected to the degree of self-sameness or self-difference which the change-oriented initiative introduces into the system as such. According to this kind of systemic analysis an initiative which is too self-same can be easily incorporated into an organisation’s already established ways of doing things, that is to say it may be very worthwhile but it will not function as an instrument of change. Equally, an initiative which introduces too many degrees of self-difference (novelty) can easily be construed as beyond ‘the way we do things’ and therefore negate its change making possibilities. In the case of the model for Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive it may not be a simple structural choice between embedding the process within the architecture of museum practice or maintaining the process as a device external to it. Instead, it is the negotiated encounter between self-sameness and self-difference which Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive brings into play that is precisely the source of its creative dynamism.
There is also a pragmatic feature of the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive model which suggests considering it as a sort of docking device that can make structural connectivities, that is to say, forms of cultural and pedagogical docking, with a whole series of cultural institutions. Certainly as a docking device Pivotal Arts Studio bring to the table an assemblage of conceptual, pedagogical, technical, legal and production capacities which are not transferrable in any obvious way into the repertoire of museum practice. But when those capacities enter into dialogue with the creative capabilities of museum practice, as we have seen in the case of the Chester Beatty Library, possibilities open up for new forms of cultural participation that neither expected.
That is why we evoked the ‘Room of Requirement’ as a deliberately unstable prospect that may allow practitioners and prospective funders to keep an open mind to future educational initiatives in relation to the museum and the creative arts sector. We hope that, rather than sticking with rigid frameworks and tried and tested formulas, it may inspire future collaborators to keep an open mind to those creative possibilities and to follow the experimental spirit of the Chester Beatty Library and Pivotal Arts Studio.