Interview with Paul Bowers, Part 3: Chemist and Conductor

Late in November 2020, I caught up with Paul Bowers, CEO of the Australian sustainability organisation Renew, for a brief chat. (You can read the first part here and you can read the second part here).

Renew evolved from the Alternative Technology Association of Australia, and today it advocates for sustainable living in homes and communities across the nation. In the final part of our conversation, Paul and I spoke about interdisciplinary thinking, new forms of leadership, and the next steps Paul will be taking as CEO.

What does it mean for Renew to get through this big transition, to negotiate the actual pivot point, especially when, as you said, your prior success was built on hackers and homeowners, and now you need to think about engaging tenants, landlords, a wider community?

It’s really hard! That’s a really live question for us right now, in this highly febrile moment of post-pandemic and looming recession. There are all these binary oppositions: the homeowner-hacker versus a different community in the future; a small, scrappy, financially precarious member organization versus some kind of super-slick consulting lobby group. Fast urgent change versus slow sustained change. And there are a multitude of other axes besides! For me it’s about a kind of dialectic: How does the value come from the tension between the two poles of each issue?

Read more

Interview with Paul Bowers, Part 2: Bureaucratic Radicalism

Late in November 2020, I caught up with Paul Bowers, CEO of the Australian sustainability organisation Renew, for a brief chat. (You can read the first part here).

Renew evolved from the Alternative Technology Association of Australia, and today it advocates for sustainable living in homes and communities across the nation. In the second part of our conversation, Paul and I spoke about systemic change, revolution and reform, and encouraging the choice to live sustainably.

Parliament House, Canberra, by Wikimedia user JJ Harrison – CC BY-SA 3.0

You’ve written on “bureaucratic radicalism“, which seems to speak to this issue of what happens when the green hackers of the 80s find themselves represented on federal committees and contributing to the building code.

Bureaucratic radicalism was my attempt to think through how you systematize good practice, and using existing power structures in order to do that. My first thought is to consider what we need to learn from First Nations peoples, from communities where environmental sustainability and good practice is part of what you learn from childhood.

Read more

Interview with Paul Bowers, Part 1: What do you do when the revolution is over?

Late in November 2020, I caught up with Paul Bowers, CEO of the Australian sustainability organisation Renew, for a brief chat.

Renew, which evolved from the Alternative Technology Association of Australia, advocates for sustainable living in homes and communities across the nation. Paul, following a storied career in the Australian museums & galleries sector, joined Renew as CEO in March.

In our conversation, we talked about Paul’s journey across sectors, the nature of creativity, the challenges of a sustainability organisation’s evolving mission, and the opportunities which await.

Matt:

You joined Renew in March. What’s it like taking up a CEO role in the midst of a crisis like this?

Paul:

For me, the idea of being in charge of an organization while not being in lockdown feels strange! Because I knew nothing else, it became normal so quickly.  On the third or fourth day of my role, I had to shut the office and put in place rules and procedures for working from home.

We’ve been doing that for seven months, over two lockdowns. We’re only just starting to go back to the office now.

It’s much easier to apply the technical and functional requirements of management and leadership at a distance. What’s hard is putting the emotional aspect back in, especially when that’s a relationship of one to many. I’m very happy and open when it comes to one-to-one emotional relationships, but having to hold that relationship to an entire community – and on an unfamiliar medium too – was hard.

Read more

Strategy and Impact Workshops for LIANZA Aotearoa New Zealand

Last week, I ran two workshops for New Zealand culture and information professionals with the support of Australia’s Brendan Fitzgerald.

The sessions, hosted at the National Library in Wellington by the Aotearoa New Zealand library association LIANZA, explored foresight, strategy, and next-generation measures of impact. We sought to give Kiwi culture & information professionals the tools to examine the future and make judicious strategic decisions, then investigate new ways to measure and demonstrate the difference their actions make in the world.

One participant said:

​​The tools from the strategic session were the most immediately useful to me – I liked how they broke a large process down into smaller steps from which concrete directions came organically and iteratively. I also liked the argument that while evidence-based research is good, there is no evidence from the future, and the stress on the fact that there is more than one possible future.

It was good to have people from outside your immediate context test your assumption, and to do the same for others… I made a coffee date with someone who is already a second-degree connection in my network who I have been meaning to connect more closely with (bonus: they’re from a different GLAM field to me, so that was a plus for LIANZA making it open to multiple sectors).

You can read more at the Libraries Aotearoa website.

Traditional games, digital spaces: USQ + Queensland Museum Network

In 2017, I spent six months developing special community engagement projects for the University of Southern Queensland (USQ).

I had a wide remit to find new ways to connect with the local community, pilot external partnerships, and encourage innovation in line with a new service model being rolled out across the university’s Scholarly and Information Services division (SILS).

During that time, among other projects, Dr. Kate Davis and I won & delivered the division’s first external tender; SILS partnered with the university’s radio school to pilot podcasts bringing together academic experts, artists, and professionals from across Australia; and we joined forces with Ann Arbor District Library in the US to offer coaching & professional development.

This week saw the announcement of another project coming to fruition: a partnership between staff on the university’s Toowoomba campus and Cobb+Co Museum, the local site of the Queensland Museum Network.

Cobb+Co’s Learning Officer Tony Coonan worked with SILS’ Zoe Lynch and Shane Gadsby to develop a browser-based version of Burguu Matya, a traditional game attributed to the Wiradjuri people.

The game had been available to play in physical form at Cobb+Co’s Binangar Gallery, dedicated to Aborginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Zoe and her team of media designers, invited to explore external partnerships, proposed developing an online version which could be played on devices both within the museum and statewide.

The successful small-scale pilot tested the SILS in-house media design team’s capacity for work with external clients,  strengthened relationships between the university and its local community, and explored the opportunities for USQ to enrich the cultural and learning offer for both the people of Toowoomba and users of the wider Queensland Museum Network. The future relationship between the university and the museum will be structured and enhanced by a memo of understanding.

You can read more about the project at the USQ website.

The greatest museum ad of all time?

I think this might be the greatest museum ad of all time – it’s from the 2008-2009 season at the Jewish Museum in Vienna, a superlative institution which I’ve written about before.

Poster for the Jewish Museum Vienna. The photograph is shot from within the building: a man peers in through the glass doors of the museum. Details of the museum's locations are included along with the museum logo.

Rather than present Austria’s Jewish community or Jewish material culture as the object of mainstream scrutiny or fascination, it focusses on the sense of wonder and discovery that visitors to the museum will experience.

I love that a minority identity within a nation, especially one with as fraught a history as that of Austrian Jews, refused to be exoticised or presented as ‘the Other’ in the museum space, and instead turned the tables on the Austrian mainstream with this neat image.

The museum has a great record as an institution which treats a rich, harrowing, and difficult history with verve, courage, and creativity. This includes the work of their marketing team as well as their excellent curation and events.

The 2008-9 ad demonstrates how the ways in which an institution markets itself to the world can be as sophisticated, political, and compelling as anything done with that institution’s spaces, services, or collections.

Check out the Jewish Museum Vienna, one of the greatest cultural institutions I’ve ever visited, online: http://www.jmw.at/en

Thanks to the archive team at the Jewish Museum for locating the image based on my vague memories of seeing this ad a decade ago…

Stopping to Start: Allowing for Creation

I visited Vienna’s superlative Jewish Museum on my recent trip to the city. Their exhibitions and programmes are always sharp, relevant, and thoughtfully curated.

Currently, they’re hosting an exhibition on Kabbalah, the esoteric branch of Judaism which has been popularised by various celebrities from David Bowie to Madonna.

I wandered round, learned a little, and made some unexpected connections as well.

bowie.jpg

Read more

It’s the Tyrell Corporation Comedy Hour!

On Friday, 20th October, I was the guest storyteller at Brisbane improv troupe Big Fork Theatre’s “Cool Story Bro“.

At “Cool Story Bro,” the guest storyteller shares tales from their past, based on audience prompts, which then become fuel for improv sketches by the troupe. It’s an interesting format with roots in the work of the Upright Citizens Brigade, which has been home to the likes of Amy Poehler, Donald Glover, and Aziz Ansari.

You can watch Tina Fey doing this kind of storytelling here:

I’m no Tina Fey, but I did my best. My stories came from the audience call-outs “cats”, “whales” (or “Wales”), and “first kiss”. As always with these things, it was entirely terrifying & nerve-wracking right up until the moment you stepped on stage and just had to do it.

I’ve been getting all excited about memories lately – how they blur the bounds between fact and fiction, how they might be shared or transplanted between us. And I like challenging myself to get out of my comfort zone.

I found stories from my life and told them messily and honestly, with plenty of detail for the improv troupe to riff off. In turn, they made skits about talking meteorites, a school for nervous possums, and TV cookery shows. It was fun to see your experiences reworked into something that preserved only the vibe; details warped and reworked into new contexts, themes you hadn’t spotted in your own tale coming to the fore.

Read more

A museum is a story is a house and a home – @paulrbowers

Paul Bowers is Head of Exhibitions at Australia’s Museum Victoria.

During this week’s Museums Galleries Australia conference, Paul took time out to write a few words about the term “narrative”, currently in vogue among cultural institutions.

Paul argues that narrative can be a dangerous label for cultural institutions to bandy about.

“Narrative is singular, but the museum experience (stories, facts, things, people, audiences) is diverse”, he writes. He points out that few people experience a museum or exhibition as a defined story with a beginning, middle, and end. He reminds us that the museum is “conceptualised in law, policy, and culture as a never-ending entity”, unlike stories which come to a conclusion.

Paul starts to imagine “post-narrative exhibitions”, more open-ended experiences that break the constraints of linear narrative and which also step out of the “genres” within which culture professionals often see themselves:

We are often in a heroic genre – questing against ignorance. We have a lot of scientist-as-hero, in which they use effort, brains and a ‘magical agent’ (such as a DNA machine) to defeat ignorance. […] We should think about our character – are we Aragorn, Frodo, or Gandalf? The kingly hero, the ‘nobody’ with a heart of pure courage, or the wise one who initiates others into their knowledge? A museum could be all or any of these, but we usually default to being Gandalf without it being thought through.

Paul also talks about “shared universes” and trans media properties like the world that has sprouted from Marvel comics:

In a storyworld, the makers, the characters, the audience, are all together in enacting a story. They all believe. So I see that we need to place ourselves within a storyworld as well, not as simply the abstract producers of the product people come to see. If I use Dr Who as an example, when i read the comics, watch the TV show, buy the products or indeed do all three, I am having a consistency of engagement with the storyworld. Dr Who is always clever and kind. But I am not shut out of the TV show if I don’t read the comics. How do we achieve that – how can all our audiences feel part of one consistent ‘Museum world’ whether they attend everything we do or just visit the website now and again? And how does the storyworld idea promote continued and deepening engagement? I might watch a show on Netflix just because it’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and I liked the Iron Man films. That’s very different from promoting a show to me, and I think it’s deeper than ‘brand loyalty’ – I’m not being loyal to the brand, I’m being loyal to a storyworld.

Paul suggest we look beyond the world of essays and prose fiction to poetry, for a less structured experience, one which grants more power to the reader:

Literature is an interesting metaphor. We try to think like novelists, or the great essay writers. But I think exhibitions are closer to poetry. Individual moments, brief and rich in meaning, clustered together in suite and bound together as one entity: exhibits as poems, an exhibition as a volume of poetry, and the museum as a body of work of a range of poets.

But I’d point to another form, too: the short story. Deceptively similar to longer prose forms, the short story at its best manages to fold great swathes of experience and vision into a tiny textual construct. It is not a path from beginning to end, but a space which you can explore in different directions.

The great Alice Munro – my beloved Alice Munro – put it best, in the introduction to one of her story collections:

A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.

Alice Munro imagines a story as a building to be explored, containing multitudes. And maybe museums, galleries, and libraries – all those cultural institutions which exist for their users to explore – could be like her stories too: not fixed paths leading us helplessly from beginning to end, but spaces at once familiar and surprising, ever enticing, comfortable enough to welcome us but challenging enough to merit repeat visits.

Read Paul Bowers’ “On Misusing ‘Narrative’ In Exhibitions” here.

Why hire a Creative in Residence?

Jane Cowell of State Library of Queensland has not one, but five answers for you over at Medium.

Jane hired me back in January 2016 for a residency intended to develop staff, challenge convention, engage the wider community, and showcase the organisation’s creative practice. Now, more than a year later, we’re looking back on a successful stint embracing libraries, communities, and partner organisations across Australia’s Sunshine State.

Read more about creative residencies over at Jane Cowell’s Medium account.