Sunday Read: Beyond Secret Cinema

My belated Sunday morning read is this piece from the Guardian on London’s Secret Cinema, which blends movie screenings with theatrical experiences and themed activities:

I’m a big fan of participatory live-action storytelling and I’m fascinated by opportunities to blur the line between fiction and “real” experience, creating events where attendees shape the outcome of a story.

I went to a Secret Cinema event a few years back and was pretty disappointed – the set design and costumes were fancy, but the opportunities to get involved in the storytelling were minimal. I’d gone to see Casablanca and while it was cool to sing La Marseillaise at a bunch of actors in Nazi uniform, the rest of the “immersive experience” consisted of overpriced snacks and a “casino” barely worthy of a student union’s James Bond night. The Guardian piece captures the extent to which Secret Cinema events are now more about taking your money than letting you step into the world of a story.

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We The Humanities: Interview with Natasha Barrett, University of Leicester

This week you can find me over at @wethehumanities, a rotating Twitter account where people working in the humanities get to share ideas, experiences, and stories. I’m using my week to talk about the grey areas between fact and fiction, dream and experience, stories and everyday life – as well as people who cross back and forth over the walls of universities and academic institutions.

Today I’m joined by Natasha Barrett, a British researcher and cultural heritage expert currently studying for a doctorate at the University of Leicester.

Natasha tells me: 

I’m researching commercial colonial-era photographs (1860s-1914) of Māori (the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand) and their taonga/cultural treasures. Essentially I’m looking at the meaning of these photographs to Māori, and how they have been used over time both within and outside of museums. I’m also considering how Māori perspectives can inform the way these photographs are understood in museums. My approach treats photographs as three-dimensional objects. I pay close attention to their material qualities, such as the albums they are placed in, any writing on their surfaces. As well as, the sensorial or different ways people engage with photographs, inlcuding looking at, talking about and touching them.

You’ve returned to academia after a long time working in the cultural heritage sector; what’s it like returning to research and how have your experiences off-campus shaped what you do now? Read more

Life after Dark Night: Auckland’s barroom librarians

Some projects make a big splash right away. With others, it’s something of a slow burn.

Just as the sun sets on this year’s Fun Palaces, I was pleased to see an old programme finally achieving its potential back in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Auckland Libraries have just launched Reading Between the Wines, a monthly book club which tours bars in the central suburbs of New Zealand’s biggest city. Librarians bring a selection of books to the bar for patrons to check out and discuss on the first Thursday of each month.

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The Thrill of Heritage: Playful, postapocalyptic, postcolonial cultural programming

TimeQuest Postapocalyptic Auckland Skyline by Nicola Brady
TimeQuest Postapocalyptic Auckland Skyline by Nicola Brady

Heritage is one of the most exciting challenges in community outreach. It’s an opportunity to dispel the myth that the past is staid or somehow divorced from the present. Many public and private bodies hold weird and wonderful archives, unique traces of the generations that have preceded us.  Everything we do and dream is rooted in what has gone before, whether we like it or not, and yet the past is not fixed, as we uncover new truths, new ways of looking at those who have gone before us. The strange and beautiful thing about historical narrative and memory is that even a path you’ve already trodden can still change course in retrospect.

Two years ago I visited Auckland in New Zealand for a six month contract as Service Development Adviser to the city’s libraries. My brief was “to push the boundaries in how our large public library network creates innovative programmes for children and young people […] to inspire others to experiment and learn from the experience of working in fresh, even unexpected ways.”

During my stay, Auckland celebrated its 2013 Heritage Festival, an annual “opportunity for everyone, locals and visitors to Auckland, to celebrate and remember our past and discover our heritage.”

With my Auckland Council hat on, I looked for ways to make the past thrilling, and immediate, and to create opportunities for each neighbourhood library to take responsibility for devising and delivering inspired, playful programming.

A trip to Chromacon, the city’s festival of illustration, led to a meeting with British expatriate artist Nicola Brady. Her drawing of a crumbling present-day Auckland was the perfect inspiration for a time-travelling heritage event.

Nicola’s doomy vision provoked questions: What if we made our heritage programming about both the future and the past? What if we turned it into a dynamic mission of rescue, with participants making their own choices about the value of history?

TimeQuest was born: a season of cultural programming for the school holidays, with a heritage theme and an overarching narrative:

Auckland, 2379. It’s the end for planet Earth – a red sun burns in the sky and the ground is parched of life.

The last survivors are preparing to leave for a new home on the other side of the galaxy, when the scientist Maia completes her greatest invention – a time portal that can take you to any moment in Auckland’s history.

Her plan: to send you back in time to recover the best books, art, and objects from New Zealand’s past. Time has run out for the planet Earth, but we can still rescue the best of our heritage and take it with us to our new home.

Where will you go – and when?

What will you choose to save?

Time Quest – Raid the past to save the future.

For me, it was important to create a storyline which respected New Zealand’s bicultural past and future. If we were going to imagine a postapocalyptic science fiction setting, it would be one where Māori identity was front and centre. Our defiant genius hero would be a Māori woman and a scientist, who invited TimeQuest participants to make their own decisions about the value of heritage, rather than accept some dusty authoritarian imposition.

My Auckland supervisor, Peter Thomas, is a Māori public servant with extensive experience offering guidance and representation to government bodies working in New Zealand. He helped us to choose the right name for our rebellious female science-hero, and also took me through the process needed to approve the use of a quote I’d found at Auckland Museum, which became the motto of TimeQuest:

“Haere mai, e tai, kei te wera te ao”

“Come and see, the world is going to be burned”

These were the words recalled by an eyewitness to the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera, a violent natural disaster which decimated communities. I had seen the quotation in a display on volcanoes and earthquakes at the Auckland Museum, and saw it as a symbol of our programme’s link between an imagined future and authentic historical accounts. Peter helped guide me through the sensitivities around using a quotation in this way.

To balance out the gravity and drama of our programme, we also created an alternate promotional image which was friendlier and more cartoony, for TimeQuest events featuring younger children.

Auckland Libraries - Timequest
Auckland Libraries – Timequest logo

Having established our storyline, we wanted to be sure that local communities would create their own events and not just copy some central voice of authority. We wanted local stories, local histories, local art, and local play – so rather than create a prescriptive centralised programme, we created a resource pack with eight model activities to serve as inspiration for local librarians to devise their own versions.

By kind permission of Greg Morgan and the team at Auckland Libraries, I’ve been allowed to share the Auckland Libraries TimeQuest 2013 Mission Pack here as a PDF download. 

Our simple missions included robotic dress-up, Nerf gun battles, creative writing, and research activities for a variety of age ranges. In many ways these events were the forefathers to later projects like Time Travel Detectives, Write Your Own Urban Myths, and Big Box Battle.

Auckland’s librarians ran with the inspiration they’d been given and came up with sessions such as these:

  • Time travellers from the year 2379 are on their way to find out information about the culture and life of the tweens and teens of today. They’ve asked us to make a teen’s room that they can teleport to the future. Help us to design and decorate a representation of what a teen’s room looks like in 2013.
  • Life in 2379 is rather bleak. With the sun burning out, life on earth is dying. The time travellers have come back to 2013 to gather enough knowledge and resources to save the future generations. But they will need enough sustenance to do this. Tweens and teens will be asked to investigate the vitamins and minerals humans need to keep healthy and strong. They will then be blending up some fruity concoctions for the travellers to take back with them to help them save the world.
  • Time travellers, to slow the sun and save the future you have been asked to bring back to the future Maui, the Māori hero of How Maui slowed the sun. Listen to the story and help Maui to catch and slow the sun again by making your own fishhooks and ropes.

It was great to watch local librarians take on the challenge and the opportunity of a heritage programme that left space for their own creativity. TimeQuest was just one of many experiments in Auckland over my six month stint there: everything from zombie battles to librarians in comic book stores and a national youth libraries conference.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve watched with pleasure as participatory, local, and lively approaches to culture and creativity have spread. For me, the most promising model for a decentered, participatory approach to the arts in local communities has been Fun Palaces, the British event co-directed by the Kiwi-raised Stella Duffy from an original 1960s idea by Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price. If it’s true that the neighbourhood public library is the gateway to all human knowledge and culture, then Fun Palaces are a beautiful fit for libraries’ swashbuckling cultural mission.

You can download the Auckland Libraries TimeQuest 2013 Mission Pack here as a PDF file – and read more about the project in my blog “A Scientific Romance for Libraries.”

Write and Draw Your Own Comics Available for Pre-Order

Usborne Write and Draw Your Own Comics by Louie Stowell

 

Blimey, between this and the pre-orders for the 2015 Library Innovation Toolkit, it’s getting to be like the Home Shopping Channel over here.

Earlier this year, I was a consultant on the new Write and Draw Your Own Comics, created by the talented Louie Stowell and a range of brilliant artists for the children’s publisher Usborne.

Some of the activities in the book got field-tested by the kids and teens of Auckland, New Zealand, during my stint there last year and I can vouch for the finished work as being pretty freakin’ awesome.

Write and Draw Your Own Comics is out this October, but you can pre-order the book via the Forbidden Planet website now – looks like they’ve dropped the price by a couple of quid for early birds too.

Guest post: XXUnmasked at Auckland Libraries

I’m pleased to announce that Auckland Libraries’ XXUnmasked media literacy project for teenage girls has just won an award for community outreach. This week on the blog, Tracy Dawson of Parkes High School Library in Australia reports on the project led by Ali Coomber of Auckland Libraries and Dr Pani Farvid of Auckland University of Technology.

XXUnmasked – double the power, not the standards!

Something that always amazes me is when young girls say “I’m not a feminist.” When any woman says it, actually. I remember several years ago, in my previous guise as an English teacher, talking to a group of top senior English students studying what was then called 3 Unit English in New South Wales. We were discussing the brilliant Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and despite that horrific and unsettling story of the loss of female identity, voice, independence, none could see the value of feminism.

Now when feminism is often seen as a dirty word at the same time that all-pervading media images of women are more blatantly misogynistic than ever, how do we help our young women avoid being active participants, let alone passive observers, in their own diminution? Read more

VALA Remixed: Ten Magic Words for Australasian Libraries and their Friends, 2014-2016

Last week I gave a keynote at VALA in Melbourne. It’s a biennial conference for people who work in galleries, museums, and libraries. The text below builds on key ideas from my speech – you can see a full video at the VALA website.

TARDIS on the Powell Estate, graffiti;ed
Think of the public library as the TARDIS on your streetcorner…a local gateway to human knowledge and dreams

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Finding Library Futures, 5: “I Was Elected To Lead, Not To Read” – Thoughts On Library Leadership

Part 5 in my series on Finding Library Futures.

In my travels, I’ve met some incredible and inspiring library leaders. Managers and specialists delivering incredible stuff: people like Hamish Curry, the Melbournian library superhero who gets kids making Ned Kelly armour in his library, or Adrienne Hannan in the New Zealand capital Wellington, a children’s and youth specialist whose role outside traditional management structures gives her freedom and flexibility to innovate. But sometimes libraries’ own bureaucracy impedes them: sometimes, even when the media, local communities, and local politicians, too, are supporting libraries’ attempts to be audacious, internal process can be an obstacle. So – here’s three thoughts on a style of leadership which will let libraries be the sword-hand of literacy and the major cultural player they so clearly ought to be in the new Information Age.

1. Library leaders need to be librarians.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking my role out of existence – outsiders to library service have a value in stirring the pot, bringing in new ideas, cross-pollinating between librarianship, education, theatre, creative writing, marketing, etc – but I truly believe that the people at the head of a library organisation need to have walked the floor, stacked the shelves, held their own on a desk shift, and put contact plastic on a few books in their time. Read more

Finding Library Futures, 2: We Built This City – Embedding Stories in a Community

In part one of this blog series, I took a look at TimeQuest, the citywide programme which I devised for Auckland Libraries’ school holiday programmes – an opportunity to embed storytelling, adventure, and literacy into the life of an entire city.

The TimeQuest team created a simple storyline which all Auckland’s library branches could use as a leaping-off point for their own activities over the holidays. We might have been imposing a half-dozen lines of text, but there’s a real difference between this imposition and the various ‘One Book, One City’ programmes which have gained ground around the world.

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