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My burp on the spending review

October 22, 2010

Cow Burps, the environmental economics blog curated by eftec, is featuring a post by yours truly on why the art cuts are a loss much greater than the projected £350m over the next four years.

Trot to read it! (Or whatever cows do to deambulate)


More horses

October 1, 2010

Found this podcast comparing four different board games about horse racing. Winner’s Circle is one of them, so this link goes to compliment yesterday’s post. Scott is quite a character, have a look!

Board Game of the Month: Royal Turf

September 30, 2010

September brought an unusually high equine presence in my life.

I rode a horse.

Picture (c) of the riding instructor whose name I never quite caught

(I’m the one with the fancy scarf).

(The riding was inspired by Alex Horne and his cricket on horseback, by the way. I wrote about that a while back).

I also played a board game about horses. That may not be a lot of horse, but it is more than I get in a normal month. So, about the board game with horses in it.

Royal Turf is: a circular racecourse, seven horses, betting, dice and a sprinkling of strategy and psychology. In short, you bet on certain horses and bluff about having bet on others. You then roll the dice and move the horses, but are restricted in how you can move them so you have to operate strategically. Everyone is trying to guess what the others are actually betting on, to try to hinder the horses the opponents have their money on, and make their own horses win the race.

Royal Turf. Picture from

Easy to learn, quick, simple, and a lot of fun. I remember laughing a lot. I teamed up with someone else on Earl Grey the lame horse. I forgot or pretended to forget what my real and bluff bets were. People kept getting the horses mixed up as most of them were of varying shades of brown. We were a group that hadn’t really met before, and yet I had a feeling we all had a good time with Royal Turf. Despite that having nothing to do with the satisfaction that comes from playing a complicated game.

It made me feel a bit like the horse-riding above did: clumsy, but having whole-hearted fun.

Thinking about Royal Turf some weeks on, after a couple of conversations about the purpose of scoring in games, I realised I completely forgotten who won. I vaguely remember that I thought I was doing well but I ended up not doing anything special, and that all the scores were very close together. I also remember counting the scores up at the end almost got boring. That’s interesting because the aforementioned conversations about scoring were questioning whether scores are and should be the main incentive in games, or what else motivates players.

Perhaps the worry over the over-importance of scoring belongs more with video games than with board games. It is mainly when you are playing solo that you start obsessing over improving your score and your ranking. It is when the purpose of the game is to keep you hooked that scoring is prominent. But is it the same with board games? Is it because in board games it is easier to tell who won?

Since asking myself these questions I have noticed that all my favourite board games are based on a scoring system that only “seals the deal” at the end of the game. You may feel during play that you are doing very well and then lose. Or you may be surprised at the end that everyone else did worse than you when you thought you were doing badly enough already.

My enjoyment and my interest in board games, if it wasn’t clear already, are in the interactions amongst players. What’s happening there between people that isn’t strictly to do with the mechanics of the game? When you can’t keep tab of the score very closely, or it is unpredictable until the end, all of what goes on “around” the game takes centre stage. Playing a game that requires making some guesses about the other players’ psychology, and playing it with strangers, really merges the “getting to know each other” with the game tactics with the filler conversations that happen during play anyway. And that, for me, is blissful fun.

Disclaimer: The new (and much more widely available) version of Royal Turf is called Winner’s Circle. Some of the game dynamics are different though so I don’t know how the experience would compare!

#AskaCurator day round-up

September 2, 2010

#AskaCurator day stormed Twitter yesterday. Anyone could use the hashtag to ask curators their pressing questions, and the zealous curators did their best to reply to them all. My twitter feed was incredibly active as a result, and it felt like a positive and open initiative that people happily took part in. #AskaCurator trended worldwide and in the US, and while I was on watch (but perhaps museums beyond the Atlantic not so much) it was the first trending topic in the UK and even got used for spam – the ultimate proof of Twitter success.

Here is a totally partial account of #AskaCurator day – answers to the questions I asked and tweets that caught my eye.

What is the most unusual/exciting thing you have done as a curator?

I asked this to @MuseumChildhood @sciencemuseum @7Stories @transitionart @WallaceMuseum @nhm_london @BalticMill @HornimanMuseum@Tate

Museum of Childhood: “One of the most unusual things I often have to do here is crawl around a store that’s only four foot high… And the most exciting? I brought some toys on to Blue Peter and was given the dressing room next to the pets!”

Science Museum: “Peter says: when working on the Space Gallery in 1985, meeting Hermann Oberth, pioneer of spaceflight in Germany. Jane has a few: a fencing lesson on the roof of the Natural History Museum; looked at Moon rock through a Microscope; worked the word “lawnmower” into a conference paper about subsea geophysical survey; rode a 1958 fire engine across England. Selina: couriering objects to and from New York – more about trips with (or on!) objects at; getting to go inside a 1940s X-ray bus and a 1980s MRI bus at Wroughton; measuring a piece of Napoleon’s hair for it to go on loan; being inside James Watt’s workshop (exhibition opens next year). @ali_boyle says: met Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13. Was dumbstruck. Amy says ‘made a film about clothes grown by bacteria!’“.

Baltic: “Being on a speedboat on the Mersey with artist Shimabuku hanging off the front fishing with a King Edward potato”.

Paolo Viscardi for the Horniman Museum: “15 minutes ago I was taking DNA samples from a Mermaid – that was pretty unusual…”

Wallace Museum: “Either getting to hang our own exhibition on Delaroche or getting our hands on all the gold boxes!”

Seven Stories: “The Most exciting thing I’ve been involved in @7Stories is visiting Quentin Blake at his studio in London!”

My second question was a bit too long for Twitter, so I formulated it in the previous post. It boils down to How much of curation is actually public-facing, and what opportunities do curators have to derive satisfaction from seeing people appreciating their work?

I asked this question to @BM_AG @Iniva_arts @sciencemusem @MuseumChildhood@HornimanMuseum @balticmill.

Baltic: “Numerous stages exist for curators: writing, talks, tours, podcasts.. nothing stops you seeing the spark either”

Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery: “Most curators have been doing the monthly spotlight session with the public today & was recently an MCC open day. So probably not answering your question, but our curators do meet the public!”

I also asked specific questions:

To the Education Curator at @Iniva_arts: What makes for good practice in arts education? Especially re: young people. Her answer: “To be open, collaborative, fun, creative and lose all sense of hierachical approach. Chaos makes for fun as well!”

Perhaps a bit cheekily, I asked @momath1 whether they have a fellow organisation in the UK. Their answer: “Techniquest in Cardiff, Wales has a significant collection of math exhibits & large puzzles

My question to @ExploreWellcome was What’s the typical starting point for your exhibitions, Wellcome’s Collection, or an idea from “outside”? They replied: “Both: we work on some ideas generated internally & on others from outside that we develop collaboratively. Almost all our exhibitions & events rely on collaboration with external advisors and consultants, but equally we make sure they all fit the overall ambition and style of Wellcome Collection”.

I thought I’d mention also @Mart_museum as the only Italian institution taking part in #AskaCurator day.

Other questions I have noticed, although I am quoting from memory, not from records:

Who holds the oldest man-made object? Tie between @britishmuseum and @Nationalmuseet with artefacts about 2 million years old. I think in both the objects are chopping tools.

What’s the difference between preservation and conservation? An interesting one I couldn’t quite track an answer to.

What are the advantages of new technologies to curation? Research can be broader and easier, objects can be more accessible to the public regardless of conservation needs, social media make people feel more connected.

Best path into curation? Good academic qualifications, passion and knowledge about specific areas, determination, attending other museums and shows, volunteering – and many did phrase this as “work experience” and unfortunately told a bit too matter-of-factly for my liking of this work experience as unpaid. I appreciated though that people were honest about how competitive the profession is.

Where is Van Gogh’s ear? He gave it to a prostitute – after that nobody knows.

There were also many variants on the oddest item / largest object etc., too many to track!

Some more delicate questions were also raised: about the relationship between curators and artists (see tweets by @AIR_artists for more on that topic), about the ethical responsibilities of institutions and curators, about the consequences of reductions in funding. I was pleased to see how some curators really did attempt to answer these questions too, although with the obvious limitations imposed by shortness. Off the top of my head, @PAPILLIONART was quite good at that and their general enthusiasm about the day is commendable too!

Overall, my impression of the initiative is that it was a lovely starting point for vibrant communication between museums and users. The vibe was overwhelmingly positive, of genuine interest, and informal. Many museums and organisations ended their tweeting day with the recommendation to “ask a curator any day”.

It seemed to me that for once institutions were using Twitter not just to echo their marketing messages, but also for a more authentic connection with their users. In the end, it is a return to the original purpose of the museum: to engage with the public, spark their curiosity, and provide some answers (or a version thereof). There seemed to be a fascination, at least in the Twittersphere, for the mechanisms behind how museums and galleries work, and what curators are about. Well, let the curators out to play!

Curators in the Limelight

September 1, 2010

Today is #AskaCurator day on Twitter and I have been having fun learning more from curators of all the participating institutions and asking a couple of questions myself. As Culture24 point out in this newsbite, #AskaCurator day is a chance for museums to engage with people beyond the mere social media marketing strategies. It prompted me to think of how curators, at least in my sterotype, dwell “behind the scenes”, are the minds behind the shows but never on stage themselves. I know some organisations (Tate and InIVA spring to mind) consider their Education and Learning staff as curators too, but I wonder whether it is true that curators need #AskaCurator days to engage with the public. If so, where do they get the drive, what inspires them on their job? Is the satisfaction of the researcher enough? Do they miss actually seeing the moment of the spark in people’s imagination when all the hard work they have put into producing great exhibitions bears fruit? As my involvement with galleries is mainly within education, I know how important it is to me that I can see what other people get out of my work. Is it like this with all curators and how do those who don’t deal with the public directly feel about this? Is #AskaCurator helping in this sense?

Instead of wondering, I may as well ask some curators while I still have time! ;)

Board Game of the Month: Diplomacy

August 11, 2010

Diplomacy and I didn’t get off to the best of starts. First time I tried to play it with some friends, we didn’t realise it’s more of a day-long game than an evening one. By the time we had removed all the cardboard counters from their holders it was practically time to go home. Though not without me getting my fingers stuck in said holders first.

Photo (c) Andrew Latheron

A few days ago I had another go at Diplomacy. Relations between us don’t seem to have improved. Not only did I have the worst starting position ever, but things got worse over the next couple of hours and I would probably have sorely lost had my fellow players not graced me by saying that we would “continue next time” and now watch Basil the Great Mouse Detective instead.

Diplomacy Basil's way. Image (c) unknown, from BlingCheese website

So, what is Diplomacy? At first we described as “like Risk, but not up to dice because you decide what your troops do, but you have to collaborate with others to make it all work out”. Eventually we settled to “ModelUN on a board”. Evidently my cheeky style of ModelUN playing (I remember once promising both a free election and a theocracy in Iraq) doesn’t quite pay off in Diplomacy.

Map of Defeat

The most and least enjoyable bit of Diplomacy is the negotiations phase. You shut yourself in a room with other people and try to subtly lie to them until they bend to your will. I don’t know whether it’s the lying, the subtly, or the bending people to your will that I can’t do, but I could tell from the beginning I was not going very well. A silly betrayal of France early in the match and a scary Russia picking up the game to great level within a few turns didn’t help, and soon enough I started to actually feel rather uncomfortable with it all.
It had never happened to me to actually feel uncomfortable while playing a board game. Confused because I didn’t understand it, or self-conscious because I could tell I was losing straight away, yes. But Diplomacy rubs the knife in the wound by having you sit in negotiations with players when you are already confused, and self-conscious. I was so desperate that I gladly accepted, in typical Italian style, the dry satisfaction of a purely technical point victory (this is a good place to speak of Diplomacy’s thick and detailed rule book including headers such as “Self-Standoff” and “A Convoyed Attack Doesn’t Cut Certain Supports”), just so that I could hang on for an extra turn.

Once players are done plotting against one another they send written orders to their troops

So as you can tell by now I am a lame Diplomacy Player. But on a purely intellectual level, I enjoyed the experience of actually being made uncomfortable by a game.  On top of that, I decided to make Diplomacy the first of what I hope will be a long-running Board Game of the Month series is because of how it relates to physical place, and no I am not referring to the map of Europe it is played on (although the fact that it features many of the same cities as Ticket to Ride was odd – I did get nostalgic for some Roma-Smyrna when I saw them on the board). Because we had to negotiate secretly, we ended up moving around the house, confabulating behind closed doors of rooms we wouldn’t have otherwise been into. The other half and I found ourselves, for no other reason than myself trying to look like I was having talks, in the kitchen, with the light off – it was so paradoxical we had to giggle. My first negotiation phase of the game was a one-on-one with the night’s host, in her bedroom, a place I hardly ever ventured into since I helped her assemble the bed when she moved in. Nonchalantly discussing the future of dominion over the North Sea was a different and unexpected way to experience that part of her house. And it got differenter and unexpecteder when, shortly afterwards, I also got diplomatic in that same room with France, a girl I was meeting for the first time that evening. Surely that’s not the point of Diplomacy, but as the main point of Diplomacy is a bit lost on me, I prefer to consider it an unusual, tangential way to inhabit and explore spaces around us.

Post Scriptum: Since starting this post, in my googling I have stumbled upon Diplomacy’s rife online community of players, strategists and nerds of various degrees. My favourite quote comes from Matthew Shields, and with his words I leave you:

I’d say that the difference between a mediocre player and a good player is, as you say, being able to exploit the tactical nuances inherent in the rules to his advantage.

The great players are on a whole different level.

They can suck at the tactical nuances and still beat you because they knew what you were going to do before you did, and had already got the other 5 guys on board to kill you.

In pictures: Ernesto Neto at the Hayward Gallery

August 5, 2010

Be in the Hayward’s stomach, in its heart, in its womb, and, if you really want to, swim in its waste.

You will see a lot of photos of my friends and of other visitors in this slideshow because it made me look at other people as owners of their unique, beautiful bodies, and as fellows inhabitants of the Edges of the World. Interactions from odd perspectives. Relaxedly relating.

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