Truthiness & Lies in American News

A great man once said that truthiness is not based on mere facts. No, instead truthiness is what you feel to be true. That great man was Stephen T. Colbert (pronounced Colbear but definitely not French), a late night pundit who seemed to personify the American news media‘s obsession with opinion. His ultra-right-wing views were familiar to anyone who had the misfortune to come across Fox News while zapping through the myriad of channels on American TV but with one crucial difference – Stephen T. Colbert wasn’t real. His “Colbear Repore” was a comedy show that was so close to the real thing, I heard people ask ‘…but it’s a joke, right?’. Colbert even made it to the White House Press dinner and to this day I’m not sure if then President George ‘dubya’ Bush got it.

TheDailyShow-2013-06-06-DamnYou,FozzieBear!The Colbert character was retired just before Christmas. His creator, actual Stephen Colbert, will be moving on to present the legendary Late Show in September. Colbert/Colbear got his break on another ‘comedy’ news show, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and last week in another blow to funny that’s funny, Jon Stewart announced he was leaving that show to in his own words enjoy dinner on a school night with his family, ‘I hear… they’re lovely people’. Although the Daily Show also used fake ridiculous characters to satirize the real ridiculous characters of American news and politics, Stewart, as the anchorman, remained apart. His role was to point out the ridiculous, turn his acerbic wit on lawmakers to hockey-moms and shine a comedic light on hypocrisy. The golden age of the Daily Show was during the eight years of George W. Bush‘s administration. The show went from cult late night viewing for college kids to the essential news show for disillusioned Democrats, including the man who would become the next president. Partly it was because the show is simply funny but more than that, the Daily Show turned out to be a better source of news than a lot of real news on American TV. In my dissertation on the subject, I found studies suggesting the Daily Show, through it’s lens of satire, was more true to journalistic values, more informative & more willing to fact check than actual news. Coupled with this was Stewart‘s every man common sense of right and wrong. His delivery may have been that of a stand-up comic but his morals always shone through. I would maintain that he is the best political interviewer I have ever seen, wielding a perfected Socratic technique of giving his opinion strongly and articulately while somehow remaining warm and inviting. This often resulted in his guests, particularly those from the right-wing, shooting themselves in the foot, disarmed by video evidence and Stewart’s home-truths. The fact is that Stewart, as the Daily Show anchor, pointed out ‘truthiness’ in media and politics and pulled it into the light of what we like to call ‘fact’ (or at the very least intelligent, well informed opinion) and made it funny! Of course, Stewart always had that advantage – he isn’t a newsman. He is a comedian and never pretended to be anything else. Ironically, it was precisely this that made him credible,

grossIn a strangely negative version of Stewart’s fake/real credibility, last week also saw problems for actual news anchorman NBC’s Brian Williams and his ‘truthiness’. Williams has been suspended without pay for six months because an anecdote he told several times turned out to have become… let’s say ’embellished’ over the years. Now that might seem a little harsh – haven’t we all told stories where we got the girl or caught the ball? Maybe, but those stories don’t generally involve helicopters, rocket propelled grenades and the Iraq War. In 2003, Williams, reporting from Iraq, said he’d been on a US army helicopter when the one in front was hit by an RPG. While appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman in 2013, Williams said the RPG had hit his helicopter and in January this year, that version made it to NBC Nightly News. ‘Misremembering’ on a talk show? Bad. Telling that same ‘mis-remembrance’ on the most watched news bulletin in America? Worse, much worse, especially when some of the vets you were in the helicopter with are watching too and don’t quite remember it the same way. Whether Williams’ memory is on the blink or he blatantly lied to make himself the hero, the fact is that his entire journalistic career is now under scrutiny, including the Peabody winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina. The real dissapointment here is that Williams was one of the ‘good’ guys. Taking over the anchorship from the legendary Tom Brokaw, Williams has been compared to Edward R. Murrow and counts Walter Cronkite as a fan. If it had been Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity nobody would have batted an eye, mostly because they frequently stretch the truth as pointed out nightly by the Daily Show. But leaving Fox News’ beautifully blatent partisanship behind, NBC Nightly News is not an opinion show pretending to be the news or a comedy show pretending to be the news, it is the news, the fourth estate, the legacy of Woodward and Bernstein, an essential element in democracy, what Jefferson described as the only toxin of the nation. The fact that toxin has been sullied by journalists and politicians alike particularly over the Iraq War (among other things) is all the more reason America needs to rekindle it’s trust in its journalists and if those who, like Williams, seemed to retain that sense of integrity prove to lose it in their own self-importance, perhaps it is only through comedy that checking in on the truth might actually happen. Hopefully, even after Jon Stewart’s departure, the Daily Show will continue to do that (it’s certainly got a lot talented people to take over). In a further plot twist, there are rumours that NBC might nab Stewart to take over as the Nightly News anchor. The comedian becomes the newsman and the newsman becomes a joke? Welcome to the wacky world of truthiness.

In case you’ve never seen the Daily Show, here’s a good round up of Jon Stewart at his best (if you don’t mind the annoying MTV style presenter, sorry!)…

& here’s the whole of the 9/11 piece (be sure to have some tissues for this).

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A Vision In White: Manchester’s Central Library #Reborn

Manchester's Central Library

Manchester’s Central Library

Four years in the making and at a cost of £50 million you’d be forgiven for wondering if, in this paperless utopian future, Manchester’s Central Library refurbishment isn’t a little redundant. Having visited today, on its opening weekend, I can assure you it’s not.

Having lived in Birmingham for some time I’ve also been interested in their new library, a completely new build to replace the early 70s concrete block that in turn had replaced  a glorious Victorian institution (for more and to marvel at what councillors chose to tear down in the name of progress see here). At a cost of £188.8 million (£50 million doesn’t seem so bad now does it?), the library is second in size to only The British Library and is said to be the largest public cultural space in Europe. When I saw it in the flesh a few weeks ago, I have to say it cuts a cutting dash,cantilevered boxes clad in linked chainmail and gold, towering over Centenary Square.

Library of Birmingham

Library of Birmingham

Having opened in September 2013, perhaps it had lost some of its young blush by the time I visited or maybe I was just looking with an adopted Manc eye but the building, despite its books being on display, felt soulless. I’d heard reports of it being airport like and I’d have to agree, with its blue lit travelators and glass lift (not working on the day I went!) it did feel like somewhere you travel through rather than to.

I can’t help but contrast this with today and Manchester’s central beacon of public learning. Maybe it is because I simply prefer a classical style for my institutions, maybe it’s because I’d been aware of its slow process for so long, maybe it’s because I live here now but walking through that columned portico and into the marbled hall felt like coming home even though I’d never entered the building before.

Manchester's Shakespeare window

Manchester’s Shakespeare window

The Shakespeare Room in Library of Birmingham

The Shakespeare Room in Library of Birmingham

Unlike the Library of Birmingham, that for all its glass still seems in constant shadow, Manchester Central Library’s  white marble shines even with grey skies. It’s central skylight and large municipal windows flood the building with natural light. Smiling volunteers hand out slickly designed maps that repeatedly use the circular motif that reflects the building’s shape. Your eye is drawn up to the contrasting wood panelled ceiling displaying the arms of the great and good, then to the ecclesiastical stained window not celebrating a saint of the church but a saint of literature, Shakespeare. In Birmingham, a city much closer to the Bard’s Stratford, the Library boasts the Shakespeare Room, the only bit of that beautiful original library that exists. However, this recreation sits uncomfortably at the very top of the block stack, hard going even for the fittest and most ardent of Shakespeare lovers. When I visited, this wood panelled cocoon was only being used by a group of teenage boys sitting playing games on their phones loudly. I almost told them how proud I thought Shakespeare would be to see them here, seemingly oblivious of his life’s work. On the other hand, Manchester’s library exalts Shakespeare but doesn’t pander to him. He made be central but he’s small fry in comparison to the municipal beauty surrounding him.

From this entrance hall you enter the main ground floor rotunda, home to not what you would find in the majority of libraries, literature, but to archives. The very layout of this library is making a statement of its place within the community. Despite its classical architecture, this is a place that celebrates local history for local people. This is Manchester, we are part of it and we are part of you. Unlike Birmingham where archives was hidden away on the 3rd or 4th floor, this is the central public space replete with the cafe and tech… A LOT of tech! However, despite the amount of screens the space doesn’t feel techy. While Birmingham’s architecture reeks of our contemporary world but with a confusing lack of obvious interactive IT inside, here the multitude of screens seem to merge and flow with everyday life, doing the all important job of bringing histories usually kept in boxes to life (a particular passion of mine!). AND they were being used! I spoke to someone I know who works in the Archives+ partnership and he said how worried they’d been but when they opened the doors people came in and immediately started looking at digital maps of WWII bomb sites and opening digitalised files of love letters. I’m a firm believer that it is through digital play and interactivity that archives can be opened up to the wider public and this is a perfect example.

Upstairs there’s again the traditional library architecture of the Great Hall reading room, Proverbs 4:7 shining with

Moving shelves featuring famous Mancunians

Moving shelves featuring famous Mancunians

new gold leaf. This room seems purposely screen free, retaining its classical good looks under the dome and skylight. Throughout the rest of the building, modern glass mixes with marble and wood, screens mix with books. You can still look up US patents from 1872 or you can surf the web on your tablet with free the wi-fi at the touch of a button and everywhere the local. Even in the top floor reference section the moving shelves (great fun!!) are decorated with the area’s alumni, everyone from John Dee to Alan Turing.

Of course there are some things Birmingham’s library has done better. Their building uses the latest in renewable energy for their air conditioning meaning a lower carbon footprint. While we adventured round Manchester’s my environmentally minded friend was horrified at the amount of single pane glass and bad insulation in the windows. Another advantage Birmingham boasts is the terraces, allowing visitors unrivalled views of the city. Unfortunately, that city is Birmingham, in my opinion a skyline nowhere near as attractive as that glimpsed through the single pane glass in Manchester. Our need for an outside area (when/if it ever stops raining) will eventually be sufficed by the redevelopment of St. Peters Square into a European style piazza even with the trams rumbling through.

Manchester Central Library interior

Manchester Central Library interior

Manchester Central Library staircase

Manchester Central Library staircase

There have been bumps along the way (notably the favourer over 25000 books being destroyed even if they were copies or outdated manuals) and others still to come (mostly surrounding the enclosing of the pathway between the library and the Town Hall and the moving of the Cenotaph) but for now the signs are that Manchester has welcomed back it’s hall of Wisdom, exulting and embracing this reborn form as it reflects us back. At a time when we seem to be ridding ourselves of paper, it’s lovely to know that it can sit comfortably alongside our screens, speak to us through digitisation, and continue to mean something to our lives. Manchester’s Central Library proves that with good design and forethought old can engage with new in beautiful, surprising and personal ways.

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Maurice de Trafford: Hunter/Conservationalist?

Stories from the Museum Floor

Many visitors ask about our stuffed animals – where did they come from? Are they real? Some believe the museum itself is responsible for the animal’s demise. While the museum it now a bastion of conservation, it’s true that many of the fascinating items in our natural history collections date from a time when hunting was part of the lives for much of the British aristocracy and many of our displays were trophies these gentlemen had in their stately homes. For them it was a token of their status, proof of their manliness in a highly masculine society. For some it was also part of their interest in the natural world and their feelings of responsibility in enlightening those of a lower social status. This may seem patronising to us in 2014, but it’s important to bear in mind that a lot of our knowledge about such creatures has come…

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How To Make A Museum…

Stories from the Museum Floor

The Museum's Oxford Road elevation The Museum’s Oxford Road elevation

How do you start a museum? They seem like such amazing, impossible yet solid places, it’s difficult to imagine a time when they simply weren’t there!

Well, back in 1821 there was no Manchester Museum. That year several wealthy gentleman with the Victorian passion for science and nature, formed the Manchester Society of Natural History and bought John Leigh Phillips’ collection. By 1835 they had a rather grand classically columned building on Peter street. The only sign that it was ever there now is Museum Street.

In 1850, the collection expanded when they merged with the Manchester Geological Society who brought their prize item, an ichthyosaurus found at Whitby. The two societies weren’t exactly happy bedfellows. The Natural History Society were charging visitors a penny for admission while the Geological Society believed entrance should be free which just goes to show that questions over how…

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The Art of Social Intimacy: Nikhil Chopra – Coal on Cotton

How often do you watch a grown adult sleep? Maybe your partner, maybe a member of your family, maybe even a friend but chances are you very rarely catch a stranger in repose and even if you do, it is likely to be a fleeting moment rather than sitting in the same space, observing their shape, the way they turn, creeping past them, whispering with your friends so as not to disturb them – this would be a rare experience. And even if you did have such experiences you (hopefully) would keep the image off of social media… that is, unless it’s art.

IMG_20130707_004731The initial question was asked by Maria Balshaw, director of Whitworth Art Gallery, at the official opening of both the summer season and Coal on Cotton, a 65-hour performance piece by Nikhil Chopra taking place at the gallery as part of Manchester International Festival. She, and other foolhardy devotees had been at the gallery from 4.30am on Friday to witness the start of Chopra’s opus to Manchester and Mumbai’s industrial connections through two materials that put the cities on the world’s stage. Chopra, known for portraying characters throughout his performance based art, started as ‘the Farmer’, sleeping on bales of locally woven Indian cotton for the first 40minutes, watched by the small, exclusive crowd. The first I (and probably most others) saw of it was through photos of this intimate scene posted on Twitter by the press, marketers and the gallery. Although Balshaw spoke of the profound silence that descended as Chopra slept, this reverential moment was already being spread throughout the city and the world.

I arrived much later, stepping through a fire exit door, into a half constructed corridor bathed in summer sun. Another aspect to the piece was that Whitworth Art Gallery are closing in September while a new £15million extension is completed. Chopra’s performance would be based in what will be the new landscape gallery but at the moment was open to the notoriously fickle Manchester weather. ‘The Farmer’ had combated this by constructing a large tent from the cotton bales he’d slept on then dragged through the galleries earlier. As I stepped in to this private/public space, I was first struck by how beautiful it was, like a communal cocoon of diffused light, the smell of the material evoking memories of camping trips and Bradford cloth stops. Chopra himself was now in his second incarnation ‘the Mill Worker’, dressed in Victorian style, monochrome, trousers and shirt that reflected the charcoalIMG_20130705_195611 drawing he was deftly inscribing on the wall of the tent. His face was covered in chalk giving him the appearance of a ghost among the pale shades surrounding him and us. The overall effect was one of serenity and acceptance. If seeing a stranger sleep is a rare event, seeing them in the act of artistic creation is probably even rarer. Yet, we weren’t an intrusion, despite his forced non-interaction pierced by occasional accusatorial stares in our direction. We seemed to share in this job of work, peace descending as we watched him draw, stride to his reference photograph and return. We sat against the far wall, examined the photograph ourselves, peeked out of the window cut roughly in the side, talked quietly with friends and strangers alike, and ubiquitously recorded the experience in real time through our smart phones.

Although there was official documentation, this amateur recording over the three days will no doubt prove the more interesting. I, for one, felt compelled to capture the progress of the drawing, the beauty of the space, the small collection of bundles containing his possessions for the three days. Speaking to one of the visitor assistants, at first they’d assumed cameras would be banned but Chopra had been happy for his ‘guests’ to share the piece with those outside the gallery. Rather than the negative experience iPads at gigs can be, this sharing seemed respectful, beautiful, intimate. I felt that by sharing my experience I was preserving it, as much for me as for the gallery or the world, capturing it and sending it like little bottles of insight on the ocean of Twitter, that I could retrieve and feel a little of what I felt watching this man work.

The last day was fervent with activity. As I arrived he was transforming into his last character, ‘the Boss’, clean shaven except for an impressive handlebar moustache, dressing in bright green to the jarring sound of looms recorded at the area’s last working steam-driven mill. The space was filled with excitement and portent, suddenly loosing it’s lazy, serene nature as our protagonist transformed. The first sound I heard him make in the three days I’d been visiting was a whistle to bring in several workers in hard-hats and luminous tabards. Ripping the tent apart with precision, Chopra quietly gave orders, pointing, gesturing, animated. Gone was the quiet, introverted ‘worker’, replaced by magnet, all business, calling us out of the collapsing tent and into the white heat of the roofless, concrete, half-built gallery. Fascinated, we stayed watching his construction descend, his persona fully finished with a beautifully tailored jacket and exotic flower boutonniere. We followed his every move, like a pied piper’s rats as his minions carried the wrapped cotton through to the front of the gallery, continually recording the breakdown of our former sanctuary.

IMG_20130707_210252By the time the drawing was hoisted roughly across the brick entrance, there was perhaps a hundred strong crowd watching Chopra peacock, an artistic superstar, in charge of these closing moments and seemingly the sun itself as it descended behind the city. We spread his image, simultaneously, no longer his equal as we had felt with the ‘worker’ but his sub-creatures, mythically transformed by his achievement as he had been. When he eventually left us, simply stepping down from the table he used as his stage and walking away, few followed. We had our place and now it wasn’t with him. Our power remained in the procreation of his image, the one flying through the air. Chopra may have been speaking to Manchester’s industrial past, its great innovation that caused such hardship to those who flooded to its factories, a process repeated in new industrial centres such as Mumbai now. But we used new innovation to share that experience, his and ours, a new collective that brings with it joys and woes, a new tool that we strive to make our own and retain, celebrate, preserve a little creativity of our own.

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Review: The Old Woman, Manchester International Festival

A couple of days ago I was given the opportunity to watch the preview performance of The Old Woman, a heavily promoted part of the Manchester International Festival line-up for 2013. I had actually been resisting seeing it as I kind of had an inkling of what I’d be in for. Suffice to say, it didn’t disappoint.

The piece is based of the work of Daniil Kharms, a Russian writer who died in a Stalin Gulag aged just 36. He is a creature of the 1920s, when the utter futility and horror of the First World War gave rise to an absurdist rebellion in the arts spearheaded by the Dadaist movement. Kharms, though not directly associated with Dada, shared many of their sensibilities. His ‘micro’ stories and plays celebrated nonsense while simultaneously commenting on the realities of life in post-revolution Russia and inter-war society.

Credit: http://www.mif.co.uk/Images/2013_Commissions/main_and_thumb_event_images/TOW_ProductionShot_ForWeb_v2.jpgThe Old Woman focuses on the comedic, pantomime elements of Kharms’ writing, displayed in the two clown-faced characters that carry the words and a set awash with primary colours and cartoonish props. However, despite director Robert Wilson’s assurance that we could laugh if we wanted, the entire experience suffered from an undertow of frustration and humiliation, not only for the characters but for at least this member of the audience.

Firstly, I have to say, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Defoe do an amazing job. They are the only two characters and the piece is physically demanding with them almost constantly dancing/stamping/running across the stage while repetitively chanting Kharms’ words in Russian and English respectively. Their graceful double act was one of the few elements that kept me in my seat. The other was the production; the circus-like primary colours, the lighting tricks sending the protagonists from black and white to garish red and green with the flick of a switch, the musical patches of old-time jazz; All these parts could have made for a coherent, interesting, engaging 30 minutes maybe but the fact is that absurdist theatre can’t be stretched over the full hour and half that The Old Woman takes without losing its shock value.

It lost one audience member within the first 10 minutes with cries of ‘Do you think we’re all stupid in Manchester?’ For the rest of us who endured it was a mixed bag of reaction, although we all applauded in the end (mostly on my part for the actors and the design). For my group of friends each of us came away with a different interpretation, one seeing it as a comment on the procrastination of the artistically gifted, another just ‘didn’t get it’.

I came away with the uncomfortable feeling that I’d predicted long before seeing it, that the piece wouldn’t be so much about us laughing at it but about it laughing at us. As the fast paced mise-en-scenes glided past in a bewildering cacophony of words, actions and sound I fast came to the conclusion that there wasn’t anything to actually ‘get’, that this was an elongated joke being played on an audience who were expecting an epiphany of discovery at any moment. Now, I like that joke when it’s played by Duchamp and his urinal because his work allows its audience to step back and realise the absurdity of the situation for ourselves. It also encourages us to laugh at the authority we give art and in particular the arts people. Indeed, Kharms’ stories are themselves wonderful pieces describing these moments when we are able to step outside of our lives and see them for the nonsense they are. However, we only ever do this in moments and usually of our own fruition. Then we dive back in. The problem with The Old Woman is that by stringing these moments together, they lose all meaning. Life is absurd, we know this, we don’t need to be told it for 90 minutes! It is only the space around the moments of realisation that make the realisation meaningful. Maybe it would have helped if they’d simply put in an interval…

I enjoy challenging work and I believe it is important that such work is available across art forms and across the regions. However, I also believe that art needs to engage, it needs to empower its viewer to feel something and voice that. A work like The Old Woman, in my opinion, denies them that, instead leaving them in the wilderness while sniggering at them behind a rock as we turn directionless. Personally, I’d have rather watched the two men dance for the duration (both are incredibly graceful) than be bombarded with the constant confirmation that my existence is absurd. Quite frankly, I had enough of that in the pub afterwards…

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How to Achieve An Active Afterlife – Keep Spinning

During the same week that The Rolling Stones play Glastonbury, another international rock star was all over the papers and this one is even older! A video of a 10 inch tall ancient Egyptian statue rotating in a locked cabinet went viral with over three and a half million YouTube views in little more than a week. The Manchester Museum has been welcoming fake mummies, Russian newsmen and most importantly, visitors, all with an eye on our little dancing friend. Credit: http://images.hngn.com/data/images/full/5844/statue.jpg?w=600

So how has this happened? How has a regional, university owned museum managed to score more publicity with a 43 second video than the British Museum multi-million marketing for Pompeii? The answer, as it is with most ‘natural phenomena’, is the perfect storm of subject, controversy, mystery and celebrity.

As some of you may know, I’m a Visitor Services Assistant at the museum. For me and my colleagues this story started months ago when a few of us noticed that the statuette seemed to be in one position one day and another the next. It was just one of the funny stories we told visitors along with the Stan the T-Rex having some girl’s bones in him and the tale of Maharajah’s journey from Edinburgh to Manchester. The first real event was our curator of Egyptology and the Sudan, Campbell Price’s blog post in February. His is already one of the most popular blogs from the museum, mostly because, let’s face it, ancient Egypt is cool. It’s a core subject for schools and pervades popular culture through film, literature and TV. It is one of those historical periods that captures the imagination and sticks with us. The other point here is that Price uses social media well. His blogs are consistently entertaining and he has given the department a strong presence on Facebook and Twitter. Most importantly, he is interactive, he actually answers, an all-important quality in a world where the public are interacting with institutions in a more personal, communicative way. This is supported by equally active main museum account that continually promotes department blogs and events.

Twitter actually has an integral part to play in the next part of the story. In April, we had another gallery opening, Nature’s Library, with special guest star, ‘celeb prof’ Brian Cox. Price took the opportunity to quiz Dr. Cox about what might be happening with the statue. After the first blog, a stop motion camera had been set up for a number of days to confirm or deny rumours that someone was playing a trick on us all and on June 19th Price published a second blog post with the video and sent it to Cox’s Twitter account. The good doctor then retweeted it to his 1,160, 455 followers and the story exploded! The Manchester Evening News ran a story on June 21st and on Monday so did that most illustrious of scientific volumes, The Sun!

All joking aside (and if you can get through the truly awful puns), an article in The Sun is catnip for the International media. Nower days, the media hate finding their own stories (it’s too expensive and takes way too much time) so they all pretty much feed off eachother and with the ease of communication stories can fly around the world with the click of a button. So it was that we had visits from Russian news, Good Morning America, and of course, The (ubiquitous) One Show, asking Imelda Staunton’s opinion on Egyptian curses because she was in Harry Potter! The story travelled to every corner of the world with everyone offering an opinion on what’s causing the little chap to spin. These of course ranged from the sublime to the more, let’s say, ‘interesting’, all of course fuelled by the media buzz words; Mysterious, cursed, spooky…

For the museum, all this has caused a spike in not just visitors but communication. Suddenly our reception desk was fielding calls from conspiracy theorists and clairvoyants in between bookings for Baby Explorers. Dr. Price’s blog now has some choice comments from people telling us how we should leave the correct sacraments and accusing him of a publicity stunt. Indeed, plenty of people seem to be disappointed that an established, reputable, research institution should have promoted itself in such a way. They seem to think museums should be above all that.

At a time where even National museums are under threat, a story like this (apart from being great fun) is certainly food for thought. The Science Museums Group’s scaremongering may have been over estimated but it worked in at least galvanising the public against the loss of regional museums. What #SpinningStatuette has done for us is bring people to the museum who have never stepped foot through the door before. It has engaged a different audience who may not be interested in Entomology curator Dmitri Logunov’s research on the taxonomy of Central Asian jumping spiders (though I am!) but they do want a picture of that Egyptian statue on YouTube. And while they’re peering at it they’re asking about its history, the stone it’s made of, who it represents, how we acquired it, who found it, and of course, why it’s turning. Dr. Price has been receiving correspondence from all over the world but one particular package came from a school class who had all written to him with their explanations (and plenty of questions). The fact is that this story will be dead in a couple of weeks and we’ll be back to telling the tale as museum legend but the hope is that those kids and more like them will have had their interest in Egypt, history, physics, archaeology, geology etc sparked. Surely that is what museums provide, kindling for the mind, whether it be through special exhibitions or media sensation. For Neb-Senu it certainly hasn’t been a wasted after life.

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How I learned to stop worrying and fall a little bit in love with Google…

EVIL-GOOGLE

During a discussion on analytics the other day, I was lamenting the fact that I couldn’t check traffic on Facebook, Twitter, & Google simultaneously. Perhaps, I suggested, Google should just take over everything. The social media wiz I was talking with agreed, admitting he sometimes wished they would!

This conversation reminded me of the Digital R&D Fund conference I’d attended a few weeks ago. I love a good conference me and as a consummate arts student never pass up a free lunch, so the opportunity to enjoy both these things in the glorious surroundings of Manchester Town Hall was too good an opportunity to miss. To be honest I thought the ‘forum’ would be just a showcase for the Arts & Humanities Research Council, Nesta, and Arts Council England to sell their fund to the great and good of arts/heritage. However, it turned out to be a lot more. Part user generated love-in, part warning of a dystopian future, the day had provided both some stimulating thought and some crushingly familiar issues, not least the stark contrast between where we were and where Google had already gone.

It had started with some suitably collaboration and experimentation ladened introductions by the big-wigs, and Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, channelling our St.Tony of Wilson by telling these London types that we do ‘things differently here’, reeling off just a fraction of the digital arts and heritage stuff going on in MCR. Then it was time to hear from the big bad itself, the evil corporation, Google (boo, hiss). But in comparison to the suited, middle-of-the-road looking chief execs we’d just heard from, what bounded up on to the stage was the embodiment of hipster success, all trendy haircut, tweedy jacket & pointy boots. He looked, in other words, ‘arty’ & certainly more ‘arty’ than the leaders of the official arts organisations. But this wasn’t an artist, this was a tech guy, James Davis, Programme Manager of Google’s Cultural Institute. Throughout his conversation with Dr Paul Gerhardt, Managing Director of Archives for Creativity, Davis clearly wanted to make the distinction that Google is a tech company and wants to leave the arts up to us. However, no matter how much he doffed his cap to cultural institutions and academics, the fact is that Google are doing it, and they’re doing it better, slicker, and quicker. As Dr. Abi Gilmore so rightly tweeted:

 

Here are the two flagship projects Davis and his Google chums have been working on and, oh my, they are things of beauty:  http://www.googleartproject.com/en-gb/ & http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/home

As you’d expect for someone working for such a global giant, Davis was as engaging and confident but most of all enthusiastic. Un-cowed by the budget-cuts and constant evaluation of public funding, these projects had been born out of Google staff spare-time, a foreign concept to most of the organisations attending. For all their talk of experimentation, it’s doubtful that ACE cuts, KPIs or the R&D Fund itself will give arts organisations the time, budget or incentive for it. We simply cannot compete with a company that makes around $40 billion a year and is willing to give a small amount of that for a non-profit, cultural branch that is not only willing to work with partners for its own site but give us free tools to use on ours! Davis stressed that the company doesn’t want to “Google-ise” everything, yet declared that they do ‘want to become the home of culture online.’ This is truly the nature of the beast, Google are not an “evil business,” they are just a business, and as a business they’re priority is profit, be that cash, technology, market share, or the sum of human culture. The fact is that it is this attitude that gives them the ability to experiment, to collaborate, to ‘just-do-it.’ Perhaps, ultimately, it’s a little of that attitude that arts organisation need to take on and if Google can help us with that, maybe we shouldn’t be held back by our fears or suspicions about the corporate world they belong to.

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Don’t Mention The Olympics… We’re British

Both personally and globally, this summer’s events have given a golden opportunity to examine ‘Britishness’ in all its rain-soaked, paternal post-colonialist, constitutionalised monarchical hope and glory. We are firmly on the world stage this year and I recently had the pleasure of welcoming an American friend who was rightly fascinated by the intricacies and eccentricities of the British character. Last night’s Olympic Opening ceremony represented the culmination of this belly button watching, forced upon us by the eyes of the globe, and although we obviously got the delightful combination of pathos, patriotism, and piss-taking, it’s interesting to wonder what the rest of the world thought.

Earlier in the day, the BBC’s online magazine gave ‘johnny foreigner’ a handy guide, listing 12 ‘quirks’ that sum up our unique persona. Probably the key section is the notion of our deep-held self-deprecation. No one does self-mockery better than us and it is undoubtedly this aspect that Americans in particular find the hardest to reconcile. My lovely friend couldn’t quite get why when she went straight up to British guys in bars and introduced herself as ‘Stacy from Chicago’, the man in question would congratulate her and then quickly make an exit. I explained that it actually has very little to do with her direct attitude and more to do with the British sense of never being overly impressed by anything, especially not ourselves! However, if an outsider dares to question our achievements, then they can bring about a wrath unrivalled in sarcasm and irony. This was the fate that befell another American this week, Mitt Romney. The Mormonator (to use The Daily Show’s affectionate term), who is up against Europe’s darling, Barack, in this year’s presidential race, used the glorious American ‘just do it’ direct self-promotion to compare our preparations with his own at the Salt Lake City in 2002. His comments of ‘disconcerting’ signs and not encouraging brought a pithy response from PM Cameron : “Of course, it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.” This short retort sums up our character completely! Cameron is putting Romney down while simultaneously admitting that his games were probably better organised while simultaneously bigging-up our games for being held in such a bustling metropolis as London while also simultaneously declaring London to be a bigger, better, more diverse city than Salt Lake could ever hope to be! You see?  There’s a reason we kinda like Eton boys being in charge (occasionally)!

Worse still, Romney’s comments awakened the Kraken of British politics, the more English than English, London celeb mayor Boris Johnson. Another Eton old boy, Johnson is the epitome of all we hold dear (and consistently take the piss out of) as a country. He has risen to fame and power as a bumbling, stuttering, upper-class twit of a man and we love him for it! (Another quirk that I imagine the rest of the world looks upon with misunderstanding) In his speech to Hyde Park’s torch celebration on Thursday, after describing the ‘Geiger counter of Olympomainia’ making the noise ‘zoyik’ (classic Boris), he referred to Romney as some ‘guy’ (clearly the most biting critique a Brit can make) and went on to list the things that were indeed ready! Although that did come across as a little own-trumpet-blowing, only in Blighty would ‘the transport system is ready!’ get a bigger response from the crowd than the call out for the athletes! Boris then finished the rally cry with suggesting we had enough medals to bail out Spain and Greece and then putting down our own axis of evil ; the French, the Australians and, of course, the Germans, repealing about the last 60 years of foreign policy  while making us all feel like we’d just won Waterloo… again! Despite the whole thing being sponsored by the global (Americanised) brand king, coca-cola, Boris still came across as the quintessential Englishman, stuck in an ill fitting suit, shouting the wrong bits and embarrassed by his own patriotism. The crowd loved it, chanting his name like a rock star, knowing that while the irony might be lost on other Nations, we got the joke completely.

And so to last night’s opening ceremony. I chose to watch it in a gloriously English setting; the middle-class living room of a gay couple (one of which is an NHS consultant) with three of their gay friends (one of whom is a teacher and another a former drag queen/latter-day Thatcherite Conservative) and their delightfully witty, divorced and re-married, next door neighbour. Mirroring what was being beamed on to the screen, our conversation ranged from the sartorial to the patriotic, from the double entendre to the solemn, the raucous to the touched.

Danny Boyle’s vision was as varied and irreverent as our culture, made all the more so by the moments of pure beauty and pathos; the pause in the ‘industrial revolution’ to gaze at a single poppy representing our losses in the two World Wars, the glorious moment when the ring we had forged came together with the others to form the Olympic symbol and Emilie Sande’s solo to commemorate who couldn’t be in the crowd, particulary those 52 that lost their lives the day after we won the games in the 7/7 attacks.

But we don’t like to dwell on such things, so there were the obviously comedic moments (Mr.Bean being actually hilarious for once, the Bond/Queenie/copter sequence), and the unintended brilliance of British irony (our ‘green and pleasant land’ being swept away by industry which I felt should then have been destroyed by a huge Thatcher monstrosity, a dance sequence in praise of the NHS that was quickly subverted as a criticism of current government policy, the copper funnels carried by the countries pageboys and girls that in our group were quickly dubbed she-wees). I was personally glad to see the suffragettes getting a role and the huge musical soundtrack, the highlight of which has to have been the Arctics whipping through ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor.’ Alex Turner, quiff-a-wobbling, is a very British lyricist, all wit and that damned self-deprecation again. They may have rock’n’roll swagger but that bunch are as British as fish & chips, binge drinking, and flying ducks.  The inevitable wheeling on of Sir Paul on at the end didn’t have the same kind of impact.

Like any good bit of pomp & circumstance, it went off without a hitch (even the rain made an appearance but didn’t out stay its welcome). All in all, maybe this is one event we should be proud of, maybe we should crow about how our wonderfully complex culture was summed up in such a blaze of light, music, and fire. But of course we won’t. That just wouldn’t be cricket. Instead let’s remember that that very morning our culture secretary had hit a woman in the face with a hand bell and leave it to our (fake) Queen to capture our Nation’s pride: “Great Britain, your Queen loves you. Nobody does it better.”

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