Diversity and precarity: a conference on Scotland’s places of creative production

It might come as a surprise to learn that Scotland’s creative industries make up the country’s second biggest growth sector, after energy. But as well as making significant economic contributions, the creative sector is important on its own terms, with practitioners deploying their imagination, skills and expertise in a wide variety of sub sectors, from architecture and advertising to design and music.

Last month, The Glasgow School of Art (GSA) hosted a conference focusing on the ambitions of Scotland’s creative community. The organisers chose the perfect setting for the conference: for the past 20 years The Lighthouse in Glasgow has been a beacon for Scotland’s creative industries. As well as serving as Scotland’s architecture and design centre, the building has a direct connection to one of Glasgow’s cultural heroes. Designed in 1895 for the Glasgow Herald, The Lighthouse was the first public commission for Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Scotland’s creative community has a lot to be proud of, but as well as acknowledging success stories in television, computer games and the visual arts, the conference also addressed the shadows that threaten to undermine Scotland’s creative sector.

Defining design and the challenges of precarity

One of these issues was raised by Janice Kirkpatrick, founding director of Graven, one of Scotland’s most successful design studios. Janice observed that the creative community’s difficulty in defining creativity has made it hard to communicate its work to the wider world. This is important, especially when trying to attract young people into the sector. She noted that in England between 2000 and 2018 there was a 79% fall in the number of people studying design. The situation in Scotland isn’t quite as bleak, with a 16% increase in design students. But Janice argued that there is a need to introduce children to art and design at a much earlier stage in their lives so that they can regard the creative sector as a serious career option.

Katrina Brown, founding director of The Common Guild, agreed that schools have a vital role to play in nurturing an affinity for and awareness of the arts. She observed that other countries have adopted a different approach, noting that a friend living in France had complained that their daughter’s school organised visits to art galleries just once a month.

The Common Guild is a dynamic visual arts organisation in Glasgow, and Katrina referenced her experiences to highlight the precarity of the sector. The arts have not been immune to the impact of austerity following the global economic crisis. Galleries have closed, programming has been reduced, and opportunities for artists, invigilators, educators and technicians have shrunk. This matters, Katrina argued, not only because the arts have such positive economic effects, but they also enrich our health, wellbeing and quality of life.

Despite the harsh economic climate, many public bodies recognise the value of the arts, and Katrina offered the example of Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA), which has become a world class centre for contemporary art and culture. The University of Dundee has demonstrated the importance of supporting the cultural life of the city by investing in DCA, which supports individuals in their artistic endeavours, but also provides them with an income through jobs in the centre’s café and cinema.

Place makers: Glasgow’s Meanwhile Spaces

The conference’s title – Places of Creative Production – took on a special resonance during a presentation by Richard Watson, Commercial Lead at City Property Glasgow, a subsidiary of Glasgow City Council. Like many UK cities, Glasgow’s city centre has been struggling to cope with the impact of online shopping and out-of-town retail centres. Closures have hit the city harder than any other in Scotland, with an alarming rise in the number of vacant properties. In response to these challenges, City Property Glasgow has been working with the council and other agencies to create ‘Meanwhile Spaces’ from empty shops in the city’s High Street and Saltmarket. After being made structurally safe and ready for new tenants, a new leasing strategy was developed, offering the properties for one year, rent-free (all other service, utility and business rates charges still apply).

Since June of this year, the first Meanwhile Space tenants have been moving in, and many of these are members of the Scotland’s creative community, including:

SOGO: a Scottish based bi-annual lifestyle and arts magazine, which promotes and provides a platform for Scottish creative industries and communities.

WASPS: the UK’s largest non-profit studio provider for artists, which will use a Meanwhile Space to support activities in which creators can prosper.

SALTSPACE: a new co-op launched by students and graduates from Glasgow School of Art to support young creatives in their transition from art school into professional practice.

Although the project is still at an early stage, Richard explained that the response of tenants and local residents has been positive, and City Property Glasgow is already working on plans to create Meanwhile Spaces in other parts of the city, and to develop longer-term spaces.

The conference heard a variety of voices and experiences, giving participants the opportunity to learn about a rich diversity of creative activities in Scotland and beyond:

  • Professor Andrew Brewerton from Plymouth College of Art, described the establishment of a free school specialising in the creative arts;
  • Video games artist and lecturer Andrew Macdonald compared his experience of working in Sweden’s games industry with the games sector in Scotland;
  • Writer and broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove explained the approach taken by the Glasgow team in forming a successful bid to become one of Channel 4’s creative hubs.

Forward thinking

Closing the conference, Professor Irene McAra-McWilliam, Director of The Glasgow School of Art, said that the GSA would be happy to organise further events that might build on the ideas arising from the day’s conversations. And she reminded participants that although Scotland’s creative community faces significant challenges, it also has the skills, experience and passion needed to meet them.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog on culture and creativity:

Museums as facilitators of health and wellbeing in communities

GNM Hancock, Newcastle

Great North Museum Hanckock, Copyright Rebecca Jackson

It’s estimated that there are over 2500 museums in the UK, ranging from world-famous collections in major cities to small local ones on niche themes. Over 50% of adults have visited a museum or gallery in the last year and there were an estimated 7.5 million visits by children and young people under the age of 18 to the major museums in England.

As well as their educational and leisure value, and their role as drivers of the tourism economy, there is a growing body of research which is considering the wider societal role of museums and in particular, their potential positive impact on health and wellbeing.

Museums and the rise of social prescribing

Within health and social care, we have seen increasing recognition and interest in the role of psycho-social and socio-economic determinants on health and wellbeing. Treatments now often look at the whole person and their lifestyle, not just at the specific medical condition to be treated. This awareness of the impact of lifestyle has led us to view spaces like museums and theatres in a new way and consider how they can be used as a tool to help people to live well.

March 14th was social prescribing day in the UK. And Museums on Prescription is one of a number of culture-led projects which encourage people to use assets in their local communities such as museums, galleries and theatres to help manage conditions linked to depression and social isolation, in combination with traditional clinical medicine.

Arts-for-health settings can have an impact across a number of different areas, including supporting children who have been exposed to trauma and abuse, helping communities integrate and improve social cohesion through the co-production of exhibitions, and helping support people with mental or cognitive illnesses, as well as those who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s.

V&A Dundee

V&A Dundee, Copyright Rebecca Jackson

Helping people feel better

As the number of projects increase so does the evidence of positive benefits. There is a growing body of literature highlighting examples of how cultural experiences are supporting both physical and mental health.

A report from Art Fund looking at the calming impact of museums and galleries found that 63% of people surveyed have (at some point) used a visit to a museum or gallery to ‘de-stress’, however, only 6% visit a museum or gallery regularly (at least once a month). Over two thirds of survey respondents (67%) agreed that taking time out for ourselves and choosing to pursue a leisure activity is good for our personal wellbeing and this is where museums and galleries, along with a whole host of other providers like theatres, music venues, public gardens and parks can step in.

Funding is a challenge

A report (2018) from the English Civic Museums Network highlights that services often deemed  “non-essential” (like museums and libraries) actually encourage and foster personal and communal resilience: they stop the crime, the illness, the loneliness from happening in the first place.

However, despite the significant and positive preventative role that participation in cultural activities can play, over the past five years spending on culture in England and Wales has fallen by over 30%, and this has had an impact on museums and the services they can provide.

Natural History Museum, London

Natural History Museum, London, Copyright Rebecca Jackson

Galleries and museums must keep striving to do more

The growing realisation of the potential of museums and galleries to have a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of communities presents a significant opportunity for them to develop programmes and exhibitions which reflect the diversity of experiences within communities and look to develop new ways to engage new audiences. Ensuring that people feel represented and that exhibitions appeal to a broad base of the community is also important in making sure people feel they are able to visit exhibitions and can feel the benefits of doing so.

In their 2015 report, the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing, led by UCL, outlined the priorities of the alliance and showcased some examples of the work being done by partner organisations. In February 2019 it was announced that some schools in London are planning to give pupils “theatre vouchers” which entitles them to one free theatre visit per year. Museums themselves are also trying to do more to help engage members of the community and encourage them to engage with new exhibitions.

Are healthy people more culturally active, or does being culturally active make people healthier?

Museums and galleries have the potential to make an enormous contribution to improving people’s lives and enhancing physical health and mental wellbeing. The body of research around the role cultural activities like attending museums can have on health and wellbeing is growing, but there is still scope to do more, and work is ongoing with a number of high profile museums across the UK to promote the link between cultural activities and health and wellbeing.

The question of which comes first – being well initially which allows you be more culturally active, or cultural activities facilitating wellbeing in their own right – will be discussed and disputed by academics and clinicians. But the existing studies highlight the significant positive impact that engaging with museums and exhibitions has had on study participants, particularly those who suffer from mental ill health or degenerative cognitive diseases like dementia.

Museums and galleries, it is clear, have a far greater communal role to play and can evidence their value far beyond being a source of knowledge transfer or a leisure activity. Museum curators and funders need to recognise this as they prepare and plan for exhibitions and outreach projects in the future and clinicians need to be aware of the potential positive impacts for patients when considering care and treatment plans.


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Moving into the 21st century … the challenges and opportunities of digital culture

art gallery, kelvingrove glasgowBack in December, I attended the International Symposium on Evaluating Digital Cultural Resources at the newly refurbished Kelvin Hall in Glasgow.

The day provided an opportunity for researchers and professionals with an interest in culture and heritage in Scotland to come together to consider how digital technologies are transforming the sector. Key questions addressed included what digital culture means in practice, and how to demonstrate the benefits for both professionals and the public who experience culture and heritage in galleries, libraries, museums and other cultural spaces.

Whose ‘culture’ is it anyway?

A number of the studies presented during the day argued that making a collection ‘digital’ does not necessarily make it accessible. In some instances “preserving” collections by digitising them can actually make sources less accessible to members of the general public than if they had been kept in “hard copy” – raising the question of who exactly the material is being preserved for.

Is it for the benefit of researchers and archivists of the future? Or is the aim to present heritage and culture in a new way, preserving it, but in a way which makes it more engaging to the general public?

Questions were raised about public access, digital copyright, online availability, online cataloguing and digital databases – sometimes collections can remain as hidden as they had been before they were digitised, due to paywalls or complicated and over-elaborate online archives.

And it was clear throughout the day that delegates and speakers were wrestling with the notion of “ownership of digital cultural resources”. One example highlighted was that of Scotland’s Sounds, an audio archive of recordings which is held in the National Library of Scotland. These are resources captured in communities, donated by people and groups who want their local heritage to be preserved.

However, when it is held in a collection within a national institution, decisions about these resources are centralised with curators. They decide which elements of the collection should be exhibited and when. And they design the layout of the collection and the edited versions of recordings. Is the power of creation taken away from the original creators in this process? And does “going digital” actually make the resources, while preserving them, more inaccessible to local people who could be daunted by the prospect of visiting a national institution or may not be able to travel.

Researchers from the online archive database project ENUMERATE found that only 3-4% of digitised cultural heritage collections are available through Wikipedia (which is the world’s 7th most viewed website). What is the point, they asked, of investing in digitising if collections are as inaccessible as they were before?

This also ties in with the question of who the intended audience is. Publicly funded museums and galleries are increasingly asked about their “audience reach”. Digitising colections and making resources findable by anyone in the world may increase website visits and page hits but does this have the same value as engaging with targeted or local communities? It depends on the mission of the heritage organisation and what they view success to be.

Justifying spend and showing value

Project managers at the conference reported that they were facing a constant struggle to fund online developments. And in many cases, in the period of time from commissioning to implementation the technology and expectations moves on again.

Demonstrating value and impact are central to securing and reporting on how funds are spent in relation to digital collection projects. Funding bodies like the Heritage Lottery Fund have a set of deliverable requirements which should be included in funding bids in order to exemplify good and sustainable use of funding, particularly in relation to digital projects. This includes creating resources which have a long life span (the favoured format is online PDF uploads, although they are trying inhouse to diversify their content); creating projects that will preserve heritage and benefit communities; and creating projects which have ambition and are easy to use, while also contributing to the organisation’s wider digital infrastructure and outcomes plan (which may also include interactive exhibitions and the provision of public Wi-Fi).

A unique opportunity to bring history and culture to life for new learners

When bidding for funding, cultural heritage organisations will often claim the project will support learning within their communities. However, many write this in their “digital strategy” without really knowing what it could or should mean in practice. How schools and other learners can engage with digital cultural projects is important not only to showing their value but to developing the collections in the future, making them representative or the interests and desires of their local communities.

Technology-enhanced learning was something which many delegates raised as one of the major potential benefits of digitising collections. In addition to the benefits for planners (particularly erosion and building management specialists) and the tourism industry (through virtual reality city tours which show what an area looked like hundreds of years ago) delegates stressed that one of the primary aims of digital collections was to make it easier for material to be used as a tool for learning. An example given at the conference was the REVISIT project which was run in Glasgow and focused on the British Empire Exhibition of 1938 which took place in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. The project created a 3D visualisation of over 100 buildings from the exhibition. The modellers worked from dozens of small-scale drawings, hundreds of photographs and many maps to recreate the 3D virtual Empire Exhibition as well as mapping roads, pathways and other transport systems in the area. These were then uploaded to an online repository, with accompanying text, where they could be viewed and “explored” using navigation tools.

bee-image

Image of the 3D recreation of the 1938 British Empire Exhibition, Glasgow

The aim of the project was to create a permanent resource for the exploration, research and public exhibition of the Empire Exhibition of 1938 in the context of Scottish and UK social and architectural history. Researchers used a variety of archived material, newspaper articles, photos and interviews with people who attended the exhibition to create the interactive map. They then invited local school children to use the resources to inform their learning on the topic through a series of guided workshop sessions and interactive group activities. The 3D maps were a learning resource but also a tool to generate discussion and questioning about the period and the exhibition itself.

Measuring the “impact of digital” in cultural spaces

One of the most interesting sessions of the day involved input from the V&A in London. It highlighted how mapping and analytics, as well as a more functional understanding of users and visitors to the museum, can be used to help during digital planning. The way that consumer research around digital cultural resources is done can help refine digital programmes in an efficient and cost effective way.

va-online-user-groups

Kati Price from the V&A led a discussion on the creation of new digital platforms and how important understanding user preference can be in design and functionality of digital resources in a museum setting. She highlighted their use of agile methods to test the usability and effectiveness of some of the new digital content produced by the V&A, including new audio guides. In terms of measuring outcomes in digital strategies, she stressed the importance of being flexible with your evaluation methods but also to consider what are you measuring, when in the process are you measuring it, and why and to what end are you measuring it.

Summing up

The day provided useful insight into the challenges and opportunities of digital for cultural and heritage organisations.

It highlighted the adaptability of cultural spaces to digital environments, and the value and benefit to collections of “going digital”. It also identified some potential directions for the future, such as 3D printing to create replicas and Virtual Reality platforms to create more immersive and interactive learning spaces.

It is clear, however, that if the cultural heritage sector is to make the most of what could potentially be game-changing technology, museums, libraries and other organisations need to work closely with communities to make sure they remain connected to their heritage and do not get left behind by this digital revolution.

Cultural spaces need to be mindful of potential exclusion and work to promote digital engagement, skills and education to allow people to access and contribute to the future growth of digital collections in Scotland and the UK.


Reading Room (an Idox company) is one of the UK’s leading digital agencies and has extensive experience working with museums and libraries on award-winning digital projects. Clients include the British Library, Arts Council England, The National Archives, and Durham Council (Durham at War archive). If you’d like to talk to us about how we can help your organisation with developing your digital strategy, contact info.uk@readingroom.com