Taking a breath with Special Collections: An interview with Lauren Ellis

Special Collections Blogger, Ana Jacobsen, recently interviewed Lauren Ellis to find out about the role of Program Manager, Curation and Innovation and the latest exhibition in the Noel Shaw Gallery.

Lauren Ellis in the Noel Shaw Gallery
Lauren Ellis in the Noel Shaw Gallery

Q1. Can you describe what your role as Program Manager, Curation and Innovation entails and what the Take a Breath exhibition that you’re currently working on for the Noel Shaw Gallery is about?

My role is to support and lead a team of subject expert curators across the areas of Rare Books, Rare Music, Prints, Maps and the East Asian Collection. As curators, it’s part of our practice to consider how the collections are being utilised, what is their value to the university community. We look at ways to promote their existence and raise their profile, to provide access to them for students and researchers, and we ensure that they are well looked after and well organised.

In terms of Take a Breath, the approach has not been driven by subject matter or telling a story in a top-down, didactic way. Our starting point was an investigation into what it is that we can offer the people in our community and environment.

I come from a background of very audience-orientated exhibition development, design and general curatorial practice so we did a few little guerrilla interviews and a workshop around audience. We established that the biggest group of people around the Baillieu Library are undergraduate students, many from Arts but not exclusively, who are studying all day and are perhaps weary and stressed. The premise of the exhibition thus became an invitation for students to take a break from their studies and to prioritise their well-being because in doing so, they’ll become more productive and efficient with their own work.

For us, the agenda is also to show students these extraordinary collections. They are for everyone in the University to enjoy and draw on as part of their experience here, and we try to communicate that through the text and the atmosphere in the exhibition. I also wanted to show things from all the collections under one central theme so that it’s less about the silos of the subjects and more about this broad idea of what a rich scholarly asset these collections are to the students of the University.

Q2. There are embedded power relations within the University’s Special Collections. How can curating be an activist practice, especially in the context of an educational institution?
We’re at a point where collecting institutions, universities and all kinds of other public organisations are grappling with the evaporation of their self-image as neutral and objective. The Special Collections are absolutely implicated in that critical lens on what collecting institutions represent, whose voices are present and which stories are told.

The first thing we can do is reckon with the collections’ own biases and its own historical agendas and, as curators, we need to learn the art of critical self-reflection about our work now and the legacy that we’ve emerged from. Secondly, we need to acknowledge the limits of our collections and be mindful of the statements that we make. I think we have a tendency in curatorial language to make these universal, final statements about the world that we sometimes fail to reflect on. It’s important to ask oneself, ‘Is this really a history of ideas? Or is it a history of some ideas?’

In the context of an educational institution, I think the best way that curating can be an activist practice is by supporting skills of critical thinking and of critical self-reflection. The Special Collections are great spaces for doing that because historical collections of primary source material are an absolute case study in something that has been long held up as an objective historical record. Learning to read these materials through a critical lens, and to perceive the biases and structures of power behind them, is a great activist skill for life. There are many inspiring curatorial projects, especially driven by Indigenous curators and artists, that exemplify that sense of critical analysis for a social purpose.

Q3. How do you conceptualise of CX and UX within a curatorial context? Do you think there is any significance in differentiating inclusivity and accessibility from CX/UX?

I have a museum background, where I was trained in curatorial practices around ‘audience experience’, so this is where my understanding of ‘user experience’ design comes from.

The version of it that I know is quite aligned with inclusivity and accessibility, and not necessarily commercial in the way that the corporate origins of UX and CX are. It’s connected to this idea of destabilising the institutional authority of the museum, of decentring power, listening to and inviting the fringes into the centre and centring community and audience members as active makers of meaning and experience together with the curator.

Another understanding that I have of User Experience within a curatorial context – overlapping more with the corporate history of CX and UX perhaps – is about focus on where the visitor or audience is at physically, emotionally, and psychologically as they engage with the curated experience. It’s about respecting your user or visitor’s preferences and priorities and acknowledging that the impact you are trying to create for them will only land if they are primed and open to it.

In an exhibition space, what we can do is provide people with an embodied experience that happens in a place and time. What UX can help with in that context is look at the physical, emotional and relational dimensions of an exhibition space that you can work with. For example, I try not to have an essay of text on the wall because that doesn’t work for the average visitor, most people will get tired on their feet reading panel after panel of 500 words, trying to keep one eye on their kids or worrying about the emails pouring in making their phone buzz in their pocket! For me that’s not about dumbing down the exhibition. It’s about acknowledging that dense long form writing is probably better to have in a book or online – not on the wall of a gallery. In an exhibition space, we can use embodied and affective experiences to convey ideas, or even better, draw people into a collaborative, generative creation of an idea together.

Q4. When planning and curating exhibitions, what aspects do you have to consider in relation to Human-Centred Design and User Experience Design?

In the exhibition we have just created in the Baillieu Library, we thought about how to make something that is accessible, welcoming, and enjoyable. We consider who’s here in our building, what they are doing, what their stressors and pressures might be, and what the shape of their day looks like.

We thought about how to make something that was welcoming, how to show that the collections offer inspiration and can enhance a student’s experience on campus. We selected playful and eclectic things and included opportunities for creativity and mindfulness. As we were creating ‘Take A Breath’ for a general audience of undergrads from various disciplines, we avoided using collections jargon in the interpretation. When we were writing the labels for the Take a Breath exhibition, we avoided making any assumptions about what people already know, like what Latin or French words mean.

Done well, I think HCD is a way to ensure that people stay in the space with you, open to ideas and new insights. HCD can give you strategies to help people to stay in a space, even if that space is about challenging stories or topics and bringing them uncomfortable self-reflection.

In big exhibition projects, you might do things like emotion mapping; looking at sequencing and pace; how people are primed as they move through different experiences and stories throughout the exhibition until they get to the moment where they perhaps encounter something incredibly confronting. It’s not about ‘softening the blow’, it’s more about scaffolding their emotional state to be in the right head space to engage.

It’s like a practice in psychology –

Yeah, and it’s super tricky. The reality is that a multitude of other forces come in regardless of your curatorial agenda.

Q5. What are some alternative approaches/frameworks for thinking about audience engagement that do not draw from the analogy of viewers as customers/users and the exhibition as a product?

Good question!

Institutions and curators can cease thinking of themselves as owners and instead as stewards. They can think of themselves as facilitators of platforms, and see their audience not as customers but as collaborators. Thinking about audience engagement as a collaborative relationship with people who have all kinds of knowledge and expertise – often much more knowledge than the institution has within it – is a good way of approaching it, rather than seeing them as customers.

I was trying to come up with analogies earlier today and I thought of exhibitions as maybe being like a classroom. But that implies that the work in the exhibition is the teacher and the audience are the students. Maybe a book club would be more apt? It’s a non-hierarchical meeting of people to discuss ideas from multiple perspectives without necessarily having a definitive outcome.

I think book club is nice! There are many cultures, especially First Nations cultures, and community spaces that value plurality of perspectives, exchange over broadcast, and circularity over hierarchy. Although within those contexts, there is also a great respect for elders’ knowledge and the importance of learning that knowledge.

I don’t think there’s a binary of non-didactic versus didactic approaches. I think both of those things can exist together in audience engagement.

Q6. What do you think is some of the most exciting innovative technology that can be utilised in exhibitions currently to further engagement?

There is some amazingly futuristic and complicated exhibition tech out there. But even simple technology can be used beautifully when experience and intent is the driver, rather than the tech for its own sake.

In the First Peoples exhibition at Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre within Melbourne Museum, there are some beautiful examples of the way technology has been used to offer a cultural experience. There’s an exhibit called ‘Deep Listening’ which is a powerful multimedia experience. There are screens installed in a circle playing videos, you are in the middle. Koorie people of different ages and nations speak about their lives and experiences. One by one, they step forward and share some of their story. The installation is designed for you to spend a considerable amount of time with it, listening to these people speak and very intimately share things with you as a visitor. It gives a little sense of maybe sitting in a yarning circle, or sitting amongst elders and community, being present and spending time listening deeply. You are able to hear incredibly intimate stories that are nuanced and complex and that you can’t receive in a quick soundbite.

There’s also a great experience within that same exhibition called ‘Bunjil’s Wings’ where you walk into a giant nest. There’s a kinetic sculpture of a stylized eagle form that has these beautiful projections on it. The creation story of the Kulin Nation is told in a powerful merging of high-tech and oral traditions.

Digitisation of collections is a huge focus in our world and there have been a great number of whiz-bang interactive digital archives. There are some great versions of them: 3D-scanned archaeological sites that you can virtually ‘walk through’, highly visual collection catalogues you can interact with, clever dynamic websites. But people still love material things, original objects do have a powerful energy, and materiality teaches us different things and engage our brains, fingers and senses in other ways from digital resources.

Q7. How could these new technologies enhance students experience of research and learning – plus academics’ teaching?

There is no doubt that sophisticated digital cataloguing and searching technologies are brilliant and will enhance anyone’s ability to research. I think that you’ve nailed it with your use of the word ‘enhance’. I think that technologies enhance students’ experiences – they don’t replace other experiences. They can give an extra layer of detail, they create ease, access and extend the connection between students and collections. The other thing about new technologies is the capacity for people to collaborate long-distance. Things existing in physical forms in archives all over the world mean that you have these often-fragmented stories, things dislocated from where they can be most meaningful. With people looking at them in different places, the possibilities for stories to be joined up that are currently dispersed in all these different physical locations is huge. That opens up opportunities for new understanding.

Q8. What advice would you give to an emerging curator, especially in regards to staying politically and culturally informed?

I think it’s good practice, not just as a young curator, but throughout your whole life, to go and see other people’s work. Review your social media feeds and make sure you’re following a diverse group of curators, across different disciplines and communities. Learn the art of listening and absorbing without feeling like you need to process it all through your own curator’s critical lens and apply your own reading to things.

More like letting things pass through you as a curator instead of observing and then taking that observation and presenting it through a top-down approach as the omnipotent curator –

Curators can all learn a lot from ceding authorship because we deal in narratives and story-telling a lot of the time. Don’t get stuck in your own narrative around something and filter everything you learn through that. Staying engaged with a wide array of projects by a diverse group of people is good practice. Try to cultivate a sense of openness and understand that what you are curating is not the whole story. For an emerging curator, stay engaged in lots of different spaces and scenes. But honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever met a young, emerging curator who’s needed much help staying politically informed – they’re pretty good at it!

Lauren and Ana
Lauren and Ana

Ana Jacobsen

Special Collections Blogger

Ana is currently studying a Master of Creative Writing, Editing and Publishing.

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