Alex Flowers (Museum Learning Consultant, former Head of Digital Programmes at the V&A)
Creating a dialogue between museums and their audiences
transcript s.2 ep.2
Alex Flowers, Alina Boyko, James Harrod
Hello, this is For Arts’ Sake, a podcast that gives voice to museum people. Here we pull the curtain to hear their untold stories, for arts sake and for your sake. Today we're speaking to Alex Flowers. Alex creates digital learning experiences across different cultural arts and heritage settings. This means that he organises all sorts of activities around technology, from 3D printing and coding workshops, to virtual reality. He is also a digital art curator. This means that he makes it technologically possible for artists to realise their ideas. Alex has an incredibly wide range of experiences from working at Blue Chip institutions, like the Victoria and Albert Museum, to teaching and working as a freelancer.
So let's chat to Alex and learn a little bit more about what his role involves, how the digital experiences he's created have made a difference and the difference they can make to people who visit museums or any other cultural settings. Alex, hello.
Hi, and thanks for having me here on this freezing cold day in London. It's nice to be inside somewhere warm.
Alex, could you start off by describing what it is you currently do?
Sure. So at the moment I am freelance, but that involves a billion different things as it does for many freelancers. So I am an associate, a co-director at Flow Associates, and we're a consultancy that work nationally and internationally with art galleries, museums, dance companies, theaters, researchers, universities, to look at their organisational sort of aims, their strategies, and help them really thrive and to reach people in the most effective way possible. But that's just kind of one part of my work. I also have my own practice, just as Alex Flowers, so I work with a whole bunch of different clients through that. So it can be some more curation works, so I am working with artists, commissioning pieces, exhibitions, but also working with exhibition design studios to create interpretive tools and designs, and carrying out research. I also do bits of web design on the side with a couple of other studios, mainly in the international development sector. So it's quite varied what I do. I often find it quite hard to put a simple title on my professional role, but I quite like it that way.
Perfect. So can you tell us about the path, so how you got to where you are right now?
Sure. After university where I did art history, but I always kind of knew that I wanted to work in the arts, it has always been a pipe dream, and I didn't really know the way to get there. And I suppose like many people coming out of university you have this, you know, you're filled with hope and wonder at the world and you start applying for millions of jobs, and hear very little back, and it's all very disheartening. So I ended up working in a factory, building car seats for a while and saving money through that. I went and did a TEFL course, teaching English as a foreign language, and went overseas teaching, which was fantastic, because I really discovered this passion for education, for working with people and for learning. So that was kind of life changing. Coming back to Britain, I knew that I still wanted to do something in the arts, but still wasn't quite sure on how to get there, but I understood that museum education was a thing, I wasn't really particularly keen on going to formal education. But somehow I ended up working in finance instead, and I was working for a company and I was there for six months or so, and one day, they said to me, Alex we would really like to train you up as an accountant and get you qualified. And I quit at the end of that week. So I knew that a decision had to be made at that point, that my paths were being set. So I went to MMA, UCL and Museums Galleries in Education, which was fantastic, and I move to London, and started working at the Museum of London, where initially I was in the visitor experience teams, working in galleries, pointing people towards the toilets, taking tickets, directing school groups and where they go, leading tours. That was really formative, I think in understanding audiences, how they use museums. And it's fascinating just to, I'm not going to say stalk, but to observe people as they use the galleries, the kind of conversations that they have, and help support that as a museum representative there. And it wasn't long after that that I moved into, it was my first learning role at the Museum in London, before moving on to the V&A, where I joined their digital programs team. I'd always been interested in technology, taking stuff apart, playing with electronics, understanding what digital things could do. And it was really from that that, you know, I had this amazing opportunity to start working with contemporary artists, to start doing research into some digital lives, some digital culture. So I was there for 10 years or so, and it reached a point where I think some of my personal circumstances changed, I had a family, I'd moved out of London, and it was an opportunity for me to kind of revise really what I wanted out of my life and to think about the kind of paths that I could go down, what I wanted to learn, where I saw myself in 20 years. So I became freelance with not much of a clue of what was going to happen, but with the idea that I knew I wanted to learn new things and experience new things. So for the last 18 months, I've been freelance, and it's been a really rewarding and exciting time. Yes, that's how I got to where I am today.
Nice. So your work obviously exists at the intersection of learning and art and technology. Bringing all those aspects together, what is your main goal there? What are you trying to achieve?
So I guess what I'm trying to achieve is to help people understand the world around them, but through museum collections, museum stories. I think museums, and art and heritage play a really important role in people's lives and helping them understand a place where they live, the kind of communities they exist in. But it also provides a lens for people to look at the world around them, to understand the world around them, and to hopefully make that world a better place. I'm quite an optimist, and I think that through understanding and hearing stories, and empathizing with the kind of stories which can be told through art or through collections or through places, that museums have a societal impacts for the goods, it helps brings people together, it represents and reflects identity, and it's a place for discussion and exploration, it's a safe place for discussion and exploration too.
Really interesting. So moving on to the safe place, one of the biggest safe places, I would love to ask you some questions about your experience at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Tell us why you chose Victoria and Albert as a place of work?
It always been a place that I had looked to as a leader in the sector, it's always a place that excited me. I remember, way back when, probably in the early 2000s, they’ve just been through a brand, new design, this is a really kind of small point, but I just remember all their posters, all their marketing materials being really glossy, shiny, beautiful, incredible designs, and bright and exciting. That really drew me in. So I remember going through London after seeing a couple of posters for exhibitions and just being blown away by this place that felt like it's on the cutting edge of what galleries could be. I mean, I really like the ethos of the museum, and that good design can change lives. And I think yeah, that's really admirable things to work for. Whilst being at the Museum of London. working on their digital learning team, that I'd always kind of looked to the V&A for inspiration, and they had this incredible exhibition called Decode, which was one of the first major exhibitions of digital arts. I'm just seeing all the things that I kind of loved exploring in my own life, happening at museums, so the things like creative coding, and hacking, creative computer game design, robotics, experimental electronics, and all these things were happening in the public programming at the V&A. And, you know, give up the chance to sort of explore the things that you love doing in your own leisure time and get paid for it as well, and to work with the sort of artists that you kind of always dreamed of meeting. So, yeah, it has always been this kind of icon, I think, for me.
So can you describe the work that you actually were able to do at the V&A for us and our listeners, please?
So at the V&A, I was head of digital programs, and it was a really interesting team in that the learning team had their own sort of mini digital sub team. It's quite a large learning department, of about 40 people, so quite a huge and unusual structure for museum education. But we sat between research, learning, curation, and public programming and festivals. That was a really exciting place where we could really bring collections to life. So our work was really varied with work with the interpretation team, and thinking about what kind of digital interactions might go into galleries, what kind of technologies they might use, the best sort of communicating ideas and stories, but we'd also work across the rest of the learning team as well. So we worked with the other learning teams, the schools and families and young people. And what collaborates across the departments and creates bespoke events around permanent exhibitions, around the temporary shows which were taking place there. We also were lucky enough to have our own budget for commissioning as well. So we'd work with artists that we found interesting, whose processes we found interesting. That also had some kind of co-production aspects to them, or some kind of in gallery interaction that the public could experience there. So yeah, it's a real mixed bag of the kind of skills that we needed to produce all of this, but it's a really nice ecosystem where our research would feed into contemporary practice, my contemporary practice would feed back into the type of learning programs that we would produce. So we are really lucky that, just having digital in our job titles, that is the break out of the silos.
Could you tell us about one particular example or one particular project that you found really inspiring?
So each year we would work with the London Design Festival. The London Design Festival happens over a month in September. It's a place where the world of design comes to London, where new commissions are made, also designers from every field, from architecture, product design, fashion, robotics, graphic design, all meet up, and get to share ideas and to share their latest projects. This was our largest event of the year with inviting around 50 to 60 designers, studios, and projects into the V&A, where we would host their work, but we asked them to be there and to speak to the public and sort of share their design process. So we're very keen on sort of work in progress, showing prototypes, and beginning that dialogue between the public and between designers where both could feedback into each other to better understand the context of the objects. So each of those displays became sort of a social hub, if you like, these points for conversation. And with 50 or 60 artists inside the museum, taking on installations and performances around the galleries, and different types of displays, somehow, the rules of the building were kind of relaxed for a few days, anything could happen and we could get away with a lot more than we usually could. That was a gradual process, it took a lot of times to sort of build trust and respect across the museum, to say we'd like to take over this gallery for the week, we kind of put in some kind of crazy robotic dance collaboration, and see how that goes, and the artists are gonna be there, they are gonna be able to interact, and it's work in progress, we haven't quite got it finished. So yeah, it felt like a real testbed coming to life inside of the museum, where creativity was kind of happening on the floor and where you as a visitor could come and get involved. So they took over the Claw Learning Center, which is an education space inside the V&A, and built their own sort of mock Apple Store. So lots of immaculately dressed beautiful young people in white t-shirts, beautiful sort of white tabletop displays, with beautiful technology and lovely design. And it was a mixture of performance, art installation, and workshops. So instead of products, you could come and speak to the classroom representatives, you know, the Apple, iHelpers, whatever they are called, and they could talk about your digital life and talk to you about privacy, what you can do to protect yourself, the value of your data, sort of the economic value that you give away for free when you're using online platforms, and the wider kind of effects that this has.
When you're coming up with these experiences, this design technology for good, how do you go about sort of picturing your audience? How do you go about deciding who that's going to be targeted at?
That's a really interesting question. And it very much depends on what we're trying to say, and also on the context of understanding who might be there or where we're going to be delivering this experience. Some of this might be around sort of more strategic objectives that we have within an organisation. So we want to reach more young people or we want to reach some sort of experience seekers who are aged 25 to 35, or family audiences. It's quite hard to be generic in terms of saying we're just going to design an experience for everyone because people are going to come in at different levels, different points, different ways of understanding, they are gonna be attracted to different things. Although you can design for a general public, it's really useful to have two or three audiences in mind to be able to consult as well and ask questions, and have conversations. So using design thinking is a big part of my practice. So the idea of creating ideas to begin with, testing them, going out and speaking to people, gaining insights from them, and then sort of reiterating, testing again, putting something out there, and there's a constant process in trying to make them better and refining.
Let's talk about some projects in a bit more detail. So one of them is a 3D printing project for children who underwent bone marrow transplant. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?
Yeah, sure. So at the V&A, we have an ongoing relationship with the Great Ormond Street Hospital in Central London. And the kind of projects that we did with them were made possible through funding from the Wolfson Foundation, which we were lucky enough to get support from each year. So we'd work with their arts team, and identify some different projects where we could bring arts, culture and creativity to children who were in their care at that time, who just weren't able to access them. So their arts team does an incredible job, they've got a really active programme for kids who are quite often in long term care there. One of the wards that we identified where children who were really isolated, was the bone marrow transplant ward. So when you're undergoing bone marrow transplants, which are usually done to strengthen you from the effects of cancer, or to remove cancer from your bones, you have to stay in a completely sterile environment. This means that you're pretty much in isolation for the whole day apart from a few staff who can come in and very select family visitors, they face stringent controls of who can come in and out, the type of cleanliness that you have to have, the processes you have to go through just to get into the room. So that means that, you know, it's really isolating time for these young kids, and on that ward, they can be aged anything from like four years old, through to 16. There's things for them to do, they have TVs in their rooms, they have books, and they do have all these resources, they don't have that much human interaction. So we were really exploring ways that we could bring some of the museum to them. So around that time, we're working with an initiative called Scan the Worlds, which is based on the My Mini Factory website. And that's a community led programme to try and scan the world's culture I guess, or physical culture. So there's bits of architecture, there's sculptures and people go out, they use photogrammetry, or laser scanning to create really great 3D models, which are shared openly, freely, through creative comments on their website, that can be downloaded, remixed, used educationally, used in any way. Some of it is a bit of a gray area to begin with, they were quite free and ready with just going into the museums with a camera, and scanning objects without anyone knowing what was going on. I really liked that about them. I like the fact that they were just getting out and trying to kind of bypass the quite arduous levels of bureaucracy that you often find inside museums, and instead saying, look at the amazing thing that we've created and how many people are accessing it. So we're working with them, and we’ve used a number of their scans or projects inside of the Museum, but it seemed like a perfect way to bring some of the V&As collections to children who were in isolation. So armed with tablets, and a 3D printer, we went into the wards, and we started to create heroic sculptures. So we’d provide them with different heroic sculptures from the collection, from across all ages, from sort of classical to modern, and the children would start to remix them, so they will start to remodel them. So we taught them how to use 3D sculpting software on the tablets, which they could use quite easily just with a finger. Unfortunately, bone marrow transplants also take away quite a lot of strength and dexterity, it causes epidermal skin problems as well. So it had to be something which, you know, didn't use a mouse and a keyboard and something which was immediately accessible. So by using this virtual clay, which was on the screen, they could start to re-sculpt the sculptures. So we'd go in over a few visits, introduce sort of a range of heroic figures and recreate a sort of a mascot for them which they can have at their bedside. And they'll create whole stories about this character, or they would use it to tell a story about their lives. And yeah, over a few sessions, which were often quite short because, you know, people get whisked off for treatment or for blood tests or whatever, or would just be too exhausted to do anything. So it has to be really flexible, so we work really closely with the ward staff, the place staff, and the arts team. It was a really wonderful experience. So people were creating wild and wonderful things, like a Baroque sculpture. How much do you get, you know, a nine year old to be interested in sculpture, but when you give them a chance to sort of create a story around it and make it their own, and then to have a physical 3D printed version, their own sculpture, their own work of art, which they can keep, by their side, it becomes a point for conversation. It's a really powerful way to get people engaged with collections that they would never engage with otherwise, and also have some kind of creative outlet, and which would take them out of their environment, you know, but instead, they were having this personal conversation, it was all one on one. And it was a distraction.
Is honestly, like, incredible. You've talked earlier about how good design can change lives, and I think that's a really powerful example of that. Are there any kind of similar projects on the horizon that you know of?
So I'm working with Art UK at the moment on the sculpture around two projects. So this is the second half of their NHLF, I'm still getting used to that, so the project to digitise the paintings in public collections, they are doing the same with sculpture. So I've been working with different galleries, museums, collections across the country, to look at how technology can be used to engage their local communities with their collections. So the project in fact, this weekend, I'm heading to Mid Wales to Aberystwyth, which is where I did my degree, so it's going to be very nice to be back, and the School of Art there has an amazing sculpture collection from George Paul, who set up the School of Arts collection. He was a queer man in very uptight Victorian society, and he has this wonderful collection of bums and naked men, and, you know. Looking down, now you can see, you know, his tastes really shine through, but at the time, it was just, you know, it was classical sculpture. But we're working with some of the areas around the town, which have socio economic barriers in their locality, to look at how we can bring some of the cultural life of the university out to them, and how they can open up the collections that they hold and the stories that they hold. So we're going to be taking that collection out to community centers around Aberystwyth, we're going to be scanning them, they're going to be printing them, creating online exhibitions, telling stories about their talent, about their own life, all through the objects from the collection. So using those as a starting point, again, this idea of sort of social objects as a point for conversation. So I think 3D scanning has real legs in taking collections out to people and sharing them. And by, you know, releasing them openly and freely and letting people play with them, recreate them, it can bring life to kind of dads and use hidden collections and storage.
Ok, so can we talk about your work with experience design, there's a lot of talk at the moment about the idea of well-being and mindfulness and kind of happiness in, you know, capital H in inverted commas. Museums are organising things like yoga sessions, trying to introduce healthy food and healthy living and that kind of stuff, all being quite slowly. Your approach to wellbeing and happiness within cultural space has been quite different.
Experience design is a relatively new term. So in fields of design, it's a relatively new term inside museums, as well. In thinking about experiences, there's kind of three stages to them I guess. There is what happens before, the pre visits, what happens before you engage with it, what happens whilst you are engaging with it and what happens afterwards, as well. So an experienced designer will look at that whole thing holistically. I think this kind of holistic approach is much further than, you know, the products, the kind of physical experience that you have with the thing at the place, because to create a good experience, it means that you have to collaborate really widely across an organisation. So as mentioned before, with the kind of work at the V&A, you'll be thinking about how that links into marketing, how to, the people on your gallery floor, so your visitor experience teams become part of this experience. How does your web presence and your social media after this enable people to reengage or to continue their engagement or continue learning as well. When I think about experience design, I tend to think about what's the current context that we are operating in? What kind of things people are feeling, what kind of things people are doing, and what's the kind of societal context around them. So that might be things around politics, around economics, things which are affecting communities, things which are affecting their countries. And then thinking about the very endpoint, the impact, what's the big message that we want people to take away at the end. And then from that kind of big impact, it starts to work backwards from that, what kind of things can we do to reach that big change that we want people to feel when they leave. So one kind of project that I'm exploring at the moment is with Chelsea Physic Garden, they're doing a big HLF project. So they have these amazing Victorian glasshouses which are in the garden, and it's the place where the British Empire was kind of harvesting botanical wealth from across its colonies. So for example, rubber trees were brought back from South America, taken to Chelsea, germinated and then taken out to Southeast Asia, and now Southeast Asia is the world's biggest producing region of rubber. You know, there's a big global story to be told here, not only about colonial history, but also about world trades, and about sustainable consumption as well. So the experiences that we design in the middle of that incorporates the narratives, which are present inside the interpretation, and thinking about the creation of the objects, or the living objects at Chelsea Physic Garden, inside those glass houses, but also the types of interactions that you have with them. So they might be facilitators through people, they might be through technology, so we're thinking about the types of audio experiences you can have with plants, how do you understand the plant? When you look at plants, you just go, that's a pretty thing, and if you're not a gardener, that's quite a hard point to dig into. So thinking about the kind of stories which can spin off, how they connect to people's own lives, what's the relevance for them, of these living collections that they're looking at, and then building moments and narratives, not only across the space, but also with individual objects, which will hopefully allow them to leave changed.
I would like to ask you about some tips for future generations of museum educators. What advice would you give to our listeners, who are interested in working bridging digital technologists and museum learning, those who are inspired by your story?
So recording your experiences, showing that you're passionate about working in museums, that you're interested, that you're thinking about it, and showing that, I mean, it can be as simple as just engaging on Twitter, but writing a blog and sort of collecting all this and being able to show potential employees that you're kind of active. But even if you don't immediately get a job inside museums, that's not a bad thing at all. As I said, I came from working in finance, to getting into museums. That was really useful for me, I'm an Excel whiz, which is really important in any job. I've done lots of hiring in my time, and would quite often get people who come straight out of degrees or straight out masters, straight out of PhDs who have never worked in a job job before, which kind of blew my mind. Also really harms those candidates’ chances of showing me that they could be in the workplace, that they could handle pressure. Even if you do end up working in, you know, something else, whilst you're looking for a job inside museums, there's always skills that you can pick up, there's always great experience which you can demonstrate your value to a museum.
Honestly, really, really, I don't want to keep using the word inspiring, but for someone who, you know, does worry about going into work after doing this course, that's always really sort of reassuring and good to hear. If you had, say, magically unlimited funding, what museum or learning space would you create with that?
So I was listening to a prior podcast, obviously, as they came out and that question kept bouncing around my head, and there are a couple. And it came down to something really boring. So I did have this wonderful idea about a museum of lost sounds. So sounds which are disappearing from the world and so I am collecting those and capturing them. But then, you know, whatever. And then it just came back down to thinking about a museum from my hometown. So my hometown has a really rich brewing history, it's by Calling, the nation's favorite lager is made, but also lots of other wonderful beers. It's an industrial town with a really rich history. We used to have a museum in the local Leisure Centre upstairs at the swimming pool, which smelled of chlorine. Lots of those objects were then distributed across the country. One of them ended up in the V&A and that was just really surprising when I saw it in a gallery completely unexpected. But I think local museums play such a big part in their communities, in giving a sense of place, a sense of for your moment in the history and the sense of what could happen in the future, that I would love to see a good, local, vibrant sort of DIY art space from my hometown, that really showed people who are living in a place where industry is disappearing, and where the population is really shifting. It's a moment in history, and there is lots to look forward to. There's a lot of reasons to be proud of where they come from. That's what really resonated with me I think.
Cool. Alex, it's been a fascinating conversation.
Thank you for joining us.
And thank you for inviting me. I've really enjoyed speaking with you both.
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