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The Back-Story to Cards on the Table


An early version of Cards on the Table


In this conversation, Sian Hunter-Dodsworth and Sophie Hope reflect on the origins of Cards on the Table. Sian and Sophie cast their minds back to a workshop Sian organised on the 27th of April 2015 when she was Head of the Community Partnerships Team at the British Museum. Sian invited artists Sophie Mallett and Ania Bas to co-organise a participatory workshop with artists and museum staff “exploring long-term partnerships between artists, communities and the Museum”. The aim of the workshop, which was titled ‘What Would You Do?’ was to “consider ways in which the Museum might be able to facilitate greater levels of creative autonomy for artists, as well as genuine collaborations with communities.” (according to the original invitation). There was an open call out to artists to apply for a 3-day piece of work (two research days “researching and considering ways in which your practice could link to the collection” and attendance at the one-day workshop). Staff at the museum were also invited to apply to attend the workshop. Sophie Hope was invited to attend the workshop and act as an external evaluator of the process. Cards on the Table was the result of this intervention, based on a series of interviews with staff, artists and community partners. A prototype was played at the workshop. Sophie Hope, Sian Hunter Dodsworth, Ania Bas and Sophie Mallett then went on to develop the game further and collaborated with Rose Nordin to redesign the pack.


Sophie

I want to go back to how we first came up with Cards on the Table (COTT). Can you say a bit about the workshop at the British Museum when this all began?


Sian

Back in 2015 when I was working at the British Museum (BM) I and a few others were asking ourselves about the role of the institution in allowing artists to build more meaningful relationships with local communities, and vice versa.


Many of the initial conversations that led to the ‘What Would You Do?’ workshop were with artists/facilitators (for want of a better term) that I’d been working with at the BM. Artists who’d come in to do workshops, projects, creative activities and interventions that were focused around community engagement with collections were saying ​to me that it's quite hard to do this work when they were brought in piecemeal. What they were actually interested in was building longer-term relationships with communities.


A few artists said, ‘If we’re finding it hard to connect to the BM, we’re sure the community organisations are feeling the same, surely they also find these dynamics unsatisfactory’. Relationships always feel curtailed and never seem to reach their full potential. Therefore, all the creative ideas that were produced had nowhere to go.


Sophie

And what about Sophie Mallett and Ania Bas, where did they come in?


Sian

Both Anya and Sophie had delivered projects with my team when I was the acting head of community partnerships that year. They’d worked on a young-person project called Talking Objects. We’d had some conceptual, rabbit-hole conversations over coffee or lunch about what it means to be an artist working in a space like the BM. Both of them had voiced dissatisfaction, which isn't the right word, but I think something around, well, what is our role here? And how does the institution enable us or restrict us in what we feel we could do with communities or community organisations and community partners, but also what did those people expect of us and want us to provide? What do these relationships mean to all of the different constituent parts? Of course, a lot of this was speculation because “the community” was not there at the table, but we wanted to interrogate these ideas because we knew we couldn’t be the only ones having these kinds of conversations.


Personally, there was tension for me being part, or on the periphery, of a big organisation, but also being very frustrated with how it was operating. I worked for an organisation that simultaneously was completely disinterested in any of the work that was happening at its peripheries around community engagement, but equally, were very happy to get on board when the results came to light and projects looked great and shiny.


Sophie

As I remember it, the workshop at the British Museum was invite-only wasn’t it? Could you tell me how you decided who to invite?


Sian

We knew we wanted perspectives from artists that were self-reflective and had a critical practice; people who wanted to think about their role as an artist and how they connected with others through that work. Sophie (Mallett) and Ania (Bas) drew up a shortlist of artists who they thought would be interesting and important to have around that table.


From the BM, we did a call-out to artists and facilitators we’d already worked with but also invited BM staff that were also artists. They weren’t only working in, I don't know, coms, or HR, they were also practising artists that had insights into the way that the museum worked with creative people.


Sophie

Yes, I remember the invite being extended to staff who were also artists was a key thing; just because your job description is X, it doesn't mean you're not an artist or practitioner in some way. Wasn’t there a regular working group or collective of staff that formed afterwards? A group that would meet and talk about the crossover between being a practitioner and a staff member at the BM?


Sian

Yes, that was one of the results of the workshop(s). The cards were one, and that group was another.


Sophie

In the workshop, we tried to value those staff members in a different way from how they perhaps had been at the British Museum in terms of foregrounding their practice and giving them a space to think about that side of their identities while at work.


So there were staff and external artists/facilitators there. Were community representatives invited?


Sian

No, we were thinking that these conversations would happen in stages and that there was something to be gained from us [the institution] having separate conversations with different groups of collaborators. These we recognised as being: 1) artists who had a history of working with the British Museum, worked at the British Museum and were also practising artists or who included work with communities and/or museums as part of their practice and 2) community partners or representatives from community organisations. We managed to have the first conversation (with artists) as part of this Artists/Museum workshop and later you spoke to community partners who had previously worked with the British Museum to gather their feedback, I think this fed into the quote cards for the original version of COTT


In retrospect, it would have been better, I think, to have invited artists and community organisations to come together to have the same conversation. Plans to subsequently do that fell flat because the BM decided not to renew my contract (I'd stepped up to cover the Head of Community Partnerships role while my colleague was on maternity leave and so forfeited the right to return to my old job), and as is so often the case when people leave an organisation, the idea left with me and there weren’t really the resources to pursue it further.


But to get back to how we developed the cards, I remember you conducted walks and conversations because you were interested in drawing together all sorts of objects and spatial experiences from the museum as a trigger for different ways of thinking and for ordering those thoughts.


Sophie

I found an email from the 16th of March 2015 which explains what my role in the workshop would be. I was originally brought in as an outsider to help evaluate the workshop, but I wasn’t really doing evaluation at that point so I ask in the email if I could introduce what I was doing as a parallel piece of research, which explores the motives of the British Museum staff, artists and community partners to work together and to collect some of the diverse meanings and interpretations of creative autonomy and genuine collaboration. Those terms popped out at me so I thought they’d be a good place to start. I knew anything I produce would only be a snapshot, but I thought I could produce a set of cards based on my walks around the British Museum with various people.


I produced a blurb as part of an invite to walk around the BM with me while I recorded our conversation:


Sophie Hope is meeting with artists, British museum staff and community partners to discuss experiences of what happens when artists meet museum collections and their motives for getting involved in these encounters. As the project is interested in how the British Museum can facilitate greater levels of involved creative autonomy for artists as well as genuine collaboration with diverse communities. Sophie is interested in finding out what the terms creative autonomy and genuine collaboration mean to those involved. Sophie invites you to lead her on a walk around the British Museum for 30 minutes, followed by a cuppa if you have time. While you respond to these questions. Sophie will audio record the walks and then develop a set of cards to illustrate some of the meanings and values people associate with the keywords that come up. These main cards will hopefully provide triggers for artists, staff and community partners embarking on collaborations in the future.


From those walks, I produced a very lo-fi set of cards using stamps of hieroglyphs I got from the BM shop.


Sian

Yes, I remember those.


Sophie

I think I spent pretty much my whole budget to get the cards printed and then cut them out by hand. Then I think we played a game with them. So still most of the quotes on the cards are from those original 2015 interviews.


Sian

I think we did a lot of weeding with the quotes.


Sophie

Definitely, I think that's a really important part of the game, that the quotes are a moveable feast, you know, they will change and adapt, depending on who plays them. It's good to remember that the taking out and putting in of quotes has always been part of the game. This is reflected in the 10 blank cards included in the pack now.


After another workshop at the BM, we thought we should get the cards redesigned and that's when Sophie Mallett put us all in touch with independent publisher Lillian Wilkes who in turn suggested we work with designer Rose Nordin, who was part of the design collective OOMK. That felt like a big step in terms of making the cards more viable and usable. Getting a publisher’s and designer's eyes helped us understand what they needed to look and feel like.


Sian

The workshop at the BM is a bit of a blur, I just remember running around making sure it went smoothly, being fixated on making sure the coffee and the sandwiches arrived. But I do remember trying to play a very early prototype with the team at the BM afterwards and there was some interest but also confusion about how it could be played or when it could be played.


I took it around and tried to play it in different settings beyond the BM but I don't think the BM ended up holding onto a copy. I think when I left I took it with me. I must have played it at the National Gallery where I went next. Since then I’ve used it as an evaluation tool on evaluation projects at three different organisations


Sophie

In terms of your subsequent playing of it, how have you found it as a tool?


Sian

I like the structure it gives and I find the conversations to be insightful, but I wonder whether people only enjoy playing it and find it useful when I'm facilitating. Some people lose their nerve when it comes to playing on their own or when they have to facilitate and participate at the same time. I’ve had feedback where people say they're not sure of their role when playing and they have a sort of nervousness around using it independently.


But as an evaluator, I find the conversations that come from it are really rich, and there is loads to be gleaned from what's being said or not being said in that slot when people are playing the game. That's with hindsight listening to recordings after the game, I don’t know how much of that sinks in while people are playing the game. I wonder whether that's part of why people are a bit reluctant, they feel at the time, it's quite painful and insightful, but then subsequently, they’re not quite sure how much they take away from that conversation.


What do you think?


Sophie

Yeah, I think after we’ve played with people they feel more confident playing on their own. But without an external facilitator, they will always be reliant on people playing it in the first place, and then, of course, all those dynamics are there. It can depend on where and at what stage of the project it's played and how it’s introduced.


I think people who started to play it more regularly as part of their working practices, even just internally as organisations, have found it useful. It can help at different points to just, you know, have another way to say something they're trying to grapple with or to throw an interruption into the process.


It feels like quite early days, in terms of finding out about how different groups are playing the game. Obviously, we can't be there every time and of course, it's not necessary or appropriate for every game to be recorded.


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