Experiences of the interview
Dear Panellists, Thank you for these fascinating interviews. They add such a richness to the conference. I very much enjoyed them all. I was struck by the very different relationships you each had with your interviewee/interviewer, and wondered if you’d be kind enough to reflect on your experiences of the interview process – lessons learnt, unexpected and expected benefits/limitations, and how your relationships with each other might have influenced the dialogue. I have been interviewing exhibition makers a lot in my own work, as an outsider (researcher), but often with a personal familiarity with the speaker and the subject through my previous work in museum practice. I’ve been intrigued by the impact that this role has had on the various interviews I’ve undertaken and would really appreciate your insight. With thanks, Claire Wintle
Thank you - so glad that you enjoyed the interviews. My own perspective is very much coloured by my experience of working in education in museums, and almost all of that in a national museum (V&A). I very much wanted to foreground Nima's experience of working within a more local setting of Bradford - in some ways I've always envied the work that is possible when you have an institution rooted in its community and you have people who are committed to that work and Bradford has a long history of that - I absolutely admit to finding it difficult to sustain community partnerships in my own museum work- you could build them but sustaining was a whole different ball game. In terms of other similarities and differences as people, we are both South Asian women, but whereas Nima grew up in India and arrived here to do a postgraduate degree, I arrived in Glasgow from Pakistan as a child. She worked as a curator of art, whereas I worked as an educator with a background and interest in design. Being older than me, she also started her career earlier (during the 80s). In terms of the difference of curator and educator, I have to state that as a curator in Bradford, Nima's role would have been more expanded and covered areas traditionally thought of as education in a national museum. At the V&A for me, those structures were more visible and roles and responsibilities are more strictly adhered to, although there were instances they were sometimes blurred.
In terms of the interview, I was interested in finding out more about the relationship between Bradford and the V&A at the time and also the background to some of Nima's work, particularly community collaboration. What I found out is the freedom she had and I think you saw that in Nima's responses- the trust that Bradford Museums afforded her. She was able to do a lot because apart from her own energy and enthusiasm, the institution also supported her and gave her a free rein. I feel what also came out is the friendship and solidarities that are formed - but I wanted to ask what comes first the institutional collaboration or the alliance between two curators? Having looked at the history of Bradford (Cartwright Hall specifically) I know there is a historic collaboration but then the ongoing alliance has to continue through people there at the time (and it did between Nima and Susan Stronge). I think the other thing which in retrospect is not surprising but which I didn't know about, is that Nima had built strong community networks through her earlier role of running Adult education courses for Bradford Council.
So far as the physical process of interviewing goes, I only had one shot at it and am not a natural interviewer so I would have loved to had a practice run - we had only spoken once before on the phone and we hadn't scripted the interview at all although I had given her the questions ahead of the interview. I hugely respect and admire Nima for the work she has done and that probably showed - it was very much an interview, although we broke into conversation occasionally and I wonder if it had been billed more as a conversation, I might have challenged her in some areas but I feel there was not enough time for that anyway. The interview format and timing was a limitation in some ways.
The final thing that I want to stress and that I would like people to take away is Nima's assertion that she did not see a distinction between fine art and decorative art and this points to the future work she undertook - the Transcultural Gallery (and later Connect), one of the largest and most significant collections of art of South Asian practitioners. There was a blurring between art and artefact in how the displays were arranged - thematic instead of geographic locations. When I was asked her, what shall I put as a title for you in the context of this conference- curator with a focus on South Asian art, for example - she said "just put curator - I am interested in all art forms, to me they are all the same". We talked a lot about South Asian work and whilst our South Asian identities are important to us (albeit in differing ways) we are not bounded by that - that is a recurring theme for me in my conversations with South Asian designers, practitioners, researchers, people..
This was fascinating, thank you Hajra and Nima. What came across strongly for me is the part that can't be quantified: the longevity and depth of the relationships you form, cross-institutionally and beyond organisations, too.
@sushma Thank you Sushma - you are so right.
In Nima's case there was an insight into the warmth, trust and mutual respect of relationships she formed and I think that then does show in the collaborations that followed.
I suppose the honest answer is ... it's hard to say. I've known Alex for nearly 30 years. We are both white, middle-aged+ men with similar political outlooks on life. So I suppose the main thing in terms of interviewing him was to be aware of the "shorthand" that we may share when talking about things. There were various parts of the interview that were unusable due to familiar reference to people or events we both know (that listeners wouldn't) as illustrative of a particular point (but only to us). So I was conscious of trying to "leverage" my understanding of what he was talking about whilst trying to preserve enough distance to ask the questions that made it understandable to others. Very much like the process of interpretation for museum exhibitions, I suppose the trick is to try to put oneself in the shoes of a "lay" audience with no prior knowledge of subject matter. Thanks to you Clare, Hajra, Kate and all the organizers.
@h_will2 Lovely, thanks Hajra, this is such a useful and insightful reflection... I thought it would be a wonderful introduction to a publication of the interview, but then you'd loose so much of the oral specificity that made the interview such a joy! We can talk about this...
@chriswhite Thanks too, to Chris, for your useful thoughts – I have very much found the same with my interviews (which are now at the British Library, so I had to think about a very broad potential audience with all sorts of interests!) I’m rarely the same age as those I interview (which has its own complications!), but trying to contextualise shared professional and disciplinary knowledge so that other listeners can understand has been a real challenge. Sometimes I ask interviewers to explain something ‘for the tape’ and they think I’m completely bananas! 😀
In my interviews, I also wanted the designers and curators to try to articulate their practice in very close verbal detail so that I could really understand what went into everyday acts of exhibition making. Of course, they had never had to do this before, and completely understandably they often struggled to articulate the minutiae of intuitive practice. I’m not sure I’ve really cracked that one yet! Anyway, thanks again – it was a great contribution. Claire
@chriswhite Thank you Chris for your interview and to Alex. I loved hearing about the influence of James Gardner and how designers are inspired by other designers - respect, appreciation and learning that happens in professional contexts. We don't often get to hear from the designer's perspective. Hajra
Thank you Claire, I am so glad you enjoy it. I would also like to thank both Hajra and Chris for your wonderful interviews. I found them both incredibly interesting.
I have known Jon since I started my PhD last October. Jon is one of the members of the Exhibition Department, I feel, I have got to know reasonably well, though I am not sure this comes across in our interview. Having listened to the other interviews in this panel, I wish our interview had been more conversational. I also think we needed to provide more context in areas for our audience. For example, I could have outlined what the Commonwealth Institute was. But this has taught me a valuable lesson to consider the audience.
Undertaking the interview, I was mindful that I am not a designer; I am a design historian, so I did not want to skew Jon’s responses with leading questions. Jon has always been incredibly generous with his time, but I was aware he was preparing to return to the British Museum after lockdown, so he was incredibly busy. At times, I feel, you can sense I am ushering the interview on.
I wanted this interview to explore how Jon felt his practice had changed and developed over time. I also wanted Jon to examine the similarities and differences in his approach to designing exhibitions for the Commonwealth Institute and then the Museum. I believe we successfully explored these.
I have found the process incredibly helpful to my research, as I intend to undertake several oral histories which will be deposited in the Museum’s Central Archive. Jon will be among them. Jon has been invaluable to my research, and I am very grateful he agreed to do this interview