26 Treasures

A guest post by writer J. A. Sutherland

Every writer needs a discipline, some inspiration and sometimes, a bit of healthy competition.  Back in 2011, as part of the 26 Treasures exhibition, National Museum of Scotland invited members of the public to write a 62-word ‘sestude’ on their chosen ‘treasure’ from the Museum. This, I figured, ticked all three boxes.  I spent a while wandering until, suitably inspired, I scribbled a handful of sestudes and sent them in.

I didn’t win.

But I was undeterred, and figured I’d been given a good idea for a project.  Needing little excuse to spend more time in one of my favourite buildings in Edinburgh, I decided I would write my own selection of 26 Treasures, and post them on my blog over the course of 2012.  Well, every writer needs a challenge.

A sestude, in case this word is unfamiliar to you, is a newly-coined literary form, created by the ‘26’ collective. As 26’s Sara Sheridan suggests in her blog post, it is a ‘reflective study;’ a free-form piece, somewhat poetic in character, comprising only one stipulation: that it must be exactly 62 words in length.

Now that’s some discipline.

Practice, as we all know, makes… well, not perfection, but as I practised the form, and worked and re-worked the early scribblings, I realised that the sestude was, and is, an extremely versatile thing.  I played with various forms; some with conventional shape, rhythm and rhyme, some dramatic or conversational, others concrete, free or formed in the shape of the object that inspired them. For example, this half-hour-glass, belonging to Walter Scott:

A True Scott by JA Sutherland

A True Scott by J. A. Sutherland. The poem reads: “While the/ markets crashed, with/ uncharacteristic optimism/ the writer to whom Scotland/ owed so much, turning his/ half-full hour-glass over,/ set to write himself/ out of debt. Sir/ Water,/ dealt/ a/ double/ -dip, with/ his credits/ crunched, went bust;/ but something else burst/ inside his head. Having/ put blood into the cheeks/ of Scottish History, he/ died like many artists/ in the red.”

Choosing the objects was itself a challenge.  Sometimes it was simply what caught my eye; other times I sought out something fitting a theme, a date, an anniversary, or the product of an overheard conversation.  On the whole I stuck to the Scottish part of the Museum, and selected only one of the chosen objects from the original exhibition, the Gown of Repentance.

The gown of repentance, on display in the Scotland Transformed gallery

The gown of repentance, on display in the Scotland Transformed gallery.

With 52 weeks in the year, the plan was to post on my blog once a fortnight.  This occasionally slipped because I was keen to reflect particular points in the year.  There was an unlucky profusion of Fridays-the-13th in 2012, which gave me the chance to write about superstition, witchcraft, and charms.  Saint-days, liturgical feasts, and the Bard’s Birthday provided more inspiration, and in the Festival Season, it was not just the Treasure in the Museum that fuelled my pen.

Visits to other Museums, such as the Writer’s Museum, The People’s Story, and Edinburgh Art Galleries; street signs and plaques, people, and pieces of poetry – all of these were part of the process, not to mention spending some time in the Museum’s Research Library.  I even visited the Museum of Childhood in London, where another 26 Treasures project was on display.  But as the year progressed, I became increasingly concerned with a nagging question.

Would I achieve my 26-target?

In fact, I knew that I would – I’m far too stubborn to give up.  The difficulty, as the year drew to a close, was deciding what to omit.  I had selected many more than 26 objects, and had a book-full of scribbled ideas and half-completed sestudes.  One of my aims, besides boasting a word-count of 1,612 (not including titles) was to use these ‘Treasures’ as a basis of exploring deeper themes of Scottishness.

What, if anything, does history teach us; what does it mean to be Scottish (especially for those who were born in England); what part do Institutions and Establishments play in our culture; what is our ‘Identity’ – whatever that means? For personal reasons, I consciously avoided choosing anything with a military connotation.  This is because I strongly renounce all forms of warfare.

When, in 2014, our Nation will need to consider the questions above, the clamour of Bannockburn will be ringing in the background.  I find that rather sad.

Consequently, I chose for my final item something that isn’t in the Museum – or anywhere at all.  For the whole year there was an empty glass case awaiting completion.  It now houses a splendid revolving optic. Into this empty case, I placed an entirely amorphous treasure: the Future.

Empty case

The empty case, now home to a revolving optic.

So what were the items that didn’t make it into the mix of my 26?  A dainty, silver wax-jack and snuffer, the bannock toaster, an enamel cross designed by Phoebe Anna Traquair, and a firm favourite I was sorry to leave out: the Salter’s Duck.

Salter's duck

A rotor from Salter’s duck, an experimental wave machine, on display in the Scotland: A Changing Nation gallery.

This duck does not quack, but water flaps its beak-like shape to generate power from the sea.  With opinion sharply divided on the proliferation of wind-farms, it cannot be denied that Scotland has wind and waves in abundance.  This may be the thing, rather than the battles over our land, that will decide our country’s – and our planet’s – future.

Handle it with care.

You can read J. A. Sutherland’s 26 Treasures on his blog, Through the Turret Window. Find out more about 26 Treasures here.

Sara SheridanA guest post by author and 26 Treasures writer Sara Sheridan

Last year at the V&A, the writers’ collective 26 did something extraordinary. We created (quite unknowingly) a new literary form. During London Design Week 26 of our writers responded to 26 objects in the British Galleries in exactly 62 words. We coined a name for this new literary form: a sestude, which is a reflective study in exactly 62 words. 62 by 26 – it was a great idea and it is no real surprise that the concept for the original 26 Treasures exhibition lent itself brilliantly in 2011 to other exhibitions around the UK. We’re delighted to say we’ve exhibited this year in the National Library of Wales, the Royal Ulster Museum and here in Scotland at the National Museum (which we’ve loved).

The Bute Mazer, suit of Ross tartan and a bowl from the St Ninian's Isle hoard: three of the 26 treasures on display at National Museum of Scotland

The Bute Mazer, suit of Ross tartan and a bowl from the St Ninian’s Isle hoard: three of the 26 treasures on display at National Museum of Scotland.

Now, in a further extension, we aim to publish the world’s first-ever collection of sestudes. This will be done through a new publisher Unbound. Unbound is an online initiative by John Mitchison, the creator of QI. The Unbound concept is not really a new one in publishing. Robert Burns, after all, invited his friends to subscribe so that his poetry could make it into print. Unbound works in the same way – though of course with the advent of the internet, subscriptions can come from anyone, anywhere. It’s already worked for other writers – Terry Jones’s book was the first Unbound project to receive full subscription in spring 2011 and since then several others garnered enough support to make it into print. For each book the principle is the same – the book is produced only when or if it reaches its funding target within 90 days.

This is as democratic a form of publishing as anyone could wish for and, of course, I’d like you to support the publication of the 26 Treasures book. It’s a book that deserves to be published because it deserves to be read. It brings together writers of different disciplines: different ages, backgrounds and experience; the famous and the not-so-famous. Andrew Motion, Michael Longley, Alexander McCall Smith, Gillian Clarke. And another hundred writers. I’ve often wondered if we removed the names from some of the pieces if people might not be able to tell who was famous and who was not. That interests me and it shows, I suppose, that what unites the collection is the quality of writing inspired by the emotional connection found with an ancient object.

That’s what makes the collection special for me. Despite last month’s news that the number of visitors to museums has doubled in a decade, our experience of visiting museums can all too often be described as a ‘passing relationship’. We see an object, we might register its period or usage, but we pass on without a deeper thought, without a smile, a shudder or a tear.

26 Treasures is a way to remedy that. It gives us all a more personal way of responding to treasures from the past. Museums are there not to display history like flies in amber but to help us all find the human links between past, present and future and our 26 writers have given each object a distinctive and compelling voice.

So I ask you to support this book. It will be produced only if enough of you take out a subscription at http://www.unbound.co.uk/books/26-treasures. Subscriptions start from £10 for an ebook and £18 for a hardback. In return you will receive a beautifully designed book to treasure and you’ll be supporting a new literary form and the joy it’s brought by connecting museum audiences and their emotions with objects from some of our most precious national collections.

Hugh WallaceBy Hugh Wallace, Head of Digital Media

This post isn’t about QR Codes. Despite the fact that QR Codes (short for Quick Response Codes) will be mentioned several times and possibly be the reason you’ve arrived here in the first place, I wanted to draw a line in the sand straight away. What it is about is using technology in a flexible way, the increasing importance of mobile phones as part of the digital museum, and – as ever – good content needing to be at the heart of meaningful online experiences. Apologies in advance if it’s a little geeky…

Before I get carried away in tech talk I’ll first explain what we’ve put in place. A project called 26 Treasures has just been unveiled at the National Museum of Scotland. 26 writers were each assigned an object from the museum collection and asked to write a response to it, and each of these responses is now on display within our Scotland galleries.

Some of the 26 Treasures chosen

Some of the 26 Treasures chosen (left to right): Arthur’s Seat coffins, bionic hand, King’s Prize at Leith, Queen Mary Harp, Alexander Peden’s mask, Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s travelling canteen, sporran clasp with four concealed pistol’s and the Towie ball.

As part of our interpretation we decided to edge the boat out a little further – as the aim of 26 Treasures was to give objects a voice, we felt that voice should be heard. We recorded each writer reciting their piece, and by using their own smartphones visitors can now access and listen to each of these audio recordings.

QR code in the gallery linking to V Campbell's piece about the Lewis Chessmen

QR code in the gallery linking to V Campbell’s piece about the Lewis Chessmen.

Our aim was not only to deliver something that adds value to the overall exhibit but also be an example of best practice, using information we’ve garnered from previous projects and advice we were able to pick up online, and from other museum and galleries. We’ll be keeping a close eye on our stats to get a sense of how popular uptake is.

What follows are a few points that I think are worth bearing in mind for organisations looking at how they make use of mobile.

It’s about the content and context, not the code

From my many years of experience in this field, I can’t recall another aspect of digital media so badly implemented and inconsistently applied as QR codes. Their unstoppable rise in 2011 has seen a swarm of brands and organisations jump on board a bandwagon they seemingly have little understanding of. So we see codes that simply don’t work, codes that point to websites that haven’t been optimised for mobile phones, codes with calls to action that can’t be fulfilled, codes used as Twitter avatars. That’s without even getting into whether or not normal human beings actually use them (or even understand what they are).

Our aim, therefore, has first and foremost been about creating content that we feel enhances the physical museum visit, and the primary effort has been around creating a consistent, quality audio experience. The QR code is merely the trigger, what follows allows people to listen to that audio on as wide an array of mobile devices as possible.

QR code linking to James Robertson's piece about the Maiden

QR code linking to James Robertson’s piece about the Maiden.

Use flexible, available technology

The wonderful thing about the web today is that you can often rely on it to provide a toolset that would have been difficult to imagine just three or four years ago.

For this project we used audioboo to host the MP3  audio files and an open source javascript library called audiojs to generate the player. audiojs uses the HTML5 audio tag, if your mobile web browser supports it, and otherwise falls back to an invisible Flash player. This allowed us to get fairly comprehensive device and browser coverage without having to reinvent the wheel.

The pages we point the QR codes to are part of our mobile-optimised site, but an alternative to this would’ve been to host the audio on a WordPress blog where most themes automatically detect mobile phones. We’ve used bitly to generate the codes themselves, which also allows us to neatly bundle the links for tracking purposes.

The 26 Treasures mobile website

The 26 Treasures mobile website.

In the past, delivering a multimedia experience like this would have almost certainly needed to be outsourced, but these days the right balance of in-house skills and awareness can reduce costs dramatically.

Getting more mobile

Use of mobile devices – whether smartphones or tablet computers – to access the web is on the rise dramatically, and this poses a new and tricky set of questions for all organisations who produce and deliver content.  How do we cater for the mobile web when so much that’s gone before has been focused on static, fixed PCs? How can we make sure the experiences we create stay relevant to the devices people access our content on? Is the browsing experience fundamentally different on a mobile device to that of a PC?

Much is likely to change over the coming years, so it’s important that cultural institutions are experimenting and iterating with mobile however and wherever they can to help them understand how visitors respond and where value can be derived.

26 Treasures is the first project where we’ve driven traffic directly to our mobile website. The nature of the project – short bursts of narrative – is the perfect subject matter as this provides an experience where people are encouraged to snack, rather than stay absorbed for hours. The small file sizes also get over some of our connectivity issues, so the content should be relatively accessible on even a flaky 3G signal.

Integration everywhere

As well as integrating various bits and pieces of technology, we’ve also tried to think beyond gadgets alone and ensured that there’s as much information as possible to allow people to better understand what we’re doing. The map-based trail available at the gallery entrance contains an overview of QR Codes; each of the codes themselves prompts visitors to “Scan me to listen”, and we’ve published information about the use of codes on our website and via our social media channels.

The 26 Treasures trail explains how QR codes work

The 26 Treasures trail explains how QR codes work.

Given that people seem to be generally confused about QR Codes, it’s been important to provide as much light touch supplementary information as we can.

You can’t be perfect across the board

As mentioned, we’ve had to consider connectivity issues and there are points within our building where a strong mobile signal isn’t available across all networks.

The Hilton of Cadboll stone, one of the 26 Treasures, in the Early People gallery

The Hilton of Cadboll stone, one of the 26 Treasures, in the Early People gallery.

The pay-off for using the HTML5 audio player is that earlier versions of Android aren’t able to play the audio, but that’s more than worth compromising to be able to include iPhone users, who still dominate the number of mobile visits to our website.

In my experience with delivering any kind of web project is that you have to be pragmatic and accept, whilst striving to make everything as accessible and usable across the board, it’s not always feasible to please everybody.

In summary, hopefully what we’ve done is create an experience that can be enjoyed by as many people as possible, and we’ve delivered, on a tiny budget, something that’s successful and that others can learn from.

Claire AllanBy Claire Allan, Learning Officer (Adults)

When I first read about the 26 Treasures project in an email in late 2010 I was trapped at home, snowbound, and worrying about a huge pile of panel and label printouts for the new animal galleries that were awaiting my eager proofreader’s pencil back in the office. The writer’s collective, 26, fresh from their success with a similar project in the V&A’s British Galleries, were looking to pair up 26 writers with 26 of our objects and given them a fresh spin, an alternative label, each of which had to be 62 words (plus a title if they wished). Having spent much of the last year working with curatorial colleagues to fit object stories into strict 25-word label limits, the idea of trying to bring an object to life in 62 words sounded like unadulterated freedom!

In the New Year, once the snow had finally melted, the reality of the challenge for National Museums Scotland hit home. How could we pick just 26 objects out of the thousands on display? We quickly decided that focusing on the Scotland galleries would be a good start, after all, the writers would be doing their research and writing before the new galleries had opened! It also fitted nicely with the proposed winter timescale – the display period will cover two key Scottish dates, kicking off  just after St Andrew’s Day, on 1 December, and finishing a few days after Burns Night (it runs until Sunday 29 January).

So, working with a range of curators across our collections departments, we compiled a long list. We also considered the star objects featured on our website, the objects feted by our volunteer guides as touching a chord with our visitors, and objects that might appeal to the writers in terms of their hidden stories, their wider connections, as well as having enough visual appeal to attract the visitor to look again.

Then, in making the final selection, we tried to choose a strong spread of treasures across the floors of the museum, a balance of ‘big names’ (the Lewis Chessmen, Robert the Bruce, Bonnie Prince Charlie) and ‘real’ people’s stories (Jonet’s gown of repentance, Daniel Laidlaw’s Victoria Cross, Mary Barbour’s rent strike rattle),  and a smattering of science and archaeology amongst the more obviously Scottish history objects. There wasn’t room for everything of course, and I’m sure some will ask ‘how could you leave out the Hunterston Brooch, or the Monymusk Reliquary?’ It would be fascinating to hear which 26 objects others would select to tell Scotland’s story…

Some of the 26 Treasures chosen

Some of the 26 Treasures chosen (left to right): Arthur’s Seat coffins, bionic hand, King’s Prize at Leith, Queen Mary Harp, Alexander Peden’s mask, Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s travelling canteen, sporran clasp with four concealed pistol’s and the Towie ball.

Anyway, I digress. While we were selecting the objects, 26 was busy recruiting the writers. And I’m happy to say they are just as diverse as our objects. We’ve got poets and journalists, academics and screenwriters, novelists and copywriters. What they all have in common is their love of language and their enthusiasm for the museum and the way objects can tell stories. They were paired up at random with their objects (names out of a hat, a hard hat in this case, as I’d been busy installing part of the new Imagine gallery earlier in the day), sent some background information and a photograph to whet their appetite, and set loose to research, investigate and generally commune with their objects.

Writers Janette Currie and JF Derry at National Museum of Scotland

Writers Janette Currie and JF Derry attending a 26 Treasures meet up at the National Museum of Scotland.

Each of the writers has written their own blog piece about their experience of the project and I encourage you to read them on the 26 Treasures website, as they give another level of insight into the objects themselves and the creative process.