Cardboard Cities

Ever wonder what would happen if you left lots of children in a room with lots of cardboard boxes?

well, it would look something like this….

Cardboard Cities was an interactive exhibition at the 2012 Belfast Children’s Festival. The exhibition let children play, build and create on a giant scale.

Rather than a traditional adult led workshop, Cardboard Cities was more like a blank canvas with adult support, children took their shoes of, put them in a shoe box, walked in and started making. There was a table with adult helpers, but rather than directing play the adults were there to help out when needed, be it to cut a giant piece of card (only grown ups are allowed scissors!), or to help them stick something really high.

It’s an unusual situation for children, seldom are they are allowed to draw on the walls and on the floor. At Cardboard Cities they could make whatever they like, they could be messy or tidy,  make big or small, create quietly in the corner, or run around and play hide and seek. The format worked well because it accommodates the needs, and play preferences of different children.

Whilst the Cardboard Cities format is all about letting children take the lead, its success is down to some very clever participatory design scaffolding (a concept that Nina Simon has talked frequently about in her blog, and book). Children like a bit of guidance, a bit of structure in their daily routine but also when it comes to play and creativity, that is why games have rules and teachers tell children from a very young age what they will be doing during each school day. The scaffolding in this instance is a cardboard road that leads from the entrance into the exhibition, and a couple of cleverly constructed cardboard buildings for inspiration. But even the buildings created by the adults are up for destruction, or additions – the installation belongs to the children, so no one is to precious about what the exhibition ‘should’ look like.

What I really loved is the element of trust, children are trusted to go and create, the process of making isn’t micro managed, the safe nature of a confined room lets parents and teachers chill out, sit down in a fort, or a castle and help their children out when needed. The result is funny graffiti, castles and forts, sky-scrappers, rockets and traffic cones.

What can we learn from this project?

  1. Harness children’s ability to think and make big (don’t make them colour in boring A4 colouring sheets when you could have them drawing on the walls)
  2. You don’t need lots of resources to create exciting and engaging opportunities for visitors young and old to participate and create. What you do need is a little bit of imagination, and a trust in your visitors ability to create.
  3. Providing a little bit of structure or ‘scaffolding’ can help draw out children’s creativity. Give them guidance, rather than telling them what to do.
  4. Blank rooms and empty spaces provide an excellent canvas!

As one child said to me ‘This is awesome, we’re never allow to draw big’

Cardboard Cities was created by artists Caragh O’Donnell and Ryan O’Reilly. The event revisits an exhibition which was created for the 2010 Belfast Children’s Festival by Caragh O’Donnell with Sinead Breathnach Cashell.


This post was inspired by  This is what happens when you give thousands of stickers to thousands of kids an article about Yoyoi Kusama’s ‘The Obliteration Room’ in the Queensland Art gallery, part of the  Look Now, See Forever exhibition.

All images taken from original article, click image to visit source

Should museum websites pull in content from non museum sources?

A few weeks ago the Walker Art Center launched their new website. I was really excited to see that the site contains a range of content, and voices from across the center but also from external sources such as blogs and newspaper articles. In a web survey that I carried out in May/ June of this year I found that visitors wanted museums to curate the web and indeed the art world for them, hosting content from external sites is a great way to do this.

The survey I carried out was distributed across all of the Irish Museum of Modern Arts’ Online platforms*, and gathered a range of data on the context of  visitors online experience. From their current location, to what other online and offline activities they were carrying out whilst engaging with the museum online.

The survey ended by asking two open response questions:

1.What do you like about what IMMA does online ?

2.What would you like to see IMMA do online?

One of the key, and perhaps unexpected trends that the responses for these questions showed was that visitors want museums to curate the web, and indeed the art world for them. For this blog post I have selected a few key, relevant comments to share. The comments show that visitors are keen to learn more about IMMA, it’s artists and the art world, they want to hear about these from a variety of sources and voices but rather than search the web for this information they want IMMA to deliver it to them via their website and social media channels.

Visitor comments:


‘Links to up and coming artists websites or exhibitions outside IMMA. Or you could possibly have a section where you can apply to have a blog or some other social thing eg: Twitter or something like that linked on the side page, perhaps this could be changed every month or so and be kind of like editors top 10 of the day/week/month. This could promote students work or ‘outside’ artists and maybe make the gallery feel like its not a locked door situation with regard to being a publically accepted artist and perhaps could give hope to young emerging artists and make it feel like a space for everyone regardless of who you are’

‘online collaborations with other museums and galleries’

‘More links to artists own websites (if living) or further study websites’ ‘Release info about artists currently showing. Not info about the show as such, but info about the individual’

‘Good but needs more activity’

‘Virtual link ups with other galleries and other art/cultural/fashion/heritage insitutions to make the art world more alive and tangible and interactive for the whole community not just artists’

‘I’d love to see more links to anything written about IMMA’

‘Reviews of exhibitions- art critics and man-in-the-street’

‘weekly debate’ ‘blog on events’ 

‘Greater online examples of work from the artists in residence scheme, links to other galleries with concurring shows by the same artists’

‘If I am bothered to follow someone on twitter or fan them on Facebook, I want to be rewarded for that. I’m not opting in to just get ads pushed out to me. I’m opting in to hear opinions I wouldn’t normally get to hear’


Having spoke to a number of museum staff at a range of institutions about the idea of aggregating content from external sources the issue of control has always been raised.

What if something on that external site is illegal or offensive? The Walker website however challenges this question and demonstrates that external content can be used successfully, this content is, after all curated and selected by museum staff so control of what visitors are directed to is maintained by the museum.

The positive feedback from a range of sources (The Atlantic , The Independent (uk)Art DailyIt’s That Nice), and social buzz generated when the site launched will perhaps encourage other museums and art galleries to embrace alternative voices and content as a means to generate a more engaging, welcoming and interactive web space for their museum or galleries visitors.

*The survey was distributed on IMMA’s website, Twitter, Facebook and two listings bulletins, 256 responses were collected. These are just a small selection of responses, I intend to publish an academic paper as an outcome of this research and this will include a more considered approach to methodology and data trends.

A platform for innovation and experimentation

A couple of years ago I was selected to take part in a British Council ‘International Young Curator Programme’. As part of the programme I worked in the Northern Ireland Gallery at the Venice Biennale. Myself and a few other emerging artists and curators decided we should make the most of our time in Venice and set up Parallax. envisaged as an arts collective, we wanted to create a platform to showcase and make new work in the exciting and dramatic setting that was Venice. We had no money, and at first the British Council was hesitant at the idea of us hosting events in their gallery spaces, but after a little persuasion and a pooling of resources we held our first event. From pop up exhibitions to art crawls and pecha kucha nights we experimented with different formats and events. Quickly Parallax started to be noticed and our events drew a mix of emerging and established international artists, curators and commercial dealers.

We saw Parallax as a temporary collective that would lead to future collaborations after our time in Venice. However we are delighted that the format we developed has proved to be so successful that a second group of staff at this years Biennale have breathed new life in to it. You can see more information about Parallax 2011 on their blog and Facebook page. I am proud to have been a founding member of Parallax and really hope that it continues to grow into a significant fringe presence for emerging artists and curators at the Venice Biennale.

Handing over Parallax to a new set of artists and curators, and witnessing their approach to what we started has been an interesting lesson in creating an open source format. Parallax was never about ownership, it was instead about empowerment, skill sharing and professional development. It’s open source nature has facilitated a dynamic platform were innovative ideas can be exchanged and tested.

Parallax clearly demonstrates what artists can achieve outside of traditional bureaucratic arts organisations and funding structures. It has left me wondering what lessons we can take from this model that could catalyst innovation within traditional funding structures.

A focus on collaboration, networking and seed funding could be really beneficial. Small pots of money, that require short bursts of activity could provide much more innovative artistic output than traditional funded projects. Indeed it would be interesting to see arts councils looking at how the digital sector is funded and it’s emphasis on supporting start up’s, innovation, and the acceptance of project pivot. Art is a creative journey, and artists cannot know what the outcome will be before they start on their journey. I’m not saying throw money at every artist out there, I’m simply saying that perhaps Parallax demonstrates the benefits of fluid and intense working, something that traditional funding structures do not support.

5 things that make the BALTIC an inspirational place

On Friday I went to the BALTIC for the first time. I expected to spend an hour there but ended up spending half a day….and left wishing I had more time to spare. I visit lots of museums and galleries as a result it takes a lot to impress me. I was beyond impressed by the BALTIC and here are 5 reasons why.

1.Friendly staff

You’ll not find any bored looking staff, sitting in a dark corner in the BALTIC. 80% of the BALTIC’s Front of House Team or the ‘Crew’ as they are known are practicing artists. The BALTIC takes a really innovative approach to staff development with Crew Members going through a 3 tiered training programme, firstly an induction programme, secondly communication skills from learning to deliver guided tours to learning sign language. Thirdly the Crew get to develop their own projects, learn research skills from how to facilitate a focus group to observational research. The Crew even get to travel internationally to research exhibitions and education programmes.

2.Great interactive spaces 

Rather than a small space in the basement, the interactive response space in the BALTIC takes over nearly a full floor. With a great range of furniture and activities this is the type of place that you would love to spend all day. They run a weekly mother and toddler group in this space.


3.Lovely, bright and comfy library

Comfy sofa, great books, journals and art world type magazines. A photocopier and an honesty box. If I lived in Newcastle I think I would move into this library.


4.Relaxed cafe, yummy food

A great coffee shop, massive glass fronted facade. A range of newspapers. Tea in a teapot and again great staff. This is the perfect place to sit with a cup of tea for a couple of hours, read the paper and hold a meeting.

5.Fantastic building 

It’s like the Tate Modern but with character.

I think the BALTIC has lots to teach other cultural organisations about creating engaging, exciting, dynamic, friendly yet challenging environments. 

‘I felt like I won a Nobel prize!!’

The Void Gallery, Derry~Londonderry is an artist run, internationally significant gallery. Alongside its international exhibition programme the Void has strong local links, and is a gallery very much at the heart of the local community.

When looking at their Facebook page earlier this week I came across these letters of Thanks:

letter of thanks courtesy of the Void Facebook page

The letters provide a valuable insight into what makes a brilliant visitor experience. They also show what visitors (especially children) remember about their gallery visit. Whilst probably structured by a teacher, each letter discusses three areas of the visit with great enthusiasm and individual character.

1. VIEWING: The art in the gallery 

‘I remember looking at the most magnificent picture in the world’

‘The one I like was about the old run down building…yet it was so plain…it told a fascinating story’

‘The exhibitions are breathtaking… they are that good’

2. ENGAGING: Seeing their art on display in ‘a real gallery

‘I saw my picture on the wall I literally went ecstatic. I felt like I won a Nobel Prize’

‘I couldn’t believe my eyes when I walked in and saw my own classes pictures and poems stuck up on the wall’

‘I was so proud of myself it was like a life long dream come true’

3. REFLECTING:  With juice and biscuits to finish 

‘The juice was Orange and the biscuits were cookies’

‘Even though I loved the tour I looked forward to the end because the staff gave us orange juice and cookies’

The children remembered in equal portions the art, their art and the juice.

These three elements created an engaging and memorable gallery experience that lead one child to say

‘I’m just literally telling you, this place would blow your socks off’

To see the rest of these letters, or to follow the work of the Void head over to their Facebook Page.

Laughing at the museum

Museums are full of rules. No photography, no eating, no running, no touching the works. ‘No’ features a lot in museum signage, but the Art Museum Tennis Palace in Helsinki takes a simple approach to demystifying all these rules.

In a simple leaflet called ‘why’

What I particularly love about this leaflet, is that after explaining all the things you can’t do. It ends with a positive direction  and tells visitors ‘Speaking is allowed!’ it even says that it is not even necessary to whisper…

I visited the Tennis Palace last month and I was delighted to find that the great Interpretation continued throughout the exhibition, they had a great book shop and loads of comfy seats. All in this is one of the friendliest, most engaging small museums that I have been to in a while.

As my dad always says the simple ideas are the best!

Lessons from Venice

I was lucky enough to work for the British Council and Arts Council of Northern Ireland at the 2009 Venice Biennale. My time in Venice was professionally priceless; it gave me the opportunity to engage with art and artists from around the world. I came away from Venice feeling inspired and challenged in equal portions.


The Venice Biennale presented the perfect opportunity to experiment, network and produce events and exhibitions.  Myself and a group of staff from other galleries decided to put our heads together and start a collective through which we could curate and show work during out time in Venice. Over a few bottles of Prosecco we decided on ‘Parallax’ as the name of our collective. Within the space of a few days we planned our first event a ‘see + talk’ session which we held in the court yard of the Northern Ireland pavilion (and the former home to Vivaldi!)This event was attended by over 30 people from more than 10 different countries, it took the form of a Pecha Kucha style event, with each artist discussing and answering questions about their work. Over the following weeks we curated performance art ‘crawls’, these consisted of site specific performances that engaged with the architecture of venice, we held exhibitions in apartments and palaces, we held making sessions from origami to drawing nights.

Parallax challenged the idea that the Venice Biennale is a place for established artists, it threw the floor open to a new generation or artists, curators and arts managers. Parallax provided us with the opportunity to examine our own practice, to grow professionally and to work in a peer supported environment. Parallax was unique in that it was not a funded project instead it was a collective of like minded people who pooled resources and expertise from printers to projectors, from web design to graphic design from courtyards to bedroom walls. Quite simply we had an idea, and we put it into practice.

Parallax in a Power Point

Parallax After Venice

Since the last Biennale Parallax has remained an active group of like minded individuals. Earlier this year we were contacted by galleries asking about how they could become involved in Parallax at the 2011 Venice Biennale.  It’s exciting to know that a small idea dreamed up over a bottle of Prosecco has made such an impact. 2 years after it was first conceived it has become a source of inspiration and mentoring for those working at this year’s Venice Biennale. Due to funding problems Northern Ireland won’t be at Venice this year, however Parallax will. The Fruit Market gallery are keen to breathe life into Parallax and I can’t wait to see how their invigilators creatively respond to living and working in Venice.

My advice to anyone working at this year’s Venice Biennale?

  • Bring business cards- they will get you free entry and exhibition catalogues
  • Bring Berocca- you won’t get a lot of sleep!
  • Bring lots and lots of Mosquito repellent (Irish art critic Aidan Dunne was so concerned by the size of my mosquito bites that he and his wife delivered repellent to my galley- sweet, but also terribly embarrassing)
  • No matter who you meet in Venice be it a ‘big’ artist, curator or critic, talk to them exchange emails, ask for advice. The sun makes people so much more approachable than at other big commercial events like Frieze
  • Get hold of a free British Council map, they are the best! The official Biennale map is really confusing

Tallinn capital of culture?

On a recent trip to Tallinn I was surprised by the lack of cultural information for tourists. As European capital of culture 2011, Tallinn had managed to raise it’s profile as a city break destination with major Newspapers such as the Telegraph and the Guardian posting really positive reviews. When Ryanair announced a new route Dublin > Tallinn I decided to jump on the Tallinn/ Capital of Culture bandwagon. I have been watching the Derry~Londonderry City of Culture 2013 project develop and  I was intrigued to see what such a title could bring to a city. I think it’s fair to say that my trip to Tallinn was a healthy mix of work and play.

Before I went I checked out the Capital of Culture website which was nothing more than a 2D listings site. When I arrived in Tallinn I was surprised by the lack of information available. I expected cultural ambassadors and prominent tourist information but after 5 days the only info. point that I came across was in the docks, far out of the city. I can only presume that this was intended for people getting off the Helsinki > Tallinn ferry.

Holding the title Capital of Culture is such a great opportunity and it seems a shame that Tallinn isn’t making the most of it,  especially as Estonia has the reputation of digital innovative country. Estonia was one of the first countries in the world to include access to the internet in it’s bill of Human Rights, it is home to Skype, and it prides itself on its free Wi Fi coverage so why then is the Capital of Culture campaign so old school? Why is their website so flat?

I should point out that despite the lack of tourist information I had a brilliant time in Tallinn, it’s a really friendly city, the food and wine are both good and cheap. My cultural highlight and the jewel in Tallin’s cultural crown has to be the outstanding Kumu museum. Opened in 2006, it was awarded the title European Museum of the Year in 2008.

The Kumu challenges people before they even enter the building. On it’s website the Kumu states:

‘Kumu is meant for different people – for those who are already well-versed in art and for those who simply wish to spend their time in a congenial environment. Kumu welcomes children and families and, most importantly, Kumu serves as a laboratory where diverse ideas emerge and develop. These ideas examine contemporary visual culture and its function in society.’

whilst on it’s informational leaflets it suggests a new way to approach a museum visit

‘Kumu in half an hour…

Are you afraid of long guided tours and believe that art is to complicated? …Visitors to the museum can receive a special paper guide from the ticket office, which introduces briefly the most remarkable exhibited artworks and guides you easily through the exhibition halls. Choose a ‘Kumu experience’ from the ticket office and disprove the notion that you need a whole day to visit a musuem!’

I was really impressed by such welcoming language and this was reflected when I visited the museum (which by the way I would recommend dedicating a whole day to!) The museum is about a 20 minute walk out of the old wall town, through some pretty grim communist era housing, but is surrounded by a beautiful park. The contemporary architecture is refreshing as Tallinn is a mix of medieval and  communist architecture.

The exhibitions on display ranged from Estonian Art, to a Print Triennial. The museum was full of helpful and friendly staff, they even had colour information leaflets on each of the artists in the Print Triennial, a no doubt expensive luxury that most museums could only dream off!

We ended our visit with the obligatory city break ‘coffee stop and cake’,

As we were leaving we decided to ask something we had been thinking about since we arrived, ‘can we sit on the chairs?’ The chairs being giant chairs made from used car tyres by the artist Villu Jannisoo. The Answer? yes, but then we should have expected that by now, the Kumu is a fun, welcoming and engaging museum that would not look out of place in any major museum capital from London to New York.

It’s always inspiring to see such innovative approaches to museum practice in stand alone locations, I wonder if the museums of Derry~Londonderry will shine so brightly when they get their big moment during Derry’s stint as City of Culture 2013?

Images: Oonagh Murphy

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