Each morning, there is a moment when the doors of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum open to the patiently waiting crowd outside and… nothing happens… no-one moves….
Then, as if by secret invitation, the visitors suddenly step smartly over the threshold and a normal day begins.
James Wilson is a Learning and Organisational Development Consultant at the V&A and has taken me for a ‘walk and talk’ through the gallery spaces on several occasions. We’ve seen him here before, the Anonymous Angel of the VI website, in an image we made as we toured the museum one afternoon. James runs the V&A Innovative Leadership Programme, a 10 month course that mixes hands-on management with the creative skills necessary to lead effectively in our increasingly complex world.
We discussed the picture that James had envisioned as we walked smartly through the halls and positioned ourselves only moments before the doors opened. I jammed the camera on a tripod and hoped - not really imagining that James would be able to stand still enough for the longish exposure. Yet, as the crowd began to move, he stood completely motionless as the movement of the day unfolded. Quite a skill...
SM: This is the second image we’ve made together and I’m intrigued; when we explore your sense of vision, we seem to capture you in moments of stillness within otherwise dynamic surroundings. They are a real counterpoint to the movement and transition that we might usually associate with ‘vision’.
JW: My first reflection is that photograph belies a different original intention. My curiosity was to see if we could capture the moment of opening – almost like a Schrödinger Museum, both open and not open. Those instances are beyond fleeting, perhaps not even physical more a shared understanding of intention and permission.
It is interesting therefore that what emerged from this exercise is something quite different, particularly as you ended up with an image of me.
I notice the stillness of the body in front of the blur of people arriving from the light of the street to the dark of the V&A. All the people are moving from left to right (very occidental) and yet the body is still. The people are part of the sunshine’s glare – solid refractors of the light behind curved glass. There is the impression that they might be whirling through revolving doors – yet I know those doors have been left open. This is exaggerated by the body being placed in a circle. And yet it is not revolving. What I see is someone standing in his authority amidst movement. The photo portrays a soft stillness.
SM: Is that how you see yourself and how your vision feels to you?
JW: The image I see is not dissimilar to the image I have of myself. Yet, I don’t always find it comfortable. This is the liminal space of belonging and not belonging – an unclear position that is difficult for some to perceive. I know that my separation from the V&A whilst being part of it, the otherness of my offer (I am curious about people, rather than objects) allows me to bring difference. Being comfortable with and appreciating this difference brings value to my practice. However, for many outside the V&A, it is too easy to see the difference I bring as nothing more than “being from the V&A” and this can undermine the value of what I bring.
SM: Quite a lot has been published about these ‘edgy’ places in which consultants and change agents find themselves. I always feel like I am doing my best work when the client is about to throw me out! The ability to challenge (helpfully) and to bring difference while engaging with the client ‘system’ is a key skill - and I’m seeing the ‘will they, won’t they’ in your image as the visitors hesitate at that literal threshold differently now. And I’m getting a different sense of what it means to provide a still presence as everything starts to shift...
JW: The difference I feel, and with it the tension, is that for the most part of my work I act as an internal consultant, very much part of the V&A system. “When the client is about to throw me out” has more radical implications when you are an employee. Which is why I enjoy the colouring over the lines when I run the V&A Innovative Leadership Programme – I am working mostly people who don’t work at the V&A, so it affords me the opportunity to be more experimental with V&A colleagues and in a V&A context. It informs the work I do outside the V&A too. I really appreciate the opportunity to be more James than V&A.
So the constant discipline is to treat myself as a blank canvas.
When I can stand strongly but relaxedly, uncertain but unconcerned, curious to find the question rather desperate to find the answer, I can create most value. I feel most useful when I do not know the answer to a client’s needs – which is often uneasy for them as that is what they are coming to me for. After a recent programme I ran for a large media institution, I asked an evaluative question, “What did you want from the programme but didn’t get?” Three or four people replied, “The answers!”
SM: But we all look for silver bullets, don’t we? Even if intellectually we know it’s crazy to think that L&D professionals, consultants, coaches would know the unique complexities of our own circumstances, there is always the hope that we might be ‘saved'! When I work with my own coach I often have a nagging wish to say, “Don’t make me work this out for myself, I’m stuck… Just TELL me…!’ Of course, it would be fatal...
JW: I wonder if this strong stillness means that I am stuck in the same place? There is something about the image – standing in a circle that doesn’t revolve (or that I am not turning around) that has hooked me once more. Movement beats stuckness, is something I have learnt from Steve Chapman (@stevexoh), and I use it constantly, whether in my practice as a workplace mediator or as a coach or when I L&D people on conflict resolution or problem solving sessions. The change since first thinking about the photograph is that I have initiated the 100 objects 100 essais project as a creative activity to keep me moving and not get me stuck. Important aspects are that I need to make the most of the niche within which I am – the V&A is rich and diverse, unique and accessible. The negotiation is to bring myself to foreground of the project rather than the comfortable retreating of the anonymous angel, who at best is alongside, but never in front.
SM: You’re not the first person that I’ve worked with who is seeking a different quality of visibility and presence. I wonder if this kind of quest is a by-product of exposure to our institutions and corporations where we often need to work hard to fit in… And so our creative selves become stifled. And I wonder how that plays out for the participants on your courses.
JW: The metaphor of the learning journey – you are starting here and by the time you have finished this course you will be there (box ticked, new title) – works well where there are clear progression routes and a ladder or pole to climb. Hence the “isn’t it time you did your MBA?” conversations in big corporates. It assumes that badges and ranks and knowledge are tangible items to acquire. I am more taken by the idea of expanding oneself into a larger role or agency.
This fits better with a Buddhist perspective (I am a practicing B) which holds that every individual has a Buddha nature, that their Buddhahood is essential and internal. Enlightenment is an everyday act of bringing forth that innate Buddha nature.
It fits well with Carl Rogers’ concept of unconditional positive regard. As he wrote “It is that the individual has within him or her self vast resources for self-understanding, for altering her or his self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behaviour”
In terms of 2-D representations, I like the idea of the individual at the centre of a venn diagram, expanding into other areas so that the intersection becomes larger and larger. The liminal expands until it is assumed into the centre circle. It feels better than starting at point A and drawing a line to point B.
So the image now takes on the power of potential.
How much am I expanding, what is the range of my liminality? Hmmm… something to ponder, n’est-ce pas?
SM: That's a really powerful image and I’m gripped by the way you are holding the space of the circle in the photograph. I don’t remember us planning that - did you intend to stand there? Was that in your mind before we arrived by the doors that morning? You were very deliberate about how you wanted to stand and I certainly noticed it as I looked through the viewfinder.
JW: Ha! I don’t remember being that deliberate and we certainly didn’t plan it. There is an element of performance (and some vanity too) in the pose. I really like the idea of stillness as way to highlight what else is going on. I have experimented with for many years. I remember when studying drama and doing mask work, often the most powerful action when working with another in mask was to do nothing. It amplified their actions allowing the audience to see much more. In coaching, silence is a fantastic tool. As someone who can ramble on endlessly myself, saying nothing can be really hard but it can pay back handsomely as it encourages the client to step into the silence.
Also, I spent many hours as a drama student and working in the theatre, being a focus for lighting rehearsals. You had to stand on one spot for ages whilst director, lighting director and technicians tried out different spots and floods. Once in a while you might get an instruction “Can you take a step to the left… no our left, not yours. Yeah. Stop. That’s it”. I learned to treat it as a meditative exercise, working to take as much movement and tension out of my body, concentrating on just my ears to listen and to balance. It whiled away the time and I never begrudged it.
So I wonder if there is something about working in a museum that plays to that. People come to see stuff that doesn’t move. The objects authority is in their unchanging, the context or environment they have been placed, whether in a case or not, whereabouts in the room they are positioned. And they can be there for decades, some even a century. It makes them “part of the furniture” and it is easy for them to become invisible to some eyes.
I was asked recently “Have you seen every object in the V&A?” by which they meant all the objects on display. I said that I may have seen all of them but I haven’t noticed all of them yet.
SM: I can imagine that you would have toured all of the 145 galleries but, yeah, 4.5 million things competing for attention. It’s incredible to imagine, on a routine basis, everything that we have to actively ignore just to get through the day. I’m struck, again, by the potential of just looking….
JW … just stand still for a while and just look
If you are interested in some of the themes that came up in this conversation and would like some extra reading, take a look at: