Monday, July 19, 2010

Dulwich OnView: Not Dull

Is it possible that something interesting might come from a place called Dulwich? One suspects that the people who reside in this area of South London try extra hard at dinner parties to appear lively and witty given the name of their place of residence. It’s a bit like hailing from the town of Hicksville on Long Island. Hicksville at least has Billy Joel--he grew up there. What does Dulwich have? Apparently, Dulwich has . . . a Picture Gallery. Actually, they have England’s oldest public art gallery (it was founded in 1811). And, judging from Dulwich OnView, the community’s website that is dedicated to “celebrating people and culture in and around Dulwich,” they have a healthy measure of civic pride and quite a few interesting things to say.

Winner of the 2010 Museums and the Web “small” award, Dulwich OnView is a combination fan site, visitors’ guide, local historical journal, and community bulletin board. Organized and maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers “who love Dulwich Picture Gallery and the local community,” the site provides news and reviews on arts events, local history, food and drink, health and fitness, and, of course, the Picture Gallery. Subjects of recent posts include a brief explication of a seventeenth-century painting, an ab workout in “Kevin’s Fitness Tips,” background information on the winner of an art competition, and an interview with Robin Hardy, director of the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man. In this last piece, Humanities and Media student Daniel Pateman, who enjoys red wine and David Bowie according to his bio, not only provides a transcript of his interview with Hardy but also describes the local cinema’s “Wickerman Sing-Along”--an event that sounds almost too strange to be true.

Living in a town that (un-ironically) bills itself as “America’s most perfect village,” I can certainly understand civic pride. Like Dulwich, my town (Cooperstown, New York) is best known for a museum--actually, we have three--and residents are justifiably proud of the amount of “culture” in their small upstate New York hamlet. We do not have a Cooperstown OnView, however, and reviewing Dulwich’s website made me wonder if this was, in fact, just what we needed. We certainly don’t need any more self-promotion. Such a website, however, might actually serve a more useful function than bolstering local pride and attracting tourists. Even in a place with only 2,000 year-round residents, communication can be a problem. When I moved here two years ago, I often complained that I had no idea what was going on around town. There seemed to be an insiders’ network that knew about things like the Pumpkin, Garlic, Apple, and Harvest Festivals. Reading local newspapers helped, and the Chamber of Commerce’s website was occasionally useful, but in general I found out about local goings-on, if at all, through word-of-mouth. By my second year, I could at least guess when and where most things were going to happen, but I still occasionally felt clueless.

Then something happened that, in my estimation, transformed the nature of communication in my small town. Many of the local institutions started to appear on Facebook, and suddenly I knew exactly when the next exhibit opening was happening. I knew when the baby lambs had arrived at The Farmers’ Museum. I knew when the farmers’ market was opening. I knew when and where the creative writing workshop would be. I was an insider. Facebook, more than almost anything else, had made me feel a part of my community. As a late adopter and self-ascribed Facebook skeptic, it was hard for me to admit it, but I liked how social media had changed my life.

Connecting this train of thought back to Dulwich OnView raises two questions for me: first, I wonder if Dulwich OnView bestows the same kind of insider status on Dulwich’s denizens that local institutions’ Facebook pages did for me, and, second, with the advent of Facebook (and Twitter, Foursquare, etc.) and the proliferation of personal blogging sites (Wordpress, Blogspot) has such a website become unnecessary? Anyone can volunteer to contribute to the site, so it feels inclusive--although the posting of articles does not appear to be instantaneous and there is definitely an editorial process in place. Judging by the range of contributors, they have not had trouble recruiting. The stories that volunteers write are decidedly local and are likely of interest mostly to people who live in and around Dulwich. In that sense, then, the site performs the same function as a Facebook page. However, it is superior to Facebook in that it has its own appealing design and allows for more in-depth content. Dulwich OnView reflects the place in a way that the boilerplate design of Facebook cannot. On the other hand, Dulwich OnView lacks the dialogue that one typically sees on social media sites--even though it does have a comment function.

The key difference between institutional Facebook pages and Dulwich OnView, however, is that the website is volunteer-run. It is, as DOV author Ingrid [no last name given] writes, “community driven, not museum driven.” Ingrid, who has worked in the education department of the Picture Gallery for fourteen years, argues moreover that the website is “more about [Dulwich Picture Gallery] within the community than [Dulwich Picture Gallery] itself.” Ultimately, the website is like a community newspaper, just cooler and without the annoying editorials from disgruntled townsfolk.

~ Will Walker

1 comment:

  1. Will,

    Nice title! Nice discussion! You have me thinking about a few things that I think matter a great deal for “off the wall”.

    The main question that pops up (pun intended) is the relative extent that online information clearinghouses and social networking sites go as far as we might think they do. In the case of the Dulwich Picture Gallery I sense a real hope that the museum body can be shifted and replaced by the body of the community through its online presence. In the exhibition world this is a basic goal adopted to ensure some sense of common ground between museums and patrons, but too often I find this goal is assumed to be widely shared. Missing are peripheral views that would expose the difficult tensions that any attempt to study, represent and work in a community expose. Rather, in this case, the hope for community is itself replaced by the sense that it has already been found. There are a couple examples from Dulwich and your discussion that help to make this point.

    Under the local history link, stories on the Dulwich Picture Gallery and its most likely patrons dominate the contributions. This may be a great way to share and deepen the impact of the gallery’s interests, but it’s about the gallery not the community whose history has made them “local”. This is not to say that the stories on Monet, Ruskin and a local cookbook author are not fascinating. They really are! It is just that these essays speak to a narrow section of the Dulwich community that the gallery most likely already has on their mailing list. The site seems to be an innovative promotional tool aimed at selling the gallery to those who “get” what they are trying to do. I think it would be more exciting if they broke down their boundaries and found ways that the gallery and the community overlapped. Why not complain about parking, rent, racism, or the schools and put the gallery’s spin on it?

    This relates to your own hope that online sources can provide an insider’s status. On line sources certainly claim to do this, but I urge us to think about the costs as well. What do we give up to be “an insider”? What do we want from being “in the know”? How can or ought we use this knowledge? How it is being used against us and others? Perhaps online options should do the opposite of creating communities. Given that they are often mirrors of actual places and people, they could push us to explore what working with mirrors can do: find the strange in the normal, to feel less rather than more comfortable in our places. Promotional pieces like Dulwich OnView are great for the commerce of art, but less so for its politics or its hope for telling stories that need to be told and require artists to tell them.

    Finally, on this note, readers should be advised that Hicksville on Long Island is named after the prominent Hicks family who were instrumental in sustaining the Quaker commitment to abolition. They were also active in the Underground Railroad. Such is the nature of what we need to know more about that lies at the periphery of our vision.