Creativity and the past

So if the overall culture of a city is central to establishing creative potential, what about cultural heritage? The triggers for creativity can be contradictory. For example, heritage can inspire because of past achievements, it can give energy because deep thought has gone into its creation, it can save time because much has already been thought through, it can trigger the desire to emulate, and it can give insight and generate pride because it has withstood the test of time - it is still there. But, equally, heritage and tradition can put a weight on peoples' shoulders, it can constrain and contain, it can overwhelm, it can force the mind to go along familiar patterns and furrows of thinking and so make people less open and less flexible.

Which side of the coin overrides the situation depends on circumstance.

If the new generation perceives its role as only safeguarding a past to which it had no input, it might mean heritage and tradition is drowning a vibrant emerging identity. Heritage works best when we perceive ourselves to be part of its continual creation. This is why museums and galleries that encourage the audience to ask new questions and do more than just let the viewer admire are often more successful. They engage their audiences in an act of co-creation and co-interpretation of the past. Contrast this with the failure of those who just present things as a given, immutable canon. When heritage and its interpretation are allowed to ossify, the past and the present disengage from one another.

Culture inevitably involves a past, as a place's culture is the residue deemed to be important after the ebb and flow of argument, fashion and negotiation about what is valuable has passed. Culture when acknowledged - and this might also mean the ability to reject it - gives strength in moving forward. It becomes a backbone that can create the resilience that makes change and transformation easier. Confidence is key for creativity. When cultures feel threatened or weak or when other cultures are superimposing themselves upon them, they go into their shell. Culture then becomes a defensive shield not open to change, imagination and creativity.

Cultural institutions, anchoring and creativity Museums, galleries and libraries can provide confidence, often giving the city its identity. Indeed, when you ask people to identify a city, it is often a cultural facility or icons they refer to.

At their best these tell us who we are, where we have come from and where we might be going. In so doing they show us the routes that reconnect us to our roots. They do this through storytelling, with stories that fit us, our community, our city, our country, our cultures and even our worlds into a bigger human and natural history, showing us connections, bridges and threads that can enrich our understanding. Museums and galleries confront us with some things that are familiar and comforting while at other times challenge us to look afresh, to see the world in a new way or to experience things that require imagination to grasp.

Some museums also allow us to contribute our personal stories in an act of co-creation. By triggering imagination, museums entice us to explore, so providing opportunities for testing out, for chance encounter, for discovery and for inventing things afresh. At their core, museums and galleries are involved in an exchange of ideas where we as the visitors come to grips with displays. In effect we converse either with ourselves or more publicly about what our culture is, or what those of others are, so we think about what we value and what our values are. There are thousands of examples, such as Madame de Pompadour - Images of Mistress exhibition at the National Gallery in London or the Bodyworks exhibition, which uses human body parts presented in a non-museum space.

By placing us, the visitors, at the crossroads of what has gone before, with what could be and what others have thought, museums, libraries and galleries become platforms for dialogue, discourse and debate, revealing the multilayered textures that make up any society. In these processes of creating, questioning and anchoring identity, of imagining and reimagining and of discovery, the object or artefact, ideally real, is the catalyst.

In fact the cultural institutions communicate with every fibre of their being - not only their artefacts, but also their setting and the way they project to the outside world. What they feel like and look like sends out innumerable messages and their values are especially etched into their physical fabric as well as into their programming. Thus our older museums often speak more to a former age - an age of deference where the expert told the inexpert what to know and how to know it and where you - the humble citizen - were to be elevated by the museum experience. And the physical elevations themselves spoke in a more grandiose style, often going back to a classical age with their Corinthian columns, reflecting a different kind of confidence and attitude. Yet good contemporary design has often helped museums to combine old structure with new ways of engaging an audience. Today we attempt to live in a more transparent and democratic age. Consequently, more buildings reflect a greater lightness of touch in the materials they use - glass, lightweight steel or tented structures - or in the way audiences are invited in. Again the best of the old and the new can communicate iconically so that we grasp the totality of what a cultural institution is about in an instant.

When we take an eagle's eye view, we see there is a special museumness about museums or a librariness about libraries. They are:

• places of anchorage, which is why so often in a world that speeds ahead of us we see museums as refuges or places of reflection;

• places of connection, so enabling understanding of our pasts and possible futures;

• places of possibility, letting us scour the resources of the past and memories to stimulate us to twist them to the contemporary condition;

• places of inspiration, to remind us of the visions, ideals and aspirations we have made for ourselves and continue to make; and

And when these things come together we know more about ourselves, our surroundings, what things work or don't work and how things could be made better.

Arts and sciences, and the creativity of cities Most of the literature on creativity concerns the arts and sciences. The question is whether there is anything special about the categories of arts, such as singing, acting, writing, dancing, performing music and drawing, in relation to the development of the city. Equally, what is special about biology, chemistry, physics? Science and technology are immensely important. For example, our awareness of climate change, ecological balance, pollution and the ways to overcome these problems would not be possible without science.

Importantly a lively city needs both old arts and new arts. Juxtaposing the two creates dialogue, argument and at times even conflict. The negotiation as to what is significant is the process of making a dynamic culture. A static urban culture just focuses on what has been achieved in the past. This has happened to many beautiful places, like Florence, whose beauty has become a prison.

The arts help cities with their aesthetic focus and then challenge us to ask questions about ourselves as a city and our hopes, fears and prejudices. And arts create enjoyment.

Artists can be interpreters of reality, leaders and visionaries. Perhaps most of all it is the outside-the-box, lateral thinking and use of imagination present in the arts that is the most valuable thing they can offer other disciplines like planning, engineering and social services, especially if allied to other emphases, such as a focus on local distinctiveness.

On closer examination, most city strategies and plans that call themselves 'creative' are in fact only concerned with strengthening the arts and cultural fabric, important as these are. In addition they focus on fostering the creative industries, such as advertising, architecture, art, crafts, design, designer fashion, television, radio, film and video, interactive leisure software, music, the performing arts, publishing, and software creation.

This is fine as far as it goes. However, this is not what the 'creative city' agenda should be exclusively concerned with - it is merely an important aspect. Indeed it would be great if artistic thinking fused itself into how traffic engineers, planners and others thought about their city. Clearly artistic creativity has its own special form, as has already been noted.

Creativity is legitimized in the arts and assumed to be a core attribute of what being an artist is about, and the artistic community has been astute in putting itself at the centre of that debate. Think of all the books on creativity. A large proportion over the last decades have focused on artistic creativity (and this includes much of what is covered within the creative industries) and neglect most other forms, such as social, public sector or bureaucratic creativity. There is also a wealth of work on business creativity. There is little work on the creativity of solving urban problems or urban development or on the creative approaches to thinking about science and technology.

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