Do you think the Covid-19 global pandemic has had a long-lasting effect on how we use technology to access and enhance visual art?
Absolutely. Our mission at Smartify is to connect people with art. We go to cultural institutions to be awed, challenged and inspired; but museums and heritage sites can also be daunting in their grandeur. With so much to discover, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. At Smartify we want to reframe the use of smartphones in galleries as engagement rather than distraction, and help each object tell its story in new ways.
After the pandemic, there is far more acceptance that mobile phones are a natural extension of ourselves. They are by far the safest and most accessible format to get information. Smartify allows people to use their own phone to scan and identify artworks; save information; get personalised recommendations; and enjoy all the accessibility benefits of using a smartphone rather than wall labels (things like changing font sizes, multiple languages and text-to-voice).
What advice would you give to people who are interested in pursuing an arts and heritage career?
Three things come to mind:
Don’t wait for permission to start doing what you love. Start a blog, an Instagram or TikTok account – these things help your CV stand out from the crowd, develop your voice and crucial digital skills that every organisation needs.
Look outside the traditional big museums for opportunities. There are lots of small arts organisations where you will learn more and get better opportunities to take on responsibility. My first full-time museum job was in the National Museum of Fine Art in Argentina where I was given major responsibility to run their late night events for young people.
If you are brave enough to start your own project or work freelance that is amazing; but my advice is not to put all your eggs in one basket! For most people the reality is that you will need multiple sources of income to make a career in the arts feasible – at least at first. For the first two years of working on Smartify I had another full-time job outside museums to pay the bills.
What was your path into the Arts and Heritage Sector?
I grew up in North London in Tottenham and was always interested in history because of my Grandad. He was Jamaican Chinese. When died we found a notebook containing his autobiography, detailing his early years growing up in Yallahs on the south east coast of Jamaica, life under British colonialism, an account of Chinese-Jamaican lives. He came to the UK in 1947 on the SS Ormonde (one of two boats that came before the Windrush). At school I was frustrated that we did not learn anything about this history in GCSEs or A-Levels so I ended up doing a degree in history focusing on Britain and the Caribbean. Long story short that led to a Masters in Cultural and Creative Industries at King’s College London, where I looked at how museums present the stories of who we are.
What are your thoughts on the Culture& Black Lives Matter Charter for the UK heritage sector? Which point do you think is most crucial to effecting change in the arts?
It’s great work and hard to pick just one point.
I don’t think it is radical to expect museums to be exploring untold histories and help people understand our history and culture. This is fundamentally the mission of museums.
To effect real change in the arts I think the most important thing is accountability within each organisation. Actions should be generated collectively (probably by a taskforce) and the Director should put names and timelines to these actions – tracking implementation and outputs on an iterative basis. Nothing happens unless individuals are accountable.
We have been living through a challenging period as we continue to navigate life in the age of coronavirus. How have you managed these difficulties in your daily life?
Simple things – cooking, walks in the park and I’m learning Greek on Duolingo.
What is your proudest achievement so far in your career?
The first time we launched Smartify and saw how well it worked. Or when the Smithsonian used the app as their main interpretation tool for the presentation of the Obama Portraits.
Joining the board of trustees at the Tate has also been an amazing experience. I remember my first visit to Tate aged 10 so clearly – being able to contribute to the future of the organisation is a huge honour and responsibility.
In your opinion, what is the best exhibition you have seen since galleries and museums have re-opened?
Paula Rego at Tate and James Barnor at Serpentine. Also War Inna Babylon at the ICA.
In addition to being the Co-founder and Director of Partnerships of Smartify, you are also a Trustee for Tate, and Hope in Tottenham. Tell us about these organisations and if they have any exciting projects in the coming months?
Tate always has exciting projects. Over the next three years, Tate’s ambition is to recruit 50 paid apprenticeships via the Kickstart scheme – I think initiatives like this as crucial for changing the make-up of the arts sector.
Hope in Tottenham is a tiny charity doing amazing hyper-local work for young people in Tottenham. The charity’s four core programmes of Counselling, Mentoring, Youth Arts and Police Engagement. We are completely independent and do things like bringing police Territorial Support Group carriers (public order vans) into schools so that police and young people can meet and chat in non-confrontational settings. Or delivering mentorship schemes with local businesses and students.
Click here to learn more about Smartify.
This interview was conducted in July 2021.