We are creating written portraits of the inhabitants of Oxford, as a first example. We started with 25 volunteers recording the aspirations and attitudes of every kind of individual, from many different communities and occupations.
We quickly found that people want to be heard, that they know very little about their neighbours, let alone other communities, and that they value having to reflect on and express what is most important in their lives. The people who are acting as intermediaries stimulating the creation of these portraits, and having the conversations with strangers from which the portraits emerge, say their activity enhances their self-confidence, gives them a sense of being useful and the chance to learn from the experience of other generations and other social groups.
A sample of 50 portraits from Oxford have been published in a book entitled Guide To An Unknown City.
Our intention is that this project will become a model that other cities could follow, to reveal the rich diversity that is concealed behind simplistic reputations. We are in the initial stages of starting projects in the USA, France, Turkey and Sudan.
We want schools and universities to take the lead in spreading better knowledge of their communities. We began with the HEC Paris Business School (Hautes Etudes Commerciales) where 380 students wrote their self-portraits, using a template the Muse has developed, as part of their two-week induction course. It has enabled the students to get to know a much larger number of their classmates and to get better individual attention from their professors. A similar exercise with 150 MBA students from 40 different nationalities has helped them to clarify their goals and to form projects to achieve them.
Our method has also been successfully tested on the senior executives leadership programme, at Templeton College, Oxford University. A book entitled Surprising People has been produced with the self-portraits of both students and business leaders who attend the College.
Our ambition is to get other educational institutions to follow this example.
Our Ambassador Programme expands our work to developing countries. We want to give young people who travel abroad a purpose, to be ambassadors for better inter-cultural understanding. They can make portraits of the people they visit, and offer their own portraits to them, with the aim of dispelling unfounded generalisations, stereotypes and prejudices. They can then create links on our website data-base from which future travellers, as well as commercial, recruitment and educational organisations, may benefit.
We are starting with Eastern Europe and with countries which want to join the European Community. We sent five volunteers to Romania in 2003, where they found a desperate desire by people of all sorts to be better understood by the west, and they received much encouragement from many diverse quarters, including the media and the country's oil company Petrom, which invited the team to the oil wells. We are now looking for resources and people to establish a Romanian Muse.
We are collaborating with the Turkish government to make portraits of a hundred leading cultural figures, which we will publish in the periodical Culture Europe, as a means of making other European countries better aware of the diversity of Turkish civilisation. Three leading Turkish universities have offered to support us making portraits of Turkish men and women; we are particularly interested in the new generation of educated young Muslim women who are developing a different kind of feminism.
Neal's Yard Remedies, the British company making aromatherapy, herbal, homeopathic and flower remedies and natural body care products, has approached us with a view to the Muse making individual portraits of its management and staff, so that they can understand one another better and so that their customers can appreciate their ethical approach to business. From this basis we are helping them to develop an expanded vision of the firm's future, which uses all the talents of its members and of the community in which it operates.
The portraits provide a foundation for a rethinking of corporations and for the creation of new style conversation companies. To show how this can happen we have completed our first management training film, which will be marketed by the team which ran Video Arts, John Cleese's successful training film company. Our ambition is to enrich the idea of the social responsibility of business by strengthening its educational and cultural content, and to stimulate a rethinking of the way professions train and develop the potential of their members.
We have begun experimenting with developing new forms of portraiture in different media, focusing on more than a face, a mood or an appearance. We are seeking funding for a plan to make 10 ten- minute film portraits, directed by well-known film makers, to reveal more of the possibilities of this medium. The sculptor Cathy de Monchaux, the musicians Vince Clarke and Martyn Ware and the author Theodore Zeldin are collaborating in planning an exhibition, Portrait of Humanity, to develop abstract portraiture, each piece being surrounded by a different atmosphere of local sound, music and words. The photographer Charlotte Koolhaas is working on multiple portraits, and on their use by mobile phones. We want to go beyond the logo and reinvent a new kind of heraldry. Our ultimate goal, when we find the donor and site, is to incorporate our work in a Muse Portrait Gallery, which would be the world's first multimedia, international portrait gallery designed to encourage simultaneously artistic, professional and personal innovation.
We have prepared an outline of a course as an alternative to MA and MBA courses, which we call the MCA. Instead of teaching a specialised discipline, it introduces people to the ways of thinking and speaking and the problems of different occupations - scientific, commercial, artistic, spiritual, legal etc. It could be used in two versions: for specialist managers preparing for broader responsibilities or board membership, and for young graduates in particular disciplines who want to widen their horizons and learn how to integrate different branches of knowledge. This course is now being tested in both Oxford and Paris.
Our work has attracted the interest of medical scientists who see it as a contribution to addressing the growing epidemic of depression, stress, psychosomatic disease and mental degeneration. We are in the process of forming an international consortium of professors and hospital consultants in medicine, public health, neurology and psychiatry to carry out clinical trials on the application of the Muse portrait and conversation methods to these problems, as a form of preventive medicine.
A number of hotels in Britain, France, Spain and the USA have expressed an interest in using some of the ideas of the Muse to enrich the experience of their guests and to make their hotels into a new sort of cultural centre. We are now working on the details.
Our ultimate goal is to redesign the very idea of a hotel, and create a model for how any business can rethink from scratch what it is doing. Hotels (like corporations) have not changed their basic goals since the late nineteenth century, when César Ritz said that the purpose of his hotel was to "teach you how to live". For him, that meant to be able to enjoy luxury and to live like royalty, with servants ministering to your every whim. But where can they go next, after they have fitted every kind of gold tap, electronic gadget and leisure facility? They could become important cultural institutions, playing a significant part in the dialogue of civilisations, giving tourists a chance to do what conventional ambassadors cannot.
At the invitation of the World Economic Forum held in Davos, we organised a Muse Conversation Dinner. The participants sat at tables laid for two, each with a partner they had never met before. A Muse Conversation Menu listed 24 topics through which they could discover what sort of person they were meeting, their ideas on many different aspects of life, such as ambition, curiosity, fear, friendship, the relations of the sexes and of civilisations. One eminent participant said he would never again give a dinner party without this Muse Menu, because he hated superficial chat. Another said he had in just two hours made a friend who was closer than many he had known much longer. A third said he had never revealed so much about himself to anybody except his wife. Self-revelation is the foundation on which mutual trust is built.
Some of our recent Conversation Meals include:
· A dinner held for around fifty Oxford residents from diverse backgrounds, which was part of our Portrait of a City Project. Photos and thoughts about the dinner.
· A mass meal in which hundreds of the inhabitants of the French city of Besançon dined in a huge park in pairs with our Menu of Conversation. The event was organised by the regional government of Franche-Comté; and inspired by the Maison du Temps et de la Mobilité of Belfort, of which Theodore Zeldin is Honorary President.
A dinner held in Leeds, organised at the request of the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, bringing together local community and business leaders, public service officials, and voluntary association organisers. Listen to comments from a participant who learned more about a work colleague during the dinner than he had from working in the same office for twenty years.
· A meal for business people on the Leadership Course for Senior Executives at Templeton College, Oxford University.
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO DISCUSS HOSTING A MUSE CONVERSATION DINNER IN YOUR ORGANISATION, PLEASE CONTACT US ON firstname.lastname@example.org OR CALL 01865-791421.