Two staples of the contemporary media are decluttering and mindfulness. They both speak of a need to simplify our living spaces, lives and reduce the 'noise' emanating from our devices. We are told we need space in which to think properly and do creative work. While retreats are becoming increasingly popular, what we surely need are spaces within our cities which offer something similar.
The lockdowns have deprived us of many things. One of the simple things which we have been deprived of is finding spaces, away from our homes, in which to think, write and create. Many have missed the ability to go out and find a quiet spot to scribble. Lockdown wanders are great for stimulating thought but not for getting these thoughts down onto paper. On my wanders during this last year I've often found myself gazing enviously at the little writing nooks in the homes I pass and the empty cafes. Desperately wanting to sit in the warmth for a few minutes and get my ideas down.
Concentrating while at home, when surrounded by a multiplicity of distractions, can be difficult. I'm not alone in feeling a need to change environment and find fresh stimulation. I am constantly on the lookout for possible spots. Obviously libraries ought to be perfect but increasingly local libraries are taking on the additional role of community centres. This is laudable but tends to mean that they fail to provide quiet spaces. The elegant Reference Reading Room at the Central Library can be an inspirational place to work. However, like most libraries and cafes, it tends to be full of people tapping away on laptops.
The sale of notebooks and other simpler forms has been rising for some time. Suggesting there is some realisation that while laptops are a great way to edit and share the written word, they may not be suited to the initial stages of composition. Having constant access to the internet may well hinder creativity.
In an April 2019 Radio 4 interview, Ian McEwan advised writers to get offline and seek solitude in order to create: 'They need – at least for an hour a day – to be offline with a notebook and chisel out for themselves a precious commodity we are in danger of losing and which is so crucial to the life of the imagination; solitude. Solitude was easy to find in the early 70s right up to the mid 90s... it was relatively easy. It's now a very precious commodity... [interrupted by] that little brain in your pocket buzzing... Take a notebook, keep it in your pocket and take yourself away... even 10 feet away from other people and investigate the processes of your own mind; get out of social media – carve out that little space for yourself'.
It was in this spirit that I was drawn to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art's Resource Room, a new public 'drop in' space within the gallery. Set up in 2019, the room acts partly as an adjunct to the NOW exhibition with a range of relevant and absorbing books and an opportunity for visitors to share their reflections via the 'mapping time' activity. This was a nice example of genuine public engagement. Though some were mundane (of the 'live in the moment' cliché) many of the contributions in word and sketch were interesting and suggested that the visitors had been stimulated by what was around them – and by the prompts on the wall, such as 'is time slowing down or speeding up?'
The Resource Room also provides a tranquil space where you can be alone with your thoughts and experiences or be inspired by the art in the building and in the room. With minimalistic décor and furniture (Marie Kondo would surely approve) it's a light and airy space with comfortable chairs for reading and some desks for writing. The desks are perspex covered, with articles relevant to the exhibition underneath. It all adds to the feeling of being surrounded by engaging and thought-provoking ideas and thoughts. It's all rather different from the gallery's cafe which tends to be jam-packed with chatty groups – which makes it a poor place to sit and reflect.
In contrast, I was struck by the stillness of the Resource Room, only broken by the till in the shop down the corridor and excited squeals of toddlers in the children's area next door. While I sat there, a couple of toddlers found their way into the room, unsure as to where they were. The same was true of most of the adults who entered. Etched on their faces were various stages of bemusement and an air of concern. As if they shouldn't be there or were interrupting something.
Many who like to write, work or study in public spaces feel there's a disciplining effect. If other people are there you feel an obligation to get on with whatever you are doing. Using your phone would be silently frowned on. There is definitely an air of seriousness about the Resource Room. Partly from the highbrow books available but also the regular checks from the visitor assistants. The room was also governed by the unspoken rules of a gallery so that all discussion between visitors was in hushed tones.
It all helped me focus on the task in hand. I felt that my concentration levels were heightened. The room reveals the scarcity of such quality, uninterrupted time. This is brought home by the egg timers on the desks which increase your awareness of time passing. It shows that in some 10-minute blocks you can achieve quite a lot... and in some, hardly anything at all. It's all about the quality of that time – the degree to which you are truly focussed on your task.
What this interesting and welcome experiment illustrates is that one of the most important resources we have is quality time to truly think. Everything in the room is tactile and paper based. It offers an escape from screens and 'that little brain in your pocket buzzing' (though the offer of free wifi might be considered at odds with the general philosophy of the room).
The pandemic has emphasised the need for such spaces and the importance of being able to change your environment. We need spaces where we can pause and train ourselves to think in a different, less agitated manner. Surely there is scope for more such 'drop in' spaces in other museums, galleries and public buildings. Workplaces, universities and schools would also benefit from such spaces.
I hope that the Gallery of Modern Art's Resources Room is an experiment they persist with and that other institutions try something similar. Due to the pandemic, there may well be many unused spaces in our cities for years to come. Transforming some into little oases of tranquillity would be a fantastic use for them.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh. He has previously written on British politics, culture, sport, coffee and language teaching. Charlie is currently working on a book for Edinburgh University Press on conservative ideology