Ambulo x The Mindful Rambler: A Conversation Between Wanderers

Created by Matt Helders and James O’Hara, Ambulo is an all day café blurring the boundaries between cultural space and relaxed community hangout.

By Serena Ypelaar

Here at The Mindful Rambler, we talk a lot about interpretation, storytelling, and sharing experiences, often through cultural lenses. So naturally, as a museum/arts professional who cares a lot about engaging the public, I’m always thinking about more ways to explore the theme of visitor experiences. Last month, all day café Ambulo opened its first location in Sheffield, UK, and in following the café’s updates on social media, I was impressed by how successfully they’ve been sharing their story. Each of their Instagram posts is an invitation to the public – to everyone – to join them in the space and enjoy their visit.

Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders and The Rockingham Group co-founder James O’Hara, who have been friends for years, conceptualized Ambulo and have seen it through to its opening. They collaborated with Museums Sheffield to launch two locations; the first at the Millennium Gallery, and the second opening soon at Weston Park Museum. Alongside its setting in a cultural space, Ambulo’s welcoming vibe makes it an ideal example of visitor engagement done right.


James O’Hara and Matt Helders at Ambulo.
Photo: India Hobson, courtesy of Ambulo

JO: Essentially via a tender process. We were the only local independent to make it to the final 5, the rest were national operators with a much more experienced background in these sorts of spaces. However, I think our history of cultural engagement in the city (I’m the co-founder of Tramlines music festival) and our track record of transforming interesting, somewhat derelict buildings (Public is located in a former gents toilet) excited Museums Sheffield and our enthusiasm for the project balanced out the obvious risk element associated with choosing a smaller company like ours. 

JO: We have a core group of collaborators who we have worked with on almost all our projects. Rocket Design (Ben Pickup) make and build all our interiors, Totally Okay (Nick Deakin) has designed all the branding and associated imagery of this project and all our previous businesses, India Hobson takes all the photos, Swallows and Damsons have done all the beautiful floral displays and New Phase LED do all our lighting design. We’ve done so much together that we all have a real shorthand and understand how each party works. They’re an amazing group of people. 

SVY: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us! I’m looking forward to following Ambulo’s future programming, and I can’t wait to check it out in person one day soon.

Ambulo is now open in the Millennium Gallery, 48 Arundel Gate, Sheffield, UK. The café’s second location is slated to open at Weston Park Museum, Western Bank, Sheffield.

Self-Fashioning and the Autobiography

The autobiography is a curious means of presenting one’s life story, one that allows for filtration and condensation into a story as engaging as the author (the self-biographer) desires. 

By Serena Ypelaar 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about autobiographies, in which someone illustrates their own life by selectively exploring episodes of their past. There’s a certain kind of autonomy in fashioning one’s own life story for public consumption, in which we can filter out certain aspects like a sieve. Maybe we don’t want unflattering elements of our lives to reach the eyes and ears of others – but would that be as compelling a story?

If we don’t admit our failures, conflict, setbacks, surprises, embarrassments, and other negative experiences, what shadow of ourselves are we presenting? The phenomenon of “self-fashioning” is all the more relevant to us in the twenty-first century, since Instagram and other social media rule the day. Our Instagram pages are curated galleries of our identity, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg, an infinitesimal slice of our actual lives. They nevertheless create an impression that lasts, especially when we don’t often see someone in person. Short of communicating with them directly, we’re left with what they present to us on social media, a public front that one can’t call balanced. This controlled presentation is like a darkened room that only allows light through tiny cracks – the cracks being the posts we decide to share.

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Author Sophie Kinsella writes authentic protagonists who own their mistakes and suffer embarrassing moments like all of us. Photo: Niklas Maupoix

British novelist Sophie Kinsella recently released a book titled My Not So Perfect Life (2017) which focused on the warped perceptions of our lives and others’ thanks to social media. Kinsella has encouraged readers to share less-than-perfect moments of their lives on Instagram and to celebrate them as a typical facet of the human experience. But the persistent insincerity of Instagram mirrors the ability of formal autobiographies to stretch, filter, and warp the truth. When publishing on social media, we’re sharing only the parts of ourselves that we want the world to see.

Lemony Snicket provides another, albeit exaggerated view into self-fashioning: his Unauthorized Autobiography (2002) is a dramatized example of how the autobiography is a tool of self-invention. Lemony Snicket is in fact a fictitious character (created by American author Daniel Handler) credited with chronicling the lives of the also fictional Baudelaire orphans. Likewise, Snicket’s autobiography represents the lengths that we can go to in order to construct and manipulate identity on a public platform.

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Author Daniel Handler, who also writes under the pseudonym “Lemony Snicket”, created the Unauthorized Autobiography to compile selected information about his fictitious alter ego. Photo: JD Lasica

Whether or not we’re actually writing a formal autobiography, we are authoring our identity every day, inventing our public face based on how we act and what we share. When documenting that identity, we can and should carry an awareness of how we will be perceived by others not only today, but in the future. In the practice of history, for instance, we try to understand people who have predeceased us based on records left behind; it’ll henceforth be interesting to see how historical analysis proceeds in the digital age.

The true self, the one we are when we are alone, only has one audience member: ourselves. Our true identity is beyond communicating with others because there are so many layers to such an identity; so we’re burdened with the responsibility of choosing how we present it to the world. The question is, will we favour authenticity or will we compete on the basis of concealing our very human flaws?