New article published in Mediekultur, Journal of media and communication research, vol. 30, no 56

Abstract:
Mirroring digital culture developments in society at large, museums are increasingly incorporating social media platforms and formats into their communication practices. More than merely providing additional channels of communication, this development is invested with an understanding of social media as integral to the ongoing democra- tisation of the museum. The confluences of new media affordances with New Muse- ology objectives along with the underpinnings of the aforementioned understanding is discussed in this article. The article will argue that development in this area is not only driven by solid results and public demand but also by collective assumptions and associations as well as by a political need for institutions to justify their relevance in society. In conclusion, the article suggests that, while the integration of social media communication may serve to market the museum as inclusive, it may also simply pay lip service to genuine civic engagement and democratic exchanges with the public.

The article is available to download as PDF from http://ojs.statsbiblioteket.dk/index.php/mediekultur/article/view/8964

Last week, I came across this discussion thread on Twitter. To me it’s interesting because it pins down some of the problematic aspects of integrating digital practices (whatever they may be, hence the opening question) into museum communication.

Discussion thread on Twitter, June 16th 2014

Discussion thread on Twitter, June 16th 2014

I cannot help notice the ‘us-and-them’ rhetorics – in this case ‘us’ being the museum technologists (Koven J Smith being a museum consultant and Mia Ridge being a PhD researcher, both coming from a tech background and both key actors in the Twitter and conference based #musetech community) and ‘them’ being the ‘traditional’ museum professionals; i.e. curators, conservators, educators etc. But still I think the hesitance described, the notion that digital interactions are somehow disconnected, colder, and not as valuable as onsite visits, is very right.

The question was posed by Koven Smith presumably in preparation for his MuseumNext 2014 keynote - at least he references the question in this excerpt from that note in the blogpost Defining “digital”Here, he also describes another, seemingly contradictory, tendency:

We love the word “digital” in museums now–we’re happy to say that our latest blog is totally DDD, despite the fact that it only has four readers and took us six years to produce. In the same way that DDD used to mean “automatic awesome” for audiophiles, “digital” for museums means sweet motherlodes of engagement and young people. We’re finally getting digital. Let’s roll out that blog, and wait for carloads of teenagers to arrive on our doorsteps. That’s the way this works, right? But [...] digital is a label we’ve used to paper over the fact that we still don’t really understand how this world works. (Koven J. Smith, ‘Defining “digital”‘, blogpost 20.6.2014 http://kovenjsmith.com/archives/1446)

This tendency is one that I have also critically addressed in a soon-to-be-published article. But perhaps they are not so contradictory after all. Perhaps the enthusiasm for finding digital solutions for almost every museum project – whether this enthusiasm is driven by in-house technologists who have seen the light, by external web development companies who have a vested interest in selling a need for digital to the museums, or from museum boards following political directives and funding streams – backfires because it is overwhelming. Another strand of the discussion illustrated this:

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Bruce Wyman’s comment reflects well the discussions that took place in the two workshops I held with professionals from Designmuseum Danmark, in which ‘app’ became shorthand for any kind of mobile tool, ‘semantic web’ was mentioned as the way forward, but nobody (myself included) could quite pin down what it meant, QR codes became ‘QRL’s (in a mash-up with URLs) etc. Here was a group of highly accomplished professionals, masters of their respective fields, but relative newcomers to the digital domain, vast and rapidly evolving as it is. Little wonder that they did not have full command of concepts and lingo. And the feeling of uncertainty, of not quite understanding what the possibilities are and how to select a strategy and move forward, is surely not helped by this constant demand for ‘getting with the program’ while simultaneously being told – or talked about as if – you’re not getting it or not getting it right. Rather, it might breed scepticism or resentment. And anyway, when the tech in-crowd struggles to define digital, its not so strange that everybody else are also a little confused.

Sharing is Caring 14

Which reminds me of a really interesting debate that took place at this year’s Sharing is Caring seminar, one that still sticks with me as it kind of touches on a central conundrum in my research. (For the record, I’ve been off with stress for a few weeks, which is why I didn’t get round to blogging about the seminar back in April. Back now, and better although still slightly dizzy, so blogging is a strategy for getting back in the game). After both presenting keynotes, Nick Poole – having spoken about the love of museums as a key driving force for staff and visitors alike – and Simon Tanner - giving a presentation on impact assessment – launched into a discussion about whether institutional development should essentially be guided by evidence or confidence. Obviously, success can be a bit hit and miss. Simon Tanner therefore argued, that in order to ensure that our strategies and efforts really have the intended impact, and adjust accordingly if they don’t, we must gather and analyse data that shows what actually happens, how they are experienced by the public, rather than following gut feelings and hype. While this is a valid and rational point, the problem remains that it takes a lot of time to produce evidence (and still your evidence only answers the questions you set out to explore, but not all the other aspects that may have given you a different result). Nick Poole therefore took the position that as culture and society evolves too quickly for science to keep up, development should not be stalled by the idealistic call for evidence. Furthermore, as evidence can only tell us about the past, but not foresee the future, we have to rely on our beliefs when deciding on how to move forward. To support this view, he cited that the greatest leap of institutional development – in the 19th century – was precisely guided by belief, not evidence (thus ironically using evidence to back his claim, but still a good point, not least as museums are currently attempting to make an equally significant leap into a digitalised, networked and democratic future).

The outcome of the discussion was of course a compromise, an agreement that we have to combine the two, and let investments follow the projects that we believe will have the greatest impact rather than simply stick to what we feel most comfortable with, and subsequently evaluate and learn from our mistakes.

I attended the seminar together with my museology class, which worked as great learning experience. Interestingly, in our follow-up discussion, they picked up on the tendency for presentations to have a touch of the motivational speech: little criticism was raised, and rhetorics were at times a bit to idealistic and flowery (e.g. Nick Poole’s talk about love; it’s all well and good but how do you put that into practice?!) – which had also bugged me when I first attended Sharing is Caring in 2012. This time I was less bothered. Was that because the evangelism had been turned down a notch, because I had adjusted my expectations, or had become wiser or simply lost my critical mojo?

Either way, a lot of interesting issues have been raised in this seminar series, and now the contributions from the 2011 and 2012 editions have been collated in an anthology edited by Merete Sanderhoff. The anthology, which addresses ‘the changes and opportunities brought about by digitisation, digital media, and the internet for the cultural heritage world and – not least – our users’ comprises 18 articles by Danish and international museum professionals, scholars, public sector administrators and others. It presents a wide range of cases and viewpoints, and is not only well worth a read, but also freely available for download from SMK’s website. Now that’s sharing the love.

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A revised version of the paper I presented at the Museum Metamorphosis conference in Leicester last year, has now been published in the latest issue of Museological Review.

Abstract:
Museums are steadily changing. Yet analogising this development with biological or mythological metamorphosis could imply an elevation or naturalisation of events, which is potentially problematic. This paper therefore suggests a supplementary perspective, arguing that certain changes in modern day museum practices correspond to the logic of fashion. Where Foucault once described museums as heterochronias; places representing an ’other-time’, museums now strive to be both of their time and in time with the Zeitgeist. As a consequence, they must keep up with the speedy cycles of technological advancements and cultural change, and not only deliver, but also stoke the desire for, novel experiences. The paper explores the current vogue for fashion exhibitions as a case in point, arguing that this trend serves to promote the museum as fashionably current, but can also support novel formats for cultural reflection. 

A ramble of inspirations and illustrated notes, some of them pretty old (but need to get them out of my system and pinned down in blog form)

Museums are the new rock’n’roll

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Dress, autumn/winter 2010–11. Courtesy of Alexander McQueen. Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce – From: http://blog.metmuseum.org/alexandermcqueen/#sthash.M7n8DzvP.dpuf

Next spring, the Alexander McQueen retrospective Savage Beauty will be on show at the V&A. Organised by the Costume Institute in New York, the exhibition was a massive blockbuster hit when showing at the Met in 2011, with queues growing out into the street. When tickets for the V&A edition went on sale in April, the servers broke down after five minutes due to massive demand (I know, because I was trying to book tickets myself, thinking this a perfect treat for when I’ve finished my thesis). Being pretty slick on the branding/enterprise front, the V&A had of course fuelled the hype (there are still plenty of tickets, although certain days are selling out almost a year in advance), still it’s interesting how exhibitions – fashion exhibitions not least – have become must-go-to gigs.

All department stores will become museums, and all museums will become department stores
quote Warhol, whose remarks are often remarkably right on the money. I’ve already blogged about the close connection between Saks and Museum at FIT Shoe Obsession exhibition, and as the theme also emerged quite strongly in the workshops I held with the Designmuseum, I will be examining this relation more closely in my thesis. At Stockholm Arlanda airport, Anton Berg chocolates presented itself with this complete museum display – glass case, object labels, museum lingo – to advertise its brand. This side featured a chronology of the company’s history and and product design, the reverse explained the process of cocoa production. Content wise, telling a story of tradition and expertise served to denote quality, but the meta level message of the museum display as medium elevated the chocolate bar to cultural icon.

Display at Arlanda airport

Display at Arlanda airport

Touch

At Nordiska Museet in Stockholm the permanent display Power of Fashion (Modemakt) shows fashion and dress from three different centuries. Concentrating on three decades – the 1780′s, the 1860′s and the 1960′s – rather than showing a full chronology means that a greater diversity from each period is represented, which works well as a curatorial strategy. It therefore seemed odd that the touch models provided for the visually impaired did not reflect this selection, but instead allowed you to sense e.g. the silhouettes of a 20′s flapper dress or the Dior inspired styles of the late 40′s /early 50′s. Showing consideration for this group of visitors without truly granting them access to the curatorial narrative seemed to me to stress their exclusion even when trying to be inclusive.

Touch models illustrating fashion silhouettes of the 1940's at Nordiska Museet

Touch models illustrating fashion silhouettes of the 1940′s at Nordiska Museet

And at Weston Park Museum in Sheffield, I was really hacked off by the dumbing down-ness of this display for kids:

'Polar bear fur' in the arctic exhibition at Sheffield Museum

‘Polar bear fur’ in the arctic exhibition at Weston Park

I mean, if you don’t want to splash out on a real polar bear skin for your public to touch, or have some point about ethics, leave out the display or be upfront about faking it. Don’t be misleading, and don’t think you can get away with it just because you’re addressing youngsters. They deserve your best.

By contrast, Museum of Copenhagen allowed visitors of all ages, who visited the open excavations at a construction site for the new metro lines, to don surgical gloves and touch some of the finds. This felt like a privilege, and was enlightening not only on the subject of Copenhagen history but also on the process of musealisation.

My seven year old son handling archeological objects

My seven year old son handling archeological objects

Finally, at KEA, Copenhagen School of Design and Technology, they have a material library with thousands of samples (and a database) covering a great variety of materials.

KEA's material library from Material Connexion

KEA’s material library from Material Connexion

 

Not entirely sure if it’s open to the public or is only for the students, but it reminded me of a user informant in my first workshop, who expressed a need for exactly this kind of touchable collection. Many museums, Designmuseum Danmark included, hold library collections as well as collections of art or artefacts, why not extend it with material samples? Handling a textile, a metal, a polymer will give you far more information than reading about the same material, and could thus help you comprehend the museum objects in a different way.

But then again, looking closely also has its merits. And this guy, who I spotted on the street the other day, reminded me how photo sharing on social media may actually inspire os to look closer and engage with our surroundings in our hunt for new images worth a share (of course, this particular guy may have been a media phobic photography enthusiast, he still illustrates a trend). That cool kids give landmark sculptures or similar the time of day, I believe is a result of the social media revolution. Then again, a cynic could infer that we are merely looking for self adornment, not really caring about the origins or significance of the imagery that decorates our digital teenage rooms. Still, he looked, we look, we explore.

Snapshot of a photographer

Snapshot of a photographer

Fan museums

Back in December, I visited the ABBA museum in Stockholm as part of the Nodem conference. I like ABBA, as someone of my generation does, and I have to say that the museum’s vision of having people ‘walk in and dance out’ worked. There were loads of interactives – quizzes, karaoke, digital dress up games. It was good fun.

Got to be Anni Frid, at last!

Got to be Anni Frid, at last!

But it also felt more like visiting a venue tailor made for hen parties than visiting a museum. Somehow, I it sits with me as a slightly gaudy experience.

By contrast, I was surprisingly touched by my visit to Graceland Randers, which I expected to be pure kitsch (I also like Elvis, so I’m equally biased when it comes to both). Whereas the Swedish experience was very ‘ABBA Inc.’; making full use of the commercial potential of the super group’s popularity and using the latest technological gizmos to amp up the experience, the fandom inspiring the Elvis museum was still very palpable. In fact, the museum’s founder, Henrik Knudsen, who built the Graceland replica to have a place to exhibit his huge private collection of Elvis memorabilia, was there to give guided tours of the collection. And even though it was a bit disappointing that the, well, ‘particular’ decor of the original Graceland had been replaced by a diner, a record shop and the exhibition gallery, the place actually felt quite museum like and not so tacky after all.

Henrik Knudsen giving a guided tour at Graceland Randers

Henrik Knudsen giving a guided tour at Graceland Randers

Not sure what my point is here. Maybe something about soul and lack thereof. Anyway, enough.

I sort of do, at least, and now I’ve even got a badge to prove it, sent by analogue mail all the way from NY, thanks to @MarkBSchlemmer, who started the #ITweetMuseums initiative. (BTW, this post will feature excessive use of @handles and #hashtags). Ironically, it’s the analogue part that really wins me over, even though I’m not entirely sure what to make of this whole museums on twitter business. But after mainly lurking on Twitter for five years, since attending Museums and the Web back in 2009 (watch out for tweets from #MW2014 next week), I suddenly find myself tweeting loads.

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My motivation for getting stuck in was that I arranged for the museology class to participate in a user test of #hintme.dk (see also the Europeana Case study). Given how much I learned myself from joining a previous test I figured this would be a great way for the students to experience and engage critically with mobile museum mediation from a user perspective, and also get an insight into the museum’s perspective. Merete Sanderhoff/ @MSanderhoff, project manager at Statens Museum for Kunst, presented the intentions behind the project and also, as always, generously shared the challenges experienced and the insights gained in the process, as technology and users threw spanners in the works of the original ideas. With the functionality now more or less in place, the user test was set up as a tweetup, asking us to reflect on the social interactions and also get some content on the platform. Curator @k_monrad also took part in the test and provided some useful answers to our questions – as well as pointing out the brilliance of Twitter forcing you to be brief and succinct –  and @PSoemers, an hintme-enthusiast from the Netherlands, joined online. It was was good fun, and although the screen and the technology still takes up a lot of attention, it was also clear from the hints shared and questions asked that the format inspired closer looks at the artwork.

So anyway, to get ready for the tweetup, the students all had to get a twitter profile, and were urged to acquaint themselves with the platform by sharing tweets and links under the #ivamus tag. They only did so very sparringly, I must admit, whereas I got on a slightly maniacal roll, sharing articles and hashtags and RTs for inspiration (and, to be honest, to let them see how the online museum sphere has no ending and thus can be rather overwhelming). Which is how I stumbled upon the #ITweetMuseums thing, was allerted to the brilliant Touch Van Gogh iPad app and @danamuses’ useful #museumhashtag glossary , connected with @PSoemers, @Skagensmuseum and others, followed the #whyexhibitions conference on the sideline and much more.

And now it’s #MuseumWeek, meaning that institutions around the world share their stories and get users involved in quizzes and other calls for participation. It’s rather distracting, but it’s actually also a really nice way to engage with institutions around museum objects and stories. But there is a but – namely that a lot of the interaction seems to be between museum professionals. Which is not a bad thing in itself, that museologist use twitter for mutual inspiration and knowledge sharing. But it does show that despite inventiveness and the very best intentions, it is still hard to get the public properly engaged, and that even though the uptake of Twitter in Denmark is growing rapidly, it is still not possible to simply transpose a general media usage pattern to a museum specific context.

This term’s teaching is giving me a real buzz. It’s so great to have been able to offer a museology course, and get a bunch of dedicated students involved in tackling museum questions and making up their own minds about what museums are and could be. Reading through their blogposts and following their thought processes is so interesting, and I’m actually really proud of the response I’ve been getting so far (and also note that I must become a little more structured and lecturer-like, as I do have a tendency to get over-enthusiastic and ramble a bit). Even though it is only a short course, I’ve prioritised museum visits and talks with external researchers and practitioners, and although both I and the students are a little frustrated that we have too little time to engage in discussions and dive deep into the literature, it’s been a real treat to hear and experience all these practice perspectives.

A couple of weeks ago we visited The Exhibition Lab at Designmuseum Danmark, and had an enlightening presentation about the exhibition principles and research results from PhD researcher and curator Laura Liv Weikop. The exhibition was set up as an experiment, displaying the same selection of everyday design objects according to three different exhibitionary principles, i.e. offering an aesthetic, didactic or affective experience of the objects, and then measuring the audience’s response and preferences. It was a great little exhibition, and a perfect case for this course.

The Exhibition Lab - Affective display 'You are what you own'

The Exhibition Lab – Affective display ‘You are what you own’

Laura’s preliminary results pointed to a preference for the affective and the didactic displays – a lot of visitors wished for a combination of the two – whereas interestingly, if not really surprisingly, the traditional glass case display was perceived by many – but not all! – as stale and old fashioned. As the cases are design classics in their own right in this case, purpose built by the Danish master Kaare Klint, they are hardly on their way out. Still, it will be really interesting to read Laura’s dissertation in time, and not least to see how the Designmuseum will follow up on these insights. 

Following on from this, we visited yet another meta-exhibition; Heim Steinbach’s The Window at Statens Museum for Kunst. The display – Steinbach’s chosen term – comprising artworks from the collection, new works by the artist-curator and everyday objects collected amongst the museum staff, and playing with exhibitionary conventions like white cube aestetics, was an interesting hybrid of artwork and exhibition. Furthermore, the accompanying folder gave a thorough introduction to the principles and elements of the display, and thus provided not only a fine guide for understanding and discussing the exhibition, but also served as an great example of the role of museum communication for the experience and discourse of the exhibition (cf. Gade 2006, Ferguson 1995, as per curriculum).

And last week, one of the students, who also works as a wildlife conservator, had arranged an absolutely wonderful visit to the Zoological Museum. First up, Birgitte Rubæk, as member of the Museum Minds innovation group, gave us an introduction to the process, plans and visions for the new Natural History Museum. If everything goes right (read: if all funding is found, so that budgetary restraints and other practicalities will not completely hollow out the original ideas), it’s going to be a truly spectacular place. And not only because of the remarkable architecture, but because of the strong curatorial ideas guiding the development of exhibitions. The group has devised a set of dogmas (in Denmark we’re rather fond of the dogma idea following the success of the film indstry in the 90′s) which center around the unique experiences of authentic artefacts that museums can offer.

Building bridges between natural science and humanities, and insisting on establishing an experience that also appeals to ‘unaccompanied majors’, and not only to families and children, the museum is not afraid to go against the current in it’s vision of what makes a great museum. A notable example is the rule stating that ‘if other media can do it better than us, we won’t do it’, which is in stark contrast to for instance branding consultant Damien Whitmore’s assertion that “In 20 years, the V&A will have more TV producers than curators.” (in Sten 2010). Rubæk’s easy going presentation thus served up a lot of food for thought, and it was hard to break off the conversation.

However, we were also privileged to a peak view of the collections, so had to move on for this fascinating experience. Five storeys worth of mammal hides and bones, stuffed birds and pickled snakes, toads and lizards; including a full blue whale skeleton, and no less than 600 polar bear craniums.

From the collection at Zoologisk Museum. Photo by Niels Toft Larsen.

From the collection at Zoologisk Museum. Photo by Niels Toft Larsen.

The latter really brought home the point about museums, in this case a university museum but also generally, as a hub for research. And Mogens Andersen, our guide and collection keeper was an amazing presenter, both knowledgable and infectiously passionate about his work. As such, he also illustrated the amazing qualities of museum guides, which may well be supplemented but cannot be replaced by any other medium.

Museology class & Mogens Andersen. Photo by Niels Toft Larsen

Museology class & Mogens Andersen. Photo by Niels Toft Larsen

Finally, we found time for a tour of the current and temporary exhibitions, where I learned that the dioramas are indeed going to go. As mentioned in an earlier post, I have a bit of a nostalgic soft spot for dioramas, and the marsh biotope in Zoologisk Museum in particular, so it was kind of sad news. But then again, I had to admit that the 40-ish year old exhibit was so tired by now that it’s representational value was stronger as an artefact of museum history than as an illustration of wetland wildlife. And interestingly, the much more recent dioramas depicting urban fauna seemed the most outmoded. I still believe that dioramas could be in vogue again some day, and I would argue for the preservation of at least some of the displays, if only as examplars of yesterday’s exhibition technology and ideals. But until such a time, I guess their outdatedness risks getting in the way of their communicative power, and not least the power of the museum to project a strong vision for the future.

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This week, I’ll start teaching a master level course in museum mediation and museology. And although I’m also looking forward to being able to focus fully on writing my dissertation, I’m actually really excited about this course. Deciding on the format (kind of the crammer course I wish I could have had when I was a master student wanting to specialise in museums) and setting the curriculum has been interesting, and I really hope to get some good debates going with a bunch of dedicated and curious students. Also, in stead of writing an exam paper at the end, the students will need to run a blog of their ongoing reflections (which is why I felt I ought to update my own bog, too). It’s going to be interesting to see how that works as a didactic tool. We’ll be starting out by discussing functions and definitions of museums, addressing the framework set out by the Danish museum act and ICOM’s ethical guidelines for museums, but also the more philosophical discussions about the nature and purpose of museums outlined in articles by a.o. Francois Mairesse  and Élise Dubuc. Ideally, this will also give me a chance to reflect on and discuss some of the issues that I am writing about. For instance, preparing my lecture, and reading about ‘musealisation’ in ICOM’s Key concepts of museology (some of which I have included in the course reading), I realised that this is the concept I need in order to reflect on cultural/fashion objects outside the museum, and how they may or may not be made to ‘function’ as museum objects.

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