Project presentation @ Transformative Museum

Last week, I took part in a PhD-course and conference centered on the theme The Transformative Museum. During four inspiring days, I enjoyed some brilliant keynote presentations and thought provoking paper presentations, as well as getting the chance to exchange thoughts and ideas with other students, scholars and practitioners in the field.

I also presented my own project and had a good response and some very useful feedback from, amongst others, prof. Kim Schröder, suggesting the concept of ‘worthwhileness’ a framework for understanding users’ choice of media, and from dr. Ross Parry, urging me to focus on the challenges for museums to understand and curate something as ephemeral as fashion; an aspect which corresponds well with the shift away from media ecology and towards the museological challenges inherent in my field, that my project has taken.

As the presentation also (almost) sums up the current focus of my project, here is a transcript:

The project, with the working title ‘Mobile Mediation of Fashion by Museums’, focuses on how museums may use mobile and social media to let users experience the cultural meanings of everyday objects, like fashion, in everyday contexts, and what this type of mediation means for the museum.

The starting point for my research is therefore an exploration of how this kind of mediation may be envisaged and designed. And as I wish to examine forms of mediation that are as yet non-existent, I will explore their scope through a participatory design process, involving both users and museum professionals, to create a catalogue of concepts for how fashion culture and history could be augmented in the urban space, and to use the design process and the prototype concepts as a starting point for an analysis and discussion of the scope for and implications of what you may call trans-museal mediation.  

I have chosen to focus on fashion, as it is a cultural form that has a great presence in our everyday lives, and yet most often we don’t reflect on its cultural significance or even truly appreciate its aesthetic qualities. For me, this makes it an interesting area of study, and I guess I’m partly driven by a desire to establish fashion as a cultural form to be reckoned with, and not just some frivolous, consumerist or simply just female folly. Furthermore, fashion is like the ultimate remix culture, as the designers cite fashion history and cultural phenomena, and we subsequently pick and mix our personal looks. And this is another reason for choosing to focus on fashion as a case of everyday culture; as it is well suited to an exploration of the potential for engaging the ’expertise’ of the users in the collecting process and knowledge production in the museum.

To illustrate what kind of mediation I’m talking about, I would point to Museum of London’s augmented reality Street Museum app, which uses GPS and object recognition to overlay historical images of the city on to your view of the city. Now imagine something similar for fashion: something that would set a frame or provide a lens for seeing the stories, the references that surrounds us, and appreciate their meaning.

Now, this wouldn’t necessarily be a form of AR. Other approaches like placing QR codes on sales tags, devising an inspirational podwalk, or using a locative gaming format like Foursquare to prompt people to document street style with their mobile camera could also be options, this is only meant as an illustration of the prospects. Another way of inspiring this way of looking at fashion could be to make some sort of call to action, to ask users to document what they observe or how they style themselves, and to use their contributions to supplement the museum collections.

A great challenge here is of course the fact that fashion has no place and by its very nature is ever changing – how do you augment a reality in perpetual flux? What’s the ethics of encouraging people watching or even asking people to take snapshots of passersby? And how do you define fashion, let alone the ’meanings’ – there is no one to one translation of a fashion item or statement to an embedded meaning.

So, as you can see, even in the ideation phase, using a design process to explore my field, a lot of questions are raised; questions concerning interaction design, ethics and user practices, and questions about how to understand and curate fashion, which again point to museological issues like the purpose and identity of the museum, education and formation vs. experience and entertainment; collection policies, exhibition strategies etc. – and at this point, I am only referring to my own questions; it will be very interesting to hear what questions will come from the users and from the museum curators and educators.

Ultimately, one could ask if fashion outside the museum really is a museum matter? I mean, it’s not like fashion is underexposed out there, it’s big business, so we’re constantly reminded how last season we are, and told what looks to lust for. But could it be the museum’s business to modify that image, to show us another side to the story? Should the museum make it their business, and what would be the business model for mobile mediation made for use outside the museum? Or should the museum simply stick to what they already do best, collecting, researching and exhibiting yesterday’s cultural heritage in the museum.

By testing the limits for museum mediation, I’m hoping to be able to say something about what it is, what it could be, and also what it couldn’t or shouldn’t be. My research interest or my contribution may in the end pose as many questions to the assumptions of participatory culture and museums without walls, as the holy grail of museum mediation, as it will provide answers on how to go about it.

In this respect, I would say that I am not only driven by curiosity and enthusiasm for new media mediation, but also by a certain amount of scepticism, at times even verging on cynicism. Because in as much as I see a great potential for new forms of mediation and experiences involving new media formats, I also know that as a museum visitor, I’m not that keen to use my mobile in the museum, and when I’m not visiting  a museum, would I really want to engage in museum matters?

Similarly, I’m unsure if participatory projects really cater to visitors’ needs, or if they are simply an educators dream of engagement – which turns out to be the curator’s nightmare, because what is the real value and use of visitors’ contribution for the museum, for the next visitor?

And this is where I would like to hear your views and learn from your findings or experience: Do you think that museums should use the affordances offered by new media and branch out, to make their knowledge available and relevant for new contexts? In your opinion, is it feasible, is it relevant, is it worth it? And do you think that museums should involve the users in the collection and knowledge production processes, when the subject matter is everyday cultural heritage? Do you see participation as mainly an educational challenge – getting people to participate – or as a curatorial challenge – what to do with people’s contributions, should they come? Do you agree that there is a potential mismatch between educational and curatorial objectives, and how do you see that resolved? 

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