Museum as a research field

Since my last post, I have been caught up in (or swallowed up by, more like)  teaching, assesing student papers and preparing for my research visit to the US. Starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel now, luckily, and yes, it has been an interesting leaning process also, but the lack of progress in and focus on my own research has been frustrating.

Over the course of three days last week, however, I have been able to get back into my project and field in a most inspiring PhD course entitled ‘Research in the Museum Field’.

13 students in all, representing a great diverstiy of problem areas – from experience, learning and citizenship over digital mediation to art curatorship and more – have presented projects, shared insights and questions, and given critique to each other under the guidance of senior researchers in museology Vinnie Nørskov Larsen (Aarhus University), Janet Marstine (University of  Leicester) and Britta Brenna (University of Oslo).

I presented this paper on Design research into mobile museum mediation, laying out my research design and arguing for the potential of critical design to pose questions to museum discourse and practice.

Whilst before the ‘hiatus’ I was mostly preoccupied with questions of methodology and research design (and I know, I know, I need to get stuck in to the second part of my research cycle and start sketching/analysing concepts for mediation of fashion, but first I need to get through the last two weeks of teaching, and then…) I found that what inspires (or perhaps annoys) me right now is the museological problems that the design process should help me address.

Which sometimes makes me wonder if I’ve chosen a stupidly roundabout way to get to my destination, and whether I should just skip the design part and go straight for discourse analysis. Hmmm. And then again, methodological curiousity as well as a hunch that maybe my misgivings are nothing but fear because something interesting is a stake, which then becomes an even stronger incentive, means that I will persist with the design approach and see what comes of it. (Of course my concerns could also be justified and my decision to carry on seen as a form of cowardice or lack of imagination of other options, it’s all matter of interpretation).

Anyway, my ‘annoyance’ is with the (as I see it) dominant discourse of the participatory/inclusive museum; this demand for museums to convert non-users to users by means of educational initiatives, digital media, social events, bells and whistles, anything; by choice or by force. Because whilst I agree that the desire to share what you find to be essential, joyful and valuable is both noble and necessary, I also think that the discourse presents a singleminded (if well meaning) vision of the role of museums in society: one of museum as social agent. As put forth in a very interesting article by Élise Dubuc (2011): Museum and university mutations, also on the course reading list, this is only one of museum’s many functions in society.

(Naturally, being ‘annoyed’ does not count as an academic argument, and I will know to discuss the concepts and the problems I see stemming from these in a more thorough and nuanced way in my thesis. The thing is, I’m not ready to do that yet, still lacking the insights and concepts to do this, and so, for now, I describe my reservations as ‘annoyance’, partly for want of a better word, partly to confess my personal and emotional response, which, at the end of the day, will also affect my academic vision.)

In the context of this course ‘transparency’ became as central concept, as presented by Janet Marstine in a text as part of the course curriculum and in her opening keynote as well as in an evening workshop. So in this context too, the discourse of democratization of museums had the upper hand.

Again, I agree that transparency is essential to some museum work, but I will also hold that it should not necessarily be the central point of concern for all institutions. As Simon (2010) stresses with reference to Gurian, ‘the importance of ‘and’’ is a vital principle; that participation, inclusion, transparency etc. is one focus or approach out of many options, one tool for meeting user needs and museum objectives. In practice, however, resources are scarce, and as projects inclined towards these ideals are in line with governmental objectives and therefore attract more funding, the result is that other options do not get a look in. So much for ‘and’.

There’s more to this rant, and I will return to it in later posts – after all, posing questions to the impact of new media and related assumptions and discourses on museology and the museum are central to my thesis, so trying to get to grips with these dominant themes will be a large part of that. But for now, I’ll just stick to summing what I took away from the course.

First of all, discussing these issues with my peers was most rewarding, and confirmed the relevance of addressing these issues. And of course hearing about their research questions and considerations was most inspiring. Secondly, a visit to Museum Sønderjylland/Sønderborg Slot was a real delight, not least because of the impassioned presentation by museum director Inge Adriansen, who shed light on the intriguing local histor(ies) and reflected on how to be a museum in a borderland – a remarkable museum professional with great wit and an extraordinary knowledge.

But what really hit home with me was Britta Brenna’s after dinner presentation on the first evening. It centrered on the new challenge for museology and thus for budding museologists in reflecting on self-reflective museums, already practising the preachings of new museology. How, in this field, could academic museology ‘make museums jump’? What was left to critizise, and how? What tools could museology use that museums were not alredy applying, in order to produce new understandings that complement, rather than simply reproduce museum knowledge?

I heard my own intentions eccoed in this presentation, and found confirmation not only of the need for questioning the assumptions of user engagement and of digital media as instruments for this development in museums, but also a justification for trying to push the methodological approach, experimenting with new tools to produce new insights.

Refering to Latour’s ‘Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?’ (2004) (which is now on my reading list), Britta Brenna presented an understanding of critique as not necessarily being an act of deconstruction, but one of careful assemblage. Janet Marstine supplemented this notion reminding  that critique could be assume a position of generousity as well as one of antagonism. I like this notion, and will use it as a guideline, reminding me, that my critique can and should be to empower the museums; not to point fingers at the ambitions of inclusion, but as an argument for the necessity and validity of pursuing other ambitions as well.

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