Thinking about museums

This post will be a really quick run through of some of all the great inspiration I’ve had for thinking about museums in many different ways over the last week. While a lot of them deserve further exploration, for now I just need to pin them down so that I can revisit them later, but not have them spinning around in my head as they do now.

The museum of yore

Entrance to the American Museum of Natural History

Entrance to the American Museum of Natural History

Now, I do not mean to say that the American Museum of Natural History is stuck in time; in fact in it’s dealing with paleontology and the creation of the universe and all the other wonders of the natural world, I expect it to be everything but and I’m dead excited about taking my family there when they arrive. But the entrance to the museum, which I pass on my way to the BGC every morning, reminds me of how museums used be understood, and how they used to communicate. In addition to the classicist columns so typical of traditional museum architecture, and the long stairs leading up to the temple of the muses, here you’ve even got the self-assured inscriptions ‘Truth – Knowledge – Vision’. The authoritarian voice of the museum cut in stone. And the statue in front of president Roosevelt on his steed, flanked by noble savages, the native American and the African tribesman (on foot!) just reeks of the cultural imperialism that hitherto defined the interpretation of collections. (note added 7/8/14: perhaps Donna Harraway’s ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy’, Social Text no. 11, 1984/85 could be of use if exploring this further http://www.jstor.org.ep.fjernadgang.kb.dk/stable/466593). In this light, the necessary criticism inherent in the new museological paradigm becomes obvious, and the democratric ideals of the post colonial museum make a whole lot of sense, even if the open invitation for a polyphonic discourse also has its problems. Reading Eileen Hooper Greenhill’s outlining of the ‘post-museum’ in ‘Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture’ (2000) helps me reflect on these issues.

Brooklyn Museum

Contrast this with Brooklyn Museum which, architecturally as well, has been transformed from a temple or treasury to an agora; ‘a marketplace of ideas offering space for conversation, a forum for civic engagement and debate, and opportunity for a variety of encounters among audiences and the museum’ (Nancy Proctor (2010): ‘Digital: Museums as Platform, Curator as Champion, in the Age of Social Media’ I Curator. The Museum Journal 53:1).

Brooklyn Museum

Brooklyn Museum

My own first knowledge of this museum was down to the interesting explorations into engaging the community in the curatorial process via social media done by Shelley Bernstein, most notably Click! in 2008 and GO  in 2012, which have had quite an impact in the international digital museum community. But, as Bernstein pointed out during her brilliant presentation at the Sharing is Caring seminar, this work is actually only a very small part of what Brooklyn Museum is. And I must say, I was really, really impressed with the museum, for the architecture, the collection, the special exhibitions, the ambience, the works! 

IMG_0560Seeing Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party was such a thrill, and I think it says a lot about the ethos of the museum that it has on permanent display this seminal work as well as hosting the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Revelling in the craft and candid beauty of the banquet and the individual place settings was of course the best part, but the mobile tools accompanying this exhibit also worked really well. The scanner driven application, downloadable via QR codes in the gallery, allowed you to look up information about each of the 1038 women honored in the work, and using the dial-in cell phone tour, you could hear the artist’s own comments on each of the honorary guests.

The offer of mobile content was even promoted on the entry tickets, where a QR code linked to information about this feature. (Of course, offering the information in this way, it is only accessible to those who already have a scanner app on their phone, but perhaps at least those who don’t will be intrigued enough to ask for for more information on this option.)
IMG_0645Another interesting mobile offer was the game Gallery Tag. Asking visitors to add their own tags, i.e. their own associations or descriptions of pieces in the permanent collection, the museum are both asking visitors to consider the objects they are looking at, providing a game element for those who enjoy that kind of interaction (using discounts in the museum store as an incentive to add as many tags as you can think of) and collecting information about the public interpretation of the collection that is valuable to the curators. And for those who are not interested, the activity does not intrude on the experience. A great idea, in other words, but I did struggle a bit at first to work out how it worked and later to get it to work, as not all of the object codes or acquisition were accepted by the system.

Finally, the use of QR codes at select objects in the galleries provided some very useful insights, such being able to see Nick Cave’s sound suits in action, in order to really understand the piece you were looking at.

One of his suits was included in a great little exhibition called Connecting Cultures where artworks and artifacts from across collections, time periods and geographical origin were brought together around themes such as place, self representation and the role of objects. A fine example of the value of curatorial vision and of the potential in telling stories with things.

Connecting Cultures exhibit at Brooklyn Museum

Connecting Cultures exhibit at Brooklyn Museum

Lectures at the BGC

On Monday night, I attended the introductory survey course for master level and PhD students at the BGC. This weeks presentation was by Roger Griffith, conservator of 20th century design objects at MOMA, which gave some interesting insights into what goes on behind the scenes, and on the effect of conservation perspectives on curatorial considerations. Also there was some good questions about the importance of ‘an original’ in the case of mass produced objects, and of how far to go with the restoration of objects, not to mention the challenges of objects that are distinctly transitory.

Bard Graduate Center also hosted two public lectures, bringing together students, faculty and external scholars, as well as an interested public. On Tuesday night, Catherine Whalen, assistant professor at the BGC, gave an interesting presentation on The Gift of Criticism: Paul Hollister’s Writings and the Ascendancy of Studio Glassdiscussing the role of the critic and the impact of critical writing on the development within the studio craft movement in the 1960’s and 70’s as well as on the valuation and public appreciation of their work. The lecture led to an interesting discussion on the merits and pitfalls of writing for academia and writing for a wider public, respectively, as well as on the difference between being featured in the arts section and in the home section of the news paper. Clearly, the arts section has a higher status, meaning that also the field of craft and design aspire to these pages, even if they may not reach as wide an audience.

Wednesday, professor Janet Berlo from University of Rochester gave the fascinating lecture “Prime Objects” of the Gods? Replications and Transformations of Navajo Sandpainting Imagery on reciprocity and on the ephemeral ‘originals’ and material replications of Navajo sandpaintings. Now, I will not attempt to recap the complicated epistemology of Navajo art, but the ensuing debate on concepts of the original and its reproductions (with reference to Benjamin) or materialisations as well as on notions of ownership versus restrictions on who can view sacred objects was thought provoking. So although none of these lectures have had any direct correlation to my own research, it has been very inspiring to learn of these diverse perspectives, and to experience the vibrant intellectual debate taking place at this institution.

Mark Dion

A visit to Tanya Bonakdar Gallery to see installations of an imaginary museum of natural history by the artist Mark Dion again does not relate directly to my project, and still his exploration of the idea of the Wunderkammer, of what objects belong in a museum, his use of classic museum display cases and how they lend an aura to the peculiar ‘pickled’ domestic plastic objects in one display, for example, is also an intruiging way of thinking about what a museum is. Similarly, currently reading Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (or, admittedly, having it placed on my bedside table, as most of my reading here has been scholarly) adds to the picture of what a museum is, or could be, and what it means for the individual and in society.

Installation by Mark Dion

Installation by Mark Dion

After the museum

Finally, last night, as realising that MOMA had already closed I decided instead to visit the Museum of Art and Design to see the exhibition of Studio Glass mentioned in Tuesday’s lecture, I happened to stumble into a truly brilliant dialogue session as part of the After the Museum exhibition and event series. I didn´t even know that this exhibition was on (and didn´t get to explore it this time round either as I got caught up the debate), let alone the event, but it touched right on some of the questions I’m asking in my project. Talk about a serendipitous incident!

From the event Case study # 1: Object at Museum of Art and Design

Changing background display at the event Case study # 1: Object at Museum of Art and Design

It was a small crowd, and clearly most of the participants had some professional interest in the topic and were even connected in one way or other, still it was an interesting discussion on what objects belong in a museum, what sort of experiences we seek, and what the future of museums might look like. Interestingly (if perhaps not too surprising in this group of educated museum lovers), although one person suggested a fruitful merger of the Google art experience with viewing the artwork on display, the consensus seemed to be that it is the object and the curatorial narrative that is the pull of the museum, placing things in context and being able to tell an educational story, rather than digital experiences and entertainment. As one person put it, the film and entertainment industry does that so much better anyway, whilst another ventured that after working at a screen all day, using it in the museum too is not that appealing. Similarly, the inclusion of the public voice was called into question. My own query about the prospect of taking the museum experience outside the museum and into the everyday contexts of the design artifacts was met with interest, but also questioned, mirroring my own scepticism about whether that would really constitute a museum experience, and if it is within the museum’s remit to do so. Still, it was also a agreed that it is all down to the context of the curatorial questions and objectives, the museum type and subject matter and the interest of the individual museum guest.

Delightfully, the conversation carried on after the official session ended, and a smaller group of us continued the debate over drinks at a nearby bar. A chance #drinkingaboutmuseums night, then, as so often organized by the Museums and the Web crowd via Twitter. Uplifted and enlightened, I thank all for great points and a good chat, and do hope that we will be able to carry on where we left of at the next session in the series on April 18th.


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