More museum notes

Traditional museum technologies

As it turned out, American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) did actually (also) use some pretty old school exhibition technology: the diorama. Which was absolutely brilliant. I admit that there is an element of nostalgia here, as I was reminded of how much I used to love visiting Zoologisk Museum in Copenhagen as a child and do sticker assignments where you had to find and place animals in their biotope. Now that Zoologisk Museum is about to become part of the yet-to-be-built Statens Naturhistoriske Museum it doesn’t look like the dioramas will be part of the future exhibitions. Regretably, perhaps, as apart from being spectacular and delightfully quaint, dioramas also work really well as pedagogical tools. Tellingly, the AMNH has just spent fortunes restoring theirs.

Upper Nile Region, Akeley Hall of African Mammals, AMNH

Upper Nile Region, Akeley Hall of African Mammals, AMNH

Most importantly, dioramas shows context, rather than just telling about it. They also give you a valuable sense of scale and allows you to study animals ‘in the wild’ up close and in your own time in a way that neither wildlife films nor zoo’s can (they do something else instead). And because of their visual appeal and intricacy, they capture the interest and make you want to study them more closely, where you might pick up interesting details about botany, cohabitation of species, characteristics of fur or plumage, social life in herds etc. The accompanying wall texts then provides you with the information needed to anchor your observations. Admittedly, in a collection as vast as that of ANMH, you will probably only study the details of a few, and simply enjoy the spectacle of the rest.

In many ways they are similar to the period rooms of museums like the Metropolitan, Brooklyn Museum and also the Danish National Museum, where the assembly of an full interior provides a different understanding and feel of a stylistic period than the display of individual pieces of furniture could. You might say that this presentation style caters as much to an experience paradigm as it does to an educational one, but then drawing the audience in and giving them something that might stick in the mind is not a bad outcome, or maybe it simply allows for a different kind of learning.

The Haverhill Room, Metropolitan Museum

The Haverhill Room, Metropolitan Museum

What it all boils down to, however, is what the museum wants us to see, or how they want us to see, as argued by Svetlana Alpers. She reminds us that ‘the museum – as a way of seeing – itself keeps changing and that installation has a major effect on what one sees. a constant, however, is the issue of seeing. And the question to ask is, why an with what visual interest in view do we devise this or that display for particular objects?’  (1991: 31, ‘The Museum as a Way of Seeing’ in Karp & Lavine (eds.) Exhibiting Cultures. The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington & London). Using the example of a crab displayed out of context, as a visual object, she recounts how precisely that form of display allowed her to really see and contemplate the crab (ibid:25).

Still, back at the AMNH, the best bit of museum education came from Stephen C. – as always, the personal presentation wins hands down. Standing in the hall of saurischian dinosaurs sporting a big red ‘Fossil Explainer’ badge, he enthusiastically shared his knowledge of both the dinosaur fossils and the institution, answering our questions and elaborating with very interesting stories ( explaining, for instance, how the apatosaurus was on its third head, as new discoveries had shown previous versions to be incorrect). A retired stock broker, volunteering in the museum was a return to his childhood passion for dinosaurs, and his excitement about this subject together with the thorough training (including exam) he had gone through to become a museum docent made him a a brilliant educator.

Fossil explainer Stephen C. showing off a T-REx tooth at the AMNH

Fossil explainer Stephen C. showing off a T-Rex tooth at the AMNH

Mobile tools and challenges

The AMNH also offers a host of free mobile apps, for use in and outside the museum. The Dinosaur app, for instance, let’s you browse through hundreds of images and look up information, while the Explorer app serves as an in-museum guide. Stupidly, I didn’t think to connect to the museum’s wifi (and nowhere was it announced that this was indeed possible), and as I had no service from my mobile provider inside the humongous museum, we often found ourselves lost and unable to find the exhibits we wanted to see. In other words, this app would have provided a useful service.

AMNH dinosaur app

AMNH app


The Metropolitan Museum, by contrast, relies primarily on traditional audio guides, to rent in the museum, and printed guide material including activities for children and families. Only a couple of exhibitions have a free, downloadable app. One of them is the ‘Beyond Battle’ app, which uses a quiz format to inspire young visitor’s exploration of the arms and armour galleries. Re-visiting the museum with my sons, aged 6 and 8, this worked a treat, and although they were already excited by the displays themselves, they were also keen to find the next item in the randomised quiz and try to guess the weight of a battle sword, the precision of a bow and arrow and so on.

But maybe the scavenger hunt had a tendency to take over, as they were driven on to the next stop, rushing between galleries, rather than exploring and contemplating the displays that most appealed to them in their own time. Then again, as we had already spent ample time marveling at the vast Egyptian collection and visiting the American wing, perhaps this made for a welcome change of dynamic.

For our visit to the Rockefeller observation deck (not a museum, I know, but there is a point) I had downloaded the ‘Top of the Rock’ app, which most notably featured a virtual viewfinder allowing you to scan the skyline for information about landmark buildings. However, despite the view being pretty predictable the app was not able to calibrate my camera image of the Empire State building with the recognitions software, and so in order to get information I had to switch to ‘Pano’ mode. In this case, this didn’t matter much (I guess, as I never actually got to experience the ‘Live’ mode), as I still got the names of the buildings I was looking at with additional information available. However, this demonstrated that object recognition software still has some way to go before reality can seamlessly become augmented with layers of information.

Top of the Rock app

ditto, pano view

(Speaking of augmented reality, I actually met someone in the West Village testing Google Glass a few weeks ago. Not at all comfortable with the prospects of this type of technology and it’s Big Brother potentiality, but that is another story. The feature in the Lego store that allowed you to see the set being built and ‘come to life’ when holding the box up to a screen was pretty cool, though.)

Visiting the Guggenheim, I found their mobile app most useful. The classic audio tour of the building  was interesting and available in transcript form too, the only problem being that as my phone was set to automatic lock after one minute, the longer tracks were cut of and had to be resumed ( I didn’t work out that this was related to my own settings, and therefore correctable, before encountering the same problem at MoMA). The Guggenheim app also allowed for in demand information by number codes, which also worked well in combination with the floor map. At MoMA, visual interpretation and audio tracks for children was also available for selected artworks, however, the information structure of the app did not make these features available in one interface for the artwork which seemed odd.


ditto, map & artwork info


Visiting & visitors

Visiting so many and so different institutions and exhibitions, alone and with my family, over the last few weeks has also been a fine reminder of the situated identities of museum visitors and their very different motivations, as decribed by John Falk.

Visiting fashion (related) exhibitions at the Met, the Museum at FIT and Museum of the City of New York, I have come as the ‘enthusiast’, i.e. with a special interest and some pre-exisiting knowledge in the field, interested in details and able to do my own contextualization of the exhibitions. Taking my family to the AMNH and the Met, by contrast, I have assumed the role of the ‘facilitator’, focusing mainly on the communal experience and my children’s learning. And my visits to institutions such as MoMA and Guggenheim have been prompted as much by their international renown as by their current exhibitions, making me an ‘experience seeker’, notching off the must-see destinations. Finally, I have come to all of them as an ‘explorer’, partly looking for things to capture my imagination in general, partly with a special interest in their different ways of being museums and mediating their subject matters.

What I haven’t done, although I hold this to be one of the very valuable aspects of what museums can be, is to experience these museums as a spiritual refuge, the last of Falk’s motivations. To the contrary, the rather overwhelming popularity of some of the very famous museums in this city has made me doubt if it even makes sense to think of the museum as a space for quiet contemplation. The crowded halls I have seen here bore little resemblance to the heterotopia described by Foucault, and begged the question if museums could be drowning in their own popularity? Then again, it is heartening to see that museums are such well sought destinations.

Crowd, AMNH

Crowd, MoMAEvidently, experience seekers do not only come for the institutions as a whole, but also ‘check in’ on particular famous artworks. With one of Edward Munch’s ‘The Scream’ pastels currently on loan to MoMA, it was hard to actually get a glimpse of the artwork itself for the crowds needing to get a snapshot of it, often also putting themselves in the frame as when doing tourist shots at a famous landmark. I suspect that the mobile cum social media revolution has made this behaviour even more common.

Collections, display and cultural objects 

A final observation has been of the function or prevalence of the collection and the museal display as cultural reference points in the arts. As mentioned in a previous post, mark Dion used display cages in his installation to allude to the makings of (an alternative) natural history. In a similar fashion, a much earlier work by Joseph Beuys shown at MoMA consisted of a series of vitrines each holding a collection of sculptures, whilst at the Guggenheim, the recent installation IMUUR2 by Danh Vo displayed a selection of the private collection of objects by artist Martin Wong.

Danh Vo, IMUUR2 (detail)

Danh Vo, IMUUR2 (detail)

Now, I am not sure yet what to make of this, if anything, still something makes me want to make a note of it. Something to do with the cultural role of museums, with our relationship to things and how they help us think, which relates to the question of what makes a museum object / a cultural object that I have been pondering lately.

Presenting these thoughts and my project to the BGC community last week gave me some wonderful feedback and sparked an interesting discussion, not only about this, but also about the excluding aspects of both museums and smart phones, about the use of mobiles in the museum and the sometimes limited usefulness of the museum app etc. I am truly grateful that the scholars here were willing to engage with my project, and also got the impression that these are also the kinds of questions that form part of the ongoing debate in this institution. On the back of the presentation I have also been invited to participate in a course session focused on how to leverage digital media for a upcoming focus gallery exhibition of Chuspas. I am also very much looking forward to discussing fashion curation over lunch with assistant professor and fashion historian Michele Majer, and to the list of presentations and events also taking place here and at other institutions during the final two weeks of my stay.

(I apologize for the lack of captions for the images of apps, but after battling with wordpress for an hour now trying to get them to display right, I give up. Captions should read:

first row: AMNH dinoaur app, AMNH mammal app, Metropolitan Beyond Battle app
second row: Top of the Rock app, left live view, right pano view
third row: left and middle Guggenheim app, right MoMA app

pictures of crowds: left AMNH, right MoMA)


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