Post holiday museum notes

David Bowie Is

One of the highlights of the holiday was to be ‘David Bowie Is’ at the V&A; a much hyped sound and vision extravaganza showcasing the style and influence/influences of one of music’s greatest. ‘Honky Dory’ was the first album I ever bought (taking inspiration from my older sister, who by then sported a Ziggy Stardust hairdo) and Bowie’s whole 70’s catalogue provided much of the soundtrack to my adolescence in the 80’s. It was thus both as an admirer of Bowie and as a museological explorer that I had been looking forward to seeing this exhibition, ensuring tickets online months ago and making a detour to London on our way to Iceland to be able to visit. In this age of experience economy, this was a pilgrimage, no less.

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It should have been awesome. Instead, I was disappointed. Overwhelmed by too much stuff, too many stories and displays, too many disjointed soundbites, far too many people and as a result underwhelmed by the total experience. I didn’t gain a deeper insight, I didn’t get a Bowie moment, and if I did glimpse the future of museums I’m not sure if I like it.

Explaining the cultural references and impact of an eclectic icon such as Bowie is a huge and complex task, and although it was great to be able too see some of the fantastic costumes up close and to revel in stylish music videos and cheeky interviews, I came away unsure if the exhibition format really was the best medium for the task. I sort of wished that I could have been served that narrative as a two hour documentary instead, as that might have equipped me for reading the artifacts afterwards (I was never enough of a fan to delve into these details on my own, and so I was a visitor with a keen interest in, but limited prior understanding of the exhibition’s subject matter).

The state of the art audio system, which should have enhanced the experience also turned out to be a frustrating affair. The idea was good; supplying all visitors with a location sensitive headset which picked up the audio for the exhibit you were looking at. In this way, a video became audible as you came closer, and other exhibits were augmented with music tracks or commentary. Probably the experience would have been great for the invite only press shows, where one was able to move around freely. But even though the flow of ordinary visitors was somewhat controlled by the strict timings of entry on pre-booked tickets (the exhibition sold out almost before opening), there were simply too many people crammed into the space. As a result, you were lucky to get close to the exhibits you wanted to see, and the audio seemed to get intercepted so that you weren’t quite sure if what you heard and what you saw were intended to go together. Several exhibits you had to pass over to get to less crowded space, meaning that you ended up trying to navigate the collective flow rather than following the flow of your own interest and understanding.

Speaking to my fellow visitors afterwards, they had experienced similar frustrations (although my sister did get her Bowie moment). Still she complained that the exhibition was too heavily front loaded, packing too much information and too many objects into the first part. My husband suggested that an exhibtion of this scale should have been allocated a larger space, which perhaps could have solved some of the audio problems.

Exit was of course through the giftshop, packed with bowieographies and special made trinkets – V&A Enterprise has taken ‘the museum shop’ to a whole new level. And yes, I too brought back relished relics, as well as some memory morsels from the exhibition itself, I will say. But overall, ‘David Bowie Is’ did not live up to expectations.

Ebbs and flows
On entry to the ‘Club to Catwalk’ exhibition on 80’s fashion, also at V&A this summer, I noticed this sign, forbidding not only photography but also sketching in the special exhibtion. This struck me as odd, given that sketching is considered a valuable tool for learning, not least for London’s many budding designers who surely will be a key audience for such an exhibition. Asking the custodian, I was informed that sketching was prohibited to ensure a better flow of visitors in the exhibition (when we visited, we had the exhibition more or less to ourselves, so flow was no problem here). An example of how experiences of the entertainment variety + economy is becoming museums’ primary concern, over and above learning and contemplation, it would seem.

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The Danish National Museum has also introduced online booking for timed entries to their current special exhibition ‘Viking‘, produced in collaboration with the British Museum and Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte in Berlin. The result of this collaboration is a beautiful spectacle, cleverly designed using dark wood and scenographic lighting to evoke a sense of drama and featuring an abundance of glorious artifacts. It’s well worth a visit. Opting for a 50 minute guided tour, we learned a lot of interesting things about the vikings as seafaring warriors and traders, and about the idea of a ‘viking age’ as a construct of the nationalistic romantics of the 19th century. However, the decision by the museum to amplify the tour with headsets, thus allowing for up to 30 participants on each tour was problematic. Half the time you were not able to see the treasures that were being talked about, as other members of the group were crowding around the exhibit, and with only 10 minutes left of our allocated hour after the tour, there wasn’t really the time to go back and explore the whole thing once again. As a result, again the connection between the narrative and the artifacts were lost; and thus the museum’s ability to tell stories with authentic things as put by Bruno Ingemann (2000:47) diminished.

Replacing traditional object labels with touch screens next to each case in the Vking exhibition allowed for easier reading in the dimly lit space, but also meant that only one person could control the reading at any point. For our young boys, the familiar and interactive screen also easily stole the attention away from the ancient treasures on display. Similarly, whilst they were enthusiastically enganging in the interactive computer game The first raid (we’d also booked tickets for readmission to the exhibition in order to be able to do this – a little awkward that you have to prepare so well in advance these days), the focus on testing their viking potential meant that they raced through the exhibition to get to the next game station, again the artefacts were upstaged by the technology (ofcourse, this was our second time round the exhibition). The game itself was good fun (although I, alas, ended my days in a fatal attempted raid on Byzantium), but the game mechanics were obscure and the learning potential very limited.

Chrome Web Lab
By contrast, the interaction of the Chrome Web Lab at the Science Museum in London was much more interesting. Experiment 1, the Universal Orchestra, especially, was a mesmerising experience. Using a digital interface you could play a group of analogue percussion instruments, whose sounds blended with music made by other visitors and online participants to create a soothing soundscape that gave the whole exhibit a tranquil, slightly otherworldly ambience. Using your Google login in a Chrome browser, you can launch the experiments and take part in the orchestra at home.

This was a great example of successful scaffolding. Controlling the rhythm digitally meant that you could experiment creatively and be sure to generate pleasant music with no prior skills. The limitations in the tactile experience of the instruments were weighed up by the auditive clarity, allowing you to single out and learn the sound of the individual instruments and play around with rhythmical sequences. The digital interactives were easily as engaging as the physical interactives of the museum’s Launchpad lab (actually, the online counterpart of that exhibit, the Launchball game is also both fun and educational).

Place and presence
Having a presence in the public sphere is one of the ways that museums work to gain relevance in the public mind, for example by way of landmark architecture, augmented reality apps or city walks.

IMG_1802The Settlement Exhibition Reykjavik 871±2 in central Reykjavik did this beautifully and effectively.The whole museum is built underground around the archeological excavation of one of the earliest settlements in Iceland. Although augmented with a variety of well chosen digital tools, it is the remnants of the longhouse and the experience of being in situ that remain in focus and make the exhibition so special. A final brilliant touch was this lightbox, allowing bypassers a peak into the museum and linking the past and present of this very spot.

Much less spectacular was Post & Tele Museum in Copenhagen’s pop-up pavillion, where tourist and city shoppers were invited to sit down and write a free postcard or design a stamp. Still this simple idea worked brilliantly, creating public interest in the museum and its subject matter, as well as providing a service and a welcome distraction.

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Pamuk revisited
Visiting the V&A Museum of Childhood I was again reminded of Pamuk’s museum manifesto when looking at a series of displays of mundane knick knacks from three presentday families.

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Individually, and contrary to Pamuk’s claim, these personal objects and stories were not of much interest to me, although perhaps this could be due to my fading attention at this point. However, in the juxtaposition of various family constellations and what objects make of the everyday of different ethnic groups, the overarching narrative became interesting, and allowed you to project your own family and your own stories and objects into this exhibit. As my own kids were still absorbed in cracking morse code and hunting for insignia in the excellent War Games exhibition, I did not test the family exhibit’s qualities as a conversation starter.

Also, contrasting an exhibit such as this to ‘David Bowie Is’ or the experience of seeing the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, which to me looked like this

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I get Pamuk’s point about the value of the intimate museum as an antidote to the grand national institutions. On the one hand it is wonderful that museums are more popular than ever and make up a substantial part of the tourism industry. But on the other, these institutions are also drowning in their own success, turning what might have been a profound experience of culture into a somewhat tacky hustle and bustle affair.

Still not quite ready to write my own manifesto, though, not sure what to make of it all. But also still not convinced that mobile media can do much more than add to the noise.

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1 comment
  1. Pingback: Misc. | Musings

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