Museum Metamorphosis

New Walk Museum, Leicester

Last week I attended a conference on ’museum metamorphosis’ at Leicester University. The conference was organised by PhD students at the Museums Studies programme and was focused on PhD and early career research, however, as the programme is so well respected, it still drew an international attendance and included some very interesting presentations and workshops. Jenny Walklate did an impressive job at liveblogging her way through two intense days of presentations, so anyone interested in a conference recap can visit http://msphdconf.blogspot.co.uk – her summary of my presentation is to be found here.

For me, the conference theme was an inspiration to explore a fashion perspective on museum change, which I had the idea for whilst at the Bard Graduate Center this spring. Although it may not be much of a claim, suggesting that museums, like any other field, are not only developing according to rational ideas, but are also susceptible to the mechanisms of fashion, I have not come across that perspective before. And in light of the latent tendency to elevate the changes that are taking place – strongly implied in the concept of metamorphosis, with its evolutionary or mythological connotations, but also apparent in the general rhetorics around museum change – I believe it is relevant to point to the more frivolous processes that are also at play. I therefore aim to submit a revised version of the paper for the upcoming issue of Museological Review, the programme’s peer reviewed journal, so that at least the review can inform the final version I intend to include in my dissertation.

Overall, I think the presentation went well, and I had a fine response to my paper presentation, so some people seemed to take it on board. Especially my story about Shoe Obsession seemed to go down well, but I also think I heard notions of fashion and trends being dropped into conversation a few times in later Q&A sessions. But there was very little time for questions, so the critical discussion that would have been really interesting to have didn’t happen. It was only on twitter (#mmeta2013) that I found a couple of critical comments, one from keynote presenter Sharon Heal (@sharonheal), saying “institutional ideals like fashion come and go. I don’t agree. There are fundamentals if you look for them.” and from @lfcrossley, asking “Do we always search for ‘the new’ in museums? I wish we did. The profession isn’t always great at transforming itself”. I agree with both, in certain aspects, but also believe that my argument is valid, in others (and thought I made it clear in my introduction that I did not claim for this perspective to be all encompassing). I therefore very much welcome these comments, and feel I ought to respond here.

Yes, there are fundamental values and ideals in museums, that are consistent over time – the educational purpose, for instance. But the understandings about how and whom to educate has changed over time, and the current day strategies for inclusion and participation is different from the authoritative education that was formerly the order of the day. Therefore the current ideal will also not necessarily prevail, and is no more inherently right than what came before or what we might see in the future. Likewise with the nationalistic origins of many museums, which today have given way to pluralistic, globalised and post-colonial perspectives. I believe Mario Schulze’s presentation on historical shifts in exhibition design centered around the material turn, and Joel Palhegyi’s presentation on the changing narratives in Croat museums during the socialist and post-socialist periods, respectively, could both be said to illustrate such tendencies, even though the changing ideals that they recounted were anything but frivolous. As for the question about the profession’s ability for transformation, I agree that there is a lot of resistance. But I also see the wish that @lfcrossley expresses as an equally strong force in the field. So even though it is sometimes a battle, change is happening. And moving with the times can be used as a very persuasive argument when it comes to winning people over.

The conference thus provided a good focus and forum to share my research, but the chance to learn from the research of others and engage in debates about museum change was of course as important. For me, some of the most inspiring take aways included:

Arienne Karp’s Electric Elephants workshop, exploring (and questioning) the narrative potential of exhibitions, by use of toy animals. Good fun, and some very good points made by Karp too.

Nick Winterbotham’s workshop on Leadership, resilience and learning, which taking inspiration in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, asked us to consider which changes we wanted to make as well as considering the impact and prioritisation of different kinds of interventions.

Emily Pinkowitz’ presentation on the Kitchen Conversations programme at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, in which she talked about the false binary of authoritative and questioning spaces (implicated in Duncan Cameron’s 1971 ‘The Museum. A Temple or the Forum’), suggesting instead that as per Bauman’s notion of liquid identities, we are easily able to toggle or shift between these positions

Jane K Nielsen’s introduction of the concept of the transformative museum, a (post) postmodern institution characterised by flexibility, participation, inlfluence and a world wide (web) perspective, as inspired by futurist Richard Salughter’s theory on the transformative cycle

David Francis’ use of Bakhtin’s heteroglossia concept to describe dialogic discourse in museums (as well as his sharp questions)

Stephanie Bowry’s wonderful examples of metamorphic objects from pre-modern cabinets of curiousities, and her point about how these objects may have been transposed to the modern museum, but their system of representation and taxonomies have not. Also her point about the revival such cabinets have en current culture reminded me of my own experience seeing Mark Dion’s installation and Dan Vo’s IMUUR2 in New York, picking up on this trend but not knowing what to make of it.

Erin Bailey’s inspiring talk about her in progress Queering the Museum project, exhibiting LGBTQ history in Seattle, and making a very strong case for the social impact and responsibility of museums and of public involvement.

Judith Dehail’s insightful presentation on the role and challenge of musical instruments in museums, based in part on visitor interviews and in part in theory. Of special interest to me was her point about how objects in museums must loose their practical function to obtain instead a symbolic function, a notion stemming from Foucault’s Les mots et les choses, which sounds like a good source for my own investigations into the relationship between commercial and museal objects.

Mario Schulze’s presentation, mentioned above, also had some interesting points about the role of or ideas invested in museum objects, as well as showing how exhibition practices have come full circle in the last few decades.

Judith & Mario’s presentations also reminded me again of the differences in the continental vs. anglo american traditions, with the former being more grounded in theory and philosophy, whilst the latter is more concerned with visitor studies, impact, economics and the social responsibilities of museums. As my own research interest is leaning more towards the continental approach, I had a talk with both of them afterwards, and got some good references. Now I hope that I will actually be able to read them…

Finally, it was great to hear Laura Liv Weikop presenting her Exhibition Lab project, currently on show at Designmuseum Danmark, and get more insight into this great project and its reception in the museum. Also it was a real pleasure spending a few days together and be able to share perspectives. Good to know that we can carry on the conversation in Copenhagen.

A most inspiring couple of days, then, and a really great arrangement by the organisers. Cheers all!

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