Designing ‘The explorative exhibition’

So, to cut a long story short, I’ve switched to a new project, however still within the framework of the Our Museum research programme.

(I should do a post on the long story of the project that failed at a later date –  even though it’s a tale of woe (one of the reasons why there’s been no updates on the project, although I have a few lengthy, but unfinished posts tucked away) I believe there could also be some useful points to be drawn from the experience, even if that’s a frustratingly meagre outcome from one and a half years of project time.  But this post is about the new project, which fortunately is looking a lot healthier than the last one.)

For the remainder of my postdoc, I will now be collaborating with Enigma Museum of Communication, a museum currently undergoing a major process of transformation. Previously known as the Museum of Post and Telecommunications and renowned as a popular destination for families, the museum was uprooted from it’s location in central Copenhagen in 2015, while simultaneously facing a reduction in funds from the founding institutions, Post Danmark and Tele Denmark Communications. As a result, a new director was called in to rethink the entire museum and lead the metamorphosis. In 2017, the museum reopened in a former post office in Østerbro, changed it’s name to Enigma (in reference to the unique encryption machine that is a jewel of its collection) and widened its scope to include a broader concept and context of communications. And the process is still ongoing. In fact, the museum is currently a museum without exhibitions; a status that challenges our concept of what makes a museum. Hence, while the exhibition plans are in place and funding being sought, the museum is using the current situation as an opportunity to experiment with other ways of ‘being a museum’: opening daily as a café and post office, thus cultivating a presence in the local community; hosting an extensive series of events including debates, conversation dinners, hackathons, letter writing evenings etc. as well as being active participants in external events; arranging pop-up exhibitions around town; and finding alternative channels for communicating the museum’s knowledge in the media, political debates, museum fora and more. Thus, while their webpage may cheekily claim that ‘We are not a museum’, it could also be argued that it’s more than a museum; a true Hooper-Greenhill’ian ‘post museum’ (2000), if you’ll pardon the pun.

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Needless to say, it’s a pretty exciting process to be part of, and a truly dynamic and welcoming environment to work in, too.

The project that I will be working on focuses on the design development of what the museum has so far conceptualised as ‘The explorative exhibition’. The concept refers to an intended future practice or ‘mechanism’ that creates a synergy between participatory collection practices, research processes and museum communication.

As a museum of communication, Enigma is not only interested in presenting the historical progress of communication technologies, but also wants to show how these technologies play into and shape our everyday lives. Apparently, however, this everyday perspective on the uses and experiences of interpersonal communication media – how we used to use our landline phones, what we made of our first modem, how we now (mis)manage mobile communication and battles over screen time – is underrepresented in the existing research field. Therefore, the desire to involve the public in the co-creation of this immaterial cultural heritage narrative, by inspiring reflection and eliciting visitors’ stories through exhibits and events, is not only a strategic device for creating an interactive museum experience. It is also an important means for building knowledge in the museum and in the wider communication research community.

The ambition – and the challenge – is therefore to create a system/ an instrument/ a coordinated practice, that supports these joint objectives and creates value for the user participants, for non-participating visitors, and for museum researchers, curators and communicators.

But one thing is concepts and ambitions – another is how to turn them into a concrete museum design. This process is the focus of my project, in which I as researcher/designer will work as a catalyst for the collaborative ideation, design development, and evaluation of principles and prototypes for ‘the explorative exhibition’. I will thus be working closely together with the museum team to define our own design intentions, but also, as importantly, to build an understanding of how co-creation of heritage becomes relevant and interesting from a citizen/user perspective, and from this, begin to explore the design possibilities in this field.

At this point, I cannot say whether we’ll end up with a service design, an interactive installation, a digital interface, a workshop format, a work process or something else entirely, only that my hope is that we will experiment with some very different options along the way, and use the design process as a lab for examining ideas and incentives and reflecting on outcomes. And then, in time, narrow it down enough to develop a functioning prototype which we can test, redesign and refine in order to suggest a final design that could feed into the future museum practice.

This objective, and the anchoring in the museum institution, means of course that the project has a strong orientation towards practice. While the process may be experimental and allow for exploration of wild ideas and alternative methods, the aim is to produce a result that has real value for the museum. But of course, the project also serves a research purpose, and similarly aims to contribute to the fields of design research and museum studies with new knowledge about how design methods and research collaborations may help to advance museum development.


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