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Savage Beauty
On Friday, I went on a pilgrimage, no less. To see Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A in London. The exhibition was originally shown at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2011, and ever since, I have been reading about, and dreaming about seeing, this perfect fashion show. A former fashion student, I have long had a thing for McQueen (how could I not?), and as a proper fan-girl, I booked my ticket as soon as they went on sale last year. This time, I was not disappointed.

Exhibition view, from V&A's Instagram profile

Exhibition view, from V&A’s Instagram profile

It was beautiful. Painfully poetic – and provocatively political – visual narratives, perfect tailoring, couture at its most sublime. And really really interesting to see the garments I had hitherto only seen in print, up close, and being able to inspect details in construction and finishings. Moreover, the exhibition design perfectly augmented the experience of the couture pieces, offering different settings and ambiences for each curatorial theme, and adding video clips as well as smoke and mirror technologies (literally – do check out the link) to the mix to give a feel of the (significance of the) original fashion shows. Even the wall texts and object labels were just right. Overall, the exhibition was both informative and evocative, exhaustive without being exhausting (i.e., for the exhibition format; of course both the aesthetics and cultural significance of McQueen bears further exploration, but such in-depth studies are better left for literature) – even my sons, aged 8 & 10, were enthralled and engaged for the full two hours we spent in the galleries. Much more than just a been-there-seen-that-got-the-tote-bag (which I did, of course) kind of experience, this was every bit as awesome as I had hoped.

Photogenic museums (Or: Observing primates at the Natural History Museum. Or: Say ‘Cheese’!)
Sadly, if understandably, photography was prohibited in the Savage Beauty exhibition. Or perhaps this was just as well. At least, when visiting the Natural History Museum, next door to the V&A, I was struck by how much the museum space inspired people to take photographs. First of all, though, I was simply awestruck by the space itself (despite having worshiped at the V&A, my temple of choice, so many times over the years, this was my first visit to the cathedral of natural science): the grandeur of the entrance hall made even the centrepiece diplodocus seem rather pedestrian. (But then the real focal point may be the Darwin-as-deity statue, elevated on the stairs at the far end.)

IMG_6552

Entry hall at the Natural History Museum, London (Apparently, the hall has now been renamed Hintze Hall, following a large private donation – a big phenomenon already in American museums, but hitherto not so prominent in Europe. Looks like that’s the future. Will the whale exhibition in the new national history museum in Denmark be named after Maersk? Will Lego fund the Danish Architecture Centre? And what will that mean? But that’s another story).

The exhibition galleries (the ones we visited!), however, were not that impressive. There’s this certain style of natural history exhibits (found also at e.g. the Field Museum in Chicago, and parts of the upstairs Fra pol til pol [From pole to pole] exhibition at the zoological museum in Copenhagen) which is all garish colours, busy interactives and overloads of didactic information that just leaves me really tired and perplexed instead of curious or enlightened. Rather than giving you the time and headspace to contemplate the specimens, and by extension, evolution, diversity, ecology and other wonders and critical concerns of natural history, they command your attention only to fill you with tit-bits of information. Too often, these exhibits also feel outdated – here, for instance, children were offered information about the daily milk-intake of a baby whale using the analogy of a milk float, even though these went out of service long before the kids were born. To be fair, we only saw parts of the museum (the dinosaurs (lurid) and mammals (tired)), as we were already a bit museumed-out post V&A, and I suspect that other galleries and newer exhibitions had more to offer, (by attempting to offer less, perhaps). And yes, I guess it’s also a matter of taste and of didactic principles and convictions, so I should probably not be so harsh. I just had a much more engaging, exciting and enlightening time at Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. And I suspect that even my kids prefer exhibitions that also cater to unaccompanied adults. Therefore, for me, the choice of an aesthetic, almost art museum-like style for the new(est) Precious Things exhibition at the Zoological Museum, DK, bodes well for the coming national museum of natural history.

#museumselfie
Anyway, back to the photography thing. As evident above, I also photographed the beautiful building, and often attempt to capture particular details as a keepsake, that is, when I’m not too self-concious to even get my phone out. So I get the urge to take photos in the museum (even though it also reminds me of that quote from Kafka in Barthes’ Camera Lucida: “We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes” (2000:53) – Is that what we do? Take a photograph to avoid engaging our minds and memory?).

Whatever the subliminal reasonings and effects, it was quite interesting to observe how people posed or moved around to get just the right shot, and to see the selfie stick phenomenon in action. Because it just hasn’t been that big a thing in Denmark, yet. But then again, big enough for the National Museum of Denmark to greet visitors with this sign:

Sign welcoming guests at Nationalmuseet, Denmark

Sign welcoming guests at Nationalmuseet, Denmark (& a subtle #9 kind of museumselfie http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/01/19-types-of-selfies-at-museum-selfie-day.html)

Actually, I’ve been saving up links for a post on this subject for months, the-one-about-museum-selfies, and started a draft for it on ‘#MuseumSelfie day‘ in January. Because it is an interesting mobile/social/museum-media issue, one that provokes fervent reactions and counter-replies, battling over issues of the cultural meaning and value of selfies, of appropriateness, and of who gets to decide what is appropriate. Should museums encourage or ban photography? Should visitors be free to enjoy artworks and artefacts in whatever way is right for them, or does one person’s freedom to take photos hamper another visitors freedom to enjoy the same objects without being disturbed by the cameras? Is the issue as big as it’s made out to be? It really is all very interesting. But my head’s too full, too tired at this stage of my thesis to really engage with this question, so I’ve simply opted for a ‘live and let live’ attitude (which might be where I’d end up after much deliberation anyway). Besides, Ed Rodley has already written a string of really good blog posts on visitor photography, so rather than wasting more time on my 50p’s worth, go and read his considerations here, here and here.

Anti-social media?
Visitor photography and gallery etiquette aside, the #museumselfie matter, of course, also relates to social media conventions and user behaviour online, which has its own issues. Actually, mastering the jargon of social network sites is pretty tough. Take Twitter: Knowing how to banter in 140 characters, how to twist and dose your hashtags, understanding what the acronyms and formatting tricks are all about (luckily, there are helpful guides out there for those of us who are still not quite sure when to put a full stop in front of the @handle). Not to mention cadence, selection and timing (on Facebook, for instance, working out whether or not to enter into an already waning debate, or how to assess the sell-by-date on a popular link or meme). Keeping up. Curating your profile. Building your network. Sorting out your settings. Working out the different formats and protocols for different platforms. Minding your digital p’s and q’s.

Some people get it, either because they have a knack for it, because it’s their job to knuckle down and work it out, or because they make it a priority. Others don’t care whether they do or not, they just do it. Some dabble, hesitate. Come on, sing the digerati, there’s no right or wrong, just jump in and swim! No need to overthink it, doggy-paddle will do just fine. Still, it’s an element that some people feel comfortable in, and others don’t. Just like other social elements.

My point is that social media can feel pretty anti-social if you’re not quite sure how to participate. Even if the party’s open, it’s not that simple to crash into a conversation, especially if its outside of your personal nexus. You need social capital, in a digital currency. You need time and effort. You need to have something to say, which is often the hardest and most daunting part. Or you may just be introvert (which is getting kinda cool, only in a very understated way), or simply not inclined to share your thoughts and whereabouts with everyone. (Over on Facebook and Twitter, I’m one of those lurkers, mainly).

For museums, this means two things. First up, professional communication is a job, also when it takes place on social media platforms. Judging by all the slick and quirky museum profiles out there, many institutions have now caught on to this. However, these cool social media museum communicators also set the bar high. Therefore, secondly, it’s worth keeping in mind that just as some people feel excluded from the museum space, because they don’t really know how museum-going is done, so others may feel excluded from/by the smart banter online.

Just sayin’. (Or maybe, I’m just bullshitting – as argued by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, social media “confront us with epistemological problems and are hard to understand. [Meanwhile], there is a large demand for knowledge about what they mean, a powerful political economy that generates a lot of statements about social media, including substantial amounts of bullshit.” (2015: abstract) Do read the full article).


Fashion on the Ration

Display in Imperial War Museum's 'A Family in Wartime' exhibition - this time, I was really sad that I could not take photographs in the brillant 'Fashion on the Ration' exhibition

Display in Imperial War Museum’s ‘A Family in Wartime’ exhibition – sadly, I could not take photographs in the brillant ‘Fashion on the Ration’ exhibition

If Savage Beauty was our reason for going to London, and #DancingMuseum at Tate Modern the scoop event to coincide with our visit (which I will leave for another post, however, as I hope to tease out an epilogue from this), then Imperial War Museum’s Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style exhibition was the most wonderful bonus. I didn’t even know it was on when we decided to visit the museum our last day of visit, but this was actually one of the best fashion exhibitions I’ve seen. Compared to the extravagance of both content matter and exhibition design in Savage Beauty, this exhibition was pretty prosaic, as the austerity fashion on display was matched by fairly unassuming display formats, which were, however, doing just the right job. This exhibition too was beautiful, informative, and evocative, and conveyed many interesting aspects of wartime fashion, from ‘siren suits’, factory fashion and gasmask handbags, over make-do-and-mend campaigns and ration measures, to patriotic prints and Utility designs from England’s finest fashion designers. Most importantly, perhaps, the importance of fashion, even in wartime, was brought to attention. (Here, I wish I had been allowed to use my camera to aid my memory also in the future, but luckily it’s possible to find images from the exhibition itself online, to complement the museum’s well stocked online subject hub.)

But the most significant difference between the two exhibitions is of course that whereas Fashion on the Ration focused on fashion in cultural history context (or as cultural history), thereby shedding light on the aesthetics of Utility style and 1940’s street style, but also on the austerity and creativity of life during the second world war, Savage Beauty showcased couture as an art form, which is actually pretty distinct or far removed from fashion in a more general sense. Thus, they represent very different takes on what a fashion exhibition is, a difference that can perhaps be seen as analogous to the difference between metonymic representation (the cultural history artefact documenting an era, class, issue or other) and metaphor (the abstractions of art). Hmmm. Need to ponder that proposition a bit more, to see if it sticks, and leave it at this for now. After all, I still have a thesis to complete.

Screenshot from Twitter, 11th of

Screenshot from Twitter

It’s rather quiet on the blog, as I’m knuckling down to finish my thesis. But I had to share this clip, because it’s so much in tune with what I’m writing.

The link that Mia Ridge is sharing in the tweet is a CFP for a Museums Computer Group spring meeting provocatively titled ‘Innovation’:the Emperor’s new clothes?. Do follow the link, there’s some interesting questions there, asking if innovation ‘for the sake of it’ might still have a motivational and long lasting effect. That may well be the case. Still, I agree with Mia & Seb Chan that the incessant pursuit and trumpeting of’ innovative’ projects can get a bit wearisome.

It’s parallel to or part of the same problem of funding and legitimisation that I wrote about in the article Augmenting the agora: Media and civic engagement in museumsin which I conclude:

In order to secure the financial future of institutions, museums must not only adhere to state regulations and political dictates but also make their efforts visible and understandable to the powers that be and the public at large. […] Social media, thus, serve museum objectives well by creating the appearance of engaging the public with culture and the institution in the public discourse. However, the question of whether this communication also serves public interest in fact in terms of spurring on the democratisation of the museum institution is more uncertain. In fact, the feigned transition to a forum and coaxed inclusion of the vox populi may turn out to undermine genuine civic engagement and democratic exchange with the public. Far from advocating that museums refrain from using new media channels in any way, this article has pointed out the dangers of a prevalent rhetoric and blind communal consensus around the democratic impact of social media in museum communication. Unquestioned evangelism, hype and unreflected inclusion of social media could end up having the reverse effect, simply paying lip service to the social obligations of the museum.

For the record, I received strong criticism for this article from Michael Edson of the Smithsonian, in return for my critique of his rhetorics in the article, see https://docs.google.com/document/d/1MBiXS0REJmk7ur5eMdO73HDZl_u3mmFrCT0dpaTDlFk/edit

Although I was at first a bit baffled by the force of Edson’s retort, I am honestly honoured, and much obliged, that he made the effort to respond, and found his critique to be in most part useful and constructive. (The hatches have long been buried following a fine online concersation, so I do not bring up this point to get back at Edson, but rather because the critique and discussion is relevant for my research). And yet, while I agree with many of his points, I also still believe that the ongoing developments can be interpreted in different ways, and that it is relevant to point out the risk of hyperbole or hypocrisy. For my part, I find Edson’s belief in the power of the internet and his vision for the impact this may have on cultural institutions, as expressed in the essay Dark Matter, published on the highly recommendable Medium hub CODE|WORDS, very sympathetic:

Museums, libraries, and archives—heritage, culture, knowledge, and memory institutions—can play a huge role in the story of how Earth’s 7 billion citizens will lead their lives, make and participate in their culture, learn, share, invent, create, cry, laugh, and do in the future. […] The entire architecture of the World Wide Web is based upon [Tim Berners-Lee’s ] humanistic, democratic ideals, and we can do a lot of good with them if we make wise choices and concentrate our efforts where they’ll matter the most.

However, I do not agree that his examples of YouTube or Kickstarter success-stories are necessarily applicable to a museum context. Moreover, the point of my article was also to point out what Nick Poole, responding to Edson’s essay, succinctly concludes:

Technology can certainly help us rewrite the social contract with the communities we serve. It can offer us channels and tools to make good on the promise of a more egalitarian and unbounded approach. But it cannot in itself transform our organizations. That bit is up to us.

Poole also introduces the brilliant term ‘openwash’ to describe the problem of institutions “which [speak] the language of the Commons, of participation and engagement, while betraying these very principles through their actions.”

Thus, the rhetoric of [INSERT: innovation, democratisation, participation, engagement, inclusion etc.] can be deceptive, and problematic when it becomes necessary to ‘talk the talk’ when applying for funding.

However, as pointed out by philosopher Anders Fogh Jensen, actual transformation may be problematic too. In an inspiring presentation (in Danish, follow link for video (I would have liked to call it ‘thought provoking’, but for me, it was more like hearing someone else present my own arguments in a better way) ) given at the seminar Why Museums? earlier this week, Jensen described a ubiquitous projectification of our society, in which all institutions must adhere to the same logics, the same lingo. Thus, they all have to conceive innovative, inclusive, engaging (Jensen here listed a much longer list of all too familiar buzz words) projects, to attract funding,

Another tendency identified by Jensen was the strong focus on ‘activation’, i.e., engaging users/citizens/students/visitors/anyone in activities, which themselves become the objective rather than the mean. Thereby, he argued, ‘institutions disappear as institutions, to be reborn as functions’.

The danger of these conflated tendencies, according to Jensen, is that as all institutional spaces become multifunctional and interdisciplinary, they also become homogenous. The museum becomes a space like any other.

Invoking Foucault’s concept of heterotopia (also a Leitmotif in my thesis), Jensen argued for the need for the museum to be something else, to be an ‘other space’, a place for reflection and for experience of reverse or alternative logics. Quoting the closing sentences of Foucault’s essay,

The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.

Jensen concluded that the ethical obligation of museums would be to withstand the winds of change for changes sake, withstand the hypes and homogenisation, in order to remain relevant.

Edson, in the Dark Matter essay, describes how

Museums and museum websites can be disappointing to people used to the more open, participatory, and playful collaborative environments they find elsewhere on the Web, and sometimes they take action.

This may be true. However, considering Jensen’s argument, should museums really be like the web? Aren’t the humanistic and democratic ideals, which Edson attributes to Tim Berners-Lee, already at their core? Whereas Edson’s point is that museums and the web are really not that dissimilar, perhaps there could be a point in keeping them distinct?

For a while I’ve been pondering change and trends in museums. In my article, ‘Museum metamorphosis à la mode’, I suggest that certain museum developments may correspond to a fashion logic, as evident in trends of interest running across the museum sector, and in how keeping up with current culture has become as important, and cooler, than serving as custodians of the past.

The V&A’s Rapid Response Collection is a very interesting example of this, where ‘[o]bjects are collected in response to major moments in history that touch the world of design and manufacturing. This new strategy helps the V&A to engage in a timely way with important events that shape, or are shaped by design, architecture and technology.’ (http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/r/rapid-response-collecting/)

Louboutin’s 2013 Nudes collection, for example (the collection is not fashion specific, by the way, but I choose this example because it relates to my domain in particular), was thus recognised as representing a significant sociocultural shift, as ‘[t]his was the first time that a major fashion house had adjusted its definition of nude to include skin colours other than white’. (Rather shocking, really, that it has taken so long). Furthermore, the collection’s curators leverage Twitter and Instagram to ask for the public’s suggestions for new accessions; another museology-of the-current trend.

‘Fifi’ pump in five nude shades, designed by Christian Louboutin Ltd, 2013. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

‘Fifi’ pump in five nude shades, designed by Christian Louboutin Ltd, 2013. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

But aside from this movement towards matching and musealising the Zeitgeist, I also detect a trend for nostalgia on the rise. I’ve written about the death and the resurrection of the diorama elsewhere, one of my favourite examples of an altmodish museum technology which nevertheless has a unique didactic and experiential quality, and which furthermore appeals to our yearning for the past.

Another surprisingly strong example of this came up yesterday on Facebook, where the National Museum of Denmark latched on to the ‘Throwback Thursday’ trend on social media, and posted a vintage photo from the museum galleries. Interestingly, the majority of responses expressed a nostalgia for this kind of museum display, with remarks such as ‘It’s actually really beautiful. When I was a child, the National Museum was more magical, lots of objects and hardly any explanations – that was cool’ and ‘would prefer exhibitions as they looked back then, showing the quantity and variety of objects’.

It is interesting, I think, that the public responds in this way (disclaimer: I have not been checking out who ‘the public’ is in this case – some of the other comments seem to come from museum people, and the quoted commentators may also represent a bias, it’s only one instance and an unrepresentative sample, etc. – nevertheless), perhaps a little differently from what the museum expected.

Screenshot from Facebook, post on National Museum of Denmark's profile page

Screenshot from Facebook, post from Nov. 27th. on National Museum of Denmark’s profile page

From a museum history perspective this type of display is terribly out-dated and dull. Furthermore, museologists may see this display form as a reflection of the traditional authoritative museum from which it stems, an institutional identity which modern museums are very keen to leave behind. Glass cases become negative by association, perhaps, as much as because of their actual constraints.** But for a new generation of museum goers it’s the blinking interactives and dead computer kiosks that are old hat, aesthetically troublesome and cloyingly didactic. The unmediated collection, on the other hand, appeals not only because it is quaint or induces nostalgia, but also because it seems fresh. Rock collections simply rock.

(For me personally, Pitt Rivers Museum and Galeries d’anatomie comparée et de paléonlogie top the list of museums I’d love to see (oh, and ‘House on the rock’, which looks like every kind of museo-manic awesome rolled into one as directed by David Lynch)). In this age of ever-increasing levels of digitisation and connectedness, I believe that materiality and mental space is sometimes experienced as a scarcity, and could therefore become a mega trend* in the future. If they want to make that their unique selling point, museums have both in buckets.

*(see also Charlotte SH Jensen’s inspiring post about the significance of mega trends for the GLAM sector)

——

** Note added Feburary 24th, 2015:

As stated by Britta Brenna (2014:47f), “In a long tradition of museum critique the glass case has been a metaphor for what museums do to objects. Museums, it is claimed, decontextualizes objects, severe their bonds to any original context, and taps them for monetary and use-value. However, these critiques have a tendency to treat the glass cases as ‘black boxes’; self-evident museum features that do not need further investigation.”

Brenna, B. (2014), ‘Nature and texts in glass cases: The vitrine as a tool for textualizing nature, Nordic Journal of Science and Technology Studies, Vol 2, No 1 http://www.nordicsts.org/index.php/njsts/article/view/1201406

Thanks to a confusion of hashtags on Twitter I just came across another story that somehow relates to my project interest (seems to happen a lot these days). MoMu, which is otherwise associated with ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen, has now also become the shortform name (&hashtag) for the newly reopened Moesgaard Museum in Århus, Denmark.

But apparently, MoMu also refers to the Museum of the Mundane, a London and New York based (and agency driven) ‘celebration of everyday design brilliance’. The simple but clever concept is about attaching museum-style labels to mundane urban objects like ATMs, manholes or traffic lights, in order to point to their design history and significance. It is easy to imagine this kind of campaign being instigated instead by a city museum, or perhaps evolving as a grass-root phenomenon, like yarn bombing, and interesting to wonder what kind of things would then have been given attention. What would I put a label on? What would you?

Still,

MoMu may be a glorified ad for the branding agency that created it, but it nevertheless raises an interesting point: perhaps it’s less the famous towers or historic districts that define a city, but rather the mundane objects encountered at every street corner. Together, boring objects accumulate to form a richer image of the city than the one you see in tourist brochures.
(Rory Hyde http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/oct/02/best-urban-objects-mundane-bollards-bricks-black-cabs)

The Guardian story also references another project, the miniscule Mmuseumm in New York which presents itself as a ‘modern natural history museum dedicated to contemporary global archeology’ with

an understanding that “as is the macrocosm, so is the microcosm.” The only access to a greater truth is through the individual perspective of a collective gaze. By examining the small things, the vernacular, we are able to look at the big one, life itself, or at least start to see its edges. (http://mmuseumm.com)

This thinking is, again, reminiscent of Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence/Modest Museum Manifesto and also brings to mind The Museum of Important Shit (links go to previous posts about these, with links from there to origin). Together, they show up a kind of pattern of interest in a ‘re-enchantment’ of the mundane, or a belief that the everyday is actually rather enchanting if only we care to see it. This belief is the ‘utopian motif’ mentioned by Gumbrecht (2006) (who references re-enchantment as the antidote to the disenchanted modernity, as diagnosed by Max Weber) – utopian because of the sociological and political idealism that it conveys.

Projects like these, however, attempt to make real the utopian dream, by establishing Foucauldian heterotopias in the form of museums of the mundane, or – to use a concept which I am currently working to formulate, as an extension of Foucault’s terminology, to describe exactly this kind of museum gaze which may also see the other-and-more-ness of everyday objects – by creating heteroscopic peepholes providing an other-view of the everyday.

In the 2006 article ‘Aesthetic experience in everyday worlds’, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht ‘reclaims the utopian motif’ that aesthetic experiences may occur in the everyday. The article builds on the ideas presented in his own book The Production of Presence (2004), as well as on Kant’s description of aesthetic experience as ‘disinterested pleasure’ – disinterested because it is independent of purpose and function, which we otherwise tend to pursue (as per his definition of beauty as ‘purposefulness without a purpose’) – ; on Heidegger’s dual concepts of ‘earth’ and ‘world’ (which, to be honest, I don’t quite get, but it’s something to do with objects, as we are experiencing them, being at the same time conditioned by and concealing their ‘primordial givenness’, and yet historically specific, erm…); and finally on philosopher Martin Seel’s idea that aesthetic experiences, or, in Seel’s terminology, the effect of appearance, is conditioned by a decontextualisation of the object and its related conceptualisation from its original context (Gumbrect 2006:305). From this complex of ideas, which all, as Gumbrecht points out, focus on the subjective experience rather than on the ontology of the object of experience, Gumbrecht proposes four concepts contained in aesthetic experiences: the content of aesthetic experience (i.e. the feelings & impressions experienced); the objects of aesthetic experience (i.e. that which triggers these emotions); the conditions of aesthetic experience; and finally the effects of aesthetic experience (that is, the consequences or transformations produced by the experience).

The condition of decontextualisation is characteristic of museum objects (not only due to the physical museum context, but also to the practical and symbolic process of musealisation, cf. Desvallées & Mairesse 2010), but both Seel and Gumbrecht hold that, in principle, any object or concept is capable of becoming decontexualised, and therefore that effects of appearance or aesthetic experiences may occur also in the context of the everyday. In fact, Gumbrecht asks, ‘[h]ow much longer will the visitors of museums be bored to near-death with the self-accusatory truism that museums (inadvertently or not) give a certain aura even to the most banal objects?’ (2006:315), when ‘straighforward pleasures'(ibid.:316) of the everyday may provide more intense or enjoyable aesthetic experiences?

The question that remains, however, is what triggers these experiences, this decontextualisation? And perhaps, from an institutional perspective one might want to ask if such experiences can be triggered, if it is possible to set the frame for an aesthetic view of the everyday:

‘remember some of those moments in which what we consider to a thoroughly normal everyday experience all of a sudden appears in a new, exceptional light, in the light of aesthetic experience. These are moments that make sudden changes happen through a switch in the situational frames within which we experience certain objects. We suddenly think of food as “artsy food”, we suddenly see clothes as “fashion”, we suddenly begin to appreciate an “elegance” in the solution of a mathematical problem, or we are suddenly surprised to hear a rhyme that we have inadvertently produced while speaking. Under which specific conditions do such switches occur, and how do we return from them, if ever, to the more pragmatic everyday attitudes?’ (Gumbrecht 2006:302)

Having just finished Gumbrecht’s article, I came upon a short series of tweets from @DRKunstklub showing a collection of dead frogs, which added another perspective to the notion of everyday aesthetic epiphanies. The fascinating story behind the collection is told also on DR Kunstklub – a division under the culture and arts section of the Danish Broaccasting company – ‘s website and Facebook page as well as on the independent website I Do Art. Here Lone, the collector, says of her motivation for her unusual collecting interest that ‘I collect in order to create philosophical questions and contemplate things’ like life, death and destiny, and later explains how, in the case of this particular group of dead frogs, found on a road, it was the aesthetics that suddenly spoke to her, and inspired contemplations about beauty.

Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 11.59.38

Tweet from @DRKunstklub Oct. 10 2014 10:56 Caption reads: “A reflection occurs, over what is beautiful, and whether we always need to be beautiful. Can the ugly be beautiful?”

It seems to me that Lone’s description not only reflects the potential for finding aesthetic experiences in even the most mundane details of our everyday surroundings, but also illustrates one of the the central concepts in Gumbrecht’s The Production of Presence, that is, the oscillation between ‘meaning effects’ and ‘presence effects’ that is central to aesthetic experience. To be elaborated…

References

Desvallées, A. & Mairesse, F. (eds.) (2010): Key Concepts of Museology, ICOM & Armand Colin, available for download from the ICOM website, http://icom.museum/fileadmin/user_upload/pdf/Key_Concepts_of_Museology/Museologie_Anglais_BD.pdf

Gumbrecht, H.U. (2004), Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey, Stanford, CA: Standford University Press

Gumbrecht, H.U. (2006), ‘Aesthetic experiences in everyday worlds: Reclaiming a utopian motif’ in New Literary History, 37:2, 299-318

Working on my third article, about the museum gaze and museum objects, last week I came across three very different participatory projects that all resonated with me. In different ways, they inspired considerations of objects outside the museum, of attributing museal value to your own things and of notions of the everyday vs the extraordinary. #Deldit2014 is an Instagram based call for submissions of photos of how we live in 2014. The initiative comes from ‘Den Gamle By’, an open-air museum of urban history and culture, whose mid-19th century township was recently supplemented by a section of city life in 1974. Now, in preparation for a future exhibition of 2014, the curators ask the public to share photos of their homes under a common hashtag. 

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Screenshot from Instagram, submission for #deldit2014

Participation in this project simply requires taking a snapshot of your home, the contents of your fridge or other snippets of everyday life. It thereby simultaneously satisfies the widespread urge to share your life on social media, and offers the tantalising prospect of contributing to future heritage, although the museum makes it clear that only select photos will enter their collection. But what makes the project most interesting for me is how adding hashtags or other descriptions inspires reflection not so much on the specific contents of my home, but of how they are typical of the times. What transpires is that most signifiers of personal taste and choices are actually ‘so 2014’: buying organic milk and veg, streaming TV series rather than watching TV, replacing CDs with Spotify and records (and referring to them as ‘vinyl’ rather than records or LP’s), having white painted floorboards; this, I realise, will seem like a timestamp when looking back sometime in the future. But of course the task of identifying and collecting the present is a great challenge, also for curators who cannot rely on the comfortable clarity of future hindsight, and are also themselves caught up in the Zeitgeist as well as in the unspoken codes of their own social taste tribes. Enlisting the public is therefore a brilliant strategy, as it simultaneously aids the curators and potentially broadens their perspective; promotes the museum in a cool, fun and approachable way via participants’ social media networks (marketing gold); and inspires reflection on current cultural heritage. At Museum of Copenhagen, the exhibition Søren Kierkegaard: objects of love, works of love’ comprises the philosopher’s personal possessions and quotes from his writings on the subject of love with contributions of objects and their related ‘love stories’ from the public. This juxtaposition of refined prose with mundane objects worked a treat, and the simple yet rather striking execution of the physical exhibition renders it well worth a visit. The exhibition also has a virtual counterpart, from which the excerpts from Kierkegaard’s writings have strangely and sadly been omitted, but where some of the objects and the stories behind them can be found. (And although not all items from the exhibition can be found online, at least here all digital content is fully functioning, which unfortunately was not the case onsite. This remains a curse on digital mediation in museums, regardless of the platform, and equally frustrating each time.)

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Private snapshot from the Kierkegaard exhibition. The simple exhibition design consisted of a circle of double-sided exhibition cases, showing Kierkegaard’s quotes and objects in the inside circle, and items from the public related to the same themes on the outside.

Frankly, I haven’t read any Kierkegaard (this exhibition served as yet another reminder that I really ought to change that). Still, contemplating the philosophical concepts and many forms of love – loving friendship, romantic love, love of the self or love of a parent, for example – has such a universal appeal that prior knowledge of the literary sort was not a prerequisite. As the museum’s director, Jette Sandahl says, ‘[i]t’s a subject we are all experts on’, and, one might add, a subject that nevertheless can leave us all confused and unsure, as no level of expertise can safeguard us from fumbling and failing. This uncertainty, I gather, is at the heart of Kierkegaard’s writings on love. And while the historical artefacts may have the solidity of traditional museum objects, grounded in verifiable facts and documentable data regarding a person of indisputable cultural significance, it is the ambiguity of the subject matter that makes the exhibition interesting and relevant. For me, Kierkegaard’s possessions had less of an aura than his words. The object that struck me the most, or stuck with me the most, was therefore not one of his, but one that was most banal. A simple handwritten note, of the ‘Will you be my boyfriend? Yes/No’-type. Of course, it’s instantly recognisable, we’ve all been there, as senders or recipients or both. It invokes sweet memories of a tender and somewhat silly age, but then again, little more than that: it is not a tale of everlasting passion. So what amazes me is that ‘Thomas’, who donated the object, had kept this scrap of paper for all these years, especially as the proposed ‘relationship’ came to nought. It is touching that it survived to become a museum object, with the essential capacity to speak simultaneously of the specific and the universal. Thomas’ anecdote of how the note was passed to him gives this item a specific provenance, but it also allows us to remember our own similar stories and reflect on scales of emotion, on coming of age, on the myriad of possible paths that makes up a life. The simple object, when cast in the right light, thus becomes an object for reflection. Again, of course, I am reminded of Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. Still not impressed by the novel nor convinced by his Modest Manifesto for Museums, I have to concede that personal objects and stories of individuals can sometimes be very well, if not necessarily, as Pamuk would have it, ‘much better suited to displaying the depths of our humanity’ (ibid.). Such an object might also have found its way to The Museum of Important Shit. A spin-off project from the film 20000 days on Earth, the website introduces the museum thus:

This virtual Museum catalogues the things that remind us of those transformative moments that make us who we are, and unlocks the stories connected to them. This whole thing started with an old piece of chewing gum. Seriously. We were shooting the film and Nick told us this spine-tingling story. Nina Simone had been a nightmare backstage at one of her final gigs. But when she walked on and sat down, she took the gum from her mouth and stuck it on the piano, and… transformed. It was one of those rare moments. Nick felt the gears of his heart change. We’ve all had experiences like this. A few weeks later, we’re shooting another scene. Nick is asking bandmate Warren Ellis if he remembers that Nina Simone gig. Warren interrupts: “I have that gum” he says. And he really does. A pathetic looking dirty piece of gum, wrapped in a towel. As Nick says in the film, “It’s shit, but it’s important shit. And that’s what this Museum is all about. We might not all have the masticated detritus of a jazz legend tucked away, but we all accumulate objects that have little financial value, but they hold the stories of the things that make us who we are. The Museum will unlock these transformative moments that define our very being. We urge you to share them with us, with the Museum, with the world. (Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, London, September 2014 http://www.20000daysonearth.com/museum/)

For some reason, this project stirred me. I wanted to make a contribution of my own, and was sad to realise that I did not have a secret stash of stuff to share (or at least the bits and pieces that I do have I decided were too private to make public, although sometimes the most public of spaces, such as the World Wide Web, can induce a comfortable sense of complete anonymity.) The rock stardust (‘Nick’ in the story being singer Nick Cave) obviously gives the project a certain allure, as well as amplifying the impact and reach. But the notion of these pivotal moments in life, and how we might hold on to them by way of simple objects, also just rings true. Although I may have discarded my own knick-knack, I can still relate to the urge to keep and treasure such relics, as material manifestations of a life lived, of joys and dreams and memorable experiences. It is, after all, a common condition, as argued by Sherry Turkle, who introduces the concept ‘evocative objects‘:

We find it familiar to consider objects as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences. We are on less familiar ground when we consider objects as companions to our emotional lives or as provocations to thought. The notion of evocative objects brings together these two less familiar ideas, underscoring the inseparability of thought and feeling in our relationship to things. We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with. (2007:5)

Our love affair with evocative objects, however, has a touch of the illicit, as if sentimentality was an unseemly indulgence. One could argue that perhaps memorabilia is better kept in our hearts and our attics, that ‘important shit’ should not be musealised. Even though the cultural value of museum objects does not correlate to market price, the aura of precious odds and ends might fade in the public glare. Important shit may be too important to be subjected to the mortifying process of musealisation (if one is to trust the likes of Adorno and Huyssen). It could also be argued that personal debris is not worth the attention of museums. That while an object may speak volumes to the original keeper, its significance being a personal matter, it may not have much to say to a public audience, as museum objects are expected to do. Then again, perhaps this commonplace and very human attachment to bits of worthless junk and days gone by rightly calls for a communal celebration. In which case, however, it is the collective story, and not the individual objects, that warrants museum attention. Now of course, the ‘Museum of important shit’ is a museum only be name. It makes little sense to assess the project or the submissions according to any museum standards. Still, it’s an evocative concept, one that triggers many thoughts about the correlation between museums, objects and subjects. About the conditioning of objects to the museum context and to museum narrative. About epistemological twists and turns. And about the difference between seeing museum objects as things that tell as story, and regarding them as potential things to think with. And then, of course, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

References Adorno, T. (1967)1981, ‘Valery Proust Museum’, in Prisms, MIT Press, Cambridge Huyssen, A. (1995), ‘Escape from Amnesia’, Twilight Memories: Marking time in a culture of amnesia, Routledge, New York & London Turkle, S. (2007), ‘Introduction: The things that matter’ in Evocative Objects, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Additional note:
[Interestingly, Golden Days, an annual ‘cross-cultural’ festival in
 Copenhagen, has just announced the theme for 2015 as ‘Festival of Important Shit’, focusing on public
 perceptions of cultural heritage. The presentation states that “[t]he official and canonised heritage is
 starting to reek of sour chores and cultural aristocracy. One is called to ask if we have musealised our 
past and made it unreachable by locking it in glass cases? Only when churches are closed down, 
orchestras shut down or listed buildings end up in flames, do we feel that something is missing. But
 only then. In the meantime, we engage with history through roleplaying games and flee markets, or by
 blogging grandma’s recipes and sharing forgotten family albums on Facebook.” (my
 translation) http://goldendaysfestival.dk/festival-2015%5D

A ramble of inspirations and illustrated notes, some of them pretty old (but need to get them out of my system and pinned down in blog form)

Museums are the new rock’n’roll

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Dress, autumn/winter 2010–11. Courtesy of Alexander McQueen. Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce – From: http://blog.metmuseum.org/alexandermcqueen/#sthash.M7n8DzvP.dpuf

Next spring, the Alexander McQueen retrospective Savage Beauty will be on show at the V&A. Organised by the Costume Institute in New York, the exhibition was a massive blockbuster hit when showing at the Met in 2011, with queues growing out into the street. When tickets for the V&A edition went on sale in April, the servers broke down after five minutes due to massive demand (I know, because I was trying to book tickets myself, thinking this a perfect treat for when I’ve finished my thesis). Being pretty slick on the branding/enterprise front, the V&A had of course fuelled the hype (there are still plenty of tickets, although certain days are selling out almost a year in advance), still it’s interesting how exhibitions – fashion exhibitions not least – have become must-go-to gigs.

[Note added 6/7/2015: show so popular that the V&A will be open through the night for the final two weekends of its run (!): http://www.itv.com/news/london/2015-07-03/victoria-and-albert-museum-to-open-all-night-for-alexander-mcqueen-exhibition/ ]

All department stores will become museums, and all museums will become department stores
quote Warhol, whose remarks are often remarkably right on the money. I’ve already blogged about the close connection between Saks and Museum at FIT Shoe Obsession exhibition, and as the theme also emerged quite strongly in the workshops I held with the Designmuseum, I will be examining this relation more closely in my thesis. At Stockholm Arlanda airport, Anton Berg chocolates presented itself with this complete museum display – glass case, object labels, museum lingo – to advertise its brand. This side featured a chronology of the company’s history and and product design, the reverse explained the process of cocoa production. Content wise, telling a story of tradition and expertise served to denote quality, but the meta level message of the museum display as medium elevated the chocolate bar to cultural icon.

Display at Arlanda airport

Display at Arlanda airport

Touch

At Nordiska Museet in Stockholm the permanent display Power of Fashion (Modemakt) shows fashion and dress from three different centuries. Concentrating on three decades – the 1780’s, the 1860’s and the 1960’s – rather than showing a full chronology means that a greater diversity from each period is represented, which works well as a curatorial strategy. It therefore seemed odd that the touch models provided for the visually impaired did not reflect this selection, but instead allowed you to sense e.g. the silhouettes of a 20’s flapper dress or the Dior inspired styles of the late 40’s /early 50’s. Showing consideration for this group of visitors without truly granting them access to the curatorial narrative seemed to me to stress their exclusion even when trying to be inclusive.

Touch models illustrating fashion silhouettes of the 1940's at Nordiska Museet

Touch models illustrating fashion silhouettes of the 1940’s at Nordiska Museet

And at Weston Park Museum in Sheffield, I was really hacked off by the dumbing down-ness of this display for kids:

'Polar bear fur' in the arctic exhibition at Sheffield Museum

‘Polar bear fur’ in the arctic exhibition at Weston Park

I mean, if you don’t want to splash out on a real polar bear skin for your public to touch, or have some point about ethics, leave out the display or be upfront about faking it. Don’t be misleading, and don’t think you can get away with it just because you’re addressing youngsters. They deserve your best.

By contrast, Museum of Copenhagen allowed visitors of all ages, who visited the open excavations at a construction site for the new metro lines, to don surgical gloves and touch some of the finds. This felt like a privilege, and was enlightening not only on the subject of Copenhagen history but also on the process of musealisation.

My seven year old son handling archeological objects

My seven year old son handling archeological objects

Finally, at KEA, Copenhagen School of Design and Technology, they have a material library with thousands of samples (and a database) covering a great variety of materials.

KEA's material library from Material Connexion

KEA’s material library from Material Connexion

Not entirely sure if it’s open to the public or is only for the students, but it reminded me of a user informant in my first workshop, who expressed a need for exactly this kind of touchable collection. Many museums, Designmuseum Danmark included, hold library collections as well as collections of art or artefacts, why not extend it with material samples? Handling a textile, a metal, a polymer will give you far more information than reading about the same material, and could thus help you comprehend the museum objects in a different way.

But then again, looking closely also has its merits. And this guy, who I spotted on the street the other day, reminded me how photo sharing on social media may actually inspire os to look closer and engage with our surroundings in our hunt for new images worth a share (of course, this particular guy may have been a media phobic photography enthusiast, he still illustrates a trend). That cool kids give landmark sculptures or similar the time of day, I believe is a result of the social media revolution. Then again, a cynic could infer that we are merely looking for self adornment, not really caring about the origins or significance of the imagery that decorates our digital teenage rooms. Still, he looked, we look, we explore.

Snapshot of a photographer

Snapshot of a photographer

Fan museums

Back in December, I visited the ABBA museum in Stockholm as part of the Nodem conference. I like ABBA, as someone of my generation does, and I have to say that the museum’s vision of having people ‘walk in and dance out’ worked. There were loads of interactives – quizzes, karaoke, digital dress up games. It was good fun.

Got to be Anni Frid, at last!

Got to be Anni Frid, at last!

But it also felt more like visiting a venue tailor made for hen parties than visiting a museum. Somehow, I it sits with me as a slightly gaudy experience.

By contrast, I was surprisingly touched by my visit to Graceland Randers, which I expected to be pure kitsch (I also like Elvis, so I’m equally biased when it comes to both). Whereas the Swedish experience was very ‘ABBA Inc.’; making full use of the commercial potential of the super group’s popularity and using the latest technological gizmos to amp up the experience, the fandom inspiring the Elvis museum was still very palpable. In fact, the museum’s founder, Henrik Knudsen, who built the Graceland replica to have a place to exhibit his huge private collection of Elvis memorabilia, was there to give guided tours of the collection. And even though it was a bit disappointing that the, well, ‘particular’ decor of the original Graceland had been replaced by a diner, a record shop and the exhibition gallery, the place actually felt quite museum like and not so tacky after all.

Henrik Knudsen giving a guided tour at Graceland Randers

Henrik Knudsen giving a guided tour at Graceland Randers

Not sure what my point is here. Maybe something about soul and lack thereof. Anyway, enough.