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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)

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** 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

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So, over on Twitter, apparently it’s #NationalHandbagDay. Which calls for a celebration, thinks Europeana Fashion.

@EurFashion tweet 1:00 PM - 10 Oct 2014

@EurFashion tweet 1:00 PM – 10 Oct 2014

Me, I’m not so sure. OK, so it’s an excuse to feed something into the Twitter stream, like #FossilFriday (also today, as every Friday), the recent #MuseumCats day a.k.a. #MewseumMonday, and other initiatives of that ilk. But come on. It’s also more than a bit silly, isn’t it, jumping on a hashtag like #NationalHandbagDay? (Which nation, btw? Says who? But no, that would be pendantic to ask for such clarifications from ‘a best practice network co-funded under the CIP ICT-PSP program* and composed of 22 partners from 12 European countries, which represent the leading European institutions and collections in the fashion domain’ (http://blog.europeanafashion.eu/about/ * the CIP ICT-PSP program is run by the EU commission)).

Feeding into the Twitter stream of course garners attention for the network, makes it visible in the public eye. In the blink of an eye, at least, before the stream moves on. But the risk is that with such a feeble excuse for sharing an image of this bag, on this day, the lasting image is negligible, or could even be undermining the institution’s ethos and mission.

At least that’s the impression I’m left with. Blinded as I am by seething annoyance, I struggle to see how this promotes an understanding of the significance of fashion heritage.

But OK, I’ll try to snap out of it, give it a go. Say it loud: Happy National Handbag day!

There. Better now?

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 08.35.59

I bit my tongue on #museumcats day. But this time I’m gonna have to have just a bit of a rant.

So the Apple presentation was, what, yesterday? (Didn’t care enough to check it out, which could either mean that I’m a laggard, or putting myself on a high horse, or that I’m not alone and the days of Apple-mania are coming to an end). And the new gadgets will be out sometime next year. And then how long before you have a critical mass of users? But still, apparently, we have to know, definitely and asap, WHAT DOES APPLE WATCH MEAN FOR MUSEUMS?

My guess is, not much, for the time being. Plenty of time to wait and find out what Apple Watch will mean (I mean, mean? isn’t that elevating it a bit? at a glance it doesn’t look like much of a technological revolution, but I could be wrong) elsewhere, how use patterns may evolve, where the potential for appropriation for museums lies etc. Plenty of time to chew the cud and consider whether it really is necessary to find a way to design specifically for wearable technology. And plenty of other tasks to get on with in the meantime.

To me, this kind of overexcitement reeks of technology in search of a problem. Of businesses drumming up business (conferences, like MuseumNext, are businesses, big business even in some cases (I imagine, although actually I’m not speaking from a position of knowledge here), and digital developers/consultancies (like Sumo, for instance, who, as it happens, are behind MuseumNext. Small world) will also know to hype the hype and sell needs and problems to solve). But at least that’s kind of a comfort. Because the saddest thing is when it’s museum folk who get so bored with their own institutions that they are ready to jump on any digital bandwagon in the hope that it will take them to a brighter, cooler future.

I may be a laggard, but I’m not a luddite. I believe digital/online/social/mobile media can have a great many uses in museums. Some of them to great effect. And some attempts turn out not so great. That’s OK. As long as we don’t waste energy and ressources on simply following the temptation to play with the latest toys. As Nancy Proctor says, ‘It’s not about the technology’. I’ll leave it at that.