Archive

Mediation

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

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

This post will be a really quick run through of some of all the great inspiration I’ve had for thinking about museums in many different ways over the last week. While a lot of them deserve further exploration, for now I just need to pin them down so that I can revisit them later, but not have them spinning around in my head as they do now.

The museum of yore

Entrance to the American Museum of Natural History

Entrance to the American Museum of Natural History

Now, I do not mean to say that the American Museum of Natural History is stuck in time; in fact in it’s dealing with paleontology and the creation of the universe and all the other wonders of the natural world, I expect it to be everything but and I’m dead excited about taking my family there when they arrive. But the entrance to the museum, which I pass on my way to the BGC every morning, reminds me of how museums used be understood, and how they used to communicate. In addition to the classicist columns so typical of traditional museum architecture, and the long stairs leading up to the temple of the muses, here you’ve even got the self-assured inscriptions ‘Truth – Knowledge – Vision’. The authoritarian voice of the museum cut in stone. And the statue in front of president Roosevelt on his steed, flanked by noble savages, the native American and the African tribesman (on foot!) just reeks of the cultural imperialism that hitherto defined the interpretation of collections. (note added 7/8/14: perhaps Donna Harraway’s ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy’, Social Text no. 11, 1984/85 could be of use if exploring this further http://www.jstor.org.ep.fjernadgang.kb.dk/stable/466593). In this light, the necessary criticism inherent in the new museological paradigm becomes obvious, and the democratric ideals of the post colonial museum make a whole lot of sense, even if the open invitation for a polyphonic discourse also has its problems. Reading Eileen Hooper Greenhill’s outlining of the ‘post-museum’ in ‘Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture’ (2000) helps me reflect on these issues.

Brooklyn Museum

Contrast this with Brooklyn Museum which, architecturally as well, has been transformed from a temple or treasury to an agora; ‘a marketplace of ideas offering space for conversation, a forum for civic engagement and debate, and opportunity for a variety of encounters among audiences and the museum’ (Nancy Proctor (2010): ‘Digital: Museums as Platform, Curator as Champion, in the Age of Social Media’ I Curator. The Museum Journal 53:1).

Brooklyn Museum

Brooklyn Museum

My own first knowledge of this museum was down to the interesting explorations into engaging the community in the curatorial process via social media done by Shelley Bernstein, most notably Click! in 2008 and GO  in 2012, which have had quite an impact in the international digital museum community. But, as Bernstein pointed out during her brilliant presentation at the Sharing is Caring seminar, this work is actually only a very small part of what Brooklyn Museum is. And I must say, I was really, really impressed with the museum, for the architecture, the collection, the special exhibitions, the ambience, the works! 

IMG_0560Seeing Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party was such a thrill, and I think it says a lot about the ethos of the museum that it has on permanent display this seminal work as well as hosting the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Revelling in the craft and candid beauty of the banquet and the individual place settings was of course the best part, but the mobile tools accompanying this exhibit also worked really well. The scanner driven application, downloadable via QR codes in the gallery, allowed you to look up information about each of the 1038 women honored in the work, and using the dial-in cell phone tour, you could hear the artist’s own comments on each of the honorary guests.

The offer of mobile content was even promoted on the entry tickets, where a QR code linked to information about this feature. (Of course, offering the information in this way, it is only accessible to those who already have a scanner app on their phone, but perhaps at least those who don’t will be intrigued enough to ask for for more information on this option.)
IMG_0645Another interesting mobile offer was the game Gallery Tag. Asking visitors to add their own tags, i.e. their own associations or descriptions of pieces in the permanent collection, the museum are both asking visitors to consider the objects they are looking at, providing a game element for those who enjoy that kind of interaction (using discounts in the museum store as an incentive to add as many tags as you can think of) and collecting information about the public interpretation of the collection that is valuable to the curators. And for those who are not interested, the activity does not intrude on the experience. A great idea, in other words, but I did struggle a bit at first to work out how it worked and later to get it to work, as not all of the object codes or acquisition were accepted by the system.

Finally, the use of QR codes at select objects in the galleries provided some very useful insights, such being able to see Nick Cave’s sound suits in action, in order to really understand the piece you were looking at.

One of his suits was included in a great little exhibition called Connecting Cultures where artworks and artifacts from across collections, time periods and geographical origin were brought together around themes such as place, self representation and the role of objects. A fine example of the value of curatorial vision and of the potential in telling stories with things.

Connecting Cultures exhibit at Brooklyn Museum

Connecting Cultures exhibit at Brooklyn Museum

Lectures at the BGC

On Monday night, I attended the introductory survey course for master level and PhD students at the BGC. This weeks presentation was by Roger Griffith, conservator of 20th century design objects at MOMA, which gave some interesting insights into what goes on behind the scenes, and on the effect of conservation perspectives on curatorial considerations. Also there was some good questions about the importance of ‘an original’ in the case of mass produced objects, and of how far to go with the restoration of objects, not to mention the challenges of objects that are distinctly transitory.

Bard Graduate Center also hosted two public lectures, bringing together students, faculty and external scholars, as well as an interested public. On Tuesday night, Catherine Whalen, assistant professor at the BGC, gave an interesting presentation on The Gift of Criticism: Paul Hollister’s Writings and the Ascendancy of Studio Glassdiscussing the role of the critic and the impact of critical writing on the development within the studio craft movement in the 1960’s and 70’s as well as on the valuation and public appreciation of their work. The lecture led to an interesting discussion on the merits and pitfalls of writing for academia and writing for a wider public, respectively, as well as on the difference between being featured in the arts section and in the home section of the news paper. Clearly, the arts section has a higher status, meaning that also the field of craft and design aspire to these pages, even if they may not reach as wide an audience.

Wednesday, professor Janet Berlo from University of Rochester gave the fascinating lecture “Prime Objects” of the Gods? Replications and Transformations of Navajo Sandpainting Imagery on reciprocity and on the ephemeral ‘originals’ and material replications of Navajo sandpaintings. Now, I will not attempt to recap the complicated epistemology of Navajo art, but the ensuing debate on concepts of the original and its reproductions (with reference to Benjamin) or materialisations as well as on notions of ownership versus restrictions on who can view sacred objects was thought provoking. So although none of these lectures have had any direct correlation to my own research, it has been very inspiring to learn of these diverse perspectives, and to experience the vibrant intellectual debate taking place at this institution.

Mark Dion

A visit to Tanya Bonakdar Gallery to see installations of an imaginary museum of natural history by the artist Mark Dion again does not relate directly to my project, and still his exploration of the idea of the Wunderkammer, of what objects belong in a museum, his use of classic museum display cases and how they lend an aura to the peculiar ‘pickled’ domestic plastic objects in one display, for example, is also an intruiging way of thinking about what a museum is. Similarly, currently reading Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (or, admittedly, having it placed on my bedside table, as most of my reading here has been scholarly) adds to the picture of what a museum is, or could be, and what it means for the individual and in society.

Installation by Mark Dion

Installation by Mark Dion

After the museum

Finally, last night, as realising that MOMA had already closed I decided instead to visit the Museum of Art and Design to see the exhibition of Studio Glass mentioned in Tuesday’s lecture, I happened to stumble into a truly brilliant dialogue session as part of the After the Museum exhibition and event series. I didn´t even know that this exhibition was on (and didn´t get to explore it this time round either as I got caught up the debate), let alone the event, but it touched right on some of the questions I’m asking in my project. Talk about a serendipitous incident!

From the event Case study # 1: Object at Museum of Art and Design

Changing background display at the event Case study # 1: Object at Museum of Art and Design

It was a small crowd, and clearly most of the participants had some professional interest in the topic and were even connected in one way or other, still it was an interesting discussion on what objects belong in a museum, what sort of experiences we seek, and what the future of museums might look like. Interestingly (if perhaps not too surprising in this group of educated museum lovers), although one person suggested a fruitful merger of the Google art experience with viewing the artwork on display, the consensus seemed to be that it is the object and the curatorial narrative that is the pull of the museum, placing things in context and being able to tell an educational story, rather than digital experiences and entertainment. As one person put it, the film and entertainment industry does that so much better anyway, whilst another ventured that after working at a screen all day, using it in the museum too is not that appealing. Similarly, the inclusion of the public voice was called into question. My own query about the prospect of taking the museum experience outside the museum and into the everyday contexts of the design artifacts was met with interest, but also questioned, mirroring my own scepticism about whether that would really constitute a museum experience, and if it is within the museum’s remit to do so. Still, it was also a agreed that it is all down to the context of the curatorial questions and objectives, the museum type and subject matter and the interest of the individual museum guest.

Delightfully, the conversation carried on after the official session ended, and a smaller group of us continued the debate over drinks at a nearby bar. A chance #drinkingaboutmuseums night, then, as so often organized by the Museums and the Web crowd via Twitter. Uplifted and enlightened, I thank all for great points and a good chat, and do hope that we will be able to carry on where we left of at the next session in the series on April 18th.


‘Sharing is Caring 12 – Let’s get real!’(1), held in December 2012, was the second in a series of international seminars about engaging the public with museums’ (digital) assets (2). Touching upon some of the hottest topics in museums, the event drew quite a crowd, and was a fine opportunity for networking and catching up, as well as for getting an update on current projects and ideas. Still, I had my reservations (3), this time exacerbated by the snappy, happy-clapping rhetorics of a title like ‘Sharing is Caring’, explicated in a rather evangelical blogpost on Formidlingsnet by last year’s keynote speaker Michael Edson; ‘A year of Sharing and Caring‘. He explains the notions thus:

sharing, as a deeply moral impulse to take the knowledge, beauty, and secrets that we know are there, locked within our organizations, and make them available to every person on earth and caring, as a manifestation of our collective duty to ensure that everyone in society has access to the full spectrum of ideas, experiences, and resources that they need to live happy and successful lives (4)

outlining “the next frontier of work: building equity and civic value through openness, transparency, generosity, and community” and stating that “What matters is millions and millions of citizens wrestling with big ideas, engaging in personal discovery, making new things, and sharing with one another.”(ibid.) It is hard to argue against these ideals, although they hardly answer to the second call of the seminar title: Let’s get real! There is an awful lot of buzzwords and hot air in this field. Also, zealous idealism can be pretty scary, and good intentions is not the same as indisputable truth. I therefore second Sarah Giersing’s concerns in a reply to Edson’s post:

I cannot help but feel a little scepticism. Something about the rhetoric, the title “Sharing is Caring” especially, simply rubs me the wrong way. To me “Sharing is Caring” has a certain ring of something selfrighteous to it, something patronizing even. To me it sounds a little like the optimistic name of some religious endeavour – or a humanitarian aid relief project – to save the world. Nothing wrong with philanthropism, but we might be wary of the missionary aspect. (ibid.)

For Giersing, the answer lies in also sharing the authority in defining what constitutes our cultural heritage. As project leader for Copenhagen Museum’s Væggen (5) she has been working to put this idea into practice for years, and gave a very inspiring presentation about the potential, but also the great challenges, in inviting users to contribute content and knowledge to museum collections (6). Her chief advice for others wanting to pursue a similar track was a) to not only ask for users to contribute content but also provide metadata, to ensure that institutions had information on the context and provenance of the collection item; b) to ask for uploads in a durable data format, with considerations not only for access speed, but also for technical quality and preservation; and c) to ensure appropriate data rights, i.e., that the contributor has the right to upload the content, and that the institution has the right to use it when part of the collection.

Museum ideals
Now I’m not sure just how far Giersing believes institutions should go in sharing authority, but for me, I think the relationship can never be completely equal, as I believe in the value and necessity of curatorial expertise. To use a perhaps dubious analogy, although millions of passionate football fans will be shouting instructions at their screens and have strong opinions about the game, the tactics and the players, I don’t really think that their beloved game would benefit from crowdsourced management. SImilarly, I think that high quality curation requires professionalism. I understand that there is also a postcolonial problematic in this stance; who has the right to assume authority over a shared heritage. Still, I  don’t see how it can be otherwise. Letting go completely, not letting interpretations be guided by the knowledge inherent in the institutions but starting from scratch sounds like futile chaos, and any staging of democratic dialogue will always involve some level of authority, someone deciding to invite that dialogue and how to use the output.

This is not to say that I believe museums should reign supreme, and I fully agree that museums could learn a lot from the public. Nevertheless, assuming authority – and praticing it wisely – is part of the custodial responsiblity. Although we have moved, or are moving away from the role of museums as shrines to the nation, modern-day museum ideals – post-, transparent, participartory, inclusive etc. (7) – are thus not all that different from the Bildung ideals of the museums of the enlightenment (8). Asking the public to participate, museums are still taking an educational role, still trying to build a certain kind of citizen, even if nowadays we are asking of that citizen to express their individual mind.

Which begs the question: Is expression neccessarily better than impression? Why is visiting an exhibition, having whatever experience we may have, understanding whatever we do, and making our own associations, deductions etc. no longer enough? When libraries are still happy to lend us books – old books, difficult books even – without an accompanying guide, how come museums feel that the experience of art or cultural artefacts must always be scaffolded?

India Art Now/ India Fashion Now: Challenge
Let me digress for a moment, to a brilliant exhibition I visited earlier this week; namely India: Art Now and India: Fashion Now at Arken Museum of Modern Art i Ishøj, DK (9). Both the artworks and the fashion exhibited were beautiful, humorous and thought provoking.

India:Fashion Now

Couture by Amit Aggarwal & Manish Arora, display view from India:Fashion Now

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Rina Banerjee. “She was now…” 2011. Installation view at ARKEN

So I didn’t really need the to be told what to feel or what to think about, and therefore found the wall labels, meant to elicit afterthought and debate with questions like ‘Go exploring among the clusters of woven hair and hanging bumpers. What is the atmosphere of the room? What bodily sensations do the materials and the way they are used in the installation evoke in you?’ or ‘Imagine the human destinies interwoven in the painting. Do they live in hope, pain or joy? Is their world also yours?’, to be heavily didactic, patronizing and superfluous. Rather than aiding my understanding, they disturbed my perception, and evoked irritation more than anything else. So much so, that my companion and I ended up discussing whether this kind of mediation, which I would sooner expect as part of an educational material for school classes, is even right for that target group?

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Wall text from the India:Art Now exhibition, relating to the India:Game Now app

Proctor (10) is right in stating that it’s not about the technology, it’s what we do with it, what we ask our visitors to do. Any technology can be used for any kind of mediation. But personally, I would prefer an openly authoritative introduction to contemporary Indian art to this kind of touchy-feely claptrap. Even if I miss a point or two.

The exhibition app, India: Game Now (11), was also a disappoinment. Content was limited, the challenges and questions were pretty daft, navigation was unclear, and the app did nothing to help us find the featured artworks in the exhibition. But worst of all, interaction with the app did not improve our understanding or appreciation of the exhibited works, the context or each other’s perceptions, which was also an aim of the game. If anything, the medium detracted from the experience, shifting the focus from artefacts to technology. Unsurprisingly, I regret to say – I have yet to have a mobile museum experience where this is not the case.

Participation with a purpose
Which is why I loved Shelley Bernstein‘s opening keynote at Sharing is Caring (12). Chief of Technology at Brooklyn Museum, Bernstein has developed and executed some of the most innovative – and succesful! – participatory museum projects of later years, such as the crowd-curated Click! exhibition (13) in 2008 and this year’s GO  – a community-curated open studio project (14). On the back of this, her words carry some weight. Interestingly, then, she describes herself as an anti-tech technologist, and, whilst employing social media as tools for participation, she emphasizes that it is a success when people abstain from using these tools when actually encountering art, in or outside the museum, as this takes away from the engagement.

Shelly Bernstein presenting at Sharing is Caring 12; photo from Twitter by @ninahviid

Shelly Bernstein presenting at Sharing is Caring 12; photo from Twitter by @ninahviid

Also, instead of catering to a ‘don’t make me think philosophy of usability, she insists on raising rather than lowering the barrier for participation, designing interfaces that require people to learn the tools, the sometimes lengthy process and their purpose before being able to take part. It is a deliberate move away from the Like-button model for easy interaction, as this requires and inspires no real engagement anyway:

The like button is easy, and while we don’t think participation in GO should be difficult, we do think we need to move away from the gold standard Facebook has forced upon us to something that’s more powerful and serves the needs of participants specifically taking part in this project.  Will everyone get beyond the like button during GO?  We sure hope so; participants may never register and might not pick up a mobile device, but if they find themselves in an artist’s studio on September 8-9, it’s likely they are already way beyond that ubiquitous little button, and in our minds, that is a success. (15)

At the end of the day, it’s not about social media, and focusing on those, as many museums (and businesses) do, hoping to get a cheap, quick and chic fix-it-all, too often muddles the vision which should be about content and true engagement.

Academic critique
Thus, while Jasper Visser, museum consultant and second key note speaker at Sharing is Caring (16), repeatedly stated that museums had no need for PhD’s and should rather employ selftaught innovators, this only confirmed my belief in the need for academic reflection on the development now taking place in museums, and for the discourse (and hot air) surrounding this evolution. Caring for museums, and thereby for the societies and communities that they serve, can also be sharing your insights regarding and concerns for what may be misguided beliefs in the power of people 2.0.

——————-

Note added on February 4th, 2013: In an editorial note in the latest issue of Museological Review, the peer reviewed journal from the Leicester University School of Museum Studies, Dr. Bernadette Lynch succinctly expresses the misgivings I was trying to pin down above: 

The utopian rhetoric of mutuality and shared authority in today’s museums, in reality, places a community member […] in the role of ‘supplicant’ or ‘beneficiary’. Museums and galleries continue to subtly maintain inequitable social relations by exercising invisible power, setting parameters that offer what Cornwall calls ‘empowerment-lite’ [*] Thus the image of the 21st century, democratic, dialogical museum simply does not match the rhetoric. Furthermore, by placing people in the position of beneficiaries, the museum continues to rob people of their active agency and the necessary possibility of resistance.[*] This would explain the anger of many participants who express frustration with these well-meaning institutions. (17)

References
(1) http://www.dkmuseer.dk/content/sharing; http://www.formidlingsnet.dk/category/sharing-is-caring. Videos of the presentations can be found on http://vimeo.com/channels/sharingiscaring, and comments, posts and conversations can be found on Twitter under the hastag #sharecare12.
(2) See also the anthology Sharing is Caring, edited by Merete Sanderhof, Copenhagen: Statens Museum for Kunst 2014. Available to order or download from http://www.smk.dk/en/explore-the-art/free-download-of-artworks/sharing-is-caring/
(3) https://blatryk.wordpress.com/2012/11/28/museum-as-a-research-field/
(4) quotes in the following taken from http://www.formidlingsnet.dk/a-year-of-sharing-and-caring
(5) http://vaeggen.copenhagen.dk
(6) http://vimeo.com/channels/sharingiscaring/55927145
(7) cf. Hooper-Greenhill, E. (2000): Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, London and New York: Routledge;
Marstine, J. (2011), ‘The contingent nature of the new museum ethics’ introduction to Marstine, J. (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining ethics for the twenty-first-century museum, London & New York: Routledge;
Simon, N. (2010). The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0;
The Inclusive Museum annual conference and book series http://onmuseums.com
(8) Kahr-Højland, A. & Quistgaard, N. (2009): ‘From ”scientists for a day” to ”critical citizens”: The emergence of a new paradigm within science centres and museums involving narratives, interactivity and mobile phones’, manuscript submitted for review in Museum Management and Curatorship. Article IV in Kahr-Højland’s PhD Thesis Læring er da ingen leg?: en undersøgelse af unges oplevelser i og erfaringer med en mobilfaciliteret fortælling i en naturfaglig kontekst. University of Southern Denmark.
(9) http://www.arken.dk/udstilling/tidligere-udstillinger-2/
(10) Proctor, N. (2011). Mobile guides in the rhizomic museum. In Katz, J. et al. (Eds.), Creativity and Technology: Social Media, Mobiles and Museums, Edinburgh: MuseumsEtc.
(11) https://itunes.apple.com/app/arken-india-game-now/id551000132?mt=8
(12) Bernstein, S. (2014), ‘GO: Curating with the Brooklyn Community’ in Sanderhoff, M. (ed.) (2014), Sharing is Caring. Openness and sharing in the cultural heritage sector, Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst
(13) http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/click/
(14) http://gobrooklynart.org
(15) Blogpost by Shelley Bernstein: ‘Getting Beyond the Like Button’ http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/blogosphere/2012/08/23/getting-beyond-the-like-button/
(16) http://vimeo.com/channels/sharingiscaring/55927142; cf Visser, J. (2014), ‘The future of museums is about attitude, not technology’ in Sanderhoff, M. (ed.) (2014), Sharing is CaringOpenness and sharing in the cultural heritage sector, Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst
(17) Lynch, B. (2013) ‘Generally dissatisfied with the utopian museum’   Museological Review no. 17 – Museum Utopias Conference Issue ©  p iv
[*] Please find references in the original http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/documents/museologicalreview/mr-17/3_Lynch_FINAL21January2013.pdf

Today, I lost my way in a dark and gloomy forest and suddenly found myself in a gingerbread house… This was the experience staged in a theatrical production of ‘Hansel & Gretchen’; a performance in which you make your way – alone – through an installation of scenarios, equipped with a torch and an audioguide, guided along by a narrative voice and an evocative soundscape. Rather than simply telling you a story, it required you to move through the story, allowed you to feel unsettled, not knowing what came next, what might be waiting for you in the dark, how to get out.

A play without actors, where you perform every action. Is it theatre, performance, installation? Does it matter? Does cultural mediation need to follow conventions? Does museal mediation need things, or a museum space?

Take for instance the current exhibition of Tutankhamon’s grave in Malmö, a complete remake of the burial chambers as they were discovered in 1922 – not an authentic object in sight but perhaps offering a more authentic experience of their splendor than a traditional display would? According to this review, at least, despite the heavy use of dramatic effects, the overall experience is one of enlightenment, not just light entertainment.

I’m pondering these things now as I am trying to get back into my project and enter design mode, in order to sketch concepts for mobile mediation of fashion. One concept (which I came across researching for a short paper for a doctoral consortium on design research which I also need to write) that intrigues me is ‘The Dark Room Fashion Show’ (no, not what you think, and to be honest I’m not sure if the sexual connotations are not somewhat misleading in this case); a fashion show focusing on the sounds of garments conceptualised by researchers in fashion and interaction design at Textilhögskolan in Borås:

Visual expressions are dominant in fashion aesthetics. The fashion show is visual, we show fashion in magazines, we show our new garment, we see the beautiful clothes of others etc. The basic design aesthetics we learn within the regular fashion design curriculum is all about spatial form and visual expression. It seems somehow natural to train our perception of forgotten aesthetical issues by bracketing these dominant perspectives. Garment sounds in use, this is not a focal issue but nevertheless basic to the way in which garment present themselves in use. The Dark Room Fashion Shows is a program for fashion shows presenting fashion with a total focus on the sounds of garment in use; expose the sound of fashion in use, show nothing, let a cat-speaker, in some way or another, substitute the catwalk. (from the research website)

I reminds me of an idea I had back when I was a fashion student, of devising a collection of words, of poetry – all the rich and vivid words we associate with fashion and textiles, textures, cuts and colours. Now, it would take a greater poet than me to get it right, but I might explore the idea of developing a concept for a fashion soundscape, perhaps something along the line of a Thirdear-style montage or Scenatet’s Kære Fisk (for sounds of fashion, also check out the drama of clicking heels in Fish & Fowl).

Yesterday, I took my family to visit the brand new Europe meets the World exhibition at the National Museum. Actually, we’d hoped to join the childrens workshop, and was all set for a virtual trip to Italy, Germany or another exciting destination, when we realised that this was only possible on Sundays, so we’ll have to come back for that. Finding that the exhibition, although beautifully excecuted with a combination of objects and video projections, was a bit too abstract for our 4 and 7 year old’s, we ended up opting for the excellent children’s section of the museum instead (a family favourite and perfect weekend hangout in the winter months, inspiring hours of play and perfect in combination with visits to the museum collections).

As a consequence, I couldn’t give the exhibition the time and attention that it deserved, and will also have to come back for a proper visit to that (sans kids). Still, the use of QR codes was too much of a temptation for my geeky curiosity, and I couldn’t resist getting my scanner out. Unfortunately, this turned out to be an illustration of the challenges of utilizing this type of technology in an exhibition.

Now, motivations and obstacles for using your mobile in the museum for streaming/downloading museum content or sharing your opinions, and how this fits into and affects the museum experience overall is a (million dollar) question in its own right, which I won’t go into at this point (but which I will definitely explore in my project). Suffice to say that as many museum visits are social in nature, one person’s desire to explore in depth may not be compatible with the shared objective of the visit, as in our case.

Lights, camera…
But let’s just focus on technology for now. A lot has happened since I first wrote a post on QR codes back in 2009. I believe that a large part of today’s audience will now recognise and understand the use of the 2D barcodes as well as having the smartphone complete with scanner app ready for using the codes when desired, and still the novelty hasn’t quite worn off yet. In other words, time is ripe for putting this technology to good use in the museums – it’s cheap and simple to add a sticker to the exhibition display and doesn’t take a lot of technical savvy to set up the backend mobile friendly websites, allowing the museums to focus in stead on producing top quality content to augment the experience, supplementing the objects with audio, video or text, inviting participation in polls etc.

Still, in the case of this exhibition, the decision to offer content via QR codes clashes with the general design and ambience of the displays, created with subdued lighting and animated projections. As Seb Chan of the Australian Powerhouse Museum points out (or is ‘pointed’ more correct, given that the post I’m referencing (again) is also from 2009) in a brilliant post on the problems with, and solutions to, using QR codes in an exhibition, the shadows you cast when leaning in to use your scanner can steal the light needed for your camera to work.

This was the case at the National Museum, and it took dedication and some interesting body shapes to get some of the codes to work. Similarly, other visitors who noticed my attempts commented that they had found reflections problematic in other parts of the exhibition. And whereas I managed to succesfully connect to some of the educational material, I had no luck trying to take part in the polls asking my opinion on democracy or religion in Europe. Even if I managed to capture these images with my phone camera, the images where too dark for the scanner (Scanlife on an iPhone 3GS):

Early days
Visiting on the first day of the exhibition, one of course has to allow for adjustments to come, especially when the display includes new technologies that still take a bit of getting used to. Indeed, the reception staff welcomed my comments on the light and lack of open wifi (the wifi was meant to be open access in this part of the museum, but I was continously asked for a guest login, which you can get at reception on request, I later found out). Also, as I was clearly rushing along as well as being distracted by trying to keep track of my family, my exploration of the exhibition was in no way exhaustive, I may well have missed helpful pointers or even missed the point – my objective here is not to critizise or review the exhibition as such but only to discuss the challenges of using new technologies for mediation purposes, and if this comes across as some sour remark, I deeply apologize! I only hope that next time I visit, the museum has come up with a solution for securing sufficient lighting for the codes without spoiling the ambience of the exhibition. Looking forward to exploring the themes undisturbed!

It will be interesting to learn about the uptake of these QR codes once the exhibition is evaluated.

A couple of additional notes:
All QR labels offered a short explanation of what material you could find when scanning the code, including information on the format, i.e. video or audio. Written content, howeveer, was labeled ‘Undervisning’. In English, you would call this ‘Education’, hence previous discussions on the term mediation, but the Danish term ‘Undervisning’ has a strong classroom connotation. So much so that I was unsure if this was indeed part of some educational programme aimed at visiting school classes and not really targeted at visitors like me. If I was meant to be included in the target group, I’m not sure if the term appealed to me. I may want to learn, but am I interested in being taught?

Back home, and trying to find an explanation for why these labels offered content in Danish only, I’ve come to the conclusion, that this was probably part of an educational programme. But that doesn’t change that whilst at the exhibition I believed and wished the labels to be aimed at me too. Why has ‘my target group’ not been considered as potentially attracted to these labels, and subsequently baffled or left with a feeling of being excluded?

Finally, checking out the teaser video for the exhibition hosted on YouTube, it turned out to be an example of the challenges of entering into social media, as the only comment on the video was a stupid racist blurb. Wisely, the museum has simply chosen to ignore it, rather than enter into an impossible dialogue. Despite all the effort going into making the users engage and amplifying the vox pop, sometimes you wish they’d just shut up!

Yesterday, I started this blogpost intending to ‘spend a moment pondering the meanings of ‘mediation”. Guess I should have foreseen that a moment wouldn’t cut it, and as I started writing, the complications of pinning down the meaning became obvious as I starting revisiting my sources and came across new references. I finally aborted the mission when I took a phonecall from a fellow ph.d. student who happened to be pondering the same question!, which of course led to an interesting conversation and yet another useful reference that he sent me. Thank you, Lasse!

So probably a single blogpost won’t cut it either, but that won’t stop me from addressing the issue now and then returning to it again when I’m older and wiser still.

As mentioned, the working title (! – I know it’s clunky, but decided that a neutral description was a better starting point, even though I’m a sucker for a pun, as the heading reveals) of my project is Mobile Mediation of Fashion by Museums. The thing is, it turns out to be everything but neutral.

When looking for a suitable translation for the Danish ‘formidling’ in the preparation of my proposal, I was at a bit of a loss. ‘Education’ was a definite no, as I was making a point out of focusing on an adult, ‘casual’ museum audience, seeking out cultural experiences, with, at most, a subconcious desire for self formation and identity building, but with no interest in (semi)formal education. ‘Communication’ seemed too all-encompasing, yet with some sort of marketing bias – if a museum were to have a department for ‘formidling’as well as a communication department (as some of them do), communication would be aimed at attracting the public, whereas formidling would focus on ‘opening up’ the stories and knowledge of the museum, and it is the latter that has my interest. ‘Dissemination’ seemed to me to be about spreading, rather than forming the message, let alone entering into a dialogue with the public, perhaps even with slightly ominous connotations of propaganda or cultural imperialism.

I’ve later realised that ‘Dissemination’ seems to be the standard choice of translation. In the English section of the Heritage Agency of Denmark website* Dissemination of knowledge is listed as an obligatory practice for museums under the Danish Museum Act, alongside collection, registration, preservation and research. Similarly, the Royal School of Library and Information Science, where I now work, chooses the title Cultural Dissemination for the Kulturformidling part of its master programme. So of course, this is the discourse that I am now part of, but also one that I must position myself in.

In the end, I turned to ICOM’s Key concepts of Museology where I found ‘Mediation’ described as equivalent to the German Vermittlung, i.e. the same as formidling. At first glance I still wasn’t happy with this term either, despite the obvious link to ‘media’ and ensuing potential for the aforementioned puns as well as more academic musings on the nature and affiliations of media and mediation. Reading the article won me over though, and after some discussion I even managed to convince my husband that this was indeed the term I was after.

A native English speaker, he can be quite precious about language, which is a true gift (if, at times, hard work X) in this sort of discussion. The thing is, that even if the predominantly French speaking academics in ICOM decide that ‘mediation’ is the correct English term for the French ‘médiation’, including the discourse represented by the term, this will not necessarily find its way into common parlance in English, where the connotation of mediation is more courtroom, less exhibition (i.e. used similarly to the Danish ‘mægling‘.)

Indeed, I haven’t come across the term very often in the museological literature I have studied so far, and I am not sure if I could use it in a discussion with my English peers without qualifying it, so even if neither my gut feeling nor the sensitivities of my Englishman of choice or even the Oxford English Dictionary constitutes a valid academic argument for favouring one term over another; it is still worth keeping in mind that the correct term (if such a thing could be established) is not necessarily the one that people subscribe to.

… but alas, time is running out again, and I must end for today, even though there is still a lot more that I have to say about this. To be continued… dun, dun, dun!

* Which is probably due a major reconstruction as the agency has just been restructured