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museology

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

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

Last week, I came across this discussion thread on Twitter. To me it’s interesting because it pins down some of the problematic aspects of integrating digital practices (whatever they may be, hence the opening question) into museum communication.

Discussion thread on Twitter, June 16th 2014

Discussion thread on Twitter, June 16th 2014

I cannot help notice the ‘us-and-them’ rhetorics – in this case ‘us’ being the museum technologists (Koven J Smith being a museum consultant and Mia Ridge being a PhD researcher, both coming from a tech background and both key actors in the Twitter and conference based #musetech community) and ‘them’ being the ‘traditional’ museum professionals; i.e. curators, conservators, educators etc. But still I think the hesitance described, the notion that digital interactions are somehow disconnected, colder, and not as valuable as onsite visits, is very right.

The question was posed by Koven Smith presumably in preparation for his MuseumNext 2014 keynote – at least he references the question in this excerpt from that note in the blogpost Defining “digital”Here, he also describes another, seemingly contradictory, tendency:

We love the word “digital” in museums now–we’re happy to say that our latest blog is totally DDD, despite the fact that it only has four readers and took us six years to produce. In the same way that DDD used to mean “automatic awesome” for audiophiles, “digital” for museums means sweet motherlodes of engagement and young people. We’re finally getting digital. Let’s roll out that blog, and wait for carloads of teenagers to arrive on our doorsteps. That’s the way this works, right? But […] digital is a label we’ve used to paper over the fact that we still don’t really understand how this world works. (Koven J. Smith, ‘Defining “digital”‘, blogpost 20.6.2014 http://kovenjsmith.com/archives/1446)

This tendency is one that I have also critically addressed in a soon-to-be-published article. But perhaps they are not so contradictory after all. Perhaps the enthusiasm for finding digital solutions for almost every museum project – whether this enthusiasm is driven by in-house technologists who have seen the light, by external web development companies who have a vested interest in selling a need for digital to the museums, or from museum boards following political directives and funding streams – backfires because it is overwhelming. Another strand of the discussion illustrated this:

twitter_digital1

Bruce Wyman’s comment reflects well the discussions that took place in the two workshops I held with professionals from Designmuseum Danmark, in which ‘app’ became shorthand for any kind of mobile tool, ‘semantic web’ was mentioned as the way forward, but nobody (myself included) could quite pin down what it meant, QR codes became ‘QRL’s (in a mash-up with URLs) etc. Here was a group of highly accomplished professionals, masters of their respective fields, but relative newcomers to the digital domain, vast and rapidly evolving as it is. Little wonder that they did not have full command of concepts and lingo. And the feeling of uncertainty, of not quite understanding what the possibilities are and how to select a strategy and move forward, is surely not helped by this constant demand for ‘getting with the program’ while simultaneously being told – or talked about as if – you’re not getting it or not getting it right. Rather, it might breed scepticism or resentment. And anyway, when the tech in-crowd struggles to define digital, its not so strange that everybody else are also a little confused.

Sharing is Caring 14

Which reminds me of a really interesting debate that took place at this year’s Sharing is Caring seminar, one that still sticks with me as it kind of touches on a central conundrum in my research. (For the record, I’ve been off with stress for a few weeks, which is why I didn’t get round to blogging about the seminar back in April. Back now, and better although still slightly dizzy, so blogging is a strategy for getting back in the game). After both presenting keynotes, Nick Poole – having spoken about the love of museums as a key driving force for staff and visitors alike – and Simon Tanner – giving a presentation on impact assessment – launched into a discussion about whether institutional development should essentially be guided by evidence or confidence. Obviously, success can be a bit hit and miss. Simon Tanner therefore argued, that in order to ensure that our strategies and efforts really have the intended impact, and adjust accordingly if they don’t, we must gather and analyse data that shows what actually happens, how they are experienced by the public, rather than following gut feelings and hype. While this is a valid and rational point, the problem remains that it takes a lot of time to produce evidence (and still your evidence only answers the questions you set out to explore, but not all the other aspects that may have given you a different result). Nick Poole therefore took the position that as culture and society evolves too quickly for science to keep up, development should not be stalled by the idealistic call for evidence. Furthermore, as evidence can only tell us about the past, but not foresee the future, we have to rely on our beliefs when deciding on how to move forward. To support this view, he cited that the greatest leap of institutional development – in the 19th century – was precisely guided by belief, not evidence (thus ironically using evidence to back his claim, but still a good point, not least as museums are currently attempting to make an equally significant leap into a digitalised, networked and democratic future).

The outcome of the discussion was of course a compromise, an agreement that we have to combine the two, and let investments follow the projects that we believe will have the greatest impact rather than simply stick to what we feel most comfortable with, and subsequently evaluate and learn from our mistakes.

I attended the seminar together with my museology class, which worked as great learning experience. Interestingly, in our follow-up discussion, they picked up on the tendency for presentations to have a touch of the motivational speech: little criticism was raised, and rhetorics were at times a bit to idealistic and flowery (e.g. Nick Poole’s talk about love; it’s all well and good but how do you put that into practice?!) – which had also bugged me when I first attended Sharing is Caring in 2012. This time I was less bothered. Was that because the evangelism had been turned down a notch, because I had adjusted my expectations, or had become wiser or simply lost my critical mojo?

Either way, a lot of interesting issues have been raised in this seminar series, and now the contributions from the 2011 and 2012 editions have been collated in an anthology edited by Merete Sanderhoff. The anthology, which addresses ‘the changes and opportunities brought about by digitisation, digital media, and the internet for the cultural heritage world and – not least – our users’ comprises 18 articles by Danish and international museum professionals, scholars, public sector administrators and others. It presents a wide range of cases and viewpoints, and is not only well worth a read, but also freely available for download from SMK’s website. Now that’s sharing the love.

sharecare

 

A revised version of the paper I presented at the Museum Metamorphosis conference in Leicester last year, has now been published in the latest issue of Museological Review.

Abstract:
Museums are steadily changing. Yet analogising this development with biological or mythological metamorphosis could imply an elevation or naturalisation of events, which is potentially problematic. This paper therefore suggests a supplementary perspective, arguing that certain changes in modern day museum practices correspond to the logic of fashion. Where Foucault once described museums as heterochronias; places representing an ’other-time’, museums now strive to be both of their time and in time with the Zeitgeist. As a consequence, they must keep up with the speedy cycles of technological advancements and cultural change, and not only deliver, but also stoke the desire for, novel experiences. The paper explores the current vogue for fashion exhibitions as a case in point, arguing that this trend serves to promote the museum as fashionably current, but can also support novel formats for cultural reflection. 

I sort of do, at least, and now I’ve even got a badge to prove it, sent by analogue mail all the way from NY, thanks to @MarkBSchlemmer, who started the #ITweetMuseums initiative. (BTW, this post will feature excessive use of @handles and #hashtags). Ironically, it’s the analogue part that really wins me over, even though I’m not entirely sure what to make of this whole museums on twitter business. But after mainly lurking on Twitter for five years, since attending Museums and the Web back in 2009 (watch out for tweets from #MW2014 next week), I suddenly find myself tweeting loads.

IMG_3310

My motivation for getting stuck in was that I arranged for the museology class to participate in a user test of #hintme.dk (see also the Europeana Case study). Given how much I learned myself from joining a previous test I figured this would be a great way for the students to experience and engage critically with mobile museum mediation from a user perspective, and also get an insight into the museum’s perspective. Merete Sanderhoff/ @MSanderhoff, project manager at Statens Museum for Kunst, presented the intentions behind the project and also, as always, generously shared the challenges experienced and the insights gained in the process, as technology and users threw spanners in the works of the original ideas. With the functionality now more or less in place, the user test was set up as a tweetup, asking us to reflect on the social interactions and also get some content on the platform. Curator @k_monrad also took part in the test and provided some useful answers to our questions – as well as pointing out the brilliance of Twitter forcing you to be brief and succinct –  and @PSoemers, an hintme-enthusiast from the Netherlands, joined online. It was was good fun, and although the screen and the technology still takes up a lot of attention, it was also clear from the hints shared and questions asked that the format inspired closer looks at the artwork.

So anyway, to get ready for the tweetup, the students all had to get a twitter profile, and were urged to acquaint themselves with the platform by sharing tweets and links under the #ivamus tag. They only did so very sparringly, I must admit, whereas I got on a slightly maniacal roll, sharing articles and hashtags and RTs for inspiration (and, to be honest, to let them see how the online museum sphere has no ending and thus can be rather overwhelming). Which is how I stumbled upon the #ITweetMuseums thing, was allerted to the brilliant Touch Van Gogh iPad app and @danamuses’ useful #museumhashtag glossary , connected with @PSoemers, @Skagensmuseum and others, followed the #whyexhibitions conference on the sideline and much more.

And now it’s #MuseumWeek, meaning that institutions around the world share their stories and get users involved in quizzes and other calls for participation. It’s rather distracting, but it’s actually also a really nice way to engage with institutions around museum objects and stories. But there is a but – namely that a lot of the interaction seems to be between museum professionals. Which is not a bad thing in itself, that museologist use twitter for mutual inspiration and knowledge sharing. But it does show that despite inventiveness and the very best intentions, it is still hard to get the public properly engaged, and that even though the uptake of Twitter in Denmark is growing rapidly, it is still not possible to simply transpose a general media usage pattern to a museum specific context.