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Museum visit

#DancingMuseum, Tate Modern, May 16th 2015

If Tate Modern was Musée de la danse, May 16th 2015

Standing in the Turbine Hall, I gape as the wondrous, gigantic mirrorball slowly descends from the ceiling, and watch the specs of light travel slowly across the walls. It is a beautiful sight in this amazing space, like the coolest rave ever getting ready to begin. It also feels like my project has come full circle, as if reality mirrors the mirrorball metaphor in my prologue. I’m nearly done. The five columns of bright daylight spilling through the windows on the rear wall not only amplify the cathedral-like qualities of the grand hall, they too seem to me to assume metaphorical qualities, representing the ‘five pillars’ of the museum act, the museum as archetype, as abstract idea. So conditioned to museological reflection by now, I cannot not see it, even if know I’m overstretching the meaningfulness.

A part of the BMW Tate Live event: If Tate Modern was Musée de la danse?, this session is called Adrénaline: a dance floor for everyone. But even though this definitely feels like the place to be, the party does not take off; instead of an adrenaline rush there’s a shared, mixed feeling of awe and ackwardness, and more mobile phones than dance moves to be spotted in the crowd. How to dance the museum? What to make of it all? My mind oscillates between getting it and not getting it, and between minding and not minding if I do. But I like the idea.

The programme booklet speaks of mobility and memory, of ephemerality, of the museum as a mental space. Conceptualising choreographer Boris Charmatz likens the event to “trying on a new pair of glasses with lenses that opens up your perceptions to forms of found choreography happening everywhere”. A heteroscopic kind of vision, perchance? Or is it just me reading extra meanings into these words, cherry-picked from the pages to rhyme with my own? Even so, Charmantz’ manifesto (like Pamuk’s, like the Musetrain manifesto, like Malraux’s imaginaire) represents a call to think (differently) about the museum, to ask the questions what if and then what? The propositions about changing temporalities, changing views, that the terms they are a-changing, abound. Its not just me, then.

For three years I have been musing on museums on this blog, discussing all manners of ideas and questions with myself. Rather than reaching a state of clarity, of (relative) enlightenment, this process seems to keep spinning round and round, sparking off new thoughts, new uncertainties, as research is prone to do, I suppose, making you only more keenly aware of what you have yet to understand. Consequently, drawing conclusions and making statements about the state of the arts stills feels like taking stabs in the dark.

Nevertheless, I have made my illumination, my propositions. Here’s hoping they will also matter to others.

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

Exhibition view, from V&A's Instagram profile

Exhibition view, from V&A’s Instagram profile

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign welcoming guests at Nationalmuseet, Denmark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fashion on the Ration

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

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

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

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

This term’s teaching is giving me a real buzz. It’s so great to have been able to offer a museology course, and get a bunch of dedicated students involved in tackling museum questions and making up their own minds about what museums are and could be. Reading through their blogposts and following their thought processes is so interesting, and I’m actually really proud of the response I’ve been getting so far (and also note that I must become a little more structured and lecturer-like, as I do have a tendency to get over-enthusiastic and ramble a bit). Even though it is only a short course, I’ve prioritised museum visits and talks with external researchers and practitioners, and although both I and the students are a little frustrated that we have too little time to engage in discussions and dive deep into the literature, it’s been a real treat to hear and experience all these practice perspectives.

A couple of weeks ago we visited The Exhibition Lab at Designmuseum Danmark, and had an enlightening presentation about the exhibition principles and research results from PhD researcher and curator Laura Liv Weikop. The exhibition was set up as an experiment, displaying the same selection of everyday design objects according to three different exhibitionary principles, i.e. offering an aesthetic, didactic or affective experience of the objects, and then measuring the audience’s response and preferences. It was a great little exhibition, and a perfect case for this course.

The Exhibition Lab - Affective display 'You are what you own'

The Exhibition Lab – Affective display ‘You are what you own’

Laura’s preliminary results pointed to a preference for the affective and the didactic displays – a lot of visitors wished for a combination of the two – whereas interestingly, if not really surprisingly, the traditional glass case display was perceived by many – but not all! – as stale and old fashioned. As the cases are design classics in their own right in this case, purpose built by the Danish master Kaare Klint, they are hardly on their way out. Still, it will be really interesting to read Laura’s dissertation in time, and not least to see how the Designmuseum will follow up on these insights. 

Following on from this, we visited yet another meta-exhibition; Heim Steinbach’s The Window at Statens Museum for Kunst. The display – Steinbach’s chosen term – comprising artworks from the collection, new works by the artist-curator and everyday objects collected amongst the museum staff, and playing with exhibitionary conventions like white cube aestetics, was an interesting hybrid of artwork and exhibition. Furthermore, the accompanying folder gave a thorough introduction to the principles and elements of the display, and thus provided not only a fine guide for understanding and discussing the exhibition, but also served as an great example of the role of museum communication for the experience and discourse of the exhibition (cf. Gade 2006, Ferguson 1995, as per curriculum).

And last week, one of the students, who also works as a wildlife conservator, had arranged an absolutely wonderful visit to the Zoological Museum. First up, Birgitte Rubæk, as member of the Museum Minds innovation group, gave us an introduction to the process, plans and visions for the new Natural History Museum. If everything goes right (read: if all funding is found, so that budgetary restraints and other practicalities will not completely hollow out the original ideas), it’s going to be a truly spectacular place. And not only because of the remarkable architecture, but because of the strong curatorial ideas guiding the development of exhibitions. The group has devised a set of dogmas (in Denmark we’re rather fond of the dogma idea following the success of the film indstry in the 90’s) which center around the unique experiences of authentic artefacts that museums can offer.

Building bridges between natural science and humanities, and insisting on establishing an experience that also appeals to ‘unaccompanied majors’, and not only to families and children, the museum is not afraid to go against the current in it’s vision of what makes a great museum. A notable example is the rule stating that ‘if other media can do it better than us, we won’t do it’, which is in stark contrast to for instance branding consultant Damien Whitmore’s assertion that “In 20 years, the V&A will have more TV producers than curators.” (in Sten 2010). Rubæk’s easy going presentation thus served up a lot of food for thought, and it was hard to break off the conversation.

However, we were also privileged to a peak view of the collections, so had to move on for this fascinating experience. Five storeys worth of mammal hides and bones, stuffed birds and pickled snakes, toads and lizards; including a full blue whale skeleton, and no less than 600 polar bear craniums.

From the collection at Zoologisk Museum. Photo by Niels Toft Larsen.

From the collection at Zoologisk Museum. Photo by Niels Toft Larsen.

The latter really brought home the point about museums, in this case a university museum but also generally, as a hub for research. And Mogens Andersen, our guide and collection keeper was an amazing presenter, both knowledgable and infectiously passionate about his work. As such, he also illustrated the amazing qualities of museum guides, which may well be supplemented but cannot be replaced by any other medium.

Museology class & Mogens Andersen. Photo by Niels Toft Larsen

Museology class & Mogens Andersen. Photo by Niels Toft Larsen

Finally, we found time for a tour of the current and temporary exhibitions, where I learned that the dioramas are indeed going to go. As mentioned in an earlier post, I have a bit of a nostalgic soft spot for dioramas, and the marsh biotope in Zoologisk Museum in particular, so it was kind of sad news. But then again, I had to admit that the 40-ish year old exhibit was so tired by now that it’s representational value was stronger as an artefact of museum history than as an illustration of wetland wildlife. And interestingly, the much more recent dioramas depicting urban fauna seemed the most outmoded. I still believe that dioramas could be in vogue again some day, and I would argue for the preservation of at least some of the displays, if only as examplars of yesterday’s exhibition technology and ideals. But until such a time, I guess their outdatedness risks getting in the way of their communicative power, and not least the power of the museum to project a strong vision for the future.

David Bowie Is

One of the highlights of the holiday was to be ‘David Bowie Is’ at the V&A; a much hyped sound and vision extravaganza showcasing the style and influence/influences of one of music’s greatest. ‘Honky Dory’ was the first album I ever bought (taking inspiration from my older sister, who by then sported a Ziggy Stardust hairdo) and Bowie’s whole 70’s catalogue provided much of the soundtrack to my adolescence in the 80’s. It was thus both as an admirer of Bowie and as a museological explorer that I had been looking forward to seeing this exhibition, ensuring tickets online months ago and making a detour to London on our way to Iceland to be able to visit. In this age of experience economy, this was a pilgrimage, no less.

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It should have been awesome. Instead, I was disappointed. Overwhelmed by too much stuff, too many stories and displays, too many disjointed soundbites, far too many people and as a result underwhelmed by the total experience. I didn’t gain a deeper insight, I didn’t get a Bowie moment, and if I did glimpse the future of museums I’m not sure if I like it.

Explaining the cultural references and impact of an eclectic icon such as Bowie is a huge and complex task, and although it was great to be able too see some of the fantastic costumes up close and to revel in stylish music videos and cheeky interviews, I came away unsure if the exhibition format really was the best medium for the task. I sort of wished that I could have been served that narrative as a two hour documentary instead, as that might have equipped me for reading the artifacts afterwards (I was never enough of a fan to delve into these details on my own, and so I was a visitor with a keen interest in, but limited prior understanding of the exhibition’s subject matter).

The state of the art audio system, which should have enhanced the experience also turned out to be a frustrating affair. The idea was good; supplying all visitors with a location sensitive headset which picked up the audio for the exhibit you were looking at. In this way, a video became audible as you came closer, and other exhibits were augmented with music tracks or commentary. Probably the experience would have been great for the invite only press shows, where one was able to move around freely. But even though the flow of ordinary visitors was somewhat controlled by the strict timings of entry on pre-booked tickets (the exhibition sold out almost before opening), there were simply too many people crammed into the space. As a result, you were lucky to get close to the exhibits you wanted to see, and the audio seemed to get intercepted so that you weren’t quite sure if what you heard and what you saw were intended to go together. Several exhibits you had to pass over to get to less crowded space, meaning that you ended up trying to navigate the collective flow rather than following the flow of your own interest and understanding.

Speaking to my fellow visitors afterwards, they had experienced similar frustrations (although my sister did get her Bowie moment). Still she complained that the exhibition was too heavily front loaded, packing too much information and too many objects into the first part. My husband suggested that an exhibtion of this scale should have been allocated a larger space, which perhaps could have solved some of the audio problems.

Exit was of course through the giftshop, packed with bowieographies and special made trinkets – V&A Enterprise has taken ‘the museum shop’ to a whole new level. And yes, I too brought back relished relics, as well as some memory morsels from the exhibition itself, I will say. But overall, ‘David Bowie Is’ did not live up to expectations.

Ebbs and flows
On entry to the ‘Club to Catwalk’ exhibition on 80’s fashion, also at V&A this summer, I noticed this sign, forbidding not only photography but also sketching in the special exhibtion. This struck me as odd, given that sketching is considered a valuable tool for learning, not least for London’s many budding designers who surely will be a key audience for such an exhibition. Asking the custodian, I was informed that sketching was prohibited to ensure a better flow of visitors in the exhibition (when we visited, we had the exhibition more or less to ourselves, so flow was no problem here). An example of how experiences of the entertainment variety + economy is becoming museums’ primary concern, over and above learning and contemplation, it would seem.

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The Danish National Museum has also introduced online booking for timed entries to their current special exhibition ‘Viking‘, produced in collaboration with the British Museum and Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte in Berlin. The result of this collaboration is a beautiful spectacle, cleverly designed using dark wood and scenographic lighting to evoke a sense of drama and featuring an abundance of glorious artifacts. It’s well worth a visit. Opting for a 50 minute guided tour, we learned a lot of interesting things about the vikings as seafaring warriors and traders, and about the idea of a ‘viking age’ as a construct of the nationalistic romantics of the 19th century. However, the decision by the museum to amplify the tour with headsets, thus allowing for up to 30 participants on each tour was problematic. Half the time you were not able to see the treasures that were being talked about, as other members of the group were crowding around the exhibit, and with only 10 minutes left of our allocated hour after the tour, there wasn’t really the time to go back and explore the whole thing once again. As a result, again the connection between the narrative and the artifacts were lost; and thus the museum’s ability to tell stories with authentic things as put by Bruno Ingemann (2000:47) diminished.

Replacing traditional object labels with touch screens next to each case in the Vking exhibition allowed for easier reading in the dimly lit space, but also meant that only one person could control the reading at any point. For our young boys, the familiar and interactive screen also easily stole the attention away from the ancient treasures on display. Similarly, whilst they were enthusiastically enganging in the interactive computer game The first raid (we’d also booked tickets for readmission to the exhibition in order to be able to do this – a little awkward that you have to prepare so well in advance these days), the focus on testing their viking potential meant that they raced through the exhibition to get to the next game station, again the artefacts were upstaged by the technology (ofcourse, this was our second time round the exhibition). The game itself was good fun (although I, alas, ended my days in a fatal attempted raid on Byzantium), but the game mechanics were obscure and the learning potential very limited.

Chrome Web Lab
By contrast, the interaction of the Chrome Web Lab at the Science Museum in London was much more interesting. Experiment 1, the Universal Orchestra, especially, was a mesmerising experience. Using a digital interface you could play a group of analogue percussion instruments, whose sounds blended with music made by other visitors and online participants to create a soothing soundscape that gave the whole exhibit a tranquil, slightly otherworldly ambience. Using your Google login in a Chrome browser, you can launch the experiments and take part in the orchestra at home.

This was a great example of successful scaffolding. Controlling the rhythm digitally meant that you could experiment creatively and be sure to generate pleasant music with no prior skills. The limitations in the tactile experience of the instruments were weighed up by the auditive clarity, allowing you to single out and learn the sound of the individual instruments and play around with rhythmical sequences. The digital interactives were easily as engaging as the physical interactives of the museum’s Launchpad lab (actually, the online counterpart of that exhibit, the Launchball game is also both fun and educational).

Place and presence
Having a presence in the public sphere is one of the ways that museums work to gain relevance in the public mind, for example by way of landmark architecture, augmented reality apps or city walks.

IMG_1802The Settlement Exhibition Reykjavik 871±2 in central Reykjavik did this beautifully and effectively.The whole museum is built underground around the archeological excavation of one of the earliest settlements in Iceland. Although augmented with a variety of well chosen digital tools, it is the remnants of the longhouse and the experience of being in situ that remain in focus and make the exhibition so special. A final brilliant touch was this lightbox, allowing bypassers a peak into the museum and linking the past and present of this very spot.

Much less spectacular was Post & Tele Museum in Copenhagen’s pop-up pavillion, where tourist and city shoppers were invited to sit down and write a free postcard or design a stamp. Still this simple idea worked brilliantly, creating public interest in the museum and its subject matter, as well as providing a service and a welcome distraction.

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Pamuk revisited
Visiting the V&A Museum of Childhood I was again reminded of Pamuk’s museum manifesto when looking at a series of displays of mundane knick knacks from three presentday families.

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Individually, and contrary to Pamuk’s claim, these personal objects and stories were not of much interest to me, although perhaps this could be due to my fading attention at this point. However, in the juxtaposition of various family constellations and what objects make of the everyday of different ethnic groups, the overarching narrative became interesting, and allowed you to project your own family and your own stories and objects into this exhibit. As my own kids were still absorbed in cracking morse code and hunting for insignia in the excellent War Games exhibition, I did not test the family exhibit’s qualities as a conversation starter.

Also, contrasting an exhibit such as this to ‘David Bowie Is’ or the experience of seeing the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, which to me looked like this

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I get Pamuk’s point about the value of the intimate museum as an antidote to the grand national institutions. On the one hand it is wonderful that museums are more popular than ever and make up a substantial part of the tourism industry. But on the other, these institutions are also drowning in their own success, turning what might have been a profound experience of culture into a somewhat tacky hustle and bustle affair.

Still not quite ready to write my own manifesto, though, not sure what to make of it all. But also still not convinced that mobile media can do much more than add to the noise.

Louisiana
Note #1
Yoko Ono’s Half a Wind show, currently at Louisiana Museum of Art north of Copenhagen is a real treat. Knowing little about her art prior to my visit, I was smitten by her combination of hippie ethics, humour and poetic sensitivity, and explored her instructions, interactives and installations with a smile on my face. But one thing bugged me – the exhibition of the renowned Ceiling Painting (Yes painting) piece, the one with the ladder which you would climb to use a looking glass to read the tinniest ’yes’ hung on the ceiling, which, legend has it, brought her and Lennon together (or something like that). The thing was, it was the original ladder, and therefore you were not allowed to climb it. So was it the original art piece? Or some representation of the the original, even if the objects were authentic, auratic? And is this what happens to objects when they enter into the museum? At least for me, this experience was emblematic of that process.

Note #2
Also on display at Louisiana, from the permanent collection, was an Yves Klein triptych: magenta, gold and International Klein Blue. It’s the most amazing blue, and in order to be able to savour it for longer, or as an act of appreciation or of taking ownership or something, I tried to take a photo. What is this urge, this reflex to capture our experiences, the things we encounter, in a photo, that is the million dollar question here. But I will go for a slightly cheaper point this time, namely the observation of how the colour was completely transformed by the camera.

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I remember reading an astute blogpost or article about how the colour qualities, the tones, the contrast etc. of digital reproductions ultimately affects our reception and thus understanding of the artwork (unfortunately I cannot remember the source, but the point was beautifully illustrated by a google image search of a piece of gothic americana, which in some renditions took a sentimental, romantic hue, thus rewriting the unsettling ambience and story in the original). Then again, our perception of colour in a work of art is also affected by the colours on the gallery walls.

Anyway, with a nod to Benjamin, in this case it is not only the aura that is lost in the reproduction, but sort of the whole point of that blue. And isn’t that often the case, when looking through the snapshots intended to capture a moment, an experience, a piece of art? That the joy or wonder that prompted us to take that photo is not really there in the image. But perhaps it can still be triggered in our minds.

Note #3
Finally, still at Louisiana, I got the chance to try the mobile guide to the sculpture garden. Or to try to try it at least. When logging on to the free wifi, you’re can opt for guide, which gives you a menu of tracks for the individual sculptures. You then select a track, which starts to download. And continues to download for minutes on end until I lost patience, tried another track instead, same storry. I then decided perhaps the whole application or site needed to refresh, so went to my main screen and… couldn’t find the guide again. At all. Not as a bookmark, not in the browser history, not going via the wifi settings – when it recognised that I had already been logged in once I wasn’t offered the guide again.

I’m sure there’s a way, but the point is I got so annoyed that I gave up. Really, I shouldn’t need to ask for assistance, I shouldn’t need to waste my time and get confused and feel stupid. This wasn’t a cutting edge format, it was a bog standard mediatour, on my mobile, via wifi. How long can we stay in the pilot stage for this?

Perhaps the server was having a bad day, perhaps reception was poor (but this was a tour for the grounds), perhaps I didn’t have enough storagespace (but I wasn’t informed of such a problem). A pamphlet wouldn’t have given me this kind of trouble. So there I was, right next to world class sculpture, overlooking the Sound on a beautiful summer day, and staring at my screen. And that is just another example of many where technological glibs gets in the way of the experience the technology was supposed to serve. Damn IT.

Den Moderne By
Note #4
Visiting ’The Modern Town’, the newly opened 1974 section of open air museum ’Den Gamle By’ (The Old Town) and thus seeing a past I can actually (partly) recall in a museum was an interesting experience, and an ideal outing for three generations together. Little details, like the fag buts in the ashtray of the gynocologist’s waiting room, the list of phone numbers next to the dial phones which you could actually operate, the books and the record collections in the commune, the food in the new clear family’s larder etc. all made for good memory triggers and conversation pieces. Many things you were allowed to touch, and on top of that the exhibitions included video footage old and new, clever projections of live action and a number of digital interactives.

The magic mirror in the commune, allowing you to dress in seventies socialist garb, was perhaps a bit gimmicky, but good fun, and again, clothes speak volumes about the ideals and changing gender roles of the age. As these clothes are still in plenty supply from any second hand shop, however, perhaps a hands on dress up box could have done the trick.

The interactive polls, however, were more hit and miss. In the flat of the head mistress, her father, a former politician,’s desk had been turned into a touch table, and invited you to ponder tricky questions like whether a small country should always take up arms to defend itself from alien aggressors. In the gynocologist’s office, however, the poll seemed to have inspired digital dissent rather than contemplation. Asked if you were pro or against free abortion, apparently 66% of participants had voted against. Surely that cannot be a reflection of the visitors’ honest opinion if they even remotely ressemble the general public, I mean, this is Denmark, we’ve had free abortion for 40 years, and it’s not even really up for debate. Even considering a number of international and devout Danish visitors, these figures must be misleading, and although there is a clear markation that this is user generated content, it still makes for a strange message in a cultural museum.

Aros
Note #5
At Aros Museum of Art, apart from enjoying Elliasson’s glorious Rainbow, we had a great time with Jeppe Hein’s Distance installation. Although it wasn’t really an interactive (albeit triggered by people entering the room (and children working out where the sensors were)) the artwork itself inspired people to interact, running around the follow ’their’ balls, positioning themselves so that they would be ’playing’ with the balls whilst respecting that they could not touch, discussing and explaining to their children the physics of weight and speed etc. Completely unmediated, prompted only by the installation mechanics itself, and making for a wonderful art/science center/social museum experience.

Traditional museum technologies

As it turned out, American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) did actually (also) use some pretty old school exhibition technology: the diorama. Which was absolutely brilliant. I admit that there is an element of nostalgia here, as I was reminded of how much I used to love visiting Zoologisk Museum in Copenhagen as a child and do sticker assignments where you had to find and place animals in their biotope. Now that Zoologisk Museum is about to become part of the yet-to-be-built Statens Naturhistoriske Museum it doesn’t look like the dioramas will be part of the future exhibitions. Regretably, perhaps, as apart from being spectacular and delightfully quaint, dioramas also work really well as pedagogical tools. Tellingly, the AMNH has just spent fortunes restoring theirs.

Upper Nile Region, Akeley Hall of African Mammals, AMNH

Upper Nile Region, Akeley Hall of African Mammals, AMNH

Most importantly, dioramas shows context, rather than just telling about it. They also give you a valuable sense of scale and allows you to study animals ‘in the wild’ up close and in your own time in a way that neither wildlife films nor zoo’s can (they do something else instead). And because of their visual appeal and intricacy, they capture the interest and make you want to study them more closely, where you might pick up interesting details about botany, cohabitation of species, characteristics of fur or plumage, social life in herds etc. The accompanying wall texts then provides you with the information needed to anchor your observations. Admittedly, in a collection as vast as that of ANMH, you will probably only study the details of a few, and simply enjoy the spectacle of the rest.

In many ways they are similar to the period rooms of museums like the Metropolitan, Brooklyn Museum and also the Danish National Museum, where the assembly of an full interior provides a different understanding and feel of a stylistic period than the display of individual pieces of furniture could. You might say that this presentation style caters as much to an experience paradigm as it does to an educational one, but then drawing the audience in and giving them something that might stick in the mind is not a bad outcome, or maybe it simply allows for a different kind of learning.

The Haverhill Room, Metropolitan Museum

The Haverhill Room, Metropolitan Museum

What it all boils down to, however, is what the museum wants us to see, or how they want us to see, as argued by Svetlana Alpers. She reminds us that ‘the museum – as a way of seeing – itself keeps changing and that installation has a major effect on what one sees. a constant, however, is the issue of seeing. And the question to ask is, why an with what visual interest in view do we devise this or that display for particular objects?’  (1991: 31, ‘The Museum as a Way of Seeing’ in Karp & Lavine (eds.) Exhibiting Cultures. The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington & London). Using the example of a crab displayed out of context, as a visual object, she recounts how precisely that form of display allowed her to really see and contemplate the crab (ibid:25).

Still, back at the AMNH, the best bit of museum education came from Stephen C. – as always, the personal presentation wins hands down. Standing in the hall of saurischian dinosaurs sporting a big red ‘Fossil Explainer’ badge, he enthusiastically shared his knowledge of both the dinosaur fossils and the institution, answering our questions and elaborating with very interesting stories ( explaining, for instance, how the apatosaurus was on its third head, as new discoveries had shown previous versions to be incorrect). A retired stock broker, volunteering in the museum was a return to his childhood passion for dinosaurs, and his excitement about this subject together with the thorough training (including exam) he had gone through to become a museum docent made him a a brilliant educator.

Fossil explainer Stephen C. showing off a T-REx tooth at the AMNH

Fossil explainer Stephen C. showing off a T-Rex tooth at the AMNH

Mobile tools and challenges

The AMNH also offers a host of free mobile apps, for use in and outside the museum. The Dinosaur app, for instance, let’s you browse through hundreds of images and look up information, while the Explorer app serves as an in-museum guide. Stupidly, I didn’t think to connect to the museum’s wifi (and nowhere was it announced that this was indeed possible), and as I had no service from my mobile provider inside the humongous museum, we often found ourselves lost and unable to find the exhibits we wanted to see. In other words, this app would have provided a useful service.

AMNH dinosaur app

AMNH app

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The Metropolitan Museum, by contrast, relies primarily on traditional audio guides, to rent in the museum, and printed guide material including activities for children and families. Only a couple of exhibitions have a free, downloadable app. One of them is the ‘Beyond Battle’ app, which uses a quiz format to inspire young visitor’s exploration of the arms and armour galleries. Re-visiting the museum with my sons, aged 6 and 8, this worked a treat, and although they were already excited by the displays themselves, they were also keen to find the next item in the randomised quiz and try to guess the weight of a battle sword, the precision of a bow and arrow and so on.

But maybe the scavenger hunt had a tendency to take over, as they were driven on to the next stop, rushing between galleries, rather than exploring and contemplating the displays that most appealed to them in their own time. Then again, as we had already spent ample time marveling at the vast Egyptian collection and visiting the American wing, perhaps this made for a welcome change of dynamic.

For our visit to the Rockefeller observation deck (not a museum, I know, but there is a point) I had downloaded the ‘Top of the Rock’ app, which most notably featured a virtual viewfinder allowing you to scan the skyline for information about landmark buildings. However, despite the view being pretty predictable the app was not able to calibrate my camera image of the Empire State building with the recognitions software, and so in order to get information I had to switch to ‘Pano’ mode. In this case, this didn’t matter much (I guess, as I never actually got to experience the ‘Live’ mode), as I still got the names of the buildings I was looking at with additional information available. However, this demonstrated that object recognition software still has some way to go before reality can seamlessly become augmented with layers of information.

Top of the Rock app

ditto, pano view

(Speaking of augmented reality, I actually met someone in the West Village testing Google Glass a few weeks ago. Not at all comfortable with the prospects of this type of technology and it’s Big Brother potentiality, but that is another story. The feature in the Lego store that allowed you to see the set being built and ‘come to life’ when holding the box up to a screen was pretty cool, though.)

Visiting the Guggenheim, I found their mobile app most useful. The classic audio tour of the building  was interesting and available in transcript form too, the only problem being that as my phone was set to automatic lock after one minute, the longer tracks were cut of and had to be resumed ( I didn’t work out that this was related to my own settings, and therefore correctable, before encountering the same problem at MoMA). The Guggenheim app also allowed for in demand information by number codes, which also worked well in combination with the floor map. At MoMA, visual interpretation and audio tracks for children was also available for selected artworks, however, the information structure of the app did not make these features available in one interface for the artwork which seemed odd.

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ditto, map & artwork info

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Visiting & visitors

Visiting so many and so different institutions and exhibitions, alone and with my family, over the last few weeks has also been a fine reminder of the situated identities of museum visitors and their very different motivations, as decribed by John Falk.

Visiting fashion (related) exhibitions at the Met, the Museum at FIT and Museum of the City of New York, I have come as the ‘enthusiast’, i.e. with a special interest and some pre-exisiting knowledge in the field, interested in details and able to do my own contextualization of the exhibitions. Taking my family to the AMNH and the Met, by contrast, I have assumed the role of the ‘facilitator’, focusing mainly on the communal experience and my children’s learning. And my visits to institutions such as MoMA and Guggenheim have been prompted as much by their international renown as by their current exhibitions, making me an ‘experience seeker’, notching off the must-see destinations. Finally, I have come to all of them as an ‘explorer’, partly looking for things to capture my imagination in general, partly with a special interest in their different ways of being museums and mediating their subject matters.

What I haven’t done, although I hold this to be one of the very valuable aspects of what museums can be, is to experience these museums as a spiritual refuge, the last of Falk’s motivations. To the contrary, the rather overwhelming popularity of some of the very famous museums in this city has made me doubt if it even makes sense to think of the museum as a space for quiet contemplation. The crowded halls I have seen here bore little resemblance to the heterotopia described by Foucault, and begged the question if museums could be drowning in their own popularity? Then again, it is heartening to see that museums are such well sought destinations.

Crowd, AMNH

Crowd, MoMAEvidently, experience seekers do not only come for the institutions as a whole, but also ‘check in’ on particular famous artworks. With one of Edward Munch’s ‘The Scream’ pastels currently on loan to MoMA, it was hard to actually get a glimpse of the artwork itself for the crowds needing to get a snapshot of it, often also putting themselves in the frame as when doing tourist shots at a famous landmark. I suspect that the mobile cum social media revolution has made this behaviour even more common.

Collections, display and cultural objects 

A final observation has been of the function or prevalence of the collection and the museal display as cultural reference points in the arts. As mentioned in a previous post, mark Dion used display cages in his installation to allude to the makings of (an alternative) natural history. In a similar fashion, a much earlier work by Joseph Beuys shown at MoMA consisted of a series of vitrines each holding a collection of sculptures, whilst at the Guggenheim, the recent installation IMUUR2 by Danh Vo displayed a selection of the private collection of objects by artist Martin Wong.

Danh Vo, IMUUR2 (detail)

Danh Vo, IMUUR2 (detail)

Now, I am not sure yet what to make of this, if anything, still something makes me want to make a note of it. Something to do with the cultural role of museums, with our relationship to things and how they help us think, which relates to the question of what makes a museum object / a cultural object that I have been pondering lately.

Presenting these thoughts and my project to the BGC community last week gave me some wonderful feedback and sparked an interesting discussion, not only about this, but also about the excluding aspects of both museums and smart phones, about the use of mobiles in the museum and the sometimes limited usefulness of the museum app etc. I am truly grateful that the scholars here were willing to engage with my project, and also got the impression that these are also the kinds of questions that form part of the ongoing debate in this institution. On the back of the presentation I have also been invited to participate in a course session focused on how to leverage digital media for a upcoming focus gallery exhibition of Chuspas. I am also very much looking forward to discussing fashion curation over lunch with assistant professor and fashion historian Michele Majer, and to the list of presentations and events also taking place here and at other institutions during the final two weeks of my stay.

(I apologize for the lack of captions for the images of apps, but after battling with wordpress for an hour now trying to get them to display right, I give up. Captions should read:

first row: AMNH dinoaur app, AMNH mammal app, Metropolitan Beyond Battle app
second row: Top of the Rock app, left live view, right pano view
third row: left and middle Guggenheim app, right MoMA app

pictures of crowds: left AMNH, right MoMA)

Thursday, I attended a public lecture by Valerie Steele at 92Y in relation to the current exhibition Shoe Obsession at the Museum at FIT. As mentioned in an earlier post, I found the exhibit itself to be a little under-communicated, so it was very interesting to hear the curator and fashion historian talk about why fashion is suddenly all about the shoes. She gave insights into the linking of the stiletto heel with fetishism, a topic she has previously done extensive research into; into the concurrent rise in the height of the heels and in retail prices over the last few years; into the private collectors who had lent shoes to the exhibition, and into the impact of the TV show Sex and the City and specifically the episode ‘A woman’s right to shoes’ on the collective craze for Manolos.

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Valerie Steele lecturing on shoes – it’s an awful photo, I know, but as she is a bit of an icon in this field, a personal snapshot from the session still makes for a keepsake.

Attending this lecture also gave me a chance to ask her to elaborate a little on the curatorial considerations on displaying fashion objects from the current collections on sale a few blocks from the museum, which she gladly did:

’Well I think that what we were aiming to do was focusing, as I said, on this contemporary moment of shoe obsession, ten or twenty years of it. One problem with museum exhibitions is that of course you can’t touch things, and you certainly can’t wear things, so it’s an interesting idea that you could actually go up town and try on many of the exact same shoes, that’s something that you could almost never have in an exhibit. I did go to one exhibit of contemporary fashion in Vienna, where they actually had the clothes there hanging on a rack, and you could try them on. But that was in Europe, I mean, in New York at five o’clock there would be nothing on that rack! So, I see museums as being another medium to display fashion. You see fashion in stores, you see it on the runway, if you go to runway shows, you see it on the internet and in magazines, and it provides a particular take on it. And what can be interesting is when you push that, to try to get people to look at two things side by side, and so, I really wanted to push it by having the case – because that was my idea, that wasn’t Saks, they’re our sponsor – I said, I want to have a case of things from Saks now, because I want people to understand that these are things, not every shoe here, some may be five or ten years old, but many of them are things that are on sale now, this is a current phenomenon. And I think a lot of the audience members did, from their comments, you can get a sense of that, one woman, I overheard her saying ’I’ve died and gone to shoe heaven’, and that’s kind of the thing that you say when you’re shopping for shoes, not when you’re in a museum.’

Only later did I think that it would also have been interesting to hear more about the choice not to include any of the high street rip-offs or similar styles, that are also part of the same cultural trend, and the more attainable variant for the common girl. Although these cheaper variants do not have the same quality in terms of manufacture or design, and cannot be said to hold quite the same sculptural qualities as the iconic high fashion pieces, it is still interesting how this trend, which, in its trickled down version, is even more clearly aspirational, has developed. And not least, why a museum of fashion does not see it fit to include such examples in what is also a cultural exhibition.

Walking back from the lecture, I revisited the exhibition, and yes, the displays did make a lot more sense – rather than simply being visually stunning – after learning about some of the thoughts behind the exhibition. I also bought the catalogue (I had meant to buy it at the lecture and get it signed, but was too late as I got talking to some learned ladies after the talk) and can now study the research behind the show in more detail.

More importantly, I plucked up the courage to go and try on some designer shoes at the rather splendid shoe department at Saks Fifth Avenue, the kind of shoe heaven some people would either die or kill to be in, as per the above comment. Now, I’m not personally all that obsessed about shoes (a confession which actually at this moment is almost a little bit like admitting that you’re not that into sex). I mean, what’s not to like, but I just can’t get to the obsession stage, which is probably a good thing as it would be very costly hobby to pick up. So it was actually from a fashion museological point of departure that I felt compelled to do this, and even though I had dressed up for the occasion, so as at least to look a bit like a potential costumer, I still felt like a total fraud asking for assistance, knowing that I was never going to buy anything. So this whole question of accessibility of design products in the public space is actually not all that straight forward.

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Shoe display in Saks Fifth Avenue. Sadly, photography was prohibited in the exhibition at FIT, but there were similarities.

I opted for a pair of spiked ‘Pigalle’ Louboutins, given that his red soles are some of the most lusted for items in the current fashion economy, and because this ‘classic with a punk twist’ design had stood out in the exhibition (as well as in the promotional material), even if it wasn’t by far as adventurous as some of the other designs. Apparently, this particular shoe had even been voted the sexiest of 2012 (the stuff you find on Google!). And finally they had got me wondering whether you would end up scraping you own feet with those spikes when you wore them, which would make them exceedingly uncomfortable. In other words, they were the perfect example of a museum object that you wish you could experience physically, as well as having the whole cultural significance, fashion system references and semiotic readability thing going on at the same time. Oh, and they were cool.

So it was really interesting actually being able to inspect these shoes more closely, check out the inside details, the finishings, feel their weight and how they were to touch. There really is a difference between high fashion and low fashion items, albeit perhaps not as great a difference as the prices sometimes warrants. And wearing them of course, walking around in those 12 cm heels. And realising that they were actually great to wear (with some of the other styles it was more hit and miss, and the really high platform stilettos would take a lot more practice and came with a high risk of ungracious collapses, but this particular design actually sat really well on my foot), and that no, you don’t scrape yourself, and yes, they were definitely walkable. IMG_0638 In other words, they were great, they made me feel great, and just for a moment there, I thought that maybe I could actually… Which is absolutely insane, as they cost $1295! And some women have hundreds of pairs, which just brings home some of the more repulsive aspects of fashion. But it also illustrated so well the allure and the transforming power of fashion, even if only in a short lived dream. (I don’t mean to come across all Cinderella here; I’ve already got a few glass slippers of my own (and the prince to boot), so I could handle waking up and smelling the roses).

So really, the combined experience or juxtaposition of the display of design and creativity, the cult of the shoe, in the museum, with the material and economic reality in the department store, was very interesting, even if the bridging of the two was not explicitly suggested by the museum.

And yet, of course there is still the problem about mixing curatorial aims with the interests of the fashion industry. Marie Riegels Melchior, in a very insightful conference paper on ‘Fashion Museology: Identifying and contesting fashion in museums’ (2011), does not ask for museums to give up these collaborations with the industry, but calls for the development of a fashion museology that is in keeping with the new museological aim for reflexiveness towards cultural heritage:

The way that fashion is currently displayed and communicated in a museum context, as a means to strengthen visitor orientation, neither stimulates a reflexive world view nor an understanding of the complexity of fashion, the industry, celebrity and consumer culture, ethics and the environment, etc. At least the exhibitions that build on this aim are limited in numbers and do not reach the major art museums’ display of fashion. Fashion museology has therefore future potential. As fashion is a subject that engages non-standard museum-goers, it can become a lens through which our past and present can be told and explored in a much more nuanced way. However, it can also very easily risk the corporal sponsorship of museums, if a more critical interpretation of fashion discourages new museum-goers or fails to interest them in more critical matters concerning fashion production, distribution and consumption. The challenge is to find the right balance – to sustain the interest of visitors and corporate sponsors while maintaining the objectives of the new museology paradigm, strengthening critical reflection and understanding our contemporary world and cultural heritage. (Melchior 2011 p. 8)

In other words, an exhibition such as Shoe Obsession, in dealing with a current phenomenon, could have adressed the complexities surrounding this subject more clearly – the psychology, the production and consumption cycles, the mechanics of fashion, the aspirations – rather than simply celebrating the wonderful creations of the master designers and the women who are privileged enough to be their costumers.