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#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.

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?

[sketch for a prologue]

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Glitter banner (acrylic binder, glitter, velvet) & photo by Lise Haller Baggesen Ross 2011

A common, or readily comprehensible, metaphor for scientific research is shining a light, a torch perhaps, on the world, and reporting what you see. You know, a nice, neat circle of light; a concise elucidation for the sake of enlightenment. Everything around it is necessarily left in the dark, still, in this spot of light we see at least a portion of the world, bright and clear.

In this project, however, the multifaceted field of mobile museology has worked somewhat like a mirrorball. So many things to think about, so many ways to consider the interplay of museums and media, fashion and design research, change, trends, politics, practice, #museumselfies and theoretical conundrums. And I cannot rely solely on academic discourse presented in peer-reviewed journals and authorised anthologies if I want to try to get a grasp on what is going on. Every museum visit provides new food for thought. In my Twitter feed, hardly a week goes by without a new cluster of people commenting from yet another museum conference or seminar, under yet another obscure hashtag. At the same time, national and international newspapers regularly report from the digital frontiers of the museum, often setting of another round of responses and discussions in the blogosphere. All this talk about transformations, challenges, new horizons and changing paradigms. What is new is perhaps not so much that the museum institution is up for discussion, but that I, like the rest of the museum community, am constantly reminded of the ongoing debate and called to reflect on new viewpoints and perspectives. The field is not fixed.

Rather than making one clear projection, then, my research produces a dapple of lights, illuminating different aspects at once. In one article I explore a fashion perspective on institutional changes, in another, mobilisation and digital discourse. My blog posts, as my research, comprise a jumble of musings, on anything from methodological curiosity to musealisation of everyday objects. I have not been able to tear myself away from the sparkle to focus my mental torch on a single issue. But then, do I really need to?

Mirrorball methodology may not sound like sound academic practice. What of the focus, the stringency? What of relevance and rigour? Surely that could never chime with swaying to a beat in a flimsy light? And really, a dissertation should not be ‘all over the place’, no. But could there be an argument for trying to join the dots, rather than fixating on one spot? Could there be a place in academia for jazzing it up a little?

I believe there is. There must be, or we’d lose out on trans-disciplinary perspectives, on trajectories of thought which may not always be fully formed but nevertheless need articulation, for others to pursue or reject. Likewise, academic genres must be mouldable to fit contemporary research interests and methodologies if we are to be truly transparent about what we have actually done, rather than reconstructing research to fit into existing formats.

I’m not even talking about breaking the mould, either,  just stretching it a little. And the pattern of light is not as random as it may seem at a glance. I’ll do my damnedest to tie it together and make cohesive arguments, to articulate as best I can the arena which I have assembled and the matters of concern which I have uncovered, in proper academic prose. The mirrrorball image, fetching as it is (ah, the tune it invokes in your mind), and quaintly befitting reflective research in the GLAM sector, is just metaphor, not really method. But please, hum along, come along when sometimes I wander. I do believe that such an approach will prove illustrative.

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.

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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Screenshot from Instagram, submission for #deldit2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As of last week and until the end of the year, I have moved quarters and am now a visiting researcher at the CoDesign research cluster at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, 
Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation, 
School of Design (aka KADK).

Last week was mainly spent acclimatising, but also on attending visiting researcher Tuuli Mattelmäki’s presentation on probes and other research methods for a group of new CoDesign students, and parttaking in the cluster’s weekly meetings, which last week included a visit from TV producer Ane Skak, sharing her experience with user involvement in cross media/ cross institutional projects. The presentations, the meetings and the projects presented or referenced were really inspiring – there’s some interesting things happening in this field and some interesting approaches taken. And one thing that is also clearly emerging is a very collaborative, engaged and openly conversational research environment. People take the time to talk with each other and savour the opportunity to share their questions and knowledge. So on top of drinking in the creative ambience of the design school environment (where all the work-in-progress mess, inspirational material and prototypes cluttering up the studios bring back sweet memories of being a fashion student, now a decade ago), I also enjoy this friendly and curious academic atmosphere and find this attitude to research and professional collaboration very appealing (even though I inevitably still feel like an outsider).

And Wednesday it was my turn to present my project to the group. As it turned out, however, the other PhD students in the group were all working from home (being in the final stages of writing), whilst another researcher was doing an all-day workshop elsewhere, meaning that I ended up presenting to a small group of senior researchers: Eva Brandt and Thomas Binder from the CoDesign group and Tuuli Mattelmäki from Aalto University. Of course it would have been great to get responses also from the other group members, but I also felt very privileged to get this kind of triple ‘master class’ attention on my project. And kick myself for not having recorded their insightful comments, but here’s trying to draw out the essence.

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Although I deliberately went for a flexibly handheld rather than a slick ppt-ey presentation, reasoning that my objective was not to sell my project but to lay out my uncertainties, I had actually really tried to think through my process and problems related to my research-through-design methodology, and to work out what I needed to tell and get feedback on. Honestly, I had. Running through my notes and material, writing up a chronology, pinpointing central ideas and uncertainties. But my presentation was still all over the place. Because now that I finally had the chance to discuss my approach and concerns with someone who could give me critique from within the design research field, I wanted to share everything. And since it’s all interconnected – what I’ve done, why I’ve done it and what I make of it; what I think I know and know I don’t (and think I ought to find out about); inspirations and outcomes – it’s hard to stick to a single narrative. Even when I have actually been following a relatively well-planned process. The mindmap shown above, which I made the day before to try to get an overview and piece together which references and questions belong to which aspect of the research, I guess illustrates my state of mind fairly well (mind you, this is only a representation of the methodological aspects of the project; museology, media and fashion hardly enter into the equation here. So in total it’s even messier. Which I sort of think it should be and sort of think it shouldn’t be at this stage (two years in, one to go), but either way it’s a bit scary).

I’ve come to CoDesign to try to make meaning out of this mess, to find out where to situate my design oriented research within the field, find the right language to describe what I have done and what it means. Because I have been getting a bit lost in considerations about methodology, and how it reflects my own preconceptions and preoccupations, since failing to make a clear case for my approach at the Nordes doctoral consortium  this summer and taking to heart J. Lee’s notions about the necessity of reflexive method making. And I still believe this is both relevant and interesting, and that I must necessarily be able to account for my methodology in my dissertation. But the supposedly-good-but-still-a-little-hard-to-get-my-head-around news coming out of today’s meeting, is that I should stop trying so hard to pin it down, at least for now. Stop trying to work out what my method is – the relevant question is not whether my concept dominos could be described as a form of game, or not, but what this particular approach has shown me. ‘Make the beast talk’ as Thomas BInder put it, and beware that my project does not fall into fragments.

(And yes, I guess that at the end of the day these reflections on a personal process of ‘enlightenment’ are mainly of interest to myself, and should be largely purged from the dissertation. However, as I find it useful to write them out of my system, the blog will still have to stand for a whole heap of confused confessions of this type.)

Referencing Donald Schön’s assertion that ‘one thing is what you do, another is what others make of it’, Thomas addressed the (common?) pitfall in justifying one’s position, and urged me to avoid longwinded meta-level deliberations on method. Rather than speculating about what I’ve done, I should trust it – this notion was seconded by Eva, who acknowledged the designerly takes and sensitivities in my material, and pointed to the richness of the journey taken – and focus instead on understanding how the generated material talks back to me and show what it can say about the world.

It’s still a delicate balance, as my project and process is hermeneutical rather than empirical – again, Thomas emphasised that I should stay true to this outset and consider my material as text rather than data, to look at the readings and writings, and rereadings, a spiralling movement of interactions with the material and the partipants around the designerly material I have written in the process.

(I promptly took out Gadamer’s Truth and Method from the library. Perhaps being in my bag will give it a competitive edge over Foucault’s The Order of Things and Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, not to mention Baumann, Giddens, Latour and all the other seminal works currently sat on my shelf that sadly all to often end up simply collecting dust. So many things I want to read, and so hard, sometimes, to decide what is relevant for the project and what is just an inspiring detour, which I don’t have the time to indulge in. For which aspects will a superficial understanding suffice, and for which is deep knowledge essential?).

So what can I say about the world? I guess I have been hesitant to claim that I can really say anything, given my narrow samples/studies and being conscious of my subjective approach. And perhaps this hesitancy has led me to become too guided by ‘agenda’; my gripe with mobile museum mediation. As Tuuli suggested, I need to consider to what extent I have actually sought to draw out the participants’ viewpoints, and how much I have simply been exploring my own ideas, or mainly been receptive to reflections of my own views. So while it is relevant to reflect on which assumptions about fashion, mobile media and museums I have been working from when designing these tools, I should also be aware of how they have narrowed or skewed my participants’ interpretive space.

Tuuli also commented that while at first she did not see the critical inspiration in the material – which admittedly was not very noir – my description of a process where I retained a strong sense of authorship, rather than staging a truly co-creative process, was indeed indicative of a designer-led approach akin to that taken by critical designers, also working to an agenda as much as exploring the field.

My probes, for instance, combined tasks for self documentation (e.g. mobile photography) with activities that were more akin to prototyping of early designerly guesses (e.g. the Pinterest and Polyvore assignments). Similarly, the dominos were designed to explore later stage guesses. Then again, these tools also served to disprove my guesses – heuristics, hypothesis, if you like – as when the online activities were rejected by the participants. The realisation that even this very digitally literate group were not inclined to engage with museum-related activities via social media sites was thus not so much a confirmation of my scepticism as a source of it. And while my studies are too small to make any results indicative of general patterns, the outcome has definitely informed my thinking. (As well as the other way round, and round, and back into the hermeneutical spiral we go).

One very concrete suggestion coming out of the workshop, from Thomas, was to initiate a collective Interaction Analysis session, and enlist the other researchers here to help me analyse interactions in and outcomes of my workshops from the video material. Until now, I had only kept the videos as documentary backup, whilst transcribing the procedures from the audio recordings. So actually just looking at the videos again feels like a fresh view into my process. And even though the footage is not great (in workshop II the camera shows what goes on on the table, but not the faces, in workshop III the camera is set to show the group, but not the table, and two people have their back to the camera (a result of experimenting with methods I’m not trained in, but at least I’ve got footage, so there)) it will be interesting to see what can be learned from it. Whereas the transcripts have been useful for drawing our central themes and problems regarding (the museum professionals’ perceptions of) mobile mediation, perhaps collective analysis of the visible interactions can uncover perspectives that I have hitherto been blind to.

Jordan & Henderson, in the 1995 article ‘Interaction Analysis: Foundations and Practice’ (in The Journal of the Learning Sciences 4(1), pp. 39-103), imply as much, stating that ‘Collaborative viewing is particularly powerful for neutralizing preconceived notions on the part of researchers and discourages the tendency to see in the interaction what one is conditioned to see or even wants to see’. (44)

I really hope that the researchers here will be able to find a couple of hours to engage in this work, as I am sure I would learn an awful lot from partaking in such a collective session. And even though I intend to turn my attention to the outcome, to what this material tells me about the world, another look at the videos could perhaps also provide some answers as to how to understand my method, and how to describe it, as ‘accounts of methods cannot be separated from accounts of findings and that the best way to talk about method is to show instances of the actual work.’ (ibid. 42).

So it all comes together, getting what I came for, but in a different manner than I could worked out myself.

Yesterday I attended a one day national conference on ‘The Hybrid Museum’, arranged by the Danish consortium for museum research, to address these issues:

In recent years, the boundaries between institutions of informal learning have become increasingly diffuse. Hybrid forms have appeared through the dissociation and recombination of exhibit genres, audience perspectives, curatorial practices, sponsorship opportunities, managerial competencies, organisational structures, and societal relations, leading ultimately to the genesis of the Hybrid Museum. What are the consequences of this for present-day museums, experience centres, and science centres? How can research be adapted to account for this tendency? How will museums further public engagement in the years to come?

The morning session included some very interesting presentations by prof. Gayle McPherson (University of West Scotland) on the digital visitor experience, and associate prof. Katja Lindqvist (Lund University) on taking a service management perspective on the museum. The hybrid addressed here was thus mainly the one of public service cultural institutions with/as commercial enterprises.

Based on her extensive research into changing museums policies in the UK over the last three decades, McPherson argued that ‘education and entertainment are no longer the uneasy bedfellows they used to be’, and that by embracing digital engagement and working cleverly with commercial strategies, museums could offer better experiences for ‘museum consumers’, thereby also meeting policy goals. She’s right, of course, but I couldn’t help asking if, by the logic of commercial entrepreneurship, museums might not risk losing their USP (unique selling point) if they come to resemble commercial enterprises too much?

This blurring of identities also surfaced in my first workshop with Designmuseum Denmark, in which one of the curators rhetorically asked ‘What is the church of the day, and who is the preacher of the day? Where is today’s museum and where is today’s shopping experience?‘ (Hvad er dagens kirke, og hvem er dagens præst? Hvor er dagens museum og hvor er dagens shoppingoplevelse?). Similarly, I found a strong resemblance between the Shoe Obsession exhibition at the Museum at FIT and the shoe department of the (exhibition sponsor) Saks Fifth Avenue, where the commercial shoe display emulated a museum style, while the museum unabashedly showcased commercial products currently on sale. Shopping may be a favorite past-time in the 21st century, but will this development just continue ad infinitum, or might we see a backlash against commercial culture where museums could become the ‘new black’ havens of material rather than materialistic culture? (Aren’t we already seeing the dawn of this political shift, or am I just a dreamer?)

Katja Lindqvist, who came to museum studies from an MBA background, had some interesting things to say about the mixed economy model of modern day museum, where public funding and sales profit together form the basis of museum management. While museums can – and have to – learn a lot from commercial enterprises, she also cautioned awareness of some of the assumptions behind popular business models which may not be applicable in a museum context, such as economies of scale or strict for-profit thinking. She also pointed out some of the effects of recent public sector reforms on museums, such as growing ‘projectification’ and a looming tendency to manage for audit resulting from more formal control and the need to constantly assert the institution’s relevance for society. Both scholars have published some interesting articles in Museum management and curatorship, which I will be sure to look up.

To my regret, I’d missed out on an affiliated PhD course the previous day, having overlooked this option on the website. Not that I’m short on ECTS points, but it would have been an interesting forum for presenting and discussing some of the issues I wish to address. Instead, I plunged into the debate in yesterday’s workshop on the impact of the concept of the hybrid museum on museums’ organisation and self-image, but left feeling unsure if I’d missed the mark a bit, raising the wrong kind of questions for this context or just explaining the points I was trying to make badly. However, the way that my suggestions were dismissed by McPherson (it’s not that I don’t get that publicly funded institutions have public obligations, it’s just that I’m sometimes a bit sceptic when it comes to getting with the program. In my book, questioning universal assumptions is one of the finer tasks of academia) gave me some food for thought about challenges in international discussions about museum issues.

For instance, my remark about how the strong focus on initiatives for engaging children might cause museums to overlook the commercial potential of and inadequately service the older audience they already have (by example, the national museum of art last year curated a fine exhibition theme about death aimed at children, but wouldn’t it also be interesting and relevant to curate the same topic for, or in collaboration with, the elderly?!) somehow morphed into a discussion about special events for museum friends and patrons. But the needs and interest of the stereotypical Danish museum-goer, a fifty-something female teacher, is not necessarily compatible to those of the equally stereotypical lady-who-lunches who supports the upkeep of an institution like the Met. Likewise, the circumstances in the US, the UK and in Scandinavia or continental Europe are not identical. We may be heading more and more towards a neo-liberal model of the welfare state, but we also still have other strands to our cultural DNA, and, I believe, still have the political right to question whether we want to model ourselves on the institutional changes brought on by post-Thatcher/ New Labour ideals or American trust fund sponsorships. (The omission of Asia, Africa and South America here is deliberate, as it is a different point I’m getting to, however, the general overlooking of non-western perspectives in this debate is indeed significant).

And yet we are constantly looking west when trying to understand the state and future of museums, to the great institutions and prominent museologists in America, Canada, England and Australia (not west, I know, but you get my drift). Myself very much included, because I, like most of my peers, have come to rely almost solely on the English language publications that I can confidently read. I used to read German and struggle through French (as this is part of standard education in Denmark, not because I was some whizz kid), but must admit that I very rarely bother these days. Even articles in the other Scandinavian languages I tend to pass over, heck, I’m not even up with the writings of my fellow Danes. Unless they have published in English. A brief conversation with senior museologist Ane Hejlskov Larsen, who could tell me that the flourishing tradition for museology in former Eastern Europe used to have a greater influence on the Nordic museum thinking, confirmed that I am alone in leaning heavily on the Anglo-american sources for inspiration and insights; this is a general trend. So what good points might we be missing out on, what ‘truths’ remain unquestioned when we’re all reading from the same script, listening to the same gospel?

My concern for academia here of course goes well beyond the field of museum studies, and ties in with a general shift towards an English-centric and Anglo-Saxon tradition of scientific publication (which again is linked to the publish-or-perish culture of new public management, I presume, but I’m admittedly a little out my depth here. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the downfalls of trying to be an academic in a second language, not only with regards to my own work, but what it will mean for the cognitive processes and academic prospects of future generations of scholars).

I know better than to try to tackle these meta level conundrums in my current project. But my concerns about how this narrow view affects the academic field of museum studies and, more importantly, the evolution of museums, is perhaps an issue to pursue in a post-doc project? In fact, it would make a lot of sense to carry out such a project at my current institution, the Royal School of Library and Information Studies, and team up with bibliometricians and cultural policy researchers. Perhaps I’m turning into an information scholar after all?

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In reply to tweet from Prof. McPherson

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I’m not trying to pick a fight, so please read this as a respectful clarification. I just feel badly misquoted – perhaps due to the exceedingly poor audio conditions at yesterday’s event – and given that I responded to professor McPherson’s tweet, I feel I now owe an elaboration, even though she luckily doesn’t seem further affronted. (added note: perhaps she just never saw my reply, or simply hasn’t been interested in hearing my response.)

As explained in the above post, my initial point was about not forgetting the value and needs of the existing museum audience. I was here referring to the typical museum goer, who, in the Danish demography-oriented research is described as a 50+ year old female teacher, i.e. educated middle class, but often somewhat dismissively referred to as a ‘hattedame’ (lit. ‘hat lady’). As the female educated middle class is also overrepresented in the museum professions, it is often seen as problematic that museums are only catering to their own kind. I strongly agree that museums need to be inclusive rather than elitist, but I don’t think that gives reason to disregard the visitors who enjoy the institutions.

When the term ‘hattedamer’ was subsequently translated for the benefit of the international participants in yesterday’s discussion, it was described as ‘ladies who lunch’ (i.e. upper class), which led into a discussion about the special events for friends and patrons at major American museums. I therefore found it necessary to differentiate between the stereotype of the retired teacher and the stereotype of the lady who lunches, whom I blunty described as a woman who had married into money. I apologised then, and apologise again for this crass and politically incorrect stereotype, but it wasn’t really the time or place to go into details – the point was to make an on the fly comprehensible distinction between the two groups. 

As for children in museums, I remember making the point that the current middle aged museum goers – including both of the above groups – had come to be interested in museums even if perhaps the museums of their childhood were not making special arrangements for children. The argument about needing to grow the next generation of museum goers does in other words not necessarily imply making special interactives for children, even though that is how it is often translated. Another point I made later about how activities tailored for one group could potentially collide with interests of other visitors – where I quoted one of my students for saying that sometimes, the presence of ‘someone glueing in the corner’ could be a distraction. This utterance came from a young person, and was addressing participatory activities in general, not activities for children in particular. 

I know I can get carried off in a debate. I know I still have a lot to learn about museums and academia and, well, life, and that too often I stick out my neck in unfortunate ways. We may disagree on certain aspects of museum strategies, but I did not mean to be brash and offensive. And to the best of my memory (then of course, I could simply be blind to my own misconceptions), I wasn’t, as it was another point entirely I was trying to make, but which apparently didn’t come across clearly and was therefore condensed into a very different argument. Hence this correction.

With the very best regards,
Rikke

… and then:

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: )