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For a while I’ve been pondering change and trends in museums. In my article, ‘Museum metamorphosis à la mode’, I suggest that certain museum developments may correspond to a fashion logic, as evident in trends of interest running across the museum sector, and in how keeping up with current culture has become as important, and cooler, than serving as custodians of the past.

The V&A’s Rapid Response Collection is a very interesting example of this, where ‘[o]bjects are collected in response to major moments in history that touch the world of design and manufacturing. This new strategy helps the V&A to engage in a timely way with important events that shape, or are shaped by design, architecture and technology.’ (http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/r/rapid-response-collecting/)

Louboutin’s 2013 Nudes collection, for example (the collection is not fashion specific, by the way, but I choose this example because it relates to my domain in particular), was thus recognised as representing a significant sociocultural shift, as ‘[t]his was the first time that a major fashion house had adjusted its definition of nude to include skin colours other than white’. (Rather shocking, really, that it has taken so long). Furthermore, the collection’s curators leverage Twitter and Instagram to ask for the public’s suggestions for new accessions; another museology-of the-current trend.

‘Fifi’ pump in five nude shades, designed by Christian Louboutin Ltd, 2013. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

‘Fifi’ pump in five nude shades, designed by Christian Louboutin Ltd, 2013. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

But aside from this movement towards matching and musealising the Zeitgeist, I also detect a trend for nostalgia on the rise. I’ve written about the death and the resurrection of the diorama elsewhere, one of my favourite examples of an altmodish museum technology which nevertheless has a unique didactic and experiential quality, and which furthermore appeals to our yearning for the past.

Another surprisingly strong example of this came up yesterday on Facebook, where the National Museum of Denmark latched on to the ‘Throwback Thursday’ trend on social media, and posted a vintage photo from the museum galleries. Interestingly, the majority of responses expressed a nostalgia for this kind of museum display, with remarks such as ‘It’s actually really beautiful. When I was a child, the National Museum was more magical, lots of objects and hardly any explanations – that was cool’ and ‘would prefer exhibitions as they looked back then, showing the quantity and variety of objects’.

It is interesting, I think, that the public responds in this way (disclaimer: I have not been checking out who ‘the public’ is in this case – some of the other comments seem to come from museum people, and the quoted commentators may also represent a bias, it’s only one instance and an unrepresentative sample, etc. – nevertheless), perhaps a little differently from what the museum expected.

Screenshot from Facebook, post on National Museum of Denmark's profile page

Screenshot from Facebook, post from Nov. 27th. on National Museum of Denmark’s profile page

From a museum history perspective this type of display is terribly out-dated and dull. Furthermore, museologists may see this display form as a reflection of the traditional authoritative museum from which it stems, an institutional identity which modern museums are very keen to leave behind. Glass cases become negative by association, perhaps, as much as because of their actual constraints.** But for a new generation of museum goers it’s the blinking interactives and dead computer kiosks that are old hat, aesthetically troublesome and cloyingly didactic. The unmediated collection, on the other hand, appeals not only because it is quaint or induces nostalgia, but also because it seems fresh. Rock collections simply rock.

(For me personally, Pitt Rivers Museum and Galeries d’anatomie comparée et de paléonlogie top the list of museums I’d love to see (oh, and ‘House on the rock’, which looks like every kind of museo-manic awesome rolled into one as directed by David Lynch)). In this age of ever-increasing levels of digitisation and connectedness, I believe that materiality and mental space is sometimes experienced as a scarcity, and could therefore become a mega trend* in the future. If they want to make that their unique selling point, museums have both in buckets.

*(see also Charlotte SH Jensen’s inspiring post about the significance of mega trends for the GLAM sector)

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** Note added Feburary 24th, 2015:

As stated by Britta Brenna (2014:47f), “In a long tradition of museum critique the glass case has been a metaphor for what museums do to objects. Museums, it is claimed, decontextualizes objects, severe their bonds to any original context, and taps them for monetary and use-value. However, these critiques have a tendency to treat the glass cases as ‘black boxes’; self-evident museum features that do not need further investigation.”

Brenna, B. (2014), ‘Nature and texts in glass cases: The vitrine as a tool for textualizing nature, Nordic Journal of Science and Technology Studies, Vol 2, No 1 http://www.nordicsts.org/index.php/njsts/article/view/1201406

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m planning to join the PhD seminar Studies in the Curatorial at University of Copenhagen next term, hoping to find inspiration and challenges for the museological aspects of my project.

Although my focus is on the mediation and not the curation of an exhibition, I believe that the two aspects should be considered in conjunction. Rather than seeing the mediation of an exhibition as a necessary add-on, one that is solved by either a default combination of catalogue, object labels and the optional audioguide, or by a state of the art mediatization complete with touchtables, mobile apps and platforms for interaction, the choice of mediation, and mediation media, should be an integral part of the objectives and discourse of the exhibition; a means to a curatorial end.

Therefore I look forward to getting a proper grasp of the concepts and challenges of curatorial practice, taking part in discussions on questions such as How can we perceive the role of exhibitions and expanded cultural practices of curating? and How are museums transformed and what sort of conservative, or maybe, critical potentials can be traced in exhibitions cultures? and not least to presenting and placing my own project within this discourse.

http://phd.hum.ku.dk/Cultlitart/courses/studies_in_the_curatorial/