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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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Emerging from the slump, its time to get all fired up again; its time for a declaration of intent, a creed, a manifesto (or something) (trumpets, cheerleaders, confetti, the works)!

Setting out on this project, I had the naïve idea that the concept of doing web exhibitions was a newly found and yet unexploited territory, and that I would be able to shine some light on the potentials for developing this rich seam of digital delights. This, of course, turned out not to be the case. The reality is that web exhibitions emerged with the dawn of the world wide web, and since then, pretty much every avenue of www development has also been exploited in an exhibition context. Accordingly, today’s museum audience can visit virtual reality exhibitions in Second Life; revisit augmented physical exhibitions online; remix digitalized cultural heritage to their hearts’ content (licenses allowing); download podcasts and print out personalised plans pre-visit; rummage through endless ressources; engage in online museum communities; contribute content and explore 1001 storylines; vlog, tag, digg, zoom, tweet, share and more. And everybody’s at it, in Denmark and abroad.

So what’s the point? What’s the problem? Luckily, I still have one. My problem is, that for all the weird and wonderful web exhibitions I have been exploring in the last few months, I still haven’t found one that really, truly did it for me. I can think of quite a few that I liked, there’s lots of great stuff out there. But none of them really stuck with me, I was never truly engaged, and trying to recall them I end up with a blurred mish mash.

Now, I don’t expect to find the holy grail of web-exhibitions; I don’t believe that I will come up with a concept so brilliant that it will give others the experience I wish I had found. (I still wish I could, and I will give it my best shot). But I think my frustration pinpoints the problem of web exhibitions: they just add to the online noise, when what we crave is music.

My lack of engagement, no doubt, has a lot to do with the superficial mental browser mode I was in whilst surfing the net for great examples, and less to do with the actual content or format of the exhibitions. Still, isn’t this what museums are up against? Isn’t this the reality of life on the net, just as the reality of the physical museum is that visitors spend an average of just 3 seconds on a piece of art?

The modern day wealth of information and entertainment, available at a click, has made us rather blasé. Yet all this relentless surfing, all this killing time online is perhaps fuelled by a hope or desire to find something worthwhile. Something that slows us down, stops the browsing. Perhaps the creed of web designers – and museums – shouldn’t be ‘Don’t make me think!’ but rather ‘Do make me think!’. Make me feel, make me wonder or marvel, provoke me. Don’t just inform me.

Sometimes, of course, we are looking for specific information, and need this information and relevant ressources to be as readily available and easy to find as possible. To this end, advanced search tools, functional meta-data, accessible taxonomies and a focus on usability is the key to making digitalized cultural heritage a usable ressource for the public. But this functional approach to online museum content is only valuable if we already have a quest, if we know what we are searching for. In order to engage us, to sow that seed of interest, the web exhibition must go further than to just present us with representations of objects and related facts.

Original objects and works of art are powerful things. Taking my son to see Solvognen for the first time actually brought tears to my eyes; seeing Van Gogh’s paintings live made me realise what the fuss was all about. Here was something that even the best coffee-table reproduction could not capture. In this light, the online iteration is no match for the real thing, the physical exhibition.

But instead of lamenting the loss of aura, the lameness of the reproduction, maybe we could see it as a liberation? Perhaps the physical museum is too bound to the objects themselves (not to mention restricted by how these precious objects must be treated in order to survive being on display). Perhaps online instead we can put a microphone to the stories they hold, and turn up the volume, free from the hushed reverence of the museum halls?

It’s all been done before. But it’s still worth doing again and again until we begin to get it just right.

Interestingly, and, according to Rob Semper not accidently, two of the first WWW applications were online exhibitions. Semper suggests this is due to an inherent similarity between the qualities of the web and the museum; either way, in web terms, there is a long tradition for developing exhibitions for online exploration.
Sadly, these very first iterations from the early nineties are no longer available online. I like to picture them in the style of crude 80’s graphics, pure net-nostalgia. But in reality, they may well have looked not much different from what is on offer today.
Take the 1996 Turbulent Landscapes exhibition, using a graphic representation of the onsite exhibition as a navigational tool for the online version of the exhibition. This same principle (albeit in a more up-to-date graphical style) is still in use, as in the just opened Stik gaflen i øjet exhibition at Statens Museum for Kunst. Or check the social software/user generated content concepts applied in the 1995 Remembering Nagasaki exhibition, long before ‘Web 2.0’ was even conceived.
Similarly, I was surprised to learn, through discussion with a more tech-savvy fellow student, that the technologies listed in Tinklers 1998 paper are still the ones most relevant to online content development.
And yet, even though we may still use the same technologies and principles, the way we use them and the way we perceive of them has changed drastically over the course of the last 10-15 years.

What makes an online exhibition an exhibition? Is a digital catalogue an exhibition? A multimedia catalogue? What constitutes an exhibition?
Although my research to date has not been very exhaustive, I have come across quite a few web exhibitions so far. All present a combination of images, text and sometimes multimedia files or interactive games and the like, revolving around a given topic or collection of objects or artworks. So far so good. Too often, the graphic design and/ or the site navigation has been annoyingly clumsy, but enough webexhibition sites are both aesthetically pleasing and boast state of the art (animated) graphics and navigation. Which is great.
Still, I never quite get the feeling that I am experiencing an exhibition as such. Can’t quite put my finger on it, but it still seems more like a digital, hyperlinked and multimedial version of an exhibition catalogue, rather than a digital version of the exhibition itself.
So what makes an exhibition? What makes an exhibition experience? What makes a good exhibition experience? And is it at all possible to transfer this to the world wide web? Or is it the outing, the sociability, the architecture of the physical museum or perhaps the unique objects, complete with aura, that makes a visit to a physical exhibition a cultural experience?
Is it the fact that when visiting a physical exhibition, I make a concious decision to see this particular exhibition, allocate time for the visit, make my way to the museum, and once there I therefore actually go through the whole exhibition (if not the whole museum). I may not study every object in detail, I won’t be reading all the information available, but I will have made enough of an effort to create a lasting memory of my visit.
By contrast, the exhibitions that I find online, I stumble upon. I may be searching out webexhibitions, I may find one that interests or fascinates me, and yet, because of the habitual fast-scanning nature of webbrowsing, I rarely stick with the exhibitions long enough to properly engage. Whereas spending hours in a museums feels like a great pastime, I do not have the same patience with the online medium.
Is this just me, or is it a general problem? And if it is, is it the problem of the users, who must learn to slow down and engage with all the wonderful content avaiable online? Or is it the problem of the exhibition designers, who must find better ways to exhibit this content and help the audience engage?