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At last, its time for the Nordes13 conference, starting yesterday with a very stimulating doctoral consortium. I have been looking forward to this opportunity to meet with peers and learn from seniors doing design research for a long time, as I do feel very out of the loop, being the only one to take this approach at my institution.

It was therefore very inspiring and informative to hear about the other doctoral participants’ projects, and of course also very useful to get some critical, constructive feedback on my own paper and presentation. But to be honest, it also made me panic a bit.

My concerns about being an outlier, and not really grounded in design research, were not put to rest, rather I was reminded of all the things I don’t know. The ongoing discussions in the field, the assumptions behind the different approaches, the programs, tools and methods. I mean, I know the basics, but really I have just been building my own method from the ideas that inspired me. And although experimentation is welcome in this field, I suddenly felt that I lack the understanding and the guidance to be able to explain what it is that I have been doing, and criticizing and situating my own research within the design field, let alone transfering it to the field of museology.

So even though I had a general thumbs up to my approach, for instance in using a visual journal as a tool for research, I still find it hard to answer to/ specify exactly what I have done with it that makes it designerly, or research quality, and not simply a few pretty pages in a notebook. (I’ve started a draft for another post about the journal, because I’ve put off trying to explain it for so long, and I really need to start reflecting on it properly, so I won’t go into that here.)

No to self (from Joachim Halse)

No to self (from Joachim Halse)

As for the other comments, I really wish I had recorded the response I had, because I was too busy engaging in the conversation to take down  notes, and so I might lose some of the good points that were made.

One significant overall comment, from Lasse Hallnäs, was the assertion that my project/scope was very broad. I’m still trying to work out what to make of it, as it is not a criticism I’ve had before (when discussing my project with my supervisors or presenting in other settings). I actually thought that I had managed to narrow it down quite nicely (in general) as well as pitching this short paper and presentation to this particular context. Either way, I will have to consider whether my project really is to ambitious or unfocused, or whether it is my presentation of it that is too unclear, leading to misreadings of my actual intentions- or perhaps a combination of the two.

One contributory factor is perhaps that researchers in this field might place a greater emphasis on the design research aspects of the project, thus also expecting it to make up a more substantial part of the project than I envisage, seeing the design process mainly as a tool for thinking, a methodological approach, whilst the main interest of and contribution of the project lies in the field of museology. And yet, I have spent a significant part of my project this far trying to grasp and develop this methodology, so really maybe something else has to give if I am to ground this properly.

Another interesting comment related to my explanation of the process by way of the ‘hermeneutic spirograph’. Henrik Svarrer Larsen (himself using a super interesting figure of the interelation between space and matter to consider the dialectic of part and whole) thus pointed to the problem in placing theories, methods and actions, which are very diverse categories, on the same level, and suggested reworking the model to suggest concentric levels, seperating motors from matter. He also inquired about what was at the center – my model described a neat circle in the middle, making me aware that the spirograph design I had picked as a rough appropriation of my idea, was far to orderly and complete, and did not truly reflect the more erratic, irregular process that is really taking place. A handdrawn spirograph would be a better representation of this. Which helped me see, that although the object of study is not given as an entity at the outset, it is brought into being as well as explored by the process, in the juxtaposition and exploration of the various aspects.

Still, even with this kind of constructive and insightful response, I got this feeling of having set out to sea in a homemade dinghy, and now it was starting to leak… I also realized that I had to be proactive and do something to amend the situation (as well as snapping out of my misery). And fortunately, today gave me the opportunity to do just that.

For starters, learning from today’s paper presentations and project exhibition that this field is tremendously diverse, bringing together researchers from multiple traditions, and that my experimentations are extremely conservative when compared to, say, fungi prototyping or the provocative ‘Abort’n’Go’ device, gave me some peace of mind. Surely I too can situate my research in this field. And I won’t be alone in finding it hard to pin down what I’ve done and what it all means -it seems to be par for the course.

And then I had a good chat with Tau, my former lecturer from ITU, who is working to complete his own PhD research into design as a critical practice. As i relayed my concerns, he suggested that I spend a period as a visiting researcher at the school of design, and introduced me to Troels Degn, head of research at the school of design. He seemed positive to the idea, and saw various possibilities for connecting with both design researchers, fashion researchers and other research groups within their faculty. I will of course need to discuss this with my supervisors, but to me this seems like a very constructive prospect in terms of both mentorship and networking.

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Since my last post, I have been caught up in (or swallowed up by, more like)  teaching, assesing student papers and preparing for my research visit to the US. Starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel now, luckily, and yes, it has been an interesting leaning process also, but the lack of progress in and focus on my own research has been frustrating.

Over the course of three days last week, however, I have been able to get back into my project and field in a most inspiring PhD course entitled ‘Research in the Museum Field’.

13 students in all, representing a great diverstiy of problem areas – from experience, learning and citizenship over digital mediation to art curatorship and more – have presented projects, shared insights and questions, and given critique to each other under the guidance of senior researchers in museology Vinnie Nørskov Larsen (Aarhus University), Janet Marstine (University of  Leicester) and Britta Brenna (University of Oslo).

I presented this paper on Design research into mobile museum mediation, laying out my research design and arguing for the potential of critical design to pose questions to museum discourse and practice.

Whilst before the ‘hiatus’ I was mostly preoccupied with questions of methodology and research design (and I know, I know, I need to get stuck in to the second part of my research cycle and start sketching/analysing concepts for mediation of fashion, but first I need to get through the last two weeks of teaching, and then…) I found that what inspires (or perhaps annoys) me right now is the museological problems that the design process should help me address.

Which sometimes makes me wonder if I’ve chosen a stupidly roundabout way to get to my destination, and whether I should just skip the design part and go straight for discourse analysis. Hmmm. And then again, methodological curiousity as well as a hunch that maybe my misgivings are nothing but fear because something interesting is a stake, which then becomes an even stronger incentive, means that I will persist with the design approach and see what comes of it. (Of course my concerns could also be justified and my decision to carry on seen as a form of cowardice or lack of imagination of other options, it’s all matter of interpretation).

Anyway, my ‘annoyance’ is with the (as I see it) dominant discourse of the participatory/inclusive museum; this demand for museums to convert non-users to users by means of educational initiatives, digital media, social events, bells and whistles, anything; by choice or by force. Because whilst I agree that the desire to share what you find to be essential, joyful and valuable is both noble and necessary, I also think that the discourse presents a singleminded (if well meaning) vision of the role of museums in society: one of museum as social agent. As put forth in a very interesting article by Élise Dubuc (2011): Museum and university mutations, also on the course reading list, this is only one of museum’s many functions in society.

(Naturally, being ‘annoyed’ does not count as an academic argument, and I will know to discuss the concepts and the problems I see stemming from these in a more thorough and nuanced way in my thesis. The thing is, I’m not ready to do that yet, still lacking the insights and concepts to do this, and so, for now, I describe my reservations as ‘annoyance’, partly for want of a better word, partly to confess my personal and emotional response, which, at the end of the day, will also affect my academic vision.)

In the context of this course ‘transparency’ became as central concept, as presented by Janet Marstine in a text as part of the course curriculum and in her opening keynote as well as in an evening workshop. So in this context too, the discourse of democratization of museums had the upper hand.

Again, I agree that transparency is essential to some museum work, but I will also hold that it should not necessarily be the central point of concern for all institutions. As Simon (2010) stresses with reference to Gurian, ‘the importance of ‘and’’ is a vital principle; that participation, inclusion, transparency etc. is one focus or approach out of many options, one tool for meeting user needs and museum objectives. In practice, however, resources are scarce, and as projects inclined towards these ideals are in line with governmental objectives and therefore attract more funding, the result is that other options do not get a look in. So much for ‘and’.

There’s more to this rant, and I will return to it in later posts – after all, posing questions to the impact of new media and related assumptions and discourses on museology and the museum are central to my thesis, so trying to get to grips with these dominant themes will be a large part of that. But for now, I’ll just stick to summing what I took away from the course.

First of all, discussing these issues with my peers was most rewarding, and confirmed the relevance of addressing these issues. And of course hearing about their research questions and considerations was most inspiring. Secondly, a visit to Museum Sønderjylland/Sønderborg Slot was a real delight, not least because of the impassioned presentation by museum director Inge Adriansen, who shed light on the intriguing local histor(ies) and reflected on how to be a museum in a borderland – a remarkable museum professional with great wit and an extraordinary knowledge.

But what really hit home with me was Britta Brenna’s after dinner presentation on the first evening. It centrered on the new challenge for museology and thus for budding museologists in reflecting on self-reflective museums, already practising the preachings of new museology. How, in this field, could academic museology ‘make museums jump’? What was left to critizise, and how? What tools could museology use that museums were not alredy applying, in order to produce new understandings that complement, rather than simply reproduce museum knowledge?

I heard my own intentions eccoed in this presentation, and found confirmation not only of the need for questioning the assumptions of user engagement and of digital media as instruments for this development in museums, but also a justification for trying to push the methodological approach, experimenting with new tools to produce new insights.

Refering to Latour’s ‘Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?’ (2004) (which is now on my reading list), Britta Brenna presented an understanding of critique as not necessarily being an act of deconstruction, but one of careful assemblage. Janet Marstine supplemented this notion reminding  that critique could be assume a position of generousity as well as one of antagonism. I like this notion, and will use it as a guideline, reminding me, that my critique can and should be to empower the museums; not to point fingers at the ambitions of inclusion, but as an argument for the necessity and validity of pursuing other ambitions as well.

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/