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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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This week, Desingmusem Danmark (DMD) announced that Realdania will fund a project exploring the potential for developing a museum for fashion and textiles within DMD. From the press release on designmuseum.dk : (See also article on the project on berlingske.dk )

”Vi er meget begejstrede for, at Realdania har muliggjort en grundig og tilbundsgående undersøgelse af mulighederne for at åbne et mode- og tekstilmuseum. Designmuseum Danmark har med sin store tekstilsamling og med sit nyere modefokus – på forsknings- såvel som udstillingsområdet – et virkelig spændende potentiale for at udvikle en helt særlig platform, hvor udstillinger, forskning, events og brancheaktiviteter kan forenes. Et mode- og tekstilmuseum vil også vække stor interesse hos nye museumsbrugere og styrke kendskabet til mode og tekstil som en vigtig del af vores kulturarv”, siger museumsdirektør Anne-Louise Sommer.

“We are very excited that Realdania has made possible a thorough investigation into the possibilities of opening a museum for fashion and textiles. Designmuseum Denmark, with its considerable textile collection and the recent focus on fashion – in research as well as through exhibitions – has an exciting potential for developing a unique platform, where exhibitions, research, events and activities related to the fashion industry can be united. A museum for fashion and textiles would also attract the attention of a new museum audience and strengthen the appreciation of fashion and textiles as an important part of our cultural heritage” says museum director Anne-Louise Sommer.

Yesterday, I met with Marie Riegels Melchior, post doc fashion researcher at Designmuseum Denmark, to exchange updates and discuss the future of fashion at the museum. For her, the prospect of an actual museum for fashion and textiles would be the perfect fruition of the museum’s commitment to fashion as a focus area, securing public visibility and access, but also, and as importantly, making it possible to establish the museum as a hub for fashion research.

This aspect, the museum as a research institution and museum mediation as research communication, is key in Marie’s recommendations for the development of the fashion field within DMD, as based in her study on international fashion museums. (As the recommmendation part of the report is internal, I will have to ask director Anne-Louise Sommer if I can read it, and thus so far I can only refer to the knowledge I have from my meetings with Marie). Her vision is therefore that the museum would be able to attract funding and employ researchers for research projects on fashion.

She described how the rhetorics around the ‘five pillars of museum practice’ – the objective for museums to collect, register, preserve, research and mediate/communicate, as laid down in Museumsloven §2 and in accordance with ICOM’s museum definition, stating that museums acquire, conserve, research, communicate and exhibits natural and cultural heritage – has led to an understanding that this order of listing is also the ‘natural order’ of museum work, following the object from entry into the museum to public display. As she points out, however, this isn’t or shouldn’t necessarily be the way to understand and organize the work carried out by museums. Instead, the starting point should be research based, grounded in the exploration of relevant research questions. These could relate to the existing collection, or could lead to acquisition of new artefacts or data, but should first and foremost be motivated by a desire to better understand and promote the heritage that the institutions represent. (This dissection of the implications of the rhetorics, how a simple list order comes to define an understanding, really struck a note with me – must find out if this is Marie’s own interpretation or if there is another source I should quote on this).

This led to a discussion on the woes and virtues of new museology – again often described or understood (by me, too) as a shift in focus from one end of the spectrum or process, the collection, to the other, the exhibition and its audience, but missing out that crucial middle, the research, reducing exhibitions to popularist consumer events in the experience economy, at worst.

This gave me a chance to vent one of my pet rants of the moment, on a potentially problematic tendency that occured to me as I was preparing an abstract for a seminar and paper on museum research, namely the dominance of social science methodology in current (Danish) museum research (see recent report from Dansk Center for Museumsforskning). In my opinion, this demand for meassurable (also if qualitative) empirical data, and that whole research tradition and way of thinking is both a result of but also a contributor to the heavy focus on user’s experiences and motivations, that sort of becomes a self-feeding mechanism, and fails to adress the humanist questions that should still be at the core of museology. As indicated, this notion is still at rant stage, an irritant, but one I am curious to explore further in the writing of the paper for the seminar. And, of course, my own preference for and grounding in the humanities also affects my thinking on this point.

According to Marie, the tradition for not only research into museums but research in museums is particularly strong in the anglo-saxon world, where especially the large institutions like V&A and the Met are staffed to a large extent by scholars, and thus are able to present exhibitions that represent original research as well as offering sensational aesthetic experiences. Of course, they have the funding to do so, still, the dedication to spend same funding on academic research is essential.

I really like this emphasis on the museum as research institution and mediation as research communication, and I would like to build this into my project. Although in some ways my starting point in the exploration for the use-potential of mobile and social media for museum mediation, the outset in platforms and use, places me way out on the mediation and user focus end of the scale, my research interest, as described in my vlog presentation, is really more about the implications of the user focus and new media for museums and museology. As one of the senior researchers asked me to confirm yesterday after my presentation, I’m sort of aiming for a discourse analysis, albeit in a roundabout way, as I believe that adressing these issues via design will produce a new perspective.
Particularly my inspiration from critical design may help me push this aspect, as it allows me to explore concepts for mediation that are grounded in research or aim to communicate research perspectives.

As it happened, yesterdays lecture at the museum – I currently follow an open university lecture series on fashion at DMD, partly to get an insight into current fashion research, partly to see how the museum, and others, present their field to the general public – was a presentation by Maria McKinney Valentin of her research into trend theory. Using Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome theory as a basis for understanding the nature of trends, she introduced five perspectives on the mechanisms behind the visual manifestations of trends: social mechanisms (trickle up, down and across, social capital and communities of taste); neomania, as described by Barthes, and the postmodern supermarket of style; the market drive; Zeitgeist reflections, and finally seduction in its varying permutations. Choosing ‘homeless chic’ as an example case, she provoked some exasperated responses from the audience (around 20 mainly 50+ women, unsurprisingly), who were clearly basing their criticism (of the look, not the lecture) in personal experience and taste, and not willing or able to take a helicopter perspective on the overall field.

(Whilst this is probably to be expected in an open university course, these ladies are not alone in sticking to the personal perspective, as this brilliant piece by Fiona Duncan How to Write About Dressing Well: The Truth About Fashion Criticism – a call for fashion journalists and -academics to take their field seriously and produce writing on a par with that representing other cultural fields – points out. I digress, but there are some good points in the article that are worth looking into. Note to self).

Finishing up, Maria McKinney-Valentin said that her ambition for the lecture was that it might enable us to see the trends that we encounter on the street in a new light, to use the tools and perspectives she presented us with to dissect the visual manifestations of trends and understand the underlying mechanisms that drive them.

Now, I don’t know how to turn this into a mobile mediation concept. Yet. But it is exactly this kind of thing that I was/am hoping to find a way of doing – providing a lens (or prism, the image that Maria used in her presentation) for seeing fashion in a new light, or x-rayed, in context. And so the link to or outset in research is suddenly the obvious starting point.

Charlotte S.H. Jensen, webeditor at the National Museum, front runner in the Danish museum world when it comes to digitization of cultural heritage and exploring the potential of new media for museum mediation, and generously sharing her insights on her blog, is always a great source of inspiration (and surely deserves a trackback!). Like this post Digital kulturarv – hvad sker der i 2012, in which she points to possible upcoming trends for digital cultural mediation.

Her point about how cultural institutions should or will shift their focus from simply having a visible presence as institutions on social media platforms to engaging in interactions around themes and topics of interest where they occur resonates very well with my own outset. Perhaps my project could even nudge this development along?

Similaly, I agree that it would be great to see a ‘native’ mobile network for sharing and collaborating around cultural heritage. Which again reminded me to start using some of the tools that are already around; I’m now awaiting an invitation to the online pinboard Pinterest, which I’d been checking out before. Charlotte also shares links to Oink (couldn’t get my head around how that works), Miso (but it would seem that only makes sence if you have a telly, which I don’t)and Path (which presents itself maily as a tool forn sharing everyday life with your social network, but perhaps I’m just not seeing the potential for museums?), but I’ll focus on Pinterest at this point.

Charlotte goes on to cover objectification, cultural heritage in public spaces, crowdsourcing and Second Life (not sure about that, I have to say, but maybe it’s just because I had to leave my avatar stranded in a pool years ago when I couldn’t work out how to fly…) amongst other things – well worth a read!