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Logbog

3 months in, it’s time for taking stock of the activities that have marked the beginning of our collective explorations of ‘the explorative exhibition’.

Workshop 1: User perspectives and design thinking

In late May, the 7 person project team – i.e. the people managing exhibitions, collections, research and education at Enigma Museum + me – went on tour to my old project-partner museum, Ragnarock.

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Curator (and previous collaboration partner) Rasmus Rosenørn presents Ragnarock to the Enigma team: educator Mads Danker Danielsen, curator Eva Wistoft Andersen, curating assistant Arne Noack, exhibition lead Martin Johansen, exhibition editor Tine Stevnhoved and lead researcher Andreas Marklund

The idea behind the excursion was to give the user perspective a central role in our project by making that our starting point: being users and potential contributors in another institution. Hence, despite the obvious differences between the two museums, Ragnarock is also an interesting parallel to Enigma in that both relate to contemporary, everyday culture, and both seek to engage the public in collating their history as a polyphonic narrative. Moreover, Ragnarock’s take on interactive exhibition design could serve as a common reference in future discussions, whilst the problematics of the ‘rockspor’ site would remind us of the challenges of designing for participation.

Rethinking ways in which to engage with our own musical history was therefore the challenge in the afternoon workshop. In preparation, I had asked to team to respond to a ‘proto’ probe on this theme – originally designed for the Ragnarock project – as a means to tune in and reminisce, but also as an introduction to this particular method as a potential tool in our continued process.

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Rockspor proto probe

The workshop itself, however, was structured around the Stanford d.school crash course in design thinking. This format takes you through the stages of a design thinking process in just a couple of hours: building empathy through interviews, defining a problem statement, ideating and iterating solutions and finally building and testing prototypes. The point of the exercise is thus not to come up with solid solutions, but rather to get acquainted with the basic ideas of design thinking (as formulated by the d.school; there is a wider spectrum of methodologies related to design thinking, which again relates to human centred design, and to the Scandinavian traditions of CoDesign and Participatory Design, as argued by Björgvinsson et al. . For an extended presentation of how design thinking may be applied to a museum context, see Dana Mitroff Silver’s MW2013 paper).

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Team members ‘testing’ ideas in the design thinking crash course

The purpose of the workshop was mainly to work as a warm-up exercise for the design work ahead, and therefore, more than the team’s innovative idea sketches, the most interesting thing for me to observe was the power of prototyping, as I sensed a palpable rise of energy and buzz of productive playfulness when we shifted from pen and paper to making mode, even if the prototyping materials were pretty basic.

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Prototyping in progress

So even though the ensuing discussion (along with bringing up points about the craft of interviewing; the pros and cons of time pressure; and an interesting observation about memory as a social construct) also stressed the need for building more knowledge and clarifying our design intentions before launching into production mode and engaging users, to me the workshop also illustrated how ideas and understandings are also constructed in the making process. In my thesis, I built on Hastrup’s idea about research as a process of ‘ontological dumping’, in which relational understandings of the world are transformed into objects of knowledge, to describe how the design process similarly lets understandings of the problem field become substantialised in the form of suggested solutions (Hastrup 2006:3; Baggesen 2015:55). This notion could be a heuristic for the continued process in this project, which also aims to explore how design methodology affects museum development processes.

Design T/things

Following on from this, workshop 2 focused on clarifying the museum’s intentions. But, to stick with the methodology angle, let me first make a note about the workshop space. As noted earlier, Enigma Museum is still in-the-making, raising money and making plans for future exhibitions while experimenting with other ways of being a museum, e.g. through events, external collaborations, pop-up exhibitions and media presence. From a museological point of view, this process and these experiments are fascinating to follow. But another upshot of this limbo state is that the museum still has space to spare, meaning that I could clear a corner of the provisional storage floor to set up a workspace for the project.

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(Pristine) project workspace at Enigma Museum

Being able to furnish it with an old mahogany table set once used by the museum board was a scoop, adding a symbolic meaning of having a mandate to make decisions, whilst also lending some definition or solidity to the makeshift space. In practical terms, the space also gives us walls to mount our work-in-progress ideas and inspirations on, and, most importantly, gives the project a (temporary) permanence and physical presence, a place to go to go into project mode and pick up from where we left off, rather than having to re-establish the project arena, conceptually and materially, every time.

In a sense, therefore, establishing this workspace is a very literal, spatial response to the argument made by Björgvinsson et al., that “a fundamental challenge for designers and the design community is to move from designing ‘things’ (objects) to designing Things (socio-material assemblies)” (2012:102; insert brackets in the original). This Latourian idea (playing on the shared etymology of the word ‘thing’ and the old Nordic democratic institution the Ting/Thing) of the design (research) process as an assembly of people, artefacts and ideas gathered to address pertinent matters of concern, is one I also pursued in my PhD project, and a fundament for my continued research. The current project is thus also a gathering together of people and interests with the dual objective of creating both museum development – designing a new format for collection and mediation – and museological research – exploring matters of concern. To this end, moreover, I will also be designing a collection of methodological tools or design things, such as probes, personas and concept/dialogue cards to assist the process.

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Concept cards for ‘the explorative exhibition’ (see Baggesen 2015:81ff for method description)

In many ways, I would like to expand on the methodological considerations I explored in my dissertation, and pursue this design theoretical track also in this project, but  do I really have the time to go out on a theoretical/methodological limb about design things/Things? Is it relevant enough, in this context, and is the project strong enough to sustain a valuable contribution in this field? Of course, if I focused my energy here, I could make it so, but then my primary interest in this project is to provide a real, useful contribution to the museum’s ongoing development process. Still, the project needs to encompass both the academic and the practical. So, should the continued project process focus on efficient design of realisable prototypes ready for testing in the foreseeable future, allowing me to complete an empirical study of user responses, as suggested by one senior researcher in the programme? Should the process focus on staging discussions in the project team, allowing me to elicit and explore more nuances in the museological matters of concern, or even testing and challenging the convictions and rhetorics of the museum, as suggested by another? Is my main contribution to the museum the development of a ready-for-production mediation concept, or an experiment in methodology to fuel future work processes? Am I a catalyst, a facilitator, an evaluator, a critic or a team member; an insider or an outsider? All of the above, perhaps? So, it’s a balancing act, pursuing academic objectives and development objectives at once, while also juggling museum realities and pragmatic project constraints as I plan for the next stages of the project.

 

Workshop 2: Design intentions

Negotiating different or even conflicting objectives, ambitions, constraints and concerns was also a theme in our second workshop, focusing on our design intentions. To begin my research, I had earlier conducted a series of short, individual interviews with the project team members in order to establish some kind of baseline of the project before setting off on our joint expedition. As expected, their ideas and concerns were overlapping but also quite diverse in terms of what they saw as the primary aims of the project and of the exhibition ‘mechanism’ projected as the intended result. It was therefore necessary to stage a discussion of these different perspectives to get a joint idea of the scope and discuss conflicts and commonalities, and to see if we could reach an agreement on our design intentions.

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The discussion was both constructive and inspiring, and provided relevant material for analysis in relation to the Our Museum dimensions, even though we didn’t succeed in arriving at a singular objective. Still, from a rough analysis of the video documentation and post-it notes from the session, I could distill a provisional ‘wishlist’ of intentions, including the wish to co-create a polyphonic history of communication with our users; to create identification and foster ownership and empowerment; to engage users in our research; and to create inspiring, iconic, and innovative exhibition experiences.

Of course, this still reads more like an idealistic mission statement than a concrete design brief, but these grand objectives are also relevant as guidelines in our continued process. And of course, the discussion also pointed to many aspects that were still unresolved: whether user contributions should feed into research, or exhibitions, or both; whether participation should function as a means for collecting or as a didactic strategy, or both; how to handle incoming data and materials; how many ressources this kind of strategy would require, and how many the museum is able or willing to spare; and, of course, whether and how our users would want to participate.

Museological study group

In the continued process, we will try to find answers to these questions through exhibition experiments and user engagement. In parallel, however, we will also try to understand these issues through discussions of museological theory. So far, we’ve had two study group sessions; one focusing on participation, with texts by Nina Simon, Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt & Pille Runnel, and Bernadette Lynch; and another on museum missions with readings of Duncan Cameron and David Anderson, along with the (re-published) Musetrain Manifesto, Orhan Pamuks Modest Museum Manifesto and ICOM’s Cultural Diversity Charter.

Now, I’ve had to realise that I have been a bit over ambitious with the quantity of reading, but apart from that, this experiment in bringing museological theory into museum practice has proven to be very inspiring. Realising (with initial disbelief and then som disappointment) in the first year of my postdoc how little academic museum research is used in museum practice (I know, practitioners are very busy, and academia can be a bit too cerebral, still it seems such a waste of effort and potential), I am quite excited to have met such a positive attitude to the idea in Enigma, and to see that it does seem to make sense to infuse practice with theory, to provoke discussion and build up a shared set of references and ideas.

 

Next steps

On the basis of these initial explorations, and after finally getting clarification on the continued framework for the project (i.e. that museum did not get funding for a large scale project that this project could have fed into), we have now been able to adjust the project scope to focus more on exhibitions and less on research, and have also deviced a new project design comprising three joint experiments in how to collect and exhibit userdriven narratives. I’m looking forward to tucking into the project proper, but first up, it’s time for a summer break. Starting…now! [press publish]

 

 


References:

Baggesen, R. (2015). Mobile Museology: An exploration of fashionable museums, mobilisation, and trans-museal mediation. PhD thesis, University of Copenhagen

Björgvinsson, E., Ehn, P. & Hillgren, P. (2012). ‘Design things and design thinking: contemporary participatory design challenges’. Design Issues, Vol.28(3), pp.101-116

Hastrup, K. (2006). ‘Designforskning: mellem materialitet og socialitet’ [’Design research: between materiality and sociality’]. Copenhagen Working Papers on Design. Copenhagen: Danmarks Designskole.

Silvers, D.M. et al (2013). ‘Design Thinking for Visitor Engagement: Tackling One Museum’s Big Challenge through Human-centered Design’. Museums and the Web 2013, online proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics.

So, time to ramp up the blog again. Following the completion of my PhD research and dissertation last year, I was all out of words, and it was a relief to let the whole musing on museums thing lie for a while. Trouble is, the longer it’s left, the harder it feels to pick it up again. Where to start and why even bother? What could I possibly add to the already flourishing online debate? What’s the benefit? As of next week, however, I will be teaching digital museum mediation and museology to two classes here at Uni. of Copenhagen (again, but this time one class will be in Danish and one in English), and given that I am asking my students to blog, I should at least give it a go myself. Also, despite my hesitation (put it down to reservation, laziness, self-consciousness or lack of inspiration) I actually do miss the outlet, and simply need to get back into the swing of it again.

As a sort of warm up exercise, then, for blogging and for teaching, and with particular address to those of my students who find their way to my blog, let me begin by musing on blogging as a tool for research and reflection instead. Hence, as stated by Mortensen & Walker,

To blog is an activity similar in many ways to the work of the researcher. A weblogger filters a mass of information, choosing the items that interest her or that are relevant to her chosen topic, commenting upon them, demonstrating connections between them and analysing them. (2002:250)

Considering blogging a part of my research method, and including a selection of blog posts in my dissertation, I wrote about the topic in my methodology chapter:

In Thoughtful Interaction Design, Löwgren & Stolterman (2004) describe the sketch as a ‘conversation partner’ for the designer […], talking back and leading to new questions and considerations. In a similar fashion, my blog has allowed me to sketch thoughts and ideas in the process, communicating them not only to the world, but especially to myself. Moreover, the blog has supported my divergent research strategy. The relative swiftness – and relatively lax self-censorship – of the blogging process has thus given me an opportunity to consider a much wider spectrum of ideas than a rigorous study would normally permit.

Compared to the conventions of scholarly argumentation, the processual nature of the blog format inspires a freer form of expression. It thereby allows for the articulation of unfinished thoughts and open questions, as well as for expressing personal opinions or concerns. However, in contrast to a visual sketch, written language demands a particular structure, stringing concepts together to formulate a linear argument or coherent question. A scribbled short hand note-to-self can thus be deceptive, letting you think that you have captured an essence of thought. By contrast, making (parts of) my thought process public online has forced me to make more sense of the makings of this ‘essence’, to engage more deeply with the questions, the matters of concern I have grabbled with. Trying to explain – to myself, as well as to an invisible audience (boyd 2007) – why certain observations warrant attention, why certain concepts inspire or provoke me, taking guesses at their implication even if not always subjecting them to thorough analysis, has helped me to discover new facets and new dilemmas pertaining to each issue. (Baggesen 2015: 77) [references below]

The benefit of blogging for me, then, is that it helps me notice what I notice or find noticable about a text, an exhibition or an idea. It helps me reflect on and remember my observations, even if the analysis may not go as deep as that of an academic paper. Hence, for me it’s more of a personal notebook and less of a public platform, and my blog has been a very useful record of issues and examples, that I did not necessarily have any particular use for at the time, but which turned out to be valuable later on. Often, I don’t come to any conclusions about these issues on the blog, so in terms of using it to enter into the ongoing debate, my blog is not very strong. It even makes me feel a little vulnerable, putting all these half-baked thoughts into the open. Perhaps I should work on that, be more clear about having a particular message for a particular audience. And yet again, that could kind of defeat the object, or at least imply a taking a different approach, as the purpose of the blog thus far has not been to have a voice, but to hear myself think. The reason for doing this in public is simply that it enforces an aspect of discipline, sticking with a topic until at least it makes sense to me rather than dropping it when it gets tricky. Still, maybe I should start experimenting a bit more with what the blog could be used for, at least keep the option open.

 

Nevertheless, what I ask of my students is not that they find a public voice or provide definite insights into current museum issues, but that they try to use their blogs as tools for reflection, and see how it works for them. It’s meant to be a tool for learning and hopefully discovering what it is about museums and museology that makes them tick.

And hey, I know it’s tricky to get started, to find something to write about, and that you may feel sheepish about the result. It’s OK. A short post will do. If nothing else springs to mind, simply start by telling about a recent or memorable museum visit and zoom in on a detail that stood out for you. Share a photo, quote the program. See where it takes you, if description leads to reflection. If not this time, maybe next. You’ll be fine.

 

References

Baggesen, R. (2015). Mobile museology. An exploration of fashionable museums, mobilisation, and trans-museal mediation. PhD thesis, University of Copenhagen.

boyd, d. (2007). ‘Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life’. In Buckinham, D. (ed.), MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning – Youth, Identity, and Digital Media Volume. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Löwgren, J. & Stolterman, E. (2004). Thoughtful Interaction Design: A design perspective on information technology. London & Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Mortensen, T. & Walker, J. (2002). ‘Blogging thoughts: personal publication as an online research tool’. In Morrison, A. (ed.), Researching ICTs in Context, Oslo: InterMedia Report, 3/2002.

Savage Beauty
On Friday, I went on a pilgrimage, no less. To see Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A in London. The exhibition was originally shown at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2011, and ever since, I have been reading about, and dreaming about seeing, this perfect fashion show. A former fashion student, I have long had a thing for McQueen (how could I not?), and as a proper fan-girl, I booked my ticket as soon as they went on sale last year. This time, I was not disappointed.

Exhibition view, from V&A's Instagram profile

Exhibition view, from V&A’s Instagram profile

It was beautiful. Painfully poetic – and provocatively political – visual narratives, perfect tailoring, couture at its most sublime. And really really interesting to see the garments I had hitherto only seen in print, up close, and being able to inspect details in construction and finishings. Moreover, the exhibition design perfectly augmented the experience of the couture pieces, offering different settings and ambiences for each curatorial theme, and adding video clips as well as smoke and mirror technologies (literally – do check out the link) to the mix to give a feel of the (significance of the) original fashion shows. Even the wall texts and object labels were just right. Overall, the exhibition was both informative and evocative, exhaustive without being exhausting (i.e., for the exhibition format; of course both the aesthetics and cultural significance of McQueen bears further exploration, but such in-depth studies are better left for literature) – even my sons, aged 8 & 10, were enthralled and engaged for the full two hours we spent in the galleries. Much more than just a been-there-seen-that-got-the-tote-bag (which I did, of course) kind of experience, this was every bit as awesome as I had hoped.

Photogenic museums (Or: Observing primates at the Natural History Museum. Or: Say ‘Cheese’!)
Sadly, if understandably, photography was prohibited in the Savage Beauty exhibition. Or perhaps this was just as well. At least, when visiting the Natural History Museum, next door to the V&A, I was struck by how much the museum space inspired people to take photographs. First of all, though, I was simply awestruck by the space itself (despite having worshiped at the V&A, my temple of choice, so many times over the years, this was my first visit to the cathedral of natural science): the grandeur of the entrance hall made even the centrepiece diplodocus seem rather pedestrian. (But then the real focal point may be the Darwin-as-deity statue, elevated on the stairs at the far end.)

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Entry hall at the Natural History Museum, London (Apparently, the hall has now been renamed Hintze Hall, following a large private donation – a big phenomenon already in American museums, but hitherto not so prominent in Europe. Looks like that’s the future. Will the whale exhibition in the new national history museum in Denmark be named after Maersk? Will Lego fund the Danish Architecture Centre? And what will that mean? But that’s another story).

The exhibition galleries (the ones we visited!), however, were not that impressive. There’s this certain style of natural history exhibits (found also at e.g. the Field Museum in Chicago, and parts of the upstairs Fra pol til pol [From pole to pole] exhibition at the zoological museum in Copenhagen) which is all garish colours, busy interactives and overloads of didactic information that just leaves me really tired and perplexed instead of curious or enlightened. Rather than giving you the time and headspace to contemplate the specimens, and by extension, evolution, diversity, ecology and other wonders and critical concerns of natural history, they command your attention only to fill you with tit-bits of information. Too often, these exhibits also feel outdated – here, for instance, children were offered information about the daily milk-intake of a baby whale using the analogy of a milk float, even though these went out of service long before the kids were born. To be fair, we only saw parts of the museum (the dinosaurs (lurid) and mammals (tired)), as we were already a bit museumed-out post V&A, and I suspect that other galleries and newer exhibitions had more to offer, (by attempting to offer less, perhaps). And yes, I guess it’s also a matter of taste and of didactic principles and convictions, so I should probably not be so harsh. I just had a much more engaging, exciting and enlightening time at Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. And I suspect that even my kids prefer exhibitions that also cater to unaccompanied adults. Therefore, for me, the choice of an aesthetic, almost art museum-like style for the new(est) Precious Things exhibition at the Zoological Museum, DK, bodes well for the coming national museum of natural history.

#museumselfie
Anyway, back to the photography thing. As evident above, I also photographed the beautiful building, and often attempt to capture particular details as a keepsake, that is, when I’m not too self-concious to even get my phone out. So I get the urge to take photos in the museum (even though it also reminds me of that quote from Kafka in Barthes’ Camera Lucida: “We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes” (2000:53) – Is that what we do? Take a photograph to avoid engaging our minds and memory?).

Whatever the subliminal reasonings and effects, it was quite interesting to observe how people posed or moved around to get just the right shot, and to see the selfie stick phenomenon in action. Because it just hasn’t been that big a thing in Denmark, yet. But then again, big enough for the National Museum of Denmark to greet visitors with this sign:

Sign welcoming guests at Nationalmuseet, Denmark

Sign welcoming guests at Nationalmuseet, Denmark (& a subtle #9 kind of museumselfie http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/01/19-types-of-selfies-at-museum-selfie-day.html)

Actually, I’ve been saving up links for a post on this subject for months, the-one-about-museum-selfies, and started a draft for it on ‘#MuseumSelfie day‘ in January. Because it is an interesting mobile/social/museum-media issue, one that provokes fervent reactions and counter-replies, battling over issues of the cultural meaning and value of selfies, of appropriateness, and of who gets to decide what is appropriate. Should museums encourage or ban photography? Should visitors be free to enjoy artworks and artefacts in whatever way is right for them, or does one person’s freedom to take photos hamper another visitors freedom to enjoy the same objects without being disturbed by the cameras? Is the issue as big as it’s made out to be? It really is all very interesting. But my head’s too full, too tired at this stage of my thesis to really engage with this question, so I’ve simply opted for a ‘live and let live’ attitude (which might be where I’d end up after much deliberation anyway). Besides, Ed Rodley has already written a string of really good blog posts on visitor photography, so rather than wasting more time on my 50p’s worth, go and read his considerations here, here and here.

Anti-social media?
Visitor photography and gallery etiquette aside, the #museumselfie matter, of course, also relates to social media conventions and user behaviour online, which has its own issues. Actually, mastering the jargon of social network sites is pretty tough. Take Twitter: Knowing how to banter in 140 characters, how to twist and dose your hashtags, understanding what the acronyms and formatting tricks are all about (luckily, there are helpful guides out there for those of us who are still not quite sure when to put a full stop in front of the @handle). Not to mention cadence, selection and timing (on Facebook, for instance, working out whether or not to enter into an already waning debate, or how to assess the sell-by-date on a popular link or meme). Keeping up. Curating your profile. Building your network. Sorting out your settings. Working out the different formats and protocols for different platforms. Minding your digital p’s and q’s.

Some people get it, either because they have a knack for it, because it’s their job to knuckle down and work it out, or because they make it a priority. Others don’t care whether they do or not, they just do it. Some dabble, hesitate. Come on, sing the digerati, there’s no right or wrong, just jump in and swim! No need to overthink it, doggy-paddle will do just fine. Still, it’s an element that some people feel comfortable in, and others don’t. Just like other social elements.

My point is that social media can feel pretty anti-social if you’re not quite sure how to participate. Even if the party’s open, it’s not that simple to crash into a conversation, especially if its outside of your personal nexus. You need social capital, in a digital currency. You need time and effort. You need to have something to say, which is often the hardest and most daunting part. Or you may just be introvert (which is getting kinda cool, only in a very understated way), or simply not inclined to share your thoughts and whereabouts with everyone. (Over on Facebook and Twitter, I’m one of those lurkers, mainly).

For museums, this means two things. First up, professional communication is a job, also when it takes place on social media platforms. Judging by all the slick and quirky museum profiles out there, many institutions have now caught on to this. However, these cool social media museum communicators also set the bar high. Therefore, secondly, it’s worth keeping in mind that just as some people feel excluded from the museum space, because they don’t really know how museum-going is done, so others may feel excluded from/by the smart banter online.

Just sayin’. (Or maybe, I’m just bullshitting – as argued by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, social media “confront us with epistemological problems and are hard to understand. [Meanwhile], there is a large demand for knowledge about what they mean, a powerful political economy that generates a lot of statements about social media, including substantial amounts of bullshit.” (2015: abstract) Do read the full article).


Fashion on the Ration

Display in Imperial War Museum's 'A Family in Wartime' exhibition - this time, I was really sad that I could not take photographs in the brillant 'Fashion on the Ration' exhibition

Display in Imperial War Museum’s ‘A Family in Wartime’ exhibition – sadly, I could not take photographs in the brillant ‘Fashion on the Ration’ exhibition

If Savage Beauty was our reason for going to London, and #DancingMuseum at Tate Modern the scoop event to coincide with our visit (which I will leave for another post, however, as I hope to tease out an epilogue from this), then Imperial War Museum’s Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style exhibition was the most wonderful bonus. I didn’t even know it was on when we decided to visit the museum our last day of visit, but this was actually one of the best fashion exhibitions I’ve seen. Compared to the extravagance of both content matter and exhibition design in Savage Beauty, this exhibition was pretty prosaic, as the austerity fashion on display was matched by fairly unassuming display formats, which were, however, doing just the right job. This exhibition too was beautiful, informative, and evocative, and conveyed many interesting aspects of wartime fashion, from ‘siren suits’, factory fashion and gasmask handbags, over make-do-and-mend campaigns and ration measures, to patriotic prints and Utility designs from England’s finest fashion designers. Most importantly, perhaps, the importance of fashion, even in wartime, was brought to attention. (Here, I wish I had been allowed to use my camera to aid my memory also in the future, but luckily it’s possible to find images from the exhibition itself online, to complement the museum’s well stocked online subject hub.)

But the most significant difference between the two exhibitions is of course that whereas Fashion on the Ration focused on fashion in cultural history context (or as cultural history), thereby shedding light on the aesthetics of Utility style and 1940’s street style, but also on the austerity and creativity of life during the second world war, Savage Beauty showcased couture as an art form, which is actually pretty distinct or far removed from fashion in a more general sense. Thus, they represent very different takes on what a fashion exhibition is, a difference that can perhaps be seen as analogous to the difference between metonymic representation (the cultural history artefact documenting an era, class, issue or other) and metaphor (the abstractions of art). Hmmm. Need to ponder that proposition a bit more, to see if it sticks, and leave it at this for now. After all, I still have a thesis to complete.

A ramble of inspirations and illustrated notes, some of them pretty old (but need to get them out of my system and pinned down in blog form)

Museums are the new rock’n’roll

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Dress, autumn/winter 2010–11. Courtesy of Alexander McQueen. Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce – From: http://blog.metmuseum.org/alexandermcqueen/#sthash.M7n8DzvP.dpuf

Next spring, the Alexander McQueen retrospective Savage Beauty will be on show at the V&A. Organised by the Costume Institute in New York, the exhibition was a massive blockbuster hit when showing at the Met in 2011, with queues growing out into the street. When tickets for the V&A edition went on sale in April, the servers broke down after five minutes due to massive demand (I know, because I was trying to book tickets myself, thinking this a perfect treat for when I’ve finished my thesis). Being pretty slick on the branding/enterprise front, the V&A had of course fuelled the hype (there are still plenty of tickets, although certain days are selling out almost a year in advance), still it’s interesting how exhibitions – fashion exhibitions not least – have become must-go-to gigs.

[Note added 6/7/2015: show so popular that the V&A will be open through the night for the final two weekends of its run (!): http://www.itv.com/news/london/2015-07-03/victoria-and-albert-museum-to-open-all-night-for-alexander-mcqueen-exhibition/ ]

All department stores will become museums, and all museums will become department stores
quote Warhol, whose remarks are often remarkably right on the money. I’ve already blogged about the close connection between Saks and Museum at FIT Shoe Obsession exhibition, and as the theme also emerged quite strongly in the workshops I held with the Designmuseum, I will be examining this relation more closely in my thesis. At Stockholm Arlanda airport, Anton Berg chocolates presented itself with this complete museum display – glass case, object labels, museum lingo – to advertise its brand. This side featured a chronology of the company’s history and and product design, the reverse explained the process of cocoa production. Content wise, telling a story of tradition and expertise served to denote quality, but the meta level message of the museum display as medium elevated the chocolate bar to cultural icon.

Display at Arlanda airport

Display at Arlanda airport

Touch

At Nordiska Museet in Stockholm the permanent display Power of Fashion (Modemakt) shows fashion and dress from three different centuries. Concentrating on three decades – the 1780’s, the 1860’s and the 1960’s – rather than showing a full chronology means that a greater diversity from each period is represented, which works well as a curatorial strategy. It therefore seemed odd that the touch models provided for the visually impaired did not reflect this selection, but instead allowed you to sense e.g. the silhouettes of a 20’s flapper dress or the Dior inspired styles of the late 40’s /early 50’s. Showing consideration for this group of visitors without truly granting them access to the curatorial narrative seemed to me to stress their exclusion even when trying to be inclusive.

Touch models illustrating fashion silhouettes of the 1940's at Nordiska Museet

Touch models illustrating fashion silhouettes of the 1940’s at Nordiska Museet

And at Weston Park Museum in Sheffield, I was really hacked off by the dumbing down-ness of this display for kids:

'Polar bear fur' in the arctic exhibition at Sheffield Museum

‘Polar bear fur’ in the arctic exhibition at Weston Park

I mean, if you don’t want to splash out on a real polar bear skin for your public to touch, or have some point about ethics, leave out the display or be upfront about faking it. Don’t be misleading, and don’t think you can get away with it just because you’re addressing youngsters. They deserve your best.

By contrast, Museum of Copenhagen allowed visitors of all ages, who visited the open excavations at a construction site for the new metro lines, to don surgical gloves and touch some of the finds. This felt like a privilege, and was enlightening not only on the subject of Copenhagen history but also on the process of musealisation.

My seven year old son handling archeological objects

My seven year old son handling archeological objects

Finally, at KEA, Copenhagen School of Design and Technology, they have a material library with thousands of samples (and a database) covering a great variety of materials.

KEA's material library from Material Connexion

KEA’s material library from Material Connexion

Not entirely sure if it’s open to the public or is only for the students, but it reminded me of a user informant in my first workshop, who expressed a need for exactly this kind of touchable collection. Many museums, Designmuseum Danmark included, hold library collections as well as collections of art or artefacts, why not extend it with material samples? Handling a textile, a metal, a polymer will give you far more information than reading about the same material, and could thus help you comprehend the museum objects in a different way.

But then again, looking closely also has its merits. And this guy, who I spotted on the street the other day, reminded me how photo sharing on social media may actually inspire os to look closer and engage with our surroundings in our hunt for new images worth a share (of course, this particular guy may have been a media phobic photography enthusiast, he still illustrates a trend). That cool kids give landmark sculptures or similar the time of day, I believe is a result of the social media revolution. Then again, a cynic could infer that we are merely looking for self adornment, not really caring about the origins or significance of the imagery that decorates our digital teenage rooms. Still, he looked, we look, we explore.

Snapshot of a photographer

Snapshot of a photographer

Fan museums

Back in December, I visited the ABBA museum in Stockholm as part of the Nodem conference. I like ABBA, as someone of my generation does, and I have to say that the museum’s vision of having people ‘walk in and dance out’ worked. There were loads of interactives – quizzes, karaoke, digital dress up games. It was good fun.

Got to be Anni Frid, at last!

Got to be Anni Frid, at last!

But it also felt more like visiting a venue tailor made for hen parties than visiting a museum. Somehow, I it sits with me as a slightly gaudy experience.

By contrast, I was surprisingly touched by my visit to Graceland Randers, which I expected to be pure kitsch (I also like Elvis, so I’m equally biased when it comes to both). Whereas the Swedish experience was very ‘ABBA Inc.’; making full use of the commercial potential of the super group’s popularity and using the latest technological gizmos to amp up the experience, the fandom inspiring the Elvis museum was still very palpable. In fact, the museum’s founder, Henrik Knudsen, who built the Graceland replica to have a place to exhibit his huge private collection of Elvis memorabilia, was there to give guided tours of the collection. And even though it was a bit disappointing that the, well, ‘particular’ decor of the original Graceland had been replaced by a diner, a record shop and the exhibition gallery, the place actually felt quite museum like and not so tacky after all.

Henrik Knudsen giving a guided tour at Graceland Randers

Henrik Knudsen giving a guided tour at Graceland Randers

Not sure what my point is here. Maybe something about soul and lack thereof. Anyway, enough.

I sort of do, at least, and now I’ve even got a badge to prove it, sent by analogue mail all the way from NY, thanks to @MarkBSchlemmer, who started the #ITweetMuseums initiative. (BTW, this post will feature excessive use of @handles and #hashtags). Ironically, it’s the analogue part that really wins me over, even though I’m not entirely sure what to make of this whole museums on twitter business. But after mainly lurking on Twitter for five years, since attending Museums and the Web back in 2009 (watch out for tweets from #MW2014 next week), I suddenly find myself tweeting loads.

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My motivation for getting stuck in was that I arranged for the museology class to participate in a user test of #hintme.dk (see also the Europeana Case study). Given how much I learned myself from joining a previous test I figured this would be a great way for the students to experience and engage critically with mobile museum mediation from a user perspective, and also get an insight into the museum’s perspective. Merete Sanderhoff/ @MSanderhoff, project manager at Statens Museum for Kunst, presented the intentions behind the project and also, as always, generously shared the challenges experienced and the insights gained in the process, as technology and users threw spanners in the works of the original ideas. With the functionality now more or less in place, the user test was set up as a tweetup, asking us to reflect on the social interactions and also get some content on the platform. Curator @k_monrad also took part in the test and provided some useful answers to our questions – as well as pointing out the brilliance of Twitter forcing you to be brief and succinct –  and @PSoemers, an hintme-enthusiast from the Netherlands, joined online. It was was good fun, and although the screen and the technology still takes up a lot of attention, it was also clear from the hints shared and questions asked that the format inspired closer looks at the artwork.

So anyway, to get ready for the tweetup, the students all had to get a twitter profile, and were urged to acquaint themselves with the platform by sharing tweets and links under the #ivamus tag. They only did so very sparringly, I must admit, whereas I got on a slightly maniacal roll, sharing articles and hashtags and RTs for inspiration (and, to be honest, to let them see how the online museum sphere has no ending and thus can be rather overwhelming). Which is how I stumbled upon the #ITweetMuseums thing, was allerted to the brilliant Touch Van Gogh iPad app and @danamuses’ useful #museumhashtag glossary , connected with @PSoemers, @Skagensmuseum and others, followed the #whyexhibitions conference on the sideline and much more.

And now it’s #MuseumWeek, meaning that institutions around the world share their stories and get users involved in quizzes and other calls for participation. It’s rather distracting, but it’s actually also a really nice way to engage with institutions around museum objects and stories. But there is a but – namely that a lot of the interaction seems to be between museum professionals. Which is not a bad thing in itself, that museologist use twitter for mutual inspiration and knowledge sharing. But it does show that despite inventiveness and the very best intentions, it is still hard to get the public properly engaged, and that even though the uptake of Twitter in Denmark is growing rapidly, it is still not possible to simply transpose a general media usage pattern to a museum specific context.

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This week, I’ll start teaching a master level course in museum mediation and museology. And although I’m also looking forward to being able to focus fully on writing my dissertation, I’m actually really excited about this course. Deciding on the format (kind of the crammer course I wish I could have had when I was a master student wanting to specialise in museums) and setting the curriculum has been interesting, and I really hope to get some good debates going with a bunch of dedicated and curious students. Also, in stead of writing an exam paper at the end, the students will need to run a blog of their ongoing reflections (which is why I felt I ought to update my own bog, too). It’s going to be interesting to see how that works as a didactic tool. We’ll be starting out by discussing functions and definitions of museums, addressing the framework set out by the Danish museum act and ICOM’s ethical guidelines for museums, but also the more philosophical discussions about the nature and purpose of museums outlined in articles by a.o. Francois Mairesse  and Élise Dubuc. Ideally, this will also give me a chance to reflect on and discuss some of the issues that I am writing about. For instance, preparing my lecture, and reading about ‘musealisation’ in ICOM’s Key concepts of museology (some of which I have included in the course reading), I realised that this is the concept I need in order to reflect on cultural/fashion objects outside the museum, and how they may or may not be made to ‘function’ as museum objects.

Six weeks research visit at the CoDesign cluster is coming to an end, and I’m wrapping up and taking leave of the rather wonderful Holmen HQ. Fortunately, it’s not really goodbye, as I have joined the cluster’s mini study-circle on mapping, and will thus be coming back in January to discuss interactions, map-making, (counter) cartography and more in connection with Paya Hauch Fenger’s PhD research into co-design of geo parks.

Of course, this is a little out on a tangent in relation to my own research. But if there’s one thing that’s been very clear from working in this environment, it’s the value of collaborative learning in research. I’ve surely benefited from this when presenting my own project, and from enlisting the group in an Interaction Analysis session around my video material. But I have also learned a lot from engaging in other people’s projects, from discussions over lunch and from simply listening in on the ongoing meetings and weekly round table catch ups. Of course, I have experienced such benefits before, but the way that it’s such an integral part of the work processes here is new to me. The group’s dedication to sharing knowledge, insights and uncertainties, not only in the projects they are collaborating on, but also when in comes to engaging in individual research conundrums, was something that struck me when I first came, and still something that seems to me a unique quality of this cluster. Which is sad, really, that it should be a unique quality and not a more widespread approach to research. I for one would love to see this kind of academic interaction spreading, and will definitely see if I can plant a seed back at my own institution.

CoDesign weekly meeting - clockwise from left: Paya Hauch Fenger, Tuuli Makkelmäti, Mette Agger Eriksen, Eva Brandt, Kelton Minor & Joachim Halse

CoDesign weekly meeting – clockwise from left: Paya Hauch Fenger, Tuuli Mattelmäki, Mette Agger, Eva Brandt, Kelton Minor & Joachim Halse

A couple of weeks ago, for example, the weekly meeting was followed by a group discussion about an early paper draft by Mette Agger, Tuuli Mattelmäki, Kirsikka Vaajakallio and Eva Brandt for next year’s PDC conference. Opening up the process at a stage where the outcome still wasn’t fixed, led to some very interesting discussions about methodology, academic writing, audiences and the many very different forms that this paper could still take; or rather multitude of papers that could be written from this material to share either empirical results, theoretical assertions, how-to applicabilities etc. I believe that the authors were given some useful input to inform their continued writing, and I will be looking forward to reading the finished article. But also for us as participants, considering the value of various contributions to the field, the craft of making an argument and of course the ideas put forth in the paper, was very inspiring.

So it’s this discussive and collaborative approach, along with the new insights into my own project,  that I will be taking with me, and for which I wish to send a great thank you to the whole CoDesign team and their affiliates!