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museology

Yesterday I attended a one day national conference on ‘The Hybrid Museum’, arranged by the Danish consortium for museum research, to address these issues:

In recent years, the boundaries between institutions of informal learning have become increasingly diffuse. Hybrid forms have appeared through the dissociation and recombination of exhibit genres, audience perspectives, curatorial practices, sponsorship opportunities, managerial competencies, organisational structures, and societal relations, leading ultimately to the genesis of the Hybrid Museum. What are the consequences of this for present-day museums, experience centres, and science centres? How can research be adapted to account for this tendency? How will museums further public engagement in the years to come?

The morning session included some very interesting presentations by prof. Gayle McPherson (University of West Scotland) on the digital visitor experience, and associate prof. Katja Lindqvist (Lund University) on taking a service management perspective on the museum. The hybrid addressed here was thus mainly the one of public service cultural institutions with/as commercial enterprises.

Based on her extensive research into changing museums policies in the UK over the last three decades, McPherson argued that ‘education and entertainment are no longer the uneasy bedfellows they used to be’, and that by embracing digital engagement and working cleverly with commercial strategies, museums could offer better experiences for ‘museum consumers’, thereby also meeting policy goals. She’s right, of course, but I couldn’t help asking if, by the logic of commercial entrepreneurship, museums might not risk losing their USP (unique selling point) if they come to resemble commercial enterprises too much?

This blurring of identities also surfaced in my first workshop with Designmuseum Denmark, in which one of the curators rhetorically asked ‘What is the church of the day, and who is the preacher of the day? Where is today’s museum and where is today’s shopping experience?‘ (Hvad er dagens kirke, og hvem er dagens præst? Hvor er dagens museum og hvor er dagens shoppingoplevelse?). Similarly, I found a strong resemblance between the Shoe Obsession exhibition at the Museum at FIT and the shoe department of the (exhibition sponsor) Saks Fifth Avenue, where the commercial shoe display emulated a museum style, while the museum unabashedly showcased commercial products currently on sale. Shopping may be a favorite past-time in the 21st century, but will this development just continue ad infinitum, or might we see a backlash against commercial culture where museums could become the ‘new black’ havens of material rather than materialistic culture? (Aren’t we already seeing the dawn of this political shift, or am I just a dreamer?)

Katja Lindqvist, who came to museum studies from an MBA background, had some interesting things to say about the mixed economy model of modern day museum, where public funding and sales profit together form the basis of museum management. While museums can – and have to – learn a lot from commercial enterprises, she also cautioned awareness of some of the assumptions behind popular business models which may not be applicable in a museum context, such as economies of scale or strict for-profit thinking. She also pointed out some of the effects of recent public sector reforms on museums, such as growing ‘projectification’ and a looming tendency to manage for audit resulting from more formal control and the need to constantly assert the institution’s relevance for society. Both scholars have published some interesting articles in Museum management and curatorship, which I will be sure to look up.

To my regret, I’d missed out on an affiliated PhD course the previous day, having overlooked this option on the website. Not that I’m short on ECTS points, but it would have been an interesting forum for presenting and discussing some of the issues I wish to address. Instead, I plunged into the debate in yesterday’s workshop on the impact of the concept of the hybrid museum on museums’ organisation and self-image, but left feeling unsure if I’d missed the mark a bit, raising the wrong kind of questions for this context or just explaining the points I was trying to make badly. However, the way that my suggestions were dismissed by McPherson (it’s not that I don’t get that publicly funded institutions have public obligations, it’s just that I’m sometimes a bit sceptic when it comes to getting with the program. In my book, questioning universal assumptions is one of the finer tasks of academia) gave me some food for thought about challenges in international discussions about museum issues.

For instance, my remark about how the strong focus on initiatives for engaging children might cause museums to overlook the commercial potential of and inadequately service the older audience they already have (by example, the national museum of art last year curated a fine exhibition theme about death aimed at children, but wouldn’t it also be interesting and relevant to curate the same topic for, or in collaboration with, the elderly?!) somehow morphed into a discussion about special events for museum friends and patrons. But the needs and interest of the stereotypical Danish museum-goer, a fifty-something female teacher, is not necessarily compatible to those of the equally stereotypical lady-who-lunches who supports the upkeep of an institution like the Met. Likewise, the circumstances in the US, the UK and in Scandinavia or continental Europe are not identical. We may be heading more and more towards a neo-liberal model of the welfare state, but we also still have other strands to our cultural DNA, and, I believe, still have the political right to question whether we want to model ourselves on the institutional changes brought on by post-Thatcher/ New Labour ideals or American trust fund sponsorships. (The omission of Asia, Africa and South America here is deliberate, as it is a different point I’m getting to, however, the general overlooking of non-western perspectives in this debate is indeed significant).

And yet we are constantly looking west when trying to understand the state and future of museums, to the great institutions and prominent museologists in America, Canada, England and Australia (not west, I know, but you get my drift). Myself very much included, because I, like most of my peers, have come to rely almost solely on the English language publications that I can confidently read. I used to read German and struggle through French (as this is part of standard education in Denmark, not because I was some whizz kid), but must admit that I very rarely bother these days. Even articles in the other Scandinavian languages I tend to pass over, heck, I’m not even up with the writings of my fellow Danes. Unless they have published in English. A brief conversation with senior museologist Ane Hejlskov Larsen, who could tell me that the flourishing tradition for museology in former Eastern Europe used to have a greater influence on the Nordic museum thinking, confirmed that I am alone in leaning heavily on the Anglo-american sources for inspiration and insights; this is a general trend. So what good points might we be missing out on, what ‘truths’ remain unquestioned when we’re all reading from the same script, listening to the same gospel?

My concern for academia here of course goes well beyond the field of museum studies, and ties in with a general shift towards an English-centric and Anglo-Saxon tradition of scientific publication (which again is linked to the publish-or-perish culture of new public management, I presume, but I’m admittedly a little out my depth here. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the downfalls of trying to be an academic in a second language, not only with regards to my own work, but what it will mean for the cognitive processes and academic prospects of future generations of scholars).

I know better than to try to tackle these meta level conundrums in my current project. But my concerns about how this narrow view affects the academic field of museum studies and, more importantly, the evolution of museums, is perhaps an issue to pursue in a post-doc project? In fact, it would make a lot of sense to carry out such a project at my current institution, the Royal School of Library and Information Studies, and team up with bibliometricians and cultural policy researchers. Perhaps I’m turning into an information scholar after all?

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In reply to tweet from Prof. McPherson

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I’m not trying to pick a fight, so please read this as a respectful clarification. I just feel badly misquoted – perhaps due to the exceedingly poor audio conditions at yesterday’s event – and given that I responded to professor McPherson’s tweet, I feel I now owe an elaboration, even though she luckily doesn’t seem further affronted. (added note: perhaps she just never saw my reply, or simply hasn’t been interested in hearing my response.)

As explained in the above post, my initial point was about not forgetting the value and needs of the existing museum audience. I was here referring to the typical museum goer, who, in the Danish demography-oriented research is described as a 50+ year old female teacher, i.e. educated middle class, but often somewhat dismissively referred to as a ‘hattedame’ (lit. ‘hat lady’). As the female educated middle class is also overrepresented in the museum professions, it is often seen as problematic that museums are only catering to their own kind. I strongly agree that museums need to be inclusive rather than elitist, but I don’t think that gives reason to disregard the visitors who enjoy the institutions.

When the term ‘hattedamer’ was subsequently translated for the benefit of the international participants in yesterday’s discussion, it was described as ‘ladies who lunch’ (i.e. upper class), which led into a discussion about the special events for friends and patrons at major American museums. I therefore found it necessary to differentiate between the stereotype of the retired teacher and the stereotype of the lady who lunches, whom I blunty described as a woman who had married into money. I apologised then, and apologise again for this crass and politically incorrect stereotype, but it wasn’t really the time or place to go into details – the point was to make an on the fly comprehensible distinction between the two groups. 

As for children in museums, I remember making the point that the current middle aged museum goers – including both of the above groups – had come to be interested in museums even if perhaps the museums of their childhood were not making special arrangements for children. The argument about needing to grow the next generation of museum goers does in other words not necessarily imply making special interactives for children, even though that is how it is often translated. Another point I made later about how activities tailored for one group could potentially collide with interests of other visitors – where I quoted one of my students for saying that sometimes, the presence of ‘someone glueing in the corner’ could be a distraction. This utterance came from a young person, and was addressing participatory activities in general, not activities for children in particular. 

I know I can get carried off in a debate. I know I still have a lot to learn about museums and academia and, well, life, and that too often I stick out my neck in unfortunate ways. We may disagree on certain aspects of museum strategies, but I did not mean to be brash and offensive. And to the best of my memory (then of course, I could simply be blind to my own misconceptions), I wasn’t, as it was another point entirely I was trying to make, but which apparently didn’t come across clearly and was therefore condensed into a very different argument. Hence this correction.

With the very best regards,
Rikke

… and then:

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: )

Traditional museum technologies

As it turned out, American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) did actually (also) use some pretty old school exhibition technology: the diorama. Which was absolutely brilliant. I admit that there is an element of nostalgia here, as I was reminded of how much I used to love visiting Zoologisk Museum in Copenhagen as a child and do sticker assignments where you had to find and place animals in their biotope. Now that Zoologisk Museum is about to become part of the yet-to-be-built Statens Naturhistoriske Museum it doesn’t look like the dioramas will be part of the future exhibitions. Regretably, perhaps, as apart from being spectacular and delightfully quaint, dioramas also work really well as pedagogical tools. Tellingly, the AMNH has just spent fortunes restoring theirs.

Upper Nile Region, Akeley Hall of African Mammals, AMNH

Upper Nile Region, Akeley Hall of African Mammals, AMNH

Most importantly, dioramas shows context, rather than just telling about it. They also give you a valuable sense of scale and allows you to study animals ‘in the wild’ up close and in your own time in a way that neither wildlife films nor zoo’s can (they do something else instead). And because of their visual appeal and intricacy, they capture the interest and make you want to study them more closely, where you might pick up interesting details about botany, cohabitation of species, characteristics of fur or plumage, social life in herds etc. The accompanying wall texts then provides you with the information needed to anchor your observations. Admittedly, in a collection as vast as that of ANMH, you will probably only study the details of a few, and simply enjoy the spectacle of the rest.

In many ways they are similar to the period rooms of museums like the Metropolitan, Brooklyn Museum and also the Danish National Museum, where the assembly of an full interior provides a different understanding and feel of a stylistic period than the display of individual pieces of furniture could. You might say that this presentation style caters as much to an experience paradigm as it does to an educational one, but then drawing the audience in and giving them something that might stick in the mind is not a bad outcome, or maybe it simply allows for a different kind of learning.

The Haverhill Room, Metropolitan Museum

The Haverhill Room, Metropolitan Museum

What it all boils down to, however, is what the museum wants us to see, or how they want us to see, as argued by Svetlana Alpers. She reminds us that ‘the museum – as a way of seeing – itself keeps changing and that installation has a major effect on what one sees. a constant, however, is the issue of seeing. And the question to ask is, why an with what visual interest in view do we devise this or that display for particular objects?’  (1991: 31, ‘The Museum as a Way of Seeing’ in Karp & Lavine (eds.) Exhibiting Cultures. The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington & London). Using the example of a crab displayed out of context, as a visual object, she recounts how precisely that form of display allowed her to really see and contemplate the crab (ibid:25).

Still, back at the AMNH, the best bit of museum education came from Stephen C. – as always, the personal presentation wins hands down. Standing in the hall of saurischian dinosaurs sporting a big red ‘Fossil Explainer’ badge, he enthusiastically shared his knowledge of both the dinosaur fossils and the institution, answering our questions and elaborating with very interesting stories ( explaining, for instance, how the apatosaurus was on its third head, as new discoveries had shown previous versions to be incorrect). A retired stock broker, volunteering in the museum was a return to his childhood passion for dinosaurs, and his excitement about this subject together with the thorough training (including exam) he had gone through to become a museum docent made him a a brilliant educator.

Fossil explainer Stephen C. showing off a T-REx tooth at the AMNH

Fossil explainer Stephen C. showing off a T-Rex tooth at the AMNH

Mobile tools and challenges

The AMNH also offers a host of free mobile apps, for use in and outside the museum. The Dinosaur app, for instance, let’s you browse through hundreds of images and look up information, while the Explorer app serves as an in-museum guide. Stupidly, I didn’t think to connect to the museum’s wifi (and nowhere was it announced that this was indeed possible), and as I had no service from my mobile provider inside the humongous museum, we often found ourselves lost and unable to find the exhibits we wanted to see. In other words, this app would have provided a useful service.

AMNH dinosaur app

AMNH app

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The Metropolitan Museum, by contrast, relies primarily on traditional audio guides, to rent in the museum, and printed guide material including activities for children and families. Only a couple of exhibitions have a free, downloadable app. One of them is the ‘Beyond Battle’ app, which uses a quiz format to inspire young visitor’s exploration of the arms and armour galleries. Re-visiting the museum with my sons, aged 6 and 8, this worked a treat, and although they were already excited by the displays themselves, they were also keen to find the next item in the randomised quiz and try to guess the weight of a battle sword, the precision of a bow and arrow and so on.

But maybe the scavenger hunt had a tendency to take over, as they were driven on to the next stop, rushing between galleries, rather than exploring and contemplating the displays that most appealed to them in their own time. Then again, as we had already spent ample time marveling at the vast Egyptian collection and visiting the American wing, perhaps this made for a welcome change of dynamic.

For our visit to the Rockefeller observation deck (not a museum, I know, but there is a point) I had downloaded the ‘Top of the Rock’ app, which most notably featured a virtual viewfinder allowing you to scan the skyline for information about landmark buildings. However, despite the view being pretty predictable the app was not able to calibrate my camera image of the Empire State building with the recognitions software, and so in order to get information I had to switch to ‘Pano’ mode. In this case, this didn’t matter much (I guess, as I never actually got to experience the ‘Live’ mode), as I still got the names of the buildings I was looking at with additional information available. However, this demonstrated that object recognition software still has some way to go before reality can seamlessly become augmented with layers of information.

Top of the Rock app

ditto, pano view

(Speaking of augmented reality, I actually met someone in the West Village testing Google Glass a few weeks ago. Not at all comfortable with the prospects of this type of technology and it’s Big Brother potentiality, but that is another story. The feature in the Lego store that allowed you to see the set being built and ‘come to life’ when holding the box up to a screen was pretty cool, though.)

Visiting the Guggenheim, I found their mobile app most useful. The classic audio tour of the building  was interesting and available in transcript form too, the only problem being that as my phone was set to automatic lock after one minute, the longer tracks were cut of and had to be resumed ( I didn’t work out that this was related to my own settings, and therefore correctable, before encountering the same problem at MoMA). The Guggenheim app also allowed for in demand information by number codes, which also worked well in combination with the floor map. At MoMA, visual interpretation and audio tracks for children was also available for selected artworks, however, the information structure of the app did not make these features available in one interface for the artwork which seemed odd.

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ditto, map & artwork info

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Visiting & visitors

Visiting so many and so different institutions and exhibitions, alone and with my family, over the last few weeks has also been a fine reminder of the situated identities of museum visitors and their very different motivations, as decribed by John Falk.

Visiting fashion (related) exhibitions at the Met, the Museum at FIT and Museum of the City of New York, I have come as the ‘enthusiast’, i.e. with a special interest and some pre-exisiting knowledge in the field, interested in details and able to do my own contextualization of the exhibitions. Taking my family to the AMNH and the Met, by contrast, I have assumed the role of the ‘facilitator’, focusing mainly on the communal experience and my children’s learning. And my visits to institutions such as MoMA and Guggenheim have been prompted as much by their international renown as by their current exhibitions, making me an ‘experience seeker’, notching off the must-see destinations. Finally, I have come to all of them as an ‘explorer’, partly looking for things to capture my imagination in general, partly with a special interest in their different ways of being museums and mediating their subject matters.

What I haven’t done, although I hold this to be one of the very valuable aspects of what museums can be, is to experience these museums as a spiritual refuge, the last of Falk’s motivations. To the contrary, the rather overwhelming popularity of some of the very famous museums in this city has made me doubt if it even makes sense to think of the museum as a space for quiet contemplation. The crowded halls I have seen here bore little resemblance to the heterotopia described by Foucault, and begged the question if museums could be drowning in their own popularity? Then again, it is heartening to see that museums are such well sought destinations.

Crowd, AMNH

Crowd, MoMAEvidently, experience seekers do not only come for the institutions as a whole, but also ‘check in’ on particular famous artworks. With one of Edward Munch’s ‘The Scream’ pastels currently on loan to MoMA, it was hard to actually get a glimpse of the artwork itself for the crowds needing to get a snapshot of it, often also putting themselves in the frame as when doing tourist shots at a famous landmark. I suspect that the mobile cum social media revolution has made this behaviour even more common.

Collections, display and cultural objects 

A final observation has been of the function or prevalence of the collection and the museal display as cultural reference points in the arts. As mentioned in a previous post, mark Dion used display cages in his installation to allude to the makings of (an alternative) natural history. In a similar fashion, a much earlier work by Joseph Beuys shown at MoMA consisted of a series of vitrines each holding a collection of sculptures, whilst at the Guggenheim, the recent installation IMUUR2 by Danh Vo displayed a selection of the private collection of objects by artist Martin Wong.

Danh Vo, IMUUR2 (detail)

Danh Vo, IMUUR2 (detail)

Now, I am not sure yet what to make of this, if anything, still something makes me want to make a note of it. Something to do with the cultural role of museums, with our relationship to things and how they help us think, which relates to the question of what makes a museum object / a cultural object that I have been pondering lately.

Presenting these thoughts and my project to the BGC community last week gave me some wonderful feedback and sparked an interesting discussion, not only about this, but also about the excluding aspects of both museums and smart phones, about the use of mobiles in the museum and the sometimes limited usefulness of the museum app etc. I am truly grateful that the scholars here were willing to engage with my project, and also got the impression that these are also the kinds of questions that form part of the ongoing debate in this institution. On the back of the presentation I have also been invited to participate in a course session focused on how to leverage digital media for a upcoming focus gallery exhibition of Chuspas. I am also very much looking forward to discussing fashion curation over lunch with assistant professor and fashion historian Michele Majer, and to the list of presentations and events also taking place here and at other institutions during the final two weeks of my stay.

(I apologize for the lack of captions for the images of apps, but after battling with wordpress for an hour now trying to get them to display right, I give up. Captions should read:

first row: AMNH dinoaur app, AMNH mammal app, Metropolitan Beyond Battle app
second row: Top of the Rock app, left live view, right pano view
third row: left and middle Guggenheim app, right MoMA app

pictures of crowds: left AMNH, right MoMA)

Thursday, I attended a public lecture by Valerie Steele at 92Y in relation to the current exhibition Shoe Obsession at the Museum at FIT. As mentioned in an earlier post, I found the exhibit itself to be a little under-communicated, so it was very interesting to hear the curator and fashion historian talk about why fashion is suddenly all about the shoes. She gave insights into the linking of the stiletto heel with fetishism, a topic she has previously done extensive research into; into the concurrent rise in the height of the heels and in retail prices over the last few years; into the private collectors who had lent shoes to the exhibition, and into the impact of the TV show Sex and the City and specifically the episode ‘A woman’s right to shoes’ on the collective craze for Manolos.

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Valerie Steele lecturing on shoes – it’s an awful photo, I know, but as she is a bit of an icon in this field, a personal snapshot from the session still makes for a keepsake.

Attending this lecture also gave me a chance to ask her to elaborate a little on the curatorial considerations on displaying fashion objects from the current collections on sale a few blocks from the museum, which she gladly did:

’Well I think that what we were aiming to do was focusing, as I said, on this contemporary moment of shoe obsession, ten or twenty years of it. One problem with museum exhibitions is that of course you can’t touch things, and you certainly can’t wear things, so it’s an interesting idea that you could actually go up town and try on many of the exact same shoes, that’s something that you could almost never have in an exhibit. I did go to one exhibit of contemporary fashion in Vienna, where they actually had the clothes there hanging on a rack, and you could try them on. But that was in Europe, I mean, in New York at five o’clock there would be nothing on that rack! So, I see museums as being another medium to display fashion. You see fashion in stores, you see it on the runway, if you go to runway shows, you see it on the internet and in magazines, and it provides a particular take on it. And what can be interesting is when you push that, to try to get people to look at two things side by side, and so, I really wanted to push it by having the case – because that was my idea, that wasn’t Saks, they’re our sponsor – I said, I want to have a case of things from Saks now, because I want people to understand that these are things, not every shoe here, some may be five or ten years old, but many of them are things that are on sale now, this is a current phenomenon. And I think a lot of the audience members did, from their comments, you can get a sense of that, one woman, I overheard her saying ’I’ve died and gone to shoe heaven’, and that’s kind of the thing that you say when you’re shopping for shoes, not when you’re in a museum.’

Only later did I think that it would also have been interesting to hear more about the choice not to include any of the high street rip-offs or similar styles, that are also part of the same cultural trend, and the more attainable variant for the common girl. Although these cheaper variants do not have the same quality in terms of manufacture or design, and cannot be said to hold quite the same sculptural qualities as the iconic high fashion pieces, it is still interesting how this trend, which, in its trickled down version, is even more clearly aspirational, has developed. And not least, why a museum of fashion does not see it fit to include such examples in what is also a cultural exhibition.

Walking back from the lecture, I revisited the exhibition, and yes, the displays did make a lot more sense – rather than simply being visually stunning – after learning about some of the thoughts behind the exhibition. I also bought the catalogue (I had meant to buy it at the lecture and get it signed, but was too late as I got talking to some learned ladies after the talk) and can now study the research behind the show in more detail.

More importantly, I plucked up the courage to go and try on some designer shoes at the rather splendid shoe department at Saks Fifth Avenue, the kind of shoe heaven some people would either die or kill to be in, as per the above comment. Now, I’m not personally all that obsessed about shoes (a confession which actually at this moment is almost a little bit like admitting that you’re not that into sex). I mean, what’s not to like, but I just can’t get to the obsession stage, which is probably a good thing as it would be very costly hobby to pick up. So it was actually from a fashion museological point of departure that I felt compelled to do this, and even though I had dressed up for the occasion, so as at least to look a bit like a potential costumer, I still felt like a total fraud asking for assistance, knowing that I was never going to buy anything. So this whole question of accessibility of design products in the public space is actually not all that straight forward.

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Shoe display in Saks Fifth Avenue. Sadly, photography was prohibited in the exhibition at FIT, but there were similarities.

I opted for a pair of spiked ‘Pigalle’ Louboutins, given that his red soles are some of the most lusted for items in the current fashion economy, and because this ‘classic with a punk twist’ design had stood out in the exhibition (as well as in the promotional material), even if it wasn’t by far as adventurous as some of the other designs. Apparently, this particular shoe had even been voted the sexiest of 2012 (the stuff you find on Google!). And finally they had got me wondering whether you would end up scraping you own feet with those spikes when you wore them, which would make them exceedingly uncomfortable. In other words, they were the perfect example of a museum object that you wish you could experience physically, as well as having the whole cultural significance, fashion system references and semiotic readability thing going on at the same time. Oh, and they were cool.

So it was really interesting actually being able to inspect these shoes more closely, check out the inside details, the finishings, feel their weight and how they were to touch. There really is a difference between high fashion and low fashion items, albeit perhaps not as great a difference as the prices sometimes warrants. And wearing them of course, walking around in those 12 cm heels. And realising that they were actually great to wear (with some of the other styles it was more hit and miss, and the really high platform stilettos would take a lot more practice and came with a high risk of ungracious collapses, but this particular design actually sat really well on my foot), and that no, you don’t scrape yourself, and yes, they were definitely walkable. IMG_0638 In other words, they were great, they made me feel great, and just for a moment there, I thought that maybe I could actually… Which is absolutely insane, as they cost $1295! And some women have hundreds of pairs, which just brings home some of the more repulsive aspects of fashion. But it also illustrated so well the allure and the transforming power of fashion, even if only in a short lived dream. (I don’t mean to come across all Cinderella here; I’ve already got a few glass slippers of my own (and the prince to boot), so I could handle waking up and smelling the roses).

So really, the combined experience or juxtaposition of the display of design and creativity, the cult of the shoe, in the museum, with the material and economic reality in the department store, was very interesting, even if the bridging of the two was not explicitly suggested by the museum.

And yet, of course there is still the problem about mixing curatorial aims with the interests of the fashion industry. Marie Riegels Melchior, in a very insightful conference paper on ‘Fashion Museology: Identifying and contesting fashion in museums’ (2011), does not ask for museums to give up these collaborations with the industry, but calls for the development of a fashion museology that is in keeping with the new museological aim for reflexiveness towards cultural heritage:

The way that fashion is currently displayed and communicated in a museum context, as a means to strengthen visitor orientation, neither stimulates a reflexive world view nor an understanding of the complexity of fashion, the industry, celebrity and consumer culture, ethics and the environment, etc. At least the exhibitions that build on this aim are limited in numbers and do not reach the major art museums’ display of fashion. Fashion museology has therefore future potential. As fashion is a subject that engages non-standard museum-goers, it can become a lens through which our past and present can be told and explored in a much more nuanced way. However, it can also very easily risk the corporal sponsorship of museums, if a more critical interpretation of fashion discourages new museum-goers or fails to interest them in more critical matters concerning fashion production, distribution and consumption. The challenge is to find the right balance – to sustain the interest of visitors and corporate sponsors while maintaining the objectives of the new museology paradigm, strengthening critical reflection and understanding our contemporary world and cultural heritage. (Melchior 2011 p. 8)

In other words, an exhibition such as Shoe Obsession, in dealing with a current phenomenon, could have adressed the complexities surrounding this subject more clearly – the psychology, the production and consumption cycles, the mechanics of fashion, the aspirations – rather than simply celebrating the wonderful creations of the master designers and the women who are privileged enough to be their costumers.

This post will be a really quick run through of some of all the great inspiration I’ve had for thinking about museums in many different ways over the last week. While a lot of them deserve further exploration, for now I just need to pin them down so that I can revisit them later, but not have them spinning around in my head as they do now.

The museum of yore

Entrance to the American Museum of Natural History

Entrance to the American Museum of Natural History

Now, I do not mean to say that the American Museum of Natural History is stuck in time; in fact in it’s dealing with paleontology and the creation of the universe and all the other wonders of the natural world, I expect it to be everything but and I’m dead excited about taking my family there when they arrive. But the entrance to the museum, which I pass on my way to the BGC every morning, reminds me of how museums used be understood, and how they used to communicate. In addition to the classicist columns so typical of traditional museum architecture, and the long stairs leading up to the temple of the muses, here you’ve even got the self-assured inscriptions ‘Truth – Knowledge – Vision’. The authoritarian voice of the museum cut in stone. And the statue in front of president Roosevelt on his steed, flanked by noble savages, the native American and the African tribesman (on foot!) just reeks of the cultural imperialism that hitherto defined the interpretation of collections. (note added 7/8/14: perhaps Donna Harraway’s ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy’, Social Text no. 11, 1984/85 could be of use if exploring this further http://www.jstor.org.ep.fjernadgang.kb.dk/stable/466593). In this light, the necessary criticism inherent in the new museological paradigm becomes obvious, and the democratric ideals of the post colonial museum make a whole lot of sense, even if the open invitation for a polyphonic discourse also has its problems. Reading Eileen Hooper Greenhill’s outlining of the ‘post-museum’ in ‘Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture’ (2000) helps me reflect on these issues.

Brooklyn Museum

Contrast this with Brooklyn Museum which, architecturally as well, has been transformed from a temple or treasury to an agora; ‘a marketplace of ideas offering space for conversation, a forum for civic engagement and debate, and opportunity for a variety of encounters among audiences and the museum’ (Nancy Proctor (2010): ‘Digital: Museums as Platform, Curator as Champion, in the Age of Social Media’ I Curator. The Museum Journal 53:1).

Brooklyn Museum

Brooklyn Museum

My own first knowledge of this museum was down to the interesting explorations into engaging the community in the curatorial process via social media done by Shelley Bernstein, most notably Click! in 2008 and GO  in 2012, which have had quite an impact in the international digital museum community. But, as Bernstein pointed out during her brilliant presentation at the Sharing is Caring seminar, this work is actually only a very small part of what Brooklyn Museum is. And I must say, I was really, really impressed with the museum, for the architecture, the collection, the special exhibitions, the ambience, the works! 

IMG_0560Seeing Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party was such a thrill, and I think it says a lot about the ethos of the museum that it has on permanent display this seminal work as well as hosting the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Revelling in the craft and candid beauty of the banquet and the individual place settings was of course the best part, but the mobile tools accompanying this exhibit also worked really well. The scanner driven application, downloadable via QR codes in the gallery, allowed you to look up information about each of the 1038 women honored in the work, and using the dial-in cell phone tour, you could hear the artist’s own comments on each of the honorary guests.

You can read more about Judy Chicago and see more of her works on https://www.artsy.net/artist/judy-chicago

[Note added 31/08/2017:  Funny how Artsy found this post 4 year later and asked me to add the link to their Judy Chicago page. Happy to help! 🙂 and go check it out, it’s a really cool resource!]

The offer of mobile content was even promoted on the entry tickets, where a QR code linked to information about this feature. (Of course, offering the information in this way, it is only accessible to those who already have a scanner app on their phone, but perhaps at least those who don’t will be intrigued enough to ask for for more information on this option.)
IMG_0645Another interesting mobile offer was the game Gallery Tag. Asking visitors to add their own tags, i.e. their own associations or descriptions of pieces in the permanent collection, the museum are both asking visitors to consider the objects they are looking at, providing a game element for those who enjoy that kind of interaction (using discounts in the museum store as an incentive to add as many tags as you can think of) and collecting information about the public interpretation of the collection that is valuable to the curators. And for those who are not interested, the activity does not intrude on the experience. A great idea, in other words, but I did struggle a bit at first to work out how it worked and later to get it to work, as not all of the object codes or acquisition were accepted by the system.

Finally, the use of QR codes at select objects in the galleries provided some very useful insights, such being able to see Nick Cave’s sound suits in action, in order to really understand the piece you were looking at.

One of his suits was included in a great little exhibition called Connecting Cultures where artworks and artifacts from across collections, time periods and geographical origin were brought together around themes such as place, self representation and the role of objects. A fine example of the value of curatorial vision and of the potential in telling stories with things.

Connecting Cultures exhibit at Brooklyn Museum

Connecting Cultures exhibit at Brooklyn Museum

Lectures at the BGC

On Monday night, I attended the introductory survey course for master level and PhD students at the BGC. This weeks presentation was by Roger Griffith, conservator of 20th century design objects at MOMA, which gave some interesting insights into what goes on behind the scenes, and on the effect of conservation perspectives on curatorial considerations. Also there was some good questions about the importance of ‘an original’ in the case of mass produced objects, and of how far to go with the restoration of objects, not to mention the challenges of objects that are distinctly transitory.

Bard Graduate Center also hosted two public lectures, bringing together students, faculty and external scholars, as well as an interested public. On Tuesday night, Catherine Whalen, assistant professor at the BGC, gave an interesting presentation on The Gift of Criticism: Paul Hollister’s Writings and the Ascendancy of Studio Glassdiscussing the role of the critic and the impact of critical writing on the development within the studio craft movement in the 1960’s and 70’s as well as on the valuation and public appreciation of their work. The lecture led to an interesting discussion on the merits and pitfalls of writing for academia and writing for a wider public, respectively, as well as on the difference between being featured in the arts section and in the home section of the news paper. Clearly, the arts section has a higher status, meaning that also the field of craft and design aspire to these pages, even if they may not reach as wide an audience.

Wednesday, professor Janet Berlo from University of Rochester gave the fascinating lecture “Prime Objects” of the Gods? Replications and Transformations of Navajo Sandpainting Imagery on reciprocity and on the ephemeral ‘originals’ and material replications of Navajo sandpaintings. Now, I will not attempt to recap the complicated epistemology of Navajo art, but the ensuing debate on concepts of the original and its reproductions (with reference to Benjamin) or materialisations as well as on notions of ownership versus restrictions on who can view sacred objects was thought provoking. So although none of these lectures have had any direct correlation to my own research, it has been very inspiring to learn of these diverse perspectives, and to experience the vibrant intellectual debate taking place at this institution.

Mark Dion

A visit to Tanya Bonakdar Gallery to see installations of an imaginary museum of natural history by the artist Mark Dion again does not relate directly to my project, and still his exploration of the idea of the Wunderkammer, of what objects belong in a museum, his use of classic museum display cases and how they lend an aura to the peculiar ‘pickled’ domestic plastic objects in one display, for example, is also an intruiging way of thinking about what a museum is. Similarly, currently reading Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (or, admittedly, having it placed on my bedside table, as most of my reading here has been scholarly) adds to the picture of what a museum is, or could be, and what it means for the individual and in society.

Installation by Mark Dion

Installation by Mark Dion

After the museum

Finally, last night, as realising that MOMA had already closed I decided instead to visit the Museum of Art and Design to see the exhibition of Studio Glass mentioned in Tuesday’s lecture, I happened to stumble into a truly brilliant dialogue session as part of the After the Museum exhibition and event series. I didn´t even know that this exhibition was on (and didn´t get to explore it this time round either as I got caught up the debate), let alone the event, but it touched right on some of the questions I’m asking in my project. Talk about a serendipitous incident!

From the event Case study # 1: Object at Museum of Art and Design

Changing background display at the event Case study # 1: Object at Museum of Art and Design

It was a small crowd, and clearly most of the participants had some professional interest in the topic and were even connected in one way or other, still it was an interesting discussion on what objects belong in a museum, what sort of experiences we seek, and what the future of museums might look like. Interestingly (if perhaps not too surprising in this group of educated museum lovers), although one person suggested a fruitful merger of the Google art experience with viewing the artwork on display, the consensus seemed to be that it is the object and the curatorial narrative that is the pull of the museum, placing things in context and being able to tell an educational story, rather than digital experiences and entertainment. As one person put it, the film and entertainment industry does that so much better anyway, whilst another ventured that after working at a screen all day, using it in the museum too is not that appealing. Similarly, the inclusion of the public voice was called into question. My own query about the prospect of taking the museum experience outside the museum and into the everyday contexts of the design artifacts was met with interest, but also questioned, mirroring my own scepticism about whether that would really constitute a museum experience, and if it is within the museum’s remit to do so. Still, it was also a agreed that it is all down to the context of the curatorial questions and objectives, the museum type and subject matter and the interest of the individual museum guest.

Delightfully, the conversation carried on after the official session ended, and a smaller group of us continued the debate over drinks at a nearby bar. A chance #drinkingaboutmuseums night, then, as so often organized by the Museums and the Web crowd via Twitter. Uplifted and enlightened, I thank all for great points and a good chat, and do hope that we will be able to carry on where we left of at the next session in the series on April 18th.


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In my first week at the BGC, I was hoarding a huge pile of articles from online resources such as the journal Fashion Theory (which had a couple of special issues on fashion curating back in 2008)  and Berg Fashion Library, including entries in Berg Ecyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion  and from their fine collection of E-books, as well as taking out stacks of books from the library. Oh, and reading some, of course. Which has been very inspiring and informative, as the wealth of material that is available to me here means that I can truly delve into a select subject, and get some feel of the breadth and depth of the field, following the sources cited rather than stopping short after the first article.

My main focus thus far has been fashion museology, which, inevitably, spreads into both fashion theory, material culture studies and general museology. The challenge, of course, is that the chain of references is never-ending, so I must remember not to get too carried away, but what also emerges is a network of articles referencing each other or the same sources, meaning that I can start to identify central discourses and actors in the field. I’m still very much in an absorbing stage, although my supervisors would be pleased to hear that I am trying to start writing, very tentatively, but still.

I will therefore not go into details here on some of the interesting things I have learned, such as the parallel movements within ‘new’ museology and ‘new’ fashion studies towards a less object centered, more concept or theory based approach, as pointed out in Fiona Anderson’s 2008 paper ‘Museums as Fashion Media’. This movement is not absolute however, as witnessed in the still existent divide within fashion museology between the traditional approach of dress historians, focusing on detailed descriptions and historical accuracy in exhibitions of period dress, and new approaches to curation that are more inspired and reliant on academic discourse and on interpreting current and historical fashions in relation to current cultural phenomena. Often, though, the two approaches merge (Taylor 1998, McNeill 2008)

Valerie Steele, whilst declaring her admiration for Diana Vreeland (former editor of Vogue and curator for the Costume Institute (in)famous for her glamourous, yet historically inaccurate exhibitions), thus argues for the value of the object centered or material methodology approach, using her own research into actual measurements of victorian corsets as an example of

’the importance of artifact study, since the written sources tend to be so polemical. I still recall my outrage when I saw, at an exhibition of Victorian dress, a placard quoting one of the more preposterous letters in the notorious corset controversy in The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine as though it were a probative and impartial piece of evidence. I wanted to shout at the curator, “Measure the corsets and dresses in this exhibition before you talk to me about 13-inch waists!” ‘(Steele, 1998 ‘A Museum of Fashion Is More Than a Clothes-Bag’ p. 332  )

Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity at the Metropolitan Museum

Steele’s words came to mind when this weekend I went to visit the Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity exhibition currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum. It is an extensive and thoroughly enjoyable exhibition produced in a collaboration between Musee d’Orsay in Paris, Art Institute of Chicago and the Met, showcasing an impressive selection of impressionist masterpieces. Clearly first and foremost an art historical exhibit, the curatorial twist is a juxtaposition of the artworks with dresses of the time mirroring those depicted in the paintings, as the focus of the exhibition is how fashionable dress features so strongly in work of the impressionist movement, as a strong signifier for modernity.

As Ulrich Lehmann has shown in the book Tigerspung, the literature of the time shared a similar fascination with the sartorial. I’ve never actually managed to read the book though, although it’s been sat on my shelf for years, but today I got through an article of his by the same title, but with a focus on fashion as historical narrative, building strongly on Benjamin’s Das Passagen-Werk (Lehmann 1999).

Although it wasn’t a theme of the exhibition, repeatedly I heard people commenting on the tiny waists and sharing with each other perceived truths of the extremes of tightlacing, which, as Steele has shown, was actually not as extreme as common knowledge has it, still, this misconception is very persistent. And a couple of observations made me think of how the exhibition of dress may sometimes serve to uphold such perceptions rather than challenge them, as also pointed out by Steele above. In an exhibit of the paiting In the Conservatory by Albert Bartholomé alongside the dress actually worn by the artist’s wife in the painting (what a scoop!) it seemed to me as if the the dress was presented in a way that actually made the waist seem even slimmer than it did in the painting. This could of course be the posture. Still, on all the dress displays, the waist was notably slimmer when seen from the front than when viewed from the side – whereas a normal slender torso will look wider from the front than from the side. So was this the effect that corsets actually had on the silhouette – or perhaps in part a result of the design of the mannequins? Maybe I should ask Dr. Steele. Then again, it could be just a trick of my imagination, brought on by a desire to be a clever sausage museologist.

Bartholome-Conservatory_360

Albert Bartholomé. In the Conservatory, c. 1881. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image source http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/impressionism-fashion-and-modernity

Bartholome-Summer-Dress_360

Summer dress worn by Madame Bartholomé in the painting In the Conservatory, French, 1880. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Ibid.

That people were more willing to comment on the fashion than on the painting style (admittedly, my ears were pricked for these conversations so I cannot say for sure that the other was not happening) illustrated well the point often made about fashion’s easy accessibility. Whereas we may be fazed by art, not sure if we’re getting it right or feeling that we don’t have enough of an art historical knowledge to assess what we’re seeing, fashion feels straight forward, something we can understand and relate to in terms of class, taste and (dis)comfort.

A similar hierarchy was also apparent in the exhibit design, where dresses were styled to look just like the paintings by combining articles from disparate collections, or in one case by adding bows of yellow silk to a white dress in order to make its likeness to that worn in paintings by Tissot more obvious to the viewer. Whereas touching up the paintings to make them look more like the dresses is unthinkable (imagining that you could do that in a way that was similarly unharmful and completely reversible) historical or stylistic accuracy when it comes to fashion is seemingly treated more casually. (Actually, on this point, there has been some controversy about the upcoming exhibition of punk fashion, also at the Met, with McLaren’s widow claiming that the show is full of inaccuracies and fakes.)

It would seem, then, that Vreeland’s spirit, as expressed in her famous statement “Never worry about the facts, just project an image to the public” (quoted in Stevenson 2008)  still lives on at the Met. Perhaps rightly so – as Steele comments on current curator-in-charge Harold Coda’s assertion that “you have to engage the eye before you can instruct or communicate”: 

People need to be seduced into really seeing and identifying with fashion before they can begin to learn about it. Museum visitors are also becoming ever more visually sophisticated, and exhibition design is increasingly important. At the same time, I believe that a significant percentage of museum visitors really want to learn something when they see an exhibition. (Steele 2008, ‘Museum Quality: The Rise of the Fashion Exhibition’ in Fashion Theory vol 12, 1, p. 14)

Spectacular as it was, in terms of traditional museum education, the information on fashion history in this exhibition was however very limited. As for other types of learning, well, that’s another kettle of fish. But I’ll save that for another post.

‘Sharing is Caring 12 – Let’s get real!’(1), held in December 2012, was the second in a series of international seminars about engaging the public with museums’ (digital) assets (2). Touching upon some of the hottest topics in museums, the event drew quite a crowd, and was a fine opportunity for networking and catching up, as well as for getting an update on current projects and ideas. Still, I had my reservations (3), this time exacerbated by the snappy, happy-clapping rhetorics of a title like ‘Sharing is Caring’, explicated in a rather evangelical blogpost on Formidlingsnet by last year’s keynote speaker Michael Edson; ‘A year of Sharing and Caring‘. He explains the notions thus:

sharing, as a deeply moral impulse to take the knowledge, beauty, and secrets that we know are there, locked within our organizations, and make them available to every person on earth and caring, as a manifestation of our collective duty to ensure that everyone in society has access to the full spectrum of ideas, experiences, and resources that they need to live happy and successful lives (4)

outlining “the next frontier of work: building equity and civic value through openness, transparency, generosity, and community” and stating that “What matters is millions and millions of citizens wrestling with big ideas, engaging in personal discovery, making new things, and sharing with one another.”(ibid.) It is hard to argue against these ideals, although they hardly answer to the second call of the seminar title: Let’s get real! There is an awful lot of buzzwords and hot air in this field. Also, zealous idealism can be pretty scary, and good intentions is not the same as indisputable truth. I therefore second Sarah Giersing’s concerns in a reply to Edson’s post:

I cannot help but feel a little scepticism. Something about the rhetoric, the title “Sharing is Caring” especially, simply rubs me the wrong way. To me “Sharing is Caring” has a certain ring of something selfrighteous to it, something patronizing even. To me it sounds a little like the optimistic name of some religious endeavour – or a humanitarian aid relief project – to save the world. Nothing wrong with philanthropism, but we might be wary of the missionary aspect. (ibid.)

For Giersing, the answer lies in also sharing the authority in defining what constitutes our cultural heritage. As project leader for Copenhagen Museum’s Væggen (5) she has been working to put this idea into practice for years, and gave a very inspiring presentation about the potential, but also the great challenges, in inviting users to contribute content and knowledge to museum collections (6). Her chief advice for others wanting to pursue a similar track was a) to not only ask for users to contribute content but also provide metadata, to ensure that institutions had information on the context and provenance of the collection item; b) to ask for uploads in a durable data format, with considerations not only for access speed, but also for technical quality and preservation; and c) to ensure appropriate data rights, i.e., that the contributor has the right to upload the content, and that the institution has the right to use it when part of the collection.

Museum ideals
Now I’m not sure just how far Giersing believes institutions should go in sharing authority, but for me, I think the relationship can never be completely equal, as I believe in the value and necessity of curatorial expertise. To use a perhaps dubious analogy, although millions of passionate football fans will be shouting instructions at their screens and have strong opinions about the game, the tactics and the players, I don’t really think that their beloved game would benefit from crowdsourced management. SImilarly, I think that high quality curation requires professionalism. I understand that there is also a postcolonial problematic in this stance; who has the right to assume authority over a shared heritage. Still, I  don’t see how it can be otherwise. Letting go completely, not letting interpretations be guided by the knowledge inherent in the institutions but starting from scratch sounds like futile chaos, and any staging of democratic dialogue will always involve some level of authority, someone deciding to invite that dialogue and how to use the output.

This is not to say that I believe museums should reign supreme, and I fully agree that museums could learn a lot from the public. Nevertheless, assuming authority – and praticing it wisely – is part of the custodial responsiblity. Although we have moved, or are moving away from the role of museums as shrines to the nation, modern-day museum ideals – post-, transparent, participartory, inclusive etc. (7) – are thus not all that different from the Bildung ideals of the museums of the enlightenment (8). Asking the public to participate, museums are still taking an educational role, still trying to build a certain kind of citizen, even if nowadays we are asking of that citizen to express their individual mind.

Which begs the question: Is expression neccessarily better than impression? Why is visiting an exhibition, having whatever experience we may have, understanding whatever we do, and making our own associations, deductions etc. no longer enough? When libraries are still happy to lend us books – old books, difficult books even – without an accompanying guide, how come museums feel that the experience of art or cultural artefacts must always be scaffolded?

India Art Now/ India Fashion Now: Challenge
Let me digress for a moment, to a brilliant exhibition I visited earlier this week; namely India: Art Now and India: Fashion Now at Arken Museum of Modern Art i Ishøj, DK (9). Both the artworks and the fashion exhibited were beautiful, humorous and thought provoking.

India:Fashion Now

Couture by Amit Aggarwal & Manish Arora, display view from India:Fashion Now

IMG_0190

Rina Banerjee. “She was now…” 2011. Installation view at ARKEN

So I didn’t really need the to be told what to feel or what to think about, and therefore found the wall labels, meant to elicit afterthought and debate with questions like ‘Go exploring among the clusters of woven hair and hanging bumpers. What is the atmosphere of the room? What bodily sensations do the materials and the way they are used in the installation evoke in you?’ or ‘Imagine the human destinies interwoven in the painting. Do they live in hope, pain or joy? Is their world also yours?’, to be heavily didactic, patronizing and superfluous. Rather than aiding my understanding, they disturbed my perception, and evoked irritation more than anything else. So much so, that my companion and I ended up discussing whether this kind of mediation, which I would sooner expect as part of an educational material for school classes, is even right for that target group?

IMG_0192

Wall text from the India:Art Now exhibition, relating to the India:Game Now app

Proctor (10) is right in stating that it’s not about the technology, it’s what we do with it, what we ask our visitors to do. Any technology can be used for any kind of mediation. But personally, I would prefer an openly authoritative introduction to contemporary Indian art to this kind of touchy-feely claptrap. Even if I miss a point or two.

The exhibition app, India: Game Now (11), was also a disappoinment. Content was limited, the challenges and questions were pretty daft, navigation was unclear, and the app did nothing to help us find the featured artworks in the exhibition. But worst of all, interaction with the app did not improve our understanding or appreciation of the exhibited works, the context or each other’s perceptions, which was also an aim of the game. If anything, the medium detracted from the experience, shifting the focus from artefacts to technology. Unsurprisingly, I regret to say – I have yet to have a mobile museum experience where this is not the case.

Participation with a purpose
Which is why I loved Shelley Bernstein‘s opening keynote at Sharing is Caring (12). Chief of Technology at Brooklyn Museum, Bernstein has developed and executed some of the most innovative – and succesful! – participatory museum projects of later years, such as the crowd-curated Click! exhibition (13) in 2008 and this year’s GO  – a community-curated open studio project (14). On the back of this, her words carry some weight. Interestingly, then, she describes herself as an anti-tech technologist, and, whilst employing social media as tools for participation, she emphasizes that it is a success when people abstain from using these tools when actually encountering art, in or outside the museum, as this takes away from the engagement.

Shelly Bernstein presenting at Sharing is Caring 12; photo from Twitter by @ninahviid

Shelly Bernstein presenting at Sharing is Caring 12; photo from Twitter by @ninahviid

Also, instead of catering to a ‘don’t make me think philosophy of usability, she insists on raising rather than lowering the barrier for participation, designing interfaces that require people to learn the tools, the sometimes lengthy process and their purpose before being able to take part. It is a deliberate move away from the Like-button model for easy interaction, as this requires and inspires no real engagement anyway:

The like button is easy, and while we don’t think participation in GO should be difficult, we do think we need to move away from the gold standard Facebook has forced upon us to something that’s more powerful and serves the needs of participants specifically taking part in this project.  Will everyone get beyond the like button during GO?  We sure hope so; participants may never register and might not pick up a mobile device, but if they find themselves in an artist’s studio on September 8-9, it’s likely they are already way beyond that ubiquitous little button, and in our minds, that is a success. (15)

At the end of the day, it’s not about social media, and focusing on those, as many museums (and businesses) do, hoping to get a cheap, quick and chic fix-it-all, too often muddles the vision which should be about content and true engagement.

Academic critique
Thus, while Jasper Visser, museum consultant and second key note speaker at Sharing is Caring (16), repeatedly stated that museums had no need for PhD’s and should rather employ selftaught innovators, this only confirmed my belief in the need for academic reflection on the development now taking place in museums, and for the discourse (and hot air) surrounding this evolution. Caring for museums, and thereby for the societies and communities that they serve, can also be sharing your insights regarding and concerns for what may be misguided beliefs in the power of people 2.0.

——————-

Note added on February 4th, 2013: In an editorial note in the latest issue of Museological Review, the peer reviewed journal from the Leicester University School of Museum Studies, Dr. Bernadette Lynch succinctly expresses the misgivings I was trying to pin down above: 

The utopian rhetoric of mutuality and shared authority in today’s museums, in reality, places a community member […] in the role of ‘supplicant’ or ‘beneficiary’. Museums and galleries continue to subtly maintain inequitable social relations by exercising invisible power, setting parameters that offer what Cornwall calls ‘empowerment-lite’ [*] Thus the image of the 21st century, democratic, dialogical museum simply does not match the rhetoric. Furthermore, by placing people in the position of beneficiaries, the museum continues to rob people of their active agency and the necessary possibility of resistance.[*] This would explain the anger of many participants who express frustration with these well-meaning institutions. (17)

References
(1) http://www.dkmuseer.dk/content/sharing; http://www.formidlingsnet.dk/category/sharing-is-caring. Videos of the presentations can be found on http://vimeo.com/channels/sharingiscaring, and comments, posts and conversations can be found on Twitter under the hastag #sharecare12.
(2) See also the anthology Sharing is Caring, edited by Merete Sanderhof, Copenhagen: Statens Museum for Kunst 2014. Available to order or download from http://www.smk.dk/en/explore-the-art/free-download-of-artworks/sharing-is-caring/
(3) https://blatryk.wordpress.com/2012/11/28/museum-as-a-research-field/
(4) quotes in the following taken from http://www.formidlingsnet.dk/a-year-of-sharing-and-caring
(5) http://vaeggen.copenhagen.dk
(6) http://vimeo.com/channels/sharingiscaring/55927145
(7) cf. Hooper-Greenhill, E. (2000): Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, London and New York: Routledge;
Marstine, J. (2011), ‘The contingent nature of the new museum ethics’ introduction to Marstine, J. (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining ethics for the twenty-first-century museum, London & New York: Routledge;
Simon, N. (2010). The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0;
The Inclusive Museum annual conference and book series http://onmuseums.com
(8) Kahr-Højland, A. & Quistgaard, N. (2009): ‘From ”scientists for a day” to ”critical citizens”: The emergence of a new paradigm within science centres and museums involving narratives, interactivity and mobile phones’, manuscript submitted for review in Museum Management and Curatorship. Article IV in Kahr-Højland’s PhD Thesis Læring er da ingen leg?: en undersøgelse af unges oplevelser i og erfaringer med en mobilfaciliteret fortælling i en naturfaglig kontekst. University of Southern Denmark.
(9) http://www.arken.dk/udstilling/tidligere-udstillinger-2/
(10) Proctor, N. (2011). Mobile guides in the rhizomic museum. In Katz, J. et al. (Eds.), Creativity and Technology: Social Media, Mobiles and Museums, Edinburgh: MuseumsEtc.
(11) https://itunes.apple.com/app/arken-india-game-now/id551000132?mt=8
(12) Bernstein, S. (2014), ‘GO: Curating with the Brooklyn Community’ in Sanderhoff, M. (ed.) (2014), Sharing is Caring. Openness and sharing in the cultural heritage sector, Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst
(13) http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/click/
(14) http://gobrooklynart.org
(15) Blogpost by Shelley Bernstein: ‘Getting Beyond the Like Button’ http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/blogosphere/2012/08/23/getting-beyond-the-like-button/
(16) http://vimeo.com/channels/sharingiscaring/55927142; cf Visser, J. (2014), ‘The future of museums is about attitude, not technology’ in Sanderhoff, M. (ed.) (2014), Sharing is CaringOpenness and sharing in the cultural heritage sector, Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst
(17) Lynch, B. (2013) ‘Generally dissatisfied with the utopian museum’   Museological Review no. 17 – Museum Utopias Conference Issue ©  p iv
[*] Please find references in the original http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/documents/museologicalreview/mr-17/3_Lynch_FINAL21January2013.pdf

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.

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.

Just presented my project to my institute. In preparation, I decided to do a video of the presentation rather than try to write about it, as it is centered around this diagram of my research field and research design, and therefore works better in visual form. Capturing how I see and present my project at this stage will also be useful later on, as I can compare the future development and findings to my preconceptions and outset.