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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.

This term’s teaching is giving me a real buzz. It’s so great to have been able to offer a museology course, and get a bunch of dedicated students involved in tackling museum questions and making up their own minds about what museums are and could be. Reading through their blogposts and following their thought processes is so interesting, and I’m actually really proud of the response I’ve been getting so far (and also note that I must become a little more structured and lecturer-like, as I do have a tendency to get over-enthusiastic and ramble a bit). Even though it is only a short course, I’ve prioritised museum visits and talks with external researchers and practitioners, and although both I and the students are a little frustrated that we have too little time to engage in discussions and dive deep into the literature, it’s been a real treat to hear and experience all these practice perspectives.

A couple of weeks ago we visited The Exhibition Lab at Designmuseum Danmark, and had an enlightening presentation about the exhibition principles and research results from PhD researcher and curator Laura Liv Weikop. The exhibition was set up as an experiment, displaying the same selection of everyday design objects according to three different exhibitionary principles, i.e. offering an aesthetic, didactic or affective experience of the objects, and then measuring the audience’s response and preferences. It was a great little exhibition, and a perfect case for this course.

The Exhibition Lab - Affective display 'You are what you own'

The Exhibition Lab – Affective display ‘You are what you own’

Laura’s preliminary results pointed to a preference for the affective and the didactic displays – a lot of visitors wished for a combination of the two – whereas interestingly, if not really surprisingly, the traditional glass case display was perceived by many – but not all! – as stale and old fashioned. As the cases are design classics in their own right in this case, purpose built by the Danish master Kaare Klint, they are hardly on their way out. Still, it will be really interesting to read Laura’s dissertation in time, and not least to see how the Designmuseum will follow up on these insights. 

Following on from this, we visited yet another meta-exhibition; Heim Steinbach’s The Window at Statens Museum for Kunst. The display – Steinbach’s chosen term – comprising artworks from the collection, new works by the artist-curator and everyday objects collected amongst the museum staff, and playing with exhibitionary conventions like white cube aestetics, was an interesting hybrid of artwork and exhibition. Furthermore, the accompanying folder gave a thorough introduction to the principles and elements of the display, and thus provided not only a fine guide for understanding and discussing the exhibition, but also served as an great example of the role of museum communication for the experience and discourse of the exhibition (cf. Gade 2006, Ferguson 1995, as per curriculum).

And last week, one of the students, who also works as a wildlife conservator, had arranged an absolutely wonderful visit to the Zoological Museum. First up, Birgitte Rubæk, as member of the Museum Minds innovation group, gave us an introduction to the process, plans and visions for the new Natural History Museum. If everything goes right (read: if all funding is found, so that budgetary restraints and other practicalities will not completely hollow out the original ideas), it’s going to be a truly spectacular place. And not only because of the remarkable architecture, but because of the strong curatorial ideas guiding the development of exhibitions. The group has devised a set of dogmas (in Denmark we’re rather fond of the dogma idea following the success of the film indstry in the 90’s) which center around the unique experiences of authentic artefacts that museums can offer.

Building bridges between natural science and humanities, and insisting on establishing an experience that also appeals to ‘unaccompanied majors’, and not only to families and children, the museum is not afraid to go against the current in it’s vision of what makes a great museum. A notable example is the rule stating that ‘if other media can do it better than us, we won’t do it’, which is in stark contrast to for instance branding consultant Damien Whitmore’s assertion that “In 20 years, the V&A will have more TV producers than curators.” (in Sten 2010). Rubæk’s easy going presentation thus served up a lot of food for thought, and it was hard to break off the conversation.

However, we were also privileged to a peak view of the collections, so had to move on for this fascinating experience. Five storeys worth of mammal hides and bones, stuffed birds and pickled snakes, toads and lizards; including a full blue whale skeleton, and no less than 600 polar bear craniums.

From the collection at Zoologisk Museum. Photo by Niels Toft Larsen.

From the collection at Zoologisk Museum. Photo by Niels Toft Larsen.

The latter really brought home the point about museums, in this case a university museum but also generally, as a hub for research. And Mogens Andersen, our guide and collection keeper was an amazing presenter, both knowledgable and infectiously passionate about his work. As such, he also illustrated the amazing qualities of museum guides, which may well be supplemented but cannot be replaced by any other medium.

Museology class & Mogens Andersen. Photo by Niels Toft Larsen

Museology class & Mogens Andersen. Photo by Niels Toft Larsen

Finally, we found time for a tour of the current and temporary exhibitions, where I learned that the dioramas are indeed going to go. As mentioned in an earlier post, I have a bit of a nostalgic soft spot for dioramas, and the marsh biotope in Zoologisk Museum in particular, so it was kind of sad news. But then again, I had to admit that the 40-ish year old exhibit was so tired by now that it’s representational value was stronger as an artefact of museum history than as an illustration of wetland wildlife. And interestingly, the much more recent dioramas depicting urban fauna seemed the most outmoded. I still believe that dioramas could be in vogue again some day, and I would argue for the preservation of at least some of the displays, if only as examplars of yesterday’s exhibition technology and ideals. But until such a time, I guess their outdatedness risks getting in the way of their communicative power, and not least the power of the museum to project a strong vision for the future.

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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.

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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