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Museum visit

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.

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

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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.

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(Psst… you can add pizzazz to this post with a fashion mix playlist from SHOWstudio. Go on.)

Not even in New York are the streets swarming with Anna dello Russos or Daphne Guinesses. Not as much as a wannabe Carrie Bradshaw in sight, or at least on this early spring day the dominant look was more Copenhagen conservative than cutting edge. And yet there is no doubt that this is a fashion capital and a city that takes fashion seriously, not only commercially but culturally as well, as indicated by the fine selection of fashion focused exhibitions on offer.

Museum at FIT

So today I was on a mission, starting with a visit to the museum at Fashion Institute of Technology. First up I joined a tour of the brilliant ‘Fashion and Technology’ exhibition led by curator Ariele Elia (what a luxury to have the curator do the guiding and share her great knowledge). The exhibition showed how technological advances have shaped and inspired fashion both in terms of construction and design – from aniline dies over jaquard looms, zips and drip dry nylon to 3D printing and holographic catwalk shows. Through a variety of displays and artifacts it spanned a wide and varied field and was both well researched and well presented, with some absolutely beautiful examples of succesful marriages of artistic vision with technological wizardry. Quite literally so in this stunning spring 2007 collection by Hussein Chalayan in collaboration with special effect technologists from the Harry Potter films. The real magic begins at about 2:30:

After the tour, Ariele was kind enough to show me the FIT reference library, where I can arrange to visit to study their collection. With the NY public library card I also managed to get today I’m all set to make use of the wonderful ressources on fashion and museology available in this city.

I was less impressed by the institute’s ‘Shoe obsession’ show, with glass cabinet after glass cabinet showing off elegant footwear currently on sale at Saks Fifth Avenue (sponsor of the show) as relics, even if this way of staging the exhibition was well in tune with the point about the current obsessive focus on designer shoes. To be fair, the exhibtion also showed a great number of unique pieces from private collections (Imelda Marcos eat your heart out) and some fantastic ‘installations’ by avant-garde shoemakers like Masaya Kushino, but to really get the significance of all the Louboutins and Blahniks as more than mere eye candy I think you would need to refer to the accompanying catalogue edited by Valerie Steele.

I actually went to Saks later one to see their shoe department – a shrine to shoes taking up a whole floor. Here I managed to sneak a photo of the shoes I was not allowed to photograph in the exhibition (pictures of this can be found here, or googled), but really I should have gone one further and tried them on, as this is the part that you always wish you  could do in a museum! Might have to go back and start obsessing a bit myself.

Fortuny at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute

A very different kind of fashion exhibition was the beautiful display of dresses and textiles by Mariano Fortuny de Madrazo, one of the great designers of the first half of the 20th century, currently on show at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute. Although the design of his signature pleated ‘Delphos’ gown barely changed over the course of forty years it was interesting to see so many together, along with the artfully printed oriental style jackets worn on top. It was a real exotic jewelry box of an exhibition and one that gave me a better perspective on one of the great masters of fashion history.

As luck would have it, I also managed to speak to the curator of this exhibition (or co-curator, as the exhibition was conceived by Oscar de la Renta) and learned even more about Fortuny’s work and the private collectors who had leant their robes to the exhibition. As an added note, I couldnt’ help noticing that here too, as had been the case at Museum at FIT, and unsurprisingly I guess, the visitors were almost all women.

Unfortunately the Met was already closing when I got there, and so I will have to come back for the ‘Fashion and Impressionism’ exhibition currently showing there.

NY fashion moments

Going back to the present and to the fashion encounters in the urban space, as this is what I’m looking at in my project, I must say that I was at a bit of a loss. Hesitant to take my phone out for touristy snapshots (thereby revealing myself to be a tourist, which, for unfathomable reasons, is experienced as shameful), I couldn’t help wonder if it wouldn’t be even more unlikely that I would use it to ‘scan’ my bypassers in order to understand their sartorial choices. What’s more, as I was walking between institutions, I was trying to do the sort question mapping suggested by Proctor (albeit somewhat distractedly, as I was also busy gazing around (discretely, of course)), that is, thinking about what sort of questions I would like to have answers to, what sort of tool, mobile or other, that would help me appreciate and understand the fashion I would see on the streets. And the thing is, nothing really came to mind. Which of course calls into question the whole premise or focus of my project. Or perhaps makes my continued research and continued questioning of my research questions all the more relevant.

Still, I did have a couple of genuine fashion moments, which were also distinctly New York. Like the amazing hairdo worn by an elderly librarian at the NYPL, who was kind enough to let me take her photo and happily turned round to show me the elongated French twist at the back and explained how she could maintain the style by sleeping on her side. And the Lichtenstein styled photo shoot taking place just outside the library, featuring some clever makeup and attracting a host of amateurs capturing the shoot on their camera phones. Including myself. So certain things will trigger this impulse, and actually I did find myself curious about where these images will feature. Even if this level of fashion extravagance is not common fare, not even on Manhattan, this still counts for something.

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Some season for fashion exhibitions, this summer turned out to be. Yesterday I visited Sophienholm’s show of couture, costumes and sketches by the late Jean Voigt and jewelry by his daugther Zarah. It’s a fanciful universe they create, dark and luxurious; eros and thanatos wrought in lace and organza.

It was a feast for the eyes, but the exhibition offered precious little in terms of contexturalisation or critique, and I, stupidly, forgot to get back to the introductory film that I skipped at the entrance as I was eager to get to the good stuff. My bad, and too bad, as it would have been interesting to learn more about this unique character of Danish couture.

A personal favourite was Janni Spies’ wedding dress – hers was THE celebrity wedding of the 80’s in Denmark, right up there with Charles and Diana, and I vividly remember marvelling at the creation in the gossip pages at the time. Seeing it up close was thus a real treat.

A perplexing detail, however, was the fact that most of the sketches on display – as well as the jewelry – were for sale or sold, so in effect the museum just served as a gallery. Worse still, the very reasonable prices gave a suspicious feeling that the selection of sketches were not his best and most precious, but rather just excess from his estate.

A highlight of this summer holiday was a visit to the Fashion Museum in Bath, a museum small in size but with a grand scope and a substantial collection of female costume dating back to the 17th century as well as modern womenswear fashion and couture.

Whilst I remembered to record voice memos and take snapshots (blurry and underlit misrepresentations, I’m afraid, and I do apologize for the poor quality) during my visit, I later regretted not doing a videoblog on site, as this might have been the best way to capture and share the experience. My errand with this post is not an analysis or presentation of the museum as such – Marie Riegels Melchior has already done a good job at that in her report on fashion museums for Designmuseum Denmark – but rather a few personal comments on the things that stood out or inspired me, that is, considerations on a visitor experience.

Yet another fabulous frock
Having spent hours and hours in the costume department at the V&A in the past, I was somewhat surprised to realise that actually I wasn’t all that interested in marvelling at the beauty and the details of the dresses on display. Perhaps all those visits to my Kensington haven along with all the books on fashion and costume I have collected over the years did finally manage to quench my thirst for brocade and bias cut? So really I wasn’t that excited to see ‘yet another’ pannier/empire line/flapper dress (exquisite as they were). Which in itself gave me food for thought – if even someone like me, with a specialist interest an a life long infatuation with fashion and dress, is not that interested in a fashion exhibition, then who is? Then again, I’m sure there’s many more like me out there who are still hungry for more, as I might also be on another day. And I guess there will also be egyptologists/archeologists/geologists who are less than enthused by ‘yet another’ canopic jar/stone axe/fossil, which wouldn’t be an argument for not showing these in a museum. Still, going back to fashion exhibitions, perhaps curators also experience some form of faille fatigue, needing, and therefore curating, bigger kicks in the form of fantabulous couture blockbuster shows to get their fashion fix.

But let’s get back to Bath, which did have displays that pushed my buttons.

Childhood pleasures

Take this riding costume from the current sports display. No sartorial wonder, but just like the one Jill manages to find in a pawn shop in the first book of the series (Gitte-bøgerne, in Danish (and btw, That’s 30 years ago, and I still recall that passage?)) that I used to devour as a kid, dreaming that one day I too would have my own pony, and be kind and pretty and win people’s hearts and all the gymkhanas. In other words, all my girly dreams and aspirations in textile form.

The lure of fashion in a nutshell.

Apart from this ensemble, I was mainly inspired by the museum’s many diverse takes on mediation. Like the dressing up activities, which catered to adults and children alike. And judging by the buzzing, giggling and posing for photos going on as I passed through, this really hit a spot. It was social and fun, playing to the inner princess, and at the same time a physical learning experience that would help you relate to how dressing up in corsets and crinolines would have been like, and thus appreciate the collections in a new way.

Sense and sensibility
The ‘Behind the scenes’ section was a double-bill kind of affair, showcasing both a chronological display of 19th century fashion and a glimpse into the art of textile curation, as the dummys are set amongst storage boxes in the actual museum store. The subdued lighting and half unpacked collection pieces wrapped in acid-free paper illuminates the delicacy of the textiles. Furthermore, the historical fashions were set in context by paratexts quoting contemporary literature, and elaborating on the cultural significance of fabrics and styles of the time. The juxtaposition of the dresses on display with excerpts like

‘She lay awake ten minutes on Wednesday night debating between her spotted and her tamboured muslin, and nothing but the shortness of time prevented her buying a new one for the evening’
Northhanger Abbey by Jane Austen 

brought both to life, and with the museum being situated in the Assembly Rooms in the middle of Bath with all its regency splendour, it was almost an experience of Gesamtkunst. Brilliant.

A similar take was used in the display of 20th century fashion, were minute descriptions of the objects were omitted, to be replaced by associations with cultural references.

Current fashion
Another interesting idea was the display of current trends using collection items, to illustrate the cyclical nature of fashion.

Finally, I liked the ‘Dress of the Year’ concept, each year inviting a front figure of fashion to select an outfit that captures the Zeitgeist. Only I was a little bemused by the use of batting to line the floor, giving the crammed display more of a home made santa village feel than the Ice Queen glamour intended to compliment the gown by Sarah Burton for McQueen.

This weekend’s family trip went to Geologisk Museum, where we could make our own fossil plaster casts (succes!) and marvel at flourescent rocks, giant shark teeth and other wonders of the world. Also, a remake of Ole Worms rennaisance cabinet of curiousities was an absolute joy.

As geology is not really our area of expertise (ahem), we decided to follow the guided tour. Which was really great! Having the collection opened up and learning some interesting facts from an enthusiatic expert gave me a deeper appreciation and understanding even though we were still only scraping the surface (albeit deep underground).

Mindboggling stuff, geology: carbon concentrations in 3.8 billion year old rocks proving that life on earth began earlier than previously assumed (carbon 12 & 13, that is, as carbon 14 only lasts 30.000 years and hence is only usefull in archeological dating #bonusinfo); special structures in a slice of meteorite tells the story of a cooling proces that took 1000 years per centigrade. Even if this is the sort of knowledge that may only become directly useful to me in a game of Trivial Pursuit, and even if I still don’t get how they work this stuff out, the information made an impression and sticks in my mind.

The point here, of course, is that mediation and information make a difference (so perhaps my comments in a previous post about the virtues of undisturbed contemplation were misguided?). And that the good old guided tour is a great format for not just transferral of knowledge, but also for sharing an enthusiasm for a given topic that can be rather contagious, as well as allowing for questions and dialogue.


Another strength of the guided tour is that is a social event, for the group as a whole and for your personal group within it, as you expereince the same thing simultaneously. Whereas my desire to try out my new Pinterest app, pinning a snapshot of a particularly captivating fossil, meant that sharing online had me lagging behind my family and hence not sharing in their/our joint experience at that point. Which is why I only did it the once, and felt rather torn. On the other hand, feeling inspired to share this paticular image also ‘pinned’ that fossile in my mind in a more conscious manner than simply taking a photo would.

As this is the kind of pros-and-cons conondrums and getting to grips with the nature of ‘the museum experience’ I’m dealing with in my project, I find these personal experiences to be very useful, even if they may only confirm my theories and not add new knowledge as such.

Yesterday, I took my family to visit the brand new Europe meets the World exhibition at the National Museum. Actually, we’d hoped to join the childrens workshop, and was all set for a virtual trip to Italy, Germany or another exciting destination, when we realised that this was only possible on Sundays, so we’ll have to come back for that. Finding that the exhibition, although beautifully excecuted with a combination of objects and video projections, was a bit too abstract for our 4 and 7 year old’s, we ended up opting for the excellent children’s section of the museum instead (a family favourite and perfect weekend hangout in the winter months, inspiring hours of play and perfect in combination with visits to the museum collections).

As a consequence, I couldn’t give the exhibition the time and attention that it deserved, and will also have to come back for a proper visit to that (sans kids). Still, the use of QR codes was too much of a temptation for my geeky curiosity, and I couldn’t resist getting my scanner out. Unfortunately, this turned out to be an illustration of the challenges of utilizing this type of technology in an exhibition.

Now, motivations and obstacles for using your mobile in the museum for streaming/downloading museum content or sharing your opinions, and how this fits into and affects the museum experience overall is a (million dollar) question in its own right, which I won’t go into at this point (but which I will definitely explore in my project). Suffice to say that as many museum visits are social in nature, one person’s desire to explore in depth may not be compatible with the shared objective of the visit, as in our case.

Lights, camera…
But let’s just focus on technology for now. A lot has happened since I first wrote a post on QR codes back in 2009. I believe that a large part of today’s audience will now recognise and understand the use of the 2D barcodes as well as having the smartphone complete with scanner app ready for using the codes when desired, and still the novelty hasn’t quite worn off yet. In other words, time is ripe for putting this technology to good use in the museums – it’s cheap and simple to add a sticker to the exhibition display and doesn’t take a lot of technical savvy to set up the backend mobile friendly websites, allowing the museums to focus in stead on producing top quality content to augment the experience, supplementing the objects with audio, video or text, inviting participation in polls etc.

Still, in the case of this exhibition, the decision to offer content via QR codes clashes with the general design and ambience of the displays, created with subdued lighting and animated projections. As Seb Chan of the Australian Powerhouse Museum points out (or is ‘pointed’ more correct, given that the post I’m referencing (again) is also from 2009) in a brilliant post on the problems with, and solutions to, using QR codes in an exhibition, the shadows you cast when leaning in to use your scanner can steal the light needed for your camera to work.

This was the case at the National Museum, and it took dedication and some interesting body shapes to get some of the codes to work. Similarly, other visitors who noticed my attempts commented that they had found reflections problematic in other parts of the exhibition. And whereas I managed to succesfully connect to some of the educational material, I had no luck trying to take part in the polls asking my opinion on democracy or religion in Europe. Even if I managed to capture these images with my phone camera, the images where too dark for the scanner (Scanlife on an iPhone 3GS):

Early days
Visiting on the first day of the exhibition, one of course has to allow for adjustments to come, especially when the display includes new technologies that still take a bit of getting used to. Indeed, the reception staff welcomed my comments on the light and lack of open wifi (the wifi was meant to be open access in this part of the museum, but I was continously asked for a guest login, which you can get at reception on request, I later found out). Also, as I was clearly rushing along as well as being distracted by trying to keep track of my family, my exploration of the exhibition was in no way exhaustive, I may well have missed helpful pointers or even missed the point – my objective here is not to critizise or review the exhibition as such but only to discuss the challenges of using new technologies for mediation purposes, and if this comes across as some sour remark, I deeply apologize! I only hope that next time I visit, the museum has come up with a solution for securing sufficient lighting for the codes without spoiling the ambience of the exhibition. Looking forward to exploring the themes undisturbed!

It will be interesting to learn about the uptake of these QR codes once the exhibition is evaluated.

A couple of additional notes:
All QR labels offered a short explanation of what material you could find when scanning the code, including information on the format, i.e. video or audio. Written content, howeveer, was labeled ‘Undervisning’. In English, you would call this ‘Education’, hence previous discussions on the term mediation, but the Danish term ‘Undervisning’ has a strong classroom connotation. So much so that I was unsure if this was indeed part of some educational programme aimed at visiting school classes and not really targeted at visitors like me. If I was meant to be included in the target group, I’m not sure if the term appealed to me. I may want to learn, but am I interested in being taught?

Back home, and trying to find an explanation for why these labels offered content in Danish only, I’ve come to the conclusion, that this was probably part of an educational programme. But that doesn’t change that whilst at the exhibition I believed and wished the labels to be aimed at me too. Why has ‘my target group’ not been considered as potentially attracted to these labels, and subsequently baffled or left with a feeling of being excluded?

Finally, checking out the teaser video for the exhibition hosted on YouTube, it turned out to be an example of the challenges of entering into social media, as the only comment on the video was a stupid racist blurb. Wisely, the museum has simply chosen to ignore it, rather than enter into an impossible dialogue. Despite all the effort going into making the users engage and amplifying the vox pop, sometimes you wish they’d just shut up!