Periods and Boundaries

Period Room

Period Room at the Metropolitan Museum

The Period Rooms at the Met have always captivated me. The period room genre is essentially that of a full-scale architectural time capsule. But these rooms also trigger a visceral sense that you could just step in and sit down to a soon-to-be-served dinner. I have seen other period rooms in other museums, in other countries even, but the Met’s have always seemed to me so exacting in their detail and theatricality and represent a total commitment to preservation of an interior space. Silently, and almost without text, they tell of another way of life that is forever lost in time. The lighting effects at the windows suggest that this life continues outside and just beyond our grasp.

I was back at the Met recently and discovered that in place of the old labels they have added a layer of interpretive programs on large LCDs mounted to the rail. There is something cynical and perhaps a bit sinister in this. While I do think the media programs executed by Small Design are thoughtfully designed, with smooth interfaces and are incredibly helpful in understanding the contents of the room, I am at the same time stuck by the decision to use this technology in this particular context. If there is any place left in the world that you would expect to escape the glow of the now ubiquitous flatscreen it would be here in the Met’s Period Rooms. The monitor stands in such contrast to the contents of room so perhaps the museum felt that the boundary remains clear. But then again it is the tenuous nature of the old flimsy rail and its archaic labels that makes the boundary so tempting to leap over.

11 responses to “Periods and Boundaries

  1. I was thinking about period rooms and their ilk while I was at the Met this morning. I have fantastic memories of an installation at the Museum of Man and Nature (now the Manitoba Museum) in Winnipeg: a life-sized replica of the Nonsuch, a 17th C English ship that traveled to Canada to return with a load of furs. The ship was surrounded by what felt like a small city of shops on the “port”. As a kid, it felt like the closest thing to going back in time.

    When I visit a period room today, I’m looking for that feeling, but my experience usually falls short. This morning I actually walked halfway into a room with my eyes closed to try to approximate the experience.

    I agree that the flat screens, while they may present information most elegantly, are maybe at odds with what I’m looking for in a period room. What I would prefer is something that brings me a little closer to interacting with the interior itself.

  2. I have always loved period rooms as well. There is something about the glimpse into another world, the totality of the environment, and the pause in time they create. Yet, there can be very problematic spaces.

    The majority of period rooms that we have in our museums today are not at all accurate, due to the arranging of furniture in styles more corresponding with the contemporary time they were installed, the added and subtracting of essential elements due to resources, and so on. Dianne H. Pilgrim’s article Inherited from the Past: The American Period Room calls these issues into question. Her argument is based in the idea that many period rooms reflect more on the time of installation then the historical time they are trying to portray. At the same time, many do no admit to guess work or where they installed inaccurate furnishings.

    One of the rooms in the MET is an example of this. The room is originally from a house in Philadelphia, but the MET was only able to obtain the parlor when they wanted the ballroom, which went to the Philadelphia Museum. The room they received was limited to only furniture and woodwork, the wallpaper and ceiling were lost. Therefore, during the room’s installment the MET took ideas from the ballroom and placed their version on the ceiling and made up wallpaper. True they did what they could to recreate the total environment of the room, but at the same time took major liberties with the historical elements of the room. However, some of these practices are being corrected. Such as the re-doing of the MET’s period rooms with better research and more accurately. Still, the museum does not state where they are unsure and where they are accurate, which to me would help provide better information about the period rooms.

  3. I love the re-do of the MET’s period rooms with the interactive screens. They hold so much more information then before and are able to be changed with on going research of the rooms. The ability to find out so much more information in a fun way helps bring people into the rooms and discover more. However, I wonder how it would work in a crowed room, with only the small screen and only one person being able to use it at a time. As a whole though, I really love that they added the use of technology within that section.

    I was thinking how maybe museums could take this concept further. In most museums, they have the hand held listening devices, but what if those where like mini-touch screens. (I was thinking along the lines of an i-pod touch). They could access information, tell about specific objects, be able to hold more information that is easily changeable with new research. As well, it could be interactive with games, quizzes, or research options for the visitor. Of course, one would have to pay to use on, but the ability to have all that information in ones hands would be amazing. It would, I know, cost to much for museums, but I thought it is an interesting concept.

    Another element that I feel in very useful, neat, and a great idea if museums can, is the “open storage” in the American wing at the MET. I know that most museums do not have the money or space for this to work, but I feel that it brings visitors closer to understanding the many different elements that go into a museum, such as storage, research, and so on. It is always a great way to see objects that are not as “important”, yet can be very interesting to visitors as well.

  4. Why the touchscreens?
    Just seeing it in the image makes me cringe.
    These rooms beautifully capture the culture and time period just how they are. When you place these monitors in front of them the stillness and perservation is suddenly diminished.

    Simple graphic design could easily give the same information in a more appropriate display.

    If nothing else, have a worker tell about each room and answer questions as guests come by.

  5. Well, many of them do not capture the culture and time period due to the way in which they were placed together over time. In fact, the MET has in the past gotten alot of attention about that issue with their period rooms.

    I love the idea of simple graphic design, but there is so much more information that needs to be told about these rooms and are being told through touchcreens. Also, children love them because they are interactive and fun to use.

    Also just wanted to mention that the idea of using an i-touch is already being used in some museums, such as the Brooklyn Museum, it is really interesting how much i-pods have effected our culture.

  6. Personally, I’d prefer simple graphic design as well. (In terms or having a label next to each room or such) However, after visiting the Met Period Rooms as well as the Frick Collection up on the Upper East Side, the rooms at The Frick Museum undoubtedly engage the visitor much more than the period rooms at the Met. At the Met, the period rooms are roped of at the entrance to the room. At the Frick, visitors can walk around, amongst the pieces of furniture and art as people would have a century ago. Like the Met, the furniture pieces and other antiques are not allowed to be touched. But instead of roping off entire sections of the space, the rope is instead simply placed on to the chairs. This simple gesture already makes it obvious enough to visitors that they are not supposed to actually use the furniture, but it allows them to get closer and experience something slightly more accurate. Instead of even having graphic labels with titles and descriptions, all information is inputted into an audio headset that is complimentary and available to all visitors.

    Though the interpretive displays may attract and “teach” more people about the period rooms, I think that ultimately, the period rooms at the Met could be much more engaging if visitors could actually physically enter to experience the atmosphere.

  7. I haven’t been to the Period Rooms at the Met but from what I can see in the picture I agree with the theatrically and detailed representation of the scene. I was recently in the Chateau de Versailles which is a magnificent place completely representational of the French Monarchy with magical places like the Hall of Mirrors. However the little details get lost in the opulence of it. The spaces in Versailles are alien to visitors, untouchable sacred places. I’m looking forward to go back to the Met and see the Period Rooms.
    In a world where technology is becoming the mediator of every process I appreciate the gesture of the Met going towards a technological era, but in this specific case there is a failure in the chosen technology and its application. I agree that the experience could be more enriching by creating a direct interaction of the people with the different spaces in the Period Rooms.

  8. If we could use our i-pods for the information, through the program the museum offered (or even better the museum offered i-pod devices) then the direct technology would not be as visible to the eye, and one could use simple graphics. I idea of moving within the space would be really great. I am really interested in seeing how new and smaller technology will be used in the future with museums.

  9. I’m in the group working with the Tenement Museum and KellyLo, your comment about being able to walk around the period rooms at the Frick being more satisfying draws an obvious connection to the Tenement’s technique.

    Instead of showing up and walking around (which is in a nutshell how we all approach 99% of exhibits, though the paths are sometimes more proscriptive than others) – visitors may only see the period rooms through a guided tour. This helps leave out the possibility of misinterpretation.

    It is also quite a lot of fun, I ended up making small talk with the other people in my tour and had a very positive experience.

    Of course a tour-only method wouldn’t work at the Met! Maybe a digital handheld device. But human interaction is so great and I agree the screen in that image posted in jarring

  10. I agree with the idea that interactive needs to go beyond the interaction with a touchscreen. I personally like to go to house museums, where the entire house reflects that one period or style. The Merchant’s House Museum or the Morris-Jumel Mansion are great examples.

  11. Last time I went to the Met I actually saw these new touchscreens.

    Above I said that the juxtaposition of the touch screens and period rooms seemed jarring. But I have to say – when I saw and used them in person – I really liked them!

    Its a great tool for identifying and studying the furniture and textiles in the room – and how else could this information be provided easily? You’d need a curator hanging around to answer all the questions the touchscreen provided.

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