Category Archives: design

Back of House

In the Fall 2010 semester the Lab will explore the essential functions of the museum with the aim of inverting the traditional museum program and identifying new ways of making its internal processes of collection, conservation and interpretation more accessible and socially engaging. As evident in a range of recent projects, museums are increasingly interested in making their internal processes transparent –even participatory– for their visitors through on-the-floor staff interactions, visible study collections, interfaces to digital resources and the use of social media. These techniques and technologies allow museums to explore and even to blur the boundaries between ‘front of house’ and ‘back of house’ functions and afford new ways for the museum to connect with its audience.

The American Association of Museums (AAM) defines the museum as being comprised as a set of specific activities that are conducted under a guiding mission. These include: collection, conservation, interpretation, education, and exhibition. Unless we are museum professionals working within an active museum, most of our attention as members of the public is traditionally focused on exhibitions, and perhaps occasionally on an educational event or program.  The first three activities listed represent for most of us that mysterious hidden world behind the gallery walls and are often misunderstood, or at the very least under-appreciated while the activities of collection, conservation and scholarship are essential to any museum. Some might even suggest that there is a subtle institutional progression implied in this list of activities that places them in a linear hierarchy with the first – collection – being somehow the most essential and the last – exhibition – being almost an operational burden.

It goes something like this: if you do not collect there is nothing to conserve. Scholarship and interpretation requires an object of study. If you do not have scholarship then you cannot teach and if finally you do not have anything unique to say then what will your exhibition hope to communicate to its visitors? That may be a bit rash but you get the point.

Historically the systems of collecting and interpreting natural, cultural and artistic heritage have indeed informed the development of a museum’s architecture, its exhibitions and public programs. As systems of collecting and the construction of knowledge have changed over the last two centuries, we have seen corresponding changes in museum architecture, exhibition and programming.  We will explore how these changes played out in the museum, what societal forces drove the changes, and how design and museum practices have responded. We will identify emergent approaches in a range of new and existing museums. We will look at architecture, exhibition, technology, media, and the role of the curator and designer in shaping museum experience.

I am in interested in weaving together a number of disparate threads that I believe are catalyzing in this shift toward making the museum’s ‘back of house’ increasingly visible and essential to connecting with their visitors. After a decade characterized by iconic museum buildings and expensive permanent exhibitions and the subsequent decline of philanthropic support due to the downturn in the economy, museums are now looking hard at ways of making more value out of their existing assets. Back of House aims to explore this trend across at least three modes of implementation: the physical, the personal and the digital.

Themes and Threads

Architecture Inside Out
Over the last 50 years there has been a dramatic change in museum architecture. Long gone are the vaulted, naturally lit galleries of the early 20th Century and the ideals of symmetry, solid masonry walls, steep stairs and pillared portico entries. Modernism brought a disciplined rationality to buildings that were optimized for flexibility, flow and operational performance. Postmodernism was marked by what we might be called narrative architecture. These are buildings that are purpose-designed to a specific text and meant to convey a specific story. Now, at the culmination of a  museum building boom that lasted almost 20 years, there is a new trend emerging. In museums both recent and currently underway we are seeing an opening up of buildings, deconstructing the formality of the gallery, extensive use of glass and day-lighting, dramatic views both inside and beyond the walls of the museum, views into research areas, visible storage, study centers and high density collections displays, and a hybridization of traditional museum program or ‘nested’ programs where learning laboratories and other facilities are literally embedded within the gallery.  The Luce Foundation sponsored study centers at the Smithsonian, Metropolitan Museum or the Brooklyn Museum are examples of this approach. Another example might be the London Museum of Natural History’s new Darwin Centre­—a multistory, light-filled building attached to the original neo-gothic structure of this venerable museum, like a cocoon that opens to reveal the scientific research and collections functions of the museum to the visiting public.

Status of the Object
The second theme we will explore is the status of the physical object in museums.  While this will not be a class on materiality or material culture, we will explore the role of the museum collection as it relates to the function of the museum, conservation, interpretation, and exhibition. Recent publications such as Sherry Turkle’s Evocative Objects or historian Stephen Conn’s Do Museums Still Need Objects? explore the status of the analog object in the age that appears to favor the digital medium. The title of Conn’s book is striking. In fact it is almost alarming. Conn is a scholar and has spent a career rigorously mapping the changing topography of the museum as it responds to nuanced changes in society. The title is very direct and implies that an urgently needed, practical discussion will follow. The fact is that there are many, and perhaps even an increasing number of museums without objects. What is at stake in this trend?

Social Networks
The third theme concerns the advent of social networking applications and the integration of technology into the museum experience and the consequent “decline of the expert.” The ubiquity of social networking applications may be a symptom of society’s constant search for order and empathy that has been enabled and made visible by new technologies. At the very least, it reinforces the increasing importance we place in the definition of the Self as we seek to clarify and document our unique worldview, while at the same time atomizing into online micro-communities of like-minded individuals. We define ourselves by the connections we make in social space and the things we collect and give preference to. Museums have also traditionally facilitated this. The boundaries between traditional roles, responsibilities and authorities have shifted. We are now simultaneously content producers, curators and consumers. Museums are exploring ways to incorporate user-generated content and participatory experiences where the visitor becomes integral to the production of the experience. The scholar’s voice is just a starting point. In some cases it does not exist at all. The visitor’s voice joins a cacophony of others to form an infinite number of meanings where the project of interpretation is never finished. Nina Simon’s new book The Participatory Museum explores these ideas in depth and is sure to become a staple for museum professionals for the years to come. Other projects like steve.museum explores ways that social tagging can enhance the public assess and use of museum resources. What do these new social networking tools and digital assets provide to museums as they seek to communicate with our public? What does this mean for the role of the curator, scholarship and education in the museum?

Museum as Muse
Lastly, and more so than any architect or museum design professional, I am deeply motivated by a number of artists who actively use museum architecture, collections and processes as a site for their art. David Wilson’s LA-based Museum of Jurassic Technology; Ilya Kabakov’s immersive, and sometimes intentionally unfinished art gallery installations; Sophie Calle’s documentary approach utilizing photography and objects as evidence of a grand narrative; Andrea Fraser’s unauthorized, although seemingly ‘official’ museum tours; Mark Dion’s use of traditional archeological and forensic sciences and mock expeditions in unexpected places; filmmaker Peter Greenaway’s “100 Objects to Represent the World” and interactive room-sized talking painting “Wedding at Cana” at the last Venice Biennale; are just a few that come to mind. We will explore these works of art and see what they might teach us and ways of visually expressing the essential activities of the museum.

Cycles in Exhibition Design

Frederick Kiesler "Art of This Century" Exhibition 1942

In 1942 when Fredrick Kiesler designed Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery “Art of this Century” he incorporated armatures into his design that literally presented the artwork to the viewer by removing the art from the wall and placing it into free space. This ‘active’ exhibition design broke the inherent two-dimensionality aspect of the artwork and placed in within a three dimensional space. As a result, the audience and the art were comfortably within the same environment. As a result of this design, Kiesler’s exhibition was critically acclaimed and in the last few years there has been a Kiesler-revival. I am interested in the fact that today Kiesler’s work  not only remains provocative but is also increasingly relevant. Kiesler recognized not only the role of the surrealist art in his design but he recognized another important ingredient in his design – the viewer. His training as a set designer had prepared him for this role – he created sets but more importantly he created spaces for the actors within his sets. In our discussion in class we speak so often of the curatorial narrative, of the display of information, of the experience of the exhibition, of the expectations of the audience, but in reviewing Kiesler’s exhibition, it seems that we don’t actually think about the physicality of the exhibition and the viewer. We do indeed talk about how the viewer fits into the exhibition – culturally, academically, etc – but physically fits? Sometime the most important move is the simplest move – welcoming the viewer so they can exist in the same of the exhibition… the display, path, experience, etc then become relevant.

HC Smith

The Latest Word: Spaces of Experience

Charlotte Klonk's "Spaces of Experience"

The latest word in display theory was just released by Yale University Press. As in two weeks ago. Charlotte Klonk’s Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000 locates the development of art gallery interiors in the broader history of experience and perception. It looks like an interesting read, and may be helpful in guessing what comes next!

Jenny F.

Jake Barton, “Collaborative Storytelling and the Dissolution of Technology”

Last night I attended the School of Visual Arts Design Criticism lecture series featuring Jake Barton, the founder of Local Projects. The lecture was on “Collaborative Storytelling and the Dissolution of Technology” and focus largely on the Local Projects process of storytelling and use of technology through their project.

A common theme throughout his lecture was the humanness that connects people, thus the question of how to engage people in a museum. A recent study that he addressed concluded that the average person spend eight and a half hours looking at screens, therefore his studio has the difficult task of keeping peoples attention to more screen (which they commonly use in their designs). Some of the ways in which Local Projects addresses these issues is using seamlessness in their design, humanness to connect people, and simplicity in the technology. Barton states that they did not want the technology they used to be overly complicated, because they are not focusing their designs on a tech-savvy group, it must be generally accessible.

I found this issue of the use of technology in the museum space very interesting and the discussion after the lecture brought up many questions about its present and future placement within our society that I found relevant to the class. There will be many technology advancements within the future, which will directly affect the museum, but I think that in many ways the function of technology in museums will stay very similar to today use of them. I thought that Barton’s idea that technology should be seamlessly woven into the museum so that one forgets about it even being there very important. People do not want technology thrown in their faces, technology should be used to enhance the experience not distract from it.  In addition, the technology should be simplicity in its nature, this way it can be accessed by a wide ranged audience without difficulty. Finally, museums are about human experiences and learning and the technology should reflect that in its design and function. An example of that humanness is in Local Projects’ exhibition in China with the theme of caring. There are screens with people discussing their views and ideas about what it means to care, but the people are full sized looking the viewer straight in the eye as if the viewer was talking to a real person.

Technology is consistently around us and has the potential to engage the museum visitor in new ways. Yet, the goal should promote human interaction and discussion about the topics it raised in the museum space. I think that the idea that technology needs to be seamlessly integrated into the museum (so that the visitor forgets about it) and uncomplicated would greatly benefit museums in the future. In addition, that the first goal of the museums in its use of technology should be to create better human interaction and discussion in the museum space, not to isolate people even more. Technology has great potential in the museum if it is used correctly and effectively.

Miranda Elston

Branding: The Museum’s Future

museumA Museum’s brand is a vital part to its future.  Today, when museums exist as multiple personalities—virtual, physical, and then in people’s memories—the brand of a museum acts as a necessary tool for the museum to assert and maintain these diverse personalities.  From the actual look of the logo to the acronym or shortened name—MoMA, The Met, WHITNEY, DIA, etc.—to the location, to the subject matter to the architecture, every aspect of a museum works to establish a brand identity for a museum.  Branding not only to defines and establish identity, but also acts as a mutli-tooled and multi-modal perpetuation of advertisement of that identity.

The development of design firms which design museum identities in entirety—from the exhibition to the logo to the letterhead—reveals how the branding process has changed from a graphic designer creating a logo to a large production team that works to create a full-packaged deal.  Though this format may be appealing—buy everything at once and in one place—I question such a formatting of identity.  When one firm works to develop every detail and feature of a museum, do we risk these places becoming sites of over-design?

And here is another question—how do you brand the Museum of Brands?

kmcaleer

Exploring the Black Sea

Shipwrecks

Virtual Shipreck Explorer (photo by University of Hull)

Have you ever wanted to explore shipwreck without slipping on your wetsuit? This soon could be a reality not so far away.

The Black Sea holds the potential for a new form of experimental museum. This museum will not be any museum that has ever been imagined due to the fact that this museum could be 7,238 ft below sea level. This museum would allow people to virtually navigate a submersible that could allow people to investigate the site, as well as building a showcase of objects that could give greater insight into the past. The reasons for this museum to be imaged at such a depth is due to the fact that as objects are brought to the surface the pressure, oxygen, and UV cause them to change colour and become fragile. The current count for shipwrecks in this area are in the double digits and for explorers this means solving questions to the diverse nature of this region, but at the same time, this means that this type of museum could take decades before being  realized and experienced.

Around The Black Sea region is an incredible enclave of various cultures, languages and traditions. It is this particular region for centuries that has made the Black Sea a crossroads for cultural movements and trade movements. The Black Sea is significantly different than any other ocean because of the harsh weather conditions that keeps the anoxic water (without oxygen) moving around at a depth closer to the surface creating a protective barrier for the shipwrecks. This preserves anything and everything that descends to that layer including wood, clay, the cargo, and potentially the crews of the ships. The shipwrecks are from the 13th to 15th century B.C. surrounding the Greek Empire which gives the significant of what these finding could mean, seeing that there are only a few manuscripts depicting this period but little insight as to what some objects were actually used for without speculation.

Currently, the majority of the findings are on exhibition at The National Museum of History in Bulgaria and at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. The exhibitions at the Mystic Aquarium allow participants to dig for fossils and interact with animals on a more personal level.

Currently, virtual shipwreck exploration is becoming a reality through the Venus Project by the Dept of Computer Science at the University of Hull. The aim of this project is to digitally recreate Europe’s shipwrecks before they become eroded and therefore impossible to explore for real. As the project progresses, archaeologists and the public will be able to explore many more shipwrecks in this fashion. The participant interacts with a remote handset that enables the person to control the submarine. This form of application is perfect for the Black Sea due to the lack of decay that exists at these shipwrecks.

Stephen Kaye

Virtual Worlds

Virtual WorldVirtual worlds are becoming a major topic when it comes to participating on a local or global scale. There are many programs that are being developed to navigate through ancient architectural civilizations and even in the present, traveling around urban cities. These programs enable people to explore a vast amount of information, as well as pilot through artificial realms to meet people and view objects.

I am currently on a team to redefine how we experience New York City during the day versus the night. This involves a lot of data collection and understanding how these spaces feel in the daylight environment versus the night environment from a lighting stand point. One popular web program that has taken the first steps to this experiential experience is Second Life. They advertise this space as a place to connect, to shop, to work, to explore, to be different and free yourself and mind, and be who you want to be. This is definitely taking this idea of the iPhone as your museum guide to a much different and extreme limit, but this is a potential program that will be developed by many museums in the coming years and the beginning of this investigation have already begun.

The New York Hall of Science has partnered with the Greater Southern Tier BOCES SciCentr program on a project to engage an ethnically and economically diverse group of young people in creating a Virtual Hall of Science (VHOS). This entails designing, building and staffing the virtual science center while working and interacting with science and education professionals throughout the process. VHOS is seen as a long term program that will encourage students to develop and plan the future of their museum as they see fit. This program will further enhance the already strong connects NYSCI has with its community and student science education program.

In either case, the idea of a virtual world that enables people to experience a museum or, for that matter, many different cities from the comfort of their homes is a great start to spark interest, but the fact of the matter is that this will never change how we truly experience something that is tangible.

Stephen Kaye