Category Archives: emergent

Identity Museum – MOCA

The Museum of Chinese in America

The Museum of Chinese in America

I recently visited the newly re-opened MOCA–Museum of Chinese in America.  Drawn partially, I’ll admit, by the museum’s architect, Maya Lin, I was also interested in seeing what, if any new design ideas on how to present this history–“Chinese in America”–an example of these unique groups building museums to tell specific cultural identity stories.  Firstly, I find the title of this museum interesting–“Museum of Chinese in America,”  not “Museum of the History of Chinese Americans” or “Museum of American Chinese,” but “Museum of Chinese in America.”  The words “Chinese in America” suggest to me a purposeful separation of “Chinese” and “America” and does not imply overlap or inclusion.  Perhaps that is part of the point, that for most of the history of Chinese immigrating to the U.S. our culture separated and labeled them as “Chinese” and not “American.” I thought that this was particularly relevant to our class conversation about the growing presence of such group and identity-specific museums.  I have to question, who is the audience?  Throughout my visit I felt as though the museum made no effort to connect this “Chinese” experience in America to any other immigrant group (other than a brief commentary on the Japanese interment during WWII).  If museums keep telling these specific stories and do not connect them out to a larger point or group, aren’t they missing part of the point of the very history they are trying to present?  Regardless, some of the objects on display in the museum, e.g. a candy box for “Fu Manchus” or a copy of “The Good Earth,” were great tools that could speak about racism without use of many words.  I wish the current section, instead of having a wall of famous Asian Americans–Maya Lin, Yo Yo Ma, Ang Lee, they might have discussed current immigration or racial issues because this story is still ongoing–just because we have museums that discuss these issues historically, does not mean they are not still alive and relevant today.

kmcaleer

The Self

Many of our conversations in class today concerned the museum visitor historically, a changing sense of “the self”, how this contributes to identity and the ways in which museums engage their audience. Our conversation widened to explore the role of social networking technologies and the issues associated with self-selection and collaborative filtering and how that relates to a museum’s function, its authority and the role of the curator.

It is interesting to imagine that today people generally interact with a greater number of other people than at any other time in history. However these people are also far less likely to encounter someone who does not already share similar interests. One obvious conclusion is that we are in danger of losing the ability to be critical thinkers, to debate issues, and engage in rational conversations with consenting adults who disagree with each other.

You can see evidence of this in our political news media. There is a great deal of emotion, no shared language, and next to nothing that opposing parties can agree upon. As CFM’s “Museums & Society: 2034” study discusses, self-selection has led to a polarized society where constituencies gather in safe clusters of like-minded peers, institutions and their content. Technology plays a role in this but it may be more of a symptom of something deeper than technology as an instigator. It is always easiest to blame the tool. This does not mean that social networking technologies are inherently bad. But they do reveal a tendency that is growing stronger and should be better understood in the context of museums.

The idea of self-selection and the shaping of identity has a long history that predates Facebook and other applications by decades. In fact the shaping of identity in our political and commercial world  is largely informed by psychoanalysis and its contributions to commercial marketing and public relations beginning in the late 1930s. At this time analysts began seeking a practical means of applying their science to the public at large. I recently saw a recent BBC production titled “The Century of the Self “which explores this history in four chapters.  Its one of the most powerful and timely documentaries that I have seen. It is a must for anyone thinking about these issues. It is available as streaming media on Archive.org.

Tim Ventimiglia

The Future Museum

Following a rough history of the museum in the posts above, what shall we say about the future of the museum? Hopefully the rest of this semester will cast some light on this and put forth some informed speculations. When imagining the future one can really only talk about current trends and, if they show signs of continuing, to project how they might shape our world. Throughout history museums have followed changes in society and evolved to suit its needs. It is safe to guess that the increasingly rapid changes in society (technology, energy, education, economy, etc) will precipitate a need for museums to adapt sooner than later. In fact the existing museum models do seem a bit tired and are hard-pressed to keep up with and address a range of social and technological issues that are already in play. Thanks to a wide variety of thinkers in the museum community, some initial ideas are emerging.

Museum Stages.xlsx

We know that the museum of the future will have to recognize a world that is connected by a complex and constantly shifting network of influences, a disappearance of temporality and a sense of self that is shaped more by the social networks we inhabit moment to moment than by any singular defining experiences. Through collaborative filtering, users of Web 2.0 applications talk to more people than any generation before them but are less and less likely to meet someone who does not already share similar interests. We are by default all members of special interest groups. In fact each of us likely has multiple identities that inform our sense of self. Some of these may even conflict with one another. Museums already find themselves no longer serving categorizable audiences but micro-constituencies which take form and disappear with a speed that is impossible to respond to in traditional mediums. We are all simultaneously curators and consumers.  Content is generated by the user on-demand and the proliferation of free content via the internet has changed they way a younger audience perceives cultural value in a museum. Thinking about a new model for the future of the museum does not suggest we abandon the object or “the real” and supplant these critical assets with technology. But it does suggest that the new mediums and experiences of a generation who know the world through social networks and new tools must come into play. However to understand these new “Networked Publics” [ed. Varnelis] we should not look at the technologies but look more carefully at the desires of the society that gave shape to and created these technologies to serve its needs.

Some major influences on my thinking here include the recent work of historian and cultural theorist Kazys Varnelis, who is the director of Columbia University’s Netlab, Nina Simon who perhaps coined the term “Museum 2.0” with her notable weblog dedicated to the subject, and Dr Angelina Russo who presides over a weblog titled Museum 3.0 (perhaps trumping Nina, or maybe just because Museum 2.0 was taken). All three are amazing thinkers and far more qualified scholars than I am. I have also been reading AAM’s Center For the Future of  Museums’ recently commissioned study “Museums & Society: 2034” and The New Media Consortium’s “2009 Horizon Report” which forecasts the adoption of emergent technologies in public space. I will summarize those in a future post.

Tim Ventimiglia

Learning from the Libraries

Bibliotheca Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt designed by Snøhetta

Bibliotheca Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt designed by Snøhetta

When recently pressed for their vision of the future of the museum, two totally unrelated people (albeit museum people) began talking in excitedly about libraries they had recently visited. One person noted that if you shuttered a local museum, people might hardly notice. And if you shuttered the local library there would be clamor and outrage. It is true that if given a choice both governments and foundations tend to favor the library. Perhaps there is something far more essential about a library than a museum.

The library is at least as old as the museum and likely precedes it by some degree. In fact many of our greatest museums began as new wings of college libraries that had expanded to include objects. These were the great ‘teaching museums’. Libraries are fundamentally akin to museums in that their missions include collecting and preserving knowledge and making that knowledge accessible to a defined end-user. Both provide access to knowledge through collections and use the exhibition as a means to make their holdings more visible. Similar to museums, the earliest libraries were created by and for privileged classes of society. But nowadays libraries are assumed to be integral to any society’s public educational infrastructure, freely accessible spaces of learning and study for everyone. In the developed world access to a good library is considered as fundamental a right as an education, a fair justice system or access to basic utilities such as water and electricity.

In the last decade we have seen great innovations in libraries around the world. The old form of the library as a vast repository of books is currently undergoing a renaissance with the rapid development of customizable digital catalogs, new media storage capabilities, the scanner, the web and other interfaces that supplement the physical book. While many prophesied that the Internet would kill the book (fatality still pending), the Net has with some irony made the library more essential as a socializing space where communities share the experience of accessing knowledge content across new mediums. No longer called Libraries, these spaces are now called Media Centers and Information Literacy Centers. The former emphasis on the book is replaced with a more all-encompassing media representing a spectrum of technologies that includes the books and other objects. These are multilingual, multi-modal, inclusive spaces of community engagement, storytelling, and even story-gathering as libraries add recording, broadcasting and distance learning capabilities that enable them not only to preserve content but also to produce and distribute it.

A few notable examples include:

Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque (opened 2001) was an inspiring model for what was to come in the next decade. Not a vision of a library based on the book, Ito’s library placed more emphasis on infrastructure, access and transparency. Also notable is that he decided to essentially build an open structural shell that could be transformed over time by generations of new media, new uses and forms of occupation. He even relinquished control of the interiors assigning each level to a different architect.

Snøhetta’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt (opened 2002) is a resurrection of Alexander the Great’s iconic library of the same name and perhaps at least mythically, is the most famous library in the world.

Salt Lake City Library (opened 2004) designed by architect Moshe Safdie has become a major downtown destination  with is coffee and sandwich shops, open fire pits to warm your feet at while you browse half a million titles in their catalog.

Soon to follow was Rem Koolhaas’ Seattle Central Library (opened 2004) which has drawn record attendance and use by citizens of Seattle and design tourists. In the true spirit of a library as free source of information, Rem was kind enough to post his concept design brief online for us to review now ten years after he presented it to his visionary client.

The Aarhus Library in Jutland, Denmark by SHL Architects (to open 2009) definitely promises to break the out of the moldy, old, quiet, box full of books. “[This library] features an ‘info column,’ where people share digital news stories; an ‘info galleria’ where patrons explore digital maps layered with factoids; a digital floor that lets people immerse themselves in information; and RFID-tagged book phones that kids point at specific books to hear a story.” Sulter The Aarhus Library even created a design lab to research new approaches to library use and design. They made a video to explain their process.

Perhaps these library projects can shed some light on where museums need to go to be more effective in the future. Most museums are burdened with the preservation of vast collections of unique and rare items. Their charters often stipulate that if they cannot preserve their collections, then they have no business doing anything else. This includes engaging with the public with exhibitions, educational programs and new media experiences. It is likely that libraries  – whose collections typically only contain a small portion of un-reproducible, rare objects, books and documents – have had an easier time transforming themselves from the inside out.

(timventi)

Museum Without Walls (reprise)

In response to the earlier post of the same title, and deserving more than a brief comment…

I am really glad you mentioned Andre Malraux. Long before he wrote “The Museum Without Walls” in 1965,  19th century novelist Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard & Pécuchet, a fictional pair of ambitious although amatuer librarians, checked out of their weary professional life as clerks and attempt to catalog the knowledge of world. Aby Warburg and his Mnemosyne Atlas project in the 1920s is another notable example of such an effort although Warburg actually did amass a vast collection of art historical images to represent the all of humanity’s essential symbolic and visual leitmotifs. Spanning the late 20s-late 30s Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project is essentially a catalog of his own urban observations,  fragments of experience that he recorded with the zeal of a librarian on a vast archive of hand-written index cards. It represents the essence of a real city in a specific time and place, in the form of a hyplinked index which is now searchable thanks to the Harvard University Press. In 1948 Walter Lippmann visited the National Gallery of Art and surmised that inevitably there will be a bifurcation of the “physical sanctuary” for real objects and a parallel network of “representations and editions” that are more widely distributed and available to study.

“One can imagine, I venture to think, that the museum of the future will have two departments–one the sanctuary where the unique objects, the irreplaceable relics, are preserved and exhibited for the veneration and the enjoyment of those who make the pilgrimage; the other department in effect a library for the student, the scholar, and the amateur, where they can find, as in any library, collected in one place and readily accessible to them various editions of the unique objects which are scattered in the sanctuaries all over the world.”

In the late 90s the Smithsonian Institution launched its own “Museum Without Walls” and now has a well-established initiative called Smithsonian 2.0. More recently the Brooklyn Museum has made its entire digital catalog available by publishing its collections API. This allows developers to create a wide range of web and iPhone applications that interface with it. These ideas made more viable with the advent of the internet will inevitably transform the museum from the inside out and the ways in which the public experience a museum’s content.

All of these efforts question the status of iconic architecture, the ‘aura’ of the artifact, the role of the curator and the essential sense of place and context that define so many physical museums. I imagine however that there are also models where the two are seamlessly integrated and reinforcing one another. This is a deep topic and we will be exploring it in the weeks. Please continue this line of investigation into precedents and possible futures.

(ventimit)

Sentient City

Amphibious Architecture

"Amphibious Architecture" at Toward a Sentient City

I was excited to see  great projects at the Toward the Sentient City exhibition at Urban Center last night. The projects represented visionary thoughts about situated technologies and networks in urban space  – digital workspaces in urban parks, satellite sending tags on discarded objects that track downstream waste systems in real-time, using roots of plants as carbon cycle circuit breakers, interactive street furniture that enforces good behavior, and my favorite… aquatic beacons that allow you to talk to fish in the bottom of the city’s waterspace. The Amphibious Architecture team immersed several SMS addressable electronic sensors in the bottom of the East River and The Bronx River. You can text them and engage in a dialog. Here is a short transcript:

me “Hey East River”, them “Underwater, its now loud”, me ” Hey Herring”, them “Hi there there are 24 of us down here . Dissolved oxygen is higher than last week”, me ” RiverRiver”, them “Right now the East River is louder than the Bronx River. This hour 18 fish swam by in East, and 11 in Bronx. Dissolved Oxygen is higher in Bronx”

It reminded me  of the Fish Finder radar that my grandfather and I discreetly deployed on many of our fishing expeditions. But this the added sense of having a dialog with your prey. Now anytime I am feeling a bit too high and dry in my office (which overlooks the East River) I can find out what’s going on down there along its murky bottom. Just text message “EastRiver” to 41411.