Category Archives: form

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.

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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

Locating Masterpieces

I went to the Met yesterday and I had two experiences that so well illustrated the post by Ryan concerning object reproduction as discussed in the Lippman article. It also pairs well with the concept of putting objects on display in context.

Part I: The Vermeer Exhibit

assetimage.jspAs many of you are likely aware, The Milkmaid , an iconic painting by the Dutch artist Vermeer, is now on exhibit at the Met along with the 5 Vermeers in the Met’s collection. The Milkmaid has not left its home, the Rijksmueum in Amsterdam, in 70 years! Talk about having to travel the world to see all of the greatest hits in the history of art…

When I arrived at the exhibit, The Milkmaid was surrounded by many more spectatorsthan those Vermeers owned by the Met. And who could blame us? I have no idea when will be the next time I’ll be in Amsterdam. And the painting is exquisite. So were the other 5 Vermeers in the Met’s collection which were displayed alongside it.

The funny thing was, I HAD seen The Milkmaid before. (At the Rijksmuseum obviously; I am not over 70 years old.) But I hadn’t really remembered it was the Milkmaid I saw there anymore than Love Letter or Woman Reading a Letter which are also in Amsterdam. But that didn’t really matter to me. I’m not an encyclopedia but I still enjoy seeing great paintings. Reproductions are never replacements when it comes to enjoying the technique of masterly painting.

But this is where it gets interesting; there are only 36 paintings attributed to Vermeer (plus another 30 that MIGHT be by him…)

The Met had an entire wall with reproductions of these 36 painting in a grid. Because so many of Vermeer’s paintings are recognizable (if not iconic), it was incredibly interesting to study which of these painting were located in which museums around the world! I was endlessly amused to see a reproduction and think to myself “oh, I’ve definitely seen this one, it must be at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam” – and then check the legend to discover it was owned by a museum I had never visited!

In summary:

1: Because of the proliferation of reproductions in books and online, it can be incredibly challenging to remember which things we actually have seen years ago on vacations. The question is whether this makes going to museums meaningful at all. (I think so: it is all about the entire experience of visiting one which I will get to later. And in the case of painting at least – being able to examine painting technique in person)

2. Museums’ collections are no doubt assets, but they may also devise their own assets by making the experience of seeing their objects a meaningful and educational experience.
I thought the grid of Vermeer reproductions was such a simple, but incredibly effective tool to communicate just how limited in scope Vermeer’s work is, and it was so fascinating to compare the similarities between all of his paintings, while highlighting those that did not conform to his standard compositions.

Part II: The Quest for Madame X

Sargent_MadameXMadame X by John Singer Sargent, certainly an iconic, memorable painting, was recently located in the European painting and sculpture galleries. This was somewhat problematic as Sargent is an American artist. On the other hand, it was displayed along other American and European full-length portraits in a similar, soft brushy technique. In my opinion, it was an absolutely amazing pairing of paintings – my favorite part of the entire museum at the time!

The Met has recently remodeled their American Wing (we discussed this earlier in reference to the new interactive screens in the Period Rooms.) Though their Period Rooms are “up and running” for the most part, the installation for many American paintings and decorative arts is not completed. As a compromise, these objects are labeled and displayed in a (for lack of a better word) cramped storage room that is open to the public.

They moved (as far as I could tell) all of their American paintings that were formerly in the European wing to their temporary “open to the public storage.” My friend and I were determined to see Madame X and were not convinced the Met would deign to keep her in this storage room, but a couple guards insisted she was there.

We looked and looked all over this storage room and were about to give up, when we noticed a couple in the corner closely examining a painting. There she was! Unframed, with maybe 3 or 4 feet of room to stand away from her. And of course a lovely glare on the display case. To think that this painting was recently displayed so prominently, between Manet paintings even. She could be seen maybe 60-80 feet away, through two arched doorways! Insane to think about…

In Summary:

1: Seeing an object in context is obviously one of the most important things a museum can execute. It is a complicated issue. Now Madame X is placed alongside other American objects. Does this do the painting justice when she is displayed so poorly? Obviously she will be much easier to see when the rest of the American Wing is remodeled.

But even so – the question is really should she be paired alongside other full-length portraits, regardless of nationality? Or only along fellow American full-length portraits?

2: In is so interesting when realizing that The Milkmaid is certainly as prolific an image as Madame X. Yet right now, as I type, they are both under the same roof. One is having people huddled around it, and the other is lost to the world.

Bilbao’s Epitaph

Frank Gehry's Performance Pavillion at Millenium Park

Frank Gehry's Performing Arts Pavillion at Millenium Park

We knew it was coming. Today New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff officially declared the end to an epoch of iconic cultural architecture in America. I suppose this is also the end of the Bilbao Effect. His article surveys history of American cultural identity as expressed through architecture beginning with the City Beautiful Movement in the late 19th Century. I found this statement rather interesting: “The problem with freedom, after all, is that it allows for horrifying imaginative failures as well as works of stunning genius.” This reminded me of a quote from Goethe ” There is nothing worst than an active imagination, a lot of money and no taste”. It makes you wonder how many bad ideas we may have been saved from. What will all of this mean for the next generation of museum building? What forms will museums of the new epoch take in response to this new found modesty? Perhaps what is happening inside the museum will finally become as important than what is happening on the outside.

Tim Ventimiglia

The Cabinet, Studiolo, Wunderkammer

Throughout human history museums have had to adjust in form, structure and technique relative to a changes in societal structures and needs. The next series of posts will explore three stages of transformation of the museum (and perhaps an emergent stage). I will admit it is a bit bold to try write a historiography of the museum on a weblog post. So I will choose to diagram it instead. Of course these are gross simplifications of very complex issues that deserve a historians’ proper attention but the words contained in these diagrams do in fact owe a debt to the writings of social historians Elean-Hooper Greenhill and Tony Bennet, who’s influential works have shaped my sense of how contemporary museums came to be.

Museum Stages.xlsxThese proto-museums were centers of power, focused expressions of the sovereign’s dominion over the world and his subjects. Cabinets of Curiosity, Wunderkammern, the Studiolo were owned and made by noble European families living in the early Renaissance and lasting through the Baroque. The Cabinet was characterized by its symbolic and representational power, an effective theatrical demonstration of the soveriegn’s knowledge and control of his empire, and a symbolic dominion over the earthly world. A good picture here. Combining artifacts and specimens chosen for their rarity and uniqueness. Their script was coded and known only to their owner. They were certainly not accessible to the public and were viewed only by a privileged audience in the service of the sovereign. Many of these private collections formed the basis of early public and university museums.

Tim Ventimiglia

The Syndrome of ’92: Guggenheim Effect

In her recent book “Txoriburu”, the writer and illustrator Asun Balzola describes how her natal city was in the 40’s. She says that for her, the most curious fact of the Guggenheim effect is that “people has made it theirs, they don’t see the museum as a thing of some people in New York, but as theirs”. Plus, “the most encouraging thing is that the young people are their first fans. When you are inside of the building the light, the spirals of its architecture make the things inside just there, you can almost visit it empty and it would be the same”. Without a doubt, she concludes, the Guggenheim “has revived Bilbao, because you can see it from a lot of places. You are going around the streets and all of the sudden you can see this mount in front of you and the titanium roofs. Its amazing”.

On October 18th of 1997, the king Juan Carlos, the president of the foundation, the architect and the authorities inaugurated the museum in front of the eyes of 10,000 curious people. In its first month, a hundred thousand people met the Guggenheim, making it the third most visited museum of Spain, after El Prado and Reina Sofia, both in Madrid. Besides, of the 70,000 visitants in the first eight months (the most optimistic calculations were estimating 40,000 in a year), almost one of very four was foreign.

Eighty private companies compromised to collaborate with the museum in some way and 86 of every 100 visitors expressed the means to come back: the Guggenheim Effect was born.

Now a days, they are offering weekends special in Milan, London, to visit this colossal of glass and titanium. Taking advantage of the renovations of the airport, airlines of countries like Portugal, Belgium or Germany multiply their connections with Bilbao. Luxury Cruises dock alongside the old fishing life in the city port, where their passengers get surprised by the welcoming they receive. In what used to be a port area in which cargo containers were poling up waiting to be chartered, now arises the last grand new museum built in the 20th Century, maximum exponent of the city’s new identity.

For the first time in a long time, this population of a mostly gray and humid climate is noticed by all the world for something that is not the kidnapers or terrorist violence.

(clarisallaneza)

The City Museum

City Museum in St Louis

City Museum in St Louis

St. Louis, Missouri was once a highly industrialized city.  Warehouses and factories filled the downtown grid and waterfront.  Today the city is still home to many large-name industries but many of the factories have relocated into the suburbs.  As the riverfront is undergoing a grand-scale renewal, many of the empty factories and warehouses are being transformed into high-end loft buildings, offices, and one in particular has become The City Museum.

The City Museum is the former home of the International Shoe Company.  The warehouse is nearly 600,000 square feet, and stands nine stories tall.  It is an eclectic mixture of playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architecture constructed from unique, found objects.  It’s connection to the city is deeply rooted as all of the elements in the museum come from within the city boundaries.  Upon entering visitors will find old chimneys, salvaged bridge pieces, construction cranes, transportation tiles, a retired fire engine, an old school bus cantilevers over the side of the building and two old airplanes have been placed on the rooftop as part of a sky-maze that overlooks the city.  A four-story ferris wheel was recently relocated from a local theme park to the rooftop of the museum.

There are more interactive and educational attractions offered to visitors, but the main idea behind the museum isn’t that the visitor absorbs facts, but rather that the visitor is intrigued and begins to imagine the possibilities of interaction and innovation with routine objects.

(ktynes)