Category Archives: history

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

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

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

The Post-Modern Museum

At some point in the mid 20th Century the modern museum began to take on a new form. Consumer culture gained a hightened level of self-consciousness, and the very notion of “the self” as shaped by individual experiences rather than a societal imperatives, took root and fostered a new way of thinking about museums. What emerged was a focus on the customer, a deeper understanding of the audience and meeting that audience’s needs. The post-modern museum emphasizes the user, education, relevancy and accessibility. In fact it is often described as a place of lifelong learning, supplementary to a more formal education compulsory learning in schools. Unlike the modern museum which might be characterized by didactic pedagogy, learning in a post-modern museum is experiential and accounts for different learning styles. Here the constituent chooses his or her own interests and the museum tailors its programs and exhibitions to those interests. Instead of prioritizing the curator’s voice as an overarching authority, these museums rely more on the meanings produced by their visitors and constituents through interactive engagement. As Eilean Hooper-Greenhill puts it “Meaning is produced by museum visitor from their own point of view, using whatever knowledge and skills they bring with them, according to the contingent demands of the moment”. Here, modern social psychology and constructivist educational theory prevails.

Museum Stages.xlsx

Exhibitions in these museums are largely developed with the aid of professional designers, creative practitioners who borrow the tools of advertising, a carefully crafted language, the focus group, formative evaluation and the survey. They are generally multi-modal, mixing a large variety of tools and techniques – combining exhibit script, objects, photography, graphics, media, interactivity, immersive sensory experiences, dramatic and directed lighting  – all of which serves to stimulate the exploratory desires of the visitor. The may have a proscriptive route but often have ways to wander and impulsively dig deeper into subjects you might be interested in. The ultimate challenge of this kind of museum which seeks cultural relevancy is that culture is a moving target.

Tim Ventimiglia

The Modern Museum

The modern public museum was invented to meet the needs of an emergent democratized society. Without the rule of law overseen by a dominating sovereign power, newly minted governmental powers needed a way to control the masses. Michel Foucault calls this the “disciplinary society” where penitentiaries, schools, libraries, department stores and museums were invented as “instruments of the state” to control and shape the behavior of the public. These were the new public spaces and were governed by ideas of transparency and surveillance. The modern museum was considered crucial to the notion of progress of the individual and served as a therapeutic space where he could learn to aspire to higher ideals.

Modern Stage.xlsx

Exhibitions in modern museums were performative environments in which newly forms of conduct and behavior could be scripted and enforced. The space of the modern museum was highly ordered, rational, collections and displays were serial in nature, expressing an encyclopeadic completeness. The rare and unique was replaced with the serial where an implied system of relationships between things became more important than the individual objects themselves. They were described as “educative spectacles”. As Edward Grey, a mid-19th Century curator of the British Museum, put it “the subject should be able to visually comprehend the greatest amount of information in a moderate space, that could be obtained in a single glance”. In other words, you did not need to read in the museum. You learned by looking. William Henry Flower late 19th Century director of the London Natural History Museum outlined the method  by which modern curator creates an exhibition “…Hire a curator, define the objective of the museum, determine a subject, divide the subject, plan a space, create a hierarchy of labels, develop a concise language, select illustrative specimens,… that then fall into appropriate places.” Note how much of this process is about determining the message and ordering space. The emphasis is not on the uniqueness of the object but on its ability to serve a script. These museums were most often organized around departments that reflected the professionalized disciplines and sub-disciplines of social history, art history and the natural sciences. These disciplines and the rigorous scholarship that defined them gave rise to the curator – or subject matter expert – who presided over the functions of collecting, preserving, studying and interpreting (writing the script) and exhibiting.

Tim Ventimiglia