Category Archives: knowledge

Not So Fast

I read this article  – ‘Not So Fast’ by John Freeman a few weeks ago and considering our ongoing discussions about the use of new media and specifically the internet by museums I think it is very relevant. Though it doesn’t discuss the museum context as such it looks at the increasing speed of communication and impersonal nature of social interactions. These two elements, communication and social interaction are vital for any museum so I found it interesting to apply the thought process presented in this article to the discussion around internet use in and beyond the walls of the museum. There is one statement that I found particularly profound: “Attention is one of the most valuable modern resources.” This is surely true if we consider the amount of time and money various businesses and institutions spend on fighting for it! And yes, it does seem to be in short supply as we waste it continually on unimportant information. The little attention we have left is then spread thinly over too many things leading to shallow understanding and a lack of reflection. I believe that museums (and other cultural institutions) are the places where this resource can be cultivated and replenished. Far from needing to keep up with the speed with which we function these days, museums should be places where we can slow down and think.  This is not to say that the internet should not be used at all. I think it has the potential to be used in ways that can encourage reflection and ultimately restore our ability to focus and learn rather than deplete it.

RH

Simplicity is Key

After Monday’s lecture on technology within the museum, I saw this on a walk and it made me stop and think about the simplicity I seek within museum walls.  Everyday I walk (as I know everyone else in the class does too) past the light store- Filaments.  The store, located near Parson’s on 13th Street, is filled to capacity with light bulbs, stands, and shades. I know this is a stretch, but every time I walk past the store, I always think of the Hall of Biodiversity located in the American Museum of Natural History.  The Hall of Biodiversity is laid out in a similar manner, it is crowded, colorful, and completely attention-grabbing.  There is a very small presence of technology, making the visitor rely almost solely on the presentation of the plants and animals.

If I said I adored this area of the museum, it would be an understatement.  Every visit I am pleasantly overwhelmed by the information and models presented, and I always learn something new.  I really appreciate the simplicity of this Hall, and I find it refreshing that I find myself thinking of the museum when I see things as simple as a store front.

This is something museums must strive for-  a seamless transition between spaces.  Museum learning cannot stop once a visitor leaves the confines of the institution.  I applaud the Hall for it’s simplicity.  If it was only technological displays, instead of the appropriate combination that it does have, I doubt it would make as strong as impact on its viewers.

Ryan Massey

Steven Conn Podcast

Here is a podcast interview with Steven Conn, who we read in class this week. The conversation is based around his book “Do We Still Need Objects?” and its pretty interesting to hear his views. I thought that some of the class might enjoy hearing more about his thoughts.

Jess Petersen

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.

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.

Technology and the Human Hand

It seems that as this class looks into the museum of the future, we get more and more skeptical of the human aspect- will the human have a place in the museum, and if so, where will it be?  As Stephen and I were researching the future of the science museum he came across this interesting video that emphasizes the importance of human/technology relationships. In the future, museums, especially STEM museums- those that specialize in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics will rely on the human presence to explain important concepts to the viewers.  These museums will not only be areas of learning, but real forums to solve global problems.

The video is very inspiring, I think it gives a good idea of how the human, instead of disappearing behind the technology’s presence, will become an even more valuable asset to the museum structure.

ryanmassey, stephenkaye

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

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

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

Reading Response: Museum and Map; the Interpretation of Visual Culture

If Museums back in the 19th century were regarded as educational institutions with a great social role, then today they are considered as more of tourist attraction or money generating tool for the local government. Fast forward to today and take a look at a museum and its audience’s relationship. The museum’s “role of being educational had always been well established as a concept” (Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. p.1) and because this relationship is changing in times of advanced technology and with changing culture, museum will also need to change its way of doing things.

The concept of education had been changing throughout the centuries, “they’re not limited to formal institutions but taken place throughout life” (Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. p.2 ).  The old concept of education are limited to specific times and places and with museum, it is limited to a certain location at the interior space. Yet, the museum should have the potential as a lifelong learning tool.

Most people would define visual display as the experience of a museum. Since each individual object in a museum cannot speak a story by itself, “An exhibition is a group of objects combined with words and images – are more complex still” (Hooper Greenhill, Eilean. p.3)  and from Victoria Newhouse’s book  “ placement can change the meaning of the artwork” (Newhouse, Victora. p.10)  All objects have to be placed together in a museum, and depending on the visual arrangement, viewers have a 50/50 chance of perceiving the intended meaning, even after they perceived them, they might not agree with them. With different cultures, come different values, so interpretation does not come with a singular meaning but multiple when viewed by many different audiences.

“Museum have changed radically in style” Hooper Greenhill, Eilean. (p.6) – where formal museum galleries have changed and replaced by informal style where it communicates with visitors in a more lively and more physical interaction. That is because “learners need to interact in meaningful ways with new information before it can become part of their repertoire of knowledge,”( Hooper Greenhill, Eilean. p.7)

Museum are trying to incorporate audience and visitor’s info and research into their process of exhibition, and by looking at the internet like Wikipedia which incorporate user’s knowledge into their database and website. Wikipedia has become more successful in that respect. That is not to say that museums cannot do better. Museums have the advantage of showcasing an actual object, “Although paintings might have to fight for their life, they look better in a home than in a museum because they’re alive, you feel them…” (Newhouse, Victora. p.13) because of this factor, many museums had considered showing certain artwork without any separation between viewers and the object itself these days.

Philip Kwok