Category Archives: natural history

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

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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.

Energizing Museums

Western Science Center, Michael Lehrer Architects

Two years ago the first museum to win a LEEDs platinum rating opened in the town of Hemet in a arid, rural basin just south of Los Angeles.  Owned and operated by the County, and designed by Michael Lehrer Architects, the Western Science Center interprets a trove of fossils that were found when the Diamond Lake Reservoir was created by the Metropolitan Water District. Its mission is to educate the public to appreciate the importance of finite natural resources and our relationship to the environment we live in.  The museum also generates its own power with a massive array of photovoltaic panels. Needless to say this museum fulfills its mission in in its architecture which is strongly influenced by massive public works infrastructure more so than it is by the  iconic museum architecture we have come to expect.

Thousands of new and existing museums across the country are faced with an energy conundrum. While most museums adhere to a basic commitment to principals of conservation in their mission statements, and science museums are even more committed to discussing principals of sustabability, finite resources and stewardship of our environment, museums are also some of the largest energy consumers among building types. The requirements to maintain constant environmental conditons for the preservation of sensitive artifacts and specimens, the dramatic fluctuations in HVAC loads caused by the heat and humidity of daily throngs visitors and intense theatrical exhibit lighting all put a high price tag on building systems and require high energy consumption. Actually a large percentage of any museum’s project budget goes into the museum building’s mechanical systems. Sometimes this represents a higher percentage of budget than is spent on the public experience of the collections through exhibits and programs. So why not make those systems an integral part of the experience? My guess is that that is what Lerher intended with the Western Science Center. But looking at the design I wonder, is it a ‘green’ museum that fulfills its conservation driven mission, or is it a power plant with a museum attached?

This month’s issue of AAM’s Museum News features a great article on museums and energy consumption.

Tim Ventimiglia

Esquire’s Augmented Reality

This month was Esquire Magazine’s Augmented Reality Issue. On the cover and throughout the magazine, picture codes known as Augmented Reality software were placed next to the featured articles. For example, Robert Downey Jr. had a code on the cover that he was selling. A male supermodel had a code next to the clothes he was wearing. Readers simply download AR Software to their computers and hold up the AR code to their webcam. Once the webcam registers the code, a video of Robert Downey Jr. in his interview pops up. A video of the Model modeling clothes pops up. These are not short clips. They run for a good three – five minutes. High –tech animations and graphics are of course included and by rotating the magazine at different angles, i.e. facing north instead of south, a different video pops up to talk to, entertain, and educate the reader.

The ease at which Esquire introduced Augmented Reality to the public struck me as something that Museums; particularly Natural History Museums can use to make their visitors more engaged. If they were to place these codes next to their still objects suck as earthen vases, traditional wedding costumes, or even primeval weapons, visitors can beep the codes located next to the objects and immediately watch a video of how they were used. For example, the Natural History Museum in NYC has a traditional Chinese Wedding Costume for a bride along with the Sedan Chair that she sits in. As accurate as those two items are, if I weren’t from Chinese heritage, I wouldn’t know the tradition and importance of the logic behind how the bride gets brought into the carriage. If a video can pop up immediately after scanning the adjacent AR code, visitors can be brought back to ancient China and see that the veiled bride has to be piggy-backed over a brazier on to the carriage by an older woman known as the matron of honor, that the bride was always sheltered with a red parasol and kerchief, and that the door of the Sedan Chair was always kicked open to chase away bad spirits that may have latched on the to bride before.

As these Augmented Reality codes can be beeped on any digital device, the Museum won’t have to worry about introducing a vast amount of technology into their actual exhibits. People can simply view these on their phones. Augmented Reality Codes and software can enhance the experience of viewing still objects!

Kelly Lo

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

Evolution: Science and Art for Sale in SoHo

evolution and curiosityThis store has been a landmark in Manhattan’s SoHo art district since 1993; it “sells unique natural history collectibles usually seen only in museums. These include butterflies and beetles, fossils, seashells, skulls and skeletons, medical models, and tribal art.” More here.

The second I walked into this store it immediately reminded me of the Cabinets of Curiosity; the way the objects are presented and the whole store is structured is similar to an early museum. For those of you who are not familiar with the Cabinet of Curiosities also known as Cabinets of Wonder, or Wonder-Rooms [Wunderkammern], these were encyclopedic collections of objects whose categorical boundaries were yet to be defined in Renaissance Europe . Modern terminology would categorize the objects included as belonging to natural history, geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art and antiquities. It was regarded as a microcosm or ‘theater of the world’, and a ‘memory theater’.

Peter Thomas stated about Charles I of England’s collection that these were “a form of propaganda”, only for the aristocrats and only some could afford having them. Besides the most famous, best documented cabinets of rulers and aristocrats, members of the merchant class and early practitioners of science in europe formed collections that were in fact the precursors to public museums.

Clarisa Llaneza

Cocoon

The Darwin Centre at London's Natural History Museum (photo by Tim Lee)

The Darwin Centre at London Natural History Museum (photo by Tim Lee)

One of the newest and most anticipated installations in the world of Natural History is the London Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre 2. This iconic facility opened a month ago and a few friends have since visited and reported back to me. The Cocoon – a large egg shaped structure inside a glass box and provocatively nestled up against the Victorian-Era museum building – contains 20 million insect and plant specimens as well as 220 working scientists. One of the overarching goals of the project is to make the museum’s collections and research accessible to museum visitors. This is a general trend as museums of all types seek to engage more sophisticated audiences by providing access to previously hidden away: study collections, research, registration and conservation. Darwin Centre 1, which as a sort of modest prototype for this project built a few years ago (and which I did visit), used curators as docents that took you on behind the scenes tours of collections areas as they talked about their work. You felt privileged to have access to their world and though it still had carefully controlled set of windows, you saw a lot of real stuff. I suppose a day long program of tours was a lot to ask of the curator whos’ minds should really be on research and not entertaining the public.  Darwin Centre 2 seems to dispense with the warm, human (albeit scripted) interactions. Here a set of digitized curator avatars introduce the audience to the research and the experience is focused mostly on a series of interactive media experiences that allow visitors to explore both real and digitized versions of collections, interact and provide feedback on a range of current scientific debates. I kind of like the mix of real stuff and high tech interactive interfaces, but word is that the human touch and the awesome spectacle of millions of specimens is missing here. I think this is a great model for existing museums to leverage what they already have going on behind the scenes and deliver a public view into the authentic, mysterious, museological, inner-sanctum. However, the walls of this cocoon may be still too opaque.

Another review with descriptions and images of a few exhibits here and the official video tour here and another video here.

Tim Ventimiglia