Category Archives: public space

Identity, Self, Networks

A recent essay by author Zadie Smith brought to mind the topic of ‘self’ as we’ve discussed the BBC documentary, The Century of the Self, and the museum’s shifting focus on the complexity and identity of its audience. Smith’s essay, titled “Generation Why?” is largely a critique of The Social Network, a film released earlier this fall about the founding of the online social network, Facebook. Smith’s critique leaps beyond the content of the film to comment on our current society and the increasing importance we place on defining ourselves, as a seemingly increasing portion of this definition comes in the form of the people and things we collect and give preference to in virtual space.

As a class, we have discussed the role of Facebook in our society and our roles as virtual participants, like those discussed by Nina Simon in The Participatory Museum. Simon describes “The network effect,” the underlying concept of social networks, and our various levels of participation, “whether as creators, critics, collectors, joiners or spectators.”

By participating in social networks, in some ways, we are individually creating prescribed-format museums of self. We curate, update, and maintain them. We may create micro-communities with other individuals who share interests and ideas to which we relate, but we increasingly isolate the ‘self’ because we interface with software to a greater extent than the people to whom we are connected in social space.

Connection may be the goal of social networks, but decreased privacy, perhaps an evolved social norm, also affects how the self is virtually portrayed. And one’s expressed likes and dislikes allow for for marketing to be streamlined to his or her self-proclaimed preferences. In this way, we are viewed as individual consumers. Likewise, The Century of the Self reveals the shift from ‘need’ to a ‘desire’ based society.

In her essay, Smith also briefly discusses Jaron Lanier’s book, You Are Not A Gadget. She writes that, “Lanier is interested in the ways in which people, ‘reduce themselves’ in order to make a computer’s description of them appear more accurate.” We are aware that we self-edit for online portrayal and that our number of virtual friends is not an accurate reflection of our actual friends, but it is important to question our awareness of how the software affects us. Software is not neutral, and it is possible to consider that for most of us the lines begin to blur between our reduced, edited selves and our reality.

It is possible to consider that our selves which display our collections of friends and things we like are devoid of the richness of our actual lives and interpersonal connections.

In his publication, Do Museums Still Need Objects, author Stephen Conn wrote about how museums have generally adjusted to changing cultural atmospheres and he concluded that although they may no longer require physical objects to tell their stories, objects endure and offer a rich and unparalleled visual experience all their own.

Likewise, I think that virtual social space cannot offer the same quality of personal connection and reflection found in shared cultural space.

Jayme Elterman

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Brooklyn Gets Participatory

Last night in the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn, the first ever Nuit Blanche “White Night” was held in New York City. This festival of lights, which has been held in areas around the world such as Atlanta, GA and Paris, France, allows artists and designers to display their light creations on sides of buildings, in warehouses, and throughout sidewalks, playgrounds, and street corners.  The festival combined artistic expression with technological outputs and showed the potential creativity that could be reached with the blending of the two.

The most interesting (and relevant to our class) option they had at the event was a participatory project.  Visitors to the celebration could download an application, similar to most museum styles we see today, and create their own designs that would then be projected onto the buildings.  It was a great way to allow the visitor to feel creative, important, and instrumental in the success of Nuit Blanche.  The picture below shows the steps required for participation.  It was a great event, and an even better way to get people involved in both art and the community!

Ryan Massey

Mixing Gallery Space + Everyday

Königsplatz Ubahn

An interesting aspect of the changing face of the museum is the re-purposing of spaces outside of the museum to increase visitor interest. In particular, I’m thinking of a really unique permanent installation in one of Munich’s subway stations on the U2 line. The Königsplatz station is located in the Kunstareal (museum quarter) of the city and situated directly in the vicinity of two of the world’s most important antiquity collections, the Glyptothek and Antikensammlung. The installation within the station includes large-scale glass vitrines which display selected Greek and Roman sculptures in the round, all chosen from the two museums’ collections. These displays serve as a sort of tantalizing appetizer to the incredible museums which lie directly above ground.

I had the privilege of walking through and using this station every day for a year while attending university classes. At the time, my reaction was somewhat nonchalant. (Munich is famous for its innovative and dazzling subway station designs. For example, the newly renovated Münchener Freiheit station which incorporates displays of contemporary art work into its walls.) But in comparison to many a dingy and dilapidated subway station in Philly and New York, the uniqueness of Königsplatz is really something noticeable. It is at once an advertisement for the Kunstareal museums, an entertainment piece for commuters, and an integral part of the fabric of the station’s architecture.

Munich Kunstbau

In the same vein, this subway station also hosts the Kunstbau, which is an art gallery suspended underground and above the subway station itself. Train riders can see into the gallery as they descend the escalators to the platform, providing another sort of “real time” advertisement for the gallery’s current exhibition. Associated with the Lenbachhaus Gallery, it was designed by Uwe Kiessler, built in 1994, and is also equipped with auditorium facilities for films and presentations. A huge 2009 exhibition of Wassily Kandinsky’s work was especially successful for the gallery, and often the clear glass windows revealed an absolutely packed gallery floor to the subway passers by.

These clever incorporations of museum collections into the everyday world can make even the numbing mundanity of a subway ride both a learning and cultural experience. Not to mention, they are quite successful ways to pique a prospective visitor’s interest. For more on the Kunstbau.

michelle jackson

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.

Immersive Media: Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller

Our readings this week, including one by Ontario artist David Rokeby, reminded me that I’ve meant to write about the work of a pair of Canadian artists who use immersive media. Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller are best known for creating interactive and highly engaging art installations and “walks”. The gallery I worked for in Toronto exhibited two of their installations – 2001’s Paradise Institute (which won the major prize at that year’s Venice Biennale) and the Forty-Part Motet – so I’ve had some first-hand experience with their work. While I’m sometimes iffy about the artistic value of their installations, there’s no doubt that they can usually provide remarkable experiences for participants and visitors.

Janet Cardiff's "In Real Time"

Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Millers "In Real Time"

Many of Cardiff and Bures-Millers’s installations, and all of their “walks”, use binaural audio (usually implemented through headphones)and video to animate a space in support of a narrative. That the narrative is obscure and open-ended doesn’t really matter. For a few minutes you are completely drawn in: the narrator addresses you directly, guiding your movements; invisible presences seem to whisper so closely that you can’t help but turn around to see whether someone’s there; the space around you is transformed by the atmospheric sounds. The technology seems fairly simple, but the artists use it in a way that is unparalleled. Their “walks” absolutely transform existing environments, even those already imbued with notions, from Central Park to abandoned prisons to historic sites. Even their simplest-seeming installations can be moving.

Janet Cardiff's "Fourty Part Motet"

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's "Forty Part Motet"

The Forty-Part Motet, which assigns a speaker to each voice in a choir, offers an emotional and strangely intimate experience. It was amazing listening to the beautiful choral music emitted by the installation, but once I found the speakers that “belonged” to the choir’s sopranos, a group of little boys that would whisper and joke between sections, I loved the piece even more.

When Cardiff and Bures-Miller are successful, their work is incredibly immersive, powerful and evocative. It leaves a lasting impression. I would love to see how this example could be translated by museums to generate learning experiences.

Jenny F.

Museums,Technology, Life

Technology Based LifeI would like to share with you my response to the first chapter of the book Networked Publics titled “Place: The Networking of Public Space” by Kazys Varnelis and Anne Friedberg, and what I think the role of Museums would be in the future in response to a technology-based life.

How new technologies are affecting human relationships and social structure? As human beings we have always been part of social groups and I wonder how technology is changing this. Is this human disconnection created by technological connection going to turn us into a kind of hermit with no private lives and no personal relationships?  Or are we maybe going to become nomads again?

Cell phones have brought about significant changes at many different levels. As stated in Networked Publicseven working and meeting schedules are more flexible because we have the opportunity to call and tell we are running late. But from my personal experience more relevant changes have occurred in developing countries. Places where rural and poor people never had a telephone because companies wouldn’t go that far away or risk not to get paid, suddenly had the opportunity to connect to the world. The appearance of the cell phone and pay-as-you-go plans gave these people the opportunity to communicate with the rest of the world for first time and in some sense to belong to a society bigger than their small towns or neighborhoods. They finally could be part of the exterior world.

But in the same way cell phones had the capacity to integrate communities into the world, they also have a bigger capacity to disintegrating human physical contact. We have arrived to a point where we don’t even want to hear each other’s voice. We can just text each other. There is no need to create a physical connection. But as human beings we need to touch and we need to be touche. It is part of a healthy life. I can understand now why some movie writers would imagine the future of the world as a place where people won’t even touch each other to have sex.  But I wonder if this isolation is the consequence of technology taking people apart or the reaction of people trying to get back their personal space and get away from a live overload with technology. The question here is: Is technology isolating us from people or is it taking away our personal space and moments?  I think the answer is both. We don’t have more time for ourselves but we are fewer and fewer in direct contact with other people. People expect us to be working, informed and available all the time just because technology has given us the possibility to do it, but it has also taken away our right to rest and have those spaces in live so important to be with ourselves, reflect and even pray. I remember a business man telling me how upset he was because airplanes have internet now and his boss was expecting him to work on the airplane while before he could have this time for himself.  Is this global connection disconnecting us from ourselves?

Another interesting relationship is the way communication can transform architecture. As Victor Hugo stated the book changed the way architecture was used as a communicative surface. Are new technologies and ways of communication going to change the relationship between architecture an humans in more deeply ways?

When internet appeared we were wondering if office spaces, stores and restaurants would become obsolete by the fact that you could do everything from home and send it by internet and also get everything from the net. But now with mobile internet and mobile technologies, I wonder… is our house going to become obsolete?

If telecocoons have given the possibility to create their own worlds completely divorced from a physical architecture, can technology lead us to a divorce from it as a permanent place to live? If we can carry our work, our connections, our communications, our games, and our diversions in a small cell phone inside our pockets all over the world, why would we need a house?  Could it be possible that we go back to the time when men were nomads? Traveling now is easier and more affordable and technologies give us the possibility to stay connected to the world no matter where we are. Maybe the future residential projects will become hospitality projects and hotels would become our virtual homes. Instead of bringing our bags full of stuff we will bring our cell phones full of connections.

Now the question that rises is: What is going to be the role of museums in a so connected and at the same time so detached world?  In a world where people will lose their connection with themselves and where physical connection with other people and spaces will be irrelevant, museums will offer a space for reflection and reconnection with us and also a physical space to promote physical connections between people while learning and amusing ourselves.  In a world where people see themselves just as part of a global network, museums will still be part of the network but will bring people together again and will recreate a sense of society and a sense of belonging to the human race and not only to a technological network. No matter where we are, museums will be the space to escape from virtual life and reconnect with real life.

Maria Antonia Villegas

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