Category Archives: science

Narrative Remains

Narrative Remains by Artist Karen Ingham

Reading about and discussing the Hunterian Museum reminded me of my many visits there while living in London last year. Although the museum seems to have  lost much of its glory if I see the images of the building before it was partly destroyed in 1941, the collection is still an inspiring one. The museum was never busy and I found it a wonderful environment to ponder the many strangely beautiful and extremely visceral specimens, both human and animal. I particularly enjoyed the installation by Karen Ingham titled ‘Narrative Remains’ which revealed the human stories behind some of the displayed specimens. These very personal stories enabled the visitor to interact with the display on a level beyond the anatomical and encouraged the viewer to reflect on their own mortality. Through initiating an interaction between the display and the past, Ingham was able to enrich the interaction between the same display and the visitor and so emphasized the relevance of the specimens in a contemporary context. The Hunterian Museum continues to invite artists working in a variety of media to reinterpret and react on their collections which is a valuable tool to make their collections more relevant and accessible to visitors today. If you are interested you can read about these exhibitions and collaborations here.

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

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

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

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

The Experience Economy: Disneyworld

Soarin

'Soarin' at Disneyworld

While completing this weeks reading on The Experience Economy, I couldn’t help referring to my Disneyworld experience from this past summer.  Two rides in Disneyworld’s Epcot Theme Park particularly struck me as successfully achieving the different realms of (1.  Educational, 2. Escapist, 3. Estheticism) experience talked about in the article.

The first ride, Soarin’ is a simulation where visitors are strapped into a contraption that physically lifts them fifteen-thirty feet in the air as if they were in a plane, literally soarin’ over California.  In front is a three-story screen where images of California, shot from the perspective of a pilot are projected.  In the six-minute ride, visitors experience a flight over Napa Valley, Temecula, Santa Monica, San Francisco, the Sierra Nevada Mountains and much more.  As they fly, machines that are hidden overhead blow wind and scents that correspond to the destination shown on the screen, into the faces of the riders.  It was an amazing experience and the most wonderful flight I’ve ever taken in my life.

From the first step into the waiting line of the ride, visitors step into an airplane hanger and are surrounded by authentic (or reproductions) of flight memorabilia from early flight history.  Pictures of Amelia Earhart and other peers grace the walls.  Under the pictures are captions of flight history, when the first flight was, how the Orville brothers invented the plane and other significant moments. When stuck in a line for over an hour to reach the ride, these pictures and captions inform and educate visitors about flight history. Strategically, this educational strategy should be fairly successful since everyone is bored in line and has nothing else to do.

The second ride, Mission: Space is a simulation ride where visitors are given the chance to become astronauts and travel to Mars.  Visitors enter the line on a launch pad and after a series of turns and different compression chambers, are loaded into a claustrophobic container of a spaceship.  Once the ride starts, the screens in front hinge upwards to a three-inch distance from the visitors eyes and projected images from the perspective of the astronaut driving the spaceship appear.  This ride takes visitors on an adventure from the launch of the rocket, to using the moon’s gravitational force to gain momentum, to landing the actual spaceship on Mars.  Motion is simulated and even the pressure in the container adjusts to what its really like when trying to escape the gravitational forces of the Earth’s atmosphere.  Feels like a ton of bricks on your chest and you can’t breathe!

After a very nauseating experience, visitors exit into a Control Room that simulates those at NASA.  Visitors have a choice to do a whole variety of activities that educate them about space and the process of sending people beyond the Earth.  Activities include videogames, weight simulations and comparisons on different planets, assuming command of the Control Room, learning how to read the Control Room and the Display Boards and much more.

These two rides achieve all three realms of experience, educational, escapist, and esthetic.  From the moment a visitor steps into the ride area, the esthetic surroundings and environment change completely to fit the theme of the ride.  While waiting in line, visitors are surrounded by educational information and content that gives them a background and better understanding of what they’re about to do.  The ride itself provides any visitor with an escapist, out of this world experience where they assume the role of someone else.

Kelly Lo