Category Archives: specimens

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

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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

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

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