#flmuseums 6: museums and me

The final week explored “the museum’s two biggest assets: objects and people”. Some useful stuff on the former, not a lot on the latter.

Objects can evoke memory, particularly when our senses are involved. What can they mean when we encounter them in a museum, or in everyday life? We might start to think about museums as having a biography: a life story.

Things to think about when considering an object:

  • intention and context of the maker(s) of the object
  • processes by which the object was made
  • ways in which the object is seen by different subjects
  • processes of distributing the object
  • ways in which the object is consumed
  • ways in which the object is used
  • whether or not – and how – the object is kept
  • ways in which the object is discarded/recycled

If we can find out enough information about an object, we can piece together a biography for it. The meanings and values ascribed to an object tend to change as its contexts change, resulting in a rich, multi-layered set of complementary and conflicting meanings. It can also tell us much that goes beyond the object, as well as being about and illustrative of the object itself.

Objects form a link to past events, people and ideas. We live by and through objects. We use them to shape our social lives, our characters and and our identities. Consider the clothes you are wearing…Our relationship with objects is, in part, socially and historically determined. Consider a basic chair…

You knew it was coming:

Pick an object that you think says something about you. It could be anything – an item of clothing, something from about the house or garden, a treasured souvenir, something that reminds you of a person or a place or a special time, perhaps.

Take some time to look at the object. Hold it, feel it, smell it, you might even be able to taste it or listen to it. Think about what that objects says about you. How does it fit into your life? How did you acquire it? What experiences have you shared with that object? Why is it important to you?

Would it be easy for someone else to work out how that object represents you? Would it be easier for someone to tell something about you if you selected a group of objects?

A nice exercise, but maybe in need of interpretation for others’ contributions to be of interest.

Spend some time exploring the collections of National Museums Liverpool online. Look at a few objects in more detail and consider the following questions:

  • How are they interpreted?
  • To what extent do the object’s biographies come to the fore?
  • Whose meanings are being represented here? Whose are absent?
  • What meanings do they have for you personally?
  • How do you respond emotionally to some of the objects you see?
  • How might you experience these objects differently if you were to encounter them in real life, rather than digitally?
  • What is lost/gained through the digitisation of these objects and collections?
  • Might technology continue to change the possibilities for exploring and interpreting museum objects and collections in radical ways?

Musuems and digital:

  • mid 1960s: computers first came to the museum
  • 1970s:computers used for automation of manual record systems
  • 1980s: computerisation of collections and of images
  • 1990s: big web revolution
  • 2000s:  mobile and social media revolutions
  • 2010s: postdigital? embedded, an innate function of the museum

Think critically as you visit museums:

Visit a few museums – perhaps museums of different sizes and types – and look at them through fresh eyes. You might like to think about the work the museum is doing – can you see any evidence that they are engaging with social justice and human rights, or health and wellbeing, for example? Are they trying to be dispassionate, or actively seeking emotional responses? How diverse are their visitors and how inclusive are their displays?

And that was it…

Told to be inclusive, not elitist, in order to justify their funding, modern museums have sometimes swung too far the other way…A successful museum isn’t about dumbing down, it’s about sharing expertise.

Quotes above from What are modern museums really for? in The Spectator, oh dear…The MOOC offered an insight into some strands of current thinking, as reflected in the three questions above, but not over-useful for my context. In the comments someone came up with Tangible Things, an edX course in August, which looks worth a whirl. See also Mysteries of the mind, tracking the development of an exhibition by students on the MA in Museum Studies at UCL.

As so often, the instructors were largely absent from the discussions.

In the Danish context, Nordea Fonden has come up with DK 20 million for a consortium of 13 museums and five universities to undertake a project exploring user involvement. Starts May 2016 and runs for four and a half years.

My interest is in taking ‘curation’ further, towards interpretation/formidling (cf public engagement) IRL. @LeicsMusStud offers an MA in heritage and interpretation – the course brochure is worth a look. UHI in Perth offers an MSc in Interpretation, and there are similar courses på dansk, not least RUC’s Turistføreruddannelse. There’s natur- og kulturformidling at Metropol and at UCN i Hjørring, and both KU’s Institut for Kunst- og Kulturvidenskab and Det Informationsvidenskabelige Akademi offer kulturformidling, which in the case of the latter brings us back to the curation angle.

For what this is about in practice see the Libro small business chat with Katherine Findlay, who did the Leics course and now helps “organisations to connect with their visitors through stories”. More: the Association for Heritage Interpretation | Interpret Europe and InHeritTellTale, and Scottish Natural Heritage on interpretation. Yikes!

Update: from Interpretation is dead. Long live interpretation!: “Interpretation happens inside the minds of the visitor, and all that is – or isn’t – in the space contributes to the active meaning-making going on inside any individual mind…Our job is to understand and enable this meaning-making…This could involve selecting what meanings we think should be made – that’s fine but we need to consciously own (document and publish) that we are doing so.” Hear hear!

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