Museums and the experience economy

Update, Mar 2017: the theme of ODM’s Formidlingsseminar 2017 (programme | vids) was Hvad er museerne værd (#MuseetErTilFor) exploring how museums demonstrate their social value. Examples: work with people with Alzheimers (demente) in Den Gamle By, educating the young about democracy at Arbejdermuseet, initiatives for refugees at Nationalmuseet. Day 2 included streams on communication and research.

Update, Sep 2016: on a trip to Hamburg and Ratzeburg we lunched in BallinStadt, Hamburg’s emigration museum (review | another | Politiken), and went photo amok in the Grenzhus Schlagsdorf and Kreismuseum Herzogtum Lauenburg, as well as any number of art galleries on the Ernst Barlach trail…here’s an interesting article on museum locationsAroS has got itself a formidlingscenter, a Danish version/not of the Hamburger Kunsthalle’s Transparentes Museum…the outgoing director of Medical Museion posits The point of museums is to play with material stuff…interesting piece on the National Trust, if tl;dr, and Treasure palaces, a book of essays in which celebrated writers revisit museums from their past…OH at Crystal Palace Museum: “it’s just things in glass cases”…CPH’s newest museum, Enigma (lives up to its name)…virtuosic essay by Reif Larsen on US county museums, the curation of literary space and Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence

During June and July 2015 I audited Leicester’s Behind the scenes at the 21st century museum MOOC, resulting in a suite of #flmuseums posts. Since then I’ve cast a rather more critical eye on the museums I visit (see Museums and me in Poland) and begun to explore the Danish curatorial scene.

Previously mostly confined to childhood and holidays, in the era of the experience economy museums have moved into a different place. This is not necessarily positive – the refurbishment of what I know as The Museum at Chambers Street in Edinburgh has caused widespread consternation among those who grew up with the goldfish. For many something is lost as museums (like cities) become homogenised.

On my 2014 trip to Embra I noted that the two old art galleries, the portrait gallery and the national gallery, had made some concessions to fashion but maintained a traditional feel. This meant they didn’t feel too dumbed down – it’s a gallery not a visitor attraction, or maybe it can be both? The displays were a little folkelige in places, but we’ll let them off. The Minette display in the portrait gallery was a treat for Jean Plaidy fans. There was also any number of new museums-cum-experiences I’ve never heard of – Museum on the Mound, Dr Neil’s Garden…and the Saltire Heritage Centre in Athelstaneford.

Often it’s the quirk which works – put a newly polished museum experience next to the Cork Butter Museum or the homemade relief maps in the NVA-Museum in Prora, and I know which I prefer. For now the two styles coexist – compare and contrast Helsingør’s achingly trendy Museet for Søfart with the rather more traditional Værftsmuseet.

Museums are playing their role in the spatial turn, with the city/urban museum increasingly de rigueur. A breathless post on the Gehl blog highlights museums “sharing exhibits in the public realm [and] acting as a catalyst for public life” via  events, entertainment, educational programmes, cafés and shops. Opening up facades, improving wayfinding and overall integration plus offering opportunities to linger is seen as key, together with collaboration between institutions – see Copenhagen’s Parkmuseerne and proposed ‘museum island’. Rethink Museums, a project by digital agency MMEx, is charged with exploring ways of rethinking stories in public space. The museum as place, but where’s the art?

Art isn’t always about participation and popularity and relating everything back to us. Museums shouldn’t be, either.

Migration museums are also increasingly a thing, with the Migration Museum Project aimed at creating one for the UK. Eithne Nightingale has visited a number of Danish museums with an immigration focus, including Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum (with Louisiana) and the unlikely Immigration Museum in Farum. It will be interesting to see how the new Museum of Copenhagen tackles this subject – the approach taken by Being a Copenhagener was a bit of a turn-off.

For lurkers, the Organisation Danske Museer‘s programme of events are well amplified (not so though for the Nordisk Museums Forbund’s Dialog- og udviklingsseminar in September 2016, tsk). The vids for #formidling16, an annual seminar held in conjunction with Formidlingsnet (ODM’s digital platform) and Museumsformidlere i Danmark, came up in no short order. MiD’s leader centred around the LCD vs elitism debate, which has a slightly different slant in Denmark, while Pelle Guldborg Hansen (@Peguha), chair of the Danish Nudging Network, expounded on oplevelsens tyranni (the tyranny of experience; basically, research is lacking on the relationship between experience and behaviour, memory and storytelling).

Worth a watch was artist Jesper Rasmussen, who asked whether the elusive formidling (broadly curation and its dissemination) has become an end in itself, more important than content, in the hunt for visitors and coverage. He criticised labyrinthine, dark exhibitions where the lone visitor is passively taken onwards – it’s not possible to discover your own route without a torch. In this scenario objects are reduced to tools in the service of iscenesaettelse (staging/presentation- the story). Instead of making connections or showing something in a new light there’s sensory overload for its own sake, in particular sound, “because we can”. While this can work – for me at the Northern Lights exhibition in Rovaniemi – it’s over-use makes it often plain annoying.

Jesper also highlighted installations as frequently banal, making the objects they present equally banal. Perhaps learning can happen via the senses, creating a mood and a context for the objects, came a comment. It’s like soundmaps and scent maps, the latest way to experience architecture. He also criticised the extensive use of user surveys, paraphrasing Steve Jobs: customers don’t know what they want until they see it.

An SDU seminar on The post-representational museum gave examples of “forms of curating that challenge representation and relate to the concept of the assembly”, with presos discussing the new role of the museum, changed means of communication and the tensions between “knowledge, sensation/affect and agency”. Interesting looking paper by Ida Brændholt Lundgaard (Aarhus) on museums, atmosphere and sense of place, plus presos on a number of projects funded by Velux, including one from Jakob Ingemann Parby (Københavns Museum/RUC; Academia.edu) on Urbaniseringens møder og mennesker. No coverage, sadly.

More: Museerne vil holde på dig | Et bud på 5 megatrends for kulturarv

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