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…Vestegnen’s very own museum, Kroppedal, has got itself an objects exhibition: 99 X VSTGN.

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

Museums and me in Poland

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. This made museum visits on holiday in Poland a month or so later all the more interesting. A 2014 article in Politiken sets the scene, highlighting a number of new Polish museums, including Oskar Schindler’s Factory in Krakow, which I had a nose around in 2004, six years before its transformation. (See also the story about remembering Schindler in the Czech Republic.)

Gdynia

A highlight here was the mini-museum in the basement of the BGK Housing Estate. The museum was founded by the estate’s residents, and was opened for us by a workman who proudly showed off the mementos they have gathered, including pre-war bathroom fittings, kitchen bells and an early refrigerator in a larder. Also on show was a a pre-war wooden mangle, still in use, and a fully equipped air raid shelter complete with a still operational ventilation system. Our guide also let us into the apartment building proper – photo heaven!

By way of contrast the Gdynia City Museum (IYP) was not very tourist friendly, although just about worth the price of entry for a film tracing the foundation of the city and the opportunity to buy a coaster with a picture of a Polish naval officer.

The brand new Emigration Museum (IYP) in the former Dworzec Morski/Marine Station (1926) was a rather bigger deal. For me the building trumped the exhibitions, with the sense of what went before less apparent amidst the plethora of digital concepts and child-friendly multi-media exhibits. A lengthy comment was left in the visitors book.

Olsztyn

Onwards to Olsztyn in the former East Prussia, now the capital of the Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship. No cutting edge concepts here, but instead an efficient touch screen driven information kiosk with comprehensive information about the museums in the area. I particularly regretted bypassing Herder’s birthplace in Morąg, and having to skip the House of the Olsztyn Gazette due to lack of time.

The Museum of Warmia and Masuria in the 14th century castle reflects the depth of culture in the area, with some some quirky displays alongside more traditional folkloric exhibits. The collection of clocks in the tower was a particular highlight.

Gdańsk

We finished our trip in Gdansk, which has heritage to suit every taste and more museums than you can shake the proverbial stick at, no doubt soon to be joined by a Günter Grass homage or expanded gallery (GG died on 13 April 2015 – see IYP’s  Wrzeszcz walking tour).

We managed to tick off the Polish Post Museum and Westerplatte, both playing a key role on 1 September 1939 – our Westerplatte visit taking place on the 76th anniversary. Lack of time again did not permit a look at the Free City of Gdansk Historical Zone.

The latest museum to open is the European Solidarity Centre (Esme Ward’s report), opened on the 34th anniversary of the signing of the Gdansk Agreement on 31 August 2014 in the former Lenin Shipyard. Like Gdynia’s Emigration Museum it’s ‘state of the art’, ie nowhere to sit down, a one way circuit with no obvious exit, multimedia and interactivity galore, nothing left out. What did work; Room F, with a giant Solidarity logo made up of visitors’ messages.

Despite involving a lot of hanging around, our visit was made by the arrival of the Polish president on the 35th anniversary of the signing of the agreement.

Round the corner from the museum is the Sala BHP (Occupational Health and Safety Hall), where the negotiations between the strikers and the government were held and the agreement was signed.  Taken over by Solidarity in 2004 and now renovated, the hall currently functions as a conference and museum facility.

The great and good were in attendance to commemorate the 35th anniversary, and we felt privileged to be able to sneak in for a look round, as old friends relived the events and enjoyed a beer (or two) in the cafe.

A split new Museum of the Second World War (IYP) is due to open in December 2016, just 200m from the Polish Post Office on the edge of the historic city centre. How will the museum approach the legacy of WW2 more than 70 years on? Since the election of a new government there have been reports of a change in tack and even cancellation of the multi-million złoty project (The Observer | Timothy Snyder | delayed, Jan 2017 | open and still causing controversy, April 2017 | Calvert Jnl)

For now a temporary exhibition in the Solidarity Centre, End of War in 45 artefacts, was well done, emphatically not in any set order, an “inspiration incentive to reflect on the complexity of historic events…and the ambiguity of their outcomes”.

 

More tangible things

Week 2 of  Tangible Things (@tangiblethings | Facebook) considers the value of stopping to look at things around you, specifically A toga in the archive, exploring clothing and contemporary political, economic and social phenomena, and John Harvard’s toe:

Just looking is never enough. Question what you see.  Questions about John Harvard’s statue take us many directions—to art, to early American history, and to the Houghton Library. The John Harvard statue also invites us to look at how the meaning of a person or an event changes over time. His memorial was created nearly 250 years after his death, raising the question of what aspects of his life were being remembered and what was being forgotten.

John Harvard’s statue helps us to consider the difference between history and what scholars call “memory,” or the ways in which people memorialize the past.  Memorials acquire new meanings from the ways history is remembered, imagined, or forgotten over time.

Find a memorial, monument or statue in your own area. Consider when it was made, what it commemorates, and how it has changed over time. In what ways is its history like and unlike that of the John Harvard statue? If you can, include an image.

Here’s my post and draft on memorials.

Week 3! Looks at some of the ways people have brought things together into purposeful collections to preserve memory, promote commerce and define culture.

Given up on the social side – feels anonymous and impersonal. Needs curating.

First, a look at collections organised around a specific person or a place (see also Placing the author). Such things may seem personal and local, but can also lead to broader themes. Points from the vid:

  • room interpreted (sic) as a bedroom although it was a dairy
  • layering of different histories – what’s left out?

Memory making:

That’s what a good memory maker does. You don’t see the labor that goes into creating it. And it’s pieces of the past, fragments of the past, bits of oral tradition, artifacts, documents that they pieced together so patiently. And by looking closely, we can trace some of those fissures and cracks, and we can begin to understand that history in a much deeper way beyond just the memory.

Exercises:

  • describe an object; what aspects of family history may have been forgotten?
  • often the achievements of male inhabitants are highlighted rather than that of the women who preserved the house or persons of color who labored there or contributed to the family’s possessions – select a museum or historical site in your own area and consider whether it too might contain evidence ‘hidden in plain sight’

Next up, the museum in a box, used in American schools in the 19th century to teach children about “useful things”:

It appears systematic, but on close examination we discover the impossibility of confining any group of objects to just one story, to just one category.

Which appears to be the message of the MOOC so far. The discussion question: Choose a museum that you have visited. What were its objectives? How do those goals influence the organization and display of objects?

The museum in a box is related to world fairs and the categorisation of knowledge. Hence the exercise is to create a modern day drawer for the box, on Pinterest or Dropbox.

Week 4 considers methods of rearranging objects to create new ways of thinking. This  sounds interesting and has big crossovers with librarianship, however I’m off on holiday so will need to run through the last two weeks double quick on return.

First up, how anthropology museums have confronted the ways their own collections reflect the conquest of native peoples, then a look at how natural history collections are conventionally organised around material attributes. The team has been involved in connecting objects to things from other kinds of collections in order to situate them in human history, and in adding ‘guest objects’ to three popular galleries.

  • If you had the opportunity to add a ‘guest object” to each of the three galleries that we examined, what would you choose? If possible select things with which you have direct experience and explain how they might alter, enlarge, or disrupt the meaning of the current exhibits.
  • If you were to create a museum, what would it be about and how would you organize it?

Week 5 looks at organising collections by broad theme rather than through traditional taxonomic categories, allowing us to see new meanings and new connections. The Time and Time Again exhibit moved beyond conventional museum boundaries to bring a variety of objects together around a single theme, showing the complexity of something as fundamental to human experience as time:

  • Find and list at least three time-keeping strategies or devices in your own environment that are not included in the Time and Time Again catalog
  • Consider the different ways you experience time. Which are more culturally influenced and which are more biologically rooted?

An early 2oth century sewing machine showed the impossibility of containing the meaning of a single object in just one collection – almost any object can connect aspects of the past that often seem unconnected, and even an ‘ordinary’ object can open up multiple ways of understanding the world and the people in it. There’s an awful lot of stuff on sewing machines, where I was looking for some sort of conclusion. The content was fine, but it didn’t really go anywhere and there was little theoretical background. Plus it was really really American. Maybe the team were present in the discussions, but the absence of any form of weekly wrap-up or any email contact meant the whole thing feel very anonymous.

Object-based learning (case studies | research) is, of course, a thing.

Taking this forward by a review of the museums just visited in Poland in the light of my museum MOOC experiences.

Tangible Things: exploring history through objects

My first edX, or rather HarvardX, MOOC is on Tangible Things (@tangiblethings | Facebook), running from 5 August for five weeks:

Gain an understanding of history, museum studies, and curation by looking at, organizing, and interpreting art, artifacts, scientific curiosities, and the stuff of everyday life.

Have you ever wondered about how museum, library, and other kinds of historical or scientific collections all come together? Or how and why curators, historians, archivists, and preservationists do what they do? In Tangible Things, you will discover how material objects have shaped academic disciplines and reinforced or challenged boundaries between people…

In the first section of the course, we will consider how a statue, a fish, and a gingham gown have contributed to Harvard’s history, and you will learn the value of stopping to look at the things around you. In the next section, we will explore some of the ways people have brought things together into purposeful collections to preserve memory, promote commerce, and define culture. Finally, we will consider methods of rearranging objects to create new ways of thinking about nature, time, and ordinary work.

Recommended by someone on #flmuseums, we’ll see how this goes – it looks very American, and that’s not just the Caps Up and added commas.

According to Kathryn Hughes, objects and things have become the dominant way of understanding and interpreting the past, with A history of the world in 100 objects given as an example – objects make better stories than timelines. See its sister programme from last year, Germany: memories of a nation, which certainly worked for me.

Week 1: introductions and Look at the Fish 

After a welcome from the tutors there’s a fun video on how to look at a chair, showed how focusing on different aspects of an object (from the perspectives of environmental science, economics, art, anthropology, history, history of medicine) can open up new ways of thinking about its broader historical or cultural significance:

This is not a chair. Well, it’s not only a chair. As you can see, it can be a tree, a symbol of power, a commodity, a document, a treatment, a sculpture, and much, much more.

List at least five different ways you might redefine a common object in your own house. Explain your choices, using the template: “This is not a _________; it is a __________.” Include a photo if possible.

Another exercise asks when you last visited a museum. What kind of museum was it? Did you learn any history? What was it?

The edX platform is fine, looks more up to date than Coursera and more grown up than FutureLearn, as does the whole thing. To get over the gadzillion responses issue the class is divided into four, three by surname and one for museum professionals, but it’s got cluttered very quickly and isn’t easy to navigate – searching may have to be the way. Self assessment (based on an honour code) in order to get a certificate is on offer, via check boxes for whether you watched the vids, did the exercises or joined the discussion. Neat.

Weird pre-course survey question: What is the highest level of education that your mother and father completed?

OK, let’s look at the fish.

In this unit we explore how investigation begins with close looking. Close looking was the foundation of scientific exploration in the nineteenth century. It is still important today. To begin to understand something, start by simply looking at it. Then, look again.

This is a story about science. But it’s also a story about close looking. It’s a story about the 19th century obsession with material things. In the 19th century, it wasn’t just scientists who looked closely to find information. Poets, politicians, teachers, lawyers, doctors, everyday people collected things as a way to understand the world around them.

There was a belief that you could learn a great deal about looking closely at things, arranging those objects, sorting those things, and in many ways, tracing the shape of nature through your observation of those things.

Facts are stupid things unless brought into connection with general laws. Go back and look at the fish.

And after eight months, Samuel Scudder not only felt that he knew something about fish, he felt that he had learned something about the methods of natural science.

Scudder didn’t begin with a textbook. Scudder began with a fish. And through close-looking, he was able to learn what he needed to understand about this object and its place in a larger system.

…just looking isn’t enough. Observations should prompt questions, connections from other contexts and further research, not start with close preconceived notions setting out to prove a theory.

From the readings: looking closely can improve writing. See also the case study method developed by Harvard Business School.

Choose an object close at hand for this exercise. Choose something tangible and accessible, a physical object you can put on a table in front of you and touch, see, smell—and perhaps even taste. Choose something common but with enough complexity to engage your interest. If you are lucky you could pick something from your garden. Or find an interesting rock, shell, or other thing that piques your interest.

List ten specific observations. Then list ten more.

A pencil is a great eye.” That is, attempt to describe it without words. Photograph it a dozen times, each time from a different angle or focusing on a different detail.

“Facts are stupid things unless brought into connection with general laws”

  • Make a list of questions suggested by your examination.
  • Begin an Internet search for answers to your questions.
  • Search for photographs, art works, or artifacts related to your object.
  • Search for proverbs, poems, or quotations related to your object.

Write a brief paragraph summarizing the most surprising or enlightening thing you discovered. How did your understanding of this object change as you engaged with it? What didn’t you learn through close looking? What are the limits of Louis Agassiz‘s method? What questions emerged from the close looking? What is the difference between physically looking at an object and simply perceiving it on screen?

This approach was outlined in #flmuseums’ final week, and is similar to my idea of curated reading (and writing).

Pretty impressed so far – like #mapmooc, it’s the best of America! I tend to find storytelling a bit tedious, but if it’s well done it does work – I found myself pretty gripped by the fish. From Let’s take another look (in the recommend reading): “I realized I was a presenter of facts, wondering why the students never seemed to understand the concepts…I had been a presenter of learning when I needed to be a facilitator of learning”.

It’s notable that the course doesn’t seem to have any multiple choice quizzes, which I tend to get through via a ‘guess what the teacher is thinking’ approach. To move into long term memory a lesson needs to be associated with what a student already knows (curational), or get them emotionally involved (storytelling).

The team are also behind the Tangible things book and website, while a post from the Chipstone Foundation hints at how the approach is relevant to #flmuseum’s activist museum, without ramming one message down your throat:

Any material thing is best understood from multiple perspectives, using the tools of diverse disciplines and lessons learned in many different kinds of museums. For now, our challenge is to help our visitors find a way to open these drawers to investigate the contents of these glass vials, to transport them to a lost world far more complex than any one museum can adequately capture.

The rest of the course is released in two units per week, which may result in some dipping in and out. Hopefully we’ll hear from the team more directly in due course – neither #some account has posted since last year’s outing.

Objects linkage: The Brontë cabinet: three lives in nine objects | People’s History Museum’s Object of the Month | The Museum of Imaginative Knowledge

The urban museum

Latest urban museum (April 2016): STAM in Ghent, with a modern building surrounding the 13th century Bijloke Abbey and a 17th century convent; making the most of the city’s golden days with six rooms on the history of Ghent and a room apiece on the Mystic Lamb and Charles V (and his chin), plus two excellent final rooms with temporary exhibitions on the changing city (when we there Victor Enrich’s Over de rand), but some jarring changes in style, and the people of Ghent were rather absent

Updates: in its summer 2015 series on museums Politiken has a piece on Køge Museum, reopened in a new guise, going all out for Danish design and iPads. Interesting, but not very social on any level. Will the Museum of Copenhagen go for a radical change in style? (Also in the series: Frilandsmuseet.) See also Hull History Centre.

In på dansk corner we have Kim Furdal (Museum Sønderjylland) on Livserfaringer og de sociale medier and Kirsten Egholk on placemaking in Greve, which deserves full attention IDC. Den lokale museumsopgave er i dag en helt anden end tidligere gives the view from Faaborg, while Charlotte SH Jensen looks at borgernaer kulturarv (citizen level/local heritage).

Following on from #flmuseums here’s a look at urban museums, curators of the history and narrative of place.

Urban museums I have known

The MOOC started out at the Museum of Liverpool, opened in a spanking new building in 2011 and clearly on trend. In contrast, the Museum of Copenhagen currently occupies a building dating from the 1780s. This historic setting very much sets the tone – salon rather than living room, and a rather hokey website. When I visited the exhibitions felt a bit thin, although the city walks are rather better. Of note is Væggen (The Wall), a collection of photos, both historic and current, uploaded by museum visitors and available online and as a 12m long touchscreen in various venues around the city. Deemed a success in terms of creating an audience-centred museum where the public shifts from visitor to participant, but not very usable as a photo collection.

The museum is moving to larger quarters (dating from the 1890s) and hence is closing in October, yikes, reopening in 2017, when it will be sammenlagt with the council’s other museums (Thorvaldsens Museum and Nikolaj Kunsthal) as well as the city archives (Københavns Stadsarkiv).

Even closer to home is Forstadsmuseet, the “museum of the suburbs”, created in 2000? by local ildsjæle and archivist Poul Sverrild (story), and currently under the steer of Anja Olsen while Poul polishes off his PhD. Not officially recognised as a museum, in part due to its lack of a clear research profile but also its small size, and hence not in a position to apply for funding (story). I’ve never actually been there, but I’ve been on a couple of its walks and made copious use of its online resources, not least Historie i gaden and 52 historier fra Hvidovre. They also cover the neighbouring kommune of Brøndby, where they act as a mobile museum, with weekly displays in two locations.

The museum doesn’t do #some and has no English – it’s aimed fair and square at the local resident. It also has no objects, showcases or custodians – the collection is made up of local places. In a paper, 15 years as an urban museum in the public space: learning, wondering, reflection, at this year’s Organisation of Danish Museum’s annual international meeting Poul Sverrild quoted a Danish mayor in the late 1990s who asked: What’s the point in having a museum when we don’t have a history? The response was a “novel key principle and outreach concept, turning a whole history-challenged area into a museum collection and literally placing the exhibition spaces in the public sphere”.

So much for my local museums – would I visit them if I wasn’t on my own particular quest? Of places I have lived, turns out that Huntly House in Edinburgh has been rebranded as the Museum of Edinburgh, like several other examples having evolved from history and local archive collections. Is this part of the much famed spatial turn? OTOH the Museum of London has been going since 1976, while Bristol, Newcastle, Manchester and Sheffield have skipped on the concept so far. Au contraireMartins Museumsblog has a review of the Newcastle Story (along with Helsinki and New York city museums), while Bristol’s M Shed “tells the story of the city and its unique place in the world”.

Less place oriented but still drawing on the local are ‘old school’ collections of random objects. I visited Coventry’s Herbert on a rainy day with a guest and it was pretty interesting, as was the Crawford in Cork, but these are a different animal from the ‘new’ museum of n, targeted at locals under the mantra of the museum as agent for social change, but in practice as much a magnet for idle tourists. From our last holiday compare and contrast Budapest’s rather dusty History Museum hidden in the castle with Vienna’s vibrant Wien Museum, based in a 1959 building on Karlsplatz with numerous exciting subsites. And it’s not like Budapest lacks excitement.

Urban history and the local museum

A recent ODM meeting included a dedicated stream on local museums, facilitated by Rainey Tisdale (@raineytisdale):

Municipalities expect local profiling and attraction of tourists. The state expects research at an international level and outreach as part of the museum’s social responsibility. At the same time the museum has to act in relation to other cultural institutions, event organizers and commercial players in the battle to offer experiences with cultural heritage content. Furthermore, the museum is also expected to have an opinion on current problematic issues. How can museums navigate in this and why are they relevant?

The session looked at different ways of being a museum in local society, exploring notions of place, rootedness, community and belonging. Sadly no coverage, but one paper asked whether the role of the local museum as an ‘identity marker’ for a community, rooting it in local history, is actually anachronistic in a globalised world, concluding though that focusing on what makes a community different can actually allow global perspectives to be expressed and explored in a local context, joining the debate and inviting dialogue on old and new stereotypes (see The Russian Current at the Perspektivet Museum in Tromsø, and also the Museum of Copenhagen’s At blive københavner/Becoming a Copenhagener).

A 2011 seminar in Aarhus’ Gamle By on urban history exhibited (vids) was even blogged! See Rainey Tisdale’s slides on trends in European city museums. Residents should be the primary audience and first priority of a city museum, whose primary concern should be curating contemporary experiences of the city for residents (but who is a resident? false dichtomy alert!). She explored apps comparing then and now, commissioned stories, residencies by eg chefs…activities should go beyond the museum and the city centre, with neighbourhood, hyperlocal and even one block projects. Forstadsmuseet on trend!

From the intro to the Journal of Museum Education 38(1) March 2013) on city museums and urban learning, with city museums defined as institutions that collect and interpret the history of their city and activities including:

  • collecting maps and street views
  • collecting objects and archival records documenting historical events, the city fathers, local industry, and major landmarks
  • mounting exhibitions about cities
  • providing lectures, walking tours, and school field trips
  • publishing educational materials
  • building modest but loyal constituencies

There is a clear area of crossover with local history societies. The expectations of audiences are rising with the inexorable growth of city life, the smart city, the green city, the global city, the comeback city, the creative city…while urban art museums tend to lead the field in collaborations with audiences and innovative programming, city museums need to broaden both their collections and interpretation to represent multiple socioeconomic groups and ethnicities.

History is no longer at the heart of what a city museum does. Rather it is a vehicle through which urban citizens actively engage with their city and connect with each other, exploring and reinforcing their individual identities through the musuem content, with room for memories and emotions as well.

The expanding toolbox: geotagging, pop-up projects, psychogeography, mobile apps, hyperlocal history…a multi-disciplinary approach centred round place based learning and a growing understanding of how people learn in free choice environments.

A different slant

But people no longer fit into nice, neat categories and have more complicated allegiances to place than before. Søren Bitsch Christensen (Dansk Center for Byhistorie; slides) asked whether city musuems really reflect what the city is today. The urban may be the central frame for modern life, but different conceptions of the city exist. We tend still to see a closed built-up area, think the tradition købstad (or Death Star Copenhagen?), when in reality today’s city is part of the networked society. The link between production and settlement is now less clear cut, the spatial less relevant (in 2011?). Today’s post-industrial urbanism, characterised by experience, the residential and architectural quality, all captured in a ‘snapshot’ paradigm of mobile and geotagging with the keywords of presence, belonging and identity, does not offer critical comment and lacks context. The personal and individual captured in stories, rather than collective. (Does this not ignore the fact that place may well be different for everyone?)

Paul van der Laar (Museum Rotterdam; slides) called for new heritage models and concepts (‘bonding’ rather than ‘nostalgic’ heritage), different urban storytelling methods and more imaginative strategies. City curators should expand their expertise beyond “classical driven collection based scholarship”. In the transnational (international?) city we need to avoid nostalgia (excludes those whose culture was not part of the story) and embrace different sorts of knowledge and dynamic interpretation, such as working memory, usable in the present day.

Again, the city as network, with a diverse population who do not necessarily feel a strong allegiance to a single country or place. The here and now, self realisation and representation are all of importance.

transnational city

cultural heritage

mental heritage

So, is there still an Us? Denmark/Danskere, with its homogenous self image and exclusive cultural values, has an issue here. Golden Days is going to be interesting…

#curationism: how curating took over the art world and everything else

My proposed curation of #curationism was making its own point, with much of the Twitter action curated only into Trash as the epitome of performing value. So straight to the serious stuff.

Curationism, by Canadian art critic David Balzer (@davidkbalzer), came out in Canada in September 2014 (review), hitting the streets in the UK on 20 April with David on tour. Suspect some of the people who buy the book will be disappointed – it’s an academic monograph dressed up as popular non-fiction, albeit without footnotes.

The book (Pluto | Amazon) comes in at a slight 144 pages. David seeks to explore the crossover between art curators, particularly in their celebrity guise as seen from the late 1990s, and popular (over)usage of the term, which has led to the “curational impulse” becoming a dominant way of thinking and being, an “expression-cum-assurance of value and an attempt to make affiiliations with, and to court, various audiences and consumers”.

The book takes for granted that readers have a grasp of the conventional definition of curation as “an act of selecting, organizing and presenting items in the vein of an arbiter-editor”, although the first part, ‘Value’, presents a curator’s chronology, from the Roman pro/curator (in charge of public works, often an honorific position) and the curate cum parish functionary (and his egg), and onwards. These usages involve caring for something as well as taking an interest in it, they “suggest dependence and responsiveness rather than direct action and agency”, as does the curator within the context of a museum or collection, where it is the objects which are the focus. The curator retains a “twist of autonomy through the vital concept of connisseurship: a display of taste or expertise that lends stylized independence to the act of caring for and assembling”.

The second part of the book, ‘Work’, addresses the ‘hyper-professionalization’ of the art world as well as popular expressions of labour, exploring curation’s close alliance with capitalism and its cultures. The phenomenon of the autonomous curator emerged in the 1960s in tandem with the conceptual art movement. The idea of art became more important than actual object, and hence curators were needed to advocate the work – seen in connection with land art, installations and performance art, all of which are hard to exhibit in a ‘normal’ way. The curator makes it real, performing its value; not celebrating, but rather selling a product, part of the capitalist system in art world. This role was absorbed by institutions in the 1990s, leading to a style of curation which is “more fleeting, and even paradoxical”, the curator as auteur and cultural go-between, hyper conscious of what s/he is doing. The pop cultural curator is similarly obsessed with authorship and hyper-aware of audience, most concerned with expressing status and position in a world where real objects eg books are falling by the wayside and we are unsure of how to make value in our lives and are hence very conscious of our choices.

A further issue explored is that of the avant garde, in which “‘new’ and ‘original’ are paramount and successive, like a string of dictators, each making their elders obsolete and re-arranging their country”.

For excerpts see Amazon, the Globe and Mail (plus review) and the sample (on Issuu, grr) from Pluto’s fansite. Bookomi’s 3 things that define a curator (and The Daily Mash) is ideal for those with limited attention spans. Interviews aplenty: Vancouver’s Sad Mag & Contemporary Art Gallery | Monocle’s Arts Review & Culture | R4’s Today prog (at 2:51:55) | BBC News with @WillGompertzBBC | ABC Radio’s Books and Arts.

The Spectator had a deeply serious review, with Jonathan Meades weighing in with:

Curators have moved from the passive to the active. From being receptive to what is actually made to being controlling. From accepting random expressions of individual creativity that belong to no ‘school’ to proposing taxonomies and ordering up ‘site-specific’ works: where creation ends and curation begins is moot…That taste is of course avant garde — the thoroughly conventionalised, institutionalised art of the establishment.

Have we reached peak curator? Usage is now over-ripe and pumped up, and the notion is beginnning to exhaust itself, spawning subspecies such as cultural producers, experience designers, storytellers…perhaps vacating the space for the return of our conventional curator as cultural distiller or gatekeeper in a world of overload – which is where I came in, back in 2011.

Finally, some tweets from David’s London tour:

Introduction to digital curation weeks 6-8

For the record…

Week 6 was on “the digital curation worldview”, looking at two theoretical models that are starting to become “if not the ‘orthodox’ view at least the reference from which all deviations are measured”:

  • the OAIS Model (Open Archival Information Systems Reference Model ISO 14721:2003, recently revised as ISO 14721:2012 – developed by individuals interested in space data and information transfer systems
  • the DCC Lifecycle Model and glossary – developed more from within the archive community

The digital curation profession is made up of those whose primary role and job it is to ensure the ongoing accessibility of digital material in all its different forms, from data used in research, to records of businesses and individuals, to ebooks and ejournals, to software and computer games. It is still very much in a process of formation from and within many more established workgroups, including librarians, archivists, museum curators, researchers, computer scientists and IT professionals.

So not my worldview…

Week 7 looked at the digital curation community and its spaces, ” sites of community activity, shared resources and the active participation of individuals as they strive to keep up to date with developments and learn from each other”. This need not trouble us further.

Week 8 looked at the competencies and skills deemed necessary for those working in digital curation, referencing two frameworks:

There’s a Twitter chat on 30 June, with five questions:

  • What is digital curation? (definitions should be no more than one tweet long)
  • Has (and, if so, how has) your sense of what digital curation is changed as a result of this course?
  • How do you think ‘the general public’ view digital curation?
  • How can digital curation be made more mainstream?
  • What (if anything) will you be doing to interest and inform others in and about digital curation?