Thursday, April 4, 2013

Building a Museum

Spring has been a long time in coming, so I decided that if I couldn't be greeted with cheery weather I'd ring in the season with Billy Bragg's new CD Tooth & Nail. Bragg is my favorite singer-songwriter; he drew me in with his political and social commentary in the late 1980s and I hung 
around for the love songs despite my anti-romantic streak. His first new release in five years is rich with personal reflections, patented wordplay, and that distinctive Bragg sound. He even gets a bit of whistling in. Of course, whistling makes everything better, especially when the Sherpa of Heartbreak pairs it with lyrics like "To the misanthropic, misbegotten merchants of gloom...."

With no slight intended to Billy's musicianship, I have to admit that ear-worms from this release have taken a temporary backseat for me to the essays he included with the deluxe CD. From 2008-2011, Bragg wrote a regular column for Q, a monthly music magazine published in the UK. His topics were free-ranging and all-encompassing (kind of like this blog, heh) and he's reprinted some of his favorites with this release. This line from the essay "Compiling a Discography" grabbed me:
As we grow older, each of us become curators of our own personal museum, full of items of no great financial value, yet cherished all the same. 
So there, we have Billy Bragg to blame for my latest flight of fancy: I've been mentally building my own personal museum. Mmm, okay, it's not Billy Bragg's fault. I'll admit that 'museum curator' has always been high on Sue's List of 427 Alternate Fantasy Career Choices. This is a natural extension of my grade school obsession of wanting to live in a museum, which we can blame on EL Konigsburg's novel From the Mixed-up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler.   Juvenile fantasies aside (uhm, okay, I still want to live in a museum....) I harbor no illusions that curating is an easy task. It is a multi-layered profession which places physical and/or digital objects at the mercy of a idealized balance of subjective judgement and specialist knowledge and skill.

Bragg's personal museum, referenced above in the context of compiling a discography for a website relaunch, would be more culturally relevant on a global scale than the personal museums most of us would compile. I mean, no one but me would likely appreciate the items I'd include in my collection. Things like, say, my beloved childhood companion, Chester O'Chimp.

Chester O'Chimp

Me and Chester
Chester's a little tatty around the edges but don't mock his appearance; he's looking good for a 45 year old talking plushy. Although he debuted in 1964 as part of a Mattel line of talking plushies called Animal Yackers, I got Chester as a birthday present a few years later when I turned three (he was probably on clearance). He's a furry 14 inches tall and when you pull his string, his mouth moves as he utters bon mots with an Irish accent. Yes, really. He says profound stuff like "Ah it's marvelous, 'tis, how we look so much alike" and "I'll be a monkey's uncle! Oh...I am."  For a chimpanzee with an Irish accent, Chester O'Chimp possesses a deadpan sense of humor and great comedic timing. I'm sure consorting with him during tender, formative years helped hone my refined sense of the absurd (because if a chimpanzee with an Irish accent isn't absurd, I don't know what is).

Somewhere along the way my Chester lost his trademark vest, which means he can no longer command $400 collector price tags on eBay. That's okay by me, as he's not for sale. Chester watches over me from his vantage point above my Star Trek memorabilia shelf.

Oh of course, yes, my Star Trek stuff would be included in the Museum of Sue. I have an original Enterprise play set somewhere, too. Mr. Spock was my philosophical godparent and I've been a fan of the original series since the age of 9. My own 9 year old son seems to have inherited my love of things Trek. My daughter is battling the emotional assault of adolescence and currently has a toxic aversion to Mr. Spock (but he loves her anyway, and so do I).

When it comes to sifting through childhood memorabilia, there's an assortment of well-loved dolls and paper doll books that I'd need to include in my museum. And I'll admit that I'm still a doll lover, though these days my doll play is characterized by creating elaborate realistic dioramas in 1:3 scale. That means mon musée is going to need some fancy display cases with professional lighting to showcase my collections, which is going to stretch the exhibitory budget. So since I'm blowing the budget on display cabinets, the rest of my personal museum will need to be a digital archive using existing share-ware. That means visitors to the Museum of Sue will need to BYOi (bring your own iPad) to access the library, photos, and soundtracks of my life. There will be an optional olfactory component, too, because I buy a new scent whenever I'm traveling to a special place since wearing the scent later evokes happy associations. That's right, the Museum of Sue will be a total sensory immersion experience.

The Cabildo, upper gallery overlooking Jackson Square
So much for what's in the museum; the next step is deciding where to house it. My favorite museums are in buildings that are architectural witnesses to history, because that adds another dimension to the experience. The Louvre and Cluny in Paris and The Cabildo in New Orleans are inspiring examples of museums in buildings re-purposed from their former usage.

Musée de Cluny, by John Phillips

There are fine purposefully-built museums, too. My favorites are those that are an architectural homage to the past, ranging from neo-classical to High Gothic stylings like at The Met, National Gallery in DC, British Museum, and the V&A. The museums of the 19th century have been subsequently expanded piecemeal and thus bear the imprint of multiple tastes and styles, but that adds to their charm. My hometown Carnegie Museum of Natural History is an imposing structure that's as interesting as the stuff it houses. Andrew Carnegie had four statues crafted for the entrance to his namesake Museum and adjacent Music Hall to symbolize what he called "The Noble Quartet" of Science, Art, Music, and Literature. I admit, I still feel humbled at the sight of Galileo, Michelangelo, Bach, and Shakespeare staring down at Forbes Avenue from their lofty pedestals.

Sculpture of Shakespeare by John Massey Rhind

The Museum of Sue needs a home, but since I've blown my imaginary budget I can't afford statuary. I'll have to settle for my parents' 1950s suburban ranch house, which is as iconic as I can get. Maybe I can scrounge up a gazing ball on a pedestal to put outside the front door.

It's fun to mentally while away the hours curating an imaginary museum. But I know that the real challenge is to get people to come through a museum's doors, tarry a while in real time, and maybe even come back. I spent a few years as the accidental managing director of a semi-pro theatre company and thereby learned the hard way about the challenges of marketing to and growing an appreciative audience. I spend a lot of time in museums now as a parent and self-avowed culture vulture. While I believe that there is charm to all of them, certain things seem to 'work' better in terms of audience appeal in today's technical age.

For instance, I recently had the experience of visiting a city museum in an historically signifcant building with some friends. This was a repeat visit for me so I was able to gravitate to my favorite sections, but it was new to them and they soon wearied due to information overload. That was as much about the presentation as it was volume of info. As we later reflected upon the experience, we agreed that a very high standard of literacy and a strong inclination toward detail-oriented cultural and historical immersion was presumed of this site's visitors. I'm not sure that expectation is in the best interest of a museum. I'm not suggesting dumbing down history, and certainly anyone who enters a history museum is there because she wants to (or in the case of a forced field trip, is expected to) learn. But surely something that blends the resources available to us today to make info more accessible is to everyone's benefit? Expecting people to read an endless parade of placards with details in fine print isn't realistic these days.

This museum featured a short video clip showcasing the early colonial history of its city, which I thought was interesting and well-done. But the screen was off to the side in a crowded room that most people breezed through, so it got little attention. And for those of us who wanted to watch, there was but one hard little bench. It wasn't a very inviting scenario. To its credit, the museum did offer guided audio-tours that hit some of the tour highlights. That kind of interface is pretty much expected of museums, although it's rapidly becoming low-tech in the struggle to keep apace with relevant technological advances.

Museum professionals are engaged in constant critical examination of the potential uses of technology in their field. The 2011 Horizon Report had as its goal an examination of "...emerging technologies for their potential impact on and use in education and interpretation within the museum environment." The Horizon Report acknowledged that today's patrons "....expect museums to provide a wide range of digital resources and content...." and that multi-media presentations "....are no longer seen as afterthoughts in interpretation but increasingly as necessary components of an interpretive plan." Of course not all museum funding is created equal so this multi-media trend is not to be found across all facilities; monies have to be found for basics like, say, modifying old buildings for high speed WiFi connections. I'm afraid in the city museum I described above, technology was an afterthought, but at least the video was well-done. Sometimes when technology is showcased it ends being well-intentioned but poorly executed. I've seen complementary multi-media presentations that were redundant to the main exhibit and did nothing to enhance the collection, and some which even distracted. Having technology simply for the sake of having technology isn't the way to go, either. To paraphrase James Carville, it's about the integration, stupid.

The Horizon Report asserted that mobile apps for iOS or Andoid based devices to enhance museum-going experiences are what museums need to be offering now. Future recommendations include the development of "augmented reality" technologies which use combinations of GPS, video, and pattern recognition to "....extend the museum and its mission beyond its physical setting." I love some of the applications of this technology: x-rays showing the layers of sketches or preparatory drawings beneath a completed painting, or video feed of what a landscape once looked like overlaid by its present reality, accompanied by historical tid-bits. The latter is my obsession when visiting any historical site: I want to see the layers of history in order to witness and analyze the architecture and social progression over time. I've used a couple of augmented reality apps when traveling and found them, though usually still in their early stages of development, a fun way of enhancing historical learning.  I've also spent a lot of time on the augmented reality viewer for the Western PA region, the Pittsburgh Mapping and Historical Site Viewer, developed as a labor of love and genius by Chris Owens to show how how Pittsburgh evolved from 1835 to the present day. And I'm looking forward to using the Museum of London's Streetmuseum app later this year. This app allows users to point their mobile devices at historical sites and see the feed from their cameras overlaid with historical notes and archival photos about what they are viewing. The technology literally allows the user to visualize past superimposed on present. For an historical geek weaned on Star Trek technology, augmented reality is a fantasy come true!

Museum experiences enhanced by creative curating range from the use of costumed interpreters to interactive high tech multi-media additions, but it's definitely all about finding a balance. For instance, I've seen costumed interpreters who were so rigidly wedded to their roles that they couldn't break character even in the face of obvious patron discomfort, and some who even harangued their audience for not playing along. I don't think alienating and weirding out patrons serves any useful purpose. Those actions certainly doesn't help to engage patrons or facilitate teaching history, although perhaps lessons on how to avoid rigid character actors may be learned!

Hanna's Town characters, summer court session 2012
I truly treasure the creative museum exhibits I've seen. When it comes to costumed interpreters, the volunteers and staff at Hanna's Town, a reconstructed historical town which
served as the county seat of colonial Westmoreland County, strike an excellent balance. They can talk knowledgeably and engagingly about the characters they represent, and segue seamlessly into 'being' those people when the patron's willingness to engage at that level is assessed.

My daughter and I had fun last summer ogling colonial garb in the "Fashions from Head to Toe" exhibit at the Textile Gallery of the Dewitt-Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia. The artifact display was enhanced by a video showing how the ensembles and accessories were put together, and we were able to look at more images in the online gallery and view an overview video at our leisure when we got home.   It was a great combination of technology and real objects.

Using technology for crowdsourcing participation can be fun, too. Locally, the Carnegie Museum of Art's current Oh Snap! collaborative photography project allows visitors inspired by specific works in the current collection the opportunity to share their own work in online and designated galleries. I've submitted a couple of pictures and my son was inspired as well. I loved that he was enthused about looking at art and taking his own pictures as we toured the museum. It reinforced what Jake Barton, founder of a media design firm for museums and public spaces called Local Projects, recently stated: "People learn more if they're learning in directly engaging ways."

Another great use of technology can be found at From Slavery to Freedom, a long-term exhibit of the Heinz History Center. One enters the exhibit through the recreation of a slave ship hold, complete with sounds and poignantly rendered life casts.

Artifacts such as a 4-pronged neck collar restraint from Ghana and child-sized shackles are on display, and one can pause to listen to a speech by abolitionist Martin R. Delany. About two-thirds of the way through the exhibit is a touch-screen display created by Jon Amakawa that presents some prominent local stops on the Underground Railroad.

This YouTube video by user chico72 highlights some of the interactions:

(The link is HERE in case the embed doesn't show up). The touchscreen seems very popular with visitors, and I can attest to how mesmerizing it is. But it brings to mind how museums must carefully weigh their multi-media approaches to avoid the phenomenon of digital seduction, the process by which patrons are drawn to the screens instead of appreciating the historical objects around them. How easy it is to find one's back turned to an objet d'art in favor of watching a video showing how it was conserved, or to play with the interactive video versus reading genuine handwritten indenture and manumission documents from 19th century Pittsburgh.

There are those who have grave reservations about what is happening with museums and technology. Cultural critic-at-large for The New York Times Edward Rothstein posits that the proliferation of random patron cellphone photography by museum visitors can be reductionist and distancing: "The artwork, document or fossil is a tourist site; the photograph is our souvenir. And the looking -- for which museums were created -- becomes a memory before it has even begun." Rothstein tentatively applauded the use of museum apps that help patrons navigate collections, citing them as useful in providing a frame of reference for a collection. But he urged caution lest such guides distract attention with a reliance on "minimalist text bites." He also decried institutional programs that allow the tagging, voting, or 'liking' of artifacts as a kind of museum popularity contest that is ultimately "unilluminating....The result is a kind of scarcely literate cybergraffiti that does nothing to help reach a deeper understanding of the works or reveal their artistic traditions or cultural significance. The museum becomes a smorgasbord of objects, their importance a mystery."

Rothstein raises interesting points, but I can also see how 'liking' allows the casual museum-goer to feel more connected to the items she is viewing. Likewise, being able to scan a bar code with your cell phone's QR reader or use some other smart object technology to get more information about an object has definite advantages. Maintaining an extremity of opinion decrying the use of such technologies in favor of a solely passive museum experience is to flirt with a certain type of snobbery that benefits no one. As Nancy Proctor, head of mobile strategy and initiatives at the Smithsonian, noted: "For visitors, holding up their camera to scan an object of interest is a natural gesture — the same action as taking a photo. If that gesture triggers delivery of content to better understand something, it is a better, more organic experience."

When Arianna Huffington was asked to speak to a group of professionals in the field about using social media tools to enhance the museum-going experience, she framed the question as how best to use social media to support a presumed museum mission of inspiring "resonance and wonder" without "....undermining the essential art experience that allows us to connect with something larger than ourselves." As befits her role, Huffington is a huge advocate for incorporating new technology into existing mediums, but even she urged caution:
At their best, social media build community and enhance communication. In the case of museums, they can provide access to a much wider audience, and can extend the museum visit by allowing a user to continue the aesthetic experience after leaving the museum....But if museums forget their DNA and get their heads turned by every new tech hottie that shimmies by they will undercut the point of their existence. Too much of the wrong kind of connection can actually disconnect us from an aesthetic experience...It's great to see them taking advantage of new media tools to broaden access to the garden and increase the community around the garden. But we should never forget that while technologies will constantly change, the need to connect with great art never will.
Again, it seems to me the solution is all about carefully considered balance and integration. That's true even with the use of digital preservation as an archival tool. Keeping up with the advances in data storage is an on-going challenge for preservationists. The Horizon Report noted that "Digital preservation calls for a new type of conservationist with skills that span hardware technologies, file structures and formats, storage media, electronic processors and chips, and more, blending the training of an electrical engineer with the skills of an inventor and a computer scientist." I wish them luck in applying ever-changing technologies for collection management and conservation. In their spare time, they can pull my college honors thesis off that floppy disc I have lying around somewhere.

Billy Bragg closed his "Compiling a Discography" essay by stating "I guess the only difference between junk and treasure is our personal connection to it." If creative curating and technology can help museums forge personal connections between the collections they house and the public, so much the better. Otherwise the treasures of today will be consigned to the trash heap just like the architectural plaster casts of yesteryear. Ah, but that's another story for another blog entry....

In the meantime, look here, have some Billy from a live performance at WFUVRadio (Link is HERE in case the embed below doesn't show up). He won't be building you a museum but if you're really lucky, he'll sing a song (and whistle) about it. I wish I could get him to write a song about Chester O'Chimp....


Billy Bragg
From Picasso to Saracophagi, Guided by Phone Apps
How Tech is Changing the Museum Experience
How To Make a Spy Exhibit Boring
Jake Barton's Wired 2012 Talk on Technology in Museums 
Museums 2.0: What Happens When Great Art Meets New Media?

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