Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Objects and All: The 21st Century Museum

“It’s an audio guide, sweetheart, not a remote.”

This week's guest post is by one of this year's mentees. Amanda Guzmán is completing her Ph.D in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. She's been a graduate fellow at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian.  She's studied and worked around the world, with a MA degree from the University of Leiden and fieldwork in places ranging from Massachusetts to Peru.  As you can tell from this piece, she and I have had wide-ranging conversations about the future of museums and of objects in museums.  Share your thoughts below in the comments! 
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole […]. Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you'd be so much older or anything. It wouldn't be that exactly. You'd just be different, that's all. You'd have an overcoat on this time. Or that kid that was your partner in line last time had got scarlet fever and you'd have a new partner. Or you'd have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you'd heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you'd just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you'd be different in some way – I can't explain what I mean. And even if I could, I'm not sure I'd feel like it.
                                  -Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
When I first read this passage in high school, my native New Yorker sensibilities were struck by the detailed descriptions which nearly perfectly mapped onto my countless school trips throughout the dioramas environments of unmoving, staged human and animal bodies positioned in realistically textured and finely painted backdrops at the American Museum of Natural History. As I have lived away from New York City for nearly a decade to pursue undergraduate and graduate education, I must confess to sharing Holden’s fond observation of reconciling the consistency of certain museum spaces with one’s ever-shifting bodily orientations.

And yet, nostalgia aside, museums have done a fair degree of their own shifting in respects to visitor engagement and I have thinking a lot recently about the how museums have and will continue to define their roles in the 21st century. Particularly given my training as an anthropological archaeologist, I gravitate towards thinking about and with things.

Indeed, the historical trajectories of the discipline of anthropology and the emergence of museums are intertwined. Throughout the history of museum institutions in their various private and public forms (video), objects have stood as the focal point of the visitor experience, as the tangible source of engagement with the ‘cultural’ and ‘natural’ diversity of the world.

Objects, I would argue, still matter. Objects preserve our genetic histories in response to environmental concerns ranging from wildlife conservation and climate change to drug development and national security. Objects represent uncomfortable histories of unequal, intercultural relationships of power whose legacies remain salient and open to debate today.

Museums’ handling of objects though increasingly extends beyond the interpretation and display of existing historical collections through exhibitions in institutional spaces.

Museums are not only available to be traversed online through street views of its galleries but the world’s history is being depicted through chronological, thematic intersections of digital nodes that index specific museum objects.

In the age of Google, objects in collections around the world are being compiled and arranged into thematic galleries. With a few drags and clicks, you can create your own galleries. How can we understand this type of online visual-oriented experience with objects? Does it privilege certain kinds of material collections over others? What does it mean to have the ability to construct your own galleries and to disseminate them among your social networks?

3-D computer modeling has allowed for online mediated experiences with the ability of not just reading about the cultural contexts of objects but also of defining your interaction (e.g. moving and editing the object with the flick of a cursor) in a manner not typically permitted in traditional museum spaces. What does the addition of this digital engagement add to and/or take away from an individual’s understanding of and practical experience with objects (in contrast to say, drawing or photography)? Beyond material composition, what is the difference between a 3-D model and a reconstruction? Moreover, 3-D technology introduces complex questions of authorship and ownership. Who has or should have the capacity to construct 3D prints of museum objects (and who decides this)? Should all objects, regardless of origin, be available to be subject to such treatment?

At this point, I have more questions and answers to the issue of what role do objects play in the 21st century museum and its growing employment of the digital. I do think however a crucial element of any answer is a continued call for a genuine consideration of the museum’s application to the interests and needs of its public(s) and larger events in the contemporary world.

So, contrary to Holden’s assertion, we as visitors change alongside museums. Time will tell what that change will look like.

Bradford Galt: “I'll be at the Cathcart galleries absorbing culture. I don't want to die ignorant.”
Policemen in galleries: “That is ‘aht.”
The Dark Corner (1946)


Floris Guntenaar said...

Interesting view and question: what's next? How will our future Holden Caulfield experience the exhibited objects, collections and exhibitions?

Will 'Holden’s fond observation of reconciling the consistency of certain museum spaces with one’s ever-shifting bodily orientations' ever return, if everyone makes ones own random 'Google exhibit'?

Since virtual is added to the physical exhibition, the real museum space that includes the smell, modest sound, changing light and other present viewers, our reminisce is gone in these virtual representations.
Also, making your 'own' Google exhibition excludes the research, knowlegde and value added past of a variety of curators that carefully select objects, stories, and data to make a contextual exhibition in concert. Exhibitions that provide us with collected knowlegde, insight and inspiration.
Quite a difference with random choosing objects steered by visual taste or coincidence.

No doubt our technologies will add smell, sound and 3D to the spaces of our virtual museums and exhibitions, but the real museum world will survive next to the inevitable future of technology.
While implementing new technologies always remember the importance of our real every day life as Holden Caulfield proofs in his writing.
Don't implement new technologies because of the hype or temptation only, use it as a tool not as exhibit on its own.

Christina Errico said...

I really enjoyed this post on the importance of objects in the 21st century museum. I am an MA candidate in Museum Education at Tufts University and am currently taking a course called Revitalizing Historic House Museums (HHMs) where we are discussing the place of objects in HHMs. I found your points about incorporating digital collections and experiences into our understanding of what it means to interact with a museum object really thought provoking. In my experience, HHMs seem to be one of least likely genres of museums to create a digital collection of their objects. This could be because HHMs sometimes serve as dumping grounds for community members to donate their personal belongings that they feel ought to be preserved, and many sites have a plethora of unrelated objects. Another reason could be that many HHMs contain objects that are not original to the house. And a very pressing issue could simply be that HHMs typically have small operating budgets, low numbers of paid staff (and oftentimes are run solely by volunteers), and are dealing with houses that are sometimes hundreds of years old that require careful and costly maintenance. In light of this, many HHMs are focused on keeping their doors open and the house still standing while projects like making a digital collection are set on the back burner indefinitely.

With regards to your point about 3-D models and reconstructions, I think this an interesting subject that HHMs could explore when thinking about how visitors could physically interact with museum objects on-site. Many HHMs have a strict “DO NOT TOUCH” policy when it comes to the collections. Yet how does this recreate a realistic home-life experience for the visitor? If a goal of HHMs is to allow visitors to experience what it was really like to live in the house, how does a hands-off policy achieve this? What person lives in a house and touches nothing, and whose home is always perfectly set up to look as if no one has lived in it the way many HHMs are? This is where 3-D models and reconstructions can come in. While it would be unrealistic to recreate every object in the house, even having a few objects that visitors can touch, sit on, or interact with would greatly add to the visitor experience. An online digital collection where visitors can zoom in on and manipulate the objects in the house could also be an option and can be an effective stand in for those people who will, for whatever reason, never be able to visit a particular site. Digital collections accessed prior to a visit have also been known to increase visitor interest in a museum, which could improve declining visitor numbers at HHMs who do have an online collection. However, these endeavors require time, money, and resources which, unfortunately, many HHMs do not have.

Thus, like you, I have more questions than answers about this topic when it relates specifically to HHMs. Is it necessary to create an online collection of objects that are not even original to the house? If the objects are not original to the house, are they there to simply create the ‘experience’ of being in the house and how could this experience be recreated with a digital collection? Does it matter if non-original objects are touched by the public during a site visit? If an HHM is able to create a digital collection, how can they do it effectively so that it enhances the visitor experience rather than simply providing a picture with the same information from the proverbial house tour? What objects will be chosen and who has the final say in this? Will the visitor’s online experience of the objects (out of context from the house) be as rich as a visit? Where on the ‘to-do list’ of HHMs should creating a digital collection fall? Is it an HHM’s responsibility to have an online collection for those who cannot visit the house?

These are just a few of the questions I have (some of which came to me in the middle of writing this reply), but I think there are many more to think about with regards to HHMs, their collections, and the possibility of digital collections.