[Originally posted on the MuseLab blog June 1, 2018]
During spring semester I was on sabbatical and with that freedom to think deeply, I took the opportunity during an overseas trip to northern Europe to visit a heck of a lot of museums, 36 to be precise, in 32 DAYS!
Why did I do this? Am I crazy? Was I in a contest? Do I really love museums that much? (yes, but that’s not entirely why I did it). The answer is: research. Here’s the backstory: In 2016, I began a partnership (through a Norwegian grant called KULMEDIA) with my colleagues in Norway to investigate various effects of digital media and practices on cultural heritage institutions. My group, based in Tromsø, Norway is quite diverse in their interests, and mine, not surprisingly, falls on museums. I am still in an exploratory phase but I can give you the gist of what I’m looking at, at least right now in the early stages of my research.
My research questions keep evolving, but at the time of the visits in March, I was looking for digital mediators in museum settings. What is a digital mediator you ask? Well, that was part of my “visiting research.” About a year before my whirlwind tour, I started working with the Cleveland Museum of Art’s (CMA) ArtLens Gallery and Studio (formerly GalleryOne) where the use of digital technologies is at a very high level. To make a long story short, the CMA recently shifted their perspective on using digital media to this: from using digital in the foreground of artworks to using the artworks in the foreground of digital. In conversations with CMA staff, the notion that they were now more focused oncreating relationships between people and art was of great interest to me. I found this notion very provocative and wondered about the use of digital media as connectors between people and things (this matches a lot of other research I’ve done over the years), and in particular, wanted to know more about this goal to help create more (and deeper?) relationships between visitors and the collection. So, I began with the notion of a digital mediator, that is, the use of digital media to mediate between people and things (collections/documents/art/artifacts). That study is in process and evolving even as I write.
But, in the context of the grant partnership, it made sense to seek out another museum for comparison, preferably in Scandinavia (since the grant is funded by Norway). And that is what brought me to my 36 visits in such a short time. I was already going to the region for a doctoral defense and a conference (where I presented a poster on this topic), so in between, I museum-ed. Like crazy.
Here is the list of museums I visited, seeking digital mediators (you may have seen my posts on the KSU museum studies Facebook page in March:
Oslo: The National Gallery, Nobel Peace Center, The National Museum - Architecture, The Historical Museum, Akershus Castle (parts), Armed Forces Museum, Norway's Resistance Museum, Natural History Museum, Munch Museum, The Kon-Tiki Museum, Norwegian Maritime Museum, The Viking Ship Museum (a favorite)
Bergen: Leprosy Museum, The Hanseatic Museum, Bryggens Museum, Håkon's Hall, KODE 1,2,3.
Uppsala: The Uppland County Museum, Uppsala Cathedral Museum Treasury, Uppsala Art Museum, Gustavianum, Evolutionmuseet (paleontology)
Manchester: Manchester Museum
Sheffield: Millennium Gallery, Chatsworth House
Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Rembrandt House Museum, Anne Frank House
Haarlem: Teylers Museum, Archaeological Museum Haarlem
Leiden: Boerhaave Rijksmuseum (a favorite)
The Hague: Mauritshuis, Gemeentemuseum Den Hague
Did I find any?
Well, not many. I found this piece and that piece, but not like the scenario at CMA (with a couple exceptions, the Boerhaave in Leiden and Nobel Peace Center in Oslo). But more than not I did not find much digital mediation, I did however, begin to see a pattern, something that is very interesting and of great use to me. On this trip, I found that I could group the digital components I saw overall into two categories: digital mediators and digital labels (or support). Digital mediators where those that used the digital to connect, they were more integrated and intentional and their presence was woven into the whole exhibit and topic of interest. Digital “labels” or supports where sort of like text labels, or what a web search might serve, providing more information on something related to something nearby. This finding was helpful and maybe a little surprising to me. From my vantage point as a museum studies educator, there is a lot of chatter about “the digital” in museums. Now, there are many ways this can be applied, of course, but I expected to see a lot more (and better) use of digital media in galleries based on the extensive discussions in the field. Instead, the bulk of what I saw was of the digital label type, which feels very much like an add-on much of the time. Indeed, it is good to provide the opportunity to dig deeper for those who want more, so I am not disparaging this approach. What was disappointing was how often this was used instead of the more integrated approach. It’s not often that we get to see 36 museums in 32 days and this kind of viewing allows patterns to be seen more quickly and more obviously. I feel fortunate to have had this opportunity. But now, this is where I stop to mull, to do more literature research, to think more about this phenomenon and see how it might play into my more formal research study. I would love to hear from others about this so please comment if you have something to say. What do you think of my two groupings? What have you seen out there in museum-land? Let me know.
A video of the Anatomy Theater at the Boerhaave Museum, an example of a digital mediator.
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