[Originally posted on the MuseLab blog August 15, 2018.]
Over the past year, I have been digging deeply into more positive approaches to everything—from business to psychology to personal meaning-making (mindfulness). I am still at the beginning of this journey but I sense there is something really good here for museums and museum studies. I thought I would take a moment to see how I might answer my own question: What might the positive museum look like? In that vein, then, I am working towards answering a bigger question: What is Positive Museology?
Let’s start by looking at other fields that have taken a positive (not positivist) turn. Starting the trend is Positive Psychology, the scientific study of human flourishing, an applied approach to optimal functioning of human beings. It is the first field to re-direct its traditional approach to human functioning through a positive lens. Other fields are following suit, such as positive education, positive neuroscience, positive sociology, positive organizational theory, and positive (constructive) journalism. All of these focus on strengths and virtues that enable individuals, communities, and organizations to thrive (Gable & Haidt, 2005; Sheldon & King, 2001). And all are clear that they are not there to replace traditional versions of their disciplines, but rather to complement them. All use language and concepts (and conduct research) that focus on positive approaches to the world. Some examples of these are: optimism, gratitude, resilience, grit, character strengths and virtues, emotional agility, slow thinking, and authentic happiness. Interestingly, all of these were reactions to deficit models of human functioning.
How can museums (and museum studies) build on this positive movement? Do we in museums (and museum studies) have a deficit approach? That is, do we have a dominant negative approach hidden under the surface? I don’t know that we have gone that far, but I do see two things that show we might need to rethink our approach or at least, reflect on our views a bit. The first is the health of workers in museums; they are not happy. Museum professionals have the coolest jobs on earth yet I rarely hear that workers are satisfied. Something is awry. The second is more subtle but present nevertheless. Our talk amongst ourselves—about visitors, exhibition content, collections choices, and more—is full of angst:
It’s no wonder our visitors are not entirely happy all the time. Like it or not, these internal conversations filter their way to our most important customers, our visitors. Our angst comes through. Can we turn these things around and talk about them in a different way?
If we were to take an intentionally positive approach to doing our work, to doing museological things, what would that look like? Maybe a better question would be how do we create a flourishing museum? What would a flourishing museum look like? In order to talk about it, let’s first imagine the museum as two intertwining parts of a larger system, the inner museum and the outer museum (Latham and Simmons, year), with the inner representing the activities that go on daily, behind the scenes, and are often hidden from the public and the outer museum as the museum that most people think of as the museum, the activities that are visible to everyone. A flourishing inner museum would be healthy, with its workers content and satisfied with the work they do, the relationships they have at the museum. A flourishing outer museum is one that provides a place for people to find joy, compassion, connection, understanding, personal growth, and self-efficacy; positive museums will be a place to enable people to thrive. What this might consist of, I am not yet sure. Does it mean creating exhibitions that show the strengths and virtues of a people, place event rather than the more negative aspects? Do we intentionally create slow offerings, provide a place for contemplation and quiet inspection? Or does it mean that the museum’s goals are more positively oriented (language and goals are shifted) and so the flourishing is awash over all things done in the museum? Does it mean we provide opportunities for gratitude and compassion, for oneself and for others?
Positive Museology then, focuses on human flourishing in museal contexts, that is, in those spaces and places where humans and objects interact in meaningful ways. Using positive concepts, theories, approaches, applications and intentions, we can work towards making the museum a place for people to flourish, for well-being, mindfulness, compassion, gratitude, resilience, strength of character. The bigger question now is, how can we use the good work that is going on in these other positive fields to create a flourishing museum? That in particular, is what I will keep working on in the near future. I want to end this post with the introduction found on the Center for Positive Organization’s website. See if you can fill in “positive museology,” “museum,” “museum studies” or another related word where applicable (I’ve highlighted some suggested places) and if you think this might be a something we should be doing:
The Center for Positive Organizations is a community dedicated to positively energizing and transforming organizations and the people who lead them through Positive Organizational Scholarship. The study and perspective of Positive Organizational Scholarship is committed to revealing and nurturing the highest level of human potential, and it strives to answer questions like: What makes employees feel like they’re thriving? How can I bring my organization through difficult times stronger than before? What creates the positive energy a team needs to be successful?
Positive Organizational Scholarship has become a major focus for organizations and empowers leaders to create positive work environments, improving the culture of their workplace and helping them discover what is possible with their employees and within their organizations. By bringing empathy, compassion, and energy into the workplace, leaders are able to enhance engagement and performance, and inspire their employees to innovate, find opportunity, and strive for excellence. Positive Organizational Scholarship principles create a generative business setting and act as a catalyst in the discovery of human potential.
[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.
[Originally posted on the MuseLab blog March 1, 2018]
What does meditation have to do with museum studies?
It may seem like an odd thing to ask. What does one have to do with the other? Meditation is a spiritual exercise, a practice that is personal, inward and quiet. Museums, on the other hand, are social places and are about knowledge, not religion or spiritual matters. Aren’t they?
Yet, more and more, in my studies I am seeing the relationship between the two. It began with my own doctoral research on numinous experiences with museum objects. My interest in this came from a deep curiosity about this reported phenomenon in the museum context (Cameron & Gatewood, 2003, 2012 and Gatewood & Cameron, 2004). I myself had had such experiences, and of course, that’s where my curiosity began. Numinous refers to deeply felt, often spiritually perceived, experiences and my study was about these intense encounters with museum objects. What were they like? Was there an “essence” (is it a shared occurrence with notable features)? I have spent many years now with this topic and it still intrigues me.
And then one day a few years ago, I visited a museum that has since come to be known as my “favorite museum in the world.” Those of you who know me or have taken a class from me, will know what museum this is. It is a very small, but intensely packed, beautiful place called the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK. When I walked into this museum for the first time, I burst into tears; heaving, sobbing, unstoppable, tears. I couldn’t explain my reaction. I had an overwhelming sensation that I was “in church” (yet, I do not attend church)—but there was no doubt, this encounter was a spiritual one. When I look back on that day to try to figure out what transpired, there is no logical or objective way to explain it. Granted, I knew about the Pitt Rivers Museum before that visit, as I had studied it many years earlier as an anthropology undergraduate and then again as an academic in museum studies. But how can this account for my uncontrollable, and highly unexpected, outpouring of emotion? It was a profound experience and one that has stayed with me, even guided me, in my academic pursuits.
In the years since my doctoral work and encounters like this one, I have increasingly come to see the museum as a rich source of potentially deeply felt experiences, as a site of meaning-making--beyond education or instruction. My sense, many years ago, was that museums are first, sites of meaning-making and that the more popular function of learning is a part of that, but only a part. In fact, the focus has for many years been intensely on museums as sites of learning; so if learning is only one part of the meaning-making function of museums, then what else is there? Over the years, many museum writers have pined for the museum as a site for transformation (Carr, Gopnik, Silverman, Janes, Packer, Storr, and others). Many museums today burst with activity, sound, energy. Busy-ness and noisy-ness are lauded; quiet, contemplative spaces are considered traditional and old-fashioned. Today’s emerging professionals are often taught that success involves quantitative goals, socializing, and experiential products rather than smaller, local, more qualitative encounters. But today, several writers continue to ask, why can’t museums be about transformation and meaning-making rather than solely focused on learning? What might a transformative museum look like? What would a spiritual experience in a museum consist of? Can museums help with well-being? To use terminology from positive psychology, how can museums help people flourish?
Recently, I have decided to focus more fully on the profound and pleasurable in museum contexts (see Kari & Hartel, 2007 for an excellent description of this area of study in LIS). Specifically, I am investigating the intersection of Contemplative Studies (CS), positive psychology (eg. Seligman, 2012; Langer, 1989), and museology. Recent articles in museum journals hint at the turn we are taking towards this area of interest in museums (see for example, one at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum [Echarri & Urpi, 2018] and one about a Rothko painting [Smith & Zimmerman, 2017]). For some, the museum may be taking the form of a secular site for spirituality. This sounds highly oxymoronic, but the tangled web that is now Contemplative Studies (Komjathy, 2018), an emerging field, along with the quickly accruing work in museology on health (eg. Dodd & Jones, 2014), well-being (eg. Chaterjee & Noble, 2013), mindfulness (eg. Janes, 2010, Gopnik, 2007), and more (eg. Carr, 2003, 2006; Kaplan, et al., 1993; Packer & Bond, 2010) shows that something is clearly going on (and I want to know more!).
So, as I embark on this new (or at least more concentrated) chapter in my research, I will share findings and discoveries with you along the way. I officially begin my journey this spring at an iConference session in Sheffield, UK. Several other exciting things are planned as well, so stay tuned to this blog and let me know in comments if this topic is of interest to you, what your museum might be doing contemplatively, and your overall thoughts about it.
Cameron, C.M. & Gatewood, J.B. (2003). Seeking numinous experiences in the unremembered past. Ethnology 42(1), 55-71.
Cameron, C.M. & Gatewood, J.B. (2012). The numen experience in heritage tourism. In The cultural moment in tourism, L. Smith, E. Waterton, & S. Watson, eds. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
Carr, D. (2003). The Promise of Cultural Institutions. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Carr, D. (2006). A place not a place: Reflection and possibility in museums and libraries. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Chatterjee, H. & Noble, G. (2013). Museums, health and well-being. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
Dodd, J. & Jones, C. (2014). Mind, body, spirit: How museums impact health and wellbeing. Leicester, England: Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.
Echarri, F. & Urpi, C. (2018). Mindfulness in art contemplation. The story of a Rothko experience. Journal of Museum Education, 43(1), 35-46.
Gatewood, J.B. & Cameron, C.M. (2004). Battlefield pilgrims at Gettysburg National Military Park. Ethnology, 43(3), 193-216.
Gopnik, A. (2007). The mindful museum. Museum News, (Nov. ⁄ Dec),
Janes, R.R. (2010). The mindful museum. Curator: The Museum Journal, 53(3), 325-338.
Kaplan, S., Bardwell, L.V. & Slakter, D.B. (1993). The museum as a restorative environment. Environment and Behavior, 25(6), 725–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916593256004.
Kari, J. & Hartel, J. (2007). Information and higher things in life: Addressing the pleasurable and the profound in information science. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(8), 1131-1147.
Komjathy, L. (2018). Introducing contemplative studies. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley Blackwell.
Langer, E.J. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
Packer, J. & Bond, N. (2010). Museums as restorative environments. Curator: The Museum Journal, 53(4), 421–36.
Seligman, M.E.P. (2012) Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Smith, J.S. & Zimmermann, C. (2017). The sanctuary series: Co-creating transformative museum experiences. Journal of Museum Education, 42(4), 362-368.
[Originally posted on the MuseLab blog December 1, 2017]
If you hadn't heard, I'm in Croatia (Hrvatska) for about 5 months on a Fulbright scholarship. While I'm here, OF COURSE, I am seeing as many museums and museal sites as I can. Instead of blogging on about this in the traditional way, I will tell you where I have been, give you a few highlights and post a bunch of photos (when I was allowed to take them). At this point, I have not figured out any kind of pattern about Croatian museums specifically, so perhaps I will save that for another later post, after I have been here a little longer. I'm going to only list the sites I have gone "in" because I have seen far more places by just walking by them everyday. I have, so far, been to museums in Zadar (where I’m living), Zagreb, Split, and the surrounds of each of these. So, here is my postcard. Well, more like a letter, but postcard sounds better.
Museum of Antique Glass: Apparently a newer museum, but inside a renovated older building (I think it was a palace). It truly was full of antique glass! It is amazing to think how old the making of glass containers is (and how delicate some of them are). The most intriguing thing I heard about this museum though comes from outside of it, a rumor of sorts, that the centralizing of this museum on glass and not on a particular time period or more traditional topic is controversial amongst academics (I might have some of these details wrong but this is what I gathered). I have no pictures because it is forbidden.
Archaeological Museum: Right on the Forum (which is right on the water) in Zadar, it occupies a very prominent place in the old town. The building is new so it makes me wonder what used to be there (Zadar suffered heavily in their recent war for independence as well as in WWII). But the literature on it says the museum was purpose-built in 1974, even though it opened in 1832). The museum is three floors and all are pretty nice but I really like the top floor, the oldest stuff, which goes back to Paleolithic times. I'm fascinated with the Illyrians and they too were featured here (specifically the more local, northern Dalmatia, Liburnians).
The Church of St. Donat: This seems to be the icon of Zadar. You see photos of it every time you look up Zadar, so we went into it first thing. It's just a big empty building now but you can see all the cool layers upon layers of history, one building period upon the other. It was (first) built in the 9th century, but it has had many lives. This is a perfect place to see the way people over time re-used previous structures (this happens A LOT in Zadar). Today it seems they use it for concerts, which we saw the remnants of (sound gear) on our visit. Very few places had free admittance but the cost was usually very low (about $1.50 to $5 to get in).
St. Mary's Treasury: What do you get when you cross a museum with a convent? No, I'm not telling a joke—but seriously folks, this is a fascinating place! It is quite literally the treasures kept (and saved from various threats) by this church over many, many years. The nuns sell the tickets, run the gift shop, probably set up the exhibits, everything. Not only were the contents incredible (some of the coolest arm and bust reliquaries I've ever seen) but I cannot get over the fact that the nuns have turned their sacred relics over to the tourists in this way. I mean, I'm not naive, I know this happens all the time but something about the set-up of this place made it all the more palpable.
The Forum: Not technically a museum but such a big musealized space, it deserves a mention. On our walking tour we found out which pavements are actually Roman (in situ) and there were far more than we realized. You see, the forum is heavily used by tourists and locals alike, with kids climbing on the antiquities (more like an antiquities park, as they are clearly placed there more recently), cafés located on it, and activities held there. Some fun elements of this space are: The Pillar of Shame (look it up), St. Donat’s Church (see above) built on the same spot, and the odd collection of carefully arranged column and sculpture fragments (we secretly refer to this as the outdoor storage for the museum).
Rector's Palace: This museum only just opened a few weeks before we arrived. It has undergone extensive renovation due to the damage incurred during the war of Independence in the 1990s. They call it an integrated space because they have visual things like exhibits but also musical concerts and more Not-so-ironically the first exhibit we saw there was a photography exhibit from the days in 1991 when Zadar was bombed. We saw this well enough into our visit that we recognized many of the structures and sites that had been reduced to rubble. It was very moving and I’m so glad I was able to see this show; it makes you realize what the people of this city have been through..
Natural History Museum: Very small, most likely a university educational facility more than a public museum. It was all in Croatian (first clue) and it was very specifically focused on local wildlife, mostly from the sea. It had very limited hours as well (second clue). But I always like seeing these smaller places.
Gallery of Art: Situated in the same building as the Natural History Museum, we expected this to be just as small but it was such a surprise! Big spaces, tall ceilings, bright rooms and really wonderful local art. I enjoyed this small-ish museum very much.
Plitvice Lakes: Not really “near” Zadar at all; we had to drive nearly 2 hours each way to get there, but it was worth it. It is the second oldest natural park in Croatia (I think?), opened in the 1940s. They actually moved everyone who lived there out so the park would be "natural." It's stunning. There are no words for it. Look it up, you'll see what I mean. We walked about 6 miles through it.
Other places I’ve visited in or near Zadar:
Paklenica National Park (near Zadar)
Kornati National Park (the islands off Zadar)
Park of Queen Jelena Madio
Park- Perivoj Vladimira Nazora—the place with my favorite label
Diocletian’s Palace: Surprise! You don’t “go in” this palace in the way you think; rather, the old town of Split IS THE PALACE. After many years of use and re-use, Diocletian’s original palace has become the city itself. Just like Zadar, you can never really tell what part is from what time period or culture, they all morph together. It is so fascinating and for someone like me who wants to know origins of everything I see, it is a lesson in letting go. Simply enjoying the fact that what was once an exclusive Roman palace has become a thriving, living, changing home for so many different people over time.
Ethnographic Museum: One of those places now inside of the palace, this is a GREAT museum. We did a walking tour of the entire space that was the palace and I believe the tour guide told us that this museum is where Diocletian’s apartments were situated. In any case, the museum is beautifully done and the local costume of the Dalmatian region is spectacular. But our favorite part of all was the secret little stairs we were told to go to by the front desk assistant. They led up up up to the top of everything, so we got a 360 degree view of Split. Absolutely breathtaking—the water on one side, and the palace and mountains on the other.
We also went to:
City Museum of Split
Museum of Broken Relationships: I have so many things to say about this museum that I might reserve it for its own blog post. I think I took about 100 photos. If you have never heard of it, please take a look at their website and other social media. The entire thing is crowdsourced. So cool.
Krapina Neanderthal Museum (near-ish Zagreb): This was the most special museum of all for me. Eons ago, I studied this site, even did my honors thesis on it. We were fortunate to have the founder not only drive us there but show us around the entire museum, even behind the scenes. He told us all the background and reasoning behind each decision for the museum. Very impressive.
In June, I participated in the triennial conference, Conceptions in Library and Information Science (CoLIS) in Uppsala, Sweden. I arrived in Stockholm a couple of days ahead of time so, of course, I went to museums! Whenever I go to new places, I purposefully don’t look up sites ahead of time; I wait until I arrive and look from the place itself. I was surprised by how many museal things originated in Sweden, especially in Stockholm and Uppsala. I began to notice, as I went through museums and sites, that I kept seeing “the first…this n’ that” over and over. One of the things you’ll notice quickly in any study of museum history is that there are multiple firsts of everything. For instance, it is not clear what is the “first” museum. Is it the first publicly shared collection? Or is it the first institution intended to be a collection to show objects? Was it private or publicly owned? And on. For that reason, I am skeptical with “first” claims. However, whether these were actual firsts or not, there is no doubt that the history of museums and collections runs deep in Sweden. Some of the “firsts,” seconds, and onlys (not all are technically museums, but they are museal) are below.
First Diorama—The Biological Museum, Stockholm
“The pioneering educational aspect of the museum was the use of the diorama for the first time on the grand scale in order to present the natural habitat.” www.biologiskamuseet.com/
This was probably my favorite find of the trip. Hidden in plain sight (because it is mixed into a whole island of museums, Djurgården), this beautiful building (12th century Norwegian-inspired) was built in 1893 and is claimed to be the first diorama of its kind. The woman who sold us our tickets told us it was a “museum museum” as the whole structure and contents themselves are untouched since it was first built. The diorama is 360° and lit only by skylights. While many things are faded due to this set up (the albino beaver is NOT albino, she warned us!), the feel of being in the center of the created environment from all sides is spectacular.
First Open Air Museum in the World—The Skansen, Stockholm
Skansen is the world's first open-air museum, founded in 1891. I happened to be there on Midsummer’s Eve so things were a bit crazy in the village. Because of the holiday, I didn’t really get to experience the site as it normally would be, but I should note that it is HUGE and very popular. It is also situated on the top of a large hill on the island, Djurgården, so it has great views of the rest of Stockholm (across the water).
First Botanical Garden in Sweden: Linnaeus’ Home and Garden, Uppsala, Sweden
It’s a first because the garden was founded in 1655 by Olof Rudbeck the elder in the same location. Linnaeus came a bit later and created what is now interpreted as his home and garden. Linnaeus, in case you don’t know, is the man who first invented the binomial system of nomenclature that we still use today (mostly). For me, someone who studied systematics and taxonomy for many years, seeing this garden every morning I woke up in Uppsala (my hotel room window looked out on it) was like a dream. There’s just so much to say about this site (and Linnaeus himself) that I can’t do justice to it here. Take some time; it’s worth looking up.
Unique: A museum dedicated to a single object, The Vasa Museum
“Today Vasa is the world's only preserved 17th century ship and the most visited museum in Scandinavia.” http://www.vasamuseet.se/en
Opened in 1990, after decades of recovery and preservation, this museum is built around the warship Vasa which sank in its launching harbor on its 1628 maiden voyage. As a result of the discovery, an immense amount of work and preservation has been done around the waterlogged vessel. It is a VERY popular place!
Third Oldest University with Second Oldest Anatomical Theatre- Gustavanium at University of Uppsala, Uppsala, Sweden.
While it’s not a first, it is pretty darn close and therefore worth mentioning. The University of Uppsala is the third oldest university (behind Bologna and Padua), opening in 1477! I visited the oldest building on campus, The Gustavanium, which is now used as a museum. Not only does this museum house the second ever anatomical theater (built by Olof Rudbeck the elder), but to my surprise (remember, I don’t look beforehand on purpose) it holds the only “curiosity” cabinet I have ever seen that contains its original contents! Wow! The Augsberg Cabinet, produced between 1625 and 1631 in Germany, is something to behold. Situated in the very center of the large space, surrounded by glass, but visible all around, the cabinet was roughly three feet taller than me (I’m 5’6”), topped with a spectacular arrangement of past sea life, so-called naturalia mountain. Stunning. Surrounding the cabinet on all sides of the room were cases full of the contents from the cabinet. The way everything is lit adds to the majesty of it.
And the list goes on.
Before I end, a couple of other things are worth mentioning. Just outside of modern day Uppsala is Gamla (Old) Uppsala, an incredible mass of ancient burial mounds from as early as 2000 years ago; the Old Uppsala church, mid 12th century; and an Odinsborg, a restaurant opened in 1899 (where I had mead). And, my blog wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that the Uppsala hotel I stayed in is said to be the first dorm with bathrooms at the university.
[Blog post originally appeared on the MuseLab blog April 1, 2016.]
In March, I was fortunate to be a part of a new conference, organized by the Liebniz Research Alliance, “Historical Authenticity,” on exploring authenticity in museums. Called “Museums- Places of Authenticity?” The conference drew more than 150 people from around the world to come talk authenticity-turkey. I myself presented a paper, “Visitor perceptions of 'The Real Thing' in museums,” about my ongoing research on ‘The Real Thing’ in museums. It was a lot of fun commiserating with so many experts focused solely on a specific concept. I’ve never been to a conference where the use of Benjamin’s “aura” is just a given and no one needs to explain it.
While I was there—as in any of my conference adventures—I took it as my duty to explore local museums. I visited seven museums and heritage sites in Frankfurt and Mainz, as well as other heritage sites along the Rhine river valley.
I stayed fairly local to southwest Germany, mostly Frankfurt and Mainz. The museums I went to were:
Natural History Museum Senckenberg
Museum für Kommunikation Frankfort
Städel Museum (art)
Museum für Antike Schiffahrt (Ancient Shipping)
Below I will share with you just a few memorable tidbits from my exploration.
The Museum für Kommunikation Frankfurt was a fantastic museum. It was modern, yet housed everything you could imagine on the development of communication methods over time— from the telegraph to the computer. Interestingly enough, this museum about a very slippery not-so-physical concept—communication—was loaded with physical objects. This image above is among my favorite of their exhibits. It was one of two interactives where you use one of the telephones to call someone on one of the other three phones and watch the machine in the background do all of the work—the dialing, the ringing, the answering—fascinating! The one pictured was manufactured in or around the 1970s, but the other, similar, interactive nearby utilized technologies from much earlier, but following the same concept. The two interactives were set right next to each other so that visitors could quickly compare the change in technology over time. It was a little hard to do alone because I had no one to pick up the receiver on the other end, but I still found it to be very effective and engaging.
The temporary gallery (which was a whole floor!) of the Museum für Kommunikation was about the advertising industry and how it communicates to the public. As part of this, museum visitors were invited to make requests to the advertising industry. The museum asked the question: “What requests would you like to put to the ad-makers who help influence our buying choices now and in the future?” They then made a “wall” of the responses—a beautiful yet simple design. It was a nice example of infusing participation and design.
Continuing the theme about advertising, the exhibit also had this interactive using marketing technology that was supposed to “read” features about you at the moment you reacted to the exhibit. This entire museum only offered German language so I am not entirely sure what it was about, but a good test that an exhibit is communicating it’s main message is that if I still understand their point(s) without any comprehensible labels, they must be doing something right. I had fun with this one. Now I have to figure out why I’m so high on Erstaunt (which I later found out means, “astonished”).
At the Senckenberg, an eclectic mix of a very modern approach alongside some very traditional methods, I came upon this tiny little corner of an exhibit. Hidden away (but not as hidden as I think it would be if found in the U.S., where it would likely not even be shown), this exhibit showed the stages of human development from conception to birth. The reason I was surprised by it is because all the boxes you see here contained real fetuses (be warned that there is a photograph of this below). It was beautiful to see the process so lovingly put together in this very effective (information-wise) exhibit. In this natural history museum, I can imagine it might be a stop for (older?) school kids; this is in a university museum and I could hear all the school groups in the halls while I was there. It made me question some assumptions I have (and didn’t realize I had until I saw this) about U.S. museums and particularly: would we even do an exhibit like this? It was concise, yet powerfully effective.
More at the Senckenberg—I think this was a travelling exhibit but it had all the earmarks of the participatory process. Visitors left comments (above photo) about multiple topics and there was a green screen where you could insert yourself into pictures with “wild” things, like this beetle. Scary! I only just escaped his pincers. In a safer zone, I also got to be the stamen (or maybe I was a pistil?) of a flower.
I am a lover of all things medical history as well as giving visitors behind-the-scenes exposure in museums. This exhibit at the Senckenberg hit both of those; it was a recreation of natural history storage in a museum from the “old days” (again, all in German, so I’m not certain on the time period). All of the specimens were real and interesting but (to some) gross, wonderfully “gross”.
The Städel is a lovely art museum, but very classic in its approach to being an art museum. While walking through the large, colorful galleries, I suddenly found myself in a hallway (or a room afterthought) where there was an entire batch of paintings flipped around. Love! The idea was to show that there can be equally fascinating things on the backs of paintings (not unlike the “Inside Out: Revealing Clothing’s Hidden Secrets” exhibit currently in Kent State University Museum). This was doubled with a lesson on how the objects have been tracked and cataloged over their lives and how museums have cared for them over time. I stayed a long time in this hallway and probably took several pictures of every single one of these paintings.
Mentioning the Städel would not be complete without a peek at Warhol’s version of Goethe, Frankfurt’s most famous historical character. The fun part of this is that the original painting, from which Warhol drew his image, stands on the opposite wall from this painting. Cool.
There are so many other photos I could share with you about my experience from this corner of Germany’s museums. It was a delightful experience to see them all and I was impressed with much of what I encountered. I look forward to visiting another region of Germany’s museums someday. From what I heard at the conference, it looks like Berlin is the next place to explore museums. (Hint. Hint. Someone have a conference there please!)
The MuseLab was created as a place to explore museality; it is a creative and collaborative space for thinking, doing, and learning about museal things. But what is museality, you say? Probably another made-up word from those crazy theoretically-minded academics, right? Well, you might be surprised to know that museality is a term that developed out of the study of museums themselves, not from any other discipline. It is, in fact, one of the few concepts that is home-grown to our field of museum studies. The concept has been used in European museum circles for several decades, but it is not yet in common usage amongst U.S. museum professionals. As it turns out, it is a very useful way to understand objects in a museum.
Here’s where it gets a bit academic (but have patience, it’s worth it). Museality refers to the characteristic of something that in one reality, documents another (Stransky, in Van Mensch, 1992), or the aspect of reality that we can only know through the presentation, organization, and/or categorization of the object. In other words, an object has been taken from some reality (for example, a house from the Plains Woodland culture, or the Brazilian rainforest) to document some represented reality in another context (in this case, a museum). The museality of the object exists because it stands as a witness to the time and social relations in which it originally existed. When something is musealized, it is transformed into a representation of something—some time, place, or person. Interestingly, this transformation is not limited to the museum context; we often see musealized things in many other contexts, such as antique malls, memorial sites, churches, and more. When it comes to the kinds of things that can be museal, there is no limit. From iconic objects, such as Abraham Lincoln’s hat, to everyday objects, like a generic rolling pin, the process of musealization can occur. Museality is directly linked to physicality. An object in a museum, then, is a carrier of this museality and is therefore called musealia.
In all of my museum studies courses, students learn and use this concept. It has become very important in helping them understand the unique position museums hold in today’s world. As a practitioner for over 25 years, I spent most of that time knowing what museal things were but never knowing they had a name. You know those moments when there is something you understand but can’t quite put words to it? With museal, we finally have the word. For me, finding the word opened up new ways of thinking about exhibit-making, collecting, and cataloging in the museum. And—this is exciting—although we can find museal things in other contexts, the museum is the only place where those things are collected systematically, organized and presented for us to enjoy and learn from.
Van Mensch, P. (1992). Towards a methodology of museology. PhD thesis, University of Zagreb, Croatia.