Process stories

In politics, the idea of a process story – the inside story about how policy is made – doesn’t always sit well. It’s The focus on what is happening behind the scenes, on the machinations that impact policy outcomes is often perceived to be a distraction from the political outcomes themselves. But I’m a sucker for stories that unpack how something happens rather than simply focussing on the end result or product. I like knowing why particular choices were made and by whom; it helps me understand the flows of power and influence that shape the world.

This emphasis on process instead of only the final product is an idea that I can see in a few different places in our sector too, and I’m really excited by it. Dan Spock recently Tweeted a link to imPERFECT CITY – a fascinating sounding project from Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts (DCCA), which is “a conversation-based exhibition that evolves from an open call for proposals to conceptualize a utopian city within the DCCA’s gallery spaces.” Although the project has many layers and phases, what I am most interested in is the open processes the project purports to follow, which treats the creation of the exhibition as the exhibition. As the proposal by Maiza Hixson describes, “The exhibition “opens” during the planning phase to allow citizens to interface with DCCA curatorial staff who are present to answer questions visitors may have about curatorial process.” In other words, the exhibition is the process of the exhibition; it is not just the end result. imPERFECT CITY takes its form as a living process story. In addition, the whole project makes use of documentation (blogging, videos) as a means for exploring the issues raised by the exhibition, and creating parallel digital and in-gallery experiences.

I love this. There is something really compelling about the humanness of process that is visible in this kind of approach. The edges of the exhibition become permeable and uncertain; it is impossible to know exactly when it starts or ends. How reminiscent is this of so many digital interactions, which are themselves endless and linked to so many other things? The Internet is perpetually unfinished. It is about process because it is itself a process rather than a product; a constantly-shifting performative environment which demands that those who want use it must interact with it in order to experience it. Unlike most museum exhibits, which have a definite and pre-determined start and end date and typically exist within strictly defined borders, the Internet does not privilege time and space in quite the same way. This gives us a lot of space for publicly exploring and explaining how we do what we do.

Social media and digital publishing platforms open up a lot of potential for institutions that want to create compelling content and stories about their exhibitions that aren’t so strictly bounded by the dates and spaces of the gallery. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia has made inroads in this area with their recent ePublication for Anish Kapoor, which was treated as a “living catalogue” and evolved over the course of the exhibition to include a Preview Edition, an Installation Edition, and a Reflection Edition. Rather than creating interpretive content prior to opening and never revisiting it, this catalogue continues to grow during and after the exhibition. The Installation Edition includes information about how one of the sculptures was installed in the space, opening up the mystery of the institution to the public and adding depth to the discussion about the exhibition.

The Dallas Museum of Art’s recently-announced plans for a conservation studio also offer an interesting take upon the emphasis of process in the physical space of the museum, since the studio will effectively turn conservation into an ongoing living exhibition. As describes:

[Director Max Anderson is] going to turn conservation into a public exhibit. Other museums hold the occasional tour through their work rooms. But this is different. Consistent with Anderson’s other efforts in making the DMA more accessible online, he will be, more or less, turning this internal museum function inside-out and putting a spotlight on it. Imagine a hedge fund putting the accountants on display.

Wild, right? There is a certain voyeuristic fascination we have with getting behind-the-scenes in someone’s life, in learning what goes on behind the closed doors. Opening up of parts of the institution to public view plays right into these feelings, and develops a very human understanding of what the institution does.

But this approach also shifts the focus away from the objects and exhibitions onto the human forces that impact them. Could this prove to be a distraction? This is how Australia political strategist Mark Textor describes the political process story:

One of the consequences of an increasingly expansive financial and political media field is the need for content to fill it. Some content is important. Most is borderline trivial, certainly irrelevant. But that has never discouraged the commentators. This search for content to feed the hungry commentariat has led to the rise and rise of the ”process story”. The ”process story” is about campaign mechanics, whether it be a political campaign or a big market offer, not about the issues of the campaign.

Could openly documenting the process of creating an exhibition or of an acquisition take the focus away from the exhibition itself? And is a focus on process worth the effort, or does it just promise to add to workloads whilst providing only trivial or irrelevant content? Would museum audiences be interested in gaining insight into what we do and why, or is this just be extra effort for little reward?

What do you think? Do process stories interest you? Could you see this kind of approach working in your institution?

Worlds within worlds: Immersion and museums

There has been significant discussion in recent months about immersive experiences in museums. Seb Chan and Ed Rodley have both written on the subject in response to the site-specific performance Sleep No MoreElizabeth Merritt has asked what museums can learn from Derren Brown: Apocalypse, a two-part television series that immersed a single protagonist in a surreal ‘other world’; and Nina Simon wants to know “why aren’t museums great at telling… deep, intense stories? Why are exhibitions, which have huge potential as immersive, multi-platform narrative devices, so rarely used to that effect?” Clearly immersion is on our collective minds.

But what makes an experience or environment immersive? And why should museums care about using immersive techniques in their exhibitions? Perhaps the simplest explanation comes from Simon herself: immersion “takes you into another world.” It’s a concept associated with video games, virtual reality, and fiction, and is tied closely to the idea of flow; a form of completely focussed motivation. And, as Yellowlees Douglas and Andrew Hargadon note, it can be related to pleasure as well, which can come from “interactive narratives that build on both agency and complex, yet familiar, narrative schemas.” Immersion, then, offers museums a tool for providing challenging yet pleasurable experiences.

According to Jamie Madigan’s 2010 post on the psychology of immersion in video games, immersion can occur in a rich gaming story environment that has “multiple channels of sensory information”, “completeness of sensory information”, “cognitively demanding environments”, and “a strong and interesting narrative, plot, or story.” However, per Douglas and Hargadon, the environment cannot be completely chaotic without opportunity for the individual to gain his or her bearings, nor entirely familiar, offering nothing new to surprise or challenge. Instead, the schema at work in creating the storyworld (whether fictional or otherwise) must be authentic and consistent, but also allow for wonder.

This rings true to my own most recent experience of immersion, which took place at the Australian National Maritime Museum on Sunday. It was my first visit to the museum, and I skipped straight past the galleries to the ships. It was on board the Onslow, a submarine built in 1968, that things got interesting for me…

Immediately upon entering the submarine, I started feeling light-headed. My heart rate went up, and I began having difficulty breathing. Even though I’ve never been susceptible to claustrophobia, being trapped in the narrow, tinny aisle of the submarine, unable to go backwards or control the pace at which I progressed forwards (stuck as I was between other visitors), my body reacted. Mentally, I knew I was safe. But my body was firing off entirely different signals.

Why did it react so? Why did my body believe it was in danger, when logic told me all was well? The submarine flooded my senses. It had a smell of ageing metals and dust; like an old hospital. The skinny corridors curtailed my natural movement. A soundtrack played through the speakers that – I’m fairly sure – included a siren to indicate that we were soon to dive. From the moment of entry, when I had to climb backwards down the angular metal steps into the sub, my whole body was tricked into believing that this world within my world was real – and a threat.

I was transported; caught in the universe of the submariners. It was one of the most affective experiences I’ve had in a museum context.

The immersion came from more than just engagement in their story however. When my body reacted so strongly to the submarine, it was in part because it felt transported from my usual safe (and sunlit) world into a universe of metal, war, and submersion. It was disengaged – separated – from the everyday, from the context of real life.

In November, when I wrote about Sleep No More, I observed that the audience was “funnelled down a long, dark corridor to enter the McKittrick Hotel; consistently being primed for the evening at hand, even whilst in the act of transportation from one place to the next.” I was thinking about behavioural priming; what a museum does to prepare the visitor for the museum experience. But I failed to truly note the significance of this tunnelled entryway. It was not a mere passage from place to place; it was also a device that transported me from the ‘real’ world into the richly detailed storyworld. The neutral zone of the tunnel forced a fission between my life outside Sleep No More, and the internal universe with its own rules and practices. With this distance, I could give in more fully to the possibilities and drama of the McKittrick Hotel and its occupants.

This is quite different from my average museum visit, where there is only limited demarcation between the story inside the museum and that outside; or in the spaces between exhibitions. Yet consider how a similar trope is utilised at Disneyland to set the audience up for their experience in ‘the happiest place on Earth.’ In a paper on Walt Disney’s use of ’emotional environments’, Josef Chytry writes* that Disney carefully calibrated the Disneyland storyworld to engage the guest in a total experience (emphasis mine):

For his emotional environment proper, Disney ensured that entry to the park would be substantively separated from outside reality. This passage was intended to induce in ‘guests’ the appropriate mood, so that once these ‘guests’ came into ‘Main Street, USA’ – another invention of Disney’s – they were ready for ‘happiness’.

The entire visit was choreographed to be affective; an emotional environment designed from the start to invoke a sense of wonder. (I know many museum types professionally disdain the Disneyfication of culture, but surely there are worse things.) Similarly, at Tasmania’s MONA, the visitor does not merely arrive at the museum from the street. From Ed Rodley’s description of his visit to MONA last year:

The oft-repeated marketing catchphrase is that MONA is “a subversive adult Disneyland” which like a lot of PR fluff, captures some of the emotional appeal, but not much else. MONA isn’t a theme park. It is also not a temple to secular culture the way writers like Alain de Botton have claimed museums have become. It certainly has some of those otherworldly associations; it is a destination if you approach via water ferry; the long climb up, and the descent into the hillside MONA is carved into. If MONA is any kind of temple, it’s more an oracular cave than an edifice of orthodoxy.

To which museum owner David Walsh responds:

 it’s a pleasure to see your reference to an ‘oracular cave’. The effort required from a visitor by ferry, to rise and descend, was intended to make one mindful of exactly that notion. You are, apparently, the first to see what to me was a transparent gesture.

Entering another world – a storyworld – requires that we unshackle ourselves from the real world, if only for a short time. The world of MONA is severed from that of the everyday by boat, and an oracular entryway. Even more than that, it is separated from mainland Australia, necessitating a significant journey to get there for all but locals; a journey frequently undertaken for the sole purpose of visiting the museum. (Maybe it’s more like Disneyland than Rodley gives it credit for…) Immersion also requires multiple channels of sensory engagement, cognitively rich environments, and strong and interesting narratives. Is such an approach always of value for museums? I don’t know that it is. But given that immersion can lead to flow, wonder and engagement, it certainly seems like something worth examining further. I certainly won’t forget my visit to the Onslow any time soon.

What do you think?

*unfortunately behind a paywall

Behavioural priming and museum visitation

Did you know that simply holding a warm cup of coffee in your hand when you meet someone can shift your perceptions of them? That you might judge someone as “having a “warmer” personality“, just because your first impression of them followed a shift in experience of physical warmth? In such cases, our understanding of that person has been primed by the physical conditions in which we encountered them; where priming is an “exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus,” (Priming, psychology) or in which “the activation of one thought may trigger related thoughts.” (Priming, media)
(As if this isn’t a great reason to have first dates over coffee instead of alcohol…)

As spelled out in this article in the New York Times:

Psychologists say that “priming” people… is not some form of hypnotism, or even subliminal seduction; rather, it’s a demonstration of how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively activate goals or motives that people already have.

So I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot during the last few days. How do museums prime their audiences and visitors for the museum experience? For having their minds opened, or even for knowing what is expected of them in the museum space? How do the sights, smells and sounds a visitor encounters upon arrival at your museum (or even before then) put them into the right headspace for curiosity and exploration, or learning? What role does a museum’s website play in this?

After a week of attending numerous museums, speaking with museum professionals, and participating in the immersive theatrical experience Sleep No More, my first impression is that I don’t think it’s something too many museums consciously pay attention to, or at least, not effectively or at a whole-museum level. There have been exceptions, however.

I’m going to start by talking about Sleep No More – a non-museum experience, but a worthy one that has already proved inspirational to other museum professionals. For those who haven’t yet heard of it, SNM is an incredible production (a dance? A play?) loosely based around Macbeth, which takes place over five stories in a warehouse (currently) in New York. The performance and performers move into and out of spaces in the warehouse, while you as audience (masked. Silent. Anonymous.) can choose whether to follow them, or instead pull apart and play within the fully-constructed and highly compelling ‘stage’ structure. The experience is hugely personal, layered, and thoroughly involving. It’s something I will no doubt refer back to in greater detail in coming posts. However, what I want to speak to in this case is the opening moments of the event.

The SNM experience starts well before the performance itself. For me it was with conversations with those who had been, but even without those, the line of people abuzz with excitement at the doorway to the building was more than enough to raise my heart rate in anticipation of what was to come. We were soon funneled down a long, dark corridor to enter the McKittrick Hotel; consistently being primed for the evening at hand, even whilst in the act of transportation from one place to the next. Then, almost directly upon entering, the audience (participants?) were greeted by staff and issued clear directions about the rules and the expectations of the night. Attendees were directed to where they needed to be, issued with masks to preserve anonymity, and briefed by two different actors/assistants about what the night would or could entail. All of this was done in character and costume.

Within the first ten minutes of arriving at the venue, I understood what was and was not allowed; was primed for the experience at hand in a way completely consistent with the coming performance; and all whilst building momentum and expectation for what was to come. And so when I found myself in a situation completely beyond my normal range of experience, I still felt completely and reassuringly safe, and pumped for the events at hand. My curiosity was piqued, my brain switched to ‘engage’.

In contrast, entering most of the museums I visited during the previous week was followed by immediate uncertainty while I tried to get my bearings and work out a) where to go and in what order, and b) what the particular rules were of each institution (was photography allowed, or not?). There was nothing to instantly prompt me to start my experience, or provide a scaffolding upon which I could begin construction of my visit – and I’m pretty comfortable in museums in general. But still, I was directionless, unclear about what I would, should or could see, and how to best go about that process.

The exception to this was at the Newseum. In the Newseum, there were ample greeters available at the door to meet me as I entered the space. When purchasing my ticket, the front desk attendant ran me through “the best way to see the museum” starting down the escalator to the bottom floor (helpfully signposted with a big “Start visit here” type sign), and then continuing up via the lift to the top, before winding downstairs again. I was directed to exactly where I could deposit my coat, and then shown the way to the “start” of the experience.

At the bottom of the escalator, I was again greeted and asked how long my visit was, whether I would be returning the following day, and whether I wanted to see a short video on the best way to experience the museum. Once the greeter found out that I could only attend that day, and only had a couple of hours, he pointed out to me what the likely highlights were that I might be interested in, and also ran me through what else was available.

It was a completely different experience from one I’ve had in entering almost any museum, and I found it hugely helpful. The advice was not prescriptive, but it helped give me bearings and allowed me to make choices about what I was most likely to find rewarding, given the short time period I had for visitation. As a form of priming to influence a response to later stimulus, I found it highly effective.

But beyond this, I think many of my responses (which were generally very strong, and quite emotional) to the objects on display in the Newseum were similarly in response to years and years worth of priming via media exposure to them. For instance, when I came across the fallen Lenin statue in front of the photograph of the same statue being tumbled, I instantly understood what I was seeing and its significance at a very visceral level. I could immediately connect this object with the event, its emotion and its importance, and bring all of those things into alignment with my own memories of watching footage of iconic statues falling. The story of the statue and the object of the statue were both far more significant to me for the deep way which they related to my earlier exposure to stimulus than they likely would have otherwise been. Something familiar in this object, and many others at the Newseum, triggered a very strong response for me, which I am intuitively sure relates – at some level – to the repeated priming and exposure I have had to the subjects/objects prior to visitation.

Piece of Lenin Statue from Fall of Berlin Wall

A study by Laure Zago, Mark J. Fenske, Elissa Aminoff and Moshe Bar supports this idea. They write:

Prior exposure to a stimulus generally facilitates its recognition in subsequent encounters. This experience-based phenomenon, termed priming, has been studied extensively and is believed to be one of the building blocks of learning and memory (Tulving and Schacter, 1990).

If this is the case, if visitors’ exposure to a stimulus before and whilst attending a museum influences a response to later stimulus, how can museums use this to create more meaningful visitor experiences? What can museums do, both on- and offsite, to activate and trigger responses in their visitors in the exhibition space? Can museums actually use this idea of providing prior exposure to stimulus online to facilitate a more instant connection or recognition of their objects on the museum floor? And is this something that museums already do when planning their exhibitions? If so, who does it well?

What do you think?

An exhibition is an essay in three dimensions

Preface: In a moment of unexpected synchronicity, it seems that Ed Rodley and I have both been thinking about metaphors for museum exhibitions, with reasonably divergent conclusions. My recommendation is that the two posts should be read together, allowing us to cover some different but complementary ground.

 Two of the greatest luxuries that accompany doing a PhD are those of autonomy of time, and the odd opportunity to participate in events like a masterclass with curator Helen Molesworth. Prior to the start of the AAANZ conference in Sydney this week, the AAANZ invited one-two PhD/Masters students from Fine Arts research programs around Australia and New Zealand to participate in masterclasses with each of the two conference keynotes. It meant that around 55 students got to sit down for free for three hours with either Thierry de Duve or Helen Molesworth, and discuss their work, their research and their thoughts.

Conversation in my masterclass crossed a reasonably diverse range of subjects, from feminism and gender perspectives in art through to the power or otherwise of objects. Where things got really interesting for me, however, were discussions about curatorial practice. Helen spoke of her belief that the essay exists as the best or primary way for making an art historical argument, and that when she curates an exhibition, she is motivated by the urge to make an essay-like argument in three dimensions. It was a perspective that really resonated with me. Many of the most compelling exhibitions that I’ve seen are those that make a case for a particular reading or understanding of (art) history – whether I agree with the argument or not.
(The same could be said for the best dissertations, which are often those that make a single clear argument and leave out unnecessary chaff and distractions, but that’s a topic for another day.)

But if the best exhibitions are indeed those that make three-dimensional an essay or argument, how do we carry such an urge into the digital space? How do we make digital an argument that involves physical objects? Are there elements unique to the digital environment that museums can exploit, much as the best exhibitions utilise the things unique to their medium to construct material statements? And what does this mean for current thinking about crowd-curation and getting public input into the exhibition during its creation?

Following the masterclass with Helen, fellow PhD student Travis Cox and I went to explore the current exhibitions at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, happening upon a Sol LeWitt display. Travis is a bit of a LeWitt junky, and we spent some time discussing the LeWitt retrospective at MASS MoCA in the USA, which is on display for 25 years. If an exhibition is an essay, then this is a textbook; a tome dedicated to defining (and fixing) the impact of LeWitt’s work. Of course, the analogy is not perfect, because a book has an order in which it must be approached, whilst an exhibition can often be sauntered through in any order, leafed through page by page without concern that the order will be wrong.

Still, here we have an idea that a great exhibition is an argument, it’s a proposition. It does not merely reflect what has been discussed before, like oh-so-many undergraduate papers. Instead it makes a stand, it pokes at a new way of thinking without necessarily pretending to the only approach to the topic.

And with this in mind, what I want to know now is how we continue an argument that starts in the museum proper onto the Web? In David Weinberger’s Too Big To Know (p95), there is a discussion about Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books, and a new model for physical books that could make possible the communication of “the fathomlessness of the archives and the bottomlessness of the past.” Weinberger offers this succinct capturing of the ideas in Darnton’s essay.

“[S]tructure it in layers arranged like a pyramid.” At the top would be the “concise account.” Second, there would be “expanded versions of different aspects of the argument.” Third, there could be documentation to support the top two layers. Fourth, include “selections from previous scholarship and discussions of them.” Fifth would be teaching tools. The sixth layer would aggregate reader commentary and exchanges.

Could we take a similar approach to the link between the in-museum essay in three dimensions and its online counterpart?

Finally, I cannot explore these subject even for a moment without linking to this amazing description by Elif Batuman of Orhan Pamuk’s museum of innocence, the “world’s first synergetic novel-museum.” This is a completely off-beat way of thinking about this problem, but an interesting and wonderful read and project, and absolutely worth considering in this discussion.

For the next ten years, writing and shopping proceeded in a dialectical relationship. Pamuk would buy objects that caught his eye, and wait for the novel to ‘swallow’ them, demanding, in the process, the purchase of further objects. Occasionally an object refused to be swallowed, as happened with some carriage lanterns and an old gas meter. Pamuk published The Museum of Innocence in 2008. It resembles less a museum catalogue than a 600-page audio guide. A ticket printed in the back of each copy grants one free entry to the museum. By that point he had already acquired nearly all of Füsun’s belongings, so the museum could, in theory, have opened the next day. But Pamuk was worried about the example of Edouard Dujardin, the French writer sometimes credited with pioneering, in a largely forgotten text called Les Lauriers sont coupés, the stream of consciousness. Pamuk didn’t want to be Dujardin. He wanted to be Joyce. It wasn’t enough just to build the world’s first synergetic novel-museum. The museum had to be a thing of beauty. He hired a team of artists and curators and worked full time in the museum for several months, taking naps on Kemal’s bed in the attic.

So, what do you think? Is an exhibition an essay (or an album or a mix tape)? And if it is, how do we continue an argument that starts in the museum proper onto the web?