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?

What happens when geeks design museums?

I’ve started to notice a couple of interesting patterns or trends in the digital museum dialogue over the last couple of weeks and months. Just taking a quick flick around the blogs and looking at some of my favourite museum thinkers, we have Koven speaking at MuseumNext about the Kinetic Museum, and asking What if a museum’s overall practice were built outwards from its technology efforts, rather than the other way around?. Ed’s making a museum from scratch series is moving towards imagining a radically transparent museum – one in which labels might include information about who wrote them, objects might have whole histories available, or information that leads visitors back outside the walls of the museum to continue their journey beyond the physical space. And Seb has proposed that “the exhibition as a form needs to adapt. Radically. And I don’t mean into a series of public programs or events.” His great post from last week, too, considered new ways of designing exhibitions as immersive events with digital parallels.

There are two things that I find fascinating about this. The first is that this dialogue is forming a kind of dispersed ‘Koinonia’, or  collaborative thinking. Although each of us is physically removed from one another (in my case, across oceans, and for the others, at least a few hours of travel between), we are all bouncing off, and building upon, the ideas, questions and inspirations being shared by the others.

But the second reason this is interesting to me is that in each case, they we are all starting to reimagine or redesign physical museum experiences with ideas drawn from digital experiences. The museum technology conversation seems to be shifting from merely how does technology impact the business of the museum practice to how should it impact the museum building or the design of museums physically. Of course, there is precedence for these conversations with Nina Simon’s approach to exhibition design, which draws upon Web2.0 philosophies. But these new discussions seem to further explore the concept of creating the physical space of the museum upon the principles and values of the Internet.

So what are these values, and how could they apply to museum/exhibition design?

For me, the immediate ones that come to mind include transparency and openness, agility and responsiveness, customisable and personal experiences, and sharable, social and participatory interactions. Many of these ideas are ones that I’ve spoken about previously on this blog, but I’ve always focussed on how they might/should apply to museum online efforts.

Ed’s concept of radical transparency in the museum is provocative. In Too Big To Know, David Weinberger proffers that one of the basic elements of the Net experience is that “[t]he Net is a vast public space within which the exclusion of visitors or content is the exception.” (174.) He also points out the abundance of the Internet, where “there is more available to us than we ever imagined back in the days of television and physical libraries.” Taking these ideas into the physical museum space could see the size and complexity of working collection made visible and public as default, whilst still being able to distil ideas through the use of selected objects chosen for formal exhibition/display. This approach also puts a contemporary spin on the idea of curation, where the curator draws attention to the things worth seeing within the abundant content available. As I commented, the recently opened MAS | Museum Aan de Stroom in Antwerp has a visible storage area that houses about 180,000 artefacts from the collection. Imagine being able to see the entirety of a collection, as well as its details. What kind of public value might such an approach have?
(Of course, such an approach would likely have implications for cost, security etc. – there are many as-yet-unresolved issues here.)

What else? I think one of the most enduringly appealing things about the Internet is that it is highly personal and customisable. My experience online is likely very different from yours. You and I, we will read different things, and be drawn to different sites. We will even visit the same sites, but on different browsers and devices, or at different times of day. So how could a museum make an experience that put emphasis on “immersive exploration rather than a linear narrative“, as Seb has been asking? What kind of approach to exhibition design is needed to give individuals ownership over their experiences and yet still maintain connective narrative tissues to make sense of the core concepts and ideas at play?

Digital experiences are sharable, and frequently participatory. But they are also agile, kinetic, and scalable from global to local, and back again. Our conversations and interactions online are not limited to our physical proximity, but they are often related to it. I chat to people all over the world on Twitter, but also make a point of meeting up with them in person when circumstances allow. There is an overlap between my digital and physical experiences, a parallelism (as Seb recently observed). So how could these parallel experiences be incorporated into museum setting? Could the museum tap into and contribute to global themes and conversations before and after the visit (online or offline), and then focus on the local and particular in the actual space? Would that be the right approach?

Matt Popke, in the comments on Seb’s mixtape post, joins in.

I just think the bar has been raised a bit in the “historical narrative” part of the equation. People live in a google age now. If you encounter something you are not familiar with you simply google it and find out whatever you want to know (or maybe you think you find it, that’s another issue entirely). People are accustomed now to having mountains of information available to them at a whim. Tiny tombstone labels on collection items or informational plaques near an exhibit just don’t satisfy like they used to.

The challenge is finding a way to incorporate *all* of the rich history and context of an item in the display of that item, or otherwise finding a way to deliver more in an exhibition than we’re used to, more context, more data, more story. We need to deliver this information in a way that feels explorative, like the audience is taking their own path through our collection and discovering their own version of the narrative. Hypertext, as a medium, is perfect for this kind of intellectual exploration when dealing with an individual. How do we create a hypertext-like experience in a physical space that multiple people can enjoy simultaneously?

There are lots of ideas here, and most of them are entirely unresolved. Still, this trend in the conversation seems to bend more and more to be broaching the divide between the physical and virtual and trying to rethink or disrupt current approaches to museum or exhibition design. Why this is happening now, I’m not sure. (And does it have implications for museum careers? Will your next exhibit designer be someone with an interest/background in tech?) But it is an interesting line of questioning to pursue.

What happens when museums begin to bring the values and ideas that are normally associated with the Internet into the physical design of the museum?

I’d love your thoughts.