Q and A on Museum Ethics

Q: How are museum exhibitions using technology to create cultural context for objects in the collections and to establish multi-sensory environments that help visitors understand the originally intended function of the artifacts on display?  What considerations should be taken to avoid the risk of producing spectacle in such exhibitions?

A: Steve Miller- Executive Director- Morris Museum

Putting questions of budgets aside, new (and some old) technology can be enormously beneficial in helping explain subjects through objects (which is what museums do).  Topics that were once difficult to talk about in an exhibition format can be more readily discussed with the help of a wonderful range of audio-visual technologies.  Videos, DVDs, the Internet, computers for public use in galleries, computerized exhibition control systems, cell phones, iPods, live links via satillite, sophisticated lighting systems, you name it, there are a lot of options to help interpretation plans.  A few of the subjects that were previously more challenging to discuss in exhibitions were finance, social change, matters of emotion or feeling, and scientific ideas that to most of us are invisible, abstract or so peculiar as to defy physical reason.

I think science museums have always taken the lead when it comes to applying new technology to exhibition purposes.  But, history museums are catching-up and art museums are not immune to introducing a little contemporary technology once in awhile.   I think the rise of audio-visual exhibition content may be in direct proportion to the decrease in the availability or existence of original collection items.  While the only thing that makes museums unique is the real thing, those of us responsible for how those things are presented to the public are more receptive than ever to ideas about enhancing and improving a museum’s ability to help visitors understand what they are looking at and why.  Having just completed a major permanent exhibition about, mostly nineteenth century, mechanical music and related machines, I give thanks for technology that can help put a once ubiquitous form of entertainment in an historical, cultural and social context.  Without seeing and hear the collection in action, it is simply a bunch of pretty pieces of decorative art.  Yet it would be operationally difficult from a staffing perspective and inadvisable for conservation reasons to constantly play them.

The fear with new technology and in fact with any extravagant exhibition intrusions is that the message does indeed become the medium.  The stuff of display overpowers content and objects. I should add that such a visual and intellectual offense is not reserved to a bunch of whirling, noisy, flashing gizmos.  I see it when graphics, color, materials, gallery arrangements, etc. present such a visual cacophony and physical obstacle course that audiences are repulsed.  Finding a balance is wise and shows a genuine concern for museum visitors.  Honestly, I sometimes think we put our visitors last when it comes to exhibition and other museum practices.  Just see what staff deigns to dust, or pick up a piece of trash, or change a light bulb, or help visitors as they navigate the museum.  But, I am getting off track.

I can think of at least two examples of complaints about exhibition design overpowering or dissing subjects and objects over the past few years.  One was about a British costume exhibition the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented.  The other was directed to the Latin American Collection installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  The former offered what some considered stupid tableaux that put the museum’s costumes in story-telling narrative displays.  Personally I loved it but I can’t tell you what I learned about costume.  The Los Angelesmuseum conundrum stems from a design installation by an artist, that makes the content of the exhibition almost seem immaterial.  Having not seen it, I have no comment.

As far as spectacle is concerned, I for one am not opposed to the idea when it comes to exhibitions.  But, the spectacle should be appropriate and logically serve the purpose of the exhibition.  An exhibition about the history of the circus, or fireworks, or Venetian costume extravaganza cry out for spectacle in my mind’s eye.

A: Anthony Shelton- Director of the Museum of Anthropology; Adjunct Professor of Art History, Visual Art and Theory

Your question is couched within a very specific concept of operational museology and the function of museums. While I agree it is sometimes important to move away from simple visual experiences to total multi-sensory environments, I am dubious that objects can effectively communicate singular functions or that they have any one specific and demonstrable meaning – that is their richness and difference to denotative language. Meaning is generated dialectically through the interaction of interpreters, interpretees and the multi-valent propensities of objects themselves. In science museums where technology has aided a movement away from object to concept based interpretations, spectacle is an unavoidable effect and rightly so. After all what is more spectacular than the manifestations and effects of the world that surrounds us? In the arts on the other hand, technology must be used differently, not in  an intrusive manner. It must support the object rather than substitute it, and it must be careful not to detract from the presence and ‘luminescence’ of the material object that is always the focus of such exhibitions.

Art museums and contemporary anthropology museums have been careful to work within these principles. Computer terminals are often located outside object centered galleries; at the National Gallery, London where they provide an introduction to the exhibits and an opportunity to plan your own tour; or on the mezzinine at the new Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, where they provide a databank for in depth research on the collection. It seems clear however, that much of the development of technology will be for mobile technology – hand held gadgets of the sort that can be activated by infra-red signals and allow visitors to plot their own courses around exhibitions. These are becoming increasingly common and effectively allow the inclusion of filmic clips, photographs, maps, and alternative tours that may each be guided by different interpretive criteria. Such systems are becoming more elaborate so all the visitor needs is a cell phone that can pick up the same signals and even transmit them to a PC or Mac back home.  In other exhibitions, I am thinking of contemporary art, technology is sometimes incorporated or becomes the medium or object of shows. Visit any biannale to see how technology has moved into the mainframe of contemporary art – to constitute one of the genres of such arts.

Finally, spectacle. ‘Spectacle’, the visual effect of an installation needs be clearly differentiated from ‘spectacular forms of knowledge’ that the French critic, Guy Debord,usually identified as bound together and coexistent. Given the different contexts of spectacle, there is no necessery connection between all these forms with a specific form of knowledge that is usually characterized as ahistorical, trivial, fleeting and disconnected. “Spectacular forms of knowledge, despite their embrace by the mass media, are to be avoided. ‘Spectacle’ probably cannot be eliminated, even if we tried.

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