Recapturing Collection

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Photographs are important historical objects, both as antiquity in themselves and in terms of the insights they contain. I learned a lot during my History MA from scouring old photographs of 20th century America and have always appreciated their value as source material. Photographs in their physical form have long since been in decline since the advent of digital cameras, however this has in no way diminished their value as historical evidence. More recently though, there has been a shift in the nature of photography that suggests that this may soon be the case.

The beauty of old photographs is that they all, for the most part anyway, genuinely meant something to those who took them. Film cost money and developing cost money, and as a result, people only took photographs that were worth taking. These photographs were, first and foremost, the preservation of a moment worth remembering, and secondly, worth sharing with others. Digital cameras however removed the financial risk from photography. No longer were people burdened with spool limits, development costs or the chance that the pictures “just didn’t come out properly.”

Camera-enabled smartphones and social media have taken this a step further however, and the emphasis of photography has shifted to focus primarily on sharing, and secondarily on memory. Facebook is the least explicit of these as photos are uploaded to albums that can be ordered and organised for ease of access at a later date. Photos uploaded to Twitter and Instagram however, although they remain accessible to the user, tumble endlessly down a timeline with no easy means of retrieval, making them almost as momentary as their subject material. The stratospheric rise of Snapchat however is the real cause for concern. This is an app that allows people to send a photograph to another user, to whom it will only be visible for a set period of time before ceasing to exist for all parties concerned. As a result, Snapchat has created a new type of photograph, one that is deemed worthy of sharing, but not worthy of preservation.

This is a worrying trend. Having had the pleasure of both entertaining and educating myself through photographs at university and in museums and galleries, it is a sad thought to consider that 21st century photographs may not provide similar experiences for future generations. The concern is not that photographs will become exclusively time-limited objects, as with Snapchat, but merely that people will cease to view them as personal treasures. Rather than a snapshot of their own history, they will become more often than not, brief amusements solely for the entertainment of others, and quickly forgotten about thereafter.

Obviously this will not be exclusively the case. There will always be photographs taken for the sake of art, professionally, and even personally to memorialise people, events and situations. However thinking about the photographs I have learned from in books and exhibitions, the most useful and engaging often tend to be those casual snaps of everyday life that people now seem to disregard. Being un-staged and genuine, these were the most revealing sources of social history one could hope for. These moments are now captured within apps that erase them within minutes or are casually deleted from hard drives to make room for more important things. I have had the pleasure of seeing some of the photos within the care of the University of Glasgow archives, and they are wonderful historical documents. These photos were physical treasures to those who entrusted them, that is why they did so, as are those in the collections of museums and galleries across the world. But how will these institutions continue to acquire photographs if people won’t keep them for themselves, let alone pass them on at a later date?

The answer for me is simple; the photographs now have to be collected at an earlier stage. If people are going to share photographs and forget about them, museums must ensure that they are members of the initial “shared to” party. The trouble here however is separating and collecting those photos that are worthy of actually being collected. I read in the Museums Journal back in June that more information is uploaded to the Internet every ten minutes now, than there was during the entire period between 2003 and the beginning of human history. Within that, there are 17 million “selfies” uploaded to social media every week. Self-portraits are as useful as any other historical source, but you can only learn so much from each one, let alone seemingly endless duplicates. The trick will be for museums to somehow filter the gold out of this torrential stream of user-submitted data.

A photo sharing network created by Aaron Straup Cope could potentially provide the solution. Provisionally titled “Oh Yeah, That,” the name is almost dismissive of what could be a wonderfully valuable tool. From the details on his website, the platform when launched will function as follows:

  • Users upload a photo to the site, which then remains private and unseen for 12 months.
  • Once the year has elapsed, the user’s photo is viewable to them, with the option to make it public to other users, or to delete it.
  • There is no “friends,” “followers” or “likes” features, so the photos alone are the focus.

By removing the instantaneous nature of photo sharing, “Oh Yeah, That,” in theory would encourage people to take more consideration over what they upload. In the same vein that many of the photos taken by people on phones these days, would not have been should they have incurred film and developing costs, neither would a user wish to be disappointed by some trivial, pointless snapshot after waiting 12 months to be able to share it with the world.

Also, by enforcing the 12-month waiting time, the platform shifts the emphasis from “sharing,” back onto the “memory” aspect of photography. Once the year has elapsed, the user is allowed to experience a memory from 12 months previously, and only then do they have the option to show it, or not to show it, to others. By applying such a condition to the sharing of a photo, the platform reinstates the idea of taking a picture worth taking. The only difference now is that the condition is time, rather than cost. Finally, by removing the gimmicks of acquiring “followers” and “likes” by sharing photos, the emphasis is placed back on the pictures themselves, rather than them existing merely as a vehicle for social ascent and self-gratification. Again, this helps create a network of shared photographic memories that are worthy of such a practice.

These are the photographs that have been so valuable to museums and galleries in the past, and are the photographs that they must continue to seek out within an ever-saturating pool. In a world where photographs can be taken and discarded with equally inconsequential ease, this will become more and more difficult. A platform such as “Oh Yeah, That,” provides a viable solution to this. These are the networks that heritage institutions should seek out, where photos are submitted only if they are deemed worthy of at first being taken, and then still considered worthy of being shared after a full year has passed in which to consider the issue. Platforms such as this help recapture the magic of the photograph, and will help institutions continue to capture the minds of their visitors via this medium in the future.

“Welcome vs. Awe”

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The first of the three “Museum of the Future” debates at the British Museum last week, which focus on the future of the institution, this time specifically the building itself, was a fascinating affair. Initially at risk of being misappropriated as an open forum for some “Friends of the Museum” to air their often impractical, and at one point absurdly unethical grievances, the conversation was expertly steered by the wonderful Liz Forgan towards a lively and engaging discussion. Within it, an issue coined as “Welcome vs. Awe” chimed a particular resonance with me.

Arriving at the British Museum for the first time since I was 15 years old, my memory of the exterior of the building served me particularly hazily and I must admit that my re-acquaintance with it was somewhat jarring. Much was made of the perimeter railings of the British Museum by the debate panel, not least from Bonnie Greer who revealed that she has long dreamed of their removal. Austere despite their aesthetic beauty, I would disagree with her stance however as I feel they suit both an ideological, as well as a practical purpose. The British Museum is, has always been, and will always be, “a museum of the world, for the world.” For this reason, I like to view the site as something separate from the city, an extraterritoriality, international ground, and for me the railings help make this distinction. Their strong fortification forcibly holds back the ever-swelling city, preserving the museum as a distinct and visible island of antiquity, effortlessly resistant to the swirling London tides.

Instead, it was what follows the gates that perturbed me. Despite the noisy bustle of people who mill around in the courtyard, there is a deafening emptiness to it. This is hampered further by the colourlessness of the British Museum’s spectacular façade, punctuated only by two advertisement banners which are too disproportionately small to be of any consequence to their environs. The problem with this is simple, I felt far away. In addition to this, the doorway is very small, and everything from the two front lawns that flank the pathway to it, the twelve steps up to it, or the columns that frame it, intensify the tapering of your line of sight, pushing the doorway further and further into the distance.

On top of this, even once the visitor has made their pilgrimage down the path, up the steps and through the door, they are funnelled into the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court. A visually spectacular setting once more, but again one that leaves a sense of cavernous emptiness. Surrounded by people resting at cafes or perusing gift shops, I felt like I was at the end of my journey, not the beginning. From the moment I crossed the threshold of the British Museum gates, I felt as if a large, steely hand had been placed on my chest, forcefully resisting my advances towards its wonders, hoarding its collection behind its back and keeping me always at an arms length from its discovery. “Awe” there unquestionably is, but “welcome” is much less apparent.

This issue of “welcome,” or lack thereof, was best highlighted by a lady in the audience who recounted the tale of a youngster who once told her that they “didn’t know they were allowed” inside the British Museum. The grand stateliness of Robert Smirke’s Greek revivalist façade is potentially an issue. The architectural intent behind museum entrances of this kind was that they are designed to literally “elevate” the visitor above their natural station. To lift them up off the street, and into a space between the earth and the heavens within which to wonder and admire at the art and antiquity that was at home there. Because of this, these museums and their contents are above the people, always.

The National Museum of Scotland however remedied a similar problem during their 2011 refurbishment by simply, yet boldly, sealing off their traditional entrance. Instead, the doorways now sit either side of the stairs that used to lead to them, at street level. I have always been fascinated by the alley-dwelling houses of central Washington D.C. Once used as slum residences to literally “hide” the free black population migrating from the south, the confined space meant that there was no room to separate the home from the street, not even for pavements, so the front doors opened directly onto the road. Now these houses are upmarket “artisan” dwellings, and in an attempt to generate a modicum of privacy, owners are adding a front step to their doorways. These steps create some space between the homes and the world outside them. A small touch and hardly noticeable, yet hugely effective.

A single step can create a sense of privacy. The British Museum has twelve, and the National Museum of Scotland has even more than that. The Edinburgh museum, like the Washington homeowners, realised this, and they did exactly the opposite. They negated their steps and brought their doorways out onto the street, out to the people and the world outside. The grand staircase of course remains, so “awe” is not sacrificed, it remains unblemished, yet a sense of “welcome” is now instilled. These entrances are also made of glass, willingly revealing everything beyond them, and they open automatically, welcoming any and all who approach them. A small touch and hardly noticeable, yet hugely effective.

I am not suggesting the door to the British Museum be moved out onto the pavement of course, the building cannot be moved closer to the street, but what is to stop the collection from doing so? I felt Sir Antony Gormley’s discussion of the courtyard as an underused space was particularly salient. There must be objects in the collection that can be exhibited out there, or the museum surely has the ability to construct display cases suited to such an environment. The British Museum can push the boundaries of how it exhibits its collection, by literally pushing it to the boundaries of its estate. Rather than funnel its visitors directly into ever-increasingly overcrowded galleries, the visit should begin at the gate, at street level, not at the front door. This too would help soften the image of the railings by ensuring people, such as the young child mentioned earlier, are reassured without explanation that they are there to protect a public collection, not just an intimidating building.

Gormley also suggested that the British Museum could benefit from having more entrance points, alleviating bottlenecks and overcrowding, and allowing visitors to better curate their own experiences by targeting specific galleries and exhibitions. The National Museum of Scotland has three different doorways on one street now and they serve just such a purpose. Surely the British Museum could do something similar? Unlike the Edinburgh museum, it has the geographical privilege of being accessible from all sides, so to fail to make use of this seems wasteful. For me, the museum is not the storyteller, the visitor is. The museum is the facilitator, and the setting in which millions of different journeys can take place, and millions of different stories can be told every single year. The more entrances a museum has, the more beginnings a story can have. The British Museum is uniquely positioned to provide these opportunities for intensely personal, intensely individual visitor experiences.

As noted earlier, these stories should absolutely begin from the moment a visitor steps through the museum gate. Should courtyard exhibits be used, they should be used to signpost these different entry points. They should be thematically positioned to guide visitors in the direction of the doorway that will interest them most. Instead of forcing visitors down a narrow channel, the courtyard could become a series of estuaries, welcoming the visitor to steer themselves into the current of their choice, and carve out their own individual, unique narrative paths through the landscape of the British Museum.

Debate panelist Wim Pijbes, director of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum summed the issue up entirely with just one word, “openness.” To cope with ever increasing visitor numbers, and to ensure that the museum is as welcoming as it is undeniably awesome, the British Museum simply needs more “openness.” It should open more doors to let the people flow in, and if possible, allow the collection to flow out. By creating a more permeable structure in respect to the public and the objects, the British museum will provide itself with a living building, a building for the future.

Of Holes and Collective Wholes

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When I first read about it earlier this year, it struck me as being both tragic and wonderfully intriguing in equal measure. In the early hours of the 2nd of February 2014, an enormous sinkhole appeared in the middle of Bowling Green, Kentucky’s National Corvette Museum (NCM), collapsing a large area of the gallery floor and swallowing up eight of its prized racing cars. Last week, the museum directors have finally made the decision that the enormous geographical fault must be filled in. I was not sure how I felt about this development however, and I wondered if by filling the sinkhole, the museum is deaccessioning one of its greatest exhibits, leaving them with a new hole, one in their collection, that they may never be able to remedy.

 

Whilst obviously being a scene of massive devastation, the sinkhole in actuality has proven to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise for the museum. A shrewd business move from the directors, likely in part fuelled by an unwillingness to close during its 20th anniversary year, saw the museum reopen the very next day, to massive spikes in attendance and interest. Since the hole appeared, the NCM has seen attendance and revenue increase by nearly 70%, and generated worldwide intrigue with a YouTube video of the hole and the damage it caused totalling over 8 million views to date.

 

The museum has embraced the hole as an important part of its identity, providing a bounty of sinkhole-related merchandise including t-shirts, DVDs, mugs and all the other standard gift shop fare. I have said many times in this blog that a museum experience should always provide the extraordinary, and both the NCM and its visitors immediately recognised the attraction that this particular sight provided.

 

In addition to the sinkholes visible appeal and marketability, there is also a case to be made for its preservation in that it is now a distinct part of the museums twenty-year history. It is a history that is literally ingrained in the fabric of the building and the sinkhole cannot be considered at this point as anything other than a major exhibit, so to fill it in could surely be accused of deaccession?

 

Having said that however, the sinkhole as a historical object has already been compromised. Those who flocked to see the 30 feet deep chasm witnessed a spectacular sight of destruction, what the Wall Street Journal described as a “yawning abyss,” filled with half a million dollars worth of damaged antiquity. That was the real showpiece exhibit. The hole today has been excavated and all eight cars successfully reclaimed from its depths. While still undeniably an impressive sight, it is no longer the same exhibit that caused such fanfare the day after it appeared.

 

In addition to this, the hole in its entirety cannot be preserved. It measures 60 by 40 feet wide and the cost of making it structurally sound places the option well beyond viability. Indeed, the chief reason given by the NCM for not preserving the sinkhole was that their proposal to retain only a small part of it was estimated as being well over a $1 million development. Preserving a tiny portion of the geographical fault would be of little interest to me either though, especially at such cost. The hole with the cars removed has already lost some of its lustre, a mostly filled-in hole, still with no cars has even less.

 

There had been talk at one point of placing one of the mangled sports cars back in as a memorial to the event, however this to me would be another contentious issue. Museum collections are of course preserved for the benefit of the people, and placing one of the wrecks back in the hole would undoubtedly provide a more educational and entertaining experience for the visitor, however the safety of said collection must always be ensured. Of the eight cars that the sinkhole successfully swallowed up, only three are to be repaired to their previous condition. However, to admit an object is beyond repair is not to admit that it is beyond conservation. These tragically mangled cars, despite their condition, remain important historical artefacts.

 

Additionally, one of these cars was a donation to the museum, received only three months prior to the accident. To cast one of the cars back into the hole on account of irreparable damage would show a lack of compassion to the donors who so kindly entrusted their possessions to the museum. The other five remaining damaged cars would be displayed for the public to view elsewhere in the museum, so there is no case that can reasonably be made to single one out to be placed back at the sight of its wreckage, where what remained of it could not be afforded the conservational safety of its counterparts. I am all for museums pushing the envelope, and being creative and exciting with their interpretive methods, but to place any of the cars back in the sinkhole would be inappropriate and unethical.

 

Lastly, there is the issue of whether a sinkhole really has any place within the collection of a Corvette museum anyway. Exhibits earn their place in museum displays through their historical, cultural and social relevance to its audience. The sinkhole admittedly has some of that now, but it did muscle its way in. Needless to say the acquisition of a giant geographical fault would have been far from welcome if you had asked the NCM directors the day before they had one forced upon them. Were the site at Bowling Green home to a natural history museum the sinkhole may have had a case for retention, but an institution dedicated to the display and preservation of automobiles can easily argue against such obligation.

 

It seems filling the hole does indeed make both financial and museological sense. A showpiece exhibit cannot excuse jeopardising the safety of a museum collection; this is why the cars have already been removed. To preserve only part of the sinkhole reduces its spectacle and likely much of its attracting power, meaning the cost of doing so becomes untenable. I praise the directors of NCM for their decisions, both in cashing in on a situation that could easily have caused more damage in the long term than just to eight sports cars, and for making the correct decision last week to bring what was quite possibly one of the greatest temporary exhibitions a museum has ever offered, to an end. My gut reaction to hearing the news was based solely upon envy that I will now never see it in person. But those who have should consider themselves lucky, and should thank the NCM for their audacious curatorial decision.