SMF Blog: A Modern Desensitisation

© National Museums Scotland

image © National Museums Scotland

This article was originally written for the Scottish Museums Federation blog.

Standing engulfed by the spectacular display of faces and landscapes at the National Museum of Scotland’s Photography: A Victorian Sensation, I am struck by a sensation of my own. Not since I deleted my Instagram account, now two new years resolutions ago, have I been party to such an intensive timeline of portraiture. However there are no filters or fancy effects here. For many of these people this was the only photograph of them ever taken, and as such they have been treasured and cared for by their owners to the point where they have made it into the collection of a museum over a hundred years later. This is why the inevitable, “your selfies displayed here” interactive at the end of the exhibition actually sits a little uncomfortably. After marvelling at a century’s worth of lovingly preserved photography, I was then expected to take one of myself and then exit through the door to the left, never to see it again.

Of course this is a little different, I know for a fact that this is not the only photograph of myself in existence, however it entices you to consider what the eventual fate of those may be too. The last thing you see before leaving the exhibition is a text panel that reads, “More photographs are taken in two minutes today than were taken in the whole of the 19th century.” By this point you have seen hundreds of non-stock, non-commercial, personal photography from this period, but will such a feat be possible another 150 years from now?

The modern photograph has mutated into a very temporary possession. Photographs these days are lost all the time. These can be unexpectedly through computer hardware malfunctions or intentionally, such as self-destructing Snapchat images or, for example, purposefully deleted for certain emotional reasons. The latter is not a new phenomenon however, a fellow student while I was studying for my masters degree once revealed his unusual hobby of collecting old daguerreotypes where people’s faces had been scratched off. Despite their defacement, the continued physical existence of these photographs actually makes them doubly intriguing as artefacts. I was always taught to analyse historical source material using the “Five W’s” method; “what is it and when was it created?” “who created it and why did they do so?” and “what does it say?” My colleague’s collection however had the benefit of possessing a 6th required “W”: “woah, what on earth happened next?”

The suggestion here of course is not that we retain every single one of the millions of photographs that are taken every minute of the day, nor that instead of deleting pictures of undesirable people that we aggressively scribble over their faces in MS Paint. It is simply that we take better care to preserve the important images. From the 50 or so years worth of portrait photographs at the National Museum of Scotland’s exhibition you can learn a lot. For example, for many subjects this was a rare opportunity to be pictured, and the image of themselves they have allowed to be captured provides us with a fascinating insight into the evolving ideals of fashion, manners and etiquette of the time. Nowadays with fashion moving so quickly and the ability to take photos all the time, that “selfie” of someone in last months “get-up” just gets deleted and replaced, meaning future viewers will have no real sense of a community’s changing attitudes to trends on the social level that we can examine in our 19th and 20th century counterparts.

Photography: A Victorian Sensation claims that in 2015 an average of 70 million photographs are uploaded to Instagram every single day, and one would assume the proportion of this that includes portraits and “selfies” is quite high, most of which are destined merely to tumble endlessly down a timeline into forgottenness. A little down the road at the Scottish National Gallery, the David Bailey retrospective Stardust, provides no greater proof that quality trumps quantity every time. Not only are his images iconic, some of them, of Jack Nicholson and a young Johnny Depp for example, are some of the most iconic photos of those individuals. These are portraits that are valued, were treasured, and are enriching to the viewer because of it.

In fairness, the fame of the photographer and his subject make these portraits exponentially valuable, however there are more than just famous faces on show at Stardust. The exhibition displays work from his travels in places like Nagaland, Sudan and Papua New Guinea. In these pictures there are no recognisable figures, simply people, who like those on display at the National Museum of Scotland, may well be experiencing being photographed for their first or only time. Now, regardless of the name behind the camera, you have portraits worth treasuring because they are valuable historical sources, with much to teach the world about other countries, their customs and often their plights.

To describe the “your selfies displayed here” section of Photography: A Victorian Sensation as “uncomfortable” was not a criticism, it is important for museums to provide thought-provoking content. This is what it provided for me. You truly feel when exploring the exhibition that photography in the late 19th century was a sensation, and people valued their pictures to the point where they were framed in lockets, crafted into jewellery or displayed in elaborate albums. But most importantly, they were simply preserved. We live in an age now where people are desensitised to the value of photographs. In Photography: A Victorian Sensation, the National Museum of Scotland has curated the memories of an entire generation. Additionally though, they also inspire a concern that our current, increasingly self-conscious generation has such a wealth of means to curate its own memory to reflect its present concerns, that it could deprive future generations of any genuine sense of its past.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 28.9.2015

Grey Areas

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The Peggy Guggenheim Collection has recently opened a new temporary exhibition based around their Jackson Pollock masterpiece Alchemy, and the intensive 18-month conservation it has just returned from to remove nearly 70 years worth of dust from its surface which, remarkably, is still yet to fully dry.

Divided into two rooms, the exhibition displays the work itself in one, and the science and theory behind this ground-breaking conservation and some historical interpretation of the work, Pollock himself, and his relationship with Peggy Guggenheim in the other. This information is conveyed through a series of videos, touchscreens and ephemera from Pollock’s Hamptons studio, such as paint cans and his mother’s old quilting frame, which he used to mount his canvases on the floor while conducting his famous “drip painting” technique. Perhaps most interestingly though, the exhibition contains a 1:1 scale 3D printed reproduction of Alchemy that visitors are invited to touch in order to explore the vastly textured surface of the painting.

Alchemy 3D

The rationale behind interpretive features like this are plainly obvious, everybody wants to touch things in museums. I’ve been at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection for three months now and I see this phenomenon first hand every day. The difference with Alchemy however is that its “poured paint” three dimensional surface at least would provide a satisfying tactile experience. This is not limited solely to appeasing the ignorant fingers of visitors however. Museums have long known that education functions more successfully when multi-sensory learning is able to take place. This is why museums have long striven to find ways in which they can permit visitors to touch things within exhibition displays, and to varying degrees of success.

At the Museo Correr in Piazza San Marco I spent some time recently fiddling with a complicated “augmented reality” exhibit that required you to hold a white disc in front of a camera that would then show you an onscreen image in which said disc was replaced in your hands by the Capsella di Samagher, an ivory Roman Reliquary from 5 AD, which is displayed in a cabinet behind. The exhibit is disheartening though as it is obviously expensive and takes up a lot of space in a venue that has little to spare, and it is entirely ineffectual. I wasn’t having a tactile experience of the object, I was having one of a white cardboard disc. On top of that, I was no longer looking at the object itself, but at a computer generated onscreen version of it that in actuality looked nothing like the real thing. It also took me at least 5 minutes of fumbling to work out how to reach this disappointing conclusion.

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3D printing is far more satisfying. While the materials and colours cannot be replicated yet, the shapes and textures certainly can. Nor do the advantages of 3D printing stop there. Jack Shoulder wrote an interesting piece last year about its implementation at the Grant Museum, where the bones and skeletal displays exhibited are accompanied by miniature 3D printed replicas of the creatures they once belonged to in order to help the visitor contextualise what they are being shown.

The idea of 3D printed replicas of exhibits as interpretive materials however was first brought to my attention at the second “Museum of the Future” debate at the British Museum last October. The idea was generally disregarded however but the reasoning for this was due to the gentleman following up his point with the alarming suggestion that visitors should be allowed to print off the exhibits they liked the most and then take them home with them.

In its current manifestation 3D printing does not pose much of a counterfeiting threat. I have no desire for example to take the ugly grey 3D Alchemy from the second room at the museum home and hang it on my wall, nor would I be able to successfully punt it through some dodgy backdoor art market. But technology is a vivacious beast and who are we to doubt that in the future such reproductions may not be possible? Alchemy of course will always be tricky as printing cigarette butts and sand is still realistically a long way off, but there are many valuable objects in museums across the world whose compositions are less complex. The ability to furnish 3D print outs with colour is something we must assume is being investigated, so the possibility of a Rosetta “Stone-effect” replica at some point is not such a ludicrous idea.

You could also argue that a 3D printer will never be able to replicate the artistic process, which is fair enough. The process of creating the artwork can often be what is of most interest when viewing the final piece. However, what if the interest in the piece lies only in financial gain? Artists and artworks have been fraudulently replicated, and even created for years. Sculpture for example will be incredibly susceptible to forgery via 3D printing in the future. Museums and galleries across the world are filled with statuary of questionable provenance due to the failure of artists to break their moulds after the initial production. Nowadays all it would take is a 3D scanner to digitally recreate the mould for any sculpture one desired, which if leaked to the online community could potentially lead to the “looting” of entire collections.

I am all for making collections digitally available however. The work of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam for example, and increasingly in other institutions across the world to make their collections viewable either through their own websites or initiatives such as the Google Art Project is a tremendous development. The advent of 3D printing however poses some serious questions as to the extent to which this should be done. Is there a line that can or should be drawn as to the extent to which collections can still be shared digitally, as they should be, without putting them in the grey areas of jeopardy created by technological developments such as 3D printing?

The Reality of Possibility

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Last week I attended the 2014 Museums Association Exhibition at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, and was fortunate to have been able to take in a number of free workshops from a selection of some of the UK’s most forward thinking museums and design companies. One that stuck with me particularly was a presentation from PEEL Interactive and Bill Seaman on their implementation of Augmented Reality (AR) app software at Colchester Castle.

As someone with a passion for envelope-pushing interpretation, to see what PEEL have achieved at Colchester was fascinating. A quick Google search defines AR as:

A technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view.” 

This had been my understanding of the technology up until last week, and I had seen it used to good effect. At Glasgow Science Centre’s Glasgow Tower for example, where 360° views of the city are supported by an AR map that allows you to zoom in on certain landmarks and obtain onscreen text interpretation for them. This, I believed was the extent of AR’s capability; a real time image, with additional text or images layered over the top. So to see some of the things PEEL are doing using AR software was a truly eye-opening experience.

So much so in fact that I would be hesitant to even describe it as AR, not under the parameters of Google’s definition anyway. The reality is that PEEL’s app at Colchester offers so much more. Although they have yet to roll the feature out, attendees at the MA Exhibition were afforded a sneak peak at a few of the things it will be capable of. Some highlights to my mind were portrait plaques that spring into life and speak to the visitor, entire rooms within the castle re-furnished to their original interiors, and ornate Roman wall slabs that are re-displayed in their historical location.

This creates a valuable visitor interactive because the interpretation offers something new. Rather than merely re-displaying what the audience can already see, the visitor is now offered an enhanced visual and at times tactile experience of every exhibit. The talking portrait plaques for example, turn a small, flat and unimposing object, into a lively, personable and engaging attraction. I am a firm believer in technology and informatics as a means of providing exhibits with what Eileen Hooper-Greenhill describes as “attracting power” and “holding power.” Using AR in the manner that Colchester Castle has, provides even the most unassuming objects with attracting power due to the curiosity instilled in the visitor as to what the app can add to their experience of it, and that experience in turn provides holding power as well. It is win-win.

The examples shown to us by PEEL were particularly effective because they provided new and exciting visitor experiences without diminishing or negating the physical exhibits themselves. While Google’s definition of AR places the object and the interpretation on the screen, PEEL’s onscreen product is entirely interpretation, ensuring that people are encouraged at all times to refer to the physical object. This is imperative for supporting material in any exhibition, and Colchester Castle appears to have found a novel and effective method of achieving this goal.

Of particular interest were the AR features relating to the ornate Roman wall slabs that the Castle has on display. Firstly, because the app will allow visitors to view the slabs in their original historical setting. This is incredibly useful for the visitor as it allows them to appreciate the objects as being of both individual and part of a collective historical importance. It’s not a perfect solution, but what the AR app does is afford the objects a small degree of the much-vaunted idea of “archaeological context,” allowing the exhibits to be viewed in relation to their inherent landscape and neighbouring artefacts. I was immediately reminded of a recent trip to see the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum, and how wonderful a similar app would be, that would allow the friezes to be viewed in their entirety, gap and damage free, and in their respective positions on the Athenian temple. Proponents of repatriation claim that the marbles need to be viewed in their original historical and cultural setting to provide a fuller understanding of them, whereas the British Museum argues that they are better contextualised within their displays of the human history of the world. To some extent, an AR app such as that at Colchester Castle could satisfy both demands?

The second thing that excited me about the Roman slab AR features was an interactive element that allows the user, as demonstrated in a short video by PEEL Interactive, to destroy the virtual on screen structures that the slabs were a part of, by tapping and swiping on the screen. This is both a novel and intuitive method of communicating the history of the objects and their provenance to the user, in a fun and engaging manner. In addition, it also provides the visitor with a tactile interaction to an exhibit that they are not permitted to touch, deepening their engagement and providing them with a richer, more rewarding experience.

As a teenager I was fortunate enough to visit the ancient city of Salamis in Northern Cyprus, where I witnessed hundreds of incredible Greek statuary, that for years I was ignorant as to why their faces had all been removed. I have since learned that this was due to the iconoclastic actions of invading Muslim forces throughout history, however there was no interpretation on site to reveal this at the time. The sight has always fascinated me and again, PEEL Interactive’s presentation immediately transported me there, filling my head with ideas for AR features that could complete the statues, bring them to life, and explain their current condition, much in the same way that the features for the Roman slabs at Colchester Castle will.

On the subject of statues, another workshop that really captured my imagination was the Talking Statues initiative, a collaborative effort from Sing London and Antenna Lab. This is yet another interpretive masterstroke. Talking Statues has equipped many of London and now Manchester’s most famous sculptural figures, from the “Unknown Soldier” at Paddington Station to Samuel Johnson’s cat “Hodge” or the Spitalfields Goat, with QR codes and web links that generate a “phone call” from the statue in question to the individual phone user.

The phone call element is effective because it feels more personal than listening through a prescribed audio guide device. In addition, the statues are voiced by familiar figures. Hodge the cat for example is portrayed by Nicholas Parsons, who sneaks in phrases such as “look at me for Just a Minute.” This increases the personal element by providing the listener with a voice they are already comfortable with, and allowing them to draw on snippets of existing knowledge amongst the educational content, giving users an immediate intellectual confidence in their engagement.

Although statues are 3D objects, I have always found them somewhat two dimensional in nature, especially if accompanied by limited interpretation. Talking Statues however, by audibly animating them, breathes life into the cold and unwavering expressions on their faces. By personifying the sculptures in this fashion, the initiative turns the statues into warm and engaging characters. Perhaps most importantly of all, it turns them into familiar characters, because they are. Many Londoners will walk past the “Couple on Seat” at Canary Wharf every single day, and now they can finally get to know them. Voiced by celebrity marital couple Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal, they may just feel like they always have.

There was much to get excited about this year at the Museums Association Exhibition and every workshop truly deserves mention. I have singled the presentations from PEEL Interactive and Sing London out because they are thematically akin, and interpretation is a theme I am greatly passionate about. Talking Statues is wonderful because it opens public artworks up to new audiences through accessible and engaging interaction, whilst PEEL Interactive’s work with Colchester Castle, if the ever-trusted Google search is to be believed, has re-imagined, and re-defined the possibilities of augmented reality technology.

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.

In Touch with Touchscreens

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On a number of museum visits recently, I have noticed that although they appear flashy and exciting, I have very little inclination to sit or stand at a self-contained touchscreen exhibit. They are often big, shiny, with moving images and video content, they are immediately eye catching, but they do nothing to spark my imagination.

 

There is no mystery in my mind as to why this is the case. It never used to be an issue; I have always been interested in trying out new and exciting forms of technology. But this is exactly the point; there is nothing new or exciting about touchscreens anymore. They are progressing to a point of omnipresence, with smartphones, tablets, TV’s and even ATM machines all utilizing the technology. A museum visit should be about experiencing extraordinary things, and touchscreens have become about as ordinary as a piece of technology can be.

 

This is not to say that using touchscreens is no longer worthwhile, it just means that they can no longer be considered as effective exhibits in and of themselves. While a touchscreen 10 years ago was regarded as an exciting object and a valuable experience, they are now retiring into a role of operating simply as an advanced form of interpretation. Their value in this role is undeniable, the quantity and variety of forms of information that they can display, in intuitive and exciting ways is unrivalled at this point in time. But they need to be accompanied now by something unusual. Be that an object or an interactive element that involves a task unusual to everyday life, something has to fill the “extraordinary” void that touchscreens have now stepped out of.

 

A fine example of this is at the Glasgow Science Centre’s recently re-opened Glasgow Tower. The Glasgow Tower is the world’s tallest freestanding, fully rotational tower, and it has a viewing deck at the top, a 105m high gallery that allows 360° panoramic views of the entire city. In this viewing gallery, the interpretation for the sights around you is contained within a series of iPad units, which display an interactive digital version of your view. You can then refer to these to zoom in on visible landmarks to find out what they are, and some information about them. These iPads are no different to the ones many people have at home, and the interpretation functions no differently to most map apps, but they are a valuable and rewarding interpretive method because they are an effective compliment to an extraordinary experience.

 

Extraordinary does not have to mean spectacular though. Obviously standing atop Scotland’s tallest tower, taking in views of the entire city of Glasgow falls into both of these categories. But extraordinary in this case only requires something to be different from the norm. It does not even have to be an interactive experience; it could be something as simple as an archaeological find, a statue or a painting. The National Museum of Scotland for example has several touchscreen interactives in its Connect gallery relating to the science and issues surrounding genetic cloning. The touchscreens themselves do not require any additional material to function as an exhibit, however the presence before them of the taxidermied remains of Dolly the Sheep, elevates an ordinary touchscreen experience, into an extraordinary experience. Dolly is arguably one of the worlds most famous cloning cases, so her presence (even indirectly) as a point of reference to the interpretive material, elevates the exhibit out of the ordinary.

 

The trouble though, is that museums have had it good for quite some time due to the implicit value attributed to touchscreens and getting to use them. It is only a recent development that has seen them become such a prevalent part of our daily lives. Prior to the advent of touchscreen phones and tablets, the act of using touchscreen technology, especially the intuitive forms we are used to now, was still an exciting experience in its own right. Many museums have had these installed at great expense over the past decade, however the unfortunate truth, for me at least, is that they now need to touch base, and find ways to reinvigorate these exhibits by adding another dimension to them. This does not have to be costly and dramatic, the example of Dolly the Sheep proves that it can be something simple, static and intangible. All it has to be is something different from the norm.

 

Museums now have to accept that not only are touchscreens now very much the norm, but they are fast becoming one of the most ordinary pieces of technology available to people. The time has come for institutions to get “in touch” with what makes an exciting, memorable experience, because for me, touchscreens on their own no longer, and will likely never again, provide this.

Living Interpretation

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I didn’t catch his name unfortunately; I had one eye on the thousands of butterflies in flight around me and one on a flight of my own that I later nearly missed.  It wasn’t until I had, as requested, checked myself for tiny winged “stowaways” and settled myself and my thoughts in the fresh air outside the humid tent of the Natural History Museum’s Sensational Butterflies that I was able to fully appreciate the extent to which the gallery assistant (if you could call him that) had really elevated my experience.

 

Sensational Butterflies is a temporary exhibition, housed in a large white tent on the east lawn of the London institution.  Within the great tarpaulin flutters thousands of butterflies, beautiful, colourful and varied.  The visitor enters through a large plastic curtain akin to those found on old supermarket fridges, and follow a short snaking path around a wonderfully arranged series of flowerbeds, all the while surrounded, always, by butterflies.  It is a truly magical experience.

 

The first sign you encounter as you enter the exhibition informs you not to use flash photography, not to stand on any of the specimens, and finally, not to panic if any of them land on you.  They are harmless after all.  I realised however when I had left the tent that this was the last thing I had read before the sign instructing me not to inadvertently steal any of the tiny fluttering exhibits on my way out.  There had been information panels and other interpretation dotted around the tent, but I hadn’t managed to take in any of it.  More often than not there was so much activity in the air around you that it was difficult to remain undistracted, occasionally the panels were even obscured by specimens who had camped out across the text for a poorly positioned rest.  I’ll also freely admit that I am somewhat “squeamish” around insects (especially winged ones) so I occasionally found myself conflicted as to whether to turn the rotating interactive panels that were intended to reveal interpretive material for fear that something “scary” was resting on the reverse side.

 

I now realise that it was with great fortuity that the exhibition was complimented by such affable, knowledgeable and enthusiastic floor staff.  The individual I spoke with approached us completely unprompted, but was an incredibly welcome interjection.  He was, entirely through his own merit, the most valuable piece of interpretation available to me.  Whilst my eyes were distracted by the forever flickering of wings in my peripherals, I was able to fully focus my uninhibited ears on the information he was so convivially conveying to me.  What I received was far more than an audible version of the text panels however.  Instead, this was interpretation with personality, which in turn made my experience of the exhibition more personal.  I was able to obtain the answers I wanted, received information I didn’t know I wanted, and was even able to broaden the scope of my visit by enquiring about some of the more exotic plant life on display, (including a fascinating discussion about the etymology of the Passion Flower), and about the National History Museum itself.  Most remarkably of all, his infectious enthusiasm for his insect subjects alleviated me of my unnecessary anxieties and for the first time I felt comfortable within the beating wings of my surroundings.

 

In the space of a five-minute conversation, he had achieved everything that good interpretation should.  He had made the content relevant to me personally, made me feel comfortable within the exhibition and with my understanding of it, and had prompted me to further question and discuss what I had learned.  Without the assistance of museum staff, interpretive materials must regularly exploit multi-sensory materials in order to achieve these outcomes (not all do yet, but they should).  Human contact however is multi-sensory in its own right, and it struck me, amidst the endless butterfly ballet, that this “living interpretation” is not only best suited to living subject material, but it is the best asset any exhibition can have.

 

Obviously, a world of museums where every front-of-house staff member knows everything there is to know about the collections and their relative subjects is a pipedream.  Those who do have knowledge of this kind tend to work behind the scenes as curators, collection managers and directors.  People do have interests though that can be exploited to positive ends.  University museums are perfectly positioned to do just that, the Kings Museum in Aberdeen and Glasgow’s The Hunterian for example both use students from sympathetic disciplines to give tours of different aspects of their collections.  At the latter for example, students who study or take interest in Art History show visitors around the Art Gallery, while those of an archaeological bent give talks on the Antonine Wall display in the museum.  This is a hugely effective process as, especially in the case of the Antonine Wall, many of the students have studied the subject directly, meaning they have a deeper pool of knowledge than any object label ever could, and the visitor can choose to dive as far into it as they desire.

 

These initiatives only work in the form of short tours however, as you cannot expect students to work the museum floor all day unpaid.  For larger institutions though, they should encourage their paid staff to take a more active role in exhibitions.  The duty of the museum should be to investigate who the people are who are representing them, find out what they know about, and what they are interested in and encourage them to follow these up.  The staff should then be made to feel comfortable and confident enough to develop a willingness to share their knowledge and expertise with the visitor.  They do not need to know everything about every thing, but a deeper, more engaging understanding of a few exhibits each, will every now and again, provide someone with a more a personal, memorable museum experience, as was the case with my trip to Sensational Butterflies.

 

The essential element here is that the information provided by the staff stems from genuine interest.  Handing out scripts or asking guides to play different characters, fictionalises their role, depersonalising them, and in turn, your experience.  Museums are full of extraordinary things, but they are real things, and they should be communicated to the world by real people, with a real interest in them.  This is what I found at the National History Museum.  The passion that exuded from the staff member I conversed with elevated every aspect of my visit, and an exhibition that at one point threatened to flutter past me, is now an important and affectionate memory.

 

“Choicepoints” Make Prizes

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This week my attention was drawn to an article written by Stephen Bitgood, a leading psychology professor at Jacksonville State University.  In it, he discusses the orientation of casinos, and their deliberate attempts to disorientate their visitors in order to make them spend more time and money in them.  He then compares the layout of museums and criticizes them, namely the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for being so similar, instead heaping praise on the North Carolina Museum of Natural History for its simple geometric design and its easy, “shopping area” navigability.  But is there really anything wrong with getting lost in a museum?

 

Obviously I am not advocating a funhouse museum filled with trapdoors, moving walls and those stairs that turn into slides that Scooby Do always falls foul of.  But a non-linear orientation that allows the visitor to carve out their own narrative by twisting and turning through an intricate, yet natural web of exhibits will greatly elevate their experience.  Neat, functional grids are ordinary, and a museum should be an extraordinary experience.  Cities use grids because they make navigation simple for the people who live there, and point A and point B can be connected as quickly as possible.  However the winding streets of Edinburgh’s old town provide visitors to the city with a far richer adventure than the endlessly repeating blocks of Glasgow city centre.  Yes they may be frustrating for those who live there, but nobody lives in a museum.  At the museum everyone is “just visiting,” and the purpose of this visit is to explore an interesting, out of the ordinary, environment, and they mostly want to take their time in doing so.

 

A museum should lift people out of the city anyway, elevating them above the sights and sounds of everyday life.  Old museum building deliberately used to do this, that’s why they all had staircases leading up to the front door.  When Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux designed New York’s Central Park in 1857, they deliberately did so without the use of straight lines.  There are few straight paths and right angles in nature.  Central Park was intended to transport the visitor out of the city and back into nature, to the much idyllicised American wilderness (you couldn’t even see the buildings through the trees back then).  A museum should do the same thing; it should elevate its visitors out of the ordinary, into the out-of-ordinary.

 

The visitors should not be afraid to immerse themselves in the museum.  Bitgood talks of how casinos mask their exits from the customers view, but you don’t need to always be in view of the door at a museum either.  As long as it’s signposted properly it doesn’t matter whether you can see it or not.  A museum has bigger problems if its visitors are constantly ensuring they have a visible escape route.  A visitor should never be concerned with leaving, only with what they will discover next.

 

Bitgood is also critical of the over-prevalence of what he refers to as “choicepoints” in casinos.  Their purpose in such establishments is to disorientate the visitor, preventing them from mentally mapping their surroundings and forcing them to spend longer on the casino floor, even when they are trying to leave.  In a museum however, “choicepoints” are wonderful things.  They help personalise the visitor’s experience, and create equilibrium within galleries, with people constantly weaving in different directions, following their own narrative paths.

 

This weekend I visited London’s Natural History Museum where they have in recent years refurbished their Volcanoes and Earthquakes exhibition.  It is however, presented within a long corridor space, with displays down each wall and intermittently in the centre.  The effect here is that you are confronted with two narrow channels and never more than two “choicepoints,” to go straight on, or to attempt to “slalom” between both.  Granted it was an unusually busy day, but what I witnessed was that people, intentionally or otherwise, chose the former, tending to stick to a single channel, drifting through the exhibition within the stiff current of visitors.  This for me is a gallery that would benefit greatly from allowing its visitors to snake, like lava, into the cracks and crevices of a more open, less linear environment, accentuating the unpredictable nature of its subject matter.

 

I do appreciate though that space is not always a given luxury, especially in older buildings such as that of the Natural History Museum, and even there my volcanic grievances were not perpetuated throughout.  In the limited time available to me I visited the Creepy Crawley exhibition, a large gallery space split into four zones that the visitor can slink and sneak in and out of at their leisure, and stood in awe beneath the Diplodocus in Hintze Hall, where I could see objects and exhibits up on the balconies, down grand hallways and looming from behind the cathedral-like columns.  It was overwhelming, it was disorientating, and it was amazing.

 

In order to send the visitor on an adventure, the museum must encourage them to explore.  The Museum of Scotland Building, at the National Museum of Scotland, built in 1999 is very good at this.  Everywhere you look there are small holes in the walls, revealing snippets of things to discover in other rooms.  Sometimes you can even see through staircases to exhibitions on other floors and there is very rarely a clear line of sight to the bottom of a corridor.  The St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Art and Life in Glasgow too, contains wonderful little architectural features that allow the visitor to see through “peep-holes” in the walls behind display cases, giving tiny glimpses of objects to seek out in adjacent rooms.  In both of these museums the visitor is enticed, constantly by teasing sightings of further treasures for them to discover, and encouraged to seek their own pathways to them.

 

The reason Stephen Bitgood has found so many museums with casino-esque orientation is because, for me, they are better for it.  The museum of course is not intentionally trying to trap its visitors, waypoints and exits will always be clearly signposted, but the visitor should be encouraged, just for a while, to ignore these, to voluntarily lose themselves in the museum.  The important difference a museum and a casino should have though, is that everyone who leaves a museum, should do so with their lives enriched.