The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

28 March 2011

Hop the Second - Plenary Speaker

Dr Ross Parry, School of Museum Studies, Through the Looking Glass: Museums and Make-Beleive.

Inspired by the 'subversiveness' of the spirit of the conference, Ross has chosen to do something...well, different, in terms of the keynote speaker. The journey into this research has just begun, and he needs a white rabbit to guide him through the looking glass... This project is as much about the histories and ontologies of museums, as much as digital heritage. He is troubled by the way digitality has troubled the fundamental aspects of the museum - of trust, of authenticity, of authority, of credibility, truth and accuracy. What are the rules?

We trust museums. They don't lie or get things wrong. Why do we trust them, however? They have evidence, academic credentials, labels that use big words. It's hard to dissociate museums from the development of other academic institutions. Museums are honest and reliable. They're filled with stuff - genuine objects which show us and tell us stories. Empiricism was the tennet of truth with which the museum, in all it's materiality, grew up. Museums meet society's need for tangible evidence, and they do so with ethical frameworks, principles which they operate by. All of these things come together to create that trusted institution that we call the museum.

But what would happen if we didn't trust the Museum? Surely that would be an impossibility? But the digital world, that of Baudrillard's simulacra, disturbs and discomforts many of these fundamental laws. It operates in 000000 and 111111, creates replicas, virtual objects, which are fluid and editible. And yet at times we trust them. In interactives, in websites, in projects such as Google Art Project, we engage with objects, and trust them. But we are, at the same time, aware that there is an uncanny ambiguity, a constant state of flux in which information can be constantly edited. The stability of the trustworthy museum seems, therefore, threatened.

Should we, then, remove computers and the digital world from the museum? Of course, not - it has enabled the museum to expand beyond its walls, to become dynamic and engaging, to entangle itself in social worlds which have not previously responded. It's something of a paradox that slippery, uncertain digitality, has such an important role to play in the museum. So what does this mean? Does 'trust' require a new definition? Are museums, in fact, not predicated on trust? Are there other aspects of museum practice which are more about make-believe and the suspension of disbeleif? Is there a place for metaphor, for theatre, for storytelling, for show - all of it meticulously evidenced? Can we trust the unreal?

Museums have long presented replicas, models - and over time, these develop their own authenticity, a different kind of genuineness. Institutions, such as the Getty Museum and the Eden Project, are immersive, theatrical illusions - simulations, imitations, the value of which we would never question. Virtual reality projects can move and inspire by creating an insubstantial past in pixels, or watching the development of a city now ruined.

The last point, however, is the hardest. What happens when the museum engages with irony and fiction to illustrate the real? Figuration, opposition. What is their role in the museum? The Danish Media Museum plays an ironic, knowing joke, by presenting the visitor with a typewriter to give their response. And it works, through it's intentional clumsiness. We can learn from this, and we often trust it - perhaps more so, I would argue, for the person who knows that what they do is make-beleive, is the person we rely on to tell us another kind of truth.

Does this really work? Does illusion, metaphor, play, theatre, have a value? Ross thinks that there's another route to 'authenticity' and truth, which comes from a place other than empiricism, and evidence. This is a place of performance, of make beleive. Alice returned to a place of 'dull reality' - she realised that she had to grow up. But she never really left behind the 'dream of Wonderland,' which she knew would always be there.

Museums, Ross says, can be that dream, that place in which we can reflect upon authenticity. But, Jez Collins asks, who are the gatekeepers? Who chooses how you can enter Wonderland and when? What about seriousness, and subjects of trauma and moral complexity? What do we do then? These questions are hard ones to answer, and perhaps they are one of the reasons why museums have often been afraid to tackle Wonderland.

I certainly think that the cartography of this place is worth exploring, if we are prepared to accept the world as something subjective and shifting. If we're prepared to accept 'the truths of life's fictions', a Trinh once said, then we can still give those fictions veracity. This is true of all elements of life - and museum practitioners, audiences, academics, need to, perhaps, learn to accept, and be confident the value of the extraordinary.

Thank you, Ross. We want to follow the Rabbit, through the Looking Glass, for many years to come.

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