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

28 March 2012

More photos: Day 2

Photos from attendees on Twitter:

A nice welcome from the restaurant during the conference dinner yesterday.

Your conference organizers take a bow.

A collage of impressions.

A Final Port?

Utopia, it seems, is always just out of reach. It is multifarious, digressive, personal, massive, tiny, intimate and public. It is seen and unseen, tangible and intangible, a temptation and a lure always just slightly out of reach. It is shadowy round the edges, and over the course of the last two days we've talked and sailed around it. I say 'it' - perhaps that is the wrong word. For utopia is not singular, and perhaps rather than one solitary and universal goal, we should aim towards creating those tiny, multiple, resonant moments, those atoms of time, 'saturated' with meaning.

It is, for me, in those moments that utopias can be touched. They are real, experiential things, based upon specific, defined interactions of time, space, thing and consciousness. Consistently in the processes of birth and death, always mutable and odd, these individualised utopias can, nonetheless, be made manifest. What we have to realize is that the perceived loss of a universal utopia might well be a gain. To paraphrase Valéry, the best way to make utopia come true is to wake up - and to wake up, more specifically, to its evocation, and appearance, in the everyday.

Here we are at the end of the conference, but not, it seems, at the end of our journey. We hope that you'll take on many of the ideas and notions which have arisen throughout the last couple of days into your own thinking and practice. In your day to day lives, personal and professional, we hope you'll let numerous utopias, real and imagined, shared and private, peep through cracks in the mundane.

For all that we go our separate ways, it is time for us all to set sail once again...hopefully, we'll see you somewhere, sometime, beyond the sunset, beyond the western stars.

A Final, and Rather Unexpected Sounding: Museum Transparency - Utopia/Dystopia

For our new Keynote, Janet Marstine, transparency is a huge ethical issue and ideal, not just in museums but across culture. But it is a complex issue, one which we have yet to come to terms with.

Even in their architecture, museums can be interpreted as reaching towards a transparent ideal, for many of them use large panes of clear glass as a metaphor for clarity, honesty and openness. But in looking through glass, we see reflections, fascinating intimations of another world; for glass presents, in fact, illusions of transparency.

Many conceptualizations of utopia invoke transparency as a transformational notion. The idealized notion of transparency associates it with measurable quantities, with enlightenment, democracy, and the ultimate, open truth. Transparency has been lauded as a human right, critical for even understanding what our other rights are.

But there is a tension between holding and revealing. It is not just a passive act of unveiling, but a negotiated engagement. Indeed, it is a contentious ideal, one which has to be defined by borders and boundaries and which, in fact, can create new boundaries, new limits.

Most of what is shared is that which is easy to benchmark - financial information and visitor numbers, for example. Less do we share curatorial modes of thinking, or institutional motivations. But if we were to do so, we might have to open ourselves up to vulnerability, to question who has the right to speak for whom, when and why.

Making transparency meaningful is a hard thing to do. On the one hand, transparency analyses behavior, and can thus empower communities into taking action. It implies the equitable sharing of knowledge, which necessitates translation, negotiation, and the identification of the motivations and authorities of those involved.

There are two basic approaches to performing transparency in museums - the 'dashboard approach', and 'radical transparency'. Neither is better than the other, but both allow us to see different things, and should be permitted to work in conjunction to create efficacy.

The dashboard approach gives hard, measurable data - it's efficient, but it certainly lacks some sense of what those data might mean. Radical transparency, on the other hand, lacks measurable efficiency, but does have substance.

The former is exemplified in the Indianapolis Museum of Art - when you enter their website you can access a panoply of statistics - including endowment and financial dips - a risky thing to do. But they feel presenting such information adds value and creates trust. Yet this kind of transparency isn't always easy to practice. It requires a centralized communication system and management structure, not always present in institutions where departments do not communicate well. It also lacks depth, for neither does it reveal deeper, analytical meanings, nor the negotiations and compromises which lie behind the data collected, and especially that presented. It is important, too, to note that it is mainly those with a special interest - largely insiders, employees, rather than publics - who use dashboard information to validate and measure their own performance in a way akin to that suggested by Gloria. Some of those who propound radical transparency, indeed, see its statistics not as revelatory, but as an impediment to the development and creation of transparency.

Janet is particularly interested in radical transparency, which allows those statistics to become meaningful. O'Neil's work in the philosophy of communication has, for Janet, been particularly influential. We need to think, to consider, who is talking to who, and what the back and forth dialogue is between the communicants. Manchester Museum uses the model of radical transparency to look at their past history and identity in a very powerful way. In the exhibition Myths about Race, which arose in the context of the Abolition anniversary, this was especially apparent; however, their knowledge and openness regarding their colonial past and its continuing legacy is long, and broadly standing. Radical transparency allows consumers of information to consider their choices and to take action; this is risky, for it makes museums vulnerable, partially giving up their status as doorkeepers, but it allows for the generation of civic engagement and shared authority.

Radical transparency is committed to reciprocity between museums and their public, particularly in terms of the choices and decision making processes which both face. It is committed to the equal opportunity of all participants to act upon information, is sensitive to audience needs and their expertise, and recognizes that whilst conflict can be painful, it can also be very, very important, useful and transformative. For instance, in performing institutional critique, museums open themselves up to this kind of radical, reciprocal understanding.

Radical transparency also allows informed choice, giving readers and visitors permission to decide how to engage with difficult, challenging subjects. By presenting the information that there are human remains in the gallery, Manchester Museum gives the visitor the option to avoid seeing them. Social media can also be a tool to enhance this, with curators and museum professionals talking about their day to day activities and professional ideals. It should also be remembered that, if museums are to thus engage with communities and visitors, they must also be able to do so in regard to their own staff. This, I believe, is something which could quite easily be overlooked.

Negotiating boundaries is inherent in radical transparency initiatives. An awareness needs to be maintained between ethics and the law, and it should also be pointed out that transparency is not always the best option for maintaining integrity. Confidentiality is also an important ethical principle to bear in mind, but it needs to be justified. We must, of course, be careful to recognize that principles we hold can sometimes come into conflict - and part of the utopian action, perhaps, is to mediate and manage these conflicts to the best possible ends.

There is no end point, no complete transparency; its generation is an ongoing process. There is no final, tangible utopia of openness towards which we can reach. But negotiating its speculative boundaries are central to good management, and allow us to strive towards something better, something more social, responsible and ethical.

Can we realise utopian dreams? This is a question I have been thinking about throughout the conference. I had, temporarily, begun to wonder if we'd ever reach a point of certainty, and whether this would be a problem or not. Fortunately, the practicalities of Janet's presentation suggest that there are activities which we can perform in order to make things better, even if there is no final ideal which we will reach. The utopian desire, then, can perhaps best be made manifest through individual, specific and contingent actions which strive towards making one particular thing better. By focusing less on the particular defined nature of the final location, perhaps we need to do the best that we can do with what we have at each independent, momentary point in time.

An Eighteenth Sounding: Museum 2.0

Web Utopia and Museum Utopia's Converging Paths

In the final delegate paper of the day, Cristiano Agostino from the University of Edinburgh notes the impending collision of two Utopias - that of the Web, and that of the Museum, particularly in regard to the media strategies deployed by museums and related institutions, particularly art organizations, which have developed their own ideals of utopia, to do with the rarefied, auratic status of the art object.

A new utopian drive, as we saw earlier in Miranda's paper, to invite subversion and institutional critique in the museum began to arise over the course of the late 20th century. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the concept of Relational Aesthetics also began to arise, and the paradigm for art, for its display, and indeed, for the notion of the art museum itself, began to change. Bourriard, indeed, wrote about the microtopia - a small, contingent utopia of the moment which creates a temporary, rather than universal, ideal of the moment. Does this leave anything tangible, and does it lead to a real utopian experience? This is the crux of the amelioration paradigm - in this freedom, can we still create meaningful and useful experiences?

Such microtopias, contingent environments, might well be related to the World Wide Web. Since 2002, the Social Web has harbored great potential for opening up large spaces in which miniscule, temporary, 'guerrilla' microtopias can be created. From its beginning thought of as an open and dialogic arena, the Web's ameliorative possibilities have, for equally as long, been queried and criticized. How free, I wonder, are we in the virtual, online world? Is the strive towards perfection, as Helen suggested, always a frustrated one - and indeed, is that eschatological urge towards the future reductive, suggestive of a grand, predefined narrative and heavily philosophically problematic.

Neither are Web audiences as open, as active, or as present as those who propound the virtues of the virtual might like to think. On average, around 90% of those who go through an interactive website will leave no tangible place of their passage. 9% will contribute and interact sporadically, and only 1% will actively, regularly, engage.

So how do museums and art institutions, which themselves suffer from similar problems, negotiate these digital issues? Cristiano's work suggests that there are specific kind of media strategies which they employ - and many of the principles which underly this have heavily utopian content. But these principles, and ideas, are dependent upon the newest, shiniest things which we have to hand - dependent upon technologies which are constantly changing, developing and arising. Is the approach of museums and institutions to the social media - and, indeed, the idealized manifesto of social media itself - something rather more akin to wishful thinking than practical reality?

This is a rather difficult, sad note to end on. So I wonder if there is anything we can do? Perhaps this is a time of development, a time of changing technology but also changing attitudes in which we cannot risk romanticizing the possibilities we are presented with - celebrating their strengths, of course, but also recognizing their limitations.

This session has indeed seriously questioned the nature of the profession, its history and its actions. We always need, it seems, to question the motivations which we, as academics and practitioners have in our work, and our utopian seekings. It remains important, too, that we question the tools we use, considering not just their present impact, but their future possibilities, connotations and flaws.

We're heading towards another, last, break now, before our Keynote. Those of you reading only online might be expecting Bernadette Lynch will be sad to know that, due to illness, she is unable to attend. However, our own Janet Marstine is bravely stepping into the breach - so sign back in soon, after getting yourselves a cup of tea, for a mysterious journey into another, unexpected, utopia.

A Seventeenth Sounding: What We Know About Our Audiences

Utopian or Cynical Behaviour?

Visitor studies seems critical for museums - but their usefulness, validity as scientific collections of data, and their influence can be questioned. It is this that Gloria Romanello seeks to investigate. Using a qualitative method allows her to add a level of theory, of insight and understanding - albeit subjectively. She selected and interviewed members of staff at three contemporary art museums who were directly involved with community and visitor engagement. It is not, in this case the scientific validity of the survey which is questioned, but the motivations and biases which lie behind them.

Counter to what we tend to think, the reasons that visitor studies are instigated do not seem to be to do with increased democratization or the public knowledge, but the personal identity of the staff conducting and instigating them, and their desire not just improve, but to validate their own performance. It is worth questioning who precisely are the instigators of the investigation and who, indeed, are those who perform the action. Whether they are internal or external, 'superstar evaluator' or front of house staff, is certainly related to what, and why, their motivations might be, and perhaps, how cynical we should be about them.

Concrete and objective data is also used as a justification to, and for, the upper levels, turning visitor studies into an instrument at the service of the organization, measuring and validating what they, and the individuals within them, do. It is also used to develop interior, interdepartmental working, once again focussed not upon the outside world, but upon the inner existence of the museum concerned. In practicing visitor surveying, museums can justify themselves to exterior bodies - official or commercial - and can use the data collected to maximize their marketing potential. We can hardly deny, for instance, that when a survey asks for demographic data such as name, age, gender, race, that there is a possibility that these results might be used, more cynically, for marketing purposes.

Is this hypocritical behavior? Is the overstatement of the value of visitor studies as developing democratic, educational and social services counter to that more interior drive which Gloria found in her interviews? I'm not sure that the two need be, or even are, mutually exclusive. What I would suggest is a more interesting question to interrogate is the enhancement of the visitor-museum divide, and the emphasis which is once more placed upon the authority of the "Museum Institution".

Is the situation as sinisterly Orwellian as this? I think that we should, indeed, question the motivations which lie behind taking actions such as visitor studies - there may, of course, always be ulterior motives for some, but whether this negates the value of the other, less cynical and more visitor-focused ideals is a debatable point. But we should also harbor some sense of hope - I imagine that there are many out there for whom the museum visitor survey or study remains a task designed to seek, and make a better exhibition, a better institution - and perhaps, a better world.

A Sixteenth Sounding: The Best as the Enemy of the Good

Utopian Approaches to Professional Practice in UK Museums

Our own Helen Wilkinson worked at the documentation department at the V&A in the 1990s, where she first encountered the phrase 'The Best as the Enemy of the Good' - that perfectionism can be damaging, as well as idealistic. Whilst Helen was working there, a new state of the art cataloging system was being implemented.

But no one wanted it to use it - neither the senior nor junior curators. Why had this solution, which was to complex and too perfect, been implemented? In the 1980s, the care of collections at National museums had been audited, in the government's scrutiny of the use of public money. It was a particularly horrible period for all concerned; collections care was considered to be in a terrible state.

This fear of repeating the mistakes and negligence of the past - indeed, clearing it up - has significantly impacted upon professional practice. Helen has much experience in this - a practitioner herself for many years, she is now here studying the history of curatorial practice for her thesis. Looking currently at documentation in which museum practitioners reflect on their own practice, she can trace a common theme from the post war period - the strive towards perfection, planning, and forward movement. The dark days of the past are often referred to, and one generation's utopia becomes the dystopia of the next.

In the immediate post war period New Walk was home to very important people and activities in the development of professional practice, and in the Special Collections here at Leicester, we can find much of the literature which they published - and which is really telling. In 1955, too the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery published a document which showcases how the turn from collecting to public display in that period was considered a search towards a perfectible ideal. A large scale redevelopment of Paisley Museum in 1970 resulted in a document which also shows how attitudes towards the staff needed - specialists, not hobbyists, with technical professional, particularly museological skills. Constantly, it seems, the rejection of the past recurrs.

The decades following World War Two were periods of public reconstruction. Even in the 1960s, many museums were still repairing the damage done by the bombs, and many new municipal museums were opened as towns tried to imagine themselves as parts of this sleek new modernity. Codes of Ethics and minimum standards for practice and training were established, new specialist groups, and protests against a lack of the professions recognition were also prominent, and the professionalization of the museum increased exponentially.

In the 1960s, too, University level courses in Museum Studies and practice were developed - first here at Leicester, and then slightly later at Manchester. Again, this is perhaps evidence for that strive towards to ideal - in the perfected, rarefied atmosphere of the University, however, the constraints of practice were not always realized.

Why has this drive towards perfection been so powerful? As Liisi's discussion yesterday showed, given time, objects and space, anyone can create a museum. perhaps the professionalism drive, Helen suggests, is in part an attempt to distance between the professional practitioner, and the amateur - a rather longstanding issue, and one which Helen has yet to think through.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a whole series of reports and investigations, including some funded by the Carnegie Foundation, suggested that museums should concentrate on the local, rather than the universal collections of the past. But there are hints that, with localism and standardized, scientific displays and contents, the drive towards professionalism leads towards dullness, leads towards a lack of engagement with the visitor and, perhaps, a loss of poetry.

Perhaps a better focus for the Utopian drive should be focused not upon the profession's development, but upon the engagement with and desires of, the public.

I myself worry about standards. The risk, for me, is that in driving towards the ideal, we risk a number of hegemonic errors. Not only do we reduce the nature of museums to measurable elements, we also flatten them, give them identical rules which lead to their increasing similitude. Particularly of concern too is the loss of the past - we should think, perhaps, of what we loose when we change and standardise our practice. We need to give room to the idiosyncratic and the strange. Each individual museum should be recognized - celebrated - for the bizarre, peculiar, curious thing it is - and this, perhaps, is the closest we can get to utopia.

A Fifteenth Sounding: Remaking Utopia in the Museum

Artists As Curators

How and why, asks Miranda Stearn, should museums engage with and encourage work with contemporary artists? Is it possible that, in these interventions, new Utopias can be created?

Mark Dion once wrote that artists working in the field of institutional critique fall into one of two camps - one who sees it as wholly negative, and those who want to change them from the outside, through the creation of their own utopias.

Inviting practitioners of institutional critique into the museum is, for a curator, both appealing and problematic. Mutual benefits can certainly be gained; new knowledges can be created around collections, and artists are able to gain access and new information upon art and objects of interest. Museums are also able, through these processes, to engage in self-reflection.

The turbulent transformation of Hans Haacke from outsider critic to internal collaborator shows how the relationship between museums and artists has not always been a smooth one. In 1971, the Guggenheim insisted that Haacke omit three of his works from a proposed exhibition. Haacke refused, and the museum canceled the show. After doing so, the director lost his job, and the institution was boycotted and criticized. Haacke's work was not shown in or bought by another American Museum for 12 years. In 1974, in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, politically difficult biographical details of an organizer's links to the Nazi party did not, of course, go down well.

This often resulted in his being shown mainly in small, commercial or private, galleries. But eventually, he did return to the museum - and it is interesting that he was invited to do so, even though he remained as controversial as every. In Mixed Messages at the Sepentine in 2001, he was permitted to dispense with normal display conventions, and make connections between objects not typically displayed together. Haacke emphasized the importance of drawing out the imperial, colonial context of the collections of the V&A, which he tried to express and undermine in Mixed Messages. For Haacke, though imperialism is only one of many elements of the V&A, it's important that there are nuanced understandings of as much as possible of their underlying ideologies.

We also sense, however, a mellowing of Haacke's attitude - which he attributed himself to a shift from the specific, present situation of any particular institution, to broader historical and social concerns.

Thus can the museum be transformed from a purveyor of institutional attitudes, to a facilitator of more personal responses. In Haacke's work, new attitudes towards objects which it would take many lines of texts to create, are brought into being.

But why don't curators do this themselves, rather than inviting contemporary artists in? The risk is isolated to a single project, and responsibility for it is transfered. But the skills of the artist, and their particular ways of seeing, should also be considered.

The institutional critique offered by these practices is, of course, to some extent limited by the fact that the museum has chosen, and commissioned an artist - the situation is complex. It is true, certainly, that the messages received by visitors are changed by artistic interventions. But we have to understand how the status of museums, and the status of the artist-curator invited to perform institutional critique, affect the meanings which the audience make, and the results which eventually transpire from the collaboration and engagement of museum and artist.

We're talking around utopia. We're circling it, and never yet quite reaching it. This morning we dreamed it - but that dream remained deferred - and we have just queried some of its problems, of a practical and more abstract, ontological nature. It's almost time for us to take a break now, but I'll leave you with this question - will the next session, 'Questioning the Profession', further distance us from our destination? Perhaps, instead of continually reaching and not quite touching, we need to reconsider the nature(s?) and location(s?) of that as yet nebulous destination.

A Fourteenth Sounding: Multilingual Museums

A Linguistic Utopia or a Logistical Dystopia?

What, asks Jean Price, is the role of endangered languages in museums? What is the role of the museum in creating and supporting linguistic identities? Can they support endangered languages - should they, especially when different language groups come into conflict?

More than 40% of the languages in the world are unlikely to last the century. Three languages die every day, many more than animal and plant species. In these deaths, resources, knowledges, and cultures die. It is worth questioning how, why and whether these are worth preserving.

The government of the Republic of Ireland spends a huge amount of money supporting Irish, though it is spoken only in a few areas increasingly focused in the West of Ireland. It is very scattered, and there are claims that the different areas of Irish speak languages unintelligible to each other - whether this is true or not is questionable. Schools have massive pressure upon them to promote and teach Irish, and they do so often in forceful ways. People rebel.

The situation in the North is very different. A set of policies called the Good Relations Policies make provision for language protection, like their relative the Good Friday Agreements. Interestingly, however, because of the complex political situation in Ireland, indigenous languages are subsumed to the benefit of the incoming immigrant communities.

In the large tourist destinations, providing Irish language provision is not a priority: other languages such as German, French, Chinese and Slavic languages are deemed more important. Often members of staff are also speakers of these larger languages - but very often there are no Irish speakers. Costs, budgets, and time also play a part.

If a museum is located in a Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) region, they are often bilingual. There are compelling reasons for including Irish, which include identity and the symbolic power of speech. But they also often have strong content links to the Irish language, such as in the house of Pádraig Pearse; it is interesting to note that here, quotes originally written in Irish are not translated into English, but nor are quotes originally English translated into Irish.

In certain institutions a local or National language policy requires that Irish be slightly more prominent. There is, here, partly an issue of symbolic identity, whether contemporary or historic - particularly in institutions in Republican areas.

Many institutions clearly put a lot of effort into promoting Irish. In conducting exit surveys, Jean found that when she asked people how many languages they had seen in these bilingual museums, most noted that there were, at least, two languages, and nearly every person noticed that Irish came first. So clearly, it's being noticed. Interestingly, however, virtually no one seems to have used it; aside from those attending with children, who made those children read it!

So, to some extent, Irish has a purely symbolic role - depressing, if the language is supposed to survive and remain alive. But it is clear that there is an important relationship between language, history and identity, and that museums can play off this to create powerful resonances around displays and objects. In the V&A, objects are displayed with labels in their home languages - and this, for Jean, is an ideal.

Language is so important to us. Different languages inculcate different meanings, in and around people and objects, and whether they are accessible to everyone or not, their preservation seems worthwhile. It is, perhaps, inevitable that languages will die - everything changes and decays, and all languages are in a constant process of change. Is it worthwhile to attempt to preserve some elements of these meanings, however fragmentary and partial they may be, and however flawed our interpretations of those meanings are? The recreation, the identical rereading of a text or object out of its original context is impossible, even at times for those with direct access to the language. We need to recognize this, yet not let it deter us from attempting to preserve, and try to understand, everything that we can.

A Thirteenth Sounding: Religious Freedom in Museums

A Modern Utopia?

In Thomas Moore's vision of utopia, no man was to be punished for their religious beleifs, and Utopia was defined in part as a site wherein people were able to live side by side. How, asks Stephanie Berns, can museums facilitate the creation of such an environment? Particularly as they are often conceptualised as secular places - but they are often engaged with in terms of the religious sensibilities of visitors - including atheists.

The founder of the British Museum, Hans Sloane, wanted to glorify God, verify his faith, and to 'confute' atheism. This seems, perhaps, surprising in the context of the Enlightenment. Yet Catholicism, during the 1800s, was barred from the museum - even in terms of the staff. The national museums in the country are very much informed by the pressures of religion, and the government, which masks the Protestant influence which lies behind a number of them - particularly in the case of the British Museum.

When an exhibition, then, displays one particular faith, is it possible for it to inculcate tolerance and freedom. Her case study, in this instance, is Treasures of Heaven, which ran from June to October last year. It provided, Steph says, a relatively peaceful space in which people might enact rituals of reverence in relation to relics and objects. Most of the visitors, indeed, were catholic or orthodox. Those who were not religious were able to engage with the objects on a more aesthetic level.

In order to encourage an atmosphere of reverence, music was used, piping the sound of the medieval world into the contemporary space. For some, this was disturbing, particularly the more traditional visitors.

In interviewing visitors to Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, currently on display, Steph found that of those visitors who were not Muslim, many of them wishes to attend to learn more about the faith so that they could understand the cultures and backgrounds of their friends.

But this exhibition was accused of being too safe - it did not question the events of the Koran or the veracity of the objects. Does this blur the borders between reality and fiction, confusing history, and undermining the veracity of the museum as an authority. But perhaps, in the current political climate, such compromises had to be made. It is difficult to say, however, whether such spaces can ever be safe, given that visitors can always respond in their own way, can always be offended by display styles or texts, or indeed by the very objects themselves.

How can we understand museums and religion today? Calling the museum a multifaith space negates the presence of the non-religious. What about considering them a post-secular space? Above, Steph has managed to show that in many cases museums have never been secular. What, then, about post-religion? For many individuals, the boundaries between religious and secular life are unclear.

She proposes, then, that museums are not in a new age, but that we have new ways of understanding them in their phenomena. The secular museum is an illusion. The museum can be many things to many people – even those which are dedicated to a singular faith. We have to recognize the agencies of all the actors taking part in the creation of museal meaning.

We need, certainly, to understand that museums have ideological backgrounds, and we need to recognize that. Whether those ideologies should be given power in civil life is a question currently in debate in the UK. It's a difficult question to answer. Who has the power to define toleration, and how?

A Twelfth Sounding: Dreaming New Thoughts

Between Self and Utopia

The chairs have been intriguingly rearranged into concentric, snowflake like circles. The plan is to share dreams and images, and facilitate the development of more collective imaginings. Julian Manley is a specialist in Psycho-Social Studies, particularly 'social dreaming', and has facilitated a number of such workshops over the last six years.

Social dreaming can create a bridge between the self and the environment - such as between the museum visitor and the museum environment - and thus encourage the creation of new spaces of engagement. In difficult situations, exhibitions displaying potentially problematic or traumatic materials and subjects, such spaces can be particularly useful, he argues, if not necessary. For sometimes people leave such sites with strong, perhaps negative feelings, and no ability to voice and vent them.

In social dreaming sessions, the images which can be seen in an exhibition can be brought into the workshop, and shared, expressing emotions through the symbolic language of those images.

What is social dreaming? The best way to explain it is to do it. So the delegates are asked to speak their nighttime dreams, or the images which arise in association with those shared by others.

This is a quiet session. People share recurring dreams, dreams of turbulence, dreams of buildings, of places, of people. Of running, flying, falling. A lot of these dreams talk about space, and the actions of people within it - when they misjudge it, or have to use it, or when familiar spaces change, or fall into ruin. Sites in which time and space collapse...

How can such sessions really be used within a museum context? How can this kind of thinking be used to make things mean differently? I do wonder, when we walk around a museum with a group or partner, and we talk and share, we are, in some sense, sharing those similar feelings, dreams, imaginings already. This social engagement with spaces and objects changes what they mean. That new meaning is no more or less valuable than the imaginings we have in our solitary contemplation; but they are of a very different character. When we set them in a defined context such as this, we change them once again - once again, perhaps, they become less personal, a level more objective and public. Do they allow us to come to some accommodation with strong, perhaps uncomfortable emotions which we might have experienced? To resolve unanswered questions and things which the exhibition did not enable us to express. What can a museum learn from this? What information about the displays, and how they should treat visitors, can they glean from such sessions? How would they - and should they - integrate such events into planning their exhibitions, activities and designs?

The delegates themselves raised a number of interesting questions about dreams, some of which question how such workshops might work, or be assumed to work. For instance, are dreams culturally specific? Are there shared symbols which are shared between individuals, and between cultures? And do those symbols mean the same thing in each context?

They wondered too whether there is something more vivid about the terrifying dream? Space and time do not do things they're supposed to do, and we seem to loose agency, loose control - which can be wonderful and frightening at the same time. What about lucid dreaming, where we are the architect? What about dreams of unknown things, of empty spaces and unrecognized people?

I wonder what I dream about when I'm in a museum, and how those dreams change depending upon who I'm with. Do I dream of space? Do I dream of unreal spaces, places beyond my immediate physical experience? Images both experienced and imagined? I suspect I do.

In sharing dreams, I argue we alter them. We share them to make them concrete, perhaps, to give them a reality, an existence outside our own heads. But they are not, as Elee and Will intimated yesterday, direct representations of those original dreams. For they are already memories, memories related, changed and reinterpreted, in these sessions, by the people around us.

A Port Before the Twelfth Sounding

Well, we're all gearing up here again this morning. It's a bit of a later start, fortunately, and I'm sitting here in my own corner of quiet. These early mornings before the second day are rather idyllic, often. There's less of the stress and set up of the previous day, and today the windows are open, and a breeze wafts through the room. Birdsong outside, and the mutter of my colleagues getting ready for the day. The first delegates will be arriving soon, and then at 10.30, we'll be starting the blogging properly once again...the wind is picking up in the mainsail, and soon there'll be enough breeze to send us on our way.

27 March 2012

Some photos: Day One, part two

Conference bags!

Goodies from our sponsor, Hanwell.

Sharing impressions.

Everybody tweeted along!

Museum Futures game prompts.

Museum Futures presentation.

Future Museum plans.
Drinks reception.
Drawing prizes.

Conference dinner.

A Longer Sounding at the End of the Day: The Museum Futures Game Part Two...

Hopefully, the delegates have come up with some wonderful, amazing, and surreal ideas...the below will be a speculation, reflection, upon whatever it is they come up with. So forgive any strangeness - it isn't entirely mine!

First to present is the Museum of Ecstasy - asked to produce a museum which doesn't use words. Sadly, for the purpose of the presentation, they have to use words, and so they have to go inside a museum visitor's head. That visitor is our very own Viking - Gudrun.

She walks into the museum, and is given a helmet and heart monitor, which measure her brainwaves and bodily responses. Standing on a teleportation pod, she travels around the enormous and varied museum. First, she goes to a dark room. Music begins to emanate, and Sufi dancers start their circular dance. The music becomes louder and louder, the dancers more and more euphoric. The visitor can watch, or become part of the dance, a dance to reach ecstasy. Now transported to another room, the view changes. A sharp, pulsing light changes all the time, stimulating the visitor's visual imagination from deep purple to a bright yellow. A wide open, alpine landscape opens up in front of the visitor - an idealized vista. The heart monitors drop. Transported suddenly to the culinary department, the visitor is assailed by wonderful, unctuous smells, chocolate soufflé and roast beef. Taken away from this room, but permitted to keep the soufflé, the visitor gains their ultimate ecstatic experience on the dance floor of a disco.

(It should be pointed out that this museum has a doctor on site)

Next to emerge is the Museum of Love - or, as Alex phrased it, Luuurrrve. The aim is to collect objects - tangible or intangible - that people love. The delegates are asked to pick up an object...and wait.

One day, a giant flashmob will take over the world, and at that moment, the object the delegates are holding becomes an object with a love story attached. At that moment, the delegates exchange those items, and tell the story attached to them. (I'd like to point out that my Moleskeine has been stolen for this purpose). They are then asked to share their love story - Will Buckingham, given packing tape, makes a great case for how much love should be given to such an object. This is the initial stage for the museum of love - to collect materials and oral histories around these objects.

The next stage is to incite love - to matchmake people with similar objects using a global online - and multiple media - database. (Of course, with the correct, appropriate disclaimers!).

After Love, comes Fear. Why, they ask, do you need to create a new museum of fear when museums are places of fear anyway? So they decided to create a device instead...Superficially similar to that used in the museum of ecstasy, based on mystical and scientific powers, this phobiatron prints out the visitor's responses to any given museum in which it is used. Pulled around easily with the visitor, it can be easily applied in any situation.

What, then, is measured in the visitor's responses? What rates most highly? Architecture? The 'Voluntary donations box'? The Chirpy Member of Staff who wants to Help - well, at this stage, your fear isn't critical. But still you run.

You hit contemporary art, where you feel overawed by Jeff Koons and everyone else who seems to understand. Fear levels rocket, and you have to recover in the teashop. But then you need the bathroom - and you fear a lack of toilet paper. Going to look at the local art display, you relax. But then, you hit the gift shop, and critical levels are approached...

It would be interesting for the visitor to use this throughout their experience, and I wonder whether this would alter their behavior? (From a professional point of view, of course, the data is very useful...)

Fear, brings with it doubt and uncertainty. This museum has no location, no nationality, no state. You'll be meeting lots of people, presenting objects they think are important. You don't know what they are. It doesn't really matter. This museum travels, collecting people and objects along the way. Anyone can join it, can talk to each other, telling their stories - don't be scared. Differences don't matter - and dreams are as certain as anything. Stories are told, or maybe not. Routes are traced, maybe not. Does it matter? Maybe not. There is no interpretation.

Uncertainty, of course, is a feature of time and it's movement. The Museum of Time, as a performative institution, embodies the notion of entropy, and is a museum in the North Pole, at the end of the world in a place with no time zone which will self destruct. Split into the four seasons, the museum is constantly echoing with the sound of a metronome. You may taste rotting food, melting clocks in different, unknown timezones. In a desert, it's sister Museum is an Hourglass shaped out of sand - again, degrading over time...fading, fading, always unable, as the museum always is, to stop Time.

Be quiet, and close your eyes. You are now in a museum composed of absence. All absence can also be memory. Senses other than sight can bring us into an engagement with memories in which absence is much more tangibly felt and noticed. Glimpses and fragments are the preserve of this museum - a big space, filled with fog, with visitors moving along various different trajectories. When you go outside, a wall of digital media invites a social and shared experience, where images, and sounds of absence can be displayed. But in this collection of stories, doesn't present become absence? If the wall changes, however, that loss will have a permanent, haunting intimation of absence yet to come. The wall will be changeable, ephemeral. Momentary. A loss of collective and individuality...

Now we come to a museum which is a site of rebellion. There may be an intrinsic flaw there - that when you're not the rebel, to incite rebellion is wrong. However, to assume that a museum cannot or is not a rebel (as collective an institution as it might be) is, for me, a problematic one. How could you create a space which is not curated, which is a museum without a cause?

Why, I wonder, have museums excluded themselves from being rebels?

Perhaps, to reach Utopia, to reimagine it and see what it might be or bring, we need to rebel. We need to instill extreme emotions, think about abstract concepts and states of being. We need to go beyond the quotidian. Beyond the mundane. We need, as our conference leader has said, to seek a newer world.

Now I go into the night, for drinks and dinner. I ask thee to fare well, my friends, and come back to Utopia early tomorrow morning. We shall meet you at the Twelfth Sounding...

A Longer Sounding at the End of the Day: The Museum Futures Game Part One...

We can, perhaps, only realise the potential of museums if we shake off the presumptions which we engage with every day. In the Future Museums Game, delegates are asked to assume nothing, to test the boundaries of what a museum might be or might mean.

Divided into groups, the delegates are competing for prizes for the most innovative concept and the most innovative presentation style. Given materials and an hour to move they are asked to imagine future museums based upon concepts selected at random from a selection of mysterious, Oscar style envelopes.

We've just sent them off. I wonder what they might create? What futures will they imagine, what notions will they present? Left to their own devices after a day of stimulation, what will they come up with? Wait and see...

A Brief Becalming to Consider Our Route So Far - Number 2

Well, it's the end of our themed sessions for day one, and we've had an amazing time. We've been to places we thought we'd lost, to places we thought we'd hidden in ourselves, to places designed in public. And all the while we've been navigating with guidance from our wonderful speakers (and sometimes their rather fantastic props). But soon it will be time for the delegates to take on the role themselves - to collaborate, perhaps to share their own personal imaginings, to build shared visions of what utopia might be.

We are about to play the Future Museum Game. Await further missives - for as yet they exist only in the yet to come.

A Tenth Sounding: Communicating the Ice Age

Between Facts and Imagination: Communicating the Ice Age in the Museum exhibition

I have to say, before we begin, that Lana Bede and Katarina Ivanisin Kardum have provided the Museum Utopias conference with the most interesting prop so far - an ice age cave, complete with paintings!

According to Mensch, every museum exhibition creates a 'dream land' - a scientific but also imaginary world, through a process of collaboration and design. To explore how the results of such collaboration can engage a visitor, Lana and Katrin discuss an exhibition 'Ice Age?!', which opened at the Karlovac City Museum on the winter solstice of 2010.

In the exhibition making process curators, designers and educators worked very closely, combining different academic and practical traditions and experiences, challenging Weil's notion that interpretation is distinct from the display of objects in an exhibition format. Their visitors - particularly children - were always their focus. They always wanted to include tactile and interactive elements, to attract the audience visually and haptically in order to engage with the visitors emotionally and intellectually.

To do so, they had to modify an open, rather empty and Brutalist exhibition space. The intention was to estrange the 'art gallery' aesthetic of the institution, by closing off parts of its environment with four large canvas screens. This was designed to reflect the circular notion of time and climate change - in life, death, weather and the seasons, revealed in the Asian symbol of the swastika.

A timeline lead the visitors from the entrance to the first floor, communicating to the visitors how small a part of the universe's history humanity represents. Interactives and other unexpected displays were used to surprise the visitor and to engage them in exploration.

The centre of the exhibition representated the Pleistocene mammals, using life sized shadows displayed in ice blocks - evoking images, partial and obscure, of the lost landscape and its inhabitants. I particularly enjoy the sense of unreality which these shadows bring to the space - indeed, Lana mentions how they can be interpreted as spirits, images and recollections of something which no longer exists. Thus do these creatures, geographical sites and prehistoric moments, become present in their absence in a very tangible, and emotive way. Similarly powerful is a room designed to mimic a peat-bog habitat, in which the head and tusks of a drowning mammoth appeared out of the soggy ground. The last part of the exhibition, on climate change, demands that the visitor asks difficult questions about climate change - do we expect rising temperatures, or a new global ice age?

The lobby was transformed into a paper cave, which is metonymically represented in their prop today. It was built by children working with the museum - a very participatory museum endeavor indeed. It was an interactive place, in which they could contemplate history - or, indeed, just sit and daydream. It became, later, a site in which cave art could be discussed and in which children could engage in workshops to create paintings, and the tools to make them, and print their images on to a sand wall specifically created in the lobby space. This is a fascinating way of discussing the early art of Europe which I, for one, do not believe is currently well represented in museums.

From looking at the images which Lana and Katrin present, it seems that visitors responded very well to these endeavors. These are visitors filled with movement, excitement, with joy - the utopian ideals of the Karlovac Museum - and, as we noted at the start, and have intimated throughout, its workers - seem to have been, in part, reached. In these spaces, they have done perhaps what Calvino, Elee and Will - and many others today - have suggested - to open the physical environment up to the creation of imaginary, individual spaces - spaces which, perhaps, can never be fully articulated.

A Ninth Sounding: The Manipulation of Material in Virtual Museums

"Et in Arcadia Ego"

Interpreted by artists as an escape from death, arcadia is also a represented, virtual space. Objects, in the virtual world, are removed from spatial confinement through their imagistic reproduction.

Pierre Levy, a French cyberculturalist, argues that visualization provides a way out from physical reality into a continued - no less real existence in a virtual realm. The term 'virtual' has developed multiple connotations, particularly since the museum has increasingly experimented with the presentation of objects to visitors in immaterial, digital and virtual settings. Drawing on the theories of heterotopia and Deloche's notion of uchronia, Englebert Gayagoy discusses how we materialise the immaterial, and how the visitor relates to the viritual environment which has been created.

Heterotopia is a notion of other spaces - a space of otherness akin, but not completely analogous to, utopia - an unreal place. Foucault uses the mirror as a way to represent these other spaces, and Englebert imagines them an analogous with the virtual which is, like the museum - like the heterotopia - a site of illusion.

In 2010, Bernard Deloche critically analyses the notion of the museum as an unchanging utopia in the context of the contemporary rise of the virtual, referencing Marshall McLuhan and Harper's concept of the non-linear museum, and criticizing the virtual museum as evidence of the dominance of the simulacra. It is this idea which Englebert seeks to challenge. To do so, he uses a number of case studies.

The Museo Virtual de Artes (MUVA) manipulates virtual artworks in a setting which mimics a physical geographical locale. This museums allows the works to be negotiated in a very different way than they would in a physical space - through zooming, for example. The Museuo Virtual de Artes et tradition du Gabon, and the
Adobe Museum of Digital Media suffer from similar problems. Zooming suggests the panopticon - a powerful, dominating mode of manipulating the visual world.

New technologies can invoke the idea of reconstruction - which can at one and the same time destabilise and remake the notion of the very identity of the museum. In virtual museums, where the building is remade and digitized, perhaps in a utopian way, the visitor must still engage.

Because the digital museum can be remade, they show how utopias can develop, change, can be remade into something new - the heterotopia, then, becomes a site of alteration, in which ideals can constantly be remade, in which they can be tested. They have a different kind of ephemerality than that of the physical object - a kind of immaterial impermanence - but one which can be archived because, unlike the physical object, it never was 'real'.

Many questions arise from the existence of virtual museums, which relate to the epistemic status not only of the digital museum and its objects - but to the museum more generally. How can we bring this to the real world? How can we personalise the object, how can we come into such close contact to the object as virtual museums allow? What is the place of the physical museum? How do the two interrelate, and what do both virtual and physical museums offer - do they, and should they, compliment each other?

It is interesting, as Heinrich notes, that whilst we often consider the virtual world to be a museum without walls, we recreate buildings within it. It is also worth, at this point, questioning what we mean by 'walls'. Essentially, the wall is a limitation, a stricture based upon our thinking, whether by practical ability or social and cultural sensibilities and rules.

Are museums without walls, then, fictions in the negative sense - is Deoche correct in considering them a negative kind of simulacra? I do not think so, for they encode some kind of truth in their use of rules - rules related to their manifestation or the mode of engagement the visitor chooses to employ. Heterotopias are always contained in rules, in ways of thinking. We need rules - walls, if you will - to make things mean. The contingent configurations in which we think things and selves operate in language games - negotiated sets of meanings and rules - which are, in some sense, walls. It just depends upon how we choose to see.

An Eighth Sounding: The Emerging Museums and Health Practice

When Unhoused Minds Meet Housed Objects

Museums, Myna Trustram argues, can provide objects which we can use to surface and work through our inner worlds, what we have lost and what we desire. Museums are good for us, she argues, not because they offer an understanding of the world, but of the self. This does not require the experience of static arcadia, but a recognition of loss and unrealizable desire. I would argue that this suggests that museums do not themselves have to provide perfect utopian experiences; in producing negative experiences they can also produce a change in the self which is for the good.

To show us this power, Myna uses three objects. One is a miniature egg timer or hourglass from the Mary Grieg Collection at Manchester City Galleries. This was part of a project in which the collection took objects to young patients in an oncology ward. These patients were asked to select an object which had particular relevance, and resonance, for them. In this case, the young girl used it, movingly, to question the nature of time, and of her own mortality.

A Doulton and Company acid jug, belonging to Manchester Art Gallery, was used by a collaboration with a Sure Start Centre, who used the gallery as inspiration for their own art work. Again, the participants were asked to choose an object which meant something to them. The woman who chose it felt that she, like the jug, feels filled up and then poured out.

A group of young people involved with the mental health services in the Manchester area came to visit the Pre-Raphaelite gallery once a month. The object they chose was, unsurprisingly, Ophelia, by Arthur Hughes, with all its connotations of sadness and despair.

Objects are not just physical things, but the meanings we build around them. Myna interprets these objects through psychoanalysis and object relations theory, suggesting that these objects are represented symbolically in the inner world, and are used in the outer world to express their desires.

How, then, can this be resolved in the museum?

In psychoanalysis, loss - in particular the loss of the Mother - is a constant theme and concern. The child, it is thought, creates a symbolic object such as a comfort blanket to represent an absent mother. A similar argument, Myna says, can be made for the objects she outlined above. For they, too, are also about loss. We talk about museum objects as things for learning, she argues, but not as items of self-articulation. Perhaps we can resolve our sense of loss by the knowledge that the objects will remain, will be protected in the museum, and will be shared with others.

Myna argues that museums need to recognise the possibilities which these objects has for mental health. Positioned as freely associative things, rather than didactic elements, they become far more open for the visitors engagement - but this is not, she argues, so present in the current museum discourse. Utopia offers perfection - protection against the fact that life is not as we desire it to be. That life involves loss. I might again suggest that utopia, then, becomes a goal that perhaps we do not actually want to realize.

The museum staff become, thus, more aligned to the role of carer - a role which does not require knowing, but a negative capability. They need to not know: as Elee and Will noted at the start of this session. Enhancing the symbolic capacity of objects is one of the most important tasks of museums today. We can, it seems, create utopias around, and from, and with, things. For me, it is not that the object is a symbol, but that it is an evocative entity when bought into engagement with a particular individual, who may have a particular cultural background. In material culture studies the discourse around objects and their identity has long suggested a similar thing - in fact, it has suggested that our engagement with objects is more than symbolic, more than physical, more than personal, made up of more than outside or inner meanings - but is, in fact, a dialogue between these all.

But how, I wonder, do they actually practically achieve this? Where have we, at the end of this session, which has focused so much on the invisible, left ourselves in relation to the practical articulation of those ideals?

Where, indeed, have we left the museum? Has it been left with any authority at all - has it been left, indeed, with any notion of it's own self and identity? Perhaps, in the next session, 'Designing Utopias', we'll find out...

Some photos: Day One, part one

The conference banner outside the building.
Conference organizer Stephanie and Tech support Gudrun help David Francis set up his presentation.

Session 1 chair Helen moderates questions for speaker Katrin Heike.

A question from the audience.
Your live-blogger, Jenny, in action.

A Seventh Sounding: Real and Imagined Past at Green Gables Heritage Place

At Green Gables Heritage Place, Canada, visitors are encouraged to engage to reimagine the history of Lucy Maud Montgomery and her home there, through the fictional world of Anne of Green Gables. It is this world into which our friend, Sarah Conrad Gothie, leads us.

For many visitors, the experience of visiting Green Gables is a once in a lifetime pilgrimage. Green Gables has not only interpretive trails detailing the influence the site and it's nature had upon Montgomery, but also recreations of the rooms and situations from the Green Gables novel.

It's a site which has been romanticised, in fiction and in film. And Sarah wants to think about it as a recollective utopia, in which we can think about individual pasts, and create communal utopias, based, to some extent, on these idealised fictions. Literary tourists are often motivated by the desire to experience an idealised place gleaned from fiction - often that of their childhood. These places can be seen as arcadias, 'pleasant paradises' as Nobleman said, places of rest where nothing bad will happen.

I wonder if these unspoiled places are really utopia. I'd question the notion that the stable, unchanging qualities of arcadia are paradisaical, for I wonder whether this makes them, in fact, places of stasis and cessation - perhaps a similar concern as was raised by David Francis. Certainly they are wonderful places in which to relax, to contemplate, to pause and rest - but they cannot, I would argue, be places we can stay. For to do so would be to die. Utopia is ephemeral.

Sarah also notes how sites such as Green Gables are circumscribed. Anything which has happened within them has already happened within the confines of the book, and those who visit the site know already that the worst thing to happen is the death of the father figure, Matthew.

But there has to be more to a utopia than a geographical location. Green Gables Heritage Place is a good place to think about individual and collective pasts. Recollective means recall, but also suggests communal practice.

Visitors to such sites fall along a spectrum from Fans, driven by their personal identities as readers to Rans, who are more random. Fans have a passion for a particular text, and their visit may result from a desire to remember the story and engage with others with the same interests. In the case of Green Gables, many visitors reimagine themselves as Anne, with the distinctive red braids and hat. There is, here, a nostalgia for childhood, which is facilitated by their engagement with a favorite childhood story and character. They are validated in this practice by others whom are doing the same. The visitor cards reveal a great deal of information about the personal, and public, collective experiences which these engender.

But the resonance of these recollective utopias are dependent upon the visitor's personal ties. There are those visitors, more random, who experience this particular engagement with a site much less. Some, indeed, may find it 'creepy'. It certainly seems to be a very different experience for men than for women - the books are far more popular for the latter.

Who, then, is permitted to access these recollective utopias? Not everyone, it seems. For it is about a particular, personal, resonant engagement with a site. Utopias can be, as we have seen above, private, personal, spaces of the mind - places which we do not always share.

In relation to both this paper, and to many of the papers in this section, we might raise the question of historical integrity. How can 'truth' be found in situations where the power lies, in part, in fiction and in that which cannot be articulated? I don't know the answer to this - perhaps you can debate the point below.

A Sixth Sounding: Freedom of Musealisation

Study on Small Museums in Estonia and the People Behind Them

Hailing from the University of Tartu, Liisi Taimre suggests that the true utopian museum is small, built upon ideals generated by individuals, or very small groups. Like Will and Elee before her, she recognizes the private, quirky elements which people's individual experiences bring to museums - but in this case, it is the invisible cities of the museum makers which are explored. She has been stunned, in her work, by their creativity and passion, particularly if they do not have a heritage or arts background.

These D.I.Y museums must, firstly, self-define as a 'museum', have between 1-3 people involved, and have a culture in which business is not a goal. Estonia has many such museums, and in this country 'museummania' can be explained in a number of ways - firstly, the newfound freedom after the War of Independence, and secondly in the striving to become part of Europe.

For many of the people who create them, these museums are a hobby, are fun. They have many motivations for producing the museums - from being able to pose in the pub, to continuing memorial practices which already existed. Sometimes, these museums are presented in rebellion against the current academic discourse, and indeed the official museum institutions.

There are many issues around such institutions, of course. There are difficulties in terms of collecting objects - and indeed in the preserving of those objects. What, I wonder, are the ethical issues which are encountered in the acquisition of collections in these cases? Should we worry about unethical collecting practices, or about the degradation and care of objects? Liisi's paper behoves us to question from which standpoint these issues come - are we, as 'typical' practitioners, projecting values and meanings onto institutions which do not require them. In loving their subject, and their objects, perhaps they know something - they feel something - which we don't.

They may also, of course, showcase theories and themes which are distasteful to broader social worlds - in this case, should they be controlled? Should they be allowed to speak? It's a difficult question to answer. In opening ourselves up to subjectivity, do we risk reducing all to fiction? Should we do so, in cases where sensibilities and known historical and scientific rules are compromised by the presence of these institutions, particularly if people enter them, as they enter many museums, expecting to find 'truth'?

How sustainable are such institutions - when the person leaves, or dies, do they die? Should sustainability be a goal for these personal, private museums - or are they, as we've intimated above, clear realizations of the ephemeral quality of utopia?

A Fifth Sounding: Invisible Museums and Multiple Utopias

It seems appropriate, somehow, to begin our second session 'Personal Utopias', with two people very intertwined with the PhD community here, our own Elee Kirk, and her partner, Will Buckingham, for some philosophy-like stories, and stories like philosophy...

It's a double pronged attack!

We're used, Will notes, to thinking of the museum as a participatory space, a space of community. But there are things which we don't know how talk about - those which are perhaps too private, intimate, personal, quirky - perhaps just too quiet - to be heard.

Museums, they contend, are already temporary, contained utopias - and that this matters too us. But these contained utopias, and why they matter to us, are hard to articulate. This doesn't really translate well into the idea of museums as shared spaces - there is, as Lyotard noted in The Postmodern Condition, a problem of communication.

In Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Khubla Khan is regaled by Marco Polo with tales of the cities of the empire, in a paradoxical situation in which the Khan can never know that which he rules. He has lots of data, lots of information - but does this, he questions, add up to knowledge of his empire? Perhaps there is a void around this information, a space which he cannot see or know.

The unreliable storyteller, Marco Polo, is thus employed to tell him of those unknown, unspoken - perhaps unreal - spaces. Perhaps, then, there is something in fiction, in the unknown, and the unreal, there is something to be learned.

There are, Will claims, two forms of knowledge here - that of the Khan, of principles and normalities, and that of Polo, which is of exceptions, contradictions. Whilst the Khan adds exceptions to create reality, Polo extracts them - Polo looks for those spaces in between, and rather than 'reality' is left with a mass of unknowns.

Eventually, the Khan realizes that the ability to rule the empire is not to privilage either rules or exceptions, but both. In order, then, to enhance the museum's personal, private elements, one of the roles of museum-makers is to be, not just the Khan, but to be Marco Polo - to let the fantastic, the imagined, in.

In her research, Elee has been amazed by the huge variety she has found in children's responses to the Oxford Museum of Natural History. In normal life, she has to be a Khan, has to analyze the data provided by the photographs she collected in her fieldwork. Today, however, she's Marco, and presents us with some of the children's inner museums, personal spaces. These are fascinating insights into the inner life of very young individuals, and the focus which they choose to take, from action, to people, to dinosaurs and scary things.

Each of the children, then, has experienced a very different invisible museum. And they will do so when they return at a later time; as do we all. These experiences are hard to articulate, but they are critical in making the value, and meaning, of the museum. And perhaps they exist, no matter what we do.

I would point out, that of course, we still can't get to the actual experiences these children had - and, being in the past, they'll never be able to entirely revisit them either. Elee has mediated these herself already, and we are ourselves mediating them again, creating our own, internal, invisible imaginings of the utopian museum-cities the children built. There is more than one kind of truth - but truth, of a kind, can exist - built in the interstices, built in the configurations - however momentary these configurations are.

At the end of Invisible Cities, the Khan asks about the infernal city. it seems, sometime, that we as museums are living in an inferno of funding cuts and stringent rules. We can, as Polo suggests, either capitulate and become a part of the flames, or we can make space, allow the 'invisible matterings' of museums to endure - it is, then, that we as professional practitioners and researchers should realize that there are things that we can't measure, research, or every fully know, thus to foster, protect, nurture, those private, strange spaces, which no-one, perhaps, will ever really know.

A Brief Becalming to Consider Our Route So Far

In Richard's keynote, our focus was determinedly contemporary. In the last session, we've turned ourselves towards a consideration of the relationship between utopia and the past. Not only have we seen utopias which once were presented and have since been changed or lost, but we have, too, engaged with how we make our own, new, utopias from those elements of the past - through nostalgia or reconceptualisation.

We've considered institutional ideals, external pressures political, financial and cultural, material goods and buildings, and, importantly, the human actants which all contribute to the generation of these various, malleable, utopias. All of these various factors, sentient or otherwise, exist in a set of reciprocal relations. It might be imagined by some that the utopias presented here, so diverse and mutable are they, there there is nothing upon which we can fix. There is nothing practical towards which we can aim.

I would argue, however, that this is not the case. Rather, the fact that we can see all these many elements shows us that it is in those localized situations, those negotiated and contingent sets of rules in which we can find meaning; in which we can find utopias, and utopian ideals which can, at least, operate in a practical, sensible, and effective way, even if constrained by their temporal or physical situation.

I hope you'll follow us further, because in the next session, 'Personal Utopias', we'll be looking at some of those inner, independent, and personal sites - at those contingent moments in which utopias are born and in which they cease. Take a break, grab a sandwich, and come to follow us again after 1pm...

A Fourth Sounding: The Museum As Retrotopia

Pop culture, some argue, has an addiction - a nostalgia for - to its own past. It's almost, perhaps, as if the past is speeding up, and soon there will be no more past for us to revive. This, at least, is the starting point for David Francis's presentation.

Here, David argues that our obsession with all things retro is an opportunity for museums to engage in the development of contemporary - and future - culture. Long have we looked back to the past - utopian thought has engaged with this since the time of Hesiod's Work and Days. Utopia, then, questions and looks to both the past and the future.

Looking to the past has also been seen as the basis for cultural movements forward - in the architectural ideals, artistic practices and social theory of movements such as the Gothic Revival, Ruskin, the Pre-Raphelites, which were inspired by medieval designs. This gained a subculture, with a distinctive dress code and style of speech; Aestheticism, which saw the realisation of utopia as the improvement and physical perfection of the individual.

Retrocultures have had a huge impact in society throughout the twentieth century - we might think of the Teddy Boy, for instance, who took from the fashions of the 18th century to make their own style. Sometimes, these subcultures have been hugely powerful in museums - and their presence has, at times, obscured the art and objects on display. A display of Aubry Beardly's work at the V&A in 1967 was attended by huge numbers of early members of the psychedelic movement.

Museums themselves have looked back to their past - the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum is a prime example. A return to the imagined wonder of the Cabinet seems, too, to be a reaction to the white cube, didactic space which became so prevalent in the 20th century - perhaps, I might argue, a return to a more subjective, individualized and 'writerly' environment than the somewhat homogeneous institutions which we risk creating in a context bound by strictures and rules.

But the 'retro' has been seen as a negative thing - evidence of the increasingly simulated nature, and the loss of reality, as propounded by thinkers such as Baudrillard. Is the revitalization of the past evidence that there is no present, that there can, therefore, be no new future - in the strictest sense of the word. In speaking to the retro, are we as museums contributing to this? Are we creating a new future, is this a progressive thing, or are we part of an atrophy of cultural development? Is Baudrillard's criticism of lazy indulgence correctly directed?

Perhaps not - David ends by discussing the discourse between subcultures and the 'Participatory Museum', in which museums, visitors and artists can feed off each other to create new and positive experiences - and perhaps, then, new futures. New Utopias.

In S/Z, Barthes wrote that every new reading is a reading for the first time. When we re-read an old favorite book, when we visit a site which we loved as a child several years later, we read it through altered eyes. When we revisit an aesthetic, a style, an architecture, a mode of speech, a display style, individuals and museums do the same. Perhaps, in the participatory engagement of visitors and artists, the collaborative projects of museums, can mitigate against this sense of atrophy: we can move on from pure nostalgia into a joyous remaking.

A Third Sounding: Museums and the Ruins of Utopia

"The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long..."

Inspired by this quote from Blade Runner, our own Ceri Jones presents to us a vision of the modernist ideals which lay behind the post-war redevelopment of Sheffield, a city significantly damaged by poverty, industrialisation and war. Behind the modernist hope for a clean, bright new future, lay new transport systems and shopping precincts, new buildings, new educational institutions, and a huge emphasis on public housing.

In 1967, Sheffield suffered from serious poor housing, and much effort went into changing and developing this. Here, as in many other cities, high rise flats were built to replace the slums, but poor management, the degradation of such concrete buildings which inevitably occurs in the 'English Rain' led to a huge material and social deterioration. By the 1980s and 1990s, these social housing areas were places for the desperate.

It has been argued that such cities have had, in fact, an inhuman impact upon social life. The large scale of these Brutalist complexes have been seen, not as the icons which they were, but as dominant, problematic and frightening. It is interesting to note how important the built environment has historically been seen to be in the remaking of place - as a hugely active agent in the creation of utopias, and, indeed, dystopias. Brutalism, of course, had many underlying ideals and in more recent times, these have begun to be reassessed; evidence, perhaps, of a nostalgia for that drive, those previously vilified ideals, which have, through the progression of history, been re-legitimated.

Sheffield, Ceri's focus, presents these issues in microcosm. There was a huge vision for the city, with a bright future, redeveloped centre and bright future. Particularly popular in the Sheffield imagination is the 'Hole in the Road'.

Park Hill is one of the most famous examples of modernist architecture in Sheffield. It was a total complex, built on a hill above the train station, and dominating the local area. It included shops, pubs, and even a central incinerator - quite forward thinking in some ways! It replaced 'Little Chicago' - a slum area named for it's poverty and crime. It is interesting, however, that in the case of Park Hill, the residents from that slum, and even the street names were kept - the sense of community was strong, and for the first thirty years the ideals seemed to be working well.

But architecture, of course, changes, and in my opinion it's success cannot be removed from the actions of its inhabitants. People change, and communities are lost. People, indeed, have a responsibility to make their own utopia, and they change themselves, and their communities. By the 1980s, Park Hill had degenerated and was broadly denigrated. Today, it remains isolated, but was registered by English Heritage in 1997 and is now displayed in the Western Park Museum.

How is it displayed here? In the voices of the people, a different voice to that of the planners and the architects. A number of Park Hill's inhabitants present not just the negative elements which might be expected, but the excitement and wonder of people who moved from the slums, into those flats, those 'little palaces', for the first time. Unfortunately, this display rather isolates Park Hill from its wider environment, in the city's context - both past and present - rather limits its radical elements, and places a patina of nostalgia on it.

Reality, Ceri shows, can water down ideals. It seems that we can already isolate a thread which will run through this conference; the conflict between imagined utopias and their material realisation. We can also see already how multifarious the generation of utopia is, how it is built from not just abstract concepts, but from buildings, from objects, and, indeed, from people - the individuals and institutional groupings who manage, operate and change those elements, but who, indeed, are also changed by them.

A Second Sounding: A Museum Ideal Lost in Translation to Reality

The 1920s were a turbulent time in the Rhineland; the horrors of the Great War were still felt, here and across Europe. But in 1925, the Millenium Celebrations saw the birth of the Rhineland Museum, and this institution is the basis of Katrin Heike's PhD thesis, which details its history from its birth, until its death in during the Second World War. This institution was seen, from it's conception to its opening, as something of an ideal; and it is these ideals, their change, and their eventual loss, which are the focus of her presentation today.

The Rhineland Museum is a utopia in more than one way. Having been an ideal, wonderful site, it has since become a utopia in a second sense - a wonder which can never, now, be fully satisfied. I do wonder how true this is of many museums; given that they often begin from ideals and aims - including those related to those of minority and marginalized groups discussed by Richard - and how often they bump up against practical reality and changing political contexts.

To begin in 1925: the new Museum was given a commission, limited to showcasing the economic and social ideals of the Cologne mayor. It was to be put together by experts, and strove to present the history of the Rhineland, in social, political, cultural and geological terms from prehistory to the present - certainly a laudable aim, and, as many attempts have shown, probably somewhat utopian in the second sense. The museum had no collection, or building, of its own at this stage. Only an idea.

The institutions aims had to acquiesce to reality, however, over the next few years, and the golden dreams of 1925 suffered from financial difficulties. Even though it was the mayor's favorite project, the global and local economic crisis had its effect.

For the sake of completeness and didactic reasons, they used casts and models for many of their objects - partly due to low purchasing budgets, and because many existing museums held the originals. Does that, I wonder, make this utopia a simulation? And if so, what implications does this intersection of the authenticity dialogue with that of the ideal and utopian have for the collecting habits of museums, and the ways in which they present objects and topics.

A few years after the first concept was developed, it was decided that the museum be built on former army barracks. A new museum building was never really considered, and thus the driving concept behind the institution had to be modified. The 10 thousand square meters for the exhibition planned in the original commission had to be rather altered.

What was to be presented, and how? Again, we come back to the question of authority. As we thought about in Richard's presentation, who decides what to present - what was thought to present the 'best' of the Rhineland, what was the best didactic environment in which that could be presented, and who decided? Of course, in 1933, the Nazis came into power, and they had a significant hand in the shifts of the Museum in the period until its opening. It's name, in this period, was changed to the "Haus der Rheinischen Haimat" - emphasizing their ideal of homeland. Utopia, then, is contingent, and the Utopia of one may be the hell of another. Even still, it won the Parisian Gold Medal in 1936.

After the war, it is interesting to note how the old museums destroyed, including the Rhineland Museum, should not be reestablished. It was too close, too painful. Both ideals - the original, and the later - were lost.

Katrin questions, then, whether we settle a utopia in any particular site - they're contingent, specific, and can change. Like human rights, they're negotiated, and dependent upon the context in which they're presented. Can we, in these situations, find any certainty, have any practical impact? Hopefully, the later presentations we see will show this to be the case. Thank you, Katrin, for making us think, and showing us a lost dream.

Our First Sounding: Museums and the Shaping of Human Rights

The Choices We Make: Museums and the Shaping of Human Rights

How do the beliefs of staff shape the museums engagement with human rights issues, and what consequences flow from them? To what extent can they pursue their utopian ideals - particularly when they challenge more broadly accepted norms? These are the driving questions behind our first Keynote Speech, given by our own head of school, Professor Richard Sandell.

Over the last two decades, museums have become increasingly committed to their engagement with human rights issues, and this, Richard says, makes for a wonderful, sometimes progressive and open, working environment. But to achieve this vision is no easy task - from funding to politics, there are constraints placed upon the individuals and institutions concerned. Much of the responsibility, and much of the impact, comes from those individuals within, behind, and in front of, the scenes. Richard's aim here is personal - to shine a spotlight on the day to day decisions and choices which people make in order to work towards building this ideal.

But what, then, is defined as a human right, and who takes that decision? What are the social effects and consequences of the decisions individuals make?

Over the past few years, the human rights issue has been picked up by multifarious institutions - becoming perhaps one of the most 'globalised' political discussions of our time. There are museums dedicated specifically to human rights one - opening in Canada in the next couple of years, will be the largest institution dedicated to the issue in the world. But other, institutions also tackle the issue and see themselves as taking part in the surrounding moral discourse - perhaps in more specialized way, institutions such as St Mungo's Museum in Glasgow which promotes mutual understanding.

The human rights project tends to unite people from a huge variety of contexts, and they are often conceptualised as morally universal. However, there are fierce debates, particularly in social anthropology, where a cultural relativist position has attacked the idea of universal norms of justice, arguing for a less hegemonic attitude towards rights, justice, and cultural difference. This standpoint is becoming seen as increasingly untenable, but the debate is still live.

'Rights' are not static, not fixed, not forever. Richard argues that rights are situated, contingent and dynamic - to claim universality and immutability only works in an abstract sense. There is, therefore a huge tension between the utopian ideal and the practical, real life setting.

So rights, then, need to be constantly renegotiated - and in this, museums and galleries have a role for supporting, inscribing, and changing those rights. To explore this, Richard takes us back down to the the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. For the last few years, this institution's Social Justice programme has taken a particular contemporary rights issue, such as asylum, violence against women, sectarianism, LGBTI identity, and engaged with other community and social institutions invested in it, in order to foster dialogue within the city.

In the case of the LGBTI project, which resulted in a 2009 exhibition called (sh)OUT!, there was a huge controversy, with negative press coverage and protests run throughout the city - and indeed across the country. Such controversies are what we tend to focus on in these situations. But the issues, fights and planning were far more multifariously negotiated.

It was hugely significant that there was such a large amount of material around not just lesbian and gay experiences, but around gender diversity - interestingly, in 2009 - the year before the Equalities Act was published in the UK. This was hugely significant; transgender and intersex issues, issues of gender identity, have often been included in a very tokenistic, or shallower way. The staff of the museum were faced with a powerful choice - who, and what, to include. Richard considers that they reached the most utopian, cosmopolitan ideal that they could; they did vast amounts of research, and collaborated with the Scottish Transgender Alliance, entering new territory by including the I - intersex.

It's hard to show what impact those decisions had on the shaping of human rights. But, as Richard explains, the social justice programme publicized at the museum, makes such issues more familiar, less scary, by presenting them in a public space. The STA was initially reticent about collaborating with an arts project, but when they found out more about it, they were eager to participate.

There are many forces shaping our decisions on a day to day basis - many of them very real. But museums and galleries can, because of their highly trusted status, produce change. They have a huge responsibility - and to Richard, this means that they should be heading towards the ideal, the progressive - heading towards Utopia.

It is interesting, as one of our delegates points out, to question whether by presenting these groups and issues so specifically, we are not creating another binary. In dividing groups defined socially and politically, presenting dedicated institutions, there is, perhaps, a risk of ghettoisation - it has certainly been a debate amongst academics and practitioners. I do wonder, however, if this is a stage which we need to go through in order to reach integration.

So, we've seen a first sounding - and it's already engendered controversy. Thank you, Richard, for giving us your time, and a wonderful opening discussion. Given the change and progressive note on which we ended the keynote speech, it's time for us to move on, to head towards utopias which have been lost, ideals which have crumbled and gone.