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

27 March 2012

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.

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