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

7 November 2013

Transmutations Infinite

Over the last couple of days the participants in this conference defined ‘metamorphosis’ over and again: even without explicitly etymologising, they were performing their own understandings of the concept and its relationship to museums. Looking over the blog again, it seems to me as though Museum Metamorphosis covered five main categories of understanding: forms of metamorphosis; the role of the museum; theoretical models of the museum and change; tools of analysis; and actual examples of change.
The subtleties of these conceptions are hard to represent in clumsy words: I would like, at this point, to apologise for any errors or unsubtle renderings I may have committed in the last couple of days, and also for the fact that, in this summary, which can only be short, I may commit a few more.

Forms of Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis is a versatile concept of relevance to many aspects of existence and experience. In the opening comments, Suzanne Macleod, Sheila Watson and Richard Sandell all presented their different perspectives on the idea. To put it broadly, they together represented how metamorphosis can be physical, conceptual, social and personal: these are perhaps the main forms of transformation on which many of the other conference papers rested.

Macleod’s main interest is in architecture and the social qualities of the built environment. Her PhD considered the changes in architecture throughout the history of the Walker Gallery in Liverpool. In her opening paper, she used this example, amongst others, to present the thesis that architecture can be physically changed as a result of social circumstances, but can also be altered socially, through use and interpretation, and that it can itself be a driver of social transformation.

For Watson, the museum is a space with the potential for emotional transformation: not just of its visitors, but also itself, in a reconceptualization of the museum as something not dispassionate, but something vital, affective and affected, framing that which it presents through its own lens of subjectivity. Once the myth of the dispassionate museum is recognised and dispelled, she argued, the adoption of emotion could make for powerful displays, and a rich, nuanced pedagogic model.

Sandell also conceives of the museum as a socially relevant space: the movement towards an inclusive museum is, for him, a fundamental part of social justice. The projects he has worked on, both with Nottingham City Council and the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries show how the Disability Rights Movement has impacted on museums over the last decades, and how museums have, and might yet still become, more intimately involved with the production of shared experience, through the change of physical space, programming, and plain old institutional acceptance.

So, here are our forms of metamorphosis: physical, conceptual, institutional, social and personal. The papers presented at Museum Metamorphosis discussed all of these in multiplicitous ways, and focussed on many of their finely grained niceties. They showed metamorphosis to be so many different things, yet all so much alike.

The Role of the Museum

The role of the museum was of course a central concern, particularly for papers given by Sharon Heal, Matthew Constantine and the workshop run by Nick Winterbotham. Museums have, certainly, changed throughout their history, and it is probably true to say that most people present at this conference have never really conceived of the Museum as an ultimately static space. It has seen large shifts throughout its history, however, one of which being the widespread adoption of the idea of the museum as a place not for things, but for people. For Heal, museums are public services, sites of cultural learning and with a distinct social responsibility. Constantine’s discussion of New Walk the day following Heal’s presentation asked a related, but more directed question: who is New Walk Museum for? In Winterbotham’s workshop, particpants were forced to consider the value of ideas a drivers for impact and social good, and to wonder at the ability of the museum to affect significant and lasting societal improvement.

What has, and does, this kind of change, meant and mean for the museum and its inhabitants – the objects and staff who populate it? Change, of course, is often frightening: Heal herself noted this, speaking of the changes in the publishing industry with the growth of digital and the perceived demise of print media. It believe it is important to note that change does not always equate with improvement, and that the appearance of change for change’s sake should always be dealt with cautiously. The conference delegates often called for change; but maybe I can play devils advocate, and suggest that, at times, standing up for the status quo might be equally socially responsible.

Theoretical Models of the Changing Museum

The presentations also offered a number of models for the museum which might be used to understand it and its relationship to alteration. At the more oblique end of the scale, Baggerson and Fleming offered us tools from literature – the heterotopia and the heteroglossia. Baggerson suggested a shift from the museum as accretive heterotopia, propounded by Foucault and others since, to the museum as liquid and chaotic heterotopia, a festival fully in time. Fleming’s use of Bakhtin’s heteroglossia sits well with this: the museum as a concatenation of sounds and voices, cries and whispers, from all corners of history and space.
More grounded, but no less scholarly, we the models suggested by Nielsen and Finn. Jane Nielsen dealt with the transformations of the museum in postmodernity, suggesting the time is ripe for a rethinking of the notion of the post-museum. As an alternative – or perhaps a development – she offers us the ‘transformative’ museum, an idea adapted from Slaughter. This model explicitly recognises the phases which change has to go through, and how it can sometimes feed back into itself. The transformative museum, then, is a place which is constantly rethinking itself, and going through processes of sustained and structured reflection.

Finn offers us a series of contemporary and historical models for the behaviour of museums in regard to collaboration. Though not all agreed with her designations – certainly the idea of the Pitt Rivers as a non-collaborative, ‘arbitrary’ displayer of aboriginal art came as a shock to many – her definitions of arbitrary, intermediary and collaborative institutions are worth considering when any museum undertakes the responsibility of representing another time, place or culture.

I suspect that, as a result of Museum Metamorphosis, we might come up with more models productive of and evidence for, change: and indeed a subtler understanding of its processes and consequences.

Tools of Analysis

Something which I found particularly interesting at Museum Metamorphosis were the tools for the analysis of museums and change offered by its presenters. I have spoken already here of literature, so I shall first of all speak briefly about Ariane Karbe’s workshop, Electric Elephants: an intriguing experience in which I was able to consider, and observe from my colleagues around me, the way in which narrative and narratology, from books or films, is under and misunderstood in the museological world.

Other disciplinary models we gained during the conference were Fashion Studies and Future Studies, coming to life during the presentations of Rikke Baggerson and Jane Nielsen respectively. Future Studies forces its user not to predict, but to expect and acknowledge possibilities: in that way, a museum can become fully aware of its actions and consequences. I loved the subtlety with which Baggerson employed the model of fashion and the heterotopia, and the complex and intricate series of relationships she drew between the realms of museums and fashion: change, here, becomes something affected by many forces, something no single agent can control.

Museum forms were also offered as potential models and case studies for affecting change and understanding its results. I found particularly interesting Judith Dehail’s discussion of musical instrument museums, and Baily’s description of migration museums: both of these types of institutions can present and highlight specific issues and ways of addressing them, and this use of a ‘genre’ museum to influence the practice of the wider community has, for me, distinct potential.

So much for all this abstraction. Museum Metamorphosis also gifted its participants with a plethora of realised examples: attempts and successes at instituting change.

Examples of Change

The examples offered by Museum Metamorphosis fall once again into five categories: there were those which presented physical change; those which presented changing objects; changes in programming; external changes which had an impact on the activities and character of museums; and organisational and social change. For the sake of convenience, I will here treat the virtual world as a physical form of expression.
Rachel Souhami presented us with an analysis of two physical remodellings of display space, and how one, but not the other, failed to break convention and redefine the Museum it inhabited as a changed space. Later in the conference, Melissa Forstrum would remind us of this: visual alteration does not necessarily come hand in hand with conceptual improvement: institutional prejudices, she noted, however unknown, can still be clearly seen.

This is partly the case, too, with the Pacific Hall at the Bishop Museum. Alice Christophe noted that, whilst it has made many improvements in its re-representation of the complexity of the Blue Continent of Oceania, Western names and tropes still occasionally appear. The remodelling of the space as a whole has, however, been highly praised by the people it represents, as a space for them, rather than simply of them.
Ioanna Zouli would take the analysis of physical representation into the virtual world, in her paper discussing the changes to architecture and strategies of engagement offered by the online work of TATE. She charted the shift from magazine like, transmissive website to multiplatform, socially engaged network: a shift reflecting that of the New Museology of the 1980s and 90s.

The representation and perception of objects is also a physical thing. Two papers in particular were indicative of the power of the changing object. In Stephanie Bowry’s paper, we were introduced to the object as metamorphe, something with multiple identities, things themselves and symbols of themselves. We were also introduced to the metamorphosis of the cabinet – from container to cultural curiosity, and reminded of the fact that in a few or a hundred years time, our own museological models might too be behind glass.

A historical consideration of the changing use of objects in was offered by Mario Schulze, in his exploration of two German museums: The Historical Museum of Frankfurt and the Museum of Everyday Life, Berlin. It was interesting to see a reflection of this process in a more contemporary setting: Laura Weikop’s Exhibition Lab, hosted at the Design Museum, Copenhagen, a daring attempt to change institutional perception in regard to the way objects can be displayed and understood.

Perception of objects and places is, of course, affected by programming. In her discussion of Kitchen Conversations at the Tenement Museum of the Lower East Side, Emily Pinkowitz reflected how the changing of timetabling, staff and space has altered the way in which the public engaged with the Kitchen Conversations Project, thereby, hopefully, gaining a better understanding of the lives of migrants and the importance of contemporary tolerance.

For Punshon, however, it was the understanding of the Darwin Centre itself which needed improvement and change. The series of artistic and performance projects that she oversaw during the course of a year led to an exponential rise in visitor numbers and a distinct improvement in the perception of the Darwin Centre, its work, and the character of the scientists there. Unfortunately, due to financial constraints and other issues, it may not be that those activities can continue.

This brings us to another important theme of Museum Metamorphosis – how external and internal circumstances, politics and characters can affect and change the museum and its representative strategies. In ‘Monad to Man’, Pandora Syperek charted how changing personalities and theological-scientific relationships and situation changed the Natural History Museum, London, during the earliest production and operation. The next day, Lefteris Spyrou would how a similar process, fuelled this time by contradictory passions for nationhood and European identity would transform the National Gallery of Athens into the museum it is today, and how they will continue to influence it in the future – particularly in this time of Greek difficulties.

I was particularly interested, however, to note how subsequent political regimes can adopt the objects, and even the institutions, of previous, often diametrically opposed governments to forward their own political ends. The case of Croat Yugoslavia, as presented to us by Joel Palhegyi, is one of myth-making and ideology: a potentially explosive mix in a febrile nation.

Where change seems really significant, however, is in the alteration of institutional structures which deny expression to, or marginalise, a significant proportion of people. The attempt to promote tolerance is visible in the works of many of the speakers at Museum Metamorphosis, including Richard Sandell, and, particularly, the discussion of migration museums and their promotion of cohesion – as well as difference – conducted by Eureka Heinrich. However, it was Erin Baily whom I found particularly affecting; a brave person promoting LGBTQI identity in an institution unused to such notions, in a nation in which those identities are very often hidden and decried.

Some closing thoughts

Here ends my reflection on the Museum Metamorphosis. I don’t want to give any final conclusion: that would almost deny the point of the idea of change. Perhaps the only thing I would say is that the assumption that change improves is to live in a teleology: and I hope that we are beyond the myth of progress by now. Perhaps our knowledge will increase – it may still be used for good or ill. Perhaps the major leap museums need to make is to leave behind the desire for apotheosis, and to embrace metamorphosis for precisely what it is: a change in form.

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