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

5 November 2013

Transmutation #1 - Opening Remarks

There are so many potential forms of metamorphosis. To open our conference are three members of our School...

Suzanne MacLeod has a particular affinity with the subject of metamorphosis. She works with the physical hardware of museum spaces - the architecture and exhibition furniture. For her, these are not just material things, but bound up in sociality and its interactions. The way in which places change affect social relationships, and this change can be documented in archival research, such as she herself has conducted into the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. considering the architecture of that space, shows how physical environment was bound up with the public expression of the people in control. By the redevelopment of the 1930s, Liverpool was obsessed with the new, looked towards America for its style. This affected the design of the New Walker - right down to the lighting, the obsession with which stemmed from a fixation with the new science of gallery lighting.

The movement of objects is also crucial in understanding the changing museum. The changing situation of the Sultanganj Buddha of Birmingham provides a perfect example of how an object can be used to publically indicate attitudes and have its identity deeply affected by the movements it undergoes. Of course, as with any object, this affects the representation of the communities from whence it originally came and now represents.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park provides another prime example of how a site of inherent privilege can be transformed into a site for creative, public use, to the benefit of students and the wider community. Right from its start in 1977, high numbers of visitors and artists came to the site. But it wore its anti-establishment so obviously on its sleeve that it found it hard to gain funding. In the early 2000s, low budget, creatively funded additions were made to the site - a Visitor Centre and an Underground Gallery. Since then, the Park has found it much easier to get mainstream funding. Interestingly, the manor house at the centre of the Park is being redeveloped into a luxury spa. How is this going to change the nature of the park.

What does this teach us about architecture and design? We know that museums are always changing, even if this isn't apparent on the surface. Sometimes, change is fundamental and dramatic, but sometimes it is subtle, and you have to look closely. We know now that architecture is both physical and social, and produced as much through use and representation as through material change. The history built into the forms can affect the future developments of the 'places' that they are. Architecture means differently to different people, bound up in relation to those who build, design, work and visit it. Architecture is vital to metamorphosis, because it is about changing the world, as well as changing the fabric of a building. If we can understand the processes of their making, perhaps we stand a chance of understanding more deeply the impact that they have on our lives today, and will do in the future.

For Sheila Watson, museums are emotional. When she was a practitioner, she spent a lot of time thinking about the intellectual side of the museum, very little about the emotional side. In this, they were following a myth - that humans can be dispassionate, like Clio, the Muse of History. But we can't - everything that we do and think is governed by our emotions. The traditional view of learning, which saw thinking as independent from emotion, has been turned on its head in the last twenty years. We think emotionally - but we're culturally conditioned not to recognize this.

What are these emotions, and are they good or bad? Sheila's list is an interesting one; personally, I would not consider emotions to be inherently good or bad - they are simply what they are, and they are all affective or appropriate in different ways. We are often afraid that we cannot control emotions, cease to be human. But through her work in history museums, Sheila has shown that museums and people are always thinking with their feelings.

History Museums, which have long been seen as dispassionate, increasingly use emotions to elicit certain responses, support certain political causes and cultures. An example of this is the National Military Museum in Istanbul. Military Museums often put mechanical things on display, talk about killing, but not about death. This controls certain types as emotions - fear, upset, sadness. But when museums break this code, they do so often for political effect. In the NMM in Istanbul, a series of shocking black and white images that Sheila choses not to show us, indicates the relationship between two groups, and show a particular group as victims.

We use emotions to create narratives about ourselves and our identities, to prove ourselves as good in the past. In England, we use a Romantic view of the Vikings, because we see ourselves as both Vikings and their victims - our emotional relationship with them is complex. But in countries such as Norway, where the Vikings are the 'Us', they have to overcome the sense of Othering that is found in British representations. In Oslo, they do this by creating little dolls in the display, which provoke an emotive response. Sheila shows us pictures, and in these even the great Odin and his war-horse have been 'cutified'.

Why do we care about emotions so much, and why do museums in the twenty first century need to talk about them. Aside from the fact that museums are already using them, they are part of moral thinking and they allow us to create empathy. Without emotions, without empathy, we cannot understand and process ideas of right and wrong. There are at least two kinds of empathy - first person (empathic) empathy, and third person (conceptual) empathy. The first, you feel, the second, you see.

But what happens when museums get it wrong, and fail to understand emotion. The way in which the 2007 Bicentenary was dealt with in Britain is an example. An attempt was often made to adopt the viewpoint of the enslaved, and to adopt a tone more nuanced than celebratory. AHRC research was conducted into the effect of this, and found that this didn't change how people thought about slavery. There was, certainly amongst white British people, a failure of empathy and a disassociation. If we come across narratives that challenge our positive perceptions of ourselves, it's disturbing. We have to talk about cognitive dissonance, where we distance ourselves from our emotions; this dissonance is a dangerous thing - and we have to understand it.

Richard Sandell, a former head of school, hopes to talk briefly about the Disability Rights Movement and its relationship with museums. Alex opened by talking about the adaptable and changing museum, and in his paper he aims to provide examples of how practice has been reshaped in response to the needs of such social movements - with various degrees of success.

In the early 1990s, Richard was working at the Nottingham Castle Museum. Despite the high levels of protection on the building, after a long time and a lot of work, the building was made 98% accessible to people with mobility difficulties. The Drawbridge Group, an advisory body made up of disabled people, had been set up to work with the museum to make the space as accessible as possible.

Marcus Wiesen has written about the major refurbishments which have gone into museums in the last decade. Billions have been spent on refurbishments, he said, but many of these still do not provide a shared experience for disabled people, telling them that they do not belong in a museum. These are happening despite a slew of legal changes - whilst institutions might scrape through minimum requirements, there is still a long way to go before full acceptance is reached.

After a couple of years of working with Nottingham, the Drawbridge Group wanted not just accessibility, but representation - an acknowledgement of their lives in the museum's displays. Why were museums persistently absent from the collections and displays of museums. Across a survey that Richard and colleagues here did in almost two hundred museums, a plethora of objects, obvious and otherwise, depicting disabled lives or made by disabled individuals, functional and art objects, came to light. These objects existed in almost every collection, but appeared on display very infrequently, and when they did, they often reinforced negative stereotypes.

In a larger project, Rethinking Disability Representation, RCMG worked with a subset of these institutions to present disability in a different right. Now they are working with medical museums, which display thousands of objects that relate to the lives of the disabled people, with the potential to change attitudes. But these institutions often privilege the clinician, rather than the disabled individual. They are working with various institutions and an artist to produce an artistic performance to represent those collections and challenge the way we think about disability today - and the idea that disabled bodies are broken and in need of fixing.

Part of the motivation for the project is that the existence of many disabled people today is problematic. An increase in hate crimes against disabled people was reported in the week after the Paralympics. Museums should not be separated from this societal attitude - they are implicated in it, and should take part in its change.

No comments:

Post a Comment