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 #3 - Transformations in the postmodern museum

Jane Nielsen is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews, studying museums and communication. Her presentation stems directly from this research, and will focus on some of the transformations museums have undergone in modern and postmodern times.

Museums have always evolved - this we know. But it has often been the reluctant adoption of change that has been foregrounded. In Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, Eilean Hooper-Greenhill discusses the 'postmuseum', stating that the collection phase is over, and that the post museum will focus on the use of existing objects and intangible heritage.The post museum has had a significant effect on theory and practice in recent years.

It is the role of curators which has perhaps changed most significantly in the last decades. Those who were once specialists are now multi-functional multi-taskers. This requires a new model of the museum, leaving the museological and curatorial comfort zone. In the March 2013 issue of Museums Journal, this changing role is discussed.

Museums as a whole are changing too - they are changing their practices to accommodate future environments, and therefore future studies has to be brought into the equation. Future studies is not about future facts or predictions, but about forcing people to acknowledge, think about, and expect possibilities. Future studies is often used in budget planning, but less so in other areas, such as visitor studies. How can this be done?

The 'transformative cycle', adapted from Slaughter's work, looks as the process of implementing changes, and identifies later phases of ideas. It seeks to identify the four stages each innovative ideas have to go through: breakdown of meaning, re-conceptualisations, conflict/negotiation and selective legitimation. Some ideas will never reach the latter of these stages, and it is not always the best ideas which are adopted - these is still a question of authority implicit in the choice of ideas to be legitimated, and contexts will continue to change around an idea. Sometimes, the transformative cycle needs to feed back into itself. It is a useful tool for pointing out breakdowns and highlighting issues.

It is something implicated in the recovery of meaning. In museums, it can define a totally new approach for an insitution to base themselves around: producing what Nielsen calls a 'transformative museum'. The transformative museum understands methods and practice differently, turns knowledge into all kinds of communication and is shaped by the traditions and ideas of the past, those of the present, and the potentials and speculations about the future.

To understand this, we need to understand how change towards a more transformative model of thinking has come to pass, particularly in regard to visitor communication. In the modern museum, instructive learning was the main form of communication. They had a national focus and a chronological model. They presented things objectively, with the truth given. In the postmodern museum, communication became interactive. They had a global focus and told 'stories'. They allowed for subjectivity. In the transformative museum, visitors influence the communication, and the focus is worldwide. Here, stories are participatory; visitors form their own stories from the information they find interesting. Thus, they develop the subjectivity of the postmodern museum in more and more flexible ways.

The postmodern museum is undergoing such a transformation that it is appropriate to talk about a new model. They are required to transform their knowledge in all kinds of ways, thinking about their approaches to account for future challenges. This new model is the 'transformative museum'. Nielsen's final quote comes from Graham Black - 'For the necessary change to happen, we must all be futurists now.'

Many questions are raised about the nature of the postmodern model, and its relationship to the transformative museum. Is the latter a slant, a version of the former? What, really, are the consequences of that earlier, postmodern idea? How do we deal with questions of precedence in a subjectivised world? Who has voice? Where does flexibility become a lack of certainty, and what is the impact on pedagogy? All of these are difficult questions which at some point, museums and their thinkers will have to tackle. 

Future, present, past; when we are focused has a significant impact upon what we are and what we are able to do. I'd like to think that we can encompass all of these tenses, and learn from the evidence, whatever it may be. What we do with that evidence, however, is always going to be a subtly controversial choice.

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