Heritage Jam 2015 – sign up soon!

Heritage Jam at York University – registration opens on 20th August

I had a great Skype chat today with Neil and Paul from Info-Point. I’d first met them a couple of years back, and wrote about their product here. In fact, I’d put them in touch with one of my client properties at the time, Saddlescombe Farm, that had a problem which I thought Info-point might be the perfect solution for. It was – and Info-point have now supplied solutions to a number of out-of-the-way (and out of signal) National Trust sites across the country.

Their challenge is that they are technologists, not storytellers, but sometimes places come to them hoping they can supply the content, not just the platform. To this end, they are working hard at building a network of interpretation designers and content providers, who they hope will use their technology when heritage sites come calling.

We were chatting idly about setting up a two-day “hacking” event, to bring together heritage custodians, storytellers and technologists. While we were talking I thought “we could call it something like Heritage Jam!”

Afterwards I thought – “Heritage Jam… that too good an idea to be mine. Where have I heard it before?” and a quick Google later, I knew where. York University will be hosting Heritage Jam towards the end of September. I missed it last year, and made a mental not not to miss it this year. OK, so that mental note came back a bit garbled, but it came back in time for me to get myself on the mailing list. Registration opens and closes on the 20th August. So if you want to go, set a reminder in your diary! If you can’t get to York, there’s and on-line participation month kicking on the 20th of August too, so check that out.

Let’s talk about “affect” – part two

Maurizio Cattelan, HIM, 2001 installation view, Haus der Kunst, Munich.
Copyright: Maurizio Cattelan.

Last week, I introduced, from the essay by  Michelle Henning, Legibility and Affect: Museums as New Media in Exhibition Experiments, the concepts of remediation and affect. She quotes Brian Massumi‘s book Parables for the Virtual, which “describes affect as distinct from emotion and expression and in terms of intensity of sensations.” So, in the case of the introduction of spotlighting at the Gesellschafts-und Wirtschaftsmuseum in the 1930s, “it seems that the exhibition lighting increased the intensity of the viewing experience, without necessarily determining the exact emotional content or meaning of the charts and models.”

Now, this seems a little suspect to me. Here, she appears to be suggesting that “affective” lighting works as an amplifier of emotion response, having set it up, in her earlier discussion of theatre lighting, as a trigger of emotional expression. Admittedly she does also say that “other writers on affect see less distinction between affect and emotion.” But, continuing her theme of affect being more about intensity of emotion that the emotion itself, she goes on to talk about affective multimedia, describing the thrilling rides and technologies of the mid-twentieth century worlds fairs, and experiments in interaction at art exhibitions of the 1930s (apparently the use of peepholes at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery was mocked by critics as “a kind of artistic Coney Island”).

Another essay in the same book, Exhibition as Film by Mieke Bal also describes affect as an amplifier of emotion. She compares the 2001 artwork Him (pictured above) by Maurizio Cattelan as a cinematic close-up:

A close up immediately cancels the whole that precedes it, leaving us alone, thrown out of our linear time, alone with a relationship to the image that is pure affect.

In her definition of affect, Mieke Bal at least admits that she is understanding affect “without resorting to psychology”. She describes affective media (mostly images) as those which give us pause: “between a perception that troubles us and an action we hesitate about, affect emerges.”

All of which makes me think of the more prosaic “wow” moments or “anchor experiences” mentioned in my two recent posts on Interpretive Planning. So is that all affect is? A fancy “academic” word for “wow”? Maybe, in cultural theory it is. But, unlike Bal, I want to resort to psychology to see if I can understand it a little better.

I’m on holiday next week, but I’ve found a great book to take with me for a bit of light reading. It’s called The Archaeology of Mind, by Panksepp and Biven. It is, I hasten to add nothing to do with archaeology, but as I study in an archaeology department, I just had to give it a go. Lets see what they think “affect” is, or even if they mention it at all…



Let’s talk about “affect” – part one

An example of Otto Neurath’s Isotype system

I’ve been reading Exhibition Experiments edited by Sharon MacDonald and Paul Basu. It’s part of my effort to fill the gap in my literature review on modern museum interpretive planning. It hasn’t been brilliantly helpful in that regard. The editors point out “the exhibition experiments described in this volume are not experiments in didacticism. The purpose of their experimentation is not to innovate ever more effective ways of disseminating knowledge,” which is a bit of a slap on the wrist for me because, as one researches storytelling in cultural heritage spaces, one tends towards the didactic and the patronising or “perpetuating illusory securities” as they put it.

So most of the experiments described take place in contemporary art spaces, because as the editors’ introduction continues “exhibitions are generally expensive and this may make some  museum directors, managers and trustees reluctant to allow experimental exhibitions to go ahead.” These exhibitions are therefore temporary in nature, challenging and ideologically sensitive. They discomfort the visitor and expect visitors to “play and active role as navigators, way-finders and meaning makers; drawing their own observations and conclusions without the reassuring presence of an “authority” to defer to.” (p16)

That’s said there are two concepts that leap out of the book and are applicable to all exhibition design. The first is “Remediation“, from Bolter and Grusin’s eponymous book. They are cited by Michelle Henning in her essay Legibility and Affect: Museums as New Media (pp 25-46). She explains that “they outline various ways in which new media remediate other media, from being a supposedly transparent means of accessing other older media forms, through to absorbing older media so that they appear as their technically updated descendants.”

She goes on to describe how museums are remediated, most obviously through “virtual museums,” but also through the introduction of new media and computer technologies “in the form of new media art, information kiosks and touchscreens, and databases.” She also says that remediation might be found in exhibition design:

For instance, I have noted elsewhere now natural history exhibits relating to biodiversity seem to resemble networks, and “branching tree” structures. In their use of diverse exhibitionary techniques, many contemporary displays take on a a multimedia character similar to new media.

Her argument is that museums have been “remediating” since long before the term was coined. “In dioramas, for instance, realism and authenticity are underwritten by the use of the conventions of Romantic painting, combined with representational conventions drawn from photography and film. In other types of display, the authenticity of artefacts in enhanced by supplementing them with video footage or sound recordings.”

But her defining example of remediation is the introduction of spotlighting to the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in the 1930s. “It shed light not on artworks or artifacts in the strict sense, but on posters, charts photographs and models.” In a effort of communicate better with the museum’s intending clientelle, the working class population of Vienna, Otto Neurath, the director of the museum has worked with graphic designers  to create the Isotype system, a visual language for communicating statistical information around the museum. It was these framed black and red posters that were the exhibits of the museum, and the first items to be lit with what we now think of as museum lighting.

Neurath had a practical reason for this – the working classes only had leisure to visit the museum at night. But Henning argues that such lighting “was already understood as an expressive and dramatic medium” since its introduction in theatre fifty years earlier. Shining a spotlight on an actor or an object, bringing them out of the darkness, enhances the emotional content of Wagnerian opera, and even social statistics.

The use of spotlighting is, in other words affective.

In my next post I’ll look in more detail at affect, and whether or not it is distinct from emotion.

Lauren Child at Mottisfont

Last week, I took my family to the opening night of The Art of Lauren Child: Adventures with Charlie and Lola and Friends. It’s the first time this author/illustrator, who stormed to the top of the picture book charts while my first child was in her infancy, has shared the original artwork behind her creations. Most of the pieces are from  her collection – she doesn’t sell her originals artwork. She is so established in the psyche of the modern child, what with Charlie and Lola on the TV and her books owned by children of every age (and quite a few adults), that its hard to believe she only published her first book (about Clarice Bean) seventeen years ago. The collection on display shows the variety of techniques she uses to create her illustrations, and hints at the iteration that each page goes through before it is committed to print.

Now, obviously You might want to see an example of Child’s work illustrating this post. But you are not going to get that. Instead you are going to get a picture of a label. These are brilliant labels. How brilliant? Well my ten year old isn’t as much of fan of Lauren Child as his sister or his Mum. He didn’t really want to be there. But half-way round the gallery, he told his Mum how interesting the labels were. And he was right. My extremely creative colleague, Louise, who curated the exhibition, carefully chose as much as she could of Child’s own writing about her work. And Child, being an author of children’s books, writes very engagingly, and accessibly for children.

 These labels are informative, funny, easy to read but never patronising, and I don’t think I’ve voluntarily read such a high proportion of labels in any other exhibition. Together they give readers insights into technique, biography, and the stories behind the stories.

Child also contributed some new captions for the gaps in the story the Louise was trying to tell. Given that my last couple of posts have been about the layout of exhibitions, its worth complimenting Louise and her colleagues on that as well. They deal with the historical Y shaped gallery layout very well, broadly following a chronological track: the first room deals with Child’s first published works – Clarice Bean. Charlie and Lola come next, with more more recent works divided between traditional two dimensional illustration (mostly from Who wants to be a Poodle? I don’t) and three-dimensional media work, including some of the sets and photos from her version of The Princess and the Pea

And the original glass of Pink Milk!

All in all a MUST SEE. Click on the link at the top for details. 


Whose history?

New Museum Theory and Practice, published in 2006, is more theory (and by that I mean Theory, in an academic sense) than practice, and so not really what I’m looking for to fill the gaps in my literature review. But one piece in particular struck a chord. Eric Gable wrote a chapter entitled How we Study History Museums: Or Cultural Studies at Monticello. It sells itself as an ethnography, studying the social culture in and around the historic home of Thomas Jefferson, and a time when it was in transition from telling a story that was exclusively about Jefferson as author of the Declaration of Independence, to a more inclusive story telling that spoke of a working, slave-owning estate and (in particular) Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings, a mulatto slave.

The piece speaks of the conflict between museums’ implicit role as creators and communicators of state ideology, and the new (though not so new, now) “bottom up” history. A lot of what I read resonates with my experiences in the National Trust.

But it was the very last sentence that really hit home, because it reflects the current arguments and discussion around the Confederate Flag after the white supremacist attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

As a result Monticello, perhaps because of its desire for consensus, ends up producing two parallel landscapes that together add up to the terrain of modern democracy: a visible landscape of shared knowledge without controversy or conflict, and an invisible landscape of suspicion, mistrust and paranoia.

Participate in research and (maybe) win!

Fleur Schinning is currently writing her master’s thesis as a part of her specialisation in Heritage Management at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Her research focuses on the use of blogs and social media and how they contribute to the accessibility of archaeology. Public archaeology has been developing considerably in the Netherlands for the last couple of years, but much can still be improved concerning public outreach activities. This is why she has decided to focus her research on social and digital communication methods that might make archaeology more accessible for a wider public.

Her research is looking at several blogs from both the UK and USA; in these countries blogging seems widely accepted and used a lot as a tool in creating support for archaeology. To be able to explore how blogging in archaeology contributes to public archaeology,  she would like to question the bloggers and (this is where you come in) readers of these blogs. She has created a questionnaire for you dear reader, which can be accessed here: http://goo.gl/forms/z3BAUTyYUL.

All participants also have a chance to win a small prize; 6 issues of Archaeology Magazine!

Go on, you know you want to!

Interpretive Planning – Part 2

In my continuing quest to catch up on the latest thinking on interpretive planning, I’ve got hold of the second edition of The Manual of Museum Exhibitions. Published just last year, this must contain the cutting edge of modern museum thinking…

Or not. Maria Piacente’s chapter on Interpretive Planning very reasonably starts off with three essential questions: “What meanings do we wish to communicate? To whom do we intend to communicate these meanings? What are the most appropriate means of communicating these meanings?”

She says proper planning leads to exhibitions that are “Relevant, Meaningful and Relatable: because the majority of visitors are not artists, curators, historians, scientists or members of a special interest group, museum professionals need to find better ways to communicate complex and unfamiliar ideas.” She invokes the grandfather of Heritage Interpretation, Freeman Tilden:

Information, as such, is not interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information

A good plan will also be visitor centred, and Piacente points out that “Visitors attend as individuals or in groups, as tourists, as part of a school visit, or as a family. Each grouping or type or visitor learns and behaves differently in a museum setting.”

Which leads in to a piece on learning styles contributed by Christina Sjoberg. Now, there has been a lot of discussion about the validity of Learning Style models in recent years, which I’ve touch in previous posts, but what is definitely true is that museum visitors are in a very different learning mode to academics or schoolchildren. As Sjoberg says, “Museum learning is: informal; voluntary; and, affective.”

This last is important, Sjoberg argues that museum learning focusses “on our feelings, attitudes, beliefs and values” rather than being purely cognitive. Later in the chapter, learning styles come up again, when Piacente identies the “means of expression” a designer might use. I like this phrase, because it doesn’t just straight to defining the medium – though of course each means of expression does steer one’s thoughts to specific media. She lists four:

  • “Didactic means of expression include text panels, cases of artifacts and displays of works of art […]
  • Hands-on/minds-on activities are often low-tech interactives that incorporate mechanical devices, comparative exhibits, feedback stations and open-ended questions […]
  • Multimedia […] from videos to touch-screens and from augmented reality systems to simulators or even large-format theatres […]
  • Immersive environments include walkthrough experiences and dioramas that may incorporate sound, video and hands on experiences.”

Piacente expands a little on Spencer’s discussion of the thematic framework, re-introducing the idea of a linear, or “sequential” structure, giving as examples a simple chronology, and spacial sequences – room to room, or traversing a country. Of course she also explores nonlinear structures, which she says “accommodate more complex exhitions that require the presentation of multiple voices and perspectives.” She offers a number of examples of nonlinear structures:

  • “Focal specific structures establish one major topic or theme around which are clustered a number of subthemes that radiate from the core, much like the petals of a flower or or the layers of an onion […]
  • Parallel thematic structures establish a set of themes or subthemes that are used over and over again to explore many topics. Natural history exhibitions often employ this type of interpretation[…]
  • Independent Structures are frameworks in which individual loosely related or unrelated topics are addressed within a single area or gallery. […] such Structures are sometimes employed by science centers”

So far, so good. I’m not seeing anything new here, which on one hand, is good, as it doesn’t appear I’ve been particularly old fashioned in recent years (always a worry when the years as an undergraduate, where you think you’re inventing everything, recede into the distance). But on the other hand, I’m disappointed there apparently hasn’t been much development in thinking over the last ten years.

For example, even though Sjoberg speaks of “our feelings” and mention is made in a later case study of “anchor experience or ‘wow’ in each thematic area,” there’s no discussion of the relative merits the various structures have in manipulating visitors’ emotions. (I’ll tell you for free – linear structures are better at engaging people emotionally, because of the narrative paradox, not withstanding the problem that in real life, away from the exhibitor’s drawing board, visitors skip all over linear exhibitions, doubling back, taking shortcuts and and missing chunks out. )

I’ve got some more books to read, and if I find anything interesting, I’ll report back, but here’s a plea. Does anyone out there know of any papers with some really fresh thinking on interpretive structures and narratives?

Interpretive Planning – Part 1

Having put together the first draft of my literature review a few weeks back, I’m plugging some of of the gaps. One of the biggest gaps is about interpretive planning, where much of what I know comes from my first degree, back in the early nineties. Interpretive planning is more of an art that a science, and one can argue very well that you learn about it by doing it rather than reading about it. But I feel still feel I need to catch up with what people have written on the subject more recently than (it seems) I read anything about it. So the next few posts will be looking at the last ten years or so of writing on that subject.

Hugh AD Spencer runs Museum Planning Partners, and once worked at Lord Cultural Resources as their Principal in Charge of Exhibition Development. While he was there he wrote a chapter on Interpretive Planning for The Manual of Museum Exhibitions, so that’s where my efforts to catch up on the theory start.

Spencer describes the interpretive plan as “a component-by-component description of all exhibition and programme components in terms of:

  • Thematic area
  • Communication objectives and experience aims
  • Exhibit media options
  • Special requirements and opportunities”

In the book, he gives an example of a plan he developed with client S.Y. Yim, curator of the Hong Kong Heritage museum for a gallery of artefacts associated with Cantonese Opera. The gallery is comprised of four components: Introduction and Entrance; Heritage and Study Precinct; Performance and Participation Precinct; and The Living Experience. The introductory component’s objectives include:

  • To make a powerful first impression of the cultural impact of Cantonese Opera, its creative diversity and its expressive character
  • To transport visitors into the traditional setting for Cantonese Opera
  • To communicate that the study of Cantonese Opera is a rich and informative means of studying change and continuity in Chinese cultures worldwide – with particular relevance to the Hong Kong region,
  • To communicate [how the gallery is organised]

Two the of the “media and means of expression” for that particular component that he outlines are:

  • “Fushan Theatre Lobby/gathering place – modelled after a traditional venue for Cantonese Opera in the region. The theatre theming for the ceiling, floors and walls will prvide an environmental context for all exhibits within the hall.
  • The Great Mask – a large scale monochromatic face relief. Constantly changing images of faces in Cantonese Opera make-up (based on the characters made famous by important Cantonese artists) are continually projected onto the mask – illustrating the rage of design, expression and human character of this medium.”

He also presents, as a case study, the Earth Galleries at the Natural History Museum, London. In particular he focuses on the impressive threshold created and opened in 1996, with the expressed intention of meeting the “need to place the new galleries on the London visitor map pf ‘must-see destinations’ aspiring to the status of the blue whale of the Natural History Museum, or the mummies of the British Museum.”

Spencer doesn’t dwell much on how the story fits into the spaces, but he does offer an example schema (from the American Royal Museum and Visitor Center in Kansas City). It feels as though his illustration of the themes of that exhibition was intended to accompany text that didn’t make the final edit, but the venn diagram of three sub-theme intersecting around a central theme feels familiar. Broadly speaking its my starter for ten when anyone asks me (as somebody did a couple of weeks ago) about how they might start breaking the story for exhibition.

The important thing to note is that his thematic approach tends towards a non-linear model of interpretation, and that in turn relies on the introductory component of the exhibition to do most of the heavy emotive lifting, as the “wow” moments in his examples (the journey through the centre of the earth at the Natural History Museum, and the Great Mask in Hong Kong) illustrate.

But that’s not the end of the story – there’s a new edition of the Manual of Museum Exhibitions out, and next time, I’ll look at what’s changed.

Narratives in social science

I ought to watch out for the literature rabbit holes I can fall down. After my last foray into narratives and sociology, I got sucked into another work that was only tangentially about what I’m studying. This one though did at least have a few quotable quotes I might want to use later.

Brian Alleyne kicks off his Narrative Networks; Storied Approaches in a Digital Age by asking (on page 2) “What is narrative?”

“Narrative, in its simplest sense, consists of a series of connected events, and a particular way in which theses events are told. The first element is the story, and the second element is the narrative discourse… It follows from this that a story can be rendered through different narrative discourses”

He goes on (page 40) to reference “Jerome Bruner (1986; 1991) [who] has argued that humans make sense of the world in two fundamental ways, in two cognitive modes: paradigmatic and narrative. In the Paradigmatic mode the human mind recognises elements as belonging to two categories in a classifying operation.So in this cognitive mode, when we encounter an object, we seek to map it onto already existing classificatory schemes pf objects, trying to work out what kind of object it is. […] For Bruner this mode of cognition is most characteristic of science.
“In the the narrative mode of cognition we seek to connect people and events into a temporally coherent whole. The passage of time is important in this mode.As Paul Ricoeur (1984) argies, some sense of the passage of time is quite fundamental to how humans understand themselves and the world around them. The narrative mode of cognition is one with organises ideas and experiences into stories and is seen to contrast with the paradigmatic, scientific mode in that it operates in an emotive or emotional and expressive register as opposed to the rational register of paradigmatic cognition. These ideas are obviously abstract ideal models of cognition and cannot always be easily separated from one another in seeking to account for how people go about making sense of the the world.”

So it can the argued that a label in a museum or cultural heritage site, which categorizes an object, can’t connect the visitor emotionally to that object, unless they bring a story with them. But a purely story led interpretation of a site or collection can’t help the visitor understand it.

Later on in the book (page 92)he touches upon the Narrative Paradox “The fundamental issue here is that however defined, narrative text is characterised by a coherence that links human, and non-human agents, their actions, experiences and other happenings into a temporal chain – the following of which leads us to some kind of conclusion. The problem here for thinking about “hypertext narrative” lies in the very nature of hypermedia: unless the author of a hypertext network deliberately imposes a narrative structure on that collection of texts, the collection will have a degree of openness which militates against narrative coherence” using classic text adventure games Zork and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as examples he concludes “Interactive fiction therefore sacrifices the open-ended possibilities of hypertext in order to maintain some degree of narrative coherence.”

He also summarises the Narratology/Ludology debate, on page 93 and later (pages 116-121. As a gamer and a narrativist, he offers a balanced view, citing many ways in which games are not narratives but also pointing out that “Narratology has been part of the videogame designer’s toolkit from the start (Crawford, 2003; Rollings & Adams, 2003; Ryan, 2001; Salen and Zimmerman, 2010). Many computer are based on the three-act narrative structure of situation, conflict and resolution, that that same structure being repeated as the player moves through the game.”

In his debate on whether games can be analyzed narratively, he looks specifically (page 119) at history themed games like my old favourite Civilization: “In order to make these games worth playing narrativity has to be be balanced with playability, which means departing from the tight emplotment of historical that is at the core of historical narrative.”

Does any of this leave me any more enlightened? Not particularly, but I enjoyed reading it.