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.