Collective thinking

After two months of discussions and meetings with the professionals, time has come to take the stage and share our thought provoking ideas in a form of presentations. These type of assignments can be helpful for students not only in terms of visual and oral structure of arguments, but also in terms of an opportunity to receive a feedback that can clear a way out of a mess that is quite common when it comes to explaining your points of view.    

For example, in case of Annalise’s presentation on The influence of Space we noted an interesting approach she used to link spacial influence on pedagogical and curatorial intent. By combing two theoretical frameworks on “museum as medium” and “space syntax” she intends to figure out how original architecture may be incorporated or entirely disregarded to create meaning in an exhibition. However, another aspect she’s interested in exploring, which is the influence of space syntax on visitors experiences, requires surveys and a closer research on a slightly different subject. That is why our collective suggestion was to leave this aspect out of investigation and focus only on the relations between the space and display. Indeed, even though Bill Hiller and Kati Tzortzi’s text suggests that space syntax in the museums might influence visitors’ movements and interactions with the objects, it is quite a challenge to apply this theory specifically on the exhibitions we visited without any visitors’ behaviour research.

Space and its involvement in creating a new meaning in an exhibition intrigued some other students as well. For example, Vera decided to analyze Contemporary Art in Sacred Space. Her research questions are: “ When exhibiting in church spaces, how does it change the meaning of the objects and the space? What can be the best practice for an institution to reflect on such questions?”. In order to answer these questions Vera wants to compare Merlyn Monroe’s exhibition in Nieuwe Kerk and Marinus Boezem’s exhibition in Oude Kerk. Michel Foucault’s theory on heterotopia ( that is capable of juxtaposing in a single real space several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible), chosen as a theoretical framework, might shed the light on some aspects we didn’t have enough time to cover during the course. However, what is important to remember in this case, is that there are different types of exhibitions and different types of curatorial approaches. Obviously, contemporary art exhibitions (or in case of Boezem’s exhibition, contemporary installations) are different from historical exhibitions ( as it is in case of Monroe’s exhibition that presented her lifetime through the objects). That’s why our collective suggestion was to keep this distinction in mind and focus more on a descriptive analysis rather than on a comparative one.

One of the main challenges students need to deal with is a profound yet concise research question. Unfortunately, almost all of us encountered this problem as our questions were to broad to work with. For example, Jacob gave an outstanding presentation on The Use of Interactive Media as a Tool for Education Younger Audience. His choice of National Football Museum as a case study allows him to dive deep into the subject as the museum uses lots of interactive media pursuing educational goals. However, his research question which is: “ Consider the point at which interactivity diminishes the narrative or educational capabilities of the museum?” is a little bit vague and broad. Of course, applying theories we’ve learned on a case study is one goal of this course, yet another one is to be critical/ analytical when it comes to such kind of analyses. Therefore, we suggested Jacob to find a specific angle/perspective he can use to analyze interactivity as a tool for education.

Yorgo, whose presentation was on Engagement in Learning, also had problems with a research question. As a case study he chose Museum of Greek Children’s Art where he worked himself and had an actual experience of assisting in organazing workshops. As Yorgo thinks that engagement is different from interactivity in a way that it is embedded in social function of the museum, he wants to focus his research on the benefits of engagement for museum education. Yet, again this question is too broad to work with. Our collective suggestion was to rethink his argument on the opposition between engagement and interactivity and apply critical analysis of this phenomena.

It might seem that interactivity took the spotlight as all of the following presentations reflected on its aspects in one way or another. For example, Iris also wants to focus her research on interactivity as an educational tool. Her case study took her research into a slightly different direction though, as “Archeologiehuis” is a museum within a  park “Archeon”. Therefore, our collective suggestion was to investigate the organizational moment between the museum and the park, since the museum takes the role of educating through interactivity more than the park.

Lastly, Liesbeth, Nina, and Rachel gave a joint presentation on different aspects of Interactivity such as education, senses, and audience engagement. Liesbeth is interested in investigating the dichotomy between interactivity as education and interactivity as entertainment. Nina, however, decided to take a different approach to interactivity by analyzing Audience Engagement with a Multisensory Approach. Finally, Rachel focused her research on interactive tools that museums use in the online space. It was a great move to give a joint presentation as we had an opportunity to look to different approaches one can use to analyze interactivity museums use in their practice.    

By Svetlana


The importance of dialogue in museums – and beyond its walls

To look for a good question may be harder than searching for its answer. Choosing a topic and a research question is never easy. However, what makes a good question? A lecturer would probably say that it has to be relevant, be objective and narrow. I would add passion to that list. You have to love it. Well, you don’t have to, nonetheless if the subject triggers something within, you will probably go deeper.

Beyond. By discussing and problematizing something you are passionate about, most probably will lead to an unique point of view, a singular way of looking at it. That was clear in the presentations about our final essays on last Crossmedial Exhbitions class. From institutionalism to the use of space and interactives in museums, to the possibility of applying transmedia storytelling to art institutions strategies to the educational potential of social media in the musea field. I was surprised with the ideas proposed by my fellow peers. In my humble opinion they were quite original, relevant and most importantly made me think.

The museum field have been passing through some changes over the years, but still it has a long way to go. The idea that the audience is a blank sheet that has to be filled with information is yet present. A hierarchy polarized with who has the knowledge (the art institutions and museums) and who hasn’t (the public). This one way street has lead to a distancing, a detachment from the audience – or by the audience.

Dialogue is crucial – if you want to be heard you need to hear. This has triggered something in me, which lead to my research question: the role of museums and collections in foster a sense of community and belonging. In a globalized world marked by dichotomies, where a teenager from Thailand watches the same series that a youngster from England at the same time that there is a refugee crisis in motion and walls are being build between countries, certain things should not be forgotten. What makes us unique and makes us equal. The trivial of all subjects, water, was the angle the Museum of Water chosen to talk about what unite us all. Water is just a metaphor for this museum, which I decided to use as a case study for my research. The collection is made of recipients with the liquid donated by any individual, however what those bottles come with is what matters the most. The donator writes the story behind that item, being a sunny day at the beach with the friends or a leak caused by a kids play. What Museum of Water is doing, and what I pretend to use in my research, is an archive of connectivity. The anecdotes behind the water recipients are relatable to everyone. The collection is in constant growth and it is made with items from all over the world. Who doesn’t have a memorable story involving water? The transparent and odorless liquid is a metaphor and a reminder indeed, what is common to every person – after all aren’t we all 70% water?

Captura de Tela 2017-03-12 às 21.32.58.png

By Bruna Cataldi.

Marketing, Communication, Concept Team – Hermitage: The Making-Of

Marketing, Communication, Concept Team – Hermitage: The Making-Of

Last week Friday we could meet with Martijn van Schieveen from the communications department of the Hermitage. Next to receiving a lot of factual information it was nice to also get his personal view on issues like communication channels and more background information. What was striking to me at first was the constant struggle they seem to be under to attract more visitors while one argument that kept coming back was the budget constraints.

Not so long ago, the Hermitage changed it structure and procedure in the process of the exhibition making. A concept team now is responsible for the decision on themes and storylines of exhibitions. Now, the communications department is invloved from the very beginning, helping out and making sure the exhibition really would cater to the desired audience and also the promotion campaigns can be planned accordingly. Every five years, the new themes/topics of the next five years are set and serve as a starting point when the planning of the individual exhibitions start, roughly two years before the opening. The focus of the exhibitions really are the objects and then the story is built around the objects. At the same time, the story is vital and often is the selling point. Since they know their audience and the main group of visitors are women 55+, the story has to appeal to them specifically, or at least aspects of it or a subplot. It was surprising to me, how well they seemed to know their audience and especially with the promotion, it seemed so clear what would work and what definitely doesn’t work, like posters at the airport. Of course, one big issue are costs of some promotional strategies, but still I wonder what their research into promotion effectiveness actually looked like and they can be so sure that some spots for posters work and other strategies don’t. One strategy I did not consider were blogs/vlogs of independent visitors (next to reviews by newspapers, etc.) and what influence they can have. Also, quite some elderly people use facebook and write blogs about all the museums they visit, which is, on second thought, not actually that surprising considering that they have the time to do so and maybe they even continue what was their profession before in journalism or in the art-/museumworld.

It was also interesting to see parallels between the film world and museums. Van Schieveen showed us a video of the making-of of one exhibition and also the 1917 Romanovs & Revolutie has a making-of video and also a trailer on the website. Also the idea of the entrance hall and the concept of the “flaneur” reminded me of a text we read in class by Francois Penz about how film can serve as a source for inspiration for exhibitions and how the visitor walks through an exhibition. The flaneur is of course also a common concept in film, a person wandering through the streets at night for example, and in the museum space, especially also in the ‘shopping mall’ of this exhibition, it allowed for a “serendipitous exploration of the museum space, a site of wonder and chance ecounter.” When he talked about exhibitions at the Rijksmuseum, he used the term “Blockbuster exhibition” which hints a little bit at the mainstream and international character of the Rijksmuseum, whereas the Hermitage is more national and more niche and particularly with the Outsider Art exhibition, has maybe more of an art house style.

There are two thoughts I would like to end this post with. The first concerns the target group of women 55+ and then simultaneously the side program for families and education for children. It seems more like a circular structure of audience research and then catering to the group of people that have visited before. Can the Hermitage actually attract a different group of people and secondly, do they even want to? It didn’t become clear to me, if the Hermitage is actually happy with their target group or if they, in the long run, also want to attract a younger audience and more international people. And I think it is a valid question to consider that sometimes, a limitation to one target group might be enough for a museum.




“L’esprit d’escalier” report

“L’esprit d’escalier” report

It has been almost a month since our first “crossmedial exhibitions” class meeting. Back then, while looking through tons of massive books,I got an impression that throughout the whole period we all would tackle difficult reading material in order to understand intricate aspects of museum studies. However, after our first (and so far last) texts discussion, this course turned into an absolutely different experience. Even though text readings and following discussions are the most common (and, of course, useful) practices in the education process, it has been a pleasure to try some other ways of learning.

First and foremost, it becomes apparent that there is no better way to learn about the museums than going to the museums. The position of an actual viewer allows to learn not only about the objects and the stories behind them, but also reveals how the museum arranges a dialog between the objects, spaces, and the visitors. This dialog reminds me of an aesthetic ritual that at its best enables visitors to experience intellectual or emotional (sometimes even both) growth. And at its worst, does not evoke any reactions. Keeping in mind this ritualistic nature of relationships between the museum and the visitors, I  always try to be self-reflexive while wandering through the museum galleries. As the only thing one can take outside the museum (legally) is his/her personal impressions, I believe that self-reflexiveness is a good tool to analyze conceptual/curatorial/design strategies used by the museum to make an impact on their visitors.

In this regard, our discussion with Vincent Boele, curator of 1917 – Romanovs and Revolution exhibition at the Hermitage museum, was a great fortune, as finally I ( and probably all of the students) was left not only with my self-reflexiveness and guesses about the exhibition on point, but also had an opportunity to learn about a real process of making the exhibition, a process that is usually hidden behind the curtains. Vincent was kind enough to answer our questions and share about his experience of working at the museum. 

From what we have heard from Vincent, the Hermitage museum in Amsterdam is in a partnership relations with the State Hermitage Museum in Saint-Petersburg. However, I am surprised at how local Hermitage is dependent on St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum. At some point, it might seem that Amsterdam’s Hermitage is very limited in terms of its own freedom, especially when it comes to the access to the collections stored in Russia. Vincent was a little bit vague on connections with the museums other than those in St.Petersburg, so I was left with a feeling that the Hermitage functions as a branch rather than an independent institution.

Nevertheless, curatorial and organizational freedom of the museum was not doubted at any point.When our discussion made a turn from St.Petersburg – Amsterdam relations to the exhibition design, Vincent explained that “an exhibition is about the objects, it is not a book you read”. In a way, I think it makes sense to tell a story through the objects, because at the end of the day visitors do not leave the museum with the memories of what they’ve just read, but rather with the memories of what they have seen. Our long discussion on audience and target groups made it clear that the Hermitage team treats their visitors in a careful manner and tries to count all small nuances to facilitate the experience of the museum (from organizing tours for the youngest audience to using large text formats for the older groups). 

When I walked through the “Passage” (“the conceptual floor” in Vincent’s words) I could not stop thinking of the atmosphere in Saint-Petersburg before revolution. Annelise mentioned that the second floor’s density reminded her of the masses and their struggles. But for me, space syntax on the first floor reminded of flâneur culture so popular at that times amongst Russian bourgeoise. Dames accompanied by their gentlemen imposingly strolled around the city streets glancing to shop windows and stopping by to have a small talk over a cup of coffee. Saint-Petersburg has never been more European than that. It was a pleasure to know that Vincent’s main intention was to show this part of Russian history, which is, unfortunately, has been forgotten so frequently. Small paintings and prints by Leon Bakst, Alexander Benoit, and Maximilian Voloshin perfectly completed a visual image of the city and its mood. However, Russian Avant-garde would have fit this visual narrative probably even better, as it was all about the freedom of thought (not in a communist, but in a “European” sense).Yet, again, Vincent explained how difficult it is to get the objects from Russian storages in St. Petersburg. The Hermitage obviously dances around these issues and makes it all work at a highly respectable level thanks to creative approach.    

Last but not the least, (even though it was not a secret before) it becomes crystal clear only now that the museum is not only a palace of wisdom, ceremonial monument, and a temple of knowledge, it is also a complex system of numerous departments, invisible workers and hidden structures. I’m looking forward to exploring.

by Sveta Kirillova

Humanizing history: construction of meaning in service of a narrative in 1917 – Romanovs & Revolution

Humanizing history: construction of meaning in service of a narrative in 1917 – Romanovs & Revolution

Processes of interpretation are not singular, but multiple, and they proceed from a range of starting points.
Eilean Hooper Greenhill

What happens when you enter a museum? Silence, four white walls around you and more silence. The classic space of a “white cube” doesn’t sound much stimulating. However, that is not what you will find when you enter the 1917 – Romanovs & Revolution. The end of Monarchy.

The first room of Amsterdam’s Hermitage exhibition is a recreation of The Passage, a shopping arcade in St. Petersburg’s main street full of high-end and luxurious shops and coffeehouses, the place-to-be for the Russian aristocracy on the early 20th century. With delicate art nouveau ceramics and glamorous beaded dresses on display, you can window shop like a Russian count – minus the cane and the coconut hat. And that’s exactly the intention: transport the 21st century audience walking through the streets of Amsterdam to the avenues of aristocratic Russia.

After strolling on The Passage’s wide hall, it’s time to get inside the narrow rooms where the family life of the Romanovs is now on display. This move from a large space to a more intimate one is also used in service of the narrative, as now the visitor will enter the private universe of a family. Still, what is on the other side of the window are objects, like the one’s behind the glasses of The Passage, nonetheless a crucial change has been made. The fact that you know who those brushes and ink bottles belonged to, and the personal anecdotes behind those lifes, it become more than objects – brushes and ink bottles become a story.

Eilean Hooper Greenhill describes the role of objects in an exhibition on the first chapter of Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture: “One critical element in the construction of meaning within museums is the presence or absence of particular objects; a second vital consideration is that of the frameworks of intelligibility into which collected objects are placed.” Due to the choice of objects – most quite personal and part of the emotional ensemble of everyone’s everyday life (such as toys and kid’s drawings)- and the way those articles are presented – among the blow up’s of black and white photos of the family and texts with intimate stories -, the narrative’s objective is fulfilled: humanize history.

Or, at least, humanize a side of history. The exhibition’s tone is constructed in order to build a positive image of the family, and so as the decision to make them more relatable. After all, we are talking about the Hermitage, an organization created to present the collection of State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, as the name says, an institution managed by Russian government. As Hooper Greenhill states in her text, collections and exhibitions embody ideas and values that can’t be ignored by a critical viewer – even if it’s a historical expo.

Also according to Eilean, every museum has a pedagogical character that refers to what is said and how it’s said. The construction of meaning is, therefore, represented in every decision made in an exhibition. What happens when you enter a museum? French philosopher Jacques Rancière would say that any type of knowledge must be fictionalized to be though. Hence, when you enter a museum, expect to be told at least a (side of a) good story.

By Bruna Cataldi

Analyzing Exhibitions – Let’s Get Started

Analyzing Exhibitions – Let’s Get Started

The word “museum“ can trigger very different associations in every person. My first thought is the National History Museum in London, this massive, old building explaining the world to the visitor, their vision. However, I could have also thought of the Lofoten Stockfish Museum I visited in Norway, a quite small wooden Building about the life, politics and economy of stockfish. They couldn’t be more different, so how could you compare them? How can you make sense of a museum, its organization and structure? In our first lecture of cross-medial exhibitions, we were provided with a bunch of texts that offer exactly that: tools with which to talk about/analyze/compare/understand and also evaluate museums.

Although the most important literature is called “A companion to Museum Studies”, a compilation of articles edited by Sharon MacDonald, the focus of our course is on exhibitions and the study of exhibitions with the museum being the place, providing a context and frame.  We discussed what Bill Hillier and Kali Tzortzi call “architectural and curatorial intent,” the relation of the space and the narrative in an exhibition, in relation to the recently viewed Monroe exhibition in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam. The division of an outer ring and an inner ring to represent the public and private life of the celebrity shows how the curator took into account the experience of the visitor while walking in the space. However, we noted that for us it is difficult to judge whether this really is an effective layout of the exhibition since the curator herself explained some of the major choices beforehand, giving us some helpful information while at the same time taking the possibility to explore and experience the exhibition and the space without this pre-knowledge about the set-up. Another interesting discussion point that came up (again) was the use of the Museum as a former church, having huge posters of Marilyn Monroe as church glasses and building a type of altar for her on which a statue of her, a still of one of her movies in which she is admired by a number of men, is positioned as if she was an icon of the church.

The use of space also ties in with what Francois Penz is suggesting in his article on the moving image in the museum space not only as a means to show for instance a documentary of someone’s life but also as a source for inspiration for the space and/or the narrative in an exhibition. Here you could form a link to the use of light in the Monroe exhibition space, namely that the inner was a lot darker than the outer ring, suggesting a deeper and darker side of the well-known actress. What Penz also advocates is the actively engaged visitor, compared to the passive consumer, claiming that new media and especially inactivity and transmedia exhibitions play a role in fostering curiosity in the visitor. This is also a topic in Michelle Henning’s text about new media in museums, suggesting they are more of a means for creating structure than a communication tool, supporting ways of thinking that are “non-hierachical and decentralized, and privileging allegorical and arbitrary associations, correspondences, and resonances.”

Thus, one aspect that came back again and again is the role of the visitor in museum studies. After all, any museum’s aim, albeit non-profit, is to attract more visitors or reach a different kind of audience, mostly younger people. When we were asked in class, how we could improve the exhibitions we criticized, it was quite difficult sometimes to come up with a solution and even if we did, it is still questionable, if other people would have agreed with our changes. In the case of the Monroe exhibition, we came up with several different set ups other than the two rings, including the idea of a private bedroom to represent the private Marilyn with all her belongings not behind glass, but simply lying around in her room. The problem here is of course the fear of visitors touching the valuable materials, like her dresses. On the other hand, putting them behind glass made the objects seem inaccessible, a little out of context and supported the idea of objectification of the persona, exactly what the exhibition wanted to counter: to show her vulnerable site.

All in all, I think the group has a very critical eye and a passion for various types of exhibitions, allowing for very fruitful discussions of the literature. We remain curious about the “1917: Romanovs and Revolution” exhibition in the Hermitage, so more on that after our visit next week.

by Lisa Rückwardt