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


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