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Museum Culture

January 26, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Recently, I read an article that claimed museum culture is changing. I have been pondering this idea for some time. Culture is preserved in many ways, and certainly museums play a large role. As with everything else, technology affects all of our capabilities. Therefore, I think we should examine how technology may affect a future generation's museum experience. This article claims that: “A 2017 report by marketing firm LaPlaca Cohen called 'Culture Track' suggests that the definition of culture is changing. Participants in the study said they would much rather be entertained than educated, and preferred social interactions, as opposed to quiet reflection, when attending cultural events like exhibitions.”

After reading that, my first question was: is education not a form of entertainment? For me, it certainly is, but in all honesty, this hasn't always been the case. As a child, my parents visited every museum possible, and I often missed the benefits of these trips due to stubborness, youth, or lack of imagination. I can speak to a handful that blew me away and another dozen that bored me to tears. This, however, reflects more on me than the museums I would guess. And, speaking as an adult, I would be very sad to see museums minimized into a category of experiential versus informational. This diminishes all museums.

After reading that same article, Anna Johnson, a retired Curator of Education, said her first question was: why should a marketing firm define museum culture? That should be the job of each museum and of each of us. She has an important point – the museum must define what they are representing, and then go about devising a way to attract a population. However, having said that, I also wonder at the ways in which a growing population devoted to instantaneous feeds, high-speed data and images challenges a museum. Merriam-Webster defines a museum as “an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value.” An immediate difficulty arises: the definition includes a value judgment. Therefore, museums are tasked with preserving objects of worth, but who makes this determination? And furthermore, how does one convince others of an object's worth?

Anna Johnson further explains: “Most museums have a list of what makes something of interest or value in their museum. For example, the provenance or history of an artifact can give it value (not monetary, although there could be a monetary value – such as in art museums). The artifact's condition is another important factor since the artifact's power often enhances story or lends credibility to an exhibit. The choices are made by curators, and sometimes the public is asked to choose and explain their choice. This change in museum culture has the public demanding more connection to exhibits. Another example is the role of educators in museums. Thirty years ago, educators were often doing arts and crafts activities instead of actually being involved in the material of the exhibit. Today educational activities often include ways for the visitor to be more involved in the exhibit. Educators are now often a critical part of the team that creates exhibits, and they represent the public and their reactions in order to become more effective in meeting the needs and interests of the public.”

In order to better explain the dilemma in creating a museum-culture, I will discuss two of my own museum experiences, both of which I highly value. The Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden holds an immense ship recovered after 333 years at the bottom of the sea. They claim that this ship is the world's only fully preserved ship from the 17th century. To say that it is impressive minimizes the feats of engineering that went into making the ship and into recovering and reorganizing this ship. The viewer walks through five different levels to see the ship from top to bottom. Its immensity also presents a challenge to museum staff. How does one access a ship of such scale? The Vasa Museum used audio, photographs and video instructions as well as smaller objects that we could manipulate. The art is described in detail and guests are able to walk around at leisure. However, in recent years, the ship's decay has increased. Their website says, “Vasa lay in the grimy waters in Stockholm for 333 years. After all these years in the water the ship was attacked by bacteria and rust. Vasa was slowly decomposing, and is still doing so today, due to a number of different factors. The museum is conducting world-leading research on how to counteract these decomposition processes. And considering the age, we must say that Vasa is in an impressive shape. Our goal is to preserve Vasa for a thousand years.” In other words, the science behind this recovery is as palpable as the history.

I greatly enjoyed this exhibit because I was able to interact with it at my own pace and ability. It was more pleasing than when I saw the Mona Lisa, for example, only because of accessibility issues. I never gained any time to access the Mona Lisa in the same way due to overcrowding. The painting remained busy throughout the day and, by the time I left, I felt as though I had barely glimpsed it. I still enjoyed the experience and am glad for having seen it in person, but the crowded area left me a bit dissatisfied. This is opposite, however, to the experience of viewing the single artifact - a large ship - which took hours to walk all the way around at my own pace and without many others in any single spot.

On the other end of the spectrum, Meow Wolf is a museum of artifacts which can be viewed with or without narrative. The museum offers minimal instruction and leaves the viewer to wander, which is part of the point as well. You are free to direct your own path. The artists have incorporated a wide variety of cultural junk, re-purposed as an art experience. Their website invites guests to “discover a multidimensional mystery house with secret passages, portals to magical worlds, climbing apparatus, and surreal, maximalist & mesmerizing art exhibits.” It begins in a 1950s house and extends into spaceships, Alice-in-Wonderland musical mushrooms and a climbing tree, large sofas, glowing trees and musical rooms which include a harp made out of lasers. The harp literally plays the movement of your body through space. There are walls to touch and fireplaces to climb through, refrigerators into other dimensions and lots of neon lights. Interacting with the artifacts is up to each guest. You can touch, sit, lay down, take photos, make movies and climb through any space. In other words, the museum acts upon you as you act upon it. Both beings change with your presence and your perspective plays a large role in understanding it.

These two museums offer experiences that greatly affected me, though they do it in very different ways. They both create a narrative that I could follow. The difference, however, is that the Vasa Ship has a narrative outside of my own interaction with it. The ship's historical record exists with or without me. On the other hand, Meow Wolf's narrative depends upon presence. These museums contain narratives which are told in vastly different ways, and yet, they are both still museums. Are these two very different museums conversing about culture in the same way? How can museums remain true to their own culture while also employing modern-day technologies? Is education simply another form of entertainment, or is it a different type of entertainment? Meow Wolf claims that their experience is “immersive”, but is it different from the Vasa Ship Museum's immersion?

To learn more about the Vasa Museum, visit https://www.vasamuseet.se/en .

To learn more about Meow Wolf, watch https://vimeo.com/172224637 or visit https://meowwolf.com/.

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