Asking the right questions

A friend, currently a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Culture in her country, was soliciting views on whether physical artefacts or digital experiences make a museum.

You are asking the wrong question, I said in response.

We are living in a time of social and political turmoil, an uncontrollable nuclear fission destroying the stability of liberal democracies we came to take for granted. Much time and ink are spent pondering how – and if – we may ever contain the spread of mistrust and return to a time of relative harmony. But as we argue over whether “truth is not truth” and whether we accept “alternative facts”, it is clear what we need is a shared narrative. We need to close the myth gap*.

What’s the role of museums and art galleries in serving this need?

For starters, this conversation needs to be broader than the binary framing of physical artefacts v digital experience that catalysed this monograph.

If their impact is to be real then art and culture need to get out of buildings, and give up their reliance on containment of experience through curation and of access through control.

In Prague, I recall being more affected than anything else I saw in a museum by an artefact of Holokunst which was along a long public street and consisted of nothing more than a large concrete slab embedded with shoes of kids and adults. Around it people were laughing, taking photos, drinking beer. Some were somber, some crying, some oblivious. Who is to say that isn’t an “experience”? Yes, it isn’t a controlled experience but it is one. We were all experiencing the artefact.

Likewise Mona Lisa is perhaps the worst experience one sees it the first (in my case, the only) time. Whereas seeing The Last Supper with the story of how that wall was everything from Leonardo da Vinci’s canvas to one of the walls of a stable for horses is etched in my mind. The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is in my mind an experience of bathos as an atheist-agnostic like me was let in due to my conservative dressing (read: covered shoulders and knees) while several devout Catholics, dressed to accommodate the Italian heat, were stopped at the entrance.

A replica of the Rosetta Stone is placed as the King’s Library in British Museum as an open artefact inviting people to “please touch” adding that the original is elsewhere in the Museum. Touching is the rawest instinct we have and the way the artefact is set up it encourages and indulges it.

At the time of writing this piece in August 2018, London has a set of 21 rhinos as part of a public exhibit called the Tusk Rhino Trail. Each has a message, is painted by a known name, and will be sold to raise money for conservation.

Equally I had to return six times to experience the sensory overload that was Savage Beauty because I love Alexander McQueen’s creative artefacts but the experience was a sensory overload. It was a ticketed exhibition — see my comment above about containment of access — and I guess few could return as I did not least because I live here and I am a member of the museum.

Some exhibits are not easily classified. Fresh as a daisy in my mind is an exhibit by a Thai artist Rirkrit Thiravanija, called Untitled 2005 (The Air Between the Chain-Link Fence and the Broken Bicycle Wheel). I saw it over a decade and half ago in New York. It was an artefact about freedom of speech, protest, surveillance, and even what we now know as low level state led trolling. Unlike the rhinos and even the Holokunst I mentioned, I have no photographs. It was an installation filling nearly all of a floor but as an experience, it was remarkable and thought-provoking.

Earlier this year, Hope to Nope at the Design Museum in London celebrated the role of design and technology in influencing public engagement with politics. There were only artefacts but there was the affecting Barack Obama poster that gave the exhibit its name. I await eagerly I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent at the British Museum starting soon. Both timely exhibits provide a space to ponder the question “what the hell happened to us?” that is haunting many of my friends and me.

Artefacts can be photographed and put on Instagram and probably not even be seen properly, except from behind a lens of some kind. Experiences are remembered and only ever shared on prompting.

There is always the experience that the curator did not intend or design. Experiences we remember are formed in the interaction of the object being viewed – the artefact – and the viewer. We make these experiences.

I understand and can relate to the pull of emerging technologies such as AR and VR to enrich experiences. Indeed in some cases, such as remembering the horrifying history of the Holocaust, VR is a powerful experiential tool as used in The Last Goodbye. Technology has been used in museums to create a more wholesome experience around artefacts. One of the earliest I experienced was in Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna over two decades ago, where merely standing in front of an artefact would change the track on one’s headphones thus using (IR) technology to serve how humans actually engage in a museum.

However to be relevant and meaningful, art and culture need to be out there mingling with us common people, being present in our life not as something to revere but something to consider, engage with, remember, wonder about for days or months or even years after. Like the Rhinos in London or indeed, this summer, Bee in The City in Manchester, reinventing the city’s symbol since the Industrial Revolution.

The binary question of physical artefact v digital experience needs to step aside in favour of bolder ask of art and culture in shaping and reshaping the narrative, and what that might require. Especially in our turbulent times.

*An excellent book to read. The link contains a review.