Those wishing to atend the ‘Challenging Memories: Silence and Empathy in Heritage Interpretation’ conference 17th – 10th July 2013 at Buckfast Abbey should note that registration is now open.
Keynote speakers: Professor Jay Winter (Yale University) and Dr. Elizabeth Bonshek (University of Canberra)
Join us for two days of papers, practitioner-led workshops, and tours of historic sites in this unique setting of the Benedictine monastery at Buckfast Abbey.
The programme will foster collaboration and shared understanding between academia and the heritage sector, and offer opportunities for networking, demonstrating approaches and practice, and presenting empirical research.
To Register, please see the information at:
In the wake of Lance Armstrong’s admission to using illegal means to further his cycling career, I thought it would be useful to take a look at the history of cycling, surely one of the unsung histories of transportation.
It all started in 1816 with a crop failure in Germany (well, what is now Germany) which meant that horses were dying. At that time, of course, horses were the main form of transport, and Baron Carl von Drais, a civil servant found himself being unable to perform his duties. In 1817 he came up with what he called the Laufmaschine (running machine) and here it is. Going up hill must have been hard work.
In the following years many tried to improve on Drais’s design, particularly in France and England, where for some reason they were very popular with London’s dandies who wore out their boots very quickly and were fined for riding on the pavements. A forerunner to hipsters on their fixies, no doubt.
A number of improvements were made on this design, including adding pedals to the front wheel which made it feel a bit like a bicycle at least, though these were clearly an uncomfortable ride as they were dubbed boneshakers. It wasn’t until the 1870s when development gathered pace and the penny farthing was unleashed on an unsuspecting world. With such a design it didn’t go down too well with polite ladies in society and it was mostly left to young men to break their wrists as they fell from their trusty steeds with new-found speed. These are still ridden and raced today, as the clip below details, though I must confess as someone who cycles daily, that I don’t really fancy navigating Kingsland Road at rush hour on one of these.
By 1890 John Kemp Starley had invented what became known as the safety bicycle (so-called because it had a steerable front wheel and a drive chain connected to pedals) which was complemented by Dunlop’s invention of the pneumatic tire. The bicycle as we know it had been born. Look at this beauty, and I mean the bicycle and not the beard/moustache combo.
Since then, the bicycle has developed its own rich cultural history, particularly in the Midlands where it has a pre-eminent industrial history, but it also reflects some major changes in economics and politics across the world. Cycling always makes a comeback during times of economic recession, but it is also a symbol of democracy and individuality.
In the Netherlands, some 60% of all local trips are now made on a bike, a feat that would not have been possible without a series of protest bike rides in the 1970s which challenged transport and town planning policies that favoured cars in the post war period, but also responded to oil price rises that crippled western economies. This curious video from the Dutch Cycling Embassy explains more in detail and gives you a sense of democracy in action. Britain’s response, of course, was to build Milton Keynes, get rid of trams, watch the traffic jams build up, and then introduce the congestion charge. Despite Britain’s dominance of cycling at the London Olympics, cycling is stil not part of national transport planning in Britain.
There is now a healthy cycling culture across the world and many subcultures abound, the most notable of which is the bike courier. This documentary from the early 90s gives some insight into the characters and culture of courier cycling in NYC. There’s a whole host of characters, including the one-legged courier, the missionary courier, and the homeless courier, all of whom are addicted to riding. The response of taxi drivers is more than a little worrying.
Cycling also has its own patron saint, the Madonna del Ghisallo, in Italy. Tradition is that in medieval times Count Ghisallo was attacked by bandits and was saved when he saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary, and he escaped peril by running towards this vision. The Madonna del Ghisallo became the patroness of travellers, but in 1949 a local priest persuaded Pope Pius XII to admit the Madonna as the patroness of cyclists. The chapel was included on various significant races has since become both shrine and memorial to a range of cycling legends, both alive and dead.
I previously alluded to another cycling subculture, hipsters, who have a penchant for riding fixed gear bikes with no brakes, or fixies (they’re rarely fixed gear, they’re mostly single speed with brakes). These urban types, like most subcultures, declare their independence from the tyranny of the modern world, but by subscribing to their own set of rules fall into its same trappings. In biking terms, the new phenomenon is the designer fixie where you take what is essentially the same bike frame but change the colours, handlebars, seat, wheels, etc. If you’re interested you can buy one here, here, here, here and here. Cycling has become the new way to declare your independence, not only by the freedom the bike gives you, but by what you ride… as long as your bike falls into certain accepted categories of course. What would John Kemp Starley make of it all?
No, it’s not the name of a new Star Wars movie, it’s actually part of a Star Wars exhibition currently on display in Canada. In short, it’s an exhibition of some 200 items of Star Wars memorabilia (which I’d pay good money for anyway) but they’ve added some interactives that help visitors explore concepts around identity, bringing some deeper learning to your experience in the exhibition. This video clip tells you more.
The identity range of interactives were designed with the assistance of the Montreal Science Centre and are based around three aspects – origins, influences, and choices. You make your selections using a pretty nifty wristband which tracks your selections and at the end of the exhibition you get to find out if you’re a giant evil-looking teddy bear like this…
Or a bloke with a fish’s head like Admiral Akbar, who despite his great intelligence couldn’t work out that it was all a trap in Return of the Jedi…
Or perhaps even Princess Leia herself, who looks like she’s going through a Jabba the Hutt phase. Stay off the sauce kids.
Museums have a tendency to classify history; objects are collected, accessioned, stored and some will be used as part of a narrative to frame a larger story, one which is usually topped and tailed by the nature of the interpretation process. These objects are transformed in this context and acquire something of an aura. This is something of an academic process and it’s part of what makes museums such places of high culture.
The built environment is much more difficult to classify in this way. This sort of heritage has a multiplicity of uses over time, it can’t be accessioned, and their physical size makes it much more difficult to place it in a museum context. Because these buildings need a great deal more upkeep than your average object, they have a tendency to be opened to the public as a nice day out rather than a serious academic study. Built heritage is awkward like that.
But just as museum objects are re-interpreted from generation to generation, buildings are too, though for the built environment this may often be out of a museum context. As the western world has de-industrialised we’ve seen a variety of industrial buildings re-purposed. Tate Modern, for example, was once Bankside power station and it is a comment on Britain’s relationship to its own history that such a building has been repurposed for the cultural industry.
In New York City a similar situation has occurred with the high rise train track that once brought food and manufactured goods into the city. Called the High Line, it fell out of use as the New York economy changed and it wasn’t long before it became something of an eyesore. Sections of it were destroyed and the rest fell into disrepair and was marked for demolition as the re-gentrification of the area gathered pace toward the end of the 20th century. Some interested parties wanted to save it, however, including the rail company itself.
The noted photographer Joel Sternfeld was given permission to photograph along its route and created a wonderful collection of images about the past and present of the High Line. Here’s a short clip about it in which Sternfeld speaks quite eloquently about a disused rail track. As the photographer says, ‘every inch is absolutely authentic’.
Over time the battle for the High Line was won by the conservationists and over a few years the disused rail was transformed into a hugely successful urban park that now has over three million visitors a year. The High Line is a triumph of how the built environment has been transformed from its original function of hard industry through urban wilderness and now to parkland. If it had been possible to put it in a museum this never could have occurred, those sorts of interventions don’t happen to objects in a museum for obvious reasons. it’ part of the remarkable nature of the built environment.
Many of you won’t have heard of Studio Ghibli, though by extension you may know it as the home of the Oscar-wining Director Hayao Miyazaki, who can count Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, among his achievements. Miyazaki’s visual style is absolutely unique, and it is refreshing that his heroes are usually female and his movies have a positive message, with many being anti-war in nature. Here’s a trailer for Princess Mononoke so you can see for yourself what all the fuss is about.
Miyazaki’s status in Japan has reached legendary status over the years, so much so that there is now a Studio Ghibli theme park/museum outside of Tokyo. Here’s the museum plan.
I like the sound of the Cat Bus Room. And this is what it looks like in real life.
Most museums are very earnest in their efforts to communicate their remit as it is this which gives them their authority. Not so much with Miyazaki’s museum. On the studio Ghibli website he states quite specifically the type of museum he wants to make, as well as the type of museum he doesn’t want to make. The full list of criteria is well worth reading but I’ve just put the wants and not wants below:
This is the Kind of Museum I Want to Make!
A museum that is interesting and which relaxes the soul
A museum where much can be discovered
A museum based on a clear and consistent philosophy
A museum where those seeking enjoyment can enjoy, those seeking to ponder can ponder, and those seeking to feel can feel
A museum that makes you feel more enriched when you leave than when you entered!
This is the kind of museum I don’t want to make!
A pretentious museum
An arrogant museum
A museum that treats its contents as if they were more important than people
A museum that displays uninteresting works as if they were significant
I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a museum that hasn’t been pretentious in some regard. Welcoming, yes and often, but pretentious, always. I’ve not been to the Ghibli Museum but I’d like to visit to see if this sort of museum is actually possible.
Now I’d like to return to the other side of the globe, to France and a particular museum situation which contrasts very severely with Miyazaki’s vision. It is customary for each French President to leave some sort of cultural legacy, and the Pompidou, Musee d’Orsay and a certain pyramid at the Louvre that have all been the result of such initiative. Each of these is amazing in their own right and should be on everyone’s list when they visit Paris.
Sarkozy’s gift to the nation was to be a Museum of French History, Maison de l’Histoire de France, in fact, and it was going to cost some 80 million Euros and was to be housed in the National Archives building after they were removed elsewhere. Protests about this move duly followed, much of it in what should be called the French activist style, while critics of the project stated that it was a Sarkozian right-wing view of French history, a ‘bling-bling history’ which didn’t accurately reflect France’s evolution in a changing world. One particular critic stated that for the museum to be accurate it would have to be a ‘world museum’, an interesting comment when considering almost any first world national heritage, or perhaps it’s a comment on how the French see their own history. I’ll leave you to decide on that one. You can read more about that here.
Not surprisingly, it hasn’t taken long for Francois Hollande to scrap the plans citing that Sarkozy’s vision was too ideologically slanted. Interestingly, the Daily Mail is one of the few UK papers who picked up on this story and the comments at the end of the Mail article are probably evidence enough that there needs to be a more enlightened discussion about what history is and why it needs to be interpreted intelligently.
There are issues raised here about public ownership of museums (and particularly history museums), the masters that pay for them (or at least control the purse strings) and the politics that shape the discussion. In a social democracy we expect that a public museum will have a broad educational remit, it is for the public benefit after all, and as such one would expect a balanced interpretation of the subject matter. But there is an inevitable tension when there are significant differences of opinion, and as Sarkozy’s project has discovered, when there is a change in the politics there is also a change in cultural interpretation. That’s why history is such a delicate subject for museums (and for society in general), it informs who we are, it’s the blood that runs through us, and the right to control the interpretation of that history will always be a battleground as a result.
But perhaps that’s the point Miyazaki is trying to make about museums, they’re actually political spaces, and that’s why they have a history of being pretentious, arrogant, making second class citizens of their visitors and of attaching significance to objects that may not warrant them.
French presidents should probably take note, leave your legacy to art museums. History is far too divisive.
Digital technology in museums – as an interpretation tool and not as an object in itself – has often promised revolutionary possibilities, only later for the revolution to stumble and become evolutionary improvements. The reasons for this are as complex as they are numerous. The technological interface is often to blame, it’s rarely as intuitive or as powerful as we’d like, the output usually supports an exhibit and is not centre stage (and is often underwhelming as a result), while museum budgets simply can’t match those of their private sector gaming counterparts in creating wholly immersive universes, nor are they intended to deliver such an experience. But museums themselves are also to blame, many are conservative institutions who see themselves as guardians of knowledge and their understanding of themselves as learning institutions is limited to the dispensation of this knowledge, although any understanding of learning theory would give you so much more work with. At the same time, interpretation companies delivering technology outputs are more likely to be designers rather than educators, but it should be noted they are also responding to a brief from the museum itself. There are also other factors that need to be taken into account, footfall and space issues for example.
Jake Barton of Local Projects works on some exciting and challenging projects that use technology in museums, most notably the 9/11 memorial which is about as complex and emotive as they come, but also many others. He talked recently at Wired 2012 about his work in and out of museums. Here’s his talk and it’s well worth watching as it shows how more enlightened institutions are pushing the use of technology toward participatory experience.
There are truly some really great innovations here along with some which are more akin to the old fashioned model of using technology to deliver specialist information – a glorified audio guide perhaps. But I do think it’s interesting to note that in the first two projects presented (and despite the huge investment to create an immersive experience through technology) Barton places no attention on the desired impact or learning outcomes for visitors. Even with a project as significant as the 9/11 memorial the focus is on design and telling stories from those who experienced that fateful day, but I’d also be interested to know what the 9/11 memorial team itself want their visitors to take from the experience (other than raw emotion), a truly complex and engaging subject in its own right. It’s interesting to note that in Barton’s final two examples, when the technology itself is taken out of the museum there are significant impacts that improve the quality of life for the local community which can be easily articulated. What an amazing achievement. But if NYC can use technology to give communities increased opportunities to communicate and control what they want, why can’t museums?
What does this tell us about the role of technology in museums? And about museums in general? Should we surmise that technology in museums is merely for engagement’s sake, that museums aren’t really interested in a deeper and transformative impact for individuals or their community, or they just won’t give up curatorial power? It would be foolish to answer those questions based on only one talk given at a technology conference, but it does raise the question as to whether museums need to do a much better job of using technology to deliver transformative learning experiences, or at least find ways to articulate the impact of their investment on individual visitors or their communities.
One of the enduring images I have of museum engagement is of visitors prodding at touch screens, enthusiastically at first, then frustratingly as they realise the experience is a one-way dissemination of information that has little connection to their lives, then giving up entirely and ignoring any other touch screens in the rest of the exhibition for the same reason. I can’t wait to see what a good museum can do with one of these, they cost only $70 (£50), and so maybe they will help facilitate a deeper engagement, outcomes and impact for museum visitors, if only we can step out of currently existing interpretation models.
In this video edited by Kirby Ferguson ‘The Future of Storytelling’, neurochemist Paul Zak talks about his research into how empathetic responses are produced (and essentially how they might be manipulated), and how such responses can impact on our actions. Stories that have a traditional narrative arc are more likely to illicit such responses, and make us more likely say, to donate money. Really interesting and, naturally, moving.
But this gets me thinking again about how the science maps onto the museum experience, and the environments we create, both online and offline, for such interactions. What is it that we want to make people do or take away from an empathetic engagement? What are the frames within which people might understand that call to empathy? Or indeed reject it?