Trip to the Museum

Posted: February 19, 2015 in Mediated Lives

Question 1

Visiting a museum is always fascinating, with no particular plan and no particular question in mind when discovering each exhibit. Today was different. As part of the research diary, we were visiting Bristol Museum but with media technology in mind.  This is such an important focus as museums begin to use technology in various ways, not only to display artefacts, but also to offer new opportunities for the visitor to interact with the objects. The first task was to locate latest technology and this was in the Egyptian exhibition. The function of most of this technology was to offer information about the objects, either through audio, touch screens, computers and projectors showing videos of mummification.3

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2                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Clever lighting helped to make the technology appear more sophisticated than perhaps it was and the darkness of the Egyptian exhibition which enhanced the quite simple technology further. The TV screen showing how ancient Egyptian pottery was made was enhanced by the black background and dark room in which it was playing. Similarly, the picture of the mummy was lit from underneath creating a 3D effect.

4Sound effects were also playing in this exhibit although I couldn’t quite tell what they were. I went back to the museum after our visit and asked a couple of families what they thought of the Egyptian exhibit. One child liked it because it was dark and scary. Another child said she liked the computers. I’m not sure if the children (aged 7 and 4) knew much more about ancient Egypt but they appeared to enjoy the experience. To support the information exchange further, small audio symbols were placed around exhibits. Pressing the button would start an audio for the visitor.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              765

Much of the newer technology was touch based, with the use of lighting to enhance it. The difficulty is, placing more modern technology is worthwhile but makes some of the older displays look archaic and obsolete.

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The most archaic/technologically obsolete area of the museum was the art gallery and the East meets West exhibition on the second floor, although I would question these terms because they suggest a negative experience when they are not.  Perhaps when looking at Noah’s Arc by Jan Griffier, it is not necessary to add technology to enhance the experience, except perhaps good lighting and an information card. One of the volunteers told me that there was an interactive wave machine near to this painting but it seemed to break easily so was no longer used.

At what point is new technology intrusive and rather than enhancing the experience, it detracts from it. I’m beginning to think this could become the main theme for my research project. There is an argument to suggest that new technology in museums is installed in the most ‘popular’ areas. School curriculums may also dictate where new technology is placed. The Egyptians are still part of the new History curriculum so logically, ease of access of information is key here whereas the art gallery is not visited as much. This floor was calm and elegant and apart from some rather up to date easy access doors, spotlighting and dehumidifiers, was devoid of modern technology.

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Question 2

From the moment you enter the museum, there is evidence of communication media. Signs and information guide you immediately.  Although they do the job of informing and directing, the sinage is a mishmash of fonts, colours and designs. If museums are to entice visitors then I think they need to do more to ‘sell’ their museum. Looking at the West meets East sign, this would have been a great opportunity to excite the visitor before they even enter the exhibition.  Kim Kenney who is the curator of the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum in Ohio says that “The introduction label should be a “teaser” and talk about the main sections of your exhibit to encourage people to see the rest. If there is something significant or special of the main exhibit, it should be introduced here. At this point the visitor should have a good feeling what the museum is generally about. Visitors should understand immediately what they are going to see and they should desire to want to see the entire exhibit. Using this theory as a guide, the Bristol museum signage is not always fulfilling this. At the entrance to the museum is this sign. Welcome is clear, followed by three quite negative pieces of information. Although the information is clear, there must be a positive way of getting this across..’Please do take photographs of the amazing collections inside, just make sure you’re flash is off,’ sounds so much better.  This sign is positioned next to the exit and has a really important message…support this gallery – again, the sign is small and is not as Kenney says a ‘teaser’. Some of the signage is better. The David Hockney exhibition sign almost had a Banksy graffiti feel to it, big and bold, it welcomed the visitor into a narrow corridor of bright lights and amazing artwork.

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Information cards are used extensively throughout the museum but again, if they are ‘teasing’ the visitor to find out more, then this simply doesn’t do the job. Similarly, this information card aimed at older children was in a poorly presented plastic case, the cards were messy and didn’t look as if they were used much.

Unsurprisingly, both of these cards were on the second floor. On the ground floor (the floor dedicated to children according to the information desk volunteer), the signage was brighter, bolder and easier to read.

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Glass cases are used extensively to display objects. There is a ‘department store’ feel to some of the cases almost as if the objects they display are for sale.These vases are on display at the Bristol museum, the guitars are for sale in Harrods. Both use top down lighting and glass casing enhancing the objects inside.

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Question 3

During the research visit, I did find some images and objects from popular media.

The first was the Lego figure found in the Roman case. I asked one of the volunteers why these were placed here and apparently they were used to ‘entice’ children to visit each part of the museum. As the volunteer suggested, the children were unlikely to visit this area if there wasn’t an incentive. Although this incentive had finished and the Lego figures should have been removed to make way for the Easter egg incentive (same principle as the Lego figure, but the children will have to find the Easter eggs displayed around the museum instead). I asked the volunteer if this incentive worked and she felt that it did to the extent that the children were looking in cases that they would normally walk past and that ‘some of the information might go in’. Motivating children to visit all areas of the museum does seem to be something the museum are working on. They used to have a ‘Fun Sunday’ each week where activities would be put on for the children but this has stopped due to funding apparently.

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During the visit there was the Photographer of the Year exhibition and this seemed to be popular. Visitors had to pay to see this exhibit and they appeared willing to do so. The temporary exhibits seem to be an increasingly important way to raise funds for the museum. The Twentieth Century (once permanent) exhibit has now made way to the amazing ‘Ahead of the Curve, new China from China’ exhibit.

Although this is an exciting and new temporary exhibition showcasing modern images and objects, it is not without its critics. This quote from trip advisor, suggests that some visitors are missing the Twentieth Century gap in the exhibits.

“ Toys, electrical apparatus, furniture all from the 20s, 30s, 40, 50s and 60s would be far, far more interesting.”.

Visited February 2014

Question 5

“To understand new media in the museum and the museum as a media form, we need to examine the material ways in which they organise and structure knowledge and perception through the production of bodily experiences.”

At Bristol Museum, it would appear that much of the new thinking regarding exhibits and the dissemination of knowledge and pedagogy is focused on the younger visitor. There are very few bodily experiences, experiences that immerse the adult visitor’s senses in historical information, meaning and culture. Hence the vast difference between the Glass and ceramic exhibition (on the second floor) where the red walls and lighting are certainly visual but the displays are devoid of question and the sort of cultural detail that would allow the visitor to imagine the object within its historical and social setting. So displays such as this begging bowl appear tired and devoid of interest and the information on the card does nothing to enhance the object. Perhaps it is time for curators to see all objects through the eyes of a child. Not that I am suggesting ‘dumbing down’ artefacts but rather to make the information more sensory, showing a scene where the begging bowl would be used, or put a replica on display for the visitor to hold.

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When speaking to one of the volunteers, he explained the problem of people wanting to touch the objects. There were two objects that had been damaged as a result of people wanting to feel the object.

The first was the toe of a statue that had become worn as a result of visitors touching the statue (apparently this was one man in particular and he was eventually banned!). The second was a statue of a bust (literally) and was a firm favourite of teenage boys!

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Offering the museum visitor bodily experiences (from this I am understanding sensory perceptions) means that some objects are going to be ‘touched’ more than others. With this is mind, banning visitors from touching (the volunteer’s idea) won’t be the answer. Rather a replica next to the real statue with a presentation or audio from the sculpture explaining his methods and inspiration (if it’s a modern piece) would lead to a much more rounded experience.

On the ground floor, there is an area called Curiosity which allows children to explore and understand more about the museum, its artefacts and the importance of history and what it tells us about our culture and the world we live in now. Here there are bright colours, interactive displays and thoughtful questions for the children to ponder.

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Bright, colourful, tactile, interactive, thought provoking displays dominate the Ground Floor as children are invited to explore. However, the museum still continues to present the children with the offerings below – not appeared to be used during my two visits.

Although I agree with Griffiths (2003) that museums must avoid “vulgarising museums and turning them into commercialised sites for edutainment,” there is an inquisitive, questioning, tactile child in all of us and museums would do well to remember this.

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Question 7

Throughout my research visit I was drawn to some exhibits more than others. What needs to be determined here is whether that is simply my preferences as a visitor or is it the museums organisation of objects and information that draw me to some areas in preference to others.

The museum does establish a hierarchy of objects, first of all through its advertising and signage. So for example, I was drawn to the photography exhibition because of the advertising banner at the front of the museum. This exhibition was fee paying so did the museum feel that this was an exhibition worth paying for and therefore of higher value than some other exhibits. It is possible however, that this is part of the deal for the museum to host this exhibit and the profits are divided between the host and the exhibitor. Other signage directed my attention. For example, the Hockney artwork was signed throughout the museum so appeared to be quite high on the hierarchy of exhibits.

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Lighting also appears to be a tool used to establish a hierarchy of exhibitions and therefore objects. The two entrances below illustrate this – Sea Dragons appears to be more modern, exciting and worthy of a visit. The natural history section appears traditional and austere.

The lighting in one of the newest temporary exhibits is key to deciding its importance. Here, white is used as a backdrop to the whole exhibit and everything else is shoved into corners to prevent any distraction

35 36 37 38In the art gallery, one of the volunteers explained that the one art gallery had just had a makeover and the colour blue had been chosen – ‘it makes the paintings stand out’ he said. This is perhaps another way the museum, deliberately or not, gains our attention. In this instance, it works.

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It would appear that the location of objects is also a key factor in determining their hierarchy. One of the volunteers was stationed by the two new objects below and was telling a group of visitors about them. This was not the case for many of the other exhibits which were devoid of volunteers. The cases were new and were positioned at the foot of a staircase where all visitors would have to go to visit the rest of the museum – location, location, location.

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In direct contrast to this was this exhibit. The museum is not hiding the fact that this exhibit is not worthy of much attention – but that is their decision rather than the visitors. However, if degrees of lighting, signage and location all suggest a hierarchy, then it is clear that this exhibit has long been forgotten.

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