The Museum – a Medium?

I went to London this week to visit the Natural History Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. Before and after that visit I have been writing on a chapter of my thesis where I discuss if the museum and the exhibition are media. The reason why I need that chapter is because many who writes about the museum, call it a medium, and I desagree with that. My opinion is that the exhibition is a medium, while the museum is an institution. The exhibition is one of many media the museum can use to communicate with its visitors. Others are for example webpages, cataloges, books. But, the museum is of course also a building. And some museums buildings are more important for the experience of the exhibition than others. The Natural History Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are two examples of that. When walking through these museums, the experience of the architecture is almost as important as the paintings or the fossils. When using the term medium as broad as I do in my thesis, architecture is also a medium, like a sculpture or a painting. In that way it is correct to call the museum a medium. But I don’t think those who calls the museum a medium only refer to the building. Here is one example from Roger Silverstone:

«Museums are in many respects like other contemporary media. They entertain and inform; they tell stories and construct arguments; they aim to please and to educate; they define, consciously or unconsciously, effectively or inneffectively, an agenda; they translate the otherwise unfamiliar and inaccessible. And in the construction of their texts, their displays, their technologies, they offer an ideologically inflected account of the world.»(Silverstone 1994, 162).

As I understand this quote he is describing the museum as an institution. Ross Parry, as another example, do focus more on the physical aspects of the museum. «Museums, after all, are a medium – in their most common state a unique, three-dimensional, multi-sensory, social medium which knowledge is given spatial form. However, they are also themselves full of media.»(Parry 2007, 11). This description could fit with the museum building, but Parry do not give any explanation of how he understands the exhibition in relation to this description of the museum.

I would argue that if we want to discuss the museum / the exhibition as a medium it is really important to differ clearly between the museum as institution, the museum building, the exhibition, and the media used in the exhibition. Some weeks ago I introduced the three media categories qualified, basic, and technological media. We can try to apply those on the concepts we are dealing with here. The museum institution, we can skip, it is not a medium. The museum building consists of the basic medium three-dimensional form, the technical medium stone/bricks/wood (building material), and is the qualified medium museum building, or maybe architecture. The exhibition is a qualified medium consisting of many different technical media, and many different basic media, and maybe also different sorts of qualified media. I don’t think I would call the exhibition a technical medium. Because an exhibition is nothing without the content. A TV exists without the content, as do a computer, a radio, the paper of the newspaper. You need several technical media to make an exhibition, but none of those are an exhibition on its own. In that way the exhibition is similar to the opera, the theatre play and the concert. They are all qualified media, a form we can communicate through, build up by a variety of technical media. But then, what makes an exhibition a medium if it is not a technical medium? What makes something a qualified medium? Elleström argues that there are two qualifying aspects that constructs media. These are the contextual qualifying aspect, and the operational qualifying aspect. The first one refers to how historical practices, discourses and conventions form our understanding of a medium, and the second to aesthetic and communicative characteristics. That means what the medium look like and how it communicates, which is not necessarily connected to the technological possibilities. I will try to discuss the contextual and operational qualifying aspects of the qualified medium exhibition in another blog post.

 

Parry, R., 2007. Recoding the Museum, New York: Routledge.

 Silverstone, R., 1994. The Medium is the Museum: on objects and logics in times and spaces. I R. Miles & L. Zavala, red. Towards the Museum of the Future. London: Routledge.

6 kommentarer om “The Museum – a Medium?”

  1. Are museums media? No.

    They can contain, produce and exhibit many different messages in a wide array of media – but a museum is more accurately described as an institution.

    My 44 inch flatscreen can display different media: television, film, webpages, videogames, holiday pictures and so on. That doesn't make the screen a medium in its own right. And a plasma screen is infinitely less complex than a modern museum.

    A museum is an amalgam of different factors: the architecture of the building, the layout of the exhibitions, the lighting, the selection of artifacts or art, graphic design, video, images, sound etc. The museum is the sum of all its parts.

  2. While museums clearly are media institutions, I agree that they are not media themselves. But I don't think 'exhibition' is a medium either. For me, an exihibition is more like what we elsewhere would think of as a kind of 'text'. The missing link here, I think is 'gallery'. Galleries are used by museums and others for presenting objects and artifacts. In museums this presentation is usually in the form of curated exihibitions, where the objects and artifacts are arranged in gallery space according to some thematic and/or narrative structure — different rooms for different artists, periods etc. In my opinion, genre theory and analysis are more suited when researching exihibitions.

    But what is medium and not is a rather gray area. 'Medium' is useful as an heuristic concept, but I have yet to see a definition that is really well suited for analytical purposes. Elleström's take is interesting, but, as your post demonstrates, it still raises as many questions as it answers.

  3. Thanks for comments!

    Pål: if the screen is a medium or not, depends on the definition of medium used. What about a radio or a telephone?

    Kjartan: I am not sure if I understand what you mean by 'gallery'. What is the difference between a gallery and an exhibition? Is a gallery a part of an exhibition? Do you differ between permanent and temporary exhibitions?

    I really agree that 'medium' unclear concept, and that's why it is so important to make clear what kind of definition one uses, when one uses the term theoretically. Because of the plurality of meanings, it is rarely used «wrong», only wrong according to a specific definition.

  4. HBH wrote: «if the screen is a medium or not, depends on the definition of medium used. What about a radio or a telephone?»

    Yes, but only if we use a technical definition of the term 'media'. But within the framework of cultural studies, media mostly equals their content. So, technically speaking my iPhone and the ancient handdriven box at the museum are both specimens of the medium telephone. But if you go beyond mere technicalities, my iPhone is a node connecting me to countless other media.

    In this instance we need a cultural definition of media, not a technical one.

  5. By 'gallery' I mean the physical space, usually a room, that is used for the exhibition. To use print media as analogy, gallery and objects/artifact corresponds with paper and letters, while exihibition corresponds with the meaningful text.

    I see your point, but not sure if I agree. I find it problematic exactly because we end up with a plurality of definitions. And I think it is the other way around. The use of the term 'medium' may be _correct_ according to only one specific definiton, and therefore of limited use.

    My question is if we really need to use medium as a theoretical term in that sense — even if we still use it heuristically. The use of 'medium' usually involves aspects of technology, signs, communication, social organisation etc., etc., but when talking about these different aspects with regard to specific media, like tv or newspapers, we usually can use more specific concepts and terms. I work with digital media, and instead of 'technical media', I can use 'format', 'platform', 'software' etc. There is a danger that using 'medium' on that level only is an unnecessary abstraction.

  6. That is why I like Elleström's model, because it makes it possible to talk about technical media and the content at the same time, and make a distinction between them.

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