Examining media installations in history museums

An installation at the Churchill Museum. Among the photographs is a frame showing a film, but it is presented as a photograph in a frame. One medium (film) is presented as another (analogue photograph) in a third (a digital screen).

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I’m halfway with my thesis now, and my focus has changed a little since I started. From the very general question: how do media work in museum exhibitions? I have now narrowed it down to: how do media work as an effect in exhibitions at history museums? I have chosen to focus on history museums because of two reasons that affect their relation to media. One is the simple fact that history museums focus on history. The other is that history museums often are more focused on telling stories than displaying a certain collection of objects. The reason I find these two aspects of history museums interesting is the role media plays in relation to them. To «recreate» the past is a main task for the history museum. This is why this kind of museum is interesting when examining the ways media now have got new roles in the exhibition. Media play an important role in our understanding of history. Not only do we learn about history from different kinds of media, media are also historical objects in their own. In addition, media play a crucial role in telling stories in museum exhibitions. Media, this can be text, photographs, film etc., are used to tell the parts of the story that the objects cannot.

An exhibition can be a total mix of different qualified media, different technical media, media from different context, original media, reconstructions and new productions. This makes it impossible to say anything general about the relation of media in exhibitions to history. I will therefore argue that it can be fruitful, as an extension of Elleström’s media model, to ask: where in the medium do we find the historicity? As I see it, the historicity of the medium exists on different levels, and the levels can be connected to different historical times, in different ways. The levels are the technological medium, the qualified medium/ the media genre, and the content/the representation. The easiest is when the technical medium, the qualified medium and the representation were all made at the same time and are representing the present time. This could for example be a daguerreotype taken in the 1860 of a woman in contemporary clothes, or it could be a movie from the 80s about the 80s, showed on a TV from the 80s. Then we can also meet media objects where the representation and the qualified media are old, while the technological medium is new. This could for example be a digitized magazine from 1950. We can also represent the past, even though the representation was not made in the past. We can dress up a woman in clothes from 1870, and make a film to illustrate women’s dressing from that time period. Here the only relation to the past is the representation of the past. Another variation, which might not be that common in history museums, is when the media technology is old, but the representations and the aesthetics are new. Examples of that could be music from today on a gramophone, and film from 2010 on 8 mm black and white film. This is a questionable example, because when is a medium old? Is it old when it is not the medium used by the majority? Another version of this is when the qualified medium is the only layer connected to the past, but here we again has to ask, when is a qualified medium old? A suggestion for an example of this could be a book on a computer.

This is a touch screen from The Churchill museum showing a box with a bill for a puchase of some pigs. The bill is a scanned in original, the same is the photograph visible under the bill. Here the technological medium is new, while the representation is the important link to history. But the way the bill is presented is made to give us a feeling of older media, a box, paper, photography.

When doing the analyses of the new galleries at Museum of London, and the Churchill Museum, I will therefore ask: first, which time period do this installation say something about? Second, on which level in the installation is the connection to this period? Third, how is this connection made?

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