Historical truthfulness and media installations in exhibitions

Masteroppgave, Teori
«It is absurd and illusory to imagine that we can view the past from any vantage point but the present, or to pretend that we can project ourselves back to the minds and bodies of participants in past events. All we can do is endeavour to be honest about our position in the present, and about the way our vision of the past relates to our vision for the future.» Tessa Morris-Suzuki – Towards a Political Economy of Historical Truthfulness.

Morris-Suzuki writes beautifully about representations of the past in photographs, film, cartoons, textbooks and museums, and why they are important for our understanding of history, and why we should strive for historical truthfulness instead for historical truth.

«Historical truthfulness refers to the way we conduct our relationship with the past. It begins with attentiveness to the presence of the past: the recognition that we ourselves are shaped by the past, and that knowing the past therefore is essential to knowing ourselves and others, and indeed to knowing what it is to be human. (…) Historical truthfulness is an ongoing conversation through which, by engaging with the views of others in different social and spatial locations (across and within national boundaries) we shape and reshape our understanding of the past.» Tessa Morris-Suzuki – Towards a Political Economy of Historical Truthfulness.

From the World War II installation at the Museum of London

Museums have a long @font-face { font-family: «Times New Roman»; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0cm 0cm 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: «Times New Roman»; }table.MsoNormalTable { font-size: 10pt; font-family: «Times New Roman»; }div.Section1 { page: Sect history of being structured after strong linear narratives, with little room for contradicting worldviews. This way of displaying history, and museums tendency to mis- and underrepresentation of minorities, have the last three decades been strongly criticized. Historical truthfulness is therefore taken seriously by museums today, to make the museum a space for different versions of the past, and a space for discussions about the past. However, Morris-Suzuki also emphaize, that to use media texts like photographs, film, cartoons etc to build up our understanding of the past, we need to be aware of how media texts are used, reused, edited and recontextualized. Media texts, which already have had a life outside the museum, are more and more common in exhibitions. Both as museum objects, photographs are for example displayed beside an old dress in a vitrine, and as part of media installations. A media installation can for example be a touch screen where you can look at digitized photographs, drawings or documents, or a combination of film and sound recordings that have not been combined outside the museum.

From my analyses of media installations at the Churchill Museum and the Museum of London, I have noticed that these two museums do not reveal much information about where the digitized media texts (photographs, film and sound recordings, documents etc.) come from, or in which context they originally were used. The media texts that are displayed as objects in vitrines tend all to have labels. (This was especially apparent in Museum of London.) This shows that there is a different understanding of the role of media texts when they are displayed as objects and when they are part of an installation. The problem, as I see it, is that the installations often include fictional elements, it is therefore difficult to see which parts of the installation are created for the exhibition, and which did actually exist at the time the installation is trying to tell something about. Another problem is that media text are not neutral descriptions of the past, and it is both important, and just interesting, to know who made them, why they were made and how they were used.

Touch-screen installation at the Churchill Museum with photographs and other documents. Information about what the photographs show is given
An installation that is a combination of extracts of digitized old newspapers projected on a wall above a copy of a painting. There is no information about neither the newspapers or the painting.


The quotes from Tessa Morris-Suzuki are from the text you can find here, a speech based on her book
The Past Within Us (2005).

Examining media installations in history museums

Masteroppgave, Teori

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).

@font-face { font-family: «Times New Roman»; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0cm 0cm 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: «Times New Roman»; }table.MsoNormalTable { font-size: 10pt; font-family: «Times New Roman»; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }

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?

How do we understand history in the age of digital media?

Masteroppgave

p { margin-bottom: 0.21cm

The last two weeks I have been thinking about this question. First I thought about it after visiting the Churchill Museum in London. This exhibition rely heavily on original photographs, films and sound recordings from Churchill’s life. There were of course objects as well, but the main source of information was the different kinds of media. The question that popped up in my mind was; if the ideal exhibition is the one that consists of original photographs and film, to give us the opportunity to see the objects/persons of interest in action in their natural context, how will exhibitions dealing with the «pre-media world» look like?

When I last weekend helped out with the conference Remix Cinema, organized by two phd students from the Oxford Internet Institute, the question again became relevant. The conference discussed different types of remixing, and different kinds of practices connected to reorganizing and recontextualization of film. In one of its sessions Thijs van Exel and Annelies Termeer, talked about a remix project done by the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands. The EYE Film Institute holds a large collection of film. Much of this collection is now part of a digitization project called Images for the Future. To give the project some attention a remix workshop and a competition was held. The material provided for remix was early silent film that was all public domain.
Exel and Termeer’s presentation of the project, and talks by other speakers at the conference, encouraged many questions; what do remixing do with our sense of history? Do the focus on photographic visual media content from the past make us forget the time before the camera was invented? Will we identify more with a person we can see on a photograph, than a person that was not photographed, but only painted? Will we experience a great divide between the times before the photograph and the time after?
Will the possibilities of interacting with the past through media content change the way we present history, and how will it affect the way we present and understand the past we only can access through text and drawings?

Rather than examining three different kinds of museum, as I planned to do, I have decided to concentrate my thesis on history museums, and I hope to touch upon some of the questions asked above.

Hypermediacy and Immediacy

Masteroppgave, Teori

p { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }

«Like other media since the Renaissance – in particular, perspective painting, photography, film, and television – new digital media oscillate between immediacy and hypermediacy, between transparency and opacity.» argue Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in their book Remediation. After reading their thoughts it is difficult not to notice to which degree a work of art or a media product represent our desire for immediacy or our fascination with hypermediacy. Some days ago I saw a documentary about copyright called RIP!: A Remix Manifesto, where the musician Girl Talk played a main role. Both the movie, which were a mash-up of already existing films, and Girl Talk’s music, which is based on samples from hits, are examples of hypermediacy. In both cases we get aware of how they are made, and of the medium. As Bolter and Grusin say: «If the logic of immediacy leads one either to erase or to render automatic the act of representation, the logic of hypermediacy acknowledges multiple acts of representation and make them visible.»
Hypermediacy and immediacy are interesting concept in relation to different exhibition technologies and different preferences for exhibition design. Do we want immediacy when visiting a museum, where we forget about the medium chosen to tell us a story? Or do we want to be aware of the medium and the constructedness of the story we are told? The danger with hypermediacy is that the medium becomes more interesting than the content. Many would probably argue that the exhibition at Rockheim suffers from hypermediacy. In this exhibition the media technology that are used, and the act of remediation, are many places much more visible than the content. At least, I felt so when trying to use the installation that introduces the exhibition. On six large screens you get introduced to the six decades the exhibition deals with. Each screen shows an image of a norwegian band or artist. If you move in front of one screen the image «breaks» into small pieces. If you continue until you have removed the whole image, a music video of the band on the image starts. To start a new song on another screen you have to first end the song you started by moving in front of a cross that appears on the screen with the music video.Through history, the interest for immediacy and hypermediacy has shifted back and forth. This is also visible in the history of exhibition design. One example is the introduction of the diorama, which is one example of an exhibition technique with the purpose of immediacy. The diorama was developed to make exhibitions feel as real as possible. Often, sound effects has been added to intensify the experience.
But, where are we now when all sorts of digital media are more and more present in exhibitions? Do museums make exhibitions where immediacy is the desirable? Or do the museums’ attempts to be modern and interesting make the museum visit a hypermediated experience? And what is in fact preferable?
Bolter, J.D. & Grusin, R., 1999. Remediation – Understanding New Media, London: The MIT Press.

The Museum – a Medium?

Debatt, Masteroppgave, Teori

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.