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.

Qualified, basic and technical media

Masteroppgave, Teori
p { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }In the last post I described how a painting was used in two different ways in exhibitions at the City Museum of Oslo. In this post I will introduce one aspect of a media model developed by Lars Elleström, as a tool to describe the use of the painting. One of the things I find most useful with Elleström’s model is the way he has split up the term medium into three categories, qualified media, basic media and technical media. Instead of trying to find one clear definition of what a medium is, he has acknowledged that we use the term medium for a group of things that we might need to differ between when theorizing it.
When we talk about media, we often talk about specific media genres, like newspaper, TV-show, movie, radio program etc. Sometimes we also include artistic media like painting, sculpture or art photography. This is what Lars Elleström calls qualified media. That means there is a conventional understanding of how the medium is used and what it looks like, and how it has developed through history. Elleström use this term to avoid confusion with what he calls the basic media, which is written text, still image, moving image, three dimensional form etc. Qualified media always consist of basic media, but basic media do not necessary need to be qualified media. Both qualified and basic media need a technical medium to be ‘realized’ or ‘displayed’. A newspaper needs paper, a TV-show needs a TV, a novel needs a book, and a dance needs a body.
So, let’s try to use these terms on our example, the painting. The original painting is a qualified medium, a painting, realized through the technical medium paint on a canvas, built up by the basic medium still image. This is not so interesting on its own, but what happens when the painting is turned into a digital copy, enlarged and printed on a wall? Now the qualified medium is not so easy to name, but maybe it is mostly understood as a wallpaper. This wallpaper is realized through the technical medium print on wallpaper. The qualified medium wallpaper represent the technical medium paint on canvas which mediates the qualified medium painting. Elleström explains that technical media mediates basic and qualified media, while basic and qualified media can represent anything, including technical media or other qualified media. The qualified medium painting represent a suburban exterior, while the qualified medium wallpaper represent both the qualified medium painting and the suburban exterior.
To just use the terms do of course not reveal anything new about this example, but I think it is interesting to be able to describe precisely what role the qualified medium painting do have in the wallpaper version. Another interesting question is which aspects of the qualified medium painting and the technical medium paint on canvas is the technical medium print on wallpaper able to realize? And what does it mean for our experience of the wallpaper that we understand that what is represented is the qualified medium painting? How to use Elleström’s model on exhibitions is something I will discuss in my thesis, so this is just the first steps to try how it can work. The terminological division between qualified, basic and technological media is only a small part of the model and I will try to use other parts of it in other posts.

Media genres in the exhibition

Masteroppgave, Teori
p { margin-bottoIn the end of January, during my small tour in Norway, I visited the Museum of Oslo. The Museum of Oslo consists of three museums, Oslo City Museum, Oslo Theatre Museum and Intercultural Museum. At the City Museum I saw an interesting example of the role media genres play in exhibition design and how different media genres do affect how we understand a content. The example is a picture of a suburb exterior from Oslo, which is to be found in two different versions at the City Museum. The first one is the original painting by Arne Stenseng with the title Lambertseter 1957. This painting is hanging in the first room of the main exhibition which deals with the history of Oslo. This first room gives you a summary of the history of Oslo, and the painting is there to represent the building of new, and better, housing for workers outside Oslo, close to the nature. The other version of this picture is to be found in the temporary exhibition about the suburbs, or satellite cities, around the central parts of Oslo.
As a part of this exhibition there are three small rooms decorated as suburb apartments from respectively the 1950s, the 1970s and one from around year 2000. The second version of the picture is used as an element in the 50s apartment. When you enter the 50s apartment you have a living room interior in front of you on the left side of the room. You see a couch, a table, a chair, a shelf with knick-knacks and some pictures on the wall, all typical for the 50s. On the right side of the room, the illusion of a real apartment is interrupted by a wall with four showcases. Under the showcases there is white text written on the grey wall. On the left side of the wall you find the second version of Stenseng’s painting. The painting is copied and blowed up so it covers the whole wall from top to bottom.
Why is this example interesting?
When I first saw the enlarged poster version of the picture, I didn’t know it was originally a painting, i.e., a work of art. The picture caught my attention because the rest of the exhibition relies heavily on enlarged black and white photographs. This means both the picture’s colors and the fact that it is painted, made it contrasts with the rest of the exhibitions illustrative elements. My first questions were therefore related to how drawings or paintings work differently in an exhibition than photographs. When photographs are used in an cultural history exhibition, it is with an unsaid promise that the photograph is showing how something was. It is giving you a peek into the past, and, to some extent, an objective peek. The objective character of the photograph is a debated subject and I will not go into that here, but I believe that for the general visitor, a photograph is mostly understood as direct impression of reality. Paintings’ and drawings’ relation to reality are different, because they are, in a stronger sense than photography, made by someone. We more easily doubt a painting’s trueness than a photograph’s. Therefore I wondered, what kind of role had the picture of the suburb exterior, why not use a photograph? Was it just a decorative element in the 50s apartment? When I then afterwards noticed the original painting in the main exhibitions first room, I became even more interested. Do the visitors’ understanding of the picture change when the picture’s medium changes? And how do we understand works of art in a cultural history museum?
Some thoughts from the curator
I was so lucky that I got the opportunity to talk with Linken Apall-Olsen, the head of Department for Exhibitions and Public Services at the City Museum, about these questions. She tells me that the version of the painting in the suburb exhibition make conversations among the visitors. Maybe, she wonders, it is because people look for a message in the picture. It is different from the photographs because it is carefully thought through by the artist, and not just a snap-shot like a lot of the photographs. The colors also gives it an own aesthetics, which is not only different from black and white photographs, but also from color photographs. Linken says she uses the picture a lot in her guided tours of the exhibition. The painting communicates some of the 50s optimism, and she points to the swallows flying high above the buildings, which refers to the proverb that says if the swallows fly high it will be nice weather. This makes the picture more than an aesthetic element, it also provides information strongly connected to the exhibitions message about how suburbs were understood and why they were build in the 50s. I ask if she talks differently about the original painting and the copy when guiding visitors. She answer that she usually mentions the painter’s name, when talking about the original painting, something she almost never do in the suburb exhibition. Here it is the different stories in the picture, like the swallows, that is important. These small stories are, literal, enlarged in the copy, and therefore get more attention.
Nest step: theory
I will follow up on media genres in exhibitions and this specific example in my next blog post. There I will introduce a media model developed by Lars Elleström, which I mean can be useful for theorizing media use in exhibitions. The purpose of Elleström’s model is to improve our understanding of the differences and the similarities between different media. I find this model very interesting for the understanding of the intermedial aspect of museums exhibitions, and it gives some terminological tools that might help us describe different media in the exhibition more precisely.