Part One
Present on Site:
Transforming Exhibitions and
Theme: Constructions
- intoduction

Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Theme: Questions
- introduction

Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Theme: Invisibles
- introduction

Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Theme: Openings
- introduction

Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24

Chapter 3:
The human aspect in ancient time

The analysis in this chapter involves an exhibition at the National Museum of Denmark, the country’s largest museum of cultural history. The museum covers the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, all of which form the foundation of Denmark’s centuries’ old monarchy. But is the exhibition examined only about objects made of stone, bronze or iron? Although it dates mainly from the 1970s, the exhibition underwent some changes and development in the early 1990s. There are fascinating objects, but the most striking aspect was the interest and focus in the late 1990s on museum visitors and users. Exposed to new ways of looking at a well-established exhibition, I was led to ask the question: Are there people at the exhibition on ancient times at the National Museum of Denmark? There are of course the visitors. But what about the traces of ancient people and the relationships they may have had with each other?


Ill. 3.1: The showcase with the two Vikings and items laid out like military weapons.

The set up in the showcase comprises two red figures on a white background [Ill. 3.1] and four swords and two axe heads floating in mid-air. The bottom of the showcase is filled with stones, upon which lie two additional swords and four axe heads. We are in the Viking Age. The coarse visual representation of two people clearly creates a relationship between them via an action. Perhaps they are two warriors who will fight to the death or perhaps they are friends practicing their skills as warriors.

Pictorially they appear as silhouettes on a neutral background with no indication of where they are except for the rocks at the bottom of the showcase. Perhaps they are on a beach that is unfamiliar territory for one of them, but where one of them will fight to be the last man standing.

Presented using a crude torn-paper technique, the warriors are roughly depicted, each one of them carrying an equally unrefined representation of a sword, although the real swords hanging from the top of the showcase add sophistication. In their other hands they are carrying what cannot be interpreted as anything but shields. One of the men has a long bristling moustache and perhaps they are wearing helmets, although this is difficult to discern with certainty.

If indeed poised to fight, the two warriors are standing in a weird position considering that their shields ought to be in front of their bodies to protect them. The peculiarity of the set up stresses that the depiction of the event is not naturalistic, the form of expression and content being extremely stylised. The profile chosen, along with the bristling arms and shields, which look more like thick rings, are reminiscent of petroglyphs, which clearly they are not. They are a contemporary interpretation of the relationship between two warriors.

The silhouettes are deep red, connoting power, energy and blood. These are violent people who fight until they draw blood. The images, however, have several connotations. For example, located on the beach, the two figures connote not just war and aggression but also Vikings as attackers, conquerors and warriors.

Roland Barthes (1964/1988:47), in writing about connotations, believes they represent an architectural structure of signs taken from a variable quantity of lexis and that each lexis is coded. The further we descend into an individual’s psychological depths, the more rare and less classifiable are the signs. And if we can see beyond connotations as general and known, then it is possible to step deeper into the perhaps more private connotations.

The museum display also conveys connotations that are primarily physical. For example, as a child I have played with swords and shields and crossed swords and hit my playmate opponent’s shield. The display also invokes imaginary bands of warriors in hiding waiting to attack, thus connoting a variety of bodily experiences and knowledge about the seriousness and pain of being attacked from the side. As an adult the images cause me to associate what I see with my own sons. Wanting them to have exceptionally nice shields when they were children, I helped them make beautiful replicas of Prince Valiant and Sir Lancelot’s shields. Their playing, however, was not unhazardous, as their long lances were at times in danger of causing them genuine harm.

Harkening back to these memories introduces the influential impact the media and relationships. Showcasing the Viking swords and axes also calls to mind the comic artist’s depictions of Vikings, knights, Nordic mythology and everything else read over time whose source has been forgotten but whose knowledge and impressions remain.

The showcase also brings the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux to mind, with its beautiful, magnificent staircase leading to the picturesque castle - and then the long walk through the visual and textual interpretations of the Bayeux Tapestry until the visitor finally enters a dark, sacred, secret place: the actual tapestry. Surprisingly, it is not very big. Yes, it is long, but at only 70 cm high, it does not stretch from floor to ceiling. The tapestry is not really a tapestry, but an embroidered cloth, defying the expectations set up by the reproductions presented in books and on posters. Calling it a tapestry gives the impression that it is bigger and more powerful than it actually is.

The visitor as object
The small part of the exhibition on ancient times described above is significant because this is one place where I met, so to speak, the people from antiquity, i.e. a narrative voice, and where two elements combine, the exhibition and a spectator. As a spectator I bring with me scattered bits of knowledge and experiences e.g. mediated knowledge derived from books, comics, pictures and movies. And a physical knowledge stemming from playing with swords and shields and from playing with my own children.

This part of the exhibition has rudiments of a narrative, an interpretation and a gestalt. There is a representation of people who have a relationship who are involved in an action and that I as a viewer can relate to. There are rudiments of a narrative because I can connect the figures and the rocks to imagine that what is depicted is actually happening right in front of me. I can also imagine what happened immediately before this image was frozen in place and what will happen next. The images portray a folded story as it does not follow a classic, extended narrative with a beginning, middle and end. Instead, the spectator can add to and re-think the story. The narrative fuses the image, the narrator and the viewer into an amalgam (Berger 1982:285).

I meet a voice, an institutional storyteller who wants to share something with me, and I meet a personal expression (the two fighters and their context). The exhibition on ancient times also has other drawings, photographs and texts, which are characterised by their neutrality and objectification. The antiquities exhibition of course also has objects, an overwhelming number of objects, which are displayed in 23 large and small rooms. There are 6,000 objects, plus one exceptionally important one, namely me as the visitor. The question presents itself as to why all these boring, crude, refined, well-known, surprising, funny, dramatic and beautiful objects can tell so little. I have the opportunity to gain significant knowledge by discovering what the origin, era and function of each object is. I can gain knowledge relating to who, what, where and when, but not much about why.

If we look at ancient times through the theory of the four experience fields (Gjedde & Ingemann 2008), then I acquire factual knowledge and hidden knowledge may be activated so I can connect with the objects I see. The exhibition, however, does little to activate other experience fields, failing to provide gratifying answers to these questions: What does the exhibition do to activate me physically? What is there to provoke my opinions? What is there to clarify my values?

Some aspects of the exhibition stir my feelings, for example a beautiful object such as the Chariot of the Sun and the famous Gundestrup Cauldron with its inscrutable figures, but no explanation is given to clarify that they were produced far from where they were found. They were found in Denmark, but knowing more about their origin would engage my feelings and contribute to the debate in Denmark on being a multi-ethnic society. This narrative however is one that can only be produced by the visitor.

There is what there is, and if the exhibition does not want anything but to convey factual knowledge, what happens to the knowledge? Eco believes that the text contains expectations about the skills a reader has when it comes to choice of diction and lexical knowledge as well as knowledge of styles and genres. These choices are the framework of what Eco calls the Model User and are embedded in the text and are even produced by the text. What speaks to me as a visitor? One example is this ordinary text displayed at the bottom of the showcase with the two red warriors:

The Vikings had a number of well-trained warrior units at their disposal. The professional fighters who were in service to the king and the personal bodyguards of great men (retainers) represented the army’s rootstock. When the king called for assistance in times of war, villages and farms also had to provide the country’s army with men.

In 994 Sven the Dane and Olaf Tryggvason attacked England with 94 ships and about 3,000 men. Only some of them were professional warriors, and many were probably summoned for the purpose. The massive assault on England in the late Viking Age shows that the Vikings mastered land-based warfare with large armies. This required a high degree of military organisation, especially an effective supply section. Sven the Dane’s army of 3,000 men required a daily supply of 4.5 tonnes of food.

This text speaks to me by informing me and presenting knowledge on the Vikings’ military organisation and the size of the army in the attack on England in 994. I nevertheless have to collect and be the collector of data. But - and this is my point - the text speaks to me as an object. I am a vessel that has to gather knowledge and independently convert it into a narrative. The objective, neutral text transforms me into an objective, neutral data collector.

The text defines the reader
The form and content of the text define the reader and how readers can activate themselves in relation to the text. The text is like a message dispatched in a bottle picked up by someone who can then use it as they see fit.

In contrast to a narrative text, an objectivised text does not provide many cues. A narrative text has a story that follows the canonical narrative structure with a theme presented at the beginning, a setting, a degree of causality and temporality and, finally, a solution connected to the core plot. A narrative text also implies personification. On the semantic level imaginative, emotive language is used (Gjedde & Ingemann 2008:36)

A message in a bottle with a narrative structure and imaginative, emotive language approaches the viewer and the viewer’s inner narratives. The internal narratives can be viewed as nested structures through which viewers and readers structure their experiences.
The display text quoted above has no narrative structure and is absent of imaginative, emotive language. Moreover no attempt is made to directly address the reader. Key verbs include: disposal, attack, mastered and called, reflecting the exposition of power and initiative associated with the Vikings. There is nothing in the text that illustrates assault, conquest, violence, death and destruction or the reasons for these actions. A traditional journalistic text is expected to contain details about the place where the event takes place (in this case England); information about those involved in the event (here, only Vikings); the cause (an attack but not why - is there famine in Denmark?); the consequences (how many British were killed? What happened after the conquest? Was it just a robber expedition?).

The text ends with “... [an] army of 3,000 men required a daily supply of 4.5 tonnes of food”. This fact represents a familiar rudimentary detail readers are able to grasp and picture, especially the shear quantity of food.

When the texts and context of ancient times maintain the viewer at an objectified level, what happens goes well beyond how visitors read and understand things and contexts. After walking through the antiquity exhibition and arriving in the last of the 23 rooms and having seen the last of the 6,000 objects, then even I end up as an object, object 6,001.
This process occurs in three ways: by going through the huge collection of objects, by being addressed as an object throughout the exhibition, i.e. without emotion or values, and by being presented with too few human relations, the final way being the most crucial. Traces of human activity are visible e.g. in the stone axes, jewellery and swords made by craftspeople and the surprising presence of trephination skulls. Few traces of human beings acting in relation to each other or of the relationships they may have had with one another are evident.

Objects seen at a glance
“In the simulacrum of objects all images and resources can be considered of equal status … we do not follow the division of sources of information between the primary (the object itself), secondary (facts about the object) and tertiary (interpretation of the object) that is normally upheld within the culture of museums” (Beardon & Worden 1995:75).

Beardon and Worden see museums from the inside as belittling the value of objects and the factual information about them and an upgrading of the interpretation. From my perspective, the transformation of visitors into objects is far more serious.

When objects meet objects perhaps simply nothing happens. When objects meet people, anything can happen. Meeting the simple representation of two men fighting with swords allowed me to create a rudimentary narrative, an interpretation, based on the picture in its context.

In my analysis, the showcase containing the image of two warriors and the swords, axes and stones are used as a common image for the entire antiquities exhibition (Lindberg 1991:279). The showcase, a metonym for the entire exhibition, is used symbolically to tell the story of the Vikings as warriors, assailants and robbers. This common image is of a particular kind and represents what is clearly absent in the exhibition.

I argue that the absence of humans and their relationships - both in antiquity and in the relationship between the exhibition and the visitor - keeps the visitor in the role of an object. Only the most knowledgeable, active visitor remains human and adds life and human relationships to the objects when the exhibition provides so few cues. Sheldon Annis believes that, “The magic that makes museums so attractive may lie in the flexibility with which people create their own space. Museums are more than the sum of their label and their designed order. Like the objects in them, museums do not have a meaning. Rather, they accepted and reflect the meanings that are brought to them” (1987:171).

Annis makes it simple. I agree that the visitor brings meaning to the museum and that the museum must accept and reflect the visitor’s impact. This explanation however is too simple. As an institution and as a producer of meaning, one must have greater objectives. Just accepting and reflecting the opinions brought into an exhibition means that the good exhibition has no goals. If two objects are shown together, then visitors, equipped with an inherent urge to create meaning, will try to find a meaning and a relationship between them. The starting point for the creation of meaning is still a ‘text’ in the form of objects, texts, images, design and space. Someone produces this ‘text’ with a purpose. The museum is not just an exhibition of objects; it is the dissemination of knowledge and communication in society (see also Chapter 22).

As a viewer, I would like someone to take me by the hand and explain what I am seeing. The narrative is also in the objects. The potential stories in the objects can be unfolded.

Annis, who does not believe this process is necessary, makes an analogy between an Expressionist painting, Chagall’s The Man and the Sentry, and the museum's exhibition of objects. In Chagall’s painting objects are disassociated from relations in the real world. The released objects become symbols, or at least initiators. One man’s face is balanced on a horse (a smoking horse, a smoking house) from where a sentry is marching. A horse, a house and a sentinel instead of a torso, they rest on the meaty (male) bone that sits on a chair.

Annis believes that, “There is a contextual disorder, but it is precisely the disorder that makes the work provocative” (1987:169). He finds that the viewer has a double pleasure: first, by testing the artist’s emotional resonance and by testing one’s own reaction to the proposal (is there a horse and a sentinel inside me?); and second, an intellectual process by summarising, guessing again and interpreting the artist and his symbols (was there a horse and a sentinel inside Chagall?).

The symbols in the expressionist painting are flat and frozen. Users can only stand in front of the surface and project themselves into the picture. Annis sees the museum as a symbolic landscape, which is more three-dimensional than it is two-dimensional, where the visitor can move into, through and over it. When Annis makes the analogy between the Expressionist painting and the museum’s exhibition of objects he is saying that the objects are placed arbitrarily and can be experienced as intensively as the Chagall painting. Is this true?

This may well be true if the person placing and combining the objects is an artist of Chagall’s stature and assembles them in the exhibition as though it were a canvas. All sorts of objects can be combined on a canvas and be said to constitute a symbolic expression, but it takes a strong and provocative expression to turn it into a work of art and not just another boring, uninteresting work. A successful work is determined by the unifying whole and the intentions the creator had.

The provocative aspects and the narrative lie not in the objects themselves, but in how the objects are put together to create an internal or external version of how one sees the world and the world’s objects. All objects cannot create relationships due to similarities, differences and contradictions.

The showcase with the two red warriors, swords, axes and stones does not have this kind of provocative impact, but it is the best bet when it comes to incorporating the human aspect into this antiquities exhibition. Moreover a truly open, co-creative observer is required to make it possible to elicit meaning from this common image.


    © Chapter from the book:
Ingemann, Bruno (2012): Present on Site. Transforming Exhibitions and Museums, Lejre: Visual Memory Press. 396 pages, 147 illustration, printed in colour.