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 11:
Person-in-situation (3)
– Experience and interaction

This is the third of a series of projects that look at the person-in-situation. In the first two projects a pair of visitors was followed to record and evaluate their reading strategies, construction of relations and construction of meaning at a historical exhibition and an art exhibition.

The third project takes a step upwards and comprises fourteen informants, or seven pairs, in an effort to scrutinise the experience and construction of meaning in complex artworks using an experimental set-up in a multimedia exhibit called Vala’s Runecast. The experiment focuses on the following museological questions: How can the visitor create meaning for complex artworks? What influence does the notion of the public have on the users’ construction of meaning?

Sign and context
An object, for example a stone axe or a painting, is given different meanings depending on whether it is placed in a cultural history museum or at an art museum (Annis 1994). The common conception is that where and how the object is contextualised creates the meaning, but on a very simple level the object has inherent qualities. We can all picture a typical showcase with a stone axe rather laconically labelled, “Stone axe from around 5,000 b.c. found on field near Slagelse”. Or picture a painting hanging in a gold frame on the wall with the tersely labelled, “Marc Chagall: The river of time, 1930-1939”. No one would doubt that the stone axe belongs in a cultural history museum and no one would doubt that the painting belongs in an art museum.

The objects have a built-in essence, a sort of schemata, stemming from our common sense knowledge about art and culture and our knowledge about museums and their exhibitions. The two objects are automatically assigned either a cultural history context or an art history context without the presence of the other significant indications we normally get when we physically enter a museum [1].

In our experiment we present a specially selected group of people with a large interactive flat screen in a dark lab where they see, hear and use a multimedia exhibit called Vala’s Runecast. In contrast to the stone axe and the painting, the exhibit does not have a specific essence. As a new media with an expression and a user interface that are not immediately recognisable as a certain genre, it is a representation that cannot be placed into a certain context based on what it is about. Cultural sociologist Celia Lury calls this form of the mental creation of context ‘out-contextualisation’ – a process where the context is doubled and connected by obvious choices (1998:3). In the following, we scrutinise what goes on in the digital media, but, first, we discuss how the construction of the space takes place in digital media.

The body in the room
When designing the Vala_Project, we included the physical room, the physical size of the picture, the experience of being in public and bodily movement. The common room was extended and turned into a dialogical room allowing mutual interactivity between each informant and the interactive work and between the two informants in a pair in their effort to work together. As a result, we chose an interactive multimedia work entitled Vala’s Runecast byBritish artist Maureen Thomas which is about the prophecies of a vala. Our use of this multimedia work requires the informants to interact with the screen, which meant using a larger than normal screen measuring 48 x 76 cm [2], thus creating the need to stand further away than ordinary reading distance to obtain a more panoramic overview. Users must be at least an arm’s length from the panorama screen however to initiate and control the interactive programme and to point at the screen and the picture.

In order to integrate the public into the design of the research, we chose two players or informants who had to interact with the work along the way and who had to agree on what they were going to do and who was to comment on their experiences along the way. The two informants stood in a huge, nearly pitch-black room in front of a picture large enough to be visible from a distance of several meters.

The focus of the Vala_Project is not the artwork in itself, but the users as players and the informants’ choices and behaviour. They cause the changes that happen and immediately have a double consciousness in which they are aware of their relation to the person they are standing beside and in which they also know they potentially can be looked at.

In addition to the two informants, two researchers, whose role we will return to later, and one technician are also in the room. The technician is important because we have a rather complex setup in which user experiences and inquiries are recorded in sequence on video using different video cameras and positions. Although the artificialness of the situation influences the informants participating in our experimental research project, we expect to discover central aspects regarding the creation of meaning using this research design. The cognitive process is invisible but leaves traces in the form of physical expressions and verbal statements. Video recordings of the informants’ interaction with the work, each other and the researchers provide a solid foundation for a phenomenological analysis and interpretation.


Ill. 11.1: The two researchers (foreground) in dialogue with the two informants by the flat screen showing Vala’s Runecast.


The social in the individual
It is an easy post-modern position that subjective interpretation and construction are first of all subjective. Nevertheless, we are bound together by something more common. The philosopher John Macmurray believes that, in principle, human experience is a common experience. Even in its most individual elements, human life is common lives and human behaviour always bears in its natural structure a reference to the personal other. In brief, one can say that the object of personal existence is not the individual but two people in relation to one another and that we are not people founded on an individual right, but people because we relate to others. That which is personal is established through personal relations with others. The object of that which is personal is not the ‘I’ but rather ‘You and I’ [3].

This does not prevent us from perceiving ourselves as unique individuals. What makes us common with a collective memory is, as Michael Schudson writes, that:

... memory is in fact social. People remember collectively, publicly, interactively. This is true even of individual memory that is sustained only by social interaction, by rehearsal, review, and the language people have by virtue of being social beings. (1995:360).

In the Vala_Project, in a very specific and detailed manner, we follow the creation of relations between all the actors that two by two enter the dark and mysterious cave of the laboratory and in many different ways interact with the screen, Vala’s Runecast, and each other in a complex game. Not everything, however, can be remembered and not everything becomes shared socially. There are limits to what is possible and what is realised. Where are the limits?

In the above quotations by Schudsen and MacMurry, having an experience and then having a memory about something drift easily and elegantly together. What separates the experience and the memory is time. We can have an experience characterised by a certain length of time with the feeling that it has a beginning and an ending. In this aspect, the experience is similar to a narrative. In some aspects, it is this ‘now’ we are trying to capture by means of our observations and our video cameras. A snapshot can be seen as static and stable, but it would be better seen as dynamic and under continuous change.

It is this change that happens in the ongoing dialogue and reflections in the interview and dialogue with the informants. In this process, the ‘now’ is transformed into a now-and-then, and here the memories of a specific experience emerge from what-has-been. But, it is more complicated than this because the memory is broader. When we experience something, it becomes embedded in our memories. The memory of collective symbols, archetypes, social experiences and experiences of nature are incorporated in us and we draw on them in our understanding and interpretation of the present.

As users, viewers and visitors, however, we are also lazy. A stone axe in a museum showcase labelled with a simple, laconic text is brought into a nearly impossible situation. As Michael Baxendall points out, it is obviously a rather complicated issue when a visitor looks at an object from another culture regardless of the geographic and chronological distance. He stresses the following as the three circumstances that create this complex situation:

First, there are the ideas, values, and purposes of the culture from which the object comes. Second, there are the ideas, values, and, certainly, purposes of the arrangers of the exhibition.... Third, there is the viewer himself, with all his own cultural baggage of unsystematic ideas, values and, yet again, highly specific purposes (1991:34).

Very often, the visitor lacks a storyteller or at least has difficulties finding who is telling the story. A stone axe does not tell its story but a Chagall painting, on the other hand, perhaps is a little better in aiding our attempts as very clever and well-informed visitors to tell the right story ourselves. How can we as visitors overcome all these barriers? Most often, we cannot, thereby leaving potential experiences and meaning undiscovered.

We can also alter the perspective and look at how our experiences with the Vala_Project can be discussed in relation to these issues that perhaps should be developed in the museum.


valaIll. 11.2: Some impressions from the Vala Runecast – showing nature and cultural symbole like horses, golden keys, opening doors and birds. Screendump from the video recordings.

The narratives of the user
As Michael Schudson writes: ”... memory is in fact social. People remember collectively, publicly, interactively…” – but is that truth? On a very general level, our memories become social because we use them by telling about them. Nevertheless, even if something is social, it does not mean that it is uniform. We can believe that ‘memory is social’ and draw upon the imagined community that we are part of, but each of us tests our memories in the public sphere by describing our personal experiences and our knowledge when we remember in public. Our memories come into existence during this process, where they can be challenged and commented on by others, thereby transforming the individual experiences again.

We claim that Vala’s Runecast is about Nordic mythology, but also that it is interactive and challenging in its visuality. The visual aspects are so challenging that a couple of young female informants who reject the mysterious woman talking in the artwork make the following comment: “… really, there’s an extreme amount of talk … you’re filled with this multitude of talk … you lose focus because there’s so much talk.”

Their irritation is so intense that they totally refuse to listen to the voice during the process and focus on the repetitive music instead. They quickly agree that the music is rather melancholy and too Celtic and that this sort of music is also irritating, “… because I can’t relate it to myself.” It is, on the other hand, precisely this music that they combine with the visual ornamentation and symbols into a coherent interpretation when one of them says, “… automatically on something with the sixties. Actually something about my mother. It’s not my life in any way. No, they’re not talking about my life”.

They create narratives that ignore the talking, the Nordic mythology, the music and the unfamiliar strange symbols, but they continue to watch the pictures of the landscape, nature and the existential aspect of the pictures. They reach to focus on themes about the creation of life, destiny and thoughts about one’s roots, stating, “… perhaps both human beings and my own roots, but perhaps the roots of all men”.
They intermesh their experiences using many different strands around a core of what-is-mine and what-is-not. It is this-is-mine that becomes included in their narrative, which becomes a clear narrative even though they are unable to tell about it briefly. The narrative becomes evident in an analysis of their words and actions in the process of interaction with the artwork. If they do not, however, at any time realise that Nordic mythology is the turning point of this artwork, have they not then totally misunderstood it altogether? Or are the following two informants, a young man and a young woman, more astute?

The young woman knows a great deal about Nordic mythology beforehand because her father read aloud for her as a child and talked with her about Odin, Thos and the whole Nordic pantheon of gods. The young man, on the other hand, is uninterested. He looks at some rather violent images of darkness, fire, horses, weapons and makes the comment that, “… it’s somewhat cruel isn’t it … with all the fire in the back. It’s terrible”. When we ask him what it is all about, it is very difficult for him to answer. This is not, in contrast, a problem for the woman, who says, “It’s something about war”. Immediately, she connects this thought with the knowledge that she already has about Nordic mythology. She sees the horse as an expression of power but also as representing something divine. She thinks about one horse in particular named Sleipner, which has eight legs and is Odin’s horse. The horse has magical powers and, “… can both run on the water and in the air”. She knows that the horse is a child of the god Loki. Later on, she looks at an image that reminds her of rock carvings. The young man says that he does not know what it is and the woman grins rather outraged because it is common knowledge – to her. Does he really not know that!

They know each other quite well, which becomes obvious in the process of their interaction. The male informant says that his female partner is thinking rather historically and the woman comments that he is much more focused on the pictorial expression. They listen intensively to the voice in the film and one of them says, “I feel it’s kind of like a task that I have to solve and I think that the pictures help create this mood … the pictures become, to some extent, the background”.

The young man mentally switches off the sound because he thinks that he does not know very much and because he thinks that the vala, “… can be rather irritating”, is insisting and wants to be listened to, “So she almost manipulates us and coerces us into what to think about the picture. I would rather create my own impression”. He looks at the pictures and sees a picture of a ring, which he associates with encircling, “… and it becomes day and then it becomes night and the ring is a symbol because it rolls … you can’t go on and on in the same ring.” Then, suddenly, he makes a striking statement, “Even if it becomes night again, it will never be the same night!” He is also the one who creates a number of inter-visual relations. He thinks that some of the pictures are similar to Monet’s style because he sees numerous reflections and layers of pictures. In different places they become Magritte-like because the pictures glide in a surreal way into contradictory elements. The young man is aware of the pictures in layers, which he believes occurs, “… because a great deal of life is being created in those layers … in relation to speed, colour and shadows”.

The two informants find themselves in two different mental spaces. The one is very structural, while the other is very open and associative. This contradiction is not destructive but functions, on the other hand, rewardingly as it appears in the study where the male informant listens to the woman and says, “… oh, that’s what it meant”.

Things with explicit layers of meaning
What can the poetic and open narrative in this hyper-film do that a historical artefact cannot? The main point is that the poetic and mysterious can open up for the narratives of the user. The poetic and open narrative structure in the artwork can be called a seeking narrative because the artwork contains, “… different threads one tries to gather” and because these threads are partly inserted into the work, while others are added by the informants. Threads added by the informants can be seen as being related to the personal questions each user meets the work with and which partly are explicitly enveloped by the experience and knowledge of the life we have lived.

Through this project, we have tried to uncover what seeking narratives really consist of. We have shown that the most obvious, well-known and easily available layer is the cultural symbols that informants are more or less familiar with. The next layer is the archetypical symbols such as light/dark, life/death etc. The third layer is feelings of uneasiness, joy and happiness derived from sound, intonation and visual expressions, especially regarding colour and contrast. The fourth layer is more airy than moods as we become enveloped in unmediated experiences of nature and experiences from childhood.

Seeking narratives can have an infinite number of specific physical expressions that create the framework of possibilities of the work and open the framework of possibilities of the user to gather as many threads as possible to create a coherent narrative. This narrative is an intense extension of what the artefacts from the material culture communicate or what the artefacts from the material culture have been used to communicate.

The Vala_Project also shows that user interactivity and performance in the public sphere have a decisive influence on the creation of relevant stories. The narratives are relevant for the user and not just for professionals. In a text-based culture, one has to realise that visual culture plays a big role and that complex visuality, as we have seen in this project, is one of the ways to examine the layers of seeking narratives, which obviously is highly important.

[1] Falk and Dierking call these features the physical context in their 1992 book, The Experience Model.
[2] The flat screen is 48 x 67 cm, approximately the size of Cezanne’s painting.
[3] MacMurray (1962:61) in Uzgiris (1996:22).
    © 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.