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 22:
Ten theses on the museum in society

The foundation for this chapter was laid in 2000, a year significant not because of its symbolic value but because this is the year I was part of a museological network that discussed the relationship between authentic objects, society and communication. I contributed to a clarification of the topic by introducing the idea of focusing more on visitors and users, pointing out how essential establishing communication with and between them is for museums to play a role in society. The following list summarises the concepts introduced:

1. Museums tell stories using authentic objects.
2. Authentic objects are presented in a new context.
3. Objects can shape an aesthetic experience.
4. “Texts” and visitors create aesthetic experiences.
5. Objects represent artistic expression, a narrative.
6. A narrative must be able to create mental images.
7. The narratives in society build upon myths and symbols.
8. Museums communicate the narratives in society.
9. Museums are in society.
10. Society is in museums.

The ten theses on this list are central. Collecting, documenting, preserving, disseminating etc. are important activities for museums to engage in, but it is also important to look at the museum’s role in society from a dissemination perspective. For casual visitors, this means the museum must consider them not only as a consumer to be satisfied, but particularly as a partner in dialogue. And even more so as partner to be respected and taken seriously. Below, I will briefly expand on each of the ten theses statements to further clarify the museum’s role in society.

1. Museums tell stories using authentic objects
1.1) I have chosen to focus on history museums, which covers everything from small local ones and the National Museum of Denmark to ‘non-museums’ such as the Land of Legends Lejre, where archaeological experiments are conducted.

1.2) The term authentic is tricky. On the one hand, it is used to describe unique objects, their correct provenience and age; for example the highly valuable Nordic Bronze Age Trundholm sun chariot. Danish museum inspector Annette Vasström (1999) extends the notion of focusing on objects alone to cover what she calls an authentic ‘mood’.

1.3) Defining ‘authentic’ as value-free is problematic as it is often bound to a material culture, which means that other cultures may have a completely different idea of what matters. It is not the objects themselves that are authentic, but that which can be repeated. Shinto temples in Japan are razed every 20 years only to be rebuilt and the new buildings are as authentic as the old ones. Their authenticity lies in using traditional building techniques and maintaining ancient skills.

1.4) The Danish scenographer and exhibition designer Anne Sofie Becker (1990) makes a distinction between presentative and discursive exhibitions. Presentative objects are exhibited as they are with many ‘empty spaces’ that need to be completed by the visitor. The discursive type establishes “… homogeneous orders, coherent closed systems, which individual parts must always obey and comply with the whole ...” (1990:81).

1.5) The concept of the presentative/discursive dichotomy creates both clarity and confusion. Discursive exhibitions are not solely limited to one order or system, but can possibly contain narratives told in many different ways and with a variety of intentions. Although objects are what make museums unique, it is also crucial that they can tell stories.

1.6) Objects are the crown jewel of museums. Even if visitors put emphasis on tests and images, they still primarily expect to see objects. Just the fact that the objects are there is a gesture of kindness (Gjedde & Ingemann 2008).

2. Authentic objects are presented in a new context
2.1) Regardless of whether it is a utilitarian or cult object, a cultural object has a life of its own. It can be used differently than was originally intended and be placed in a new time and in a new setting and also be given a new function. Michael Baxendall (1991:34) describes how three cultures come together in an exhibition. First there are the ideas, values and intentions inherent in the culture in which the artefact was created. Second there is the combination of ideas, values and intentions inherent in the culture and the curator who organised the exhibition. Finally there is the beholder, who possesses distinct cultural baggage comprising a set of unsystematic ideas, values and intentions. Baxendall presents an example in which a Mbulu Ngulu mask presumably inspired Picasso’s 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. He stresses that, “… the effect of visual similarity is to accent difference” (Braxendall 1991:40).

2.2) Susan Vogel underlines that, “Almost nothing displayed in museums was made to be seen in them. Museums provide an experience of most of the world’s art and artefacts that does not bear even the remotest resemblance to what their makers intended” (1991:191). She believes that most museum visitors are totally unaware of this fact but that this is an issue museum professionals should focus on.

2.3) In 1917 Marcel Duchamp tried to exhibit his now famous Fountain, a mass-produced urinal signed ‘R. Mutt ‘, in a gallery. This subversive action initiated a discussion of whether the work was original and authentic or whether it was the context that determined whether what was being exhibited was to be seen as authentic art. Of particular interest is the fact that he did not get the idea by looking at a urinal in use, but from a J. L. Mott Ironworks display window on Fifth Avenue in New York. The issue here is the change in context for the item exhibited. Even in the Mott’s display window the urinal had been lifted out of the context it was designed to be used in.

3. Objects can shape an aesthetic experience
3.1) The initial processing of any exhibition takes place on a purely aesthetic level. This means that the exhibition paves the way for an aesthetic gaze and not just the object as it does not necessarily possesses the power to be read aesthetically. How the object is staged determines the level at which the aesthetic gaze comes into play. The aesthetic gaze is a quest to see e.g. what is beautiful, pleasing, peculiar, picturesque, tasteful and flattering – as well as a to experience a sense of recognition – in the manner described by Danish sculptor and theoretician Willy Ørskov (1966:67).

3.2) The Swedish art historian Peter Cornell writes in his book, Saker. Om tings synlighed [Things: On the visibility of things], that the museum is the laboratory of visibility. As a zone of visibility, the museum encourages ferocious yet affectionate contemplation. In the encounter with the object in the museum, rich, detailed languages are provided. While the visitor stands outside, the museum is curiously silent towards the lifeworld of everyday things as if their form and presence are irrelevant and meaningless. Cornell believes that it is through the eyes of the philosopher, poet and artist, or through the eyes of a child, that things become visible again. They get the objects to speak and they get us to talk about things, e.g. wax tablecloths, kitchen utensils, laundry, clocks, stairs or a glass of water (1993:10). I think however that Peter Cornell is overly friendly; even objects in a museum can be experienced as irrelevant and meaningless and require an open gaze to make them visible again - or visible for the first time.

3.3) The authentic object is seen as a contrast to imitations, copies, fakes. Authentic objects are inextricably tied to their physicality, production, materials and use. Sociologist Dean MacCannell believes that non-authentic objects create a unifying consciousness that defines the modern spirit. The quest for authenticity consequently depends on the sense of instability and non-authenticity which characterises the modern consciousness. MacCannell has changed the criterion of authenticity away from the object itself to the way it is experienced! In other words, having an authentic experience is as equally important as the artefacts being properly presented and having the correct provenience. From this perspective, no distinction should be made between imitation and reality. The truth lies somewhere in between in what can be called simulation. The American museologist Lisa C. Roberts asks the question, “… if the experience is properly simulated - in other words, if the correct effect is reproduced in the lived body - does it matter that the props are ‘faked’?” (1997:99). Roberts’ deliberations touch on the semiotic landscape and narrative. The significance lies not in the object itself, but in what the external signs add to the object, a stance that further supports MacCannell’s view of authenticity and objects. The viewer can experience the object, but what determines authenticity is not solely the object or even the viewer, but also the setting in which the viewer experiences the object.

4. “Texts” and visitors create aesthetic experiences
4.1) An aesthetic experience is however something far more comprehensive than just the concept of beauty and comprises four fields of experience: values, emotions, knowledge and action. In order for something to support the aesthetic experience of visitors it must affirm the insights these four fields of experience offer, as well as something that challenges visitors and then adds something new and surprising (Gjedde & Ingemann 2008:115-120). The four fields of experience can be activated but how they are activated is also highly dependent on the visitors’ goals, i.e. are they seeking pure entertainment, to pass the time or informal learning. The museum has responsibility for planning and activating one or more of the fields of experience.

4.2) Stanley Fish (1980) believes ‘texts’ (i.e., objects, spaces, images, written texts) simply do not exist, while Edwina Taborsky (1990) believes that ‘text’ is constructed in a social context. When the visitor meets the exhibition as text meaning is created.

5. Objects represent artistic expression, a narrative
5.1) Aesthetics is perhaps a simple, easy bridge between objects and the visitor, but it is also a fairly small bridge if the museum wants to convey something that can access the unconscious of visitors and encourage them to talk about their insights. For objects to be talked about the museum must contextualise them in a way that makes reading the objects, space, course, and texts as a conscious narrative possible.

5.2) A story must contain six elements and answer certain questions: a summary: What is it all about?; an introduction: Who, What, Where and When?; development: What happened next?; an evaluation: What is the value?; and a solution: What happened in the end? A narrative structure is involved, but there is also the use of images and emotive language (Gjedde & Ingemann 2008:36).
5.3) A narrative is more than just part of the ‘text’; people intrinsically translate experiences and understand them as internal narratives. This means that even when a text lacks a narrative structure we have a tendency to talk about our personal experience in a narrative structure (Gjedde & Ingemann 2008:36).

5.4) The Museum of Copenhagen has a showcase displaying a roadkill hedgehog, a cell phone, a credit card and a set of car keys. This somewhat absurd combination of objects from daily life on the highway is accompanied by a dry, laconic text that declares, “Nature must give way to roads. The distance between work and home is becoming bigger”. The designer has attempted to create a narrative that contains ‘empty spaces’ to be filled in by the visitor while simultaneously bringing into play values, emotions and knowledge that the visitor will recognise and agree or disagree with, thus representing a significant creative activity.

6. A narrative must be able to create mental images
6.1) Objects and texts create mental images as internal images for the visitor. The aforementioned display at the Museum of Copenhagen is one way of creating mental images. The individual parts function as a metonym for something bigger, and the ironic distance in the text combined with the objects creates a complex mental image. All of the elements are concurrently used symbolically to tell a certain story.

6.2) The precondition for creating mental images is an emphasis on narrative and applying language techniques drawn from fiction. A collision must occur between objects and texts to create a total mental image.

7. The narratives in society build upon myths and symbols
7.1) The Worker’s Museum in Copenhagen has an exhibition on the 1950s depicting the living conditions of a working class family in the years after World War II. There are authentic material objects from a specific time and culture. Although genuine, the objects are also used to create a myth about progress and prosperity. The French semiotician Roland Barthes likens the shift between seeing things in themselves and seeing the myth to looking out the window at the landscape while driving a car. One’s eyes can look at the landscape or they can rest on the window. The glass can be the focus of one’s attention, causing the landscape to recede into the distance or the glass can be transparent, causing the landscape to tread into the foreground. Altering one’s gaze between the two is constant. The glass is at once present and then suddenly empty and meaningless, while the landscape takes on depth only to suddenly become unreal (Barthes 1957/1972:124).

7.2) Myths are stories a culture uses to explain and understand aspects of reality or nature. Primitive myths are often about life and death, gods and good and evil. Modern sophisticated myths are about e.g. masculinity and femininity, family, success, time and science.

7.3) The Museum of Copenhagen’s 1950s exhibition expresses a myth telling a story about speed and time and is a symbolic expression of self-centred values and the desire to have vs. to be (Fromm 1976/1981).

7.4) No culture has universal myths, though some myths are dominant. Contra-myths and the transformation of myths undergo an evolutionary process in which related parts or concepts are displaced and others are added.

7.5) Jung sees traditional myths (e.g. Oedipus, Orpheus and Eurydice) as mythological motifs, finding myths with many corresponding features in various cultures. Jung discusses the importance of myths as analogies and in his theory of the collective unconscious and archetypes explains that, “They are without known origin; and they can reproduce themselves in any time and any place of the world” (Jung 1994:69).

8. Museums communicate the narratives of society
8.1) Society’s stories are highly complexity, which means multiple narratives are possible. Small local history museums can have a close relationship with visitors, thus allowing them to disseminate information and construct history in a manner that is exceedingly visitor-focused. At major museums, which are in principle meant for everyone, this strategy is perhaps not possible. They can however be authoritative and sender-focused, which means they must create community narratives.

8.2) Society’s stories are created in a complicated dance between writers, the mass media and researchers. Since museum professionals, of which there are 600 in Denmark, cannot create or construct the right stories alone, they must find and recruit zealous yet sensitive people to point out the main aspects of the history of society that looks at the new and the familiar and especially the balance between them.

9. Museums are in society
9.1) The introduction to this chapter states that the ten theses statements cannot cover all museums, for example art museums. After reconsideration, the ten statements are relevant to art museums but would require some rewriting and additional discussion as they are not as innocent or neutral as they may appear.

9.2) The American museologist Elaine Heumann Gurian believes that in the future museums will not be defined by their objects, but by the setting and “... storytelling in tangible sensory form, ... where citizenry can congregate in a spirit of cross-generational inclusivity and inquiry into memory of our past, a forum for our present, and aspirations for our future” (1999:65).
9.3) The British museologist Davis Anderson believes the museum’s role is to teach visitors how to tap into their ability to feel and think. To support his argument, he quotes the 1994 Swedish parliamentary commission for museums:

There are those who claim that museums are mostly for fun, or that preservation of artefacts from the past is an end in itself. We argue that museums are in the service of society and consequently must offer both learning and entertainment, but the single most important objective of memory is to help us to learn, as individuals in society (1997: xii).

9.4) The American museologist John Falk sees the museum in the highly individualised world of lifelong learning, stating that “... as free-choice learning comes to represent an ever greater percentage of the total learning an individual does in his or her lifetime, museums promise to become ever more important and ever more accepted as vital links within the educational infrastructure of the community” (1999:273). Whether this happens will depend on how the museum chooses to play this role.

9.5) A central goal for example at the Worker’s Museum is to create recognition. The visitor must be able to recognise objects and settings as their own. Thus nostalgia and recognition are part of the central museum’s objectives (Floris & Vasström 1999).

9.6) The American philosopher Albert William Levi (1995:344) lists the different institutional roles of the museum as:

- a storehouse,
- a showcase and guardian of the aesthetically valuable in society, and
- an indispensable instrument in the great task of shaping people.
Moreover he looks at four different strategies museums can choose in which the museum is:
     - a collection of unique works designed to give aesthetic pleasure,
- an agent of cultural history,
- an advocate for museological disciplines, and
- a humanistic institution that emphasises communication (form and content), continuity (tradition) and social criticism.

10. Society is in museums
10.1) Can the community find aspects of its reality represented in the museum? This is the case in a direct way at e.g. the Worker’s Museum. Is this also possible at the National Museum of Denmark, where the distance between the visitor’s personal reality and the museum’s presentation of reality is perhaps so great that nostalgia and recognition should not be a driving force? Because the goals and purpose of museums can vary, it is important that the personal reality of visitors can be connected to something greater than just recognising objects and spaces. It is essential that visitors relate to relevant, understandable symbols and myths.

10.2) When society is defocused and individualised and values are relative, it directly affects the culture and subsequently the museum. Perhaps telling one universal story is not possible, but telling many minor stories is a valid alternative. A discursive approach means following more than just one coherent narrative. Like the postmodern media, the museum can also create personalised, interactive narratives. One prerequisite for doing so is to activate the whole field of experience and incorporate minor narratives that generate recognition and comprise emotive language and mental pictures that draw on powerful symbols and myths.



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.