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 24:
Ten dilemmas professionals face

Qualitative reception studies of cultural communication with more than sixty people and the use of various media provide a multitude of good advice that the designer and the learner/user can use to generate experiences, meaning making and interaction as well as to create cues for changing events, e.g. any form of exhibition. The standpoint here comes from the perspective of the person-in-situation. Transforming this view and understanding into the perspective of the producer or organiser reveals ten pieces of advice or fields that need to be considered. The overall goal for the kind of communication we are interested in is experience, interaction and meaning making and how this affords learning in the sense of change (Gjedde & Ingemann 2008:177).

Practical dilemmas for the organiser
The following ten dilemmas stress that there is more than just one good way to assemble narratives, emotional language, objects and visual elements in an exhibition. In this chapter we have chosen to use the term ‘visual event’ to describe the whole setting around an exhibition, but simultaneously acknowledge that even though it plays a dominant role in what is communicated, the visual aspect is not the only media employed. Each of the ten dilemmas is presented beginning with an overall question, followed by a discussion of the premises involved and then conclusions are made.

(1) Dilemma: Do you want to communicate a message OR do you want the user to ask questions and seek information?

Communication seen from the sender’s point of view is made with an intention or the aim of telling or conveying a clear message to a well-defined target group. This means that in the communication the content needs to be organised to make it more accessible and relevant for the user.

Looking at the visuals, their function is to motivate, create identification and to present trustworthy information and documentation with clear references to the outside world.

If communication is seen from the user’s point of view, the whole situation shifts dramatically. The communication, “… becomes a self-motivated inquiry that begins with a problematic situation, a question, an idea that has become relevant precisely because it creates an immediate emotional or intellectual unease” (Hennes 2002:116). This means that the goal of communication is, first, to find ways of assembling problems that will be meaningful enough to capture the user’s attention, which means looking for things that are, “… interesting, unusual, contradictory, counter-intuitive, or otherwise challenging” (Hennes 2002:116). Secrets, obstruction and enigma are keywords here - where clarity, determination and smoothness are keywords for goal-oriented communication.

Looking at the visuals, their function is to motivate, create identification and, importantly, to relate to reminiscences and complex imagery.

(2) Dilemma: Do you want to communicate to a person-in-situation where the person is alone OR do you want to create situations where you involve interaction with other people?

The social situation influences the communication process, which is most obvious when you consider people-in-situations, where more people take part in the interaction, for example, at an exhibition where two or more people walk together and share conversations about the communication.

It becomes important to consider how many people you want to involve in the persons-in-situation and what their role should be, i.e. who will take the initiative, who follows who and whether there should be some kind of a public sphere of development.

Reading the newspaper is normally a rather lonely activity done sitting in the train or in a chair at home or in the office. Consider, however, the situation: More people are sitting at the same time and reading the same newspapers, and in that role they are alone, but also part of a social situation where the interaction does not take place immediately, but later in the day when someone brings up topics where others share the fundamental views the interaction is based on. The informal learning of  current events taking place today is supported by visuals, often in the form of documents and clearly referential pictures. This person-in-action is rather weak and can be strengthened and provide more insights transformed into more actively organised settings, for example, into learning spaces like schools where, e.g. newspaper photos can be compared and scrutinised.

(3) Dilemma: Do you just want the person-in-situation to use her body at a minimum OR do you want to create a situation where physical expression is an important part of the communication?

We can start by applying a more extended use of the body in communication, namely at a museum. The visual event is, first of all, social. You walk and talk with a friend or family member while moving through the exhibition rooms, stopping, looking at an object, reading signs, interacting using screens, etc. In most museum settings, this interaction is possible and necessary to create any meaning out of a complex installation, but, in some situations, the interaction is what creates the communication, e.g. at installations in science museums.

You can re-think the relation between person-in-situation from the prosemic theory of Edward T. Hall, which states, “... each one of us has a form of learned situational personality. The simplest form of the situational personality is that associated with responses to intimate, personal, social, and public transactions” (Hall: 1966:115). Hall focuses on the relation between people in a physical space and his theory can be used as a valuable tool for the thinking behind a visual event in physical space.

Physically demanding situations can become noisy and diffuse, which means that if the aim of the communication is to create a space for quietness and meditation, one has to consider how the media product is created so that it allows the person-in-situation to sit alone in a quiet place for a long time.

You can be opposed to the exhibition being meditative and quiet and discuss the extent to which the body of the person-in-situation can be seen as private or public, passive or active, or using one or many senses.

(4) Dilemma: Do you know if your person-in-situation is biased OR do you know if you are communicating with an open-minded person-in-situation?

The ordinary way of looking at the user, the receiver and the target group, is by using sociological terms such as age, income and education, but also in terms of lifestyle and segmentation concerning, e.g. traditional versus modern and individual versus collective (Windahl 1992:180). This way of thinking is useful in all situations and can end up aiding in the construction of personas like a target group condensed into one person (Nielsen 2004).

The person-in-action can be seen from a more psychological perspective, where looking at how the user is to handle information becomes important. Some people are very familiar with and capable of handling contradictory and very complex information and can be seen as very open-minded persons-in-situation. Some people, on the other hand, reject or misinterpret what they perceive as confusing and want to narrow down the possible information in order to protect themselves.

Defining people as either biased or mostly open-minded persons-in-situation has considerable consequences for the content of the information and the aesthetics. Is it possible to include material or changes in the visual event that can overcome this psychological gap without rejecting the two opposing ways of being? Or is the consequence that the two opposing ways of being, biased and open-minded, are so far from one another that two forms of communication and visual events need to be established?

Based on our knowledge, the majority of people are more biased than open-minded, but these ways of being can be affected by the construction of the visual event - which is possible but not easy.

(5) Dilemma: Do you want to let your communication to be an on-going flow OR do you want to have interruptions to create attention?

Most communication is what we will call ‘an on-going flow’, where the most clichéd, stereotypical and well-known formats and information are used and presented. This includes ordinary news, soap operas, films, reality shows, stand-up comedy, etc. One advantage is that the formats are so well known that they are accepted and looked at with their on-going flow of routine activity. Does anyone learn anything? Yes, they do. Like George Gerbner (1994), who noticed that popular formats in television culture include the teaching of a common worldview, common roles, and common values, finds that it is precisely because the visual events are informal and un-defensive that the learning activity is so persuasive. Similar to drops of water eroding a valley, this process moves people into another realm of reality.

Entertainment can very slowly change something in the on-going flow, for example, ordinary life experiences where nothing seems out of order and no particular attention needs to be paid to the surroundings.
The philosopher John Dewey focuses on the necessity of interaction to change or resolve a state of perplexity. He believes that reflection is necessary and requires, “… a forked-road situation, a situation which is ambiguous, which presents a dilemma, which propose alternatives … Difficulties or obstruction in the way of reaching a belief brings us, to pause” (Dewey 1919:11).

Breaks, obstructions and interruptions are concepts that describe how to initially create attention to mark the start of the experience and learning process. As Tom Hennes (2002:116) points out, however, the experience becomes a self-motivated inquiry that begins with a problematic situation, a question or an idea that becomes relevant precisely because they create an immediate emotional or intellectual unease. Through the resulting activity, a spark of attention is transformed into interest [1].

What then becomes interesting is not the information alone, but the Jeopardy-like ability to make the user ask good questions to be answered (Becker 1979).

(6) Dilemma: Does the person-in-situation only need to recognise the outer world OR does she need to get an extended experience of the outer world?

The person-in-situation determines to a great extent whether a picture is seen as a picture or glanced over as though it were transparent. The overall guiding principle is the aim of the visual event, not the goal of the producer or the organiser but of the person-in-situation. The individual meets the situation with certain expectations and goals she would like to have fulfilled.

This is highly significant for the situation if the person-in-situation is just waiting for some friends, needs to kill time, is routinely reading the morning paper, relaxing on the sofa during the evening news or is eagerly looking forward to visiting a gallery, is seeking information about an personal important issue, wants to challenge herself and her friends, i.e. simply a mixture of circumstances and goals. Goals can be more clear-cut and involve finding the answer to a specific question such as when did the painter Matisse live? Most of the time, however, our expectations and goals remain unarticulated.

If the organisers want to fulfil a variety of expectations and goals, then they can opt for everyday-life visuals in an attempt to create and use pictures that nearly appear invisible and clichéd, thus avoiding pushing people away, or the organisers can combine the best of two worlds by fulfilling the recognition modality and the extended modality with greater focus on surprise and aesthetics [2].

The recognition modality is often transparent, whereas the reality shown can be so unfamiliar or threatening to the person-in-situation that he or she must shift his or her gaze from the locked gaze to a more surprising and aesthetic extended modality called the opening gaze to overcome the unwanted visual reality.

(7) Dilemma: Does the person-in-situation reject reminiscences OR does she expect her memory to be challenged?

It is difficult to work with memory as it belongs to the individual and personal realm, but we can displace it in areas that are more tangible, namely relations, where the most important aspect is the difference between external and internal relations
A focus on external relations opens for an enigmatic imposing of interrelated elements like pictures, objects and short narratives thematically organised, but unsystematically placed, in the whole work. The external relations can also be references to elements, objects or situations in the outside world that are nevertheless mediated by some kind of strangeness, e.g. are presented in a different era. The memory of things in the external relation mode is not very deep personally, whereas the memory of events in the internal relation mode is very deep on a personal level.

One could say that internal relations cannot be planned or stimulated because of their personal meaning. As we have argued, however, it is possible if the organiser focuses on two aspects of the visual event, i.e. 1) a strong emphasis on the sense of touch, where the particular is equalised by the universal, as described by John Berger, and 2) a strong emphasis on how to create a mood in the visual event that opens up for remembering and recreating situations (1982:125).

The crucial point is the retrieval cues. While the visual alone is obviously a very strong cue, retrieval, which happens more or less by chance for the person-in-situation, can be looked for and examined by the user because of a desire to recall forgotten memories.

(8) Dilemma: Do you only want to give the person-in-situation factual information OR do you want to help her create narratives?

Factual information is helpful for finding out how to do something or learn something specific, e.g. filling out your tax form, getting directions from the Internet or finding basic autobiographical information about a painter and his works in an encyclopaedia.

If we lack motivation, however, we want someone to guide us, but not by simply telling us the information; we want someone to give us questions that cause us to think, for example, in the form of riddles, enigmatic stories and openings. Narratives can provide motivation and understanding in relation to things and events if the organiser provides a productive framework.

Even if we believe that we constantly try to understand what we meet in a narrative frame, it is not that easy [3]. The organiser needs to decide how potential narratives can be constructed by the person-in-situation and how much narrative guidance is necessary.

Text, objects and pictures can all be part of the narrative, but an object such as a stone axe in a cultural historical museum tells less than a Chagall painting in a gallery. The potential story has to be unpacked and related to the overall or partial narrative.

(9) Dilemma: Do you want the person-in-situation to create identification with you OR do you want to create an understanding of the ‘other’?

When we asked the persons-in-situation if they identified with the content and the design in The Runecast of Vala, they said this was easily done. The men explained that they primarily identified with it because of the violent scenes with blood, swords and a focus on war, while the women explained that they primarily identified with it because the key figure was a woman (the Norn) and because of the presence of pictures of nature, the soft aesthetics, moving images, the oracle-like questions etc.

In this very open interactive video, the persons-in-situation apparently projected their identification on the work, but the whole visual event showed a more complex image because the nature of the event invited a more open and not-so-clear identification. In many ways, they constructed a rather stereotypical understanding of the two sexes, but showed more understanding and empathy for the other sex.
In the project with the artist in the gallery [4], the person-in-situation tries to find elements to relate to and questions to raise that could have been questions from the artist. By using some kind of narrative construction, the informant simultaneously constructs an image of both herself and the artist, i.e. me and the other.

Topics and visual events that cover, for example, religion and culture, where the understanding of you, me and the other can play an overwhelming and powerful role, are obvious areas to be examined.

(10) Dilemma: Do you want to give the person-in-situation something pragmatically useful OR do you want to open up for reflection and meditation?

As an organiser of a visual event the pragmatic aspect is obvious: You need something to happen and you want to succeed in your communication. Here, we would like to point out that the notion of reflection and meditation is another important aspect in contrast to the pragmatic aspect. The main reason is that this aspect makes the visual event more memorable and deeply rooted, thereby allowing it to be more easily retrieved.

Mary Carruther’s writes in her study of memory in medieval culture that the, “… importance of visual images as memorial hooks and cues is a basic theme in all memory-training advice and practice …” (1990:221). This means that images are not as much a representation in an objective or reproductive sense, but are often seen as a temporal. It is not a picture of something, but rather, “… the means for memorizing and recollecting the same matter or story that written letters also record” (Carruthers 1990:222). If images and other decorative elements act directly on memory the one thing their usage must, “… produce in order to stimulate memory is an emotion… It must create a strong response – what sort is of less importance – in order to impress the user’s memory and start off a recollective chain” (Carruthers 1990:257) [5].

[1] Tom Hennes (2002:117-118) discusses the problem-solving situation inspired by Dewey in relation to museum exhibitions and objects. He comes up with five key points for the designer or developer: An interruption, observations, the suggestion of alternative solutions, reasoning and verification.
[2] In the four-gazes model, the recognition modality is associated with the looked gaze and the extended view is associated with the opening gaze, see chapter 7.
[3]The two modes of understanding come from Jerome Bruner, who declares that the narrative mode is the normal way of talking about and understanding the lifeworld and the mediated world.
[4]See chapter 10.
[5]Jill Bennett substantiates this proposal about medieval culture by arguing that visual icons provide the most effective means of storing and retrieving memories, since the eye can function as a mute witness (Bennett 2006:27).




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.