Sunday, November 08, 2009

Art in nature

The other evening I went to the Royal Ontario Museum to see the Vanity Fair Portraits exhibit, one i'd missed when I was living in London and it was on at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition was excellent - a good range of photos/subjects/info, and quite a lot to see! Well worth a look if you can get along.

After seeing that exhibit, my companions and I wandered around in some of the natural history sections of the museum - dinosaurs and the biodiversity section mostly. A lot of people ran out of steam after all of that, but I managed to have a cursory look around in the minerals and gems gallery - i'd never made time for it before, usually having reached the point of museum fatigue before then.

I'm not super into geology as much as I am other -ologies that turn up in museums (more on the anthropology or zoology side of things really), but i'm always interested to see how any things are displayed in museums. This gallery was part of the ROM's refurb I guess, because the whole thing is gleaming and beautifully laid out.

The gallery is almost like something you'd find in a modern art museum, or in a art/design kind of museum. (It actually reminded me a little of the asian ceramics display at the British Museum). Cases were in aisle-format, filled with precious little specimens gleaming in perfect light; objects too large for these cases were given pedestals or large cases in focal points. Each little or big piece was like some sort of objet d'art.

The best part about all of this, of course, is that it's art from science. There's no need for an artist's statement, no driving force behind the creation of each little piece other than the drive of the earth itself. Unlike older types of museums and displays where objects were laid out in a fashion to show as much as possible with very little information, this gallery has not only a good range of specimens, but also a high level of labelling and interpretive information (from what I could see on a cursory walk around). I love the gallery and the layout, the design of it all. I may not be as passionate about the subject matter as I am some other things, but even in a 5 - 10 minute wander I got a lot out of it. I'd like to go back and poke around a bit more I think.


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Museums and Galleries - is there a difference, and should there be?

Two major exhibits are starting here in Toronto soon - one is Vanity Fair Portraits and the other is the major King Tut exhibit. The Vanity Fair portrait exhibit was in London when I lived there, at the National Portrait Gallery. The King Tut exhibit was also on while I was in London (and I even worked in the front of house section part time), in an exhibition space at the O2 Arena in Greenwich.

I'm surprised at the choice of venues here in Toronto, though.

Vanity Fair Portraits is being held at the Royal Ontario Museum, a mix of cultural and natural history. King Tut is opening soon at the Art Gallery of Ontario, home of a great collection of Canadian art, historic pieces and modern art.

It seems to be a mix-up, right? I would assume the portraits would be right at home hanging in the AGO, while King Tut would slip right into the ROM with its already existing Egyptian content. I understand a lot of large art institutions (for example the Tate Modern and the V&A Museum in London) have enough money and staff to develop excellent interpretive content and educational programs - they aren't just hanging space for pieces of art. And I also understand that much of the content of the King Tut exhibit are gorgeous and indeed artful. But to me, that exhibit has a strong cultural and historic element as well. I know this is an exhibit that's been developed externally and is being brought in lock-stock-and-barrell, but I believe if it were to be situated in the ROM instead there could be a stronger supporting stream of interpretation and education in the hosting institution.

Vanity Fair looks to be a gorgeous exhibition - I missed it in London so i'm definitely looking forward to seeing it. But at the ROM it will seem a little out of place. Again, no doubt a lot of the cultural artefacts on display at the ROM have artistic value - but the portraits would do better in an art-filled environment where their significance could be appreciated more fully.

It was not so long ago that museums and galleries were similar in their lack of interpretation. Content alone was different, and items were put on display with basic labels for identification only, generally. As time has moved on and the museum industry has flourished with regard to producing written exhibition content, interpretation and companion educational programs. These sorts of things are almost written into the process of exhibiting now.

Art galleries still feel different to me. Primarily displaying art with indentifying labels only, there is still very little interpretation on display to accompany pieces of art in art galleries large and small. As I noted above, it seems to be only the larger art galleries with time and resources who develop information past the basic need for most people viewing art.

Having come out of my tertiary education with anthropology and museum studies qualifications under my belt, I gravitate toward the museum world rather than art galleries. I do not doubt that I could enjoy working with objects and pieces of art in a gallery collection - however, I feel there is more cultural relevance and an opportunity to educate about this relevance in a museum.

I could be wrong about the ROM hosting art and the AGO hosting culture - i'd love to be proven wrong! There's an unspoken divide between museums and galleries - we'd be much better off if that gap could be bridged, and both types of institutions could do more to thrust their collections and education about them into the public eye.

And regardless of where they are, at least these exhibitions are touring and have somewhere to be shown.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Social networking and museums

The BBC ran a news article today about a new plan for a museum lovers social networking site, that involves the National Portrait Gallery, Natural History Museum, the Tate, the Wallace Collection, Royal Armouries, Sir John Soane's Museum, V&A, British Museum and Imperial War Museum. That's quite an impressive list.

I've not seen too much in the way of interactive museum socialising outside of museums own websites in the past - there's still a limited amount of museums taking part on sites such as Twitter, and even Facebook tends only to have 'fan pages' and not actual groups run by museum learning staff.

Because of the large amount of traffic I follow on Twitter anyhow, I tend to limit the museums I follow at the moment to ones here in London - the British Museum's recently joined up but it's not doing much, the V&A doesn't really do much for me, but the Science Museum tweets are friendly, and very interactive and informative! So at this level I definitely think museums have a long way to go (from what i've seen - there's a few big ones in the States that seem prolific though).

So this National Museums Online Learning Project sounds very dull with a name like that, but if it's a purpose built project that will allow museums to get what they need, as well as their visitors getting what they need, from the site then it is definitely promising. I think these parts interest me the most:

The museums are collaborating to allow online visitors to search across their combined collections, so that a single search might gather material from any of them.

It will also allow visitors to set up social networking groups on the website where they can talk about what has inspired them and about their creative interests.

The project allows visitors to collect scrapbooks of images or text or videos that they find in the museums, which they can share with other website users.

Point A is fantastic, if it's got useful information. When I was at the Science Museum lates evening last month, I saw at one of their computer terminals they have an Object Wiki, which intrigued me. It's got info on collection pieces as well as publications and exhibitions. Very well collated resource. If this project can get together something comprehensive and useful for users, it's a huge step forward in what museums offer online for their visitors. I can't imagine the juggling they'll have to do intellectual property wise with this one.

The last couple of paragraphs sound a little bit geared toward sitting schoolkids down in front of this thing and forcing them to put together a project. I imagine if it's anything like trying to get them to complete worksheets or activities when actually in the museum it could be a ruddy mess. On the other hand, it could be terrific - the project outline mentions 'WebQuests' for kids, which will focus their use quite a bit. There seems to be the more general 'lifelong learning' approach for other users - considering most people when physically visiting museums do little to engage with other visitors, this could be a fantastic way for people to get together and almost debrief about their visiting experiences. Flickr-like photo sharing, a bit of blog-esque or message board stuff, it'll be great. Not to mention a ridiculously useful resource for the learning and audiences staff at participating museums to feed off! The mutual feedback that would (hopefully) ensue could really enrich visitor experience for these museums.

At any rate, it will be an interesting project, I just hope the funding will continue for it - it's no use paying for this sort of thing to be set up and then forgetting it needs dedicated staff, maintenance, and development. Too often web projects for museums go this way, and it'd be frustrating to see such a bit ship sink.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Museum reference literature

For a while now i've been keeping a sort of 'to read' list of museum books on Library Thing that I think are/would be interesting or essential with regard to museum theory and practice. Of course, i'm in no position to be spending money on these sorts of things right now so it'll just stay a list - but I thought it might be more useful to keep a list here, and that way if anyone out there reading has any suggestions they can comment to let me know!

  • The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (Culture : Policy and Politics) - Tony Bennett
  • Cultures of Collecting (Reaktion Books - Critical Views) - Roger Cardinal
  • Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach: An Interpretive Approach - Beverly Serrell
  • Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display - Steven D. Lavine
  • EXHIBITIONS MUSEUMS PB (Leicester Museum Studies Series) - M Belcher
  • Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia (Studies in Australian History) - Tom Griffiths
  • The Manual of Museum Exhibitions - Gail Dexter Lord
  • The Manual of Museum Planning - Gail Dexter Lord
  • Modern Material Culture: The Archaeology of Us (Studies in Archaeology) - Richard A Gould
  • Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles (Media and Society, Vol 6) - Daniel J Sherman
  • Museum Exhibition (Heritage: Care-Preseravtion-Management) - David Dean
  • Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture (Museum Meanings) - Eilean Hooper-Greenhill
  • Museum Basics - Ambrose and Paine
  • New Museology (Reaktion Books - Critical Views) - Peter Vergo
  • Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (Culture, Media and Identities Series) - Stuart Hall
  • Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture (History of Anthropology) - George W Stocking


To Do, revisited; London's 'secret museums'

This past week's issue of Time Out has a feature on 'London's Secret Museums', so I grabbed a copy to see what they recommend. There's only 30 listed in the feature article in the museum, but there's 70 in the online version of the list - well worth a look. I'd heard of a number on the print list, even visited one or two and worked at one (the Garden Museum). There was another on the list which i'd planned to go to before picking up the mag, and it was even on my to-do list: the Hunterian Museum. Terrific little university medical museum - I loved the layout and the way they display specimens there. Fascinating and disgusting and informative, all wrapped up in a pleasing museum environment. Definitely worth a visit!

Having browsed Time Out a bit more (there had to be a point to spending a few quid on it!) I realised that in addition to visiting the museums on my to-do list plus adding a few more, i've got a few exhibitions i'd like to go and see, even if they're at museums i've already visited. So I have updated my list to reflect those as well, and we'll see how it all goes. Hopefully by the start of next month (after getting back from Berlin) I can tick off the Science Museum and Grant Museum of Zoology too!


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Lange Nacht Der Museen

Later this month i'm heading back to Berlin for the Lange Nacht Der Museen (long night of museums), as I had so much fun in August I couldn't resist heading back. I'm flying over with my flatmate Liz and a friend of ours from up north, Amy - going to be staying in Potsdam with friends and heading in en masse to flit between all the museums that take our fancy. (I'm going to warm up a couple of days before we leave by going along to the Science Museum Lates event here in London!)

The last trip I managed to see (including the long night and using our SchauLust card all the other days we stayed):

The Ethnographic Museum
The Altes Museum
Pergamon Museum
Museum of Film and TV
Museum of Musical Instruments
Deutsches Teknik Museum
Checkpoint Charlie/Wall Museum
Schloss Charlottenburg
Museum of Natural History
Museum of Medical History

(My Flickr set of the whole trip includes loads of pics from museums visited.)

This time i'm sure i'll go back to a few of those i've visited because (a) they're terrific museums worth revisiting and (b) there are some special events at certain museums for the long night so we might catch some of those. I'm also hoping to get to:

Berliner Dom
Deutsches Historisches Museum
DDR Museum
Zoo Aquarium Berlin
Zeiss Grossplanetarium

But we won't really know til we hit the streets and spend 6pm - 2am wandering them! Oh boy it's gonna be COLD. I think that's why the program is a bit shorter this time 'round, being winter rather than the milder weather of autumn of last year. More excuse to stop in for a warming round of coffee before shuttling to the next museum if you ask me!