Machine in the Museum: new media and the traditional museum

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

After reading these two very different new interactive approaches to museums,

The first being tech-heavy, the second being low tech but just, if not more, interactive. Compare those with this defense of the traditional museum approach. I have to say… I agree with the old school approach. Let me explain.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the primary role of museums. Is it education? Or Entertainment? Are the institutions of higher education, indoor theme parks, or shrines?

What I have noticed, swimming about the undercurrents of museum studies discourse I am familiar with, is the importance of Reverence and Ritual. I began thinking of the ritual behind museum participation because the ritual seems to be changing… and fast. Museums are becoming more interactive and personal. Part of this is done to attract a larger crowd and with them their entrance fees. I like going to quiet museums and paying my respects to the relics. Noisy places don’t allow that. As a non-religious person, I enjoy having a place to be reverent.

I am not the only one to relate museums and reverence. Just to get things moving… I’ll start with the ancient Greeks.

Oxford English Dictionary links the museum to the worship of the Muses: In the ancient Hellenic world: a building connected with or dedicated to the Muses or the arts inspired by them; a university building, esp. that established at Alexandria by Ptolemy Soter c280 B.C.

The muses: goddesses of inspiration, arts, and poetry. The museum, then, was a temple for ritual. The reverent would gather to honor the arts, but also to seek enlightenment, inspiration, knowledge. This suggests the interconnected relationship between knowledge and ritual. Spiritual enlightenment and worship were connected to education and intellect.

By way of comparison, the museum model that we are most familiar with originates in the 19th century as Cabinet of Curiosities or Wonder Closets. Mostly displaying artifacts from nature, religious artifacts and technological trinkets, they were essentially rooms or cases where viewers enter to observe the novelties collected. By the 19th century, the rigors of the disciplines, scientific method, and epistemology wiped away most of the magic and inspiration the Greeks experienced through education. Never the less, as the name suggests, early museums attracted visitors to learn through observation of objects and relics inciting wonder, curiosity and awe. These museums, then, also combined education and learning with a type of reverence or astonishment.

Some museums continue to be locations where spiritually, reverence and ritual overlap with education and learning.

Why do we spend time and money to museums? Is it to learn about history or science? Sometimes, but often I go out of a sense of curiosity or obligation to observe a famous artwork or exhibit. For example, I do not go to look at dinosaur skeletons to learn about their anatomy. I do not visit the Alexander Calder again and again to learn about mobiles. I go to revere the beauty and the ingenuity. With both the skeleton and the mobile, I think, How can they be so big and so heavy and appear so fragile, even light? As if, I could topple them over with a tip of my finger.

While preparing this discussion, I posed the question ‘what is the ‘rituals’ do you observe Margarita on Gchat commented that: for me museums are spaces of meditation

the feeling i have when i come out of one is similar to the feeling i have coming out of a good yoga session

This connection between the reverence and ritual attached to museums, by close association, means the objects that fill these spaces are comparable to secular icons and relics. Also by extension, our actions in that space can be compared to acts of secular worship. The pose of the museum devotees resemble a group act of ritual: silent, whispers at most, posed three feet away from the painting, and leaning slightly in, all moving the same direction in the similar stances.

The articles linked above exhibit trends away from the quiet sanctuaries of history, and toward dynamic factories of experiences. There is a lot to be said for these interactive museums. No doubt the educational experience is enhanced. Often, they also create a feeling of contributing to or being a part of history. Despite the gains, I still morn the loss of my cathedrals dedicated to quiet reflection of humanity, nature, or the universe.