Community Museums Past & Present

Study 2 (PhD student): Exhibiting Community Cultures inside and outside the Museum

There is actually no such thing as ‘the museum’. Over the years, museums and their manifestations have become increasingly pluriform, and the temporary exhibition has outstripped the permanent collection when it comes to pulling in the crowds. While art museums have continued to focus on presentation techniques dating from the early years – aimed at creating optimum conditions for the viewing of individual works of art – other categories of museums have switched to narrative presentation forms which connect the visitor with objects and their underlying contexts.
This development began in the nineteenth century (De Jong 2001, Noordegraaf 2004) and is rooted in presentation techniques first employed by World Exhibitions and open air museums. In recent decades these developments have gained momentum, and thanks to technology it is now possible to mobilize multiple media techniques, and to reach an audience which has little affinity with traditional presentation techniques.
In these new, narrative exhibitions, knowledge and experience are on an equal footing, co-stars in the story being told. The objects are the components of the story and not vice versa. In these exhibitions a leading role is reserved for simultaneity, stratification, and interactivity. Thanks to its manipulation of the ‘expanded senses’ of the visitor, and the lack of a time frame with its accompanying causality, the narrative exhibition is unsurpassed when it comes to presenting an experience in which the visitor occupies centre stage.
The creation of such an exhibition may or may not take place in a museum, although the objects will often come from museum collections. The exhibition can be mounted by museum staff, but in many cases it is set up by a team in which various other disciplines collaborate. In effect, the exhibition is the product of an independent team of experts, whereby a direct link with a museum is not a prerequisite. Presentations can be set up in places which are themselves ‘lieus de mémoire’ and have their own impressive stories to tell. One example is the Deutsches Auswanderhaus in Bremerhaven, which was European Museum of the Year in 2007. (Note the conscious avoidance of the word ‘museum’ in the name.)
For the non-art museums such as community museums, the development of such multi-media presentation forms has made it possible to place their collection pieces within an exciting narrative context, and even to create such a platform for intangible heritage.
The narrative exhibitions respond to the heritage needs flowing from new patterns in taste which are impervious to the dividing line between high and low culture (S. Janssen, 2005). However, heritage in a museological form is only one manifestation of the past, which can also appear as film, game or thriller (Lowenthal 1998, Van Vree 2003). Alongside the now familiar museum sites, other applications of internet also play a role in increasing the accessibility of museum collections. For example, the Historisch Museum Rotterdam can be seen on ‘Second Life', together with its curator.
‘Identification’, ‘sustainability’, ‘visibility’, ‘group cultures’, and other terms from the prevailing heritage discourse acquire a different meaning within the context of internet and narrative exhibitions. Moreover, the canon, whose objects, facts and events are presented within a clear, historically defined context, is not conducive to heritage presentations in which the user can choose the routes he wishes to follow, accessing various forms of information at will, as dictated by his personal fascination with the object and its intrinsic qualities in the here and now. Following on the research of De Haan (2006), the study will examine what form the unlinking of the elements institution/collection/presentation/visitor will take, and the consequences which this can have for the community museum.
The research of the PhD student will focus on an extensive analysis of museum sites and narrative exhibitions. The cases will include: British Imperial War Museum, London; Deutsches Auswanderhaus, Bremerhaven; District Six Museum, Cape Town, Experience Music Project, Seattle; Historisch Museum Rotterdam.
There have been a number of publications dealing with recent developments on the exhibition front, which differ widely as regards approach (see, for instance Bal 1996, D. Janssen 2002, Noordegraaf 2004) The present study is aimed at developing a model-based analysis, building upon Bruno’s theory on movement and tactility in space and time media (2002), and Bruce’s analysis of the Experience Music Project in Seattle dating from 2005.
The setting up of a data base with images and information on various presentations of narrative exhibitions is an integral part of the research. Such a site does not yet exist, and the information is scattered over various museum sites, some of which are only temporarily available or accessible only via the sites of exhibition designers. These sites will also serve as a platform for discussion and exchange.
The study by the PhD student not only supplements but also comments upon that of the post-doc. Where the post-doc examines the political and social space in which the community museums operate, and the heritage discourse within those institutions, the PhD student focuses on developments on the level of recent heritage presentations and the internet, together with the influence of those developments on the mission of museums.