Visit a museum today

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

The last May 2012 issue of Participations, the Journal of Audience and Reception Studies jointly edited by Martin Baker (Aberystwyth University, UK) and Sue Turnbull (University of Wollongong, Australia), had an interesting line-up on children’s engagements with various media today, from the topical (Facebook) to the more left-field–  though to most parents probably just as pressing — issue of bringing kids to museums or theatres (a review of Matthew Reason’s The Young Audience: Exploring and enhancing children’s experiences of theatre). The core of the issue is audiencing today: understanding audiences to a variety of media. As evidence that audiencing is a a phenomenon worth studying across media, I was particularly attracted by the contribution of Katya Johanson and Hilary Glow (Deakin University, Australia): ‘It’s not enough for the work of art to be great’: Children and Young People as Museum Visitors.

The article offers a discussion of three museums and their efforts to engage young people into their visit to the museum, and finds that both immersive and dialogue-centered approaches work best. not just because they allow immediate engagement with works displayed in the museum, but also because they create a cultural platform from which museums may be visited later as the children grow into adults. There is notably a very clear discussion of the hopes and perils of interactivity in museum displays  — as a big fan of immersive practices in museums I find myself of two minds on the question of whether or not it helps children interact with art as art (see the figures showing the kids largely involved with interactive panels, much less with looking at art objects in a Beaubourg study quoted p.32). At the same time this experiment from Melbourne Museum sounds not just fun, but great learning experience:

when we had the Dinosaurs from China exhibition we had, not as an add- on anywhere else but as part of the exhibition, built an area for families where they could do the palaeontological dig, they could dress up as palaeontologists, there were rubbings, there were things they could do which were a lot more hands-on, because the rest of the exhibition was stuff that had been brought from China and it was very precious, and there was no way anybody was going to handle it, but we were able to get casts and all sorts of things. And the innovative thing was, I think, putting it in the exhibition so they can be experiencing the things that were behind glass, and then going to the next area and finding something they can have their hands on, or be listening to.’ (Griffith interview, June 2009). [quoted p.35]

Immersion then, understood not just as “role-playing” (the Children’s Gallery at the Melbourne Museum) but also as “heightening emotional learning and ‘self-actualisation’ by using the museum’s collections to encourage thinking about philosophical issues and their physical manifestation, such as love and sex” (the Children’s Museum at the National Museum of the Arts in Copenhagen and the Musée d’Orsay Ranc’Art program in Paris), allows to inscribe museum-going as “engagement”, engagement with adults (finding meaning in participation), engagement with culture (finding meaning in culture). All in all a good read, if like me you’ve been taking kids to museums and somewhat disappointed by their lack of intellectual engagement with exhibits that remain distant, adult concerns.

But what I was really struck by was how current scholarship on museum-going echoes very closely 1920s wisdom about film-going [which would make all kinds of senses, especially as cinemas are building themselves as entry to knowledge for popular culture in the ’20s] — notably the sense that a “successful” visit to the museum has to do with working on the processes of interaction (making sure immersion/interaction can take place) rather than on the content of the exhibit:

Their [Raajppot N., Koh K., Jackson A., 2010] study of museum visitors gave rise to ten domains of museum evaluation by audiences, some of which relate specifically to service quality, such as ‘courtesy’ or the politeness, willingness or generosity provided by museum employees. Others, however, relate to the quality of the audience experience, including Pleasure, ‘definsed as the joy one feels when viewing beautiful or aesthetically pleasing objects that add value to the museum experience’; Relaxation or the relief of stress as visitors to the museum ‘get away from the usual demands of life’; Learning, including challenge or the satisfaction of curiosity and a sense of discovery; Entertainment or the enjoyment of  a social outing; Solitude, as many visitors seek to get away from others and to ‘internalize and meditate on the visit’; Self-actualisation or a way for individuals to seek solace and secure images of the self; and Aesthetics, or the appreciation of beauty and good taste (58-59).

You could be excused for thinking that the authors here have lifted these 10 points from standard theatre management manuals of the ’20s, whether Harold Franklin’s Motion Picture Theater Management (1927) or E.W. Sargent and J.F. Barry’s Building Theater Patronage (also 1927), which insist on exactly the same points: the politeness of the ushers, the need for unobtrusive service so “the well-behaved patron [may[ make use of the theatre undictated”  (Franklin p.40) (read: may appropriate the space as his own, may find some space to ‘internalize’ his or her experience, the need for relaxation as an “escape from daily drudgery” (Sargent and Barry, 183), for glamour and beauty in the buildings — but glamour that does not intimidate as “self-expression [of the audience] should be stimulated” (Sargent and Barry 169). In other words, the quality of the immersion, not of the film…

Here’s another line of research then (building on Alison Griffiths Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View, 2008): film-going as museum-going — as active immersion in the virtuality of knowledge, as active modelisation of the world.

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