Digesting ‘Food for Curious Minds’

Compared to Interpret Europe, which, with around 100 delegates was quite intimate in scale, the 1100-delegate ECSITE conference was a bit of a shock to the system – magnified by the fact I’d barely had time to decompress from one conference before leaping into the next.


I used to be a regular at ECSITE, but this was my first time since the 2007 conference in Lisbon. It was also the first time that I had been a presenter.

The conference website has storify summaries, presentation slides and other info, which I’ve bookmarked to come back to at a future date (after the conference I took a well-earned holiday in Venice, hence the delay in writing this wrap-up post). But for now, here are a few of my first quick impressions, more about the delegate experience than the conference content per se:

  • Lots of delegates means LOTS of parallel sessions (up to 10). This can lead to both choice paralysis and session envy. It also got me pondering the psychology behind having lots of (too much?) choice – does it mean you’re less satisfied with the session you *do* choose, because you’re haunted by the prospect of the session you *didn’t* choose being AMAZING? I’m not sure how the organisers can get around such a conundrum in such a large conference, but I think it’s definitely a factor in how delegates perceive their experience.
  • With so many sessions happening at once, it could be very easy to get confused about what was happening where. Keeping true to the theme of the conference, the organisers named each room after a well-known Italian food. This signage was reinforced on the stairs, in the lift, and on floor graphics throughout the MUSE conference venue.
Directional signage on the stairs, saying what room's on what floor.
Directional signage on the stairs, saying what room’s on what floor.
  • Organisers made clear what measures they had taken to make the conference as sustainable as possible (using biodegradable cups and cutlery for the breaks was the most obvious). They also invited creative participation through the “Sustainability is our favourite ingredient – what’s yours?” chalkboard wall lining an underpass linking the two main conference venues.
Chalk board that delegates progressively added to and decorated over the course of the conference.
Chalk board that delegates progressively added to and decorated over the course of the conference.
  • Because by this stage of the trip my energy levels were flagging a bit, I kept a low profile during the evening events, attending only one and even then leaving quite early as I was presenting in the 9am slot the following morning.
  • The session in question (link to slides here) was quite well-received, and we had several people staying back afterwards to talk more about our work.
  • I also presented a poster on my PhD research during the Project Showcase session. However, this felt a little tacked on to the side of the Trade Show which was happening during every break. Delegates who were not playing close attention to the programme may not have even realised it was happening. I didn’t see that many people browsing the posters, anyway. But a friend came by and captured this snap:
Poster presentation at ECSITE 2015 (photo by @elinoroberts)
  • Most of the sessions I attended were ones relating to Natural History Museums (since I’m now working in one), Visitor Research, or Mobile Technology. There have been some interesting developments in advancing a research agenda for Natural History Museums in Europe, and collaborations between museums and university researchers more generally. With respect to Mobile Technology, I got the sense that there is still quite a gap between what tech companies are selling and what is practically possible on the exhibition floor, at least at the sort of price point museums are usually working at. But more on that later, once I’ve digested my notes and my thoughts.

Back to the office tomorrow!

Musing on Interpret Europe

It will take me a while to fully digest the last few days. A conference with a theme of “sensitive heritage, sensitive interpretation“, and that includes field trips to sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, is hardly going to be lightweight stuff. A lot of us frequently found ourselves in a reflective mood, and it was interesting to share thoughts and feelings with other delegates, often coming from very different perspectives (in the order of 30 countries were represented). The conference was small enough (around 100 delegates) that you had a chance to meet more or less everyone, however briefly, and this reinforced the sense of us all having a shared experience.

The conference had a good balance of theoretical and practical sessions, so I’m left with much to ponder as well as things I’m keen to try out once I get home. Although there were plenty of long days, most days had the format of a morning keynote, parallel sessions before lunch, and then a field trip running into the evening. This offered a welcome change of pace that helped counter the “session fatigue” you can get when spending whole days in seminar rooms.

Some quick take aways, which I hope to expand upon in future blog posts:

  • James Carter and Patrick Lehnes’ session on Interpretive Philosophy: interpretation can be seen to have a foot in both the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Both have their benefits and pitfalls. But I find this an interesting framework for thinking about the different sides of a controversial heritage topic.
  • Nicole Deufel’s research on “preferred readings” and the interesting differences revealed between English and German visitors to site related to their respective national histories.
  • Visitor journey mapping as a way of conceptualising all facets of the visitor experience in a holistic way (workshop by Jane Beattie and Chuck Lennox)
  • The transition from “history” to “memory”. This was a common thread throughout several sessions, but it crystallised for me during Roger White’s session on interpreting industrial heritage. Similarly to how I’ve described before, it struck me how there is a qualitative difference between heritage related to the recent past (i.e. within a generation of the people who actually lived through it) and that related to more distant times. More recent heritage also seems to be the more sensitive, controversial or contentious. It also presents interpretive and management challenges when a site’s story makes the transition from a “memory” era (within the last 75-125 years typically), to a “history” era (the past as a foreign country).
  • High quality, atmospheric exhibition design at both the John Paul II birthplace museum and the Schindler Factory Museum.
  • Finally, Eva Sandberg’s reminder that controversy is an opportunity: if a topic is controversial, it means it’s relevant, and that people care about it. Controversial and relevant trumps bland and boring.

Now it’s time to head off to Trento for ECSITE 2015. . . .

The Gaze of the Other

Keynote address by Dr Andrzej Leder, Polish philosopher and essayist, at the Interpret Europe conference in Krakow, Poland, 7th June 2015 [1].

Consider the following: an Israeli husband and wife, aged 57 and 60, are arrested at Balice Airport, Krakow, accused of removing objects (spoons and other small domestic items) from Auschwitz and attempting to take them out of the country. The maximum penalty for such a crime under Polish law is 10 years’ imprisonment.

A spokesperson for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum considers this a “crime of a special dimension” – such objects are the only things that remain of the 1 million plus people who faced annihilation at the death camp. Removal of these remnants represents a further annihilation.

The couple plead guilty and are fined. They apologise and return home. Once back in Israel, however, the couple are less repentant. While they regret any hurt their actions may have caused Holocaust survivors, they maintain that they did not really ‘steal’ anything. The objects concerned had been recently unearthed by weather, sitting in the ground. Their motivation for removing the objects was to ‘save’ them by turning them over to the custodianship of the Yad Vashem Museum in Israel.

The couple and the Museum spokesperson thus have competing moral frameworks, or “social imaginaries” to use Leder’s term. They may well know and understand each other’s perspectives on an intellectual level, but they choose to ignore or otherwise fail to acknowledge the aspects that challenge their own moral framework.

The couple would have known that Auschwitz-Birkenau is a museum site, and you can’t just take objects from museums whenever you please. However, many Holocaust survivors do not recognise Auschwitz’s legitimacy as a trustee of Holocaust memory. They consider the only true trustee with the moral authority to act in this role to be Yad Vashem.

Similarly, the Museum would have known that the couple, being Israelis of late middle age, would very likely have had direct connections to Holocaust survivors and that their intent was preservation, not destruction. Nonetheless, how can Auschwitz be properly managed and maintained if every visitor with a link to a Holocaust survivor is entitled to treat the place as their own property?

In its response to the incident, the Museum management emphasised the significance of Auschwitz as a grave site, for which they are ultimately responsible. In Polish tradition, the guardian of a grave has a right to speak for the dead. Delegitimising the right of Poles to take this guardianship role is seen as the first step down the road as casting the Polish people as bystanders, complicit in the Holocaust.

In post-war Europe, there were many competing different narratives and social imaginaries at play. There are the perpetrators and victims, those who were complicit (Vichy France and Quisling Norway for instance), and many questions about whether others did enough to stop or prevent what happened. With the lowering of the Iron Curtain, there are further narratives in the West that served to cast Eastern Europeans as the ‘bad guys’.

All of these different social imaginaries create Us and Them moral frameworks. Such comfortable certainties deny ambiguities, and ‘we’ (whoever ‘we’ are) are always the ‘good guys’ in our own moral frameworks. Such positions undermine empathy. We cannot accept what the Other says, even if we understand it on an intellectual level, because to do so would undermine the social imaginaries/moral frameworks of our world.

Resolving this requires what Leder calls a “Kantian imperative of empathy”. This means being ready to face inner tension between your own moral position and that of another. It also means being willing to look at yourself through the eyes of the other – and endure that gaze. Knowledge alone is not enough.


[1] The official session title was Imperative of Empathy – the Kantian pre-condition for any kind of European future. This summary has been hastily pulled together based on my notes taken during the session and without benefit of having a copy of Dr Leder’s slides (I’ll post a link to them if they become available). Any errors or misrepresentations are mine.

Exhibiting Evolution in 3D

While in the Netherlands recently, I took a day trip to Leiden to visit the Naturalis Biodiversity Center. I didn’t know a lot about it before I arrived, and it was much bigger than I expected – particularly since it looks pretty modest upon arrival. For some reason, the entrance is via a historic building that includes the shop, cafe and storage lockers, with entrance to the main centre (a large modern building spanning some 6 floors) via a long enclosed pedestrian bridge across a highway. This brings you to the second level of the main building, with the path upstairs looking the most inviting.

Arrival point to the main exhibitions.
Arrival point to the main exhibitions.

This upstairs gallery, Nature’s Theatre, is an impressively comprehensive overview of biodiversity, encompassing not just animals but also plants and fungi (and a few microbes here and there as well) – areas that often get overlooked in favour of more animal-centric displays.

Birds display. I liked how many of the birds were shown in flight, in contrast to the flightless birds that were anchored to the plinth.
Birds display. I liked how many of the birds were shown in flight, in contrast to the flightless birds that were anchored to the plinth.
A walk through the plant kingdom.
A walk through the plant kingdom.

There was a lot more to this exhibition’s layout than first met the eye. On the floor of the plants picture above, you may notice a couple of greenish yellow lights set within metal discs. At first these didn’t really mean a lot to me, with their seemingly haphazard positioning and labelling only in Dutch. Their significance only dawned on me after visiting the Primeval Parade, on the level below.

An early section of the Primeval Parade.
An early section of the Primeval Parade (note the lit-up structures set into the ceiling- they’re important later).

This exhibition follows a spiral path through the earliest stages of Earth’s history, the formation of life and the world’s earliest fossils through to the era of the dinosaurs and concluding with extinct species from the last Ice Age.

A view into the Primeval Parade.
A view into the Primeval Parade.

While in this exhibition, I’d noticed a rather dense array of tree-like structures set into the ceiling. They appeared to be linked to a central spiral structure that lit up periodically. I never did quite figure out how that worked (whether it was triggered by visitor use or followed a predetermined cycle), but it gradually dawned on me that the central spiral represented an evolutionary timeline, and the tree-like branches were different evolutionary lineages.

The central spiral exhibit.
The central spiral exhibit.

Some of the tree branches terminated in white discs with a genus(?) name on it, as you can see in the picture above. Others went through the ceiling and into the floor of the Nature’s Theatre exhibition above . . . becoming those greenish floor lights! Thus the layout of Nature’s Theatre was driven by the evolutionary history of each lineage, as outlined in the Primeval Parade exhibition below.

Once the penny dropped and I knew what was going on, this added a whole new meaning to the layout of each exhibition space. I spent a lot more time looking around and across the two floors than I would have otherwise. The arrangement of these two floors is one of the most complex and clever bits of 3D spatial communication I’ve seen. And I was impressed – as a scientist. But as a visitor researcher, I have some questions/caveats. How clever is too clever? Do visitors generally grasp what’s going on? (It might be more obvious to Dutch speakers, as Dutch labelling is more extensive than English, understandably enough.) How much does it matter if they don’t? What difference does it make if the main target audience is schools rather than general visitors, and the layout is used as a teaching tool?

Either way, I’m glad I had a chance to see it on an opportunistic day-trip to Leiden.