Viewed through a lens

It’s probably not hyperbole to say that digital photography has completely transformed our relationship with images. We are prodigious producers of visual imagery as much as we are voracious consumers of them. Today photos can be taken on a whim – no longer do we have to choose carefully what to photograph so we don’t run out of film. Nor do we have to wait to finish the roll and have the photos processed. Thanks to cameraphones, we pretty much have a camera handy at all times, and are able to share them online in an instant.

As a general rule, photography was not allowed in the special exhibitions at the American museums I visited (as opposed to the permanent galleries). The notable exception (which is where this was snapped) was at an Art of Video Games exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. I would have thought IP and copyright (the standard rationale behind ‘no photographs’ rules) would have been a greater issue with game design than with most art exhibitions. Or perhaps this was a concession to the likely target audience of this exhibition? Make of it what you will . . .

The ubiquitous nature of photography has inevitably influenced museum visits and visitor behaviour. When I was in the US I noticed that most of the larger institutions permitted photography in most galleries, although there are still some seemingly arbitrary rules about this (as I have noted previously and in the image caption above).

Observing what visitors photograph is thus an expanding area of enquiry. It gives a different insight into what visitors think is interesting, important, or otherwise worth documenting about their visit (see Susan Cross’ blog post on holiday snappers). I know of at least one PhD project that is using visitor photography as a primary data source, and I’ve also heard of museums mining Flickr to see what pictures of their museum people are posting online.

People line up to photograph Dorothy’s red shoes from the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
The Hope Diamond attracts the camera-toting crowds at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
Sometimes the camera can go where the eyes cannot – notice the person on the right holding their camera aloft to get a glimpse of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” through the crowds (at MoMA).

As well as noting what objects are the photographic ‘superstars’ in a museum, it’s also interesting to look at where (and how) people include themselves in the picture.

Two teenage girls take a ‘selfie’ at MoMA. As far as I can tell, they were posing in front of a window (presumably with an interesting view) rather than any specific object.
At first I thought it was odd that this woman was listening to an audiotour with her back to the artwork . . . until I realised she was posing for a photo!
People posing to be photographed next to the Moai at the American Museum of Natural History. I have since found out that the Moai was a character in the movie “Night at the Museum”. Whether the object’s popularity as a photo opp has changed as a result of this I can only speculate . . .

It seems that posing next to the objects is an important way for visitors to reaffirm to themselves and to others that yes, they were there.

A mother takes a photo of two very young children in front of the Egyptian tomb at the Met. They might be too young to remember this visit, but later they will be able to look back and see they were there. Will it help jog any early, formative memories in them I wonder?

Where it is permitted, photography clearly has a marked impact on visitor behaviour and the visitor experience. What are the implications? Does photographing the objects (and being photographed next to them) become more important than experiencing the object first hand? Do photographers get priority over non-photographers in getting unfettered visual access to objects? (Social norms dictate we get out of the way of a person lining up to take a photo in a way we don’t when someone is simply just looking.) What are the overall impacts and does it matter?

The “End of Heritage”

I borrow the title of this post from Francis Fukuyama, who famously (if rather prematurely) declared the “End of History” some 20 years ago. While I’m not going to make such bold proclamations here, I do want to be a little provocative and ask: has the heritage ‘industry’ planted the seeds of its own demise?

First a little background: at the Museums Australia conference a couple of weeks ago, several presentations reinforced the notion that heritage is both a process of preservation and of creation. However, it strikes me that the former is sometimes privileged at the expense of the latter. Indeed, we can become so preoccupied with preserving the cultural legacy of our forebears that we forget that we too have the opportunity (perhaps even duty) to create our own legacy as well.

One of the conference keynote speakers, Victor Steffenson (from Mulong Productions) spoke of his work using film-making to document Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices. In a later panel discussion, he talked about how he wants to dispel assumptions that Indigenous culture is a static relic of the past. He described working with Aboriginal youth who said that they could no longer perform corroborees because their traditional dances had been lost. To which Victor’s reply was: “why not make new ones?” In other words, while preservation of traditional Indigenous culture is important (and an important part of Victor’s film work), it should not subsume the ongoing evolution of that culture as a creative process.

This got me thinking about the balance of preservation and creation in heritage more broadly. Look at any ancient city or old building and what you see is a palimpsest – the ongoing destruction, creation and restoration is what gives these sites their historical richness. However, this overwriting of one layer of history by another is often put to a stop in the name of ‘heritage’ – no more layers will be added to the palimpsest.

One of the first heritage sites I worked on was a Grade I listed building in Lincolnshire, which had been constructed in the latter part of the 14th century. Over the course of the building’s history it had served as the headquarters of a Hanseatic guild, a town hall, a court house, a council chamber and finally a local museum. A point about that last incarnation: over the years I’ve observed that ‘turn it into a museum’ is the fate of many heritage buildings – sometimes because it is a logical adaptive re-use, but too often because there is no other viable use for the building in its present state, and given its heritage listing it can’t be adapted for anything else, so ‘turning it into a museum’ becomes the default (and sometimes uncomfortable) compromise. But how many heritage buildings can realistically be preserved as museums?

From my (admittedly non-expert) perspective, it appears our shift to a focus on preservation is a consequence of events of the mid 20th century. In Europe, two world wars had wreacked destruction on an unprecedented scale. The reconstruction (and in Australia, post-war boom) of the 1950s and 1960s was then heavily influenced by the harsh, minimalist aesthetic of modernism. Modernism didn’t quite work out as planned: designs intended to make built spaces work like efficient machines ended up being hostile environments that invited crime. Furthermore, it didn’t age well, and many buildings from this era are reviled as eyesores. At some point, it seems we collectively proclaimed ‘never again’ to such follies and decided we had to be much more careful about using the bulldozer in future. This is not necessarily a bad thing. That is, unless preservation becomes paralysis.

I see this paralysis in action (if that’s not an oxymoron!) in my home town of Adelaide on a regular basis. In the Australian context, Adelaide is distinctive in that it was a planned settlement from the outset. The city plan as set out by chief surveyor Colonel William Light is considered one of our most significant cultural assets. And it is. However I get frustrated by those who seem to be more preoccupied by the letter, rather than the spirit, of Light’s plan. Light and his counterparts were progressives of their era; they were adapting new philosophies and approaches to urban planning and design. In contrast, new developments in 21st century Adelaide are often passionately resisted by preservation lobbies. Proposals frequently spend protracted periods in planning limbo (for as long as decades in some instances). Meanwhile, empty sites become dustbowls and heritage buildings lay empty as they cannot be adapted for contemporary use. This ‘heritage for heritage’s sake’ approach does not seem to serve anyone, and taken to its logical conclusion would turn the city into a museum of itself. And this is what I mean by the ‘end of heritage’. It is when the desire to preserve tips over to become the fear of creation.

I see signs of the pendulum swinging back, and perhaps a more pragmatic approach to adaptive re-use of heritage buildings (after all, their preservation is only sustainable if an economically-viable use for them can be found). There is also potential for a greater role for interpretation here too (but that’s a whole different subject).

Yes we should preserve and restore. But let’s not forget that we can adapt and create as well.

Mind the Gap

Have you ever wondered how it is that so many of your visitors miss a prominent sign or installation – after all it’s in plain sight, right by the entrance? Chances are it’s in the Transition Zone.

Transition Zones were identified by Underhill [1] (see previous post on Underhill here) in his observational studies of retail spaces. When people first enter a store, they can be seen going through a reorientation and refocusing period – adjusting to their new environment, working out where to go next, and so on. In these few metres they are passing through the Transition Zone. In the Transition Zone, people are focused on where they are going, not where they are. Their immediate surroundings are, in effect, invisible to them.

I was reminded of the Transition Zone this week, as I am reading a doctoral thesis by Janine Fenton Sager [2], who applied Underhill’s methods to contemporary art exhibition spaces. Not surprisingly, the same Transition Zone effect applies – both at the entrance to museums as well as to individual exhibition spaces where there is a new environment and/or new topic to adjust to.

The South Australian Museum’s main entrance is a fairly typical example:

The main entrance atrium of the South Australian Museum. Visitors enter this space through a set of automated glass sliding doors, and pass through the second set before entering the entrance lobby proper.

I had discussions with the Museum about the use of this atrium space about a year or so ago, not long after I had read about Underhill’s Transition Zones. While I have not spent a lot of time observing how this particular space is used, the Transition Zone concept would suggest that most visitors have psychologically ‘exited’ the atrium pretty much as soon as they have entered it. They can see the information desk and key decision points in the main lobby beyond (the shop, cafe and galleries all fan off this lobby), and are probably already thinking about where they might go first. Consequently I advised the museum to keep this space minimal, and that any signage in this space would be as good as invisible to most visitors, at least on their way in to the museum. (I notice some brochure racks have crept in since then, and I wonder how well and at what stage of the visit they are used . . . perhaps they are picked up on exiting?)

The large iron meteorite on display in here is an interesting one – it’s an impressive object and possibly sufficiently unusual that visitors may be stopped by it. However it may be more readily noticed on the way out than the way in, and I also wonder what role children play in whether the meteorite is noticed and stopped at. (I suspect children are less susceptible to Transition Zone effects but I’m not sure if this has actually been studied or observed).

These nuances aside, the lesson here is not to position important orientation or introductory signage right by the entrance – it’s too close to the Transition Zone and will end up being missed by the majority of your visitors.

[1] Underhill, P. (1999). Why we buy – the science of shopping. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[2] Sager, J. F. (2008). The Contemporary Visual Art Audience: Space, Time and a Sideways Glance (Unpublished Doctoral Thesis). University of Western Sydney.


MASA2012 – it’s a wrap!

Last week was the Museums Australia National Conference in Adelaide. As one of the organisers, there is a sense of relief in being able to say that the week went off without any major hitches.

I have to say that I was pleased with the overall result – in particular we had put some considerable thought and care into the way that we combined the keynote speakers in the program, and from where I was standing this went well (even better than expected in some instances!). We also tried some different session formats, inevitably with some being more successful than others. You learn, you refine, you improve.

However, because I was so close to proceedings, it’s a little hard to give a critical reflection on the presentations and discussions that took place. So it’s a good thing there are plenty of other people who can do that for me! I was impressed by the number of delegates who contributed to the life of the conference through social media, particularly via the conference’s #masa2012 Twitter hashtag. Looking at how the Twitter activity has matured over the past three Museums Australia conferences is a good case study in how more and more people are starting to ‘get’ social media.

So rather than a comprehensive conference wrap from me, I’ll compile links to the tweets, blogs and photostreams of others. I hope this will give a good picture of the week’s proceedings. Here’s what I’ve found so far, and let me know if I’ve missed something out:

  • Tweets

There was good activity and conversations on Twitter. Suse Cairns (known in the twitterverse as @shineslike) kindly agreed to compile Storify of the tweets to the #masa2012 hashtag. It was great to see a lot of different people using twitter to contribute and converse (in previous years it has either been slow to get going, or otherwise dominated by a handful of accounts which may have discouraged newcomers from contributing).

  • Blogs

Thornypebble’s Pond: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 and Conference Presentation UPDATE: this very interesting and thoughtful piece about the use of twitter at conferences.

Museum Geek: Dispatch and Initial Takeaways from MA National Conference

Digital Nico: Mobile Engagement and some other scribbles

Pete Hoban: Day 1 (am), Day 1 (pm), Day 2, Day 3 (plenary), Day 3 (workshops), Rural and Regional Plenary.

  •  Photos

Museums Australia SA Photostream of the Welcome Ceremony, Conference Day One, Day Two, Governor’s Reception, Day Three, Conference Dinner and Regional Remote and Community Museums day.

Photoset of the conference from Adelaide Archivist.

  • Presentation Slides

There are plans afoot to share as many conference slides as possible via a conference Slideshare page – I’ll update with further details as and when this takes shape. I also presented a paper (with Jenny Parsons), a snapshot (just me), and a workshop (with Katherine Sutcliffe) during the conference’s parallel sessions. These presentations have already been uploaded to Slideshare:


I was also interviewed by one of the delegates for a podcast, listening to which made me realise how fast I can talk sometimes! (I come in at about 1:30)