Interesting photography of museum collections…. http://synthescape.com/media/umista/
This blog post is based on:
Malpas, J. 2008. “Cultural Heritage in the Age of New Media” in New Heritage.New York: Routledge, pp. 13-26.
Srinivasan, R. et al. 2010. “Diverse Knowledges and Contact Zones within the Digital Museum. Science, Technology & Human Values 35(5), pp. 735-768 (pp. 1-36 on the PDF).
Using Walter Benjamin’s authorial aura again as inspiration for extending a treatment of cultural artifacts towards issues of cultural heritage, we see more authors state that material objects are still valued but that we have a new heritage paradigm where the narrative context allows us to now magically transcend the fetish of the collected object (Malpas 2008:15). If we have access to the narrative (through agonizing negotiation at our local “contact zone”), then we feel that we can complicate the traces of ownership and be gained access into another culture’s proprietary heritage (Ibid). But, this would depend on which cultural paradigm being referred to. In our Western Consumer Capitalist society, we require the purchase and collection of the commodity representation just to get permission to include the collected entity into our imagined personal narratives. In my opinion, this situation reinforces the fetish of collecting by making the narrative cultural experience fully contingent on the collected proprietary artifact. As noted by Srinivasan et al (2010), museum collections until the mid-20th century “continuously discuss, study, and reorder the world in miniature” (Bennett 2005 in Srinivasan 2010:4) and I would say that such worlds are still being re-ordered in miniature through the purchasing and collection of fetish-representations of the desired narrative.
As a kid, my imagination was stifled by this paradigm. I felt an ontological disconnection from relating to a specific super-hero or villain in my head unless I owned the action-figure representation of that character. I could not even imagine a suitable narrative without purchasing and collecting the commodity fetish version first. I would imagine that the museum works in a similar fashion. They cannot embody their idea of someone else’s narrative without owning the fetish-object first. Museums also need the object for ritual activation of cultural heritage as a proprietary narrative.
In fact, without gift-shop ready representations of each fetish object, museums may feel that these narratives are out of their grasp and truly located within the authoritative domains of other cultures. If the museum had a certain reproduction of their mask in their gift-shop, is it then ok to have the mask repatriated back to the originating culture?
Being “neither distant nor close” (Malpas 2008:22), the non-material narrative (i.e. stories and rituals) blends in through the residual process of capitalist consumption (another incentive to visit the Museum’s gift shop).
Is it any surprise then to know that video game companies see the value in owning an end-user’s own emergent cultural heritage? With Malpas’ “Virtualism” (17, 20), the company can restrict proprietary access to BOTH the “autonomous” artifact (including the user’s own self-representation) and the corresponding narrative or personal ritual. This paradigm goes beyond Benjamin’s notions of mechanics implying digital reproduction – proprietary access consumes living cultural heritage as well – whether it be the private rituals of First Nations cultures or the public expressions of avatars and agents in video games and virtual worlds.
As Malpas notes, the current notion of “heritage interpretation” (20) helps determine one’s own heritage manifestation. And now, we not only hold up a mirror of culture to see ourselves in it, we have social networking sites like Facebook beginning to shape how we access and mediate our reflected image.
I would say that the Consumer-Capitalist paradigm works as a counter-balance to those “multiple-ontologies” offered by an object or fact (i.e. Bruno Latour’s “immutable mobiles”, Srinivasan 2010:5). With the Zuni example (Srinivasan 2010:7), narratives were shared but were not included in the museum’s catalog. This omission reverses consumer capitalism’s collection drive. Without the Zuni narrative, there is no permission to access the fetishistic power of the object. In consumer capitalism, without first possessing the fetish-object, there is no permission to access the narrative. This re-contextualizes Appadurai’s assumption (1986 in Srinivasan 2010:9) that an object is “inert and mute” without narrative as the activation agent. In our culture, possession of such an object becomes the key to activating the narrative. How much of this activation is attributed to human agency or narrative is in the mind of the beholder.
One final thought…here was what was going through my head when Malpas considered language itself to be an artifact…
Jeremy O. Turner’s personal commentary on:
Peter Walsh (1997). The Web and the Unassailable Voice. Ch.24. Pp. 229-236. (ch. 24, MDA). Ross Parry [Ed.] Museums in a Digital Age.London: Routledge, 2010.
Walsh basically argues that the generic narrator’s voice for museum audio tours represents dubious intentions through its often “patronizing” and institutional tone of voice (Walsh in Parry 2010:230). Further, Walsh claims that the unassailable voice does not seem to believe or understand what it says (expresses the collective museum committee’s bureaucratic voice). Walsh generally considers the disembodied narrating voice to be vaguely irritating and even turns people off from visiting museums. For Walsh, this voice should be “endured rather than enjoyed”. Part of this is due to its “know-it-all” tone that uses an endless monologue to appear “polished” and authoritative.
Walsh claims that such a voice would not be useful in a Web environment. However, I believe that Walsh is taking a very reductive stance based on his experience of 1990s-era digital data-base repositories (i.e. merely “a library” […] “without librarians”, Ibid:231) rather than the full performative palette available to the fantastical affordances of virtual worlds and augmented reality. His claim that the web is a “faddish new medium” (Ibid.) just goes to show how dated this article has already become. He is right to claim that communication is not (always) a monologue but can be a dialogue. Fortunately, the anachronistic “World wide web” from the 1990s has been transmuted into a meta-medium “world” of multi-personal communication, chimera ontologies and hybrid synthetic realities. Within this new paradigm, institutions such as museums only need to pretend to be authoritative to be worthwhile. Now more than ever, museums have the option of engaging in a welcome form of institutional role-playing activity as part of the exhibition experience. Ultimately, museum collections have the opportunity to have artifacts and mentifacts “come to life” in their “imaginary world”. Especially for conventional and online museums, it helps to engage the audience theatrically and having this type of “unassailable” voice does provide a sense of institutional purpose to be derived from this total experience. Such an experience is indeed suitable for the 21st century’s interest in historical role-playing – as shown in video games and chat-based virtual worlds.
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Walsh’s “Wizard of OZ” metaphor was actually applied for one of my own interactive character installations at the Surrey Art Gallery’s Techlab in 2006. This top-down “voice of authority” mythos can be re-purposed to re-vivify a sense of awe and mystery for re-experiencing museum and art-gallery collections. For the Techlab, I created and projected a large vertical avatar that mimicked Barnett Newman’s iconic painting “The Voice of Fire”  (Walsh 1997 in Parry 2010:229). This avatar was a long red-vertical stripe (almost the same size as the original stripe) and its world was the blue-space behind it. Unlike the original painting (collected by the National Gallery), my “Voice of Fire” could come to life, navigate around the blue colour-field and directly interact with gallery attendees as well as speak with its own “unassailable voice”. This voice was actually mine (pitch-shifted through sub-woofer bass speakers) and I role-played in real-time as the Voice of Fire and answered questions about the nature of art, from what I felt was the painting’s own ontological perspective on its material confinement to museum institutions.
Both docents and kids who had visited my Voice of Fire exhibit had actually made a correlation between the “Voice of Fire” and the “Wizard of Oz”.
As with similar examples to the one I just gave, the aesthetic purposiveness of the art-work (and its appropriate cultural context and expressivity) should determine whether or not this type of voice should be employed. Whether or not to use an authoritative institutional voice like this is now a creative decision. Some artifacts and mentifacts require the process of its discovery (i.e. its frailties and human activity) to be hidden and contextually complete only to those who have created them. Otherwise, museums can self-reflexively acknowledge their inherently bureaucratic and stifled collective “personality” and utilize the theatrical aspects of institutional authority. By doing so, audience members of many demographic orientations may be further immersed into the “imaginary world” of the museum. Demographic dissonance only occurs if the artifact or mentifact is seen as culturally sensitive. For those objects/entities, it must be very clear where the disembodied voice is originating from and why. By not being contextually explicit or playful in its approach the museum voice might indeed dissuade attendees from wanting to explore the cultural nuances that unravel the more complex cultural aspects of an artifact/mentifact.
Walsh questions whether or not this voice should be remediated in cyberspace. In my opinion, the answer to this lies within how the individual wishes to navigate through the “cyberspace” experience. Timothy Leary famously distinguished between two kinds of exploratory “cyberspace”. Each kind derives from the ancient etymological root-word for “cyber”. In the Hellenic tradition, the root-word was “kubernetes” (“pilot”) and allowed any individual (in their time, naval captains) the option to navigate their own course through the environment (Leary 1999:366). However, the Roman Empire had reinterpreted this word as “gubernates” (Ibid.). Gubernates – instead of kubernetes – implies top-down institutional guidance (i.e. control and governance) when dealing with informational terrain (including bureaucracy). To conclude, cyberspace museums can choose to either allow the end-user to explore collections on their own (with their own agency) and/or seek guidance from an imaginary gubernatorial-guide.
Europeana is an excellent example of the convergence of museums, archives, and libraries in the digital age… From their website, “About Europeana”:
- For users: Europeana is a single access point to millions of books, paintings, films, museum objects and archival records that have been digitised throughout Europe. It is an authoritative source of information coming from European cultural and scientific institutions.
- For heritage institutions: Europeana is an opportunity to reach out to more users, increase their web traffic, enhance their users’ experience and build new partnerships.
- For professionals in the heritage sector: Europeana is a platform for knowledge exchange between librarians, curators, archivists and the creative industries.
- For policy-makers and funders: Europeana is a prestigious initiative endorsed by the European Commission, and is a means to stimulate creative economy and promote cultural tourism.