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Museums in the 21st Century

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Online courses have a role to compliment other ways of sharing artefacts and communicating ideas and views. Would a book or TV programme replace a visit to the museum? They are places to visit, to walk around, in company or alone. And to return to over and over again. Apps and MOOCs are no panacea, nor replacement technology. What is more I believe they will require refreshing far more often than the typical museum to hold people's interest. 

Family associations, variety and interactive. People clearly have an affinity to a particular space based on reasons of culture and personality. I like to be surprised, so the quirky matters, or evidence of a curator's choices. There might be a gem of world renown or a curiosity crested by a local artisan. Ancient and contemporary might sit side by side. Visiting the De La Warr for an exhibition of a designer's life story the end of the gallery had a vast open table strewn with magazines. There were pieces of card, scissors and glue. While listening to and watching a video documentary we were invited to create our own works. I went back five times with different family members. 

The most memorable, earliest and favourite museum visits as a child was to the Science Museum, as was in the 1960s I guess, in the Exhibition Park, Newcastle. Many of the exhibits operated with the turn of a handle or the push of a crank: it worked. You saw something happening. Was it self explanatory? Keep it simple. Museums go wrong when they make it too whizzy. 

The museum experience with a child, or as a child, reveals so much more - to play off their curiosty, mystery and mischevousness. You see everything with fresh eyes. (edited)

Fascinating as a visitor to museums, someone with an interest in e-learning and learning and with an editorial role in a 'museum like' website ... that perhaps needs a base in the real world. A case of giving the virtual bricks and mortar.

So what next? The virtual museum? How about converting a cruise ship into a museum any twking it around the world 'The Museum of the World.' It's a radio comedy but I love the chat show 'The Museum of Curiosities' because in a kind of way between the comedians and the academic guests a serious pint is made about treasuring ideas, the quirky and the personally chosen oddities. 

I found the Museum of London like this - multiple ways of interaction, a few discretely placed computer screens tucked away at the end of one gallery, but also a selection of tough information boards that you pick up and carry around. So you find your way to interact, to pick through the information ... being of universal appeal though is tricky. Curators have to let go of their egos and put the visitor first. 

I like the concept of architectural design and the building it produces as a 'conversation.' It makes me think of a heart too, of values with doors that open and close, with the flow of people through, around and out ... and back again. It matters, in my experience of museums, to become a friend of a place: to return to museums you visited as a child with your own children, to go their with friends to hang out for coffee and to eat, even to meet business colleagues to walk and talk around and with the exhibits. It flushes out the mind.

'Community Art' adds vitality, shows respect to the immediate community and gives that artist and others like them a necessary boost. I cannot help but reflect on the number of times over the last few years where the thing that has left the most lasting memory from a visit to the museum has been a piece of community or contemporary art produced on a theme from the host museum - it brings the thinking and imagination into the current moment. 

I've studied mobile learning and the web for a decade so this is music to my ears. It recognises too how contemporary forces have to be part of the dynamic that influences the design of a museum. As I thought, coming to this course, thinking about the modern museum will inform my views on what is required in the design of an effective learning website. It makes me wonder if something like Wikipedia, for example, is too fixed in its presentation that is book-like, catalogued and even linear. Like a modern museum information needs to be freed and offered in more of a carousel or kaleidoscope. In other words reflecting or mirroring the way the imagination functions in the human brain. 

Besides the invaluable process and community contribution, when, where even how else do curators, designers and trustees otherwise set aside so much time to think through what they plan to do first? This alone is of huge value. Thinking it through over an extended period of time with an emphasis on the lifeblood of the museum: its visitors. 

I can think of two occasions where different museums have very clearly set out to 'choreograph' the emotions: the IWM, London and the 'In Flanders Fields' Museum, Ypres. In the former visitors had to stoop down to look into a partially hidden cabinet that contained children's shoes, all in a heap, from Aushwitz. The act of getting down felt like getting on one knee to speak to a child. In the latter, entering a tall, vertical space masked from the rest of the 'gallery' you intially find blank walls, then you turn up to the roof and find a dozen, maybe 16 photographs of soldiers horribly disfigured by the war. Once again, the physical act of twisting to look up played a part in setting you up to feel 'off kilter'. 

'Empathy,' opportunity to reflection, clearly signposted options ... the Holocaust exhibition at the IWM was closed to anyone under the age of 14 without an adult to supervise. The 'In Flanders Museum' piece was also making the point that the mutilated veterans were 'hidden' and kept themselves hidden. This relates also to the way artists respond to events, in these examples, to world war and violent conflict. I enjoy galleries as 'fringe events' alongside curated museum objects as it takes the museum artefacts in a direction where a curator dares not go. At the 'In Flanders Museum', even in the wee 'Talbot House' museum in Poperinge 'contemporary art' was shown to good and intriguing effect. It is after all our take on the past that 'populates' the public space that is the museum. 

 The world and how we behave in it keeps being shocking: nor is it confined to the safety and 'sanitised' past. Who would create a display showing an IS fighter beheading a Westerner? We have to face, feel and understand duch things if they are to be addressed. Like 'emotions,' 'controversy' makes you think. No museum would last, though some open, that bore the visitor. Do we remember things that bore us? On the contrary. These days, whilst my curiosity is very easily satisfied, I still like to be suprised. To be asked or be made to see things differently.

Does a museum even need to 'inform'? Is wonder and the motivation to discover more enough? I ask in rekation to a visit to the Design Museum, London in 2012. Wonderous and inspiring, with often text like tags rather than explanation and infirmation ... all of that you got from a website then, or later. Motivate a visitor and they read up on a thing. and then return? 

A fascinating point about the difference between an emotional response that evokes pity compared to one that evokes anger. I now wonder if the experiences I shared created the feeling of pity, but anger is what was required. These were images of the mutilated faces of combatants from the First World War in the 'In Flanders Fields' Museum, Ypres and a 'collection' of children's shoes in the Holocaust exhibition at the IWM, London. Ange might turn me into a pacifist ... or a politician. To want to do something, somehow, about the continual violence inflicted upon anyone: children, mothers, combatants ... Anger then would have required the 'presence' of, to use a term from storytelling, both the protagonist AND the antagonist. So, in the first case we'd need images of the weapons that caused such mutilations: shrapnel shells and machine gun bullets; while with the Holocaust exhibits we'd need to see Auschwitz guards/soldiers. i.e. there has to be somewhere to direct our anger, and then direct it further up the 'chain of command' to the leaders that caused these conflicts. 

We learn because we forget. We have to revisit what we are trying to learn if we are to remember it. We construct knowledge and understanding therefore by going back over things we have done or experienced. Frequent visits to a museum gradually allows some of what that museums says and contains to rub off on us and make its impact. 


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