Research Week 2009 reviews

Monday morning is not traditionally the time that I am bright and bushy-eyed, so I have no idea why I volunteered to write the reviews for Research Week 2009 at that time! Fortunately the variety and interest of the presentations from the diverse international body of Museum Studies doctoral students jolted me from my usual torpor. What follows is an overview of four presentations - for MS students with access to Blackboard, the full presentations are available to download, along with any accompanying material, in case you want to check the veracity of my comments or just find out more :D.

Geuntae Park - The Function of the Museum in the city of planning in Abu-Dhabi in UAE and Sejong in Korea

Geuntae is in the first year of his PhD research and so treated us to an overview of where he is so far in his research. His topic focuses on the way in which new museum projects may or may not make a positive contribution to the social, cultural, historical and social environment of the city, with an analysis of the possible affects and expectations of the communities of those cities. The two cities coming under the microscope so to speak are Abu-Dhabi (UAE) and Sejong (Korea); in the former a number of very grandiose museum projects are being developed, featuring renowned museum 'brands' such as the Guggenheim. Sejong is an artificial city planned by the Government of Korea, within which the museum has a specific role. So far so simple... well not actually, as Geuntae revealed his very comprehensive and complex literature review, which reminded me of how broad a reading list any PhD student needs to have (and an overflowing bookcase!) Every topic being covered even in summary looked incredibly daunting, every word that we take for granted (such a community) having to be carefully defined.

I was especially interested in the notion of an artificial city because, to me, in some ways all cities are 'artificial' in that they are defined as such by the communities which inhabit them; even if a settlement grows organically it is the society that decides / names it as a city based on certain criteria. Now the having of a 'museum' seems to be a crucial part of that criteria.

Ahluah (Chungju Lin) - To operate the economic function in the art and cultural museum: solutions for the National Museum in Taiwan

In Ahluah's words, her PhD topic aims to look at 'how to make museums rich', examining the ways in which museums might capitalise on their economic and cultural value to ensure that they are more self-sufficient, and make a profit (which is currently frowned upon by museum regulations but something which the government of Taiwan is encouraging). Whilst there are many arguments for and against the general proposition of Ahluah's thesis, I will concentrate more on the interesting context she furnished us with regarding Taiwan's museums, which spoke of past colonialisation (for instance by Japan) and the adoption of 'Western' ideas such as the museum and its (somewhat) uncomfortable existence in Taiwanese society and culture. For until relatively recently the concept of a 'museum' was fairly alien to Chinese society, collections tended to be private and owned by a family rather than for the nation. The first museum was established under Japanese rule in 1908, The Taiwanese Governor Museum, and it was striking how 'Western' the museum looked on the photograph that Ahluah showed us with its portico and cupola, it was almost like looking at the National Gallery in London. It seemed reasonable, therefore, to assume that this relatively 'alien' concept has led to a complex relationship between the museum and the Taiwanese people (although Ahluah assured us that as a nation Taiwan is used to be ruled by others) - increasing museum audiences is the challenge that museums are facing, to encourage more visitors to come outside of school trips, to see the museum 'visit' as a spontaneous, almost 'natural' event, whilst retaining their integrity as creative, cultural venues. How museums negotiate their way through this maze of visitor attitudes, colonial hangovers, ethics of money-making and limited funding will be an interesting exploration and if Ahluah does find the 'secret', it will be one that surely that all museums will desire to know!

Andrew Wulf - Against Criticisms of "American Degeneracy": An early effort in global cultural diplomacy

The fiction that museums are neutral and objective spaces has been challenged more than enough times; Andrew's research, however, focuses on the overt political use of museum exhibitions as a tool of cultural diplomacy, where the US government sought to shape attitudes and influence outsider reactions to their foreign policy, a vision of the US found in displays and interpretation. Looking at exhibitions from 1938 - 2003, what 'vision' of the US was conveyed through these exhibitions? And what kinds of impact did these have upon the popular imagination and foreign attitudes towards America? As ever, stereotypes and prejudices are likely to play a substantial role in the formation of the image of a nation, including its people, its character, and so on, and this was just as likely in the 18th century as it is now, something which even then America's leaders, such as Thomas Jefferson, were keen to dispute and challenge. In an extended example, Andrew illustrated how Jefferson was concerned with the criticism coming from Europe that America was an 'intellectual wasteland' in comparison, that the people were degenerates and even their natural history specimens were inferior. Jefferson's solution to these demeaning attacks was to attempt to correct this perspective, to spread the 'right' views about America. Museums were one way in which to show that America was as cultured and advanced as its European detractors, and as 'ancient' with the display of excavated remains such as that of the 'mammoth.' It is a challenging task I think to reconstruct the impact of such exhibitions, even if Andrew is not going so far back as the 18th century, as it is greatly reliant upon what material is available, and the audience reaction will almost certainly be the hardest to locate in the archives (if any were ever collected). However, considering the recent change in administration and the need to repair some of the damage inflicted upon the image of the US after the Iraq War and the War on Terror, Andrew's research comes across as very timely and fascinating in terms of the ways in which museum exhibitions can be mobilised by those in power.

Jennifer Binnie - Perception and Well-being: Cross disciplinary approach to experiencing art in the museum

Jen's research is certainly one of the most unusual cross-departmental projects that I have ever encountered in Museum Studies, which brings together Museum Studies, Psychology and Engineering. Funded by the AHRC 'Beyond Text' programme, and The Art Fund, Jen will be researching into how art improves lives - something which is taken as a 'given' but is very rarely 'proved' by research. Indeed much of the evidence that it improves well-being is anecdotal. The sheer variety of responses to art, and the factors that influence that response, is so complex as to be overwhelming: it can depend upon the setting, the atmosphere of the gallery, the social context of the visitor, who they are with, how they are feeling, how much time someone has, the position of the painting in the gallery, not to forget the properties of the painting, the colour, the shape, lighting... and so on! Sensibly Jen will be focusing on a couple of those variables, investigated through the use of 'eye tracking' - capturing how an individual's eye travels across a painting and how long they look at elements of it etc. - and combined with other methods such as interviews and observation. It was startling to learn that eye tracking, which is done today with computer technology, has been developed as a method since the late 19th century, when evidently far more painful methods were used! Fortunately for today's human subjects, the experiments are not so potentially harmful.

Jen showed us some of her results which have been undertaken under laboratory conditions, with the obvious caveats that it is very different to the museum environment (where a head mounted camera will be used to capture how individuals explore and behave in art museums). Participants were asked to look at a series of images, both 'real' artworks and amateur photoshopped images, and rate them in terms of their artistic value and how much they liked / disliked them. I won't go into much of the detail here but an interesting example was that Andy Warhol's famous painting of Marilyn Monroe, based on a photograph, was rated much more highly in terms of artistic value than the photograph itself, still a very arresting image. The eye tracking instruments also enable Jen to investigate how individuals 'look' at paintings, where their eyes linger and how long they look at a painting before moving to the next one. It will be really interesting to see how Jen takes this further in relation to the broader aims of her research.


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