Brown Bag Seminar – November 9th 2011

Britta Z. Geschwind
PhD student of the School of Cultural History, Stockholm University
Review Kindly Written by Cintia Velazquez

Museums as Spaces for Learning: Shops and Entrances

On Wednesday the 9th of November, the Brown Bag Seminar Series welcomed Britta Geschwind, a PhD researcher of ethnology of Stockholm University in Sweden. This is the land of the museum pioneer Arthur Hazelius, who in the last part of the 19th century gave birth to important museological projects with ethnographic collections that later on became the Nordiska Museet and the Skansen (one of the first open-air museums).
But this time, Britta presented an inspiring session about another museum: the Museum of NationalAntiquities (MNA) of Stockholm, opened as a modern museum in 1864 with an archaeological collection of prehistoric Swedish artefacts as well as ecclesiastical art. In the early 1920s a new project for the museum developed with many political and social actors involved, especially in the design of the new building, which turned out to be a mixture of a functionalist and a monumental style. This fact reflected the intense political negotiations that grew up during its origin, and continues until the present day. The construction began in 1934, and was finished five years later, though the museum itself was not inaugurated until 1943. The museum was created according to a nationalist ideology in which the building was required to preserve the “cultural heritage” of the Swedish people.
Nowadays, the museum divides itself between different functions such as collecting and preserving but mainly, since 1990s and the educational turn of the New Museology, the learning processes of its audiences. Britta’s general analysis specifically focuses upon the educational role of the MNA between 1943 and the present time, but considering the peripheral places in which museum learning takes place. By peripheral we mean those other aspects that are normally excluded in our traditional conceptions of museum education. As we will now address, Geschwind’s proposal was mind-opening in terms of providing more ground to reflect upon the other places outside the exhibit space, such as the store and the entrance halls, for example, in which visitors’ learning can occur.
In Britta’s research the notion of place is fundamental because it functions as a complex network of meanings in which different actors and ideologies converge: the educational premises, the governmental policies, the pressing economical guidelines, the visitor’s expectations, the staff development programmes and the spatiality of the museum, among others.  To do so, she is undertaking her research using diverse methodologies such as Actor – NetworkTheory (ANT, initially developed by the French philosopher Bruno Latour) and walking ethnography, which allow her to interpret the physicality of the museum in terms of the social, political and economical implications.
By studying two particular places, the entrance hall and the shop, Geschwind is emphasizing the way cultural policy objectives, including the pressure on museums to increase their incomes, are negotiated in respect of the learning practices they should address. The different changes in the design and physical arrangement of the entrance hall are scars, remains of the diverse ideas that the museum has embodied about, for example, audiences, accessibility, wellbeing, utility or education. In this same way, the museum shop is an exemplary place to analyse the contemporary museum’s paradoxes because, citing Geschwind, “it lies at the heart of the museum experience”: on the one hand it is part of the economic pressure put on museums to guarantee their survival but on the other, it is part of the visitors’ museum general experience. Britta’s research has sharply identified this tension and analysed it in terms of a collision between marketing targets and educational objectives: for example, should the museum shop continue offering books and other products that do not sell as much as other products that are not related, or even worse, that contradict the educational message of the museum? 
I found this problem very evident in my last visit to the Imperial War Museum in London. When looking at its aims, it stated that they looked for “developing skills of historical inquiry and boosting visitors understanding of cause, consequence and historical significance”. However, this clashes completely when one enters the shop and sees that the merchandise being sold, especially for children, presents war as a play; children can buy their military uniforms and pretend to be soldiers. They can also buy helicopters, planes, tanks and many other war-related games. The question is, then, what idea of war are children getting from the shop-experience? Could it be that the ideas and learning that children get from the shop are stronger and more memorable than the ones supposedly encouraged by the exhibition?
Perhaps we, museum professionals, tend to neglect the importance of the store or common areas (for example the entrance, the restrooms, the gardens or the particular architecture or design of a part of the museum) in the meaning-making process of the visitors because we focus on the experience generated –only or mainly- by the exhibition space and the activities programming. But visitors are constantly active, interpreting and perceiving all the museum elements to built their own messages because, as Geschwind argues, learning takes place in the whole museum and in the periphery of museum education but this is not always visible.
To sum up, the museum is a network of meanings that embody in their physicality different ideologies, some times conflicting. In that same sense, museums can “teach” many things to visitors outside their exhibitions and even against their own educational aims. Museum research should try to nourish methodologies and theories that encourage analysing how less evident or not obvious aspects of the museum generate visitor responses, interpretations and learning. This can be also a ground to think about the concepts we have about learning: it is not only about knowledge; it is also about skills, behaviour, attitudes and values, as the GenericLearning Outcomes (GLO) proposal suggests. Hopefully, we will have in the coming years more inspiring studies, such as Britta’s, that shine more light on that wonderful organism called museum and its hidden mysteries. 


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