Brown Bag Seminar Review - 23rd of October 2012

Dr. Rhiannon Mason

Reviewer: Cintia Velázquez Marroni

In this talk, Dr. Mason presented the project about the redevelopment of the permanent display of the Laing Art Gallery, the major gallery in the historical centre of New Castle UK. This gallery, known before as Art on Tyneside, was founded in 1901 and since then has been an important symbol of the region. Dr. Mason’s presentation included both explanation about the practicalities and operations of the creation process, and a theoretical reflection of the issues aroused from the “final product”.

The project was based on the redevelopment of the permanent display of Art on Tyneside, which was renamed “Northern Spirit: 300 years of art from the North East”. The project was particularly interested in how identity was related to a sense of place in the Northeast of England, as prompted by visual representations of the area. The project was funded by several sources and cost about 1.1 8 million.

The project was interested in involving as many different communities as possible. In the end, it involved working with 67 people who represented a wide range of community groups such as artists, visitors and non-visitors, new inhabitants of the region, filmmakers, photographers, youth workers, transport organizations and football associations. In order to include these communities, several activities were carried out to create different platforms to contain the images, sounds and atmospheres of the city in interactive types of digital media like touchscreens, maps, sound pieces, projections, talking head films and Flickr competitions.

In basic and general terms, the redevelopment was underpinned by an interest in the area of identity work and memory in galleries. The project had among its objectives to produce audience generated material that could be exhibited alongside other collections in an engaging and inclusive way. Therefore, this was a project that incorporated both research and production of content. It was designed to integrate communities in the exhibition process, in order to address issues of co-curation and polyvocality; this is, how to get different voices into a display in a dialogical process. Also, they focused on finding different digital technologies that could be used to facilitate the delivery of this process. Finally, Dr. Mason referred to how the ultimate goal of this project was to work towards the democratization of culture in the museum space.

Dr. Mason’s talk was particularly interesting because she presented an auto critical analysis of the different issues in which the project was effective but also those in which it wasn’t or which raised complex problems that were not contemplated in the original design. One of them was, for example, the different limits and negotiations that had to be carried out in order to implement in the design the theoretical perspectives that were desired; for example, polyvocality was considered a basic concept to include in the gallery but designers had several difficulties in organizing the information of the interactives in order to deliver it in a “polyvocal” way.

The auto-critical evaluation of the process was followed accordingly with the implementation of a first, preliminary visitor study to 34 persons in order to analyse the visit experience of the new gallery. Dr. Mason talked about how the data of the study had allowed understanding the process by which visitors do use place as a way of navigating memories around the city and of understanding change. But most importantly, she discussed how although polyvocality had been effectively introduced in the production side (different voices were included and contrasted in the display), it could not be “heard” (identified) by the visitors. This is, although the objective of exhibiting audience generated materials produced by varied communities was to present different perceptions of the city, visitors used them to focus on the issue of historical change: how the city, places, landscapes were different now in regards to the past, and they did so by using strategies of familiarity (analogous experiences, other domains of knowledge, knowledge of place and autobiographical memory).

Finally, Dr. Mason was sharp and very open in recognising that the topic of the democratization of the museum was much more complex than they originally identified. With the development of the project, the team became more aware of the debates around the concept of co-production and they began to have a deeper understanding of the implications of “democratizing curation”. She recognized, though, that the process did achieve to open a bit some areas of the creative process, but she recognized how there are always pre-set conditions, for example, those of the funding that hinder the total democratization of cultural institutions. Also, she referred to how digital media did allow for engaging ways to share and engage knowledge, but that their use was very much limited by age groups.

Also, as part of the assessment of the project, the team reflected on issues such as quality and production. Dr. Mason, for example, explained how the process might have been successful in terms of integrating communities but this might not have been the case of the outcome (the final display product as experienced by visitors). Is the museum interested in engaging people in the process or in the final outcome? In the end, this is not a minor problem since what is a stake is the representativity and sustainability of cultural projects: who and how much is benefited might not match public and political expectations of the assigned budgets.

Finally, based on data from the visitor study, Dr. Mason talked about the way in which, by drawing on Jay Rounds’ ideas about identity work and how people construct, maintain and adapt their sense of identity, museums are ideal settings for the identity and memory work. They provide the scene, the structure, the frames by which personal memories collide and mix with collective memories, and therefore, museums are very much about both the past and the present, the individual and the collective.


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