ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Exhibition experiments: technologies and cultures of display

Contact Convenor: Sharon Macdonald

Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield
Sheffield, S10 2TU

Tel. 0114 222 6444 

Panel abstract

The last two decades have seen a proliferation of experiments with museological forms. Museums and exhibitions have been established in many parts of the world, often interacting syncretically with existing cultural forms to produce novel versions of the museum idea. Museums and exhibitions are at the forefront of avant-garde architecture and design. New technologies - such as electronic media - have invaded exhibition space, transforming traditional strategies of display and exhibitionary potential. Conventional museological taxonomies - art and science, high and popular culture, representer and represented - have been disrupted, producing challenging new possibilities.

The aim of this panel is to look at some of these experiments and to explore their motivations and effects. Why is so much experimenting going on? To what extent can we see it as analogous to ‘ethnographic experimentalism’ and does it, perhaps, even provoke us to imagine more challenging versions of this? How do these new forms relate to ideas about knowledge, identity, audience and the purpose of public display? What are the consequences of these experiments for conceptions of authority and authenticity? Do they necessarily entail a demise of ‘the object’ and ‘the collection’, and of disciplinary or object-based knowledge? How does the rise of experimentalism affect existing curatorial expertise, institutional practices and hierarchies? What are the limits and limitations of these new forms? And how are they received by audiences?

Ethnographic experiment and taxonomic reconfigurations at Expo 2000

Alexa Färber, Humboldt University of Berlin

The history of exhibition practices shows that world fairs have reflected and often intensified far-reaching changes in museological taxonomies. Expo 2000 at Hanover (Germany), created with it’s Themepark a space for the reconfiguration of art and science, particularly in the exhibition “Knowledge- Information- Communication”: While the co-operation of artists, scientists and curators was expressed with varying intensity in the exhibition itself, it is the exhibition’s book “Hyperorganismen” that created a genuine artistic/scientific field. Here, the interdisciplinary work for Expo 2000 became object of the artist’s and curator’s rather personal self-reflection, which is represented visually and textually in a way that alienates both groups from Expo’s institutional frame.

I will argue that making this alienating practice part of the professional self-representation may be compared with the (idealised) representation of ethnographic practice: the production of ethnographic knowledge through the objectification of fieldwork data. Following comparable textual and analytical procedures, the making of the exhibition becomes an “ethnographic experiment” which reconfigures the field of science/art to be (experimentally).

It may be argued that this mode of professional representation is a new phenomenon in curatorial practice, allowing the curatorial authority to be especially competitive within an information society.

Telling our lives: the Manchester museum and its community outreach approach

Cecilie Øien, University of Manchester

This paper will address Telling Our Lives, a project that ran in two periods of eight weeks between May 2001 and May 2002, at the Manchester Museum. It was organised by the educational department who has adopted a ‘community outreach’ approach. During a weekly meeting, the museum invited a group of women to practice English, to do artwork, share food and meet other women. The participants were female refugees and asylum-seekers, mainly Somali, Sudanese and Afghani women, living in Greater Manchester. The paper will explore the motivations and ideas behind the project, including some of the challenges that arose during the process. I argue that these problems were based in divergent views on development, integration, culture, and responsibility vs. guilt in the ‘post-colonial encounters’ that find place in the kind of institution museums represent. These issues were dealt with through a process of evaluation and feedback involving everybody who was involved. Although the organisers felt this was a crucial part of the project, they also realised the limits of how far the museum can facilitate these various views on ownership and usage of the museum.

Inspiration Africa!

Dr. Viv Golding, University of Leicester

Inspiration Africa! was a 2 year £72,000 DfEE funded project involving 12 schools and the African Worlds Gallery of the Horniman Museum in South East London. The project focus was in the areas of ICT, Art and Literacy. A special feature of Inspiration Africa! was the collaborative approach by a multi-racial team of artists, website designers and educators, to the feminist-hermeneutic research, which pointed to the potential value of ICT at a region theorised as the Museum Frontiers or the Museum Clearing. (The Museum Clearing is a crucial concept in feminist-hermeneutics, which fuses Black women’s writing and the Gadamerian discourse.)

The project work was based around 12 key objects in the newly opened gallery, which inspired 12 key themes such as Beauty from a Mende mask (Sierra Leone), Bravado from the Midnight Robber mask (Trinidad) or Dreams from a Shona headrest (South Africa). These themes provided an opportunity for the participating schools (4 Secondary, 4 Primary and 4 Special Schools) to imaginatively explore aspects of the museum collection and to challenge racist or stereotypical views of Africa. The themes also permitted the students to make personal connections with the museum objects and with each other through the feminist-hermeneutic methodology and the creative use of old and new technologies.

At the end of the DfEE funding a major exhibition of the all the creative project outcomes, including a number of innovative ICT elements, was held at the museum. This exhibition was applauded by the public who saw the construction of new knowledge and identities at the borderlands between the museum and the school. The exhibition and the website ( demonstrated new ways of collaborative working that were highly motivating for the students disadvantaged by poverty, whose self-esteem and the subsequent levels of their achievement was raised. The project team-leaders account for the student success at all these levels by the subversion of the traditional hierarchical control of knowledge production by the museum. These fresh approaches employed during Inspiration Africa! produced challenging new possibilities for museums to be more relevant and meaningful to the lived experience of a wider audience.

The virtual aura

Susan Hazan, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

As Walter Benjamin described in his famous essay, "The Work of Art in  the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", the role of art in society and  the notion that art has become modified through mechanical  reproduction has engaged not only artists, but also curators and the  museum public. Benjamin embraced the severing of the quasi-mystical  'aura' from the original as a potentially liberating phenomenon, both  for the reproduction of works of art and for the art of film, whereby  making works of art widely available, introducing new forms of  perception in film and photography and allowing art to move from  private to public, from the elite to the masses.

While the loss of the aura for Benjamin represented new  possibilities, what was forfeited in this process, were the 'aura'  and the authority of the object containing within it the values of  cultural heritage and tradition.

Using a number of  models of museum web-sites each with their own  metaphor for the traditional museum, I will evaluate the different  ways in which museums are responding to life on the net. While post-modernists are always lamenting the loss of something or  another, we perhaps might want to think about what might be gained in  this equation. Not only are we witness to a proliferation of  compelling content driven museum web sites, we might also welcome the  emergence of new and perhaps enchanting cultural phenomena, the  virtual aura.

Good Bye Tomato - Good Morning Rice! Walking on a storyboard

Bernd Kraeftner & Judith Kroell, Xperiment!, Vienna

Is it possible to discuss facts, research data, hypotheses, theories, scientific projects like pieces of art? Is it possible to develop skills to criticize (not denunciate) scientific projects from the perspective of amateurs in the same way cultural endeavours are reviewed, discussed, loved and hated? And if so, does this enrich our reasoning on the changes taking part around us?

Since two years we follow the evolving project of the "Golden Rice", a genetically modified laboratory-strain of rice producing beta-carotene in the endosperm. We documented and recorded our research over time thus creating audiovisual footage, fragments of "science in action". Planned as a progress report for the Ministry of Science in Austria, which sponsored the project, we finally elaborated a preliminary socio-technological-graph on 280 square meters, a so called "storyboard".

In our paper we would like to give an account of our experiences of confronting the representatives of the public and the protagonists of the story (the respective inventors, manager, opponents, representatives of the media) with this work of amateurs in the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, January 2002.

"A ghostly look": mannequin aesthetics, new technologies, and old spectres in a science museum brain exhibit

Anne Lorimer, University of Chicago

Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry features dazzling, technology-rich multimedia exhibits, visited by millions annually. Its1989 exhibit on learning and the brain featured video games, plaster mannikins of 'ordinary people' and bright-colored scenes from a children's birthday party, all designed to create a welcoming, ambiance in which to explore a potentially threatening topic. Yet exhibit creators found they had subverted their own goal, so that visitors attributed a "Twilight Zone" effect or "ghostly look" to the space. The resulting exhibit fuses science-based representations of the brain with older notions of mind, spirit, and ghost, evoking images of an invulnerable technological afterlife. New media thus trigger more complex and resonant meanings than those explicitly intended.

Like field informants and ethnographers, museum exhibit creators must convey to relative strangers matters in which they have developed expertise. But formalized expertise entails its own blind spots: multivalent symbols' more problematic meanings become ideologically 'backgrounded' while remaining semiotically potent. Thus, while visitors' fresh responses to experimental media alert us more readily, such ambiguities are likewise active in traditional museumry -- as illustrated by Boas' own frustration with the uncanniness of mannikins, whose implicit semiotic energies were both drawn on and occluded by his 1896 curatorial practices.

Visions of material poetics: lived experience and technological experimentation

Dr Anita Lundberg, University of Cambridge/University of New South Wales, Sydney

Typing this abstract on my laptop in a traditional wooden Malay house decorated with Chinese carvings, I pause to think, my gaze drawn out the open shutters to a garden of indigenous trees growing into a forest. The trill of cicadas rings in my ear, their song intermingled with the distant cacophony of trucks and motorbikes, and the rasping voice of a Muezzin, his chant echoed by a second and a third, calling the faithful to prayer.

In this mundane detail of fieldlife is sensed the palpable intertwining of visions and sounds – at once Malay, Islamic, Chinese, animist, indigenous, colonial, post-modern, natural, animal, cultural and technological – which call for new forms of ethnographic expression and exhibition.

It is this visceral rhythm – the peripheral sights and noises that help form the materiality of a place – that I try to evoke through an experiment with digital audio-visual technologies. My vision is to produce an exhibition combining ethnography, art and phenomenology. By ‘cutting out’ snippets of images and sounds, then repeating, overlaying and juxtaposing them, a density of pictorial and sound elements is created, which interrupts logical interpretation and encourages an embodied audience response. These syncopated projections suggest the morphing of dreams – the partly hidden, partly revealed, partial truths of a place.

Exhibiting silence

Morgan Brian Meyer, University of Sheffield

In the Norwegian pavilion at Expo 2000 a rather non-object was on display. The main attraction was an art installation named “The Silent Room” displaying silence, which was presented as a symbol for Norwegian nature and as a cultural product.

Several technologies were used to ‘create’ silence: a waterfall at the front of the pavilion, a sound installation and isolating material. On one hand, technology was used indirectly, to produce the opposite of silence: noise - the sound of falling rocks in this case. On the other hand, a direct relationship between silence and technology was involved: the idea to create silence by a deliberate break, by a significant non-use of technology.

Containing an art installation, sponsored by leading Norwegian firms, and constructing national identity, the pavilion was something between an art gallery, a trade fair, and a national museum. The response to this risky experiment –displaying silence and having art play a leading role- was diverse. For some visitors it was difficult to relate and engage with this unusual exhibit and the real visitors were to some extent different from the builders’ imagined visitors.

(Note: The presentation could include a small reconstitution of the “Silent Room” with projected pictures and a tape player with the artist’s sounds of falling rocks.)

The multicursal way: complicating narratives in the cultural landscape

Paul Basu, University College London

Paring away complexity and ambiguity and that which does not conform to a coherent, easily-digestible narrative, much contemporary exhibition design and heritage interpretation results in an erosion rather than an exploration of the semantic potential of a given ‘object’ or ‘field’ of knowledge. Challenging the reductive message-based approach of such practices, I examine the use of alternative narrative strategies in museums and heritage centres: considering, for instance, ideas of collage, montage, repetition and detour. Drawing on both ‘high-tech’ and ‘low-tech’ (and high budget and low budget) examples of recent museum design, from Manchester’s Imperial War Museum North and the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh to the Dunbeath Heritage Centre in rural Caithness, I explore the metaphor of the labyrinth in the context of the museum. Contrasting ‘unicursal’ (linear, ‘lisible’) and ‘multicursal’ (non-linear, ‘scriptible’) models of the museum space, I argue that the latter succeeds in disrupting familiar museological ‘grand narratives’ and engages the visitor more actively in the construction of alternative and plural meanings. Such approaches do, however, demand more of the visitor and the challenge for curators and designers is to ensure that these ‘spaces of display’ continue to provoke and inspire as ‘spaces of encounter’ too – a matter not merely of technological or architectural innovation, but of innovation in the manner in which ‘exhibition’ is conceived itself.