The Unmattering Museum

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‘Unmattering’ is a word dreamt up by Pae White and woven into this installation at the South London Gallery. The threads give the word the appearance of matter but it remains as unsolid as the word itself. The artist suffers from insomnia and this word came to her in the early hours. It seemed to have great significance but she couldn’t pin down its meaning.

There’s a vogue for putting Un- in front of words to suggest a not-negative disruption, or a reinvention, of that thing. I’m involved in the Uncivilisation festival, which seeks new (or old) stories for rethinking civilisation at a time of crisis. At the MuseumNext conference in Amsterdam in my talk about future scenarios for museums I posited the idea of an Unmuseum. This could be a museum that would thrive by not being a museum as we know it.

The word ‘unmattering’ is slippery. It’s either, ‘relax it doesn’t matter anymore’; something losing its relevance; or a process of dematerialisation and remaking. I wondered, is unmattering happening to museums, perhaps in several different ways?

This question floated around through themes at the conference, through my walks round the city and visits to museums. Virtuality seemed to keep cropping up, partly because some of my visits didn’t quite happen, partly because there were so many dimensions of unreality in the experiences I did have.

I managed properly to get to four museums: the Van Gogh, the Eye, the Stedelijk, and Re:mbrandt – All his paintings.

I didn’t visit the Amsterdam Museum because three people on my route there (including the museum’s own shop staff when I was just on the threshold of going in) said ‘Are you sure you want to go there? Go to the Rijksmuseum instead!’

So, full of expectation of seeing its revamped facilities recently opened with spectacular fanfare, I set off. However, they wouldn’t even let me in the door with my small travel bag. So, of the real Rijksmuseum, I only have this virtual museum in my mind built from social media buzz about the opening and from hazy memories of carrying a grizzling tot into it in 2001. On the other hand, I have its amazing website to enjoy. Peter Gorgels spoke at the conference about their innovative approach to presenting the collection online. I love the way you can interact with each work, by selecting a portion to like, tagging the image, downloading it, getting creative, finding works by a colour code and so on. It’s brilliant. Why would I want to go to the museum? But, actually, it makes me want to go even more and I’m so frustrated I didn’t get in.

I’d long wanted to visit the Van Gogh Museum because I have a soft spot for his vivid paintings. I know something of that feeling, from childhood, of seeing wind throwing leafy branches, cornfields and clouds around, and knowing that it’s all alive. I had tried to visit the museum in 2001 but by that stage of the day my daughter was in full temper tantrum mode. I made it there this time due to conference drinks. The director, Axel Ruger, spoke about the emotion in Van Gogh’s work and I felt quite simply moved to see the paintings directly. And because of technology, I was given evidence, if I needed it, that he was really there painting what he saw. One painting, of women mending nets in sand dunes painted en plein air was accompanied by a close-up photo of the windblown sand caught in the paint.

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The Van Gogh Museum is the quintessential museum experience. We have built up this man as a legend. We see him looking at us everywhere in Amsterdam, blown up as a giant on building hoardings, and tiny on fridge magnets. The museum gives you what you expect but enhances it with unfamiliar works and varied displays to surprise you and contextualise his life and work.

The museum has decided to let visitors take photos of the works, although, because they receive 5000 visitors a day, they are worried about the proliferation of these images online. Also, there are concerns about a sense of devaluation of the real experience. Perhaps you look at the ‘flesh’ of the work less and feel less emotion when you’re intent on taking a photo.

Some of us took photos of ourselves by ‘the sunflowers’, just to play with the expectation that we would. Also, sunflowers had been on the agenda from a presentation by Erin Maochu of MOSI about an amazing participatory project on sunflowers, Fibonacci and Turing. That, alongside Tony Butler talking about the Happy Museum Project, made my day.

The next day I went to The Eye. This is a new Netherlands Film Institute building with cinemas, exhibitions and in the Basement are free interactive displays about the history of film.

IMGP1581It’s a really stunning white building jutting this way and that, with a big glassy cafe overlooking the water. It’s a landmark building on the riverfront of North Amsterdam, reachable by a free ferry. You get the sense that there is a hope or plan for other cultural developments to accrete around it. However, given that so many Dutch cultural organisations were recently cut by the Government, these are not going to be publicly funded very quickly.

This really is a building out of a mind, designed by Delugen Meissl, and supposedly making many connections with ideas in film. More and more these days, new cultural buildings are like computer graphics come to life, as if sprung out of a giant 3D printer. In this phenomenon, the building is part of the marketing, designed to look good in photographs. Yes, attention is given at design stages to the flow of people around spaces but it’s all so optimised. I sense that they don’t think how it feels when you’re crossing a vast empty museum square with a hungry or bored child. Or how when you’re climbing an excitingly ziggy zaggy staircase you feel dizzy with your exhaustion. What I most felt was missing here was nature, whether in reality in greenery or in imagery of living things and bodies. It was like being in a set from a sci-fi film.

I was a little bit disappointed in the interactive displays. They were hard to find, if you didn’t know that ‘Basement’ was their name and location. The pods were nice to sit in and I enjoyed watching an old documentary about Holland in the 50s. I did enjoy the main room too, with a neat system for allowing you to choose clips of archive film.

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But I did want more for the general visitor. I imagine it’s great if you go regularly, are a member of its club and can use the cinema. Film is an inherently virtual medium but there are also so many possibilities for creating spatial and immersive cinematic experiences with film heritage. They have succeeded in their experiment in the central room, a little less so in the pods, but I would have liked more richness, variety, information, more to play with and more human interaction.

I’ll be quick in describing my visit to the Stedelijk. It felt comfortable, like slipping into a warm bath, which is exactly what the new extension to the building looks like! Many of the works are familiar to me from my years of studying Art History and because so much is similar to the Tate’s collection. The contemporary displays seemed rather etiolated, as if the curators were afraid of putting too much in the space. It was a peaceful wander in cool beige light, windows veiled from the outdoors, taking in modernist artworks reducing reality down to its forms and concepts within a minimalist space.

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The fourth museum I got to wasn’t a museum, it was a permanent exhibition. This was Re:mbrandt: All his paintings. This is an extraordinary collection of ALL his ‘paintings’ together, so you get a great sense of his working output over time. They are large high quality digitally restored reproductions, combined with a good deal of interpretation. The restoration means that there’s no effect of raking light distracting your gaze, and many of them are supported by x-ray images to show pentimenti and so on. Now, sometimes when I’ve seen real Rembrandts, I’ve gasped and then had this feeling of a kind of settling melancholy. There is such a presence of a person, although you know it’s an effect of shadow and despite the visible texture of paint. With this experience, I gasped often, but it was more at the abundance of images and their clarity. After my quick visit, I would have loved to see all the digital images online so I could return to study it some more.

Despite its location in a shopping mall in the city centre and despite this enticing image, recalling the famous Amsterdam sight of an unclothed woman behind window bars, the exhibition was pretty empty. This is a private enterprise, part of the Rembrandt Research Project. I think they should put all of the same content on a high quality website, and charge for access or provide free access for those who have paid to see the exhibition.
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There was also an exhibition in the Beurs van Berlage, of screen-based and digital reproductions of Van Gogh’s work. I didn’t see this, which is odd because it wasn’t promoted to us although our conference was in the same building. But Mia Ridge and Suse Cairns wrote a blogpost about the issues that arose from it, in response to Jasper Visser who had helped organise it (?) and they hadn’t seen it either!

Part of the conference fringe was a talk by Maaike Roozenburg about her Smart Objects projects. She works with museums to ‘reverse engineer’ museum objects (such as ceramic teacups) to see if they can be returned to use and therefore better understood. The finished outputs bear the traces of both the original history and of the processes of scanning and reproduction. They are very beautiful and it’s a very thought provoking project. I felt though that they remain ghosts of the past, much more about the technology now than about the material and contextual history then. To ‘reverse engineer’ a historic object, you must also somehow recreate the webs of social and material interaction from its original time.

This talk was part of an event called Heritage Sells. In Holland, it seems, there is less coyness about the commercial enterprise of heritage. Local heritage inspiration is everywhere in the independent shops and cafes (see the photo below for a typical display). This is perhaps more so than in London or Paris retail and design, which are perhaps more internationalist or colonial in their heritage references. I loved walking round Amsterdam’s canals and streets, which were designated a World Heritage Site in 2010.  I also went on a bike with locals to visit a demo garden of urban permaculture and to find out how people were coping with change in the city.

In the end, much as I liked the museums, exploring the past and present of the city was so much more fun, informative and exciting. There was fresh air, yet there were always cyclists to dodge so it felt like being in a computer game. You can peer into people’s homes as there are no curtains, so you are almost living in their world.

I wonder what digital tools can do to really enhance this experience and deepen your learning of a place as you go? And what role do museums have to play in helping us explore the real world? Is that how museums can matter more?

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Tony Butler reflected on MuseumNext that ‘Much of the talk I hear from museum leaders is how do we keep going, at MuseumNext the tone is how do we go some place else.’ On the last night of the conference, I had a great chat with Lone Hedegaard Kristensen from Meaning Making Experience, a digital support organisation for small museums in Denmark. We talked about how there are two tendencies in the museum digital sector: One is to enhance and extend the museum as brand/box/experience. The second is to enhance and extend the ‘whole internet’ through more museum-like experiences, or exploiting museum assets, or to deliver museum functions in alternative and perhaps more efficient ways. The first tendency occupies the great majority of time. It leads to lots of innovation that may be scary for non-digital people in museums, but in fact it’s incredibly tame compared with what is possible if we fully unleashed the second tendency. This is all about a positive ‘unmattering’ – showing how heritage really matters today and keeping it alive.

One final word: The organisers of the MuseumNext conference should be congratulated on always managing to conjure up such a convivial event, everything of such a high standard and such inspiring case studies.

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