Thursday, July 09, 2009

Making Alternative Meaning out of Museum Artifacts

Seb Chan has a lovely, long interview up at Fresh+New with Helen Whitty about the Powerhouse Museum's new mini-exhibition, the Odditoreum. The Odditoreum is a temporary gallery for the summer school holiday in which the Powerhouse is displaying eighteen very odd objects alongside fanciful (and fictitious) labels written by children's book author Shaun Tan, schoolchildren, and visitors.

The Odditoreum is another wrinkle in the study of visitors' understanding and interpretation of authenticity in museums. That discussion has traditionally focused on visitors' ability to distinguish real artifacts from props and the question of whether an experience with a reproduction is lesser than, equivalent to, or superior to engaging with "the real thing."

But in the Odditoreum's case, it's not the object that's in doubt but the interpretation. The objects are real, the labels absurd. Of course, the objects were chosen for their pecularities, and in some cases, such as a giant licorice tricycle shaped like a shoe, the imagined usage (guide dog training distraction device) is almost as reasonable as the real thing (2000 Olympics closing ceremony vehicle).

Last month, I met an artist who was part of a group that created a renegade podcast tour for the Portland Art Museum. I enjoyed listening to it (virtually, not at the museum). The silly imagined situations that corresponded with the art certainly got me looking at the pieces for a longer period of time than I typically would, and in some cases, made me think about the deeper meaning of the piece or what might have inspired the artist. But I also found myself wondering if this imagined set of interpretations for the art was any more compelling or useful than any other imagined set of interpretations. If I made up stories to go with the art, wouldn't I think just as hard about what it might mean, what inner jokes or profundity I might spin into my creation?

For this reason, I was not surprised to see that the Odditoreum's talkback area is sparking "a remarkable level of participation." There is a very popular part of the Odditoreum where visitors can write their own labels for the artifacts, and the visitor-submitted ones (such as the one at the top) appear to be inventive and on-topic. People are having fun with this experience, and who can blame them? We make up stories about strange objects all the time--the makeup torture devices in our aunt's bathroom, the weird old statue in the outhouse (yes, I have one). We use these stories to try to understand objects and the people who own and use them, and to poke a little fun while we're at it.

Here are a few design decisions I noticed that I think really add to the Odditoreum's success:
  1. They are only featuring a few objects. At the end of his interview, Seb wondered if you could have "an entire museum" like this. You can (and there is - the unparalleled Museum of Jurassic Technology). But the educational value of the Odditoreum rests on the fact is that it is situated in a large museum full of objects with accurate labels. In the Museum of Jurassic Technology, you feel as though you are in a funhouse. You feel disconcerted and overwhelmed by the ambiguity of the interpretation. In the Odditoreum, you know you are being given a little space to have fun and poke at the rest of it all. The rules of the museum still exist, and it's more powerful to subvert them in little bits than to throw them out altogether.
  2. The framing is about imagination and meaning-making from objects, not silliness or childishness. While the Odditoreum was initiated fairly explicitly for children and family on holiday, the Powerhouse doesn't message it as something just for kids. The introductory label talks about "strangeness, mystery, and oddity" and comments that, "when things are strange, the brain sends out feelers for meaning." This is a powerful statement that encourages visitors to really think about the "why" of these objects. It made me recall researcher Sherry Turkle's work with "evocative objects" and her statement that "we love the objects we think with." At this year's AAM conference, Sherry struggled to provide us with a good metric for determining which objects are evocative enough to have emotional and intellectual resonance. It appears that the Odditoreum is full of these, and that the framing--both by Shaun Tam and by the Powerhouse--accentuates the mystical power of the objects rather than their ridiculousness.
  3. The participatory element employs an accessible speculative question. I've written before about the power of "what if" questions and the fact that it is easier for visitors (or any novices) to answer speculative questions than factual ones. The Odditoreum's "write your own label" program is very successful because visitors are being asked to author imaginative content. There are several museums that have experimented with "write your own label" programs, but they tend to involve some programmatic hand-holding to help people get over the threshold fear that they will do it "wrong" in some way. There is no wrong answer to the question, "what do you imagine this thing might be in your wildest dreams?" It is a much easier and less pointed a question than, "what do you think this thing is?"
  4. The participatory element is modeled well by the "official" content. Theoretically, you could take the idea of writing imaginative labels and offer that as an activity anywhere in the museum. That's functionally what the Portland Art Museum renegade podcasters did. But it's much harder for the institution to motivate visitors to be imaginative if the official museum content around them is accurate and dry. It feels like the visitors are being asked to do an extraordinary (and possibly denigrated) activity that is atypical museum behavior. That's why the podcasters were "renegades"--they were deliberately subverting appropriate interpretative behavior. Not every visitor is willing to be subversive. In the Odditoreum such irregular actions are not only invited but modeled. The official labels are beautifully written and artfully printed, but they are comparable in content and tone to what visitors are being asked to do. They model the requested visitor contributions. And the addition of schoolchildren alongside the celebrated author means the museum is also modeling that anyone can be a successful contributor of interpretative content.
  5. The answer is given, but separately. One of my favorite parts of the interview is Helen Whitty's explanation of how the museum chose to display the "real" information about each object. As she puts it:
    I didn’t want the fantasy label immediately next to the real information, thus spoiling the approach (’really you thought we were going to fun but really its business as usual’).
    Instead, the museum mounted the real information ("What they actually are!") together on one large panel nearby. It's available, but it's not the point of the whole exercise.
  6. It's not self-important. Seeing the content from the Odditoreum made me reflect on all the art pieces I've seen in which artists comment on regular life or objects in some way. When it works, it's great, but too often it feels like an inside joke not meant for me to understand--one that might be disrespectful to the object as it winks in an insular direction. I think the family focus (and perhaps the fact that it was initiated through the public programs department) kept the Odditoreum from being overly self-important or ironic. It was interesting to read that Shaun preferred not to select art objects because those already had a layer of interpretation "built in." The Odditoreum labels I've read seem genuine in their desire both to entertain and dig deeper.
Seb concluded by asking if you could make an entirely fictitious museum. I'm ending in a slightly different place, asking: Why isn't there an Odditoreum tucked into the corner of every collecting museum?

8 comments, add yours!:

Rae said...

I am so inspired by this post and this idea! Thank you so much for sharing.

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

Is "making up meanings" for objects (real or not, in a museum or not) really the same as "making alternative meanings"?

This all seems more like a way to start a creative writing class than an exhibition.

Jim Richardson said...

This is great, it makes kids stop and think, it makes them engage with the objects and it makes them realise that museums can be fun...

Eric Siegel said...

Dang, another idea to contemplate stealing. Thanks as always!

Tim K. said...

@Paul - I think there is a difference, the "right answer is provided, so in that respect this exhibit is "making alternative meanings," but I think that's a pretty fine point.

I think Jim has the right idea, this breaks the mold and lets guests subvert (to steal Nina's word) the traditional roles of the museum-goer and the curator without being uncomfortable. Being fanciful is "allowed" here. Which makes me back peddle a bit, because I think the distinction Paul brings up may have more importance than I initially lent it. Paul? Nina? What are your ideas?

Nancy Proctor said...

I continue to ponder the challenge you articulated earlier this year as to how art museums can give visitors the experience of being artists and curators. This strikes me as a good way for art museums to position visitors as artists AND interpreters, modelling the creative process from both sides of the object, so to speak. Also a validating context for UGC. Thanks for the great idea!

Nina Simon said...

Paul and Tim,
I'm surprised by the "creative writing class" comment. Isn't imaginative play a good and valid activity in museums? Plus, the objects in question--especially the giant shoe/tricycle--are so unmistakeably artifacts, so powerful in their bigness and weirdness, that they would lose much of their evocative nature were they reduced to in-classroom pictures.

John Holt has written a lot about children who struggle to learn in standard school contexts and who often, when starting to succeed, will occasionally test the teacher by throwing in a wild card response that is nonsensical. Holt interprets this as the student's need to assert that her own rules, as crazy as they may be, are an alternative to the teacher's rules. I think this is a useful learning experience that is as applicable in museums as it is in the classroom.

Tim K. said...


I don't mean to discount the role of creative thinking and imagination in the museum world. Certainty the skeletons of giant dinosaurs and the models of real life rocket ships are meant to inspire new ideas in the young and old of our society alike. I think I wasn't clear in my last post. I think there is a distinction between making up meanings and making alternate meanings, in that in making alternate meanings, there is a "right" answer and in "making up" meanings, anything goes. I think that in the museum environment we should be encouraging imagination and creative thinking. I agree that there is a distinction between the two actions, but I don't agree that either should be relegated to the classroom (or to anywhere for that matter).
The fact that this attraction listed the "actual" uses of the objects in question in a separate location allowed visitors (young and old) to "make up" meanings without being influenced by the "right answer." Once we are told that this giant shoe is really just an art tricycle for the Olympics, our imaginations don't run quite as wild, we've been "tainted" by the "right" answer. Then we are trying to come up with "alternate" explanations, and we end up applying more restraint to our imaginations. We discount anything that is too far from reality.

I know that the true use of historical artifacts is important, but why not let visitors imagine (make up, even) what the use or purpose might be before we tell them it's really not that exciting.