Go back to article: Thinking things through: reviving museum research

Knowledge and museum understanding

No one is more acutely aware than those working within universities these days about how much more complicated the ‘knowledge economy’ has become: how much more difficult it is to say exactly where we should expect telling new insights and information to emerge. Academia’s previously dominant role has gradually had to be shared with areas of business, government, broadcast, entertainment and, increasingly, across the tidal wave of ‘citizens-band’ on-line initiatives. There are, of course, economic repercussions that follow from the globalisation and general diffusion of research agendas, especially when questions of ‘translation’ and ‘impact’ threaten to further complicate a simple ideal of the detached and disinterested pursuit of knowledge (Munck, 2010). The consequent intellectual recalibrations are generally shaking up campuses, with innovations being trialled in examinations, course structures, study methods and funding strategies. And away from formal education, various quasi-academic enterprises have popped up, signalling their learning-with-a-difference approaches through evocative titles like School of Life, Institute of Ideas and Makerversity. Even thoroughly commercialised summer music festivals have toyed with brainier sideshows based on comedy, mindfulness, poetry, drama and even science.

What, one wonders, could museums contribute (collaboratively maybe) by way of their own unique new courses, trialled as ‘summer schools’? Might they offer students seeking a less orthodox curriculum access to an open public platform that hosted widely sourced guest experts; studio or laboratory-based workshops actively focused on material- and visual-culture; and learning environments that made the most of the far-from-ivory-towers public soil in which museums are so firmly planted; all of which channelled by a thematic enquiry aimed at some productive (if not examined) outcomes? We should be wary of the over-orchestrated meddling that such speculations potentially posit. Museums have too often been dragged, albeit sometimes with good intentions, far from what Hilde Hein has playfully, but also wisely, reminded us are their ‘idle roots’; having to work around heavy-handed instrumentalist goals foisted onto institutions that should essentially be ‘gratuitous and wondrously unencumber[ed]’ (Hein, 2006, pp 1–2). It is all too easy to over-promise what they are capable of while simultaneously ignoring what in essence they are good at. But a general point about the relatively untapped research potential of museums nonetheless still stands: they are ideally placed to exploit distinctive new roles in a shifting epistemological landscape, providing places for alternative models of partaking in more accessible research.

Since its launch in 2007, Wellcome Collection has sought to make a contribution to the idea of popular, investigation-led programming. Starting with the levelling assumption of a shared ‘incurable curiosity’, its experimental exhibitions, events and other initiatives have attempted to grapple with interstitial topics – ones that aren’t entirely owned by a single discipline, and that provide intriguing, low-threshold entry points for inquisitive lay-people. Sometimes these projects have tackled subjects as broad as sleep, war, death or dirt (ones in which insights and examples from science and medicine sit comfortably alongside others from art, architecture and anthropology). At other times the curatorial approach has instead begun in such seemingly narrow domains as Japanese outsider art or Mexican votive pictures and from there draw out telling, specific inflections of such universal ideas as creativity, hope and gratitude. Woven throughout all these projects has been a collaborative enthusiasm for finding things out across expert viewpoints and practices, but also, crucially, with the involvement of an active visiting public.

Figure 1

Colour photograph of a museum visitor looking at a video projection of a woman sleeping

Sleeping and Dreaming: Wellcome Collection's second thematic exhibition combined art and medical science to explore sleep, the mysterious state we all inhabit for a third of our lives

Video 1

Souzou: Outsider from Japan brings together more than 300 works for the first major display of Japanese Outsider Art in the UK.

What general characteristics might such museum-based investigations share? To start with, Stefan Collini has helpfully contrasted two epistemological formulae. In one equation ‘skills + information = knowledge’; in the other, ‘experience + reflection = understanding’ (Collini, 2012, pp 77–78). The former has worked exceedingly well in the sciences; but the latter, he suggests, is more illuminating for the humanities, where understanding is recognised as ‘a human activity that depends in part upon the qualities of the understander’, and where the ‘kinds of understanding and judgement exercised…are of a piece with [those]…involved in living a life’. With very few exceptions (scientists working with natural history collections probably being the most obvious), the fresh ideas and thinking that museums create has, in Collini’s terms, more to do with ‘understanding’ than scientific knowledge. No matter what their subject, museum programming is, I believe, properly and primarily concerned with generating the more local, subjective and shorter-lived insights of the humanities. Embracing the fact that those who engage with museums (from curators and researchers through to audiences) are more concerned to think things through than find things out, they should aim to manufacture a type of understanding that is decidedly livelier and more relevant rather than the alternative, drier, but frankly unrealistic promise of enduring objective knowledge.

Museums seem predisposed to guide inquisitive minds toward topics that sit comfortably between established academic traditions, in part no doubt because their collections are so frequently disparate in nature, and so open to potential re-examination from fresh perspectives. Participants who engage with this type of innovative enquiry are also prone to exploit more than one type of experience. To borrow the sentiments expressed in John Dewey’s approach to aesthetics, in welcoming the poetic as well as prosaic, the aesthetic as well as scientific, and expressions as well as statements, museums don’t just lead their guests towards experiences: they genuinely constitute them (Dewey, 1980, p 85). Visitors go to museums in search of enriching experiences and seem to find surprisingly little difficulty in turning from looking at things, to reading a little, to (sometimes) talking, or at least listening, to others, to (almost invariably) watching a film, or playing a game, for example. They also increasingly expect actively to do a thing or two: to make something tangible, or at least a mark or verbal contribution. This experientially varied version of museum thinking will for many recall Howard Gardner’s breakthrough insights into our ‘multiple intelligences’, which added synthetic, creative, empathetic, kinetic and other types of acumen to more traditional forms of logical, factual and linguistic understanding (Gardner, 2011).

Video 2

An installation by Ann Veronica Janssens explores light and colour as she invades gallery 2 at Wellcome Collection with coloured mist. Colour is caught in a state of suspension, obscuring any detail of surface or depth. Instead, attention is focused on the process of perception itself. Janssens’s work is both disorienting and uplifting as the daily wonder of conscious experience is given renewed emphasis.

There is also something profoundly aesthetic about the self-motivated research that I am advocating. For no matter what their ostensible subject matter or content, or indeed style of presentation, museums are, I believe, always in part about art. Svetlana Alpers identified this as ‘the museum effect’, which is maybe just one specific instance of the distinction John Dewey made between recognition and perception (Alpers, 1991, pp 25–7). The former ‘involves no stir of the organism, no inner commotion. But an act of perception proceeds by waves that extend serially throughout the entire organism’. In an era of ever-shortening attention spans, this entreaty to examine things in museums ‘as if art’ can lead us back to the value of really delving into something, rather than just briefly noticing it. The limiting ‘conception that objects have fixed and unalterable values is precisely the prejudice from which art emancipates us’. And it is the ‘museum effect’ that helps us sidestep the trap of adhering to ‘conventional associations’. Sticking with Dewey just a little longer, his subtly persuasive view of art also encourages us to recognise how thoroughly it is connected with, and yet an illuminating extension of, everyday life. It throws ‘off the covers that hide the expressiveness of experienced things; … [enabling] us to forget ourselves by finding ourselves in the delight of experiencing the world about us’. Applied to museums, these sentiments are a reminder that their aesthetic significance lies not simply in setting off precious things in attractive surroundings, but also rather more fundamentally, in their encouragement to visitors to grasp life-enhancing insights (Dewey, 1980, pp 53, 95, 104).

Figure 2

Colour photograph of a large scale glass sculpture of an HIV virus

HIV from Luke Jerram's Glass Microbiology series. A beautiful sculptural rendition of the microscopic structure of a deadly disease agent

If museums encourage an active concern with an experience-based aesthetic, they fundamentally do so by directing attention towards special tangible instances (things), rather than abstract propositions. Exhibits have forever been the stuff of museums, and as anthropologist Daniel Miller insists: ‘the best way to understand, convey and appreciate our humanity is through attention to our fundamental materiality’, because this is where we derive ‘the landscapes of our imagination, as well as the cultural environment to which we adapt’ (Miller, 2011, pp 4, 51). The complicated and shifting significance of objects will, of course, be endlessly asserted and reconsidered; but it has been interesting to see recent challenges to the dominant semiotic emphasis on meaning – the idea that museums should principally aim to articulate hidden symbolic significances. Miller asks us instead to linger with the superficial aspects of things, and is joined by literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht in reasserting the value of ‘the thingness of the world’: its presence (Gumbrecht, 2004, p 92). With these immediate qualities of things in mind, two other concepts illuminate the power museums can derive from their objects: namely, position and juxtaposition. The art of curating in many ways emerges from a disciplined extension of the very ordinary act of placing something so that it is noticed: a theatrically suspended means of pointing at something. Added to this initial material gesture is the second one of placing other things in proximity to complement, contrast or somehow relate to the first. And as anthropologist Gregory Bateson rather grandly asserts, the ‘word idea, in its most elementary sense, is synonymous with difference’. Museums allow differences to teach.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160505/001