Research Highlights: The Unbounded Museum

10:14 am in Resources & News by Larissa Nickel

Originally posted at EMP: A Blog.

Today’s post brings us the first submission in our second series, Research Highlights, looking at the contributions that EMPs are making to the knowledge and advancement of the museum field. Our first author is Larissa Nickel, who brings us a post about a multimedia research project she helped conduct through Johns Hopkins University. Utilizing museum as performance art and an applied artistic medium, Larissa explores the integration of new media theory into the practical operations of museums by challenging the traditional architecture, design and structure of museum governance and exhibitions within the relational environment of artists, the visual culture of design, and the investigation of new architectural forms relevant in today’s new media discourse. As an Emerging Museum Professional, 2012 MA Museum Studies candidate in the Johns Hopkins University Museum Studies Program, and Emerging Arts Leader/Los Angeles, she received her BA in Art Studio from the University of California, Santa Barbara combining her artistic practice and museum experience to amalgamate new media, and innovation into the museum environment. You can find out more about her research and studies at her blog Exitutopia.

This past January, along with 23 other graduate students from the Johns Hopkins University Museum Studies Program, I traveled from California to Washington, DC to participate in an experimental two week project titled The Unbounded Museum. This multimedia research project was coordinated by artist Randall Packer, taught by JHU Museum Studies faculty member Judith Landau, and was in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution Mobile Strategy and Initiatives. The project explored the contemporary architectural notion of “thirdspace,” a hybrid concept that blurs the division between physical and virtual spaces in order to create a third, equally dynamic space that creates a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation.

Photo Credit: Larissa Nickel, Cabinet, New Media, 2010

The opportunity of this project built upon my interests in new media art and research on the creation of a “new museum” a space which invokes the cultural memory version of Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon, which provides a lively, playful, and intellectually stimulating discourse that expands audience and museum into the global paradigm by transcending concrete and abstract space through digital architecture, visual wayfinding, and technological communication—a reinvented curiosity cabinet or constantly remixed museum.

That childlike freedom to relish the destructive force as a means of play and to constantly rebuild and become again and again is the basis for my investigations and research on transforming our existing cultural institutions into “new museums.” By exploring the endless possibilities in a collaborative thirdspace environment we can expand our existing institutions into even better systems of collected memory, or educational pursuits by releasing our boundaries.When I was a child, I was encouraged to be an inventor—to create and recreate, to imagine impossible things and then make them possible, to engage in an archaeological dig through material culture, to collect narrative tales of diverse lands, to synthesize and interpret my personal story, to curate a visionary and eclectic collection, and to derive pleasure in the Godzilla-like toppling of building block structures simply in order to start over again.

In order for The Unbounded Museum project to create a dynamic space of distributed authorship and enable on-site and remote audiences to interact, students at the JHU DC seminar employed live collaborative dialogue through social media platforms, and on-site nomadic mobility via mobile technology which connected us to throughout our journey to our online visitors. Our thirdspace visits included six project site museums: the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of Natural History, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Newseum, the National Zoological Park, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens.

Divided into six groups of four, each individual student conceived of a thirdspace “experience” that when combined together within the group would transition into a full museum site visit of four “experiences” each transforming our physical visit to the museum into a live feed environment that allowed a digital audience to move through exhibitions, or guided tours with us, and more importantly to participate by asking questions or responding to conversations, objects or stories uncovered at the museums.

Photo Credit: JHU DC Seminar, Twitter Conversation, 2012

Our student designed interactions exposed our creativity as our imaginations were invigorated to invent possibilities within our museum research in exhibition design, or accessibility, or educational gaming. The adaptability of our own interests into technology based interactions was a great learning opportunity that exposed incredible potential as well as limitations. We combined social media and smartphone devices, iPads, mobile apps, blogs, twitter conversations through #jhudc and the host institutions, Soundcloud recordings, and a variety of technology in our networked performances created to investigate four concepts:

1. Creating an effective narrative in a nontraditional storytelling process;

2. Translating object based learning into ephemeral space;

3. Looking up vs. looking down or will those devices intrude on our ability to interact in person or can we balance our techno-gadgetry and our physicality;

4. The telematic embrace- can thirdspace connect emotionally with audiences?

As we moved from museum to museum, we made mistakes, evolved our process, and honed our experiments and situations to mixed results. We learned that fluid timing was difficult, narrative threads can be confusing in nonlinear time, translating objects requires some advanced thought and some type of visual or audio description and stretches visual literacy skills. Tour guides or lecturers need to be prepped in advance so as to not launch into their usual speeches and to allow the non present visitors they can’t see to interact.

Photo Credit: Rachel Greiner, JHU DC Seminar, NMAI Collective, Instagram photograph, 2012

We learned that using mobile devices for too long can be physically and mentally exhausting, and that the telematic embrace requires investment on both sides to be open and willing to connect. Plus, each museum is unique, what works in one may not be culturally appropriate or Wi-Fi available in another so there is not a one size fits every institution solution. Our final conclusion seemed to resolve that these types of situations employ synecdoche—knowing the institution and figuring out how the parts sum up in order to strategically choose the best options for the best results.

As an adult and emerging arts professional, I do find it easier now to plunge down the rabbit hole like Alice, suspending disbelief in order to look through the glass with curiosity and wonder and to believe in the science fiction of a “thirdspace” post-museum—a museum that lives unbounded and infinitely transformed. That this project happened in the span of two weeks should inspire every museum professional to consider how their own work process can be translated to this new space, a hybrid, participatory, and global space. The lessons learned by inventing and exploring the unknown are exciting, valuable and uncharted on our cartographic museum map.

The Unbounded Museum encourages us to take that journey into the digital wonderland because our audience is already there and willing to participate. Taking inspiration from my own project site—the National Museum of the American Indian—the time to explore the next phase of our beloved museum institutions as they move forward in this voyage is absolutely now. The new museum environment is in thirdspace, and while getting there is a new, untested pathway, according to the holistic ideas of the First Nations people “all roads are good.”

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