It seems only in recent years that a marked appreciation of this ‘paradigm of embodiment’ has emerged, letting the implications of our bodily existence grow more deeply into our thinking.1Surely a turn towards the body has shown in the practice and priorities of museums too. The propagation of experimental museum architecture is one tendency that seems to mark a preoccupation with the overall sensual experience of the museum visit. On the smaller scale of exhibitions, many an experiment has been re-working traditional means of representation. The latter is perhaps most evident in the currency of institutional collaborations with curators and exhibition designers rooted in creative disciplines such as fine arts, theatre, filmmaking etc.2
This preoccupation with the embodied experience seems a relevant one, considering the markedly situational character of the exhibition medium. The primary point of contact between the exhibition and its audiences; the visitor’s stay, is very much set in time and space, unfolding as a process involving a sensing body moving through a highly organised space. And the notion of presence, or co-presence, of the visitor and a certain selection of physical objects seems a vital condition. The visitors’ experience while being in the exhibition, within a certain set-up, should be worked into something meaningful. In the most desirable case; something durable invoking further curiosity.
In spite of the experimentation within presentation, written text in varying forms still seems to play a prominent role as interpretation gesture in current exhibitions. But a curious question is, if there may also be approaches to understanding, as well as aspects of reflection, that finds its more effective invitation in something more spatial and otherwise sensual than language alone?3
Since 2008 the Royal Library in Denmark has worked with staged exhibition spaces and interpretation practices as part of their overall museum strategy. The following is a short introduction to a research project carried out at the library, exploring the possibilities for a staged exhibition space to take on the role of interpretation - meaning, in this case, the space presenting exhibited objects in a way that engages visitors in a narrative way.
The staged space as interpretation
Having worked with staged exhibition spaces in cultural history exhibitions for years, it has always appeared in the company of, and shared its communicative role with, written exhibition texts. The research project in question here was a welcome opportunity to zoom in on ‘the narrative capacities of the exhibition space’ standing on its own feet, so to say.4 The project has sprung from the broad question:
- What can a strategic and ambitious use of spatial shaping and staging have to offer as a communicative tool in exhibitions?
- What possibilities, strengths and weaknesses may be ascribed to such an approach? Not least in comparison with interpretation based on language.
A minor but seemingly growing number of writings within museology have looked into the spatial staging and scenographic elements of exhibitions focusing specifically on the communicative potentials of these. This research project adds to this subject field by means of an empirical study of a number of visitors’ reception of a concrete piece of exhibition design, where the spatial design and installation holds the key communicative role – appearing, in fact, as the only interpretation material available around a certain exhibit.
The case: Staging of ‘Entrenchment 3’
The Royal Library research project was a case study in the shape of an experiment based on a fragment of the exhibition Imprints of War – Photographs from 1864 shown at The National Museum of Photography, Denmark, 4 June – 27 of September 2014.
The object on display in the case study was a 1,5 x 2,2 m photograph depicting a landscape from Southern Jutland where a legendary blood-dripping battle that took place during the Danish/Prussian war in 1864. The photograph was hung alone in an enclosed space within the larger exhibition space. The staging of the photograph was primarily designed to call forth a sense of the violent history of the landscape as well as a certain level of attention to the premises for approaching this past by means of the photograph.
Among the components of the staging were projection, light, sound, and tactile physical objects. Most prominent was the use of video projection directly onto the image, adding small, yet effective changes to it during a nine minutes course. 5
The research project has evolved from a combination of practice-led design considerations and a body of theory of relevance for this. This formed a basis for developing the experiment and method of the reception analysis central to the inquiry.
The empirical study was based on individual qualitative interviews with nine “’robable visitors’.6 The interviews related to each respondent’s individual visit to the enclosed space of the image. The respondents fell into two groups of differing function and priority to the inquiry; a group of primary interest, consisting of five people, who was exposed to the staged display, and a secondary group of four, functioning as a kind of “control group”, who met the image in a more traditional set-up accompanied by a text sign.7 The second group served as a point of comparison as representing a sort of ‘classic’ interpretation premise often met in exhibitions. Despite the small sample of both groups, the image-text group has seemed to shed light on possible differences in dynamics in a reception of space- and text-led interpretation respectively.
Apart from the hierarchy of focus, all interviews were done similarly and in same level of detail. Mainly the respondents have been asked to talk about their sense of a “narrative” around the image, and they were encouraged to point out aspects of their experience that contributed to this.
The resulting reception analysis has fell into three main parts:
- The first part looks into whether the respondents made use of the staging when forming an impression and reflections on the object on display.
- The second part considers how close the “narratives” formed by the respondents came to the intentions lying behind the staging.8
- A third part use a set of findings in the interviews to shed light on potentials and possible challenges that came into play - and might also come into play more generally - when working with interpretation through staged exhibition spaces.
Theory and themes at play
The research project employs a diverse body of theory related to subject fields such as philosophy (Maurice Merleau-Ponty), museology (Jonathan Hale, Sandra Dudley, Gainor Bagnall), architecture (Jonathan Hale), installation art (Anne Ring Petersen) and theatre (Josette Féral).
Most pivotal is Merleau-Ponty’s renowned theory of perception, placing the body as an indispensable premise and basis for any acquaintance with the world we move around in. His notion of one’s own body and the importance of habits play a role in the approach as well.9
The findings of the inquiry touches upon a set of themes in relation to perception. These include memory, emotional engagement, imagination, and a dynamic between actively and imaginatively figuring out something on one’s own and, on the other hand, seeking some sort of factual authority.
Gaynor Bagnall, Performance and performativity at heritage sites, Museum and Society, 1(2), 2003, pp. 87-103.
Sandra Dudley, Encountering a Chinese Horse: Engaging with the thingness of things, in Museum Objects: Experiencing the Properties of Things, Oxon, 2012, pp. 1- 15.
Josette Féral, Foreword, in SubStance # 98/99, Vol. 31, nos. 2 & 3, Wisconsin, 2002, pp. 3-13.
Jonathan Hale, Narrative environments and the paradigm of embodiment, in Suzanne MacLeod, et al. (ed.), Museum Making: Narratives, Architectures, Exhibitions, 2012, pp. 192-200.
Steinar Kvale, Interview. En introduktion til det kvalitative forskningsinterview, Copenhagen, 1997.
Nathalie Heinich, Michael Pollak, From Museum Curator to Exhibition Auteur - Inventing a singular position, in Reesa Greenberg, et al. (ed.), Thinking about Exhibitions, London, 1996, pp. 231-250.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Kroppens fænomenologi, Copenhagen, 2. Edition, 1997 (1994).
Anne Ring Petersen, Installationskunsten mellem billede og scene, Tusculanum, 2009.
Peter Schwartz, Foreword, in Frank den Oudsten, , Space.Time.Narrative, London, pp. ix-xxii.