Archive

exhibitions

Last week, I have attended a fascinating workshop organised by Mathias Blanc at the Louvre-Lens and Meshs in Lille. The workshop forms part of a project Mathias runs in cooperation with the Louvre-Lens and their current exhibition “The Le Main Mystery“. As part of the project “Ikonikat” Mathias and the team developed an app run on tablet computers that encourage visitors to the exhibition at the Louvre-Lens to mark-up areas of painting they have seen. The traces that people leave on the iPad are an interesting novel form of data to understand what people consider to be relevant when looking at paintings.

lenain

The workshop included participants from Austria, France, Germany and Great Britain who in teams worked on data gathered with Ikonikat and with video-cameras in the exhibition. In their subsequent presentations the participants drew on their respective expertise in art history, eye-tracking, image analysis, and video-analysis. The presentations led to fascinating discussions about the relationship between looking at and seeing art and the scientific, social-scientific, and sociological analysis of exploring museums and looking at works of art. I used my slot for a short discussion of relationships and differences between visitor research, investigations using eye-tracking and studies of social interaction in art museums.

Visitor Research has long been defined by studies using quantitative measures to assess the effectiveness of exhibits in attracting and holding people’s attention; the best-known measures are attracting and holding power – for a discussion of the relevance of ‘time’ as a measurement for visitor research see the Special Issue in Curator: The Museum Journal Vol.40(4) [1997]. In 1976, Harris Shettel, now a classic in visitor research, published a study in which he explored the attracting and holding power of exhibit elements. For the purpose of the study Shettel placed a camera behind exhibits to capture visitors’ eye movement. In a way, Shettel’s innovative research can be seen as a precursor to recent studies using more complex eye-tracking equipment.

Eye-Tracking is used by visitor researchers as well as by art historians to identify the elements of paintings (or other exhibits) that people’s eyes fixate for a measured time and where they ‘jump’ (‘saccade’) from there. The result are images transposed onto paintings that show the movement of a spectator’s eyes across a canvas. The analysis of these images allows researchers like Raphael Rosenberg who participated in the workshop to compare spectators’ visual behaviour with art historical theories about the form and content of paintings. Over recent years, eye tracking studies have moved out of the research laboratory into museums and are increasingly interested in how other actions, such as speaking, influence looking at works of art.

As the response by Gregor Wedekind revealed art historians are not in agreement about the use and usefulness of eye-track within the discipline. Not only is the technical effort of eye-tracking studies large but also the outcome at times seems to reflect knowledge about works of art and their form and content that art historians have held for a long period of time.

Sociological Interpretation of Pictures – Save for the scientific analysis of looking at art  conducted by art historians and cognitive psychologists, in sociology there are strands of research that has emerged in light of Alfred Schütz’s phenomenological analyses. For example, Jürgen Raab presented the phenomenological analysis of pictures and Roswitha Breckner presented objective hermeneutics as two methods designed to reveal contemporary people’s interpretation of images.

Social Interaction in Museums has been investigated for more than two decades. Whilst earlier research in Visitor Studies considered the presence and actions of people in museums as ‘social factors’ since the mid-1990s research originating either in socio-cultural theory (Crowley, Knutsen, Leinhardt and others) explores how what is being looked at and how experiences and learning arises at exhibits are the result of social interaction, talk and discussion. These studies often have a particular interest in people’s ‘learning’ from exhibits and therefore, for example, compare the content of people’s talk with the content of exhibitions.

 

Change of Perspective: Visitors’ Point of View

The approaches exploring people’s experience of exhibits and exhibitions can be described as ‘scientific’ or “formal-analytic” (Garfinkel & Sacks 1974). Researchers taking the perspective of the scientific observer categorise and measures the behaviour. They often consider behaviour as a response to the physical, visual and social environment.

For long, interactionist research has  challenged the scientific view of ‘behaviour’ and developed theories and methods to investigate ‘actions’ and their social organisation from the perspective of the ‘actor’; how do people produce their actions at particular moments in a situation? In developing ethnomethodology Harold Garfinkel proposed to eliminate the distinction between the scientific and the actor’s perspective. Thus, he radicalised interactionist and related approaches who argued for a theoretical change in perspectives and asked for a practical change of perspectives. As researchers we are not using typologies to describe people’s actions but we are interested in the practical organisation of people’s action. In other words: we are interested in how an action orients to a prior action, and how the action provides the context for a next action (Heritage 1984).

Audio-/video-recordings  provide access to this recursive interrelationship of actions as they are produced in front of exhibits. Rather than using a formal-analytic scheme to categorise action video-based studies of interaction (Heath, Hindmarsh & Luff 2010) examine in detail the moment-by-moment emergence of action. They examine the (social) organisation of people’s talk, gestures, bodily and visual action and their orientation to the material and visual environment. In museums, this means that they are concerned with revealing how people who, for example, stand at a painting look at the piece in concert with each other, use talk and gesture to jointly examine a particular exhibit element together and provide each other with ways of making sense of the object. Rather than considering action to be stimulated by exhibit elements, as visitor research has often argued, video-based research that draws on Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology inspects how people orient to each other and how they systematically embed aspects of the environment in their action and interaction.

 

Implication of Video-based Research in Museums

Visitor research is a largely applied field of research. From its origins it was concerned with assessing the effectiveness and to inform the design and development of exhibits. and exhibitions. However, by considering the material and visual material to be external to people’s action and interaction and conceiving it as a stimulus of action visitor research ignores the social organisation of action.

By focusing on the ways in which people organise their action and how they contingently intertwine their action with material and visual aspects of the environment, video-based studies that draws on ethnomethodology can inform, for example, the design of information resources deployed in museums and galleries. This requires systematic studies of how people orient to labels and paintings in art museums, how they use information provided in labels in their examination of works of art and in their talk and interaction with others. They can show that labels as well as novel interactive systems and devices are not only information sources for individual users but that the technology as well as the information displayed on them often become a resource that people embed within their interaction with others and that they use to influence and shape each other’s experience of art.

References

Bachta, R. J., Filippini-Fantoni, S., & Leason, T. (2012). Evaluating the Practical Applications of Eye Tracking in Museums | museumsandtheweb.com. In Museums and the Web. San Diego, CA.

Bitgood, S. (1993). Social influences on the visitor museum experience. Visitor Behavior.

Bitgood, S., & Shettel, H. H. (1996). An overview of visitor studies. The Journal of Museum Education, 21(3), 6–10. http://doi.org/10.1080/10598650.1996.11510329

Breckner, R. (2010). Sozialtheorie des Bildes : Zur interpretativen Analyse von Bildern und Fotografien. Bielefeld: Transcript.

Heath, C., Hindmarsh, J., & Luff, P. (2010). Video in Qualitative Research. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Heath, C., & vom Lehn, D. (2004). Configuring Reception: (Dis-)Regarding the “Spectator” in Museums and Galleries. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(6), 43–65. http://doi.org/10.1177/0263276404047415

Heath, C., & vom Lehn, D. (2008). Configuring “Interactivity”: Enhancing Engagement in Science Centres and Museums. Social Studies of Science, 38(1), 63–91. http://doi.org/10.1177/0306312707084152

Heritage, J. (1984). Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Klein, C., Betz, J., Hirschbuehl, M., Fuchs, C., Schmiedtová, B., Engelbrecht, M., … Rosenberg, R. (2014). Describing Art – An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Effects of Speaking on Gaze Movements during the Beholding of Paintings. PLoS ONE, 9(12), e102439. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0102439

Knoblauch, H., Schnettler, B., Raab, J., & Soeffner, H.-G. (Eds.). (2006). Video-Analysis: Qualitative Audiovisual Data Analysis in Sociology Methodologies of Video Analysis. New York: Peter-Lang.

Massaro, D., Savazzi, F., Di Dio, C., Freedberg, D., Gallese, V., Gilli, G., & Marchetti, A. (2012). When Art Moves the Eyes: A Behavioral and Eye-Tracking Study. PLoS ONE, 7(5), e37285. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0037285

Raab, J. (2008). Visuelle Wissenssoziologie. Theoretische Konzeption und materiale Analysen (Erfahrung – Wissen – Imagination): Theoretische Konzeption und materiale Analysen (1. Aufl.). UVK Verlagsgesellschaft mbH.

Shettel, Harris H. 1976. An Evaluation of Visitor Response to ‘Man and His Environment’. Report no. AIR-43200-7/76-FR. Washington, D.C.” American Instituts of Research.

vom Lehn, D. (2010). Examining “Response”: Video-based Studies in Museums and Galleries. International Journal of Culture, Tourism and Hospitality Research, 4(1), 33–43.

vom Lehn, D. (2012). Configuring standpoints: Aligning perspectives in art exhibitions. Bulletin Suisse de Linguistique Appliquée, 96, 69–90.

vom Lehn, D. (2014). Harold Garfinkel: The Creation and Development of Ethnomethodology. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

vom Lehn, D. (2017). Harold Garfinkel und die Kultursoziologie. In S. Moebius, F. Nungesser, & K. Scherke (Eds.), Handbuch Kultursoziologie: Band 1: Begriffe — Kontexte — Perspektiven — Autor{_}innen (pp. 1–10). Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden. http://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-08000-6_66-1

vom Lehn, D., & Heath, C. (2016). Action at the exhibit face: video and the analysis of social interaction in museums and galleries. Journal of Marketing Management, 32(15–16), 1441–1457.

 

I noticed that I have not written here for a very long time. Maybe this short post will spring the blog back to life.

On a visit to the Science Museum in London yesterday and walked into a fabulous small room devoted to Ada Lovelace. It provides information about Lovelace and shows letters she wrote to Charles Babbage, the creator of the Analytical Engine and Difference Engine. Parts of these early computers are displayed in neat show-cases. Otherwise, the exhibition is low-tech which is great.

There is a renewed interest in museum visiting and the practices of doing so. Only this weekend (October 9th, 2014), Stephanie Rosenbloom published an article in the New York Times that explores “The Art of Slowing Down in a Museum“. Rosenbloom refers to Daniel Fujiwara’s (now Director at SImetrica) study of the impact of museum visiting on people’s enjoyment of life as well as on James O. Pawelski’s work in the area of positive psychology. All these studies are of great interest and very helpful in highlighting the impact of the arts on people’s lives. It would be great if such research that is primarily interested in measuring impact and focuses on individuals as experiencing subjects, would include also the influence of the presence of other visitors in museums, both companions and others. It would seem that in order to follow the arguments and suggestions on how to organise a museum visit would require prior negotiation with those we are with in a museum. Statistics of museum visiting clearly show that people not only primarily come with others to museums but also that one main reason for the visit is socialising and interacting with others, whereby works of art (and other exhibits) providing hubs for concerted activities.

Considering that Pawelski, Fujiwara and others show that spending more time with a work of art increases feelings of happiness and satisfaction and that people enjoy interacting with others in museums, exploring how we can facilitate sustained social activities around works of art and other exhibits in museums seems to be an obvious avenue to pursue.

 

Relevant Literature

Heath, vom Lehn. (2004) Configuring Reception. Theory, Culture and Society Vol21(6): 43-65

Heath, Luff, vom Lehn, Hindmarsh, Cleverly. (2002) Crafting Participation. Visual Communication. Vol1(1): 1-33

Hindmarsh, Heath, vom Lehn, Cleverly. (2002) Creating Assemblies in Public Environment. CSCW Journal Vol.14(1): 1-41

Leinhardt, Crowley, Knutson 2002. Learning Conversations in Museums. Routledge

vom Lehn, Heath 2005. Accounting for Technology in Museums. International Journal of Arts Management Vol7(3): 11-21

vom Lehn, Heath, Hindmarsh 2001. Exhibiting Interaction: conduct and collaboration in museums. Symbolic Interaction. Vol.24(2): 189-216

Excellent post by Ed Rodley in response on a critic’s explanation of how to look at art in museums.

Thinking about museums

The blind fingerless art critic by Flickr user Shareheads CC-BY 2.0 The blind fingerless art critic
by Flickr user Shareheads
CC-BY 2.0

I have a confession to make: art critics baffle me. Especially when they venture to make grand pronouncements about the right way to go about experiencing art in museums. So when I saw the title of Philip Kennicott’s piece in the Washington Post, titled “How to view art: Be dead serious about it, but don’t expect too much” I will confess that I died a little bit inside. “Sigh. Another ‘you people are doing it all wrong’ piece.” Just what the world needs, another art critic holding forth on the sad state of museums and museumgoing. But, though there is plenty of sneering, there’s also a lot worthy of discussion. And debate. Kennicott’s post didn’t stand alone too long before Jillian Steinhauer posted a reply at Hyperallergic, and Jen Olencziak a rebuttal at Huffington Post. So, let’s take a…

View original post 2,719 more words

I have just come back from a workshop at a museum where we discussed the use of labels and mobile systems, PDAs, Audioguides, or mobile phones to support or even enhance people’s experience of exhibits and exhibitions. As in other museums, the managers and curators still largely think of abele and electronic systems as information sources for individual visitors. Hence, information is written or recorded for an individual visitor to retrieve. This is somewhat surprising for a number of reasons, including the observation of the same managers and curators that devices and systems like movie phones, touch-screen systems, PDAs and Audioguides encourage people to spend more time with the systems than with with exhibits. When managers and curators report their observations in exhibitions they talk about visitors reading labels and looking at the screens of digital systems for considerable time whilst spending considerably less, sometimes no, time with the works of art hung along the gallery wall.

Research conducted over the past 20 or 30 years confirms the observations by these managers and curators about the distracting impact of information sources in museums. Together with recent research in the learning and cognitive science also suggests that if one wishes to enhance people’s experience of and learning in exhibition that there is not a need for more or more complex information sources and system but for information delivered in a way that encourages social interaction and discussion between people. Quasi-experimental studies and naturalistic, video-based studies of visitors’ interaction in museums suggests that it is not only the design of systems, i.e. the small screens and interfaces that undermine social interaction but also the content and the structure of the content delivered by labels and electronic systems. What would be required are naturalistic experiments with label content and the content of audio-guides that through questions, references to exhibit features and maybe game-like activities that involve more than one visitor in concerted and collaborative forms of looking, examination and experience.

If anybody has seen examples like this, please let me know.

Relevant Literature

Heath, vom Lehn. (2004) Configuring Reception. Theory, Culture and Society Vol21(6): 43-65

Heath, Luff, vom Lehn, Hindmarsh, Cleverly. (2002) Crafting Participation. Visual Communication. Vol1(1): 1-33

Hindmarsh, Heath, vom Lehn, Cleverly. (2002) Creating Assemblies in Public Environment. CSCW Journal Vol.14(1): 1-41

Leinhardt, Crowley, Knutson 2002. Learning Conversations in Museums. Routledge

vom Lehn, Heath 2005. Accounting for Technology in Museums. International Journal of Arts Management Vol7(3): 11-21

This week Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum in London, made a strong case for the use of technology to enhance visitors’ experience of museums. In his article published in London’s Evening Standard Highfield writes

“When used wisely, computers and interactives have a role in showing our visitors that science is more than just a collection of cold, hard facts, arcane theorems and grey metal boxes. With a little digital magic, all these facets can now all sparkle. This is important for all museums, for London and for the nation’s high-tech industry. We never seem to have enough scientists, mathematicians and engineers. The same goes for designers and the creative industry and, yes, classicists too. Museums need to use all the tools at their disposal to inspire the next generation.”

I could not agree more. Luckily, these days there are plenty of excellent examples of technology in museums that intrigues visitors, allows them to see science, art and design in novel ways, and maybe not at last, attracts people to look at museum objects who without technology would find them boring, uninteresting and maybe also inaccessible. In these cases, technology is an invaluable tool that facilitates and enhances access. Moreover, as Highfield points out in his article technology can make visible aspects of science, art and design that otherwise could not be shown. Examples for such phenomena are miniscule molecular processes processes or the ways in which old objects like the famous washstand by William Burges in the Victoria & Albert Museum would have been used by its owners.

The effectiveness of these technologies in museums has variously been shown. A Special Issue of  Curator: the Museum Journal (2004) elaborated some of the opportunities offered by technology and interactivity in museums, highlighting that technology can facilitate new forms of engagement and learning occurring in museums. Robert West however also pointed at the potential costs of interactivity in museums. Aside from momentary costs West also points to the danger that technology when broken or difficult to use can spoil the museum experience for visitors and that some people for various reasons are intimidated by technology in exhibitions.

This latter point is echoed in a recent research paper by Susie Scott and colleagues that has recently been published in the journal Symbolic Interaction. In their paper “Goffman in the Gallery” the authors elaborate on the emergence of situational shyness at interactive exhibits and explicate ways in which visitors cope with their uncertainty of using an exhibit or hesitation to approach it because they fear they might find themselves in an embarrassing situation unable to use the technology. Amongst other points that Scott and colleagues’ paper makes it suggests that one solution that people find to overcome “situational shyness” is to learn from others. People observe others and use their actions as “replacement scripts”.

The importance of mutual observability in museums for people’s exploration and sense making in museums has been a topic since the inception of the modern museum. Tony Bennett in his well-known “The Birth of the Museum” as well as Norman Trondsen in a paper from the 1970s “Social Control in the Art Museum” have highlighted how the design and layout of museums facilitates mutual observation that allows people to learn @proper conduct@ from observing others, and in turn people behave ‘properly’ because they are aware that they might be observed in their actions in museums.

Robin Meisner has taken this argument one step further by explicating how visitors embellish their actions at exhibits. Their interaction with exhibits becomes a performance that invites others to become an audience. The result are shared experiences at exhibits, that on occasion surprise even those who have designed the exhibits. Meisner’s research has a range of other papers that have been published over the past decade or so highlight the importance of social interaction in museums. People enjoy museums as places for sociality and sociability. They visit them with friends and family and meet other people who are there at the same time.

When social interaction is so important for museum visiting it is rather surprising that we still find so much technology in museums that encourages individuals’ engagement whilst not supporting and sometimes undermining social interaction. Examples for studies highlighting the difficulties that visitors find in interweaving the interaction with technology and the interaction with other people. The trouble is as we have shown in our research that design of misconceives interactivity as facilitating interaction. Examples for technologies that often create interactional difficulties between visitors of museums are conventional touch-screen exhibits and interactive guides like PDAs and mobile phones that prioritise the interaction of an individual with the technology over the collaboration between visitors.

Highfield suggests in his article to use technology “wisely” when deploying systems and devices in museums. So far we know relatively little about what “wise” technology design for museums looks like. However, it is clear that it needs to take into account that museum visiting is a social occasion. Designers of systems and novel exhibitions therefore might need to rethink interactivity and develop assemblies and configurations of objects and artefacts that allow people to embed (some of their) their features within their social interaction. Collaborations between museum experts and technology companies, like the one that led to the recent exhibition of Chromeweblab at the Science Museum, have proven quite successful.

It however might be worthwhile thinking about the inclusion of social scientists in such developments who might help to focus on social and interactional configurations emerging at and around technology on the exhibition floor. Moreover, natural laboratories on the exhibition floor, similar to those the Exploratorium in San Francisco uses, might be a worthwhile investment for museums to enable experiments with new configurations of technology and people in exhibitions.

There is an interesting piece by the Nobel Prize Winner (2000) Eric R. Kandel in the New York Times.Titled “What the Brain Can Tell US About Art” Kandel’s piece contributes to discussions about art that have been going on for at least a decade now in the ‘science of the brain’. I remember vividly coming across Ramachandran and Hirstein’s article “The Science of Art” that pursues a similar argument as Kandel’s essay: by studying processes in the brain we can learn something about art itself. Kandel discusses some aspects of the emergence of this idea by briefly discussing the concept of the “beholder’s involvement” or “beholder’s share” as developed by Alois Riegl of the Vienna School of Art History, the teacher of Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich.

As part of the argument Kandel suggests that the brain completes  incomplete information s/he has received from the outer world. Interpretation of art therefore is a cognitive process through which the ‘beholder’ “recapitulates in his or her own brain the artist’s creative steps”. Furthermore, he argues that because our brains develop in much the same ways we are able to “see the world in pretty much the same way”. He thereby lodges intersubjectivity within  individual brains and presumes that intersubjectivity is a result of processes in the brain. Whilst he acknowledges that individual differences between people exist due to their individual life experience (“memories”) he ignores the situation in which people encounter works of art or other objects and how the specifics of that situation influences how people make sense of the pieces.

One situation in which people often encounter works of art are exhibitions in museums and galleries. When they examine a piece they are often with friends or acquaintances and in the presence of other people who spend time in the same gallery at the same time. The actions of all these people are perceiveable by all those in range and influence how they explore the galleries, what they look and for long and how they see and make sense of it. In museums, the individual spectator or ‘beholder’ is a myth that we rarely meet. For example, people stop at and examine works of art together. They stand with a companion side-by-side and sometimes, ‘independently’, at least for a short while, look to the piece. As their eyes cross the canvas, for instance of a famous Rembrandt portrait, something like Kandel’s version of interpretation might happen. But often already after two or three seconds one of them will refer to and comment on a particular exhibit feature that then for a short moment becomes the focus of the interaction between the pair. They briefly talk about the feature and then either return to an ‘independent’ inspection of the piece or leave the exhibit to continue with their exploration of the museum elsewhere.

The short moment when the two people align their perspectives to look a particular exhibit feature together and discuss it is when something is produced, momentarily, that we might call intersubjectivity. It is not lodged inside the people’s brains but the product of their oral and bodily actions. A moment later when the action stops the intersubjective sense making of the piece dissolves and the people continue their visit of the museum.

When calling the examination of the piece prior to the interactional engagment ‘independent’ I did not presume that the actions at the exhibit-face were arising separate from each other. Rather while the eyes cross the canvas of the painting the visitors are aware of each other and attend to even slight changes in posture and head direction as well as even to slight movements of the legs and feet that may display or foreshadow a shift in activity. ‘Independent’ and ‘individual’ therefore are not appropriate terms to describe even those moments when people  stand and look at exhibits while standing side-by-side without talking.

Essays like Kandel’s or Ramachandran and Hirstein’s article reflect how we think about looking at and interpreting art. “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” has become a folk description of aesthitic judgments. Interestingly however the statement is often used to account for differences in aesthetic judgment and not to display intersubjective agreement about aesthetics. Kandel’s point also resonates with us as readers who sit there individually ‘interpreting’ a text that in this moment is not available to others. I read the piece in an armchair while nobody else was around in the house. Imagine the article printed on a large poster or series of posters and being read by people in pairs. Maybe like those visitors facing Rembrandt’s portrait they would stop half-way through, discuss and maybe disagree about Kandel’s claim that intersubjectivity arises in our brains.

Essays and books like Kandel’s (2012) “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconsciousness in Art, Mind and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present” are fascinating reads. However, I wonder when the time will come that this kind of brain science will leave the laboratory and be made relevant where ‘the rubber hits the road’ or where people with brains, bodies and the ability to communicate and interact face works of art.