18 July 2005

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - June 1 – Collections – Mark Engstrom

While I was heading off across the pond, guest rapporteuse Arleen Schenke took up the challenge to capture, and comment on, this week's McLuhan Lecture. Thanks for the great write-up, Arleen!

When a friend asked me to go to the Feathered Dinosaurs exhibit at the ROM, I was hesitant. Visions of the dusty 1960s exhibit of dinosaur fossils caked into a plaster wall came to mind, and I had little desire to repeat the experience of viewing. But I did go, and was pleasantly surprised. It was a great exhibit, newly-minted, intellectually-stimulating, cross-culturally produced, and just the right length to manage in an afternoon visit, without recourse (as a member of the audience related) to a German-style "whole-body vibrating machine" to keep me awake and focused.

Indeed, as Mark Engstrom highlighted in his presentation, this is exactly the kind of new initiative "Renaissance ROM" is aiming to achieve. Saddled with the media matrix of the global village, computer-savvy youth, the cultural intuition that museums in their traditional guise are a dying breed, and beleaguered with accusations of cultural/racial offense, the ROM has its challenges cut out for it. Mark Engstrom, leader of research and development, architect Daniel Liebeskind, donor Daniel Li Chin, and a large project team, have asked themselves hard questions about "what the new design principles should be for the ROM", "what story the collection should tell", and how best to showcase the thousands of objects the ROM has in storage, but have rarely seen the light of day.

Taking us through visuals of the new crystalline galleries, and transformations of the old ones, Engstrom unfolded the new design principle as a reminder that objects "bear silent witness", and that what needs to be done is to transform the old vision of displaying them as "closets of curiosity" into a new story of "placing them in context". "Context" means shelving the principle of displaying objects in their environments (the dinosaur in its marshy swamp), and replacing it with a more interactive experience, as well as in different narrative structures (epic, thematic, cross-cultural, and travelling exhibits).

To create this, the ROM will boast more light and windows in its galleries, more sight lines through to the street, more multi-media, less cases around objects, more density of objects in each gallery, better pacing through the galleries and more seating, less printed text, frequent turnover of displays – in other words, a more user-friendly, amiable, happening space. The Japan gallery will still be there, but so will new constellations defying geographic areas, like the Costume Design & Textile Gallery and the 20th Century Design Gallery, as well as the Biodiversity Gallery with its live animals and invitation to interact with (real) nature.

But lest we think that this might be McLuhanesque in spirit, it's not. Alluding to McLuhan's reimagination of the ROM's invertebrate fossil exhibit in 1967, and to his idea that "exhibits should be totally immersive experiences," Engstrom decided McLuhan was a product of his time and had got it wrong. What the immersive experience came to be, he said, was "an assault on the senses". The exhibit was not well-received and was eventually derided as the "discotheque gallery". This was the same, Engstrom said, with one of the project groups he interviewed to design the new galleries – they suggested computer-active exhibits and interactive displays. "I asked them," Engstrom countered, "if they'd seen Jurassic Park. Given the way digitial imaging and special effects are advancing, how the dinosaurs appeared in that movie will be outdated in no time." So much, then, for McLuhan. "We're going from the immersive experience of the 60's to the 'label and display' principle as museums were originally." The message, it seems, is not the medium, but the object, or more pointedly, many many objects – the 'collection'. "Telling the story of the natural world is the overarching design principle," and the point is not to "immerse people in the Arctic," but "in the stuff, in the objects."

In the question period, McLuhan's thinking was brought forward again. Isn't the museum, itself, a medium? The answer: "yes, but the objects themselves have something to say, not just the museum". Another question: McLuhan said that museums are ways of putting on display ways of life that are no longer possible. Answer: "Yes, but portions of lost cultures are also recoverable by people. For example, Native Peoples often interact with objects in the museum, so we've created a special room for ceremonial activities where the objects can actually be used."

Gail Moore, the respondent, raised the enormous fallout that resulted from the Out of Africa exhibit. Engstrom commiserated, but replied that the ROM now consults with a standing multicultural committee on diversity issues. Another respondent wondered whether museums should continue to appropriate other cultures' artifacts, history, and memory, to which Engstrom replied "no, we shouldn't give them back", and that the ROM also has a repatriation policy for human remains and sacred objects. For example, the museum recently returned sacred beaver bundles and headdress bundles to the Blackfoot Nation in Alberta. A request has also been made to the Haida to carve new totem poles for ROM display, and some Native groups have wanted their objects to remain in the museum for protection and safe-keeping.

Overall, Engstrom's presentation was refreshingly compact, leaving ample time for questions. It was also a combination of marketing dexterity and intellectual rigour – if the museum isn't exactly a medium, his talk was. It told its own story, its own message – that museums aren't just cultural institutions and markers of memory, but also economic entities that need to compete for funding, branding, and panache in the global market. Merging the lines between the history and the economy of culture, Engstrom showed us how the business of memory is shaped through principles of story-telling. The ROM has lots of objects, and it will soon have lots of space. Engstrom didn't use McLuhan's language to discuss his vision of how the stories of objects will be told in the new ROM, but ultimately, his vision and speaking did tell a story. "What are we going to do with the collections?" became the most important one. What would McLuhan say?

No comments: