Museums, Knowledge and Visual Evidence, 17-18 November 2015, Durham University

It is often taken for granted that people visiting a museum will learn by looking at the exhibited objects. Yet the exact ‘practices of looking’ in museums have so far escaped further reflection. The workshop ‘Museums, Knowledge and Visual Evidence’, which brought together an interest of the Centre for Visual Arts and Culture (CVAC) in the impact of the visual in society, and this year’s theme of the Institute for Advanced Studies (ISA) concerned with the concept of ‘visual evidence’, aimed to pave the way for a more detailed understanding of the ways in which visual evidence in museums can be communicated to the public.


In the form of concise provocations and open discussion, professionals with a background in teaching and curating museums combined diverse perspectives on the realities and potentials of visual evidence in museums.


Ludmilla Jordanova (Durham) opened the discussion in a first session mapping the field of ‘Visual Evidence and Museums’: As museums are concerned with the past and the artefacts of the past are for the most part visual, debates about visual evidence and culture need to be brought to the museums. It is time to reflect on what museums are able to teach by displaying objects, and to reconsider whether visual evidence can be employed as an active concept that is relevant to particular problems, rather than a passive one.


In the second session on ‘The Educator’s Perspective’, Sarah Price (Durham) and Susan Raikes (British Museum) highlighted the importance of the practice of looking at visual evidence encountered in museums for the teaching profession by stating that ‘no-one is borne knowing how to use a museum’. While objects may lack any intrinsic ‘power’, they can tell powerful stories in the interpretative process of being looked at. Any mindset brought to the object by the onlooker and any interpretations emerging from the act of looking ought to be encouraged. ‘Objects can inspire’, which is why teaching visitors to look at and engage with any object that catches their interest is to be endorsed. The educational aim therefore is to display objects in a way that encourages mindful reflection and facilitates creativity, and not to restrict the learner’s experience through an authoritative focus on curricular targets.


The stress on the practices of looking at visual evidence in museums also featured in two public evening lectures. Mungo Campbell (Hunterian Museum, Glasgow) explored William Hunter’s collection of scientific instruments as a eighteenth-century precursor to the modern approach towards visual evidence in museums that visually conveyed knowledge about scientific practices. This notion was underlined by Tilly Blythe (Science Museum, London), who argued for museums to place visual evidence in the wider context of society. A socio-cultural understanding of science (‘techno-science’) and display of visual evidence in museums, Blythe argued, can outline the presence of science, technology and scientific practices in everyday life and in this way stimulate engagement with and understanding of the exhibits. Rather than the didactic learning of scientific principles, visual evidence in museums is meant to inspire critical thinking and locate science within society. Tim Boon (Science Museum, London) added that in addition to the visual sense, a ‘synesthetic museum’ also incorporates auditory and tactile experience in order to conserve the entire perception of human performances and practices.


In the third workshop session on ‘The Curator’s Perspective’, Tilly Blythe (Science Museum, London) urged for a change of the construction of narrative in museums. Exhibits ought to become the active narrators of stories, not mere means of illustrating presupposed grander narratives. Curators should begin any narrative with the objects themselves. This, however, also requires a change in the evaluation of ‘teaching success’ of museums. Proper museum evaluation should aim to measure critical thinking and creative engagement, not the memorisation of certain narratives or even the duration of the stay in a certain exhibition. How such a reversal of traditional museum narratives opens up visual evidence for multiple narratives was demonstrated by Craig Barclay (Oriental Museum, Durham). An everyday object such as the British pound coin, for example, can become the point of origin for questions on the universal history of money and economy, the symbolism of numismatic iconography, the practices of striking (and forging) coins, and the politics of the United Kingdom. Mungo Campbell expanded on his previous talk to discuss the further challenges of bringing the dialogue together between science and the humanities. Finally, Tim Boon’s contribution gave an insight into the practicality of arranging objects and narratives in the museum’s space. Intellectual sequences are converted into suggestive arrangements in space in order to provoke mental associations between the objects. Yet the museum’s space does not limit the individual exploration of the narrative as, for example, television does, which constricts the spectators to a linear experience of the narrative.


In the closing discussion, Ludmilla Jordanova underlined the close connection of museums, visual evidence, and knowledge, and underlined the importance of accounting for the complex history between the display in museums, the communication knowledge, and visual culture. Museums, she concluded, needed to allow for curiosity and wonder—they need to be permissive up to a point.


Marcus Meer and Vanessa Longden, November 2015



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