Memento mori

Memento mori means “remember that you are going to die” and is a formula of medieval Christianity. Expressing the vanity of earthly life, it refers to the “art of dying”, or Ars moriendi. It induces an ethic of detachment and asceticism. It is close to another Latin locution: “Sic transit gloria mundi” (“Thus passes the glory of the world”).

Its origin dates back to Greco-Roman antiquity, when a slave stood beside a victorious general during his triumph (parade) to remind him of his mortal condition. The phrase “Hominem te esse” (“You too are only a man”) was also used.

This vision of the human condition gave rise to many artistic representations.

Antonio de Pereda y Salgado  (1611-1678)
Allegory of vanity, 1634,
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Vanity still life, Anonymous, 17th century
Vanity still life, Anonymous, 17th century
Vanity, or Allegory of Human LifePhilippe de Champaigne, 1644

The Time Paradox

The new psychology of time that will change your life
Philip Zimbardo, John Boyd

The Time Paradox is not a single paradox but a series of paradoxes that shape our lives and our destinies. For example:

Paradox 1
Time is one of the most powerful influences on our thoughts, feelings, and actions, yet we are usually totally unaware of the effect of time in our lives.

Paradox 2
Each specific attitude toward time—or time perspective—is associated with numerous benefits, yet in excess each is associated with even greater costs.

Paradox 3
Individual attitudes toward time are learned through personal experience, yet collectively attitudes toward time influence national destinies.

Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory

TedX | Lecture

Museums Calling Harry Potter and Convergence Culture

Sandro Debono
Original paper on MuseumNext >

I choose go straight to the point – What will matter now, more than ever before, is not the digital.What I think will matter much more is the careful choice of engagement tools that each museum will go for to best communicate its ethos, ideals and experiences. I choose to do so in the face of an ever increasing misconception that by simply digitising content, museums shall be handed with grantees of relevance.

Let’s look at the digital as a tool in a toolbox that museums are in need more than ever before. The digital has, indeed, become the hammer each toolbox should unquestionably have — certainly a necessary and fundamental tool which has much more potential than most of us might be aware of at this point in time. But much as the hammer is anything but a universal tool to fix all problems, neither is the digital. A recent article by Becky Frankiewicz and Tomas Chamarro-Premuzic clearly nails it – digital transformation is about talent, not technology. The digital may be perceived to be the magic want museums need at this hour, but wands need a Harry Potter to work.

Incidentally, Harry Potter is a good example to describe the toolbox idea whereby the choice of tools is informed by the challenge that needs to be solved. The backbone to the Harry Potter Universe is an amalgam of seven books followed by eight films produced in rapid succession. This linchpin holds a universe in place that is still a place to discover and which continues beyond books and films. Besides, replacing Pottermore since October 2019, the Harry Potter universe also includes action figures, LEGO sets, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter amusement park in Universal Studios, video games, the web-based newspaper The Daily Prophet social media groups, merchandise and much more.

The Harry Potter Universe is a complex multi-media ecology waiting to be discovered. It does not hing on one medium, even though the backbone revolves around an amalgam of book and film. The success of the Harry Potter Universe instead stems from the understanding that it is not finite and contained, but open to develop, evolve and morph as it encounters new media.

By comparison, the COVID-19 pandemia has only and prevalently shifted the museum, in force and also due to circumstances, to one medium. Digital is, indeed, a fundamental asset to consider but the tool box of a post-COVID19 museum might require much, much more than the digital. I only know of a few exceptions that have engaged with other forms of media — the LAM museum in Amsterdam or the Polin Museum in Warsaw are two best practices that I am quite conversant with. I am sure there are more to discover.

Let us consider, for a second, that the museum idea is not the physical space welcoming visitors during pre-determined fixed hours. Instead, let us think of the museum as having a multiplicity of identities, of which the physical can nevertheless be the strongest. One of the museums which gets closest to this thinking is Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. In this case, we are discussing a project that was deliberately conceived and incubated in fiction, only to become a content-capsule space or what we would describe as the physical museum at a later stage. As I study transmedia thinking and its application into the practice of museology practice, I can understand much more Orhan Pahmuk’s insistence that the physical space and the book are separate. Both belong to the Museum of Innocence World which holds much more potential to expand and engage via new media. A second best practice in the making refers to the Naples Archaeological Museum in Italy (MANN) and its bespoke universe of outreach products utilising a wide range of media platforms including short-format documentaries known as MANN Stories, a museum comic book and the videogame Father and Son. This is a good example of how a traditional museum institution built on the strengths of context-based histories and rich collectio holdings can reinvent itself into a multi-faceted museum world that is more within reach, certainly beyond the physical thinking. I am sure there are more waiting to be discovered.

This thinking is informed by what Henry Jenkins describes as convergence culture. You can read more about it in his book Convergence Culture: where old and new media collide. I did find a good definition to share on this link.

What is Convergence Culture?

The success of Harry Potter’s universe coincides with the advent of what is generally described as Convergence Culture. For those who are not that conversant with this thinking, Convergence Culture refers to how media consumers understand and make use of new forms of media and content. In other words, Convergence Culture is all about the ways and means how content flows across and is distributed across media and, as the Harry Potter universe best describes, the use of new media to engage with old media content.

The more I discuss and debate about this with colleagues from all over Europe and beyond, the more I see potential for this thinking to inform, contribute to and shape new museum institutions and experiences. For the purpose of this blogpost, I choose to focus on two facets of convergence culture — Media and Social or Organic Convergence.

Media Convergence is generally understood to mean the combination of new and old media within one single piece of work. Every mass medium eventually merges to the point where they become one medium due to the advent of new communication technologies.

Let us consider the museum as one work, expression or statement akin to a book which tells just one facet or story of the experience it aspires to deliver in the physical building it inhabits. The mistake that is consistent at this point in time, and which is behind the crash in virtual tours usage registered around mid-March, is the complete transposition of the physical into the virtual, rather than rethinking the museum idea into the virtual, besides other platforms, as part of a new museum world. That world can be accessed with one ticket.

Social or organic convergence is generally understood to be the simultaneous and multiple use of media technologies, such as listening to music whilst watching TV or playing video games.

Let us consider the user-end perspective of the museum experience through the lens of this multiple use of media technology. With the museum experience, this is understood in rather shallow terms to mean the use of an app or the traditional audio guide during a visit. This thinking is informed by our understanding of the museum as being prevalently and predominantly a physical space also accessible via the digital. Should we think of the museum as having more than one medium or format, then the multiplicity of access has potential to provide diverse experiences, with each complimenting the other and entertaining healthy overlaps. The museum can then be a story book or a story poster, a digital story or a YouTube channel, each conceived with the strengths of each medium in mind. In practical terms, it could mean viewing a painting and listening to a personalised story at the same time … and much more!

These are just two facets of a new museum world or worlds waiting to be born.  Museums need these lenses now more than ever before and it would be nice to think about these being something akin to Harry Potter’s glasses but not necessarily so. Indeed, museums need lenses through which to view things differently, dissect the challenges down to bolts and nuts and re-build, transform and regenerate. The solutions may not be as radical or forward-looking as discussed here, knowing too well that change requires adjustments and a culture change that may not be so easy to introduce. Long journeys happen with small steps. Indeed, this is a case in point. I cannot help thinking of a Chinese proverb by writer and thinker Lao Tzu that succinctly synthesises these thoughts – ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step’.

This piece was first published on The Humanist Museum.

The Museum Effect

Emma Thorne-Christy

I’m fascinated by the Museum Effect and how to employ its power to direct public attention towards social justice issues. My goal is to present stories to the public in visually enticing ways that frame the issue as relevant and meaningful to the public and inspire them to act.

The Museum Effect is what happens when an object, artifact or artwork (sometimes even a subject) is displayed in a museum-like way and in doing so, is perceived by viewers to have a higher level of significance. In other words, using design strategically we can elevate the value of the object and give it power. You can think of using the Museum Effect as “museum-ifying” something. It’s all about the power of placement, of framing and contextualization (or decontextualization).

Behold: a red Solo cup at a backyard barbecue suddenly becomes a piece of fine art when displayed in a plexiglass case. © Emma Thorne-Christy

Perhaps the easiest way to explain the power of the museum effect is with an example. In the Spring of 2019, I collaborated with a group of homelessness advocates in Los Angeles to create an art installation that examined homelessness and the housing crisis in Echo Park, a swiftly gentrifying area just north of Downtown. The goal of the project was to educate local residents and park goers about why there were folks living in tents and cars around the community park. Utilizing the existing interpretive sign infrastructure at Echo Park Lake, we created a series of 7 new interpretive signs.

Each sign had a different theme such as how to be a good neighbor to people experiencing homelessness, local resources for those experiencing homelessness, and how different levels of county, city, district, and neighborhood power are working to end homelessness in LA. Playing on the language and visual standards of the original park graphics, we created a sign system that looked very similar to actual park signage.

We utilized the Museum Effect to frame issues of homelessness at Echo Park Lake in a way that was clear, friendly, accessible and felt trustworthy to visitors. People stopped to read the signs and visited the artworks’ web address printed on the signage to learn more. In the 8 days the installation was up, the website received over 500 visits. This speaks to the great opportunities we have to utilize the Museum Effect to elevate subject matter, educate the public and draw attention to social justice issues through art, design and the power of placement.

In Defense of the Physical Exhibition. A plea to not “move” exhibitions online

Emma Thorne-Christy
Original paper on MuseumNext >

As an exhibition designer, my work during the COVID-19 pandemic has consisted of countless conversations with clients, colleagues, and collaborators about the possibility of “moving” exhibitions online. Every time the topic comes up, I cringe; I have spent the past eight years immersed in the world of creating physical exhibition environments, exploring what makes these narrative environments powerful and unlike other storytelling mediums. In moments of painful self-criticism common to the creative experience, I have challenged myself by asking whether my work was important, whether creating exhibitions was a true value-add to society. In grappling with this question, I have come to a strong, affirmative, deeply grounded conclusion that yes, exhibitions are an invaluable benefit to the community. So, after all this deliberating over the course of my career, the idea that translating physical exhibitions online would do the exhibition any justice is somewhat laughable to me, because what makes visiting a museum so special is experiencing it in real life, immersed in its physical environment.

In general, I am not a huge proponent of virtual reality, or many digital experiences in the gallery: why would I put in the effort of getting out of the house to play on an iPad, watch a TV screen, or put on VR goggles? I can do that at home in my pajamas. That said, I have been proven wrong on a handful of occasions by very well-curated digital artworks and exhibition components (such as Doug Aitken: Electric Earth at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Ragnar Kjartansson’s nine-screen installation The Visitors at the Broad, and “La Música Habana,” a virtual reality film produced by Here Be Dragons at the Annenberg Space for Photography). However, overall I do not visit a museum eager to stare at a monitor or play around with the latest tech. I go for the physical experience, the tactile, immersive encounter of engaging a story three-dimensionally. So, when asked over Zoom calls if I think moving the exhibition I am designing for online is a good idea, I most often say “no.”

Here are three reasons why online exhibitions tend to fall short:

Online exhibitions lack a “stumble upon” nature

While exhibitions, like most storytelling mediums, are linear or progressive in nature, they allow visitors to wander freely. Take yourself back in time to when you were last at one of those large

“encyclopedic” museums such the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the National Gallery: walking down a hallway, you spot a brilliantly eye-catching mobile sculpture to your right, and are pulled by curiosity into the side gallery to study its movement. After staring at this work, you scan the room taking in the rest of your surroundings, and find a small piece in the corner that from far away looks like a framed dust bunny, but up close, reveals itself to be the most stunning and elaborate mini graphite drawing you have ever seen. If you had not been pulled into the side gallery by that original piece, you never would have seen this stunner. I have had similar experiences to this in the public libraries: I am scanning a bookshelf, trying to find the correct Dewey decimal number I found on the computer database for a book on feline coat management, and, in the process, end up finding a load of books I just have to read on feline dental hygiene. Exhibitions, libraries, and physical environments in general are full of visual eye candy, and in the process of observing our environment, we come into contact with objects we may not have come across otherwise. Websites, by contrast, are über simplified because they are designed to be experienced on a much smaller medium: a plane, and a plane that is probably smaller than the size of the window on your microwave door. Digital content designers must refine content in order for the information to be communicated effectively on a small device. Furthermore, by using algorithms, websites integrating search engine features are designed to show you more of what it thinks you want to see, based on what you told it you want to see. Integrating algorithms into museum online collections only further limits visitors’ scope of interests, reflecting back at them what they think they want to see, versus making them tromp through the Arts and Crafts Movement furniture gallery on the way to Ancient Egyptian Art, and in the process sparking a twelve year old’s lifelong obsession with wood working, something it may have taken decades for her to otherwise stumble upon.

Online exhibitions are easy to tune out

Entering a museum is an intentional act, whether you spend every Saturday wandering the galleries or are dragged there on a school fieldtrip. Tuning out at a museum is much harder than spacing out at home on your computer screen. Being physically in a museum forces a kind of awareness informed by the surroundings such as fellow visitors, noise levels, seating areas, wall color, and temperature. While you may choose to investigate the space through the screen of your Snapchat filter, humans are sensitive creatures, impacted by their environment. These surroundings are all crafted by the museum’s designers to influence the visitor experience, encourage curiosity, spark investigation and inspire connection. Experiencing an online exhibit from the comfort of your home comes with many distractions: from your mother-in-law interrupting your online tour to ask, yet again, where the meat thermometer is, to your hankering for just one more sliver of chocolate from the pantry. Being in a museum promotes heightened concentration because of the physical investment of occupying that space.

Online exhibitions are replicas, not originals

At their core, most museums are collecting institutions, collectors of originals. They preserve things, acting as capsules for rare and unique objects that otherwise may have been lost to time. While I may have a

poster of Monet’s waterlilies on my dorm room wall, this is not an adequate stand-in for the experience of viewing the original painting at the D’Orsay; there’s something very different about seeing art in person versus reprinted on glossy paper. Online exhibitions tend to feel flat because we are experiencing a reproduction of the object and doing so on a screen. Yes, there are VR experiences of 3-D scans of objects and galleries, but the cost of creating these replicas is often too steep for museum budgets and requires participants to have access to viewfinders in order to even approximate a truly immersive experience.

Exhibitions are just one of many media for telling stories in addition to books, films, interviews, podcasts, music and the performing arts, among others. What makes exhibitions stand out in this arena is their ability to physically immerse their audience. As I have outlined, this immersive environment has powerful impacts on one’s experience of the story on display. So, when someone proposes moving an exhibit online during COVID-19, my question is: why tell the story in digital space through the exhibit medium, when in the process it will lose its quintessential exhibit quality, its physicality? If it is urgent that the exhibition content be presented to the public during quarantine, I propose offering the narrative to other storytellers—such as musicians, filmmakers, writers, or audio engineers—and inviting them to use the power of their storytelling mediums to convey the quintessential ideas of the exhibit narrative, and wait until we can safely reopen to tell our version of the story in the way we know best: the physical exhibition.

Emma Thorne-Christy is an exhibition designer and activist artist based in Los Angeles, California. Emma works with museums, libraries, universities, and cultural centers to create informal and inspiring learning environments. Find out more here:

Are museums good for your mental health?

Rebecca Carlsson
Original paper on MuseumNext >

Could it be that the benefits of the museum space go far beyond education?

Museums have always been upheld as hubs of knowledge and culture; places where you can expand your understanding of the world around you. But it would be true to say that we sometimes overlook the other benefits that come with broadening our minds, tickling our senses and adding variety to our daily lives: the boost to our mental health and wellbeing.

Mental wellness has become one of the most pressing issues of our time, with an ever-increasing awareness of how important it is to tend to the mind as well as the body. Conditions like anxiety and depression impact millions of people around the world. In fact, more than 264 million people are now thought to suffer from depression globally, according to the World Health Organisation.

So how exactly can museums and galleries support the movement for mental wellbeing? Here are a few examples . . .

Joseph Cornell miniatures

Although he rarely ventured far from New York, Joseph Cornell was able to create intricate worlds of his own from the solitude of his basement. In this episode of Anatomy of an Artwork, discover Cornell’s enchanting Soap Bubble Set, a perfect example of the artist’s miniaturized realms constructed from everyday ephemera. With symmetrically laid out clay pipes, glasses, maps and organic detritus, Cornell built a vast referential network of found items that encapsulated his many interests from across the arts & sciences.

Planet Set, Tête Etoilée, Giuditta Pasta (dédicace) 1950. Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)

How Museums are using Augmented Reality

Charlotte Coates
Original paper on MuseumNext >

Augmented reality is the process of using technology to superimpose images, text or sounds on top of what a person can already see. It uses a smartphone or tablet to alter the existing picture, via an app. The user stands in front of a scene and holds up their device. It will show them an altered version of reality. There are many ways that museums could be using augmented reality.

A few of the most well-known applications of AR technology are from the gaming world. For example, Pokémon Go, the game where users can ‘catch’ Pokémon hiding in the world around them. Animated creatures are superimposed onto what players can see through their device’s camera. The technology makes them appear as if they are existing in the real world. The app has been downloaded almost 11.5 million times. This shows that AR is accessible, and has the potential to reach a huge audience.

How can museums use augmented reality?

There are many possibilities for the use of AR in museums. The most straightforward way is to use it to add explanations of pieces. This means visitors will get more information when they view exhibitions using AR. Museums could even use it to display digital versions of artists next to their work. These 3D personas are then able to provide a narration. AR gives an opportunity to add a third dimension to displays, bringing objects or scenes to life. There are already many institutions around the world using AR. These projects bring something new to existing collections and attract wider audiences. Here are some interesting ways that museums are using augmented reality.

Graphic Time

Graphic Time is a series of abstract clocks. These kinetic objects are graphic interpretations of functional time pieces. A diversity of prints, perforations and colours create a combination of movement and ever changing compositions. Paper, laquered stainless steel, clockworks. Graphic Time was initially developed for the solo exhibition ‘Blend’ at The Aram Gallery in London. The project is supported by the Creative Industries Fund NL.

Deep Space Atomic Clock

NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock is a critical step toward enabling spacecraft to safely, independently navigate in deep space rather than rely on the time-consuming process of receiving directions from Earth. Developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the clock is the first timekeeper stable enough to map a spacecraft’s trajectory in deep space and small enough to be housed onboard. The technology demonstration is validating a miniaturized, ultra-precise mercury-ion atomic clock orders of magnitude more stable than what’s used on spacecraft today.  

Concept of the system
Tom Cwik, the head of JPL’s Space Technology Program (left) and Allen Farrington, JPL Deep Space Atomic Clock Project Manager, view the integrated Atomic Clock Payload on General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems US’s Orbital Test Bed Spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
One of three free posters celebrating NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock. The mission will demonstrate technology that would allow a spacecraft to calculate its own trajectory rather than waiting for that information to come from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech