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Posts Tagged ‘Berlin’

An outdoor exhibition about the Berlin Wall, Alexanderplatz, Berlin. Could we go one further and not even put the objects in cases?

You know how I’m obsessed with geotagging objects, right? We lost a lot of meaning when we separated artifacts from their places of origin in order to assemble our museum collections—especially in the case of our local history collections—and geotagging gives us a chance to get some of that meaning back. I preach about this concept to anyone who will listen, and I’ve even played around with pinning some objects from New-York Historical Society‘s collection to the Google Map in historypin (until historypin told me to stop because they want people to stick to photographs).

This evening I had a conversation with Chris Chelberg, a library science grad student I met back in May at THATCamp Museums NYC. We were following up on a session Chris led at THATCamp about disruption theory, Clayton Christensen’s argument from the business world that the real threat to established companies comes not from their conventional competitors—the companies selling the same product they are—but from products brand new to the market that offer a “good enough” solution to fill the consumer need at a much cheaper price. At first these new products are so shoddy that the established companies don’t pay any attention to them, but eventually they improve to the point where they take off, and by then it’s too late to do anything about it. Christensen cites a number of real world examples, the most interesting of which (to me at least) is that online degree programs like University of Phoenix have the potential to disrupt universities like Harvard and Yale: online learning might seem like no match for such prestigious schools now, but it’s getting more and more sophisticated with time, and it fills the need for a credential at a fraction of the cost. If disruption theory is new to you and you want to get caught up, you can read Christensen’s books, or I recommend this short and sweet New Yorker article by Larissa MacFarquhar.

Chris and I were talking about potential disruptions to museums; can we anticipate them and how they will affect our work? One of the big challenges museums face is the burden of caring for their collections. This is an essential function of museums, mind you, but it is so expensive that it leaves us particularly vulnerable to disruptions from cheaper, more flexible sources. We talked about the things that museums think are poor quality but that the general public often thinks are good enough, and cheaper: popular historical fiction, video games, anything labeled edutainment. Community-curated exhibitions. Pop-up projects. Reproductions.

This last one elicited the most interesting conversation. Right now, reproductions are no match for the real thing, and museums hold tight to the notion that authenticity is their trump card. I firmly believe this myself; In fact I wrote about authentic objects in History News last year. But maybe it’s just that reproductions are no match for the real thing yet. Is it possible that in 5-10 years they will be good enough? Are you following what’s happening with 3-D printers these days?

What Chris and I came up with is that maybe 3-D printing, as it evolves, can finally address some of the major access challenges museums have been grappling with for years. So we put everything in glass cases because we don’t want visitors handling and stealing our precious artifacts. But who cares what happens to the 3-D reproductions? Let them get breathed on and licked and caressed to death, Velveteen Rabbit-style. Put them in a room without climate control; heck, put them outside.

Which leads me back to geotagging. I would love to see a city museum take 100 of its most significant objects, partner with a 3-D printer manufacturer (or better yet, as Chris suggested, crowd-source it to the local maker community), and then install these 3-D reproductions out on the streets, where the original [authentic] objects came from. What would we learn from such an experiment? Could we own the disruption? Let me know if you want to find out.

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I make a lot of qualitative comparisons of city museums. But recently I’ve been thinking about quantitative comparison; what do the numbers say regarding which city museums are working and which ones aren’t? Annual visitation is one useful comparison, particularly annual visitation in relation to overall population, or annual visitation as compared with the art museums in the same cities. I’m slowly compiling the data on this—not every museum publishes their numbers, and there are a lot of variables in terms of how visitation is counted.

A few weeks ago I realized that comparing TripAdvisor reviews might also yield some interesting information. TripAdvisor reviews are posted by members of the general public, not by museum professionals like me (at least most of them aren’t posted by people like me), and unlike the visitation figures, all of the scores are crunched using the same formula. So I took a look at the TripAdvisor reviews for 32 city museums in Europe and North America. I mainly stuck to the ones I have personally visited, although I threw in a few additional ones (Ghent, Vancouver, Liverpool) I want to visit because they are generating buzz. First, a little context:

  1. Most of the reviews on TripAdvisor are posted by tourists, not locals. Occasionally a reviewer’s profile location matches the review city, but most of the time these are folks assessing their sightseeing experience while traveling.
  2. TripAdvisor reviewers (if their profile locations are to be believed) come from all over the world (TripAdvisor provides a Google Translate button).
  3. Fifteen of the 32 city museums each had 5 reviews or less, which means we have to take the scores with a grain of salt.
  4. Not every place in my survey is a spot-on city museum in the traditional sense (run by a non-profit organization or the local government, with a mission to preserve and disseminate the history of its city). I included a few outliers that offer city history exhibitions but don’t fit the standard mold (the for-profit Story of Berlin, for example).

With that background in mind, how did these city museums rate? On one hand, very well. 24 of 32 received scores of 4 stars or better, on a 5-star scale. There was only one score lower than 3 stars. This may simply mean that the kind of folks who visit city museums while on vacation, and then rate them, are the kind of folks who are predisposed to like city museums. The following museums scored a 4.5 (with number of reviews in parentheses after the name): Museum of London (104), Atlanta History Center (46), Story of Berlin (33), Museum of the History of Barcelona (29), Heinz History Center/Pittsburgh (28), People’s Palace/Glasgow (16), STAM/Ghent (5), Detroit Historical Museum (5), Stockholm City Museum (4), and McCord Museum/Montreal (3).

On the other hand, the TripAdvisor ratings suggest that city museums are rarely among the top things to do in their cities. TripAdvisor ranks all the attractions in any given city based on number and quality of reviews. Only 5 city museums ranked in the top 10 for their cities: Atlanta History Center (3/167), Heinz History Center/Pittsburgh (3/50), STAM/Ghent (5/27), Vapriiki Museum Centre/Tampere (9/26), and Turku Castle and Historical Museum (9/14). With the exception of Atlanta, these seem to be cities with few attractions overall. If I try to control for number of attractions in each city, the city museums that come out ahead are Atlanta History Center (3/167), Museum of London (16/720), Heinz History Center/Pittsburgh (3/50), People’s Palace/Glasgow (11/135), Museum of the History of Barcelona (17/204), and Pointe-à-Callière/Montreal (19/199).

I noticed a couple of other themes from the textual reviews. First, TripAdvisors made note of free admission as something they valued (Helsinki City Museum, Musée Carnavalet/Paris, Museum of London, Museum of Edinburgh), not surprising. Second, some museums have unusual features you don’t see other places (Mannekin Pis wardrobe at Museum of the City of Brussels, the Kaiser Panorama at Markisches Museum/Berlin, the nuclear fallout shelter at Story of Berlin, and the archaeological excavations on the lower levels of Pointe-à-Callière/Montreal and Museum of the History of Barcelona), which then get reinforced in the reviews as a reason TripAdvisors think other people should visit.

Lastly, it’s interesting that several of my personal favorites (Helsinki City Museum, Museum of Copenhagen, Amsterdam Museum) did reasonably well (4 stars each) but did not stand out. And Museum of the History of the City of Luxembourg wasn’t reviewed at all. Maybe they would fare better with local reviewers?

I learned a little from this exercise but not as much as I’d hoped. I’m going to keep my eyes out for other numbers to compare. In the meantime, it looks like I’ve got some reviews to write…

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I’ve seen two interesting open air history exhibitions this spring, a permanent (or at least semi-permanent) one in Alexanderplatz, Berlin about the fall of the Berlin Wall:

And a temporary (one month) one in the Kamppi plaza in Helsinki about Warsaw Pact countries and their efforts to shed Communism during the Soviet Union’s final years:

I watched a steady stream of people checking out both of these exhibitions. With the Kamppi exhibition, I think one of the reasons people stopped to investigate was that it presented an unexpected change to a public space that was otherwise very familiar. In other words, if you walk through Kamppi plaza every day on your commute and suddenly the landscape changes, you want to know why. I’m interested in the idea of inserting some public history into public spaces for just a month or two so that it becomes an event, as opposed to those permanent historic markers on buildings that start to blend into the background and almost become invisible over time. There’s also the concept of it being right in the middle of your path, instead of having to make an active choice to walk into a museum to see an exhibition. I’m wondering if this would be a good thing to try in Boston, perhaps at Quincy Market, or along the Esplanade?

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Forgive the recent silence; I have been preoccupied by a tough deadline. I was asked to write about my city museum research for a collection of essays on cities and memory, to be published (in Finnish) by the Finnish Literature Society. Now that I have sent my draft off to the editor, I can turn my attention back to you, dear reader.

One of the topics I discuss in my essay is historically-themed public art. I think it can be a particularly interesting way to interpret city history, and at the same time build meaningful urban spaces. Here are a few examples of particularly successful pieces:

First, there’s the sculpture pictured above, at the beginning of the post. It’s Balancing Act by Stephan Balkenhol, on Axel-Springer-Strasse in Berlin. It poignantly marks the borderland of the Berlin Wall with a larger-than-life figure of a man, perched on a section of the Wall as if it were a tightrope. The effect is iconographic: anyone who knows even a little bit about the history of Berlin immediately gets the message with no need for complicated interpretation. (more…)

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There’s a new collection of essays about city museums that just came out in paperback: City Museums and City Development, ed. by Ian Jones, Robert R. Macdonald, and Darryl McIntyre (AltaMira Press, 2010). In the coming weeks I intend to blog about several of these essays. Let’s start today with a statement made by Chet Orloff in “Museums of Cities and the Future of Cities.” Orloff is a professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University in Oregon, and from 1991-2001 was the director of the Oregon Historical Society. In his essay he writes:

The nineteenth century was, broadly speaking, the century of the history and the natural history museum, an era of exploration and a fitting time for the growth and popularity of ‘cabinets of curiosities.’ The twentieth century was very much the century of the art museum, a time of building deep collections and great buildings, with far-ranging advances in the visual arts. The twenty-first century—when cities will be, even more, the places where people live and where so much will happen—ought to be the moment of the city museum. (p.27)

(more…)

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In mid-March I spent a week in Berlin, at a conference for Fulbright fellows from all over Europe. In between sessions I did some exploring: the city museum, the Holocaust Memorial, Brandenburg Gate, the Jewish Museum, Checkpoint Charlie, and a strange, edutainment site called “The Story of Berlin.”

What that week showed me is that for Berlin history, there is only one game in town: the Wall. (more…)

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