This is the second and final part of our museum discussion, started in late 2010 in Part 1. We left deeply theoretical issues behind and focused here on the kinds of “real objects” that people hope to see in museums.
Mona Lisa and other “real objects”
The Mona Lisa is definitely a cult object that many go to view in the Louvre. Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt, head of the university’s Institute of Journalism and Communication, noted that the much-hyped painting’s reproductions feel more real that the “distant, tiny object behind the glass screen”.
Agnes Aljas, our doctoral student and research secretary at the Estonian National Museum, assured us that the object itself has transformed as well – it’s not just the painting you’re going to see, it is the Mona Lisa within the context of the people who are secretly trying to take photos of it.
Mariann Raisma, director of the University of Tartu History Museum, shared how wildly popular Egyptian cats and mummies are with the Estonian public. In the small town of Mõisaküla, half of the population came out to observe the mummy on display. Other objects that Estonian people are usually queuing up for include the original Tartu Peace Treaty and the first Estonian flag.
Wondertainment and expertise
It is a fact that important, valuable, interesting and scarce objects bring people to museums. On the other hand, it is the museums themselves that are in the position to present something as valuable and important to the public. According to Pille, “it is possible to create an aura of wonder around an object through communication”.
However, as Mariann points out, museum professionals often lack proper communication skills. The problem may be rooted in the essential contradiction between the goals of communication and expertise. Namely, as Pille points out, an expert sees a vast amount of uncertainties involved with a particular issue, whereas media and public communication don’t deal well with uncertainties.
Communicators tend to round things up, narrow them down, and give them focus. Good experts don’t want to do th at. At the same time, a good communicator also wants to be authentic, and sometimes uncertainty can indeed be presented to the public in an attractive manner.
The solution for museums seems to lie in educating and employing good museologists who are trained in communication, rather than relying solely upon experts in narrow fields.
Opportunities and threats of digitalization
Obviously, digitalization improves accessibility. For instance, 50 times more people get to see the Estonian National Museum’s tapestry collection online, and many of them pay a visit to the museum later on to see “the real thing”.
Another good example is the National Archives of Estonia. They have been digitizing their documents on demand, most of them pertaining to genealogy, which has become extremely popular in Estonia as many people are now researching their family history.
New technologies become a threat mostly when they are given exclusive priority and are funded at the expense of human resources and museum collections. As Pille put it, “what makes digital relevant and alive is the people behind it”.
Peter the Great’s boot
Then we discussed Peter the Great’s boot on display at the Estonian History Museum: how big and how authentic it is, and whether visitors should vote on the issue. Curious? Listen to the podcast to find out! See you in the museums 🙂