Object Encounters: Designing for Material Proximity in Medical Museums

Publikation: Bog / Antologi / Afhandling / RapportPh.d.-afhandling


Museums offer close encounters with material objects. Or, at least, they have the potential to do so. While a predominant tendency has been to engage museum visitors through digital media and immersive experiences that go beyond the exhibited objects, museum scholars are beginning to emphasize the rich potential of material, sensory encounters with the objects themselves. This means attending to their material presence rather than focusing mainly on context-based, immaterial stories, for which museum objects are often used as mere ‘illustrations’. Many stress the need for touch in the museum as a way of engaging with the material qualities of objects. However, due to preservation issues, most museum objects cannot be touched, which raises the question: How do we include museum objects in rich multisensory exhibition experiences if these objects must be placed behind protective glass?

This PhD project has sought to address this question through practice-based design research that investigates ways of engaging with the material presence of museum objects. Through the making of experimental display and vitrine designs, the potential of creating a sense of material proximity to objects on display is explored. This is done not by eliminating the separating functions of museum display techniques, but by insisting that if we attend to the spatial and material set-up of exhibition objects, we might enable museum visitors to engage with the materiality of objects through space and across separating glass surfaces. This involves the idea of activating the space in between museum visitor and objects on display, where a productive tension between separation (distance) and connection (proximity) can be played out. Such a proposition suggests the integration of spatial and material aspects in museum exhibition design, which provides the overarching framework of the thesis, both conceptually and in terms of design practice.

The article-based PhD thesis combines material and multisensory perspectives in museum studies with a similar ‘material turn’ in phenomenological approaches to spatial design/architecture. In order to address the bodily perception of material objects, it also makes use of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and its adoption within art theoretical writings on sculpture, where it is integrated with a more structural-formal approach to spatial-material compositions. Furthermore, the thesis draws on post-structuralist conceptualizations of space and material, as well as recent advances within ‘new materialism’ and object-oriented ontology.

Empirically, the thesis is based on analyses of three different cases: 1) experimental display and vitrine designs conducted at Medical Museion (University of Copenhagen) for the particular purpose of this project, 2) exhibition design at other medical museums, and 3) contemporary artworks, in which museum vitrine aesthetics are critically explored. These empirical cases all involve the display of human (and animal) specimens, which produces a particular encounter between two bodies: the body of the museum visitor and the body (or, rather, fragments of a body) on display. This involves questions of affect, since such an encounter can be not just intriguing, but also disquieting. The purpose of this thesis, however, is not to go into ethical or psycho-sensory aspects of this body-to-body encounter, but rather to explore matters of affect in more concrete terms. Hence, I explore how display materials along with spatial structuring can produce particular spatial-material affects between museum visitor and objects on display, thereby creating a sense of material proximity.

Moreover, the thesis complements its concern for proximity with questions of its apparent opposite: distance. Museum displays, especially vitrines, are often criticized for creating a sense of distance from objects on display. In this thesis, however, a more integrative approach is pursued, where distance and proximity are not seen as conflicting effects, but where the tension between them is stressed and made productive in the experimental designs. Thus, it is argued that display and vitrine design can negotiate distance and proximity effects in a highly generative way that frames and directs the museum visitor’s perception and close engagement with objects on display. This suggests that we recognize the intertwining of visual and haptic/tactile modes of perception, rather than uphold their opposition.

Finally, the thesis touches upon the integration of other ‘opposing’ pairs: design-curation, form-content, and material-meaning. It stresses the need for collaboration between curators and exhibition designers, where curatorial content is developed through the material practices of creating exhibition form, rather than being based primarily on textual practices that take place before the design phase begins. What this PhD thesis contributes, then, are methods, concepts and terminology for understanding and talking about such integrative practices in exhibition making.

The PhD project has been generously funded by the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation, and the Danish Centre for Design Research.
ForlagKøbenhavns Universitet
StatusUdgivet - 2017

Kunstnerisk udviklingsvirksomhed (KUV)

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