A website that presents the collection through gorgeous visuals is now considered a must for any self-respecting museum. Photographs of objects, of exhibitions and of the museum itself are increasingly frequent interfaces, linking museums, visitors, experts, collections. How are users engaged by these interfaces? Which skills and strategies are needed for this engagement? What are the consequences of visually mediated interfaces for users of digital knowledge in/about/from museums, archives, and other collections? These developments are discussed in terms of their consequences for how museums view their role in a recent article written with Sarah de Rijcke, Image as Interface: consequences for users of museum knowledge. It appears in a special issue of the journal Library Trends on ‘Involving Users in the Co-Construction of Digital Knowledge in Libraries, Archives, and Museums.’
Tag Archives: photography
Photographer Hans van den Bogaard was recently commissioned by the Amsterdam Academic Medical Center (AMC) to photograph part of the Vrolik collection. This 19th century collection consists of over five thousand anatomical, pathological-anatomical, zoological and teratological specimen. Van den Bogaard’s photographs are currently on display at photography museum Foam. Last week, we took our guest Andrew Sempere (MIT-based designer, curator, artist) to see the intriguing and also unsettling exhibition.
The Vrolik collection was originally privately owned by Professor Gerardus Vrolik (1775-1859) and his son Professor Willem Vrolik (1801-1863). It was the last collection of its kind in the Netherlands. Increasing specialization in science and medicine decreased the need for a collection that covered the very broad spectrum of comparative normal and pathological anatomy. Six years after Willem Vrolik passed away in 1863, an Amsterdam citizens committee acquired the entire collection. It was handed over to the Athenaeum Illustre, the predecessor of the University of Amsterdam. Today, the collection is housed at the AMC.
On the Foam website, we read that Van den Bogaard’s assignment “was not just to document the collection, but to visualise it in a much freer manner. (…) The result transcends traditional scientific photography in which the medium primarily serves a specific branch of science. Van den Bogaard has succeeded in creating many photos which fascinate not only because of what they depict, but because of how the specimen is depicted. The specific use of both natural and artificial light, his choice of a particular camera and special lens and his well-considered use of the blue background in photographing many of the specimens ensure that the photos far surpass the straightforward recording of a collection.” A similar text was displayed at the beginnig of the exhibition. We therefore entered the exhibition space with this specific ‘artistic’ mind-set.
Personally, I came across a lot of photographs of anatomical specimen when I was working on my dissertation on brain imaging. I thought I was used to dealing with the discomfort one may feel in not knowing if consent was given to anatomists for using the human remains. I thought I was used to these kinds of images, also to more aesthetic ones. I guess I was wrong. I found it to be quite an unsettling experience to look at these aestheticized photographs of anatomical preparations, ranging from parts of the human face to anencephalic fetuses, and to find beauty in the womb of a chicken, for instance (image on the right).
Considering the long history of anatomical imaging, using an artistic eye for the purposes of clinical, medical-scientific documentation has from the mid-19th century onwards become much less common. But Van den Bogaard’s photographs fit well with an earlier tradition of anatomical display, dating back as far as the Renaissance. One of the most famous examples is Andreas Vesalius’ spectacular folio of the human anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, published in 1543. In Vesalius’s day, the beauty of the images was seen as an essential part of achieving accuracy. In the Netherlands, the 17th century anatomist Frederic Ruysch is still well-known for his artful anatomical museum. Ruysch preferably displayed his specimen in separate cabinets, each displaying a separate anatomical still life, a nature morte (Luuc Kooijmans, De Doodskunstenaar, Bert Bakker Publishers, 2004). Quite similarly, Van den Bogaard’s photographs can also be seen as timeless memento mori‘s.
In some ways, the move of the Vrolik collection from the academic hospital to the white walls of a gallery is less successful. Van den Bogaard’s aesthetic photographs are accompanied by captions with very dry descriptive medical information, revealing the fact that the exhibition was commissioned by the academic hospital. This has a very disquieting effect. Medical-anatomical information is prioritized over, for instance, background information on the photographer’s artistic and technological choices. I considered this to be a missed opportunity to build bridges between the two poles, and resorted to the web to find more information on Van den Bogaard’s take on the exhibition. Luckily, Radio 6’s De Avonden aired an interview with the photographer on May 6.
On the other hand, this type of photography and captions might actually fit quite well with the long-standing tradition of anatomical display I was referring to above. As said, the combination of artistic visualization and anatomical description was much more common in Vesalius’ and Ruysch’ days. Moreover, it was also quite customary for scholars to look for ways in which to disciplineartists.
A wonderful publication, called Études Photographiques, brought to my attention by one of my informants in the Flickr case, who noted that an article on image sharing would be of interest to me. This journal is published by the Société française de photographie, in collaboration with CNL, CNRS and Ryerson University (Toronto, Canada). Interestingly, this bilingual journal has both a paper and web-based edition, though the articles on the web generally do not have images, due to copyright restrictions.
The first two weeks of fieldwork at the Tropenmuseum have generated so much stimulating new information, that it is hard to choose out of many possible topics. For now, I’ll stick to the event described in Anne’s earlier post: the photo competion WikiLovesArt/NL. The basic idea, as Anne already mentioned, is that people make photographs of objects, art works, etc. in the participating museums, and upload them to Flickr. Some of the best photos will be placed on Wikipedia pages, but there are also other rewards (for instance, 500 euros worth of photo equipment). The idea is that participants upload their photos to their Flickr account under a Creative Commons licence. Subsequently, they become members of the Wiki loves art Flickr group, and place their photos in there. A jury, consisting of the organizers and employees of the museums, decides which photos will be used for the Wikipedia pages (I’ll dedicate another post to this jury system). The Tropenmuseum is also participating. Indeed, a lovely intersection of two of the project’s case studies.
At the time of writing, 130 out of 866 photos in the WikiLovesArt/NL pool are tagged with Tropenmuseum. This is one of them, by 23dingenvoormusea.
Another participant commented on the photo, asking 23dingenvoormusea how s/he managed to photograph the drum through the showcase glass without reflections. The discussion that followed is an excellent example of how users shape what they take to be ‘realistic’ representations of the object. Interestingly, using Photoshop to get rid of reflections, and to enhance contrast, white balance, and sharpness, is considered as legitimate, even neccessary, in order to get at the real.
Last Tuesday, we interviewed the moderator of the Tropenmuseum Flickr group and his girlfriend, two enthousiastic amateur photographers who love to talk about their work. When I approached him for the interview, I also mentioned my interest in his experiences with the Tropenmuseum’s collection database. He mentioned that he had never taken a look at it before, which was intriguing in itself, and that he had only done so because of the interview. He was not very positive about the experience. According to him, the photographs of objects he found were very dry, documentary, only interesting for research purposes, while he tried to make photographs of the museum objects he really felt for, cherished. This he believed to be a more artistic approach to photographing the objects, with a different end result. His remark triggered me to search for the same drum as is displayed above in the museum database. Here it is, see what you think:
I’ve been spending some time with the museum photographers. They discuss each other’s work as well, for instance the lighting conditions, providing the objects with the ‘right’ shadows, etc. This photograph was taken in their studio, not in the museum. I think the photographer in this case deliberately chose to photograph the object from this particular angle, to bring out the shape of the object itself, and of the geometrical marks and carvings of trees, people etc on the drum/woman’s belly. This said, looking at this photograph is quite different from the experience of looking at the Flickr photograph, also due to its different context, not to mention the difference with seeing the object in the museum itself, amidst other objects, beautifully lit, etc.
In the month of June, there is an initiative that involves museums, Wikipedia, several internet providers and creative commons NL among other participants. The initiative proposes photo-making in museums, with the goal of making these photos avaialble on Wiki platforms. This photo is part of the contest pool, taken by Pachango in the Tropenmuseum.
Given the use of Flickr as a conduit for photographic material and participation of the Tropenmuseum, this is a fascinating intersection of two our fieldsites! The intended pipeline from museum to Wiki repository goes via Flickr (which is a site that has its own practices and users), and a lot of work goes into shaping this path. For example, there are specific lists of objects to be photographed. There are rules about ways of photographing the objects (with/out flash of tripod, etc). There are privileged moments for photographers to visit some of the museums. And there are strict instructions about tags and uploading in Flickr.
This event is an amazing opportunity to observe how image-making practices are configured: who provides the material, who can photograph it and how, what are legitimate uses of the photographs, how is material to travel from museum to web (and back?), what are considered good images, how is image-making to be documented, what is the relationship between museums and (lay)photographers, what roles are assigned or adopted by internet providers and corporate players in relation to a ‘commons’ ideology, etc, etc.
The project is ongoing and every time I look at the initiative’s website, there are new developments and debates on the discussion pages of the Flickr group dedicated to Wiki loves art/NL. It’s quite fascinating to see how different participating museums and photographers are negotiating the various ‘values’ that are involved in this project.
The way museums implement the ‘game’ varies greatly, as do the motivations and practices of photographers. For example, in the accompanying discussion on Flickr, one participants raised two very interesting points: first, that given the rules of engagement, this would result in “straightforward photos” of art objects, not in photos that were art objects and second, querying the limitation to a specified list of objects. The first point makes me think that there is something about the rules that seems to push photographers towards a ‘documentary’ or ‘realist’ (that word again) style of photography that feels limiting to some participants. The second teases out an important goal of the project, which one of the organisers of the contest explains in response: the goal is to get photos of the museums’ collections onto Wikipedia. Interestingly, this does not seem to be obvious to some photographers who see photo-making as the ‘end’ or goal of their practice, and consider getting objects in museums photographed and into Wikipedia as secondary.
The participation of museums is also diverse. The Tropenmuseum provides a list of object that can be photographed, a free ticket for entry, and the additional rule that photographers are not allowed to use a tripod or flash. Other museums have set up special photographic sessions, in which tripods and flash can be used. The Van Abbemuseum is very proactive and responds to queries by a photographer in the Flickr discussion, offering objects and conditions that respond to a particular style of photography this person wishes to undertake.
The diversity of configurations of users, owners and makers of images in this process is intriguing and, I think, telling of the current state of uncertainty with regards to the cultural meaning of digital technologies, open repositories and produsage for museums.