04.25.12

How can museums become more interactive? Look to carnivals.

Besides finally earning their place on gallery walls next to comic books and fine art with The Smithsonian's "The Art of Video Games" exhibit, and, well, augmenting museum exhibitions at no less a place than The Louvre, games may continue to influence the way art and culture is curated and exhibited in modern museums. The Atlantic reports on a bold new show:

Patrons who expect multimedia bang for their buck get it at "Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World's Fairs 1851-1939," a new exhibit at Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The ambitious show, which opened on Saturday and runs through August 19, explores how World's Fairs did—and still do—offer a means for nations to assert themselves on the international stage. World's Fairs also became the first platform for introducing new styles, manufacturing techniques, and consumer goods on a global stage. Popular products first presented at a World's Fair, for instance, range from mayonnaise and Cracker Jacks to the sewing machine and telephone. The bejeweled Cartier clock is eye-popping. The prototype Herman Miller plexiglass chair will make any design-lover swoon.

Fittingly, "Inventing the Modern World," also boasts plenty of new technological accoutrement. A movie screen welcomes visitors with looping archival footage. There's an "augmented reality station" where visitors can examine virtual 3D models of objects on display. At a mock dressing table, a set of mirrors imprinted with images lets people see how they would look wearing some of the exhibition's spectacular jewelry. Outside, squatting incongruously at the north edge of the Nelson's manicured grounds, is the temporary Sun Pavilion—a half-elegant, half-ramshackle structure built from reclaimed shipping containers and powered by a canopy of solar panels. The Nelson's cafe is serving a World's Fair-themed menu, and, of course, one must exit through the gift shop.

The risks curators must juggle are also similar to the struggles game designers often find themselves wrestling with: how to effectively frame the player experience while still giving the illusion of agency and corresponding sponteneity: 

There is a danger for curators in general, Hennes said, is in trying to do too much. He described a class of "immsersive museums"—institutions that try so hard to be stimulating and interactive they create an experience "that people find exhausting."

"And if the exhibit is about an idea, rather than merely a collection of objects, it becomes much easier to cross the line and overwhelm people."

Hennes mentioned the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which he said "left him staggering and feeling completely defeated." The museum "seemed so hellbent on telling me exactly what to think that I felt manipulated."

Despite these similarities, the exhibit's designers sought inspiration from a much older source than videogames. Instead, they looked to the World's Fairs, since the event "was so intensely scientific, futuristic and commercial," and all the fairs "were so inherrently glitzy, almost any technological bell or whistle would have felt appropriate." That may be true, but the tools of digital culture once again are no doubt drawn from the world of videogames.

I guess all that's left to wait for are hologram museums, maybe to replace the wax museums of yore?

[via The Atlantic]