Visiting the “Death by Design” Museum

I should really be blogging this on my Museum Informatics site, but it’s also relevant here. I responded this morning to an appeal in the Museums in SL group to visit, and complete a survey for, a museum called “Death by Design”, built and curated by VirLucis Hush, a Masters student at University College London for his final project. A transcript of our conversation:

[4:56] VirLucis Hush: are you interested in taking part? 🙂
[4:57] VirLucis Hush: you come down and look through the exhibition, then afterwards answer a survey of questions
[4:57] VirLucis Hush: it takes about 30 minutes or so usually
[4:57] VirLucis Hush: you get to see something a bit different in SL though 🙂
[4:57] VirLucis Hush: great 🙂
[4:58] VirLucis Hush: thanks yes 🙂
[4:59] VirLucis Hush: search for ‘death by design’ to find us
[4:59] VirLucis Hush: hi
[5:00] VirLucis Hush: please have a look around the exhibition and let me know when you are finished
[5:00] VirLucis Hush: then I will ask you some questions 🙂
[5:00] VirLucis Hush: please use IM to answer the questions so that I have a record of your answers 🙂
[5:08] Khoisan Fisher: ok, I’ve had a pretty good look around — not read everything but seen all exhibits & read several cards — enough to get a good sense
[5:08] VirLucis Hush: ok great
[5:08] VirLucis Hush: here goes…
[5:08] VirLucis Hush: How long have you been registered on Second Life?
[5:09] Khoisan Fisher: since around January 2006, but only regularly using since last month
[5:09] VirLucis Hush: Is this the first museum that you have visited in Second Life?
[5:09] Khoisan Fisher: no, seen a couple of others
[5:09] VirLucis Hush: roughly how many other museums have you visited:
[5:10] Khoisan Fisher: I think around 2 or 3 … I was silly not to have noted them all. Have seen the History of Computing museum on Shimmer Island and the Holocaust Museum, but there may be others I’ve forgotten
[5:10] VirLucis Hush: How many times in the past year have you visited a physical museum?
[5:11] Khoisan Fisher: 4 or 5
[5:11] VirLucis Hush: Was the environment here easy to navigate?
[5:12] Khoisan Fisher: yes, since it was constrained by the topography of the building itself — i.e. pretty much like a RL museum
[5:12] VirLucis Hush: Out of ten how would you rate your knowledge of Second Life?
[5:12] Khoisan Fisher: I’m still not sure how much there is to know … as a ‘tourist’, I’d say 7/10 but as builder/scripter only maybe 2/10
[5:13] VirLucis Hush: In your own words, what would you say the exhibition was about?
[5:13] Khoisan Fisher: ground floor is clear about ways of dying (and killing). Top floor about medicine and traditional science
[5:13] VirLucis Hush: In the exhibition, which objects/panels were most interesting to you personally?
[5:15] Khoisan Fisher: None in particular — all were interesting. But the sequential arrangement (as in RL museums) made it hard to drawn links between what *did* interest me
[5:15] VirLucis Hush: Are there any comments you would like to make about the content of the exhibition?
[5:16] Khoisan Fisher: The museum in effect replicates the glass-case/typed-card RL museum. The content is thus decontextualised from the n-dimensional contexts of occurrence in original settings … this is a research area of mine and of interest to me
[5:17] VirLucis Hush: Was there any information you wanted to know that wasn’t presented here?
[5:19] Khoisan Fisher: I think that, rather than specific information missing, it was broader context (historical, anthropological, social, industrial, economic, political, etc) that would have made the exhibits more narratively meaningful. But I know that this is an issue that all museums have to address.
[5:19] VirLucis Hush: Do you personally feel that this virtual exhibition has been educational?
[5:20] Khoisan Fisher: Yes, as far as it goes … I think I’d really like to see more … though off the top of my head I’m not sure what or how it might be presented
[5:20] VirLucis Hush: how would you describe your emotional response to this exhibition?
[5:20] Khoisan Fisher: Links to video clips and web pages might provide more context
[5:20] Khoisan Fisher: emotional response? disengaged emotionally
[5:21] VirLucis Hush: Were you satisfied with this as a museum exhibition, even without ‘real’ objects?
[5:21] Khoisan Fisher: As a virtual museum, in the sense that it replicates the design of a real museum, it certainly does it’s job well
[5:22] VirLucis Hush: If you could make any improvement to this exhibition what would it be?
[5:23] Khoisan Fisher: To enrich the content by providing links to contextualising materials in web pages (and maybe pointers to further readings in Amazon book?) and with e.g. slideshows and videos
[5:23] VirLucis Hush: Would you visit this virtual exhibition again?
[5:23] Khoisan Fisher: Yes, if I knew that it would evolve over time I’d come back to see what’s new
[5:24] VirLucis Hush: After Seeing this virtual exhibition – would you be interested in seeing the physical version?
[5:24] Khoisan Fisher: yes
[5:24] VirLucis Hush: Do you have any opinions on the use of Second Life for such exhibitions?
[5:25] Khoisan Fisher: I’m really thinking through this issue at the present time, as I’ll be having to teach it to students from next January — so, still thinking 🙂
[5:25] Khoisan Fisher: What I think SL museums should *not* be is mere marketing for RL museums
[5:26] VirLucis Hush: Any final comments you wish to make?
[5:26] Khoisan Fisher: No comments at this time. But I’d like to know more about your Masters and whether you’re blogging this — would like to keep an eye on it
[5:27] VirLucis Hush: finally some demographics – M/F, Age, country of residence?
[5:27] Khoisan Fisher: M, 55, UK
[5:27] VirLucis Hush: thanks for your time!
[5:27] Khoisan Fisher: a pleasure
[5:27] VirLucis Hush: I’m not blogging no, but if you want me to let you know how it goes I’ll keep intouch
[5:28] Khoisan Fisher: yes, please do keep in touch. I may add a visit to the schedule for my students next year — you can get their views as well
[5:28] Khoisan Fisher: when do you complete your masters?
[5:28] VirLucis Hush: September
[5:28] VirLucis Hush: but please do bring them along
[5:29] VirLucis Hush: we have a Vodou House Museum behind me, and an art gallery/chapel as well on this plot
[5:29] VirLucis Hush: what level do you teach?
[5:29] Khoisan Fisher: ok, I’ll put this on my students’ “museum tour”. I’d like to see a digital copy of your masters after submission — could be very interesting for me
[5:29] VirLucis Hush: no problem – I’d be happy to send you one
[5:29] Khoisan Fisher: University level
[5:30] Khoisan Fisher: the “Museum Informatics” course in final year on the Computing & Information Systems degree programs
[5:30] VirLucis Hush: great stuff
[5:30] Khoisan Fisher: which university are you at?
[5:30] VirLucis Hush: University College London
[5:31] Khoisan Fisher: close to home, then — I teach at Kingston University, Fac of Computing
[5:31] VirLucis Hush: nice 🙂
[5:32] Khoisan Fisher: yep … OK, stay in touch and keep me aware of how the project goes. Bye!
[5:32] VirLucis Hush: thanks again, will do 🙂

As is, I expect, clear from my responses and reflections above, the exhibition brought to mind some of the issues I’ve been thinking about for a while (to quote from a recent paper of mine):

Museum artefacts are unavoidably dislocated, in both time and space, from their originating historical, geographical, social, political, economic, industrial, and epistemic contexts of occurrence and use. Museums will characteristically, with many exhibits, endeavour to compensate for this inevitable decontextualisation through well-designed displays; nevertheless most exhibits will still paradigmatically be consigned to glass cases with brief explanatory text on white cards, the aggregation of disparate objects often disconcertingly reminiscent of Lautréamont’s “rencontre fortuite sur une table de dissection d’une machine à coudre et d’un parapluie”.

Museum visitors, unless subject experts, are consequently likely to marvel without understanding or insight, the greater part of the museum remaining for such visitors an inaccessible and unengaging ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’.

Museums provide valuable services to scholars; yet a scholar (archaeologist, for example) wishing to view and compare, say, Upper Palaeolithic flint tools in England, south-west France, southern Africa, north-eastern Canada, and western Australia, may need to travel extensively and seek research materials from heterogeneous sources.

The rest of my paper looks at a range of conceptual and technical strategies for rethinking and redesigning (virtual) museums, and for restoring context. But I’m still not confident that I have any sound idea of how to implement such a museum in SL. The museum is, anyway, worth a visit (as are the adjacent Vodou House Museum and Lucis Chapel Gallery, both also owned and curated by VirLucis Hush.)



About Christopher Hutchison

Museologist, cognitive dissident, political grouch, curmudgeonly bibliophage, and all round jolly nice chap.
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