Mapping the Museum

Susan Mc Ateer

Museums can be intimidating. Even more intimidating than not being able to spell the word museum without hesitating despite having a degree in art history, are the buildings themselves. Museums are often in grand neoclassical buildings which feel sacred, or in ultra contemporary buildings which are so slick and minimal that you feel like a cretin who shouldn’t occupy the pure space. Once you’re in the door you scan for the information desk so that you can grab a map and pretend like you know what’s what, but what if there were no maps? The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London recently did just this; they took away maps for a weekend and encouraged, or forced, visitors to navigate the sprawling museum solo with nothing but helpful guides wearing bright yellow t-shirts to lead the way. Reliance on Google Maps couldn't help visitors, as how exactly could you type in 'decorative arts wing'? Instead the V&A encouraged people to actively look around, ask a question, and actually engage in conversation with someone! And if you get lost? So what, you’re lost in the V&A! 

V&A cafe, if in doubt follow the smell of coffee. Image credit Eric Huybrechts

V&A cafe, if in doubt follow the smell of coffee. Image credit Eric Huybrechts

Museum maps and wall texts tend to be authoritative and the feeling is: ‘we are written by the professionals, here is all you need to know’. Sure, it’s helpful to have some information to help you understand what you are looking at and why it is significant, but as museums and galleries are spaces that display and encourage creative and original thought, shouldn’t how we consider art or historical objects be more creative? Artistic duo Hughen/Starkweather (Amanda Hughen and Jennifer Starkweather) often collaborate on projects which are based in social research, particularly through informal interviews. In 2014 they worked with the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on a project called Re:depection. The artists conducted interviews with museum staff asking them to recount from memory a particular object in the collection that was significant to them. From these descriptions and anecdotes, Hughen/Starkweather created abstract drawings of the objects which were displayed with the corresponding audio of the interviews in the museum. The display was on for one night only and guests were given maps which connected these visual and audio descriptions to the actual object located elsewhere in the building. Giving the museum staff an opportunity to speak more fluidly about the objects allowed visitors to consider these items in a different way, and to remember that personal interpretation and engagement is just as valid as a text on a wall. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (The Met) is overwhelming. In a good way overwhelming, but overwhelming all the same. Instead of ticking off the highlights, students at the School of Visual Arts decided to take an aspect of The Met that interested them and created digital interactive maps to develop a different experience and way to navigate the museum. The project, Mapping the Met, gives an alternative view of the sprawling collection. A personal favourite is Rosa Chang’s mapping of indigo items in the museum, along with a global map which marks places and points of interest in the history of indigo. I didn’t know that I wanted to learn loads about indigo, but with these beautiful visuals and the way they take you all over the building, I am sold. Well played Chang. 

The Met. Who is actually going to complain about getting lost here?

The Met. Who is actually going to complain about getting lost here?

Beyond the museum people are really getting creative about mapping. Google maps can just feel too easy sometimes right? So the obvious alternative is to bake a map which consists entirely of cake. Let me say that again, cake. Cake Fest Scotland have created a map of the country’s most iconic monuments in, you guessed it, cake. Learn national geography and eat it too? Winner. 

In her recent book ‘My Life on the Road’ Gloria Steinem said ‘you do have all five senses when you are in a room together. You communicate and understand each other in a much deeper way. It is a different form of communication from writing or being on the web’. This feels like a super relevant idea for museums to consider. In order to start a dialogue and encourage engagement, the museum experience should move beyond just the visual or textual and evoke our other senses. If that could include cake, then all the better.