Spin the Bottle
A Scottish fisherman found the world’s oldest message in a bottle in August last year. It was a drift bottle cast to sea in 1914. An early 19th century data trap, it was part of an old-school crowd-sourced science program. People found the drift bottles, their individual experiences of discovery were translated into data then mapped to create ocean charts. The drift bottle is the manifestation of big global systems in an individual’s experience of the world.
Drifting can be used to think about other lived experiences too, like my upcoming travels around the world or visitor movement through museums. Uros Cvoro applies the concept of dérive (pdf), the French word for ‘drifting’, to visitor experience at the National Museum of Australia. The architecture of the NMA building can represent a tangle or knot and encourages visitors to drift through its spaces. The linear approach is not evident to NMA visitors – it’s not a ‘fixed march’. Here, drifting is “a strategy of spontaneous passage through space without prescribed duration or spatial field.” By drifting we can playfully loose ourselves, or recreate a sense of displacement in a foreign space; like the first time museum visitor, or as Cvoro offers, the immigrant in a new country.
Another kind of bottle, the Impossible Bottle, lets us view an object inside through transparent walls. A museum in a bottle could represent radically transparent museum practices. These ideas are being applied in projects like the development of a new Conservation lab at Dallas Museum of Art, or the National Museum of Australia’s recent temp exhibition, Museum Workshop. But how many museums wholly embody these ideas? The Impossible Bottle points to the idealism of these concepts; it points to the disconnect between the theory and the reality of working in museums. There are many reasons why museums haven’t widely implemented the philosophies of transparent and participatory practices, and Suse Cairns recently brainstormed some, all of which are familiar to me as a collections professional.
I’m a museum-insider (albeit an emerging one). I know collection management, data and databases, how to locate objects in a store and the meaning inherent in acquisition numbers. Until now, I’ve been focussed on stuff, not visitors. But this year, I’ll see and experience museums from the outside in. I’ll be drifting around the world for the next 12 months, a museum pilgrim. I’ll be the critical museum visitor, without privileged insider information. I’m anticipating having time to absorb new ideas emerging from the museum world, having head space to develop my own perspectives, reflect on my experiences and make my own connections.
The most traditional of impossible bottles, the ship in the bottle, points to my maritime museum background. It retains a sense of mystery while remaining visible from all angles. Does the magic come from the technical skill applied to get the object inside the bottle? Once you know how the ship model was placed in the bottle, are we still fascinated by the visual impact of the result? The transparent museum exposes it’s internal workings to create a relationship with visitors based on honesty and, we hope, integrity. How can museums reveal their internal practices whilst keeping the magic and impact for visitors? Will I find any answers to these questions as I travel?
So I go on my journey with ideals inside my head and reality ahead. I hope to find examples where the two come together, where I stumble upon a transparent, participatory or innovative museum practice in reality. By cataloguing these experiences, perhaps I can create an idealised, digital whole from small parts of reality. This is my data trap, my chart can be found here. Welcome to my Museum in a Bottle.