“The Museum between the Physical and the Virtual” – Dennis Jansen
One of the major themes in Sarah Bay-Cheng’s recent lecture on “History, Performance, and Playing the Digital in Museums” was the use of mixed reality in modern museums; that is, the blending of physical artefacts and set pieces with digital interfaces, screens and games. She argued that, as museums engage increasingly often with digital technologies, these formerly unidirectional sites of history are increasingly becoming multidirectional and interactive and start to take on the veil of performance—positioning their visitors more and more as ‘co-creators’ of history. Her key examples include the Decision Points Theater in the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, Texas, where visitors collectively ‘replay’ key moments in Bush’s presidency and vote on which choices they believe should have been made (cf. Bay-Cheng 2016), and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland, where the mix of physical and virtual elements can comprise entire rooms (cf. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2015). Installations such as these, Bay-Cheng posited, allow the visitor to take (inter)active part in history writing and historical revision; the museum visitor becomes a historiographer, if only for a little while.
What piqued my interest especially was how these museums’ mixings of the physical and the digital/virtual create a thorough intertwinement, but simultaneously also draws a clear distance between their physical and virtual features. By intertwinement, I mean the ways in which the virtual enhances and extends beyond the physical décor, and the physical provides context for and supports the meaning-making affordances of the digital/virtual elements incorporated into the museum displays. Think, for example, of the interactive library in the POLIN Museum, where visitors are ‘surrounded’ by pages from Yiddish and Hebrew books and can read digital copies of manuscripts on interactive screens which allow them to translate the text into any number of languages at the touch of a button (see Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2015, 55).
At the same time, there is distance: although the physical and virtual are made to compliment and support each other—often quite successfully so—, the ways in which they do this tend to also bring out the limitations of both realities. Towards the end of her lecture, Bay-Cheng argued that digital technologies cause very different types of artefacts to be able to be presented in the same form (i.e. through the same interface), thereby flattening radically different materials into a single limited shape. Although digital recreations and supplements are immensely valuable to the experience of history in a museum, to the keen eye and hand it is quite evident that the materiality and texture of physical artefacts cannot be replicated through a touchscreen. Naturally, museums must maintain a certain distance between their visitors and ‘real’ history—whatever that may mean. That said, their effort to use physical and digital media to position those same visitors as co-creators of that history ostensibly ‘closes the gap’ between the past and the present through mediation. However, the gap remains, whether we like it or not.
- Bay-Cheng, Sarah. 2016. “Digital Historiography and Performance.” Theatre Journal 68 (4): 507–27. https://doi.org/10.1353/tj.2016.0104.
- Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. 2015. “A Theatre of History: 12 Principles.” TDR: The Drama Review 59 (3): 49–59.