Celebrating International Museum Day

By Irish Research Council

Posted: 18 May, 2016

To mark International Museum Day, we have asked two of our researchers to tell us more about the importance of museums as sites for educating the public on our shared heritage, contemporary culture, and our future

Michael Ann Bevivino is a Postgraduate Scholar based at University College, Dublin, working with the Discovery Programme, and CRDS Ltd. Her project “Breaking the Mould: Ireland’s Replicas of Cultural Objects from the Historic to the Digital,” is being conducted as part of our Employment Based Postgraduate Programme.

We tend to think of museums as repositories for unique and outstanding cultural objects. Being able to see the ‘real thing’, instead of an imitation, is a draw for museum visitors worldwide. Think, for example, of the Mona Lisa: although a myriad of copies are available to view in high-resolution with a quick Google image search, visitors still flock to the Louvre in their thousands to see the original.

But will this always be the case? As technology gets better and better, is there a danger that we will no longer be captivated by the real thing, and will be just as happy to look at an imitation? In an age of smart phones, wearable technology and 3D printing, museums are competing for the ever-decreasing attention spans of audiences that are accustomed to ideas of personalised visits and eye-grabbing technology. But what makes a work of art captivating anyway?

Perhaps we need to look backwards in order to see forwards, as my Irish Research Council-funded project is currently doing. I am partnering with UCD, CRDS Ltd. (a company specialising in field schools and community archaeology) and the Discovery Programme (a body dedicated to the study of Ireland’s past) is using replicas of cultural objects as lenses through which we can look at both the history and possible futures of museums.

The tradition of replicating objects of cultural significance, and of using them as tools to transmit certain ideas or values, is an ancient one. The Romans used the Greeks as exemplars, for example, and copied their artistic practices. In the modern period, the replication of cultural objects, especially in the form of plaster casts, is closely linked to the heightened prestige of certain objects (the so-called ‘canon’) that were in turn integral to the development of large museums in the nineteenth century. At the turn of the twentieth century, most major European museums had a collection of replicas of original artworks that acted as a guidebook through the history of Western art. Ireland was no exception, and remnants of these collections can still be seen in many Irish institutions today (including the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of the Ireland, the Crawford Gallery and the National College of Art and Design, to name a few).

Although these replicas fell from favour in the twentieth century, they are currently seeing a revival in interest. Is this linked to a comfort in, and reliance on, digital technologies that essentially create replicas all the time and that allow us to have the world at our fingertips? Is the only difference that we can view these objects on smart phones and tablet screens instead of in person in a museum? Or will the authenticity of an artwork, and its accompanying aura, always pull us back to the original?

This International Museum Day, get out and visit Ireland’s world-class museums. Hopefully the issues raised above might make you think about museums a little bit differently; are they just repositories for old stuff, or do they say a lot more about our current culture than a surface glance might indicate?

Sally McHugh is a Postgraduate Scholar in the School of Education at NUI Galway, working on her project, “Innovation in Heritage Education: Towards a Synthesis of Formal and Informal Learning.”

Museums are highly important sites of learning outside the school. How can we design educational experiences and technologies to enhance the links between learning in these informal contexts and children’s education in formal learning settings, principally the classroom? My PhD research looks at how we can design creative and interactive, technology-enhanced activities for children, which strengthen the links between their learning in the classroom and their educational experiences in more casual or elective learning contexts, e.g. museums. The overall goal is to conceptualise, evaluate and develop a multisite design for learning with technology, one that will enhance children’s engagement with, and understanding of their cultural heritage.

Research has shown that computers can have a significant, formative and positive impact on learning, particularly when the focus is on using the technology for creativity and collaboration. However, children need substantial support to help them to use technology in an optimal, creative and collaborative way.

New innovations with digital media and technology are creating new possibilities for interactivity, and I am examining how we can take these new possibilities or ‘affordances’ and integrate them within a multisite design for cultural heritage education, facilitated and mediated across two key contexts for learning: the classroom and museum.

My particular research methodology is design-based research, and through three years and three cycles of principled technology experimentation and evaluation, to generate a design for learning that enhances the links between the classroom and museum. While developed in the Irish educational context, I hope the model I produce can be adopted and adapted to enhance cultural heritage education anywhere in the world.

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