Exhibition in the making: MARBLE-workshops

Although it will take some years before the planned exhibitions in the Limburgs Museum (Venlo) and theHuis van Alijn (Ghent) will be realized, its preparations have already begun. Last weeks, each of the two participating museums hosted and co-organized a two-day creative workshop sessions specifically designed for a select group of students from Maastricht University.  During those workshops our respective museum partners set the stage to brainstorm on the main question: how to stage family film in a museum context?

The Limburgs Museum in Venlo first welcomed us warmly on the 25-26th of March. The students, all taking part in the special MARBLE (Maastricht Research Based Learning) program, had the unique opportunity to have a look ‘behind the scenes’. Through guided tours and presentations by several museum curators, the students  became acquainted with the practical work of preservation, presentation and exhibition making.

So, besides the main question of ‘staging’ family film, the Venlo workshops aimed to let students experience the practical sides of museum work and exhibition design. From the perspective of family film, the Limburgs Film- and Video Archive (LiFVA, facilitated by the Limburgs Museum) consists of a lot of interesting amateur film and video material to depart from for a possible exhibition. Film curator Frank Holthuizen proudly presented the collection and explained the students about the principles of film and video preservation.

To get some general insights on conceptualizing and planning an exhibition, Leo Verhart, the curator of archaeology  gave an inspiring presentation on the new archeological exhibition, planned for realization in 2014. Besides the narrative structure and spatial organization of the exhibition space(s) at ones disposal, Leo also pointed out that in the design phase it is equally important to take into account and integrate in the overall design audience differentiation and multi-sensorial interactivity, aspects that students very well implemented in their own sketches.

On April 8-9, we took off to Belgium for a workshop in the Huis van Alijn in Ghent, the museum of everyday life and culture in Flanders. We were cordially welcomed by director Sylvie Dhaene and her colleagues in the courtyard of the beautiful 14th century museum building.

The guided tours of the permanent exhibition spaces, the temporary exhibition ‘En Avant Marche!’ and specifically the beautiful Huis van Alijn studio highlighted the special character of the museum. The museum holds a unique collection of family film, being well integrated in the museum’s impressive family film attic and ‘style rooms’, each of which is devoted to a decade of the second half of the previous century. What makes the Huis van Alijn so unique is its semi-archival work. In the studio a devoted team strives to broaden and contextualize their family film collection. By conducting interviews with the families who donated their precious mediated memories, the Huis van Alijn is able to collect a lot of relevant contextual information regarding the production and reception of family film. Furthermore, the museum is actively engaged in several artistic projects; in which artists creatively (re-)appropriate the museum’s film collection (see for example the series ‘Focus on Found Footage’).

Against this backdrop, cultural historian and project researcher Susan Aasman gave a thought-provoking lecture in which she discussed the ethical aspects of exhibiting and re-purposing family film, followed by a discussion on the differences between ‘history’ and ‘heritage’, ‘popular historical culture’ versus ‘history as leisure’ and film as ‘object of desire’. By underlining these aspects Susan was able to give a much needed critical perspective on the use and re-use of the often delicate and deeply personal mediated memories of a group people who are often both deceased and alive: forcing us to consider for which purpose and to what ends we use family film in a more public context, such as the museum or a documentary.

Contrary to Venlo, the workshop in Ghent mostly focused on the question ‘How to make an object speak?’. The students  were invited to reflect on how to exhibit historical objects such as an old 8mm ‘Brownie’ camera, a film reel and a Eumig projector in such a way that it appeals to various of the visitor’s senses. In their sketches the students tried to consider how the concept of ‘dispositif’ – which aims to account for three important dimensions of family film in our project: the material dimension (recording and screening technologies), textual dimension(aesthetic and narrative qualities) and perceptual dimension (perception and interpretation of the viewer) – can be implemented practically in an exhibition design.

As a concluding remark, it was immensely useful to combine both theoretical and practical perspectives on exhibition design and staging the object. Evenly welcome was the opportunity to submerge ourselves for four days in two different museums. Conceptualizing and planning an exhibition in two distinctly different environments is as challenging as it is rewarding; something the students hopefully came to realize and appreciate as well. So, we consider the MARBLE-workshops to be greatly successful for everybody involved. Many of the fruitful ideas developed by the students during the workshops in both Venlo and Ghent will be worked out in the next couple of years.