Exploring and resisting the museum’s authority on the web: a project proposal for the RISD Museum

This semester I’ve been thinking a lot about authority and power dynamics within the museum space. My thinking has been informed by a variety of sources: I took a class about museums at the RISD Museum, I did a practicum at a Chilean University that is working on opening a new museum, and I worked on a class project at a Historic House Museum in Providence. All these experiences had me exploring different ways in which museums—and other cultural institutions—both acquire and transmit cultural authority, which comes with the idea that they are the custodians of a secular truth.

One of the most common and potent ways in which museums transmit power and authoritarian knowledge is through written texts, especially through labels.  The fact that labels are there to explain the value and reason why a specific artwork or object is worthy of being displayed, is the same reason why audiences seems to constantly need to rely upon an expert’s voice when viewing a museum exhibition: museums have positioned themselves as custodians of the truth. As a result, their visitors have learned to go to museums to immerse themselves in that knowledge.

With those ideas in mind, I started thinking about how digital tools can explore and revisit ideas of cultural authority and power dynamics in the context of the museum. A lot of different things crossed my mind, but I finally decided to stick with the one that I want to introduce here. Because I was enrolled in a seminar at the RISD Museum, the Digital Public Humanities (DPH) project idea that I came up with is envisioned as something that could be used in that museum space. That is why the examples that I present here are from the RISD Museum’s collections and the mock-ups are of its website.

On my many visits to the RISD Museum I passed by and read tons of labels, and I was always impressed by how similar they all look to each other. There is a pre-determined structure dictated by a series of guidelines that include: the name of the artist, the title of the piece, the artwork’s provenance, the piece’s creation date, the identification number within the museum’s collection, the piece’s donor, and approximately 150-words on the important things to know in regards to that piece. They are written in an academic style, with an academic typeface and an academic design. They usually have white backgrounds and black letters if the wall is white, but sometimes the walls are colored so the label’s background mimics it. As can be assumed from what I just described, the museum’s guidelines for its labels just refer to written labels, and that’s because words are the main non-mediated way in which the museum interprets their works of art within the galleries’ spaces. That is why I got really interested in the language that the museum uses when interpreting their artworks. If words are the main way in which those institutions—holders of power and cultural authority—interpret their pieces or objects, I’m curious about what those words are and how they are used to transmit and replicate their position. This project digitally explores and revisits ideas of cultural authority and power dynamics in the context of the museum by resisting the museum’s written textual authority.

Le Repos_artwork and label_blog
Manet’s Le Repos and its label at the RISD Museum

It is important to mention that this DPH project is part of a bigger crowd-sourced storytelling project proposal that aims to challenge the RISD Museum’s authority by replacing eighteen artworks’ original labels with a story written by an invited local writer based on, and inspired by, the Museum’s visitors’ interpretations of those artworks. Museum visitors’ interpretations will be collected in closed boxes displayed next to each of those artworks where visitors will be able to place their responses to four prompts regarding to each piece.

Okay, enough background on the project. Let’s dive in. Because I am really interested in the language that the museum uses when interpreting their artworks, my idea is to bring together, in a new tab on the RISD Museum’s website, both official interpretations (meaning the museum’s) and unofficial interpretations (meaning the museum visitors’ interpretations) of the mentioned artworks as a way to validate and legitimize the existence of other truths that are not being currently represented or told within the museum’s space. The project will resist the museum’s authority by opening up the understanding of their artworks to the museum’s digital visitors and by displaying, in the same digital space, text analysis—in the form of word clouds—of both the official and unofficial interpretations.

Museum’s interpretation of Model of a funerary boat.
Museum’s interpretation of Model of a funerary boat.
Museum’s interpretation of Table Chair
Museum’s interpretation of Artschwager’s Table Chair

I want to deconstruct the RISD Museum’s texts about their artworks and see what words they use and what ideas are behind those words. In doing that, I want to show how limited the official interpretations sometimes are and the diversity of interpretations that come into play when authority in the meaning creation process is shared.

To analyze the official and unofficial interpretations of the eighteen participant artworks, I used Voyant—specifically its word clouds: a web-based text reading and analysis environment that generates word clouds and other kinds of text analysis. Voyant’s word clouds are a way to explore and make the museum’s cultural authority evident as they contrast the main concepts and ideas used by the museum and its visitors to describe a specific work of art. Word clouds make visible the importance that both the museum and its visitors are giving to specific words or ideas by enlarging some of them and diminishing others. In making some words bigger than others and using bright colors, Voyant stresses the importance that those concepts have within the corpus of analyzed text. In putting the two word clouds on the same digital space, Voyant’s word clouds are contributing to resist the museum’s cultural authority as they highlight in the same way, at the same level, with the same colors, both interpretations.

Word cloud of Manet's Le Repos interpreted by the RISD Museum
Word cloud of Manet’s Le Repos interpreted by the RISD Museum
Word cloud of Manet's Le Repos interpreted by potential RISD Museum visitors
Word cloud of Manet’s Le Repos interpreted by potential RISD Museum visitors

As the images above show, both word clouds highlight different concepts even though they are interpreting the same artwork. Despite the fact that the prompts asked to museum’s visitors are pointing to specific things that weren’t necessarily considered on the official interpretation of it, just the fact that there exist more than one interpretation possibility is one of the things that this project idea wants to transmit.

Because showing the diversity of interpretations is as important as encouraging digital visitors to the museum to recognize the importance of their own impressions when experiencing a work of art, the new tab at the RISD Museum website won’t just include the aforementioned word clouds but will also display a digitized image of each of the eighteen artworks, as well as will offer the chance to keep interpreting them by responding to four prompts (the same four prompts that analog visitors will respond): This artwork makes me feel / This artwork makes me remember / This artwork makes me want / This artwork makes me think.

Analog visitors’ responses to prompts regarding Manet’s Le Repos
Analog visitors’ responses to prompts regarding Manet’s Le Repos

My first idea was to automatically update the word cloud dedicated to museum visitors’ interpretations when a new response to a prompt was received. It would give the visitors a chance to actually see how their interpretations affect—or not—the whole corpus of visitors’ interpretations, and, in that way, see their contributions as something that really matter. But that idea was difficult to build and had associated drawbacks, as, for example, trolls. So I went with something easier to put together, a Google Forms that will be weekly processed. The word clouds will be weekly-updated and will help to make the point that interpretations are not static,  they change every time that a different individual decides to share their feelings, thoughts, wants, and memories on the website.

The image below shows a mock-up of how the digital space for this project would look. Each of the eighteen selected artworks will have their own page where you can see the digitized version of the piece, read the story that replaced the artwork’s label during three weeks (as part of the bigger project above described), see the text analysis/word clouds for both the museum visitors’ interpretations and the museum’s interpretations, participate by collaborating with responses to the prompts regarding the artwork, read the artwork’s original label, and access other written official interpretations such as the museum’s audio guide transcriptions and different institutional research.

Manet’s Le Repos digital space mock-up
Manet’s Le Repos digital space mock-up

Because they will be contributing their feelings, desires, memories and thoughts in the project’s digital space, visitors’ participation in this project can be identified as participation through contribution—as Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum would characterize. Some of the feedback that I’ve received so far regarding the project as a whole is exactly related to people’s participation. In order for the museum to sustain their authority and power, people have been thought to enact a specific role within it, perform a certain script, and behave in specific manners. Because of that, it could be challenging for the RISD Museum’s digital visitors to act differently and engage in the collaborative interpretation of the artworks when they have been told for decades that the expert is the museum and its voice is the valid one. Visitors have been characterized as learners, not as meaning creators. Although that is an important thing to consider, it is also relevant to keep in mind that participation in analog spaces and in digital spaces is very different, so we can’t expect the same challenging situation to be entirely true of the project’s digital presence.

The DPH project idea for the RISD Museum is far from being done. I keep thinking about alternative ways to digitally explore and resist the authority and power dynamics within the RISD Museum website. Maybe word clouds aren’t the best option and there are other choices out there that I haven’t considered yet. Maybe is better not to analyze the whole corpus of text for both the official and unofficial interpretations but to just analyze specific things such as the adjectives that both of them are using. Or maybe it is worthwhile to consider other forms of text analysis visualizations such as graphics or networks. Anyway, I guess that that is the importance about first approximations, about first steps: they give you what you need to keep walking, keep exploring, thinking, and imagining new possibilities.

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