Monthly Archives: December 2014

Merleau-Ponty and digital heritage

I have been reading just a very little Merleau-Ponty and have found some resonance with my recent thoughts about digital media and heritage and culture. Merleau-Ponty talks about the issue of ‘attention’ and the supposition generally held that we have only to pay attention to our senses and the truth of our perception will be revealed. For him, intellectualisation of our senses implies objective understanding of them and this is a problem.

The problem is that we compartmentalise the senses as well as proceed from a biased standpoint – i.e. if we explore something in terms of visuality then we are bound to discover things from this point of view. Scientifically paying ‘attention’ to our vision suggests that we are able to grasp it fully and, what I am getting from Merleau-Ponty, that vision is a discrete and separate sense to any other. In fact our “sense of sight” may involve several things which we do not normally examine in detail; e.g. why do we not think of senses of brightness, colour, movement?

This reminds me of Wittgenstein insofar as we are limiting our potential for understanding our senses. Crudely put, by discussing our senses in terms of only 5 types (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell) we limit the language with which we aim to understand the senses. Merleau-Ponty’s comments remind me also of Grounded Theory, because the aim for him rather than paying ‘attention’ to our senses would appear to be to let sensual experiences speak for themselves. Just as Glaser and Straus aimed to avoid confirming the work of past scholars and develop new theory, so does Merleau-Ponty aim to avoid confirming sensual intellectualisation and explore what senses are before epistemological constructions.

This issue is relevant to digital heritage representation because digital media filters and reduces the terms with which we are able to explore cultural phenomena. Indeed, it crystallises phenomena into snapshots, whether passive or ‘interactive’. More importantly, of course, digital media still privileges sight and hearing over the other senses.

My data so far involves stories about Towneley Park which are all-encompassing experiences of space, presence and memory. It seems clear to me that coding my data is analogous to paying ‘attention’ to the senses, while the medium through which these data are expressed and interpreted further forces me to pay attention to the data from the perspective of, mostly, visuality and sound.

It is no surprise that digital representations of human body experiences may lose something in translation. However, if even the development of sophisticated virtual reality hardware and software is to be based on the premise of 5 separate senses, is digital representation fundamentally flawed because it may be built on a flawed intellectualisation of the human condition?

Digital Museum Fictions

I’ll give a spoiler alert for this post because, although I have no intention of giving away important plot elements, I am going to talk about Interstellar and I don’t want it to be ruined for anybody here!

I really enjoyed the film on many sci-fi levels, but I was surprised to come across a museumified house in the later part. The house was very much like a heritage centre with screens showing video interviews with contemporaries of the house and the era it was meant to represent. What I thought was interesting was that the portrayal of this house was so easily recognisable as a museum.

The house which formed the museum was recognisable as a 21st century house (in the film a late 21st century house, perhaps) although the museum was present in a 22nd century context. The intention may have been to demonstrate a particular museum style to a 22nd century audience. There are current examples of this, such as the Victorian gallery at Salford Museum and Art Gallery which attempts to display its artefacts and artworks as they would have been arranged in a Victorian context. This cabinet of curiosities approach is an interesting way of showing us how museums used to be, but it does run the risk of invoking all the power structures and biases of (in Salford’s case) the Victorian era; without adequate explanation, the visitor will find their engagement with the exhibition limited to a bygone representational context, preventing alternative perspectives on the artefacts or multiple interpretations.

The Interstellar house museum is surprisingly low-tech. Video screens are pretty commonplace today and of course there are a number of more sophisticated media options now available. If Christopher Nolan orchestrated that museum representation specifically then it would seem that his message is that museums will not use much in the way of digital technology in the next few decades. It seems more likely that the museum representation had less attention paid to it than the rest of the filmĀ  and, as such, perhaps we can say that perceptions of museums from outside the heritage industry are that museums are not actually very progressive. What does it mean if it seems realistic to a Holywood production team that museums of the future will not incorporate interactive screens, holograms of previous occupants or virtual tour guides?

On the other hand, there is much to be said for the phenomenological aspect of the museum in the film. The house is there to be experienced; walked through, smelled, heard, seen. Nonetheless this is quite traditional, with rope barriers reminiscent of National Trust houses. The interpretation, I feel, is closed and restricted by traditional museological approaches. The subjectivity of the video interviews on display seems to offer little when the subject matter of the house, and its significance to its previous owners, isn’t expressed or interpreted beyond simple display.

It seemed to me that the absence of digital media engagement was a signifier of how far we have yet to go for people to feel digital technology has a legitimate place in museums.

What do you think? Is it just a film?