8 May 2013

Museum Ethnography and YouTube – news item from MEG 2013 conference


A casual search of museum videos on YouTube presents us with thousands of videos created by, for and in national museums across the world. A significant number of museums globally are regular users of YouTube, publicising exhibitions and collections whilst simultaneously providing an additional mode of interpretation through videos, away from the physical museum site for large numbers of people. Museum visitors, too, film collections and share them through personal YouTube channels that are often accompanied with self-devised interpretation.

An outward looking practice of facing the vast virtual communities, what does YouTube’s video content and participatory culture bring to museum ethnography (apart from new visitors)? What can we learn from this demotic turn - from the voice of the expert to that of ordinary person, about contemporary ethnography?

In my MEG 2013 conference paper “See it as I see it? Museum Ethnography through the Eyes of the Museum Visitor”, I shared a few examples of YouTube videos that offer glimpses of the ways in which museum visitors re-appropriate exhibitions and collections.

In the example Visiting with the Ancestors, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, the visitor takes the place of the expert, of the dominant voice imparting information. He faces the camera and looks straight at the viewer. The style of filming indicates a hand-held device, constructing a self-identity and thus intervening the museum and its position as the collector and educator through the performance. He constructs a discourse for the imagined audience in the exhibition space referring to the visitors’ book and its comments, moving the camera on the video of the Blackfoot man channelling the viewers’ attention to the issue of repatriation of the shirts of the Blackfoot community on display.

Often the filming of objects is preceded by images of the museum in its surroundings, locating it geographically and in some cases giving it multi-sensory effects, such as sounds and indicating smells such as in Visit to the Cham Sculpture Museum at Danang and Surroundings Vietnam.

The creators of these videos re-design an already curated exhibition through focusing on particular items on display. The footage is then edited on video editing software and uploaded onto YouTube, re-creating online galleries of the collections from the exhibitions. 

British Museum and V&A Favourites is mimetic of the physical exhibition. It also mimics exhibition viewing practices, of stopping and observing an object, viewing the next artefact, capturing collections as well as individual objects.

Visitors move through the space leading the viewers through the exhibition, thus enlivening and re-visiting the embodied experience of the museum, extending the museum not purely in terms of the resonance of the objects on display or their educational value but as a collection they have chosen to film and share with virtual audiences and as a space that they immersed themselves into.

These examples of visitor videos highlight an emergent form of museum ethnography, where subjects reclaim public collections, taking ownership of them by recording, editing and assigning them with their own meanings. These actions and processes add to the biographies of ethnographic collections, as they are continually reframed and re-appropriated.

By Dr. Megha Rajguru
Lecturer, History of Art and Design
University of Brighton

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