In the end of January, during my small tour in Norway, I visited the Museum of Oslo. The Museum of Oslo consists of three museums, Oslo City Museum, Oslo Theatre Museum and Intercultural Museum. At the City Museum I saw an interesting example of the role media genres play in exhibition design and how different media genres do affect how we understand a content. The example is a picture of a suburb exterior from Oslo, which is to be found in two different versions at the City Museum. The first one is the original painting by Arne Stenseng with the title Lambertseter 1957. This painting is hanging in the first room of the main exhibition which deals with the history of Oslo. This first room gives you a summary of the history of Oslo, and the painting is there to represent the building of new, and better, housing for workers outside Oslo, close to the nature. The other version of this picture is to be found in the temporary exhibition about the suburbs, or satellite cities, around the central parts of Oslo.
As a part of this exhibition there are three small rooms decorated as suburb apartments from respectively the 1950s, the 1970s and one from around year 2000. The second version of the picture is used as an element in the 50s apartment. When you enter the 50s apartment you have a living room interior in front of you on the left side of the room. You see a couch, a table, a chair, a shelf with knick-knacks and some pictures on the wall, all typical for the 50s. On the right side of the room, the illusion of a real apartment is interrupted by a wall with four showcases. Under the showcases there is white text written on the grey wall. On the left side of the wall you find the second version of Stenseng's painting. The painting is copied and blowed up so it covers the whole wall from top to bottom.
Why is this example interesting?
When I first saw the enlarged poster version of the picture, I didn't know it was originally a painting, i.e., a work of art. The picture caught my attention because the rest of the exhibition relies heavily on enlarged black and white photographs. This means both the picture's colors and the fact that it is painted, made it contrasts with the rest of the exhibitions illustrative elements. My first questions were therefore related to how drawings or paintings work differently in an exhibition than photographs. When photographs are used in an cultural history exhibition, it is with an unsaid promise that the photograph is showing how something was. It is giving you a peek into the past, and, to some extent, an objective peek. The objective character of the photograph is a debated subject and I will not go into that here, but I believe that for the general visitor, a photograph is mostly understood as direct impression of reality. Paintings' and drawings' relation to reality are different, because they are, in a stronger sense than photography, made by someone. We more easily doubt a painting's trueness than a photograph's. Therefore I wondered, what kind of role had the picture of the suburb exterior, why not use a photograph? Was it just a decorative element in the 50s apartment? When I then afterwards noticed the original painting in the main exhibitions first room, I became even more interested. Do the visitors' understanding of the picture change when the picture's medium changes? And how do we understand works of art in a cultural history museum?
Some thoughts from the curator
I was so lucky that I got the opportunity to talk with Linken Apall-Olsen, the head of Department for Exhibitions and Public Services at the City Museum, about these questions. She tells me that the version of the painting in the suburb exhibition make conversations among the visitors. Maybe, she wonders, it is because people look for a message in the picture. It is different from the photographs because it is carefully thought through by the artist, and not just a snap-shot like a lot of the photographs. The colors also gives it an own aesthetics, which is not only different from black and white photographs, but also from color photographs. Linken says she uses the picture a lot in her guided tours of the exhibition. The painting communicates some of the 50s optimism, and she points to the swallows flying high above the buildings, which refers to the proverb that says if the swallows fly high it will be nice weather. This makes the picture more than an aesthetic element, it also provides information strongly connected to the exhibitions message about how suburbs were understood and why they were build in the 50s. I ask if she talks differently about the original painting and the copy when guiding visitors. She answer that she usually mentions the painter's name, when talking about the original painting, something she almost never do in the suburb exhibition. Here it is the different stories in the picture, like the swallows, that is important. These small stories are, literal, enlarged in the copy, and therefore get more attention.
Nest step: theory
I will follow up on media genres in exhibitions and this specific example in my next blog post. There I will introduce a media model developed by Lars Elleström, which I mean can be useful for theorizing media use in exhibitions. The purpose of Elleström's model is to improve our understanding of the differences and the similarities between different media. I find this model very interesting for the understanding of the intermedial aspect of museums exhibitions, and it gives some terminological tools that might help us describe different media in the exhibition more precisely.