Emilia Bryce

Finding and losing yourself in the cabinet of curiosities:

The disorientating post-pandemic reacquaintance with personal pedagogy and exploration in three London museums

Following years of feeling ‘cooped up’ indoors, I emerge from the digital screen space and enter a field of frames. This research analyses the knowledge that is diffused to visitors through the architecture and curation of the off-line museum (i.e. what is felt within physical museum spaces and how this influences our understanding and retention of what is on display) through three frames of reference. Recalled museum lessons are dissected to reveal the pedagogical practices that each establishment institutes, the extent to which curatorial presence and situatedness is transmitted through the collections and the ways in which curatorial decisions and museum architectures facilitate demonstrable learning and recollection. Uncovering what additional knowledge is imparted to viewers through visits to the real Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), Horniman Museum and Sir John Soane’s Museum (as opposed to their online websites) reaffirms the value of learning in situ. It is demonstrated that a proportion of the knowledge that such institutions impart to their associated publics actually exists within the architectural fabric of the museum itself and that therefore the museum can never be fully replaced by its two-dimensional online doppelgänger.

According to a survey by the Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO), approximately 70% of museums in Europe were entirely closed to the public for at least a month in 2020 (NEMO, 2021) as a result of lockdowns and the increased regulation of “non- essential” (Brown et al., 2021) interactions outside the home. This amplified a general trend within museum institutions towards the creation of more online services and content in an effort to entice, teach and engage with new and existing audiences about the collections on display: “of the responding museums, 93 % have increased or started online services during the pandemic” (NEMO, 2021, p. 4). However, the “alternative forms of learning and inspiration” (ibid., p. 2) offered digitally diverge distinctly from the experience that one may attain during an embodied visit to the ‘real thing’. Learning solely online for several months at university affirmed to me that much learning is facilitated and improved by spatial interaction with other people and objects. Accordingly, anonymous surveys revealed that my contemporaries at the Bartlett School of Architecture unanimously
preferred learning solely in-person, or simultaneously online and in-person, to solely online. Despite this, the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) found that economic obstacles following the pandemic were prolonging the issue of reduced guest presence across cultural institutions: “two fifths of organisations [were] planning to scale down activity and over a third [were] struggling to increase income” (M.E.L Research, 2023). NEMO’s 2021 report likewise noted that “a majority of museums consider that the biggest challenge in the coming two years [2022 and 2023] will be bringing back visitors to their premises” (NEMO, 2021, p. 6).

Modern museums are often pedagogically bewildering: “Far from offering a coherent understanding of peoples from other times and cultures, objects… project an image of cultures and times from which they came whilst simultaneously reflecting the socially constructed imaginings… of their viewers” (Hogsden & Poulter, 2012, p. 268). Museal attempts to please potential ‘viewers’ are partially responsible for such disorientation, with remits tailored, “to attract local demographics – in the case of ‘gentrified’ regions, that typically means without the inclusion of people who find museums a social luxury or culturally exclusive” (Bryce & Agbetu, n.d.). Today, museum practitioners have a “social and ethical responsibility” (Hooper Greenhill, 2010, p. 1) to teach audiences in a way that is engaging, accessible and respectful.

In Britain, focus has shifted from ‘museum education’ to ‘museum learning’ (Hooper-Greenhill, 2010). According to Hooper-Greenhill, “the semantic shift… represents a major philosophical change in the way in which the educational functions of museums are being understood” (ibid., p. 4). Employing the term ‘learning’, both a noun and a verb, indicates that modern museum practitioners wish to investigate and ameliorate the individual process of self-stimulated knowledge acquisition over formally assessing what museal knowledge is composed of (Ibid.). In my view, the two systems are intimately correlated, thus I look at both the fabric of museum displays and what I have recalled from such displays to discern which methods and museums have assisted me most effectively in ‘learning’ their content.



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Bryce, E. and Agbetu, D.T. (2022) “The Role of the Modern Museum in London.”
Hogsden, C. and Poulter, E.K. (2012) “The real other? museum objects in Digital Contact Networks,” Journal of Material Culture, 17(3), pp. 265–286. Available at: https://doi. org/10.1177/1359183512453809.
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