Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bloch-ed by Camille Robb

The MOA will soon be featuring the long-awaited Carl Bloch exhibit entitled Carl Bloch: The Master’s Hand.  Opening November 12, 2010 on the museum’s main floor, this exhibit will literally bring viewers into Danish churches. Over ten years in the making, the show includes five magnificent altarpieces, a major accomplishment and gathering never before seen (in an all Bloch show). These altarpieces have not been reunited since their original placement in separate churches during the early 1800s. Alongside the altarpieces, are featured Bloch’s more humorous lithographs and etchings such as “The Roman Barber,” as well as more serious depictions of Jesus Christ. Dawn Pheysey, the curator of religious art, has traveled to Denmark and Sweden multiple times throughout these ten years to gain connections, establish trust, and create networks with European curators.

If Bloch seems unfamiliar to you, I am certain you have unknowingly seen his works in LDS Meeting Houses and as a main artist in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ new publication The Gospel Art BookUnderstanding the significance of Carl Bloch to the LDS community, I find myself extremely disappointed in the direction the MOA has chosen to take for the show's education. For this exhibition, it has been decided that the docent program of guided tours will not be effective. Rather, an iPad will be given to small groups of individuals as they enter the exhibit. On this iPad, small icons will represent each altarpiece and, when touched, will bring up information for viewers.

I am thoroughly discouraged by this effort to educate the community. I worry that viewers will be looking more at electronic devices than discovering the beautiful altarpieces for themselves. After ten years of work to get these works, the community will be more prone to gaze upon an iPad than the art. Learning opportunities, as I see it, will inevitably decrease as human interaction decreases.

What are your thoughts on this new implementation? Do you believe this way of educating the public will be effective?


  1. Camille: great post! I am sorry it took so long to get up. I think you bring up a lot of great questions. On one hand, I can se why the museum would want to reach out to new (and younger?) audiences by using new technologies like the iPad. This could be a fun way to make the museum seem more tech-savvy and lend some additional prestige to the exhibit.

    On the other hand, it does decrease human interaction and may also decrease interaction with the art itself. Also, (I have heard) the iPads will be $3, so those who don't want to pay won't have access to the information. Furthermore, I have heard some concerns that the iPads will be alienating for older guests unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the new technology.

    It will be interesting to see the guest response. Are you affiliated with museum education? Anyway to get updates on the success of the show?

  2. Well, a few items of discussion here. First, I think that the assumption that the tech will overcome the art puts a lot of stock in the handiwork of Steve Jobs and highly underestimates the work of Carl Bloch.

    Second, the next faulty assumption is that if technology is integrated that less discovery happens vs. more discovery. Don't get me wrong, I love going to museums that are very low tech sometimes but I also know how to look and what to look for in an artwork and what sort of questions to ask myself. When I talk with friends about visiting museums, they do not always share my enthusiasm because they don't know how to probe art for themselves. The iPad may serve as training wheels helping the viewer to steady themselves as they move forward. The eventual goal is no training wheels but we have to start someplace.

    Third, the premise that the iPad will decrease instead of increase human interaction. This depends on how you are defining human interaction. If you are talking about the individual with a work of art, it could go either way but if you are discussing small groups with the material, the iPad may win out. If you want proof, go to an Apple store. The one closest to me is flooded with teenagers in small cliques, looking at iPads, iPhones and the like. The iPad because of its size may actually facilitate more group interaction which certainly is a plus.

    As for caprichosa's comments, recent studies are showing that older audiences are not as intimidated by new technologies as much as they are perceived to be intimidated by younger persons like yourself. One of social media's fastest growing sectors is the 45+ crowd. Anecdotally, the most fervent convert to the iPad that I have heard recently is 88 year old Elder L. Tom Perry. He keeps all his talks on there and takes it with him while traveling.

    To be open with my biases, I love educational technology in museums. I want it to be my career. Its application in museums is still so new that we don't have a lot of data back yet on how it's working. These implementations needed to be judged on a case by case basis. There are times when it is integrated and works and other times when it falls on its face but as we evaluate our progress we can invite in new audiences, retain current ones, and incite community involvement.

  3. Thanks Gavin! It's good to hear from you! You bring some great insight to the discussion, especially considering your interest in Museum education and technology.

    I think the key point here is that we don't have a lot of data on tech in the museum, the discussion is pretty riddled with biases informed by each person's views of technology (ie., while Elder Perry is an Apple fan, Elder Oaks still insisted on typing all his reports on a typewriter as soon as a few years ago; I wonder how they would each interact with the exhibit? I have heard there will be a special opening with General Authorities, I would love to be a fly on the wall!) The statement about the difficulty for older audiences came from a colleague in the Museum world who is of that age group and is worried about how the iPads will effect the experiences of she and her friends. Another situation: families with small children. On the one hand it might keep the kids interested, on the other, parents might worry about the iPad getting dropped and broken. Anyway, the possible scenarios and receptions are endless.

    I am really ambivalent about this. I love my MacBook, but sometimes I worry that it thinks more for me than I do. I appreciate the opportunities provided by technology, but don't want tech to predicate my lived experience, or become a principle arbiters of cultural meaning . . . but that's another blog post (or another blog!)

    I am anxious to see how this turns out. I am not sure if there will be text panels, but I think it would be nice to have that option for those who don't want/don't want to pay to rent an iPad. I can see it being a huge success, but I can also see it being very problematic. I also wonder if there are shows for which iPads and are better options than for others? I think I'd prefer them in a show with a more secular theme than one whose focus is spiritual, but again, that's just my opinion.

    Do you know of other museums/shows where this is in use? I'd love to know more.

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  5. Naturally, an interesting concern, but don't think it's not one that the museum staff haven't spent HOURS AND HOURS going over in meeting after meeting, looking at all the possibilities.

    Gavin, so glad you are in on this blog. Wish you were back at the MOA for this iPad innovation. There are two elderly ladies in my Relief Society who use Apple products constantly. They follow along with the manual and in the scriptures, one on her iPhone, the other on her iPad. So it's definitely not something that we can say the entirely senior-aged demographic will hate and be uncomfortable with.

    And trust me, Herman, Ed, Chris et al. have put serious time and planning into the care and safety of the iPads. Hopefully there will be no risks of little kids dropping them or the screens getting scratched. I mean, these are iPads we're talking about, and all those plants in the Lied Gallery aren't money trees. They're being SUPER careful about them.

    But I'm not discrediting your concern in any way, Camille. Everyone on the staff has the same concerns. But like we've mentioned, the iPads are optional. And there will be text panels in the exhibition. And we're training hundreds of volunteers to be in the museum and in the galleries for that one-to-one docent-type contact with the visitors, which the museum educators know is all too important. It's just a matter of figuring out some way that the MOA could schedule docent-led tours in this exhibition. So far it has proven an impossible task, but let us know if you think of a solution!