How to catch a fly ? par Emilie Sitzia & Zaven Paré

Photo Bullitt Identity

An architectural object as black box

The MUCEM postcard shows it standing on the water. This object, which dreams itself transparent under its black mantilla, looks like a metaphorical black box. Against the light, it imposes a mineral opacity to the visitor. It is a black parallelepiped always presented at its best angle. A footbridge is laid between its roof terrace and the rampart of the white citadel of which it has become the annex. The walker enters it from above and leaves it by its extern peristyle, or by descending vertically into its interior. It is difficult to know whether the walker looking for shade has transformed into a visitor during his journey, only the entrances and exits of the public are measurable. Even the duration between the entrance and exit cannot help us distinguish a stroll through the peristyle from an exhibition visit, as one exits through the gift shop. The MUCEM is meant to be occupied, no matter how. Inaccessible or perhaps deliberately omitted, its internal functioning gives the impression of not needing to be apprehended. What goes on in its womb must remain a mystery. As with the black box of a mechanical system, considering that we only have information about what comes in and what comes out, what could the study of the public’s interactions with such an object consist of? 

Paradox of quantitative versus qualitative

As an object, the more the museum attracts attention like Bilbao’s Guggenheim or the Abu Dhabi’s Louvre, the more symbolic value it gains. The MUCEM is also trying to reach an architect’s gesture of this magnitude. What does this architectural-object mean at this specific location at the end of the docks? Why build a museum-box made to attract visitors towards it, at a time when the museum wants to go towards people? Why such a cubic leviathan to host exhibitions about society and ethnographic collections?

The confrontation with the MUCEM black box put us face to face with the paradox of quantitative and qualitative research about museums operations. Quantitatively we know what/who comes in, and we know what /who comes out, but we do not know what really happens inside. In part, we can analyse the mission of a museum without peering into its internal structures or workings, because we know the numbers of entries, which is the same as the number of exits. But, what is the real impact of such visits? Moreover, what is the real impact of the museum’s various functionalities during a visit?

By testing the museum as an opaque whole, we have to consider it as a unit, a device and its function. For such an analysis, the specific knowledge of its system, its internal structure and its mission is not required. This approach is aware of what the missions of the museum are, but is not aware of how it implements them. At first sight, the external researcher is aware that a particular input returns a certain, invariable output but is not aware of how the museum produces the output in the first place. 

In the analysis of the museum as a black box the quantitative approach aims to find the right amount of information about the visitor. The aim is for a researcher to be able to evaluate if the black box is fit-for-purpose in regards to its mission towards the public. The qualitative approach aims first of all to find the representativeness of the visitor data input. It then tests the suitability of the visitor data output. An example is using realistic and representative test data and analysing the results. We also have to consider that asking visitors qualitative questions about a specific exhibition or experience affects the impression of the visitors, therefore impacts on the result of the survey of the research itself.

Flux management

What happens if we make abstraction of individual visitors and if we study flow of visitors, purposefully keeping the museum content and objects out of the equation? 

Access around the building or by the footbridge, stairs and elevators, entrances and exits are considered not just as the doors of inputs and outputs, but flow stress points. Through the various spaces including online spaces, we can thereby study the volumes and speed of flux. Furthermore, the duration of the time spent in the box or online can be qualitatively analysed. However, the ways in which the public engages with the content of the museum/website does not then come into consideration in the analysis. 

The way of circulating in the space is already a gaze, a point of view on the museum. At a certain point, the quantifying of flux (quantitative data) may be transformed into an element of qualitative evaluation of this black box. Can we determine how and when the walker becomes a visitor? Could such a method allow us to avoid the issues present in many research related to museums?

Open Program 

The MUCEM, floating on the water, dreams itself transparent under its black mantilla. At a time when all cultural institutions want to increase their audiences, should we not be questioning ourselves based on the simplest data available? Only with this condition, it may then be possible to imagine how to catch a fly.

Zaven Paré and Emilie Sitzia, résidents du programme Art, science et société de l’ IMéRA – Institut d’études avancées d’Aix-Marseille Université.

Zaven Paré, artist and expert in robotics ; Researcher in “interaction design” at the Escola Superior de Design Industrial/Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (ESDI/UERJ). In residence at IMéRA from February 3 to June 26, 2020 onto the topic : Sonzai-Kan and Cognition (Behavior Monitoring Interpretation for Interaction Design) – project in collaboration with Institut de Neurosciences de la Timone – INT (AMU/CNRS). Crédit Photo : Christophe Delory.

Emilie Sitzia, associate professor at the Maastricht university, Art and Literature & Professor at the University of Amsterdam, Art History. In residence at IMéRA from february 17 to July 10, 2020 in partnership with Mucem , onto the topic : The Mediterranean Identity Formation: Narratives and Multimodal Exhibition Strategies at Mucem


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