Critical design research in the museum field

Rikke Baggesen, Denmark

The paradigmatic turn in the museum field referred to as a ’new museology’ can be broadly summed up in Weil’s (1999) dictum ’From Being about Something to Being for Somebody’. The shift, which has been further accentuated by the conditions of the experience economy and the influence of new media, has led to museum practitioners and researchers increasingly relying on methodologies from the social sciences in order to comprehend the future of museums through an understanding of its current-day users. A similar reflection on the interest in the user perspective can be found in the growth in projects using participatory design techniques to produce academic knowledge and new practices of mediation.

Whilst the potential for ethnomethodological design processes to deliver solutions and insights for museum research is thus being tested, the applicability of other approaches in design research to the field has yet to be examined. This presentation will discuss the prospects for and challenges in applying critical design thinking to museum issues.

The project Mobile Mediation of Fashion by Museums explores how museums may harness mobile and social media to engage users with everyday cultural heritage, i.c. fashion, in original contexts and online. The project also, and as importantly, seeks to address the implications of such forms of mediation for the museum’s objectives, role and identity.

The method developed in the project therefore takes inspiration from critical design, a tradition grounded in critical theory and interventionist art. This thinking holds that design may not only provide solutions, but can also be used to identify and discuss possibilities, problems, questions and assumptions inherent in the field. This understanding of design as a tool for research is thus also a return to the museum’s and museology’s humanities origin. New research methods may in this way contribute new insights and perspectives on essential questions and conflicts still reverberating in the museum field since the shift in paradigms.