September 4, 2008
Haidee Wasson (Cinema Studies, Concordia University), “Screens and the New Museum”

Abstract: This paper and seminar addressed the questions raised by the convergence of two technologies of display: the film screen and the art museum. By focusing on a historical case study (The Metropolitan  Museum of Art, NY), we examined and discussed some of the ways in which the institution’s use of the screen interfaced with contemporary debates within and outside of the museum concerning art, space, temporality, and the attention of museum-goers.

Event report: Haidee Wasson discussed the convergence of two technologies of display—the film screen and the art museum—through the historical case study of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Looking at how the Met innovated the use of screens in the museum speaks to contemporary debates within and outside the museum concerning art, space, temporality, and the attention of museum-goers. The Met, as an early adopter of film technology, produced its own films during the period 1922 to 1935. While early non-narrative film is often thought of in terms of the cinema of attractions, these films, which to a degree substituted for exhibits, tended to be slow, contemplative, anti-spectacular, and even dull. The Met’s films were conceptualized as “useful” in a number of ways, including as a respite for alleviating museum fatigue, and as a tool for “disciplining the eyes” of the public. Popular and scientific ideas of the period about how best to stimulate attention prompted innovations in curatorship including a shift from salon style exhibition to successive, chronological display, as well as the use of film to provide rests in the spectator’s path through the museum. The formal techniques of such films included shooting still objects in a museum setting using slow camera movements, suggesting that these films participated in training a particular type of ambulatory spectatorship suited to the museum setting; in effect, they taught patrons how to look and for how long. Wasson pointed out how the specificity of museum spectatorship is linked not only to a particular speed and mobility, but also to the fact that the museum space is deeply intermedial, incorporating mass media like newspapers and radio, as well as representational visual media. This talk drew attention to how cinema and views of spectatorship have been constituted historically by different institutions. In the case of the museum, cinema was envisioned as a situational, pragmatic, and didactic tool, while spectators were conceptualized as embodied subjects whose eyes could not be separated from their tired legs.