Saturday, 14 January 2017

When there is too much to learn - Molly Young

Going over my experiences with the broad spectrum of Vietnamese museums, one thing I'm struck by is the density of their history compared to Australian history.

As discussed by William Logan in his article about the Hoa Lo museum in Hanoi, so much trauma and change has happened over the last 100 or so years above that doesn't even account for their rich and vibrant history before that. It's a small wonder that the museums here are just completely overwhelmed with objects and essential histories they have to convey. This confusion and just total overload probably explains why locals have little to no connection to the museums. Walking through museums like the National Art Gallery and Vietnam National Museum of History, the objects are organised in a strictly liner and old modernist style, combined with their limited funding and lack of resources, the first most obvious answer to dealing with this incredible density is just organising it chronologically as best as they can.

However, it is more than obvious that this has proven to be an outdated answer. Theories espoused by Jens Andermann and Silke Amdd-de Sinine point out that, for a lot of museums (obviously Western ones with resources and the cash for experimentation) narrative habits are changing to acknowledge community memory as a "complex aesthetic" and museum objects as a facilitator of shared meanings in a museum. Connecting on a personal and empathetic nature to an object narrative or sharing your own memories or opinion validates and prioritises the information. It means something, so it's worth remembering.

From my experiences in Vietnam, I have found that the museums with

1. Secure funding (Vietnam Womens Museum and their private funding from the Women's Union)
2. Visionary and innovative leaders (Temple of Literature)

have begun the process to begin updating their use of objects and exhibition organisation to more reflect these new museology ideals.

Even though the Vietnam Womens Museum had to tackle the entire history of women in Vietnam as their goal, they've managed to do so in a way (mainly, I believe, by identifying common connections between the different generations such as clothing, or providing highly personalised stories of revolutionaries to connect with) that the communities and locals in Vietnam are able to start developing a strong communal memory through the museum, rather them pushing away their target audience, and what would be their most loyal consumers with overly dense and confusing pathways.

It's an incredible challenge that our Vietnamese friends face. The only real equivalent I can think of in Australia is a completely in-depth history of history of all the traditional indigenous communities in Australia. Combined with the smaller amount of funding they received compared to Australian museums, and in a lot of cases having to fight for approval for new innovative projects, creating museum spaces that do justice to their long and moving history will be one of the most difficult challenges for any museologist of our time.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Isabella Baker - The Gender Museum: Striving for change and equal opportunity

The Gender Museum: Striving for change and equal opportunity
Vietnamese Women’s Museum

Originally opened to the public in 1995 by the Vietnamese Women’s Union, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum (VWM) is innovative and progressive in its affirmative stance as a gender museum. VWM is evocative of the resilient, hard-working, warm-hearted spirit of Vietnamese people. The exhibits share the personal stories of a wide array of women including: revolutionaries, ethnic minorities, single mothers, market stall holders, victims of domestic violence, and sufferers of HIV/AIDS.

The exterior of the Vietnamese Women’s Museum

o. 236, Vol. 59, No. 4,70-79. 1community but also the global community?ltures, which hopefully can lead to a strongWe enter the museum through a side nook, noticing a platform of stairs that lead us up and away from the bustling mayhem of Hanoi, drawing us to rows of photographic portraits of a diverse range of women in Vietnamese society. The tall glass windows and doors feature silhouettes of female farmers and fighters. As we enter, we are greeted with a large statue of the mother and carer of Vietnam – a symbol of  female resilience. A colourful array of conical hats hang from the ceiling, which is reminiscent of lanterns adorning the night markets of Hanoi. These hats are gender neutral and are traditionally worn by both men and women to shield the sun when working in the rice fields. This installation was created as part of a collaborative project by victims of domestic violence.1 The project reached out to these women and provided a safe place for reflection and expression.

The conical hat installation created by women suffering from domestic violence.

This museum is empathetic and real with its approach to education. Director Ms Nguyen Thi Bich Van spoke of numerous independent learning activities including: interactive pieces which enable the visitor to feel the weight of food baskets used by market store holders, push a streamer, and wear a fake pregnant stomach.2 This museum exemplifies a free-choice learning model that promotes participation and encourages the viewer to walk around the space and think about the relationships between different exhibits. Visitors are intrigued and feel a part of the experience.

 It is unique to have a gender museum which is both inclusive and educative, thus displaying facts and stories that sum up the crucial role that Vietnamese women have played throughout time. These stories do not often enter mainstream historical museums, and it is a credit to this museum that they have allowed for such voices to be heard. The museum nurtures a sense of community for Hanoi and a support network for those in need.

The last place I visited in the museum was the art space upstairs, which really sparked my interest. The edgy mirror walls and contemporary paintings set this space apart from the rest of the museum. I would like to see this space expand to include more public artwork by artistans from the local community. A contemporary voice would connect with a younger audience. Education about the artworks could even be integrated into school programs as the museum has many relationships with teachers and schools in Vietnam.3

The visit to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum encouraged me to ask how can museums in Australia work together with Vietnamese museums to create educational programs that cater not only to their local community but also to the global community? International collaboration can lead to a broader understanding of different cultures, which hopefully can lead to a stronger support network. Globalisation means a more diverse and ever-changing audience that the museum will need to engage. By working together it is possible to use our museums as a platform for change... Together we are stronger.

Isabella Baker
1.     Bich, Van Nguyen Thi (2012). Vietnam: Activities Targeting Marginalized Women’s Groups for Gender Equality and Development. Curator: The Museum Journal 55: 301–312.
2.     Tuyet, Nguyen Thi (2007). The Vietnam Women’s Museum: The Promotion of Women’s Rights to Gender Equality and Gender. Museum International No. 236, Vol. 59, No. 4,70-79.

3.     Mostov, M. (2014). Making Space for Experimentation, Collaboration, and Play: Re-imagining the Drop-in Visitor Experience. Journal of Museum Education 39 (2): 162-174.

Giving Life to Objects

Giving Life to Objects

Besides our new friends revealing to me that I have been pronouncing the names of my Australian Vietnamese friends incorrectly my whole life, each museum visit has enhanced my conception of Vietnamese culture and museum practice. 

Just as my experience of Vietnam and Vietnamese culture has been based on my previous personal experience, I don’t doubt that each individual museum visitor holds a unique perspective and motivation that requires a constructivist approach to presenting exhibitions. The constructivist approach involves more than the method of presenting information. It means understanding that when visitors come to the museum they are invariably building on their own narratives of personal identity.

Whilst it is easy to consider visitor as belonging to one of the five categories described out by Falk & Derkling.1 more recent research by Falk proposes that the most common motivations people hold for visiting the museum are identity centered.2 After interviewing visitors at the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts it was clear that individuals each held their own set of motivations. Although each could be considered to fit within these museum visitor clusters there was certainly no precise place for anyone. This might be the reason that although we interviewed many of the same people, some groups placed them in different categories. Regardless of such, the way that these visitors expressed their museum experience was completely based personal reflections and comparisons.

Having minimal didactic information for the individual artworks facilitated these reflections. You don’t have to be an art historian to appreciate the aesthetic qualities or stimulate a personal connection with an artwork. It’s not that artworks speak for themselves, it’s that people speak for the artworks using their own thoughts. The Museum encourages this and is able to use this to their advantage with foreign visitors to the museum (especially those that don’t speak French, Vietnamese or English). Museum objects don’t differ from Artworks in this way. They both stimulate diverse interpretations according to the individual engaging with such.   

If each individual brings with them a set of expectations that is based on their personal narratives, how can the museum convey the intended meaning to their objects?

It is human nature to want to understand the stories of others. Empathy is an evolutionary trait that developed to connect individual group members to strengthen group cooperation. There is a positive relationship between empathy and memory.3 Meaning it is useful in creating memorable museum experiences. The least interesting museum experiences over the past two weeks in Vietnam have been those who don’t consider this an important element of their exhibitions.

The National Museum of History in Hanoi is an example of this downfall. Using the behaviorist method for displaying their objects, they fail to invite any audience engagement outside of having a children’s ‘Discovery Centre’. It was of no surprise to me when our new Vietnamese friend Lian explained that people his age don’t care about going to the museum because history is boring. This Museum perpetuates this misconception, not only with their displays but also with their disregard for the modern leisure consumer.

The Women in History display in the Vietnam Women’s Museum(VWM) diverges from this approach by demonstrating that objects can be brought to life through personal narratives and visitor empathy. The exhibition used objects as a catalyst to not only communicate history but also make it relevant again using empathy. 

This video from VWM is worth watching. It shows the creativity in the Museum's exhibitions.


1. Falk, J. H., & Dierking, L. D. (2012). Museum experience revisited. Left Coast Press.
2. Falk, J. in, Davis, A., & Smeds, K. (2016). Visiting the Visitor: An Enquiry Into the Visitor Business in Museums.
3. Wagner, U., Handke, L., & Walter, H. (2015). The relationship between trait empathy and memory formation for social vs. non-social information. BMC psychology, 3(1), 1.

The Imperial Citadel in Hue

The Imperial Citadel (Kinh Thanh Hue) as part of the Complex of Hue Monuments is a vast political, religious and cultural centre that spreads across 36.6 hectares.  Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, the Citadel was once the former Imperial Capital of unified Viet Nam under the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 until 1945. Despite suffering three wars and immeasurable modern development in the surrounding city, the integrity and authenticity of the site has been well preserved. 

We left Da Nang bright and early and arrived two hours later in a bus depot nearby the site. An observation I made almost immediately here is that if we weren’t guided towards the entrance to site, it would have been difficult to find our way there without prior research.  This could be solved by placing signage on the route towards the Citadel so visitors can be sure they are on the right track e.g. “The Imperial Citadel this way 100m” etc. We also had to walk in single file on a skinny, busy road, which posed questions about accessibility for those with disabilities and safety for those with children.

Once we arrived at the gated entrance there was a large map (see below) that offered a brief explanation of the sites history, purpose and architecture in English and Vietnamese. Each building is clearly labelled and I took a photograph to help me find my way around during the visit. Once inside we were greeted by a tour guide who took our group around the site for about an hour and a half at a casual pace. She was open to questions from the group and happy to elaborate on aspects that we found particularly interesting.  There were many tour groups onsite and this option provides a socio-cultural experience that would appeal to visitors that Falk (2009) might label as experience seekers or facilitators who might want a more in-depth and personal visit.  

The option for individual exploration is also welcomed as there was no particular direction that a visitor had to follow to gain a cohesive experience and plenty of information panels were spread across the site. There were also many interactive opportunities on-site such as audio-visual displays, audio head-sets to listen to traditional music as well as the opportunity to dress and pose like an Imperial. 

The site itself is immense and could take hours to visit so the dwell time of a visitor would depend on how much time and energy they have to spare. That being said, it was about 28°C during our winter-time visit and I couldn’t imagine how hot and fatigued one might get during summer. This is where I see an opportunity for the Royal Antiquities Museum on-site as a recharger space where a visitor could come to cool down, find some quiet and look upon the beautiful objects on display – all they need is some air conditioning!

Thursday, 12 January 2017

A thought crossed my mind following the round table discussion on the topic of ‘orientation and wayfinding’ at the Museum of Royal Antiques in Hue.

          With the citadel, royal tombs, imperial enclosure and the antiquities museum all in a large vicinity, visitors are spoiled with choice at this UNESCO heritage site. Though Lonely Planet, local hotels, tour companies and word of mouth may provide a good picture of how extensive the Hue complex is, a possible idea to enhance mobility around this cultural complex is to ‘bundle’ the experiences available to visitors in the precinct. For example, a visual illustration outlining visitation options (tombs + museum or citadel + museum) and time frames could assist visitors as they make the most of their experience. A wayfinding map catering to themes or time frames to the visit could be available at each entrance of the main sites for consistency.

The ‘bundling’ could be like the ones Graeme noted in his discussion on the topic of ‘informal learning in museums’ where trails are created. This could allow visitors free choice to how they would like to spend their time on site.

Using this technique to market curriculum subjects in my current role proved to be a success last year. With declining enrollments in the Humanities and languages, myself and other department heads in the faculty ‘bundled’ our subjects to showcase relevance in tertiary study and future job prospects. For example, we bundled “Modern History + Chinese” or “Ancient History + Economics” to market the faculty subjects to students and parents. The success was an increase in enrolments in History and Chinese. By ‘bundling’ these links, the department heads and I could show the interconnected nature of curriculum content and relevance to their future study prospects.

Overall, a visitor to Hue Citadel may feel more in control roaming the vast cultural space and gain a sense of accomplishment at the end of the visit. Therefore, a positive museum experience and word of mouth feedback that could encourage future visitors.

That’s my two cents worth! Thanks for reading J

Revy Hamilton Hao Lo Prison

By Revy Hamilton
Last week we visited the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, which is a museum memorialising the prison built in the centre of Ha Noi during French colonial occupation, and functioned as a prison up until the early 1990’s, during which most of the site was demolished for an apartment development, leaving a section dedicated as a museum site. It is also well known for housing American Airforce prisoners during the Vietnam war, and explores all periods of the prisons history up to its destruction.
I subscribe to the idea that historical narratives swing like a pendulum as time passes after the event. A western colonial/imperialist narrative, for example, can be seen to go through highs of pride (as conqueror), then shame (as an oppressor), then eventually (far into the future from now, probably) neither as the history becomes too annotated and antiquated to have a central perspective theme. Alexander the Great was recorded as a great conqueror hero, then a power hungry tyrant who made a wasteland and called it peace. And then again, with historical perspective and emotional distance, he is credited with the spread of Hellenism across Europe and greatly influencing the progression of western civilisation, as well as all of the above. At this period of time, the story of the “Vietnam War” and “the American War” are at times irreconcilable.
Because of its tumultuous history leading right up to contemporary times, as well as it’s connection with two Vietnamese wars, the museum is in a unique position where the living memory and cultural impact of the events it represents are still developing in the surrounding community and the wider world. There is no room for generalised dry history here, the way that one might read about the wars of ancient empires. The Hoa Lo Prison museum still has living survivors that meet and have a close relationship to the museum, treating it as a second home and influencing decisions that the museum makes. The way that the events that happened in and around the prison are represented will have a profound emotional effect on the surrounding community and cultural identity of Vietnam.
So, how does a museum navigate the challenges of such a fresh and powerful history? This is a rhetorical question, I’m not quite sure.
The Director told us that the majority of American visitors to the museum don’t believe that American prisoners of war were treated humanely during their time in Hoa Lo, even when they haven’t heard a contradicting story – it’s a knee jerk assumption that is almost impossible to combat. The strained aftermath of a war, even in times of peace. Us and them. Sometimes the western perception of the outside world is like seeing through a funhouse mirror, even when it really shouldn’t be. I was reminded of this by a throwaway comment Graeme said, small but telling, where he referred to the memorial honouring those that died in the prison as an “altar.” The concept of a war memorial is not unfamiliar to someone from the UK or Australia, and yet it was immediately distanced in his interpretation as something other, unique, comprehendible but not relatable. How can you combat that sort of ingrained segregation even found in museum professionals? And still maintain a national narrative that shares Vietnam’s unique perspective, essential to create an eventual homogenised global history?

Wayfinding in Vietnam

One of the most notable aspects of my experience in Vietnamese museums has been the restrictive wayfinding expectations. This seems to have manifested in two distinct ways.

First, the wayfinding materials such as directional signage and orientation maps dictate a fixed path around many museums. For example, the Museum of Da Nang has signs with arrows in each room with the instruction 'continue'. Similarly, the National Museum of History provides a map of the entire exhibition layout with a predetermined path to follow.

The second independent wayfinding restriction I experienced was the insistence of some of our Vietnamese colleagues in following a specific path around each museum from the 'start' to the 'finish' and their decision to stop and read from guidebooks about individual items they consider important. Perhaps this is not the universal experience of Vietnamese museums, as we were uniquely privileged to work with our own local experts; however, guided tours do seem to be the favoured interpretation strategy at some sites such as the Hue Citadel and the Temple of Literature in Hanoi.

I have found these wayfinding techniques particularly restrictive because, as an 'explorer', I am used to free-choice exploration where I can rely on sightlines to prioritise my visit. This very rarely involves following a set path, so these two wayfinding techniques have been insufficient in catering for my learning style.

It is interesting to consider these prevalent and fixed wayfinding techniques in the context of Vietnam. A fixed narrative approach, usually featuring a single, authoritative voice, seems to be the standard form of exhibition construction. This, perhaps, can be attributed to the historical control over the dissemination of information and the continuing approval process for many city and national museum displays in the country. In addition, it is obvious that the Vietnamese people generally speaking are very proud of their identity and their long and complex history. It must therefore be difficult to prioritise or allow visitors the freedom to prioritise certain parts of history over others by facilitating varying dwell times and free-choice navigation. 

This assumption may be supported by the observation that museums with narrower focuses and content that stretched smaller historical periods, such as the Hoi An Folklore Museum and the Temple of Literature, were much more free in their wayfinding instructions as they were less concerned about visitors skipping chronological events.

One final observation is the demonstration of everyday independent decision making by a majority of Vietnamese people in the form of traffic negotiation, where rules are only loosely obeyed and each driver takes her own initiative. It is interesting that this trust in independent choice is not extended into many museum experiences, where the decision making process and narrative construction seems to be the prerogative of the curator rather than placed in the hands of the visitor. This does, however, seem to be changing.