Thursday, November 15, 2007

Handmeon: a new relationship to museum objects? - by Maureen

Handmeon has introduced a new relationship to objects, collecting and giving. The potential implications are very interesting for museums.

A Handmeon is an object with its own website. The premise is that the object's signficance is created, at least in part, by a person's experience in the world with the object. The person can impart aspects of this experience to others by attaching diverse forms of information to it, for example text, photo, film, sound.

The social creation of significance could be said to be as true of a Van Gogh as the paper maché box made for by my daughter on Mother's Day. Even -- perhaps it's more appropriate to say "especially" -- great art has a history and this history is often as intimate as any personal biography. Don't we all know the story of Vincent's ear? Can't we picture the night sky of Provence?

Imagine a museum where in addition to viewing the collections on display, you could access a website associated with each object. Furthermore, imagine that you could gain this access on or off site and participate in the "writing" of the object's story yourself whenever you felt like it. The enabling technology - the web-connected cell phone - already exists. Soon enough everyone will carry their "object reader and writer" around in their pocket.

It probably sounds iconoclastic to speak of a visitor "writing" the story of a museum object. But why not? The art you encounter in museums are "merely" objects. Their meaning is imparted by all of their appreciators, regardless of their credentials. Just like the meaning of any number of things in the world. You see similarly shocking examples at work right now on the Web, notably Wikipedia. On Wikipedia, a highly respectable resource, anyone who plays by the rules can participate in the amassing of information. The distinction between "expert" and "amateur" fall away on the Internet, the place where "nobody knows you're a dog".

What about the collector who wants to donate his or her collection to the museum? The Handmeon allows this person, like others, to impart his or her experience with the object. Moreover, the art collector who uses Handmeon gets the bonus of a crash course in "How to live with your mortality" and "What's a possession" -- one of the most enticing aspects of Handmeon. It's a philosophy lesson with a practicum.

Handmeon gives a gentle reminder that because we are mortal, what we consider our possessions are merely ephemeral cohabitations -- Unless we consume "our" objects, incorporate them like a piece of beef or reduce them to pieces chemically or mechanically -- most things we own will pass into the hands of another person, whether it be directly from our hands or by a proxy after our death.

It's imaginable that more people will come to feel as I do that "possession" is a not a very interesting nor appealing way of relating to the material world. Yet I am not an ascetic. I do greatly appreciate, even love, many objects. I prefer to describe my relationship to things in terms of "experiencing their presence" rather than "owning" it. Especially since, it seems to me that "ownership" and "possession" are on a slippery slope that can lead to a reversal of the subject and object functions. Many a person is possessed or owned by the possessions they allegedly own. And the world is not a better place for this reversal.

Handmeon provides a space in which to imagine alternative ways of being with objects and sharing reflections on these alternatives with other interested people. Handmeon can literally bring new meaning to museums and to life.

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