For a search engine to work well, it needs to know where to look. The streetlight effect offers a common metaphor. The drunk man searches under the streetlight because that’s where it’s easiest to find things. In a search of a museum collection database, we can search most easily, or only, in the categories that are well described, that we have good vocabulary for, that curators care about.
I’d like to suggest another metaphor: the amusement park dark ride.
There are two kinds of amusement park rides. When we think of amusement park rides, what we mostly see are the ones that are out in the open. Roller coasters, Ferris wheels… We see what’s going to happen, we more or less know what will happen, the path that the rider will take through time and space. Even more important for my metaphor, so does the rider. On a Ferris wheel, you know that you’ll go around in a big circle. It’s not quite so clear on a tilt-a-whirl, say, because your path is complicated. And on some big roller coasters, it’s not all visible. But still, you know that if you go up very slowly for a long time, you’re going to go down very quickly for a short time…
Now let’s imagine the other kind of ride, what the cognoscenti call a dark ride. Dark rides are enclosed. You can’t see them from the outside, so you don’t know what the path will be. Inside the enclosure it’s dark, except when there’s an experience. That increases the fear factor, but more important, it highlights the theatrical effect.
Consider what it’s like to be the rider on a dark ride. It’s an experience of uncertain movement in the dark, on paths that aren’t clear – more than not clear, completely unknown, by their very nature surprising – punctuated by bursts of light, when you see something. And, of course, when you’re suddenly visible.
Now, to turn amusement park rides into a metaphor for material culture, and to consider what that means for the museum, and particularly for search in the museum…
What kind of ride are material objects on? What assumptions have we made about them? What assumptions have art museums and anthropology museums made about them? My conceit is that objects are on dark rides, and museums – for good reasons – are imagining them as on old-fashioned roller coasters.
So: let’s get on the roller coaster. Or more important: I want to let the object get on its roller coaster and watch it both from a distance – what we see – and also try to give you its story, its view from the roller coaster.
There’s a lot happening in the moment it appears. To use the roller coaster metaphor: this is a launch ride, not a lift ride. There’s an explosion of activity. Trees chopped down, animals slaughtered, birds captured. Knives and needles. Skills and culture and aesthetic vision, needs for immediate use, a sense of history and tradition, a social arrangement that allows for people to come together to make things, another that allows for its distribution, maybe ideas about the future… the object is born. From our watching perspective, it’s suddenly burst into light, but from its perspective, on the dark ride, there’s been a lot of waiting in lines, a lot of history.
Anthropology museums are pretty good at this moment of creation. In the late 19th century, you’d have a synoptic display of tools, playing out the story of invention. In the early 20th century, the diorama would show the Native person at work. In the late 20th century, say at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, you’d have an entire village imagined as a worksite. Art museums are less interested, maybe too invested in the notion of genius to focus on materiality and workmanship – though the RISD Museum has done this nicely in a few areas.
But back on the dark ride with our objects. Most things are in the dark most of the time. They’re in dark closets, in the dark because it’s night, in the dark because they are only needed for a particular occasion or use. We can’t see them, we don’t think about them.
Things are illuminated when they’re in use. They’re taken out of the box, allowed to do their thing. That story gets told in history museums, anthropology museums, industrial museums.
Things are illuminated at moments of exchange. Consider this from the object’s point of view: a dark box, the nagging friction of being carried, and suddenly: a bright light of evaluation and comparison. An abrupt switch onto another track.
Objects don’t last forever, of course, and processes of decay happen in our metaphorical darkness. Museums – art historians, most anthropologists – don’t note them well. Archaeologists do, of course, for some objects: one could imagine the archaeologist visiting the dark ride after it’s been closed down. But that’s a metaphor for a different time.
For a very few lucky objects, there’s a different kind of moment in the light, a special kind of moment of exchange. That’s the moment when they switch off of the use track and onto the museum track. The objects we’ve seen today have made that switch. But that’s not as simple a switch as we sometimes think. It’s another bumpy transition, often, through many hands in the dark. Dealers, collectors, sometimes smugglers: there’s a dark transition here before the bright light of the museum case – or, I should say, the conservationally appropriate 5 foot-candle light of the museum case.
And for many more objects than we imagine, the museum is not the end of the roller coaster ride. Once they’re in the museum, they get taken out of their dark storage rooms for scholarly use, for exhibitions, for comparisons.
The drunk looks under the streetlight because that’s where the light is best. In the life history of an object on a dark right, the light is best where the object is having an experience. And that’s what museum search engines should focus on. We need to think about cataloging and describing not the parts of the story that are static but the parts where the object is suddenly exposed to the light, where the experience happens. We need to catalog the full life history of the object, and then make it possible to search for it.
How do you find things on a dark ride? You look under the light. But on the dark ride, unlike the streetlight effect, the light is where we should we looking. We just need to pay attention.