Sarah Younan | Towards a Digital Dream Space

Museums create fictional universes, much like the original cabinet of curiosities they aim  they construct model universes by collecting, ordering and displaying overviews of the external world. These have been used over time to support and reinforce current understandings of the world. Despite their emphasis on real and original items museums ultimately produce fiction, their very own brand of surrealism. In my project with digital scans of museum objects I have covetted and encouraged this museum surrealism and found myself straying into the ‘museum dream space’…

Objects can become staging grounds for symbolic action. When objects enter the museum, they are removed from primary experience and embeded in narrative; their practical value is replaced by “exhibition value” (Benjamin, 1973).  There is no guarantee that the story told by the museum is identical with the viewer’s reading (Hein, 2000). Museum objects can elucidate historical or scientific knowledge, they can be of aesthetic and educational value. However they can also elicit personal memories (Kavanagh, 2000), blending inner and outer experience into one. In my work with digital models of museum artefacts I have sought to explore how digital models of museum objects can trigger our imagination, emotions, senses and memories.

Going into the museum storage to scan objects I was confronted with a myriad of pieces to choose from. I selected objects based on how they ‘called out’ to me. The emotional impact or “push” of an object (Thrift, 2004: 64) is variable, my response to the museum pieces was influenced by my place within history and culture (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000) and the emotional state I was in at the time of the encounter. The objects I found myself attracted to became the chosen ones, and were digitized in order to be shared with a number of artists used to create new artworks based on the historical artefacts.

In this context the scans can be seen as moulds, shaped voids into which artists could pour their emotions, creativity and memories. Often the artists interaction with the digital models and the works they create from them have little to do with the original historic artefacts, I found the artists where tapping into what Gaynor Kavanagh describes as the museum “dream space” (Kavanagh, 2000). In her book Dream Spaces: Memory and the Museum Kavanagh describes the dream space as a level of interaction with museum objects, which triggers private associations, thoughts and memories.

In dream space many things might tumble through our minds: bits of songs, half-written shopping lists, things left unsaid. (Kavanagh, 2000)

Kavanagh is building on theories on symbolic museum interaction put forward by Sheldon Annis in his essay The museum as a staging ground for symbolic action (1986).  In this essay Annis examines ways in which viewers construct meaning from museum objects and describes three levels of object-viewer interaction, which he calls ‘spaces’; the cognitive space, the pragmatic space, and the dream space (Annis, 1986).  The cognitive space describes the rational contemplation of the museum.  This space is informed by signage and display design, meaning is assigned to objects through curative choices. The pragmatic, or “social” space (Kavanagh, 2000) is the field in which the viewer moves and interacts with other people, and in which we act out our social roles in the museum. The dream space is the field of interaction between the object and the viewer’s subrational consciousness.

The viewer’s mind and eye subrationally seize upon certain objects that jolt memory or recognition and provoke internal associations of fantasy, desire and anxiety. (Annis, 1986)

3D scanning allowed me to take these emotional triggers home, and to share them with artists internationally. The digital models of the museum artefacts became gateways into the dream space; they acted as “liminal objects” (Murray, 1997). Liminal objects are located “on the threshold between external reality and our own minds” (Murray, 1997). The concept of the liminal object has its origins in Winicott’s notion of the “transitional object”, a material object to which an infant attributes special emotional value (Winnicott, 1971). Liminal objects exist on the threshold of reality and imagination, through creatively re-imagining the museum artefacts the dreamspace can take form.

Digital media enable audiences to step into museum fiction and re-imagine events. My favorite example from this project is a pre-hispanic Mexican clay mask from the storage at the National Museum of Wales. This artefact lacks background information; the museum has no infromation on when the piece was aquired and from whom. It is presumed to be Mexican, perhaps from the Teotihuacán region in the Central highlands, and dated to around AD 500. Mario Padilla, a Mexican artist who is working with me on this project, has chosen to work with this mask, he sees it as his ‘cultural responsibility’ and will be contacting experts in Mexico to try and discover more information on the piece.

Not only will the mask be taken out of storage and exhibited for the first time, it is also gaining a story, and has, in some way, even made its way back to Mexico.

Step by step the digital models are feeding information, emotions and stories back into the museum. This project will conclude with an exhibition at the National Museum of Wales in April 2014. I am still taking on new participants, for more information and to access scans contact sayounan(at) by December 2013.

ANNIS, S. 1986. The museum as a staging ground for symbolic action. Museum International, 38, 168-171.

BENJAMIN, W. 1973. Illuminations, London, Fontana.

HEIN, H. S. 2000. The Museum in Transition; A Philosophical Perspective, Washington and London, Smithsonian Institution Press.

HOOPER-GREENHILL, E. 2000. Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, Routledge.

KAVANAGH, G. 2000. Dream Spaces: Memory and the Museum, London, Continuum.

MURRAY, J. H. 1997. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, New York, Free Press.

WINNICOTT, D. W. 1971. Playing and reality, London, Tavisctock Publications.


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