An Evening with Napoleon
For this assignment, I have chosen to observe people in the Napoleon exhibition at the Museum of History. I chose this site out of convenience, since I was already visiting the museum for my archaeology class. Also, I was planning to see the exhibition at one point so I figured this was the perfect opportunity. I also thought that the space could offer some interesting observations given that museums are visited by tourists from all around the world and locals like me. I am interested in the dynamics of the space and how the space itself affects how people interact with each other. For the first ethnography, I have chosen to take a narrative tone in order to illustrate the space in a chronological manner. I also focus on the bits of conversations I overheard and the ways in which people interacted in the space. For the second ethnography, I have chosen to take a sensorial approach. This should provide the audience with an overall feel of the place as if one was actually experiencing it. I describe the ambiance through different senses.
I enter the room where the exhibition takes place. An older couple has made it there before me. I position myself behind them to read the exhibition’s first section label written in big type on the wall, right of the entry. The man tells, what I presume to be his wife, that taking pictures with the flash on is prohibited. A few moments later, I catch a glimpse of light from the corner of my eye. As I turn myself towards him, I hear the man telling his wife that he cannot figure out how to take off the flash and continues to take pictures of every single label and artefact while the woman takes her time to read all of the descriptions. A second couple appears, probably in their 20s. The girl has a map of the museum open in her hands as she enters the room. I presume she is with her boyfriend as the guy’s arm is wrapped around her shoulders. They too stop at the first section label to read. I can tell that they are very excited to be attending the exhibition, evident in their wide smiles. As I am taking notes on my phone, I am becoming increasingly anxious about the way I present myself in the room. I feel pressured to put away my phone as if I was doing something socially inappropriate. Nevertheless, I continue taking notes, while also attempting to take part in the experience. Further into the room, I notice a man in a wheel chair come in. He seems to want to avoid the crowded areas, where people have already congregated. He skips 2 sections, stops at a large painting and stays there for a while to observe it. As I walk further into the exhibition, I notice a family come in, two parents and 3 kids. They all have maps of the museums in their hands which seem to capture the attention of the kids more than the actual exhibit. A few minutes later, I hear the mom disciplining her child, trying not to disturb other visitors: “Come here, you stay here! Where is Roland?”. I now find myself in the third section of the exhibition. The young couple have made it there before me. They are observing the same painting as the man in the wheel chair was observing. The girl mimics the position of one of the men in the painting and laughs. While I observe an archived document, I see the older man with the camera walking backwards, holding his camera up as he tries the take the perfect shot. The man stood so close to me that I had to move in case he would bump into me. I found this kind of funny. A few moments later, I notice that I seem to be following three middle-aged friends as we are constantly catching up to each other. The friends walk together to the same section of labels and artifacts, and discuss what they learn and see. One of the friends seems to have a lot of background knowledge on Napoleon. She also talks about her extended stay in France and how she has visited some of the places mentioned in the exhibition. Something about this annoyed me, partly because I thought she was distracting and seemed to be showing off. As I make my way through the different rooms, I often hear comments like: “wow”, “cool”, “look at this”, “that’s amazing”. Somehow, I feel rejoiced hearing these comments, and soon, I too feel this way. As I make my way towards the end of the exhibition, I see a woman sitting down watching a featured video. I decide to sit near her to take down some more notes. A man is also watching the video, but he is standing up, partly blocking my view. The woman, presumably his partner, gestures him to move, so he does and sits beside her. They whisper words I cannot hear, so as to not disturb anyone. Finally, I leave the exhibition through a hallway that leads me into the gift shop. There, I find the last couple looking for a gift for “Brian”, someone I imagine is dear to them.
In the Napoleon exhibition, one is submerged into a different time and space through a change in ambiance that appeals to the senses. As soon as someone steps into the room, their senses are attuned to a specific lighting, décor, music, sounds and educational material. As a person walks into the room, one’s eyes must adjust to the dim lighting due to the huge contrast between inside and outside the exhibition. It is so dim that it is prohibited to take pictures with the flash on as it might disturb other visitors. Spotlights illuminate section labels, descriptions and artefacts, making one’s eyes focus on these things. The moment one person enters the room, their head turns to the right where the first section label is brightly lit. In one of the sections, a part of the floor is illuminated with a projection of what seems to mimic a cobblestone road. However, it appears a blue and purplish, rather than its usual colour and makes for an interesting ambiance. In terms of the décor, the walls are painted blue and white and are decorated with golden fleur-de-lis which are colours and symbols associated with French royalty. The floor is covered in a dark carpet, it is hard to see exactly what colour it is exactly as it is very dark in all the “rooms” or sections. One wall is dedicated to a large depiction of the royal court and attracts many visitors despite it having no description. There were also a few life-size carton cut-out figures and fake two dimension chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, although one would have easily missed the latter if he or she had not looked up. Additionally, some spaces had large fake white columns, representing some architectural characteristics of the time. There was also a brick wallpaper on one of the walls. Furthermore, the space is characterised by background music, a classical French orchestral music associated with Bonaparte’s time. In a different space designated to the city’s architecture, one is able to hear the sounds of carriages, church bells, fountains, people, birds and the wind gently blowing. One is able to hear faintly the sounds of the featured documentaries which are located in dark, unlit rooms in addition to the whispers of other visitors in the room. Last but not least, section labels are written in big type on the walls, while the descriptions are typed relatively small beside or beneath the encased artefacts. The artefacts are displayed throughout the exhibition, leaving perhaps a meter distance between each of them. Strangers try to avoid being too close to one another and try not to block anyone’s view. These educational materials allow the visitors to learn, however it is these other mechanisms (lighting, décor, music, and sounds) that allow the visitors to submerge themselves into the time and place that they are learning about. In this way, the ambiance makes the experience memorable.
In the first ethnography of which I have chosen a narrative approach, I decided to focus on the visitors’ behaviours and the bits and pieces of conversations and comments that I overheard. From this, I have learned that behaviours and conversations can become predictable in a particular type of setting. Also, there are certain social expectations associated to this setting, such as not to talk too loud, to not stand too close to strangers, to stay close to whomever you came with, to take your time, to pay attention and to not disturb other visitors. What I hope readers to understand from this particular ethnography is how a space can affect and lead to behaviours and conversations through the space’s associated norms. In the second ethnography, which I have chosen to take a sensorial approach from a 3rd person perspective, one should be able to imagine and experience the space through the descriptions of the lighting, décor, music, sounds and educational material which make up the space. What I wish readers to take from this ethnography is the way in which a space is purposefully transformed and decorated with the help of symbols to ensure a certain kind of experience. Additionally, one should remark that the space or the experience is limited to 2 senses, sight and hearing. One should ask why these senses were prioritized for this exhibition? And how does this affect one’s learning experience?
Together, these different approaches become complementary. The first ethnography focuses on people (conversations, comments and behaviours) while the other focuses more closely on things relating to our senses (lighting, décor, music, sounds and educational material). Additionally, one is told from an insider’s perspective (1st person) which recounts a particularly social experience, while the other is told from an outsider’s perspective (3rd person) which describes a particularly sensorial experience. Furthermore, the first is portrayed in a chronological manner, whereas the second portrays a still picture. Finally, the first ethnography is concerned with the subject matter of conversations, peoples’ behaviours, and certain norms associated with the setting, whereas the second ethnography is concerned with the things that make up the space, the things that control the ambiance in which these interactions take place. Combining them together makes for a more complete picture and understanding of the events, specifically the way in which the space is modified to control the way in which the visitors experience the exhibition.
In conclusion, this assignment taught me a lot about the difficulties that one faces when writing an ethnography. For instance, I had to pick and choose which information I should use according to which approach. Some of the observations that I have not mentioned were still interesting, yet I did not find them to serve a purpose in either one of my ethnographies. I found myself limited in how much I could describe. For instance, especially for the second ethnography which relates to the senses, I would have liked to go back to the exhibition as to get a more detailed description of the senses I experienced, particularly relating to smell and touch. It was only after I had done my observations that I decided which approach to take, therefore I was not looking for specific things. By using a narrative approach for the first ethnography and focusing on conversations, comments and behaviours, stories were able to come through, and permitted the subjects to transform into “characters”. Additionally, a narrative approach allowed for sense of time or otherwise a chronology to come forth, making it somewhat a story, with a beginning and an end. Having read various types of ethnographies during this semester has allowed me to understand how voice and style can bring different things “to the table,” meaning that some things can either highlighted or obscured according to the voice and style that is chosen. I have seen this to be true as I have noticed in my own ethnographies how some elements of my observations can be emphasized more than others. Moreover, the ethnographies that I have read have informed me about the politics of representation and “partial truths.” I realize my observations only represent one side, one story, of the event. If it would have been someone else observing, the observations would have probably differed in many ways.