Print | PDF
Amodern 5: Harley Parker

WHERE THE YOUTH AREN’T

Harley Parker’s Struggles at the Royal Ontario Museum

Gary Genosko

There can be little question that the new corporate stance as manifested by the tribal “hippie,” in fact by a large number of our teenagers, more or less eliminates those factors of intense individualism which have been observed for the last five hundred years.1

This essay considers Harley Parker’s deduction in theory, and his struggle in practice, to reach a specific audience with his museum exhibition designs. Conceptually, he deduced an audience of late 1960s teenage youth culture and counterculture whose sense ratios had been shaped by television, which largely did not manifest itself physically in the museum space where he worked, that is, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), then a university museum integrated into the University of Toronto, and now an agency of the province of Ontario. Instead, the audience he actually gained was much younger, namely children, whose openness and curiosity he valued, but as a means to reaching others and over the long-term. Even here the missing middle – teenager and hippie – remains a question mark. Indeed, Parker called for greater attention to museum audiences in general, at least as much as that given to collections of artifacts themselves. Reaching beyond mere attendance numbers, Parker devised thought experiments in exhibition design, as well as building experimental installations like a multi-media “orientation gallery”2 that would produce an “interim” period of adjustment for visitors from their everyday sensory environments to worlds other than their own but through a sensory mix that would be familiar from their own world but about or upon which they may not have reflected: “I’m bringing into their consciousness the fact that this is the way they think, because if you’re totally unaware of the way you move through your world, it’s going to be very difficult to come into a different world. I’m trying to bring into consciousness the way we orchestrate our sensibilities, and I’m also trying to reach a rapprochement with the audience of today.”3 In short, for Parker, “by heightening consciousness, you heighten perception”4 and this he speculated might be accomplished by a room of reception or preparation. A large part of the general audience needed a transition space, whereas those that had already transitioned, children in part and in a distracted way, and teenagers, in particular, could seamlessly, but in different ways, enter into an exhibition where total sensory involvement and immediacy would be familiar.

In revisiting a number of Parker’s conceptual and practical formulations and expressions of his search for specific audiences, I will write and critically discuss a series of pseudo-equations inspired by the work of art historian Alexander Nagel on Parker’s museological thought. I am primarily interested in the ways in which Parker sought to reach a cogently conceptualized audience that, while deducible from a variety of theoretical postulates, remained an elusive institutional target. This audience of the teenager and countercultural hippie, exemplars of the contemporary world of communication “nowness,” proved elusive – knowable but not easily captured – for an exhibition designer in a natural history museum in Toronto during the late 1950s up until 1967, when Parker took a leave of absence, never to return. If this elusive quarry did not respond to the beat of the so-called tribal drums of Parker’s gallery designs, which played along with the tune that youth culture was already generating, then his efforts were not exactly in vain. Rather, it led to an intensification of his repeated calls for more audience research undertaken in an interdisciplinary spirit.

 

Two Torontos, or, Footloose Invertebrate Paleontology

The first Toronto I wish to invoke is an early Devonian fantasy of 400,000,000 years ago. This was Parker’s initial reference point in his landmark design of the Hall of Fossils that opened in late January, 1967 in the Royal Ontario Museum. Invertebrate is a catch-all category with a diverse taxonomical array, and although it is a staple of natural museum programs, the fossil collection, as opposed to invertebrate zoology, was also especially fusty: completely encased behind glass cabinets placed in neat rows. By contrast, visitors to Parker’s Hall then found sand underfoot, undulating walls, accessible facsimiles of fossils, photos of rolling waves, mobiles of sea birds, recorded sounds and smells of the sea. This multisensory space was introduced with a diorama evoking a sea bed of trilobites, anthropods, and fishes. The clean geometries of shell life are expressed by means of the placement of the display cases; his love of pattern is evident. The New York Times reporter reviewing the Hall’s opening seems astounded that the fossils can be “felt.”5

A second Toronto circa 1967 is captured in a photomural that Parker used of a local brickyard in which excavated geologic strata expose fossil invertebrates, with the goal of having samples of “local fossils” for sale in the museum. Perhaps this was the Don Valley Brickworks, which supplied the materials for the 1933 ROM expansion. Parker is not specific. This Toronto is a fossil bed – you can literally dig into it. Parker even wondered whether visitors should be able to smell the decomposition of organisms.

These two Torontos are connected by Parker’s goals as an exhibition designer struggling to achieve a “synthesis” of the 20th century museum visitor with an aural-tactile-kinetic perceptual orientation in a curatorial space marked historically by linearity and visual perception of a disciplined academic speciality. Experience or data; artist or scientist; non-visual or visual: these are the oppositions Parker worked with and his goal was to achieve a “sufficient rapport”6 between designer and curator, mediating the experience for visitors in a highly communicative, multisensual gallery that channeled McLuhan into the physical display space: curator’s eye becoming designer’s ear; definition reappearing as suggestion; visual connectivity in linear order becoming a resonant interval of haptic space; the book page turning into an abstract diorama beyond naturalist pretenses. Deeper in the Hall, there were buttons to push that illuminate fossils inviting touch, and 16 wall mounted, dial-less telephones delivering pre-recorded messages and activating slides.

Parker was well aware that dealing with invertebrate paleontology would not be easy. Rituals, social structures and cultural artifacts play no role. Consequently, for Parker there is a massive displacement onto the institutional culture of the academic discipline as a foil, and of the ROM itself as an organization within which institutional relations between its curators and designers were paramount. The sensory mix of the subject area was hyper-generalized and abstracted to available sound samples of storms, waves, birdlife, delivered by technologies available at the time, some in modified forms. And the role of facsimiles increased as touch was emphasized, and an aesthetic of natural shapes dominated. The subject area was sometimes abandoned to outside references, as in his pre-Cambrian abstract diorama – which staged a period before the kinds of fossils of hard exoskeletons on display had even evolved. The Hall of Fossils had a moment of directing the visitor outside of the period and beyond the trace evidence of life to a nebulous and sprawling time-period on planetary evolutionary scales that linked the emergence of life with water. Parker’s recourse to this deep time of the planet stirred, as he noted, “initial controversy,” but he explained that “the depiction of a period before life has tremendous dramatic impact and a seldom-forgotten experience is the result.”7

In this charged encounter, both of the orienting Torontos are erased in a stroke and sucked down a wormhole into geochronological vastness without even the benefit of the invertebrate fossil record for guidance. This intentional provocation must have been, for Parker, a parting shot of calculated insouciance against the traditional values of collection, analysis, and systematic display of specimens, but it was an escape hatch of his own design. At the same time it was a gesture against the grain of his own commitment to audio-tactile sensory design, emphasizing abstract, visual and hard-edged optics. This escape hatch into deep time is both anacademic and anti-institutional. After a leave of absence from Sept 1, 1967 to August 31st 1968, Parker did not return to the ROM. His avant-garde masterpiece was gutted in the 1978-84 renovations of the ROM.

 

A Search for Equality of Expression

Nagel formulates an equation that summarizes the influences on Parker and his signature institutional accomplishment at the ROM:

Parker (Albers plus McLuhan) equals Hall of the Fossil Invertebrates.8

In conceptually unpacking a Yousuf Karsh photographic portrait of Marshall McLuhan, taken in the Hall of Fossils in the ROM, before the bank of wall-mounted telephones and scallop shells, Nagel brings forward the double de-centralization of sight that Parker learned from his art teacher Josef Albers and that was reinforced by his colleague McLuhan, as well as decoding the importance of the iconography of the shell for McLuhan. Nagel does not mention that Karsh, at this very moment and place in 1967, also asked Parker if he would like to pose for a portrait. His photograph lacks an institutional context. The lack of overt complementarity between the two portraits underlines the division of labor in the friendship between the print productions of McLuhan, and the installations and designs of Parker, the latter directly addressing the hypothesized synesthetic awareness of an audience in which he went in search, and which would put him on a restless chaodyssey.

For Nagel, the McLuhan photograph is a “dense paradox,” at once frozen point-of-view and Gutenbergian bookishness, right down to the details of the page image from the Hagia Sofia, but also a resonating field-mosaic inspired by sifted layers of medievalism, emblematically signified by the scallop shell. The portrait is a “mosaic despite its supposedly photographic status.”9 Parker’s Polaroid portrait taken at the same sitting by Karsh, did not feature his creation, but is an illumined face in profile with a single vertical shaft of light in the background. The harsh focus of the lighting accentuates skin detail and hairs to produce drawing-like lines and folds, with pronounced facial hair of an exaggerated, probing, chin puff. The abstraction of Parker from his gallery space, and the insertion of McLuhan, is perhaps too literal an understanding of McLuhan and the museum, but the media of separation, namely books, were no match for the gallery’s powerful embrace. McLuhan and Parker were famously photographed before Harley’s painting Flying Children from 1950, and appeared together in the art film Picnic in Space (dir. B. Bacon, 1967), but ironically it is the Karsh photo of McLuhan that still garners the most critical attention for Parker.

The questions raised by the photo do not end with Nagel’s astute reflections. McLuhan’s seated placement in the ambulatory of the gallery space arrested its flow as a place for walking, the table at which he sits is before the central columnar structure with low relief facsimiles of shells and trilobites, where the telephones hang. But these phones have little agency in McLuhan’s sense of providing a technological exemplar for discarnate users “on” the phone because these devices do not permit any calls to be made and only provide information in lieu of labels bearing Latin names of specimens.10 The gallery provides the device but not the full experience of a disembodied sender, only a receiver of information that arrests one’s capacity to participate, except perhaps in triggering an action, which ultimately reinforces Nagel’s sense of paradox. But here the figure of the telephone itself incompletely realizes the ground of a disembodied user.   Given that the cephalopods, especially the nautiluses, are fossilized, the tensile coil of their spiral shells is arrested. One might say that appearing amongst fossils and telephones without dials, not to mention simulated television screens showing cartoon didactics about evolution, was a gamble in the first place for McLuhan and a question of Parker’s capacity to translate ideas about non-visual orientation into exhibition design.

In his Letters, McLuhan was always circumspect in referring to his friend and colleague Parker as “the painter.”11 What goes unmentioned by Nagel is his analysis of the Hall of Fossils and its painterliness, the semi-abstract diorama of rocks with simulated rain in translucent threads, enhanced with the orchestrated sounds of a storm triggered by stepping on the mat before it, which has a marginal connection to invertebrate paleontology but highlights Parker’s cubist tendencies. In another diorama, the painted models of marine life, especially the squids, staples of natural history displays, and the murals of shell forms in outline, are not of any obvious scale and not referenced to specific marine locations or dates. Parker’s term for this is icon – the timeless image or object that does not represent but results, he claims, from “total sensory awareness,” dominated by sound and touch.12 This notion of the icon was Parker’s connection with medieval culture, and he worked on the concept throughout his published writings. Eschewing visual realism and seeking simultaneity of sensory experiences, Parker sought to overcome objectivist detachment and highly constrained, stamped and dated, representations, for the sake of a reinvigoration of the icon for the age of electricity and the diffuse “total sensorium.” While he had a captive audience who welcomed opportunities for unhindered connectivity and responded to choreographed stimulation, so that he could claim somewhat defensively that he was using “pattern recognition” to initiate the next generation invertebrate paleontologists, the audience he desperately sought and which in theory would have been most sympathetic to his approach, remained elsewhere. After all, Parker thought that the kinds of hallucinogens youth were experimenting with circa 1968 made those who used them see in iconic rather than in illustrative terms. However, they could achieve this sort of awareness quite handily without the assistance of the Hall of Fossils.

In describing his goals with regard to the Hall, Parker underlined that he sought to “synthesize” two spaces: that of the specialist discipline of invertebrate paleontology (two-dimensional, linear and visual) and the largely non-visually organized space (kinetic-aural-tactile) concerned with reaching an audience characterized as young, and whose “sensory orientation” may be “deduced from advertising, clothing, transportation, even Go-Go girls and the psychedelic event.”13 A key institutional point to this synthesis is “mutual belief and understanding” between academic curator and artist-designer. Without this mutuality, such a synthesis is impossible. Likewise, while deducing the sensory orientations of a youthful public may be indirect, he would not uncritically valorize the “misdirected enthusiasm of hippies.” The audience he knew existed in places like Yorkville in Toronto, where he moved his family to from suburban Willowdale, did not fit the profile of a typical ROM visitor. Where were those with the “receiving sets,”14 the right wetware, ready for the messages of his exhibition designs? Parker circled around the figure of the hippie as a leader to the erasure of individualism by the youth culture in general, and drug culture specifically, as an enhancement of sensory post-perspectivalism and non-detachment.

A more institutionally embedded equation would involve these relations:

Parker (collaborative curator plus correctly deduced audience sensorium) equals Hall of Fossils.

If the “experiences” offered by the Hall of Fossils represented the most fully realized synthesis – although qualified as not “totally achieved” – of the above factors, how did Parker arrive at this point? Beginning with the Hall as a pinnacle of Parker’s approach to exhibition design obscures the work undertaken towards this end. Indeed, Parker’s public remarks about the Hall diminished his accomplishment as “baby talk” although it created an audience that didn’t exist: “It’s a first step, at least it’s kinetic, a walk-through, and it stimulates interest. There’ve been more people in that gallery in the past week than in the whole time since it opened, maybe 20 years ago.”15

The necessary condition of a collaborative curator was met in the person of Dr. R R. H. Lemon, described by Parker as a “young paleontologist … [who] started with the attitude of “Let’s see.” Then he certainly began to dig the idea and began to come up with some of his own when he got the slant.”16 An earlier Lemon article appearing in the ROM’s Series on fossils in Ontario,17 characterized by a highly linear and academic essay style, serves as a reminder of the line drawings and grids and glass cases that Parker challenged.

Parker deduced the audience’s sensorium using tools borrowed from McLuhan, and in practice he gained an audience not all that distant from the one he sought: “I aimed this gallery at children … if I can get children, I can get adults. Children are very much orientated to tactile-kinetic-oral forms of communication. The adults are still largely print-orientated.”18 This tactical approach was wildly successful, even though the parents and guardians of the child visitors were harder to reach; but this still did not bring the deduced audience into the gallery, that is, the post-literate youth culture committed to nowness and with the greatest potential affinity with the project. The children were delivered to the ROM by the busload courtesy of school board programming. Parker further specified, however, that he did not solely design his galleries for children. Children are great when it comes to pushing buttons in a display, but they don’t care much about what the “specific information” that appears in doing so. The deduced audience of the tribal teenager and the child overlap to the extent that the effects of television on media habits can be studied (ie., shrinking of near-point reading distance).19 But it is the teenager in particular, by virtue of television immersion, who would be receptive to the organizing principles of the Hall of Fossils and able to recognize the gallery as an site for intergenerational “interaction.” Parker insisted on this point: repairing the relations between generations will require interfaces that can address the breakages and thus help repair the community.20

Responding to a question about audiences during the museum seminar in New York, Parker explained: “I’m primarily interested in the young, and within two blocks of the Royal Ontario Museum, which is, after all, a pretty great museum, there is Yorkville Village, which has perhaps 3,000 hippies and their friends. I have never seen a hippie go inside the Royal Ontario Museum.” When challenged that a few hippies do attend special exhibitions which touch upon youth fashions, for instance, a point he concedes, Parker continues: “But I’m particularly interested in getting them in. I’m quite sure I can get them into a sound and light show. It doesn’t have to be an electric circus. I wouldn’t even mind putting on a discotheque ….”21 Perhaps, then, my equation should be modified:

Parker (collaborative curator plus actually reached audience [x] ) equals Hall of Fossils minus correctly deduced audience.

Thus, in order to account for the trickle of hippies into the museum from a nearby youth mecca, we should add a variable (x) to the term “actually reached audience” under the special circumstances of travelling exhibitions that overtly address youth topics in some measure (like “paper dresses” and Mod styles noted by Parker), in addition to the busloads of children on school trips or visiting with their families.

 

Before the Hall

Already in 1963 Parker had explained the need for non-sequential histories and non-linear narratives in exhibition design. He argued for the selection of architectural forms that captured sensory simultaneity like domes (as opposed to rectangular glass-shelved display cabinets), and explained how audience experiential feedback modifies the knowledge presented in the gallery. Parker mastered a critical approach to habit, bias, and the uncreative side of technologies of display. Imagining a Canadian Eastern Subarctic gallery, he begins with two quick ideas: breaking up historical periods (pre-contact, contact, tribal dissolution) in a room built around a sociological fact: a marriage custom, which is contrasted with typical practices of the museum goer; then another notion: tribal responses to a crisis such as the disappearance of the caribou, which brings into focus the collective processes of thought and invites the museum visitor into the scene. He augments these brainstorms with two principles: another room built around a religious object that acts as if it contained, like the fragment of hologram, all of a tribe’s “mental modes” (Parker’s preferred usage in this regard is artifact as sensory index of the culture that manufactured it, a strategy of totalization akin to Marcel Mauss’s total social fact of gift exchange).

This recourse to a hypothetical world is part of an experiment of thought that elucidates principles of design without facing hard questions about how to actualize them, and indeed, how materials often dictate decisions. I will pick up this everyday material dimension of exhibition design momentarily. Parker was well versed in such “dangers,” as he put it. However, in a mode without doubt, Parker continues thinking through how a mutual and restless modification of visitor and tribal cultures would animate the gallery, again turning to a counterfactual, as if: “Ideally the result should be as if one looked at the tribal life through a transparency of our own culture, or by focusing one can see them separately….”22 Parker’s playful deployment of “broad concepts” is in the service of a first principle of museum design: “disorientation of the mind of the spectator,” that is, disruption of habit; leading neither to the treatment of tribal life as an anachronism, nor assimilating such life into the contemporary visitor’s lifeworld(s). Transparency is here used in the sense of an overlay (still images projected on a film) that itself becomes visible, and the effects of juxtaposition: “creativity occurs only at the point of abrasion.”23

The hypothetical gallery was augmented by experimental design elements. The multi-screen gallery with 6 slide/film projectors, a black walled rectangular room, with strobe-lit manikins, that Parker mounted in the Dutch Gallery of the Museum of the City of New York, showed contrasting scenes of New Amsterdam and contemporary New York City. The sound-and-light show lasted for only 16.5 minutes and was limited to an ideal audience cluster of 12 at a time. Further compression was desirable, Parker thought. Restrictions on budget and reliance on found footage also limited the effects. The proliferation of projectors occurred because of the inability to use odors, for instance, and create manipulable models due to time constraints. But this experiment nonetheless revisited the problems of how to supersede linear narrative history, or at least displace it, and reach the sensory universe of simultaneity and complexly patterned temporalities (in which a de-centered chronology would be only one strand). In principle, once this was achieved, the sympathetic resonances of gallery design would vibrate attractively within the field of the sensory receiving sets of the most self-aware of the deduced audience who might eventually find its way into the museum gallery.

 

Problems with Materials

Exhibition designers and installers know the constraints of budgets, staff, space, and materials, especially if the exhibit is arriving from elsewhere (travelling), or borrowed. In whole or part this was the situation Parker found himself in in 1958 as Masks: The Many Faces of Man – the ROM’s major show of Feb-April 1959 curated by Walter Kenyon and designed by Parker – was in production. Reading through the memos about managing this show provides a textbook lesson in anticipation and adaptation, but also about hierarchy and authority. As late as October 1958 requests for loans from other institutions were being denied. In November the total number of masks was finalized, but how many would be behind glass was yet to be determined. Indeed, that same month an emergency meeting was convened because of limits to capacity of the Ming Tomb and Armor Court, recently redesigned by Parker, to hold more than 175 masks, thus necessitating cuts of some 50-77 masks. Which ones should be cut? Where else could they go (move some of the cut masks to the recent acquisitions cases, as Kenyon suggested to Parker)? The correspondence between the curator and the director (Kenyon and director Theodore A. Heinrich),24 with appropriate cc’s to Parker, and from curator to designer, meant that the designer did not always speak in his own voice. Not everything the mask show committee did as a group would have concerned Parker, but practical matters abounded, and as chief of display, and member of the committee, he had to solve the problems of mounting the masks in spaces he had already worked on but for different purposes. The year 1959 was a breakthrough for Parker in terms of his public profile in Toronto as the well-oiled ROM press machine, and local arts reporters like Robert Fulford, provided both the back story of Parker’s Canada Council-funded European study of the “latest” museum display techniques, and notes of qualified triumph: “The designer … has achieved an exhibition arrangement as good as any I can remember seeing.”25 The important point is that the designer forged a transversal line from the axis of the curator and director directly to the public through the promotional technologies of press release, exhibition review, on site live interviews (CBC “live” with Parker at the ROM), and press reviews that made the point that the commonplace experience of seeing masks in museum spaces became “thrilling”: “The name to be singled out here is Harley Parker.”26 Parker became a mask himself. This trend continued into the early 1960s with the multi-division Search and Research show on the occasion of the ROM’s 50th anniversary in 1962, which featured large hand-painted panels along the winding staircases with playful meta-historical references embedded therein courtesy of Parker (ancients holding modern prints of themselves, surely a gesture of postmodern irony).

The packaging of exhibition construction shots of Parker and gallery installation staff (carpenters, artists, preparators) was a new development for the ROM in the early 60s; in some cases its was newsworthy for arts reporters.27 Typically, an exhibition like Canadian Ceramics (1959), which Parker designed, would not include any installation photographs in the catalogue. The focus on isolated artifacts and objects blurred when Parker’s displays themselves moved from background to foreground through a shift in the promotional culture of the ROM and the Toronto and New York dailies that covered museum events regularly reproduced these images; for instance The Globe and Mail Magazine’s arts cover story of the Search and Research show.28 As the size of budgets for special exhibitions (S&R $15,000) increased significantly over the decade, and investments in gallery renovation were made (Hall of Fossils, $30,000), attendance at these events/openings swelled, and Parker emerged as an exemplar of successful institutional change from the perspective of the arts media. The arts press was in fact tutored by the ROM and by Parker’s repeated media statements in how to talk about presentation and display as much as about content of exhibitions – raising process to the level of product. The overall tone of reportage welcomed the dissipation of a drab and overly-academic institutional discourse, reflecting the ROM’s position within the University of Toronto before separating in 1968, and the emergence of color, drama and excitement – even humor. The growing enunciative force of McLuhan’s ideas within Parker’s public pronouncements, professional and popular publications, generated a potent mix of the sagacious insights of museum designer about communication effects. If McLuhan helped Parker articulate his deduction of an audience whose sensory world could be “re-stimulated” in an empathetic way, and this would be achieved once the burdens of the glass display case and blanket ceiling lighting were thrust off and tossed on the junk heap of technologies of fragmentation, then Parker could successfully reframe his design work as a problem of communication. And, he could pursue an audience primed by the media’s sensory remixes, through intelligent and innovative displays and by challenging the authority of curators to control the exposition of their specialist scholarly disciplines, through the application of the principles of print culture. Parker wrote:

The museum designer today is faced with a complex problem. The earlier developers of museums (and many curators today) took it for granted that the order to be imposed was that of the separate disciplines. The ability to abstract and formulate ideas led to a concern with the output of the communication system with little regard for the ability of the audience to receive the communication. In fact, it led to the situation where, if the receptivity of an individual did not match the visual bias of the scholarly discipline, learning was practically impossible. So long as the book existed as the principal method, or even the sole method of scholarly expression only the visually inclined could expect to gain intellectually. Today, however, intellectual possibilities are increasing for people primarily oriented to senses other than the visual.29

In this statement Parker hints at both an audience educated to alternative principles and an abstract “layman,” for whom the serial-visual principle of organization, perhaps culminating in illustration, high-definition lights and sounds, might one day seem arbitrary. Importantly, Parker could also foil the rather low expectations of the institutional bureaucracy that any designer was expected to add merely “good taste” to curatorial prerogatives30 and forge a new approach to exhibition design, right down to the detail of the label – whose very syntax must become an issue for post-linear exhibition design in the unique medium of the museum. Indeed, the very survival of the wall label was at stake.

 

Desperately Seeking the Audience

The value of McLuhan’s analysis of changing patterns of sensory awareness for Parker was that it allowed him to deduce an audience that could be approached indirectly, as it were, through children and their guardians as well as up-to-date, unbiased laypersons. As I have been arguing, his ideal audience, that he came to identify with the youth culture, and to whose attributes he repeatedly returned, remained conceptually, and even geographically close, but practically elusive. Parker’s thought experiments and experimental installations were partial realizations of his belief in the value of a critical and reflexive design practice that seeks multiple kinds of evidence about the effects of exhibition materials and environments on audiences: “There is an increasing need in our society to provide designers with an opportunity to test designs in their full social effects.”31 Knowledge about contemporary audiences could neither, he believed, be derived from one field alone (ie., advertising) nor could it take a single form (ie., empirical data). Such an audience was not monolithic; its members were subject to constant “re-structuring” by interacting with cultural and technological environments. Yet Parker thought that in deducing an audience he could state something definitely about it, namely, that it “does not separate content from form.” The effects of form on content were a given, and the failure to accept this was to fall back into typical falsehoods: “the fact that so many exhibitions are organized around the labels.”32 Parker’s ideal audience was already conceptually constructed as non-passive, participatory, and self-aware. He believed in the need for audience testing, and agitated for space for interdisciplinary research into the effects of experimental exhibition design:

In order to arrive at any complete program for testing audience reaction in museums it is necessary that we bring together teams of widely divergent disciplines. It would certainly … require psychologists, social workers, designers, architects, medical doctors, psychiatrists, specialists in linguistics, as well as many specialists on various cultures and sciences who already work in museums.33

This interdisciplinary research paradigm is directed at the silo disciplines of the academy, yet does not project the result that specialist curators, once challenged, would simple drop out of the equation. The museum can play a leading role in this paradigm shift: “The museum, as an inclusive inventory of the extensions of man, can perhaps lead the way in the contemporary attempt to reorganize the exposition of disciplines.”34

 

Concluding Remarks

Parker’s decision not to return to the ROM after his leave in 1967 is a clear response to the issue just posed: that the museum would not take the lead in reorganizing the disciplines. Within a few years time his public pronouncements about the ROM and then director Peter Swann became bolder, more definitive, and widely known – “the museum was a nightmare … an inhuman place.”35

In his search for an audience for his exhibition designs Parker recognized that children would be receptive to a number of innovations, and that “at the age of twelve you can condition them, you can make them aware of their environment”36 and continue to reach them when they are adults. This long view did not necessarily exclude the literate adults who accompanied them, but it held out no great hope in this regard. In an essay on the Minimalist sculptor Robert Morris, Jon Bird notes that the artist’s interactive 1971 “retrospective” exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London – which was dismantled by curators after only 5 days – displayed a familiar disjunction between theory and practice. Not only did Morris’s participatory goals parallel those of Parker, but the result in terms of audience behaviour was the same: “It is unlikely that the somewhat naively utopian claim expressed in the catalogue text anticipated the extent of anarchic engagement with the installation by many of the adult visitors (reports by museum staff suggested that the response by children, who had evidently been properly socialized into appropriate playground behaviour, more closely followed the illustrative photographs displayed in the galleries).”37

Another side to this approach was not to design the gallery for paleontologists and to hypothesize a gallery without labels (or labels clustered at the end like footnotes), or least labels designed to be “crunchy,” like breakfast cereal with multiple, distorted type faces.38 Parker was not content with “letting children push buttons” as he soundly criticized the Ontario Science Centre (OSC) for failing to provide any idea of the larger issues such as the impact of technology on people’s lives beyond this meager opportunity.39 To publicly criticize the OSC was a daring act at the time as it was considered to be at the cutting edge of participatory innovation in the museum sector, circa 1969, yet this brashness and mass access it gave to high-tech tools was shallow for Parker.

Even by taking a long, developmental view of his audience, Parker did not maintain that he would eventually find his teenagers. It is surely a cruelty of geography that the hippie enclave of Yorkville village would be so close to the ROM by any objective measure, yet so distant from it in mental terms. And in casting the occasional flow of youth into the ROM as a variable with a fluctuating value alongside a more constant flow of children and their keepers, Parker’s ability to reach his quarry remained largely a matter of theoretical deduction. After all, just a few blocks away things only started to heat as night fell and the ROM was closing its doors for the day. The “night at the museum” had not yet been invented. Not only, then, did the museum not lead the changing relations between the disciplines, but it could not deliver the audience whose sense ratios were best attuned to Parker’s exhibition designs. And it is this latter predicament, as much as any other, that explains why Parker left the ROM’s employment so soon after his greatest triumph as a designer: the museum was a medium through which his ambitions could not be fully realized.


  1. Harley Parker, “The Waning of the Visual,” Arts International XII/5 (May 15, 1968): 29. 

  2. Harley Parker and Marshall McLuhan, Exploration of the ways, means, and values of Museum Communication with the Viewing Public (New York: Museum of City of New York, 1969), 68. 

  3. Parker, Exploration of the ways, 68. 

  4. Parker, Exploration of the ways, 69. 

  5. John M. Lee, “McLuhan’s Views Shape Museum,” The New York Times (Feb. 26, 1967): 32. 

  6. Harley Parker, “New Hall of Fossil Invertebrates Royal Ontario Museum,” Curator X/4 (1967): 296. 

  7. Parker, “New Hall,” 295. 

  8. Alexander Nagel, Medieval Modern (London: Thames and Hudson, 2012), 163. 

  9. Nagel, Medieval Modern, 168. 

  10. Marshall McLuhan, “All the Stage is a World in Which There is No Audience,” The Innis Herald (April 1978): 24. 

  11. See throughout Marshall McLuhan, Letters of Marshall McLuhan, eds. M. Molinaro, C. McLuhan and W. Toye (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987). 

  12. Harley Parker, “From the Iconic to the Pictorial and Back,” British Columbia Library Quarterly (April 1965): 15. 

  13. Parker, “New Hall,” 296. 

  14. Harley Parker, “The Museum as a Communication System,” Curator VI/4 (1963): 360. 

  15. Parker quoted in Lee, op. cit., 32. 

  16. Parker quoted in Peter Grescoe, “The McLuhan of the Museum,” The Toronto Telegram (Jan. 21, 1967): 5. 

  17. R.R.H Lemon, Fossils in Ontario (Toronto: University of Toronto Press and ROM Series, 1965). 

  18. Parker quoted in Grescoe, op cit., 5. 

  19. Parker, “From the Iconic to the Pictorial and Back,” 13. 

  20. Harley Parker, “The Student-Employer Interface,” The Decisive Years 8 (1970): 6. 

  21. Parker, Exploration of the ways, 39. 

  22. Parker, “The Museum as a Communication System,” 359. 

  23. Parker, Exploration of the ways, 49. 

  24. The archival catalogues and correspondence were sourced from the Royal Ontario Museum Archives, RG 107 Boxes 2, 3 and 7. From 1959-64, Parker worked primarily on mounting special and/or traveling exhibitions, but wanted to collaborate with McLuhan on a show known as “Time’s Winged Progress,” which did not materialize. Parker’s proposed book The Culture Box, circa 1972, was never published. 

  25. Robert Fulford, “Art ‘Yahoos’ Laugh in Ignorance,” The Toronto Daily Star (Feb. 14, 1959). 

  26. Pearl McCarthy, “Parker’s Mask Display Something of Thriller,” The Toronto Globe & Mail (Feb. 14, 1959). 

  27. Paul Duval, “Use Life, Color, Drama To Tell Museum Story,” The Toronto Telegram (June 16, 1962). 

  28. Pearl McCarthy, “Searching the Past for Fifty Fruitful Years,” The Globe and Mail Magazine (March 31, 1962): 6-7. 

  29. Harley Parker, “The Museum, Can we get with it?” ROM Meeting Place [unnumbered series] in Varsity Graduate 11/2 (Summer 1964): 112. 

  30. Harley Parker, “The Visual Unseen,” Explorations [unnumbered series] in Varsity Graduate 12.1 (Christmas 1965): 57. 

  31. Parker, “The Visual Unseen,” 60-1. 

  32. Parker, “The Visual Unseen,” 63). 

  33. Parker, “The Visual Unseen,” 64). 

  34. Parker, “The Museum, Can we get with it?” 112. 

  35. Unattributed, “A Citizen Profile: Harley Parker, Fronting for McLuhan.” The Toronto Citizen (Sept. 1970). 

  36. Parker, Exploration of the ways, 72. 

  37. Jon Bird, “Minding the Body: Robert Morris’s 1971 Tate Gallery Retrospective,” in Rewriting Conceptual Art, ed. Michael Newman and Jon Bird (London: Reaktion, 1999), 104. 

  38. Parker quoted in Lee, “McLuhan’s Views Shape Museum,” 32. 

  39. Parker quoted in Lotta Dempsey, “Science Centre called boring,” The Toronto Daily Star (March 25, 1970). 


A special thanks to Eric Parker for allowing me access to his personal files about his father’s career, and to Adam Lauder for his astute comments on the penultimate version of this essay. ROM archivist Judith Pudden was especially helpful.

Article: Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Image: Pavilion of the Blind by Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins. Used with permission.