Spatial Discontinuities in a Museum


A review of Finding the Museum: The Spatial Discontinuities of the Mattress Factory Art Museum, by Ju-Chun Cheng.

Ju-Chun Cheng’s PhD thesis is personal, intriguing and exceptionally well written. It focuses on the spatial practices at the Mattress Factory Art Museum (MF) in Pittsburgh, USA, and seeks to understand and conceptualize the specific space it is.

The title, Finding the Museum, works in different ways. Cheng herself explains that the title is a metaphor for the fact that the museum is “an installation artwork itself within an old residential neighborhood of the city, where visitors unfold and enfold the multiple roles and functions of this museum through their engagement with its experiential spaces and surroundings” (p. 16). However, to me, it also functions as a frame for the exploratory research she has carried out, thus demonstrating the process that she, as a researcher, has been involved in, while getting to know and analyzing the museum and its practices. Moreover, Finding the Museum points to the journey of reading the thesis. As readers we are invited to join Cheng (and her friends as well) in their personal explorations of the MF and are let in on their sensuous encounters and interactions with both the museum space and various art installations. Alongside them, we ‘find’ the museum, so to speak, and we are privileged in doing so.    

The thesis is shaped around five intense chapters, where personal experience and description, analysis and theory intertwine and merge, producing a highly original and very inspiring argument, which, as mentioned above, deals with understanding MF’s spatial practices. I will return to this. Cheng defines her thesis as a “theory-led” case study (p. 88), and she describes how she is a part of the research herself: “I wove my memories and past experiences of other art museums and cultural places into the narratives of my responses to the museum’s contents and surroundings” (p. 90). These personal experiences are combined with a methodology built around Clifford Geertz’s idea of “thick description,” where analysis of data entails a highly detailed description and, added to this, is a writing style based on Jerome Bruner’s principles of narrative. The result is a thesis in which the structure, content and tone are both unusual and unique – in good ways.    

The “theory-led” approach is clear from the start. In the glossary at the beginning of the thesis, Cheng reveals that the lenses she applies while exploring the MF are Michel de Certeau’s concepts of Space and Place, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Smooth and Striated space, Henri Lefebvre’s notion of Archi-textures and, finally, Michel Foucault’s Heterotopia and Emplacement. These theoretical concepts are applied to the MF throughout the text and serve as a red thread, which runs through description, analysis and the educational implications, with which Cheng concludes the thesis. This strict, but complex focus on MF’s space, works really well and, despite the fact that these concepts are very elusive and difficult to pin point, Cheng manages, through her continuous and persistent insistence on the MF’s specificity, to use them in a way that is both rewarding and enlightening. This is, for example, seen when she relates MF to smooth space in order to understand her own feelings of anxiety when visiting the MF for the first time.   

In Chapter 1 Cheng introduces the MF and her personal encounter with it. Here the changing history of the museum is described, as well as its position and context. She also presents her theoretical concepts and three research questions. These are defined as follows: 1) to examine and conceptualize the educational characteristics of the spaces at the MF; 2) to examine and conceptualize the spatial characteristics of the MF and how they might inform educational practices in other museums; 3) to examine and conceptualize the cultural objectives of the MF in working with invited artists and curators to create works of installation art that engage and intersect visitors’ diverse spatial memories and cultural histories.

In Chapter 2, Cheng’s description and analysis of the MF becomes more theoretical, but maintains the personal and sensuous approach developed in the first chapter. Entitled “Theorizing Museum Spaces,” here Cheng presents her encounters through the theoretical concepts listed above. For example, she argues (based on De Certeau) that the MF, in its physical location, is a place that someone has planned and organized. While it is more complex, it is also a space “where people act and respond to its environment according to their personal memories and cultural perspectives” (p. 19). Thus, “‘space is a practiced place’” (citing De Certeau, p. 19). She also looks at the MF from the perspective of Lefebvre’s term archi-textures. Cheng describes how “archi-texture is a complex set of relations that constitutes the milieu of a site, encompassing more than just a building” (p. 38-39) and which reveals how the neighborhood and the history of the MF is part of its specific archi-textures (p. 44).

Chapter 3 is devoted to understanding the MF as a “Space of Otherness.” Here Cheng, using Foucault’s idea of heterotopia, examines how the MF stands in opposition to traditional art museums in its use of buildings, its dynamic spaces and its non-bureaucratic organization (p. 62).

Description and reflections on methodology are presented in Chapter 4, which is the final chapter before the conclusion. This unusual position of the methodology makes perfect sense in this context. After the reader has been absorbed in the narrative and analytical accounts, this chapter reveals the rationale behind the personal approach and narrative structure of the thesis. Here the actual data collection strategy is also discussed. Cheng states: “my development of spatial theories prior to my data collection provided guidance for determining which data to collect and which strategies to use in analyzing the data for my study” (p. 91). The case study is based on observations, interviews and MF’s archives, as well as personal photographs.

Finally, in the concluding chapter, entitled “Findings and Educational Implications,” Cheng uses applied theoretical concepts to define the five types of museum pedagogies that she has identified are used at the MF: Participatory Pedagogy, Multi-sensory Pedagogy, Heterogeneous Pedagogy, Pedagogy of Dislocation and Pedagogy of Archi-Texture. Cheng sums up:

“The five heterotopic pedagogies […] constitute the contiguous and interdependent components of the MFs emplacements. The interdependence of these five pedagogies is revealed by the MF’s “dislocation” in an intimate neighborhood away from the city center, which shapes the “archi-textures” encompassing the MF’s complex history and immediate surroundings. Its ensemble of “heterogeneous” installation rooms with various artifacts, materials, and architectural elements evoke visitors’ sensations through “multisensory” means. The MF’s collaboration with national and international curators, artists, and local communities constitutes the MF’s “participatory” working operation, and its curatorial practices. That is, each of the pedagogies responds and affects the functions of the others” (p. 114).

In this way, Cheng, through the analysis of the spatial practices, defines the particularity of the MF and the manner in which it engages with visitors, artists and the surrounding community. These methods constitute a specific type of art education, which is shaped by the five pedagogies described above.

By defining the educational approach of MF on the basis of a spatial analysis, this thesis distances itself from other spatial analysis of museums. Cheng is not the first researcher to apply De Certeau, Lefebvre or Foucault’s theoretical concepts concerning space to the field of museums. Paul Basu did it in his article The Labyrinthine Aesthetic in Contemporary Museum Design and Gordon Fyfe in Sociology and the Social Aspects of Museums, to name but two. The strength of Cheng’s contribution lies in the combination of these theoretical concepts, the methodology, which adds detailed personal narrative accounts to the research, and the analysis of spatial practices to define a set of pedagogies. The focus on spatial practices and their connection to art education, goes beyond the learning agenda, which is so often drawn upon when discussing how the museum engages with its visitors and its surroundings.

The PhD is both enjoyable and inspiring to read and it will be interesting to follow Ju-Chun Cheng’s future research.

Dr Mette Houlberg Rung
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark

Primary Sources

Interviews, observations and photographs from fieldwork at the Mattress Factory Art Museum (MF) in Pittsburgh, USA.

Dissertation Information

The Pennsylvania State University, College of Arts and Architecture. 2014. 139pp. Primary Advisor: Dr. Charles Richard Garoian.

Image: Photos by Author.

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