Perception Management Display Unit (Alabaster) w/ Two Paintings for Target Audience 19-25 y/o is a wall installation produced for the new National Museum’s inaugural exhibition. It consists of two colour field paintings mounted on polygonal panels. The paintings are subdivided into geometrical segments, in compositions based on Persian mosaic patterns. Coated with thinly diluted acrylics, the segments compose decorative gradients in shades of yellow, orange, red, violet, blue and turquoise. The panels which serve as backdrops for the compositions are painted with an industrial lacquer imitating the colour of alabaster, a translucent plaster material initially employed in the plans for the new building’s upper façades to suffuse the interiors with distinctive light. To expedite sharing on social media, the installation is accompanied by a QR code which makes a photograph of the work available to the audience on their own mobile devices.

The pictorial language of the paintings can be described as a kind of digitised formalism. By emulating standardised colour gradients for screen use – so-called stock gradients – the luminous surfaces allude to imaging softwares and digital design templates. The gradient in one of the paintings is more specifically a chromatic quotation of the colours featured in the logo for the social networking service Instagram, while the other elaborates on the same source. Executed in highly unorthodox formats, the compositions hint at shaped canvas painting, a sub-genre of postwar abstraction.

Departing from an audience survey conducted on behalf of the National Museum by the marketing research agency Opinion in 2019, the work responds to the public relations measures taken in preparation for the opening of the museum’s new facilities at Vestbanen in Oslo. The survey examined the responses of a focus group consisting of 20 young adults between the ages of 19 and 25, and was initiated to develop a communications strategy for the inaugural exhibition which directly targeted this demographic. During the course of the survey, the panel members provided the project’s consultants with ongoing feedback, by sharing written responses and participating in group discussions. Finally, the survey’s results were forwarded to the museum’s communications department as a presentation compiling data from conversations and museum visits with the group. The presentation’s objective was to offer the client a solution to the problem of “how the museum could best present itself as interesting and relevant to the target audience” [1].

As such, the presentation makes for interesting reading, and is highly indicative of cultural policies influenced by imperatives of growth and popularisation. In the passages describing the test panel’s encounters with cultural institutions, the document proposes potential strategies for countering the impression of the National Museum’s loftiness, specifically addressing the latter’s reputation for being “serious […], but at the same time towering, weighty and slightly dull” [2]. The characteristics of the highly diverse envisaged audience are outlined in a taxonomy of personality types, portrayed with notable poetic flourish: “Experience Seekers”, “Rechargers”, “Facilitators”, “Explorers” and “Professionals” [3]. Various measures for engaging these groups of spectators are proposed, including digital displays, interactive components, architectural elements, educational materials and so forth.

One can furthermore extrapolate from the survey a few general precepts or guidelines concerning how artworks should be fashioned in order to achieve the desired level of appeal for the target audience. In essence, the art which stands the best chance of engaging younger spectators is colourful, unpretentious, cost-intensive, customised for digital sharing, and has the capacity for bringing about intense and highly emotional experiences – whilst eschewing offensive or untactful statements. Moreover, the presentation of the work should diminish the sense of uncertainty which is experienced more immediately by the relevant age group in art galleries than in, say, concert venues. How to navigate the exhibition spaces – physically as well as socially – should also be communicated as clearly as possible to young audiences.

The objective of recruiting new and younger visitors is likely driven by a host of motives, but it can plausibly be read as evidence of current expansion and streamlining advancements in the public museum sector. In keeping with developments manifested in processes of intensified commodification of cultural services, the very existence of the survey is symptomatic of cultural policies which increasingly allow the extent of public funding to be determined by visitor numbers. Conversely, the endeavour could be interpreted as a benign attempt to introduce young and impressionable viewers to what the art world considers its most significant surplus, namely art’s capacity for the betterment of its spectators. Underlying both motives is the imperative of growth: the museum-going public should expand because (a) it is crucial to the survival of cultural institutions that their worthiness of public funding is made apparent to their governing bodies, and/or (b) because art holds promises of an advancement of the general public and should accordingly be made available to as many people as possible.

Today’s museums are thus pressured from several fronts simultaneously, from funding bodies as well as from audiences. The pressure exerted by funding bodies is most clearly expressed in the constant threat of financial cutbacks, which compels institutions to implement effectual growth and communications strategies – ultimately, to take measures that will increase ticket sales. The latter is persistently seen as hard, quantitative evidence that an institution still provides services worthy of public expenditure. As for the pressure exerted by spectators – which is perhaps most clearly articulated within the specialist art world – this involves a set of expectations which owe their exigencies to the discourses of institutional critique. According to these perspectives, the museum is obliged to conduct its operations with relative autonomy from the art world’s commercial sector, as well as to strive for increased diversity and to demonstrate condonable ethics when affiliating with patrons and sponsors.

Together these pressures constitute an outline of what we might term the contemporary museum’s self-critical paranoia. In a state of administrative distress, the museum increases its investments in activities devoted to regulating the impression it presents of its activities to the general public. These efforts towards opinion enhancement are reminiscent of what public relations and propaganda terminologies refer to as perception management [4]. Particularly in periods marked by an absence of substantial programming – such as the interval the National Museum has experienced in recent years – it is tempting to conceive of these public relations endeavours as providing a kind of placeholder product. Explicitly put, the title Perception Management Display Unit describes a caricature of the contemporary museum, as it increasingly operates as a venue for exhibiting a carefully maintained institutional self-image.

The conflicting expectations directed at today’s art institution bestow upon it a Janus face: in one instance the museum acts as a corporation, while in the next it seems more like a support group. The museum-as-corporation initiates market and audience surveys, devises media strategies, makes alliances with commercial actors and refers to budgeting issues in businesslike rhetoric whenever exhibitors complain about insufficient fees or production funds. A radically different image of the institution is projected when the museum-as-support-group comes to the fore, notably via programming strategies which have to appear sensitised to prevailing ethics and values. Here, the museum takes on the role of a sensible parent or therapist, and puts on the vaguely condescending demeanour of a good listener who reassures artists and audiences alike that “every voice is going to be heard”. This latter embodiment of the museum seeks above all to propagate an unconditional, generic version of tolerance, by convincing the public – but in actuality mostly the art world – of how the institution possesses a refined sense of justice and fairness. In this incarnation, the museum appears eager to contemplate the political influence it possesses, and demonstrates its willingness to learn from the arguments aimed at it by proponents of institutional critique.

Rather than criticising the political developments underlying these shifts in institutional identity, the Perception Management Display Unit accommodates the museum’s requirements, with the ambition of contributing a perfectly tailored product to the inaugural exhibition. The piece is visually striking and is made available – via the previously mentioned QR code – for optimal dispersal on social media. Moreover, the paintings signify “quality” by virtue of being well crafted and in representing more than a year’s worth of laborious effort. Taken as a whole, the project acknowledges the insights outlined in the audience survey, in a gesture of affirmation which employs qualities such as colourfulness, recognisability, shareability and high production value for the sake of stimulating interest for the National Museum amongst younger demographics. By granting primacy to the target audience’s needs and preferences, the work can be construed as an exercise in adaptability.



[1] Tonje Gotschalksen, “Nasjonalmuseet innsikt mot 2020: Fokus på målgruppen 19-25 år”, unpublished Microsoft PowerPoint document, 2019, page 2.

[2] Tonje Gotschalksen, “Nasjonalmuseet innsikt mot 2020: Fokus på målgruppen 19-25 år”, unpublished Microsoft PowerPoint document, 2019, page 36.

[3] The classification refers to a selection of the categories of spectators employed in the studies of museum researcher John H. Falk. See Falk, “Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience” (Oxfordshire: Routeledge Press, 2009).

[4] The condition is also made manifest in increased employment of external advisors and consultants. In 2019, the National Museum’s expenses on such services were 25 million NOK, amounting to a threefold multiplication of the museum’s expenditure for the same purposes in 2017. See Heidi Borud and Morten Schwencke, “Konsulentbruken ved Nasjonalmuseet tredoblet på to år”, Aftenposten, online edition: (published 24.02.2020, accessed 27.10.2021).