Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View (review)
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Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View. By Alison Griffiths. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Pp. xv+372. $45.

IMAX, touch-screen computers, audio tours, and other interactive media are standard fare in most museums, so much so that their presence gets folded into larger interpretations and is undertheorized on its own merit. In this compelling study, Alison Griffiths works to remedy that problem by constructing the cultural history of immersive spectatorship, beginning from the premise that this mode of viewing, because of the way in which it locates its viewer inside the spectacle rather than assuming a physical distance, is different from other, less-involved types of spectatorship.

The beautifully illustrated and aptly titled Shivers Down Your Spine (named for the sensation produced in the viewer) traces a trajectory of interactive and immersive spectatorship from the “revered gaze” of the cathedral through the nineteenth-century panorama and planetarium, and ends with the beginning of IMAX. The book then zeroes in on the modern museum as the locale of this mode of spectatorship and locates interactive displays as a major facet of the ongoing debate between education and entertainment in museums.

Griffiths deftly makes connections among her diverse examples and contextualizes them within their larger cultural connotations. In her discussion of the panorama in Europe and the United States, for example, she notes that this medium evolved at the same time that the public became interested in more distant parts of the world on one hand, and the reconstruction of historical events on the other. Moving beyond a simple discussion of the composition of the panorama, she examines how it was built, how it was advertised, and how audiences were moved through its spaces. This bolsters the author’s point that interactive vision did not start with developments in the realm of new technology. Indeed, she argues that aspects of these older modes of spectatorship still inform immersive viewing today.

If the first portion of the book sets the parameters and introduces the themes of interactive spectatorship, the second applies them to museum exhibition from both past and present, enabling Griffiths to cement her history and touch on an important aspect of interactivity: the tension between its educational and commercial values. She examines a wide variety of exhibits in various museums, large and small, tracing both the ideas underpinning their creation and the ways in which their interactive aspects have been used and understood by curators and audiences. Among the exhibits to which she turns her critical eye are African Voices and the Insect Zoo at the National Museum of Natural History, IMAX at the National Air and [End Page 951] Space Museum, and the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, Wales. In her examination of the latter, a newly redesigned space that advertises itself as an “interactive experience,” Griffiths notes how the museum has coopted some aspects of modern branding and seeks to bill itself as much a space of entertainment as of education.

A major strength of the book is its interdisciplinarity, standing as it does at the intersection of history, art history, new media studies, and museum studies. It is this theoretical flexibility that helps make Shivers Down Your Spine unique—capable of presenting multiple perspectives on technological innovations in interactive viewing, carefully tracing their development, and examining their ongoing cultural impact. Although this history is convincing, Griffiths makes the point that it is by no means complete. She acknowledges the porousness of her model and suggests plenty of examples for further study: waxworks, world’s fairs, My Space, the Discovery channel.

This fascinating book both introduces a critical examination of some of the newest immersive technologies and suggests ideas for further study. In a world where iPhone tours, real-time image tagging, and individualized online exhibition are all quickly becoming a reality, investigations into diverse modes of spectatorship are badly needed. Shivers Down Your Spine is an engaging and important beginning.

Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska

Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of American Civilization at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

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