Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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On platform power: museums, authority, digital culture

October 15th, 2008 by Seb Chan

Nina Simon has done a great job of summing up the potential changes brought by the abundance model of digital to the museum sector.

The notion of ‘museums as platforms’ is not new – even if the technologies to make them such in the digital environment are.

One of the primary fears museum professionals (and all professionals) have about entering new relationships with audiences is the fear of losing control. For hundreds of years, we’ve owned the content and the message. While we may grudgingly acknowledge the fact that visitors create their own versions of the message around subsets of the content, we don’t consciously empower visitors to redistribute their own substandard, non-authoritative messages. So when people like me start advocating for the creation of tools and opportunities by which visitors can share their stories, reaggregate the artifacts, even rate and review each others’ creations, museum professionals of all stripes get concerned. If the museum isn’t in control, how can it thrive?

We have to change the framing of this conversation. There is a difference between control and expertise. In these conversations, people often say, “don’t expert voices matter?” and my emphatic response is YES. Content expertise matters. Content control shouldn’t.

Recently Henry Jenkins of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide fame has posted about similar issues in the university sector. Jenkins was interviewed by “Alexandre Cayla-Irigoyen Chef de pupitre – Societe Monde, about OpenCourseWare, Collective Intelligence, and the modern university”.

When we create more open platforms, we destroy old monopolies of information. That can be a brutal blow for those who gain their self worth from their role as the dispersers of that information. So, yes, when you open it up to students to submit materials, teachers feel threatened. There are some legitimate concerns here, having to do with the credentializing of information and the liabilities of the university. For most of us, credibility on the web is situational: we are not so much assessing content as we are assessing the reputations of the sources of that content. We tend to put our greatest trusts in the institutions we would trust for information in the physical world. So, many people who sought information from Universite de Montreal or MIT will make a general judgment about the reputation of the institution and then apply it to all content which gets circulated.

For me, a lot of this has to do with how we frame the materials — as a reference work (which meets certain criteria of reliability, which many faculty members would be hard pressed to meet) or as a space for investigation, deliberation, and discussion (where there are ongoing conversations about the value of different content being circulated). Most academic web resources represent the former; Wikipedia and YouTube would be better understood as the latter.

(snip)

A lot of bad work could tarnish the reputation of a university. How can it reconcile openness and the promotion of itself as a supplier of good knowledge?

It depends on what the university is trying to sanctify: is it seeking to guarantee the integrity of the product (in which case, every bit of content needs to be vetted) or the integrity of the process (in which case, the university is creating a space where people learn through vetting each other’s content.) Is the reputation of a university based on the fact that they gather together lots of people who know things or is it based on the fact that they create a context where the ongoing questioning of information takes place?

My personal take is that the digital strategies and representations of a museum and the physical museum itself can co-exist but be different. Whilst I am excited by the potential of a museum which “create[s] a context where the ongoing questioning of information takes place”, it would be foolish to assume that this doesn’t already happen amongst visitors – indeed the research shows it does – even if the museum doesn’t realise it. Can we do it actively, and better?

The digital museum needs to be able to make the most of an attention economy where information and content is in abundance. The physical museum, on the other hand, needs to be able to make the most of an experience economy where the opportunity to see/feel/smell/hear/touch ‘the real thing’ is incredibly scarce. It is likely that only together that optimum learning occurs.

I am making generalisations here but in their galleries art museums with their object-focus coupled with ‘acceptable subjectivity’ have the most opportunity from scarcity, and science centres without objects and veneer of ‘scientific objectivity’, the least. Natural history and social history museums sit somewhere in between – depending on what their exhibition and research focus is. Unfortunately, though, scarcity thinking often carries over from the physical galleries to the web – in part this explains the reticence of many art museums to share collections in the digital space.

Platform approaches are the norm in the digital space. If a museum isn’t actively making their content available, then their audiences are taking it in any case (or finding it elsewhere). The platform is more often than not forums, blogs or Flickr. The museum is not even in the frame. I’d agree with Nina, Jim Spadaccini, and many others that ‘platforms’ actively guided by and engaged with, but not built by, museums are the way forward.

Platforms in this sense, build authority – or as I’ve said before, allow museums to ‘assert’ their authority. Absence is invisibility.

Paradoxically, it may turn out that a ‘platform approach’ online might in fact allow an even more ‘curator as auteur’ approach in the physical galleries.

Different, diverse and conflicting perspectives, remixing and mashups, collaborative creativity might be encouraged and enabled allowing audiences to engage deeply in their own ways with a fuller range of content in the online environment in order to allow a more controlled, directed, and stylistic vision in the galleries.

This might be a fruitful line of experimentation for museums with diverse, predominantly adult audiences, and large collection/object-based exhibitions. It could combine the best of both worlds – unique experiences of objects in the physical spaces, open collaboration and object-centred democracies where the tools support it in the digital space.

Tags: 2 Comments

  • Seb,
    I appreciate your thoughtful approach to this, but I have to respectfully disagree with the (speculative) argument that greater openness online might best support controlled, scarce experiences in the museum. This is my fear: that institutions will “silo” open collaboration and visitors’ creativity to the Web as a protectionist measure against opening up the physical exhibitions to similar machinations.

    A reasonable analogy can be made to interactive exhibits. Imagine if the concept of interactivity with objects had come up now, in the digital era. It would be easy for a museum to argue that they can do interactive content so much cheaper and better using Flash, on their websites, etc., and that there was no reason to go through the arduous changes needed to imagine the creation of interactive experiences with physical objects in the galleries. I’m afraid that museums may be making this argument when it comes to the platform approach… that it belongs on the Web, not in the galleries.

    But I think museums have an opportunity to be pioneers of physical platforms. My background is in exhibits, and I’m very greedy for physical museum spaces to find ways to support “object-centered democracies” onsite. I see energy and conversation thriving online in a way that has always been lacking in the majority of museum exhibitions. Isn’t this an opportunity for us to engage with all our visitors–onsite and online–in new and exciting ways?

  • Seb Chan

    Hi Nina

    I think there is a continuum of collaboration in both digital and gallery spaces. And the same visitors/users/audiences often represent different points on this continuum – this is notion of ‘situational relevance’ raised by many in the social web world. We know that not every visitor wants a ‘collaborative’ experience in every visit – perhaps this is more prevalent in object-focussed museums with more adult visitors than young people and children? We also know that visitors already take their own ‘messages’ away from even the most controlled narrative exhibition (I’m thinking here of the singular path exhibits).

    Ttools exist in the online space to enable collaboration that are still lacking in the physical world – which is necessarily hampered by the realities of ‘meatspace’.

    That’s not to say we shouldn’t attempt open collaborative physical projects, but that just because we can create adhoc communities online, often the diversity that is possible online that is needed to support collaboration, is far more difficult in the gallery spaces themselves.

    I remember one of my favourite experiences in a ‘science museum’ was at the Museum of Emerging Science in Tokyo in 2003/4. On their gallery floor they had so many ‘explainers’ that at any point you could be drawn into a ‘conversation’ about the subject matter not only with the explainers but with others also visiting at the same time.

    This was quite a unique experience that budget realities I expect prevent happening anywhere else.

    If we look at other media there is plenty of interest to ‘discuss’ and ‘interact’ but only very niche interest in collaborative ‘production’. Thus a TV series, movie, book will be minimally collaborative in its creation, but supports a diversity of creativity afterwards – book clubs, discussion lists, forums, fan fiction, remixes, the list goes on.

    In the exhibition world this already happens during the exhibition development process through community consultation etc, and in post-launch through ‘public programmes’ – which certainly could be expanded in role, scope and importance.

    A great opportunity exists to connect online, geographically diverse audiences with the less diverse in-gallery audiences. Here there is fertile ground for collaborative approaches but we still have timescale issues that need addressing – this is alisa Barry’s ‘virtuous circle‘ and also one of the by-products of the Tate’s digital strategies.