I must start with a confession: though my first love and academic field of study was the Classics, I failed to learn Ancient Greek so remain a one-legged classicist today! I am thrilled, however, to have the opportunity to draw on what I do know of the rich history and culture of Greece to try to offer some ideas and images that may help us all stride forward together.SOUND CHECK
I'd like to offer this metaphor as the starting point on our journey: In Civilization and its Discontents,Freud used Rome, the Eternal City, as an image of how nothing “once formed in the mind” is ever lost:everything persists indefinitely in the unconscious and, we might argue, in cultural memory as well. I think this aged thesis is usefulto understanding the challenges facing museums, and explaining the uncanny feeling that we might get from time to time that the more things change in this rapidly evolving technological landscape, the more they stay the same. In fact, I am more concerned about anydesires we may have to liberate ourselves from the past, than that we may end up stuck in it. This may sound strange coming from a museum technologist, but I am suspicious of the fetishization of the new, the fantasy of "rebooting the museum”. I’m not convinced that when things get hard we can just move the goal posts and decamp to another playing field to start the game over – like Columbus “discovering” America. It seems to me that this hubris is part and parcel of the modernist cultural and capitalist economic systems that have precipitated our current global crisis.
Capitalism, of course, depends on innovation, on always having something new to bring to the market to stimulate consumption. It is therefore very easy for new media and our use of new technologies in museums to fall into and unwittingly support the very system that, unfettered, has driven museums to the brink.
Instead of abandoning the past, as museum innovators and technologists we should be actively mining the past and our cultural riches to make the museum more sustainable both now and in the future.This may sound like I'm advocating a very conservative if not reactionary approach to technology and change in museums. Far from it: I would like to propose that we undertake a truly radical systemic change, and that the only way to get there - the only way NOT to repeat history - is to know theroots of our current system thoroughly and intimately. Otherwise we risk remaining stuck in the same dysfunctional cultural economies recreating the same structures, just with different faces in power. Real lives and real futures are at stake here: we cannot squander them by running away, much less using the cover of the revolution simply to settle old scores.
An illustration of the real target of our radical mission can be found in what I call the "multiplatform" museum. Built on a hub & spoke model, the museum as authority is still firmly entrenched at the center of the power structure. It broadcasts its messages out through its many platforms – its galleries, its publications, its website and social media outlets – to audiences on the peripheries as if radiating its knowledge through so many spokes on a wheel.
While new platforms and social media may extend the reach of the museum’s voice, that fact alone doesn't mean that anything radical is necessarily happening here. Docent tours might be replaced by apps, or print advertisements by tweets and Facebook messages, but we can nonetheless witness the museum operating within the same structure, only with slightly different people in power: maybe the curators have given up some status to the social media managers on the museum staff, but are museums' audiences truly positioned any differently in this hierarchy?
I think we'd like to believe that simply adopting new technologies in the museum will bring meaningful change – and that we’ll attract lots of excited visitors on-site and online, like these fashionable iPhone users. We want to believe because we do want to do a better job for our audiences.And wouldn't it be nice if it were that easy to achieve our missions? But I don't think we nurture this fantasy of the easy, technological fix out of laziness.Rather, I think all too often we are driven into such hasty and ill-planned excursions into new media by fear: fear of being out of touch, obsolete, and left behind.
It is an easy fear to whip up; after all, museums have been told for generations that they are dusty and out-of-date. In 2009 Bran Ferran, the original presidentof Disney Imagineering, came to the Smithsonian and gave a keynote talk as part of the Smithsonian 2.0 conference that echoed this concern:
BRAN FERRAN RECORDINGBran Ferran, from the early days of our current global crisis: are museums a Fad? (from 2009 smithsonian20.si.edu keynote presentation) On the spectrum of utility from CB radios to Fire, Ferran challenges museums to be as indispensable to their audiences as fire. This is a good strategic goal for museums to be sure.
But is it fair to threaten museums with the obsolescence of the CB radio as the alternative? (We might even quibble over whether the CB radio is in fact, obsolete, or has just moved into the long tail of technologies, used by more specialist audiences now.) I don't want to defend the CB radio per se, but I think there’s an interesting lesson here about our attitudes towards the new and how we can learn from the past: How many of you have ever know if you ever used it (hands): the concept of the "handle" was very powerful. The handle offered an opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to be someone else on the airwaves, to highlight an aspect of our characters and interests that we were particularly proud of, or wanted to be. Perhaps even more importantly, CB radio offered an opportunity to reach outside of our analog communities and connect with complete strangers, maybe find companionship on the highways, or even new communities who shared our interests.
If we were the Route 66 Museum, for example, we might help make the CB radio more than a technical curiosity to our visitors, by showing how it was a precursor to Twitter: that the “handles” of the 1970s are not so very different from the @tags – which we again call handles – in today’s twitterverse. So both the fearand the fantasy can be seductive and even dangerous here: the fear is that museums are or might fall behind, and be consigned to the past with derision like CB radios. The fantasy is that we can, by turning our backs on the past, stride boldly into a new future that will be untainted by all that “old stuff.”
But as Freud has shown, we cannot ignore much less erase the past. Indeed, the more we attempt to repress it, the more it is likely to come back and haunt us, as neuroses, hysteria and other deadly symptoms. So I won’t exhort you to be iconoclasts, erasing the past to help build a Brave New World through some sort of “armchair revolution”. I want instead to invite you to join together to embark on a much more radical, difficult, and dangerous job: that of reengineering the museum even as we inhabit it. To move walls and shift foundations even while we are sitting in our offices, sheltered by those very structural supports. Or to use another metaphor, we need to repaint the picture from within its frame. For to imagine that we can step outside it and build Utopia – over over there on some shining new media platform - is simply self-delusion. It is to shout in one breath, "The Museum is Dead! Long live the Museum!" We need not a revolutionary movement, but a radical one.
Now as you have probably realized, I'm asking you to do the impossible. Or rather, to do two completely antithetical and contradictory things at once. I'm proposing an oxymoronic enterprise. How can we both support, work in, further, even draw paychecks in the museum as we know it today, while also undermining that very structure, reshaping it radically, to produce a dramatically different tomorrow?
At the Smithsonian last week we held a symposium called Connecting the Dots: Virtuality, Technology and Feminism as part of the Leverhulme-funded International Network on Feminism and Curating led by Lara Perry and and the Greek feminist scholar, Angela Dimitrakaki. Two very important concepts were discussed at the Symposium, and I think they offer us some concrete strategies and tactics for our radical project here today. Connecting the dots to restructure the museum as a distributed network.Using Griselda Pollock’s concept of the Virtual Museum to lay new conceptual foundations that enable new kinds of encounters among museums and “the people formerly known as the audience.” as Jay Rosen called them.
First, the museum as distributed network:By now I think it's clear to us all that the museum exists in many places completely beyond the museum's control or even knowledge, e.g. Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, FB all have extensive museum content never posted there or even created by museum staff. This is the case irrespective of our cellphone and camera use policy inside the museum. We can even say that as a result of this proliferation of platforms on which we encounter the museum today, the museum has become a sort of social network.
Instead of tying ourselves up in knots enforcing copyright and asking futile and irrelevant questions like, "does social media dilute the authority of the museum?", we need to be identifying and connecting the platforms in the museum's expanding network: LISTENING first and foremost to the conversations people are having about our museums, and nourishing those communities with great, relevant content and timely participation as a PEER in the peer-to-peer network.
This is not to say the expertise and brand authority of the museum are irrelevant or no longer valued; on the contrary, the more conversations and user-generated content out there, the more we find people look for an Aeneas to guide them through the noise, to help them find what they are actually looking for, even if that is a serendipitous encounter. But its networks are stronger and more effective when the museum participates in them as, at most, "first among equals" - as perhaps a privileged interlocutor, but also just another node on the network - not the center of power.
The museum as a distributed network of platforms, communities and conversations is a highly sustainable system precisely because it is not hierarchical but rather rhizomic in the relations among its nodes and their connectors. As the military inventors of the Internet knew, the distributed network is sustainable because it cannot be destroyed by any direct hit on a single point or center. The network enables the museum’s content and conversations to proliferate, be enhanced, relayed and championed by any number of interlocutors anywhere in the system – not just by museum staff or other recognized authorities.
Adopting a distributed network structure for the museum’s use of all its platforms is also a profoundly pragmatic tactic, and one we have put at the heart of mobile strategy at the Smithsonian. Our vision is use these powerful connected devices, now in the pockts of 75% of the world’ population, to Recruit the World to help do important work. Crisis or no crisis, we will never have enough money, time and staff to do all that we could, should, and want to do at the Smithsonian or any other museum.
And our first leaders at the Smithsonian were keenly aware of this. Our first Secretary, Joseph Henry: crowdsourced weather reports using his generation’s new technology, the telegraph, to create the first national weather service in the mid-1800s.The Smithsonian’s second Secretary Baird: formed the early collections of the Smithsonian by recruiting citizen scientists to gather and ship specimens to Washington DC by the train load.Today we have more volunteers than paid staff at the Smithsonian.
What this looks like in mobile practice is a shift from headphones to microphones, from "we do the talking" to "we help you do the talking.” as Chris Anderson put it. It’s about thinking beyond the audio tour, without abandoning it because there is still much to learn from its 60 year history in museums, and enduring value for the mobile visitor if the content and experience are well designed. But with the powerful two- and multi-way connectivity of handheld devices today, the museum can do as much listening as talking through its mobile platforms and initiatives. This opens up powerful new ways to get audiences involved, to transform them into active stakeholders, and exponentially increase both our reach and our effective capacity through micro-volunteering, crowdsourcing, and similar applications of the new technology.
Here are some examples of how we’ve tried to use the power of the mobile platform to “recruit the world” at the Smithsonian.
New mobile applications at the Smithsonian are being developed to add oral histories to the Institution’s collections (Stories on Main Street) and crowdsource verbal descriptions of exhibits and objects to enhance the experiences of visually-impaired visitors and others (forthcoming 2012). And many museums that have published their collections records online have found, as Chris Anderson predicted, that often those ‘amateurs’ – true lovers, in the French sense of the term – know more about specific objects than the curators responsible for them, so have been able to contribute hugely valuable information to the understanding and interpretation of those collections. (cite Powerhouse example)
Last month, a team of ichthyologists sponsored by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History performed the first survey of the fish diversity in the Cuyuni River of Guyana. Upon their return, they needed to identify the more than 5,000 specimens they had collected in less than a week’s time in order to obtain an export permit. Faced with insufficient time and inadequate library resources to tackle the problem on their own, they instead posted a catalog of specimen images to Facebook and turned to their network of colleagues for help.In less than 24 hours, this approach identified approximately 90 percent of the posted specimens to at least the level of genus, revealed the presence of at least two likely undescribed species, indicated two new records for Guyana and generated several loan requests. The majority of people commenting held a Ph.D. in ichthyology or a related field, and hailed from a great diversity of countries including the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil.
We have seen an increasing number of examples of such structures being used in crowdsourcing projects, where ‘enthusiastic amateurs’ from around the world don’t just contribute to but lead important work involving collections and research, from transcribing old documents (the “Old Weather Project” at the UK’s National Maritime Museum), to identifying astronomical entities in photographs of outer space (Galaxy Zoo), to collecting data on species and their global distribution (Project Noah and the Encyclopedia of Life) to selecting representative collections photographs (Victoria & Albert Museum) and adding metadata to make collections objects more findable (Steve.museum). At the heart of the challenge of sustainability for museums and their discourses, research and exhibiting activities lies a question of community: how can museums foster and inspire self-sustaining communities that extend the reach and value of the “public good” that is museums’ charge well beyond what can be achieved directly by any given staff or budget? More importantly, how can museums truly broaden access to more and new audiences, and thereby contribute to and be an integral part of a just, global, democratic and civil society? It may be that the answer lies in humble grassroots initiatives and their rhizomic structures, rather than in the glorious revolution.
So instead of focusing on technology, how can we imagine, cultivate and CURATE content that will “hook” our audiences and promote conversations and communities? As we know from the thousands of boring websites, interactives and audio tours we’ve taken, it is all too easy to kill a conversation by supplying our interlocutors with lots of perhaps correct and venerable but nonetheless irrelevant and sterile - "teflon-coated" scholarship and data, to use Peter Samis's image.I think Griselda Pollock's concept of the Virtual Museum is a way of envisioning different sorts of stories, spaces and encounters between our audiences and the museum’s collections. By "virtual", Pollock means not necessarilydigital, as in virtual worlds or exhibitions, but rather a non-physical conjunction of objects, audiences and regards that strategically makes visible what has been hidden, and what could be.
My Virtual Museum – or rather one that I am thinking through now - was inspired by a recent visit to Te Papa Tongarewa, the National Museum of New Zealand. Like the Greek agora, the Maori maraeis both a civic and a sacred space.HiriniMoko Mead notes that, “The idea and the concept of marae as we know it … has caught the imagination of people overseas and here at home.” As a result, “the idea is accepted as being a very useful one [that]… can be put into practice in a number of ways.” Te Papa is itself a marae, and does take on the traditional marae roles of hosting community meetings, overnight guests, feasts and even funerals in addition to its other (Western) museum functions.
What I like about the maori concept of marae to describe the museum is the role both civic and spiritual it plays in fostering, protecting and transmitting identity to future generations. In addition to community dialogue, cultural “treasures” or taonga are central to this process, allowing us to add the concept of the collection to that of the agora or museum as community space:"…taonga – both physical and intangible – have a vital connection to a living culture. They are sacred links to the past – a past that is alive in the present and that guides Maori towards the future. Taonga are an expression not only of the histories, identities, and world views of Maori, but also of the future political aspirations of this strong and resilient culture." This concept of taonga offers another way to think of the temporality of collection objects as not limited to linear, “progressive” time. Taonga are not stuck in the past; nor are they entirely of the present or future. They carry their temporal as well as their cultural contexts with them in the form of stories that help transmit the past to present and future generations. “A taonga is something to be valued as an authentic expression of identity, of connectedness and of accumulated associations. It may even have the preciousness of something that must be fought for and retained.” This is an example of a maoritaonga, a Heitiki orpendant in human form from the collection of Te Papa. It belonged to TepaeaHinerangi, also known as Guide Sophia, appropriately enough! TheTe Papa website tells us that Tepaea worked at the Pink and White Terraces – the thermal ‘wonder of the world’ – and became the main tourist guide there. She survived the dramatic eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886, when more than 60 people took refuge in her house. The Terraces, however, were completely destroyed. As Guide Sophia, Tepaea became the most famous woman of her time in Rotorua. She mentored a new generation of guides, including Maggie Papakura. In my Virtual Museum, Guide Sophia is a kind of blend of Athena and Aeneas for the age of social media, helping re-engineer the museum as a marae. She doesn’t just inform visitors, she literally helps save their lives by giving them shelter in a time of crisis. Title / object name Heitiki (pendant in human form)Maker Role Unknown carver Medium Summary Westland sourceMaterials inanga, kawakawa, pounamuDimensionsOverall 105 (Length) x 55 (Width) x 11 (Depth) mmClassification pendants, pectoralsRegistration Number ME012629Credit LinePurchased 1972
One of the dangers of being old and venerable, as so many museums are, is the tendency to a failure of imagination – a lack of ability to think outside the roles and relationships that are so time-honored as to seem immutable and inevitable. Laura Mulvey famously critiqued the Oedipal story in this light. She argued that when Oedipus answered the Sphinx’s riddle, he in fact got it wrong, because he forgot women – “Man” is not the only creature that goes on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening. The subsequent devastation of the house of Thebes was a direct result of his myopia, articulated so brutally and literally in his eventual self-blinding.
Feminist and other interventions offer new ways of opening our eyes to the fact that our museums are not - and never have been - monolithic, centrally-controlled institutions, buildings, or even collections and programs. Rather, they are AND ALWAYS HAVE BEEN complex eco-systems made up of people talking, sharing their ideas, knowledge and personal responses, and collectively creating a much vaster and more sustainable whole than the sum of its parts. The truly brave and productively disruptive act is therefore not to blind ourselves in remorse and despair, but rather to open our eyes and see the Museum in all its virtuality, as a distributed network that reaches far beyond its walls, its collections, and its canons. Let us seize this moment not to scale the barricades, only to tear down straw men of our own creation. Rather, let us use the new tools at our disposal to unlock and realize the potential that is latent in every one of us who makes up the networked museum.
The Networked Museum ("The Revolution Will Not Be Televised")
The Museum as Distributed Network: Best principles and practices for mobile product development<br />Or<br />“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”<br />With apologies to Gil Scott-Heron<br />Nancy Proctor, Smithsonian Institution<br />Athens, 27 Septemberl 2011<br />email@example.com @nancyproctor<br />
The Eternal City - Peter Blume, 1934-37<br />MoMA. Oil on board. 45 ½ in. x 59 ½ in. <br />http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A617&page_number=5&template_id=1&sort_order=1<br />9/27/11<br />Nancy Proctor, firstname.lastname@example.org<br />2<br />
The Museum isa Social Network<br />9/27/11<br />Nancy Proctor, email@example.com<br />15<br />
More than multiplatform…<br />9/27/11<br />Nancy Proctor, firstname.lastname@example.org<br />16<br />
Athenian mixing bowl c. 470-460 BC<br />Boston Museum of Fine Arts, photograph by L. Molnar. <br />http://www.calvin.edu/academic/phys/observatory/images/asteroid_names-Rhipeus/<br />9/27/11<br />Nancy Proctor, email@example.com<br />17<br />
The Museum is transforming from Acropolis…<br />http://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Europe/Greece/Attica/Attiki/Athens/photo442345.htm<br />Nancy Proctor, ProctorN@si.edu<br />18<br />9/27/11<br />Nancy Proctor, firstname.lastname@example.org<br />18<br />
The Museum is a Distributed Network<br />Edward Hoover, 2010, from Flickr.<br />9/27/11<br />Nancy Proctor, email@example.com<br />20<br />
SI Mobile’s Vision<br />Recruit the world <br />to increase and diffuse knowledge<br />by using mobile platforms to enlist collaborators globally in undertaking the real and important workof the Institution. <br />Put the Smithsonian not just in the people’s pockets, <br />but in their hands.<br />9/27/11<br />Nancy Proctor, firstname.lastname@example.org<br />21<br />
The People’s Institution <br />James Smithson:<br />“for the increase<br />and diffusion of <br />knowledge”<br />Louise RochonHoover,"Secretary Henry Posts DailyWeather Map in Smithsonian Building, 1858.”<br />The Megatherium Club, a group of young naturalists who collected for the Smithsonian in the 19th C. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Megatherium_Club<br />9/27/11<br />Nancy Proctor, email@example.com<br />22<br />
Thinking outside the audiotour box<br />“From we do the talking to <br />we help you do the talking.”<br />– Chris Anderson, Wired, Smithsonian 2.0 Conference, 24 Jan 2009 http://smithsonian20.si.edu/schedule_webcast2.html<br />From Headphones to Microphones<br />9/27/11<br />Nancy Proctor, firstname.lastname@example.org<br />23<br />