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
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 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.As Freud has shown, we cannot ignore much less erase the past. Indeed, the more we attempt to repress it, the more likely it is to come back and haunt us, as neuroses, hysteria and other deadly symptoms. Because of their iconoclastic impulse, revolutions – even revolutions started by new media and new technologies - risk producing more of the same: the same structures, different faces in power.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. I do not want to erase the past to help build a Brave New World through some sort of “armchair revolution” that will only last as long as the latest “revolutionary” new technology. History has shown how quickly the same structures reassert themselves in the wake of a “revolution.” The American Revolution, for example, arguably meant little more for women, enslaved and other disenfranchised people than just a different cast of white, wealthy men deciding their fates. Perhaps ironically, I find myself as a museum technologist in the 21st century more concerned about anydesires we may have to liberate ourselves from the past, than that we may end up stuck in it. So today I want to invite you to join together to embark on a much more radical, difficult, and dangerous job than a revolution: I want to ask you to help reengineer 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!” I repeat: we need not a revolutionary movement, but a radical one.
I think we should consider interpretation – including mobile – an essential part of the services that museums provide. Tate has put interpretation at the heart of the gallery’s mission, and takes on board fully the responsibility to help visitors derive meaning from the collections and exhibitions. It is no accident, therefore, that Tate, under Jane Burton’s leadership, has developed some of the first and best mobile interpretation programs that ever seen in museums.
Peter Samis, also, has put interpretation – or we might even better use the French term, médiation or mediation - at the center of SFMOMA’s mobile program, guided by the belief that visitors need more help connecting with some of the things museums exhibit than others. You may be familiar with his concept of ‘visual velcro’: works that don’t have it – are visual ‘teflon’, and need interpretation in order to engage audiences in unlocking and appreciating all of their rich complexity.[See also from Peter Samis re visual velcro:http://www.archimuse.com/mw2009/papers/samis/samis.htmlhttp://www.archimuse.com./mw2008/papers/samis/samis.html ]
In her essay, “There Is No Such Thing as a Visitor”, Judith Mastai argues that as an educational resource for lifelong learning, the museum’s task is “to identify multiple points of entry of visitors of many sorts and kinds.” She pictures the “visitors’ paths of desire” through the exhibition as hypertext, “bobbing, weaving, and webbing from sensation to question, from perception to discovery, among various nodes of information and experience.”Elsewhere I have used a related metaphor, that of the museum as distributed network, to describe the linked nature of a museum experience that now extends far beyond the museum’s walls, websites, and even its social media platforms to include a vast web of content, conversations and the communities who produce them – both with and without the museum’s participation.[Mastai’s essay appears in Museums After Modernism: Strategies of EngagementGriselda Pollock (Editor), Joyce Zemans (Editor) ISBN: 978-1-4051-3627-3April 2007, Wiley-Blackwellhttp://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1405136278.html ]
Mastai contrasts this expandedview of the visitor with one that has arisen in visitor studies and “audience-led” museum practices as a result of the ongoing crisis in cultural funding and the consequent need for museums to justify their expenditure of public monies. “As government support for museums has been reduced,” notes Mastai, “ the financial strategies for maintaining the financial health of these institutions have shifted to serving the customer (or, in the jargon of Museum Studies, the visitor).” What is problematic here is not the idea of serving the people who walk into the museum – responding to their needs and questions. Rather, Mastai notes the influence of market economics in positioning the visitor as the other side of a commercial transaction whose desires can be simply and fully satisfied with the “right” answer, an experience tailored to the individual’s conscious wants and needs. Visitors are not “subjects supposed to know” as Lacan might name them, merely “sources of information based in perceived needs and desires so that the museum can appear to be publicly accountable by meeting them… Like any other educational institution,” she argues, “the mandate of the museum is not to pander to ‘felt’ needs, but to use them as a starting point from which to build bridges between what is known and what must be known.” Our job as museum interpreters, therefore, is not just to answer the questions our visitors might have, but to help them get “hooked” and enable them to discover the questions and answers that they may have never encountered without access to multiple nodes in the hypertext that is the museum experience – wherever that may happen. After all, that’s why many visitors come to the museum, online or in person: because they assume they can get there guidance and insight from experts that they lack on subjects of interest to them.
This is also why museums need different metrics of success from businesses and other market-driven models. It is often asserted, particularly in times of financial crisis, that museums should behave “more like businesses.” But I think we need to be very careful when we assume that the grass is greener in those pastures. A study conducted before the dotcom boom found that the average life of businesses in Japan and Europe was less than 13 years in 1997. In 2002, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the average age of a Fortune 500 company or its equivalent was only 40-50 years. But then, “business” as we know it in the West has only been around for about 500 years. “Human beings have learned to survive, on aver-age, for 75 years or more, but there are very few companies that are that old and flourishing,” notes Arie de Geus.This will not come as any surprise to you here today; Greek history is, after all, the textbook on the waxing and waning of human fortunes.I don’t know about your museums, but the Smithsonian has now been around for 164 years. And if we want to survive and continue to ensure the survival of the collections in our care, we cannot simply declare bankruptcy, sell everything in a fire-sale, and reopen tomorrow across the street under a different name. Because the museum business operates under very different constraints:Our collections are, by definition, invaluableWe are charged to make them and related programming and resources relevant and accessible to the broadest possible public, regardless of whether that audience can afford to pay for their access or not. And we have to do all this forever.These business constraints would daunt even the most seasoned entrepreneur, and have led to Max Anderson calling museums, “red ink business.” But knowing them helps us determine what are the appropriate metrics against which we should measure our business, including mobile activities: Quality, Relevance & SustainabilityMax Anderson, Prescriptions for Art Museums in the Decade Ahead, CURATOR,The Museum Journal,Volume 50 • Number 1January 2007Arie de Geus, THE LIVING COMPANY: Habits for survival in a turbulent business environment Prologue:The Lifespan of a Company Bloomberg Businesseweekhttp://www.businessweek.com/chapter/degeus.htm 2002 consulted 2 Oct 2011.
Quality & relevance very closely connected of course; as Chris Anderson has said, “in the eye of the beholder”. And to these we have added Accessibility and Accountability as metrics of success for mobile projects at the Smithsonian. But what distinguishes these metrics from others that you may find outside the museum field is that they have at their core the museum’s mandate to collect, conserve, interpret and share the finest exemplars of human history, creativity, and ingenuity – not just produce happy customers, or generate profits for shareholders.
I think it’s critical to keep our institutions’ missions clearly in sight and at the core of all that we do. The mission orients our strategy, also an essential tool for any museum activity but perhaps never more so than in the digital age where we are constantly embarking on journeys into the unknown. Our missions orient us in our institutional histories – the Smithsonian’s mission was articulated by its founder, James Smithson, in 1826, and point us towards our goals, our North Stars. Our strategies are the compasses that will help us steer towards that future light.These also give us the confidence and the sense of urgency to know that our museums are not just the cultural “icing on the cake” – the “nice to have” when there is money left over from paying for the “essentials.”
They give us the courage to undertake a truly radical journey. And I would argue that the only way to get there - the only way NOT to unwittingly turn around on our voyage and return to and repeat our pasts - 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.
The traditional path of the museum message can be illustrated like this: Built on a hub & spoke model, the museum as authority is firmly entrenched at the center of the power structure. It broadcasts its messages out through its many platforms – its galleries, its publications, its website etc. – 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?
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 a radical move, that dramatically changes the structure of power in the museum and the circulation of energy through it.
A radical museum practice is about finding the nodes,meeting peoplewhere they are in the network, and taking them someplace new. As Judith Mastai pointed out, the task of the educator in the museum as distributed network “is to bridge the gaps between inquiry and authority, between desire and satisfaction, between length of attention span and volumes of potential information.”
I think mobile is a great vehicle for bringing our audiences on the museum journey, and performs a sort of bridging function among the museum’s platforms and initiatives, connecting content, conversations, and conversations and helping to ensure that they are not just portable but relevant wherever, whenever, and in whatever contexts people may choose to engage. I am tempted to go so far as to make an analogy between mobile, again quoting Mastai, and George Landow’s concept of Hypertext, where the “merging of creative and discursive modes simply happens,” tolerating a “blending an blurring of genres.” But I’d like to hear your thoughts on whether I’m reading too much into that text or not!
In any event, lest you think I am just spouting a lot of academic theory here with little practical application to the very real and pressing issues facing museums, I’d like to demonstrate how putting a distributed network structure at the heart of the museum’s mobile strategy is also a profoundly pragmatic tactic. We have articulated the vision for mobile at the Smithsonian as “recruit the world” – in other words, use these powerful connected devices, now in the pockts of 75% of the world’ population, to Recruit people around 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 radical 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 as an ongoing radical practice, rather than a momentary and temporary revolution.
Mobile as Radical Social Media in the Museum as Distributed Network
Mobile as Radical Social Media in theMuseum as Distributed Network<br />Or<br />“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”<br />With apologies to Gil Scott-Heron<br />Nancy Proctor, Smithsonian Institution<br />Thessaloniki, 3 October 2011<br />firstname.lastname@example.org @nancyproctor<br />
The Eternal City<br />Peter Blume, The Eternal City 1934-37<br />MoMA<br />10/3/11<br />2<br />http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A617&page_number=5&template_id=1&sort_order=1<br />Nancy Proctor, email@example.com<br />
Beth Lipman, Bancketje (Banquet) 2003<br />Smithsonian American Art Museum, Renwick Gallery <br />10/3/11<br />Interpretation is as essential to the Museum as cutlery is to a banquet<br />Nancy Proctor, firstname.lastname@example.org<br />3<br />
10/3/11<br />4<br />If the Museum doesn’t provide it:<br /><ul><li>Some visitors may bring their own,
Many will go away hungry, </li></ul>feeling uninvited and unwelcome.<br />Beth Lipman, Bancketje (Banquet) 2003<br />Smithsonian American Art Museum, Renwick Gallery <br />Nancy Proctor, email@example.com<br />
Tate Modern’s Principles of Interpretation<br />Interpretation is at the heart of the gallery’s mission.<br />Works of art do not have self-evident meanings. <br />10/3/11<br />Nancy Proctor, firstname.lastname@example.org<br />5<br />Works of art have a capacity for multiple readings; interpretation should make visitors aware of the subjectivity of any interpretive text. <br />Interpretation embraces a willingness to experiment with new ideas.<br />We recognise the validity of diverse audience responses to works of art.<br />Interpretation should incorporate a wide spectrum of voices and opinions from inside and outside the institution.<br />Visitors are encouraged to link unfamiliar artworks with their everyday experience.<br />
The Museum is transforming from Acropolis…<br />10/3/11<br />Nancy Proctor, email@example.com<br />8<br />Nancy Proctor, ProctorN@si.edu<br />8<br />http://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Europe/Greece/Attica/Attiki/Athens/photo442345.htm<br />
Museum Metrics & Constraints<br />1. Invaluable <br /> = highest possible quality<br />2. Public good <br /> = relevance& service for all<br />3. Forever business <br /> = must be sustainable<br />10/3/11<br />Nancy Proctor, firstname.lastname@example.org<br />11<br />
The Mission of the Smithsonian<br />… the increase and diffusion of knowledge…<br />SI Mobile’s Strategy<br />Integrate mobile into everything we do to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts;<br />Transform the way the Institution works in order to achieve its strategic goals and vision for the 21stcentury.<br />10/3/11<br />Nancy Proctor, email@example.com<br />13<br />
The Multiplatform Museum<br />10/3/11<br />Nancy Proctor, firstname.lastname@example.org<br />15<br />
The Multiplatform Museum<br />10/3/11<br />Nancy Proctor, email@example.com<br />16<br />
More than multiplatform…<br />10/3/11<br />Nancy Proctor, firstname.lastname@example.org<br />17<br />
So if we want to meet people where they are<br />And take them some place new…<br />10/3/11<br />Nancy Proctor, email@example.com<br />18<br />
Mobile is a great vehicle<br />http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ILQrUrEWe8<br />19<br />10/3/11<br />Nancy Proctor, firstname.lastname@example.org<br />19<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 />10/3/11<br />Nancy Proctor, email@example.com<br />20<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. <br />10/3/11<br />Nancy Proctor, firstname.lastname@example.org<br />21<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 />10/3/11<br />Nancy Proctor, email@example.com<br />22<br />