Posts Tagged 'museum communication'

The Museum of the 21st Century

LSE Arts and Thames and Hudson 60th anniversay discussion
The Museum of the 21st Century
Tuesday 7th July 2009

There was quite a buzz at the London School of Economics. The auditorium was packed; close to 500 people to hear the director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor and director of Tate, Nicholas Serota discuss the roles of collections in the 21st century. This was one of many 60th anniversary year events by publishers Thames and Hudson and was run in conjunction with London School of Economics Arts.
John Wilson from the BBC chaired the session. I wish to thank the organisers for securing me a pass to this event.

John Wilson chaired an entertaining and seamless conversation, ensuring that the big issues of the day were discussed and that the human side of the most powerful museum directors in the UK was on view. The highlights were clear – both directors have a firm grip on the realities of audience participation, global relevance, political recognition, cultural guardianship, trusteeship and future relationships. Their commitment to the museum as a learning space and one where knowledge is shared was evident. The both recognised a historic ‘imperfect relationship’ between curators and audiences and agreed that this was an important area, ripe for transformation.

The best jokes of the evening:

It’s good to see the director of the British Museum before he’s lost his marbles!
(LSE rep whose name I didn’t catch)

Parliament is seathing with closet aesthetes! (Neil MacGregor)

Some highlights on the musings of the future of the museum:

On audience engagement…The future of the museum may be rooted in the buildings they occupy but it will address audiences across the world and will be a place where people across the world will have a conversation. Those institutions which take up this notion fastest and furthest will be the ones which have the authority in the future.

On THOSE marbles…
Yesterday’s debate was about whether another country should have objects in their collections. The greater argument is, how do London and Greece ensure that some of these objects can be seen in China, Africa etc.

On travelling collections…Transformations in the notion of trusteeship, making this a reality is imperative. Beginning with professional world of trust, collections and expertise should be available to others around the world. Working to ensure that collections are seen, shared, discussed in Asia, Africa, South America. Museums are unique in being able to build these international communities where publics can engage in culture.

On changing roles of authorship…One of the great things that is happening is that major collections are putting as much as possible online available for download free of charge for academic purpose. This has completely transformed the way that drawings can be studied. There is a question about the duty of museum to be guarantor about what it believes to be authority.

The challenge is to what extent do museums wish to remain authors or to become publishers. Authority of institution can be used and provide a platform for international conversation. In 10-15 yrs we will have curators who will effectively be commissioning editors but will have to make a distinction between what we say and what others who use our platform to say things about themselves. The future has to be
museum as publisher and broadcaster.

On museum as educator…
The museum is the first open university and institutions are all trying to work out more ways of engaging audiences with expertise from within the institution. The big question is how to use electronic methods to enable more people to learn. It was agreed that a diminishing proportion of audiences would be those who visit the galleries themselves; the growing challenge would to look for online capacity and encourage curatorial teams to work there as much as they do in the galleries.

On transformations in cultural communication…We have had an imperfect relationship between the curator and our audience. Now is the time to extend this. There is a great need to reinterpret the museum in non-eurocentric way. This includes making collection material available in non-european languages; encouraging and learning about interpretation from a non-eurocentric perspective.

On the media…
The relationship between the media and museums has transformed: there was a time when museum news only appeared in the arts pages, it is now often in the news section. Arts are now an issue.

On The Plinth
It’s Twitter art!

Below is a potted summary of the event. Please note that this is not a word-for-word transcript but a potted summary! To hear to full podcast please visit:

JW- You’ve both been in the job since the late 80s, why are you still here?
NMG
The daily opportunity of being alone with some of the greatest objects in the world. Reminds you that what may be worrying you is fairly minor in the long history of things
The pleasure of viewing numbers of people who come through the doors; being able to engage with them, enjoy them – nothing beats that! It is the great voyeur’s pleasure being the director.
Nowhere else in the world offers what is possible with collections and publics as what London offers.
With free entry, the relationship between public and collection is transformed making it an infinitely more exciting job

NS
No-one has offered me a better job.
Museums sit within society in a very different place to what they do in USA.
Rewards of working with so many different kinds of people.
An extraordinary challenge.
Working closely with artists is a powerful strength of the institution.

JW: Black clouds are gathering do you feel the reaper?
NS
Because of the strength of public appreciation and engagement we will come through. It will be more difficult for politicians to cut money to museums in the 21st century as it was in the 20th century.
The experiment in the 90s (charging entrance fees) strengthened the position of museums

NMG
It’s possible but what’s changed is the way in which people use the collections.
People do now use collection to address the world and themselves, to become a real part of the consciousness of us in this country.

NS
They may have thought more in those terms n the 1820s-30s.

NMG
That’s why this country is so different. The National Gallery is in Trafalgar Square because it was thought that residents of the East End and the West End could walk to the gallery and mix.
This19th century language and has returned to centre stage.

JW: Are we living in more enlightened times in terms of attitudes to culture?
NS
Marginally. It is more difficult to cut grants but is still difficult to name 5 politicians who could be effective secretaries of the state;

NMG
Parliament is seathing with closet aesthetes!
There are no ministers in the cabinet with this responsibility when they were appointed.
Coverage of museums in press has completely transformed. It used to be tucked away in arts papers and is now frequently in the news. Arts are an issue now.

JW What is the best argument to take to politicians?
NS
The museum is a repository of world knowledge and has a place in civic society.

NMG
The world in 1987: on the whole Britain gave impression that we were in denial of the contemporary, every politician is aware that if you want a young public to take their place they need to see what is being made across the world.

JW: How do you see the role of nationhood and museums?
NMG
Museums have a role to play in fostering international relations
The place to start is in London. There has been a huge change since the war. London is a city of diasporas, unique – a city where the world lives; where different cultural traditions coexist and survive. That is the extraordinary excitement of living in London. Collections reflect that phenomena. Divisions between home and abroad don’t make sense any longer. There is a false polarity. Because of our imperial history, we are a unique world resource which together, represents the world. We try to make a reality of the notion of trusteeship – collections and expertise should be available to others around the world. Museums uniquely can do this in building international communities. This starts as professional world of trust and then can reach millions of people across the world. The government’s response has been 1million pounds to work overseas, recognising that collections are so important that they must be funded to operate overseas.

NS
Until 2000, The Tate felt comfortable with representing international and contemporary art from UK and Nth America. Now we represent more widely; not to a great extent but this has changed the institution, creating partnerships and relationships with museums around the world. The most defensible position in the world is to look out rather than in. There was a recognition that we weren’t recognising quality and significance of work in other parts of the world.

JW: Can culture make inroads around the world?
NMG
Exchanges are important b/c its extraordinarily hard for us to grasp how various world views are seen by different cultures. Friendships can survive the political chills.

NS
We have a broader view of the world; museums are in there for the long term

JW: Is the case for museums fading?
The basic argument hasn’t changed. The value of having a collection is that it is a place where the world can look at the whole world. It is a question of whether you believe in shared human culture or whether you want to define this in national terms. All enlightenment institutions are concerned with shared human culture. It is a question of how you see a cultural inheritance and a definition of a national self. This is a key question for the world. Whatever else has happened in the world we can no longer live in simple national identities.

The Greek government considers the removal (of the marbles) illegal and so they haven’t had these discussions. There has been a politicisation of culture. It was a great insight of British parliament to separate museums from government, in that way, trustees could not be subject to political directions. It depoliticized museums.

NS
Many people take enormous pleasure from seeing work in different contexts. If you could only see British art in Britain the world would be a different place.

JW: Do you ever wonder about the marbles?
MNG
No, because the key question is; was it proper for them to be removed? There is no question it was legal as you couldn’t move them without the support of the power of the day. But that is not the point, rather it is what happened when they were removed. When they came to London they were displayed at a height where people could see them. This is the purpose of a great museum; to enable huge numbers of people to examine closely what they wouldn’t have been able to previously.

JW: What have been most significant artistic developments?
NS
Note: here the discussion focused on what I think was public reaction to artistic intervention in the demolishment of a house. As I was unfamiliar with the case (and the people next to me chose that moment to talk, I couldn’t get the gist of Nick’s response other than: the Tate doesn’t do market testing on exhibitions. They rely on the conviction that these are the artists whose works should be viewed

NMG
Note: too much chat again so potted understanding!
The reality is that collections would be shared across the UK. This is the reality of public ownership. The Plinth (current exhibition in Trafalgar Square) raises the question of what public sculpture is, what sort we want. Thanks to competitions, there is a huge range of public who think about what is on a plinth and is in some measure, their decision.

NS
Symbollically says something about the generation of today.

NMG
It’s twitter art!

JW: What is the role of art and culture for 2012 Olympics?
NS
It needs good ideas that build on what is happening in institutions rather than short events.

NMG
It’s a great opportunity to build on what is already there, if politicians can agree that the world already exists in the collections. We already have a world cultural festival the cultural Olympiad is already there.

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Look Who’s Talking -Conference Session 2

This session was premised on the notion that audiences now have the ability to express their own thoughts about their engagement with cultural resources in very public ways. The questions posed to each of the speakers included:
– Interpretation – is it at all relative nowadays? What is the value of expert knowledge?
– Where to next? – using social networking to disseminate views and experiences
– How do we encourage young people to see the value of their cultural participation?
-How can cultural organisations apply web 2.0 tools authentically and therefore in a way that sustains the interest and loyalty of an online community?
Here are some thoughts from our three speakers:

Shelley Bernstein
Shelley spoke about the processes involved in developing the ‘Click’ exhibition at Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition was based on ideas which came from the seminal book ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ by James Surowiecki. Audiences were able to comment on art works which would be included in both the online and eventually, the onsite exhibition. Yet the way the feedback systems were established, participants were not able to see others’ responses thereby limiting crowd influence. As some twitterers suggested, the provided a challenge to the audience as it was clear that the exhibition development faze was not truly ‘web 2.0’. Even so, as one twitterer suggested, the cloud structure of images and the release of fuzzy data made for an extremely interesting project. The project demonstrated the convergence of physical and online visits and provided ideas of how those interested in capturing visual images, whether professional or amateur, engaged in the process.

Click
Wisdom of Crowds
Other Resources
Art Info

Thanks to Brett McLennan and Lynda Kelly for diligently twittering extra resources during this session!

Sebastian Chan
Seb only had 100 slides today and he managed to fit them into his allocated 15 minutes with his usual flair!! He described the Powerhouse online presence suggesting that there was a general movement from websites to web presence – one which demonstrated impact in the general community. As one of our twitterer’s suggested, visitors share their experiences of museums in spite of what the organisation does and Seb concurred, suggesting that there was a need to see what was really useful and to sift out the noise. A couple of important points underpinned Seb’s talk, importantly:
– allow people to BROWSE rather than search;
– allow people to contribute & help with collection information

There was a suggestion that bureaucracy doesn’t’ make web 2.0 initiatives safer, the social rules or community monitors do. Another important point both Seb and Shelley made was that museums can’t afford to outsource their learning when it comes to new tools for engaging with audiences. In the end, passing social media project to interns or short term partners ensures that the organisation doesn’t develop internal, sustainable knowledge – a recipe for future disasters I think!

Other resources
Example of visitor engagement from Australian Museum visit via Flickr

Vivienne Waller
Vivienne presented an entertaining piece on the relationship between Google and Libraries.
She began by suggesting that the relationship had developed over four stages:
– Romance – where libraries and google seemed to have everything in common
– Reality check – where the differences began to appeare
– Reaslisation that the two players wanted different things
– Regaining a separate sense of self – negotiating their boundaries.

The first stage was premised on the idea that google organised the world’s information and made it universally accessible and useful while libraries ensured access to information for all. Cracks started to appear when the integrity of search results began to be questioned. At the same time, digitisation grew exponentially and increasingly, there was a sense of a lack of public control.
At this point there was the realisation that Google’s omnipresence – from calendar to health, finance, street views, world maps etc. signified that Google wanted something very different from public libraries – Google wanted to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful! Public Libraries on theother hand were dedicated to ensuring access to information for all.
In the final stage of the relationship, there was an appreciation the difference between from and content of information. Additionally, we had come to understand what could be lost in the translation to digital services.

References included:
Picasa Web
Orkut
Ask Now
along with a plethora of google products including: Google Maps, Streetview, Health, Wishlist, News and Finance!

Demos on Democratic Culture

John Holden from Demos recently released this report ‘Democratic Culture’ to explore what it is that we mean by culture in our times. The report establishes three useful spheres:the public, commercial and homemade. The public is that which is defined as culture through the act of being funded by governments, commercial culture is determined by the consumer and the homemade by the creator and/or community. Holden proposes that as these three spheres become increasingly interconnected and networked, the ambiguities between each is likely to increase. He suggestst that the reaction to this by those  who consider art to be ‘for an elite’ will be that they to try to maintain their power to define what art is by separating it from everyday life. This is probably not such a new thought; before the internet we found ways of defining high and low culture, particularly in the museum/library/archive/gallery sector. Kevin Moore’s ‘Museums and Popular Culture’ (1997) dealt with issues of interpretation and representation and focused on the paradox of the museum in attempting to maintain a distance from those cultural events which, in another time and another place may well be defined as high culture.

But this is not the place for yet another ‘divide’ discussion. Holden describes the impact of ‘exculsivity’ and ‘the cultural snob’, suggesting levels of expert skill and knowledge are relative. He proposes that the arguements which frequently break out between the ranks are in themselves a mechanism for ‘asserting exculsivity’ in order to  “guard the territory that they have mapped together, in order to keep the public out.” (Holden 2008, p. 20) Holden asserts that if we can begin to consider the demos as  ‘us’, ” a self-governing, enlightened citizenry, with the capacity to make judgements and decide questions” then three-way communication can develop.

The article is an interesting read and contexutalises existing debates quite well. Where it seems to lack punch is in a sense of the future. Recognising that there is a big gap between the rhetoric or access and audience expectation, I can’t help feeling somewhat worn out by the report. It’s not the fault of DEMOS. Perhaps it has more to do with a sense of frustration that before we can move forward, we have to locate the muscles that work together to propel us through space.

Ross Dawson on the Future of the Museum

Round at Museum30.ning, Seb posted an article on Ross Dawson’s stalk on the Future of the Museum. You can read his notes here

What strikes me is the ease with which Ross captured the prevalent issues in the sector. This could be for a couple of reasons: perhaps because he is a leading business communications professional or it could be because to those outside of the museum sector, the issues are often blindingly obvious.

In museum circles, the issues raised are often discussed as though they had only just occured. The notion of the ‘media museum’ for instance, has been with us for a long while yet there continues to be extraodinary resistance to the idea of media technology being employed to create cultural interactive experiences.

Ironically, the history of museum ‘experience design’ includes significant examples of technological wonder, for instance: The Great Exhibition of 1851 heralded a new era of cultural event where Universal Exhibitions would define the progress of Western civilisation. The rhetoric of progress, so much a part of the nineteenth century, translated into a call to excel and be productive. Within the doctrine of continued progress, there was an implicit societal trust in technological and material advance. Exhibitions were useful mechanisms through which to display these social and political developments.

In our quest to highlight what is valuable and specific to the museum environment, we seem to forget that the communication of content has always been at the centre of the museum program.
 
Even though I research the museum sector and spend a great deal of time writing about technology, I am increasingly despairing of significant change while the sector itself (apart from bright lights such as work from Powerhouse and Australian Museums), as I listen to the almost deafening silence when it comes to considering the role of technology as central to museum communication.

The museum sector would do well to move away from a sense of its own importance to demonstrating the true value it can bring to lives. As cultural networks proliferate, the museum is ideally placed to lead discussion and debate, to create participatory media and develop the role of the active cultural participant.

Just as it carved out its role as gatekeeper, the future museum can become the leader of digital cultural communication, creating opportunities for co-creation between audiences and organisations by adopting representative curatorial practices.

Until then, it struggles with ideologies it seems to have created despite the excellent research and development that has occured over the past 40 years!


About us

This blog examines social media, cultural institutions and digital participation. It's based on the research projects Engaging with Social Media in Museums and New Literacy, New Audiences. Regular contributors are Angelina Russo, Lynda Kelly and Seb Chan

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