Public Sphere: Museums 2022

Posted on September 12, 2011

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This post is the first in a series over the coming weeks that will address some of the questions/issues being raised as part of the Digital Culture Public Sphere. This public consultation process is seeking input from the GLAM community in creating a vision for a long term sustainable vision for the sector, and so I am going to use my blog as a bit of an open thinking space in which to develop my own ideas (ultimately leading to comment/submissions in the online discussion). These are particularly interesting questions to be addressing now, given how quickly the world and technology are both changing.

These formative thoughts are not yet fully developed, but hopefully by writing – and inviting comment from you lovely readers – I will be able to clarify my own position.

So… what would I like to see for Australia’s digital culture ten years into the future?

Well, to start with, I’d like to see a lot more of Australia’s digital heritage online. As more and more information/communication/knowledge becomes based online, those things that are not online are at risk of being written out of history and becoming irrelevant. Obviously, museums and galleries will still have the physical objects in their collections – but what use are those things if no one knows they are there (after all, who are you collecting for?)? Already, many GLAM organisations have undertaken digitisation projects, but for others – particularly smaller institutions – time and resources have ensured that this is not a high priority (or, if it is a priority in intention, it does not always eventuate). I worry that if we leave our collection knowledge offline, it will lose its meaning. As Jennifer Trant writes, in Curating Collections Knowledge: Museums on the Cyberinfrastructure (p289, in Marty & Burton Jones, Museum Informatics: people, information and technology in museums 2008), “The vitality of collections derives from their use, interpretation, and re-interpretation.” I’ve asked previously whether a collection have any impact if no one interacts with it, and I think this issue will continue to be important for cultural institutions.

In the same book, Trant (p289) further argues that museum collection documentation should be curated just as museum objects are curated. She writes:

Reconceptualizing the role of museum documentation as active curation of collections knowledge created inside and outside the institution enables museums to fulfill a broader role in society… The museum information curator’s selection, arrangement, and care have as their object the cultural memory of the institution, a legacy to be guarded along with the physical preservation of objects themselves.

I agree with this. I think that for Australia to excel in this sector, we need to make the curation of collections knowledge a priority. However, this is something that would probably require the creation of new positions within our museums (which obviously takes funds).

Having said that, I’m not sure that simply putting collections online is enough to make them relevant to anyone… We need to find new models for our online collections to make them meaningful and easy to interact with for broader audiences than just those trained in museum language and conventions. If we do want people to interact with our collections online, then we need to lower barriers to entry and maybe even think of new ways of visualising collection knowledge, and I think that’s only something that can be done from inside the industry. That’s not something that can be done with better cultural policy, but is what the success of any movement towards digitising culture hinges on.

Similarly, we need to find a way to put our collections online in a way that allows others to find meaning in them, but also allows the museum to maintain its authority. I have spoken to curators who mention that they don’t use collection websites for authoritative information, since they are often inaccurate and untrustworthy. If we don’t trust the information from our own sector, how can we expect anyone else to do so? So in the coming decade, I’d like us to find a way to have online collection knowledge become something that’s useable, relevant and trustworthy – not a small task, I know.

There will no doubt continue to be difficulties associated with copyright in displaying/uploading images of works of art and certain other museum artefacts which cannot be resolved within the field, with the international legal implications involved (particularly since things shared online have no physical borders to prevent their spread). But these are issues that will impact the ability of many cultural organisations to make their collections available online in a meaningful way.

Internally, as a sector, we need to continue to confront the fact that opening our collections up to interaction will challenge the museum to reexamine the role it – and the role audiences/visitors/users – play in constructing collection knowledge, and that doing so may change the institution itself. It is these changes that I am exploring, at least philosophically, in my PhD research, but the sector as a whole will likely need to focus on and address what these changes mean on both a practical and theoretical level in the coming years. While there certainly are many in the field doing so already, there remain others for whom this is merely background noise, and who have not yet come to accept that museum websites in the information age might need to be about more than marketing. And I don’t think we as a sector will be truly relevant to anyone in the digital age until our online place is not simply to tell people how to find our offline presence.

What do you think? Where would you like to see digital culture – in any country – be in ten years time? How can we make it happen?