Should museums still treat the physical space as the most important one? If so, why?

When, a couple of weeks ago, I asked what your dangerous idea about museums is, one of the responses really stuck out for me. Damien wrote:

I do not think we should hasten into the virtual world. There is a place for online content and catalogues, without a doubt, but museums need to be physical spaces containing actual objects. We are already teaching out children to disengage with the physical and retreat into the cyber world.

He is not the first person I have heard make a similar argument. In fact, it is something I have heard articulated by a significant number of people working in museums and art galleries (maybe more than those who believe otherwise). This is something that will come as no surprise to those working in museum tech. There is often a sense that we are trying to push against a tide of people who might agree in theory that museums need some form of online presence, but who also see this as being less important than other museum work at the least, and at worst, actually counter to the museum’s purpose. I have had quite senior people in the field argue quite passionately against me when I talk about museums uploading their whole collections to the web, instead believing that what the public can access should be limited to a few hero works with statements of significance (effectively maintaining the status quo of museum publication, albeit with a change of medium).

For me, this is very interesting because I see museum websites as a completely new kind of tool at our disposal that might actually make the work of museums better and more aligned to the changes that are occurring in the creation of knowledge in other fields. It allows what we do to actually knit into the broader world of ideas in a very different way to what happens in the physical museum space, and a way that actually can make our collections more relevant, inclusive of all their complexities and imperfections.

But there are lots of people in museums who do not agree with my assessment, and I want to know the reasons behind this. I would love to hear from those people who work in museums, or are simply interested in them, who, like Damien, think that museums should indeed avoid a rush into the virtual world. And if so, why that is.

Do you think museums should still treat the physical space as the most important one?

32 thoughts on “Should museums still treat the physical space as the most important one? If so, why?

    1. Hi Lynda! I completely agree, and I suspect most people who are themselves active online would also think similarly. Yet there are many people whom I have spoken to who really don’t agree, or who think that the website serves as a useful marketing device, but is certainly not an important museum space in its own right. There is a sense that it is inferior to the physical museum – rather than a different space with different properties, that make it useful for different kinds of purposes. I suppose I wonder what it will take for the museum website to be seen as being as core to museum work, rather than merely supplementary (like an electronic catalogue).

    1. Thanks for drawing my attention to the Dillenburg article Gretchen. I had come across it before, but it is an interesting read in light of this current line of questioning – particularly his argument that “an exhibit is a physical environment designed for the experience of embedded knowledge.”

      His argument that exhibits are a defining characteristic of museums is interesting, and on superficial thinking, one I agree with in the context of the physical museum space.

      However, in both your point that digital media can enhance the physical space, and his argument that physical “exhibits must remain their one irreplaceable feature”, there is still a sense that the physical space is the most important aspect of a museum. But what of the possibilities that the museum online can create a world not bounded by the physical?

      Matt, below, argues that the virtual world is every bit as real as the physical world. As he says, there is a freedom that is possible online because it is not bounded by what can occur according to physics, but instead by what our imaginations makes possible.

      I am still thinking this through, but it strikes me if we limit ourselves to doing only what can be done in the physical museum, we are selling ourselves short.

  1. I think we need stop making a distinction between the two. There is a very strong tendency to view the world as two parts, the real and the “virtual”. The very use of the word “virtual” to describe the information landscape betrays our common cultural attitudes toward it. But this is a generational thing. I think you’ll find in most younger generations a tendency to put the real and “virtual” worlds on more equal footing as though the world of information were just as real as the physical one (which I personally feel it is) and we’re starting to see a lot more work in behavioral psychology that indicates that this is a more natural point of view for humans to have (look at studies related to dreams, hallucinations, placebos and faith, and you’ll find a mountain of evidence that indicates that we confuse the “real” and the “virtual” with each other more often than most of us would be comfortable admitting).

    I think we need to accept that the digital realm is really the informational realm that we’ve always lived at least half of our lives in. We’ve always lived at least half of our lives in our heads, whether it was daydreaming, planning or inventing. Everything that is in our physical spaces now started out as an idea in someone else’s head. And everything that we do effects the perceptions and ideas of the people we’re trying to reach. We’ve always been in the idea business. We’ve always been part of the information age (I’m speaking specifically of museums here).

    What we have to do is recognize that certain kinds of experience and certain kinds of information are best shared in person and others are best shared online. The incredibly complex web of relationships that link everything in our physical space to everything else in our physical space (and beyond) is best communicated online. The direct relationship between an individual object and its effect on you personally may be best communicated in person. What we need to do is evaluate our goals and our programs to see what it is we’re trying to do and whether or not we’re using the best tools to do it. I don’t think there will be a single answer for the “museum community” as a whole.

    But what we can’t do is continue acting as though the digital world is “virtual” or not real. It is very real, as real as the world we’ve always tried to create in our physical museum spaces. It’s different. We can’t put the same content there and expect it to have the same impact. But we can use it to do things online that we could never dream of doing in a physical space and that’s where the real power lies.

  2. Needless to say, I think about this stuff all the time. One “space” needn’t replace the other, prioritizing them doesn’t even make complete sense. Different “visitors” (i.e. people served by your museum’s mission) will find different spaces more or less important, so should different workers within the museums.

    Many, if not most, museums are a bit behind this kind of thinking. They need to start by acknowledging that the online space is in fact as “real” as any other. Museums have an opportunity to serve a vast public digitally in ways that are just as meaningful as physical service.

    Great post. Nice comments too. I like what Suse and Matt have to say especially.

  3. I would define a museum as an organisation which curates (selects content of interest, not limited to physical objects), interprets (presents opinions or stories based on this) and shares (gives people ways of accessing this new interpreted information).

    Online spaces give museums new ways of approaching these three roles, particularly with sharing that allows others to reuse or build upon the work of the museum. Museums should be considering digital + online as an everyday part of their work. This doesn’t change basic questions for the museum like who are their audience and how do they best engage with them.

    1. I think it does slightly change that basic question about audience, Paul, since the online space can open up new possibilities for who a museum’s audience might be in that space, which could be very different from who the audience is in physical proximity to the museum. Or maybe the question might be the same, but we might need to consider new potential audiences from currently known ones.

      There are other questions that emerge from your comment too, about curation and interpretation online and the role that museums should be playing in this. I’ve been reading David Weinberger’s new book Too Big To Know, which is about the changing shape of knowledge in the Internet age. The book (which is very interesting and definitely recommended) discusses the increasingly complex shape and nature of knowledge at a time when knowledge no longer has a foundation upon which to be structured. Anyway, it raises for me some interesting questions about what the role of traditional institutions should or could be doing as gatekeepers of knowledge.

      I’m going to explore some of these ideas a little more in coming posts, but I really appreciate your thoughtful responses.

      1. Yes, I think the questions are the same regardless of whether you’re talking about onsite or online. The important point is to ask the questions (who are your audience, how do you best engage with them). The opportunities in onsite and online experiences are different.

        On the curation side, museums have a great role to play in gathering interesting material around a topic in one place. Online spaces allow museums to reference and include external online resources in ways that are harder to reproduce onsite.

      2. Haven’t read all the comments carefully, but what a great online system allows is not just browsing online but better connections to the community and all the spaces it has.

        Take a city like Cleveland, for example which has a huge but isolated museum in a town with abundant space. So many artists like myself are much more interested in site specific work. Couldn’t a museum help curate larger events both inside and outside the museum?

        Add to this the role museums should be playing in preserving public art and architecture- like the Watts Tower.

        One can only hope that tighter museum budgets will create more interest in the software/ knowledge side of the institution over the static hardware,grand building, physical space side.

  4. Thank you for your post, I am glad (and a little bit surprised) that my comment sparked another post. Please do not mistake me for a Luddite; I am aware of the value of online materials. My local museum, The National Media Museum in Bradford UK, is in the process of setting up an entire gallery about our life online. I’m all for it. However, there is an intrinsic value in physically engaging with a space and its contents that stimulates all five senses. There is social learning to be had from negotiating with other visitors, immediate discussions in response to exhibits, and the chance to interrogate the items in a tactile way. Obviously, some material is too precious or ephemeral to handle, but the best museums are the ones that mix the approaches.
    My initial comments were around the caution we must exercise in failing to distinguish between what is ‘real’ and want is ‘virtual’ (or hyper-real). Young people especially are vulnerable to not making the distinction so readily. If, as Matt asserts, the virtual world is real, just in a different sense, and I’m not sure I agree, then we must make doubly sure that people are grounded in the physical world first. Imagination is an absolute gift that we fail to use enough, generally, but to state that dreams and hallucinations are ‘real’ is problematic. Distinctions between the worlds we inhabit ‘in our heads’ and this one we lead daily on a physical basis need to be drawn. They may enhance one another, sure. If museums are to fulfil their cultural, educative and artistic functions then they must contain varied content in various media.
    I have been interested to read some of the other responses. Best wishes, D

    1. I don’t think I stated my point as clearly as I intended. It’s not that dreams or hallucinations are as “real” as actual experiences so much as that people are terrible at telling the difference. It would seem, based on recent science, that we as a species don’t actually have a terribly strong grip on “reality” as it is classically defined. Much of what we consider real is actually clouded by subjectivity, misperception, faulty recollection and outright delusion (which might actually explain a lot about politics).

      The traditional view is that distinctions need to be drawn between what’s in our heads and what’s not. But the very notion that we can even know what’s beyond our heads is frequently tested and disproven. Maybe that distinction is as arbitrary and subjective as our own perceptions. The only world our conscious selves really inhabit is the one in our heads. The shared space that our bodies inhabit together is something we are, generally speaking, terribly unaware of. Digital technology is bridging that space for us in ways that our more traditional methods have not and it’s opening up new ways for us to connect and share more of the stuff that’s really going on inside ourselves.

      So much of our “reality” and our shared cultural heritage is premised on assumptions, myths and faulty recollection. To classify the digital landscape as less “real” than what we already have in our museum spaces today is misguided. What is a museum beside a repository of ideas? It’s not the objects themselves that matter, it’s what they represent. We can argue endlessly over the value of the objects themselves, and I think they have real value. I don’t think we should abandon our physical spaces at all. But I think that separating those spaces from the information space is a dead end. In the future, our physical spaces and our digital spaces will be inseparable (as will everyone else’s, museum or not). It’s time we start taking that attitude now rather than be blindsided by it later.

      We’ve always been in the information business in museums. It would be silly for us to draw an arbitrary line in the sand over physical and digital spaces now. Erase the distinction. What information inhabits the physical space? What can we add to it, both in the physical space and beyond it? What tools do we need? What’s taking so long?

      I see information technology as a sort of prosthesis. It’s an extension of our mental faculties. Language was the first info tech and it allowed us to share ideas. Writing first increased our memory and later allowed us to share ideas with people we didn’t have to actually meet. Printing, player-piano rolls and jacquard loom control cards industrialized the process. Radio, TV and magnetic tape expanded how we could express those ideas. Computers and the internet are just the latest step in the evolution of a shared mental prosthetic that we have been collectively building for millennia.

      Like other areas of prosthetic design in recent years, this latest iteration is starting to give us capabilities we didn’t have before. Like the double-amputee who is not allowed to compete in the olympics because it would be unfair to the other athletes, those who are adapting to and using information technology are going to start outpacing everyone else in the realm of ideas, whether it be learning, sharing or inventing. Information is real, even if it isn’t physical. It’s no more or less virtual than the volumes of scholarly work that’s already been written about our collections, or the ideas that we try to communicate through our collections in the curation, interpretation and sharing of those collections. And drawing a distinction between any of it just seems arbitrary to me.

  5. To come at this from a slightly different angle (belonging to the sister of the knowledge and information business – libraries) I offer a section from Designing the Library of the Future by Dr. Alex Byrne, the now State Librarian of NSW:

    “Even more faceted is the digital space that a student uses when consulting an ebook online, copying or annotating content, preparing a report or presentation, seeking feedback from another student, sharing with yet another project group member, listening to a music MP3, checking a timetable,flicking to social media and checking an online map for a dinner location. All of these activities have physical analogues but they are inadequately described in physical terms, they operate within real spaces, digital spaces. Sometimes misleadingly labelled ‘virtual spaces’, these spaces are real, not virtual in the sense of imaginary. Those who visit, use and dwell in them perceive them to be real and quite differently from spaces that are only imagined (Baños et al 2005).

    Not that the physical spaces have decreased in importance. They remain essential for the
    consultation of books and other tangible materials and for quiet concentrated thought and
    composition – the archetypal silent reading rooms. But, increasingly, libraries need to provide spaces for interaction to enable learning in the broadest contemporary sense.”

    I agree with Matt that we need to stop making broad distinctions between the digital and physical spaces but think about how we can draw them together using multi-modal information strategies which enrich both the physical experience but also the digital one.

    Rather than spooning out information in small controlled panels, we need to create rich content spaces embracing both the physical and digital spheres that allow people to not only be able to access rich information about objects in physical space at their point of need but also be to able to influence the use of the physical space through their engagement within the digital one. Almost every Museum and many libraries have vast collections that never make it out for public viewing, yet digital engagement and the rich data we can gain from it could create opportunities to show communities what they want to see.

    I can only imagine the information rich outcomes that would be possible if museums, libraries and other members of the information and knowledge industry collaborated and combined their digital and physical worlds.

  6. Could some of the resistance to developing more digital spaces be a reaction against what we’re seeing in our wider worlds?

    For example, banks and shops have developed their online offerings to the extent that their physical spaces become easy to discard. Their online experience is often a lesser one, but we have come to accept it. If a museum developed an amazing and comprehensive online presence, could they risk closure or loss of funding because fewer people come through the door?

    1. I don’t think the biggest risk is market cannibalization. I think a much larger risk is irrelevance or obscurity. People are getting more accustomed to information rich learning experiences and that will only become more true over time. If we don’t put what we have online, someone else will. The audience is going to be drawn to the richer experience, whether it be a museum with a well-integrated digital presence or an online amusement park that serves up sugar-coated digital joyrides (think World of Warcraft).

      I think much of the resistance is because people are afraid that the focus will shift away from their spaces to the web, but that’s a choice we as institutions get to make. The audience is going online and if we don’t go with them we’ll simply languish in obscurity while someone else gets their attention. That will shut down a few cultural institutions here and there before a museum decides to close up their physical space in lieu of a web site.

      1. Wow, I need to proofread before hitting submit. Edit the first sentence of my second paragraph to read “…but that’s NOT a choice we as institution get to make.” Sorry about that.

        Also, it’s not just about putting data online for web consumption. If we do it right and build all of our info services as actual services and not just web sites, we can draw on the richness of that information in our physical spaces as well. And if we can draw on the shared services of other institutions who are doing the same thing, we can integrate their data into our services both online and in the physical space. We should stop separating our web services from our on-site services. Done right, they could become the same thing. Like I said before, erase the distinction and there is no threat.

  7. Each medium has different affordances.

    The problem is not so much whether museums ‘should’ but whether they are structurally organised and resourced to be able to – even if they want to (which, to be honest nowadays, most do).

  8. As an ordinary housewife with a great love of art, all I can say is that I am immensely grateful that I am able to access online some of the greatest collections in the world, collections which on my budget I would never be able to see ‘really’. Resources like the Google Art Project have given me great pleasure and added immeasurably to my understanding. However, if I win the Lottery tonight – fingers crossed – I will make it my life’s work to visit those collections; how else to properly appreciate the use of scale, the brushwork, the use of colour and tone? The virtual galleries are fantastic for what they are and are able to offer, but they are absolutely no substitute for the real thing. Long live physical space!

  9. Just to be contrary, I’m going to say yes, museums should still treat the physical space as the most important one. A museum’s online presence is as important as their publications, their postcards, their lectures, their tie-ins with tv and radio – all of which suit different audiences in different contexts and are so important for engagement with the public and necessary to be discoverable and relevant in people’s lives.

    But the one thing a museum can offer that other online services can’t is a physical space in which to gather, space away from the distractions of 28 other browser tabs and bleeping apps and everything else in the background, presence in one unique moment. Physical spaces in museums create an environment and time where one can be absorbed in the material experience of the objects.

  10. Or what Seb said about affordances.

    And to play devil’s advocate (because it’s more fun than writing my lit review), there are probably lots of people who can do more interesting things with museum content online than your average museum can currently manage. That might be because of resourcing or recruitment issues, a lack of imagination, because the organisation doesn’t know how to value or get excited about online content, whatever… but maybe if they’re not going to do digital well, then museums should just open up their data and let other people get on with creating the next wave of museums online.

  11. Quick reply before the weekend (oh, glorious weekend!) to second Seb’s assertion, and amplify Mia’s about sharing our digital content. Are we set up to make use of our content, and should we even be focusing on that, or making our data accessible to the world. You don’t see many museums that became radio broadcasters or television stations, even though those media radically reshaped how people get information. Are we putting the emphasis on the wrong part of being online?

    1. But television did change the museum. I think fondly of the wave of VHS-based options museums churned out in the 1980s and 1990s to provide a greater amount of content in a new way. The current digital footprint of most museums is an advertisement…if we think of the same via radio or TV broadcasting, you are right. But TV afforded museums an outlet to create content to share with interested parties. The Internet is that on such a greater magnitude.

      The museum space is still vital. But we are using our digital space to only advertise or offer the same. The physical space can do great things, but it is limited. The digital space can do different great things; it is limited in a different way, but limited nevertheless. So let’s create unique experiences for both, making everything richer.

  12. Ed and Mia, I would argue that opening up their data to let other people get on with creating the next wave of museums online (a lovely idea, btw) still requires that the museum sees the value in the digital and in ensuring they have good quality data. And I think that in itself probably requires a change in attitude in a lot of cases. As you say, Ed, maybe we are putting the emphasis on the wrong part of being online.

    And Mia – I am so glad to see someone standing up for the physical space in the museum. As much as I think the Internet offers museums really interesting possibilities as public institutions, I don’t think it is the be all and end all. I think it is a different tool, which is better equipped for some things (like opening up the collection to new interrogations), but less useful for others. Different affordances, and all that.

  13. The Gene Dillenburg reference earlier put me in mind of one of my favorite Dan Spock quotes, that the museum exhibition is the medium of media. Part of their magic is that they can encompass anything you can get in there – including the digital.

  14. I’m fairly new to this field and coming to it from an educational tech perspective and a cultural studies perspective…love the blog and love the comments! My two cents:

    I agree with the need for a physical museum. Since the Louvre became “public” in 1793, the museum has been a sociocultural space for the designation, preservation and exhibit of culturally or historically significant artifacts. Physical space is a very viable need. However, since the lithography in the 19th Century, the question of artifact versus replication has existed — lithograph to photograph, then televised image, and now digital image. This fear of physical museums becoming redundant is 200 years old…same stripes, different color. Museums still exist. They are still vital. And the inertia in museum spaces is as strong as ever, as this fear of the loss of meaning due to the loss of artifact image control continues to get stronger.

    I suggest John Berger’s brilliant BBC Documentary WAYS OF SEEING (1972) for more information on the evolution of artifact meaning due to not only image reproduction, but negotiated and oppositional readings of the text.

    A real space and a virtual space should coexist as well as offer different experiences. If we are just putting the museum catalog online, we’re making one version redundant…either the version where you spend $20 to see the painting, or the version where you scroll through paintings searched under the keyword “green.” Human computer interaction was not designed to limit computing to a fancy way of doing the same old…it should broaden, deepen, and change. We have to be careful to not lose sight of the intention of author and time period, but we also have to be willing to read these artifacts through multiple sociocultural guises. The possibilities for both real and virtual museums are immense…but if we keep debating one over the other we’re going to lose both.

  15. I guess it bothers me that the talk is about either or. What the web does is it allows new levels of coordination and branding,

    Let’s take, Pacific Standard Time, a very complicated series of connected shows and events that would be almost impossible to understand without the web.

    Obviously, these are still, physical exhibits. What one sees is that this model clearly bangs against a much more old school institutional mindset in many museums.

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