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

Posted on January 9, 2012


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?

Posted in: Museums, Questions