What would you be prepared to sacrifice for a better online museum experience?

Posted on January 14, 2012

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Monday’s post, asking whether the physical space of the museum should still be the most important one, brought all kinds of new readers to the blog, and has started the richest discussions on museumgeek to date. While I had been trying to get a little more into the heads of those who are not enthusiastic about museums’ move into the digital space, I primarily received passionate comments from those who are.

However, as they so often do, Seb Chan’s comments cut right to the very heart of the question. He wrote:

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).

While most commenters on the post were arguing for increased digital presence, I wonder how quickly those same calls would dry up from all but the most passionate if people were asked to actually make choices about what would have to be sacrificed in order to have a more significant and inclusive web presence.

What would you be prepared to give up in order to ensure that your favourite museum had a really great web presence (and what does that even look like?)? Some public programming? Would it be ok to have a slightly less active (or interactive) physical museum if it meant that the online presence offered more than simple marketing, like a really strong community space for discussions about art or history that included regular interaction with museum experts and curators?

Would you be prepared to argue that a museum might need to lose a position somewhere else (curatorial? Education? Public art?) in order to fund the position of digital curator, for instance? And if so, which position?

Maybe we could better train our existing staff, to ensure that they were equipped to deal with the intricacies of being online more. But then, if we wanted every curator to consider dealing with the public as a priority, that might mean that some institutions (particularly smaller ones) might end up having one or two less exhibitions a year, because the curatorial time would be so divided. Would that be ok?

And this is where this whole thing gets difficult. It is easy to argue for the importance of being innovative online, but how do we actually make it happen? Is there something we can learn from the shift in emphasis in museums towards education in the wake of the New Museology? Were new positions created (and funded), or were old ones lost? How can we apply what was learned from that experience to this situation?

Or maybe it’s not about sacrificing anything, but instead finding new and more responsive structural models?

I don’t know. But until museums have truly compelling web experiences that are publicly (and politically) regarded as being as valuable as their physical spaces, then the online aspect of the museum will probably continue to be a nice addition to a museum’s core work, but will not be part of that core work.

In a 2010 interview for the Huffington Post, museology’s own Twitter celebrity MuseumNerd said this.

Museums have historically been slow to adapt. In the present day this is tied up with the way they are funded. Basically, the ones holding the funds often have to be forward thinking before a museum can afford to be. It strikes me that this should maybe be the other way around.

I cannot help but agree.

What do you think? Is there something you’d be prepared to sacrifice to ensure your favourite museum had a better and more compelling online presence? And what do we do if the answer to that question is no?

Posted in: Museums, Questions