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

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?

10 thoughts on “What would you be prepared to sacrifice for a better online museum experience?

  1. I’d be willing to sacrifice the waste that often occurs with large exhibitions.

    Building temporary internal walls then knocking them down again. Buying new furniture (or getting it made) then throwing it in the skip afterwards. Constructing new travelling cases for every object, every time. Spending money on unresuable technology solutions. Sending couriers around the world who do little but watch instead of trusting peer organisations (or pooled couriers) to provide appropriate monitoring of valuable works. Failing to capitalise on the countless fans, members, volunteers and local communities who would love to contribute to some of this activity were they only permitted.

    I do realise these are not really ‘sacrifices’, apologies!

  2. You’re really on a roll this week, Suse. Two great challenging posts. One thing that I keep going back to in thinking about both your posts is the motivation for museums being online. Why do we want to do it? The answer for most museums I think would be “Because we’re sitting on all this information about ___ and we want to share it, because that’s central to our mission.” We can’t escape being incarnate, nor should we. Your starting premise is a bit of a false one. You don’t have to go either/or. It is possible to restructure. It’s just hard, because people are involved. People who may or may not have or want to have the skills necessary.

  3. I agree with Ed that it’s not necessarily an either/or or a sacrifice of the physical, but in bringing the two together in a more obvious way. As much as many museums have tried, I feel that the digital and physical are still far too separate from one another, at least when it comes to deep, meaningful, ongoing interactions. There’s no denying that museums are slow to -wholly- embrace the digital world because of the immense change it means for the way that museums interact with their users — or, in the way that museums allow their users to have a say. This is really the important role of technology and social media and when it comes to the day-to-day workflow of staff-user interaction, it’s something that they’re keeping at arm’s length. The possibilities are endless, but it will take a shift in thinking from museum professional staff in order to truly embrace it (which, to take a line from the amazing and recently released book [1], means a bit of “letting go” in the process.)

    As John Falk & others (and in fact many of us) preach all the time, museums will need to change to be relevant – and wholly embracing participatory engagement both online and on-site will be one main way to achieve this. Right now many museums’ definition of “participatory” is actually just a new type of “hands-on” but not truly participatory in the deep discussions that can take place between users and curators, hobbyists and novices, those coming in to see the objects and those online. These should all be brought together and the discussions truly incorporated into the physical and online experiences. Right now they are very much distinct, if they are even occurring at all.

    So, to answer the actual question. The sacrifice is really in the minds of museum staff members who are holding on to traditional perspectives of (dare I say it?) authority. The digital will be on the same footing as the physical (as it should be, in my opinion) when museums do a better job of embracing true, on-going dialogue online that is incorporated into the physical space.

    [1] Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, Ed. Adair, Filene, Koloski

  4. Love your blog…great inspiration for my ongoing studies and blogging of a similar vein!

    But why are we asking for sacrifice? I know groups like Getty Images and the Louvre will fight to the death to protect the distribution of their artifacts as best they can, but it’s a losing battle…if I want an image of the Mona Lisa, I can find it whether the Louvre likes it or not. And that’s the lowest common denominator or what a virtual museum space can do — just putting the digital representations online and calling it a gallery should be a no-brainer. That few museums have done it is much of the problem we are having in the debate of 21st Century museum efficacy.

    A robust web presence should not be the question, either. To take parlance of today’s youth, that is so 2006. Nearly all museums are still at Web 1.0, and the energy (and possibilities) of human computer interaction point past Web 2.0 to mobile devices and apps. If we are focusing on building static web pages for museums…we’re in trouble. I’m not geeking out for the platforms, but for the possibilities of authentic interaction between patrons and artifacts.

    If a museum is worried about just putting its collection online, it’s lost the battle. The collection has to be online, and the content interactions need to be authentic, not the rote “press a button and see a pre-determined result” that plagued “participatory museums” of the late 20th Century (and continue to do so today). Pay for it by making numerous opportunities for content. Members get free apps. People who bring their tablets and phones to the museum and use them get the apps for free. People who buy them online pay a price but get a museum membership. I disagree with James at the top…traveling exhibits need to continue, as they offer opportunities for noticing relationships and allowing for cultural connection via pilgrimage. Lori is spot-on about participation and discussion. I think we overuse social media as a term, but there are numerous opportunities for interaction between real and virtual patrons in understanding artifacts and building community through shared knowledge and interaction. That’s the wave to ride, and museums don’t even seem to want to get in the ocean.

    There are ways to pay the cost of development. Not doing it will cost more in the long run.

  5. I agree with Lori. What truly needs to be “sacrificed” is the antiquated idea that the only ideas and contributions that matter are those that are museum-approved. The idea that those working for the museum are all-knowledgeable and everyone else should just be grateful that they are willing to share even the tiniest bit of their expertise is unfortunately still pervasive.

    However, I am hopeful because the forces in favor of presenting a true integrated participatory experience are becoming much too strong for even the most stubborn museum leadership to resist. If nothing else, the fear of being left behind (or the desire to keep up with the Joneses, equally applicable here) is a catalyst to the start of meaningful conversation.

  6. I’d agree with both James and Lori – that what I’d sacrifice is waste and what I’d change is entrenched ways of working. The waste I’d sacrifice is curatorial time. Similar to building internal walls then knocking them down, what I keep observing is curators writing and re-writing information about objects – 50 words for an exhibition label, 150 words for the website, a different 150 words for a education project, another 150 for an external funded project, oh and then there’s the 500 word version for the book they’re writing as part of their museum research.
    So I guess what I’d sacrifice is ineffective or repetitive documentation practices. What I’d promote is documentation standards.
    Of course, these statements are a generalisation and some curatorial staff, organisational practices and registrars are already very skilled and effective at documenting collections in order that information can be published in a variety of places and contexts.

  7. Here’s an interesting quote from a publishing insider.

    Long-term there’s no future in printed books. They’ll be like vinyl: pricey and for collectors only. 95% of people will read digitally. Everybody in publishing knows this but most are in denial about it because moving to becoming a digital company means laying off like 40% of our staffs. And the barriers to entry fall, too. We simply don’t want to think about it.

    Digital ‘efficiency’ will end in fewer jobs in the professions that many people have trained for. It is already. That’s not necessarily an entirely negative thing, assuming, of course, you have a robust education system that supports lifelong retraining and a strong social security safety net, and your society’s social values adapt to accept older workers in new jobs.

    A better online museum experience often means removing positions from other areas of the museum in order to support the different staffing needs of the online areas. That’s what many of us allude to when we say ‘organisational change is needed’. And that’s where it gets thorny.

  8. sacrifice curators….have less experts…more focus on staff with with the skills to find, connect, use, and interpret expertise from the global community. A Multi skilled approach to staff that included digital skills on top of conservation, curatorial, archival, education backgrounds?

    but as Seb says…that’s where things get thorny…

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