Provocation: Society doesn’t need museums.

Posted on June 18, 2012

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This morning, Australia was greeted with the news that major media organisation Fairfax will shed 1900 staff, shift its two major newspapers from broadsheet to tabloid format, and erect paywalls around the websites of those major metropolitan dailies – all in response to decreasing ad revenue. It is expected that News Ltd. will follow suit, and make cuts in coming days.

Meanwhile, two US cities with metropolitan populations of more than a million (New Orleans and Birmingham) are about to become the first without daily newspapers. Such news heralds the latest movement in the ever-shifting media landscape as traditional broadcast organisations try to adjust to the changing information/media infrastructure.

These changes were the subject of the recent USA FCC report on the Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age. It is a long (468 pages), but interesting, read about the changing media landscape in the US, and although the media sector is in many ways different from the museum sector, there are also plenty of similarities, as some museum bloggers have recently noted. As the report captures:

It is a confusing time. Breathtaking media abundance lives side-by-side with serious shortages in reporting. Communities benefit tremendously from many innovations brought by the Internet and simultaneously suffer from the dislocations caused by the seismic changes in media markets. (7)

In a just-published assessment of the Fairfax changes, journalist Jonathan Green argues that the Internet is not to blame for the media organisation’s failure, but instead that poor revenue models were what dragged it down “Because the business is not content, not journalism; the business is selling advertising.”

Clay Shirky’s 2009 post on Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable  speaks to this. (HT to Nancy Proctor):

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

What Shirky has written here could as easily have museums as its focus. Society doesn’t need museums. What it needs is mechanisms for selecting, preserving and communicating objects and information about our past and present in order that we can better prepare for the future. To date, museums have been an important vehicle for answering that need. But it is not the institution itself that is significant – it is the purpose it seeks to fill.

Even within the sector, we can see that this is true. When Ed Rodley started his making a museum from scratch series, the first post attracted all sorts of questions about why it was that his collection needed to be a museum. As Koven put it:

just because you have a collection, you don’t necessarily have to display it. Just because you have a building, that building doesn’t necessarily have to be used to display those collections, or as a place for people to visit.

So surely the question we should be asking, as individuals, institutions and as a sector, is how do we achieve the purposes of selection, preservation and dissemination? Is it by collecting physical objects (as has historically been the case) and storing them, selectively displaying those that have particular illustrative or narrative qualities, as it has been? Or is it by investigating new models for publication, like the Walker has done, and integrating those models more closely with the physical building of the museum? Or will the approach need a completely new way of thinking through the problem?

A statement by museum scholar David Carr is of interest here. When reading, substitute the word Internet every time you see the word museum:

A museum is not about what it contains; it is about what it makes possible. It makes the user’s future conversations, thoughts, and actions possible. It makes engagements with artifacts and documents that lie beyond the museum possible. It constructs narratives that help us to locate our memories, passions, and commitments. The museum illustrates irresistible new thoughts and stimulates revisions of former thoughts. The museum invites us to reconsider how we behave and what we craft in the worlds of lived experience. The gift of a museum for every user is an appreciation of complexity, a welcoming to the open door of the unknown, the possible, the possible-to-know, and the impossible-to-know.
David Carr, “Mind as Verb,” in Museum Philosophy for the Twenty-First Century. 16. Author’s emphasis.

The environment and nature of the Internet means that it is innately set up to achieve many of the very things that Carr posits the museum seeks to accomplish. In fact, I would argue it is far better suited for making the user’s future conversations, thoughts and actions possible. The very existence of the Internet, then, raises questions about the role of the museum.

Jim Richardson at MuseumNext just argued that:

Museum leaders need to rethink digital, and look at it from a more strategic perspective, one which can really deliver on the mission of the institution and the needs of the public. Museum leaders need to recognise that a powerful website can deliver just as much as a powerful exhibition and fund the roles within the institution to produce something credible online.

Although I agree with his perspective, I don’t think it goes far enough. Digital does not just change modes of delivery. It changes the nature of the very problem that museums purport to solve. That the model we have had to date has largely worked may be more a happy accident than indicative of its superior design.

Of the Fairfax changes, Jonathan Green says:

There was a moment, maybe 10 years ago now, when a bold management at Fairfax might have picked the company up by the scruff of the neck, rationalised the staff, integrated the online and print operations, trimmed the paper size, and moved the content toward a premium mix of context and analysis.

They would have looked adventurous, bold, purposeful; they would have left the competition in their dust. But that was 10 years ago.

Now is that time for museums. We still need the things that museums do. We still need to know how to select, preserve and disseminate, whether objects or information. What we don’t need is museums. If those same needs can be met by other means (digital or otherwise), the impact on museums will be significant. I think it’s important to keep this in mind as we look to the future, particularly as we see the effects of the Internet on other traditional institutions.

What do you think? Does society need museums, or just the things that museums seek to do? And if the latter, what should that mean for museums as they approach the coming decade?