Let them eat cake. Revolutions + museum innovation.

Posted on June 26, 2012

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During the last couple of weeks, it seems that everything I read is converging on a single topic: revolution. Whether reading about the structure of scientific revolutions (Thomas Kuhn), a social history of knowledge (Peter Burke), technological revolutions and techno-economic paradigms (Carlota Perez) or Rob Stein’s recent piece on technology as a catalyst for change in museums, discussions about the metamorphosis from one paradigm to another keep surfacing.

Kuhn’s book is the oldest of these texts, and within its pages he explores the way revolutions in normal science occur. Such normal science is the science that occurs when a scientific community has defined the legitimate problems and methods of a research field, colouring the way they see and understand the problems (and necessary solutions) of that field. The field has a foundation. However:

Sometimes a normal problem, one that ought to be solvable by known rules and procedures, resists the reiterated onslaught of the ablest members of the group within whose competence it falls… And when it does – when, that is, the profession can no longer evade anomalies that subvert the existing tradition of scientific practice – then begin the extraordinary investigations that lead the profession at least to a new set of commitments, a new basis for the practice of science. (p5, 6)

Such scientific revolutions are “the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science.” (p6) They are what happens when a new theory disrupts prior theory and requires a complete reevaluation of accepted knowledge.

We are seeing this same type of change mimicked across the board right now, from news and media, government, retail, academia and publishing, just to name a few. The Internet motivates tradition-shattering examination of the what, how and why of so much previously accepted normal business. It cannot be simple solved by known rules and procedures. Simply adapting offline business to the online world does not work, as we’ve seen recently with the changes to news organisations. Instead each professional community is being forced to re-evaluate its traditional problems, rethink familiar entities and displace the old network of theory. (Kuhn, 7)

Such a paradigm shift is challenging, to say the least, because it involves letting go of the old without necessarily having a clear confidence in the success of the new. We are starting to have a sense of some of the things that don’t work, without necessarily knowing what does. No wonder there is such resistance from those within these sectors, from the old guard – those who have a vested interest in the success of the old system, which they have played a part in creating and enforcing hitherto. No wonder we are seeing such increasing emphasis on innovation, and the freedom to fail.

Perez discusses the shape and interconnectedness of innovation, and its impact on markets.

New technology systems not only modify the business space, but also the institutional context and even the culture in which they occur (as disposable plastics did in the past and the internet does now). New rules and regulations are likely to be required, as well as specialised training, norms and other institutional facilitators (sometimes replacing the established ones). These in turn tend to have very strong feedback effects upon the technologies, shaping and guiding the direction they take within the range of the possible.

Maturity is reached when the innovative possibilities of the system begin to wane and the corresponding markets to saturate. The key point here is that individual technologies are not introduced in isolation. They enter into a changing context that strongly influences their potential and is already shaped by previous innovations in the system.

Again, this is something we are seeing right now. Initially, museums could deal with new technologies almost as an adjunct to the ‘real’ work of the museum. It was an add-on, something akin to marketing in a different space. But we are moving beyond that now, because the institutional context and culture of the museum are also starting to change. We are starting to rethink the basic assumptions upon which museum practice has been built (what does it mean to be authoritative in a world that values transparency over opaqueness?)

But we should not forget that this is a cyclical undertaking. In looking at the social history of knowledge, Burke writes:

It is a history of the interaction between outsiders and establishments, between amateurs and professionals, intellectual entrepreneurs and intellectual rentiers. There is also interplay between innovation and routine, fluidity and fixity, ‘thawing and freezing trends’, official and unofficial knowledge. On one side we see open circles or networks, on the other institutions with fixed memberships and officially defined spheres of competence, constructing and maintaining barriers which separate them from their rivals and also from laymen and laywomen. The reader is probably tempted to side with the innovators against the supporters of tradition, but it is likely that in the long history of knowledge the two groups have played equally important roles. (p51, 52)

Right now, we in the musetech sector are the innovators, with open networks and unofficial knowledge. We are crafting the new paradigm for museums, and that bears great responsibility because we don’t yet know what works. It is all untested. But as we invest in these ideas, as we stake our intellectual capital on them, we will become more invested in their success. It will be harder for us too to let go of ideas that might not be appropriate the paradigm after our own. As Burke further iterates, “The creative, marginal and informal groups of one period regularly turn into the formal, mainstream and conservative organizations of the next generation or the next-but-one.” (p49)

In Rob Stein’s recent piece on technology as a catalyst for change in museums, he examined the shifting discourse within musetech circles, and the impact it’s having on professional practice and expectations.

In chemistry, certain reactions require the addition of a catalyst before any such magical transformation can begin. These catalysts can change a static combination of elements into a bubbling reaction that changes what was there before into something new. By extending this metaphor to museums, we can see that rapid changes in our technology-mediated culture have catalyzed dramatic shifts in museums during the past decade.

Recently, an interesting phenomenon has been taking place in museum technology circles. Conversations online and at conferences that were previously dominated by the pragmatic technical issues facing museums have been replaced by a series of discussions regarding many of the foundational challenges faced by museums today. Nuanced critical examinations about the identity of museums, their roles in society, responsibilities to serve a global public, issues of preservation, education, scholarship, primary research, and ethics have matured to the point that those same discussions are beginning to influence the strategic underpinnings of museums across the world.

What’s going on here?

We are the outsiders, the rebels, the innovators, and we have noticed cracks in the foundation. We are pushing for experimentation and trying out many new ideas in order that we can lay the new foundations upon which to construct our idea for the museum of the next generation. It is an exciting time to be working in this sector. But we should not forget that the more we invest in the ideas and assumptions that underpin our movements in this direction, the more we will become the old guard ourselves, finding it difficult when our own ideas are challenged and underwritten by the rebels and outsiders of the next generation.

It might seem premature to be thinking this way. Our ideas have not yet even taken hold. But awareness of such cycles and revolutions might lead those of us at the vanguard of change to have some greater understanding of those who work to hold museums back from change, those who have themselves invested significant amounts of their own energy and intellectual capital to craft a museum that reflected the needs and values of a previous paradigm. After all, it is usually the agitators who prevail in the end.