Do new technologies democratise museum collections, or reinforce conservative values?

Posted on January 21, 2014

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I am fascinated by power. When I was involved with the music industry, and my friends were busy dissecting the production values of obscure indie records, I was reading the street press to find out who the power brokers were. I wanted to know which individuals shaped what I heard, or could make or break an artist’s career. I wanted to know who defined ‘good’; who created the standards by which all other things were judged, and how those flows of power worked.

This fascination with power is one reason why I am so drawn to the intersection between museums and technology. Museums have an incredibly complex relationship with power. As boundary-defining institutions, they help set the standards by which ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or (more importantly) ‘legitimate’ forms of art, or culture, or history, are judged, doing so within a complex and interrelated system of other institutions that are similarly involved.

But the Internet, too, is a place where power relationships play out, though many of the participants and powerbrokers are – or seem – different from those who hold sway in the offline/museum world. Those with technical proficiency, for instance, create the architectures and structures within which all others must participate. They define the rules and standards. And, concurrently, many of those standards make it possible for those who previously had no power to take some, because in this space they are able to find a public voice that might previously have been denied them. Blogs, for instance, have given rise to a new group of influencers within the museum sector who now play a significant role in shaping the sector’s discourse, which might not have been possible previously in a world of other gatekeepers.

Thus the intersection between the museum and the Internet/digital context makes for a hugely interesting – and highly contested – space. But I’ve started to wonder whether the conflict that takes place on and over these spaces largely continues to enforce dominent power structures, just with a few newish players. For instance, in Cyberchiefs: Autonomy and Authority in Online Tribes, Mathieu O’Neil notes that the majority of A-list bloggers – those who had significant readership and power – were white, male, middle-class, and highly educated. (p54-55.) Anecdotally, a similar observation could be made of the museum bloggers I read (with the exception of the gender disparity).* There are fundamental, embedded biases that are found in digital networks and institutions, just as much as those offline, and although new structures make possible new players in a contested space, those who already have power are largely set up to continue to hold it.

Power structures are inherently conservative. They reinforce the already-preferential treatment of those who have been identified as having power, influence, or importance. This is one of the most potent meanings of the term ‘conservative’ when applied to the museum. It is not just about risk aversion, or the preservation of artefacts. It is about the reinforcement of already-existing and established structures of power.

To whit, a recent piece by Holland Cotter on NYTimes.com considers the “gallery-industrial complex” and the relationship between money and art. Cotter writes on the relationship between money and art, and reflects on how conservatism begets conservatism. Cotter writes:

If archaeologists of the future unearthed the Museum of Modern Art as it exists today, they would have to assume that Modernism was a purely European and North American invention. They would be wrong. Modernism was, and is, an international phenomenon, happening in different ways, on different timetables, for different reasons in Africa, Asia, Australia and South America.

Why aren’t museums telling that story? Because it doesn’t sell. Why doesn’t it sell? Because it’s unfamiliar. Why is it unfamiliar? Because museums, with their eyes glued to box office, aren’t telling the story.

Yes, MoMA and the Guggenheim have recently organized a few “non-Western” shows. MoMA’s  2012 “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde,” packed to the ceiling with art we’ve rarely if ever seen, was a revelation. But they need to take actions far more fundamental and committed. International Modernism should be fully integrated into the permanent collection, regularly, consistently.

Their job as public institutions is to change our habits of thinking and seeing. One way to do this is by bringing disparate cultures together in the same room, on the same wall, side by side. This sends two vital, accurate messages: that all these cultures are different but equally valuable; and all these cultures are also alike in essential ways, as becomes clear with exposure.

The problem with this view that ‘all these cultures are different but equally valuable‘ is that it isn’t actually true, if by value we mean either something that is ascribed in financial terms, or in the power relationships at play. If value is ‘worth or quality as measured by a standard of equivalence’ per the OED then all cultures are not given the same value, because there are standards of equivalence that set aside some types of art, or science, or anything else as more valuable that other types.

This isn’t about the inferiority of one culture to another, however. I am not suggesting that non-Western art is inferior to Western art. Quite the opposite. Rather, the challenge is that whomsoever defines the terms of legitimacy creates the very categories by which the ‘other’ is judged, and if something is outside those terms, then it is frequently outside the conversation or only considered through the framework that the ‘legitimate’ culture makes possible. (This is a lovely piece that explores some of these issues.) Power reinforces that which is already powerful.

Of course, this is not a new observation. But let’s turn this discussion to one of museums and technology. Last year, I had a conversation with some art students about the Guerrilla Girls, and their criticisms of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Afterwards I was inspired to go and check out the Met’s selection of works on display as part of the Google Art Project. I wanted to see whether the conservative traditions that privilege male artists over female ones in the Met had continued into this digital space. Unsurprisingly they had. What did surprise me, however, was that as far as I can tell, of the 80 works selected for the Art Project, there appear to be none that are explicitly by a woman. There are some by unknown creators. There are many by men. Yet there doesn’t seem to be a single work that is explicitly made by a female artist (please do correct me if I’m wrong).

Now, I ackowledge that’s only one example. But what I’ve been wondering since I stumbled upon it is whether the new technologies that have at times seemed to herald the democratisation of museum collections and access may be doing exactly the opposite, because they reinforce the power relationships that were present in the collection prior to digitisation and now make those relationships explicit and public. If an art collection is composed of 85% male artists, and that collection is then made available online, doesn’t that reinforce notions that only male artists have made great art? Or (to return to Cotter’s critique) that a lack of representation by International Modernists in collections, and not just on the gallery floor, would further enforce the impression that Modernism was indeed a North American and European invention? Ultimately, I want to know whether making museum collections accessible online could actually serve to repress rather than to liberate?

While a project like Tim Sherratt’s the real face of white australia can demonstrate how institutional collections can be interrogated to tell other, untold stories, it’s worth asking whether the very technologies that appear progressive could actually be culpable in further driving museums as conservative power houses. Does digitising our collections simply reinforce existing power relationships? Does it bring existing relationships into question, by allowing them to be interrogated by people who might not previously had that capacity? Or, does it somehow do both, simultaneously?

I’d love to know what you think. Do new technologies just reinforce old hegemonies, or do they ultimately change the dynamics of power? And are museums destined to remain essentially conservative, just with shinier new gadgets?

*Edit for clarity: Mia Ridge rightly pulled me up on this. I originally had observed that a similar observation could be made of ‘museum bloggers’, but I probably meant bloggers about the museum that I read/am aware of. There are no doubt countless others whom I am not that might challenge this description.