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

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 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.

28 thoughts on “Do new technologies democratise museum collections, or reinforce conservative values?

  1. I don’t feel technologies really change the power structure of museums much if at all. Technology projects cost money and require technical resources that museums traditionally haven’t had. The only way to acquire these resources is through appeal to donors. Donors are almost unilaterally part of the old power structures.

    When talking about power in the context of museums, regardless of technology, it all really boils down to the donors; how much influence they have over the institutions they support and how much they are willing to cede. Those outside of museums who constantly clamor for a more democratized museum landscape aren’t generally willing (or able) to pony up the dough to keep the doors open, let alone support the grand projects of democratization. Until that changes, I don’t see the balance of power in museums shifting any more or faster than it does in the greater economic sphere. Museums aren’t free, and we are chained to the mechanisms of capital which are still controlled by the same people they always have been.

    What people believed about the network effect of the internet was that it would somehow upset the existing balance of power by amplifying the power of individuals against institutions. Individuals and marginalized groups were the first to adopt the internet because they were motivated to amplify their collective power and they were looking for the opportunity. Institutions were slow to adopt because they didn’t see an immediate need, and temporarily fell behind. So for a while it looked like the internet was a vector of democratization. Those days have passed. What we missed is that network effects amplify all power structures. Institutions have caught on and have adopted the same networks as the rest of us, and their power is amplified even more than ours was.

    For better or worse, most museums are a reflection of the world around them.

    1. Matt, I think you make some really important points. I can scarcely believe that I didn’t even touch on funding models in my post, when money and power are so innately linked. I wonder what impact the Internet has had on museum funding, overall. Obviously there have been some changes in some revenue sources, like image sales, and there would have been increased pressure to get funding for digital projects, but I wonder whether there have been other effects? When we look at news organisations, for instance, digital really affected their funding models in a very significant way, which was one reason it was seen as being so disruptive. But if museum funding models are still fairly similar to what they were before, just with new and different demands, then is digital as disruptive for our institutions as we necessarily think? It still asks for different approaches, workflows, institutional priorities etc, but if the funding source isn’t really affected, how disruptive is the digital shift?

      I don’t really have an answer to that yet. I’ll want to look into the impact of digital on museum funds. But it raises some interesting questions.

      Also, I’m glad you raised the issue of time in your answer as well – that it just took institutions a little longer to adopt/adapt to networks. I think it’s significant in understanding how future shifts in dynamics might occur.

  2. I absolutely love this post. I have worked in a museum before turning my love to writing. As a “Think out of the box” type of person, I’m always questioning why certain exhibits are not made available or featured. Thank you for putting your spin on it and I do feel that the box office revenue is the ruler that museums live by…sad.

  3. A few separate thoughts. To underline your point Suse, and further pull apart Mr Cotter’s quote, John Falk says museum visitors rarely learn new info, but instead reinforce understandings they arrived with (Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience). I would argue museums are not about “changing habits of thinking and seeing”. Yes, as Matt says, for most visitors, most museums are a reflection of the world around them.

    Love the link on Decolonial Aesthetics. Pointing to the need for context and complexity (not simplistic “hang one beside the other” approaches) when trying to tackle this in museums and collections. So I think discussions about how (and who should) flesh out cultural gaps in online collections are really valuable. At the least, technology has created an opportunity.

    Also, to touch off Matt’s point again, it’s beyond donors – especially as other parts of the world don’t necessarily have an Americanized funding model. There’s the other side of the coin – the High Propensity Visitor that Colleen Dillenschneider has outlined ( ) – or ‘our bread and butter’ (which I think does apply beyond the American sector). It’s also about remaining cognizant of the privileged roots museums come from. Will we ever be able to influence who we want to serve in order to remain relevant (be that online or offline)? How can we do this and retain continuity in financial viability? The recent ‘Future Strategies’ article in the Economist ( ) suggests we’re going to have to work it out somehow.

    Great post in the context of my travels this year, thanks.

    1. Alli, thanks for the comment. I’m glad you love the Decolonial Aesthetics piece. I do too. I have read it many, many times during the last year or so since coming across it. Firstly, I think it’s just a beautiful piece to read, but I also find it useful to remind myself of other ways of being in the world.

      Your point about museums reinforcing the understandings that people bring to the world is important too, because I think it highlights a paradox that museums necessarily face. Museums don’t only want to bring in the numbers; they want to have impact on those who do come into the institution, yes? Well, people are more likely to connect with, and be affected by, works or objects that they are already familiar with (Isn’t this the very point of the mere-exposure effect?). Therefore, it makes sense that museums would want to utilise those aspects of the collection already implicated in the public ‘story’ of any movement etc, in order to create more meaningful experiences for more of the people, right?

    2. To follow on from my last reply, I just came across a super interesting article on how mainstream radio channels are trying to respond to the challenges of spotify, and it’s really not what I was expecting…

      “Faced with growing competition from digital alternatives, traditional broadcasters have managed to expand their listenership with an unlikely tactic: offering less variety than ever.

      The strategy is based on a growing amount of research that shows in increasingly granular detail what radio programmers have long believed—listeners tend to stay tuned when they hear a familiar song, and tune out when they hear music they don’t recognize.”

      I wonder whether any museums have – consciously or not – adopted a similar tactic? Are museums more likely to experiment with content in a context of competition (thereby differentiating their product), or less likely to (thereby reinforcing what is familiar and known/loved)?

      1. Museums have absolutely adopted a similar tactic, though maybe not as a conscious reaction to the internet. There is an increased reliance on blockbuster shows (usually traveling shows, with famous works of art headlining the promotional material) which is becoming significantly more prevalent in larger museums in the US. Why sell your local constituency on the virtues of art they’ve never heard of when you can stick a Monet from New York in your gallery for a few months? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we can bring those pieces to our visitors, and I think there’s real value there. But a lot of museums are focusing on the temporary shows at the expense of their permanent collections.

        It’s a dangerously short-sighted strategy because what really separates those institutions from the Discovery Network-run Da Vinci exhibition that runs for a few months in the vacant anchor store at the mall? (We have those over here btw. I don’t know if that happens outside the US.) The more we rely on loaned or fabulously famous traveling artworks, the more easily we can be replaced by a temporary gallery space and a traveling troupe of conservators (better believe that’s coming), and the less reason we have to justify our own existence (unless we happen to be at an institution that owns some of those works).

        You see this at natural history and science museums too. The Mythbusters science tour and the whole Body Works thing are good examples. (Body Works has spawned what, 8 different traveling shows? More?) We’ve created an increasingly centralized infrastructure for content creation, not for all of the content we have or even for most of it. We’ve just started to rely on this increasingly centralized content to generate most of our admission revenue, which is really kind of scary when you put it in that perspective.

        Because how do you say “No” to a show that you don’t really think reflects your institution’s values if you need it to generate admission to keep your institution open? You could choose to run a different show, of course, but as the sources of these shows become increasingly centralized, how much of our choice is real and how much of it becomes illusory like the hundreds of breakfast cereals all made out of corn by the same three companies?

        Or maybe it’s more like the 1200+ radio stations in the US that are all owned and operated by Clear Channel…

      2. This is a really interesting point! I love watching how other industries are responding to disruptive technologies. One thing that I was surprised the post didn’t bring up is the barrier to entry that technology can pose for people in museums. It’s a major factor and we have a basic idea of the demographic that knows their way around a touch screen (though that’s changing fast.) Maybe museums are showing familiar content on technological platforms because the platform itself can be so UN-familiar to some people (stereotypically, older people, the ones who might feel more comfortable with the status quo at a museum.) If you show a Monet on an ipad- you’re hedging your bets that the majority of people will feel smart about at least one of those factors.

  4. Great post! Glad you’re questioning the much-lauded idea that technologies help museums democratize. I think the example you gave–the Met’s representation on the Google Art Project–does continue to reinforce old hegemonies. But I don’t think we should be blaming the technologies. It’s a fallacy to assume that the technology is inherently the democratizing factor, or even the opposite, that technologies reinforce power structures. I think technologies channel the beliefs and the power structures that people put into them. If museum staff are conscientious about these power structures and make an effort to present works from a variety of cultures and by diverse artists, then I believe technology has the potential to aid this cause. But that, of course, requires a cultural shift in many museums (I’m optimistic that this is happening, even if it happens slowly).

  5. I find I came to the end of this piece agreeing that digitising collections both reinforces existing power relationships and brings them into question, the points you finish on.

    It can only be a good thing to free up museum info, data, collections (and the rest) through digital technologies and allow users to dig in to them. Exposure means museums have to interrogate their own practises and you can’t get much more exposed than online.

    It’s also good to see digitisation moving the interrogation of museums and power beyond academia, which has its own historical, somewhat dirty power structures to contend with. As well, academia has a bit of a mutual dependance thing going on with museums as we have known them.

    In the end it’s for those of us who work in digital in museums to not be scared to challenge the status quo. But, as we know depressingly well, easier said than done. In that case digitisation at least provides evidence for non-heritage-dependants to investigate on our behalf.

    1. Jane, I love your comment about the movement of the interrogation of museums beyond academia… although admit I stand with a foot in both camps as someone doing a PhD, but more embedded within the professional community than the academic one. It’s interesting to me how much blogging offers the capacity for these kinds of conversations, however, because clearly there is an interest in the philosophical discussions and discourse in the context of those outside the academic structure. Many of these conversations do seem to be coming out of the technology end of the sector however, and I wonder why that’s so. What do you think?

      1. Apart from the obvious answer that we’re all really smart cookies in digital in museums, you mean?

        The museum technology sector is driven (I hope) by the idea, and sometimes the reality, of new possibilities challenging old assumptions. A bit ideological, I know, but we can hope. In my experience a lot of digital staff in museums are young and enthusiastic in spirit. They are watching users out there find museum content and (I hope you are sitting down for this bit) doing things with it. Mostly in a manner that is unprompted, unpaid and unsolicited. That is incredibly exciting. To be part of further facilitating those sorts (and other sorts) of interactions with our museum content is a great driver for us all. And our enthusiasm for the potential for change isn’t (quite) dead.

  6. Re: power and funding

    Interesting article from the Weekend Australian looking at philanthropy, social morals and the ethics behind corporations funding the arts – . If you don’t have an online membership, you might need to find a hard copy at a library?

    As someone working in a cultural institution, it is easy to understand the desire to run programs that help us to engage with audiences without it always involving where the money for it is coming from (and this is not due to financial irresponsibility. The majority of people I have worked with in cultural institutions are painfully aware of the bottom line, as we are working just above it & are getting closer to it each year). However for the long term, ongoing corporate funding could be fraught with problems, particularly as content could be increasingly governed by an inability to challenge or question.

    In some ways this discussion reminds me of tobacco companies no longer being allowed to sponsor Australian sporting events. Alternative funding models had to be found, but it is often our polluters and those involved in industries that are currently considered morally grey that are looking to give back in some way. Even if it is only as a tax break or an extended form of brand management, does that mean only bad things can come from it?

    On a personal note, I love how many protests involve creating clever and innovative ways of expressing dissent and questioning chosen paths. It seems to me to be a sign that cultural institutions are doing something right if people feel a sense of ownership in these frequently tax payer funded institutions.

  7. A really interesting post. I have a question: what do you mean by some types of science are more valuable than others?
    Do you mean, for example that the search for the Higgs boson, an elusive fundamental particle long theorized but whose discovery was only confirmed last year is perceived by academics to be “more valuable” than research into preventing malaria, a deadly diseases which still blights the life of hundreds of millions of people but which is also entirely confined to the developing world ?

    The Science Geek

  8. This is a fascinating post. I agree with the earlier comments that technology may not be creating additional power structures on its own, but may just be reinforcing the power structures that already exist in museums. Another way that technology affects how museums operate is museums using technology, or encourage visitors to use technology, to mediate the viewer experience. I wrote about this on my blog after a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario:

  9. I’ve been feeling slightly guilty lately when listening to songs and albums for free on YouTube. Once in a while, no biggie, but there’s a point I think where it gets disrespectful to the artist and the people who worked to produce the art. Funds should flow in our society to whomever needs them most, wherever they can do the most good. The best artists never worked for money anyway.

  10. I thought because in the museum and auction house world, art is about the business investment which must increase in value and so historical relevance or modern relevance is an aside that lends to the investment as established by the network of investors. It’s not about the process or dialogue of art. It’s just business and so technology naturally facilitates this.
    To get people to come to the Portland Art Museum, it hosts beer parties and dumbed down modern art… that most people feel offended by or have no idea what makes it art. Digital art forms and interactive art has been attempted to surpass painting and sculpture as it appeals to the modern age, but technology becomes obsolete so fast, so are these shows just transient?
    I didn’t think the point of the Gorilla Girls was to get into museums. I thought they were radicals.
    In my jaded opinion, Female representation in museums will always fall on Georgia O’keefe and Frida Kahlo… Just as Emily Dickenson will forever be the female poet. Powerful business men run the world. Therefore Picasso will always be King. Van Gogh will always be martyr. And Andy Warhol is the nail in the coffin for elevating copies.
    If female artists do not create what changes the art world, they won’t be represented equally. It doesn’t matter if we weren’t given a fair fight. The work has to represent the present, refer to the past, and change everything for the future. Male artists have yet to repeat their success and can only maintain their current status by clinging to established art world hierarchies.
    Additionally, so much art sits in archive. There are so many artists making art… how do the greatest museums keep up with the expanding collections?
    I liked your article… and the other reader responses. It’s important to know who controls history and defines art. And to know how small the art world is as it monopolizes power.

  11. Reblogged this on Menningarmiðlun ehf. and commented:
    Suse Cairns heldur úti mjög áhugaverðu bloggi um safnamál þar sem hún spyr beittra spurninga sem krefjast erfiðra svara. Það er ekki bara gaman að lesa bloggin hennar heldur fær hún líka mikil viðbrögð frá lesendum sínum sem eru mörg hver með jafn áhugaverð innlegg við blogg Cairns.
    Í þessum pósti spyr Cairns hvort að söfn séu að gera notendum sínum kleift að hafa áhrif safnkost sinn með lýðræðislegri aðkomu með tilkomu Internetinu, eða hvort söfnin séu einungis að styrkja íhaldssaman safnkostinn og skoðanir sem séu þegar til staðar í söfnunum.

  12. As a professional information systems developer with over 25 years experience and as a museum geek myself, I am often frustrated by the staggeringly poor use museums make of information technology. I see little evidence that they use technology in any meaningful way so I don’t see how it can have much effect on the power structure of the arts community at all.

    A few flat screens on the walls, a smart phone based walking narrative, and cookie cutter websites that look like they were made with the kind of software you can buy in special TV offers don’t cut it. The Google Art Project may employ some cool digital recording equipment, but the distribution paradigm is so 30 years ago it isn’t funny.

    It’s time for museums and arts organizations to give the 1980s a ring and let ’em know they are leaving.

    Museums should be at the forefront of experimentation with digital rights management and information sharing on the web. They need to put some serious thought and budgeting toward how best to engage and educate patrons by marrying traditional in person encounters and social media encounters. Museums have lost relevance with the younger digitally adept crowd because they refuse to embrace technology beyond what is absolutely necessary to keep the doors open. As with many businesses today, they view IT as a cost center and not as a touch point for leading the arts community into the future.

    Museums need to start viewing themselves as leaders in the global digitization of the arts. It’s time to hire real IT people. People that may not have MFAs or experience with canned collections tracking software, but who have a wide knowledge of information technology and can bring fresh ideas to the table. Outsiders if you will.

    Budgets may be tight and it might be a hard sell to divert funds from new acquisitions to dull old IT, but unless something is done, more and more museums are going to struggle to find patrons, funding, and any sort of place in the community mind.

  13. New technology does change the dynamics of power, just look at the last 200 years when technology has been a major force. Today’s powerful look little like those in the world of 1800. It is interesting that museums have changed less. Perhaps we need to give new technologies a chance. Who is to say that a real digital and bricks & mortar museum might not emerge based on crowd funding with crowd funders ‘election’ of new material?

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