Museum objects and complexity

Being in the first six months of my PhD, I am still in the reading/learning/planning stages of my research. This means that I’m spending a lot of time looking at how other people have been approaching the field, and I’ve noticed a number of people working in the museum technology area are utilising complexity theory to inform their work (see Fiona Cameron and Sarah Mengler Complexity, Transdisciplinarity and Museum Collections Documentation: Emergent Metaphors for a Complex World from the Journal of Material Culture 2009 for an example).

My initial reading into the area has led me to some interesting thoughts. According to John H. Miller and Scott E. Page, one of the things that makes a system complex, rather than merely complicated, is that the system cannot be reduced to a simple form for study. They illustrate the point, using the following example:

When a scientist faces a complicated world, traditional tools that rely on reducing the system to its atomic elements allow us to gain insight. Unfortunately, using these same tools to understand complex worlds fails, because it becomes impossible to reduce the system without killing it. The ability to collect and pin to a board all of the insects that live in the garden does little to lend insight into the ecosystem contained therein.
Miller, John H. & Scott E. Page (2007), Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life, Princeton University Press. p10.

It strikes me that this is an interesting metaphor for the museum collection too. Early museum collections were precisely about reducing things to their elements, so that they could be better studied and understood. Ken Arnold succinctly makes this point in his book Cabinets for the Curious: Looking Back at Early English Museums, when he writes: “… it was the museum’s walls that signalled their defining function: they kept the objects in, whilst simultaneously keeping out other distractions” (Arnold, 5). The museum utilised its walls to isolate, so that the objects held within were able to be studied in a very limited and controlled context. They were liberated from the complex systems within which they originally functioned so we could better understand them as objects.

This might seem almost self-evident when thinking about natural history or science museums, but it’s equally true of art museums. When we remove a work of art from its social environment – from the political and cultural context in which it was created – we isolate that work of art, and put it into a very limited and prescribed context, based on a fairly limited view of art history. Curatorial statements attempt to describe some of the context within which the work was created, but we have still removed the art from its complex system, and isolated it for preservation and study. In doing so, we remove some of the plurality of the work’s meaning, but make it more directly comparable with other collected works within the museum taxonomy. Arnold writes, “taxonomy and classification have for almost three centuries been the most powerful way by which knowledge has been created and then reinterpreted within museums” (Arnold, 243) and this isolation for comparative purposes has been a key aspect of this.

Conversely, the Internet is a complex adaptive system. Therefore when we upload museum collections and allow people to interact with them in new ways, we are actually trying to reinsert our previously isolated objects back into a highly complex system. This is a critical reversal in the way we think about our objects and collections. For possibly the first time, the objects in our collection are not being sequestered away from the world and hidden within the safe space of the museum. Instead, we must now try to reposition those objects and collections within the broad context of the Internet, and indeed, the whole world. No wonder the sector is struggling with how best to cope with this change. Not only are we inviting the public to interact with our collections in ways that have previously been impossible, we are asking the objects in our collection to take their place in a complex environment from which they have previously been quarantined.

Visualising the museum collection

I’ve been thinking today about how we visualise knowledge and information.

Since 1735 – when Carolus Linneas first published Systema Naturae  – we have relied on tree-like hierarchical classification schemes to define and enunciate the similarities and differences between things. These strict binary classifications provide us with an incredibly useful and logical way of relating objects to one another, and organising that information.

But in 2005, David Weinberger asked (PDF) (emphasis mine):

Without trees, how would we organize college curricula, business org charts, the local library, and the order of species? How will we organize knowledge itself?

It’s an interesting question. Weinberger’s piece, entitled Taxonomies to Tags: From trees to piles of leaves, examined social tagging and suggested that it provided the possibility of a new form of classification (one that is, it must be noted, unsystematic). He wrote:

Tags are a break from previous ways of categorizing. Both trees and faceted systems specify the categories, or facets, ahead of time. They both present users with tree-like structures for navigation, letting us climb down branches to get to the leaf we’re looking for. Tagging instead creates piles of leaves in the hope that someone will figure out ways of putting them to use – perhaps by hanging them on trees, but perhaps creating other useful ways of sorting, categorizing and arranging them.

Weinberger’s way of looking at the descriptions we attach to objects acknowledges that there can be multiple relationships between things, each of which can be meaningful in their interpretation. At first glance, it seems much more akin to the information experience online, into which people can jump in at any single point, and follow an unfixed and continually unfolding journey to any other point. But while we can dive straight into a pile of leaves and reconfigure them in countless ways, it probably still helps to know what trees they fell from to understand whether you are rolling around in a pile of poison ivy.

However, where Weinberger’s piece is interesting to me is that it starts me thinking about new ways to organise knowledge.

Over the last week or so, I’ve come across a couple interesting conversations happening in the blogosphere, where other people are also thinking about the metaphors we use to describe our music and our museums.

Ed Rodley’s post on Apps as data visualizations reviews two recent apps – Planetary, a data visualisation app for music; and Biblion, the New York City Public Library’s newest app. Planetary is a data visualisation app that uses the metaphor of the galaxy to describe relationships within your music library. But what really captured me in Ed’s post (and ultimately inspired this response) is the challenge that he throws out, to “Substitute your museum’s CMS for your iTunes library and imagine the possibilities.”

Last week, Mia Ridge proposed that we open conversation on new metaphors for museums. She asks,

…what if we were Amazon? A local newspaper? A specialist version of Wikipedia? A local pub? A student blog? A festival, a series of lectures, or a film group? A pub quiz? Should a museum be at the heart of village life, a meeting place for art snobs, a drop-in centre, a café, a study space, a mobile showroom?

These discussions got me thinking about the very question that started this post. How do we visualise knowledge and information? And how could we? Are there new metaphors that have emerged out of the World Wide Web that could provide us with new ways to see the relationships between things? And finally, how could these new metaphors apply to museums, and only museum collections?

If Planetary can imagine music as the dance of the planets, could we visualise museum collections as a subway network with innumerate nodes where people can choose a direction to begin looking (ie American Modern Art), and travel along that line, stopping as frequently as they want or choosing an express past the objects until they reach their desired location; or until they choose to diverge to a side track (Kandinsky’s greatest hits) with new and spontaneous tracks able to be created in a moment.
(BTW – is it obvious I wrote this post on the train)

Or instead, can we imagine a museum as a city, whose buildings are filled with the markers of those who have come before? Peter M Allen, in his paper from the Complexity Theories of Cities Conference 2009 titled Cities: the Visible Expression of Co-evolving Complexity, argues that:

Towns and cities are the visible external evidence of the complex, historical co-evolution of the knowledge, desires and technology of the multiple agents that have inhabited them. The buildings are monuments, some short lived some long, to the activities and identities of successive individuals whose efforts have been guided by the emerging patterns of ‘demand and supply’ of various activities. Physical, psychological, environmental and technological factors have influenced the particular patterns and structures that have emerged that reflected the co-evolution of technology with our changing desires and aspirations.

I feel that this statement could be equally applied to museums, with museum collections seen as  “the visible external evidence of the complex, historical co-evolution of the knowledge, desires and technology of the multiple agents that have [created] them… Physical, psychological, environmental and technological factors have influenced the particular patterns and structures that have emerged that reflected the co-evolution of technology with our changing desires and aspirations.” Now, doesn’t that sound like the way museum collections evolve, pieced together by different people and influenced by different fashions and gifts to the museum?

And if that is the case, maybe the way we need to consider modelling the information within them requires a more complex metaphor than is provided by trees, or piles of leaves. But what do you think? How could you imagine a museum collection, metaphorically?