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Museums and the Sea of Stories

So now for some fortune-telling.

My copy of Marco Polo’s ‘Travels’ sits snugly in my hands, but the words inside it have made a long, long journey to reach me.  Some time in 1298 in a gaol in Genoa, Marco Polo spoke these words to a storyteller called Rustichello who wrote them down – probably embellishing them as he did so.  This was about 175 years before the invention of the printing press.  It was a time when most literature survived by being spoken, Europe being largely an oral culture, although a small amount was written down in manuscripts.  Marco Polo’s ‘Travels’ were a hit.  Rustichello’s manuscript was copied and these copies then copied and recopied. The spoken versions added to the flood. By the time the printing press arrived Marco Polo’s ‘Travels’ had spread like a overflowing river into a thousand tributaries.  Some of these tributaries were chosen to be printed and thus immortalised.

I have been reading John Foley’s book on ‘The Oral Tradition and the Internet’ where he argues that, with the coming of the Internet, we are returning to something similar to the old, oral culture.  This will have odd and far reaching effects on institutions like museums.

Every fortune teller gets it wrong.  But this is what Foley predicted in 2012 – and already it feels true –

that there are many things in common between the old, pre-book, oral culture world which we left behind in the 15th century, and the Internet world into which we are going.  Both are about pathways – not a single, linear narrative that you follow through a book but a web of pathways.  Like internet-surfers the oral singer sings a path through many possibilities – he sings his journey into existence.  Today he sings one song, tomorrow he’ll sing another version, and the third day he’ll sing a different one again.  Both the singer and the surfer create pathways through an infinite universe – whether that be the universe of the Internet or the universe of song.  The story, which is fixed in the book world, is much harder to fix and control on the Internet, and because of this in both worlds (the oral world and the Internet) the named author, the single, copyrighted creator/owner of the words, must die as well – because without a fixed text there is nothing he can put his name to.

You can argue with the detail and the emphasis of Foley’s book (I did, a lot – and don’t get me going on the way the book is structured) but the broad gist of it feels right.

But why does any of this matter for museums?  For the following reasons –

Museums were born into the same 18th century, Enlightenment world that gave birth to publishing houses.  Both of them celebrated fixed, solid, unchanging things – books and artefacts.  As the Internet dissolves the solidity of books (rumour has it that they will soon be streamed across the web, as Spottify streams music) how can museums possibly remain untouched?

If Foley is right, then the museum artefact itself, that solid, 3-dimensional thing, will indeed be fine (so long as we can afford to keep it safe).  It’s what we say about it – its meaning, image and stories – that will be swept up into the restless, shifting, virtual world – where it will all be dissolved and disputed, until there is not one authorised interpretation of the object, but thousands.  (Picture the objects standing like lighthouses on rocks whilst all around them swirl a restless, shifting, rising sea of stories.)

In fact I suspect that some museums will be relieved if the entire, messy business of interpretation would decamp into the virtual.  Few things cause as much trouble in museum-making as the content.  Interpretation is always messy, often controversial – and there’s just so much of it.  So if you see the digital world as a shadow-land, not as real and therefore not as important as the thing-world over which museums preside, well, really, what does it matter if interpretation goes that way?

But the digital world is not separate and disconnected from the ‘real’ world.  In fact it weaves its way back through the ‘real’ world in a thousand seamless and startling ways.  Nor is it trivial or irrelevant if the meaning of an object changes in the virtual world where so many people now reside. When the meaning of an object changes so does the way we see it.

If Foley is right interpretation will slide away from the control of any one group anyway. But that doesn’t mean that museums should not figure out what relationship they aspire to, philosophically, with the digital world.

The image is by Isabel Greenberg and shows Marco Polo, founder of the Museum of Marco Polo (believe it or not as you wish) telling stories in bed to his wife Donata (and no doubt telling her, believe them or not as you wish).

John Foley’s book is called ‘The Oral Tradition and the Internet’.  University of Illinois Press, 2012