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The Rise and Rise of Museum Content

9th May 2014    Am down at the Science Museum, sitting in the space called Antenna at the back of the museum, and idly watching the kids playing on the screens whilst pursuing the following train of thought.

I am remembering that way back when we first started there was a quirky idea going round our office that one day museums would start to resemble media companies – like newspapers or television stations – and think of themselves as  places that create content.

What’s interesting is that, as sometimes happens, our predictions have become ‘sort of true’ – only not quite in the way that we imagined them.

What we saw then is that museums sit upon an astonishing treasure store of content – artifacts yes, but each one of them surrounded by a halo of stories – of people, emotions, the journeys of objects, the history of museums, the history of the communities that built these museums and so on – and all captured in letters, diaries, photographs and memories.  The more our world feels corporate and two-dimensional the more all this content makes museums feel magical and entrancing.

But what we didn’t see back then is how much content outside museums would become user-generated and so would take on the qualities of the web – being provisional, noisy, changeable, shout-y, non-expert, often amateur, sometimes untrue, but also sometimes inspired and always hugely energetic.  And that these qualities would sit oddly next to museums which have always been about truth, permanence and expertise.  Because although some things have changed inside museums – there are more films for instance – it still feels the case that museums have stillness built deep into their DNA.  How often do you get the feeling in a museum that content is being continually changed and updated, and that there are lots of points of view?

So the interesting question is, how will these two utterly different ways of doing content sit side by side in the brave new world that’s coming?  Will museums start to feel strangely stiff and old-fashioned, or will their stillness feel like a blessing in an otherwise noisy world?

All of which I am thinking as I watch the kids in Antenna in the Science Museum because this is one of the few examples that I know of where a museum has tried to respond to the endlessly mobile and changeable web by creating a three-dimensional magazine that you can walk through, and where the content changes and aspires to be up to date?  There’s an exhibition – as nimble-footed as they can make it – and objects and screens with content and sofas for sociable fifteen year old’s to gather together.  Issues they cover include the Big Bang, Climate Change and Robots building flood defences.

It’s not easy being flexible within the museum template.  The hardware can afford to age a little but the content needs to be current and that means employing people and that in turn costs money.

I don’t know how the story of Museum Content is going to turn out, but I do think that whoever figures out the intersection between the stillness of museums and the noisy world outside is going to strike gold.  And meanwhile if I were running a museum I would be looking for graduates who have writing, digital and film-making skills.