27th October 2013: For as long as I can remember the arguments have raged between the Pure Museum-ists (objects and nothing else) and the Modern Museum-ists (objects enhanced by film, audio, graphics, art installations and so on). The Modern Museum-ists accuse the Pure Museum-ists of being old-fashioned and not caring about the visitors; the Pure Museum-ists accuse the Modern Museum-ists of being – well, barbarians and not caring about the objects.
It’s a very moral debate – ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ are scattered in every direction. But I suspect it’s all beside the point as other huge changes sweep down on museums anyway.
And one of these huge changes is that museums will become content creators.
Over the last 15 years the music and publishing industries have been turned upside down as words, sounds and pictures have proved all too easy to digitalise. It is tempting to assume that museums are different, that because objects exist first and foremost in the ‘real’ world, from whence they derive most of their power and their meaning, that the digital revolution will somehow be less revolutionary when it finally hits them.
This seems unlikely.
For the fact is that though objects may exist first and foremost in the real world, the digital channels and destinations that spread our understanding of them (websites, podcasts, Twitter, Instagram etc.) are all proliferating, connecting and merging together. They are taking the content in which museums are so rich and multiplying it many times over as they spread it round the world.
The digital world is even yielding revenue (the more so because it has such huge audiences). Museums that have their wits about them like the V&A are making money from the copyright on their content. And although most of this is the simple release of digital images, museums are starting to add to and embellish their digital content and to tell stories about it, to become in short real content creators.
Now I know this seems unlikely when you look at the dreariness of some museum websites. (Which dreariness comes partly from a lack of clarity about what exactly a museum website is for, other than to tell us about opening hours.) And I know that even to talk about content creation implies an old-fashioned sense of authorship which is at odds with the way that content is borrowed, distorted, merged, mashed up, bounced about and generally played around with across the web, which means – amongst other things – that one organisation can be spread across many different digital homes, Facebook, Youtube, their own website.
But even so, the minute a new medium is invented the human brain gets busy, seeing what it can do. One day museum websites will have their own purpose, and be exceptional, creative and inventive in their own right (especially when they are allowed to breath a little).
And even now they are changing museums. They are starting to bring in new skills – editing, journalism, film making. And inevitably all this will change the balance of power inside museums.
And visitors are changing too. It is not that they think less of the real objects; on the contrary the authenticity of an object gives it a huge rarity, an enticing strangeness in an otherwise digital world where everything else is endlessly duplicated. But the more visitors play around with the content the more they feel they own it so that when they come into museums they will see the objects differently. The world, once changed, never reverts back to its previous state.
And none of this is necessarily bad – although even to say this is to use the old language of morality. Which is really not the point.
(Why the museum world phrases so much of its discussions in terms of shoulds and shouldn’ts is an interesting question. Sometimes I think we could learn from book publishing where all kinds of genres are celebrated and the only stipulation is that they should be as good as they can of their kind. Looked at like this it would feel okay to have all kinds of museums – Pure and Modern included – so long as they were done as well as possible.)
The image at the top of the page is from a William Morris textile, ‘Brer Rabbit’, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
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