On December 12, I attended ‘Sharing is Caring 12 – Let’s get real!’, a seminar about engaging the public with museums’ (digital) assets. Links to presentations should be up on slideshare and vimeo or via http://www.dr.dk/kulturarv/sharecare12/ within the week, and comments, posts and conversations can be found on Twitter #sharecare12 and Formidlingsnet.
Touching upon some of the hottest topics in museums, the event drew quite a crowd, and was a fine opportunity for networking and catching up, as well as for getting an update on current projects and ideas. Still, I had my reservations (as I do about these in-my-book-not-so-hot topics), this time spurred on by the snappy, happy-clapping rhetorics of a title like ‘Sharing is Caring’, explicated in a rather evangelical blogpost on Formidlingsnet by last year’s keynote speaker Michael Edson; A year of Sharing and Caring. He explains the notions thus:
sharing, as a deeply moral impulse to take the knowledge, beauty, and secrets that we know are there, locked within our organizations, and make them available to every person on earth
and caring, as a manifestation of our collective duty to ensure that everyone in society has access to the full spectrum of ideas, experiences, and resources that they need to live happy and successful lives
outlining “the next frontier of work: building equity and civic value through openness, transparency, generosity, and community” and stating that “What matters is millions and millions of citizens wrestling with big ideas, engaging in personal discovery, making new things, and sharing with one another.”
It is hard to argue against these ideals, although they hardly answer to the second call of the seminar title: Let’s get real! There is an awful lot of buzzwords and hot air in this field. Also, zealous idealism can be pretty scary, and good intentions is not the same as indisputable truth. I therefore second Sarah Giersing’s concerns in a reply to Edson’s post:
I cannot help but feel a little scepticism. Something about the rhetoric, the title “Sharing is Caring” especially, simply rubs me the wrong way. To me “Sharing is Caring” has a certain ring of something selfrighteous to it, something patronizing even. To me it sounds a little like the optimistic name of some religious endeavour – or a humanitarian aid relief project – to save the world. Nothing wrong with philanthropism, but we might be wary of the missionary aspect.
For Giersing, the answer lies in also sharing the authority in defining what constitutes our cultural heritage. As project leader for Copenhagen Museum’s Væggen she has been working to put this idea into practice for years, and gave a very inspiring presentation about the potential, but also the great challenges, in inviting users to contribute content and knowledge to museum collections. Her chief advice for others wanting to pursue a similar track was a) to not only ask for users to contribute content but also provide metadata, to ensure that institutions had information on the context and provenance of the collection item; b) to ask for uploads in a durable data format, with considerations not only for access speed, but also for technical quality and preservation; and c) to ensure appropriate data rights, i.e., that the contributor has the right to upload the content, and that the institution has the right to use it when part of the collection.
Now I’m not sure just how far Giersing believes institutions should go in sharing authority, but for me, I think the relationship can never be completely equal, as I believe in the value and necessity of curatorial expertise. To use a perhaps dubious analogy, although millions of passionate football fans will be shouting instructions at their screens and have strong opinions about the game, the tactics and the players, I don’t really think that their beloved game would benefit from crowdsourced management. SImilarly, I think that high quality curation and exhibitions require professionalism. I understand that there is also a postcolonial problematic in this stance; who has the right to assume authority over a shared heritage, but I just don’t see how it can be otherwise. Letting go completely, not letting interpretations be guided by the knowledge inherent in the institutions but starting from scratch sounds like futile chaos, and any staging of democratic dialogue will always involve some level of authority, someone deciding to invite that dialogue and how to use the output. This is not to say that I believe museums should reign supreme, and I fully agree that museums could learn a lot from the public, only that assuming authority – and pratice it wisely – is part of the custodial responsiblity.
Although we have, or at least are moving away from the role of museums as shrines to the nation, modern-day museum ideals – post-, transparent, participartory, inclusive etc. – are thus not all that different from the Bildung ideals of the museums of the enlightenment (cf Kahr-Højland 2009, article IV). Asking the public to participate, museums are still taking an educational role, still trying to build a certain kind of citizen, even if nowadays we are asking of that citizen to express their individual mind.
Which begs the question: Is expression neccessarily better than impression? Why is visiting an exhibition, having whatever experience we may have, understanding whatever we do, and making our own associations, deductions etc. no longer enough? When libraries are still happy to lend us books – old books, difficult books even – without an accompanying guide, why do museums feel that the experience of art or cultural artefacts must always be scaffolded?
India Art Now/ India Fashion Now: Challenge
Let me digress for a moment (I’m doing it all the time anyway) to a brilliant exhibition I visited earlier this week; namely India: Art Now and India: Fashion Now at Arken Museum of Modern Art i Ishøj, DK. Both the artworks and the fashion exhibited were beautiful, humorous and thought provoking.
So I didn’t really need the to be told what to feel, what to think about, and honestly found the wall labels ending with questions like ‘Go exploring among the clusters of woven hair and hanging bumpers. What is the atmosphere of the room? What bodily sensations do the materials and the way they are used in the installation evoke in you?’ or ‘Imagine the human destinies interwoven in the painting. Do they live in hope, pain or joy? Is their world also yours?’, meant to elicit afterthought and debate, to be heavily didactic, patronizing and superfluous. Rather than aid my understanding, they disturbed my perception, and in themselves almost ‘evoked a bodily sensation’ of clingyness (da: omklamring) and irritation. So much so, that it led to a discussion with my companion about whether this kind of mediation, which I would sooner expect as part of an educational material for school classes, is even right for that target group?Proctor is right in stating that it’s not about the technology, it’s what we do with it, what we ask our visitors to do. Any technology can be used for any kind of mediation. But personally, I would prefer an openly authoritative introduction to contemporary Indian art to this kind of touchy-feely claptrap. Even if I miss a point or two.
The exhibition app, India: Game Now, was also a disappoinment. Content was limited, the challenges and questions were pretty daft, navigation was unclear, and the app did nothing to help us find the featured artworks in the exhibition. But worst of all, interaction with the app did not improve our understanding or appreciation of the exhibited works, the context or each other’s perceptions, which was also an aim of the game. If anything, the medium detracted from the experience, shifting the focus from artefacts to technology. Unsurprisingly, I regret to say – I have yet to have a mobile museum experience where this is not the case.
Participation with a purpose
Which is why I loved Shelley Bernstein‘s opening keynote at Sharing is Caring. Chief of Technology at Brooklyn Museum, Bernstein has developed and executed some of the most innovative – and succesful! – participatory museum projects of later years, such as the crowd-curated Click! exhibition in 2008 and this year’s GO - a community-curated open studio project. On the back of this, her words carry some weight. Interestingly, then, she describes herself as an anti-tech technologist, and, whilst employing social media as tools for participation, she emphasizes that it is a success when people abstain from using these tools when actually encountering art, in or outside the museum, as this takes away from the engagement.
Also, instead of catering to a Don’t make me think philosophy of usability, she insists on raising rather than lowering the barrier for participation, designing interfaces that require people to learn the tools, the sometimes lengthy process and their purpose before being able to take part. It is a deliberate move away from the Like-button model for easy interaction, as this requires and inspires no real engagement anyway:
The like button is easy, and while we don’t think participation in GO should be difficult, we do think we need to move away from the gold standard Facebook has forced upon us to something that’s more powerful and serves the needs of participants specifically taking part in this project. Will everyone get beyond the like button during GO? We sure hope so; participants may never register and might not pick up a mobile device, but if they find themselves in an artist’s studio on September 8-9, it’s likely they are already way beyond that ubiquitous little button, and in our minds, that is a success.
Blogpost by Shelley Bernstein: Getting Beyond the Like Button
At the end of the day, it’s not about social media, and focusing on those, as many museums (and businesses) do, hoping to get a cheap, quick and chic fix-it-all, too often muddles the vision which should be about content and true engagement.
Questioning the quality of Facebook engagement was also a theme of an inspiring presentation from Bjarki Valtysson and Nanna Holdgaard. Sadly, they only had an Ignite presentation slot for what could – should – have been a two hour lecture, but at least, when knowing the references, it still served as a taster of their very interesting research. Actually, it’s the kind of research I wish was mine, and I feel a great affinity with their perspectives and views. So it also left me wondering if there is some way I can muscle in and perhaps co-write a paper with them (given that I know them both from the IT University, maybe I should just ask) but then I’m still a little unsure about how these things work, and also feel that perhaps my own research needs to be a bit more substantial before I can truly contribute.
Because whilst Jasper Visser, museum consultant and second key note speaker at Sharing is Caring, repeatedly stated that museums had no need for PhD’s and should rather employ selftaught innovators, this only confirmed my belief in the need for academic reflection on the development now taking place in museums, and for the discourse (and hot air) surrounding this evolution.
Caring for museums, and thereby for the societies and communities that they serve, can also be sharing your insights regarding and concerns for what may be misguided beliefs in the power of people 2.0.
(Footnote: After the seminar, I asked Shelley Bernstein if I could do an interview with her for my project when visiting NY in the spring. She had been on my list of dream informants anyway, and her presentation only confirmed this. However, she wasn’t too keen to do that kind of interview, preferring instead to share her thoughts and have the discussions more openly on the blog, which is a very valid point. To be honest, I didn’t sell the idea too well, being a bit fried at the end of a long day, and still can’t really point to what’s in it for her. But perhaps, if reading what she has already written will lead to some meaty unanswered questions, perhaps I will try approaching her again.)
Note added on February 4th, 2013:
In an editorial note in the latest issue of Museological Review, the peer reviewed journal from the Leicester University School of Museum Studies, Dr. Bernadette Lynch succinctly expresses the misgivings I was trying to pin down above:
The utopian rhetoric of mutuality and shared authority in today’s museums, in reality, places a community member [...] in the role of ‘supplicant’ or ‘beneficiary’. Museums and galleries continue to subtly maintain inequitable social relations by exercising invisible power, setting parameters that offer what Cornwall calls ‘empowerment-lite’ (Cornwall, 2008).ii Thus the image of the 21st century, democratic, dialogical museum simply does not match the rhetoric. Furthermore, by placing people in the position of beneficiaries, the museum continues to rob people of their active agency and the necessary possibility of resistance.iii This would explain the anger of many participants who express frustration with these well-meaning institutions.
Lynch 2013: Generally dissatisfied with the utopian museum
(please follow link to find footnotes in the original)
Museological Review no. 17 – Museum Utopias Conference Issue © p iv