Mobile guides in the rhizomic museum / Proctor in Katz et.al. 2011

Just tucked into a new book; Creativity and Technology – Social Media, Mobiles and Museums (Katz et al, eds., MuseumsEtc., 2011), heading straight for Nancy Proctor’s chapter on mobile social media in the museum as distributed network.

Proctor opens the chapter with the statement that it’s not about the technology – its about the content. Old school audio guides were (are!) not herding the audience to follow a certain pattern and look at certain artworks for a prescribes length og time because of broadcast technology, but because the content instructed them to do so. “But imagine, for a moment, that the content asked visitors to spend a couple of minutes looking around the gallery, then to choose a favorite artwork and describe it to a companion” Proctor suggests, “Using the same, archaic broadcast tour technology, we would have seen a very different experience played out in the museum.” (Proctor ibid, 24). Hold that thought!

Proctor later describes a method for ‘question-mapping’, i.e. noting down the questions that occur to you and where in the gallery, as you move through your exhibition in order to decide what kinds of information the audience might be interested in when they come. The point is that “by starting with the visitor’s questions rather than the curator’s key messages, we enter into a conversation with our audiences, rather than a lecture.” (ibid 29)

Although I find this thinking sympathetic – if also bringing to mind the potential discrepancy between curatorial and mediation perspectives and aims – I couldn’t help wandering what would happen if we could actually have all our questions answered as they occur to os. (I’m not claiming that this would be Proctor’s intention; this is just the question that occured to me as i was reading her article).

Imagine a futuristic mediation device, say a pair of spectacles, that not only noticed where you looked by deducted from your brainwaves what you were thinking and promptly offered you the relevant information. (Coming to a museum near you, best get a patent on that ASAP). Or even walking the gallery with the curator, ready to answer your questions as they came.

Although we would certainly become more knowledgable, and in light of this added knowledge, inspired to go deeper in our explorations, we would also have had our original train of thought disturbed. And perhaps the best part of that original question was not the answer to the question itself. Perhaps concrete questions, when unanswered, become the gateway to more abstract ponderings and reflections, reflections that make for a much more enlightening experience at the end of the day, that are, perhaps, the whole point of cultural experiences.

But maybe we just feel lost, or perhaps that lost train of thought just ends up sending us looking for the café, because that’s something nice and concrete that we know what to do with. It could go either way. So sometimes we need the answers, and making the relevant information available at the relevant place and time can only be a good thing. But perhaps this explains in part why we don’t go for the self-guided tours: That reflection takes time and cannot always be guided – we simply need time and mental space to absorb the experience as we experience it, and peace of mind to let it stew, to allow for that reflection to happen.

Anyway,-

Proctor goes on to describe the quirks and qualities of soundtrack and soundbites, including video content, and lays out the possibilities, strengths and weaknesses of a variety of mobile platforms.

This leads to an argument for dropping the concept of the multi-platform museum as the ideal for making content available on a multitude of devices. Multi-platform, Proctor argues, implies publishing to many platforms from a single sontent source, which, at a glance, looks like great economy of scale. However, content developed for one platform rarely translates well to another – think pamphlet text used on websites or even recorded and turned into a podcast. Neither does one size fits all when it comes to audience needs and interests. Instead, what is needed is a more flexible apporach to content and experience development.

The rhizomic museum, or the Museum as Distributed Network, is Proctors proposal for a new way of thinking about mediation in the museum, which integrates social media to support experiences which are engaging, conversational and generative of now content rather than didactic and finite. Furthermore, the experience is not confined to the museum, but is distributed into the public space and our hangouts on the www: “In the Museum as Distributed Network, every platform is a community, not just a point for content publication and distribution. By combining established social media platform like Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter with mobile social media, analog content, and publications built by or for the museum, we can create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.” (ibid 54)

This thinking is based on the principle that the best way to learn is to teach. Which is probably right. But there’s still something about this voxpop ideal that I think becomes problematic when it comes to realisation. Because who wants to be taught? I mean, it may make a lot of sense in both engagement and learning terms for me to share my views, knowledge and experience of culture – but will it also enrich the cultural experience and outcome for the next visitor, be it onsite or online? Again, there can be conflict between educational and curatorial aims, and I’m not quite sure which site I’m on as a visitor. Still, exploring the potential and downfalls of this kind of approach to museum mediation is excactly what my project is about, so in this research context, problematic translates as interesting.

In an epilogue to her article, Proctor provides a list of top tips for building a long tail mobile social media program, which benefits both visitors and the museum, and includes references to good examples and useful how-to articles. Like this presentation by Titus Bicknell on how to build your own mobile tour in WordPress in only an hour on handheldconference.com – great ressource!

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