‘Innovation rhetoric as a tool for publicity and fundraising’

Screenshot from Twitter, 11th of

Screenshot from Twitter

It’s rather quiet on the blog, as I’m knuckling down to finish my thesis. But I had to share this clip, because it’s so much in tune with what I’m writing.

The link that Mia Ridge is sharing in the tweet is a CFP for a Museums Computer Group spring meeting provocatively titled ‘Innovation’:the Emperor’s new clothes?. Do follow the link, there’s some interesting questions there, asking if innovation ‘for the sake of it’ might still have a motivational and long lasting effect. That may well be the case. Still, I agree with Mia & Seb Chan that the incessant pursuit and trumpeting of’ innovative’ projects can get a bit wearisome.

It’s parallel to or part of the same problem of funding and legitimisation that I wrote about in the article Augmenting the agora: Media and civic engagement in museumsin which I conclude:

In order to secure the financial future of institutions, museums must not only adhere to state regulations and political dictates but also make their efforts visible and understandable to the powers that be and the public at large. […] Social media, thus, serve museum objectives well by creating the appearance of engaging the public with culture and the institution in the public discourse. However, the question of whether this communication also serves public interest in fact in terms of spurring on the democratisation of the museum institution is more uncertain. In fact, the feigned transition to a forum and coaxed inclusion of the vox populi may turn out to undermine genuine civic engagement and democratic exchange with the public. Far from advocating that museums refrain from using new media channels in any way, this article has pointed out the dangers of a prevalent rhetoric and blind communal consensus around the democratic impact of social media in museum communication. Unquestioned evangelism, hype and unreflected inclusion of social media could end up having the reverse effect, simply paying lip service to the social obligations of the museum.

For the record, I received strong criticism for this article from Michael Edson of the Smithsonian, in return for my critique of his rhetorics in the article, see https://docs.google.com/document/d/1MBiXS0REJmk7ur5eMdO73HDZl_u3mmFrCT0dpaTDlFk/edit

Although I was at first a bit baffled by the force of Edson’s retort, I am honestly honoured, and much obliged, that he made the effort to respond, and found his critique to be in most part useful and constructive. (The hatches have long been buried following a fine online concersation, so I do not bring up this point to get back at Edson, but rather because the critique and discussion is relevant for my research). And yet, while I agree with many of his points, I also still believe that the ongoing developments can be interpreted in different ways, and that it is relevant to point out the risk of hyperbole or hypocrisy. For my part, I find Edson’s belief in the power of the internet and his vision for the impact this may have on cultural institutions, as expressed in the essay Dark Matter, published on the highly recommendable Medium hub CODE|WORDS, very sympathetic:

Museums, libraries, and archives—heritage, culture, knowledge, and memory institutions—can play a huge role in the story of how Earth’s 7 billion citizens will lead their lives, make and participate in their culture, learn, share, invent, create, cry, laugh, and do in the future. […] The entire architecture of the World Wide Web is based upon [Tim Berners-Lee’s ] humanistic, democratic ideals, and we can do a lot of good with them if we make wise choices and concentrate our efforts where they’ll matter the most.

However, I do not agree that his examples of YouTube or Kickstarter success-stories are necessarily applicable to a museum context. Moreover, the point of my article was also to point out what Nick Poole, responding to Edson’s essay, succinctly concludes:

Technology can certainly help us rewrite the social contract with the communities we serve. It can offer us channels and tools to make good on the promise of a more egalitarian and unbounded approach. But it cannot in itself transform our organizations. That bit is up to us.

Poole also introduces the brilliant term ‘openwash’ to describe the problem of institutions “which [speak] the language of the Commons, of participation and engagement, while betraying these very principles through their actions.”

Thus, the rhetoric of [INSERT: innovation, democratisation, participation, engagement, inclusion etc.] can be deceptive, and problematic when it becomes necessary to ‘talk the talk’ when applying for funding.

However, as pointed out by philosopher Anders Fogh Jensen, actual transformation may be problematic too. In an inspiring presentation (in Danish, follow link for video (I would have liked to call it ‘thought provoking’, but for me, it was more like hearing someone else present my own arguments in a better way) ) given at the seminar Why Museums? earlier this week, Jensen described a ubiquitous projectification of our society, in which all institutions must adhere to the same logics, the same lingo. Thus, they all have to conceive innovative, inclusive, engaging (Jensen here listed a much longer list of all too familiar buzz words) projects, to attract funding,

Another tendency identified by Jensen was the strong focus on ‘activation’, i.e., engaging users/citizens/students/visitors/anyone in activities, which themselves become the objective rather than the mean. Thereby, he argued, ‘institutions disappear as institutions, to be reborn as functions’.

The danger of these conflated tendencies, according to Jensen, is that as all institutional spaces become multifunctional and interdisciplinary, they also become homogenous. The museum becomes a space like any other.

Invoking Foucault’s concept of heterotopia (also a Leitmotif in my thesis), Jensen argued for the need for the museum to be something else, to be an ‘other space’, a place for reflection and for experience of reverse or alternative logics. Quoting the closing sentences of Foucault’s essay,

The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.

Jensen concluded that the ethical obligation of museums would be to withstand the winds of change for changes sake, withstand the hypes and homogenisation, in order to remain relevant.

Edson, in the Dark Matter essay, describes how

Museums and museum websites can be disappointing to people used to the more open, participatory, and playful collaborative environments they find elsewhere on the Web, and sometimes they take action.

This may be true. However, considering Jensen’s argument, should museums really be like the web? Aren’t the humanistic and democratic ideals, which Edson attributes to Tim Berners-Lee, already at their core? Whereas Edson’s point is that museums and the web are really not that dissimilar, perhaps there could be a point in keeping them distinct?

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