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The digital wave is real

When the rare becomes commonplace: how the digital threatens museums’ authority


Text: Larry Friedlander

What hath the Internet wrought? For a long time the museum held the keys to the kingdom, both controlling access to the culture’s rarest treasures, and dictating how those treasures where seen and understood. No more.

In a digital age, everyone has easy access to massive amounts of images, ‘facts’ and opinions. If I want to see Picasso, I can retrieve many thousands of images, articles, and opinion, and even get to chat with complete strangers about a painting-- all in less than a second. True these digital  ‘objects’ are not the original, but the sheer quantity and ease of access makes these sources the first place to go, for a school kid writing a paper, to an curious browser, to a determined ‘fan’. 

The rare has become commonplace 

Moreover, audiences are changing rapidly. Museums now talk to audiences thoroughly shaped by the digital revolution. The contemporary public comes with new eyes and new expectations, impatient with a passive role, eager for new experience, quickly bored, glutted with sensory input, and overwhelmed by the chatter of a global world. The rare has become commonplace; what is easily acquired is negligently discarded and forgotten. The impact of even an astonishing exhibit is correspondingly brief, lost in the sensationalized whirl of media, advertising, and daily urban life. Moreover, in a society founded on instant entertainment and disposable experience, museums cannot count on the kind of sustained and focused attention great art or ideas often demand. No doubt one reason for the popularity of Warhol is that his art can be swallowed whole in an instant.

„As the culture changes, the museum must change and reinvent its role in society as a whole“

digital plenitude erodes authority

This new public, with its restless eye, its expectations of access and interaction, is increasingly cynical about authority, and resists the museum’s claim to be a privileged holder and dispenser of cultural value and experience. There are simply too may other places to go for the information and instruction. This digital plenitude erodes the special authority of the museum. So what can the museum do to protect its role? How can it re-invest its objects and expertise with the power to convince and to impress?

The digital can cure the digital, a kind of technical cultural homeopathy. If we see the digital not as an adjunct to the museum’s true business—merely enhancing displays and showcasing the museum’s possessions on the web—but as a versatile tool to reimagine the relationship between museum and society, we can convert problem into solution.

make information more complex, difficult to absorb, problematic and contested 

One approach is to resist the increasing pressure to use digital technology to supply easy, limitless information. Instead we might do the reverse: make information more complex, difficult to absorb, problematic and contested. In doing so, we can point to the purpose of information, which is to solve an important problem of some sort. By highlighting the role of information in constituting a certain picture of the world, we may force the public to pay close attention to the quality and provenance of 'facts', have them play with possibilities of interpretation, and make them 'puzzle out' solutions. Such a strategy involves creatively framing information as part of an implied master dialogue, as a visible part of an ongoing serious conversation that is both personal and cultural. It also involves focusing on why information is urgent and useful, how will this information deeply affect a person’s life?

profile the visitor, find out her interests and needs 

Another strategy is to use technology to shape the entirety of the visitor’s experience, not just the time spent during the visit but the periods before and after the experience. Before the visit, we can use technology to profile the visitor, find out her interests and needs, and suggest ways she can plan and structure her time in the building. During the visit we can track the visitor’s experience moment-to-moment, guiding choices, building on the visit as it unfolds. When a visitor pauses and pays attention to a work, we could then—in real time—suggest other works that might build on this first encounter, answer questions and provide context and explanatory material. Finally, the record of the visit can then be assembled into a digital product that the visitor can take with them and build on outside of the museum. 

Most important, we cannot take the museum’s role for granted. It may look like the museum is built on the rock of ages, but the museum is a cultural construct and not an assemblage of imposing buildings and gorgeous works. As the culture changes, it must change and reinvent its role in society as a whole. In a digital world, it must turn to digital tools to make itself urgent and needed. 

Larry Friedlander is particularly interested in theater and performance and interactive technology. He is co-director of the Stanford Learning Laboratory, the university's center for research, development, and implementation of innovation in technology and learning and co-director of the Wallenberg Global Learning Network, an international center for exploration of learning in a global context.

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