Museums & Digital Culture


Calhoun, Stephen - Angelic-Recursion (2015)
Stephen Calhoun, Angelic Recursion [for Nor Bateson] (2015)

At first blush, when we think about Museums and Digital Culture as two separate entities, they might not have that much in common. Historically museums have been a place of quiet edification and reverence. This kind of museum has roots that go all the way back to Ancient and Hellenistic Greece being a holy place dedicated to the Muses and an institution for study, contemplation, and philosophic discussion.

Fast-forward to the sixteenth century; People, from the upper classes, established learning societies centered around private or shared collections of various objects. Simultaneously—with some overlap—“Cabinets of Curiosity” began attracting people from all walks of life. While neither of these groups were considered museums, they are an important stepping-stone from the ancient idea for a dedicated space devoted to learning from the past through objects to the establishment of nineteenth-century museums.

By the time private collectors had opened up their doors or donated their eclectic assemblages of objects to the public, the world was categorizing and quantifying just about everything. The two previously mentioned types of collections—based on the premises of learning and curiosity—had grown into their own distinct endeavors with different goals: Education and Entertainment. This is one of the major divisions in the museum world today.

I often hear the words “Digital Culture” and think firstly of entertainments, whether that be television, movies, games, mobile apps, etc.: Things we spend a lot of time engaging with for fun, not for the purposes of learning anything academic. So, you might not think that a museum—a place dedicated to the ancient and wise Muses—would have much interest in or interaction with digital culture; The two seem to be at odds with one another. This is not the case, though. The twenty-first-century museum needs to find a balance between Its past and Our present.

In class, we discussed two ideas that I was unfamiliar with: Museum as “Contact Zone” and the “Soft Power” of influence that museums have but aren’t utilizing. These two concepts are fascinating especially when paired together in the context of the twenty-first-century museum grappling with a digital culture.

The idea that the museum is a “contact zone” comes from a paper written Professor James Clifford in 1997. According to Mary Lousie Pratt, who coined the term, a contact zone is a “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today.” Clifford advocates that we look critically inside our own museums and adjust the way we organize and describe the collections because too often they are the result of colonialism and perpetrators of imperialism.

Used originally to describe the kind of influence and how to exercise it in international relations, “soft power” is the ability to attract and co-opt other’s opinions and preferences through non-coercive means. According to Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg in Cities, Museums and Soft Power (2015), there are many facets of soft power in museums. A museum using soft power efficiently can “amplify civic discourse, accelerate cultural change, and contribute to contextual intelligence among the great diversity of city dwellers, visitors and policy-makers.” A museum should be a proactive institution not only housing and preserving the world’s greatest cultural treasures, it should be serving and engaging its public and community.

It is here where museums and digital culture come together. By embracing Clifford’s challenge to rethink the way in which we arrange and present objects and cultures in the museum while also coming up with ways to use a museum’s soft power described by Lord and Blankenberg, it seems apparent to me that we incorporate new technology, engage audiences in new ways, and be conscious and deliberate in the way we present cultural history. There are many people exploring these twenty-first-century museum virtues as well as many museums working on projects to bring these qualities to life.

The challenge is not to make the museum digital; the real challenge is to figure out how to marry to the two worlds of museums and digital culture. The analog world of unique objects living in a marble building and the digital world of dynamic content on screens in our hands can work together to improve the experience of the twenty-first-century museum visitor.

Digital Heritage is a buzz word that has made its way into our collective vocabulary informally and professionally. While it is difficult to pin down exactly what this term means and how it can be applied in the museum context, it seems clear that embracing digital and computing technology will have a big impact. For example, museums were hesitant to digitize their records associate with objects fifty years ago, and now you would be hard-pressed to find a museum that doesn’t use a Collection Management System (CMS) and a Digital Asset Management system (DAM).

Museums have begun to catch-up, but the real work after adopting digital tools is to figure out novel ways in which to use them. The younger generation, Digital Natives, expect a lot: Lightning speed, accessibility, engaging content, etc. The modern museum needs to know how to interact with its visitors via platforms the users are already familiar or comfortable with. Creating a place for the community that encourages communication with culture and technology is key. Because museum audiences are constantly changing the way in which they interact with cultural information and objects, museums need to establish an iterative environment for creating and distributing digital resources.

According to Jack Ludden, the touchstones for a good digital strategy in a museum are collecting and managing data so that it is accessible and scalable, presenting information in creative and transformative ways, and sharing content to inspire ongoing engagement. This by no means is an easy task, but it one the museums and cultural heritage professionals must endeavor towards in the twenty-first-century digital culture.

Reading list 8/24/2016:
NPR story by Bob Mondello: A History Of Museums, ‘The Memory Of Mankind’ Published November 24, 2008, Updated July 31, 2009.
Eugene Dillenburg, “What, If Anything, is a Museum?,” NAME Exhibitionist vol. 30 no. 1, Spring 2011.
Jonathan P. Bowen and Tula Giannini, Digitalism: The New Realism? Electronic Visualisation and the Arts (EVA 2014), London, UK, 8 – 10 July 2014.
Are Our Devices Turning Us Into A New Kind Of Human?, September 11, 2015, TEDTalk as part of TED Radio Hour on NPR (7:45 runtime).
IBRAIN: DIGITAL MEDIA AND THEIR INFLUENCE ON OUR BRAINS, Prof. Dr. Martin Korte from Perspektiven15, A Conference on the Humboldt Forum all about Museums, Media, and People, Dec.3-5, 2015, pp. 29-31.
NPR, Digital Overload: Your Brain On Gadgets, August 24, 2010.
What We Learned When 25,000 People Tried to Fight Information Overload, Feb 10, 2016, WYNC Note to Self.
Reading list 8/31/2016:
Ch. 1 in Ross Parry,  Museums in A Digital Age, Routledge, 2010. pp. 1-5.
Ch. 2, “The Transformation of the Digital Museum” by Katherine Burton Jones in Museum Informatics. Paul F. Marty , Katherine Burton Jones . Routledge, July 26, 2012. pp. 9-25.
Ch. 9, Interactive Technologies, in Museum Informatics. Paul F. Marty , Katherine Burton Jones . Routledge, July 26, 2012. pp. 131-135.
Ch. 2, in Bautista, Susana Smith. Museums in the Digital Age: Changing Meanings of Place, Community, and Culture, Altamira Press, 2014., pp. 7-30.
Jack Ludden, The J. Paul Getty Trust, USA; MWA 2014, An Introduction to Digital Strategies for Museums.

One thought on “Museums & Digital Culture

  1. Nice post, John. I appreciate the links to key terms and glad you found the “contact zone” and “soft power” concepts interesting.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s