What happens when geeks design museums?

Posted on June 1, 2012

3


I’ve started to notice a couple of interesting patterns or trends in the digital museum dialogue over the last couple of weeks and months. Just taking a quick flick around the blogs and looking at some of my favourite museum thinkers, we have Koven speaking at MuseumNext about the Kinetic Museum, and asking What if a museum’s overall practice were built outwards from its technology efforts, rather than the other way around?. Ed’s making a museum from scratch series is moving towards imagining a radically transparent museum – one in which labels might include information about who wrote them, objects might have whole histories available, or information that leads visitors back outside the walls of the museum to continue their journey beyond the physical space. And Seb has proposed that “the exhibition as a form needs to adapt. Radically. And I don’t mean into a series of public programs or events.” His great post from last week, too, considered new ways of designing exhibitions as immersive events with digital parallels.

There are two things that I find fascinating about this. The first is that this dialogue is forming a kind of dispersed ‘Koinonia’, or  collaborative thinking. Although each of us is physically removed from one another (in my case, across oceans, and for the others, at least a few hours of travel between), we are all bouncing off, and building upon, the ideas, questions and inspirations being shared by the others.

But the second reason this is interesting to me is that in each case, they we are all starting to reimagine or redesign physical museum experiences with ideas drawn from digital experiences. The museum technology conversation seems to be shifting from merely how does technology impact the business of the museum practice to how should it impact the museum building or the design of museums physically. Of course, there is precedence for these conversations with Nina Simon’s approach to exhibition design, which draws upon Web2.0 philosophies. But these new discussions seem to further explore the concept of creating the physical space of the museum upon the principles and values of the Internet.

So what are these values, and how could they apply to museum/exhibition design?

For me, the immediate ones that come to mind include transparency and openness, agility and responsiveness, customisable and personal experiences, and sharable, social and participatory interactions. Many of these ideas are ones that I’ve spoken about previously on this blog, but I’ve always focussed on how they might/should apply to museum online efforts.

Ed’s concept of radical transparency in the museum is provocative. In Too Big To Know, David Weinberger proffers that one of the basic elements of the Net experience is that “[t]he Net is a vast public space within which the exclusion of visitors or content is the exception.” (174.) He also points out the abundance of the Internet, where “there is more available to us than we ever imagined back in the days of television and physical libraries.” Taking these ideas into the physical museum space could see the size and complexity of working collection made visible and public as default, whilst still being able to distil ideas through the use of selected objects chosen for formal exhibition/display. This approach also puts a contemporary spin on the idea of curation, where the curator draws attention to the things worth seeing within the abundant content available. As I commented, the recently opened MAS | Museum Aan de Stroom in Antwerp has a visible storage area that houses about 180,000 artefacts from the collection. Imagine being able to see the entirety of a collection, as well as its details. What kind of public value might such an approach have?
(Of course, such an approach would likely have implications for cost, security etc. – there are many as-yet-unresolved issues here.)

What else? I think one of the most enduringly appealing things about the Internet is that it is highly personal and customisable. My experience online is likely very different from yours. You and I, we will read different things, and be drawn to different sites. We will even visit the same sites, but on different browsers and devices, or at different times of day. So how could a museum make an experience that put emphasis on “immersive exploration rather than a linear narrative“, as Seb has been asking? What kind of approach to exhibition design is needed to give individuals ownership over their experiences and yet still maintain connective narrative tissues to make sense of the core concepts and ideas at play?

Digital experiences are sharable, and frequently participatory. But they are also agile, kinetic, and scalable from global to local, and back again. Our conversations and interactions online are not limited to our physical proximity, but they are often related to it. I chat to people all over the world on Twitter, but also make a point of meeting up with them in person when circumstances allow. There is an overlap between my digital and physical experiences, a parallelism (as Seb recently observed). So how could these parallel experiences be incorporated into museum setting? Could the museum tap into and contribute to global themes and conversations before and after the visit (online or offline), and then focus on the local and particular in the actual space? Would that be the right approach?

Matt Popke, in the comments on Seb’s mixtape post, joins in.

I just think the bar has been raised a bit in the “historical narrative” part of the equation. People live in a google age now. If you encounter something you are not familiar with you simply google it and find out whatever you want to know (or maybe you think you find it, that’s another issue entirely). People are accustomed now to having mountains of information available to them at a whim. Tiny tombstone labels on collection items or informational plaques near an exhibit just don’t satisfy like they used to.

The challenge is finding a way to incorporate *all* of the rich history and context of an item in the display of that item, or otherwise finding a way to deliver more in an exhibition than we’re used to, more context, more data, more story. We need to deliver this information in a way that feels explorative, like the audience is taking their own path through our collection and discovering their own version of the narrative. Hypertext, as a medium, is perfect for this kind of intellectual exploration when dealing with an individual. How do we create a hypertext-like experience in a physical space that multiple people can enjoy simultaneously?

There are lots of ideas here, and most of them are entirely unresolved. Still, this trend in the conversation seems to bend more and more to be broaching the divide between the physical and virtual and trying to rethink or disrupt current approaches to museum or exhibition design. Why this is happening now, I’m not sure. (And does it have implications for museum careers? Will your next exhibit designer be someone with an interest/background in tech?) But it is an interesting line of questioning to pursue.

What happens when museums begin to bring the values and ideas that are normally associated with the Internet into the physical design of the museum?

I’d love your thoughts.

About these ads