Museums In the Digital Domain, Part One – The Costs of Production

First, an introduction. I recently was asked to present some (half-baked) ideas at a symposium on museums and digital culture in Taipei under the somewhat meaningless title “Museums In the Digital Domain,” and I thought I’d serialize some of what I wrote for that symposium here. Some of these ideas are better fleshed-out than others, and much of this writing I still consider to be a work-in-progress; constructive commentary will be warmly welcomed.

A special shout-out to Matt Morgan, John Gordy, Nancy Proctor, and Richard McCoy, all of whom gave valuable feedback while I was writing this.

So here’s the first part of the paper:

“The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes…was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift. As a result, the conversation has degenerated into the enthusiastic grasping at straws, pursued by skeptical responses.”

–Clay Shirky, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable

Although Clay Shirky is talking about newspapers here, this quote could just as easily apply to the various strategies museums are currently employing in an attempt to remain relevant. As museums attempt to make the transition from being places where a majority of interaction with visitors takes place within their walls to a different kind of organization in which interactions could potentially occur anywhere, it is vital that the origins of many of the practices surrounding the production and distribution of content are completely understood. Although museums have been “on the Web” for 15 or more years, their collective digital presences (with a few notable exceptions) still bear the marks of practices created and nurtured during the analogue era, with online presences amounting to little more than a “digital facelift.”

The traditional notions of what constitute value for museums are changing. If we accept that, over time, the number of visitors to to a museum’s building will be dwarfed by the number of visitors who experience that same museum via any number of possible (primarily) online avenues, we must then recognize that that physical visit is now but one of a significantly larger number of possible engagement scenarios. Museums have been slow to recognize this subtle but far-reaching shift in their own value, and continue to assume that the dynamics of the physical visit continue to hold true for all other types of engagements.

What this has led to, unfortunately, is a situation in which museums are losing the competition for attention with other types of information providers and portals that do not have the same depth of content, but are capable of reaching audiences with the content they do have. What can museums learn from these providers, and how can these lessons help museums to truly become digital organizations?

A given museum’s perception of its own value is still generally tied up in its contributions to the general knowledge via scholarly publications as much as it is in the value of its physical collection. These publications, whether they be journal articles, exhibition catalogues, or gallery label text, are laboriously produced, thoroughly vetted, and meticulously edited. Because these publications are printed on physical media, the production of every single word of text, every single image, and every single second of film costs money. That cost always has to be weighed against the hoped-for return on investment (whether that be book purchases, ticket sales, or professional standing) on any given publication, meaning that content that is unlikely to find enough of an audience to justify cost is equally unlikely to see the light of day via publication. Three primary effects have resulted from this situation:

  1. Museums tailor their content for audiences already known to exist: scholars, general visitors, researchers, etc.;
  2. Activities within the museum that are unlikely to speak to one of these known audiences are regarded as too specialized for mass consumption, and therefore kept “behind the curtain”;
  3. Museums (and other similar cultural heritage organizations) occupy this information space virtually alone–the economic barriers to participation via print are simply too high for most potential competitors.

The dearth of content available because of this lack of competition meant that, in the past, an audience looking for that type of material was relatively likely to find materials created by museums. There was simply little competing content out there. In the electronic domain, however, this is no longer the case. The cost of displaying and distributing content electronically has fallen so low that it is now effectively zero. The inputs to the production process are now almost entirely intellectual rather than material, leading to a situation in which, as Chris Anderson states, “ideas can propagate virtually without limit and without cost.” As a result, any scarcity of museum data, information, or media, is a mostly an artificial one. The only meaningful factor restricting the publishing of museum content in the electronic domain (beyond any lingering rights issues) is a conscious decision on the part of the museum not to publish. Unfortunately, many museums are making exactly that decision, which has created a vacuum that is being filled by all sorts of other actors, from Wikipedia to the Discovery Channel. What these other organizations have come to understand is that content, being free, has less value than the attention it generates.

Continue on to Part Two

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