Tag Archives: museums

It IS about the technology

“It’s not about the technology.”

I hear this meme invoked all the time at “museum tech” conferences nowadays. Indeed, I myself have said this a bunch of times when developing (or at least contemplating) a new content-based technology project at the Museum. A big drive in my work at the Met has always been to get constituents talking about the content first and foremost, and worrying about the technology platform(s) later. (Aside: Nancy Proctor makes this point better than I do in her recent Museums and the Web paper The Museum Is Mobile.) This hasn’t always been an easy task, as often it’s excitement about the technology that has caused the constituent to contact me in the first place, but I have nevertheless always endeavored to put content first and tech second in any discussions about a possible project.


This approach only goes so far, and we need to be careful about where and when we apply it, lest our thinking become too prejudiced. My concern is that thinking this way causes us to act as if content is always inherently platform agnostic, which is rarely true.

I think the issue here really is context, which is unique for each technology platform, even when the content is similar. A kiosk has the context of a museum around it, a mobile device has the context of location, the web has the context of (possibly) no context at all. Each of these situations demand different approaches to developing, filtering, and presenting content.

I don’t mean to say that the “it’s not about the technology” idea has no value–it’s still a bad idea to jump into a project with no reason for being other than exciting technology. However, we do need to be cautious about understanding the nuances of each platform, and adapting our content strategies accordingly.


Field Museum

Museums In the Digital Domain, Part Four – Generative Assets

This is the last in a series of posts (and sorry for the delay in getting this one up; sickness followed by the Museum Computer Network conference prevented me from getting this up sooner). Part One, with a brief introduction, is here, Part Two is here, and Part Three is here. You can read all four parts together here.

New means of producing content are only part of the equation; to claim attention from audiences both new and traditional, museums will need to experiment with different kinds of engagement in both the online and physical spaces. Because content-plus-reputation is no longer a compelling enough reason for garnering attention, museums will need to focus on types of engagements that are not easily copied. Tech writer Kevin Kelly refers to these as “generative assets,” which he breaks down into eight categories, four of which are critical for museums at this juncture in their history: immediacy, personalization, accessibility, and findability.


Museums need to demonstrate value by providing up-to-the-minute content and information. Immediacy here could take a number of different forms, depending on the medium and the situation. Immediacy for many users might resemble something like what TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington termed “process journalism,” in which a story is chronicled in near real-time as it unfolds, before all the facts are completely known (which, by its very nature, necessitates corrections and clarifications later on). A great recent example of this in the museum world would be Brooklyn Museum’s real-time chronicling of the CT scanning of four of their Egyptian mummies–between regular posts on the Brooklyn Museum blog and literally up-to-the-minute Twitter updates, users were made to feel that they were witnessing a story unfold right before their very eyes. The fact that the museum was willing to admit that it didn’t (yet) have all the facts was somewhat arresting, and meant that readers of the Museum’s blog felt that they were part of something developing. A simple summary of this process, delivered via a few paragraphs after all the facts were in, would not have been nearly as fascinating.

Another interesting example of immediacy would be NPRbackstory, which was created by Public Interactive, a division of National Public Radio. NPRbackstory is a service that combs Google’s “Hot Trends” data for trending search topics, searches for those topics in NPR’s own news archive. If a story in the archive matches the trending topic, a link to the story is posted in NPRbackstory’s Twitter feed. What is interesting about NPRbackstory is that the process is completely automatic; the service runs without any intervention from human beings at all, and yet it provides an immediate value by providing context and background to an emerging topic. With their vast content reserves, this is the kind of approach that museums could very easily take.


Personalization involves tailoring content and content delivery methods based on user characteristics or selections. Personalization will continue to be the most difficult generative asset for museums to work with until their content repositories are finally deep and diverse enough to truly account for user preference.

A good example of personalization comes (again) from NPR. NPR introduced, at the end of 2008, a means by which listeners could create their own podcast streams based on preferences they select. Because NPR’s podcast archives are both deep and well-catalogued, it is possible for users to create not only personalized podcasts based on categories, but even on keywords. So, for instance, a user create a podcast feed that is updated any time an NPR-affiliated program runs an episode in which the term “MoMA” is featured. The ability to tailor this content specifically to a user’s preferences gives that user a powerful incentive to return to NPR’s archives for more content.


Accessibility refers to the ability to access a resource when and where it is needed. Because much digital content is free, there becomes less and less reason to physically house this material on one’s own desktop, laptop, or mobile device. Instead, many content creators and aggregators are pursuing a strategy in which all content is stored remotely “in the cloud” such that a user can access that content from any device. The most exciting recent development in this area is Spotify, a music player that is similar to iTunes, except that no content is housed on the local device–it is accessed entirely via an Internet connection. What this means is that a user’s mp3 library is always available anywhere with an Internet connection, regardless of the device.

Museums have already begun to make tentative steps in this direction with “my virtual gallery” features (a good example being the Met’s “My Met Gallery“), in which users are able to create a personal account to which they may save collection objects of interest for later perusal. The content in these personal accounts is stored entirely on the museum’s own servers, so theoretically, at least, the content is available wherever the user is able to access the museum’s Web site. This is an excellent start, and this idea should be expanded to include content outside collections such that a user, whether engaging with the museum’s information online or via a mobile device, is able to access contextual content “just in time.”


Findability is key to asserting value in the attention economy. Resources that are not easily findable may as well not exist, no matter how interesting or vital they may be. It is interesting to note in the last several years that although museums have continued to publish new information resources as they always have, albeit now digitally, the real response from the community only appears when museums actually create new means of accessing those resources that the community takes notice.

Increasing the findability of resources on the Web at least partially rests on simply having more content available, and ensuring that that content is identified such that it can be properly indexed by search engines. But this alone is not enough. Any findability strategy should be aimed at not only making resources easily obtainable, but also at ensuring that those resources are available when they are needed. Delivering information “just in time” has the net effect of increasing what Peter Samis refers to as “Visual Velcro,” or the likelihood that a user will spend more time with a given content resource.

Improving findability may also mean accepting that many of the most interesting experiments with museums’ information may happen downstream, outside their control. A good example of this recently would be with the Brooklyn Museum’s release of their collections API. Being one of the first institutions to make its collections available in this manner, there were no use cases out there demonstrating what value doing this might provide. But the Museum’s community itself provided that when a developer in Brooklyn (unasked, I might add), used Brooklyn’s collections API to build an iPhone application that would allow users to browse its collections.

But findability could have significant meaning in the gallery space as well. If we still seek to deliver information “just in time,” it is important that this information be available in the physical space as well. Lightweight finding protocols, like the QR (Quick Response) codes recently printed on wall labels at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, could theoretically be resolved to any Web-available resource. A museum without the resources to put its own content on a device could easily seek out high-quality content on the Web and use QR codes to make that content available in the gallery via a visitor’s mobile device. Doing this helps to foster the increased “stickiness” between visitors and objects that Peter Samis refers to (because information is being provided when it is needed), while also emphasizing a museum’s role as a “distributor of attention.”


It is time for museums to finally begin transforming themselves from “buildings with Web sites” into different types of institutions altogether, in which the physical visit is but one of many possible engagements. This transformation will not be easy, as it will involve recognizing the truly disruptive impact that the Web has on museums’ traditional modes of information delivery. Competing in this environment means going beyond simply finding new ways of presenting content digitally, but also learning how to properly distribute attention to that content. By focusing on the “generative assets” of findability, personalization, accessibility, and immediacy, museums have a way forward, if they choose to follow this path.

Museums In the Digital Domain, Part Three – Producing for Niches

This post is Part Three of a series of posts. Part One, with a brief introduction, is here. Part Two is here.

By choosing to assume that the audience for online engagement is the same as that for traditional in-gallery engagement, museums are failing to nurture and develop new audiences. Instead, museums continue to produce new content based on (potentially) flawed assumptions of what their audiences might want. These flawed assumptions cause museums to spend a significant amount of time worrying about issues regarding content ownership and authority that are–at best–less important, or–at worst–completely irrelevant for online visitors, and ignoring issues of findability that are critical.

This is nowhere more apparent than on the typical museum Web site. The average museum site assumes a protracted engagement with the visitor in which the a deliberate choice has been made by the visitor to visit the site and look for information. This type of engagement is clearly modeled on a physical visit, in which the visitor enters through the front door of the building and is “captive” for a certain length of time. In this scenario, the visitor has already sought the specific museum Web site out, likely based on the museum’s reputation, and is willing to accept even unattributed content as all coming backed by the “full faith and credit” of that institution.

Some visitors may indeed seek this form of engagement from museum Web sites. The problem is that the average museum Web site gears most of its content entirely in the pursuit of this one type of engagement. With more effort devoted to research (“plans to learn”) than to production (“plans to execute”), museums may find that there are other niche types of engagements that individually represent smaller numbers of visitors, but collectively represent a significantly larger number. This is what author Chris Anderson refers to as “the Long Tail.” In the old days, the cost of producing print or in-gallery materials that would appeal to these niche audiences was simply too high to warrant even considering it. Digital production, however, enables museums to publish materials for as easily for these audiences as it does for traditional audiences. Adding up all of these possible niche markets makes for a larger number of total interactions than do the hits.

There is also the possibility that what was always assumed by the museum to be a niche audience in fact turns out to be an entirely new, previously untapped market. In fact, most disruptive technologies begin as niche markets and then evolve into something much larger. This is to museums’ advantage now that producing content is now a low- or no-cost proposition. Rather than spending years and thousands of dollars producing “perfect” publications that may never find an audience, museums can instead begin to put out smaller bits of content first to see what “sticks.” If that content finds an audience (that is, if the material begins to be linked to, referenced, and read), then the museum could decide to produce more content on that topic. The key here is that decisions around content production should be based on actual returned data (website hits, incoming links, etc.) rather than assumptions about what the largest audience wants. In this way, emerging and as-yet-unknown audiences can be turned into assets before they have a chance to look somewhere else.

Producing materials for niche audiences and adopting a research-driven content strategy means contravening many long-held production practices in museums. Most critically museums should forgo the concept of waiting for perfection before publication. Perfection is a standard far more suited for the print medium than today’s digital domain. By the time a museum has thoroughly perfected a resource, that potential audience may have already moved on and found the information elsewhere. Maxwell Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, recently made a similar case for immediacy over perfection:

“I arrived [at the IMA] and heard, as is so often the case, the mantra that we’re only going to put stuff online when we’ve done data clean up…Actually, what we’re going to do is we’re going to put everything online now and see how much we have to clean up. And that seems to be working better…than holding back.”

In trying to avoid “holding back” while simultaneously attempting to find and exploit new audiences, museums will have to re-configure their content-production strategies to be significantly more flexible and responsive. In the main, this will involve the removal of the traditional editorial process in favor of more direct and ongoing communication. In this model, the publication of a given resource is the beginning of a process, rather than its endpoint. Some approaches that many museums are already using successfully include:

  • Allow staff to speak to visitors directly. As many museums with blogs are finding, allowing staff to speak out directly about what interests them is a relatively painless way of quickly creating volumes of interesting, colorful content. These staff postings are inherently niche-based, tending to focus on tiny area of museum practice, but often build dedicated, loyal audiences. Nina K. Simon asserts that being more overt about content authorship can also have the side benefit of increasing trust, by in essence demonstrating an author’s willingness to engage in a conversation about content he or she created with his or her community.
  • Use content that already exists. Not all content has to be built from scratch. Plenty of information is already available in digital format in museums, but many museums still withhold this information until it is deemed suitable for public consumption. What Wikipedia and similar resources have taught us is that the public is remarkably tolerant of mistakes when the information is copious and findable. Put information out as soon as it is created.
  • Worry less about completely owning all of your content. Museums should not be afraid to reference materials not produced by them. Museums can still provide valuable context, and acquire value over time as good pointers to interesting information. A museum that is willing to own up to incomplete knowledge, and ask its own communities to fill in those gaps, is a museum that (paradoxically, when viewed in the context of earlier paradigms) is increasing trust with its community and ensuring that it will be a “first source” of information for that community.
  • Digitize your archives. This is probably the least attractive option for most museums, as the process of converting archival assets from analogue to digital carries with a relatively high price tag. But because much of this information already exists, digitization can enable the creation of large amounts of “new” content without (again) having to create content from scratch. And, like all digital production, the cost of digitization is only decreasing.

Objection to pursuing any of these strategies in museums typically takes one of two forms. The first is the concern that this kind of content represents a significant decrease in quality, and the second is that creating a too-engaging online experience will cause a drop in visitorship to the physical site. Both of these arguments represent an incomplete understanding of what disruptive technologies mean in terms of creating new audiences.

For these new audiences, there is no quantifiable drop in quality with these new production methods. With more rapid and personal content deployment, museums are actually providing more value for an audience that responds to availability and findability more than perfection. For a visitor hungry for information that can be found nowhere else, any information, even incomplete information, is better than none at all. The ability to engage directly with a curator, conservator, or educator might be far more important to this audience than comprehensiveness. Museums have to ask themselves whether by fretting over being completely authoritative if they are stymieing their content-production efforts merely to satisfy the needs of a small group of scholars. As Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood said about high-quality audio formats like FLAC: “…if you even know what one of those is, and have strong opinions on them, you’re already lost to the world of high fidelity and have probably spent far too much money on your speaker stands.”

And it is highly unlikely that producing more engaging online experiences will “cannibalize” existing visitors. It is far more likely that more interesting online presences will in fact help museums to find entirely new audiences that had heretofore not had an interest in visiting at all. Sebastian Chan, Head of Digital, Social & Emerging Technologies at the Powerhouse Museum found this to be true when the Powerhouse posted images of its Tyrell photographs collection to the Flickr Commons. Powerhouse found that the images posted to Flickr received more page views in the first four weeks of availability than they had for the entire previous year on the Museum’s own Web site, and that the museum was receiving licensing requests from entirely new entities that had never contacted them before.

This is an instructive case because the Powerhouse could have just as easily not have made these images so easily available, and instead put a few highlights on their Web site, strongly urging visitors to come to the Museum to see the collection personally. Had the Powerhouse done this, these new audiences would have been far less likely to have found this collection at all. The “cannibalization” would have been reversed–an over-emphasis on the museum’s physical presence would have prevented interesting and engaging content from being made available for new audiences to discover.

Part Four should be up later this week.

Museums In the Digital Domain, Part Two – Disruptive Technology

This post is Part Two of a series of posts. You can read Part One, with a brief introduction, here.

The economist Herbert Simon identified the issue of how to determine value in a world of abundant and free information in 1971–he called it the “allocation of attention”:

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

-Herbert A. Simon, “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World

When most engagements with visitors occurred within the museum walls, a certain amount of captive attention from audiences was guaranteed. In the digital domain, there is an exponential increase in competition for that same attention. What this means is that the most critical success factor for museums in the digital domain is not the production of content, but rather the allocation of attention to that content. This doesn’t mean that content production is not critical (after all, museums must have information to direct attention to), but the presence of that content alone no longer guarantees attention from audiences. A shift in value has taken place, from the production of content to its consumption by audiences. This value shift is not an easy one for any content-producing organization to accept. The nature of this shift only begins to make more sense once one begins to think of digital production and distribution of content not as a more efficient version of the publishing schemes of old, but rather an altogether different type of beast, with its own requirements and its own rules–a disruptive rather than a sustaining technology.

Disruptive Technology” is a term coined by Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen to refer to technologies introduced to a given industry that upset an existing value paradigm. Dominant players in industries upended by disruptive technologies often do not at first recognize the value of these technologies because they foster the creation of new markets rather than sustaining the existence of current ones. As we see with trading production value for attention value, disruptive technologies usually represent the trading of one set of values for another.

The classic disruptive technology of the Internet era is the mp3. The mp3 is a compressed digital audio format in which a degree of audio quality is sacrificed for the sake of creating a smaller, more portable file. Significantly, the mp3 was also the first widespread music delivery technology to be created outside the normal production channels of the recording industry. Because of this, as Eric Harvey states in a recent article for Pitchfork, mp3s “performed the radical task of separating music from the music industry for the first time in a century.”

The recording industry’s analysis of then-current markets concluded that the audio quality of the mp3 was simply too low to be of any real value to most consumers. What consumers were really looking for, studies showed, was high fidelity audio formats like the Compact Disc. However, as is typical with most disruptive technologies, market research could not predict the emergence of a new market, one in which the metrics of value are significantly different. As it turned out, consumers were willing to trade a previous value standard–fidelity–for a new one–portability. Wired magazine summed up this trade succinctly: “The big advance—the one that had all the impact—was the move to easier-to-manage bits. Compared with that, improved sound quality just doesn’t move the needle.” The recording industry failed to predict this market transformation, and were caught off guard when consumers’ standards of quality no longer matched the industry’s.

In a parallel to the situation with mp3s, portals like Wikipedia have enabled content about cultural heritage to be produced outside the cultural heritage sector. Wikipedia is a large (3,040,380 articles in the English version as of September 22, 2009) online encyclopedia whose articles are contributed and edited entirely by the public at large. The value proposition promised by Wikipedia is significantly different than that promised by organizations like museums. Wikipedia promises easy availability, a commonly understood presentation format, and absolutely up-to-the-second information in place of unimpeachable authority.

It is this very promise of authority (and the trust earned via that authority) upon which museums have by and large staked their reputations. However, despite studies showing that museums and libraries are still the most trusted institutions in the United States, Wikipedia repeatedly shows up at the top of search results lists for topics that should be a strength for museums, and images used in blog posts and other electronic media are fare more likely to come from Flickr than they are from museums’ own Web sites. Why is this?

It is simply that museums are now making the same mistake made by the recording industry. In making the move to the digital domain, museums have assumed that what constituted value when interactions occurred in the physical building will still constitute value when those interactions occur online. And, in an eerie parallel with the recording industry’s mp3 market research, recent studies from IMLS and AAM show that museums’ current audiences really want authority. Unfortunately, fast and cheap electronic publishing has created an entirely new audience (read: market) that both threatens to engulf the old audience and values something entirely different. As it turns out, what this new audience requires is accessibility and findability, exactly the areas in which resources like Wikipedia excel and in which museums lag far, far behind. However much museums try to promote their authority and infallibility as superior to that of Wikipedia, the new audience simply doesn’t value these qualities in the way the old audience did. “You can’t protect old business models artificially,” stated Peter Chernin (past president of News Corp) about online TV site Hulu.

What museums must learn from this new market is that they must be willing to adapt to the needs of new audiences as they emerge, and be capable of delivering content to these audiences. This implies a flexibility in technical infrastructure as well as a flexibility of mindset. Clayton Christensen refers to this as creating plans to learn, rather than plans to execute.

Continue on to Part Three.

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

The future of mobile interpretation

Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

Well, it’s been an exhausting few weeks here at kovenjsmith HQ. In addition to reading through scores of accolades over my recent interview with Paul Miller (thanks to all two of you that wrote in–your copy of the Koven J. Smith home game should arrive via parcel post in six to eight weeks), I’ve also been working on a new score for the great NYC choreographer Daniel Charon, which will be premiered in April at Joyce SoHo. I hope to have some mp3s of the music up here as soon as I can excerpt everything into palatable chunks.

While all o’ that has been going on, I’ve also been working on a paper for the upcoming Museums and the Web conference about the use of multimedia handheld devices in museums. The seeds for many of the concepts in this paper were planted during the two-day “From Audiotours to iPhones” symposium on handhelds at Tate Modern last September. The symposium, organized by Jane Burton of Tate Modern and Nancy Proctor from SAAM, assembled some of the leading minds in mobile interpretation, including Peter Samis from SFMOMA, Chris Alexander from SJAM, Allegra Burnette from MoMA, and Daniel Incandela from the IMA for two days of spirited debate.

While the paper I just completed for MW is in some ways a reaction to rather than a distillation of the symposium’s content, the symposium was incredibly helpful in bringing focus to the idea as a whole. My overwhelming feeling, coming out of the symposium, is that museums still have yet to make the big leap necessary for these kinds of technologies to really take hold, and the paper pretty much expands on that. From the introduction:

The last several years have seen museums carefully moving away from outmoded audio technology towards richer multimedia devices. However, while there have been a handful of successful museum installations of multimedia guides, these devices still have yet to take hold in museums in the same way that audio guides have. The failure of the majority of handheld projects to date has been blamed on their trying to do too much, using technology that is too complex, too expensive, or “not ready for prime time.” The resulting best practices, as witnessed in the recent symposium on handheld devices at Tate Modern, have emphasized simplifying handheld applications and devices, in effect bringing them into line with traditional audio tours but adding a few visuals. Although a few of these devices may have individually failed as a result of poorly executed complexity, simplification as a broad solution is not the answer. If anything, the failure of these devices to find a voice in museums is because museums are, by and large, not taking full advantage of the capabilities of this new generation of multimedia devices.

Multimedia devices represent a break, a sea change, in both content and platform, from audio guides. That is to say, if one thinks of the evolution of mobile interpretive devices as a straight line from AM/FM devices through personal cassette players to the now-ubiquitous random-access mp3 players, multimedia guides do not represent the logical endpoint of that evolution, but rather a parallel and altogether different development. Multimedia guides bring with them a suite of opportunities and difficulties that only occasionally overlap with the opportunities and difficulties associated with audio guides. Although the technology has changed, the mindset that produces content for the technology has not.

UPDATE: The final version of the paper can be found at the Archives and Museum Informatics site.

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What’s the most important function of museums?

This video, which was posted by the Museum Association, was brought to my attention by the frequently-awesome New Curator blog. It asks a simple question–what is the most important function of museums?

New Curator’s answer to this question is “To provide meaning.” My wonky answer was “to provide a stage upon which a multiplicity of interactions can occur.” Feh. In the end, Jeffrey from the Mattress Factory had the best answer: “to provide more questions than answers.”

Although Jeffrey’s answer is clearly better than mine, I think we’re both talking about the same thing—museums can and should be a forum in which experiences of all kinds might take place. I don’t feel, however, that this is the conversation that is occurring in museums. Instead, museums are working hard to define themselves, often, in one of two ways: as a repository of “real” things, or as an aspirational/inspirational/educational experience. Ugh. Why do both of these all too common definitions (most of the responses in the video above break down into one or the other of these two answers) drive me nuts? Well, I’m glad you asked.

The museum-as-repository-of-real-stuff meme always feels false to me. It feels less like a statement of purpose, and more like a fall-back position. With other media outlets increasingly taking on much of the traditional function of museums, namely that of dispensing cultural information to the masses, museums have to feel threatened. Trying to stay relevant, they therefore retreat to the one thing that the Discovery Channel can’t offer—access to the actual objects. “Come visit the museum; it’s the only place you can see a Rembrandt up close! (P.S., don’t touch the art.)”

This line of thinking, therefore, tends to limit the range of “authentic” experiences one might have exclusively to those in which you are in the presence of the object itself. It also tends to devalue any other types of possible experiences. A breakthrough in understanding can happen anywhere; for a museum to focus its efforts on ensuring that those breakthroughs only occur inside its walls is suicide. Even for an institution as large as the Met, only a small percentage of our potential audience will ever be able to set foot in the building.

And, to continue in this crotchety vein, I’m not sure that museums-as-cathedrals-of-learning-and/or-inspiration is the right definition, either. The implication is that the stuff we have in our building is by definition good for you, and by experiencing it, you are a better/more educated person. The problem with that idea is that it devalues the art itself by implying it’s worth is merely as a means to an end (sort of like the whole “listening to Mozart makes you smarter” idea that was so popular a few years back). It also reinforces the idea that there is but one appropriate perspective from which to look at art. As long as museums cling to the idea that their opinion is the inherently right one, as opposed to one in a constellation of possible perspectives, they’re sunk.

I don’t mean to say that either of these ideas are necessarily bad–you should be able to go to a museum and see objects, to be inspired, to get edumacated. But to define any of these activities as the primary purpose of museums is to ensure that museums become less and less relevant over the next ten years.

The museum has to become a different type of entity, one in which the opportunity to see objects in real space, close up, is but one of many possible experiences. Museums have to get out of the business of being the organizers and curators of content, and into the business of providing as many content streams as possible. Put as much out there as possible, and leave to the public the business of finding meaning. It’s no longer a museum’s job to define which experiences are valid and which are invalid.

It comes down to how museums wish to define themselves. Are they waiting repositories of potential experiences, or are they custodians of objects and controllers of opinion?

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