At what cost?

Is the increased use of commercial digital solutions proving to have unintended consequences for the museum sector? February 12, 2019

This article originally appeared in Museum, January-February 2019, a publication of the American Alliance of Museums.

The nature of the technology that runs museums is changing. This isn’t a surprise—the only thing constant about technology in any context is its constant evolution. At museums, technologists once built solutions largely from scratch; now they implement and manage commercial technology. This technology supports a range of museum functions: Wordpress to run the website, Medium to run the blog, Amazon to host images, and so on.

Museums can do more, and faster, with this technology, but there’s a trade-off. Museums are now in a highly leveraged position: much of their own programming and daily operations are largely at the mercy of these software companies.

In recent years, the problem at the core of this arrangement has been thrown into higher relief as commercial software companies have come under increased public scrutiny. It has become clear that the stated values of these companies (connecting people, sharing ideas) often have little to do with the actual values embodied in their products (monetizing user data, invading privacy, enabling harassment, and so on). This means that the values and principles inherent in the technology itself are diverging sharply from the values of the museums using it. It is therefore time for a reckoning: we must now address not just the practical considerations of the technology we use, but also its moral and ethical implications. If we don’t, we risk compromising the values of the museums we serve.

The early days

Much early museum technology, from collections management systems to early museum websites, was created directly from specific museum needs. That technology therefore embodied the values of the museums that created it: accessibility and persistence of content, transparency of methods, cooperation between institutions, respect for and support of visitor needs, and a deliberate (if not always liberal) approach to rights management. These values were, for the most part, in line with museums’ missions.

In the mid-2000s, all of that bespoke museum technology began to give way to commercial technology. With that shift came a certain ethical murkiness, founded on our willingness to not question the values of the commercial vendors we partnered with. We mostly ignored the implications of these partnerships, believing in the promise of the internet as articulated by its early (mostly libertarian) founders. That promise went something like this: because the internet is the venue for a new type of consciousness, everyone participating in it (which at that time was still a relatively small sliver of the population) would embody that consciousness. It was a short leap from “information wants to be free” to our own work.

Fast forward to the present day. If the idea of a “new consciousness” didn’t seem laughable before, the behavior of major tech companies over the last several years—lax data privacy, tolerance of harassment, and more—has definitely put that idea to rest.

The problem is that most of the tech in use at museums is now built by someone else. We no longer articulate our principles through technology; instead we inherit them via terms of service. As a result, museum technology now offers a fragile patchwork of often conflicting principles. We accept some user tracking on our website, but not on our mobile app. Our blog is accessible, but not our online collections. We perform intrusive tracking of some museum visitors, but not others.

At what cost?

For many years I argued that the increased performance outweighed the downsides of these outside principles. I’m no longer confident that’s the case. The work we do is in the public trust, but how much of that trust is compromised by the tools we’re using? And how much of that compromise have we avoided addressing because the tools work so well?

There’s no better illustration of the complex bargain museums make with commercial technology than the Google Art Project . One of the holy grails of early museum technology was the idea that the internet would digitally unite the museum collections of the world; from a single interface, you’d be able to search for and retrieve information about any object from any collection. To varying degrees, a host of projects that originated in the GLAM space tried to make this notion a reality: the Open Archives Initiative , the Art Museum Image Consortium , Linked Open Data for Libraries, Archives and Museums , and more.

And then the Google Art Project came along, making the same promise: the world’s collections in one convenient search box! It fulfilled that promise in a way that made it easy for museums to participate (those that were lucky enough to be invited, that is). It looked gorgeous to boot.

It also killed off most of the aggregate collections efforts almost overnight.

It was suddenly difficult to justify spending time on collections aggregation once Google “solved” that problem. So, outside of a handful of still-promising linked open data projects , museum technologists are not working on collections aggregation anymore.

Pragmatically, this is not a big deal. While many of the museum-based aggregate collections projects remained in either notional or beta stages for years, the Google Art Project actually exists. It works as advertised, it is backed by Google’s marketing power, and it’s relatively painless to use. It has allowed us to move on to other things.

But from a values standpoint, the Google Art Project is a stunning giveaway of authority, expertise, and raw content to an organization whose end game for our content remains an open question. Does anyone think that Google would think twice about killing off the Art Project if it threatened the company’s bottom line or public perception? If it did, what little infrastructure for aggregated museum collections does exist would literally disappear overnight. We also don’t know what user tracking or targeting is being done, and the ownership and re-use of material submitted to the project remains murky at best. Will Google assert its right to run ads alongside the works of art?

How much control over what should be a key piece of our collective content infrastructure did we voluntarily give up in return for little more than the promise of increased website traffic?

To its credit, the Google Arts and Culture team has worked with the partner museums in a sincere and generous manner. But its values are not museum values—and neither are Facebook’s or Twitter’s. How many museums subject their visitors to who knows what surveillance or worse because they’ve decided it’s easier to post events exclusively on Facebook?

What’s Next?

I don’t mean to imply that we should go back to building everything ourselves. I don’t think that is desirable or even remotely realistic. I do think we should return to those first principles from the early days of museum tech and apply them to all the tech we use, not just the tech we make ourselves. I don’t ever want to apologize to a museum visitor for being targeted by annoying ads simply because I like the way our email list software formats captions.

As a museum technologist, I’ve always incorporated the principles and the values of the museums I’ve worked for into my work. I have thought of myself as a builder and creative first and an ethicist second. Those days are coming to a close. Today, I’m building less, and that makes understanding the implications of the tech I’m using that much more critical. All of us in museum technology need to widen our scope beyond just caring about the practicality and utility of the tech we use and address head-on the ethical dimensions of these tools.

Special thanks to Greg Albers, Douglas Hegley, Andrea Montiel de Shuman, Jennifer Foley, and nikhil trivedi for their help focusing several of the ideas in this post.

Of possible further interest: