Thursday, 12 March 2020

Preface for "The Digital Future of Museums: Conversations and Provocations"

I was very touched, and honoured, to be invited by Suse Anderson and Keir Winesmith last year to write a preface for their book The Digital Future of Museums: Conversations and Provocations (Routledge, 2020).


Keir and Suse are two of my favourite Australians, two of my favourite Australian - American (and in Keir's case, back in Australia again) transplants, two of my favourite digital museum people, and two of my valued friends formed through years of association with the National Digital Forum. I've benefited for more than a decade now from their incredible generosity of thought, and the way they take a show-your-workings approach to going about their research and mahi, opening that up for all interested people.

The Digital Future of Museums: Conversations and Provocations is made up of facilitated conversations between pairs of thinkers and (mostly museum) practitioners. Starting from the swathing changes wrought by the widespread adoption of digital technology in society and in museums, as the blurb states, the book "offers provocations and reflections about effective practice that will help prepare today’s museums for tomorrow, culminating in a set of competing possible visions for the future of the museum sector."

The book includes 12 conversations, between people including Seph Rodney & Robert J. Stein, LaToya Devezin & Barbara Makuati-Afitu, Shelley Bernstein & Seb Chan, and Tony Butler & Lori Fogarty. Throughout, Suse and Keir add their own prompts, and two pieces that frame the conversations.

I've read the whole thing, and it is illuminating, personalised, striking in its cultural differences, and powerful in its quality of thinking. I couldn't recommend it to you more.

Preface to The Digital Future of Museums: Conversations and Provocations

The distinguishing characteristic of the people leading practice in the development of 'digital' in museums is, I believe, that they are given to both action and theory, with a healthy side in activism. Many other industries and occupations combine a strong theoretical aspect with hands-on practice, but I see something unique in the way people who work on the web create, theorise, and connect, perhaps because the mechanism we connect through is also the stuff we create with.

The Digital Future of Museums: Conversations and Provocations is, for me, a book about thinking. It's a book that brings into conversation a group of thinkers who characteristically do their thinking in public. The body of knowledge captured in these conversations has grown largely through the mechanisms of conferences, blogs and social media; indeed, it is through these channels that Keir Winesmith and Suse Anderson first encountered many of the contributors. As Seb Chan observes in his conversation with Shelley Bernstein, when Keir asks why both have such a commitment to working "in the open":
For me it's about working in public. I grew up with the web, and this notion of ‘viewing source code’ has infused my philosophy around lots of things. That we all get better if we share information, and we bring the other generations along with us. And it is about transparency and openness as a differentiator, too. I found that early on at Powerhouse. It was a way of creating an international network of peers and peer institutions that we could bounce ideas off and share information with.
Research, experimentation, documentation and reflection: by talking not only about what they are doing, but how and why they are doing it, and what they have learned from doing it - at an unprecedented volume, unhampered by the publishing schedules or peer review of academic journals - these thinkers have shaped the discourse around museums in a new, powerful and rapid way. Moreover, this discourse has been shaped by interactivity from the outset: blogs were made to be commented on and hyperlinked; wikis to be edited; social media posts to be shared and replied to. This is one of the reasons the interview format adopted in The Digital Future of Museums serves its contributors and its readers so well: it supports the collaborative development of ideas fostered by the best online engagements, as well as humour, respectful disagreement, and new insights.

This ethos of thinking in public is fueled by tremendous generosity, another characteristic of this community. It is also an approach that takes advantage of the democratising effects of the internet. In this new paradigm it's not the brand name of the institution you're affiliated to but the quality of your contribution that matters. As Seb also observes, this has been particularly important for those of us working in or alongside cultural institutions beyond the traditional centres of power and attention. In the first wave of museum/digital practice, it was the voices of those people working outside the dominant centres of geographical and institutional power that had new power to be heard. Today, it's voices from beyond the dominant cultures - communities that have traditionally been marginalised, silenced or spoken for by the museum - that are at the forefront of changing museum practice.

The Digital Future of Museums is also a book about museums as generators and conduits of thinking. Seph Rodney identifies in his conversation with Robert Stein that museums play an important role in "having us think about our thinking, publicly". Museums reflect and shape the perspectives of nations, societies, communities and individuals about their histories, their cultures, their politics, biases, and view of the future. By driving a museum's intellectual agenda funders, management, and staff create the stories and imagery that inform (or confirm, or challenge) how a society thinks about itself. This is why museums are not, and can never be, neutral. It is also why they are such exciting and meaningful - and occasionally hazardous - places to work.

I first encountered Seph’s writing in 2016, in a piece he wrote for Hyperallergic, based on his PhD research. In the essay, Seph traces a progression in museums from the late 19th century paradigm of the specialist collecting institution, to the post-Second World War paradigm of the educational institution, to the 21st century paradigm of the visitor-centred museum. In the contemporary context, personalisation has succeeded education. The visitor is no longer seen by the museum as an incidental beneficiary of its core focus on collecting and categorisation, no longer viewed as a passive recipient of authoritative curatorial knowledge, but invited to be an active participant, making their own meaning from the museum's offerings.

Seph attributes the change over the past 25 years to an intertwined set of economic, social, political and museological changes. The emergence of the new museology has placed the visitor at the centre of museum practice; cultural policies (largely in countries where museums are publicly funded) have pushed museums towards new success measures based around access and economic contribution; and the rise of the experience economy has led to the creation of museum experiences designed for consumption, according to the user/visitor's needs and desires. This framework provides a thought-provoking context in which to locate the 13 discussions that make up The Digital Future of Museums. The concerns of people leading digital change in our museums far exceed questions of what file format to use, or whether it's AR or VR we should bank on for visitor appeal. Within these conversations, we can see leading thinkers analysing in real time some of the greatest limitations and opportunities that museums as social structures and services are working through today.

Throughout the conversations, you'll notice contributors offering different versions of a similar refrain: digital isn't a technology, it's a way of working; digital isn't a technology, it's a language; digital isn't special, it's just what is. This refrain brings us to the heart of this book: the fruitful, fascinating, and fast-paced ways in which the development of contemporary digital technology has interfaced with contemporary museum thinking.

Like the earliest iteration of the museum, the internet was initially a research tool used by specialists and those with privileged access to (computing) power. When Tim Berners-Lee began development of the World Wide Web in 1989, his goal was to make the internet "a collaborative medium, a place where we can all meet and read and write".  With the launch of the Mosaic web browser in 1993, the internet went mainstream: now, anyone with an internet connection could 'surf' this massive new global resource for information and entertainment. At this point however, publishing power was still limited: the means of creating and consuming content were separated. The web, in some ways, was in the second museum paradigm: a place where those with access to the tools of publishing fed content and knowledge to those who primarily consumed without contributing back. We can map the beginnings of digitised collections to this moment, and the new ability for all museums to think massively beyond their local remit into global reach.

It was at the turn of the 21st century, with the rise of blogging and wiki platforms and the integration of publishing tools into the medium, that Berners-Lee's vision was fulfilled: the web as a two-way system, where 'ordinary' people could contribute content as easily as they accessed it. This was the read/write web: a medium capable of being displayed (read) and also modified (write). The congruence here between the new affordances of the web and the new approaches to exhibition and experience design fascinate me; all fed by people's growing expectations that their experiences and opinions warrant recognition and sharing.

In 2005 Tim O'Reilly published 'What is Web 2.0', an analysis of design patterns and business models that he saw underlying the companies that had survived the 2001 dot-com bubble burst.  The codification of Web 2.0 highlighted collaborative services, "harnessing the collective intelligence", and the power of user-generated content. This was the age of Wikipedia and Flickr; of folksonomies and tagging; of RSS and viral marketing. It's when Time magazine made its 2006 Person of the Year You, recognising the millions of individuals who were now populating the web's content, and when ideas of co-creation, co-curation and community participation went mainstream in museums.

Writing in 2017, technology commentator Alexis Madrigal observed that "Web 2.0 was not just a temporal description, but an ethos".  It was a picture of the truly open web; an almost Utopian vision of humankind working together for global betterment. "But then", writes Madrigal,
in June of 2007, the iPhone came out. Thirteen months later, Apple’s App Store debuted. Suddenly, the most expedient and enjoyable way to do something was often tapping an individual icon on a screen. As smartphones took off, the amount of time that people spent on the truly open web began to dwindle. ... The great cathedrals of that time, nearly impossible projects like Wikipedia that worked and worked well, have all stagnated. 
Madrigal's analysis matches with a feeling I developed in 2015, as I toured around museums in seven American states studying digitally-enhanced visitor experiences.  Overall, as I visited the museums leading in this space, I observed a move away from projects focused on global audiences, and a move towards personalised experiences delivered via smartphones and customised devices available onsite at the museum. While these new experiences were often rich, subtle and playful – and designed to collect information that helped institution learn more about the behaviour and motivations of physical visitors – this shift in focus from global to local seemed to be paired with a reduction in sector-wide, collaborative endeavours. I asked myself at the time if this was a natural consequence of digital leaders’ roving curiosity: that the opportunities of collaborative platforms, APIs, metadata sharing and so on had been thoroughly explored, and new ground opened up for exploration. I also quietly questioned whether museum leadership and external funders had abandoned the altruism encouraged by the open web environment, and were now more inclined to support projects where the benefits could be firmly located within the museum’s walls.

Today, the ground has shifted again. As Adriel Luis observes in his conversation with Sarah Brin, over this intervening period "museum conferences everywhere have gravitated towards the theme of social change". The sector is asking itself hard questions about impact, social change and social justice. Within this questioning, there is a growing awareness that in their efforts to decolonise themselves - to cast off their colonialist and imperialist origins - museums may fall into perpetuating a form of neo-colonialism, often in the attempt to fulfil the vision of universal knowledge they were founded upon.

Sarah Kenderdine touches on the tension between the value museums place on access to heritage and knowledge and the growing understanding of the prejudice of this attitude in her conversation with Merete Sanderhoff. Talking about the creation of high-resolution digital facsimiles of heritage objects, she notes:
Critics look at this as a kind of massive cultural appropriation or neo-colonialism that the digital has unleashed in the documentation of other cultures, under a banner of heritage at risk. It's an extraordinary moment. It's not like iconoclasm is new, but now it's in the public domain. We are able to create phenomenal amounts of digital data, but it does come with this overtone of neo-colonialism.
The same point is raised in a response signed by over 100 scholars and practitioners in intellectual property law and material and digital cultural heritage to the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report, which recommended to the French government the restitution of African material culture from French museums to colonised countries. The response challenges the report's recommendation that all items identified for return should be systematically digitised and made available online, arguing that "the report’s recommendations, if followed, risk placing the French government in a position of returning Africa’s Material Cultural Heritage while retaining control over the generation, presentation, and stewardship of Africa’s digital cultural heritage for decades to come."

As we look to the future then, I recommend one particular chapter in this book to all readers. The conversation between LaToya Devezin and Barbara Makuati-Afitu shows, in applied practice, ways of working that could and should form the culture of museums of the future. LaToya, in her discussion of working with African American and other communities, describes a post-custodial model of museum and archival practice, where emphasis is placed not on the physical housing of the object, but the preservation of a community's culture and stories: of the institution being of service. Barbara, when asked what is required for institutions to respect and protect the stories and knowledge communities chose to share with them, replies, "It's someone fully understanding culturally and spiritually the sacredness of that knowledge that isn't ours, that isn't mine, and wanting to know how we can help - using different platforms - to ensure its safety." And when asked at the conclusion of the conversation what museums may look like in 20 years' time if they follow these practices, LaToya concludes:
We're going to have a more multidimensional viewpoint of history, and I think we can really affect social change. We'll have more diversity within our staffs, and a more enriching experience as a whole. I feel like our space will be more transformative over time, and that we can grow with each other, and maybe it will give us the space to have some of those difficult conversations to be able to foster change. If we all could participate in conversations like the conversation that we're having now, I can see it being such a beautiful and wonderful process.
The beauty of this book is being invited into these conversations in this moment. On behalf of all its readers in the future, I give my thanks to the generosity of all those who gave of their time and knowledge to create it for us.