Friday, 3 December 2010

What would a digital museum be like if there was never a physical museum?

This is partly an experiment in live-blogging a conversation that's mostly happening on twitter - in trying to bridge the divide between conversation that anyone can jump into, and a sometimes intimidating comment box on an individual blog; and partly a chance to be brave about doing my thinking in public and posing a question before I've worked out my own answer...

I've been thinking about the question 'if physical museums were never invented, how would we have invented digital museums?' for a while (I was going to talk about this at GLAM-WIKI but decided not to subject people to a rambling thought piece exploring the question).  By this I don't mean a museum without objects, rather 'what if museums weren't conceived as central venues?'.  Today, in the spirit of avoiding a tricky bit of PHP I have to deal with on my day off, I tweeted: "Museums on the web, social media, apps - stories in your everyday life; visiting physical museum - special treat, experience space, objects?".  By understanding how the physical museum has shaped our thinking, can we come up with models that make the most of the strengths, and minimise the weaknesses, of digital and physical museums? How and where can people experience museum collections, objects, stories, knowledge? How would the phenomenology of a digital museum, a digital object, be experienced?

And what is a 'museum' anyway, if it's not represented by a building?  In another twitter conversation, I realised my definition is something like: museums are for collections of things and the knowledge around them.

Then a bit of explanation: "Previous tweet is part of me thinking re role of digital in museums; how to reconcile internal focus on physical with reach of digital etc" (the second part has a lot to do with a new gallery opening today at work, and casting my mind back to the opening of Who Am I? and Antenna in June).

Denver Art Museum's Koven J. Smith has been discussing similar questions: 'What things do museums do *exclusively* because of tradition? If you were building a museum from scratch, what would you do differently?'. My response was "a museum invented now would be conversational and authoritative - here's this thing, and here's why it's cool".

Other questions: Did the existence of the earlier model muddy our thinking?  How can we make online, mobile or app visitors as visible (and as important) as physical visitors?  (I never want to see another email talking about 'real [i.e. physical] and online' visitors).

So, what do you think?  And if you've come here from twitter, I'd be so thrilled if you bridged the divided and commented!  I'll also update with quotes from tweets but that'll probably be slower than commenting directly.

Anyway, I can see lots of comments coming in from twitter so I'm going to hit 'publish post' now...

[Update - as it turns out, 'live blogging' has mostly turned into me updating the post with clarifications, and continuing discussion in the comments. I find myself reluctant to re-contextualise people's tweets in a post, but maybe I'm just too sensitive about accidentally co-opting other people's voices/content.  If you want to share something on twitter rather than in a comment, I'm @mia_out.]


  1. Museums know much more about the digital visitor than the physical one (tracking of online activity is implicit, whereas tracking in the museum is rare/difficult and usually non-individual); it's therefore much easier to make the visit ultra-relevant to a digitally-interacting individual. What would be interesting would be to forget about the history of physical museums, picture this digital access as the core; and then ask: "if we could bring our digital visitors to a space with the actual objects, what would that add to their experience?".

  2. To jump in quickly (hi, I'm from Twitter, and also from across the Atlantic) and give perspective from another kind of cultural institution: we have very similar issues in libraries in thinking about our web presences, digital collections, online catalogues, etc. We've taken metaphors of physical organization and access and tried to map them onto digital spaces (our card catalogues, print books, newspaper and journal archives, etc).

    I hope this doesn't muddy the issue so much as point to it being a broader thing in cultural institutions.

  3. Couldn't the web just be construed as one massive digital archive? And surely then Google et al are the archivists and masters of relevancy. Is the digital museum purely an algorithm of relevance to requirements? As much as I hate to say that the algorithm, not content is king, it is pertinent to AlexM's point.

  4. Yay, thanks for your comments!

    I'm going to collate some comments from twitter and add my own comments in brackets: 'Cultural institutions try to digitally recreate physical collections, map inappropriate physical metaphors to digital spaces, etc.' [as expanded on in a comment above] 'at what point does a digital space merely become a repository for data that others can build virtual/digital constructs out of?' [Good question! Museum collections are often a manifestation of the collecting history of an institution as much as a targeted acquisition of objects around a particular subject or location - digital space allows us to tell stories regardless of the collecting mania of 18th, 19thC individuals, disregarding institutional boundaries] 'If anything the digital allows us to make many more intersections rather than linear stories as defined by physical space.' 'Surely everything in the past muddies our thinking. If you look at digital archives of music or otherws, it's all the same strctr.' [True - hopefully describing the influence of the physical models will help us make better models] 'Basic idea: more scope for person-specific' ... 'i.e. each visit can be tailored to suit a purpose, wish, whim, or visitor. Every visit different, potentially.'

  5. If making a pilgrimage to a museum wasn't an option, how might we expect to experience objects? What does it mean to be 'in the presence of' a digital thing?

    And is the distinction between the delivery channel - radio, tv, websites, mobile web, mobile apps, desktop apps, printed books, in-gallery multimedia, in-gallery cases, lecture halls, Oyster card holders, back of the cereal packet - more or less important than the format - something you listen to, something you read, something you watch, something you talk to/with?

  6. The idea of 'everyday/special' comes in here again maybe: the 'wonder' of a physical object in a museum might not just be about being in the presence of the object, but also about being in a quiet, well lit, reflective/appreciative environment in which to experience it. If a digital object is experienced as part of 'everyday' life, without these surrounding environmental and contextual elements, it probably leads to the typical 'not as good as seeing the real thing' response. But maybe if a digital version of the object could be viewed in a 'special' environment - taking time out, on a big screen, in reflective time etc. - it would approach the same experience as a physical museum space? This struck me when I viewed the AHOW objects on the web site whilst listening to the podcasts: in my own little 'bubble', they were probably the most evocative digital versions of objects I've seen.

  7. AlexM - well put! So while finding ways for people to engage with museum content and collections as they go about their daily lives is important, finding a way to create space for quiet reflection is another type of 'special treat' that we could create for our visitors.

  8. Here's an excerpt from our strategy where I've tried to articulate the difference between physical and digital visits - thought it might be useful to add to the debate:

    Because digital media is consumed in a vastly different way to a “real” museum visit, the consideration of what distinguishes the two is a vital aspect of our strategy.

    1. A museum visit is largely self-contained, whereas a digital visit is rarely exclusive to one website alone, demonstrated by the fact that a majority of our current website visitors originate from Google or a referring website.

    2. Where a digital visit may help facilitate (or in certain cases be an essential part of) a physical visit, the opposite is far less likely to be true.

    3. A museum visit is largely experiential and determined by physical setting and context; a digital visit’s setting and context cannot be pre-determined.

    4. In our museums we can manage what people see and the order in which they see it – we retain brand control; on the internet information about our museums and our collections can be consumed and discussed in any order, completely independent of contact with our organisation – brand control is relinquished.

    5. Authority and accuracy is assumed within the walls of a museum; in the digital world authority and accuracy is determined by a multitude of factors.

  9. Again I concur with AlexM.

    Part of visiting somewhere is as much about the place as it is a social experience, though in some cases, like the Tate Gaugain exhibition at the weekend "it ain't much fun!"

    I keep saying how much I hate museums, because of the crowds and the oft sterile environment in which they present artwork/objects, and how I can't wait for the future of 3D printing and being able to enjoy and touch and feel objects, more than merely look-but-don't-touch. Maybe this will be the way ahead.

  10. As your question infers history, it's worth thinking about where museums started, as collections in private houses, then in 'public houses' in cities and universities. As museums moved from domestic to civic/academic, albeit still promoting powerful people via their things, they became more utopian and the implicit or explicit narratives became more important. Museums are now at a pitch of grandiosity in this (e.g. in the Middle East), and so alternative museums & exhibits (e.g. People's Museum) and digital museums are springing up to counter this with a more participatory, demotic approach, one that admits fractured narratives. On the web, we construct meaning, using digital objects, in a much more rapid, topical, social and fluid way than is possible in 'author-curated' museum exhibitions, and also more than the heavier kind of TV programme. It's not so much about what kind of media the objects are (as museum exhibits can be entirely digital & a web presentation be entirely about a place). It's more about the organisational cultures around particular spaces that determine factors like disciplinary scope, topicality, relevance to different people & canonical reverence. (Sorry to use so many big words, must stop!)

  11. Vincent - I'm really put off by crowds and find myself avoiding exhibitions that push 'book tickets now' messages as I translate that into "you'll be pushed and buffeted and won't be able to see the art".

    Printing 3D objects takes us into a different discussion of 'the real'. I often have a sense that people who handle original objects in some sense 'bear witness' to the visceral materiality of the object - that if I've touched a Saxon glass bowl, or a Neolithic figurine, I have a direct connection with the people of the past who made, traded or handled it, and that in talking to me, someone else becomes part of that chain. So you can't get that from a printed 3D version, but on the other hand, you could use a bowl or a figurine as if they were everyday objects, no longer terrifyingly fragile and precious.

  12. Thanks Bridget! I love that you've drawn attention to the original intimate or personal nature of collections - they might have lived in household rooms and been part of everyday live - and that now we're able to bring objects back into everyday life, making them 'social objects', referenced in unrelated conversations, surprising us when we suddenly notice them again...

  13. I'm about to disappear to finish off that code - I'll keep approving comments but I'll try to resist replying until I'm done.

    Thanks Hugh for sharing part of your strategy document with us, it's really encouraging to see this being discussed at a strategic level.

    I've been working on teasing out the differences between digital content and experiences online and in gallery so I'm pasting some distinctions between gallery (Flash/Air) and web (HTML etc) that I wrote as part of the Antenna build/design:

    "each interface also needs to be appropriate to the medium. There are simple differences like a larger overhead (e.g. time for a page to load) for the user on going between webpages than between gallery screens, the type of pointer (touchscreen vs mouse and cursor), the ability to scroll easily, and there are also differences in user expectations created through use of other sites."

    A lot of the issues you raise relate to the differences between interactives in gallery - still quite a controlled experience, in a known context, with a guaranteed audience; and the web.

  14. Hi from twitter-land! Fascinating discussion. Love the cross-platform-ness of it :)
    I think the point of museums also need to be considered.
    If museum collections are for recording and collecting the past (I'm a history museum person) and then sharing those stories with the community there are lots of really interesting questions around what a digital collection could do.
    I'm working with Museums Australia (WA) here on a way of using a digital collection to 'collect' the important items of a community but not actually collecting the physical object. The digital object is in the collection permanently but the physical object is loaned for exhibitions. We're aiming for our first exhibition in May. So I will no doubt have more to say about this by then!

  15. Hi historianatwork, and thanks for your comment. I'd love to hear more about how your project negotiates the differences between digital and physical objects as you go - the concept of loaning an object doesn't have an equivalent in the digital world, which is probably something I was trying to explore in my Phar Lap post.

    And nice blog, btw!

  16. I am reminded of the story The Emperors New Clothes, when the I hear of totally digital museums.

    Further to that, I recall meeting a rather strange museum colleague at an ICOM conference many years ago who had a virtual museum that "existed only inside her head" ( or so she claimed.

    Even though I operate for a living in the digital world, I live my museum and their collections physical and real.

  17. I love what AlexM said about the on-site museum experience as a special one, because you're in the presence of actual objects and because the surroundings encourage you to reflect - to be aware of and open to the story and thingness of the objects. It's possible to create a uniquely digital, immersive experience, even on a laptop, even on a smart phone if you include an audio component! For example the iPhone apps Here It Is, and Yours, Vincent.

    But here's another take. A digital museum might be one based not important objects but on important, universal human experiences. For example, the Museum of Broken Relationships: http://www.museumofbrokenrelationships.
    There are objects but you don't need to be in their presence to be moved by what they represent.

  18. Hi Robin,

    thanks for your comment. I think one of the reasons I love working in museums with social history collections is the room they give for telling stories - something like the Museum of Broken Relationships is full of unique stories, but they have universal resonance. Btw, the link was broken, but I think it's

    cheers, Mia

  19. I've just come across another approach to the same question, 'Does a Museum Need Four Walls?'

    "When a financial crisis drove the decision to permanently close the Southern Oregon Historical Society’s general history museum, the board and staff were faced with a philosophical question: Does a museum need four walls? If our mission, which could be boiled down to “preservation and education,” remained unchanged, how could we continue to fulfill our mission without a physical building and permanent exhibits?

    The answer was History: Made By You, a community-centric traveling exhibit program. Meeting the community on their own turf, we host forums at which we lead discussions on issues of contemporary importance, crowdsource an exhibit topic, and then recruit volunteers to curate the exhibit hand-in-hand with our professional staff."

  20. And if you've found this post, you may also be interested in this... Ed Rodley has started what promises to be an interesting series of posts on 'Making a museum from scratch' that includes some discussion of the differences within collections...