Define your purpose or others will define you (and you may not like the results)

[A re-post, as the blogger outage seems to have eaten the first version. I’m incredibly grateful to Ben W. Brumfield @benwbrum for sending me a copy of the post from his RSS reader. I’ve set blogger up to email me a copy of posts in future so I won’t have to go diving into my Safari cache to try and retrieve a post again!]

There’s a lot of this going around as the arts and cultural heritage face on-going cuts: define yourself, or be defined, a search for a new business model that doesn’t injure the unbusinesslike values at the core of public cultural institutions. Mark Ravenhill in the Guardian, Global art: nice canapes, shame about the show:

Many of our UK institutions operate under a strange contradiction: most of the signals we give out suggest that we offer the international glamour, the pampering loveliness, the partnerships with banks and brands… But at the same time, we agonise about access: we want everyone to be let into the business lounge.

In a modern world that buys and sells information and luxury, the arts deal in something very different: wisdom, a complex, challenging, lifelong search that can make you happy and furious, discontented and questioning, elated or bored.

What we need now, more than ever, is a clear message about what we do and why we do it. The government has opted for swift deficit reduction and a good hack at the arts: it’s up to us to set the long-term agenda for the role of the arts in public life over the next decade and beyond if we’re not going to be cut, cut and cut again. Boom and bust are here to stay: capitalism will always be in a permanent state of crisis.

Nick Poole has also written on A New Way Forward for Museums, saying:

It is entirely possible to be commercially savvy, operate sharply and make sophisticated uses of licensing as an artefact of control all in the name of serving a public cultural purpose. Equally, it is possible to throw open the doors and make content universally accessible in the name of driving commercial value to the bottom-line. The cultural and commercial imperatives are not in opposition, but coexist along a spectrum of activity which runs from non-commercial, through non-transactional (things like brand equity and audience engagement) to strictly financially transactional.

If the financial future of museums lies in becoming commercially acute, then a key part of true sustainability will lie in recognising our place in the supply-chain of culture to consumers, and in truly understanding and embracing our core competence and their value.

…we need to recognise that focussing on our core competencies and using them to create cultural assets and experiences which we can monetise (and therefore sustain) in partnership with the private sector is a story of success and advantage, not failure or loss.

His post has some interesting suggestions, so do go read it (and comment).

Nick also describes a vision “of a world in which museums have renegotiated the social contract with the public so that people everywhere understand that museums are places where culture is made and celebrated, rather than preserved and hidden from view” – it’s easy, in my happy little bubble, to forget that many people don’t see the point of museums. Some I’ve talked to might make an allowance for the big national institutions, but won’t have any time for smaller or local museums. Working out how to deal with this might mean changing the public offer of these museums – or is it too late? There’s a silent cull of museums happening in the UK right now, and yet I don’t hear about big campaigns to save them. What do you think?

Thoughts towards the future of museums for #kulturwebb

Last week I was in Stockholm to give a talk on ‘Museum Crowdsourcing Games: Improving Collections Through Play (and some thoughts on re-inventing museums)‘.  Again, my thanks to @kajsahartig and @nordiskamuseet for the invitation to speak, and to all the lovely people I met for sharing their own stories with me, and for listening to a talk in English. The quote of the day came from @charlotteshj during a panel discussion on museums and innovation at the end of the day: digital museum collections should be ‘shareable, spreadable and nerd-friendly’.

Based on what I learnt about the audience I ended up including more explanatory material on museum crowdsourcing games and didn’t really have time for the ‘re-inventing museums’ bits, so I thought I’d share those notes here.  It’s still very much a work-in-progress but since there are so many smart people thinking about the same subject, it’s worth sharing for comment… (Also because Jasper Visser, who is also thinking about the future of museums, asked me what I was going to say. Btw, Jasper’s #kulturwebb talk inspired the whole room, watch the video on his post about it.)

I know the future of museums lies in fitting into people’s lives as well as being a destination; being the cathedral and being in the bazaar. Cultural heritage needs to be ‘out there’ to help people value and make time for visits the physical place.  It’s about new types of engagement and outreach. It’s not all digital, but as the world is networked and mobile and social, we should be too.

I was thinking about new metaphors for museums – what if we were Amazon? A local newspaper? A specialist version of Wikipedia? A local pub? A student blog? A festival, a series of lectures, or a film group? A pub quiz? Should a museum be at the heart of village life, a meeting place for art snobs, a drop-in centre, a café, a study space, a mobile showroom?

But I realised that the answer to the question of the future of museums is deeply personal to any museum, because museums exist in the intersection of their collections, their fans and their local audiences. This is good, because it means you can apply your existing knowledge about what your audiences love about you.  The answer to the question ‘what would your museum be if it was invented in 2011?’ is up to you…

Every time I approach the question of the future of museums, or of how the future of museums will be informed by what’s happening the world today, I seem to come at it from a different angle. Today I’m wondering about the implications of the fact that there are no (g-rated) offline activities anymore – people will do almost anything with their mobile in one hand, and could be doing anything from googling to find out more about the museum object in front of them to looking up the lyrics of that one-hit wonder from that summer they went camping with friends.  Their head could be in any space as well as in your space.

I’m also thinking about outreach, whether improving wikipedia articles, snippets of local history on the back of pub toilet doors or putting a museum exhibition in a truck and taking it to kids in the outer suburbs.  Tomorrow I’ll wake up with some new ‘what if?’ in my head. And I’m curious – what are you thinking about the future of museums?

Founding visions (and learning from the past for the future of museums)

I’ve got a few presentations coming up that explore a re-imagining of museums, so I’ve been thinking about the original founding visions of specific museums (based on e.g. What would a digital museum be like if there was never a physical museum?), and whether there’s dissonance between mission statements based in institutional history and those you might write if we were inventing museums today.

For an example of where my thoughts are wondering, check this out (from the excellent ‘Museums should not fear the art snobs‘):

…it was only with the emergence of aestheticism and competition from universities in the late 19th century that curators started making exhibitions for each other and for people of their class. Most earlier Victorian museums were educational institutions (not just institutions with education departments). In Britain, both the Liberal Henry Cole (founding Director of the V&A) and the Tory John Ruskin created museums that aimed to achieve the widest possible audience in the name of public education. The Met was founded “for the purpose…of encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and the application of arts to manufacture and practical life…and, to that end, of furnishing popular instruction.” In 1920, the Met’s president Robert de Forest wrote that it was “a public gallery for the use of all people, high and low, and even more for the low than for the high, for the high can find artistic inspiration in their own homes”.

So I’m curious, and if you’re up for it, I have a little task for you (yes, you, over there) – what was the founding statement for your museum, and what is your current mission statement? And if you’re feeling creative, what would you like your favourite museum’s mission statement to be?

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.]