Museums of the Future: Crowdsourcing Storms the Ivory Tower
Imagine the digital future of museums. A future where we can view art and objects in an immersive 3D environment, view and create exhibitions online and share visual playlists, like we share Spotify playlists today. The 3D “Avatar” of today could be the 3D MoMA of tomorrow.
In 2007, the Jeu de Paume, a contemporary art space in Paris presented, “L’Événement: les images comme acteurs de l’histoire” (The Event – images as actors of history). Using five major events, chronologically: the Crimean war, the invention of the aircraft, the advent of paid holidays, the fall of the Berlin wall and the attacks of September 11, the show questioned how images construct our perception of events and how history takes shape in the collective consciousness.
The section on 9/11 contrasted the “official” representation of the events with a more personal narrative in an installation of front pages of the world press the day after – all showing the same image – and a reconstruction of “Here is New York, a Democracy of Photographs”, a collection of photographs taken by civilians at the time of the attack and exhibited in 2002. The disconnect between the front page news and the personal photos was startling, the former illustrating the global impact of the attacks, the latter showing the immediate effects of the disaster, personal reactions and bereavements.
Three years on and new advances in technology are still changing the way events are reported and perceived, and challenging curators and museum directors to think about history in a more interactive way. The Jeu de Paume showcased collective visual manifestations of historical events with “L’Événement” in 2007. But how are collective visions going to be cemented in the twenty-tens, now everyone has a camera on their phone, a mobile internet device in their pocket and the freedom to upload and comment on everything all over the world wide web all the time? Far from making curators and editors of information redundant, the ever growing tide of user-generated content makes the curatorial role even more important.
Last week the New York Times ran an article on digital participation in museum projects, considering the various ways in which cultural institutions are engaging with the 2.0 generation. An interesting counterpoint to the Jeu de Paume’s installation of world media coverage of 9/11 is Make History, the online project which began in September 2009, inviting people to share their experiences of the 9/11 attacks. So far there are 292 stories and over 1000 photographs. This user-generated content will form the basis for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center, which is scheduled to open on the ground zero site in 2012.
The article also cites the Virtual Shtetl, an online project which is using Flickr and Facebook to gather content for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (also opening in 2012), and the Smithsonian’s Fill the Gap project – an initiative offering people the chance to make suggestions about which paintings they would like to see hung in the spaces left by works that are on loan. The piece asks “in a world in which anyone can add to a museum’s collection, how will curators — and audiences — cope with the potential limitlessness of user-generated material?” Good question.
This coincides with the launch of a joint project between the BBC and the British Museum: A History of the World in 100 Objects. The ambitious “history” is told through a series of 15 minute radio broadcasts (also available as podcasts) and an interactive website. The British Museum has received praise for its ambitious, wide-angle lens on world history. Despite the ambition however, the project has received little coverage outside of the UK. As one comment read in the Guardian, the project will “be world famous in the UK”.
At a local level, the project incorporates regional content and objects chosen by city councils from local museums around the UK. Unlike the international media, the local press is having a field day. “Mark Cheese Press Makes Somerset List” is the headline of This is the West Country, proud that the nineteenth century contraption has found its place in history. Fair play to the birth place of Cheddar cheese.
This is all very well, but there could be no end to these objects and their stories. As well as the chosen 100 objects, the website invites people to upload their own object – something which they believe “helps tell a history of our world”. Thus we find a camera phone, a Nintendo, a Parker pen, war memorabilia, documents, coins and medals, landmark brands and designs… the list is endless and the site slightly nausea-inducing with hundreds of objects hovering with intent in a suspended timeline.
The Make History site is similarly overwhelming in its scope, although, as the Times reports, curators of the project soon identified recurring themes in the pictures received and were able to introduce thematic sections which allow a combination of interactivity and curatorial authority.
There is a creative tension then, at the heart of these digital initiatives, between user-generated content and curatorial control. The Smithsonian’s Fill the Gap is an interesting case in point. Each “gap” has a Flickr page of comments, showing an active discussion between the Luce Foundation Center staff and the general public. Fill the Gap is, in theory, a ground-breaking way of tapping into online communities to the museum’s advantage. In reality, when asked about the successes and disappointments of the project, Georgina Goodlander, Interpretive Programs Manager, said the biggest disappointment was “that there aren’t more people joining in”.
But these are just the pioneers and teething problems are inevitable. Museum curators will be faced with the challenge of increasing volumes of information and these projects are indicators of exciting new ways of approaching history and innovative methods of participative curating. Who knows, with advances in digital media and 3D graphics we could all be curating our own virtual exhibitions before long.
Whether it’s objects, pictures or memories – all are important to the shaping of history, which appears to be less and less easy to mold in the digital age.
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