Reflections, impressions, opinions

Worth a Thought

In June 2014, a conference titled We Are Museums was held in Warsaw. The event, directed towards young practitioners and researchers from Central Europe, was centred around digital media technologies in museology since its first edition the previous year. 

The initiative, originated and produced by Diane Drubay, under the banner of Buzzeum, a French interactive agency, is based on partnerships with local institutions, and has the intention of enriching a selection of current, universal tendencies with the national context of the hosting country.


This year’s edition was titled Let creativity open museums! This capacious slogan, which says a lot about the nature of the meeting, is not merely interested in experts’ discussion, but in popularizing digital technologies in the culture sector – technologies, which interestingly we still call “new” – through presentation of best practices and exchange of experiences, as well as the inspiration to act within the workshop. The lack of a precise watchword made it necessary to look for one’s own interpretation, which in the context of multiple points of view posed a challenge, and in the end was undoubtedly inspiring. Among the guests were representatives of world’s museum-giants who have elaborate departments of new media, smaller institutions, who are taking their first steps on the moon with their projects, as well as NGOs and companies who deal with providing know-how and communicational tools.
Andrew Lewis from the Victoria and Albert Museum, who opened the conference, determined the perspective of the meeting, pointing out the priority of putting informational excess and chaos in order; not only when designing new Internet functionalities but also the language of the institution. This simple diagnosis of a society after informational boom – which does not lose its power – is not as obvious in the field of culture. The chase after technological changes in the name of enthusiastic imitation without any critical analysis or selection, still dominates.

Andrew Lewis - Muzeum Wiktorii i Alberta (c)We Are Museums

The paradigm of over-optimism was also noticeable during the Warsaw meeting, where live appearances of the participants were shared second by second through social media with hashtags and selfies, in the name of the rule: you create your own brand by helping create ours. A stream thus created became an accurate illustration of the conference. The audience’s posts, were mostly an individualised reproduction (but still a reproduction) of information; discussion is not the issue here – it is redistribution. The access to channels became democratised, but experts remain content providers. It is important to have this kind of awareness in museums’ dialogue with the public, especially in social media, where one might succumb to the populist needs of fans by acquiring their language, which marginalises the institution’s mission as a centre of knowledge as well as its critical function.
The sensitivity of the issue can be further proven by polarisation of presentations by the invited guests. On the one hand we received a review of the latest online fads, which were transplanted to the field of museums. Among them, Agathe Lichtensztejn made an effort to describe the hottest trend of the last season – the museum selfie. This doctoral student at the University of Paris VIII has proven, that mass self-taken portraits with the most significant works of art as a background, result from a need to confirm the authenticity of the perceived world in its-here-and-now, and its “product”, hundreds of photos in the web, make a great opportunity for the gallery – as far as public image and research – the museum can get to know the faces of its audience.

Mar Dixon - Warsztaty (c)Sacha Bertmann @pARTcours

There is no way, however, of not asking a question about the actual possibility of experiencing a piece of art in a situation of narcissistic experience of oneself. Another issue is the utilitarian treatment of art, which as a result of a dangerous shift stopped being an experience and started to function as a trophy that one can hang over a digital mantelpiece. A visit to a museum becomes a contest, and becomes dangerously similar to hunting, as the most delicious bites for selfie-hunters are the ones that are hardest to obtain, with the Holy Grail – the Mona Lisa – in the lead, which is usually overrun with tourists. Such change in the reception model must retaliate against the museum’s culture as an institution, its brand, collection, and the shape of exposition. The omnipresence of such conquistador-like manners leads to the fact that a process of colonizing space takes place before our eyes – space designed as common and egalitarian – by a colourful but limited part of museum audiences.
The necessity of neutralizing this tendency was pointed out by Sarah Hromack from Whitney Museum of American Art. The author of undoubtedly the most problematic speech of the conference highlighted the increasing role of social media in creating an image of an institution as well as virtual visitors among all audiences of the cultural offer. But this phenomenon – instead of democratising – contributes to restoring the function of a shrine to the museum: a space for chosen ones; in this case a group, who gives a tone to our times by means of new technologies – well-off and perfectly assimilated young people. Therefore, when defining one’s audiences, one must start from investigating the relationship between audiences and society. The Web, where pictures force out text, becomes more and more passive. In a society that relies on watching and spying on others, it is more and more difficult to create a realistic human bond. This task is not made easier by the progressing commercialisation of websites, where making a message visible is often a miracle. Nonetheless, those external, common platforms, the field of never-ending battles for attention, are by necessity basic places of dialogue with a viewer, and museums, which try to take the challenge of adequate discourse. As a result, a dangerous division between the organic language of the institution and the one museums communicate with online, applying current slang, takes place. There is some deception in this schizophrenic phenomenon, a desperate drama of a drowning person and a dosage of self-aggression. A remedy, personally tested by Whitney – one of the most seasoned and polemical museums – is distancing the hyperactive lack of reflection by returning to natural language. This cannot be obtained, however, without entering into close dialogue with one’s own institution: curators, educators, and restorers.

Warsztaty (c)Sacha Bertmann @pARTcours

This less obvious part of participation – directed at audiences but not through an effort to make oneself similar to the masses, but creating a community based on respect for one another’s individuality – was also chosen by the Palace of Versailles. Their app enables the famous gardens to be visited with a guide, seeing some of the contemporary artists’ favourite places, as well as disparaging in the greenery of the gardens as seen from the perspective of an on-staff gardener. Without a doubt, the most common word of this year’s conference was storytelling understood as building the narration of an institution and inspiring visitors to spin their personal tales, which together create a new understanding of history.
New technologies might be helpful here, just like in case of stolpersteine. Munich has never been fully convinced by these famous “stumbling blocks”, built into European pavements by the famous German artist, Gunter Deming, as the local authorities feared being accused of walking over the memory of Holocaust victims. This meaningful gap in the country’s geography was finally overcome by the Partcours agency, due to a mobile app with virtual stones of memory. The majority of resources needed for its creation was obtained from the Munich municipality.

Warsztaty (c)Sacha Bertmann @pARTcours

Another stumbling block of the conference was a presentation by Seb Chan from the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. This New York institution, stuffed with robotic tour guides and systems for analysing visitors’ behaviour through tracing smartphones in their pockets, is a good illustration of the technological divide between the United States and Europe. It shows the magnitude of unfulfilled possibilities, but also brings to mind an ethical dilemma: is the transparency of the system enough of an alibi, to employ practices of constant and involuntary invigoration of the visitors? Certainly, implementing these common, every-day mechanisms through culture is quite risky. Another intriguing question is the relation of the original and the copy in a changing reality. The so-called digital-born objects are more and more popular and they pose a question whether the actual work of art, therefore museum exhibit, should be a programming code or a real, physical object? And more: can virtual galleries still be what we had considered them to be before – a mediocre copy – if in the face of technological development they are the only way of connecting with art?
These are the matters museology will try to address in future years. At the same time, the conference has proven that society needs to restore faith in viewers who can be attracted by the mere substance of art. The omnipresence of new media has reached a critical point, identity facades of hashtags and putting brands on projects from transmitters become object in themselves. Museums, instead of telling their own stories, also get caught being retold by pictures with no thought behind them. The most important conclusion of this year’s We Are Museums is the necessity for a critical review – not so much in relation to digital technologies but to the new viewer, collection, and the museum itself, as this change has imperceptibly already taken place.

Magdalena Link-Lenczowska

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Dziubińska