Article: Museums and technology: A Picture of Metamorphosis

Museums and technology: A Picture of Metamorphosis

by Pam Dixon


“Radical metamorphosis” is hardly a typical way to describe the rate of change within museums. Yet museums currently find themselves in the midst of rapid, sweeping alterations brought on by cultural and technological changes. The powerful currents of these changes are beginning to compel the usually cautious, reserved museum community to dramatically revise and update their institutions.

It is true that technology per se has been around in just about every century. Every age, after all, has its innovation. Museum administrators, like everyone else, have seen plenty of technology-based fads come and go. Rapid technical overturn has generally made museums hesitant to invest in the latest gadget, since that gadget may well be obsolete in a few years.

But every once in a while, an advance comes along that literally upends society and the very foundation of its communication habits and even thinking. The World Wide Web is that upending technology. For better or worse, today’s museums are pretty much stuck dealing with a new paradigm in communications and computing. Enter the catalyst for museums’ metamorphosis.

When the Web first hit public consciousness in late 1994, early 1995, it was enough for Web users to be able to go online and find basic museum information such as hours of operation, location, and current exhibits. Museums by and large, found it quite simple to launch a quick home page that acted as a sort of Web brochure. But the increasingly powerful community of Web users quickly grew to have more sophisticated expectations of the information they found online.

Major Internet statistic companies such as Cyber Dialogue have verified over and over again that Web users expect 24-hour access to deep stores of information, regular updates, and visual sophistication. With Web users reaching a critical mass of 70 million-plus, they are simply too big of a population to ignore.

The community of Web users’ fast-paced, deep information expectations creates a challenging climate for museums. “Web time,” the concept that time on the Web travels at about seven times the rate of normal time, translates to extremely rapid Web development. Museums, accustomed to a slower pace of change and growth, have generally been caught off guard.

Given the unexpectedly fast maturation of the Web sites, museums’ online questions quickly shifted from: “Should we go online?” to questions of how to create depth of content, quality, and contemporary-looking sites.

But transitioning from buildings of mortar and stone to virtual organizations isn’t an easy process. Other than the sheer technical hurdles, creating virtual museum spaces and networks raises huge issues that defy answers.

For a museum, going online with significant depth of information requires a lot more than simply slapping up a quick home page and a few links. As soon as a museum starts talking about deepening Web site content, issues like copyright, licensing fees, the physical task of photographing and scanning in thousands, even millions of artifacts, and creating databases to store the information and interface with the Web, come up.

So do serious content questions of how to integrate the real exhibits with the virtual, or online, exhibits, and that brings up staffing questions. Who does the work? An art expert, or a technology expert? And with what equipment?

Considering the tight budgets that museums often work with, the thought of financing massive technological infrastructure becomes overwhelming. Museums’ technology needs raise new and difficult questions. Should museums purchase tens of thousands of dollars of equipment that will be out of date in a few years, or should they rely on a series of grants and corporate partnerships to deal with keeping up with the fast pace of technical change? Should Web concerns and exhibits become a “line item” in a museum budget, or an expendable extra? And what about staffing issues? Should museums hire people just to take care of new technology needs, retrain staff, or contract out the work to people who may be unfamiliar with museums’ unique needs?

Museums are dealing with these and other technology-driven questions in a host of different ways. Some, like the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, have trained existing staff to handle technical matters and are actually digitizing their entire collection and placing the digital images online. Others are simply too overwhelmed to do anything at all.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Even as museums begin to grapple with basic computer-based Web technologies, new media artists are pushing hard at the edge of how the Web interfaces with museum spaces. If artists like Ken Goldberg are any indication (Goldberg created Memento Mori, a piece that ties the Web and other devices to output of seismic readings from the earth.), then there is every chance that museums can expect the art on the Web to literally, physically jump off the screen and interface with “real” spaces in phenomenal new ways.

In the very recent past, museums used to be thought of as primarily permanent physical spaces where an assortment of highly trained experts collected, stored, care for, and exhibited objects and artifacts. Due to the limitations of the physical display space, only a small portion, perhaps 1 to 10 percent, of a museum’s holdings could be seen by the public at any given time, and only during the stated hours of operation. Museums also used to be places where information was stored in physical files, or perhaps in a stand-alone database housed just at the museum. And of course, museums have traditionally been places of learning.

Museums still do all the things they used to do. But as of today, museums of every size and variety — from art museums to film museums to science museums to architectural museums — are taking steps to do even more. For most, this means plugging meaningfully into the Web, particularly for education programs. Some museums are also experimenting with using technologies like 3-D imaging and bringing in new media exhibits, that is, art created for or with the new technologies.

The range of progress among museums spans a wide spectrum. At the beginning end are most sole-proprietor museums. Due to funding and staff limitations, they are by and large just now inching toward the Web, and are just beginning to seriously consider digitizing their collections.

At the advanced end of the spectrum are larger museums with administrations supportive of new technology. Among that group there are major efforts to digitize part or all of museum collections, efforts to create a national museum event calendar, and Web site projects that meet educational and exhibition needs in very sophisticated ways.

Museum staff members are doing more, too. Museum experts who used to focus on conserving physical objects like paper and porcelain are now busy tinkering with new methods of capturing and digitizing visual information about the objects they care for. In-house staff members are by and large the ones taking masses of dusty card files and transferring the information into updated computer systems. In some museums, staff is also taking former stand-alone databases and networking the data with other museums’ catalogs for ease of exchanging information.

By and large, much to its credit, the museum community as a whole is doing more. The last year and a half has seen the first emergence of several large museum consortiums dedicated to testing and answering the questions raised by new technological capabilities. Finally, museums have come together to discuss just how it is that sending images over the Web will work out in all the details, which are many.

Museums are changing. They are rapidly moving toward a totally new communications environment where holdings, cataloging, exhibiting, and sharing information with the public and with other institutions is being is being looked at in completely new ways. The path is clear, but the outcome isn’t.

In 1575, Loys le Roy wrote in his essay, “The Excellency of this Age,” about a certain invention:

Besides the restoration of ancient learning, now almost complete, the invention of many fine new things, serving not only the needs but also the pleasure and adornment of life, has been reserved to this age. Among these, printing deserves to be put first, because of its excellence, utility and the subtlety of craftsmanship …. Thus more work is accomplished in one day than many diligent scribes could do in a year. On this account, books, formerly rare and dear, have become common and easy to procure. The invention has greatly aided the advancement of all disciplines.

In this age, digitization and the World Wide Web deserve to be put first among the invention of fine things. Works of art, formerly accessible primarily by those able to travel to exhibits, have become easy to visit in digital form from any computer with a connection to the Web. Surely, these virtual inventions will transform the way art is communicated to people, and will advance the knowledge and appreciation of all forms of art in ways no one is certain of yet.

Copyright Pam Dixon


PUBLICATION: COMMISSION FROM CALIFORNIA ARTS COMMISSSION. Publication in conjunction with Governor’s Conference on the Arts.