Technology: The Catalyst for Change in the Future of Museums - by Robert Stein
While I was never very good at chemistry in my university classes, the magic behind the science has always held a special allure for me. Like the alchemists of ages past, I’m fascinated when combining ingredients in just the right way can yield a reaction that changes the very nature of those elemental components.
Sometimes gradual and quiet, sometimes dramatic and explosive, these reactions serve as a useful metaphor for the changes in museums that occur as they connect with their community and the shifting cultural and economic environments they exist in.
In chemistry, certain reactions require the addition of a catalyst before any such magical transformation can begin. These catalysts can change a staticcombination of elements into a bubbling reaction that changes what was there before into something new. By extending this metaphor to museums, we can see that rapid changes in our technology-mediated culture have catalyzed dramatic shifts in museums during the past decade.
Recently, an interesting phenomenon has been taking place in museum technology circles. Conversations online and at conferences that were previously dominated by the pragmatic technical issues facing museums have been replaced by a series of discussions regarding many of the foundational challenges faced by museums today. Nuanced critical examinations about the identity of museums, their roles in society, responsibilities to serve a global public, issues of preservation, education, scholarship, primary research, and ethics have matured to the point that those same discussions are beginning to influence the strategic underpinnings of museums across the world.
What’s going on here? While many museums continue to struggle with the day-to-day needs of operating a public institution, and rarely discuss the theoretical and philosophical issues of the field, those discussions are beginning to gain prevalence and traction among a tight-knit community of museum professionals who are at home within the technical landscape of the web and social media. This is not to say that those discussions don’t occur in other professional communities and in museums, but rather that their presence in technology circles is frequently met with surprise.
Strengths of the Museum Technology Community
In pondering why such changes have occurred in a relatively short period of time, there are a few interesting observations to be made.
Those museum professionals that affiliate themselves in technology circles are a diverse bunch. Many are trained in any number of disciplines, but have found themselves working in museums with technology and the web. In addition to formally trained technology staff, the community consists of exhibition designers, historians, filmmakers, and educators to name just a few. The only defining factor of the group is that they have come to embrace the value of technical approaches to solve key problems within their practice in museums.
This diverse collection of professional expertise has created a highly inclusive community that embraces challenging debate. The lack of a well-defined professional path has resulted in an egalitarian embrace of new professionals and new opinions. As a result the community has developed a highly collaborative nature that makes it easy to cultivate extensive professional networks and to harvest the best ideas from a broad sampling of museums. Given the diversity of the cohort, the resulting collaborations are inherently multi-disciplinary and easily cross the professional silos that so easily stymie the internal operations of many museums.
With respected and long-standing professional organizations in the US and UK in addition to well established venues for presentation, the museum technology community has developed a pattern of documenting its progress in a body of literature and in lectures and presentations. An ethos of shared outcomes and best practices is common and likely results from a similar open-source and open-content mindset prevalent in the larger technology field. As such, a wide variety of tools and techniques are easily adopted and repurposed by others in the field thus shortening the development time of projects and increasing the likelihood of success.
Given the ephemeral nature of technology, the tech community has become accustomed to a quick pace of change and is predisposed to think strategically several steps ahead in order to meet their goals along a shifting technology curve.
Riding the spin cycle of technology
This fast pace of technical change in museums has some interesting side-effects and when coupled with the aforementioned strengths of a diverse professional community is leading to foundational changes in museums. Since the late 1960’s, Moore’s law has famously predicted that the technical capacity of computers effectively doubles every 18 months. Recent studies indicate that the pace of software innovation exceeds even that aggressive prediction. The result for museums is that the time-cycle of technology projects is necessarily short and highly iterative. This short incubation period is a key reason why the museum technology community is emerging as a place with innovative ideas for the future of museums.
With a short turn around time on projects, the up-front investment on the part of museums can be relatively small when compared to the classic large-scale exhibition, acquisition, and capital expansion projects typically faced by museums. Since technology projects are generally considered “new” and “innovative”, some amount of risk is tolerated by museum administrations in undertaking these projects to begin with. For some, this risk is simply too much and they therefore don’t participate in many such projects, but for others, technical experimentation offers a potential return on investment that’s worth it.
While exhibitions in museums might be planned over the course of many years, most technology projects can be planned and executed within a matter of months or even weeks. The take-away is that technologists in museums may churn through three times as many project life-cycles in the same amount of time that other museum staff may spend on one exhibition, publication, or capital expansion project. This repetitive iteration leads to more learning opportunities and chances to hone skills, thinking, and strategic planning. As in many things, practice makes perfect, and experiencing the complete start-to-completion of a project is an invaluable professional asset that the museum technology community has been leveraging for several decades now.
Technologists and the Future of Museums
The techno-fetish of today’s cultural audiences is unavoidable. While many museums wish for a puritanical simplicity of experience in the galleries, supposing that their audiences will appreciate a retreat from technology overload, the truth lies somewhere in-between. It’s clear that contemporary culture is increasingly embracing a participatory mindset that expects to rate, review, comment, and share thoughts and opinions in the moment. Collecting, remixing, and modifying media and information in an every-connected tether to friends and family, the audiences of museums will continue to surf the crest of the technology wave.
As global access to online information continues to explode and the growth of the professional class in Asia inevitably exceeds that of the West, the importance of online access to museum collections and content is paramount. Increasingly, audiences of museums will experience their collections from a cell-phone or tablet computer a continent away from their physical home.
Into this landscape, technologists will become more and more necessary to museums of the future. Today, few technologists are represented at the senior management level of museums around the world and while the trends regarding the influence of technology on contemporary culture show no signs of letting up, many museums are missing out on critical input and energy from a vibrant technology community. With a potential crisis in museum leadership looming as more and more museum directors age towards retirement, now is the time to embrace the potential of technologists as valuable assets to the leadership of museums. They can represent an important addition of skill and insight into a challenging environment that museums will continue to face as cultural audiences evolve into the future .
Robert J. Stein - Deputy Director, Dallas Museum of Art