Last night I attended one of the meetings about the integration of the Museum of Contemporary Craft and Pacific Northwest College Craft (PNCA). It was an interesting discussion because it was an honest look at how museums and university galleries are addressing the changing needs of their respective audiences. It is revealing that most museums and galleries now find themselves asking fundamental questions about their existence such as asking what do people want out of the experience of going to a museum? Or what is the best way for museums to leverage their expertise in a changing and dynamic society? In other words, how does a museum stay relevant?
For previous generations, the answers to these questions were seen to be self evident and it was understood that museums were depositories for material culture, forever. As technology and the audience changes, these assumptions are being challenged. The world is changing and museums are being forced to change along with it. It is a time of both tremendous opportunity and great difficulty. The result is that there is a lot of responsibility in these discussions; I mean how often is a generation of people given the opportunity to redefine their profession?
It is time to explore the DNA of the museum if you will. The transformation in some way reminds me of the way that librarians have redefined themselves over the last 15 years. Fifteen years ago, it was thought to be obvious that a library is about books. Today, I think that we would place a slightly different emphasis and say that a library is about information. The role of the librarian has also evolved from being the caretaker of books to being facilitators of information no matter what the medium. Sometimes that information might be in the form of books but it might also be on the internet, on audio cds, dvd or even magazines. Librarians find that it is their role to assist the user in finding the information no matter where it is located. They are navigators and not necessarily creaters of the user's experience.
One of the interesting things about the library analogy is that it is about a one to one experience. Ideally, the resources of the library are put in an order that would be most useful or understandable to a specific user. Even more interesting, when the next individual comes along with a different question the resources of the library are again rearranged in response to the new question. The library exists as a physical institution but also as a series of interconnecting relationships that ideally change to suit the needs of each user.
I wonder if a similar transformation is in store for museums and curators. One of the amazing things about museum is that over 95% collection (it actually might be even higher) is in storage and away from public view. In a way, society has demanded this responsibility of museums. The downside is that storage for forever is difficult to maintain, expensive, mostly inaccessible and the museums never know if they are storing things that will be incredibly valuable or useless to the next generation.
Museums often see themselves as an encyclopedia of objects and artists. This would imply that being in a museum would be a very efficient way for a user to find a lot of information about a wide variety of subjects. I would agree except that at certain level, we generally do not spend hours reading an encyclopedia. We go there for what we need and move on. Reading an encyclopedia is fundamentally different than the personal experience of reading a book by single author.
To continue the library analogy, what if the every time that you went into the library there were only 100 titles that were selected by the librarian. Those titles might not even be individual books but only chapters of books. Sometimes those chapters are more helpful or more useful than others but it is an inherently fragmented experience. It is fragmented in the same way that reading the encyclopedia is fragmented. Encyclopedias are best used in response to a single question because otherwise the topics that are sequentially ordered and are right next to each other in the encyclopedia often do not relate to one another when read in a linear way.
I believe that we look at art in the same way that we read, one thing at a time. Artists make one thing at a time (mostly) in the same way that writers write one thing at a time (again, mostly). When we are watching a movie, especially in a movie theater, we do not watch all 12 screens of all of the movies at the same time. When we listen to music, we may listen to one song or one album but we the choice to move on is made by the equivalent of the librarian or radio station DJ. The experience of the work is tailored to fit the interests, aesthetic and experience of the user. There is always some give and take but every user is an expert in the way they want to send and receive information or share experience.
I wonder if the future of museums will be about putting the power of the curator in the hands of every user in the same way that we can manage the resources of the library to suit our own individual needs. This would allow each user to define what they want and need the museum to be. I think that this would be more of a technological issue because I am not advocating allowing every user to handle the work but I am saying that every work should be accessible to every user in some way. Just as we can choose to assemble and collect the books that are most interesting to us, shouldn't we be able to do the same thing with art?
Far from replacing professional curators, I think that this only makes the curators more valuable. Because each individual is more invested in their own experience of the museum, curators are in a unique position to provide perspective and make the connections between works. If you are interested in Picasso, you should really take a look at Matisse and Cezanne as well to have a deeper understanding of some of the issues that Picasso was working on. The curator's own research would be more valuable than ever because they would be generating a unique perspective to view the work but it would be one way of experiencing the work and not the only way to see the work. Allowing the users to define their experience is a different model than allowing the resources of the museums to be available to the public only through curated shows or endless displays of the permanent collection.
I suppose the acid test of this analogy would be what percentage of the works on display would either be viewed or described as useful to any particular observer? I would not even make an attempt to answer but I will suggest that percentage is most likely somewhere below 50%. What if each user could be given the choice of evaluating the relevance of the work to their experience and share that with their friends? That is a simple way of customizing the museum experience. How could a movie theater stay in business if it only should movies that it thought you should see rather than the movies that you wanted to see? I do not think that museums need to be everything to everybody. First, I think that is impossible and the greatest strength of the museum is making work available to users that would be otherwise impossible. Still, the experience of the museum should be tailored to the needs and interests of each user.
This would allow the museum to reach a full spectrum of users. To use a sports analogy, it would be like being able to work with an individual user all the way from Little League to the World Series. Even better, maybe even the museum could tailor itself to what each user wants to make of their experience. If you wanted to concentrate on hitting one day and fielding the next. Fine. The program is adapted to the user.
At a subtler level, rather than generalizing the users of the museums, I have made each user more specific and put more resources at their disposal so that they can define their own experience. Each individual user is recognized as being a unique and important. It is a shift in emphasis away from the history and authority of the institution and more about providing a tool for each user. At the same time, if the museum is going to be useful to the public, it should be supported by the public in the same way that libraries are, by taxes. Any other model tends to be deeply problematic. If museums are inherently about the experience of art, then the experience should be placed in the hands of the experts, the users themselves.
"I wonder if the future of museums will be about putting the power of the curator in the hands of every user in the same way that we can manage the resources of the library to suit our own individual needs. This would allow each user to define what they want and need the museum to be. I think that this would be more of a technological issue because I am not advocating allowing every user to handle the work but I am saying that every work should be accessible to every user in some way. Just as we can choose to assemble and collect the books that are most interesting to us, shouldn't we be able to do the same thing with art?"
The Henry (in Seattle, at the UW), is working on a grant-funded project to digitize their entire collection. When I was there last fall, they had gotten quite far, and had recently installed a computer in the quasi-atrium where visitors could sit and browse the digital collection. The goal is to simulate what you're describing, allowing users to create their own experience of the Henry's collection through its digital representation. Since, as you concede, it's logistically impossible to allow users unimpeded access to all of the works themselves, I see this as the next best thing with the technology available to us.
There are many clever things that curators could do with this tool to guide user-generated experiences. Each item should, of course, be marked with "on view" or "in storage," and people could be allowed to check a box next to stored items to indicate that they'd like to see them. Although not everyone would get what they voted for, enough user participation could guide future curatorial choices. Or they could go the Google way- track usage patterns (this would inevitably be anonymous since no one logs in), and see what items get a ton of clicks. There would be some obvious confounds - famous things, things that have been heavily promoted - but you never know what useful information you'd get about people's interests.