A story in the techno-culture magazine, WIRED last year, reported on the art of chindogu, literally an odd or distorted tool. Japanese self-described 'designer, anarchist and mail-order enthusiast', Kenji Kawakami has drafted a manifesto on useless gadgets, such as the 360-degree camera headband. Chindogu must be real, for real use, must not be for sale and must exist. /*(slide #1 - 360-degree camera)*/
They are fabulous, but self-indulgent, useless objects, a parallel that can be drawn to certain perceptions of museums: they are chindogu, and technology in museums merely another gimmick.
With regard to art galleries and art museums, they hold different meanings for each of us. For me, the Queensland Art Gallery is the place where I work; for others art museums may be centres of learning, of relaxation, of status, or of sheer boredom or lack of understanding. Museums may appear as chindogu to many, offering fascination, but ultimately, little substance. The enormous number of different meanings the museum may evoke is not fully enunciated in the International Council of Museums' somewhat dry definition of a museum as a 'non-profitmaking/permanent institution, in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of man and his environment.'
Proponents of The New Museology have attempted to fill in the nuances of this definition. New Museologists are concerned with the social and political aspects of the museum, including access, representation of minority cultures and varying viewpoints, education as well as notions of the museum as entertainment. This paper will deal with the latter two concerns - education and learning within the museum, and the museum as entertainment, including perceptions of competition with other media, such as television. The relationship between the two encompasses a brief examination of the museum's history, of its perceived roles in society, and the propositions of museologists and the impacts, both social and practical, for museum functions in light of technological developments and their implementation.
The format of this paper draws on research from the three sections of my doctoral thesis:
My work to draws extensively on secondary sources, primarily museological texts, including work by Gaynor Kavanagh, Eilean Hooper-Greenhill and Peter Vergo. By gaining a deeper understanding of current debate surrounding the historical development of museums and technological issues, I hope to examine some ramifications that technology may have for the institution of the museum.
the (brief) history of the museum
During the Renaissance economic development and the expansion of the middle-classes fostered a new wave of personal pursuits. The wealthy began to collect, and display treasured objects of interest. Increased leisure time and interest in categorising new discoveries, both from foreign lands and from nature, facilitated explorations into all areas of human and natural phenomenon. This notion of systemising the world relates to Heidegger world-as-picture, which Weber has described as a world whose 'ultimate function is to establish and confirm the centrality of man as the being capable of depiction'. Laying a schema over the discoveries made heightens this centrality. Renaissance Europe desired a 'more complete understanding of both man and the world', and so these cabinets of curiosities, which eventually formed the basis of some later museums, were both displays of wealth and places of study.
The earliest museums, therefore, inherited dual functions, which were a justification and a dilemma. The taxonomic, yet fanciful nature of the cabinets, and their paradoxically elite nature left museums with a legacy of venturing to balance instruction and inspiration, and attract audiences, who often felt distanced from the works on display, intimidated by their surrounds.
In 1994 Luke Roberts' installation, Wunderkammer/Kunstkamera, at the Queensland Art Gallery, recreated a museum within a museum, commenting on the history of the museum, its basis in Renaissance Europe, and the scientific developments of the Enlightenment. Roberts' cabinets of curiosities, filled the exhibition space with relics of the past, real and fanciful, endeavouring not only to critique the collection practices of museums, but also to return a sense of wonder to the museum. Roberts' cabinets comment on the Enlightenment's classification systems and whether they have ever completely superseded the 'spectacle' of the cabinets of curiosities. He specifically refers to taxonomic practices in his detailed labels, which describe and number each item displayed. /*(slide #2a-overhead of label)*/ In the exhibition catalogue, Roberts' suggests that the showman and the scientist are essentially complementary. The labels in Wunderkammer/Kunstkamera heighten enjoyment and reflection, despite the artist's belief that the taxonomic practices of the Enlightenment, where scientific truths replaced awe and general curiosity, eroded the wonder of the cabinets of curiosities. /*(slides #3-6 - Luke's installation)*/
The ordering and categorisation employed in Roberts' installation follow the lead of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries' scientific thought The order and rationality imposed on collections during the Enlightenment were a strong contrast to the jumble of the cabinets. The conclusions of many of the period's thinkers echoed the Enlightenment conviction of taxonomic classification equating with knowledge. Diderot's Encylopdie, published in 1751-52 was to be a compendium of all knowledge and a polemical weapon. Darwin's evolutionary theory, postulating natural selection and striving to expose links between species. More rigorous searching for explanations of the world, and the belief in truth through observation of nature meant that collecting now had a higher purpose than a mere show of wealth or inquiry for its own sake: it was political and scientific, a search for the 'true' meaning of objects, and of then placing them into categories. In the conjunction of collecting and categorisation, as exemplified in the encyclopaedia, the form of the museum was born.
The opening (in theory) of collections to the public was a product of humanist concerns of the age, of betterment through education. In reality the collections were still cut off from most of lower classes. Entrance fees, short opening hours and the imposing surrounds were enough of a deterrent for these people. The earliest museums were built to invoke a sense of awe, and '(t)he forms that were chosen evoked temples, palaces, treasuries and tombs.' /*(slide #7 - Vatican cabinet)*/
Although not the first public museum, the Louvre opened in 1793. It is the most discussed art museum, and perhaps the most important, not only for its size, nor for its collection, but for the political nature of the Louvre's public opening. It was hailed as evidence of true democracy, supposedly allowing all classes' access to the presumed edifying effects of viewing art. Thus, its very existence functions as a facilitator in discussions surrounding museums. /*(slide #8-9 - Louvre interior and pyramid)*/
Throughout Europe, during the eighteenth century, Enlightenment altruism led to many royal collections being donated to the state and opened to the public. The last Medici princess donated the Uffizi to the state in 1743 and the Viennese Royal Collection, Dresden Gallery opened in the 1770s. Public admittance, though, was often limited, and various methods were employed to discourage or prevent attendance, for example requiring written applications or letters of recommendation. Limited opening hours and admittance fees also tended towards social stratification of visitors: the working and lower-middle-classes were unable to utilise museums, and there was also a perceived lack of understanding of the relevance of museum visits.
These museums, developed from royal collections, often inherited basic ceremonial functions, which later were reshaped and redefined, particularly in the design of installations. Initially the placement of paintings was to glorify the leader. With the development of the discipline of art history and the growth of nationalism in the latter eighteenth century, though, the Universal Survey museum was established, with works installed with national schools and art historical periods in mind, another result of Enlightenment categorisation. /*(slide #10 - V & A museum)*/
Many of the same problems were inherent in the other forerunner of modern museums, the Great Exhibitions. These, particularly the Crystal Palace exhibition in London in 1851 are often held to have been a greater influence on museums than any other enterprise, attracting large 'ready-to-spend' crowds from many countries. They also proved that the working-class was interested and willing to pay for cultural activity. /*(slide #11 - Crystal Palace)*/
France also held large national exhibitions from 1797, and from 1851 they became international. A pattern was established from 1867, and subsequently, approximately every eleven years, the Exposition Universelle was held. Pure spectacle was the focus. Their lavish events dwarfed their English counterparts, but relied on amusement as opposed to the English duality of education and entertainment.
In England, however, it was not the exhibition's educative aspects that brought the crowds: it was their previously unknown scale. Today such scale is recognisable in the blockbuster phenomenon, which show no signs that they encourage general museum visiting.
The museum spread quickly throughout the Western world. The development of public museums in late nineteenth century Australia is an example: culture, or its various trappings were necessary for a nation. This was also the case in America, although private citizens were usually instrumental in developing museums. As in Europe, education was purported as the main purpose, but again, admission charges precluded many who may have wanted to visit for self-improvement. Entertainment was found to attract more 'punters' - the circus legend PT Barnum was an early museum owner.
Trying to balance attracting audiences and providing them with information has therefore, been an ongoing problem in museums.
'Crisis' is a term very much current in contemporary discussions of museums, but the institution has been constantly facing such dilemmas since its inception. How do museums attract visitors, why don't people visit, how to give those that do the information they want, what to do to engender deeper understanding, then how to measure that understanding, how to interpret people's varying understandings? The New Museology does not offer a way of overcoming the questions facing museums. It is a theoretical framework, providing tools for examining the options open to museums, particularly how they define themselves in relation to education and entertainment. /*(slide #12-12a - interior Musee D'Orsay)*/
Education continues to be one of the main objectives of the museum.
The dawning of the 'Information Society' has seen a renewed interest in museum education, and its role in life-long learning. There is a move towards defining museums as information centres, disseminating knowledge about their collections and utilising collections as a whole, instead of focusing on individual objects. What material best serves the public and actually establishing what people expect from a museum visit has been a constant question facing museums. The effects of museum on an individual are difficult to measure or define. Indeed, many museums use the 'bums on seats' approach, counting their visitors and using their numbers as vindication for their existence: one of social purpose. The crisis continues, as museums continually justify and readjust their positions.
Visitors have divergent reasons for visiting museums, and differential abilities and interests in learning. An enormous amount of literature has been published on numbers of museum visitors, how museums can improve an individual's visit and how to attract new audiences. Behavioural scientists, such as E.S Robinson, led the way in evaluating the museum experience from the 1920s, a time when museums were under pressure to attest to their usefulness. His influential text, The Behaviour of the Museum Visitor' used concealed observers to record visitors, and it was not until 1959 that actual surveys were utilised. Museums have used oral and written visitor surveys to try to gain a profile of their audience, with varying levels of success. Asking basic personal details, whether the museum visit is for a specific exhibition or a general visit, what additional information was applied, such as audio tours, room brochures, catalogues or labels, many surveys lead respondents. Questions are worded as prompts - 'Did the labels help?'; people are often surveyed as they leave an exhibition (or more generally for blockbusters, the exhibition shop), without being given time to think. Thus the total value in surveys helping museums to help people, and in presenting more pertinent exhibitions, is questionable.
Traditional research, surveys and literature, have left museum workers unsure what disparate visitors are looking for, and it usually falls to the education department to try to provide information.
As Hooper-Greenhill has pointed out, the interpretation of 'museum education' has shifted during the past two hundred years. During the early nineteenth century museums understood themselves as educational establishments, centres of self-learning. By the 1960s 'museum education' was interpreted as work with schools, but today there is a return to the original notion of the museum as a centre of learning. Life-long learning and the change of from learning by instruction to giving students more responsibility to find and use their own information, has wide-ranging implications:
Children will need to know how to learn, how to cope with change, how to build and evaluate a body of knowledge that will evolve throughout their life, and how to adapt to a changing work environment.
'Information literacy', the ability of students to find and utilise their own information has been described as not a desirable goal, but a necessary skill. It is the ability to identify the required information, to locate and evaluate it, to synthesise and apply it. It is not only a skill required by students, but increasingly by people in every occupation.
Learning connotatively differs to education: the latter focuses on acquiring knowledge, while the former is concerned with developing processes to attain useful information. Such knowledge also has to be of significance for visitors. Unlike education, learning allows responsibility for visitors in personalising their museum encounter. It makes clear that there isn't a singular interpretation of a work, and that all reactions are valid. Douglas Worts of the Art Gallery of Ontario has reported on a visitor response system they have used. 'Share Your Reaction' have been made available to visitors with space for written and drawn responses. They have yielded a wide range of information, including personal reactions to particular works, including a 1959 Canadian abstract painting, which a visitor related to her own experiences of the 1950s, drawings inspired by the collection, critiques of the collections and access to them. This is an example of museums using their opportunities to nurture creativity in all visitors, rather than deifying the specialised knowledge of museum professionals. /*(slide #12b - overhead of response card)*/
Technological developments, and their application may impact on the provision of more specialised information for, and from, individuals. Interactivity is the buzz word, and is often linked to 'play' as a learning tool. The entertainment value in this form of learning is another consideration. There is a belief among some museum professionals that the museum is in competition with other leisure activities. To an extent this is true, and while for many people entertainment is an aspect of a museum visit, deeper understanding of the works on display is imperative. Interactive technology can assist, by catering for different levels of interest and capabilities, allowing people to utilise the information most personally relevant.
Museums have to examine what they want to communicate to visitors, and how best they can achieve their goals. Narrative is an important tool in learning and digital technology may enable museums to rediscover the power of storytelling as a way of transmitting knowledge. A museum visit structured around narrative could return a sense of wonder, of personal engagement, such as people found in the installation Wunderkammer/Kunstkamera. This does not mean that the viewer experiences a transcendental shift in perspective, but that they have an opportunity to personally respond to exhibitions.
It would be a pity, I believe, to completely quash the wonder of art works, or natural and scientific objects. Instead of replacing wonder with mannered examination, there has to be room for different levels of appreciation. It is the sense of wonder, often, which draws visitors and museum professionals to museums, and to ignore this and become purely analytical would remove the potential poetry within each museum.
Larry Friedlander suggests that interactive applications are a form of theatre, with the job of designer and director being analogous. Both control and shape a rich, but potentially chaotic mass of materials, with the potential to overwhelm. They can focus and motivate the audience, appealing to the whole of our self. To accomplish a successful interactive application, designers need to incorporate these goals into an application, also involving users in the responsibility for the experience, allowing them to intervene, alter and add information. By giving various modalities to encounter the material 'students grasp the richness and depth of the material. They also extend and refine their own capabilities, becoming better viewers, creators, and critics.'
There are numerous possibilities for museums to present information in such a manner, for example by putting the user in the position of the artist, choosing composition and colours, by allowing them to design exhibitions or by giving them the opportunity to make comments or find further information. At this point, though, this is an ideal. Current technology is structured, giving a sense of freedom and fun for users, but they can only access the information supplied and paths are set, and they have little opportunity to add their own thoughts.
There seems there is a return to the beginning of this century, where the museums main enticement for visitors was the promise of entertainment, but where edification was also offered. This, of course, was a result of Victorian ethics, of work and leisure, the improvement of the working-class.
Society has shifted enormously since then and self-improvement is not generally the purpose of mass entertainment: the rash of television info-tainment is more concerned with improving your home and garden. Does this mean that museums should be more akin to theme parks and video arcades? There is no doubt that museums are vying with a myriad of activities for the public's leisure time. Television, video games, theme parks, film and video not only demand leisure time from people, they also raise their expectations of entertainment, not necessarily in regard to content, but with reference to technological sophistication. /*(slide #13 - Pompidou Centre)*/ George MacDonald has bemoaned the fact that few museum experiences can move a visitor, cognitively or emotionally, the way film can: 'Very few museum exhibits I know of leave the viewer in tears, although films are notable for this effect.'
This may be a call to duplicate the role of narrative film within the space of the museum, instead of examining at varying roles in the community.
Entertainment in museums is not an end in itself: it is a tool to help visitors learn. Enjoyment is a proven asset when people are trying to learn. As mentioned, one event in major museums that encompasses both entertainment and education is the blockbuster. The phenomenon began in the 1980s, and although there has been a scaling down of the events, they still exist, and museums see them as sources of revenue and attracting new visitors. Shearer West sees blockbusters as double-coded. The blockbuster: 'alienates the majority of the population through its academic presentation of works of art, and assimilates its educated constituency by forcing it to collaborate with the commercialisation of art.'. They therefore serve only to mystify, while supplying 'cultural capital', to visitors and sponsors. But this ignores one vital fact: many visitors to blockbusters want to see the 'real thing', the real Van Gogh, the real Matisse, artists they have heard of and know something about.
Appealing to people's established knowledge is a valuable asset for the museum, and by allowing people to gain new knowledge, without them being made to feel ignorant, other artists may become equally popular. This of course raises the question of artists' mythologies and creation by art history, but can be balanced by the importance of narrative as a form of supplying information.
Entertainment is synonymous with mass media, but there are some who advocate the breakdown of the entertainment industry, through technological innovations. Ian McFadyen believes Pay TV will begin the disintegration of the synchronicity of experience people have through mass media. This ignores the fact that people desire such synchronicity, of shared experiences, as points of contact for interaction with others. Even if multimedia at this point does not offer this, the community will find a way to develop this aspect. Computer magazines, e-mail and WWW discussion groups are all part of such development. Again advertising has employed this strategy - IBM's 'small world' campaign, and the ability to travel anywhere, as advocated by Microsoft. /*(slide #16 - Microsoft where do you want to go)*/
Not only do other forms of visual entertainment utilise the latest technology in their presentations, they also have affected how we 'see':
Museums must face the fact that film, television, video and popular access photography have irretrievably altered, if not actually undermined, that hierarchy of images that museums own and display.
The information age has affected how we see the world, but there have been influences throughout history that have influenced perceptions. Museums are for people, and their lives and experiences need to be considered in mounting displays. Michael Baxandall's 'period eye' is of relevance, looking at the context of the production of the work of art, for example the link between Pierro della Franscesca and merchants. The latter examined objects in sense of mass, and Baxandall related this to the paintings of Pierro. Similarly museums must take twentieth century visual language into consideration, especially television and consumerism (shopping and design). Television and advertising are particularly adept at incorporating elements from other media. For example, shows such as The X-Files and The Burning Zone use fonts in their titles reminiscent of e-mail messages. Adds such as this (Xerox add) utilise the same font, and the entire X-Files phenomenon. /*(slide #14 - Xerox add)*/
Assimilating information regarding television and other popular entertainment's does not imply that museums have to try to become these things. Museums must negotiate their own place within the quagmire of leisure activities available to the population, rather than duplicating popular culture. Weber, in discussing Benjamin's 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', notes that an art work's aura, its uniqueness, will be reproduced by the media, which conversely is effecting its decline. He also believes that the aura thrives in decline, citing Benjamin's prophetic statement that 'radio and film transform not only the function of the professional actor but also that of those who, like politicians in power, present themselves before them.' This drawing together and commodification of individuals corresponds to the treatment of artworks today. They have become idealised for their 'realness', and are often constructed as icons of popular culture. The treatment by network television of art events often relates to the value of the works exhibited.
The citizens of the 'Information Society', imbued in such a plethora of media images and messages, are demanding of their institutions.
McKenzie Wark has contended that video games, for example, employ a pool of video imagery, drawn from various media and experiences (The Japanese designer of Super Mario apparently based the character on the landlord of Nintendo's New York offices). Video games function in a different way to other media: 'Where television beams images into everyday existence, games reverse the process, allowing the player to move out of everyday life into the media landscape itself.' MacDonald and Alsford have foreseen that if museums don't adapt, they may be abandoned in favour of more accommodating institutions to people's needs and desires. They believe that computers and telecommunications could allow museums to become 'information utilities', available in every home, like electricity or gas. They see a problem, though, in the lead the entertainment industry, whom they see as in competition with the museum, has taken in utilising new technology.
We cannot outmatch our competitors in terms of scale; at least not until museums have formed a true resource sharing community through effective networking. But we can outmatch them in terms of quality. The question is whether we can persuade the public to prefer our high-integrity information products to the products of institutions motivated primarily by profit. To do so, we will often need to adopt the tools and techniques (of) those competitors.
Perhaps museums can outmatch the media in intellectual quality, but not in terms of technology and perhaps not even in terms of entertainment.
Mass media have authority and a form of cultural dominance, and museums are simply not in a position to spend the amount of money on innovations that mass media can. They are also able to easily provide narrative entertainment, but always with profit in mind. Perhaps when Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft, finds a way to disseminate digital art, then the profit motif will come in to play, and museums will find it easier to acquire new technology.
Gates took an active interest in art in the late 1980s, seeing it as information capital. In 1989 he created Interactive Home Systems (IHS) to collect digital rights to great works worldwide, so as to sell the digitised images to people for use on video screens. The board of Microsoft, seeing no profit in this, refused to fund the project. IHS wanted exclusive rights, but they had to change their hardline approach, becoming Continuum Productions and generally negotiating for non-exclusive rights. The home market Gates is seeking may change how we look at art: we generally see art on walls, posters or books, but as Powell as pointed out ' 'The luminous video quality of the computer screen makes Holbein's The Ambassadors, for example, look like it is made of stained glass.' /*(slide #15 - Holbein)*/
The collection Gates is building, in the company's words, will be "a comprehensive archive that reflects human experience." All for one admission price! Corbis has three divisions - Corbis Media that licenses images to commercial and scholarly publishers, academic professionals, students and other consumers; Corbis Publishing, which develops and markets CD-ROMs and on-line services and The Bettmann Archive, which Corbis purchased in October 1995. The Bettmann Archive has more than 16 million film and digital images, which will be licensed to consumers. Presently there are only still images, but there are plans to add video, animation, graphics, text, audio and film.
Museums were at first wary, but looked to Corbis as funding sources diminished. Corbis usually pays for digitising the images it wants, negotiating non-exclusive rights to selected images that allows them to create digital reproductions and distribute them to publishing and communication professionals and use in their own consumer products. The museum retains copyright to the original material, but not to Corbis's new digital version. Corbis does have to obtain the museum's permission before entering into any licensing agreements with outside agencies. If this is approved royalties, averaging $200-500, but sometimes as high as $5000, are split between the museum and Corbis. Despite the lucrative sound of the deal, there is speculation and concern over what museums actually gain from the contract. Since signing with Corbis four years ago, and having more than 1,000 works digitised, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has received only $A6,500 in royalties.
Corbis's plan for success rests in part on copyright. While admitting that copyright law currently does not explicitly support their position, they hold that their images are copyrightable, as they pass the US Copyright Office 'originality test', due to 'added authorship', the adjustments made to the digital image's colour, contrast, brightness and pattern.
Copyright is an area that is as large and confusing as the arena of technology. I cannot hope to even begin a proper discussion on this subject at this point, but I would like to make some general observations. One of the greatest concerns of museums on-line is the downloading of their information, particularly images. The quality of digital images presently is probably the best defence against infringement, but quality will improve in the future. If someone really wants an image, for whatever purpose, they will find a way to get a copy - this happened even in the dark old days of books, and until there is a way of controlling what is downloaded, then museums may have to risk putting high quality images on-line for the integrity of their own site. Encryption techniques also offer protection.
The large number of people with ease of access to multimedia and other technologies is, paradoxically, both positive and negative: positive in that it gives many new creative opportunities and negative because there is a perception that the medium can turn all into artists. It is not the medium for everyone, and it is more demanding than traditional media:
If you do not know the craft of making movies, sound recordings, typography, illustration or writing, you haven't got the basic skills to make multimedia applications. Simply having the tools is not enough.
Use of multimedia and interactive works cannot be created for their own sake. Institutions and artists need to question what the new media allows them to explore and offer, as opposed to traditional mediums.
For some multimedia is a fad, the yo-yo of the nineties. Douglas Kahn uses cooking as an analogy for CD-ROMs, which they are 'best at warming leftovers' rather than for creating new, gastronomic delights. Kahn's point may be too strong, based on what he has seen of CD-ROMs, not the potential they have, though his questioning of the idea of interactivity is astute, calling it a presumptuous claim. The interactive tag is easily applied to many forms of multimedia, whether the user has the ability to affect what they see or not, or even if their choices are basic.
The Australian recently featured an article titled 'The Internet Backlash', questioning what the net is able to achieve in real terms, and its role in education. Lack of government and public querying of the net, its sudden supposed domination without public debate, is seen as a major problem. The nature of Web information, not just the oft mentioned pornography and bomb-making instructions, but the lack of content control is another concern mooted in the article - information is supplied with no sources and no verification. People are finding access expensive, and are often confused by the sheer amount of information. Even Microsoft is taking an active interest in cultivating new customers. Now the hype is dying down, the Internet may not the highway to a future of Star Trek-like peace and harmony on this world. The social ramifications of technology have to be examined, in a historical and hypothetical sense. /*(slide #17 - Microsoft Internet technology)*/ Technological changes have inexorably affected definitions and language. Some of the most important new terms were coined by Marshall McLuhan (1911-80) in his prophetic 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. He introduced into the language the present use of term media, 'global village' and 'Age of Information'.
Within months of its publication Understanding Media had 'acquired the standing of Holy Scripture and made of its author the foremost oracle of the age.' The book fell out of favour in the intervening years, but as Lapham points out in his Introduction, the book's implications:
were beginning to make themselves manifest on MTV and the Internet, in Ronald Reagan's political image and the re-animation of Richard Nixon, via television shopping networks and e-mail - all of them technologies that McLuhan had presupposed but didn't live to see shaped in silicon or glass.
McLuhan's work is technologically determinist, in that he ignores the plurality of things that may lead to change, but he does recognise choices make a difference (for example, the chapter on television recognises the initial idea of the medium as an educator, to the realisation of it as mainly entertainment.)
McLuhan came from a generation who had not been babysat by television. This highlights the rate of change, and the fact that for many people born since the late 1940s, television has been the main purveyor of information. It is where history is disseminated and ideas formed. Before such wide-ranging technology, though, in 1844 Samuel Morse opened a telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore, with $30,000 obtained from Congress, and '(p)rivate enterprise, as usual, waited for bureaucracy to clarify the image and goals of the new operation.' Following the success private enterprise battled to become involved.
This parallels the development of the internet, which was devised by the US military, and has now been largely taken over by the private sector.
Just as the US military would have had no idea that the networking of computers would lead to such diverse information as a Godzilla home page, Edison failed to see phonograph's entertainment possibilities, and McLuhan believes there has been a general failure to grasp electronic revolution. Social benefits are highlighted at the birth of technologies, including radio, television, the phonograph and computers, rather than the possibility of entertainment. Even in the 1970s the most sophisticated computer game was tennis, with a 'bat' (actually a bar, somewhat like a cursor) and a ball (a somewhat smaller cursor), which was hit over a line on the television screen. In the age of the Sony Playstation the ability of this game to hold anyone's attention seems amazing. This demonstrates how easy it is for contemporary society to assimilate change, often without even realising it is happening. Advertising and the speed of technological changes can defy the opportunity for debate on the worth and impact of change. Information is deemed 'good', and more information, even better.
In the realm of software it is corporations such as Microsoft that reinforce such cultural messages. Even the development of the company, and its CEO Bill Gates is something of an American success story - young computer programmer develops new software, makes the personal computer more 'user friendly' and becomes a multi-millionaire. This commodification of information will create hierarchies, with the United States remaining the largest player (which relates to the position of the developing nations). Companies such as Microsoft have grown exponentially, and new technology has become a form of appropriating of what was once open to all. One of the most insidious examples of this is Microsoft's copyrighting the word 'bookshelf', and Continuum Productions, a subsidiary of Microsoft, trying to acquire perpetual electronic publishing rights of museum material.
Each generation encounters a world substantially changed to that of their parents. The rate and effects of change have only been seen in earlier periods through cataclysmic events, such as revolution. This leads back to the notion of crisis within the museum: how will it be relevant to visitors who have grown up in the electronic/information age?
Mike Wallace outlines the polar positions on the future of museums:
One camp seeks digital salvation, urging us to plunge joyously into the new world of interactive videos, compact disks and high-definition TV... / multimedia museums have the advantage of speaking the lingua franca of tomorrow ... They provide the possibility of individually tailored visitor experiences. Their interpretative strategies are not inhibited by objects (in some cases having none at all).[others] insist() on the absolute primacy of objects. Some believe that in an era of infinite reproducibility people will become repulsed by inauthenticity, wary of endless fraud; that they will be drawn inexorably to the aura of artefacts that provide tunnels in time back to actual human actors; that they will thirst for old objects which, blessedly, were not made and 'patinaed' last week. That they will see the frisson of contact with museum-certified originality.
These propositions are possible futures, but importantly they highlight the necessity of museums fully considering their needs and functions and the expectations of visitors, before incorporating multimedia fully into their institutions. In a paper I gave at the Special Interest Group on Technology at last year's Museum's Australia Conference, I outlined the importance of museum's structuring their Web pages with their functions in mind, instead of creating a mere advertising outlet.
The paper's title, 'Wading the Web' encompasses my belief in the need for caution and thorough research of the possibilities that new technologies offer the museum sector.
Museums function as both industry and cultural service, catering to various publics. Adorno, in his essay, the Valry Proust Museum, comments on the cultural monopoly museum's possess. With the decline of personal collections, museums are now the only way for the majority of society to become familiar with works of art, but Adorno believes that the market value instilled in works removes the pleasure of looking at them. He outlines Valry's argument that museums entomb cultural artifacts, and that their treatment as documents kills the art. Proust also is concerned with the mortality of objects, and with the enjoyment of art. For Proust, museums allow primacy of the object, and for visitors to find wonder wherever they turn. Adorno disagrees with both perspectives, advocating structured museum attendance, where only specific works are studied. This position, though, does not take into consideration that many do not know what they want of the museum. Valry and Proust are the extremes of museum visitors - those who want works of art to be culturally relevant, and those who want to be amazed.
This duality of industry and culture is important to remember when examining museums and technology. Seemingly the industry can only benefit, with improved communication, records keeping and organisational ability.
As a cultural industry, though, will museums suffer with the removal of visitors (or users) from the original. Will the physical objects now held in museums and private collections become obsolete, replaced by digitised images in a virtual museum? Will future museum visitors be able to 'jack in' to museums from home? This may be a science-fiction future, but the rate and sophistication of technological change makes it a possible future.
New technologies offer museums evolution in many different areas, including collection management, development and accessibility. Projects such as AMIS (The Australian Museums Information System) is an example. It aims to provide access to information about Australian museums, large and small, and their heritage collections. AMIS promotes the view that the sum of all heritage 'should be regarded as Australia's distributed national heritage collection.' Initially AMIS emerged to develop a national database of information about Australia's heritage collections, but they have expanded to encompass related museum information, such as technical and conservation information, grant information, information on professional bodies and use of the World Wide Web.
Education and entertainment have been the main focus of museums and technology's greatest impacts may be on these. There may be scope for technologically derived information to better understand what people want from their museums. Access and information, giving people the opportunity to use the museum as suits them best, is one of the most exciting possibilities of technology and museums. Documentation, organisation of loans, security, administration, academic information, searchable databases and conservation are some other areas that are currently, and will in the future, benefit from technological advances, but as was pointed out in 1992 in Museum News that:
(t)he technology issues discussed five years ago are still largely the ones the museum field is dealing with today, only more so - standards, computerizing collection management, imaging, networking.
Five years later these are still the issues most museums are currently dealing with. The most difficult and challenging aspect of my research in this area is the variance of information available and its currency.
Technology rapidly changes, but museums are traditionally conservative institutions, with little spare cash to create virtual galleries, or often even to fully catalogue their collections. This may not be a negative, though. Being able to see the effects of technology in the wider world, and not getting caught up in the technology for its own sake, may give museums the opportunities to utilise the products best suited to their purposes, and make their collections accessible and meaningful to a wider audience, who won't classify them as chindogu.