Remembering the lost future

Art Museums In The Technetronic Era


The ramifications of new technology for the art museum is a topic that concerns museum professionals from a myriad of positions, including those of collection management, education and display. As a public space the museum's implementations of and reactions to technology have to be examined in the context of wider theories of the social implications of technology. The Internet has changed how business is done, how people access and perceive information and their expectations from content. This dissertation engages with these discourses, in the theoretical and practical sense, initially outlining the history of the museum and its functions and how these may evolve through the use of technology. Artistic practice and its relationship to the institution is also a focus. The second section deals with technology, particularly historical reactions to its implementation and theoretical perspectives of its possible affects on humanity. A variety of methodologies are employed in this paper, particularly the work of Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin, whose writings on technology and the art object have been pivotal to critical explorations of these issues. The museological and technological strands are drawn together in the third section, a case study of the Virtual Triennial, a web site developed as part of the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery. In this study the possibilities of virtual access, the role of the physical object, the actual process of building the site and on-line curating concretely apply the theoretical and methodological approaches in the first two sections.


'Who controls the past,' ran the party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.' George Orwell 1984

The position and relevance of art museums in contemporary society has attracted attention of both the institution and the wider community. Often this debate takes the form of how museums can adjust their current practices to the 'new world order', but ignores the question of why the museum should continue, in any manifestation. Museums are an aspect of how we remember the past, part of our collected history is contained within museums - our art, science, natural history, popular culture and technology - and this function as an aide memoire transcends and transforms the objects they house: these objects become a narrative, reflecting how past societies have viewed their world, their particular concerns, values and character, and how they perceived ensuing generations.

The arts and sciences engage humanity in its search to understand itself - we desire, require interpretations of ourselves, our societies, their history and future. This desire to create and view representations of the world is a defining human feature: such curiosity and self-reflection has resulted in conceptions and expressions as diverse as the Sistine Chapel, 2001: A space odyssey and Newton's discovery of gravity. Moving into the third millennium, the accumulated information of these endeavours threatens to overwhelm us. Combined with this history is the present, and the 'requirement' to preserve a part of our own epoch, one that has developed, in terms of technology, more quickly than at any earlier period. The focus, then, is on the collation, preservation, interpretation and dissemination of this collected knowledge. What were science fiction projections only two decades ago, where all human knowledge could conceivably be available electronically, is now a potentiality. This reality highlights the question of the role of the museum, not only as a vehicle to move the past into this future, but to ensure that the creative output of contemporary artists working in traditional and new media is made public and preserved.

Remembering the Lost Future: Art Museums in the Technetronic Era, examines the historical developments of the art museum and technology, and looks at the future manifestations and relevances of the institution of the museum. The title refers to the functions of the art museum as a repository of the past and as a creator of posterity, to how it will fulfil these roles, and what they mean, in the world of accelerated communications technology and new media arts. It encompasses the problematic nature of not knowing what the future wants or requires us to keep, as well as the idea that ultimately we have no control over what lies ahead, but that we have a duty to consider our decisions. The future is somewhere we will never be, just as Baudrillard has contended that the year 2000 will not take place - it cannot be captured. Museums are an aspect of how our society attempts to capture history - they are in the historical game of reworking the edicts of earlier times, in the probable vain hope that the future will see this era as the crossroads.

During the late 1980s museum professionals began examining the possibilities of incorporating computer technology into art museums, especially in exhibition design and collection management systems. By the mid-nineties these issues were still on the agenda, but discussion had extended, focusing on the impact developing technology could have on the role of the museum. These considerations were wide-ranging and, for the most part, hypothetical. Museums are often conservative institutions, with small budgets stretched for staffing, maintenance, exhibitions and acquisitions. There seemed little real chance of museums being in a position to utilise the burgeoning technology in any more serious way, despite genuine interest and enthusiasm. But within two years any museum without at least some web presence, access to email and a computer catalogue was in a position of being left behind developments in sharing and accessing information. The questions surrounding the collection, conservation and display of worked by artists engaging with technology, including digital art, CD-ROMs, video have also become imperative, and the parameters of this thesis were extended to accommodate these issues.

This is a technetronic era - not the technetronic era, for all periods are shaped by the changes wrought by developments in technology and communications. This technetronic period, though, specifically characterises itself by these changes and information is its currency. In 1965 Alvin Toffler coined the term 'future shock' to describe 'the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce on individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time'. His concern is not only the direction of change in human life, but with the speed at which it is occurring. For Toffler the future is a 'time-mirror', with the ability to inform us about our present, a tool we can learn from by creating a convincing scenario and expounding the possibilities. Inventing potential futures, while fraught with the danger of being branded prophecy, has the short-term advantage of avoiding what Toffler describes as 'the obsolescence of data', which he sees as verifying Future Shock's thesis regarding the rapidity of change:

Writers have a harder and harder time keeping up with reality. We have not yet learned to conceive, research, write and publish in 'real time'. Readers, therefore, must concern themselves more and more with general theme, rather than detail.

So what began in 1996 as an investigation into the possible impacts of new technology on the art museum has become, in part, an historical document. While the scope and pace of technological changes has not always been matched, it has often been embraced, by museums, and outlining possible futures of museums is sometimes a place they have already arrived at.

This thesis aims to go some way in redressing the imbalance between theoretical and practical discussions of museums, by drawing on a wide variety of sources and applying them to current issues within the museum. The works of Andr?Malraux, Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Samuel Weber and museologists, including Gaynor Kavanagh and Peter Vergo inform this study, including Chapter Three Coded Construction: Building the Virtual Triennial.

The recent development of museums dedicated to the collection of multimedia, such as the ZKM in Germany and the Eyebeam Atelier's Digital Museum, due to be opened in New York in Spring 2000, perhaps should be viewed less as marginalisation of the work of artists employing digital, or electronic media, and rather a tacit admittance that 'the museum', as it currently exists, cannot universally survey the history of human creative output, as has been its attempt for over two hundred years. No museum can be all things, although any art museum with a policy of collecting contemporary art cannot ignore multimedia: definite parameters need to be set, being particularly mindful of the reliance of much of this new art on peripherals, such as video players, software and hardware. Walls and cabinets are not enough, and the partnerships that this new age seems to foster, between technicians, artists and other professionals, will be part of this i.e. ensuring that when a work is acquired, if the institution does not, or cannot afford the means to play it, then that it will be accessible elsewhere.

Texts, such as Douglas Crimp's On the Museum's Ruins 1993, adroitly outlines the history and problems of the institution of the museum in its current form, but they do not give practical alternatives or strategies for developing, perhaps even revolutionising, this form of collective memory. Present day museums developed from the nineteenth century model, concerned with taxonomy, preservation and edification. The genealogy of the museum though may be traced to such varying forebears as the Ptolemic Mouselion at Alexandria, Renaissance cabinets de curieux, state and private collections and the fairs of the nineteenth century. These have all affected the physical being and perception of the museum through their collection and display practices and as sites of study and entertainment. Chapter One 'Remembrance and Reflection' examines this ancestry in detail, concentrating on the particular characteristics which the museum has inherited and their consequences on the institution's future.

We are at a crossroads, where the possibility of visiting a museum from home and 'being' there is not just a cyberpunk fantasy. We are still in a two dimensional, lineated space, but our being is metamorphosing. We now gather information in more amorphous [fluid, blurred, undefined] ways: though still programmed to set paths, the net is a glimpse of how knowledge can be obtained. This change in spatial notions, the move from lineated Euclidean ideas, to the Brechtian curved space is dealt with in Chapter Two 'Welcome to the Netherworld. Society is preparing, through language and changed spatial concepts, for moving, virtually, into any space - we will leave the netherworld, the developing era of technological revealing, into the cyberworld. The form this world may take depends on the discussions and decisions of today; this is not a teleological interest with the end point of our history, but a more practical concern with the effects our current judgments will have on the museum and how it reflects, and is part of, the world.

The authoritative phrase 'the museum' unavoidably recurs throughout this work. The omnipotent tone should not be construed as the author believing that an inherent, spiritual, power resides in any institution. 'The museum' is a term of convenience, allowing disparate entities, sharing similar activities and goals, to be discussed. Museums are not 'fixed' institutions: their functions and histories, and futures, vary enormously. Thus it is difficult to define what makes a museum. The International Council of Museums dryly defines 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, addressing 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.

Likewise, the term technology is inexorable and multi-faceted. Generally, in relation to the museum, it encompasses computer related tools, especially the Internet [World Wide Web, email, discussion groups], digital cameras, word processing, and the creative output of artists and the tools they employ, also referred to as multimedia or digital work. The languages of this era is still being debated and developed, a thread developed throughout this work, via application and examination.

The museum itself serves as a textual element, with its etymology traced, in an attempt to draw out its current and possible positions. This 'textual museum' correlates to an exhibition - theories are installed throughout, and certain canonical writings, like a collection's masterpieces which have to be displayed, are given pride of place. The volume of material published on the history, functions and future of museums re-contextualizes and creates such prescriptive texts, and presents any researcher with a daunting starting point, and an ever more difficult 'stopping' point. It is not only such writings that are integral to discussions, certain museums have become accepted signs of the museum's differing manifestations, such as New York's Museum of Modern Art, which is discussed in Chapter One.

Museums pursue the dual public functions of entertainment and education. This puts the institution in an interesting position, and has in part created the 'crisis' which has coloured much recent museum debate. In some respects museums have positioned themselves to mirror the 'Disney' mentality of late twentieth century capitalism. Blockbusters and museum merchandise are not only invaluable for raising revenue, they also serve to popularise art, particularly through extolling the virtues of the real. Many museums see themselves as competing for the same public as ventures such as Segaworld. Indubitably though museums are in the culture trade, an enterprise, that if approached thoughtfully, can take advantage of the demand for information/knowledge that is also a hallmark of this epoch. Libraries have situated themselves in this way, and utilised technology relatively early. The State Library of Queensland recently reported an increased demand of twenty-five percent during the last year, not only from metropolitan users, but from regional areas also. Museums, particularly state institutions are in an ideal position to respond to the demand for information in outlying areas, especially as access to the digital world is improved and simplified early in the twenty-first century. There are opportunities for museums to respond to and establish themselves as distinctive content providers, rather than attempting to gain currency within other markets.

Superficially museums and popular culture are different manifestations of society's Being, but both are, in Heideggarian terms, Enframing, treating all in their classification system as awaiting use. Museums collect paintings as pop culture categorises signs. They are part of the machines of history, keeping remnants of the past intact, for the time when they may be used, whether in an exhibition or as fodder for cultural theorists. Both are directly born from the industrial and technological ages, and are reliant on it for their continuance. Heidegger maintained that an understanding of anything - a life, a period in history - could only begin to be understood at its completion, but individuals are never able to 'see' where the world stops. In some senses the museum encapsulates the past, though in constant flux, as are networked computing systems.

A major concern within this work are the concepts of memory and forgetting: museums and the objects they contain enable the community to forget them, to visit them, like an attic of the forgotten, but desired. Computers hold a similar position within our society on some levels: we are able to visit a site, bookmark it and forget it, knowing all the time that we can come back if needed. This raises the issues of geography, spatiality and temporality, particularly for one of the core functions of the museum, care of objects. If we can take these objects can be taken out of the physical museum space and 'played' with in cyberspace, won't the notion of the museum be changed? The ramifications for these possibilities are examined in Chapter One, and how the object has 'changed' as the museum moved from a taxonomic, didactic space to more of a leisured activity, and the 'crisis' that museums have faced due to this dilemma. But we are now living in the information age, and it is this aspect that I believe museums should focus on, as have libraries. People desire knowledge and art museums are in a position to provide knowledge and stories of our past, which do not have to be dry, but can be multi-layered offering many entry and exit points.

During the past few years computing within museums has developed, at least in terms of interest and understanding, and separating museums and technology is now not possible. A single point of focus is difficult to grasp, and issues may be radically redefined in a short time period. This is not an apology for any factual errors in this thesis, nor an excuse for any perceived lack. Instead, it may be seen as evidence of the difficulties encountered when theorising across disciplines in a rapidly changing world.

Museums have more potential as information / knowledge providers than simply telling stories of the history of art, in whatever forms that may take. They are able to show and teach different ways of looking at and interacting with objects, a skill which many artists and art historians take for granted. With the development of the technetronic/information society this proficiency will be especially important, as there are many ways of seeing the world, and while all are subjective, there are specific languages which museums, libraries, broadcasters and publishers utilise.