11 March 2009

Museum Authority and the Developing Debate

There is an utterly brilliant animation by Basically, it presents the common problem with museums - and we could include archives and libraries here too - that they see any form of open access to collections information as a direct threat to their authority. It also, in a very enjoyable way, makes the point that none of the arguments for this are in any way true.

I would go much further, as I have done for over 20 years, that the basic premise is completely wrong. Museums, and museum professionals, only have authority to the degree that they continue to control access to, and the public accounts of, their collections. This is not very difficult when a museum has all of its collections under its own roof, but what museums do not yet realize, and Michael shows this all so well, is that increasingly they are not even able to control these traditional forms of presentation. On-line access to digital collections, no matter how they are served out, is making the traditional position of museum professionals as the arbiters of understanding completely untenable.

This should come as no surprise, though it is a bit surprising that it has taken so long. Back in 1997 I said the following as a conclusion to a talk that made this point to a Museum conference at Leicester University in the UK.

"As museums, we cannot do this [make ourselves relevant] by simply accepting the hype of the internet and offer up more of the same restrictive icons electronically. We do not need virtual museums, we need means of access and communication which speak to new audiences and more directly to our local communities.

We may be able to effect this development, but only in a small way. We can only achieve and effect by concerning ourselves with how we are used, rather than on what we produce. The internet is not the answer, it is but a medium. The question is whether it does become a medium within which various groups and interests may find a voice."
As far back as 1995 we released a report about a project that I was directing that made these very points. The report was called Objects and Learning, and was a report about the Virtual Teaching Collection. The Virtual Teaching Collection was a project run out of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, at the University of Cambridge, and was working on a system that would allow users to collect, link to, share and discuss digital collections. It was developed just before the Web took off, so it was an application rather than a Web App. As such, it has passed into the history of Applications on no longer supported operating systems (in this case Mac OS 9).

I suppose that the point of this Post is that though finally there is a growning consensus, even within some museum staff, that the traditional attitude of the museum as an authoritative expert institution is no tennable, there has been some voices around for a couple of decades who have been saying this all along. Mostly, though, I think that my real point is that the battle is far from won. The resistance I see today from museum professionals remains distrubingly like Michael curator in his animation. We have a long way yet to go.

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