I just got home from the Museums and the Web conference in Indianapolis. I’d never attended before and was impressed by many very smart, international people doing radical projects to make museum collections and experiences accessible and participatory online. But I left uneasy, grappling with questions that plagued me throughout the conference. The people at Museums and the Web are on the forefront of web-based innovative museum practice. How does their work relate to their physical institutions? Are participatory activities happening on the web because that is the best place for them? Or is the web the dumping ground for activities too messy or uncomfortable to do onsite? How can participation, openness, innovation, and institutional change become part of a broader conversation? I'm afraid that the web is becoming a participatory ghetto rather than an integrated driver of innovation in museums.
This fear was precipitated by a painful visit to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Max Anderson, the museum’s director, delivered an inspiring keynote address on the first day of the conference about “moving from the virtual to the visceral.” Max argued that museums should use the web to give online visitors the same level of emotional, experiential, exciting engagement that they have onsite. He spent a long time discussing the IMA’s award-winning online dashboard, which shows real-time data about everything from visitor zip codes to photography requests to the size of the endowment. He spoke convincingly about how the dashboard and other efforts are helping the IMA become a more transparent, open place that respects and involves visitors in all aspects of the organization.
I was thrilled by Max’s talk and looked forward to seeing how the physical site reflected the transparency and engagement he spoke about. I showed up at the IMA expecting innovation. Instead, I found a standard art museum. Nice art. Impersonal guards. Lovely grounds. Obtuse labels. Interesting architecture. There was nothing that connected me to the visceral, exciting institution Max had sold in his talk, the institution that exists on the web.
Is this a problem? I think so. I felt like I had met someone online, someone sexy and open and intriguing, and then on our first date that mystery museum turned out to be just like all the others. This is a problem that many of the museums doing the best work in social media may soon confront. You join the Brooklyn Museum’s posse. You tag your brains out on the Powerhouse online collection database. And then you show up in person and feel jilted. Where are the friendly, open, participatory experiences you came for? Where’s the museum you know and love?
Some might argue that this disconnect is not a bad thing—that museums are using the web to reach new audiences, just as specifically tailored programs reach new audiences. But studies have shown that temporary exhibitions and programs targeted to specific “non-traditional” audiences are not effective at converting those audiences into general museum visitors. They come for their singular program alone. They don’t become institutional advocates, members, or donors. You may be able to engage a thriving community online, but if their experience with the institution is fundamentally different from the onsite one, they will remain online-only visitors.
I still believe that museums offer the greatest value in their physical venues. And with that in mind, I’m worried that people’s online experiences may not be giving them the right impression of who you are and what you offer at the physical site. This used to be a problem of properly conveying the “visceral” in the “virtual.” But now, for some of the more innovative institutions on the edge, it’s a problem of making the visceral as relevant, dynamic, and interesting as the virtual. If you do fabulous things online and not onsite, your online audiences will show up and be disappointed. They will feel deceived.
It's not impossible to translate our most innovative virtual activities into onsite experiences. I ran a workshop on "going analog" at the conference in which we explored ways that physical museums can be more like wikis, fantasy baseball services, social networks, and more. All it takes is a willingness to put this stuff into the museum and the cleverness to design the right metaphor. Consider the IMA’s radical transparency online. Why can't they be comparably transparent onsite? They could add the accession price of artworks to their labels. They could explain why the art is being displayed, what value it is perceived to have, and why it is shown in the context of the other works in the room. They could share the arguments that go into the creation of every exhibition. They could explain WHY you can’t touch the giant, highly tactile sculptures throughout the main entrance. Online, the IMA is respectful, open, and provides deep levels of information. Onsite, it’s an authoritative cipher.
When I talked with Rob Stein, the IMA’s CIO, about my frustration, he suggested that “institutional change has to start somewhere.” And he’s right. Maybe I’m being too hard on the IMA. Maybe the innovative work they are doing on the web will lead to comparable innovations to the onsite experiences.
But I’m nervous it won’t happen for a number of political reasons. In most museums, technologists are still seen as service providers, not experience developers. They live in well-defined (and self-protected) silos. There are stereotypes flying in many directions—that curators won’t give up authority, that technologists don’t respect traditional museum practice, that educators are too preachy, that marketers just want to get more live bodies in the door.
How are we going to bridge this divide? Many of the technologists I met at Museums and the Web never go to regional or national museum conferences. When I asked why, people said, “no one there understand what we’re doing,” or “it just reminds me of how far behind the rest of this field is.” I understand the desire to learn from and spend time with people in your part of the field, but I was surprised at the extent to which people had no interest in cross-industry discussions. I’m teaching a graduate course at University of Washington right now on social technology and museums. Four of my students were at Museums and the Web. None are attending AAM (the American Association of Museums). They don’t see it as relevant to their future careers. This worries me.
We need to do a lot more talking across the aisle, working hard to adapt our specialized vocabularies to a common discussion about institutional mission and change. I want museums to be open, participatory, dynamic, and relevant in all places, not just online. If we only do it online, it doesn’t force us to fundamentally change how our institutions work and present content to visitors. It just creates a virtual outpost for change. And I don’t want to live in that ghetto.