At first glance this could have been a tricky one for me to try and write about. The manifestation of the museum in the digital world is something I have spent a great deal of time thinking about, and this of course was the subject of the second instalment of the British Museum’s Museum of the Future debates. So much so in fact, that I have already previously written on several of the issues raised during the discussion. The problems of collecting contemporary ephemera that is “born digital” for example, I discussed here, and the inaugural post on this blog hypothesised that new audiences could be engaged with digital museum collections by exhibiting them in Buzzfeed style lists (read it here).
The debate was once again introduced by the museum’s Director, Neil MacGregor, who closed his speech with a video hyping an initiative that is seeing the British Museum recreated using Minecraft, an online game that allows players to build things using textured 3D cubes (virtual Lego, basically). The project certainly has some merits. It will in theory help the museum reach a new audience, by definition one that is young and creative, and it will also ensure a deep and studious engagement with the building and its contents from those involved in their virtual recreation.
But then what? What happens once it’s been populated with the museum’s exhibited content? It remains extant of course, where it can function as sort of virtual tour. But is a fully reconstructed Minecraft British Museum a “museum of the world, for the world”? Not for me. To me it will serve only as a monument to the time and admittedly vast effort of a few “gamers,” and as a feather in the cap of a museum embracing the future. Its practical value upon completion I am not sold on. A virtual British Museum to me will suffer all of the same shortcomings as those who have signed up to offer “Museum View” as part of the Google Art Project. I will not go into what those are again as I have already dedicated a post to it, here. In short, I worry that virtual tours offer far less than the physical visit, without adding anything new to make up for it, and they very easily could.
The solution to me is very simple; let this community created version of the British Museum be community curated as well. Give the public who built it the option to decide amongst themselves what it exhibits. The one rule is that they can only choose objects from the museum’s own collection. This way, you replace finite engagement with the museum’s exhibited material, with infinite engagement with its entire collection. What if people disagree about what they want to put in? Perfect. Now you have yourself a community of virtual Minecraft curators, not only engaged with the museum’s extended collection, but also engaged in discourse with each other, about said collection. And they’re a cooperative bunch these Minecraft(ers?), if they can collaborate to recreate Smirke’s sprawling masterpiece, who is to say they can’t do the same with its exhibition programming? A Minecraft British Museum that grants its users the power to community curate their own galleries and temporary exhibitions, provides sustained engagement, through a sustained initiative. It creates a virtual “museum of the world, for the world, by the world.”
This is the discussion I feel was all too lacking at the debate. Digital is an invaluable opportunity for museums to obtain an active and ongoing relationship with their audience. The debate focused heavily on access to the collection, and web and app based interpretation, and not incorrectly, however the merits of the digital world to museums are far greater reaching. At one point the museum’s galleries were described as, “the story of humanity,” and I believe that a British Museum of the future must take more of an active role in sharing in the stories of the humanity that visits it. I wrote on this blog following the last debate that the museum is not the storyteller, rather, a facilitator for people to carve out their own narratives. 7 million individuals visit the British Museum every year, that is 7 million people individually starting, plotting and concluding their own personal journeys through the history of humanity. The British Museum should endeavour to share in these as often as possible, because after all, the greatest educator is the one who is discursive as well as didactic.
This is beneficial for everyone, museum and visitor alike. An Arts Council England study in 2010 proved that people respect the online presence of authoritative “brands,” of which the British Museum is one, and they enjoy interacting with them where possible. If the museum were to take greater interest in the individual experiences of its visitors, this would surely elevate those for them. People are already talking about and sharing their visits online, “#britishmuseum” is lively on Twitter and there are closing in on 90,000 posts to Instagram with the same tag. The discussion is easily accessible to the museum, and for the social media experience of visitors to transcend discussion amongst themselves, to include discussion directly with the museum is something I believe is imperative for any museum of the future. Extended engagement with the content of the museum and their interaction with it, can be nothing but a good thing for the visitor.
Similarly, this would be advantageous to the British Museum as well. Over the summer I was working on a project at Glasgow Science Centre where I conducted an in-depth analysis of every photo uploaded to Instagram with “#glasgowsciencecentre” appended to it. From the analysis I was able to deduce what exhibits people most commonly shared via the platform. This is useful because Instagram in its essence is a vanity project that allows people to project a rose-tinted commentary of their lives out to their online community. If an exhibit from a museum has been shared, it has been deemed what Nina Simon would call, a “braggable” moment.
Simon also discusses the benefits of examining hashtags on the platform in her Museum 2.0 blog, in that users apply them on Instagram as a means of “electively apply[ing] an external label to a personal moment.” So a museum can learn not only that a visitor has understood what they have seen, but also how they really felt about it through tags such as “#cool,” “#scary,” or “#amazing” for example. Museums can then, from a certain generation at least, deduce how their objects are actually functioning as exhibits. Instagram “hashtagging” of objects by visitors provides, honest, emotive and critically, voluntary opinion on individual items, something institutions will never acquire through visitor surveys and feedback forms. Following this, as I informed the science centre, the museum can make changes to optimise permanent displays, and strategise new temporary exhibitions around what they have learned about how the visitor experiences and discusses their exhibits, and that visitors should be encouraged therefore to include them in their online discussion. The result of which, at least in some respect, is that you have yourself not just a museum “of” and “for” the people, but “by” the people as well.
The modern museum places great emphasis on itself as being a “social” space. Digital allows museums to occupy an endless space, far exceeding the traditional parameters of its physical walls. For the museum of the future then, it is imperative that this space is as social as possible too. It is no longer enough for a museum to simply be a venue for social activity, the institution itself must be a social entity, engaged with its public on a continual and conversation level, just as they are engaged with their museum.