October 17, 2011

The Future of Museums

All Coherence Gone? The Future of Museums

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th'earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world's spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;

AN ANATOMY OF THE WORLD, John Donne, 1611.

I heard this quote the other day on my way to work and it seemed as apt now as it did when Keppler's discovery that the earth was not in fact the centre of the universe shattered contemporary belief systems and sciences. Today it could be argued that the changes wrought by new digital technologies are having a comparable effect, atomising the present into ... pieces, all coherence gone, all just supply, and all relation. This global phenomenon affects all kinds of institutions from the banking sector and the motor industry to governments and not-for-profits, but how do museums, those perceived bastions of the past, stack up in the face of these changes.

Museums, as repositories of the past, are tempting to place at arms length from these rapid contemporary changes but in fact it could be argued that they are a 'canary in the cage' industry testing the atmosphere of change. Why? Well one reason could be that the concept of the Museum is one of those most challenged by the rapid changes in the social fabric associated with Twitter, GeoCommons, cloud computing, and Flickr. What is at stake for museums is one of the most fundamental reasons for any institutions existence, its relevancy. Over the last 40 to 50 years the once hallowed status of collections and objects has been continually challenged as exhibition models, educational courses, online databases, citizen-science, and of course the ubiquitous proliferation of information across the internet reshapes museum models, and staff work-flows, in answer to challenges from funding bodies, industry and the public to become more directly involved in community outcomes.

Our successes and failures in dealing with these pressures would probably be no greater or less than many other government funded institutions, and NFP's, were it not for that one thing that defines, and differentiates, us from so many other community services. THE COLLECTIONS. Truly they are the elephant in the room - huge, costly, capable of growing to a great age, and in many respects unlike any thing else on the planet. These collections, built up over a hundred or more years reflect a complexity, outwardly and internally, that is hard for any one person to grasp. Indeed many people, and even some museums themselves, seem to have little desire to understand the scope, size, and usefulness of these collections. Yet somehow, above all the storage and display issues, the insurance costs, and the new acquisitions there seems to be an inherent trust and belief that they are somehow important and this goodwill continues to be bequeathed across generations.

But this inheritance is not of the tangible kind, in fact it appears to be more like a barely articulated thought in most people's heads. And this is not just the general public we are talking about for many museum professionals also seem to find it hard to articulate a coherent reasoning for their collections existence. A problem exacerbated by the 20th century project of atomising the functions of the museum into specialised departments, many of which barely come in contact with the collections which formed the justification for their existence.

So we find ourselves at the beginning of a new century, amidst massive technological change, surrounded by new vehicles for delivering: educational content, Exploratorium experiences, visual and aural interaction, and access to the worlds knowledge. All of which impinge on the areas once dominated by the Museum. Against this formidable array of challenges we find ourselves armed with a barely articulated notion of the Museum residing mainly in our communal heads, and a vast array of objects from the arcane to the commonplace.

Thinking about it though, this is pretty good, in fact its real head start on many other institutions. It's incredible really that despite many efforts, internal and external, that museums have yet to squander this cache - but, and this is the big BUT, I feel we must start finding new ways of using both our collections and our place in society to articulate why the past is essential for making coherence of our present and step forward into the future.

Social networking, digitisation, educational programs, Blockbuster and other non-collection driven exhibitions, all are fine. But alone they are not enough to define the relevance of the museum as a cultural institution. Attempts fashion a future which excludes Museum collections and/or the architectural and contextual edifice currently standing stalwart in the face of change will inevitably diminish this cache until perhaps it is, as Donne suggests, ... all in pieces, all coherence gone.

Source: Blog post by Geoff Barker, Curator, Powerhouse Museum

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