A post the other day on Eye Level, rather subtly announced that the Lunder Center is now using Twitter. You probably know that Eye Level is a blog produced by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and that it focuses a lot on the work that is done at Lunder Center, which as far as I know, is the first and only conservation department that functions as a permanent museum exhibit (instead of being tucked away in the museum, conservators are at work and on view behind floor-to-ceiling glass walls ). But maybe you don’t know about Twitter: it’s a web site to which you send text messages from your cell phone (called “tweets”) that are then displayed for everyone to see. You can “follow” your friend’s tweets (or a museum artifact’s in this case) to know what they are doing and thinking.
Here’s the link to Lunder’s Twitter Site. I’ve been following them since I first saw that blog post; I also follow a few other people: one of my brothers, a friend, an artist, and so on. I’ve never posted anything to my Twitter account, but I do update my “status” on my Facebook account somewhat frequently, which is a lot like using Twitter. Who knows why it so compelling to let my “friends” know what I’m up to, but I do it.
I hope by this point you’re asking yourself why the Lunder Center (or anyone) is tweeting or updating their facebook status. Because that’s what I’ve been asking myself recently. Why are we interested in doing this? Are we deepening the way we communicate; or is the way we are communicating, searching, reading, and surfing on the internet changing us? In the end I think this is the more interesting question: how is technology changing the way we think?
With Linda’s post last week and then Damon Darlin’s article, Technology Doesn’t Dumb Us Down. It Frees Our Minds in the NYT, which was a response to Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic Monthly article Is Google Making Us Stupid?, I’ve been kicking these thoughts around recently.
Of course, I don’t really have any answers, and I trust you weren’t expecting them from me. To pair all of this down to a sentence or two: I don’t think technology is making us stupid, and, well, I really don’t think it’s making us any smarter. But I am thrilled to be at this moment when technology is opening doors that were previously closed, showing us into parts of the museum (and every other part of society) that were previously off limits, and allowing us to collaborative work together on projects that are greater than each individual.
Listen to Clay Shirky at the 2008 Web 2.0 Expo talk about “waking up from the collective bender” we’ve been having on our free time and you’ll know what I mean. I for one agree with him about the idea of “carving out a bit of the cognitive surplus” and putting it to good use. And of course agree that it’s better to do something rather than to do nothing with “free time” (one of his arguments I find a bit tough: that playing World of Warcraft is more productive than watching a sitcom like The Office).
So, maybe this is why I’m so interested in following museum projects with Twitter, or why I’m willing blog for the IMA, read other conservation blogs, work on Wikipedia projects, or fool with Facebook (mind you I really don’t mess with any of these things while I’m here at the IMA, I’m just too busy with the “work” work I do. Honestly, that’s the truth. I do all that stuff at home, on my free time.). I’m willing to do it because it’s doing something not nothing. (Another side note here, the other weekend I made an application in Facebook that allows you to send art conservation tools to your friends – because they may need them. I’ll let you be judge if this is doing something or doing nothing.)
I remember sometime ago when Tyler Green over at Modern Art Notes announced that he was on Facebook, but then said “Not sure what I’ll do with it, but I’m open to suggestions.” (Yes, he’s on also Twitter .) Yeah, “open to suggestions.” Me too. I think that’s a big difference: it seems everyone and everything is now open for suggestions or discussion, or is just plain open. This is a change in thinking. I think this proves that technology has the potential to free our minds, not make us more stupid.
I feel a need to bring this back to art conservation because, in the end, that’s what I do and what I’m nominally supposed to be writing about. Using technology to talk about conservation or work on conservation projects has plenty of positives. And doing it in an open way has the potential to get more people involved and make the work that we are doing in the museum more accessible. Do I think using Twitter to let you have up-to-the-minute updates on what the conservators are doing on projects is a good idea? I don’t know, and I don’t think I’ll be up for answering that anytime soon (unless, of course, the Nugget Factory decides to pony up the money to cover my cell phone data plan to let me experiment with it).
Finally, then, I’d like to take this post in a slightly different but related direction and end with another question: how does all of this technology and accessibility change our understanding of and interest in art? I’m fairly certain that all of the art in the IMA’s collection has nothing to do with you sitting at home looking at a computer screen; you have to come here to see it. Because I work in conservation, I’m reminded on a daily basis that art is a physical thing: it has dimension, occupies space, and in some ways is living a life here at the IMA. A flat, glowing screen can’t relay this kind of information; art must be viewed and experienced in person.
Here’s my attempt to reduce this to a tweet: “Richard McCoy is unsure how technology influences viewing art.”