In part I of this series, we collected a number of great responses about the challenges and opportunities for museums to consider in light of the rise of participatory culture. This post, follows up on several of those ideas and connects to the ongoing discussions occurring at the Salzburg Global Seminar this week.
Having completed the first full day of the Salzburg Global Seminar – discussing the role of museums and libraries in an era of participatory culture – I’m now fully convinced about why such gatherings are so important to the future relevance and impact of our libraries and museums. Comprising individuals from 24 countries and a variety of professional backgrounds, the group has spent its first days considering the evolving impact that participatory culture is having on our practice, and at times returning to the very first principles of what it means to be a library or museum.
For those of you who are interested in the excellent and continuing discussion happening in Salzburg, you should go to check out the excellent work by Michael Stephens on his blog “Tame the Web”. Michael has some great coverage of the proceedings and brings a valuable perspective from libraries to the conversation.
For my part, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight three questions that, as a museum professional, stood out to me as being important for us to fully flesh out as we consider what museums might become in the next decade.
1. How can museums aid in addressing the socio-economic consequences of a widening technology gap?
A number of participants spoke eloquently about the social and economic consequences that impact marginalized communities who lack the same easy-access to technology that many of us take for granted. This lack of access means a lack of opportunity to engage with the cultural evolutions of content produced online and critical dialogs taking place on blogs, twitter and cultural websites. The prevalence of information access is contributing to a changing set of skills and digital media literacy that cannot be replaced by other means. The ability to sift, process, remix, and reformulate thoughts and critical argument is – quite specifically – a new form of literacy that will increasingly determine the opportunities and inclusion afforded to the privileged.
This fact has been well documented in the literature, and for those of you eager to learn more, I would recommend reading Henry Jenkins’ work – particularly his white-paper on “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” (PDF).
New to me, was the realization that addressing the technology gap only delays the problem until the next disruptive technology arrives. While we don’t yet know what that technology is, it’s a safe bet that the privileged among us will have access to it before many in our local communities do.
Since museums, and art museums in particular, posses such rich collections of artifacts, media, and artistic communication, are there ways that we can use those assets to address the underlying issues of media literacy? This opportunity further reinforces the value of museums’ existing efforts to build critical thinking skills into a wide range of programming efforts. Addressing the root skills at the heart of digital media literacy can work alongside efforts to provide comprehensive digital access to begin to positively impact and bridge that gap.
2. Do museums really want to take participatory culture seriously?
After thinking about and discussing the topic for quite some time now, it’s clear to me that the opportunities afforded to us by the changing expectations of participatory culture are resulting in a series of choices that museums will need to make regarding whether or not we will embrace participatory culture as an integral part of our museums.
To be intellectually genuine, it seems that there is scarcely any middle ground. Either the museum will determine that there is inherent value to the opinions, expertise, and efforts of their invested communities or it will not. For museums that choose to embrace a conversational engagement with their audiences about the nature, origins, and personal interpretations of their collections, what remains to be seen is how the evolution of the authoritative voice of museum experts resolves its place in the discussion.
I, for one, believe that it’s entirely consistent to wholeheartedly pursue the creation of scholarly knowledge about our collections, and at the same time welcome the diversity of interpretation brought to the museum by the general public. As a number of the contributors to part I of this article pointed out though, truly owning up to this decision will have far reaching consequences for the sustainability of these efforts in the long term. I’m not sure that most museums really recognize how profoundly this might impact their daily operations. Time will tell.
3. Is it possible for art museums to catalyze community conversation and action to addresses issues that matter to our local and global communities?
Lastly, I’m intrigued by the possibility that art museums can begin to leverage their deep collections and the changes in participatory media to promote meaningful conversations with communities about how to deal with a variety of social challenges.
The polarizing effects of politics have destroyed any opportunity for genuine civic discourse, and the educational system is so over burdened with curricular metrics that there is a dearth of opportunity for reasonable and well considered citizens to discuss the important issues of our time with empathy and respect. Artists have certainly been a bellwether for social discourse throughout our past. Is it possible that museums might emerge as a useful venue for this kind of discussion, and at the same time reinforce the relevance of the art in our collections to the daily lives of our constituents?
This is an area that I plan on reading and studying more about myself when I return to Indianapolis. In particular, I’ll be picking up Lois Silverman’s book entitled “The Social Work of Museums”. I’m certain that I could learn a lot from many of you as well, and look forward to thinking together about whether this is a valuable role for museums to play.