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Are museums going post-digital?

September 25, 2011

Lat month, I was fortunate to be able to attend the Let’s Get Real Conference in Bristol. It was an invigorating and inspiring event, and I learned considerably more than I have yet to fully appreciate. At the end of the day, I was one of several people asked to present some take home thoughts for the day, and I really didn’t do the event justice. I praised the ambition of many of the people I had spoken to, but I ought really to have commended the candour of those who presented. Cheeringly, this ranged from the refreshingly honest insight into working life at Google from Tom Uglow, to the ‘failing forwards’ case studies of Emma McLean of the National Maritime Museum and Hugh Wallace of National Museums Scotland. If there was one simple lesson to be learned, it’s that failure can be the foundation of much greater successes.

I won’t attempt a summary of the day, as Hugh Wallace and Katie Smith have done much better jobs than I could manage. But I will reflect on one issue that I’ve been wrestling with since the end of the conference. Do museums need to become post-digital?

The idea was referenced by Tom Uglow in his opening keynote, and surfaced several times during the day. As I understand it, a post-digital culture is one where digital technology has become transparent: it has become so permeated into everyday life that we no longer reflect upon or feel challenged by its digital character. As I recall, Tom gave the generic example of an individual who is woken by their iPhone alarm, spends all day at work writing and reading emails, and goes home to watch BBC iPlayer while tweeting on their mobile. Although the individual will spend most of their waking time immersed in digital media, they will not be particularly conscious of this fact.

If one accepts this concept, there are many conclusions that can be drawn. One inference is that museums should no longer pursue digital strategies per se, but accept that their broader range of strategies, policies and procedures will have a significant digital element.  I have a lot of sympathy with this argument, as it is clearly absurd for digital technologies to be utilised without reference to the organisation’s wider strategy. But this does not necessarily mean that digital strategies are inherently problematic.

The problem, for me, is twofold. First, I don’t believe in the post-digital thesis. It implies stability: for digital technology to become transparent it must not surprise you. Yet the current experience of digital technology is that it is restlessly disruptive. Many of the big players in the digital industry were barely known five years ago, and most of us would hesitate to predict who will be the dominant players in five years time. That’s a commonplace observation, but what underpins this process is that the development of digital media and their infrastructures are driven by fervent capitalism. There is a commercial need to innovate, replace and differentiate that is inherently disruptive. In this model, stability could only be a symptom of commercial complacency and a lack of competition. This may happen one day, but there’s little sign of it yet.

The second problem is that of digital divides. If we consider new models of working in the museum sector, we must consider the scalability of those models. If it works for the British Museum, will it also work for a volunteer run museum in a small Surrey town? The answer, quite reasonably, may be ‘no’, but we should acknowledge the limitations of such models when we advocate them for the wider museum sector.

My concern is that advocating the abandonment of digital strategies will alienate those museums who have yet to go digital. To move away from a digital strategy implies that you went ‘digital’ in the first place, and I suspect an awful lot of museums have yet to do this. Yes, they may regularly use email and host a website, but many have yet to work towards placing their collections online, engaging in social media, or, more vitally, bringing digital thinking into the heart of their organisation. Such decisions, while often reasonable, are frequently formed by internal discussions, and a digital strategy can be an effective tool for providing impetus to expand into these areas. Claiming that we have moved away from such strategies seems rather premature in cases like these.

At the Let’s Get Real conference, I remarked that I wasn’t even convinced my own museum service has gone fully digital yet, and claimed that it was far too early for us to consider going post-digital. I quipped that perhaps we should consider the process of digital transformation as being akin to Marx’s model of historical materialism: a series of necessary revolutions, in which each social transformation eventually sows the seeds of its own replacement. It was a rather wild remark, but I do think there is something to be learned from Marx.

Now, while the disintegration of the late capitalist system has proven Marx right in a great many things, I’m not quite foolish enough to make him a soothsayer for the digital age. But the revolutionary dynamic described by Marx is only the most well known example of a broader set of theories of historical change. Marx’s theory of historical materialism was heavily influenced by Hegel’s conception of history as societal progress, and echoes of this model can also be found in the early work of Michel Foucault.

While neither the Marxist nor Hegelian model of change adequately fit the development of digital technology, they do describe a process of recurring transformations that seems appropriate. The growth of the digital, in museums as anywhere, has been less one of smooth evolution, and more a process of sudden shifts. The problem with both Marx and Hegel, however, and one often shared by their intellectual descendants, is that their models of history end in a static and stable state. For Marx it was the communist utopia; for Hegel it was the end of history, exemplified, somewhat myopically, by the contemporary Prussian state. Yet history shows that history has yet to end, and I suspect the post-digital life will befall a similar state.

Perhaps it is best to think of the digital as a series of revolutions, and borrow and shamelessly refit Trotsky’s notion of permanent revolution. The problem, then, is one of navigation: how do we cope with this disruption? This is where Culture 24’s Let’s Get Real report proves so helpful. It is debatable whether its work will lead to a standardised set of metrics that are used by funders and governing bodies alike, but for me this is hardly the point. What is so valuable about this document is that it outlines the debates and the possibilities; it provides a framework for discussion, and in terms of breaching the digital divide in the museum sector, this is enormously useful stuff.

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