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A little drama, please

Many years ago, back when I was studying digital stuff, I read Brenda Laurel’s ‘Computers as Theatre‘. At the time, Laurel’s book was already ten years old and starting to show its age; not having read it since, I suspect the last decade has treated it particularly unkindly. But it’s one of the few books on digital media that has stuck in my mind. Her book articulated a very singular way of conceiving human and computer interaction. Computing, to use a slightly archaic verb, is not just about informatics; it is also about dramatics.

I liked Laurel’s extended metaphor, particularly the notion of a PC presenting a stage, and the user acting upon it. Thinking of the boundaries of a screen as a proscenium arch made instant sense and since then, perhaps surprisingly, it has only been reinforced by the haptic fourth wall of  touchscreen devices. Reconceiving human and computer agency in this way still feels potent and exciting.

The only problem I had on my initial reading was that I could never work out where this metaphor led: what problems could it solve, what opportunities could it create? I could never resolve that, and still haven’t entirely done so. For that very reason, Laurel’s description has never gone past its intellectual sell by date for me. It may never have proven itself to be entirely relevant, but that does not contradict the metaphor’s recurrent charge.

I have begun thinking about Laurel’s work again, because while there are many lively and important debates taking place about the digital ambitions and demands of the museum sector, I am struck by how rarely we talk about the performative possibilities of digital media. We can now bend historical narratives, we can re-hang galleries with a few mouse clicks, yet we seldom seem poised to embrace this potential. With the museum sector becoming part of the Arts Council’s remit later this year, I suspect this may change. My equally strong suspicion, however, is that we may just problematize the opportunity and crowdsource a ‘solution’ by opening up our collections for public remixing. While this will hardly be a bad thing, it will be disappointing if museums do not actively explore the dramatic possibilities of these technologies for themselves.

In part, this is probably because museums often seem embarrassed about their performative practices. For all that we are now willing to promote museums as places of fun and excitement our scholarly assumptions are never far out of sight. To be scholarly is, of course, to seek and tell truths; to perform is to act, to play, to evade literal truths in pursuit of alternative or more ambiguous meanings. These impulses seem inherently incompatible.

Yet museums have always peddled a romantic, if not fantastical, product. Curators and public alike are aware that the excitement of seeing ancient and exotic objects and artworks is as much to do with the exhilarating rush of the imagination as it is to do with fact based learning. Indeed, even the most academic of museums are immersed in the performative.

One example is the recently restored Neues Museum in Berlin, which I visited last month. Like all German state museums it is studied and scholarly, and often feels like a rather tome-like tomb. Yet the building and the interpretation of its collections are pure performance. This is most evident in David Chipperfield’s elegant and haunting design, but it can be seen throughout the interpretation of its collections, and particularly in the arrangement of objects. For instance, on the first floor of the museum an entire room is dedicated to the museum’s famous bust of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti. On leaving this room the visitor steps into a long hall populated with several other displays. The audio guide alerts the visitor to the fact that Nefertiti is positioned so that she stares down the corridor to meet the gaze of a large statue of the Greek god Helios.

It’s a quietly dramatic effect, and a very curious arrangement given the museum’s academic ambience. What is the connection between Nefertiti and Helios? I am no specialist in these periods, but unless Nefertiti is supposed to be coolly appraising one of the gods of her Ptolemaic successors I cannot imagine there is much of a firm connection in either history or aesthetic form. Why does the audio guide insist on alerting you to this arrangement? It doesn’t tell you. The connection is made but never explained. This has little to do with edification and a lot to do with theatre.

Museums have never been simple repositories of things aligned with facts. They have always been sites of wonder and imagination. And although it is vital that we get to grips with the enormous task of making digital collections accessible and comprehensible, we should never forget the performative potential of these technologies. Exploiting this can often be very simple: the use of ellipsis in a tweet is a performative technique, and can be more than textual styling. Simply grouping a selection of object images on Flickr can be about dramatisation rather than categorisation. Beyond this, and given the resources and the ambition, we have the potential to turn our collections into engaging theatre.

I do not intend to use this post to argue how and why we should do this. That’s a claim and a case to be made another time. For now, all I will suggest is that sometimes, just sometimes, it may be worth thinking less about SEO and more about breaking a leg.

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Back to the Future

At the time of writing, I am in the peculiar position of being exactly where I would have aspired to be ten years ago, yet feel rather surprised and ill-equipped to be here.

Let me explain.

Back in 2003 I finished a Master’s degree in Digital Media at the University of Sussex. My initial plan was to undertake DPhil research in the use of digital technology in the construction of historical narratives, but it didn’t happen. I was fortunate enough to become sidetracked by a job at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion and Museums. Since then, I’ve done a variety of jobs, mostly working with its photographic collections, and the digital, while always central to my work, was not always my focal point.

That’s changed. As of 1 April 2011 I am RPM’s Digital Development Officer. I’m presently involved in everything from tweeting to image management. It’s a great opportunity, but it’s also forced me to reacquaint myself with many of the ideas and debates I’d left behind a good eight years ago. Essentially, I’m playing catch up with my own ambitions.

To help me bang my thoughts into some sort of discernible shape, I have decided to start a blog. This is probably a doomed venture: most days I can barely update my Facebook status, and a commitment to regular streams of coherent paragraphs seems ambitious at best. But since today is the longest day of the year, and the one day when I ought not to complain of a lack of time, this is probably the most auspicious date to start.

But that’s really enough about me. I shall use this first post to simply note what’s changed and what’s happened since I was last pointed in a digital direction. Some of it surprises me; much of it doesn’t.

What’s New?

  • Social Media. Back when I was studying, a regular subject of debate was the validity of ‘virtual communities’. Facebook was over a year away from launch, and I doubt anyone would have believed that such an absurdly titled service could swallow half a billion people. Web 2.0 had not yet been proffered as the latest promise; eight years later it already sounds tired.
  • In 2003 I thought we would all need to embrace database logic. That’s still true; but in 2011 the stronger impulse is for databases to become invisible. We all navigate databases, are all reliant on their logic in answering our questions. But we want to forget the databases are there.
  • I used to think we would one day digitise all of our collections. Seems like a romantic notion already.

What hasn’t changed?

  • Hype. Internet technologies and the language used to describe them have always been coated in sticky hubris. The internet will change everything, our lives are becoming increasingly connected… blah, blah. It was beginning to irritate me in 2003, but I’d always hoped the novelty of its potential would have faded by the second decade of the twenty first century. But it’s still there. One example can be found in the SCAMORE guide to Maximising Online Resource Effectiveness. I should stress that, for the most part, it is a well written and informative document that I have found enormously helpful and would heartily recommend. But its opening paragraph contains this silly sentence: ‘The human race has never before been so technologically advanced or experienced such an accelerated boom of technical achievements.’ Surely much the same could be said of any point in time since the industrial revolution, if not before? It’s not that such rhetoric is wrong or harmful, but it doesn’t help the digital cause. Whenever I read such statements I can hear the beating of Icarus’s wings: grand statements may release an ovation from a converted audience, but they do not encourage debate or sensible consideration.
  • There is still an assumption that the ‘techy person’ will do the ‘computer stuff’. It’s common for new technologies to temporarily breed new professions: think of trained typists. But many of these professions fade as the necessary skills become absorbed into the wider workforce, and become assumed rather than additional. With digital technology we seem to be regularly chasing this familiar arc with each new development, while rarely appreciating the historical ironies. The use of social media specialists in museums is the latest example. I believe we’ll only really get to grips with social media when it becomes part of widespread museum practice, so that curators, learning officers and others are using these media as part of their daily activities. As someone who is, at least nominally, a social media ‘specialist’, I aspire to my own obsolescence. One of my main ambitions for my present role is to become less of a showman and more of a ringmaster.

One final thought before I sign off. Last Friday I was invited to speak at the Museums Computer Group’s summer meeting in Brighton. Having only been in my post for a couple of months, I was rather nervous of the occasion. Yet it proved to be a thoroughly stimulating event, and refreshingly unmired in jargon or technical obscurantism. While I’m still grappling with the technologies and ideas of my new corner of the museum world, this gave me a healthy confidence to press forward.

On that optimistic note, I shall don my red coat and top hat, and head for the big top…