Musea and Media

If you live in Toronto, you might be familiar with the renovations that have taken place over the last several years at the Royal Ontario Museum. A $270,000,000 budget resulted in an expansion opening up a total of nearly 388,000 square feet of redesigned exhibition space. If you’ve visited the Art Gallery of Ontario since they attempted a similar renovation, you might have learned that it cost them nearly the same amount of money to build a hall out of Douglas Fir as it cost the ROM to build one of awkward glass crystals. Inside both institutions LCD screens dot the halls, and in the AGO’s elevators, video installations by Vera Frenkel break up (or help hold) the silence between visitors to the espresso bar.

But in the shadow of these enormous structural renovations, dramatic changes to the interactive experiences on offer have been few and far between.

Museums are places that inspire a sense of grandeur in the context of human, and natural, history. But modern museums and art galleries are also institutions racing to keep pace with ever-accelerating advances in the uptake of digital technologies. The museum is a unique cultural artifact that acts as our interface with the deep past, with timeframes rarely considered in our day-to-day lives. But in relation to the ancient systems with which they interface, museums are actually rather young. The first museums in Europe began materializing only 500 years ago. The first public museum, the Louvre, opened a good 280 years after that. The “Golden Age” that museums have named in their honour, like the Mesozoic of the dinosaurs, is bordered by the late 1800’s and the First World War.

But the huge advances that have come in the last 50 years of digital technology, scientific practice, and design have created a strange situation for museums. As leading-edge innovation and research shifted to universities over the course of the 20th century, museums went from being centres of scientific research to institutions facing real existential dilemmata. If emerging technologies and scientific advances offered better insight into the past, museums would have to innovate and refresh exhibitions at a faster rate. And if audiences came to expect technology they’d experienced elsewhere within the museum’s walls, they would have to leap into a sprint in completely new fields of interpretation.

Museums have a number of unique relationships to digital media, some resulting from the their unique situation as a tool for interfacing with deep time; physically, informationally, and procedurally.

  • Museums have digital media artworks or artifacts in their collections.
  • Museums are among the institutions that will oversee the curation of the emergence of digital media.
  • Museums make broad use of digital media in the design of exhibitions and interpretive displays.

Some of the most interesting exhibitions or tools in museums and galleries today take a look at how these three unique ties can be brought together, or strummed in harmony. The traditional toolkits of museum operators, designers, and audiences are evolving.

The Google Art Project, launched earlier this year, allows web surfers to head inside 17 famous museums and galleries around the world using Street View technology. Over 1,000 high-resolution (some of them excruciatingly high resolution) artworks can be accessed through the service, and they are all accessible through either a catalogue or from a virtual wall of the museum in which they reside. The influence services like this will have on the museum industry in the medium term is difficult to forecast. Will a technology company wind up becoming a dominant museum designer, in an interesting flip of the curation of media history by cultural institutions? Will curators and technicians begin preparing works solely for online exhibition? Will artists respond to this shift in curatorial process by creating more and more gigapixel artifacts that live on an external hard drive rather than in the rafters of the few remaining Queen West lofts?

Within the stacked halls of MoMA in New York City, another interesting approach to revising the interactive experience of the museum has just been unveiled.

Microsoft Digital Art is a system designed to emulate the experience of painting on canvas, using a variety of different media. “Digital Art” (an interesting name to decide upon, given the recent trademark spats between MSFT and AAPL over generic terms like “App” and “Windows”) introduces to the high-end museum space an unusual and sometimes uncomfortable element: user-generated content. When I designed Painting The Myth: The Mystery of Tom Thomson with a group of collaborators at the CFC Media Lab in 2004, our efforts were concentrated on creating a new opportunity for museum and gallery audiences to engage with works in an institution’s collection. Painting The Myth told the story of a famous Canadian painter’s mysterious death, while enabling users young and old to paint through one of his works, as he would have painted it nearly one hundred years ago.

Microsoft Digital Art, by enabling visitors to paint their own digital masterpieces, affords museums the opportunity to acquire, curate, and utilize digital media in a single device.

With the three units MoMA has been loaned through the end of August, they could encourage the creation of tens of thousands of original artistic works. It is not clear from Microsoft’s mammoth Terms of Use whether or not painters retain ownership of their works, or if the cycle between creation and institutional acquisition in the art world is compressing similarly to the time between paradigm-shifting technological advancements.

Microsoft Digital Art’s presence at MoMA seems indicative of the museum’s commitment to curating the history and evolution of digital media. Talk To Me, an exhibition opening at MoMA this July, will focus on the nature of the dialogue between human beings and the objects we’ve created. The exhibition’s site is a mildly confusing and hyper-categorized list of projects and ideas, but here and there you can get some real insight into the ideas behind the show. The curators see Talk To Me as an exhibition about the relationship between form, function, and meaning. Dead languages of innovation and metrics of techno-cultural impact will be on display in the museum alongside early daguerrotypes (some with an eerie meta-meta feel to them). MoMA isn’t necessarily trying to create another Massive Change with Talk To Me, but the exhibition has potential.

But in displaying Microsoft Digital Art, MoMA is also making a few interesting statements about the role of large institutions in rolling out digital interfaces to their collections. I think it’s telling that the museum is using Digital Art to enable user-generated content creation rather than a more engaging experience with the works in its collection. This says to me that while they think digital toys are fun, and by all means at home in the Material Lab, they’re not necessarily going to replace the LCD screens and more traditional interpretive displays scattered around the rest of the museum. Although less trendy, those traditional displays are hot media; and although it employs cutting-edge technology and big brand power, the Microsoft Digital Art system is cool… that’s McLuhan cool, not auto-tune cool. Hot media are best used for dealing explicitly with the artifacts in the collection, whether in the form of a digital audio player with tour information or a plaque. Cool media are best rolled out as creative interventions, engaging experiences ultimately divorced from the collection of the institution itself. The Virtual Museum of Canada put out a call a few weeks ago for proposals dealing with augmented reality, geo-location, and various museum collections across the country… so perhaps there is still hope for exciting innovation in digital interpretation closer to home.

In a recent piece on Rhizome, Michelle Kasprzak kicked off a great conversation on cultural institutions in an age of intangible culture. Through an examination of recent attempts at creating virtual museums, Kasprzak interrogates the nature of the museum, and how recent online incarnations such as Adobe’s Museum of Digital Media have used the word itself as a signifier for the culturally authentic. Is this what happens when we start keeping all of our deep-time lenses in a single basket, so to speak? What are the consequences of concentrating our thinking about history and artifacts into one word – museum – which can then be tossed about and attached to cultural institutions of all sorts?

Standards are emerging around what makes a 21st century museum “good” – but it’s unlikely we’ll arrive at a monocultural agreement any time soon. The very activities that used to be tended to exclusively by museums and galleries (or by the very wealthy with a fondness for the esoteric or macabre) – historical and natural artifact collection, preservation, interpretation, contextualization – are rapidly being taken up by the masses. Wikipedia is a museum of sorts, but of ideas as much as physical artifacts. Flickr may not be the best gallery in the world, but it certainly has one of the largest collections. As Michelle Kasprzak noted in her article, the US Library of Congress welcomed billions of tweets into its digital archive last year… and they had the good sense to announce the decision via Twitter.

In my previous post, I advocated the idea that designing something new often requires a new toolkit. It’s been very interesting for me to consider museums in this context… as institutions responsible for preserving our relationship with deep time in an engaging, accessible and decidedly modern manner. Ever-accelerating evolutions in technology as well as the changing expectations of diverse audiences must make the decision-making process in any modern museum even more complicated.

Trevor Haldenby is a producer and photographer living in Toronto. He has attended Wilfrid Laurier University, Rhode Island School of Design, CFC Media Lab, and is presently completing a Master’s of Design in Strategic Foresight & Innovation at OCAD University.