Tuesday, July 01, 2008
Dear Museum 2.0-ers,
Next week, I'll be going to DC for a meeting convened by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Museum and Library Services on "Museums and Libraries in the 21st Century." They've asked each of the participants to prepare a one-page position paper (today = highly alliterative) on the topic and to provide one paper that "you think would be important for everyone interested in the subject to read."
The paper is the easy part. I am recommending the transcript of Clay Shirky's speech about Gin, Television, and Social Surplus, in which he argues that the next twenty years will be marked by people's slow, incremental, and astoundingly impactful awakening from being passive consumers (of TV) to partly active content creators.
But one page! It's a good writing exercise to see if you can write anything of substance in 720 words or so (I encourage you to try it). I'm not sure I succeeded. I wanted to share it with you to get your thoughts on this topic. What did I state poorly? What did I gloss over? What could I cut out? What would you put in your one-page epistle to the future?
Here are my 714 words. I'm sending it off tomorrow, but your opinions are appreciated anytime.
Note: I highly recommend that you check out (and add to!) the comments on this one, including a response manifesto by educational technologist Ira Socol.
Over the last 50 years, public-facing museums and libraries in the U.S. have established viability in two ways—via designed experiences (exhibits, programs, courses) and access to assets (artifacts, books). Today, both of these models are threatened, and within 50 years they will no longer be sustainable. To be successful (and hopefully essential), museums and libraries need to pursue new models in which we provide platforms for social engagement, transitioning from providing designed, controlled experiences to comfortable venues for people and discourse.
Why are our current models failing? On the experience side, we’re being out-competed by retail. Our offerings are perceived as less varied, flexible, and sophisticated than those presented by bookstores, bars, and cafes. We rarely offer alcoholic beverages, comfortable seating, background music, or free admission to go with the art, lectures, and interactive experiences now available in many hybrid retail spaces. And on the assets side, we’re being rendered obsolete by digitization and the Web. While museums and libraries may be trusted sources of information, people increasingly prefer sources that are immediately and widely accessible for use and reuse. Regardless of how museums and libraries portray themselves, it’s clear to users: Wikipedia belongs to them. The artifacts in museums, which they increasingly cannot even photograph for IP reasons, do not.
The popular option at this time is to try to beat the experiential competition and ignore the Web-based cultural shift. This translates to higher ticket prices, more blockbuster exhibitions, and less community engagement. I contend that we will be more successful, and tremendously more interesting, if we take another path.
First, there are some things we have to learn from the competition. From our experiential neighbors, we have to learn to put our customers first. We have to privilege our visitor/users over our governing stakeholders. One of the most interesting examples of this is the recent evangelical megachurch trend. To the distress of some purists, megachurches don’t serve God or priests; they serve people. They offer daycare and Starbucks and late night services. They make church convenient. We need to stop worrying about the respective gods of our institutions and start making our experiences comfortable, accessible, and convenient.
From the Web 2.0 revolution, we have to learn to be generous with our assets. The good news is that there are hundreds of thousands of people debating the content of every book, scientific principle, and artistic movement on the Web right now. The bad news is that museums and libraries are rarely part of those conversations and in many cases are willfully preventing the inclusion of their assets in that discussion. We are entering a cultural era of explosive content production by non-anointed regular people. Real artifacts are not suffering with the rise of digitization; they are gaining new lives in personal memory sites, blogs, and collection-based social networks. We should be helping enable these conversations in the real world. We need to stop focusing on protecting our stuff and start creating new physical analogs to these virtual tools—platforms for people to engage with our content on their own terms.
Together, these lessons paint the picture of a future museum or library: a safe, comfortable live venue for discourse about content. We are uniquely situated to be these venues. Most “community spaces” are replete with advertising, and none can provide the access to collections—precious conversation pieces—that libraries and museums offer. The people who congregate on the Web to talk about books and artifacts are looking for places to meet in person, and we should welcome them. They want expert support, and we can provide it. They want to sit on couches and make noise at 9pm, and we should offer that. They want to make and share videos and stories and exhibits about our assets, and we should assist and reward them. We can consciously create platforms that enable broad, meaningful engagement—excellence and equity—and transform our visitors into ardent, active users. As the digital divide increases, we can also be sources of training and access for those locked out of new communities and assets (libraries are already moving in this direction). The Web has given people the opportunity to dream up their own community spaces. If we can listen and remake ourselves into those dreams, we will finally become places for our audiences.