Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Museums and Libraries in the 21st Century in 714 Words (or less)

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.

11 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

I think museums have to offer experiences you can't find anywhere else. I can look at assets online and learn more about any topic under the sun through Wikipedia. Museums must offer fun, interactive types of activities you can't do anywhere else.

For example, the amazing Butterfly Pavillion at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum http://www.butterflies.si.edu/ You walk into this enclosed tunnel and butterflies fly all around and land on you. This is 100 times more special than looking at pictures of butterflies online.

Chris Thorn said...

Nina - really great analysis and recommendations. I work in a completely different area - school reform and decision support - but I would say that many of the same issues apply. Reform in schools needs to be open, engaging, interactive, and resourced in a way that allows all participants to argue from evidence (whatever form that takes). You blog is one of the most consistently insightful things I read (and I read lots).


POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

Hi Nina,

The things that resonate with me about your 714 words are the notion of "customer service" and "community."

Both of those things, whether online or offline, tend to happen in open-ended, low-key, human-scale situations.

Unfortunately many Museums, especially U.S. Museums tend to be caught up in the "bigger is better mentality" (or "edifice complex") and tend to commit their fund raising energy and institutional resources toward grand statements rather than more intimate gestures. (Maybe we need more "us museums" than "U.S. Museums".)

A recent example I encountered of a positive museum experience (not replicable online) that fostered interaction amongst visitors was the artist Olafur Eliasson's show called "Take Your Time." I wrote about it on my ExhibiTricks blog recently, and many people have written about the show on ExhibitFiles as well.

Have fun at the conference in your old DC stomping grounds!

Nina Simon said...

Thanks to all of you for your thoughts. Paul, I'm going to add/alter slightly to include the "bigger is better"--I agree whole-heartedly.

Interesting that you bring up Take Your Time. I also loved that exhibit, which in some ways could be considered a blockbuster/biggie (requiring all sorts of water and space). I'd say that the importance is the feeling of intimacy, no matter what the size. Take Your Time had it--even in big places like MOMA and SFMOMA (where I saw it).

I think intimacy can exist in big spaces, but its natural habitat is in smaller institutions.

irasocol said...

I blew it. 747 words (not counting these): - Ira Socol

If I sit down in my favorite local coffee shop I can instantly be online and linked to the museums and libraries of the world, and, the coffee is excellent, the soups quite wonderful, and there are remarkable desserts if I wish. Or I can cross the street, sit by the fireplace in the pub, and be equally connected as I drink my pint and have someone bring me curry fries.

If I go to my local library however, I need to type a 20 digit code into a computer merely to schedule an appointment to use one of their online computers, or I must go to the reference desk, wait in line, and ask a somewhat grumpy employee for today’s online code for my laptop. And then I find both sites I want and communications tools that I depend on, blocked.

If I go to New York to look at art I can either wander the downtown galleries looking at what is new and cutting edge, paying nothing. Or I can feel ripped off and pay exorbitant fees to enter the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, or the Guggenheim.

And honestly, when the Chicago Art Institute had a pay-what-you-wish admission policy I went many times a year. Since they fixed an admission cost, I have not walked through the doors. It isn’t just that I think that a cultural institution occupying city parkland should be free, it is that I now find myself calculating opportunity costs. I do not think it is worth it to pay the admission fee for the way I have used this museum in the past – short tours of areas of interest as breaks in otherwise busy days in the city – and I rarely have the time to invest in the “day at the museum” which might make it seem to be worth the cost.

Finally, though I love science and history museums, I rarely go anymore. While the exhibits can be marvelous to see, feel, touch, experience, they lack the context I have come to expect in my learning. If I am staring at the locomotive in the Museum of Science and Industry or the Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian, I want to be able to ask my own questions in my own time. The way I would be able to do if I was sitting in that coffee shop, looking up the same artifacts online on my own computer or mobile phone.

You might say that I just want to entertained and indulged. Maybe. But I have choices. Lots of choices. And my days are busy. Everyone’s days are busy. And I have become used to the comforts and technologies of my moment in human history.

This is the problem for museums and libraries today. They neither make me comfortable nor do they embrace my learning styles. We might ask why isn’t every library catalog as simple to search in as the Amazon website? We might ask why don’t I have wireless access in every museum, or even specifically available on-site information? We might ask, why do you charge for things which should be free?

And just as museums 120 years ago needed to put in toilet facilities and electric lights for their visitors - just as libraries 100 years ago needed to add children’s rooms - the cultural institutions of today must adapt. It will be costly. It will be difficult. It will involve new business models. But it must happen.

And there are glimmers. At the Brooklyn Museum the exhibit of American Art now is built contextually – even to including films on flat panel monitors when that would add a connection. Add wi-fi access with a home page with links, add mobile phone text-messages linked to exhibits, put in the possibility of user-created content on those websites (Amazon reviews? Blogs on Obama.com?), and with that museum’s pay-what-you-wish admission, you are almost there. Bring a few street food vendors and some decent benches into the lobby, and they’re there. (I think, in this same scenario, a whole bunch of new revenue streams have also appeared.)

The museum and the library do not help to preserve the past by refusing to enter the present. The museum and the library do not do justice to knowledge by refusing to make dissemination easier. And neither accomplishes anything by making people uncomfortable, except to chase away today’s young users and tomorrow’s benefactors. It is, indeed, time to join the 21st Century.

Anonymous said...

Very good analysis, and nicely done within your 714 words.

I've noticed that several libraries have begun embracing Flickr. How they have used Flickr is a good indication of where they fall along your spectrum. Some, such as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, use Flickr for historical photographs. We have a local library that has posted its collection of historical photos and is actively soliciting comments from the community regarding location, identification of subject matter, etc. (www.flickr.com/photos/pcls/). This is how Flickr SHOULD be used.

Unfortunately, I see too many of these organizations use Flickr for posting photos of their last book club party or the latest seminar that they host. While on the surface it may be nice to claim that your organization is involved in Web 2.0, but these types of photos only appeal to employees and those already actively involved with the library. There is no real outreach component.

Anonymous said...

I whole heartedly enjoyed the insight and would concur that a new model needs consideration but don't forget we need to preserve the artefacts for other generations as well as ours. Your comments re customers first is an absolute must but I find very few library or museum professionals embrace the 2.0 and other tools. Also the powers that be are scared ans often veto brave new steps.

Pedro Nunes said...

Excellent Blog...glad I found a new source for checking out what's new and hot in the Arts.
Very good analysis, I love Take Your Time.
Thanks for writing good content!!!

Anonymous said...

Great post. Nina as you know I'm a fan of the Tech Museum in Second Life. Question: Do you or any readers have good references for interactive design? One of my grad students is going to design an exhibit this summer and fall in Second Life. I'd love suggestions for any good peer-reviewed journal articles on the topic. We're not in the museum industry but want to create immersive experiences about healthcare topics.

Nina Simon said...

Zsuzsa, The best one-stop shopping for peer-reviewed papers on interactive exhibit design and visitor research is informalscience.org.
Other recommendations from Museum 2.0 readers?

Good luck with the exhibits--please consider documenting them on the ExhibitFiles website when they are completed!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Nina, informalscience.org looks great, and I signed up at ExhibitFiles.
A colleague also gave me Zelevansky's (1995) Crisscrossing the Interface: The Design, Display and Evaluation of an Interactive Computer
Exhibit--an apparently "classic" article in this field that gives some great basic principles about interactive exhibit planning. Would love to have more of this kind of conceptual article from Museum 2.0 readers--any that you'd recommend?