On museums and technology

Caption: Gerald Murphy, Watch, 1925.

“Museums innovate at their own risk,” was the way writer Mike Pepi concluded a recent piece for Art in America on New York’s New Museum’s “New Inc.”, the first “museum-led incubator for creative entrepreneurs.”

I’ve been spending a good deal of time recently thinking about our experience of art in 2016. Not just mine but generally how I imagine people are experiencing art both inside and outside of museums in an age of mediated encounters.

 There has been much written in recent years, both positive and negative, concerning the response of museums to their new audience(s) and all we have thus far is a giant question mark as to whether the technology-driven tactics museums are turning to to engage their audiences will help or hurt the status of art in the 21st century. (Of course that question mark is all we have in general so far when it comes to the effect social media will have, in the long-term, on our mental and physical health, but that’s another essay.)

Audience attendance and audience engagement are the key metrics for museums, and they’re both metrics expanded use of social media allows leadership (ostensibly) an unprecedented ability to track, but engagement, REAL engagement is, if we’re honest, an almost impossible thing to measure. We attempt to equate quantitative metrics such as length of time spent in a room or length of time spent in front a painting, all things we can now easily measure through phone use, to engagement, but mental engagement can’t be measured quantitatively. That would require the ability to peek inside someone’s brain; it would require the ability to determine someone’s mental presence in a situation.

To truly understand or measure an audience’s engagement with art, or a work of art, better yet his/her understanding of that work of art (which should really be what we’re striving for, right?), one would have to determine qualitatively whether the mind of the person spending time in the museum is indeed engaged with the objects and ideas in the museum, or whether it is elsewhere. 

The fact that museums are, perhaps intentionally, overlooking that aspect of engagement, should be troubling. It should be troubling that we (and our institutions) are content to let data stand in for reality (I say institutions because is there any institution more guilty of this than our public school system?) I think this all really begs the question, another one without an easy (or perhaps any) answer, of what purpose the museum serves, or what purpose it should serve, in the 21st century.

In the once upon a time, several centuries ago, museums were primarily meant to serve an encyclopedic role; they were storehouses of a people’s culture, their objects, their lives, their histories. People attended the museums less for educational purposes than to commune with themselves and with their culture, to be inspired, and perhaps, if enough of the sacredness of art remained intact, to commune with the divine.

It wasn’t until much later that the museum began assuming an educational role. If you lean towards the left perhaps you, as Jason Tebbe asserted in a recent piece for Jacobin, believe the Victorians, and the upper middle-class of the 19th century’s desire to assert their “moral superiority over the nobility” are in large part responsible for the 20th century museum’s role as educator: art was no longer meant to be enjoyed passively, it was education, and experiencing it was one element of a highly aspirational set of values and standards necessary for “personal cultivation and improvement.”

Between the advent of conceptual art in the late 20th century and the museum’s new status as a place for education as opposed to enjoyment or relaxation, the museum grew increasingly intimidating, not to mention un-inviting, over the course of the last century. Visiting a museum became a chore.

Conceptual artists, who were embraced by the establishment, never shied away from expressing their contempt for the general public and the more visually-based art that came before them, and art critics evolved alongside them, developing an ever more complex language to suit the denser artistic vocabulary of their subject. (Then you had critics like Susan Sontag who couldn’t figure out why everyone spent so much time writing about and interpreting art, and so little time actually communing with it. Easy for you to say Susan Sontag.)

The result is the museum visitor of today, an individual oddly torn between, on the one hand, a complete ignorance of what it is they are looking at, and on the other the culturally evolved impulse to better him or herself. On your day off, what would you do?

The interactive technologies museums are turning to are evidence that our lack of knowledge often wins out over our desire for self-improvement: we’re staying home. As a Metropolitan Art Museum staff member said, the Met’s competition isn’t other cultural institutions, it’s Netflix and CandyCrush.

Museums are now aggressively responding to their new, perceived competition, and they seem to be on the brink of re-defining themselves yet again, if they don’t disappear altogether.

The coolest piece of museum visitor technology I’ve seen is the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum’s Pen, which does indeed resemble a pen, and is handed out to visitors upon entrance to the museum. The Pen allows visitors to “save” pieces in the collection they like and “download” them at touch-screens throughout the museum, where they can see other pieces by the same creator or time period or style or even other pieces of the same color. 

All of this allows for the new museum buzz-words: “participation,” “interaction,” “collaboration.”

It’s fitting that a design, as opposed to fine art, museum has one of the most all-encompassing tools to track users (that’s another conversation) and encourage engagement. Here in Dallas the Dallas Museum of Art encourages users to roam the galleries with their phones and check in at various places to receive “rewards” plus access to more dynamic information about the pieces in the room, etc. Look up any other major museum in the country and you’d be hard-pressed not to find a similar program.

But all the utopian rhetoric museums put forth alongside their latest technology designed to encourage the engagement that would otherwise be lacking, or the any number of art museums from the Georgia Museum of Art to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston who have crowdsourced exhibitions (and maybe even acquisitions?), hides the fact that the people who work in museums have a profound lack of understanding of the people who visit them. And rather than take the time to understand them, (if they could), they’ve developed a reactive solution that feels a bit more like pandering than problem-solving.

It’s unfortunate but true that most of these initiatives emerge from the new-found urgency museums feel to compete with the screens our attentions are so drawn to, but like most aspects of modern culture, the flaw is in the need to compete at all. 

I’m not arguing that that need is real. I’m not really even arguing that Netflix isn’t the competition, I think it is. What I am saying, is that we should not just accept that. I’m saying that when museum’s stoop to that level, they make a very strong case for their own irrelevance. They don’t make themselves more attractive to visitors, they make themselves that much more pointless. When artists begin to look more and more like the world they’re meant to be critiquing, when the cultural institutions begin to use the same language and create the same programs as the tech industry that has become so dominant, is art the same? Is it unique?

There’s no one institution or one cultural shift that is responsible for this. The art world didn’t help themselves when they insulated themselves from the general culture, but our whole experience of education in the 21st century is the result of many, many factors coalescing into the creation of a culture content with themselves and their surface-level engagement with the world. Is it the fault of the Victorians and their co-optation of historical relaxation as work? Is it the fault of an educational system that values data over inspiration? Is it the fault of a new elite that has claimed culture as its own?

Of course, as with every piece of opinion, and every attempt to create a history that is still in progress, maybe I’m wrong. I often think about the fact that no-one truly knows what’s happening while it’s happening, our sad attempts to define the zeitgeist are simply that: attempts. You can’t know what you’re living while you’re living it. That’s why new forms of art, new styles of dress, most new things, are greeted with skepticism from the mainstream but also, often, from the fringes of culture. Perhaps one hundred years from now the evolution art is currently going through will be lauded as the new vanguard.

But we’re losing something. We always lose something. Right?

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