Currently, the major museums in the world are undergoing a profound change as they have identified the importance of reaching for a global audience. With this, however, the museums’ management necessarily becomes more complex and multiaspec t. This essay will focus on this new goal, and particularly on the use of digital museum experiences as a way to achieve it. It will discuss why the digital museum tends to be a trend of museum development, how the art institutions use digital media to increase their influence to the public, and the problems derived from this new trend.
The Internet and the spread of art
In the age of information explosion, science is developing and knowledge is renewing itself rapidly. Already in 1992 the Global Information Infrastructure Plan recognized that “the information society has become a major objective of worldwide public interest” (Takahashi, et al.). Now, with the expansion of the Internet, this objective is a reality, at least in developed countries. According to the World Bank (2010), Australia’s percentage of Internet users went from 5% in 1992 to 75.9% in 2010. With this new tool, people gain access to knowledge that was previously unreachable, and those interested in spreading it have become much better equipped to do so. Steven Zucker’s, principal of Smarthistory.org and Ddean of the School of Graduate Studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) describes this transformation in information as going “from Acropolis—that inaccessible treasury on the fortified hill—to Agora, a marketplace of ideas offering space for conversation, a forum for civic engagement and debate, and opportunity for a variety of encounters among audiences” (Proctor, 2010). Even if it is clear that Australia is changing much more rapidly than the rest of the word, it can be seen in the graph below that this is, in fact, a global trend.
Fig: Internet users as percentage of population
Furthermore, not only has the Internet grown exponentially, it has also replaced traditional media as the main source of information for many sectors of the population. Roy Morgan Research points out that while the percentage of people that use TV as the main source of information has been consistently decreasing to only 52% in 2007; the percentage of people who use the Internet to inform themselves has been increasing, reaching a level of 9.5% . But, more importantly, if these trends continue the Internet will become the main source of information for 50% of Australians in under ten years. (Roy Morgan, 2007). These figures are even more extreme among the young (15 to 25 years old) where 79% of them already depend solely on the Internet to inform themselves (Wattenberg, 2011). This evolution of the media is so clear that most newspaper reproduce the entirety of their daily prints on their website and most major TV networks are starting to rebroadcast their contents online. It not only allows them to keep up high visibility but it also provides an extremely high return of investment since the costs of entry are relatively low and the audience is constantly increasing. Under these considerations it is can be seen that the common phrase “if it exists, it’s in Google” is no exaggeration.
Museums have caught up with this trend and are starting to have a stronger presence on the Internet. For example, in its strategy for 2012, the British Museum recognized that Internet exposure is central to increasing the interests in the museum’s collections. It even went to state that “by 2012, the Museum’s physical presence in London will be complemented by a globally accessible media resource […] as a result, visits to the Museum’s main web site should double to over 14m by 2012” (The British Museum, 2012). The importance of achieving this goal cannot be overstated. It has at least two main advantages.
First, by giving relevant information to the visitor before they reach the museum he should be able to put the content of the actual museum in a better context and make a more informed observation of what he sees once he arrives to the analog museum. Stuer (2001) argues that achieving this can produce a more comprehensive and enjoyable experience for the visitor, making it more likely for him to later on return to the museum or simply become more interested in the art he has seen.
Second, by increasing the presence museums have on the Internet they are targeting a key sector of the population. Internet users is a group dominated by young people, mainly in the range of 16 to 19 years old, which is also a sector that museums have a hard time appealing to because it this groupis normally misinformed or has preconception that it is not compatible with its theirinterests (Veirum& Christensen, 2011). Digital museums open an opportunity for art to become more visible among the youth, and for disabling false preconceptions of museums as esoteric and uninteresting places. Furthermore, Veirum& Christensen also argue that, due to the social nature of museum visits, “targeting teenagers with digital technologies could be the way, not only to reach a new young audience, but also to engage current, older, visitors at a higher level” (2011).
The Australian Powerhouse Museum is another example of a museum that is adapting to this new trend of digital museums. This case in particular is interesting because of its use of crowdsourcing. In 2009 the Powerhouse Museum published the vast majority of its collection online but not all records were complete. Since then, outside experts have been contacting the museum offering help in completing their records without requesting payment in exchange . Similarly, Tate Britian used Flickr to crowdsource the contents for the photographic exhibition How We Are: Photographing BritianBritain. (Proctor, 2010) These are typical examples of how the Internet is creating cooperation systems that can be superior to the traditional institutional models.
To better understand the possible impact that crowdsourcing can have on museums it is useful to analyze the case of Flickr. As with most models of cooperation, Flickr is dominated by a very steep power-law distribution, where the top contributors give hundreds of times more than the average contributor. Specifically in Flickr, the top 15% contributors account for 60% of the photos. (Shirky, 2009) Normally, institutions, such as museums, could hire how?this 15% and receive a very good return on their investment. However, crowdsourcing allows Flicker to not have to give up on the other 40% of the contributions because everybody is able to freely contribute. Digital museums, such as the one created by the Powerhouse Museum, could potentially achieve the same thing. For example, museums could hire professionals to tag the contents of their digital versions so people can find what they are looking for in an easier way. However, it is much easier, and cheaper, to crowdsource this function, so that every contributing visitor of the digital museum is able to tag what they see without increasing the institutional costs for the museum. Another example of how powerful this could be is that visitors to the digital museum can easily make use of tools like Twitter and Facebook to publicize what they liked to a degree that is likely to surpass the efforts of the hired museum employees. In Shirky’s terms (2009), digital media and crowdsourcing allows us to take the collection of museums to the individuals, instead of trying to make the individuals go to the museums.
Crowdsourcing and the social networks really do bring a qualitative change to the potential consequences of digital museums. Digital museums by themselves are only an alternative way to access specific collections; and, just like analog museums, they are likely to be ignored by those who are not already interested in arts or sciences. However, Twitter and Facebook are likely to expose uninterested people to these new contents. For instance, someone may not be interested in art and is following on Twitter a colleague of his. If that colleague “retweets” an iImpressionist work he really enjoyed during his visit to the digital museum then the uninterested follower will be forcibly exposed to that particular piece, raising the opportunity for him to gain interest on the impressionist school. In sum, digital museums, in combination with social networks, not only create new ways to access art and science, but they also expose new, previously uninterested audiences to them.
It is worth noting that crowdsourcing has gone beyond digital museums, and is now also a part of traditional ones. The Torrence Art Museum in California accepted project proposals by the general public, effectively turning the public to potential curators (Proctor, 2010). This allows the museum to respond to the demand of new expositions efficiently and within a small budget by not having to depend on a limited amount of staff or contractors. Moreover, it brings a strong degree of diversification to the way museums present their collections so they can attract a wide variety of visitors interested in different things.
This trend on has not been met without resistance however . Neal Stimler, of the Metropolitan Museum, states: “I do not share the view that using social media makes everyone a curator. Curators are the most trusted expert’s whose aggregated knowledge […] defines the meaning and value of art” (Proctor, 2010). Nevertheless, the defense of art expertise is a concern that seems to be diminishing more and more. Angelina Russo suggests that many voices are critical to the interpretation of culture that museums are creating, and that the participation of the audience is paramount to achieving a genuine collaborative deconstruction of culture. More in the line of what
Russo suggests, the Milwuakee Art museum developed the American Furniture/Googledexhibition. On this exhibition, the traditional labels for each object were replaced by computer screen where each visitor was able to explore in specific related websites, to get more information about the piece that they were observing. This allows for a much more personal interpretation of what is being seen and arguably could produce a more engaging experience. Likewise, Proctor(2010) argues that the job of the curators is shifting from a focus on the reproduction of knowledge to the generation of new sensations by using more temporary exhibitions. It then seems like the collaboration between outside experts and curators that social media allows are a response to a previously existing demand of democratizing the control and the access to art.
In a similar line of thought, De Bruyne and his colleagues argue that digital museums can provide unprecedented help for education purposes in schools, and even outside the classroom, since it’s not only much easier to use the digital museums than to arrange a school visit, but also because they can expose the students to a wide variety of collections that they would normally only be able to see in textbooks (Stueret al, 2001). Nevertheless, their most compelling argument is a different one. They argue that while museums can only appeal to one kind of visitor at a time , digital museums offer a wide variety of tools for different kind of publics. They argue that the regular “Search” function can give visitors that are already familiarized with the art they enjoy a very accessible and fast way to find what they are looking for, but it is not particularly useful for someone who is just starting to get interested in art. In such cases, the digital museum can offer traditional “Theme Packages” where all related pieces are presented together, so the visitor does not have to know beforehand what he would like to see. The disadvantage of theme packages, according to the authors, is that they present everything in a prearranged order, acquiring an inheritable exclusive nature and leaving little room for personal discovery. They suggest that a third approach, called “Theme Generator”, where the visitor is assisted by tools that limit or suggest certain results to his query’s can give a middle ground between the other two models, which allows for gratifying personal discoveries without overwhelming the visitor with an entire catalog. Therefore, digital museums don’t have to change exhibitions when trying to attract a specific kind of visitors like analog museums do, allowing for a much wider audience to take full advantage of the collection.
As it can be seen there are many museums that are starting to take advantage of some of the potential of the Internet as a platform for art. However, most of them are focusing in just one use. Google, however, is trying an integrated approach that takes advantage of the Internet as a whole. Its main project, called Google Art Project, is in many ways synthesizes all that is possible when using the Internet in an efficient, multidimensional, way.
Google Art Project
The Google Art Project is without a doubt the most successful digital museum to date. It started in February 2011, under the direction of AmitSood. As one of the most powerful companies in the world, Google seems to understand the power of “numbers”, just as what they have in Google Books. Since 2011, The Google Art Project has added 134 new museums to its site from around the world. Just like Amit said: “The Art Project is going global. ” (Brown, 2012). The project includes many of the major museums around the world. People around the world could be able to see the many of the masterworks that are collected by the Tate London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Uffizi, the Van Gogh Museum, the Museum of Islamic artArt, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and the Freer Gallery of Art. Of course such a massive collection would usually bring logistical impossibilities if it were a physical collection. For example, all the artworks online is provided with brief context detail and artist background, they also have links to external information. If that was not enough, all pieces have tags to identify them with others that share a common denominator with it. Achieving this requires an amount of human resources that are impossible to hire for one institution. However, Google uses the Internet to crowdsource this task, removing the institutional costs of doing the task. Of course this means that some of the descriptions may not be accurate, but that seems like a reasonable price to pay for being able to do something that was not really an option with traditional hiring.
Another example of the great potential of that the Google Art Project is that it gives is about crowdsourcing. This can be and an integral approach to the possibilities that the Internet offers is throughtheir incorporation of social media. It is interesting that this is one of the revolutionary aspects of this project because it is its extremely simplicitye. All that it requires is an interface that allows the visitor to easily share what they see on their Twitter and Facebook accounts. Doing so allows to crowdsource the generation of the museum’s publicity to the thousands that visit it every day . This not only extremely reduces publicity costs, but, as it has been said, it's probably a better publicity because it actually reaches to people that are not already interested in the arts. Another feature of the Google Art Project is that it currently provides a virtual tour for 46 museums. This “Street View” technology provides 360-degree images for the interior and exterior of the selected galleries. Theis “Walk through” function can help visitors to observe the main buildings of museums, digitally walk through the galleries’ corridors, stand in the the exhibition halls, and even look around from the windows. This means, internet visitors not only look at artworks, but also enjoy how the curator has set up each exhibition. This is especially helpful if the art works rely on a special installation, such as ceiling and wall installation or group sculpture . Visitors have complete information; they are able to find anything inside the real exhibition room. Unfortunately, there are still some limitations as to the specific locations the visitor can put his camera in, which greatly reduces the mobility and the sense of immersion that the visitor can experience. However, the giga-pixel camera that Google uses to digitalize its material can give extremely realistic pictures, where even the texture can be discerned; which somewhat compensates for the limitations of the virtual tour.
Finally, an aspect that needs to be mentioned about The Google Art Project is its powerful ability to search with conveniencet. Using the most advancedof the technical aspects of the regular Google search engine, this ability of search allows people to find their favorite artists and artworks, regardless of them being in different collections and museums. This model is especially useful for those looking to expand their preexisting knowledge and experiences, because with the ability to search all collections for the same tag it is very possible that the visitor will end up discovering new pieces he did not know about that are related to his favorite artist or genre . This of course comes with the disadvantage of all search models but Google seems aware of that.
Google’s Cultural Institute is pursuing its goal of ‘help preserve and promote culture online’ through other means too. Google has very recently announced a new platform that will also focus on providing cultural institutions with more ways to reach to a global audience. Similar to the theme packages model that Stuer mentions, this new platform will try to narrate the stories behind key moments of human history in the last century, such as the Holocasut, the D-Day, etc. To do this it will put 42 online exhibits with the help of 17 cultural institutions such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum (Crossan, 2012). Like stated above, this kind of exhibitions can create an emotionally engaging experience for visitors that do not have previous knowledge of what they are seeing. Yet, what makes this project particularly interesting is that, with the power of Google sponsoring it, it does it in a magnitude that no individual museum could hope to rival. Therefore, it is an example of how the digital media allows for a kind of inter-museum cooperation that was previously not possible. It is worth noting that this also creates new challenges for curators since they will most likely have to create a collective view of this kind of cooperative work .
Despite these various benefits of employing digital museums, there have been two main controversies surrounding them. First and foremost, there has been an increasing concern when it comes to the copyright infringement they can potentially allowoccur. While not all material is restricted by copyright, contemporary pieces cannot be freely distributed. This has actually been one of the main obstacles that digital museums have had to face, because coming to a legal and financial arrangement between them and the owner of the piece can be a very expensive and logistically troublesome. This is not only because of the usual impediments but also because it is, in fact, very difficult to protect the copyright of a specific piece once it goes online. It is difficult to measure how serious is copyright infringement on the Internet, and even more to have a clear idea of art copyright infringement, however there is some data available that should be considered. For example, the Recording Industry Association of America (2012) calculates that only of all the music that is acquired globally only 37% is obtained legally. Likewise, in the video games industry, the piracy rate can go from 40% to 80% depending on the country (Svensson, 2012). Even though these are entirely different markets, this data shows just how difficult it would be to restrict the illegal reproduction and commercialization of art once it reaches the Internet. Therefore, the potential of art piracy seems very real and there is no clear answer to what could be done to prevent it.
In addition to the copyright concerns, the rise of digital museums has spurred the debate about the possibility of them being detrimental, or even replacing, ordinary museums. Some experts worry that people will be satisfied by looking at the artifact online and lose interest in an ordinary museum to observe the real one. At first this concern would seem reasonable; after all going to the museum can be physically draining and the higher digital resolutions offer much more vivid images than before. Most of these controversies, however, seem to be based on a general disinformation about what is the use of digital museums. With this in mind Marty (2008) developed a nationwide survey to the users of seven different museums in Australia. His results showed that the typical online museum visitor that completed the survey visit museums approximately four times a year, visits museum websites approximately once a week, and considers it very important for museums to have museum web sites. In addition to this, possibly the most important result he found is that digital museums seem to complement, rather than replace, traditional ones. For example, 61% of the responders thought that digital museums were particularly good for accessing research materials and for educational actives; while 67% of them agreed that analog museums were the best alternatives for exploring the collections. Consequently it is not surprising that 74% disagreed with the statement that websites could come to replace the regular museums. Overall it would seem that the piece itself, the curatorial job, and the academic floor talk are irreplaceable.
A final concern with digital museums is that they might not be able to keep up with the changes in the analog exhibitions in traditional museums. Curators frequently change what is being shown and the way that it is being viewed, and the process of digitializing that experience is costly and takes time. Therefore, it would be true that digital museums would have a very hard to incorporating these changes. However this is only a problem because it is being assumed that digital museums should imitate the contents of analog ones. As it has been already shown, people use digital and analog museums for different purposes, so it is illogical for both of them to offer the same thing. This controversy, then, disappears when it is realized that digital museums should not imitate analog ones.
What remains to be done ?
Even though the advantages of digital museums, social media and the Internet in general can bring to museums are plenty, there are still more room to grow in terms of how efficient these new tools are being used. According to Adhikari , a consultant in the field of social media, one of the most common mistakes that museums are making in their expansion towards social media is not tailored to the demographics of the Internet, instead their messages have remained the same that are used to attract usual museum visitors. This, however, is not an inherent problem with the Internet as a platform but a consequence of an overall lack of familiarity with it by the museum authorities .
Additionally, the interaction is limited to accessing the information that the museums have put online (like watching a video on YouTube). Therefore in order to keep the interactions going the museum needs to keep producing all its content, which end up consuming a lot of the available resources. This is a severe appears to be a bigobstacle because there is no obvious way of solving it. However, as Chirs ChrisMilk and AronKoblin showed with their The Exquisite Forest project (2012), it is entirely possible to create contexts where it is not necessary for the museum to create all of its content, similar to the crowdsourcing efforts that were mentioned earlier. Moreover, it is an example of how creative efforts can produce worthwhile pieces regardless of technical ability thanks to the use of new technology only available through the Internet. Adhikari also argues that it is important to break certain social media stereotypes that the mainstream media has been trying to create. Particularly, some institutions are still reluctant to participate in the digital platforms because of the preconceived notation , often prevalent on the senior management members, that doing so will “dumb down” the content. Even though at the beginnings of the Internet as a platform for arts and sciences this might have been true due to lack of knowledge of how to use it properly, all of the examples quoted in this text can prove the falseness of that conception.
In sum, museums need to recognize that the Internet is more than just a marketing tool. They are about creating an infrastructure that allows for everyone who is interested in art or museums?to participate in the production of content, so that this production is sustainable, collective in nature, and diversified.
At the beginning, this paper analyzed the rise of the Internet as a global trend that is the special acute in Australia. It is no exaggeration to say that this is causing a change in the nature of human communication: persons who have access and who wish to collaborate with others can now do so much easier and efficient, the spread of knowledge and information is unprecedented, and so is the access that institutions have to the opinions of their audiences. This raises challenges and opportunities in all industries on the planet, and museums are starting to be heavily influentiated influencedby this change of context.
It was shown that museums such as the British Museum are starting to embrace the possibilities offered by the Internet to make the experience of art something that transcends its walls; where people can now stay in touch with their artistic and scientific interests before and after visiting the museum. The Powerhouse Museum’s experience with crowdsourcing,has also mentioned, and explored to realize that Digital Museums can have access to an amount of human resources that no single traditional museum can hope to rival, and do so at minimal costs. This Thesenew human rescoures have not been applied to administrative tasks, they have also been applied to new activities exclusively to digital museums. The best example of this, as it was said , is how every visitor to a digital museum potentially means not only that others will hear about what he saw, but will also likely see it; . This bringsbringing the exposure of art to a new level. Crowdsourcing has also been applied to other, more creative, areas. It has even been employed for curating an entire exhibition. The debate about the role of curators has been spared from this, and it seems clear that from now on certain will be a collaborative task.
The incorporation of digital museums really seems like a requirement. Perhaps the single most important reason for this is the capacity that they have to appeal to different audiences simultaneously. Currently it is very difficult for curators to construct an exhibition that will not exclude a segment of the possible audience. However, digital museums, through the implementation of the Search, Theme Package, and Theme Generator models , are able to give experts and novices in art the same degree of quality experience by giving them specifically what they need in order to satisfy their interests. This characteristic alone would seems to justify digital museums as an excellent tool for spreading the art and sciences, and as an efficient way to make institutional finances healthier.
Perhaps the best example of what can be achieved through the Internet as a platform for expanding the arts and sciences is the Google Art Project. Unlike many other digital museums, Google takes an integral approach to the possibilities that the internet can offer. It has created an ecosystem for thriving crowdsourcing, it has incorporated the power of social media so it is extremely easy for anyone to share his(or her) experiences with his(or her) social network, and, most importantly given its global audience an amount of content superior to that of any other museum. The Google Art project does have flaws however. One of them is that is catalog approach has the same issues as the Search model described by Stuert. Fortunately, Google is developing new platforms that will complement the existing weaknesses of the Google Art project. This of course is partially a testament to the power of a multi-billion company but also it is also a testament of the power behind the Internet and its ever increasing user base.
With the rise of digital museums that has been raising concerns too. The main and biggest one is, by far, copyright. It is difficult to measure the magnitude of the problem because it is impossible to get completely accurate data. But from the information given, it can be seen that copyright, as we currently understand it, is unrealistic on the Internet. It seems to be an inherent flaw in the platform itself and, therefore, they are no clear solutions to the problem. Both the music and the video games industry have found palliatives to the issue, and it will be up to the art industry to figure something that works for it. In the meantime it is a problem that cannot be underestimated, especially in terms of what it does to rising artists.
Another concern that some people also have is that digital museums will prove to be so superior to traditional ones in terms of giving the audience what they want that eventually all museums will be digital. This is an unjustified concern. It was shown that people will decide which kind of museum to attend depending on their specific needs. For some things digital museums are definitely a better and preferred option; but for exploring art traditional museums are still overwhelmingly preferred. This point illustrates one of the main conclusions of this paper very well, and that is that digital museums function better when they do not try to imitate analog ones; and the physicality of traditional museums make them irreplaceable when it comes to leaving the contents of it. Digital museums specialize in some areas, and traditional ones in others; therefore these two kinds really should seek to complement each other instead of engaging in a false competition. Finally, as fast as the rise of digital museums is, there is still much unfamiliar with how to best use the Internet. The main challenge for now is for the art industry to realize that it can be much more than just a marketing tool, and start using it as a way to create an environment where the production and the communication of art is self sustainable through the use of crowdsourcing.
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