21st Century Museums — Part One

Published:  February 18, 2013
Heath Killen
21st Century Museums — Part One

Seb Chan knows a thing or two about museums. He is currently the Director of Digital & Emerging Media at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, prior to which he led the Digital, Social and Emerging Technologies department at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. At the Powerhouse he oversaw the implementation of Open Access and Creative Commons licensing policies and countless digital projects exploring new ways for visitors and citizens to engage and contribute to the Powerhouse’s collection and beyond. He has also worked as a consultant for museums and libraries around the world helping them develop strategies to deal with rapid technological change.

In his new role Seb continues to explore the possibilities at the intersection of technology, collections, and communities - and you can take a peek behind the scenes at some of this activity via the Cooper-Hewitt Labs blog or Fresh & New, Seb’s personal blog. We’ll be taking a closer look at Seb’s work with digital collections, open data, and other innovations tomorrow, but today we’re speaking with Seb about the history of museums, curation in the 21st century, and where things are headed next for some of our major international cultural institutions.

Another day at the office with Seb Chan.

Has the concept of a museum changed in the 21st century?
Museums have traditionally been modelled on 19th century notions of education and been the product of scarcity. From the wunderkammer and the rich man’s plunder, sideshows and ‘dime museums’ to interactive displays and integrated IMAX theatres at the end of the 20th century, museums have been through some pretty dynamic shifts. What has changed now, though, is that they are challenged from all sides – from changes in education, from changes in technology, from changes in public funding and support, and from changes in the leisure market.

In some respects, museums are at a fork in the road. Some will choose to be community venues with their programming full of timely events and event-driven exhibitions. Others, probably far fewer, will choose to double down on their collections and try to carve out a means of economic survival based on what makes them unique. Both will have re-assert their relevance based on the choice they make, and who they decide to be ‘for’.

Libraries have been through this earlier, transforming themselves to varying degrees based on an understanding of the type of ‘service’ they provided their different publics. Of course, for a library, the collection always had a distinct purpose – it was to be accessed and used, and was generally a collection that had been systematically assembled. Museums on the otherhand rarely have more than 5-10% of their collection on public view and the rest is in storage – and their composition is more often the result of historical quirk than ‘strategic’ collecting. Museums are now finding that they have to define themselves based upon the ‘service’ they provide their community – and then use this to justify the continued preservation and growth of their collections.

Then there’s the question of what they should be collecting from the ‘now’.

Graphic Design—Now in Production. A touring exhibition co-organised by Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and the Walker Art Center. This exhibition examines what's happening at the cutting edge of visual communication, production, and content creation in design.

Graphic Design—Now in Production. A touring exhibition co-organised by Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and the Walker Art Center. This exhibition examines what's happening at the cutting edge of visual communication, production, and content creation in design.

Where does one begin with curation today, in such an enormous and ever-growing design and media landscape? Has greater access made things easier, or has it made it difficult to discern what is worthy of inclusion?
It varies by type of museum. For art museums, curation is very different to historical, social or science and natural science museums. I’m especially interested in the latter – art museums operate in their own world, even as the lines between the art market and the art museum become more transparent.

History museums have a plethora of new tools at their disposal to assess whether older objects are worth including in their collections, and now that collections are globalised online, good decisions can be made as whether to keep duplicates. I’ve spoken about the idea of a ‘cultural heritage seed bank’, and in some ways this is becoming technically possible.

How do you collect representations of the present when the present is increasingly digital? Does it make sense to archive the tweets of 10 individuals when you could, feasibly, archive the entire Twitter firehose? What is more representative? And what will be more representative in 50 years time? Interestingly it has been the Library of Congress that has actually gone down this path – rather than a social history museum – but as I’ve said, the lines between museums and libraries are blurring.

The late Bill Moggridge, a co-founder of IDEO, was director of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum from 2010-12.

Are there any problems inherent to museums that thwart reinvention, or that limit their ability to keep up with technological and social change?
I’m not sure that there is anything inherent to museums – reinvention and innovation are problems that are faced by every industry right now. Museums, do, however have non-negotiables and have an in-built conservatism that comes from being entrusted to preserve public collections ‘forever’.

There’s a tension between this preservation and public access that hasn’t been helpful. And as some museums have gone down the path of big blockbuster ‘shows’ and an ‘event driven’ programming model, there hasn’t been an equivalent push to remind the public of the social contract museums have with them.

Exhibitions and the often atrophied design-process behind them are also a major hurdle for institutions to deal with. Their timescales, their imposed ‘value-engineeering’, and their almost universal lack of iterative process often creates an internal mindset that places visitors far down the stakeholder chain and prevents co-creative practices. The large budgets, the desire to have a ‘finished product’ ready for launch, and the secrecy prior to launch mean that exhibition design is typically risk-averse and resembles a Hollywood production system but without the final audience testing. There are institutions trying to address this directly – the Exploratorium’s user-centred design and iterative exhibit development models and SFMOMA’s engagement with Stanford’s d-School are both examples of institutions trying to change this and move to a more agile, responsive gallery model.

It is also a question of leadership. Cooper-Hewitt was very lucky to have two short years with Bill Moggridge at the helm. Although I only go to spend six or seven months with him before his far too early death, Bill brought a new sensibility and approach to the museum, and the Smithsonian as a whole. It really made a difference to have someone who had founded IDEO and designed the first clamshell laptop to be diverting his energies to reshaping the idea of a museum and its educational role. His focus on people – users, visitors, and developing an adventurous spirit amongst the staff – was such a breath of fresh air. I do hope we manage to implement his bold vision.

In your experience where are the most progressive and innovative museums to be found, and what are the qualities that these museums possess in their structure, collections, and engagement strategies?
Australian and New Zealand museums are definitely amongst the most forward thinking, despite being some of the youngest. The isolation and, in Australia, a deep scepticism about the ‘value of culture’ in our politics have meant that museums in this part of the world have been up against both a lack of capital and a lack of public support for a long time. As a result there’s been much more emphasis on ‘public value’ and ‘public access’ especially compared to museums in the USA. They haven’t had the luxury of being ‘elitist’ or just for tourists, at least not in the way some New York museums have.

In the UK and Europe there’s been a renewed effort to engage the public and a focus on cultural heritage as a form of soft power. Some of the most adventurous museum initiatives I’ve seen of late have come from the Dutch and I always love to spend time with Dutch colleagues in Amsterdam finding out what they’ve been up to.

What about those lagging behind? I’m interested to know where you see them as lagging, and what are the forces that are preventing them from moving forward?
I think it is difficult for the largest to be nimble simple because of their size. Others have become such globally prominent ‘culture brands’ that change is something that they feel has to be managed at a such a scale that it is also unwieldy. Often there is also an internal lack of clarity about the mission and institutional purpose, and this rubs up against the short term commercial needs.

Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects. A 2011 exhibition curated by MoMA which looks at the design of objects that communicate with people or interact with their surrounding environment.

Design For The Other 90%. An exhibition and ongoing project by Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, that examines the role of design in disaster relief and poor living conditions in developing nations.

What sort of contemporary design would you like to see more of in museums?
I’d love to see far more digital collections in museums. MOMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind (2008) and Talk To Me (2011) have both been important in exploring ways of exhibiting born-digital design works – but these are still very early days. Similarly Cooper-Hewitt’s own Design For The Other 90% exhibition showed ‘systems’ and examples of ‘service design’ in the developing world – like Ushahidi and m-Pesa. It is much more than just exhibiting, though. Acquiring and collecting these non-physical works – and, in my mind, works that aren’t static or unique – are the exciting challenge going forward.

Read Part Two of this interview here.

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One Response

  1. your discussion of where digital collections are going in museums echoes a larger impulse- the dissolving of category boundaries among museums of art, design, science, natural history, etc. That being said, visual representation in the digital realm remains simplistic- much more can be done than just capturing images of objects. Your critique of the exhibition “design” process is right on!!

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