On Technology and the Museum of the 21st Century

Over the weekend, I found myself chewing over Holland Cotter’s excellent NYT article “Toward a Museum of the 21st Century” and thinking about some of the open-ended questions it asks. If you haven’t read the article yet, I highly recommend it. It’s rare, and wonderful, to see someone take on the idea of a museum in this way. Cotter asks the hard question: is the museum ready for the 21st Century? Spoiler: it isn’t.


But why not? I think it has to do with the curious way that museums define innovation. Evolution in museums is a slow, deliberate process. As an example, two relatively recent innovations in museum practice (the emergence of education as a key component of museum programming, and the integration of conservation into collections stewardship) took most of the 20th Century to be realized. It’s hard to imagine a museum that moves this deliberately becoming the “structurally porous and perpetually in progress” place that Cotter hopes for; what he wants is essentially a new way of thinking about the museum’s business model.

Which sounds great, except that museums don’t do “business model innovation” very well. We’re good at integrating emerging ideas into what we already do, but we’re not good at assessing whether what we already do is actually what people want. This is nowhere more evident than with the clumsy way so many museums attempt to address visitor needs with technology. When our patrons started asking for blogs and websites and mobiles and stuff, museums did what they always do: waited around, hoping that the demand would go away, and then finally acted, creating brawny Digital Media departments that would make the blogs and websites and mobiles that everyone demanded.

Blanton VisitorThe problem is that we didn’t define that demand correctly. We thought that our visitors were asking for technology, but what they really wanted was a different way of interacting with the museum altogether. I’m reminded of Witness Voices, the website we created for Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, which we’d hoped would be a way for visitors to ask questions and express thoughts related to the show. Turns out, almost no one used the website for that purpose, but lots of people used the pen-and-paper notebooks we left out in the lounge to do that. The technology we provided to encourage an interaction mostly didn’t work, but that didn’t mean the need for the interaction wasn’t still there.

Paraphrasing Arthur C. Clarke: to a museum, any sufficiently advanced idea is often indistinguishable from technology. Our visitors didn’t want blogs, they wanted us to be “structurally porous and perpetually in progress.” We’re misinterpreting that desire as a demand for more capital-T Technology: websites, mobile apps, interactive kiosks. But this is wrong; the tech itself is incidental to the solution. And what this means is that we’re not innovating in the way we need to be to survive. Instead, we’re just making a bunch of flashy junk.

Koven is the Director of Digital Adaptation at the Blanton Museum of Art. His focus is on the adoption of digital values throughout the museum. He has opinions about things, and overuses quotation marks. Tweets at @5easypieces.

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