Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Digitial delusion or a real new age for museums?

I have been challenged this week by a blog from Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen entitled ‘The Digital Delusion’. Challenged, because I thought I would be blogging to disagree with the blog’s premise, namely that the future for museums does not lie in digitisation, but the more I think about it, the more I actually agree.

Let me explain my position. The concept of getting collection information online by the process of digitisation is one I believe must be supported at every level, so that information can be accessed, cross referenced and understood. I came across a beauty this week at Hortus Camdensis. This is an illustrated online catalogue of the 3300 plants grown by Sir William Macarthur at Camden Park, south of Sydney, between 1820-1860. Combined with garden records of the time, including Sir William’s diaries, essays on laying out an orchard in Colonial Australia, wine growing etc and notes on changes in nomenclature, it is a model of what collection digitisation can achieve in providing not only access to a hitherto hidden catalogue, but also a pile of useful related information.

Beyond this, using technology to provide access to digitised records in an easily accessible way is also something we must continue to explore and promote. There are few better exemplars than the Powerhouse in pioneering the use of on-line collection data. Look for instance at how they use Flickr to provide access to collection information. But also check out how the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has launched an app to provide heaps more information on objects in the Museum through the use of iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches, either the visitors’ own, or provided on loan by the Museum. MONA, the new Museum of Old & New Art due to open in Hobart next January is planning to go a stage further, providing no labels to objects, with all information delivered via a mobile device. Exciting times, especially with iPad use. Its’ larger screen is going to offer all sorts of opportunities for delivery of video, as well as being a unit that a group or family can enjoy together rather than the individual experience of the iPhone or iPod.

So I fully agree with the sentiments of AMNH President, Ellen Futter, when launching their latest app that “the digital age is upon us, and we want to integrate education with technology”.

Why then the digital delusion? Museion’s point is that museums have got carried away with the concept of digitisation for its own sake without really unpacking why we must digitise. The process has been driven by ‘digital immigrants’, i.e. museum people who were not born into the digital world but have become fascinated by the technology – count me amongst them. The result is a mass of digital museum projects, some of which work (see above), but many of which don’t. How often have I seen unused computer monitors in museums provided to allow public access to the Collections – why? Partly because the digital natives, i.e. those born into a digital world, for whom they are largely provided, are not interested because they make such poor use of digital media. The overlap between the world of the digital immigrant and the digital native is only partly bridged.

As Museion points out the future is not digital, in that it is not about digitisation just for digitisation’s sake. It will and must remain real, that is grounded in real objects. Museums have a unique position to display that materiality, albeit using the undoubted power of digitisation and digital media to maximise how that materiality is accessed. We need to sell that unique ability which is only going to become more valuable as the digital world swirls around us.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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