Cultural Information Policy: A Theoretical Framework

Lesley Langa, USA

In this paper, I want to identify two terms that can have a great impact on museum online tools: access and participation. Scholarship on museum informatics tends to employ these terms liberally, though it is unclear from the field if definitions exist that are consistently applied to technologies. Both imply that there is a dynamic relationship with online content that can be moved along a sliding scale to enhance either, or both.

A number of studies on the use of web technologies and social media use by cultural heritage institutions couch the practice in terms of access and participation (Russo, Watkins, Groundwater-Smith, 2009; Simon, 2009; Healy, 2002; Allen-Greil, 2012). Since the mid-1990s the push has been ongoing in the museum community to adopt these tools, and these studies make the case that some of the benefits of technologies can be greater access, a general term that is used when speaking about the web. Increasingly since 2004, participation is the primary means that social media is used to serve museums in their pursuit of “visitor engagement”. While the case may be that these tools are designed to provide new means of connection to cultural heritage, they are not new in the sense that they create new relationships between mediators and users. Cultural policy literature demonstrates that governments have over time approached a citizen’s relationship to cultural heritage in two ways: the democratization of culture which makes cultural goods more widely available through traveling programs or exchanges, and cultural democracy which includes the voices and creative works of citizens in designing programs or staging cultural performances (Mulcahy, 2006). While museums are not democratizing institutions, they have a similar mediating relationship to cultural heritage through providing access or participation in any online tool. Acting as gatekeepers museums can extend the relationship they have with their visitors in new ways (such as through social media), however, how accessible collections can be remains in the hands of the museum primarily.

With the experimentation that has come from newer technologies, many museums are concerned with “visitor engagement”. By couching recent online activities as “engaging”, museums and museum researchers assume that not only are museums public institutions, but they also desire to keep visitors engaged with the institution over time. This shift may be attributed to the ongoing dialogue in the museum community to understand how they incorporate online tools into their everyday business and the interest of the sector to continue to ensure their relevancy in the information age (Falk & Sheppard, 2006; Marty, 2010). The term “engaging” is definitely borne out of the nature of the online tools, where information-seeking is not the only activity where museum visitors (or information users) are spending time online and the activities they participate in have expanded with social media sites. The behavioral shift that social media represents – turning information consumers into information creators – is a significant consideration for how to employ such tools. Museums are institutions that have traditionally generated information to be consumed by visitors, and carefully monitored the levels of access and participation that users can have.

The possibility of engaging visitors in the information production of a museum produces many challenges to the traditional museum information model. As Eilean Hooper-Greenhill argued, museums are primarily shaping knowledge about history, science and art and are reevaluating their knowledge through the accession of new objects and new cataloguing shifts (1992). As the producer of knowledge, and shaping the visitor’s understanding of the objects based on the expertise of the museum staff, the receipt of the information or the education of museum visitors has been secondary to the creation of knowledge (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992). As social media, in particular, grows in popularity and adoption in the museum community there is a rising amount of information and knowledge being generated from the museum visitor that challenges museums to reevaluate whether they will be the primary creator, in partnership in creation, or the receiver of information in the online world.