When the rare becomes commonplace: challenges for museums in a digital age

Larry Friedlander, USA

Since its formation in the 18th century, the cultural task of the ‘modern’ museum has been to select, collect, authenticate and present precious objects and expert knowledge. As a gatekeeper to cultural value and information, the museum has great authority. It educates, pleases, moves and reassures a public. Most important, it provides the public with privileged access to objects and wisdom not otherwise obtainable.

However, there are two major reasons museums have slowly been losing their special, indeed exalted, place in the cultural scene: 1) Museums have little control over what people see, know, and access. In our world everyone has easy access to massive amounts of images, ‘facts’ and opinions. This digital plenitude erodes the special authority of the museum: there are too many players in the cultural game, too many alternative sources of expertise. 2) The public has ineradicably changed. Museums now talk to audiences thoroughly shaped by the digital revolution. The contemporary public comes with new eyes and new expectations, glutted with sensory input, and overwhelmed by the chatter of a global world. The rare has become commonplace; what is easily acquired is negligently discarded and forgotten. The impact of even an astonishing exhibit is correspondingly brief, lost in the sensationalized whirl of media, advertising, and daily urban life.

No museum now can be indifferent to the pervasive changes technology introduces into its relationship with an audience. On the one hand, digital technology makes the job of collecting, preserving and disseminating much easier than ever before, and thus radically extends the museum’s reach into the lives of its audience. On the other hand, the museum’s voice is feebler and harder to hear.

So what can the museum do to protect its role? How can it re-invest its objects and expertise with the power to convince and to impress? The question is especially pressing for those entrusted with the task of integrating technology into the heart of the museum. While digital workers are extending the reach of the museum’s collection and knowledge they also must insure that they do not assist—inadvertently– in the ‘cheapening’ of their offerings. They must not only ‘deliver the goods’ to the widest possible audience, they also must make the public pay attention to, retain, and reflect upon the information they offer. They must imbue information with power and authority.

Professor Friedlander will discuss strategies from his Temple Mount project. One approach is to resist the increasing pressure to use digital technology to supply easy, limitless information. Instead we might do the reverse: make information more complex, difficult to absorb, problematic and contested. In doing so, we can point to the purpose of information, which is to solve an important problem of some sort. By highlighting the role of information in constituting a certain picture of the world, we may force the public to pay close attention to the quality and provenance of ‘facts’, have them play with possibilities of interpretation, and make them ‘puzzle out’ solutions. Such a strategy involves creatively framing information as part of an implied master dialogue, as a visible part of an ongoing serious conversation that is both personal and cultural. And to invite all to take part in that conversation.