The Virtues of Promiscuity

or, Why giving it away is the future

The Dutch artist Theo Jansen has spent the past 24 years creating wind-powered kinetic sculptures he calls Strandbeests. These walking constructs gather wind energy to propel themselves across the beaches of Scheveningen and can walk, store energy, and detect atmospheric changes now. Jansen works at an interesting intersection of art, engineering, and science and his artistic practice is deeply influenced by biological metaphors. He refers to his creations as “creatures” and the ubiquitous PVC wiring conduit he builds them from as the “protein” of Strandbeests. They become “fossils” once he stops working on them, and new beests inherit traits from older ones, “evolving” from earlier forms. Jansen thinks a great deal about survival.

The Web has provided him with a global audience for his site-specific creations. There are approximately 14,000 YouTube videos of Strandbeests in action. You can finds versions of his creations in robotics labs in Berkeley and Cambridge. You can order build-it-yourself kits from Japan, and now you can even order 3D printed Strandbeests directly from the artist. Success, right? For now. But, Jansen is looking even further ahead, to the future of his creations after his death. Ask Jansen about the future of Strandbeests and he will tell you that the survival of his creations beyond his lifetime is now possible through the “viral” propagation of digital files that contain the “DNA” of his creations. The Internet has brought him not only an audience, but also a new means of reproduction for his Strandbeests. This sharing of digital DNA might seem counterproductive to a working artist, since it will make it easier for others to copy his work, potentially reducing the value of “authentic” Strandbeests. For Jansen, the long-term benefits outweigh any potential short-term loss of control or revenue. Jansen’s interests lie in creating art and exploring ideas around the nature of life and living systems. Given finite time and resources, he chooses to prioritize the making and let the rest go and grow however it will.

Being promiscuous, but discriminating

Museums would do well to learn a thing or two from Jansen, and focus more on the creating and spreading the “digital DNA” of our shared cultural heritage and less on controlling access to those assets. This is a call to be both more promiscuous and more discriminating in what we share and how. I know that sounds contradictory, but bear with me.

Museums’ current survival strategy is not unlike those of creatures that have evolved on remote islands. We have gotten very good at passing on one model of “museum” from generation to generation. We may have developed elaborate plumage and interesting displays, but these mask the underlying sameness of the idea we pass on. As long as the larger ecosystem evolved slowly, museums could adapt and keep pace. The global internet has shattered that isolation for good, and in the new ecosystem our current reproductive specialization will not continue to serve us well. Insularity — the tendency to look inward, ignore the larger world and produce institutions that are increasingly self-referential, self-pleasing, and obscure to the billions of potential museumgoers — is a strategy for extinction.

For Jansen, encouraging others to build on his idea of Strandbeests is a reproductive and evolutionary strategy. His best hope for the survival of his creations beyond his lifetime is to let them loose for others to tinker with. Survival (and further evolution) lies in spread. Cynthia Coburn gave a fascinating talk at the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning conference in 2014 on scale and spread. If you’re at all interested in dissemination of ideas, it’s worth reading. One thing that struck me from her talk and the paper from which it was distilled are that we tend to be imprecise about what we mean when we talk about “doing more!” Unpacking that, Coburn finds that there are “fundamentally different ways of conceptualizing the goals or outcomes of scale. We identify four: adoption, replication, adaptation, and reinvention.” For this essay, I’m most interested in the fourth outcome. This way of thinking about spread Coburn describes as, “the result of a process whereby local actors use ideas, practices, or tools as a jumping-off point for innovation.”

Gakken Strandbeest Rear by Dave Fayram CC-BY 2.0

If we’ve learned anything about species evolution, it is that those species that are most inventive at the reproduction game are also most often the clear winners at natural selection. The same holds true for museums. Survival lies in the widest, most promiscuous spread of the cultural seeds we steward and create. Think of the Internet as a new landmass risen from the sea. It is rapidly being populated by all sorts of ideas and content. There is both room enough and need enough for museums to colonize that land.

Ideas having promiscuous sex

promiscuous — indiscriminate, without discrimination. From the Latin pro — “for” and miscere “to mix”

I realize I’m being a bit provocative in claiming “promiscuity” — with all its sexual connotations — as a virtue, but it’s apt. In its earliest sense, promiscuous meant “things mixed together.” In this sense, to be promiscuous is to be for mixing things up. For me, being promiscuous means spending more effort on creating and spreading, and less on trying to control access. A central part of the missions of successful museums in the present century will be, as Will Noel puts it, “to put the data in places where people can find it — making the data, as it were, promiscuous.”

Trade in ideas is possibly the distinguishing variable that separates humans from every other species. Evidence for trade amongst humans is ten times older than the earliest evidence of farming. Matt Ridley, the author of The Rational Optimist, gave a great TED talk in 2010 where he claims that the engine of human progress and prosperity has always been, and continues to be, “ideas having sex with each other.” The ability to share ideas, combine them, and recombine them in new ways has been humanity’s key to survival and evolution. Sharing, not technology, has been the key. That’s an important point to keep in mind. Technofetishists (many of them well-financed) would have us believe that new technologies will solve all humanity’s woes. Early humans used the same lithic technologies, unchanged, for almost a million years: 30,000 generations of making and using the same tools for the same jobs. We’re no longer using Acheulean hand axes, because humans developed the ability to trade things and concepts, and that has led to where we are now. For museums, the situation is analogous in many ways to the Paleolithic. Continued evolution will require us to think differently, develop new tools, and most importantly, trade our goods as widely as possible.

Who‘s out there?

It may seem like a step into the unknown, but museums are not alone in exploring this territory. It’s all well and good to talk about promiscuous sharing, but a marketplace of ideas requires somebody else to be there. Who is the audience for the assets museums might share? They are legion.

Promiscuity connects museums to maker communities. Community interaction and knowledge sharing are often mediated through networked technologies, with websites and social media tools forming the basis of knowledge repositories and a central channel for information sharing and exchange of ideas, and focused through social meetings in shared spaces such as hackspaces.

This latest eruption of interest in self-guided learning and doing has a long, distinguished lineage. Computer hobbyists, ham radio enthusiasts, and even the model railroad enthusiasts at the Tech Model Railroad Club at MIT, who gave us the modern meaning of “hacking” could claim to be “makers.” They were all communities of interest who came together to explore their passions and help each other out. The difference this time is the spread that the Internet makes possible. The 2012 Bay Area Maker Faire drew a crowd of 120,000 attendees over a weekend. “Making” with a capital M is now a firmly established subculture, and part of a growing economic sector.

Promiscuity allows museums to be participatory culture advocates. Henry Jenkins may have coined the term “participatory culture” in 2005, but the idea of a world where individuals are producers of culture, instead of just passive consumers, has been around a long time. I’ve got a dog-eared paper that I’ve toted around for years with a quote from the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi which reads, “Creating culture is always more rewarding than consuming it.” As someone who’s worked the cultural/creative sector my whole life, I know the truth of this statement. What might the world look like if we not only preserved and exhibited examples of human creative expression but also more actively encouraged that creative impulse in everyone we serve?

This kind of digital promiscuity also nicely aligns museums with the Open Culture movement. “Open” is already on track to supplant “participatory” as buzzword of the year, with good reason. The proliferation of groups supporting and encouraging openness in the cultural/creative sector is impressive. Wikimedia, Creative Commons, the Open Knowledge Foundation, free software advocates, open-source software advocates: the list gets longer all the time.

The virtues of promiscuity

So, if all of these factors are agitating for openness, transparency, and agency, how do we make the business case for promiscuity? Some of the virtues of promiscuity include:

The promiscuous spread of digital assets is a key factor in delivering on museums’ missions to educate, inform, stimulate, and enrich the lives of the people of the planet we live on. Merete Sanderhoff, in the excellent Sharing is Caring lays it out clearly,

“Digital resources should be set free to form commons — a cultural quarry where users across the world can seek out and find building blaocks for their own personal learning.”

The more we sow these seeds of culture and the more effective we are at seeing those seeds take root, the more likely museums are to see cultural ideas persevere in the constantly-changing world.

Promiscuity is one way to demolish the perception of exclusivity that has dogged museums for longer than I’ve been around. I realize that this virtue is by far the most painful, because it would force us as memory institutions to lay bare lots of things of things we’d rather not have to deal with: legacies of imperialism and colonialism, tensions between indigenous peoples and more recent arrivals. The history of the relations between Native Americans and museums is not the most cordial, at least in part because the perception that some museums are probably hiding things they don’t want tribes to know about is almost impossible to counter. Promiscuity offers a way to end that particular debate.

The “global village” the Internet has created is real, and now it is possible for a museum of any size to have global reach, provided they have anything to share. As Michael Edson pointed out in his introduction to Sharing is Caring, 34% of humanity is now reachable online. That’s 2.4 billion people who might be interested in your content.

One of the most interesting and infuriating changes in attitude that the Web has wrought is the expectation of finding everything. Not being visible online now is the equivalent of not existing. Promiscuous sharing of digital assets is a way for your audience to know you exist. As Will Noel says,

“(P)eople go to the Louvre because they’ve seen the Mona Lisa; the reason people might not be going to an institution is because they don’t know what’s in your institution. Digitization is a way to address that issue, in a way that with medieval manuscripts, it simply wasn’t possible before. People go to museums because they go and see what they already know, so you’ve got to make your collections known. Frankly, you can write about it, but the best thing you can do is to put out free images of it. This is not something you do out of generosity, this is something you do because it makes branding sense, and it even makes business sense.”
“To be public these days is to be on the Internet. Therefore to be a public museum your digital data should be free.” — Will Noel


discriminating — able to note or observe a difference; distinguish accurately: to discriminate between things. From the Latin discernere, from dis- ‘apart’ + cernere ‘to separate’.’

So promiscuity has value to museums. Being successfully promiscuous, though, requires some fine discrimination of the sort that museums have not traditionally been good at.

It’s not an either/or proposition

The value of museums doesn’t change from being about physical things to being about digital things. It expands from the physical to include spreading digital information about those assets. When I was a newly-minted museum professional, I distinctly recall seeing the slogan for the 1989 ICOM conference: “Museums: Generators of Culture” and thinking simultaneously, “Yes!” and “Yeah. In your dreams!” What was unthinkable in 1989 seems perfectly reasonable 25 years later. The Internet allows museums to be promiscuous on a global scale, seed a global cultural commons with the highest-quality building blocks from across the entirety of human endeavor, and finally be able to deliver on that 1989 aspiration. As Michael Edson pointed out in “Dark Matter”, the first CODE | WORDS essay, “it’s tremendously exciting to think about what we can accomplish if we begin to work with true conviction in the areas of the Internet that are less familiar to us and more familiar to our visitors.” It’s mission creep of an unfathomable scale, with all the ramifications that entails. The question museums have to ask are, “Is it worth it for us?” and if so, “How do we proceed?”

It requires us to disambiguate the digital from the physical

Huh? Disambiguating the digital from the physical (to steal yet another phrase from Koven Smith) is essential to being able to see the issue clearly. In his MuseumNext 2014 keynote and subsequent blogposts, Smith warns against the peril of the skeuomorphic view of digital museum assets and the challenges of being authentically digital. Mapping real-world strategies and structures onto the digital realm is not a recipe for success.

Skeuomorphism has uses. I had the privilege of working on a couple of projects with major film studios during my career, and one of the tenets of science fiction filmmaking friends at Industrial Light and Magic shared with me was that to be successful as a film experience, sci-fi had to be backwards-looking. Everything new and interesting had to have some real-world analogue it referenced, so you, the audience, could understand what it was without having to be told. Thus, spaceships that move like airplanes, weapons that function like swords and firearms, and aliens that act like humans. As a storytelling tool, it’s great. As a business strategy…

Creating digital analogues of our existing museums is a straitjacket that will not serve us well going forward. Making a virtual museum (in addition to sounding hopelessly 90s), regardless of the technology underlying it, fails to take into account the reality of how people consume digital content. They don’t go to museum websites. Jon Voss of HistoryPin made the statement that you have to meet people where they are, not where you wish they were. Museum websites, the traditional place for museums’ online presence, are not those places, so plowing resources into making bigger, swankier ones is a waste of resources that might be deployed in ways that actually reach a global audience.

It’s not about adding screens

Just as dragging the physcial into the digital is unhelpful, so is carelessly layering the digital on the physical. David Starkey, in an article in The Guardian called “Museum of the Year 2014: what makes a winner?” , extolls the virtues of the Mary Rose Museum for eschewing digital interpretation in the museum and not “whoring after strange gods in museums with every sort of technological device.” And he’s got a point, to a point. There are plenty of examples of digital technologies being employed to fix perceived problems with museums’ physical operations that would’ve benefited from some additional discrimination in the scoping phase.

The collections metadata ≠ the collection

Digital information about collections is not the same as the physical objects in that collection. Here is where I think museums need to be much more discriminating about what they limit access to in the name of preservation, and adapt a mindset and workflows that treats digital assets as part of the cultural commons to be birthed and shared, unless there’s a compelling reason not to. Giving away a digital image of a specimen or art object is not the same as giving away the object. As Seb Chan wrote in announcing the Cooper-Hewitt’s upload of their entire collections database to the code sharing site GitHub,

“Philosophically, too, the public release of collection metadata asserts, clearly, that such metadata is the raw material on which interpretation through exhibitions, catalogues, public programmes, and experiences are built. On its own, unrefined, it is of minimal ‘value’ except as a tool for discovery. It also helps remind us that collection metadata is not the collection itself (emphasis in original).”

It’s not about “putting the collection online”

Let’s be clear that what I’m talking about is not “Let’s put the collection online” by making a database with a web interface. Access is important, but a web portal is an oracular cave, dark and mysterious. You go into the dark place, ask your question, and the Sibyl answers. Hopefully, it makes sense. Sometimes, it’s a very detailed answer, sometimes not. But the seeker never has the ability to appreciate the collection as a whole, or to interrogate it in any ways other than those chosen by the architects of the CMS and the portal. And they’re black holes to indexers. Google, Yahoo! and Baidu have no way of knowing what lies beyond your search box, and in a world where findability equals existence, this is death. Actually it’s worse, it’s annihilation — being made into nothing. Not a great strategy for proving relevance.

“We have to look out for the museum’s reputation” is one reason I’ve heard repeatedly for restricting access to assets, be they images or a dataset. The argument goes something like this: by making people ask for access, and charging them for the costs the institution incurs to produce this digital asset, museums discourage casual misuse of these assets by outside parties. This gatekeeping is necessary, and for the privileged few (mainly art) museums with famous collections, this provides a revenue stream that often pays the salaries of those gatekeepers. So, my theoretical position about promiscuity suddenly turns into people’s jobs and livelihoods, which is where things get messy. But this kind of access control is anathema to both the Enlightenment ideals that underlie the museum enterprise and the nascent global culture we could become an indispensable part of.

A nice thing about selling access is that it’s quantifiable. You can create reports about how much money licensing brought in, how many requests were processed and fulfilled, and so on. The more promiscuously one shares, the harder it gets to measure. Harder, but not impossible. Image spread can be tracked, download statistics and pageviews can tell you something, and as more museums get more promiscuous, I’m sure other metrics will be developed to help us quantify the success of our efforts.

But just because something is amenable to measurement doesn’t make it the best thing to measure. On a larger scale there is, to me, a certain logic in promiscuously sharing as the best way to create the most opportunities for the kinds of epiphanies museums can generate. As Rob Stein asked at the Museum Computer Network conference in 2011, “How do we measure for epiphany?” If museums are in the business of inspiring, even changing people, then Stein’s call to track and measure alumni creativity in “Museums… So What?” becomes even more important. David Gerrard, Ann O’Brien, and Thomas Jackson from Loughborough University in the UK proposed a way to study this at the Museums and the Web 2014 conference. Their “Epiphany Project: Discovering the Intrinsic Value of Museums by Analysing Social Media” represents just one approach to measuring what matters.

And if we don’t? Merete Sanderhoff lists three problems this inability to be promiscuous creates:

  1. By putting up impediments museums are pushing users away from authoritative sources of information.
  2. We are missing out on the the opportunity to become hubs for people. The social gravity that museums could generate is largely unrealized.
  3. By not using these new tools that are at our disposal, museums undermine their own raisons d’être.

Kristin Lyng of the Meteorological Institute of Norway writes, “Freeing data can be compared to letting your child go out and play in the playground. You’re letting go of control, but you know that it’s best for your child to be able to play out in the open.” Or, as a participant said in Kristin Kelly’s 2013 Mellon Foundation report on image sharing, “We have lost almost all control, and this has been vital to our success.”

Who’s reaping the rewards of promiscuity?

Museums releasing large sets of images

Kelly’s Mellon report surveyed 11 major museum image sharing projects. One of the key findings was that for all these museums, the decision in the end was a mission-driven decision. In this day and age of funding challenges, pressures to be more business-like, and increased competition, it’s heartening to see beginnings of a groundswell. The common trope of “Museum X announces release of ___,000 images from its collection for public use!” is hardly noteworthy anymore, yet continues to generate both public interest and media attention.

Museums releasing collections datasets

The Powerhouse did it in 2009, followed by Cooper-Hewitt in 2012 and then the Tate later that year. Read the announcements of each, they’re interesting justifications of promiscuously sharing. What’s really interesting, though, are the reuses of these datasets, because they point at something important. By giving people access to the collection, you give them the ability to ask questions of the museums’ work that we inside these museums might never think to ask. Florian Kräutli’s visualization of Tate’s collecting history was not only a new way to look at Tate, but also uncovered flaws in how Tate’s collection data were organized (40,000+ works by J.M.W. Turner?) that a collections manager or information architect could overlook or rationalize. Putting it out in public both surfaced the issue and provided impetus for addressing it. Mia Ridge’s attempts to explore Cooper-Hewitt’s collections data uncovered painful truths about the messiness we tolerate in our data. Like a bedroom we never let anyone see, collections metadata are all too often kind of a mess.

The act of placing them out in the wild, to be seen and used, opens up our datasets for people to ask questions of them we’ve never thought of. John Russick wrote in “A Place for Everything”, the ability to interrogate the Chicago History Museum (CHM) collection dataset might allow people to ask questions not just about the objects in the collection, but the collection as a whole, and by extension, the museum itself. And what they might find might not please us,

“CHM’s collection is supposed to be a tool for understanding the city, but perhaps it is primarily a tool for understanding the museum. Our idiosyncratic collecting history would likely be revealed as racist, sexist, and driven by the ideals and lifestyles of the privileged class. But what if we shared that map with everyone? What if the entire city could see what is and what is not in the museum? What if they could fill in the missing parts? Could we both confront our nineteenth- and twentieth-century ideas of inclusion and representation and begin to rectify the shortcomings of that limited vision?”
detail of The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1660

The Rijksmuseum

The 800-pound gorilla of promiscuous sharing is the Rijksmuseum’s Rijksstudio platform, a one-stop shop for image asset use and reuse. As part of the massive digital effort that led to the Rijkstudio, the museum also developed and released and API to their collections information that has scores of developer subscribers. Taco Dibbits, the director of collections at the Rijksmuseum, has said that letting the public take control of the museum’s images has been crucial to encouraging people, and encouraged them to explore the collection more deeply than they might in the museum’s galleries. “The action of actually working with an image, clipping it out and paying attention to the very small details makes you remember it.” He also made considerable waves in the cultural sector when he said in response to a question asking what if someone did something as inappropriate as put a Rijksmuseum Vermeer on toilet paper. “If they want to have a Vermeer on their toilet paper, I’d rather have a very high-quality image of Vermeer on toilet paper than a very bad reproduction.” How times have changed.

Promiscuous ≠ easy

Being promiscuous will not be easy for the sector. It will require approaching our work in new ways, taking on a greater responsibility, and counting our digital audiences as unique and different from our physical ones. Resources will need to be applied and reapplied to deliver these assets to the commons we could become integral to. I think it’s worth it. Given finite time and resources, promiscuous sharing is a way of finally delivering on the ambitions of those Enlightenment thinkers who dreamed of universal knowledge diffusion. There’s already an audience out there, one potentially numbering in the billions, who might use the content we set free. The technologies exist to make it possible for any museum to stake out a place in the commons. And museums are already beginning to tentatively step out into this new territory.

UPDATE 7/8/14: Many, many typos were corrected through the kind, ruthless editing of Susan Timberlake (@STimberlakeMuse on Twitter) at the MIT Museum.



Theo Jansen — Strandbeest.

YouTube videos of Strandbeest

Gakken Strandbeest kit

3D printed Strandbeests for purchase

Being promiscuous, but discriminating

Cynthia E. Coburn, Amy K. Catterson, Jenni Higgs, Katie Mertz, and Richard Morel, “Spread and Scale in the Digital Age: A Memo to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation” 2013

Ideas having promiscuous sex

TEDBlog The wide open future of the art museum: Q&A with William Noel

Matt Ridley, “When Ideas Have Sex”

Who‘s out there?

The Tech Model Railroad Club at MIT

The 2012 Bay Area Maker Faire

Henry Jenkins, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century


Creative Commons

The Open Knowledge Foundation

The virtues of promiscuity

Merete Sanderhoff (ed) “Sharing is Caring: Openness and sharing in the cultural heritage sector”


Michael Edson “Dark Matter”

Koven Smith, MuseumNext 2014 keynote “Becoming Authentically Digital”

– “The Museum as Skeumorph”

David Starkey “Museum of the Year 2014: what makes a winner?” The Guardian, 4 July 2014

Seb Chan, Cooper Hewitt Labs, “Releasing the collection on GitHub”

Rob Stein, “Museums… So What?”

David Gerrard, Ann O’Brien, and Thomas Jackson, “Epiphany Project: Discovering the Intrinsic Value of Museums by Analysing Social Media”

Kristin Kelly “Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: Images of Works of Art in Museum Collections: The Experience of Open Access (A study of 11 museums)”

Who’s reaping the rewards of promiscuity?

The Powerhouse Museum’s collection dataset

The Cooper-Hewitt’s collections dataset

The Tate’s collections dataset

Florian Kräutli’s visualization of Tate’s collecting history

Mia Ridge’s attempts to explore Cooper-Hewitt’s collections

John Russick, “A Place for Everything”

Rijksmuseum’s Rijksstudio platform

Taco Dibbits, quoted in Nina Segal, “Masterworks for One and All” The New York Times, May 28, 2013

Rijksmuseum’s collections API paper from Museums and the Web 2012