Jan 13, 2015 · 12 min read

How, and why, museums could radically change, and how digital can help

The changes needed

A ‘drawing flashmob’ of Tate Britain, organised by some home educated children

One inspiring feature of Code:Words is being encouraged to write in response to others, as part of an evolving series of articles. As so often happens, my own thoughts were sparked by Nick Poole, this time in his piece ‘Change’. Nick was responding to Michael Edson’s vision of museums lifted out into a more accessible space of possibilities, not so much by technology but by people outside the museum with access to it. Nick in turn points to the fundamental changes needed to bring about this desired future. He fears museums are still “temples to the illusion of order and predictability in a complex and chaotic world”, creating solitarist stories out of messy diversity. I agree with Nick’s challenge that too many museums are guilty of ‘openwash’ — where change to a more participatory culture is only peripheral. I see this openwash as part of a broader ‘ethics-wash’ in museums, a complacency about their own ethical authenticity. This demands scrutiny, given the unfolding global crisis that museums cannot escape. I suggest that the fundamental change can only involve more sociocratic forms of practice and governance. The ideal of a sociocratic museum is one that is radically democratic in such a way that it impacts on society, which arguably goes beyond simply a ‘social museum’ that is expanded by digital programming and a participatory ethos. I am curious about how digital can play a role in a transition to radical democracy, especially since sociocratic principles are influenced by cybernetics. But I argue that digital alone can’t achieve the necessary change, unless integrated with more truly democratic, and therefore ecological, ethics of governance and methods of education.

What do I mean by ‘global crisis’?

Climate change is manmade and already dangerous. With current emissions, we are on course to an unliveable planet by the end of the century. The Sixth Mass Extinction is already eliminating species at 10,000 times the background rate. Human civilisation has shifted away from an ecological way of knowing, supporting an extractive economy that allows companies to exploit the living world and disrupt the climate. This current system also creates a yawning social equality gap and airbrushes over abuses of human and animal rights. As people protest more at these abuses, democratic freedoms are eroded and police are militarised.

Globally, governments are capitulating to the influence of corporations, for example by bailing banks out of debt, or providing security and subsidies for fossil fuel companies. Meanwhile, people suffer austerity measures to pay off public sector debts that arise from an unstable casino economy. As I’m based in the UK, I’m especially alert to how publicly funded museums are faring in austerity, as we are facing a rapid dismantling of a wide range of public sector institutions. The budgets of local government are being slashed, threatening significant numbers of smaller museums while national museums must seek more private donations and corporate sponsorship.

There are, of course, movements for resistance and change. However, an orthodoxy in many movements is to encourage people to take individual action as consumers, rather than collective action as citizens. This orthodoxy is perhaps less strong in indigenous and radical movements, such as First Peoples and Occupy but these are not mainstream. Unfortunately, small individual consumer actions are proving to be ineffective in tackling this multiple global-scale crisis. This is exacerbated by the phenomenon of ‘pluralistic ignorance’ — the bystander effect — where people take their cues on how to behave by reading others. Most of us see others carrying on with business as usual, stopping us from forging ahead together to effect adequate change.

Grasping how technology affects us

Arguably, so far, consumer technology has been the biggest contemporary force for change that we are noticing, wherever connected devices can be afforded en masse. Digital is making more of us less physically active, less private, more exposed to new information, more globally connected, and more active in choosing, creating and contributing to content. Digital is massively impacting how we shop, design new products, collaborate on projects, do science, consume music and film, use libraries and museums, manage our education, join clubs, learn new skills, meet people and plan our travel. There is more to come — as technology is due to progress more in the next 5 years than in the past 10.

Compared to technology changes, the environmental-economic crisis is not greatly affecting how people function, in wealthier countries, at least not in their affluent classes, just yet. In turn, digital technologies are not preventing the poorest people and countries from being hurt by the environmental-economic crisis. That said, digital technology is entangled with the crisis, and we are at a point of balance between two futures, one where digital is controlled by the powerful to perpetuate the crisis (unwittingly or not), another where it is harnessed by collective citizens to overcome it.

Evgeny Morozov points to the sinister side of digital, arguing that governments are creating a “technocratic utopia of politics without politics”. He believes governments are deregulating and privatising state institutions in hopes of gaining algorithmic control over us, using narratives, nudges and surveillance to mould the good citizen as a panacea to many problems.

This digital solutionism might seem efficient. We might hope — with some justification — that participation in culture can be optimised with digital services to bring all kinds of social and educational benefits. We might hope that digital will herald the people’s revolution, let us take control of money, knowledge and justice. The problem is that most of us become so succoured by gadgets, and lured by smart consumer technology into a belief that we are making a difference, we fail to notice the dire state of affairs unfolding beyond our devices. Our devices ever more vividly expose stories of poverty, floods, droughts, protests and wars but we fail to act directly or effectively enough. Our default response, especially if we’re early adopters or designers of digital services, is to ask ‘is there an app for that?’ If states shrink, with governments relying more on data to control us and culture to nudge us, how can museums contribute to that while retaining the ethical authenticity they hope is theirs?

How the crisis impacts on museums

The context is paradoxical, one of rapid progress mixed with unfolding collapse. Museums are pulled in two directions. They are enticed by technological progress — and the glimpsed vistas of consumer and corporate wealth it offers. However, they struggle because they exist to preserve heritage for posterity, and unfolding collapse will be requiring their emergency services. There lies the rub in the dematerialised digital ideal of museum. If the ultimate sociocratic museum only succeeds in cyberspace, how will we ensure that people participate fully in interpreting and caring for real places of significant heritage? If people get a (proxy) sense of agency within their compelling digital networks, will they be less willing to support real places or resources that are threatened by austerity, conflict or natural disasters?

What kind of emergency services do museums actually perform? Museums enable diverse communities to discover, perform and perpetuate heritage over the long term. This is in direct contradiction to the dominant plutocracy who prioritise short-term profit returns over both the sustainability of the historic and natural environment, and the open-ended potential of art and science. Facing this plutocratic opposition, museums have a hard job to advocate their core function, and that’s exactly why they must work harder to engage the public. Museums can offer the best conditions for ‘affective germination’ — stirring meanings and emotional responses to things, places and ideas — to remind people why heritage matters. Part of this is broadening the recognition of what counts as heritage, including the ephemeral, demotic and marginal, the non-human and the overlooked. John Russick’s piece, for example, imagines collections reframed in geo-spatial terms, with all objects from a place mapped to multiple locations helping to connect people to objects and places by making them more meaningful. The more that people feel these connections, the more people can support the long cycle of care. However, it is essential that once drawn in by such tools as mapping apps, or any kinds of participatory programming, the right structures are in place for people to engage step by step — to learn more, to build networks around interests, to give their time and to become stewards of heritage. I suspect that the more focused on short-term and quantifiable outcomes, the more likely museums are to fail in building these structures for progressive participation.

Museums tend to take a long view, which is one of their most positive assets. However, a whole new light is thrown on their long-termism by the fact we can no longer assume the continuity of human civilization. (Or perhaps that’s a whole new dark shadow!) Should museums get even more radical in their emergency services? Should they focus on creating an ark of cultural knowledge and biological data, so that surviving humans can rebuild civilisation? Or throw everything urgently into the challenge of bring about a sustainable society? Or offer a service of cultural therapy, which could be termed ‘palliative curation’, as more certainty is lost? Any or all of these options are perhaps necessary for any cultural institution to face the reality of the global crisis while retaining any sense of authenticity.

Unfortunately, such a stance is not seen to be realistic when part of this reality is austerity and cuts to museums. The fittest museums — whose examples we are asked to follow — are seen to manage by targeting more wealthy consumers, accepting more corporate sponsorship (no matter who from) and making cuts to education and outreach. However, I’m not sure how lasting these solutions are, or how appropriate they will be for more community-based museums.

I’ve argued that for museums to thrive in troubled times, they must radically reinvent themselves. Creating the museum of the future is not about following trends but accounting for critical incidents such as natural disasters, crashes, new social movements or game-changing inventions. The conundrum, of course, is that these are all impossible to account for, by their nature. Given this, they at least need to adopt a ‘precautionary’ mindset, an awareness that big and unpredictable waves of change are round the corner. They also need to develop programmes and governance models that positively game the system to favour the unpredictable outcomes of creative practice, and promote their vital role in the sustainability of heritage, ecology and diversity. For example, Robert Stein, in his smart piece on how museums can demonstrate social impact, suggests that museums don’t just use data to capture how much patrons give but how much their cultural experience leads them to make creative innovations. Generating creative and thrivable mindsets in people is a valuable outcome.

Three museum models

I only have tentative answers for how this radical reinvention could be achieved, and would love to see ideas in response to this. But I do have a sense of an ideal, which is that museums could be more sociocratic. To explain this further, it might help to see sociocracy in relation to two other museum models.

One of these other models is the plutocratic museum. This may have been established by an individual ruler or corporation. Historically, and even today, its collections are likely to be funded largely by the spoils of war, of human exploitation and environmental extraction. Conserving, commissioning and making these riches accessible are a form of ‘culturewashing’ to justify the plunder by which they appear. Its buildings may be palatial and iconic, and audiences are seen as subjects. Examples include the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the subject of activist protests about degrading labour conditions in their construction.

‘2015: Grand Opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’, digital collage, 2014 by Janet Koenig — on

The model most familiar to me in the UK and Europe is the bureaucratic museum. Its collections may have originated in plutocratic plunder, but as states have expanded institutions for public good, museums have emerged as ‘jewels in the crown’ of national and civic culture. It operates in organised hierarchies, to be efficient yet fair in its service to the public. Increasingly its relationship to corporate power is becoming problematic, as state museums are being encouraged to accept philanthropy to replace public funds. Along with their conflicted relationships, they perceive two groups of audiences, one as clients who receive public services, the other as consumers. One example is the Smithsonian, a museum institution dedicated to the public good, but not above accepting major funds from the oil barons, the Koch brothers who fund and perpetuate climate denial. A similar example is Tate, increasingly criticised for its relationship with BP.

Image after a protest by Liberate Tate, at the BP-sponsored Tate Britain

The third, then, is the sociocratic museum. In ideal form it goes beyond participatory tactics towards governance that is non-hierarchical, consent-based and rooted in its communities. We may see these principles beginning to appear in independent museums run by trusts or co-operatives, or as social enterprises. Such organisations are driven to preserve overlooked or threatened heritage, or to further a social cause or an aesthetic practice. Their audiences are seen as citizens and collaborators. The governance of sociocratic museums may not be perfect, perhaps drowning in committee meetings or perhaps senior staff dominate decision-making due to passion and high standards despite participatory principles. However, these few museums can offer glimpses of practice whose time has come. Economuseums offer a good example of sociocratic yet commercial museums. These are run by collectives of craftspeople or community heritage groups, and they raise funds in self-reliant ways through workshops, exhibitions and selling artworks. Another inspiring example towards sociocracy is the approach taken in the remaking of the Silk Mill in Derby, where visitors and volunteers are invited to become citizen curators, learning skills as they make the display fabric as well as interpretive content of the new space.

A Re:make gathering at the Silk Mill, Derby

What can digital do?

I think the key is not in the familiar question ‘how can museums survive?’ but in ‘how can museums do work that matters?’ and ‘how can our governance reflect our mission?’ In a crisis, I would argue that education and therapy are the most important emergency contributions cultural services can make. I strongly agree with Mike Murawski in his piece about embracing a digital mindset from the perspective of being a museum educator, a background I share with him. A digital mindset is really a connected mindset, which means building on all the ways digital is integrated into how people explore and learn.

Naomi Klein suggests that “The Museum of the Future should be a genuinely multidisciplinary space, so if we’re talking about climate change it wouldn’t just be talking about climate change as a problem of too much carbon in the atmosphere but about why it’s there and who the interests are behind it and what the real, structural barriers are to progress.” Museums of the Future project by The Natural History Museum

If this is right, museums as educators must be more honest about root causes of change, which means being more ‘systems literate’. Digital plays a role in systems literacy, by offering infrastructure for people to connect (non-hierarchically), to build consent about science, to accelerate learning, or to share ‘positively deviant’ ideas for change. It can combine big data with deep narratives to explore geo-political and human-ecological stories throughout history. Systems-literate museums may help communities be self-reliant and maintain wellbeing as the crisis hits home, much as the Happy Museum Project aims to demonstrate and measure. Museums may then be more valued by doing more valuable work, not just by existing. If they stop assuming that museums have an inherent purity and public good effect, they are less likely to offer ‘culture-wash’ to unethical sponsors or patrons.

So, is the social web powerful enough to trigger such a reinvention of museums? Is it possible for a big bureaucratic or plutocratic museum to be radical enough, to challenge business-as-usual? Is there a will in museums to be on the side of the people, using digital to resist the perpetuation of crisis?

I don’t know, but it might well be that digitally-enhanced people power in response to unfolding events triggers a series of movements leading to change. The #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson initiative that emerged in 2014 offers an encouraging sign of this. A joint statement by museum bloggers led to real actions by museums, amplified by social media. In turn, other galleries are joining the movement, such as Smack Mellon in Brooklyn with its open call to artists to Respond (see screenshot image below). This sentence from the bloggers’ statement sums up how museums can do work that matters: “As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.” Perhaps in months and years to come, people will start to demand that their museums respond to terrorist massacres, to climate talks and climate disasters, to global food shocks, to the extinction of the white rhino…

CODE | WORDS: Technology and Theory in the Museum

An Experiment in Online Publishing and Discourse


    Written by

    Director of Flow: consultant in cultural sector, on learning, audiences, futures and digital. Writer and photographer. Believe in ecological ways of knowing.

    CODE | WORDS: Technology and Theory in the Museum

    An Experiment in Online Publishing and Discourse

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