Museum Musings Part I

As the daughter and sister of healthcare professionals, my primary fear right now is that they will fall ill since they are going into hospitals every day. I am fearful for everyone. Trump is the worst. This piece is my attempt to think through a current problem that overlaps with some of my actual expertise since I feel powerless in other ways.

It occurred to me the other night that, although I am not a museum professional and therefore am perhaps unqualified to be writing this, my dissertation has become somewhat more applicable as museums have shuttered in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and are endeavoring to facilitate online engagement.

I am tremendously worried about everyone getting back on their feet after this, including our cultural heritage institutions. I am primarily concerned about the individuals who have lost their jobs and feel hopeless about ever finding employment in the museum sector again.

Fueled by this concern, I want to think about the continued relevance of museums, in the hopes that many will survive this crisis.

My major questions surrounding these institutions:

  • How do museums maintain their status as experiential, community hubs at a time when the community is stuck at home?
  • Should museums even have to maintain their status at a time when we are all in a holding pattern, to a certain extent?

Logically enough, some museums are shifting their focus away from in-person experiences and towards generating, re-releasing, or highlighting online content. Some are pouring their energy into social media. I’ve inserted a couple of images of online exhibitions that were mounted long before the pandemic.

For example:

This type of engagement seems fantastic, perhaps, but leaves me with several more questions: what are museums trying to accomplish right now? Are these types of efforts sustainable (especially when so many individuals are being furloughed or losing their jobs)? Is this a quick fix or is it going to pay off in the long term? Is it okay if it’s just a quick fix? What does that even mean?

The de Young and Legion of Honor have been creating beautiful digital stories since ~2017,

I really appreciated Nina Simon’s recent post on this topic. “In the race to deliver,” she writes, “I worry we may distract ourselves from the potential to envision and deliver true community value.”

So, what is meaningful right now? 

This is a HUGE question. I’m not equipped to answer this- except in the context of my own experience. But maybe that gets to it a little bit: everything feels very personal right now, so perhaps we should focus on personal meaning-making? What does that comprise?

First, some background. 

My dissertation examined the socio-technical infrastructures, project management, and sustainability challenges inherent to public-facing, museum-based digital scholarship. I specifically examined online exhibition and cataloging practices within the space of the art museum. This investigation led to a few findings that may be helpful to describe at this particular moment.

  1. The Internet represents a potential venue for greater and more diverse participation. Right now, of course, it is the ONLY venue for participation. However, existing institutional infrastructures may not be compatible with the demands of digital projects, especially at a time when those infrastructures are rapidly shifting in response to budgetary concerns, etc.

  2. A point of reassurance, perhaps?
    One of my primary findings, in researching both the lack of adoption of mobile apps in museums and the challenges of online scholarship, is that nothing replaces the in-person experience of the museum. I hope that this period of physical isolation only increases our collective desire to visit these cultural sites when we are once again able to gather together.

    Museums are social spaces. Exhibitions are performances, and exist temporarily in particular spaces and with a changing cast of actors:

    “Visitors to a real gallery are both viewers of exhibits and others, and spectacle for other visitors; the gallery becomes a stage where visitors, through the means by which they demonstrate competence of using the exhibition space and through interaction with one another, construct themselves as museum-goers.
    (Costis Dallas, “The Presence of Visitors in Virtual Museum Exhibitions,” June 2004.)

  3. Does this crisis necessitate a reconceptualization of value?
    I think all of us are reassessing our priorities right now. In this time of extreme disruption, do museums need to do the same? Do museums need to relinquish some control? Do they need to be even more vulnerable? Do they have a choice?

    In more normal times, the challenge of disseminating digital narratives online might provide what Susan Hazan calls “new opportunities to contextualize the museum experience” (In Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse, edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine, 2007). This includes reconsidering traditional conceptions of authority and value in the space of the museum. However, is anyone equipped (mentally or physically) to embark on ambitious digital projects right now? Or, is it simply a time to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks?

    In his 2011 publication, Error: Glitch, Noise, and Jam in New Media Cultures, Mark Nunes posits that error or errant communication is actually incredibly revelatory in terms of uncovering the “crisis of control” occurring among and in between information producers (museums?) and consumers (the public?). Error “can also signal a potential for a strategy of misdirection, one that invokes a logic of control to create an opening for variance, play, and unintended outcomes.” In other words, error provides “creative openings and lines of flight” (Nunes, 229).

    Ed Rodley further writes that, rather than fixate on notions of authority, museums should concern themselves with remaining relevant through these “creative openings” and focus more on the creating and spreading [of] the “digital DNA of our shared cultural heritage and less on controlling access to those assets…survival lies in the widest, most promiscuous spread of the cultural seeds we steward and create” (Rodley, “The Virtues of Promiscuity,” CODE|WORDS: Technology and Theory in the Museum, 2014).

    But can museums afford to fail right now? They will, to be sure, make mistakes. Which mistakes or “creative openings” will be fruitful?
An image of a Walker Evan’s photograph of New Orleans in 1935, featured in the online exhibition, The Exacting Eye of Walker Evans, mounted by The Florence Griswold Museum,, migrated to its current iteration ~2015.

I do not know the answers to these questions, particularly within this context of uncertainty, but I do have some insight into the challenges that museums have faced in previous digital experiments. In part, this post was an opportunity for me to voice my questions and, by voicing them, to invite others to think through them.

I will enumerate further findings in my next installment, including that SIMPLICITY is great, and often more sustainable (e.g., I love these online exhibitions from The Fitzwilliam: