Museum Musings Part II

Museums have always had to modify how they worked, and what they did, according to the context, plays of power, and the social, economic, and political imperatives that surrounded them.

Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge, 1992.

Today marks my sixth week of sheltering in place (with the exception of going out on dog walks, jogs, and to buy groceries). As I’ve adapted to a professional and social life that is facilitated primarily through a screen, I keep thinking about the following statement that, “humanity itself is gloriously physical” (Depocas et al., Permanence Through Change, 2003). I find this reassuring, as I have been trying to articulate the various ways that life feels gloriously abnormal right now.

As some stay-at-home orders are lifted, I think museums will continue to struggle to provide alternative forms of engagement to a predominantly off-site audience. In my previous post on this topic, I posed a lot of questions. I think that is the only responsible way for me to discuss museums right now, because I am essentially an armchair museum activist. I am typing this from my old IKEA couch, my body twisted to one side because my dog has taken residency on my lap.

So, while I’m at it, here are a few more questions and statements for your consideration:

  1. How are museums documenting their current work, if at all? While we are experiencing a global pandemic, and scrambling to do meaningful work under strange, dangerous, or even hostile conditions, do they have time to also figure out where they’re storing their files and how they’ll remain secure? Are they noting the labor that lies behind all of their current outreach efforts? Such documentation might be useful in capturing institutional memory while acknowledging the efforts of staff.
  2. This leads to the question of sustainability. In mounting online exhibitions, even under the best of circumstances, curators and a whole team of museum professionals struggle with the issues of digital preservation and obsolescence. Is it okay if today’s online content is inaccessible a month from now? What expectations are museums setting?

    The socio-technical systems required to create and sustain digital scholarship are complicated. All digital projects require ongoing maintenance, and can also be removed or migrated from the Internet at any time. Changes in funding, staffing, and technology are likely to occur during the lifetime of a digital project (and particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic), and these will transform the work in ways both large and small. The pervasive challenge of staff attrition and turnover is not unique to museums, but should certainly be taken into consideration.
  3. Do museum professionals have the time and energy to think through the affordances of using digital technologies right now? Or is it more efficient to try to provide approximations of in-person experiences, to whatever degree that is even possible? In thinking through modes of interpretation, I’ve found that visitors seem to face obstacles in interacting with online content, especially when that content is primarily inspired by its physical counterpart (the in-gallery exhibition, for example).
  4. Museums are beautiful and idiosyncratic beasts, and have historically seemed more inclined to create bespoke websites than adopt or share tools among institutions. It seems that the current crisis may encourage museums to exchange ideas and collaborate on more sustainable digital efforts. Could this be a silver lining?

Alas, I think I’ve exhausted my store of museum musings, for now. If you’re interested, I created the above online tutorial on creating low-tech online exhibition projects during the pandemic.

I will endeavor to add to this line of thinking/questioning as I move forward, but must finish out the term first.