Can We Fix It - Yes We Can!

What post-corona museum audiences think about museums?

“A visit to a museum is a search for beauty, truth and meaning in our lives. Go to museums as often as you can.”

Maira Kalman’s statement resonates well with museum professionals, particularly now as museums around the world prepare to or have just re-opened their doors in the hope of welcoming back their publics and audiences. Some have already done so and the prospect of an empty museum might not be as bleak as it might have been a few weeks ago.

With this new normal firmly taking shape, it may be the case that the need to go digital might have just been a hype after all, and the need for it may not be as pressing as the COVID-19 pandemic might have made us believe. Some, indeed, have mooted the idea that the digital is risky business for museums. This is the case of the CEO of Opera Australia who spoke his mind clearly about the digital revival brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic in a recent interview.

The better we make the digital experience, particularly at a time when people are going to be nervous about going back into performances, the bigger problem were creating for ourselves as well. There is nothing like sitting in a hall with 2000 strangers that are all having different emotional experiences that are very personal. I really worry if we make the digital experience so engaging and so wonderful, whats going to happen to the live shows?

Is this really the case?

To Fix With the Right Mindset

Let us consider, for a second, that the museum idea is not just the physical space welcoming visitors during pre-determined fixed hours. Instead, let us think of the museum as having a multiplicity of identities, of which the physical can nevertheless be the strongest.

There are very few examples of museums informed by and conceived with this thinking in mind. Orhan Pamuks Museum of Innocence is undoubtedly one of them. This museum was deliberately conceived and incubated in fiction, only to become a content-capsule space, or what we would describe as the physical museum, at a later stage.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only and prevalently shifted the museum, in force and also due to circumstances, to one medium - the digital - but that does not mean that this has, shall or will replace the museum’s physicality its existence or form as a place to visit. Indeed, it may be the case that the post COVID19 museum will be understand in a plurality of forms of which the physical is but one of multiple forms and experiences. This requires a culture change which may not be easy to handle for museum professionals accustomed to work with objects and material culture in general.

The fundamental priority would undoubtedly be a positive mindset but there is also the needed to let go of old ways and habits that have been considered essential for the purpose of institutional ethos. A new museology in the making? That could well be the case.

Yes we can!

The positive mindset and can-do attitude required in such times of change reminds me of Bob the Builder, a late 1990s children animated UK television show which has now become international, also thanks to other media including books and food.

The concept features a building contractor and his world, including a motley crew of anthropomorphised work-vehicles and equipment, that come foreword the solve the umptieth challenge. Bobs problem-solving skills emphasise conflict resolution, co-operation, socialisation and other learning skills in general. This is, indeed, a mindset with which he would approach his problem solving needs and requirements that makes all the difference.

When seen through the Bob the Builder perspective, the digital revival and the ambition to create the right and necessary synergies between the physical and the virtual is going to depend overwhelmingly on the will to make it happen. Besides having the tools and the talent a Yes We Can!attitude shall be the game changer.

The challenge

Let me try to explain the challenge ahead by taking art curators for my case study. The academic formation of an art curator and his practice is informed by the need to recognise and define value in the works of art within his care and this, oftentimes, touches upon the economic value. There is a paradox of sorts in the fact that this dialectic between economic and cultural value is a necessity for museums — collections are valued for insurance purposes, and material culture is acquired on the art and antiques market at a price.

In the art world, the dialectic between the art market and the art museum runs deep into the very essence and historical development of the discipline. Ivan Gaskells essay Tradesmen as Scholars — Interdependencies in the study and exchange of art is a good synthesis to go by. The original is a desired acquisition, the authentic is valued when recognised and the copy oftentimes relegated to relative oblivion. That is the ethos of an object-centred museum institution.

For many museums, and not just those collecting art, the digital is a mere copy of the material original. We rarely think of museums as experiences without a material collection but the argument that there is nothing like the original is increasingly coming across as comparing chalk to cheese, akin to comparing books to films or websites.

But do we really miss on the museum experience when we opt to go for digital instead of physical?

Original versus digital

The answer comes from a ten month joint study by MIT and Cuseum, the museum engagement platform, on the emotive responses of subjects when shown original artworks versus their digital equivalents. Rather than missing the aura of the original when viewing digital, to quote Walter Benjamins 1935 essay Art in the Age of the Mechanical Reproduction, the digital experience actually improves the magnitude of brain activity. Noah Charneys article on the observer sums it up nicely.

In short: our brains appear to be more stimulated when looking at augmented reality and virtual reality digital reproductions of art when compared to looking at the real thing.

Noah Charney urges caution nevertheless, rightly claiming that such statements need to be unpacked, as there are a number of considerations surrounding it. There is one thing that nevertheless comes across rather clear. It would be a mistake to continue considering the digital as secondary to the physical experience. I choose to quote the 2011 well-known article by museum consultant Rainey Tisdale which a good sythesis to make my point

Museums now rely on all sort of interpretive tools to tell their stories we need everything in the arsenal to do our job well...

What held water a decade ago still does today, perhaps now recognised as a need more than ever before in response to the challenges brought forth by the COVID19 pandemic.

By accepting that objects control the museum narrative, and by stopping short of acknowledging the museum as a plurality of forms that can be reached across a broad range of media, museums risk loosing relevance now more than ever before.

The original, the authentic and the unique may now relate much more to the quality, relevance and authenticity of the museum experience. The approach to collections can certainly be fixed, and this can happen without letting go of the unique value which the original holds. Museums experiences can equally be recognised for their value and that includes the digital.

Yes, we can! Shall we?




ARTIKKELI / 11.6.2020


Sandro Debono

Sandro Debono PhD (b. 1970) is a museum thinker and culture strategist with extensive experience in the museum world. He is culture advisor to the President of the Republic of Malta, the national representative at the European Museum Academy and sits on the advisory board of We Are Museums.