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Film: A cultural heritage of misaligned expectations

Aaron Straup Cope from Mapzen spoke at MuseumNext Melbourne in February 2017. In his presentation he looked around with a critical eye and endeavour to propose where the museum sector goes from here.

Aaron Straup Cope: First of all, thank you to Museum Next for having me, thank you to all of you for coming, and thank you to everyone who’s come before us. My name is Aaron. The story of my relationship with the cultural heritage sector is fiddly, at best, and boring, at worst, so I will simply say that, well, I don’t presently work at a museum, I still refer to the sector in the second person plural, I self-identify as ‘we’. So I’d like to do a little bit of audience participation: everybody raise your hand if you’ve been to a museum. That was a test. So … oh no, keep your hands up. Keep your hands raised if you’ve ever taken a photo of a wall label to remember an object that you’re looking at. Keep your hand raised still if you think that’s worked out well for you. So, as mentioned between 2012 and 2015, I was part of the team at the [Cooper Hewitt], in New York, who worked on the [Pen], and I used to ask those same three questions all of the time when we were talking about what the purpose of the Pen was for. And the punchline was always ‘imagine if you never had to do that again.’ And the punchline was … it wasn’t a punchline, I mean, it was the whole point of the Pen, which was to say ‘imagine if you could come to the museum and remember your visit without having to spend all of your time at the museum [futzing] around with technology or taking notes or whatever, where the museum visit in fact became an exercise, or a … as we like to say [now], a museum experience in remembering your visit pre-emptively.

As Jim mentioned, these days I work for a mapping services company, and I’m in charge of building a gazetteer of all the places in the world. It is a creative commons zero, so a public domain, licensed gazetteer, spanning continents down to neighbourhoods, and every place in the gazetteer has a stable, permanent identifier, and by extension, a stable, permanent URL on the web. And when people ask why, I sometimes say that it’s mostly so that we can stop arguing about what … how places are spelled. And I’m serious, which is, imagine if we could all use a shared stable referent that had all the spelling and all the names hanging off of it, and imagine if we could just treat that kind of infrastructure and take it for granted. What could we do then?

The reason that I’m telling you these stories is because I want to start off by laying my cards on the ground … on the table, for what will follow in this talk, and it is this: I fundamentally believe that the distinction between museums, libraries and archives is collapsing, or at the very least, it is collapsing in the minds of people who don’t work in the sector, assuming that distinction hasn’t already collapsed. Some people in the sector will agree with me, but it won’t come as a surprise that this is an idea that has actually met with outright hostility by some, I’ve discovered it’s a good way to pick a fight with museum people … took about two years for one person to speak to me again, basically … and while I am sometimes accused of simply being hyperbolic, or of not sufficiently understanding, or at least, appreciating, the roles and responsibilities of each sector or the historical context in which they were formed … the problem I have, though, with either one of those rebuttals, is that it doesn’t really address the actual argument that I’m making, it’s one of those awkward situations where all of the accusations on both sides of the argument might be correct. And perhaps what I am seeing are simply shadows at dusk, ill-formed, and lacking clarity … but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still there, shadows at night don’t just go away.

And so what exactly do I mean when I say that the distinction between these three practices is collapsing? And I mean to suggest that the functions, the external expectations of competencies, of any one of these professions, is blurring with those of the others in people’s minds. For example … this may seem like crazy talk, but why shouldn’t a museum have a robust and well-structured body of searchable metadata of not just their collections, but also all the 10,000-word essays that have been written about those collections? Why shouldn’t libraries be able to accept self-deposits, both as an intellectual and an operational prerogative, and why shouldn’t archives offer interpretive guidance to their works?

It is a challenge to explain to people outside the sector what exactly distinguishes a museum from an archive, when the former has storage facilities full of stuff that they can’t or will not put on display because those objects haven’t been properly catalogued. It is doubly challenging when you remember that libraries manage to make sense from a similar, often greater amount of chaos, and it’s [not as if] the librarians have actually read all of those books, and still, somehow, they manage to do enough to foster a culture of curiosity and learning and discovery in their patrons. But I think one of the reasons that my argument has met with such hostility is that it is predicated on some still nascent changes that contemporary life has afforded us, and this is specifically the internet, and even more specifically, a permanent, or durable, asynchronous network of documents … what we know of as the web. This is the network that exists in contrast to the monodirectional and now increasingly weaponised television culture that many people had hoped would die on a fire with the end of the 20th century, and has returned with a vengeance.

But the culture of preservation hasn’t usually been in the business of nascent technologies, and a couple of years ago, Jason Scott … who many of you saw today … and I were at a different conference, and Jason was telling me about the work that he does with both the internet archive and another group, called Archive Team, which he didn’t talk about, which is a group of amateur archivists. They collect everything. They are going about pre-emptively saving the things you never knew you were going to miss.

I’m 100% supportive, both of their efforts and their approach. They can seem a little cavalier, but those of us … those who follow in our footsteps will benefit from their willingness to bet on a future that their contemporaries didn’t even think was worth it in the present. There is, however, a weak link in Jason’s argument. It is, in fairness, a weak link whose consequences are so profoundly terrible, and potentially catastrophic, that things may have to have gotten really, really, really bad before we will ever let it come to pass. It’s worth recognising that all of Jason’s work is premised on a foundational infrastructure that we know today as the electrical grid. When the power goes out, all of that work will vanish. And I mention this because when you consider preservationists as a professional class, and when you consider them in an historical context, all they have ever known is war and looting and pillaging, and so it is doubly important to recognise that although there have been some missteps along the way, over the last couple of thousand years, they have done a remarkable job of keeping stuff safe under extraordinary circumstances.

And so, when Jason and I were talking, the comment that I made to him was ‘It’s probably fair to consider that some preservationists are still sceptical of electricity.’ I have yet to meet a preservationist who will express any kind of existential doubt about electricity, and that the electrical grid is going to go away, but even just as an exercise, it’s worth contemplating. It seems only prudent. And I share this story because the larger argument I’m trying to make in this talk rests on an even more recent and potentially even less certain foundation. It not only depends on the electrical grid and an asynchronous network of documents, but it rests on a globally linked network of databases, and a layer of functionality of applications that sits on top of them. We are building all of those today, and the scale and the speed with which computerised and network databases have shaped contemporary life often lends them an air and a weight of inevitability that is as comfortable as it is misleading.

And so I want to acknowledge that at least one potential flaw in my argument might be a misplaced confidence in our shared effort to ensure that we will be able to take for granted … and that’s really the crux of this, our ability to take things for granted … these layers of communal infrastructure. We treat these things as natural laws, rather than the shared and concerted efforts that they are, at our own peril, and again, even just as an exercise, we may do well to imagine a world without an internet, or an internet that has been so fundamentally changed that what we know today has gone, but if that possibility is so terrible that we will never let it come to pass, then we also need to think about what it makes possible.

If we are going to have that internet that is good and awesome, then we need to think about the possibilities that it affords and the ways that it changes what people expect and take for granted. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this photo, this is from summer-ish of last year … I’m pretty sure this is the National Palace in [Seoul]; it might be a different building, I can’t remember. Anyhow, there were … protesters were forbidden from marching in front of the palace, and so the protesters projected holograms. There is also an entirely other talk, about the roles and responsibilities that cultural heritage institutions should assume in not simply preserving this network infrastructure, but in actually running and maintaining it in the service of cultural heritage. This is not that talk, but I do think it’s important to point out that this is something we will have to think about, that we should have already started thinking about.

Instead, this is a talk about the operationalisation of recall. This is a talk about how recall … and remember, recall is the core of what we champion and celebrate as memory institutions … is being normalised by the network. More than that, even, what I see is an increasing de-fetishisation of recall. That’s a novel thing. We have begun to take recall for granted in a way that we charge the most important aspects of our lives with being mundane and unseen. They are only noticed in their absence. I think this is a good thing, but I do worry that the cultural heritage sector, and in particular, art museums, are structurally unprepared to adapt to it. Here, again, we enter the territory of shadows at dusk. With a lot of these talks, it’s easy to want to point fingers at any one museum, and to come up with simple solutions and to apply a simple strategy for the sector, and there are none here. It’s a complicated issue. It involves staffing and money and all of those good things. But I do want to suggest that there is something going bump in the night, and that it’s worth investigating. I also want to call attention to the assumptions of a shared communal network infrastructure as a public good; this is central to my argument. If that goes away, then the argument collapses.

We could go back to a world with no internet. We all know how to work in that world. It is assumption that, given the politics of the late 20-teens, no longer seems self-evident. These are awkward days for everybody. And perhaps it is an assumption that presumes conditions that are simply antithetical at a material and practical level to the practice of conservation itself. I am willing to accept that possibility. I don’t want to believe it, but maybe it’s true. In the meantime, it’s hard to deny that we live in a world where reaching out and touching the sky … and by that, I mean this … right … I can just reach out and touch the sky … is as much about touching the past as it is the present, and that we take it for granted.

For every Amazon order, or every dispatching of a car service, or every [status] update, there is a Wikipedia query, there is someone consulting an e-mail archive from two years ago, or a [clown] on social media is being fact-checked. This is … and you know, the list could go on, it’s easy to [pull on], but this is … and it’s not simply about the old trope of greater access to information, it’s not simply about being presented with a fire hose. It is again, and I will keep saying this, about our ability to take for granted that the past is now proximate, the past is right there, and it is in a manner that is genuinely unprecedented. We use the network to circumvent the present and to circumvent the moment, and that’s interesting for the museum sector, because we celebrate the primacy of the moment in the gallery, and it is how we define ourselves, in many respects.

So, in 2017, what is a museum, or even a library, or even an archive that does not usefully exist beyond the borders of its walls? What is a museum that … how many people here think their museum works well in this room? Yeah, Jason. Moe importantly, what is a museum in 2017 that cannot exist beyond its physical walls because it lacks permission to do so? What follows will not be a comprehensive catalogue of examples illustrating all the reasons museums can’t do things, nor are they examples that are specific to the network, but they are a good illustration, and they will be familiar to everyone in this room. We could spend the rest of the afternoon compiling that comprehensive list. So, they include a prohibition of photography in the galleries, or a heavy-handed response to visitors publishing photos online; in a past life, I worked for the photo-sharing website Flickr, and we routinely had to do with the AGP, or whatever the French artists’ rights group is, who would tell people to take their photos down after taking pictures of the Louvre. It was madness.

Speaking of madness, perpetuating the madness around print quality images in a universe where the minimum required image size for a museum’s iPad application is greater than the minimum required size for print photos. Like, just what’s going on? Limiting or restricting catalogue records from being published online because they are not perfect or, even better, they might upset someone; loan objects never being mentioned or included in a catalogue, or again, worse, being removed after the exhibition comes down. This one is a big deal for me. I have a thing about [loan] objects, because … and this is important especially if we think that the primacy of the museum is in the building, which is … we invite people to come to the museum to see loan objects, and then we pretend they never existed. Nope, they weren’t here, what do you mean? Sorry, I don’t know, what are you talking about? And then, generally limiting curatorial authority or decision-making, be it a travelling exhibition or a retrospective of contemporary artists’ work.

Think about that. Artists come into museums and set all the terms. Now, it’s fine if you’re David Hockney, and you have a membership at the RCA in London, which is essentially a private members’ club. And I went to see the Hockney exhibition at the RCA in 2012, and … you know, David Hockney’s a fantastic artist, but the thing that I took away from that exhibition was, oh, my God, someone get him a curator. What these examples point to is an imbalance in the relationship between museums and their dancing partners. That imbalance is further reflected in the inability of institutions to meaningfully interact with on the network, because we’re not allowed to do anything on the network. It reflects an inability to engage with the network, because of an over-zealous regiment of permissioning … there is an inability to use the network as a tool by which … to borrow [Alan Gurian’s] phrase … they might promote nuance. They might promote nuance, and a more complex understanding of their collections outside of the 90 minutes in which we try to cram everything down their throats in the galleries.

I was pleased I was able to get this one in. I first came to Australia in 2012, and I was completely … in New Zealand and Australia, and I discovered [far lap] in three different cities. That was weird. And then I met Sam. Right? Sam has the bandage on … everything … so for those of you who don’t know, in … when were the fires, Tim? 2010?

2009. There were huge bush fires, and Sam the Koala was one of the casualties, and Sam was rescued, and Sam’s paws were damaged, they were burnt, and Sam was resuscitated back to health, and then Sam died of … Chlamydia? Or Gonorrhoea? And then Sam died of Chlamydia, right? This is Sam. This is actually Sam, with the bandage on its foot, which was weird, because I thought it had gotten better. So, everything I just said … before Sam … is fancy talk for a pretty simple idea, and it’s that it is time for cultural heritage institutions as a whole to pick a fight, it is time for the sector to pick a fight with living artists, with artists’ estates, with your donors; it is time for you to pick a fight with whomever you need to in order to be able to do your job. It is time to pick a fight so that you might be allowed to have a greater … not total, but a greater … licence of interpretation over the works with which we are charged with nurturing and caring for. I might even suggest on bad days that the sector has been played for the last couple of decades. We all want to outlast the present, not least of which is Sam, and this is especially true of artists. Museums and libraries and archives are a pretty good bet if that’s your goal.

Consider the number of works that were submitted to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the ‘70s, when it was known that one of the registrars would accept anything, and catalogue it, and accession it, if it got sent to his desk by post. Consider the trick in the US where if you deposit a book with an ISB at the Library of Congress, they will also accession it and take care of it for the rest of forever. Consider the way that people were thrilled when they learned that the Library of Congress was archiving Twitter, and with it, their tiny [feed]. For precisely those reasons. Consider the way that in 2017, an increasing number of artists and private companies are creating their own museums and archives in the service of themselves. And it remains to be seen how well that last class of institutions will fare over time. Indeed, being in it for the long run, and being wired for the long run both intellectually and operationally, is what distinguishes the cultural heritage sector from other endeavours. And the public is made better by those efforts.

My argument, though, is that taking on the burden of championing and preserving cultural heritage is a two-way street, and that the sector has become prone to an unhealthy deference, to being little more than caretakers in the service of someone else’s endeavour, and it is an endeavour that is legitimised by our efforts. It’s important to remember that. And that is why it is important for the sector to stand up, to actually be allowed to do their job. My argument is that this imbalance, at best, hampers an institution’s ability to meaningfully participate with the network, and to meet the public in 2017 on a level ground where there are certain base expectations, where things can be taken for granted … and I didn’t write down the question about asking yourself whether your museum would work in this conference room as part of these notes, but I would suggest that’s a pretty good test going forward. Can you do anything with your museum outside of the building walls, and if not, perhaps it’s time to figure out how.

And so, in closing, I would like to leave you with an open question, bordering on a deliberate provocation, and the question is this: does the sector’s current fascination with creating experiences in fact betray our anxieties about the present? Is the vogue for fashioning a kind of all-consuming, in-gallery shock and awe a way to stun and dazzle users into not realising that there is no way for them to have any meaningful relationship with their visit the minute they walk out the door?

Thank you.


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