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Social Media as Museum Object

It has become commonplace to engage with museums online. Indeed social media and the web are now the main ways that museum goers find out what’s on where.

So it is no surprise that museums are directing more and more resources into how they look, feel and market online. But the online investment doesn’t stop there. Museums have invested for decades now in digitising their collections and many are starting to ascribe visits to their exhibitions, collections and programs online, with the same value they give to physical visits to their museum.

At recent museum conferences I have been impressed with the number and quality of presentations about online projects that have their genesis in physical exhibitions. Other speakers are choosing to focus on the digital enhancements that are being grafted into our physical experience of museums, and others again are asking what the implications will be for physical museums once every object they hold and every exhibition they mount has its equivalent online?

I recently explored this terrain when I spoke about our experience at Canberra Museum and Gallery with what I am calling a ‘very dangerous’ kind of museum object.

This kind of museum object is unsafe to put in an exhibition, and in a collection its impact can be catastrophic.

It is a live social media object. A summary of my presentation is below.

Rewind six years and you would have found me working in the office of Canberra’s Chief Minister.

Our Chief Minister had a weekly radio slot where he took calls on everything from uneven pavement to unfair dismissal. We were embracing Open Government, that global movement, pushed along by Barack Obama, that promotes ready citizen-access to government records, data, analysis and advice.

We had begun to systematically post material online: Cabinet agendas, Government responses to FOI requests, data sets and much more besides.

Then we launched a world first for Open Government: a Twitter Cabinet.

This practice had our Ministers convening at a predetermined time during which anyone could Tweet-in and get a response to their questions.

Understandably, when I left the Chief Minister’s Office and started at Canberra Museum and Gallery, I was thirsty to ramp up our museum’s online interactions with its community.

This was never about encouraging people to take selfies in our museum. It was a journey that would ultimately take us somewhere much stranger than that. The best way to tell you where we are now – is to tell you how we got here.

Step by step we began to build more interactive digital content into the museum.

Soon it was Canberra’s centenary, and we mounted a cracker of an exhibition. It scried back 200 years into Canberra’s past and forward 100, into its future.

The exhibition curator, Dale Middleby, managed to forge partnerships that helped us create some outstanding digital objects.

There was an augmented reality experience of a local Indigenous rock art site from a-positive; a video game set in a fully-forested National Arboretum from the Academy of Interactive Entertainment; and even a news broadcast from March 2113 courtesy of ABC Canberra.

This material fitted comfortably in what was a fairly straightforward museum display. But we had also begun to post as much as we could from our exhibitions to our website. Not just promotional material and images, but room brochures, catalogues, all the exhibition text and electronic content, basically anything we could lay our hands on. We wanted the online experience of our exhibitions to show the same level of care and chutzpah that we invested in our physical exhibitions.

A curious outcome of thinking about digital and physical exhibitions alongside each other was that we began to include the online life of our community in the physical space of our museum.

Perhaps the fact that we are a social history museum and a visual art gallery combined helps us to see how the many expressions of our region’s identity are interconnected. We know that Canberra’s soul is as likely to be reflected in an Instagram post, as it is anywhere else.

Inspired by the ‘Insta-walks’ of our local ABC Radio Manager, Andrea Ho, we had the idea to stream in a live feed of social media images alongside our centenary exhibition.

We asked a local firm, Icelab, to develop code that would grab every Twitter post that mentioned the word ‘Canberra’, fresh as it was posted, then test if it included an image and, if it did, reformat it and upload it to a Tumblr, all in near real time. When my colleague and I approved these posts from our smart phones, they appeared instantly on a large screen on the wall of the museum.

We adopted a policy to curate-out repetitive advertising, posts that were designed to offend, and anything that was sexually explicit or gratuitously violent. It was gratifying that there was little we had to cut.

You might know about the ‘IK Prize’ which funds new ways of accessing the Tate Galleries’ collections? Ros Lawler spoke about this at February’s MuseumNext conference in Melbourne. She described the Prize’s Recognition project from Fabrica. Here news media images streaming in from Reuters were automatically matched up, using artificial intelligence software, with British works from the Tate’s collections. The Reuters’ image and its corresponding Tate image were then displayed alongside each other on a screen in Tate Britain.

I was interested to hear how the Tate curated-out certain types of images, for example, those showing individuals in difficult situations, guns, dead bodies and indeed even some of the more risqué images from their own collection.

At first reading we could take this ‘curating-out’ of certain content by the Tate (and which would probably have been done by any other museum) as a form of risk management – say to avoid the risk of triggering anxiety in someone recovering from trauma, or of offending families. But I think the decision to apply this curatorial ‘discernment’, some might even say ‘censorship’, to the live Reuters feed reveals something more fundamental about the relationship between museums and galleries, and the content they consider fit to display and collect.

Our libraries and archives seem somehow more permissive, more able to embrace multiple and contradictory narratives. At least on the surface, libraries and archives, appear less constrained by the dogmatic narratives of art history and the fraught politics of national identity.

Libraries and archives also share a history of collecting things like live social media: such as newspapers, ephemera, websites, radio and TV. We know, for example, that the Library of Congress has committed to maintaining an archive that will embrace every tweet, ever.

In the museum where I work we are just tinkering with live social media objects. But like the Tate with its Recognition project, and like the National Museum of Australia, with a project that streamed-in social media images of people celebrating Australia Day and added them to its collection – we are intrigued to see how this type of museum object, and the cultural relativism it brings, will shape the voice, and temper the curatorial authority of our museum in the future.

The idea of live social media objects has caught on at my museum. So much so that we now curate-in one of these objects alongside most major exhibitions. Revealing the dynamic online life of our community inside our museum has become an important part of our work.

Above is a post from Russell Eustace who was at a Tour de France event near Jindabyne, New South Wales, late last year. It was part of a stream at our museum that accompanied an exhibition of vintage racing bikes.

Guest artists have also live-streamed in their work:

– Paul Jurak did it from a kayak on the city’s central lake. He was there for every sunrise and every sunset for around three months;
– Mel Edwards showed a whole archive of images where she wilfully mistook Canberra for other cities, on a daily basis; and
– Holly Granville-Edge shared some searing personal dialogues on the city as image.

In an exhibition focussing on the natural history of Canberra, we streamed in the work of citizen scientists contributing to a massive geo-tagged database of the flora and fauna of our region.

Although we don’t linger on it, we know that the meaning of every museum object is recontested every time it is encountered. The live social media object reminds us that our business is to curate meanings rather than the objects themselves. We are also reminded that despite all of our efforts, the meanings we curate reach out to unknown and unpredictable audiences.

Once live social media is accepted as a museum object, we can no longer go to a museum to be reassured of the enduring meaning of history. Rather we will be compelled to admit that history is and will always be in flux to some extent, and that we are, each one of us, active players in its unfolding.

The live social media object, is unpredictable and unsafe for a traditional museum display. This is because it punctures the rhetoric of historical objectivity and authority that contemporary museums and galleries still work so hard to achieve. This is because it is alive to the unpredictable future, and is, by its very nature, enmeshed in narratives that are playing out in real time beyond the museum’s walls.

In a world, to use Mark Dodgson’s phrase ‘awash with relativism’, this flux heralds a mighty challenge for museums. It will be the thinking and wisdom that we bring to this challenge that will allow our museums to sustain their value into the future.


*Professor Mark Dodgson, of University of Queensland and Imperial College, recently spoke compellingly on ‘Fighting ignorance from ivory towers’ for the ABC’s Ockham’s Razor.

About the author – Shane Breynard

Shane Breynard is Director, Canberra Museum and Gallery. He tweets @shanebreynard.

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