I choose to go straight to the point – What will matter now, more than ever before, is not the digital. What I think will matter much more is the careful choice of engagement tools that each museum will go for to best communicate its ethos, ideals and experiences. I choose to do so in the face of an ever-increasing misconception that by simply digitising content, museums shall be handed with guarantees of relevance.
Let’s look at the digital as a tool in a toolbox that museums are in need more than ever before. The digital has, indeed, become the hammer each toolbox should unquestionably have — certainly a necessary and fundamental tool which has much more potential than most of us might be aware of at this point in time. But much as the hammer is anything but a universal tool to fix all problems, neither is the digital. A recent article by Becky Frankiewicz and Tomas Chamarro-Premuzic clearly nails it – digital transformation is about talent, not technology. The digital may be perceived to be the magic want museums need at this hour, but wands need a Harry Potter to work.
Incidentally, Harry Potter is a good example to describe the toolbox idea whereby the choice of tools is informed by the challenge that needs to be solved. The backbone to the Harry Potter Universe is an amalgam of seven books followed by eight films produced in rapid succession. This linchpin holds a universe in place that is still a place to discover and which continues beyond books and films. Besides wizardworld.com, replacing Pottermore since October 2019, the Harry Potter universe also includes action figures, LEGO sets, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter amusement park in Universal Studios, video games, the web-based newspaper The Daily Prophet social media groups, merchandise and much more.
The Harry Potter Universe is a complex multi-media ecology waiting to be discovered. It does not hing on one medium, even though the backbone revolves around an amalgam of book and film. The success of the Harry Potter Universe instead stems from the understanding that it is not finite and contained, but open to develop, evolve and morph as it encounters new media.
By comparison, the COVID-19 pandemia has only and prevalently shifted the museum, in force and also due to circumstances, to one medium. Digital is, indeed, a fundamental asset to consider but the tool box of a post-COVID19 museum might require much, much more than the digital. I only know of a few exceptions that have engaged with other forms of media — the LAM museum in Amsterdam or the Polin Museum in Warsaw are two best practices that I am quite conversant with. I am sure there are more to discover.
Let us consider, for a second, that the museum idea is not 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. One of the museums which gets closest to this thinking is Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. In this case, we are discussing a project that 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. As I study transmedia thinking and its application into the practice of museology practice, I can understand much more Orhan Pahmuk’s insistence that the physical space and the book are separate. Both belong to the Museum of Innocence World which holds much more potential to expand and engage via new media. A second best practice in the making refers to the Naples Archaeological Museum in Italy (MANN) and its bespoke universe of outreach products utilising a wide range of media platforms including short-format documentaries known as MANN Stories, a museum comic book and the videogame Father and Son. This is a good example of how a traditional museum institution built on the strengths of context-based histories and rich collectio holdings can reinvent itself into a multi-faceted museum world that is more within reach, certainly beyond the physical thinking. I am sure there are more waiting to be discovered.
This thinking is informed by what Henry Jenkins describes as convergence culture. You can read more about it in his book Convergence Culture: where old and new media collide. I did find a good definition to share on this link.
What is Convergence Culture?
The success of Harry Potter’s universe coincides with the advent of what is generally described as Convergence Culture. For those who are not that conversant with this thinking, Convergence Culture refers to how media consumers understand and make use of new forms of media and content. In other words, Convergence Culture is all about the ways and means how content flows across and is distributed across media and, as the Harry Potter universe best describes, the use of new media to engage with old media content.
The more I discuss and debate about this with colleagues from all over Europe and beyond, the more I see potential for this thinking to inform, contribute to and shape new museum institutions and experiences. For the purpose of this blogpost, I choose to focus on two facets of convergence culture — Media and Social or Organic Convergence.
Media Convergence is generally understood to mean the combination of new and old media within one single piece of work. Every mass medium eventually merges to the point where they become one medium due to the advent of new communication technologies.
Let us consider the museum as one work, expression or statement akin to a book which tells just one facet or story of the experience it aspires to deliver in the physical building it inhabits. The mistake that is consistent at this point in time, and which is behind the crash in virtual tours usage registered around mid-March, is the complete transposition of the physical into the virtual, rather than rethinking the museum idea into the virtual, besides other platforms, as part of a new museum world. That world can be accessed with one ticket.
Social or organic convergence is generally understood to be the simultaneous and multiple use of media technologies, such as listening to music whilst watching TV or playing video games.
Let us consider the user-end perspective of the museum experience through the lens of this multiple use of media technology. With the museum experience, this is understood in rather shallow terms to mean the use of an app or the traditional audio guide during a visit. This thinking is informed by our understanding of the museum as being prevalently and predominantly a physical space also accessible via the digital. Should we think of the museum as having more than one medium or format, then the multiplicity of access has potential to provide diverse experiences, with each complimenting the other and entertaining healthy overlaps. The museum can then be a story book or a story poster, a digital story or a YouTube channel, each conceived with the strengths of each medium in mind. In practical terms, it could mean viewing a painting and listening to a personalised story at the same time … and much more!
These are just two facets of a new museum world or worlds waiting to be born. Museums need these lenses now more than ever before and it would be nice to think about these being something akin to Harry Potter’s glasses but not necessarily so. Indeed, museums need lenses through which to view things differently, dissect the challenges down to bolts and nuts and re-build, transform and regenerate. The solutions may not be as radical or forward-looking as discussed here, knowing too well that change requires adjustments and a culture change that may not be so easy to introduce. Long journeys happen with small steps. Indeed, this is a case in point. I cannot help thinking of a Chinese proverb by writer and thinker Lao Tzu that succinctly synthesises these thoughts – ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step’.
This piece was first published on The Humanist Museum.
About the author – Sandro Debono
Sandro Debono is a museum thinker and culture strategist. He is the brains behind MUŻA – The Malta National Community Art Museum which he spearheaded and for which he developed the original guiding vision. 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, the international platform of museum innovators and change-makers. He is also visiting lecturer at the Department of Arts, Open Communities and Adult Education (University of Malta) and other European universities. He is also active as a museum advisor.