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Film: The Museum is the Medium

Megan Maher Innes,
Museum Educator and Nonprofit Consultant,
Megan Loves Museums

Hello, everybody. Welcome. My name is Megan, and I love museums, like most of you all. I am a museum educator and a non-profit consultant currently in the Tacoma area, and today I am here to talk about one of my favourite theorists of all time, Marshall McLuhan, and how I personally see the museum as a medium.

So my love for Mr McLuhan began in college where I discovered his theories on human culture and communications, and today I will be discussing three of those with you; the medium is the message, the global village, and his categorisation of hot versus cool media and how that pertains to our museum practice.

So you may remember Marshall McLuhan for his cameo in Annie Hall back in 1977, and I am going to do my best today, as a museum educator, to do justice to his theories on media, culture and society. I like that guy.

So his landmark theory is the medium is the message, perfectly exemplified by the typo of his first edition print which he was alerted to and kept. I love a man with a good sense of humour.

And so in his theory, McLuhan asserts that content is affected by the medium in which you choose to relay it, so that means everything from the invention of the wheel to the mobile telephone to the internet has a message about human culture and communications and society. His famous laws of media or the tetrad is useful in considering how each medium has a message. So for this [practice], let’s consider a work of art, oil painting on canvas. What does it enhance? For me, it’s visual communication. But what does that revert into, which could be the scary part of it; illiteracy. What if we just only had visual communication and we didn’t have the need for the phonetic alphabet, we could revert back into a totally visual culture. What does it retrieve for me? It’s that notion of prehistoric cave paintings. And what does it make obsolete? Like I said before, the written language.

So that is very extreme, but there aren’t wrong answers here. Just considering these tendencies, if you can look closer at any piece of technology or extension of our communications and consider Marshall McLuhan’s tetrad.

So his next theory is going to be that we live in a global village, and now, more than ever. McLuhan predicted that we would be an ever-expanding tribe with less interest in specialising and more of an interest in aligning to a generalised populous; so being able to speak and communicate to all. And what does that mean for us as museum professionals and society at large? That, as our audience is expanding, we have to be more reactive to the needs of our global village, and we have to be able to communicate or speak the same language at the same time, which is why he asserted that the internet would be something that would really bind us together as a human culture.

So with that, we must decide what a museum is. Is it hot or is it cool? According to McLuhan, hot media is directed; it’s one way; it’s coming at you hot. So radio, podcasts, movies, photographs; none of them really invite you to have a dialogue at that moment, but in order to be cool and have a cool sense of media, we could have speech, we could have classroom-style interactions, we could have the telephone, and we could have our mobile phones. But going back to our example of the oil painting, is that oil painting hot or is it cool? Hanging on the wall of the museum, it is so hot, but [unintelligible 00:03:54] or an educator be in front of that painting, and all of a sudden you’ve just become super cool.

So with all of this to say, what’s the future of art, anthropology and communications in our museum as a medium? Well, let’s do the tetrad. What does it extend? For me, it extends our human nature to collect, preserve and cherish our shared past. What does it make obsolete? It makes personal collecting obsolete. We can go and see other people’s collections and they’re probably better than our own personal collection, but what opportunities does it create? It creates opportunities to share our collective stories, which I’ve heard so much about during this conference. And it can reverse into those gilded galleries, with access restricted to the privileged exclusively.

So with all of this, how do we consider the museum as a medium? For us, as museum professionals, and especially for me, that means that we have to admit that for as much as we want to be so cool, a lot of people consider us to be a little too hot sometimes. But museums do live in a global village, and we have to consider what that means for us to be a reactive community in these expansive global conversations that are happening all around us. And it means that us, being museum professionals, we have to understand that we are a medium, and that no matter what content we share, the medium is the museum, and that is the message. Thank you.

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