The 21st century is calling; on cell phones, iPads, smart watches, Facebook, Twitter, web sites, texts and emails. The question is, are museums ready to answer?

On the one hand, it is a great time to be in the museum business. New learning and communications technology allow us to disseminate our educational messages and content to millions of learners simultaneously. We can reach out to where learners work, play, learn and live. The good news is that these networks are hungry for content and contact. We have that high-quality, trust worthy content learners are after and much of it is ready to go. So where do museums begin?

We would suggest taking a breath and beginning with an integrated digital plan that looks at the digital potential and capacity across the entire museum simultaneously; from curatorial to education, marketing, fundraising, management, and finances. The digital solutions in one area can instantly be repurposed to serve another. Synergy and cross-platform applications are at the core of these new technologies, so museums need to be systematic in their planning, integration, and applications of these new technologies. These new technologies can not only evaporate the four walls of the museums, they can also eliminate the dozens of internal walls that separate functions, outcomes, staff, and communications within our museum.

Museums like the Menil, San Francisco Museum of Art, Dallas Museum of Art, and Brooklyn Museum of Art have all made admirable starts in this direction and their models can be useful to analyze. However, it may not be enough to admire and celebrate episodic moments of success, rather, it may be time to step back and construct a whole museum response and plan for the effective integration of digital capacity into our work and missions; to develop the first principles that will guide a museum’s decision-making and priority-setting in this critical area for 21st century museums.

We have developed integrated digital strategies for clients and believe it is an essential first step.

One perspective to consider is the changing character of collections in an age of digital reproduction and cultural globalization and access. There was a time when possession of authentic collections was a source of institutional status and regional pride. Each City needed its Picassos, Dinosaurs, or Greek urns in order to be a considered a sophisticated, mature, and contemporary urban destination. Is the power of possession now being superseded by the power of access? Are communities less interested in owning their Picasso and more interested in having access to the best Picassos for a temporary period. Researchers, too, are increasingly attracted by the convenience of a HD images and searchable data bases of collections and archival records, not needing to make the trip to see the originals. Often these digital files can reveal information that the naked eye is incapable of detecting. Once digitized, virtual collections can be manipulated in ways the actual object cannot. The question then arises, how many Audubon mammals portfolios are required to be in the public domain once they are digitized and accessible? What if a natural history museum was given such a portfolio at a time when it was considered natural historical documentation as opposed to art? Should the natural history museum continue to hold the item when duplicates exist in the neighboring art museum? Should the two museums collaborate, produce an in-depth digital file for one portfolio and keep one “auratic” regional original for researchers? Rather than focusing on the ethical extremes of corruption and greed, should we be focused on more positive discussions of institutional collaborations, loans, centralized repositories, and alternate access and preservation of cultural and natural heritage, rather than stubborn defense of the status quo? Should we be having a rich discussion of how the presence of the virtual object affects the status of the actual object?

Museums are ritual places in which societies make visible what they value. Through the selection and preservation of artifacts, specimens, and documents, museums begin to define for their societies what is consequential, valuable, and suitable as evidence of the past. Through their presentation and interpretation of this evidence, museums define not only what I memorable but also how it is to be remembered. Museum are thus unavoidably linked with their cultural settings. They are a collective self-reflection culminating in the maintenance, sustenance, and presentation of a cultural identity, as well as the embodiment of cultural values and attitudes believed to be important. (more…)

Winter Afternoons in the V & A, pre WWII

Denise Levertov

“…My shoes made no sound, I found
Everything for myself,
Everything in profusion…

Here was history
As I desired it: magical, specific,
Jumbled, unstinting,
A world for the mind to sift
In its hourglass—now, while I was twelve
Or forever.”

The poet, Denise Levertov, was a frequent visitor to the Victoria & Albert museum throughout her life, always discovering the tangible and sensual connection to history through that Museum’s objects of desire. (more…)