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“MyCulture”: the salvation of museums or the end of excellence as we know it?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

As promised, I have posted a summary of the discussions about the “myCulture” trend from the Crowdsourcing the Future game I led at the Museums in Conversation (MIC) conference in Tarrytown, NY earlier this month.

“MyCulture” is the term used in the CFM report Museums & Society 2034 to refer to the growing expectation on the part of young audiences that they should be able to shape their own experience. This generation expects to personalize their museum experience much the same way they personalize their cell phones. They don’t want to be presented with only static content, they want the opportunity to contribute, modify and share. Possibilities for the scope of this involvement run the gamut, including:

  • Technologically gloried versions of the old comment book (e.g., opportunities to share photos on Flickr, or comments via a museum-sponsored blog)
  • Social tagging (audience contribution to annotating and organizing information about the collections)
  • Opportunities to create separate, parallel interpretation (via podcasts for example)

This is a very broad set of options, with huge differences in the implications for the kind of involvement being invited, and the kind of control being ceded by the museum. As Nina Simon points out there is a big difference between participatory design (audiences helping create exhibits) and design for participation (exhibits designed by museum staff to encourage user involvement.)

Let me see if I can summarize what I have heard so far, positive and negative, in reaction to this trend. (These summaries, including the extreme language, are largely taken verbatim from the Tarrytown discussions as well as commentaries on the CFM blog and “chatrooms.”)

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“How wonderful that people want to be involved in interpreting the museum’s stuff! What a great way for museums to promote dialog and remain (or become) relevant. Yes it could be confusing, but exciting, to say the least. The value of collections will speak for themselves when visitors can have meaningful interactions. In the future, museums that survive will be all about dialogue—that is why they will survive.”

“Such practices will only create and extend shared ignorance. Opening interpretation and content to audience input will suck up vast amounts of curatorial time in weeding out what little value might be hidden in the dross contributed by the audience. History and the meaning of artworks, etc., will be revised by hackers and various other nefarious sorts whose only interest in museums is wreaking havoc and professional staff will be unable to clarify/provide “better” or more complete understanding of objects/art to the general public.”

It is clear that museums practitioners are very concerned about the effect of visitor-generated content on accuracy. However, one thing that we as a field are cultivating is a better appreciation of the expertise that visitors bring to the table. Many of the conversations in Tarrytown touched on this. A speaker on social tagging pointed out that users know how they describe and remember paintings, and how they would search for them in a database. (Which, by the way, has almost no overlap with the expert curatorial description.) Another attendee told of how an antique-car buff was able to help the museum pinpoint, within a two-year span, the date of an historic photo in their collection, based on the makes and models of autos in the scene.

And there are clear models for how such a synthesis of curatorial and user expertise can be brokered. A case in point is the Flickr Commons Project. As I understand it, curators monitor and select comments that go into the official metadatabase in the Library of Congress. This takes advantage of broad input and highly specialized expertise hidden in “the crowd” but still exercises quality control. Now, this does imply a changing role for the curator, from author to editor. Museum subject specialists become moderators of the unruly but immensely valuable process of gathering, filtering and synthesizing user expertise. This might not be the career some people had in mind when they became curators, which, I think, is the source of much of the rancor swirling around this issue.

Good—so the visitors are experts about some things in their own realms. I think we can all agree to that, though we will debate how to identify and validate what levels of expertise. And there are ways for museums to apply quality control standards to user-contributed content, if they allocate resources to do so. I want you to consider a more controversial point. How important is it that museums and museum content be right? A lot of the fears I hear about user-generated content is that it may be “wrong,” inaccurate or simply unguided. Here is my heresy of the day: maybe it is better to be wrong but interesting than right but boring.

This thought, which had been percolating for some time, coalesced last Sunday as I watching my fencing coach teach the first class of a beginners group. I expected Vitali to demonstrate the correct classical and arcane elements of footwork, armwork, maybe lecture them a bit on the rules. Instead, he floored me by suiting them up, putting foils in their hands and inviting them to fence each other…and him. “It will give them an intuitive understanding” he explained later. “They discover for themselves what works.” Almost everything they did in that first half hour was, in any traditional sense, wrong. But they sure were enthusiastic about trying. Maybe enthusiastic enough to plow through the boring and painful job of learning footwork…and getting it right eventually. For me, this demonstrates the importance of welcoming and inviting passion, creating a way to discover or flush out raw talent with the presumption that you can shape and refine it later.

So, call me on this. What are the various levels of “wrongness” or ambiguity that a museum might tolerate or welcome, as a by-product of embracing user-generated content? When are these valuable, or at least tolerable as side effects of winning hearts and minds, and when does it cross the line into mere mediocrity? Your turn…

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  1. This is not a museum-world comment, but I think it applies. I ask for “user-generated content” all the time in the work that I do. It’s called homework. Which I then spend a good part of my life grading, i.e. marking so as to communicate my impression of the work’s accuracy and level of insight. Sometimes I learn a great deal from my students’ papers, but not always and not without a good deal of work on my part. To what extent are museums obliged or interested in this degree of educational engagement? Certainly, there are experts out there in all sorts of things who are not necessarily professionally placed (vide Wikipedia), but at some point the expertise of those who have trained in museology must outweigh the random contributions of the “general public.” I don’t think this is quite the same problem as learning to fence by starting without having any real instruction because at least with fencing, the question is clear what one wants to learn. What are museums trying to teach?

  2. And are they trying to teach something in particular, or provide opportunities for visitors to learn what they want to learn? Are they more like schools (with a didactic agenda) or like libraries (providing access to resources for the public?) Or does it vary from museum to museum, depending on their mission, or even exhibit by exhibit?

    Homework is an interesting case in point–presumably it is assigned not just so that you can assess how well students have assimilated content (else why not just a final exam) but also because it helps them engage with and process what they are learning. And voluntary homework is only going to get done if it is fun. This circles us back to Jane McGonigal’s lecture for CFM last fall. What can we learn from game design to make the museum experience fun, inspiring visitors to take on voluntary homework that contributes to their experience and, maybe, to our content?

  3. The pro/con points raised sound so familiar.. let me think… oh yeah, they are almost the same exact words from arguments around the museums and community concept – don’t let in the unwashed masses, who knows what trouble they will give our quiet, navel-gazing lives. In what high regard, we hold the audience for whom we ostensibly are creating these exhibits with which we dispense our jewels of wisdom for them to lap up appreciatively and unquestioningly.

    —stepping off soapbox—

    The current emphasis in educational best practices, whether for kindergarteners, college-students, or lifelong learners, has focused less on content per se and more on teaching oneself how to learn, on developing a critical mind so as to be able to sift through the mass of information (and misinformation) available at one’s fingertips, to evaluate the validity of a source, to .. in the words of Bloom, analyze, synthesize, evaluate.

    If this is our goal, to create a nation of deep thinkers and reflectors – why would we expect their visit to a museum to use different learning behavior. They *should* ask questions, offer variations based on their other experiences, and even doubt our authenticity.

    Yes, it is mandates a different take to our existing work models – but no different than the changes we are asking of our educational system. Imagine the challenge to the world view of a teacher used to drilling on times tables or historical timelines that now has to create and assess multimedia presentations on the influences of the changing price of gas on today’s food chain.

    There is even a lot of discussion around the positive role of peer review in providing feedback to the student and even informing the grade (at its basic level, think Amazon stars). So maybe the test of ‘wrongness’ is driven by the community’s willingness to call it out (community = visitors to the museum, visitors to the museum’s virtual footprint if the contributions are available online, the museum’s own experts, and then, if broadly available, the experts who might visit virtually).

    Another model to consider is the Wikipedia model. As a browser of content, you see a consensus message.

    Behind the scenes on talk pages, authors propose changes, the community discusses the nuances of wording, and ultimately (generally) experienced authors make the changes to the entry that is available for public view.

    In fact, Wikipedia has developed a strong code of behavior around beginning editors and experienced ones that all centers around the goal of ‘improving the encyclopedia’. While it is true that there is bogus information in wikipedia and some quite public issues, it has proven to be, on whole, more accurate than the encyclopedias of prestige and print.

    So may it be with museums.
    Karen Bellnier

  4. The summary of comments from the Crowdsourcing the Future game were wonderful. Absolutely worth going back and linking to that summary.

    The challenge with the ‘cons’ about this topic is that the MyCulture train has already left the station, irrevocably, and will continue to gain momentum as the younger generation driving it rises in the marketplace and workplace. I sometimes feel like I’m in the caboose during a noisy and bumpy train ride heading into the Wild West, but I’m glad that I’m at least on the train!

    There’s one comment from the summary that I thought would be particularly interesting to flag:

    “In 2034, museums will make collections available for visitors to “curate” their own shows on their own web pages, which are hosted by the museum. Some of these could become actual shows too. Local artists, museums, craftsmakers, etc will use the museum and/or museum homepage to host their work. Local community members will translate museum content into foreign languages. All these trends increase the relevancy of the museum within the lives of its constituent public.”

    Why flag that comment? Well, that projection for 2034 is already happening today, with tremendous success. And it’s stuff for which museums could easily harvest the effort of volunteers to do well…as is already happening in many pieces of life around us.

    One fun aspect of thinking about 2034 is the freedom to come up with wacky ideas without limiting yourself within the constraints of (current) reality. But the really fun part of it is realizing that some of this future thinking is a lot closer than we think!

  5. This question seems like it has been around forever. It reminds me of the conflict our founding fathers faced when trying to decide what the best balance was between the people governing themselves, and being governed by individuals deemed to be the “experts.” Power in the hands of the people, or in the hands of a select few? Even though this specific conversation is related to the future, I think John Adams and Thomas Jefferson would have much to contribute! It is amazing how concepts sometimes come full circle… or never leave us at all.

  6. Gone are the days of the curator in his or her lofty, vine-covered tower. The curator of the future must embrace the hive mind and understand that the curatorial voice is not always the one the audience wants to hear. Increasingly, our visitors are feeling empowered – in part by the ability through social media to have their voices heard. They will not remain silent and curators must understand this. ANd yes – I am a curator. 🙂

  7. I work with curators who have never lived in the lofty vine covered place you spoke about. The folks I work with like to work with all kinds of internal and external folks to get the best and most accurate information about an object, exhibition or whatever else it is out to our audience.
    One of the hurdles that I see is that our exhibit people would rather “buy” a copy than use the real thing due to lightning, temp, travel issues and the like as well as tell their own story vs working with a group.
    I think this lack of collaboration is the result of years or petty bickering with the past generation of curatorial and exhibit staff. When will people just let it go. Playing well with others will always get the better results for the museum as well as our visitors. Exhibits staff are not curators and curators are not exhibits folks – taking the best skill set from each group would be much better…
    Next step – get the museum educators and the tech kids involved… now we are talking about creating good stuff for our public to be interested in and learn…..

    just saying.

  8. Thank you for this interesting and very important post! I’ve been thinking about how to frame this case for some time now and I’ve come up with structures which I’d be interested in sharing with you.
    We set up a new group at the museum30.ning site. This explores the potential for cross-institutional networks and new relationships with both audiences and external entitites. I’ve also added a posting and two page summary of what I am describing as the difference between cultural and value networks.
    Basically, working with social media gives us new opportunities to create networks whose value is created in partnership with our audiences. Cultural networks are those that we have come to recognise as cross-institutional collaborations.
    I worry that unless we add structure beyond technological ability to the case for social media, we run the risk of seein its potential disappear in cursory arguements which do little justice to the importance of the issue!

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