College Museums in a Networked Era–Two Propositions

by John Weber, Skidmore College

To begin, let’s take it as a given that the “cyberinfrastructure” we are writing about in this edition of Academic Commons is both paradigmatically in place, and yet in some respects technologically immature. The internet and the intertwined web of related technologies that support wired and wireless communication and data storage have already altered our ways of dealing with all manner of textual and audiovisual experience, data, modes of communication, and information searching and retrieval. Higher education is responding, but at a glacial pace, particularly in examining new notions of publishing beyond those which have existed since the printed page. Technologies such as streaming and wireless video remain crude, but digital projectors that handle still image data and video are advancing rapidly, and the gap between still and video cameras continues to close. Soon I suspect there will simply be cameras that shoot in whatever mode one chooses (rather than “camcorders” and “digital cameras”), available in a variety of consumer and professional versions and price points. Already, high definition projectors and HD video are a reality, but they have yet to permeate the market. They will soon, with a jump in image quality that will astonish viewers used to current recording and projection quality.

For museums, network and CPU speed, as well as screen and projection resolution, are key aspects of these technologies. Only recently have digital images caught up with analog film in resolution and potential color accuracy (which, lest we forget, was never a given with film, either). The digitization of museum collections and their placement on higher education or public networks is undoubtedly a meaningful teaching asset, but the impact of this shift is, I suspect, largely a matter of ease and logistics, wherein the information provided replicates existing resources without fundamentally changing the knowledge gained from them. In other words, slide collections and good research libraries already provided much of the museum collection information now present on the internet. Yes, we should all be documenting our collections and making it easier for faculty and students to use those images, but no, that activity alone will not change our world in and of itself. Combined with an aggressive program to foster collection use by faculty and students, it can accomplish a great deal for a college museum, but we can and should aim even higher.

With that preface in place, let’s consider the museum, the internet, and the college curriculum as structuring conditions governing the nature of human experience that can occur within their boundaries. Museums are traditionally and fundamentally concerned with unique objects and notions of first-hand experience tied intrinsically to one specific place. There is only one Mona Lisa, and one Louvre where you can see it. There is only one Guggenheim Bilbao, and to see it you must go to Spain. In contrast, the internet is fundamentally about the replication and distribution of whatever it touches or contains, made available all the time, everywhere. And the internet continues to extend its reach, now arriving in phones, cafés, hotel rooms, airports, and no doubt soon on plane flights: ubiquitous computing, 24/7. The two conditions could not seem to be more distinct, disparate, and opposed.

Now let’s consider the nature of the college curriculum, briefly, as a structuring condition for experience and learning. Like the internet, it relies fundamentally on the reproducibility and distributability of the knowledge it seeks to offer each new generation of students. Courses are offered more than once. Books are read again and again. Disciplines must be taught in a way that adequately reproduces accepted standards and thereby transfers credits, reputations, and ultimately knowledge from grade to grade, classroom to classroom, and institution to institution, across time. The notion of a unique, one-time course is at best a luxury, at worst a foolish expenditure of time and effort–for faculty, if not for students. Shortly after becoming director of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, for example, I overheard a tenured, senior faculty member remark over lunch that no one could compel him to create a course he would be able to teach just once. To him, the notion was absurd and counterproductive. His point was obvious: since it always takes more than one attempt to get a course developed and refined for a given student community and college culture, creating courses you can offer only once is simply not an intelligent way to teach, even if the demands of establishing a consistent curriculum would allow it, which of course they don’t.

As a new college museum director and recent emigrant from the world of the large, urban museum, it was an instructive moment, and as someone who had periodically taught at the college level, it made perfect sense. Yet at the same time, I was mildly taken aback: museums routinely create “courses” (i.e. exhibitions) that they “teach” (i.e. present) only once. The one-time special exhibition is, in fact, arguably our bread and butter. Even museums with world-class collections (e.g. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art) rely on special, one-time exhibitions to drive attendance, increase membership, build revenue, and underwrite their economic survival. How, then, can college museums effectively link a program of changing exhibitions to the rhythm of a college curriculum?

How, in essence, can we “teach” the exhibition after it has left the gallery? How can we marry the one-time encounter with a set of unique objects to the cyclical, repeating demands of curriculum? These are central questions for college museums as they are asked increasingly to play a more significant role in the teaching efforts of the institutions that house and foster them. In fact, they may well be thecentral questions, since without answering them college museums are unlikely to achieve a new degree of relevance and support within their institutional context.

Paradoxically (in view of how I started this article) I’m going to argue that the best available answers are to be found in the creative use of new technologies and the internet. Networked multimedia technologies and the maturing cyberinfrastructure can’t fully reproduce the one-time experience offered by the museum space and the museum exhibition, but they can go much farther toward capturing its unique, spatial, temporal, multimodal, three-dimensional and temporal impact than any previously available publication method or recording device we have had.

Now let’s examine the nature of exhibitions and museum installations themselves; I’m using art museums as my test case, but much or most of what I’m saying should apply to other kinds of institutions and subject matters. Museum exhibitions exist in space, and by that I mean three-dimensional space. They house and assemble discrete groups of objects, arranged by curators to create or emphasize meaning through juxtaposition, sequence, and context. Wall texts, lectures, publications, docent and audio tours have been the primary means of sharing with museum visitors the curatorial intentions driving exhibitions and the insights gleaned in the course of assembling them. Over the past decade and more, museums have experimented increasingly with interactive kiosks, websites, and more recently podcasts as ways to share insights, ideas, and background information relevant to the work on view. College museums have participated in this exploration, but only rarely led it.[1] I suspect this has to do in part with the relatively small size of education departments in college museums, combined with an orientation toward “scholarship” that finds its preferred outcome in printed matter, i.e. the scholarly catalogues valued by faculty curators, rather than in “visitor outreach” so conceived as to motivate and underwrite digital programming.

An additional factor slowing digital innovation in college museums may be the fact that the IT and academic computing staff on college campuses–which could in theory assist museums in the creation of digital learning programs–are generally beset by huge demands from across campus. Only rarely can they devote extended blocks of time and significant resources to their resident museums. Yet the presence of such theoretically available staff makes it difficult for college museum directors to argue for dedicated, in-museum staff devoted to digital matters. As a result, we attempt to piece together project teams from existing staff, work-study students and interns, a mix that seldom attains the degree of hands-on experience, longevity, or programming expertise needed to create truly new, exceptional programs. This Catch 22 is, I suspect, not a trivial issue.

In contrast, large urban museums such as the National Gallery, London, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and recently Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, among many others, have created groundbreaking interactive educational programming by hiring dedicated staff and devoting significant fiscal resources to their efforts. Generally, those institutions have relied on a balance of in-house staff and high-powered (but modestly compensated) outside programming and design firms.

Yet despite the relative lack of resources that college museums devote to their digital education efforts, the potential rewards of doing so are significant. In particular, I believe that college museums also have a vested interest in exploring an area of digital programming that remains largely untouched by their civic counterparts, namely, the creation of rich multimedia documentation and multilayered, interactive responses to exhibitions themselves, after they have opened. Such programming would focus not only on the basic content of the exhibition (i.e. the individual images and objects in it) but on the physical exhibition itself as a carefully considered form of content and utterance. Such programming would take full advantage of the completed exhibition as the arena for both documenting and interrogating the set of propositions, insights, and ideas expressed in its physical layout and checklist. It would survey curatorial, scholarly, and lay responses to the completed show, allowing insights gained in the final installation and post-facto contemplation of the exhibition to emerge over time. Finally, such an approach would offer real-time walk-throughs of the exhibition, as well as high-quality, 360-degree still images, providing future virtual visitors a strong, visceral sense of what it felt like to be in the galleries with the work, looking from one object to another, moving through space, and getting a sense of the way the curator used the building and its architecture.[2]Although simple and straightforward, this practice has rarely been explored due to the mandates and pressures governing digital education programs in large museums. With a few laudable recent exceptions [3], major museums create interactive programs designed to provide visitors to upcoming exhibitions with background information on the basic content to be on view. They create their programs to be ready on opening day. Once the exhibition is open, the harried staff moves on to the next project for the next show. In short, such institutions ignore the exhibition as a finished product and focus on its raw content, a practice that makes sense given their audiences and economics. A quick survey of museum websites demonstrates that few museums are even in the practice of posting extensive images of their shows or galleries online, regardless of the extensive databases of collection images they may maintain.

For college museums that seek to create new ways to encourage faculty to teach their content and bring classes to their galleries, the potential benefits of creating experientially gripping and idea-rich responses to exhibitions should be obvious: digital technologies can allow us to teach an exhibition after it closes, and that would be a fundamentally new step for the museum world.

The second thing I’d like to discuss is the potential relevance of museum-based teaching and learning to generations of students (and soon faculty) for whom the structured but non-linear, highly visual as well as verbal, multimodal information world offered by the cyberinfrastructure is second nature. Highly textual, the World Wide Web in particular is also routinely and compulsively visual. It is a domain that is designed. Pictures are used as building blocks in enterprises created to argue, inform, archive, entice, sell, and distract. Rarely do we now encounter a text-only website; instead, text-image juxtapositions prevail, and websites now typically offer a mix of static graphics, sound, and animated graphics or video clips. Effective graphic design, or “information design” if you will, is essential. Students today grow up in this world and live there. Significantly, their cyberworld is a social world of self-projection and at times fantasy (i.e. blogs, Facebook pages, and social gaming) as well as a realm of entertainment and research.

As higher education considers the “digital native,” “net generation” students now entering the academy, the question of how to teach what is variously referred to as visual literacy, information literacy, twenty-first-century literacy, or expanded literacy comes increasingly to the forefront. I share the conviction that unless colleges and universities find a way to expand their text-based notions of literacy, analysis, and critique to include the domains of the visual and the moving image, we are not equipping our students adequately to enter either the future academic world or the workplace. Quite simply, the tools that empower and govern human expression have changed, and the academy needs to decide how it will respond.

As I have argued elsewhere[4], museums can potentially play an intriguing role in fostering forms of visual literacy and expanded literacy suited to the digital, networked era. Like the internet, the museum space is structured, yet non-linear. You move through museum galleries laterally from object to object in a largely self-determined path, much like motion from webpage to webpage. Both experiences are highly but not exclusively visual. Along with looking, museum visits generally encompass reading, listening, talking to friends and family members or museum personnel, and making decisions about how long to linger in any given place. Museum visits, like many web visits, are infused by random user choices made within spatial structures that are highly designed and planned by their builders.

Teaching within the museum space forces faculty and students alike to make different choices about how to structure time, how to do research, and, one hopes, about how to present their ideas, analysis, and conclusions. In pushing the visual dimension of experience and analysis to the forefront, museum exhibitions of all kinds force participants to use their eyes and link what is seen to what is said and written.
Notions of proof and argument evolve in new ways when first-hand, three-dimensional visual artifacts rather than texts are the subject of analysis. For example, a professor I know begins a class by bringing her students to the museum and showing them everyday ceramics and pottery from the American southwest. Without the benefit of library research, she asks them to deduce everything they can about the people that produced the artifacts from the visual evidence in front of them, unaided by others’ insights. Allowing students to work with visual evidence similar to the material confronted by working archeologists, and forcing them to use only their eyes and brains demands that students both look and think for themselves, expressing their own conclusions in their own words.

As another example of the intersection of visual and analytical learning in the museum environment, Molecules That Matter, a special exhibition on view this year at the Tang Museum, was originated by a longtime Skidmore organic chemistry professor, Ray Giguere. Investigating ten organic molecules that influenced twentieth-century history (aspirin, isooctane, penicillin, polyethylene, nylon, DNA, progestin, DDT, Prozac, and buckyball), the exhibition brings together a wide variety of artworks and objects of material culture with a set of huge, specially commissioned, scientifically accurate molecular models. Reaching into fields as diverse as women’s studies (progestin is the molecule responsible for oral contraception), economics, psychology, engineering, medicine and nutrition, technology, environmental studies, and of course art and art history, it offers a wealth of ways, visual and otherwise, for faculty and students to engage its subject matter. Crucially, the show seeks to function as a starting point for wide-ranging investigations, research projects, and responses. Far too broad to sum up the many topics it points to, Molecules That Matter offers specific, highly-stimulating and revealing artifacts as visual bait to lure non-scientists and future scientists alike to reconsider how organic chemistry runs through their everyday lives in unnoticed ways.

Working on an extended website for the show with a group of students, Susi Kerr, the Tang’s senior educator, Ray Giguere, myself, and the rest of the exhibition team had to ask the students and ourselves again and again how we could not simply say but show the ideas we sought to convey. In both the museum and on the internet, words alone simply don’t entice or suffice. Furthermore, in both domains, not all visual experiences are created equal–some pictures, objects, and images are more powerful and academically appropriate than others, and learning to distinguish between them is a key skill that students (and first-time faculty curators) need to learn. I have also found that museum writing (for intro texts, extended object labels, and even catalogue essays for non-specialist audiences) bears more in common with writing for the web than does the traditional academic paper. Museum writing is inherently public, for one thing, and meant to be read by people who can walk away the minute they lose interest. That said, all three forms of writing (museum, web, and academic) need to be succinct, grammatically correct, pleasingly well-crafted, and intellectually sound.

To sum up, the two propositions outlined here argue for (1) the importance of networked digital technologies to the particular mission of the college museum, and (2) the potential importance of the college museum in teaching forms of visual literacy suited to the internet era in innovative and appropriate ways. I take it as a given that museums and the materials they hold and display are valuable to their particular subject domains and academic disciplines. That should be obvious and beyond dispute, and for that reason alone college museums deserve a place on their campuses. However, if we are to play an even more essential and intriguing role in higher education, museums of all varieties must explore how we can function as a core aspect of the overall teaching effort of our institutions, and how we can regularly address multiple disciplines in our exhibitions. At that moment, our intersection with the cyberinfrastructure and the largely unexploited teaching potential of digital technologies takes on a new significance.

[1] One exception I can think of is American Visions, The Roy L. Neuberger Collection, an excellent, early interactive CD-ROM published by SUNY Purchase in 1994. Tellingly, the art historian who worked on it was Peter Samis, who soon became head of interactive educational technologies at SFMOMA and pioneered our efforts to develop SFMOMA’s award-winning interactive programs.

[2] See, for example, the brilliant use of QuickTime VR in Columbia University’s Real?Virtual, Representing Architectural Time and Space, which stunningly documents Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Church of Notre-Dame-Du-Haut.

[3] New York MOMA’s recent Richard Serra retrospective was accompanied by an admirable video walk-through of the completed exhibition, narrated insightfully by the artist himself. In Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art created an extensive site that visually documents the WACK exhibition on the history of feminist art, and brings to bear the voices of many artists and scholars who spoke at the museum while the show was on view. Audio of the artists and other speakers was complemented by images of them with their audiences, and by a list-serve allowing others to comment. Together, these programs brought the exhibition itself to life, adding texture, voice, and personality rarely seen in the “big museum” world.

[4] See “Thinking Spatially: New Literacy, Museums, and the Academy,” EDUCAUSE Review Online, January-February, 2007, pp 68-69.