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I recently came back from the MuseumNEXT conference in Barcelona. I met lots of interesting people and heard a few new ideas. But mostly I heard the things I expected to hear, because web people in museums have been saying them for a while.

Crowdsourcing. This seems to have two directions. One, it is a way for museums to overcome staffing problems by exporting menial work. If this happens to engage a particularly obsessed audience, super. Secondly, it can be a way of making curatorial decisions based on expertise (always greater in the world outside the museum than the tiny group within, no matter how experienced) or popularity.

Though I find both of these models boring, they are important because many institutions find them terrifying. And this is great; museums should be afraid. The internet has profoundly altered our attitude towards expertise, and this hacks at the idea of connoisseurship and some of the oldest roots of museum culture.

The second theme was museums-as-cultural filters or hubs or publishers. As freeing and exciting as this is, it still seems to be the connoisseur model greatly expanded in scope. Now museums can “curate” or “collect” articles, events, images, from outside their geographic area or the physical world entirely. This produces really interesting websites, like the Walker’s, that can force the institutions that publish them to reorient and to incorporate digital culture in a fundamental way. Also good, but not radical (admittedly, I work in an institution that embraced the museum-as-publisher model in 2009).

So I thought about my boredom and decided to try and write my way out of it. At first I dumped a bunch of ideas here, but the response I got suggested it was only the last one that was interesting, so I’ve moved the silly bits to the end.

My idea isn’t really related to technology. Museums belong to a small and fragile ecosystem of spaces outside the dominant economic paradigm. Like public libraries and parks, they are places you can be without buying or selling anything (I think this is why gift shops and admission are such irritants.) But even more than educational institutions which, after all, people attend for accreditation, social mobility, and not merely curiosity, museums are free to make statements about contemporary life. To present critical and physically-compelling arguments about relevant issues, without anxiety about potential economic consequences.

This is just a way of framing museums’ possible cultural role and proposing that they take it on with a vengeance. This has been shaped by my experience at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, which has presented exhibitions on the 1973 oil crisis, DIY urbanism, the modern cult of speed and efficiency, design for self-improvement and other topics that have contemporary resonance. These exhibitions have used the collection and loaned objects as tools, never in themselves standing for the questions being posed by the exhibition. The CCA also never shied away from focusing our work towards a specific audience based on the understanding that speaking to “the public” is futile, as there is no such thing, there are many publics.

In Barcelona I heard a lot of people talking enthusiastically about changing institutions, opening-up museums and engaging people in new ways. What if we are going about it superficially, erratically, by focusing on platforms, technologies, and tools rather than the institutions that would employ them?

Maybe Museums aren’t just technically out of date; what if they are becoming conceptually irrelevant?

If you have any comments, @yeslev is the best way to reach me.

The more ah silly bits, just for kicks:

Absurd correlation. If the experience of our exhibitions online is as important as in the physical galleries, then similar logics should apply. An unsuccessful room or an unexhibitable object with no research potential would be changed, maybe deaccessioned. The lowest 10% of objects viewed online and in the galleries could be deleted. This should be proportionate to the rate of accessions, or some guide for the management of the collection. If you are trying to reduce your holdings, increase the rate. Better, the 10% most popular objects viewed online and in the galleries will be deleted. And then given away; they should have no problems finding good homes.

Radical luddite-ism. Your website is only a tool to get people in your building where they have a direct experience of things. If they can’t come, forget them–a radical acceptance of the idea that museums are about objects, and if you remove everything else they’d still be about real things in physical spaces. But doing this with traditional exhibitions and programming is a guaranteed path to marginalization (except in monopolistic markets, so the only art museum in town will probably survive for a while, the Met is a good example.) It would only be interesting in combination with strategies like removing labels, handling objects, opening up conservation laboratories, and rejecting authoritarianism.