THE CHANGING NATURE OF MUSEOLOGY IN THE DIGITAL AGE: CASE STUDIES OF SITUATED TECHNOLOGY PRAXIS IN U.S. ART MUSEUMS
* This dissertation was published by AltaMira Press, with the new title of Museums in the Digital Age: Changing Meanings of Place, Community, and Culture
The digital age is a networked space of individuals, places, and information that flow together. Within this global, distributed space lies the museum as one of its active nodes. The space of the new museology is similarly de-centered and nonlinear, as museums adapt their traditional roles and practices to this changing cultural environment. Recent developments in mobile telecommunications, wireless technology, Web 2.0, and geospatial technology, contribute to a dispersed museum experience in the digital age with authority and interpretation also dispersed onto the visitor. Yet despite shifting away from their local, physical museum spaces, museums are not disregarding their local communities or their physical collections and spaces, but rather are undertaking a synthesized vision of local and global, fixed and mobile, physical and virtual, hegemony and populism. Through their use of technology today, museums disregard the limitations of these traditional binary terms, focusing more on visitor interests and affinities that provide strong bonds to the museum and cultivate social relations.
This thesis analyzes five case studies of art museums in the United States that are remarkable for their innovative uses of technology (onsite and online). These five museums are: The Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Walker Art Center, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Each museum was analyzed regarding the relation to its physical locality, its online use of technology (website, blogs, social media), onsite use of technology, and through individual interviews. While these cases illustrate the most pioneering uses of technology in art museums today, their significance lie rather in understanding the cultural and localized contextualization of how they use technology. The new museology places a priority on serving and engaging community, yet defining one’s community becomes challenging in the digital age, despite the reductionist efforts of visitor-centric museums. Each museum has its own trend-setting story to tell about its own places, communities, cultures, and how technology is applied towards those ends. To understand museums in the digital age is to understand the interrelation of their local and global places, communities, and cultures, and to all the points and flows of interaction within their distributed network.
Larry Gross, Chair
My research connects my background in art history and museum studies (M.A., USC) with the field of communication (Ph.D., USC) by studying museums and arts/cultural organizations in the digital age. My dissertation focused on the importance of place, culture, and community in the digital age. I focus on art museums because of their particular ability to engage with issues pertinent in the digital age: authenticity, contemplation, discourse, expertise, authority, and creativity. The arts are a powerful form of communication that inspires discourse, and museums are a critical medium for artistic communication that in turn has become a powerful form of mass communication in our digital society. Museums are increasingly concerned about their community, but how do they define their community (or communities) today? The notion of community has developed a global perspective with websites becoming ubiquitous to museums. My research aims to draw attention to the distributed nature of the museum experience in the digital age, and the crucial need for museums to recognize the interrelation of their local and global places, online and physical communities, and cultures, and to all the points and flows of interaction within their distributed network.
My future research projects will build on the theoretical foundations of my dissertation, particularly the notion of how digital technology has rapidly expanded the distributed nature of museums. Today museums are no longer tied to a particular physical space, but extend their presence through virtual spaces on the Web as well as transient spaces enabled by mobile technologies. Museums function within networked environments beyond the conceptual divides between physical and virtual, fixed and mobile. Anne Balsamo and I both started a research project on this topic at the Annenberg Innovation Lab, and published our work in the forthcoming book Museums and Higher Education: Learning at the Interface from the University of Brighton. The next step of our research is to develop an interactive digital mapping application that could serve as a resource for museum professionals, scholars, and the public to plot the synergies among institutional efforts, experiments, and programs. This tool will facilitate collaborative practices amongst institutions, increase public awareness of programs at non-museum spaces throughout the community, and serve to create a greater awareness and understanding of the distributed nature of experience and learning in the digital age.
My dissertation employed a digital ethnography approach towards studying museums in the digital age, selecting five case studies for a deep analysis into not only their digital practices, but also their organizational culture, communities, and places. These five cases were the most technologically innovative art museums in the United States. Through analysis of internal documents, media publications, extensive interviews and observation, it became clear to me that technology is undergoing a critical transformation within the organizational structure of museums, similar to the development of museum education in the 1980s. There is an enormous range in how museums are incorporating technology staff, skills, and projects throughout the organization in response to the changing technologies and their applications within museums. My research led me to the conclusion that not only does technology need to be well integrated throughout the organization, but that museums and arts organizations need to become more aware of the staff they are hiring to manage such projects, the skills required, where these staff are housed within the organization, and their internal system of communication. I have begun collecting information on key technology staff in major museums – their titles and departments – as well as collecting current job postings for technology staff that includes responsibilities, experience, skills, and departments. My plans for continuing this research is to conduct both a wide-scale survey of more museums as well as a deeper series of interviews with leading museums. This research can provide valuable practical information as museums of all sizes and types prepare for a digital future.
2011 – 2012 Annenberg Innovation Lab, University of Southern California
Co-P.I. of “The Distributed Museum” project that worked with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to create innovative, digital solutions.
2008 – 2011 Research Team Member, University of Southern California
“Inspiring the Technological Imagination: Museums and Libraries in the Digital Age,” funded by the MacArthur Foundation. Professor Anne Balsamo, P.I.
2008 – 2010 Research Assistant, University of Southern California
Getty / Annenberg Arts Journalism Fellowship and the first Arts Journalism Summit in 2009, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.