Brown Bag Seminar: Audience Appeal: Museums, technology and cultural policy in the 21st Century

Today our Brown Bag seminar was given by visiting speaker Wendy Earle. She is the online education manager at the British Film Institute and is also working her PhD. Her talk was based around one for her case studies for this PhD, Culture Online, a project which took place from 2002 to 2007 to build a ‘digital bridge between culture and learning’.
Wendy began her talk with this quote she found in a greeting card.

“It's only when you look at an ant through a magnifying glass on a sunny day that you realise how often they burst into flames.” Harry Hill

There has been substantial change in museums, galleries and achieves over recent time, with a greater emphasis on audiences. There have been intense discussions on public value of culture and the justification of funding being provided for the development of cultural institutions. Wendy suggested that there has been a revival of museological debates like those of the 1980s/90s centring on social issues such as how to get people into museums and galleries, and the arguments of social elitism of museums.

This video was shown as an example of the debate arising around current issues of who is audience is. Should it be taken as a joke or more seriously? Although this video clip has been made to be directed to libraries, some say it could just as easily be applied to museums and galleries. The audience is always changing and it is the young “digital natives” who are joining that audience group now. They are the future audience but are museums and galleries ready for this? Can they meet the needs of the digitally savvy, and multimedia fluent? How important is it for museums and galleries to alter their methods to accommodate these needs?

Wendy then went on to talk about New Labour’s Cultural Policy (from 1997 to 2007) on engineering social change. This focused on shaping cultural agendas, social change and social inclusion, but brought up questions of the relationship between inclusion and equality. Just because something is inclusive, is it providing equal opportunities? This policy also looked at the economic and social benefits of cultural projects, will they be an investment? The McMaster’s report of Excellence in the Arts impacted this. One of the ways this policy was to be implemented was through internet projects though, as always, questions can be raised. Can internet projects promise democratisation? Can the benefits of museums and galleries be delivered to a new audience through this technology?

Culture Online
This incorporated 20 websites and was funded and run by the government for £16m. It would provide new modes of audience outreach and redefine the relationship between museums and the public. There were many different perspectives that the outcomes of this project could be looked at from, both positive and negative. Wendy questions whether this project and its outcomes are relevant today. Some of the websites and projects within the overall initiative are still running, however others have been forgotten and left by the way side.

Every Object Tells a Story was one of the projects involved. It used over £1m of the £16m and allowed people to share their stories about objects which were special them, and to explore other people’s stories. The idea for this project was developed by DCMS and the V&A who wanted to reach new audiences and to engage these audiences in an innovative way. However there were some issues which arose for them such as who are the audience, what was the purpose and who was in control? Why are you putting something online, is it to publicise or to be engaged with. This project was aimed at ‘the many not the few’ but by aiming it at everyone is it then more difficult to clarify these ideas?
This was the only one of the Culture Online projects which was based in a national museum, but strangely those involved were broadcasters and not museum specialists. In a project which was set up for museums this seems like it was outsiders taking an outsider perspective of museums and their audiences rather than incorporating the museums knowledge of their audience. The broadcasters took the perspective that museums did not start their work by thinking of the audience. For the website they wanted to use user-generated content and active engagement to reach their new audiences, but was the expectation that this would be a viable endeavour be realistic? Museums specialise in their ability to engage audiences, their environments foster contemplation and learning (among other experiences) so can it be expected that a digital environment will be able to do the same? At this point in the talk/conversation Ross Parry pointed out that ‘the web is not a museum, it’s just the web’, which I thought highlighted the fact that expectations really do have to be relevant to what they are being applied to although it is not always possible to keep these in check or indeed to know when they are entering the unrealistic without also leaving the optimistic.
Wendy provided the statistic that of website users around 99% simply look lots, almost 1% engage and interact with the contents, and the remaining tiny amount actually contribute to the content. These seem surprising statistics and need to be taken along with the correct context and parameters in which the data was collected but it illustrates quite clearly the trend that a lot less people contribute to websites than simply view them. It can’t simply be expected that content will be generated. This brings up another point, that not everyone who might contribute has the skills to navigate the media needed to do so, so is this not also imposing a form of exclusivity? No matter how the Every Object Tells a Story project is interpreted, it is very clear that valuable lessons were learnt and experience gained which contributed to Culture Online as a whole. Unfortunately this website ended in 2007 due to death by spam.

The Culture Online project overall had a steep learning curve, for instance the idea that this would be a cheap way of reaching new audiences is problematic. Projects which are not successful in the manner expected could be seen as something where the money should have been put towards something else, but on the other hand maybe it didn’t reach expectations because it hadn’t had enough money put into it to make it a success.

This seminar sparked some really interesting discussion throughout and at the end of Wendy’s presentation. One of the things discussed was why the Culture Online project went from being proposed as a £250m project to £16m, which included suggestions of Intellectual property rights, and a change of minister of culture amongst other things.
I really enjoyed todays seminar so thank you Wendy! The above are just what I took from this seminar so by-the-way it may not reflect what everyone was trying to put accross accuratley.


J said…
I really enjoyed this talk, and found it refreshing to hear Wendy think her way through her project with us. I think her point that museum websites are unfairly seen as a low-investment, high-outcome project is very true, and still has serious implications for institutional policy. In this day and age, a museum that doesn't have a website and doesn't make some effort to digitise its collections and/or exhibitions is really behind the times, but it cannot be an afterthought. I also found her point that museum websites are an extension of the social processes of a museum worthy food for thought, as I have really only ever heard them being discussed in IT terms, or social engineering terms, but of course they have connections to museological thinking as a whole.
Jenny said…
I really enjoyed the theory that emerged from Wendy's talk - the engagement with philosophical issues so often gets lost in the notion of 'the public good'.

One thing I thought was important, was how Wendy's presentation highlighted how we are still tentative, by and large, in the use of a technology which is changing and evolving so fast. We do not, understandably, feel secure on this ever shifting geography which we have to negotiate, and we do not always understand why we are doing what we do. Are we climbing the mountain in order to see the view, or because it is there? At this point, I don't want to give one approach any less credence than another, but I do think that we should at least be honest about which path we choose to take.

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