Two weeks ago at SXSW Interactive a panel of museum professionals daringly questioned the Museum’s relevance in the age of digital culture. The issue, distilled in the premise “everyone’s a curator, do museums still matter?” is certainly not a new topic in the world of museology, but one that’s still relevant given the popularity of the word on social media profiles and blogs across the web (this New York times article describes the word’s puzzling cultural hegemony). Willa Koerner, Digital Engagement Manager for SFMoMA, introduced the debate on her blog and asked folks their definition of curating:As the video suggests, curating is many things. The word originates from the latin curare – to care for — and was once reserved for privileged experts who decided what was worthy and unworthy of care, preservation and presentation. While curators continue to research, write, present and preserve artifacts the idea of curating today also involves storytelling, collaboration, and audience participation. Curating digital content, then, suggests that anything and everything is worthy of the same care as objects in a museum. If we share our interests and desires on infinitely scrollable Tumblr feeds and Pinterest boards like teenage girls plastering our bedroom walls with posters (great article here about that, btw) does that make us curators? Well, not quite. As Koerner writes, not all forms of curation are made equal:
Museums are selective and thoughtful about what goes on view in our galleries because we believe that our job is to recognize what’s culturally important. Our exhibitions highlight themes that say something about who we are as people, and our collections preserve artworks which we believe open doors into understanding our world better. Everything can’t be important, and everything can’t be preserved. That’s one reason why museums matter.
Yes, the internet is like a museum in that it’s a tool of discovery and a system of order but it’s too impatient a medium to expect that what we share will be preserved, relevant, or even cared about years (or minutes) from now. We still need experts and caretakers of our history. Moreover, we need spaces to unplug, spaces of ritual and collaboration. As Thomas Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writes,
Museums are like the quiet car of the world. It’s a place you can come to escape , where there’s authenticity, there’s uniqueness, there’s calm, there’s physicality. I feel it’s so refreshing. But at the same time, the exciting thing is that because of technology we’re reaching out to new audiences.
The museum has been a public space for education and a space for sharing ideas and images since the Louvre became a public art collection after the French Revolution. Museums, then, are spaces for thought and analysis. The internet, on the other hand, is a space for satisfying aesthetic impulses. Websites like Pinterest and Tumblr, Carina Chocano writes:
have a lot more in common with advertising than they do with curation. After all, advertising trains us to keep our desire always at the ready, nurturing that feeling that something is missing, then redirecting it toward a tangible product. In the end, all that pent-up yearning needs a place to go, and now it has that place online. But products are no longer the point. The feeling is the point.
The internet, then, in the context of museums, is more than just a platform for advertising, and “reaching new audiences.” It is more than a means to increase admission sales. You can’t add Mona Lisa to your shopping cart, after all. It’s more about engagement. Social media offers space for listening and conversation as much as advertising, Blogging and micro-blogging offers space for storytelling and developing ideas. And with visitors experiencing art in both the sacred space of the museum and in the hive of the internet, we create what Andre Malraux famously declared a museum without walls:
We, however, have far more great works available to refresh our memories than those which even the greatest of museums could bring together. For a “Museum Without walls” is coming into being, and . . . it will carry infinitely farther that revelation of the world of art, limited perforce, which the “real” museums offer us within their walls
Malraux’s manifesto in the age of digital culture means that we can engage with art physically in the museum, and extend that excitement into the museum’s meta-chamber — the internet. Koerner posted this image of her notes for the SXSW panel, and the idea of “always be curating” sits well with me.
Sure, we’re not hanging Titians or directing Bienniales on our Instagram feeds, but we are digital docents sharing stories with tools that will only help museums remain a public space for ideas.