Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Digital Museums: Braining Up Or Dumbing Down?

Marieke Napier went to find out at the mda's 'Beyond the Museum' colloquium.

On Friday 20 April 2001, the mda held a one-day colloquium entitled Beyond the Museum: Working with Collections in the Digital Age [1]. The event was jointly organised by the University of Oxford Humanities Computing Unit (HCU) and the mda. It was the most recent in a series of events that include last year's Beyond Control, or Through the Looking Glass? Threats and Liberties in the Electronic Age; 1999's Beyond Art: Digital Culture in the 21st Century; and 1998's Beyond the Hype.

The colloquium was held in the Oxford Union Debating Chamber, a building with beautiful décor but no substantive heating system. As Stuart Lee from the HCU pointed out the debating chamber was a definite candidate for the coldest venue in Oxford (and possibly the planet). It was going to take a lot of hot air to warm this place up!

After the initial welcome from Stuart Lee and Louise Smith of the mda Lynne Brindley, CEO of the British Library gave the opening plenary. Lynne talked primarily about what joined-up culture means to those of us working in the digital world. She began by attempting to define culture and chose the definition used by Lloyd Grossman: "everything that's not media or sport". This all-inclusive interpretation of culture has added to both it's 'braining up' and 'dumbing down'. The new wave of 'widening access' projects geared towards getting more people into museums have also been a contributing factor. It has also caused an elitism versus anti-elitism climate. Lynne spoke about the Culture online vision promoted by the government and how it is really only scratching the surface. The hybrid library has made a move into integration of services but there still remain many issues: sustainability, a lack of clear business models for digital programmes (though more are starting to arise such as Fathom, SCRAN and QUESTIA) and a need for cultural change. Lynne summed up by asserting that we are only just beginning to explore digital culture and start working in cross-institutional areas. She suggested that in the digital revolution all possibilities still exist.

Are Museums are in Danger of Losing the Initiative in the Digital Revolution?

The first motion to be debated was ''This House believes that museums are in danger of losing the initiative in the digital revolution". Four speakers were to put their case for or against the motion in a round table discussion.

The initial speaker was Mike Houlihan, the CEO of Ulster Museum. Mike began by pointing out that he believed the motion to be an oxymoron because museums had never actually held the initiative; as he so kindly put it…"cutting edge, more like the bleeding edge". Mike argued that the digital revolution isn't actually important to the library world. To illustrate he quoted a colleague who tells his staff "the digital revolution…stay cool and it will go away." Mike's feelings were that museums interests should stay rooted in the things that make them what they are: the objects. He assured us that there remains no substitute for the real thing. The issue of proximity was also considered. A museum is not just a collection but a physical presence in a city; in places like Northern Ireland the neutral spaces offered by museums are essential to the local community. Mike considers the digital revolution to be a relatively low priority for museums, who should be concentrating on educational developments. He summed up by suggesting we should not be asking what is the role of musuems in IT but what is the role and place of IT in museums.

The second speaker was Bamber Gascoigne, Broadcaster, and director of HistoryWorld.net. Bamber agreed with Lynne Brindley that it was still relatively early in the digital revolution and there remained everything to play for. He commented on the resistance of certain museums to redesign of and improvements to their Web sites. Many also refused to allow access to images. Bamber concluded that in the real world museums and galleries had already lost control of images and needed to act now.

Ross Parry, a Lecturer in Museums and New Technology at Leicester University, took the stand as the third speaker. Ross made the link between museums and communication, museums constantly look at new ways to present objects, new ways of communicating. To tell a story of museums is to tell a story of the technologies they contain. In reply to Mike Houlihan's comment that museums were not forerunners in IT he gave several examples of museums taking the initiative including Palm top gallery guides, Virtual reality fish, the 24 hour museum and SCRAN. These technologies mean that now people can communicate with museums on their own terms, in their own time and in their own place. Mike felt that if museums were in danger of losing any lead they had in the digital revolution it was hardly surprising because they have been in the vanguard for so long. He felt that losing the initiative was not a crisis but a liberation that would allow museum workers to focus on local initiatives, improve skills and work on thoughtful applications of new media resulting in sustainability.

The final person speaking on the first motion was Chris Yapp, an ICL Fellow specialising in Lifelong Learning and the Information Society. Chris talked about the digital revolution being the 'new renaissance' because of the break down of barriers between subjects. He explained that it was more about connections than collections, connecting objects to stories. If the Internet as a technology is used just to hold collections it becomes boring, if it's used to show links and relationships then it becomes interesting. This model of connections would lead to every single object being given an identifier in a semantic Web. Chris gave an example of the museum of English Language, a millenium commission idea that was not taken up. The museum of English Language would give stories of language, not language itself. Chris felt that the important areas of culture that we should be looking at were aspects that add value to what we already do. We need to do more than just concentrate on the past, we need to record what is going on now. Currently 30% of games software is written by British people, it is this kind of history that we are failing to catch. Chris suggested that we need new frameworks that allow us to deposit and preserve these new objects. Chris added that museums are losing the initiative because everyone can set up a Web site. Museums used to be about power, but to survive the digital revolution a new age of popularist curators need to be trained who can take in the matter out there that people out there are creating. Chris proposed that to survive museums needed to let everyday people take the initiative more. He proffered an 'adopt an object' campaign, which would give people a vested interest in getting objects digitised. Peoples should be able, with a museum's help, to create their own collections and exhibitions. Museums should also be cataloguing the millions of Web sites out there and the rich information they contain.

Elitism versus Anti-elitism

The round table discussion was then opened up to the floor. Initial discussion was over the aforementioned current crisis in the museum community over professionalism and authority. Some delegates felt that because curators have specialised knowledge, the practice of recording objects should be left solely to them. Museums are about exceptional objects and although many people believe that a personal Web site can offer as much as a museum, the reality is that they can't. Despite these feelings people were apprehensive to sit tight on their skills, non-action could result in the loss of the digital revolution initiative; Library and information people had already lost the initiative on search engines to the business world. What was needed was possibly more risk taking.

Others felt that that museums needed to move out of the dark ages and leave this arrogance behind. The only way museums could make this move was by learning to work more closely with other groups. This argument was endorsed by the notion that the argument should not be about 'instead off' but 'as well as'. Communities should join together, the creation of Resource and the current collaboration of museums libraries and archives demonstrates this.

Are the New Technologies Contributing to the Dumbing Down of Museums?

After an impressive buffet in the Macmillan Room of the Oxford Union, a walk around the exhibition and considerable continuation of discussion we delegates returned to the colloquium. For the afternoon session the debating Chamber felt decidedly warmer and everyone seemed ready to proceed with further discourse. The second motion being presented was 'This House believes that the new technologies are contributing to the dumbing down of museums.' The second motion was to be discussed in a formal debate with two speakers arguing for the motion and two speakers against.

The second plenary was given by Christopher Brown, the Director of the Ashmolean museum. Christopher presented a digital technology recently introduced at the National Gallery called the Micro Gallery. He explained that there had been initial fears that the micro gallery would stop people from visiting the gallery but this hadn't happened and the release of the Micro Gallery had actually increased visits. Christopher also spent some time detailing new digital developments at the Ashmolean including a touch screen console in the new Early 20th Century Paintings Gallery.

The first speaker arguing for the motion was Josie Appleton from Spiked-on-Line. Josie proposed that new technologies were undermining the quality of the museum experience. This problem was not due to the technologies themselves but their application. New technologies being used to elucidate collections were undermining the value of reflection and learning and interaction was becoming an end in itself. Josie felt that the problem was with the representation of knowledge as an experience, she gave the example of the 'real earthquake' you could try out in the Natural History museum. She believes that giving people 'the whole picture' restricts their imagination. With new technologies they are no longer able to decide for themselves what exhibits actually are. Using new technologies appeared to be just a way for museums to get hip. Unfortunately museums will always have to compete with Playstations when all they will ever be is a 3rd rate Nintendo [2].

The first speaker to argue against the motion was Stephen Heppell, the Director of Ultralab. Stephen agreed with Josie that a lot of new technologies were 'tosh' and even gave a number of examples of poorly applied edutainment technology, however he felt that as usual the tendency was always to blame the tool. This was born from the misunderstanding that technology delivers stuff to us, and we receive it in a very couch potato way. He reminded us that when telephones were invented they were initially used by people to listen to plays. People forgot that the best way to listen to a play is by going to see it! Stephen explained that interactive was what his microwave was; what museums are is participative. They allow users to play a part. Stephen felt that many people had a misguided idea that content is king, when in reality community is king. Stephen gave some examples of community achieved through new technologies which included Schoolnet 2000, a project in which UK school children of all ages built an Internet treasure chest of their ideas and discoveries about life in the UK, yesterday and today. He felt that given the chance new technologies could set culture alive.

Gaby Porter, a freelance arts and heritage consultant, spoke next for the motion. She explained how some applications allowed message and meaning to be determined, resulting in users not being able to argue back, and therefore being dumbed. They were no longer being allowed to express another point of view. The conflict and questioning that used to be part of a museum was lost. Gabby saw objects and museums as a wonderful place for children and adults to make a mess and learn because they are not a neutral but an informal environment. But unfortunately many new technologies used in museums are stuck in old paradigms primarily because Museums are not technical. Museums still take 28 days to respond to an email! There are just not many good models in the museums sector, especially when there remains this tendency to just dump stuff on the Web without thought for what it is acheiving. Gabby questioned whether this was just a move to a medium where museums would never have to meet their public. She felt that people cite hits like they mean something, surely it is better to build on really good projects than just to get clicks on a page.

In counter argument Shirley Collier, Head of Collections Management for the Imperial War Museum saw museums as becoming better educational institutions. Shirley explained that the motion, by stating that new technologies were contributing to the dumbing down of museums, meant that education was being made easier and less challenging. This idea implied a golden age when education was challenging. Her own childhood experiences were of museums with 'no touch' signs and an air of formality. Technology is in its infancy and naturally many mistakes will be made but people are just starting to become more articulate about what they want. In a recent MORI pole children answered that what they wanted most in a gallery was multimedia. Museums are not just about education they are also about entertainment. Shirley had recently visited a Natural History museum in Bulawayo. In the museum there were very few labels on objects, instead there were signs saying that names are important but not as important as looking and thinking. In Bulawayo they know that it's not about being right, it's what you learn. At the National history museum in England there is an interactive piece of software, which helps you identify a chosen insect. The software teaches you about how to inquire, the user is given the role of researcher. Shirley remonstrated that technology was putting into practice an experiential way of learning. She felt that new technologies also helped communication. They had introduced new touch screen information points in Bulawayo which had really helped communication. They used to be able to talk to 60 people a day and could now deal with four times as many. Shirley ended her argument with that well known quote "it's not the destination, it's the journey that counts".

Braining Up versus Dumbing Down

The discussion after the formal debate focused in on braining up versus dumbing down. Many delegates felt that widening access and increase of facilities for the public to access collections could only be a good thing and that new technologies have allowed people to become more articulate and participate more. Others disagreed and protested that new technologies were stifling imagination. There did seem to be a consensus that a lot of current use of technology is used for the wrong reasons.


When the two motions were given out in the morning there were general mutterings around the chamber that the they were badly worded with more than several areas for debate. This did not turn out to be a problem; throughout the day both motions were deconstructed and the actual votes almost became irrelevant. The many debates running parallel and the multitude of suggestions given made it apparent that those in the museum community are very interested in Collections in the Digital Age, irrespective of what side of the fence they stand on.


  1. Mda magazine, Beyond the Museum at http://www.mda.org.uk/200102a.htm
  2. Josie Appleton's talk was published in the guardian online at http://www.independent.co.uk/story.jsp?story=68339

Author Details

Marieke Napier
Information Officer

Email: m.napier@ukoln.ac.uk
URL: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk

Marieke Napier is Editor of Cultivate Interactive Web magazine and Deputy Editor of Ariadne.

URL: http://www.cultivate-int.org/