Liz Lightfoot reports on the Leicester Exchanges live debate, which took place at the Science Museum, London, on Wednesday 21 November 2012. The topic under discussion was the future of museums in the information age.
Museums should be wary of leaping too quickly and completely into the digital age, museum leaders were warned at a meeting to discuss the future of their institutions.
Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, said people today are so flooded with information that ‘old fashioned’ values such as authenticity, trust and taking a longer term view of things mattered more and more.
The lively debate on the Future of Museums in the Information Age – are they facing evolution or extinction? – was held at the Science Museum in London on Wednesday 21 November, and was chaired by Professor Sir Robert Burgess, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester. The event attracted directors and staff from a range of national and local museums and collections to debate with leading academics and researchers in the field.
Mr Blatchford, previously the deputy director of the Victoria and Albert Museum one of three expert panellists at the event, said he found himself cast in the mould of the “old fogey”, such was the enthusiasm for extending the reach of museums through the use of technology.
But he added that it was easy to say that a digital and on-line presence mattered enormously, until you thought about the fuller context and the importance of visitor numbers through the turnstile. “Until very recently the key annual meeting with our government funder was how we were going to increase visitors. Though we can see, anecdotally and from research, the profound importance of on-line work, there is a reflex action in thinking when boards set budgets. Comparing three million physical visits with five million visitors on line seems like an apples and pears comparison,” he said.
Those setting budgets were also responding to messages from their important audiences: “I spend a huge part of my life talking to science teachers, and what is incredibly striking is how little they care about some of our excellent online resources and how much they care about the physical visits,” he said.
The Heritage Lottery Fund has put about £1 billion into museum physical structure and capital over the last 18 years, and about a quarter of a billion pounds into getting people to engage, said panellist Carole Souter, the Fund’s Chief Executive.
“Small, local museums are very different from big regional and national museums and will have to work out what is right for their audiences,” she said. “I am pretty sure that the pure digital part will be a minority because it is about people engaging with people.”
The digital future for museums was exciting, but it had to be funded, she said. “The opportunities are enormous, but it is also expensive. We talk about digitalisation in rather cheerful, glossy way but I think there will be significant cost implications for some time to come.”
The question of funding was also raised from the floor by Nick Poole, the chief executive of the Collections Trust: “I suspect that when we look back in 20 years time we will find that this isn’t about a digital museum, it is about a museum of participation and engagement and the way we present ourselves to our public will create an experience that is at once both physical and digital. My concern in all this is simply to do with money and how we make that transition,” he said.
There were those that felt museums must protect free and unfettered access to their knowledge content, and others that saw that knowledge as an asset that should be commercialised at a time of great economic pressure, he added. “Museums are hoist on the horns of this dilemma and need to get past it to move forward to this era of engagement and participation.”
The pace of change was raised by Hedley Swain, Director, Museums and Renaissance at the Arts Council England. Museums had evolved to meet the digital age gradually, gently and slowly. “Do we need to leap forward and go from being dinosaurs to mammals? Or is it all right for us to bounce along with everyone else, swept along by Google, the BBC and Yahoo?”
Panellist Dr Ross Parry, from the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies – the department that has the highest proportion of world-leading research in any subject at any UK university – said the question was wider than simply making content available on line, however important that was.
“Museums have a choice to make about whether they continue to see themselves as a place, a venue: a site where we step out of the every day into a free space. In an information age when everyone can create and everyone can produce, maybe the museum may choose to change and be multiplatform – to publish and broadcast and become a brand,” he said.
Taking the museum into the social media space would involve a fresh approach. “On-line communities may initiate the conversation and take it to places you might not expect. It is a very different role for a museum that is used to framing, initiating, choreographing, directing and controlling,” he said.
In the social media space, the museum did not get to curate the space. He likened the choice for museums to two Charles Dickens novels. “There is the Miss Havisham approach to building content – you sit in your wedding dress waiting for people to come through the door and maybe they don’t turn up and the cobwebs grow. Or there is the Fagin approach where you sent your urchins around the city and are willing to re-think the situation if necessary.”
On the question of funding, Dr Ross said digital was now a natural part of the work of museums. “We are not making the case for something new. It is part of the lives of many of our audiences and our society. We will fund digital because we will be able to fund those other activities,” he said. Research councils were an important source and new funding streams could come on line that museums could take advantage of through partnership with higher education institutions.
Ian Blatchford said the large, national museums had a strong brand and a long history and found it easier to raise funds. “It is quite easy going to major companies and getting them to give us money or going to major foundations because people think they will get a lot from it, but for the wider set of museums, I think it must be agony. It’s actually quite easy if you are a national museum and hell if you are not,” he said.
But he did not agree with charging people for picture rights. “Up until as recently as five years ago even national museums were behaving quite badly, restricting access to things I think they had no moral right to. Picture libraries were charging significant sums and I thought it was simply outrageous because the reason the objects were in the collection was because the taxpayer had paid for them.”
He believed strongly in digitilisation. “It breaks up the cosy club. Something still lurks in the museum world which I call the grand connoisseurial view. There was a time when only a select number of people knew where to find the archives and so they had access to material for their PhDs. Now ordinary people can access amazing archives and that is just as important as what actually happens in museums. “
Jessica Bradford from the Science Museum’s exhibition team, likened the museum world to that of music. Live concerts and festivals were booming because new music was now instantly available on-line, so people wanted the excitement and experience of being there to hear it performed. Ian Blatchford agreed, saying that 15 years ago people were predicting that the growth in communication technology would stop people wanting to travel. In fact there were more people flying and more face to face conferences than ever before.
Rhiannon Goddard, interpretation programmes manager at Historic Royal Palaces, said the issue was about more than archive material. “The evolution we should be trying to make isn’t all about pushing content to people but about extending our civic reach by helping people to create their own communities fostered by our institutions,’ she said.
Museums must keep evolving like any organisation and find out how they can be as relevant as possible in the age in which they operate, said Carole Souter. “The digital environment provides an enormous range of possibilities for the sector. It provides opportunity to engage with people who could never be in the place where they are to open up their collections, particularly when those collections are fragile, and not able to be seen or handled by large numbers of people.”
There were opportunities for new fundraising, but what kind? How many visitors would be perfectly happy to give a museum something, she asked. “But if 10,000 people put their money on the table and say this is what we would like you to do with this project, what responsibility do we have as an organisation? Should the project be influenced by the 10,000 people who put their money on the table? “
Looking to the future, Dr Parry predicted it would be harder and harder in future to see the line between what was digital and not digital. As the reach of museums expanded, then questions would need to be asked about the ethical and moral consequences of their new role.
Report by Liz Lightfoot, Media FHE Consultant.
An edited version of the live debate.