Steps towards an ontology of digital mediation in museum communication
Digital media are used in museums for communication with their audiences for almost three decades now, and have now been established as a constitutive part of museum communication practice. Current applications include a diversity of genres of museum websites, as well as of social, mobile, and pervasive media. The vibrant, often innovative and sometimes meaningful applications of digital media in museums are not, however, matched by an equally active theoretical reflection on their identity, meaning and sociocultural import. Indeed, few comprehensive examinations of the theoretical implications of museum media for our understanding of digitality and technological mediation, or for the nature of human interaction based on them, have emerged so far, notable exceptions including the formidable collection of essays edited by Cameron and Kenderdine (2007) and the thoughtful historical account of museum technologies by Parry (2007), viewed under the prism of Manovich’s (2001) influential theory of new media.
My own earlier work in this area includes an initial inquiry on issues of syntax, rhetorical structure and pragmatics of digital cultural communication entities such as web hypertexts (Dallas 2006). An additional dimension, which I attempted to address with regard to archaeological virtual exhibits, concerned the epistemic context for the emergence of scholarly and common knowledge as various actants, from field archaeologists to museum curators and audiences, engage with cultural heritage and virtual museum information (Dallas 2007a). I also studied navigation affordances in museum websites as a means of exploring the rhetorics and genres of interaction between digital and VR exhibits and their visitors, and, in particular, the types of presence, narrative construction and visitor agency emerging from such interaction (Dallas 2007b). Finally, with my colleagues at the Digital Curation Unit, Athens, I have been working on an activity theory-based model of research information activity (Benardou et al. 2010) which may be also useful as a starting point towards a conceptualization of digital mediation in museums.
This paper is driven by an interest in theorising digital artefacts, such virtual museum exhibits and social media applications, through: a) investigations of the possibility of operationalising general frameworks for digital multimodal communication structures (Kress & van Leeuwen 2001; 2006) by means of models that employ event-centric ontologies, such as CIDOC CRM (Doerr 2003), capable of capturing “biographical” aspects of cultural object meaning; b) a consideration of virtual exhibit hypermedia structure and web patterns in virtual museums (e.g. Garzotto and Discenza 1999), so as to account for a more theory- and context-sensitive formalization of compositional (i.e., visual) and navigational (i.e., narrative) structure; c) integration of the above within a cultural-historical activity theory framework, to support an analysis of the meaning of symbolic objects (such as digital exhibits) that is more sensitive to notions of technology enchantment, agency, and “readerly” construction.
I propose, thus, to outline in this paper a tentative conceptualization of digital mediation in museum communication informed by a broad-ranging consideration of the theoretical perspectives noted above. This approach shifts the focus from digital objects – i.e., parts of digital communication applications in museums – to the activities emerging in their rhizomatic periphery, as they become loci of interaction with other objects, underlying realities indexed by these objects (artworks, styles, historical events, people, cultures, etc.), human actors (the museum as institution, curators, virtual visitors-users), their motives and objectives. Rather than suggest a fixed scheme, the purpose of this paper is, therefore, to draw attention to the potentialities emerging from such an activity-based conceptualization of digital museum mediation, both as a tool for reflecting upon existing digital media applications, and as a potentially fruitful way, firstly, to establish theoretically-grounded links with museum exhibition, learning and media theory, and, secondly, to develop more theoretically-informed design methodologies for digital media in museums.
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