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Understanding the Distributed Museum: Mapping the Spaces of Museology in Contemporary Culture

Susana Bautista and Anne Balsamo, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.


Where is the museum for the digital generation? We use the term ìthe distributed museumî to describe the form that the museum takes as it is part of the creation and movement among new spaces that comprise contemporary networked learning environments. No longer located in a particular physical space, the museum extends its presence through all sorts of virtual spaces on the Web as well as in the transient spaces created through the diverse practices and technologies of mobility. This paper offers an analytical framework to describe and map the museology of the distributed museum as it unfolds across conceptual divides between physical and the virtual, the fixed and the mobile, and closed and open.

Keywords: museum, distributed, digital age, participatory, learning

1. From place to space

In their formative stage, the identities and functions of museums were strongly connected to their physical place. Museums of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were large, imposing buildings of classical architecture that manifested their legacy from royal collections housed in grand palaces. They were centrally located within European metropolises (London, Madrid, Berlin, Paris, and Vienna) where all citizens knew them well. These early museums were respectable places that (eventually) invited all parts of society to intermingle in a common public space with the overt goal of "civilizing" the masses and the covert goal of affirming the elite status of the educated and powerful, alongside other respectable public places such as theaters, libraries, parks, and reading-rooms. Museums were connected to physical place on yet another level through their role in representing and glorifying their respective nations. Sociologist Tony Bennett (1995, p. 98) writes that the public museum represented a coalescence of "the display of power to the populace and its display within the ruling class." The lessons on offer were more about remembering than about learning history. However, as the industrial era brought the working classes to the cities to work in factories, museums became the ideal vehicle for "teaching" socially acceptable manners, values, dress, and comportment.

The museum today remains a dynamic cultural institution. It is undergoing yet another transformation from an early place-based cultural institution to a more dispersed (post)modern space. As sociologist Michel de Certeau argues, the concept of place has been used by the dominant orders to organize and control society through urban planning and architecture. Space, on the other hand, is constructed by people through the practice of living and walking. Place implies stability, "an instantaneous configuration of positions," while space considers "vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements" (de Certeau,117). As de Certeau asserts: "space is a practiced place" (117).

New practices of mobility have contributed to the dispersal of place in the modern museum. While we know that mobile culture actually began during the Industrial Revolution when workers migrated to burgeoning urban areas in search of work in the factories, more recently the velocity of cultural change of what Raymond Williams (1983) called "mobile privatization" is increasing as new technologies such as portable computers, PDAs, and mobile phones become more ubiquitous. Noting this transformation, Lynn Spigel (2004) reframes Williams' phrase as "privatized mobility" - a concept that attests to the cultural significance of portability (now coupled with mobility) that brings private activities into public spaces. The dynamic of privatized mobility serves as one of the contexts for the consideration of the transformation of the place of the museum into distributed spaces of museology.

Museums utilized early versions of mobile technology in the 1950s with handheld devices based on a closed-circuit shortwave radio broadcasting system. The real innovation in new museology, however, came when mobile communications were applied to new populist practices that took the museum experience out of the physical place. Today the "mobile museum" consists of satellite museum spaces around the city or the globe, museum programs conducted off-site by museum staff in schools, libraries and community spaces, and special vehicles designed to provide a multi-media learning experience based on museum collections that travel to schools and other organizations throughout the city. In the past decade, the "mobile museum" has morphed into what we call the "Distributed Museum": a postmodern formation through which the modern museum seamlessly adapts its traditional functions and spaces to the new cultural environment of the digital age.

The distributed, dispersed, and decentered space of the digital age has also been called a networked space or a space of flows that "links places at a distance on the basis of their market value, their social selection, and their infrastructural superiority" (Castells, 241). Within this networked space we situate the modern museum as one of the primary nodes. We argue that the space of the new museology is similarly dispersed, individualized, practised, and nonlinear as is the space of the digital age. No longer tied to a fixed place, the new museology can be described in terms of changes in practices, relations, and emergent experiences. The new museology continues to address the main functions of the traditional museum, such as curatorial and conservation services, as well as more recent functions, such as education and community outreach. To describe the museology of Distributed Museums, we focus on the educational mission of the institution as one of its key cultural functions.

2. The role of the museum within distributed learning environments

Learning in the digital age is likewise dispersed and nonlinear. It is based on a communal sharing of knowledge and information. Anne Balsamo (2011) describes this emergent cultural formation as a "distributed learning network" that includes various types of institutions such as formal educational efforts of universities, schools, after-school programs, as well as "mixed reality sites" such as museums, libraries, and community organizations. These new spaces of learning have been described as interest-driven (Ito et al., 2008), affinity spaces (Gee, 2004), and voluntary associations (Jenkins et al., 2007). John Seely Brown (2009) coined the term 'Learning 2.0' to describe the new experience of "learning on demand." He points out that the pedagogical shift from teacher-directed learning to peer-based learning changes what is required of learners in a profound way. Learning, he argues, now depends on the learner's ability to navigate different social networks and knowledge communities. The infrastructure of education is no longer the single school system, but rather a distributed, mixed-node learning environment.

While museums have long served as informal spaces for learning (from social norms to national history to cultural capital), the modern museum has explicitly embraced its pedagogical intentions by establishing educational programs with clear connections to formal school systems. These programs not only brought students to visit the museum during the day with their teachers, but also provided for teacher training at the museum and through their websites with lesson plans that explicitly referenced formal curricular topics and learning objectives. The aim for these museum programs was to support school-based educational efforts by providing an alternative space for learning that was less structured and hierarchical than formal programs. At the same time that museums began to expand their educational outreach efforts, other cultural spaces began to perform some of the traditional roles and functions of museums through, for example, the formation of online creative communities of artists. In fact, a report by the Committee on Information Technology and Creativity of the U.S. National Research Council (2003) asserted that several new online efforts, such as Rhizome and Digital Art Source, might be usefully understood as new forms of art galleries. Other online spaces, such as the image databases provided by ARTstor, Flickr, or even Google Images, have moved beyond simply collections of digitized images. These sites serve as spaces for the creation of communities of interest where users interact with one another to learn (peer-to-peer) about and share new topics. These online creative spaces are important nodes in distributed learning networks that provide some of the services of the traditional museum: access to archived images, histories of art, expert tours of collections, and even social interaction.

3. The Distributed Museum

Contemporary museums are actively exploring their role as part of distributed learning networks. In order to map these efforts, we identify three dimensions that describe the key aspects of these new activities.

  • Physical and Virtual
  • Fixed and Mobile
  • Closed and Open

The objective is to create a cognitive map of the contemporary cultural formation of the Distributed Museum. The first set of terms, "physical" and "virtual" describes two ends of a continuum of "locations" where the term "physical" identifies a material location and the term "virtual" identifies a digital location. The second set of terms refers to the boundaries of the experience. The term "fixed" suggests that the experience is bounded by a particular location; the term "mobile" means that the experience can be accessed as a person moves among locations. The third set of terms is used to describe the creative expanse of the activity. The term "closed" is used when the activity is scripted or explicitly organized for a participant. The term "open" describes activities that can be modified, changed, or expanded by a participant.

The distribution of the contemporary museum is not limited to digital technology, even in the digital age. There is a tendency to think of analog practices as traditional in nature when compared to their digital counterparts; however, it is important to recognize that many museums continue to maintain many of these very popular and successful analog practices in conjunction with the newer, digital ones. While the following section focuses on examples of new digital practices, we are aware that there are interesting analog antecedents for many of these efforts. The following section offers brief examples of digital practices of the distributed museum across the three dimensions mentioned above. We offer this not as an exhaustive list of digital practices occurring in museums today, but rather as a selection of significant efforts that elucidate how museum practices are distributed across these three dimensions. While we discuss these practices in terms of the ends of each continuum (physical versus virtual, fixed versus mobile, closed versus open), a fuller discussion of these programs and activities would elaborate how the efforts actually span the spectrum defined by each pair of terms.

Physical / Virtual

Physically anchored digital experiences include interactive computer kiosks, tinkering and art-making spaces, and digital labels. Some of these are located in prominent areas within the museum. For example, the Davis LAB on the first floor of the Indianapolis Museum of Art is an education and technology center, but the museum calls it a "new gallery space." It includes several computer kiosks that connect to ArtBabble, the IMA blog, and IMA Flickr photos pool. The museum uses these kiosks to connect visitors in the physical museum to the museum's virtual sites. As the museum describes it on their website, "Leave comments on the IMA Blog, find your favorite IMA Flickr photos, rate art videos, Facebook us, learn about major exhibitions or discover our latest technology experiments." Another notable example of physically anchored digital experiences include the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's Koret Visitor Education Center that offers several multimedia kiosks with interactive features. In other cases, the physical digital experience is located throughout a museum building. For example, the MoMA.Guide system at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is comprised of various digital kiosks on the first and second floors of the museum. The information accessed in these kiosks helps visitors to navigate the galleries and locate specific works on view, access works in the museum's collection with artist biographies and art terms, find information on daily events in the museum, and send e-cards with works from MoMA's collection. The information, as well as the e-cards, can all be accessed on the museum's website as well.

At the other end of the physical-virtual spectrum are examples of virtual digital experiences available only to online visitors. Games are a popular form of online museum experience. The Getty Museum offers Getty Games that include Match Madness, Switch, Jigsaw Puzzles, and Detail Detective, all based upon works in their permanent collection. Moreover, the Getty also has a presence on Whyville, a virtual world for teens and pre-teens. The link from the Getty Games page states:

Visit the Getty Museum in Whyville where you can play games and learn about art from anywhere in the world! The Getty Museum in Whyville is a virtual companion to the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The Getty in Whyville is where you can get together with friends to chat art, play art, and get inspired to make your own art!

Teen websites are another virtual digital practice offered by a number of museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art's Red Studio, The Walker Art Center's WACTAC, The Tate Museum's Young Tate and Tate Kids, BxMA Teen Council at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and RadioArte at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. These teen sites are not merely sections within the main museum site, but rather, separate online spaces that offer highly social and interactive elements such as games, remix activities, chat, polls, teen artwork (including rating and sharing), podcasts created by teens, blogs, and competitions. These websites are based on the involvement of teen councils formed at the museum that meet regularly at the museum and even curate exhibitions.

The range of online-only experiences is growing. Online-only exhibitions are curated by museum staff from the museum's permanent collection and include images, text, and sometimes audio or video. These exhibitions are curated solely for visitors to the website. For example, the Freer Sackler Galleries (Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art) offers online exhibitions of works from their permanent collection arranged by themes and genre. Exploring a different notion of "online" exhibition, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art sponsors e-space, an online collection of websites that are themselves considered a particular new form of art. Online or virtual tours comprised of video, audio, still images and text are now offered by several museums, including the Tenement Museum in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. These tours focus on artists, artworks, themes, or museum architecture.

Virtual Museums are perhaps the most extreme example of a solely digital museology practice. At the MUVA (Museo Virtual de Artes El País), works in the collection are digital images of actual artwork that represents contemporary art from Uruguay. The museum exists only on the Web; there is no physical location for the museum. The Adobe Museum of Digital Media is the world's first virtual art museum dedicated to the medium of digital art. As described by the museum's creative director Keith Anderson,

One of the things we kept stopping and asking ourselves as we were developing the museum is, how would this work in the real world? How would it be in a real brick and mortar building, because we wanted to take the museum experiences that were familiar to people and then transfer those over to the digital space?

While the buildings or collections may not be physical in a virtual museum, what we see is that the organization of digital collections often reproduces the conventions of physical exhibitions for the purposes of providing a meaningful navigation context for online visitors.

Fixed / Mobile

The second dimension covers the spectrum from fixed to mobile practices where the term "fixed" refers to a practice that is located in a specific and particular physical context and the term "mobile" refers to practices that unfold as individuals travel among locations in time and space. Fixed digital practices sometimes use QR codes or Microsoft Tags using HCCB (high capacity color barcodes). For example, The Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh places two-dimensional QR codes next to object labels and on the walls throughout the galleries. The QR codes provide information on the objects including video, text, and images that can be obtained quickly from most personal 3G mobile phones equipped with cameras, good connectivity, and a reading application. While these barcodes are primarily location-based tools, they also connect the physical mobile device to the museum's website (and particularly the collection database section) that must be made mobile-ready.

An example of a mobile digital practice is augmented reality games, or ARGs. In these experiences, players travel through the museum and its physical spaces, and are able to access (in real time) digital "overlays" where digital information is spatially synchronized with a particular physical location within the museum. Much of the digital information comes from websites. The games require the use of mobile phones and usually produce a great deal of social interaction among players. In 2008, the Smithsonian American Art Museum ran the ARG called Ghost of a Chance. The game took place on the museum's website, on YouTube, Facebook and MySpace. Two mini events were organized outside the museum - at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and at the Congressional Cemetery - and the final event occurred at the museum with players engaging in a multi-media museum-wide scavenger hunt.

A similar mobile activity used by museums involves geocaching as the basis for the creation of what might be considered "high-tech" scavenger hunts. Geocaches are physical containers that hold objects that are hidden in locations all over the world. After registering on the website, players can search for caches by zip code. There they find the cache description, with its longitude and latitude coordinates that can be programmed into a personal GPS device. The Charlotte Museum of History in North Carolina has created a cache hidden somewhere on museum grounds; so far eight vistors have already found it. The museum's cache profile name is: "Charlotte's Best Kept Secret." The cache contains a physical log book that can be filled out by the successful hunters. Geocaching is centered on finding a physical object that is fixed to a certain physical location - at a museum or elsewhere - but the game can only be played by players moving through time and space to find that object.

Closed / Open

The third dimension considers the creative expanse of the activity rather than the spatial or temporal character of the experience. An "open" activity allows users to individually or collaboratively produce content. A "closed" activity contains content that has been archived, selected, and organized by museum staff for visitors to access. An example of a closed digital practice in museums is mobile tours. Since they were first adopted by museums in the 1950s, mobile tours have changed dramatically, largely due to advances in digital technologies that enable visitors to use their own personal communication devices to engage with the tour. Most tours remain a closed means for museums to communicate pre-designated information to their visitors, with a good number of museums today offering at least one form, very often as a companion experience for permanent collections or for traveling exhibitions. Many mobile tours, however, offer elements that are more open and participatory. Open mobile tours allow users to leave messages or feedback on the works. For example, the Walker Art Center's Art on Call program offers two functions that allow for visitor participation. The application called "Breadcrumbing" keeps track of the artworks that are accessed by a visitor and expands the visitor's playlist each time the phone is used to listen to a segment, and "TalkBack" records a visitor's audio notes/comments on the phone. To retrieve the playlist and comments, a user simply enters the appropriate phone number in the search box. Art on Call also allows users the option of transferring calls to museum staff and services. In a slightly different mode, BklynMuse, a mobile tour for web-enabled phones created by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, allows visitors to recommend works to other visitors and view other visitors' recommendations. BklynMuse also provides information about special museum events as well as an interactive scavenger hunt game called "Gallery Tag!"

Digital tagging is another form of open mobile practice. Tags are a form of user-generated content applied to museum objects and photographs that register how works are described by members of the public. Museums are interested in them because they are believed to help build communities of interest and make collections more accessible to the public. Museum professionals Chun, et al. (Museums and the Web, 2006) assert that:

Tagging lets us temper our authored voice and create an additional means of access to art in the public's voice. For museums, including these alternative perspectives signals an important shift to a greater awareness of our place in a diverse community, and the assertion of a goal to promote social engagement with our audiences.

The use of tagging makes the museum experience more personal, and is believed to create a deeper and more long-lasting connection for the visitor as opposed to a more scholarly description based on art historical or scientific categorization. Some museums utilize the social tagging applications on Flickr for visitors' personal photos and videos. Other museums have created their own tagging applications on their websites. As mentioned earlier, the Brooklyn Museum created Gallery Tag! - a mobile tagging game specifically designed for use in the galleries, where visitors select or create a tag to attach to a work in the gallery. Probably the best-known tagging effort is called: Steve: The Museum Social Tagging Project. Several museums such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art link to the Steve Tagger application that prompts visitors to tag an object they see in the specific museum. While the main process of tagging is open, the use of such tags may be more closed of course, depending on how museum staff decide to incorporate the tags into their systems of categorization or how the museum juxtaposes amateur tags with expert ones. The open nature of tagging also depends on how the tags are publicly displayed and what the administrative policies regarding acceptable tags are.

4. Conclusion and next steps

As we noted earlier, learning in a digital age occurs within a distributed network of spaces as well as experiences and environments. As museums participate in these distributed learning networks, they contribute a particular expertise to the organization of art-based learning experiences. One challenge that emerges in the context of the Learning 2.0 paradigm concerns the nature of expertise: learners have become accustomed to learning from each other without regard to background, authority, institutional credentials, or domain expertise. The challenge for the contemporary museum is how to design learning experiences that do involve the expertise and authority of the museum professional for members of a generation that are accustomed to learning from peers who have little or no formal authority or expertise. The populist museum aims to appear friendly and welcoming to all visitors by creating a space for entertainment, socialization, and relaxation, often involving new digital technologies. But to accomplish their more serious and traditional aims of collecting and preserving valuable works of cultural heritage, support scholarly interpretation and the formal dissemination of knowledge, they must assert authority and expertise. The museum's challenge, and indeed its authority in the digital age, may come not only from a sense of accumulated expertise, but also from its ability to seamlessly navigate contradictory spaces and practices within this distributed learning network.

Our aim in this paper was not to single out a selection of best practices, but rather to suggest a range of activities and experiences that museums now offer to digitally savvy and enabled visitors. While we were not able to trace the fuller historical evolution of these practices, we know that there are analog antecedents (and accompaniments) to the digital activities we described here. Nonetheless, we want to assert that the contemporary museum is more distributed now than it was a generation ago. And again, although we could only mention this in passing, it is also true that the practices of museology are now occurring in places other than formal museum institutions.

The initial aim of our research was to develop a way to talk about a wide range of new practices - to develop a cognitive map of the distributed space of museology in a digital age. Our next step will focus on the creation of a digital representation of these practices that will allow us to map the synergies among institutional efforts, experiments, and programs. To this end, we are developing a visualization tool that could help museum researchers and professionals recognize how the efforts manifested within a particular museum connect to efforts within other museums and other cultural institutions, i.e., schools, community centers, libraries. We do this as an attempt to fully understand and appreciate the role of museums in distributed learning environments.

5. References

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Cite as:

Bautista, S. and A. Balsamo, Understanding the Distributed Museum: Mapping the Spaces of Museology in Contemporary Culture. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted