Museums and the Web 1999

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Published: March 1999.


Is the Web a Communication Tool or Digital Disneyland for Art Works?

Perttu Rastas, Contemporary Art Museum, Finland

About year ago we had a meeting in Linz, Austria where some museums talked about how we are using Internet in our institutions. We identified four ways that seem to summarize digital policy in European museums

  1. Alternative exhibition space

  2. New art genre

  3. Marketing and information tool

  4. Communication place and electronic agora for artists, institutions and audiences
There was a wide range of different types of practices and ideologies in how museum felt about digital media and Internet.

Networked art or broadcasting media

I think that the main big question is do we start in our digital future from broadcast model or network model? It's not a question about technology and how we're using it, it's more about culture, democracy and the fight for right to communicate but also to be heard.

Steps towards the Internet: pioneers and developers

  • Paul Baran, Rand corporation "On Distributed Communication", 1962
  • J.C.R. Licklinder, ARPANET-project, 1977
  • Vince Cern, UCLA, TCP/IP, 1983
  • Tim Berners-Lee, HTML code, World Wide Web, 1993
  • Marc Anderseen, Mosaic browser, 1993
If we try to link the major steps towards the Internet in a single line the connecting concept was always to help people to communicate more easily, faster, more naturally - in short, in a more humanistic way.

Internet is horizontal media

Internet is fundamentally a horizontal media where traditional broadcast media are vertical media streams which flow from institutions to public, from media specialist to "middle man". This horizontalism and openness has been the main driver that has made Internet what its now: a major social and cultural invention of mankind.

But what is Internet? It's a basically a domain name and address system for linking computers all around the world in net type system to understand each another's language. But who keeps this system alive? As you know Internet its also part of the hegemony structure where USA military and post-military industry together with multi-international entertainment companies and technology manufactures rules the game for us to play.

But the idea of Information Superhighway's is a concept without content if you don't think it side by side local roads, small veins that manufacture the traffic for the big roads. As you might know this electronic highway concept was first articulated in a talk that media artists Nam June Paik gave in 1974, almost than 20 years before the vice president Al Gore speech in USA congress.

As much Internet is based on military background and are today developed in industry model of infotainment, the very basic of its suggest lies in fundamental idea that its open for everybody and production tool for peoples own information and communication. And you could also argue that Internet has natural common to all humankind like "waterways" and "air roads". As international law expert Henry Perrit declared it: "global commons"!

Internet's two concept

So there is a two concept what Internet is going on just now. (1) The digital television concept where Internet is merged inside television format and also institutional working model (the WEB model). (2) Then the digital network concept where the topology of Internet is based on networked computers and wireless PDA devices where the meaning to develop digital language is to help people to be inform and communicate better with each others (the NET model).

Good things about digitizing

From a museums point of view we can't build just one road to drive; that would be foolish. There is lot of advantages for digitizing the art works and using network inside museums in "old" broadcasting models also.
  1. It can lower the cost of publishing information

  2. It can give an new possibilities that wasn't in our hands before; it's a new media; also hot and interesting media

  3. It can give a way to make information packages and to put information together that wasn't possible in old technologies

  4. It will establish new presentation methods and ways organizing information and link media material together

  5. It will lower the doorstep and the travel from archive to distribute formats and it is giving us new ways to transform old materials in to new public formats. It will rise new customers markets for museums.
  It's a big question of media integration: how information will be made in new media formats and how communication will be part of our communities.

There has been a lot of talk how Internet and digitized material world should be construct. But the main developers are now big multimedia companies, not users or even content providers. Internet is not growing on at users needs, merely on capitalist hierarchy to make more money in the market.

But Internet is social, communicative hypermedia. Multimedia applications are more commercial content oriented; Internet is more context-oriented media where content is rising from user interests.

Information economy

Media industry has shout out some magic words to establish the commercial use of networks. But actually digital arena is changing so fast that nobody has solid clue what would be the real killer applications in market forces. But these general areas are focusing market forces right now.
  1. Media on demand / infotainment

  2. On line Web casting, Web TV/Radio

  3. Public records, library archives

  4. Education and training

  5. Packaged information (tech. literature)

  6. News services and reports

  7. Entertainment, "just for fun because we have nothing to do" activities

"Killer applications"

  1. Video/radio on-demand / web TV

  2. Home shopping

  3. Games, interactive games

  4. Direct response advertising
The last few year gold rush times has glitter in most of the commercial company's eyes but expect game industry nobody seems found out real working goals. Web TV is development stages; home shopping has start but is still very small section of sales market. New advertising tools that's seeks more direct needs of consumers are still in very early stages.

Corporate level social technology

I don't want to say that all what big companies are doing are bad or not interesting. There is huge area of activities where are real meaningful operations where the practice of digital networked projects is very helpful. Mostly they are inside these thematic fields.
  1. Tele medicine

  2. Tele learning

  3. Tele communities

Civil Society

And in the level of civil society has some active hot fields where our needs and industrial efforts can find same interesting structure.
  1. Public information services

  2. Local community information and community programs

  3. Self learning and adult education, life learning programs
If we ask people what they really want (usually they don't know it if they don't see it) I think that most of us don't want new entertainment services. We want more information let's say our healthcare system, local information about independent activities, environmental news services and free email together with Internet access as we have public libraries in Finland.

Social hypertext program

If Internet is more large social hypertext program, the agenda for cultural work inside networks has to be clear and strong. Community publishing and information flow from libraries, cultural institutions, electronic cafés, information flee markets, digital money and "green dollars", open culture planning system from down to up model; you name it! Why don't we ask people what they need and then do co-operation inside media-integration with old and new media institutions and independent activities?


Picture is not new!

Picture has nothing new it self: content oriented work and interaction is!

Picture is not a surface that looks better if we clean it.

There has been a lot of talk about week surface of pictures: literature (magic 1000 words) is always more deep than a picture. We think also with pictures and that is based of course written common language. What we see and how we see is related our language; we don't see just in our eyes, actually more in our minds. Jean-Luc Godard asks in film Manuscript: Carmen: "Can we see the law?"

Digital picture is a simulation about possible worlds. In this sense digital technology can offer a tool to build up possible realities, alternative ways of seeing in very concrete ways: to show them as we could see it in our eyes.

In communicative media picture it self is not meaningful. It comes that when it touches readers/interprets possibilities to re-orientated world, to put self in new community and when it gives new tools to re-organize reality around every of us.

Computer mediated world are one of this metamediums that could organize our second nature (means culture) in new formats.

Fight about the picture

In art history we have always find camps and fields where old and new symbolic relationships face each another.

There are these battles at

  1. Text versus picture

  2. B/w picture versus color

  3. Still picture versus moving

  4. 2 D picture versus 3 D picture

  5. Reality picture versus virtual picture

  6. Reality space versus virtual space
But what world is definitely to us? It's a 3 dimensional interactive, immerse, colorful sound and picture space that has organized it self in all the time changing language based symbolic systems. And inside that process interesting its not just to have information about it but to interact with in, to communicate with it.

Digital museum (term and concept)

There are several areas where museums have defined digital world and start to organize daily activities in new media formats. These efforts has been named in different ways:
  1. multimedia museum

  2. web museums

  3. simulated museum

  4. interactive museum

  5. virtual museum
All of these terms has a different histories and relationships when installing media technology in museums. Some times it seems to be all the same points of views and actions under different terms. There is no point to stick on these terms because in the end we are using all possible technologies anyway.

Art push network (our chance)

But inside all technology fuzz and hype we need a clear program and co-operation plan how we'll use networks as a part of our daily work. Here are some suggestions:
  1. national (language based) art push network; museums, art institutions and organizations

  2. international art push network, art web casting

  3. basic art information

  4. international sound art radio station

  5. on going video&media art festivals

  6. on line projects and temporally workshops

  7. artists media lab's together with artists in residence programs
It's of course easy to say and list these kind of activities. But all of us who works in media art field know that there are all ready too many festivals, too many big or small institutional based international events where same people speaks same ideas. And where we are showing same works (but of course many cases there are good reasons to move same works in one place to another). Its not my place to say how to chance this but we can help situation if we could know better what and when we're doing projects and if we have more concentrate model of linking events and projects together.

European network of contemporary art

I have suggest simple model of distribute information with art institutions and independent artists organizations that could help us at organizing our work. The model is using both; pull (normal web pages) and push (email posts lists and actual push programs).

Pull network:

  1. art and artists registers

  2. on-line museums

  3. institution interest groups

  4. VR-museums
Push network:
  1. art calendar and art news service

  2. new corporate audience and friends of the museum on line visitor service

  3. virtual communities inside virtual museums

  4. co-operation information about on going projects and plans

  5. self-organizing audiences activities

  6. on-line interest groups

Questions about media related art and museums

Inside all this public work there also lot of normal museum on hand job's that have to be any way handle. But new media technologies and media based works give us many new problems to solve in same time that they are giving us possibilities.
  1. Who can be sure that works "last" next 100 years, even 10 years?

  2. Do we have to archive and conserve hardware as it is related to works and also software or can we transfer works always in to latest technology?

  3. What kind of staff do we need to keep the media related works running in normal museum conditions?
There are all ready taken some starting points for answer these questions; some small active groups and meetings has already start to work and they could lead soon some kind of international proposals and co-operation models.

Copyright issues

Museums utopia is to be meta memory time machine; now we can do it by open digital archives. When we pay for the works of art we have to pay also for the use of digitalization and the network rights. The ownership it just not enough for public institutions, we have to also give our large audiences possibilities to see all collections, not just those that could show "live" inside museums walls.

Artists points of views

But what does it means when we can distribute worldwide images and sounds from our collections archives in broadcast standards? Artists can sell their works just once (because it's in the linked international network). So in that sense we have to figure out also new economical level for art institution models where it leads status where real open co-operation is needed more than ever before.


The technology costs of media works could be very high. Keeping the works running is also very costly and intensive process. The need of technology back up and technical staff is higher than you can imagine. Interactive artworks and artists fees are high priced. Work are usually hard to plan, programmed and construct, one work could take months or years to be produced. This forces us also to think how co-production models that is so "normal" already in European film- and television level everyday has to be part of process in museum co-operation level also.

"I have seen the future and its beta version"

Work in media related art world isn't going to be easy. Technological infrastructure, archiving and distribution standards and interfaces are often "under construction" and "beta -versions". Specialized people to take care at computer based systems are too few in museum world. Commercial sector of business can always beat us when we start to talk with money.

The copyright issue has to be solved very soon because digital archiving process can't wait too long or the job will be growing too massive. The question about economical policy has to be clear. Lets say in Finland we heard all the same story especially on small town museums - cutbacks in all levels are normal way to answer economical problems. Will museums be part of state or communal cultural policy and try to keep collections and services free as possible or do we have to start to rise new kind economical structure where states and towns are providing just one part of economy? And museums have to rise more income from sponsors and service prices?

End: Ideology of development

The development is always fragmentary, contradictory and usually not-equality.

Developments real nature is to chance our first environmental space (natural environment) to second nature (culture); to culture objects, culture spaces like towns, culture landscapes like urbanism and culture peoples and then organize a communication with these metaphors. We can not go back to trees but we need to have trees back to our friends.

When you talk in western societies about development and democracy you're in fact discussed with development that means unstructured and undemocratic winners history. Parlamentarism has always been parlamentsarism if you look it in level of ordinary citizens.

Technology is based on politics of economy growth ideology. But it is also giving us inside weapons for critical possibilities of representation and alternative politics.

It's a hard way to realize utopias to reality. But we need to try, always.