What I’m Reading…

Given the difficulties I’ve had finishing the last couple of things I posted on my blog, I thought I’d steal a page from one of my blogging comrades and post a list of the things I’m currently reading. There’s a synthesis of this brewing, but for now, here are some tasty, tasty articles for those of you interested in non-colonial museology.

Bennett, A. J. T. P. K. (2013). MARAE: A whakapapa of the Maori marae. University of Canterbury.

Boast, R. (2011). NEOCOLONIAL COLLABORATION: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited. Museum Anthropology, 34(1), 56–70. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1379.2010.01107.x

Bodo, S., Gibbs, K., & Sani, M. (2009). Museums as places for intercultural dialogue: selected practices from Europe. London: Park Printing Co. Ltd.

Clifford, J. (1997). Museums as Contact Zones. In Routes. Travel and Translation in the Twentieth Century (pp. 188–219).

Duncan, C., & Wallach, A. (1980). The Universal Survey Museum. Art History, 3, 448–469. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8365.1980.tb00089.x

Gere, C. (1997). Museums, contact zones and the Internet. Archives & Museum Infomatics. Retrieved from http://www.archimuse.com/publishing/ichim97/gere.pdf

Hakiwai, A. T. (2014). HE MANA TAONGA , HE MANA TANGATA : MĀORI TAONGA AND THE POLITICS OF MĀORI TRIBAL IDENTITY AND DEVELOPMENT by Arapata Tamati Hakiwai Tuhinga Whakarāpopoto – Abstract, (November).

Jenkins, H. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture : Media Education for the 21 Century. Program. Retrieved from http://digitallearning.macfound.org/atf/cf/%7B7E45C7E0-A3E0-4B89-AC9C-E807E1B0AE4E%7D/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF

Johnston, P. (n.d.). Global Knowledge in the Early Republic.

Kansa, E. C., Kansa, S. W., & Watrall, E. M. (2011). Archaeology 2.0: New Approaches to Communication and Collaboration. Cotsen Digital Archaeology series. Retrieved from http://escholarship.org/uc/item/1r6137tb

Mccarthy, C. (2013). Museums in a Global World: A Conversation on Museums, Heritage, Nation, and Diversity in a Transnational Age. Advances in Research – Museum, 1(1), 179–194. doi:10.3167/armw.2013.010111

Schorch, P. (2013). Contact Zones, Third Spaces, and the Act of Interpretation. Museum and Society, 11(1), 68–81. Retrieved from http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/museumsociety/documents/volumes/schorch.pdf

Schorch, P. (2014). The Cosmohermeneutics of Migration Encounters at the Immigration Museum , Melbourne, 2(Baur 2009), 81–98. doi:10.3167/armw.2014.020106

Schorch, P. (2013). The experience of a museum space. Museum Management and Curatorship, 28(2), 193–208. doi:10.1080/09647775.2013.776797

Schorch, P. (2009). The reflexive museum: opening the door to behind the scenes. Journal of Museums Aotearoa, 33(1&2), 28–31.

Schorch, P., & Hakiwai, A. (2014). Mana Taonga and the public sphere: A dialogue between Indigenous practice and Western theory. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 17(2), 191–205. doi:10.1177/1367877913482785

Schorch, P., Mccarthy, C., & Hakiwai, A. (2016). Globalizing Māori Museology: Reconceptualizing Engagement, Knowledge, and Virtuality through Mana Taonga. Museum Anthropology, 39(1), 48–69. doi:10.1111/muan.12103

Schorch, P., Walton, J., Priest, N., & Paradies, Y. (2015). Encountering the “Other”: Interpreting Student Experiences of a Multi-Sensory Museum Exhibition. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 36(2), 221–240. doi:10.1080/07256868.2015.1008432

Stuedahl, D. (2015). The Connective Museum. In Museum Communication; Prospects and perspectives. International research conference, Danish Royal Academy of Sciences and Letters, Copenhagen, Denmark 27‐28 August 2015.

Taylor, J., & Gibson, L. K. (2016). Digitisation, digital interaction and social media: embedded barriers to democratic heritage. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 7258(May), 1–13. doi:10.1080/13527258.2016.1171245

Tauhere Connections. (2016).

On museums and contact zones

Two Hands in Steam CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user David Rosen

I had two competing ideas stuck in my head that have been twining around each other for a couple of months. I finally figured out how to disentangle them enough to examine them more closely and the result was my last post and this one.

What is a museum? What should it be? I already discussed my problems with the classic binary models of temple vs forum, or cathedral vs bazaar, and particularly the way both models ignore the primary functions of temples and cathedrals in order to make the case for more a open and participatory kind of museum. And the unspoken zero sum approach that cultural commentators often assume – that an increase in one sort of engagement must come at the expense of the other – I reject. The reality is much messier, but how does one model “messy” constructively?

Museum as Contact Zone 

A more helpful model might be found in James Clifford’s adaptation of Mary Louise Pratt’s idea of “the contact zone” in colonial encounters. In his seminal 1997 essay, “Museums as Contact Zones”, Clifford problematized the one-way relationships between museums and indigenous peoples in the United States using an experience he observed at the Portland Art Museum between staff and Native American elders, ostensibly around the display of sacred objects. The museum staff wanted to talk about objects they wanted to display, and the native people wanted to talk about history and contemporary issues. So, not only did they have different viewpoints, they didn’t even want to have the same conversation. What happened though, was that the museum basement became the place where they came together and had what sounds like two mutually unsatisfying conversations that were the first step on the road to better mutual understanding. The museum became a contact zone, a space where different cultures come into contact (and conflict), where competing dialogues are heard, and reciprocity replaces one way transmission and translation. It’s a very different kind of place.

“When museums are seen as contact zones, their organizing structure as a collection becomes an ongoing historical, political, moral relationship––a power-charged set of exchanges, of push and pull.” (Clifford 1997, 192-3)

Charlie Gere, in describing Clifford’s view, says the museum “need not be thought of just as a storehouse of colonial plunder, nor a one-way medium, but as a place of interactive communication.” (Gere 1997, 59) Gere describes Clifford’s contact zone as a way to rethink the museum’s role in relation to other cultures. Clifford’s intention is to challenge and rework that relationship, which is normally perceived as that of one­-sided imperialist appropriation. He proposes instead that the museum can become a space which benefits both it and the cultures whose artifacts it shows. In Clifford’s model these cultures can exploit the museum as much as the museum exploits them. And Gere goes on to describe the many similarities between Clifford’s metaphors of communication networks and the decentralized nature of the modern digital realm.

For me, the power of the conflict zone model is how directly it addresses how museums might move beyond the 19th century and become active participants in the creating a useful role for themselves in the 21st century. It’s a fascinating and short read, and I feel a bit ashamed I’ve managed to not encounter it until now. I had to buy a copy of the book to find a legit copy to read, so this is the best link I can provide.

Clifford’s stance is provocative and not without it’s critics. There was a whole conference in 2011 debating the concept of the museum as a contact zone. What I find useful about it are two things. First, taking a term that comes out of the study of colonialism is itself deeply meaningful, as it clearly places museums as beneficiaries of the troublesome legacy of Western hegemony. Second, it the model privileges dialogue and exchange over extraction. Contact zones are places where change flows in both directions.

Sound familiar?

Does the contact zone model work more broadly than in post-colonial settings? Could you apply that same mindset to competing constituencies who fight for the soul of the Western-style object-based museum? For me, (and I’m still plowing through articles and critiques of the idea) it does. The contact zone really works as a model for how a 21st century museum could function, particularly in the digital realm.  As Gere points out, “Clifford’s model of the museum, like the Web, is a space of exchange, negotiation and communication.” The contact zone is both temple and forum, cathedral and bazaar. And more. It’s a “yes, and” place where improvisation based on listening becomes the necessary prerequisite, and that’s both exciting and a bit frightening.

What do you think?

On Unhelpful Analogies


Temple of Saturn, CC-BY 2.0 image by Anthony M. fr Wikimedia Commons

In all the hubbub around changing practices in museums, a constant trope has been the tension between two camps. On the one hand are those “traditionalists” who value museums as places of quiet contemplation, aesthetic refinement, and sober, solitary experience. On the other are those “progressives” who want museums to be active, social spaces; welcoming, inclusive to diverse viewpoints and vibrant centers of their communities. I have written about this before, and you can go here and here or here to read more for more.

Often this tension gets reduced to a stark dichotomy. It’s either this or that, and for one side to “win” the other side has to “lose”, so the stakes are high. The very soul of the museum endeavor is at stake if you listen to the most strident, most visible partisans of either side. I am not terribly swayed by a lot of the arguments traditionalists raise to support their position. I find many of them to be sneeringly condescending, ahistorical, and full of thinly-veiled elitism masquerading as “concern.” On the other hand, a lot of the arguments for new, progressive practices have the stink of desperation clinging to them. “If we don’t ______, we’ll be irrelevant! The Millennials! What about the Millennials?” What’s a poor practitioner to do? First, I think it’s helpful to look at some of the dominant mental models we use in describing museums, and in particular the dialectical opposites that get used to frame the debate.

The Temple and the Forum 

In 2007 Les Harrison identified two dominant models in the struggle over what museums should be: the temple, an institution for the projection and protection of official culture, and the forum, its populist, marketplace counterpart. This model has gained wide visibility, and often gets used informally as almost a given. What is interesting to note in this analogy is that the primary function of a Roman temple is reduced to an apparatus of state control and the spiritual function completely ignored. Likewise, the Forum’s many explicitly state-organized and controlled functions are omitted to highlight the popular.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar 

Another model gaining currency plays off a software development analogy originally written by Eric Raymond in 2001 to describe the two dominant models for how software should be developed: the Cathedral, in which source code is made available with each software release, but code developed between releases is restricted to an exclusive group of software developers, and the Bazaar, in which the code is developed over the Internet in view of the public and open to any interested party. In the museum interpretation of this, the Cathedral is governed by the clergy and closed to the people, whereas the Bazaar is an open public space, non-hierarchical and accessible to all. The Cathedral is reduced to an organizational structure where a closed hierarchy controls the means of production (to get a little Marxist) and releases it when and if they feel like it. The spiritual aspect of the Cathedral is unmentioned. Interestingly, Raymond played a large role in popularizing the use of “open” over “free software”, which Richard Stallman problematized thus, “Free software is a political movement; open source is a development model.”

The trouble with models

Models are useful because of what they leave out. That’s what allows you to focus on the feature that is being modeled. But that’s also their weakness. So, while the centrally-controlled/ hierarchical vs democratic/populist comparison has merit, it is worth noting that in both examples what is left out is that a spiritual model is opposed to a market-driven driven one, and capitalism replaces religion. I would argue that when cultural commentators refer to Art museums as “secular temples” or “temples of culture”, they are not referring exclusively to the authoritarian aspect of traditional art museum practice. There is always language that invokes the magical, the sublime, and, yes, even the spiritual. Yet how often do we practitioners acknowledge that in our work? It is a foundational element of the cultural sea we swim in, but it goes largely unacknowledged and unexamined.


The culture wars

If you’ve read my blog for any period of time, you’ve doubtless witnessed the occasions where I find myself scratching my head at what cultural commentators have to say about museums in very public forums. Philip Kennicott, Judith Dobrzynski, Ellen Gamerman, the list goes on and on…

Another salvo was fired earlier in the week. Tiffany Jenkins, a regular commentator to the Scotsman and other papers, wrote a blog post titled “Who Owns Culture?” for the Oxford University Press blog. She’s also written a book “Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums – And Why They Should Stay There” which promises to be a full-throated defense of the status quo of 20th century Western museum philosophy. I won’t bore you with a synopsis of her post. Read it yourselves.

The thing I really want you to do is read Courtney Johnston’s reflection on it. Johnston, the Directory of the Dowse Art Museum in New Zealand, and a pretty bright star in my personal pantheon of museum thinkers, gives a deeply thoughtful response to, and rejection of Jenkins’ arguments that is eloquent, passionate, and so free of the vitriol that is my usual first response to arrogance masquerading as concern. Reading what smart people with different viewpoints have to say is a pillar of my professional practice. Museums, as public institutions (whether they’re publicly or privately operated) have to be able to engage with the larger discourses happening in society. That doesn’t make it easy to hear, and doing it respectfully and honestly, ain’t easy. It’s far easier to mock, eg. most of the Internet. Johnston’s post is a wonderful example of how grown-ups do it.

Stop reading this now and read Courtney’s post, OK? Here’s the link again. Go now. These are important, indeed foundational issues, and how we respond will shape museum practice in the coming century. Thanks!

A Series of Epistolary Romances (the CODE|WORDS experiment continues)

Suse has a writeup of our latest CODE|WORDS experiment: “A Series of Epistolary Romances “

museum geek

Late last week, we quietly announced that CODE|WORDS–the experiment in online discourse that Ed Rodley, Rob Stein, and I kicked off in 2014–is back. It has a new format and a new set of instigators, plus new authors and new topics. I’m happy to see its return.

When we started CODE|WORDS, our aims were to pilot a new approach to the creation of theory ‘in public’ through the use of online, collaborative platforms, with a print publication to follow. We hoped the project would offer considered commentary as well as responsive dialogue, but the format we chose enabled less discourse than intended.

Which brings us toA Series of Epistolary Romances... Our second CODE|WORDS experiment is designed to privilege the discursive, conversational element that the original project was unable to generate. Each month, a new pair of authors will correspond about a topic related to museums for a series…

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That Which Is Lost

One of the follow up conversations I had at MCN2015 was with Jeff Inscho about our Content session. It was a wide-ranging one, touching on repositories, the Museum full stack, and more. In my notes, I wrote the quote “Content – That Which is Lost” which was one of the definitions that came out of our session. It’s stuck with me since.

The “digital dark age” is a thing that lots of important people are worrying about.

Google boss warns of ‘forgotten century’ with email and photos at risk

Will Future Historians Consider These Days The Digital Dark Ages?

The digital black hole: will it delete your memories?

You get the idea. It’s a problem. I’ve been thinking a lot about digital ecosystems in museums, and how good they are at some things while being really terrible at others. Ironically, the thing that most digital ecosystems suck at most is preservation, followed closely by findability. This is a huge problem, one that will hobble not only us, but our successors and the posterity we supposedly hope to enrich by saving and interpreting all this stuff we steward. Here’s an illustrative example of what I’m talking about:



New England Habitats

One of the last exhibitions I worked on at the Museum of Science was a renovation project. The New England Habitats hall is a diorama hall built in phases from the 1950s to the early 1960s. Some of the old-timers I worked with when I first started there in the ‘80s had worked on creating them, and they remain a central, unchanging feature of the museum. They were reinterpreted in the early ‘90s by the illustrious Betty Davidson, as part of her seminal research on making accessible, multisensory exhibits. The book that resulted, New Dimensions for Traditional Dioramas, is still relevant.  By 2010, they were in need of another renovation, and I was charged with updating the content and exhibits. My first job was to understand what the original creators had been trying to do and how Betty et al had tried to modernize it. So, off to the Exhibits archives I went looking for what I could find.

For the ’90s renovation, that consisted mainly of Betty’s personal project file, some 3.5in floppies, and a couple of Syquest or Bernoulli cartridges that probably held large (for the time) graphics files. It was pretty skimpy, and missing all the email correspondence aside from those Betty printed out for some reason. A tremendous amount of sleuthing and DIY computer forensics allowed me to extract label copy from old Word and Pagemaker files.


New England Habitats 

For the original construction, back in the paper days, there were bulging file folders for each diorama, sometimes multiple folders (“Deer diorama” AND “Whitetail Deer”) with probably a couple of linear feet of files which covered everything: meeting notes, internal memos (some pretty intense), incoming and outgoing correspondence, plans, drafts of labels with edits. Along the way, I discovered things that had been lost over the years, like the fact that the dioramas were modeled on real locations in New England, not idealized environments as was more typical of the period. The photo research was all there, in piles of curling B&W prints. I could tell you exactly how much it cost to procure the beavers for the beaver diorama, because the trapper’s bill was there, complete with a description of how he dynamited their dam to get them and the lucky bonus that one of the beavers was pregnant, so the Museum got some bonus specimens. Different times. There was also the account of the poor staff member who had to drive a cooler full of rapidly thawing frozen beavers corpses from Vermont to the taxidermist’s studio in New York on one of the hottest days of the year that was obviously written solely for internal use. I could smell cigarette smoke clinging to papers that had sat on desks for too long. Everybody smoked then. A little more digging turned up originals of the transparencies used in the backlit labels, and other goodies from the stat camera. It was a treasure trove that let me climb inside my predecessors’ minds and understand what they were trying to do.


In the end, I knew more about what happened sixty years ago than what happened less than twenty years ago. And it was all because we hadn’t figured out how to save digital information in a way that made it findable and searchable, or anywhere near as easy to use as a manilla folder full of papers. This is not a problem exclusive to the MOS. When I first started at PEM and was snooping around to see what kind of 18th century firearms we had (as one does) I rapidly found out that the CMS’s records were pretty sparse in some areas, and if I really wanted to find out about older parts of the collection I should consult the card catalogue. The card catalogue. And I know that versions of this scenario play out at cultural organizations all over.

We have lost control of our stuff

15087804540_b1e7427592_k copy

Look familiar?  “Messy Desktop” CC-BY-NC 2.0 image by Flickr user Dean Shareski

The proliferation of digital platforms and information has outpaced our ability to corral it and make it usefully findable. In place of the old hanging folder, a container that could hold anything you could cram into it, we now have information scattered across devices and platforms, mostly uninterchangeable and unsearchable. As a test case, I looked at a typical week’s worth of digital content and platforms I interacted with last week, and it consisted of:

  • Emails, chats (corporate Gmail account)
  • Google calendar events
  • Texts (personal phone)
  • Twitter (tweets, and DMs)
  • MS Office docs (.doc, .docx, .xls, .xlsx, .ppt, .pptx)
  • Google docs & sheets
  • PDFs
  • Video (various formats and FCP and AE projects)
  • Audio files (.mp3, .wav, .aiff)
  • Corporate network (five different servers, with varying access permissions)
  • Basecamp messages, tasks, calendars (some turned into email, some not)
  • Slack notifications
  • Image files (All over the map: mostly .jpgs, many taken on the phone and uploaded to Dropbox, then spread across emails, work computer directories, network directories, Basecamp, and SM.
  • Other SM content (Instagram posts, FB updates, and to a lesser extent LinkedIn and Foursquare)

In other words, it’s a mess. And I’ve already made clear my feeling about keyword searching in a previous post, so don’t get me started.

Please note that I am not advocating that we forsake digital technologies and return to paper. Are we clear on that? Good. Let’s move on…

What might we do?

The obvious solution is a repository, the museum equivalent of the “single source of truth” that software companies enshrine. But those sources only cover the codebase. If you were a future archaeologist trying to understand how 21st century software companies operated, you’d not find correspondence or financials in the repo. So how to create a digital version of the hanging folder that is as useful and possesses a generous enough interface to allow mere mortals to query it and find gold? That is a big question. Anybody out there having success?

From the PEM blog: Ghost hunting in Cuba with Magda

Obligatory shot of crew with recording equipment to prove we were working...

Obligatory shot of crew with recording equipment to prove we were working…

In the run up to the opening of our Alchemy of the Soul exhibition, I posted a short travelogue on the museum blog of our August trip to Cuba to film artist Maria Magdalena Campos Pons.

“Traveling with an artist means that every experience, every encounter is potential grist for their creative mill. And when that artist is Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (Magda), and you’re accompanying her to the tiny hamlet in Cuba where she grew up, the effect is magnified enormously.”

Read more…