Museum technology keynote — words from ICOM 2022 Prague

Presented at ICOM Prague. August 24, 2022. Because I don’t ever fully ‘write’ talks but instead assemble slides which I then talk ‘around’, what follows is a very slightly more verbose version. The images used in the presentation, of which some are included here, were generated using the ‘of the moment’ AI image synthesis tools Midjourney and DALL-E2, I have included the relevant prompts used in the image captions. I wanted to use those images as a means of hinting at some of what I didn’t talk about.

Prompt: “pixel art image of a museum director looking at painting of a museum director”, OpenAI DALL-E2

Hello. I changed jobs last week and so did my slides.

I’d like to acknowledge that these words were prepared on the unceded lands of the people of the Kulin Nation in Naarm (Melbourne). The ideas I will talk about are the result of working with many collaborators, and inspired by many other poeple. All knowledge is the result of generosity and intercultural exchange.

A huge thank you to ICOM, and the organising team in Prague especially Martina and Jiri. And also to the tech team here at the conference centre who were able to deal with my request to present on my own device from the stage. I know how hard this can be when you’ve not set up your venue to make that possible.

I work at ACMI, Australia’s national museum of screen culture. I will give you a little bit of background because it will help contextualise some of what I say later. Because this is ICOM, let’s begin with our collection.

ACMI has a large collection of different types of objects and media. Our historical time-based media is stored on analogue and magnetic formats but our contemporary commissions arrive as digital files on digital storage formats — hard drives, USB sticks. This used to be rare. It is now common. The range and diversity of our contemporary works continues to expand from linear to interactive, networked, and multiplayer games.

As you may also be aware, Melbourne also has an amazing videogame-making creative community. As a result we also collect modern videogames and because of the uncertainty and complexity in digital preservation, this is a collaborative effort with Powerhouse Museum (Sydney) and National Film and Sound Archive (Canberra). This approach to collecting contemporary software-based artworks is greatly assisted by this distributed collecting approach, which I believe will become necessary and standard practice across many types of museum.

Through this process we’ve learned that digital objects are more fragile than their analogue ‘originals’, and that both digital and digitised objects exist in systems that require reliable power, engineering, maintenance, ongoing software development. These are all challenging frontiers for museums.

Further, collecting modern materials and presenting them for contemporary audiences has forced us to rethink the documentation processes of the past. Our online collection documentation reveals to the public the bias in what has (and has not) been collected, and how the language used in historical documentation practices reflects the prejudices and social biases of its time.

We also make rich experiential exhibitions that take advantage of constantly improving projection and interactive technologies. ACMI is also a bit famous for The Lens. With the support of the Lens, ACMI wants to change the media we make and consume. We want to change the what, the how, and the why of cinema, of television, of games. The Lens is one in a range of technologies to foreground the visitors’ agency in this. And the visitors’ responsibility to ‘take the museum home with them’. We work with the seductiveness of the media forms to sow the seeds of a critical eye, ear and hand.

Things have changed.

The old ACMI used to be a place to come to see an exhibition or watch arthouse cinema. That was how we measured success. The new ACMI suceeds when it changes what you watch or make, and changes how you watch and make. And that change could occur anywhere — hence our brand as a ‘multiplatform museum’. We are still figurng out how to best measure that.

ACMI’s mission and how we fulfil that mission has been transformed by harnessing the potential of new technologies.

As a quick aside, at ICOM, many people have asked me about ‘the metaverse’. Julian Oliver, now a well known contemporary artist (‘critical engineer’) along with Chad Chatterton, and Andrea Blundell — built a real-time collaborative virtual world — ACMIpark — that reproduced ACMI and Federation Square online, and bridged the physical and the virtual.

This was before Second Life, before Facebook.That was twenty years ago.

These ideas that seem new are not new.

The rest of the talk is a gentle provocation.

In 1968, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a conference on ‘computers and museums’. It was very important, and like many things from the late 1960s, we still feel its resonance today. At that conference the University of Illinois presented the PLATO system [Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Applications]. PLATO was originally developed for the Illiac I computer connected to 20 student terminals and was a key part of education technology research. In these images we glimpse the birth of user experience design for media technology in museums.

The terminal must be simple to use, yet flexible enough to accommodate and display many types of information. It must provide enough depth and scope of information to challenge the visitor without confusing him. It must involve him in gathering information and answering questions without frustrating him.”

Source: Computers and their potential applications in museums : a conference sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 15, 16, 17, 1968, pages 369 & 373. http://library.metmuseum.org/record=b1044705

You can see on this user diagram the familiar ideas of story, question & answer, user comments, related objects that museum educators and designers still focus on today. These are some of the first terms we still see in design briefs for gallery interactive experiences, and online catalogues.

That was more than fifty years ago.

It was designed in an era before the arrival of colour television.

We still think like that today.

Prompt: “colour photograph of a teenager logging on to the internet for the first tine in 1995”, Midjourney AI

In 1994 I was at university. Both I and many others were excited by the arrival of the nascent public web. For those of us in Australia and NZ, the 1990s and early 2000s ignited a utopian dream of ‘planetary computation’ and access to a ‘global network’. Culturally too — for us, distant and far awy — it offered the mirage of an opportunity to destabilise the media power centres of Europe and North America.

The web could have gone in many directions. There was the cosmopolitan web, the web as an infinite library, the web as a playground. And of course the web as a shopping mall.

Museum websites were rare but the first that existed were courageous. Some museums collaborated with others to build ‘knowledge portals’ and in some countries, museums even provided internet access directly to communities that they worked with. Even though screen resolutions were tiny, museums were worried about the people ‘stealing our thumbnail images’.

It was a short lived dream.

Back then it felt like digital technology promised a lot. We thought expansively about the opportunities and that early history of museums and the web is largely one of exploration and imagination.

Unfortunately we didn’t question the underlying logic or politics of the databases we were working with or building. That would come much later.

Prompt: ““a car on a motorway driving past a billboard advertisement for a museum”, Midjourney AI

Nowadays, every museum has a website. Even the smallest. And they ‘do social media’ even if its a job done by a volunteer. They don’t even need to do it well. Their web presence is just a communication of ‘we exist’ — like a sign on a motorway that cars zoom past barely noticing.

In 2008 the smartphone and mobile devices grew web access by billions of people. Suddenly half of the planet was connected — we did not think of the consequences of such rapid change. More people, all at once, was great for the profits of technology companies, but not for much else. The debates around access to the internet changed to focus on the quality of that access.

The internet is now awash with digital content and museums flood the web with their digitised collections. As a result of the economics of web platforms, everything is tracked. In an attention economy, breadth wins over depth. More, more and more.

We have seen that flood of content change our politics, grow misinformation, grow fear, destabilise our societies. In the absence of shared narratives, communities will create their own narratives — true, false, rumour or otherwise.

The companies that emerged as part of the Web 2.0 wave have merged and consolidated into a handful of closed, data leveraged platforms. Free-to-use platforms have monetised our attention, monetised our data.

Prompt: “a photograph of a server farm housing cloud computing in a landscape”, Midjourney AI

It turns out that the Internet is not a place.

We need to stop thinking about it using metaphors of place. There is no ‘there’ there.

The cloud is simply a server farm in a region of cheap real estate with manageable weather and reliable energy supply. Like ACMI’s digital collections it is fragile. More fragile than we think. During the recent UK heatwave, several of the server farms underpinning the UK cloud came under extreme heat stress impacting the performance of major digital platforms. We should expect this to worsen — and more of the Global North will be exposed to the conditions that the Global South has existed as an everyday reality.

The internet is not a place. It is better thought of as a time machine, or a time sink.

So now what?

Through the pandemic I’ve been running a mentoring scheme for arts and culture CEOs pairing them with digital practitioners. In this program we work through conceptual and strategic issues around technology and how it affects and creates opportunities across different artforms and practices. It aims at building competencies amongst senior arts leaders to help them navigate the potential of the future — developing a both capabilites and critically, fostering a digital imagination.

It has not just been for museums but also for ‘adjacent’ arts institutions — theatre, music, dance, cultural centres, performance venues. Through it, we have realised that we share many of the same challenges — ageing infrastructure conceived of in the last decade of the 20th century; skills that are expensive and rare; and as a result of infrastructural and skills shortages, we have crimped our imaginations. We talk a lot about risk, and we talk about cybersecurity, machine learning, bias, we talk about accessibility and we talk about sharing services across domains.

At the heart of this is the question, what might institutions need to support the creative practices of the future — for the more diverse audiences of the future?

Our conversations have shifted from digital marketing, the latest immersive spectacle, and back of house operations to tangible transformation —21st century infrastructure, staff skills and an expanded creative imagination. And how that shift inevitably leads to new questions about institutional purpose.

How might our buildings adapt and be re-designed for an always-connected visitor? And even more importantly, how might we retain that visitor’s attention and focus whilst they are in our building?

How might we shift our focus from technologies of ‘information and data’, to those of world-building, narrative, emotion and imagination?

How might we better collaborate across the arts and cultural sector?

But, and there is always a but.

The pandemic and its social effects has created a huge demand for quick ‘solutions’. Around the globe many institutions are in desperate situations — lacking revenue, lacking State support, pressured by the demands of a rapidly changing social and cultural context.

This situation sets up a risky situation where museums and those in a desperate situtation are easy marks for questionable ‘solutions’. Just as museums are not neutral, neither are technologies. All technologies have a politics and all media technologies have a specific grain. Museums will be ineffective if we do not understand the nuance of that grain.

Networked digital technologies are not inherently democratic.

Prompt: “wolf dressed up as a sheep photorealistic”, Midjourney AI

New web technologies are easily branded with the language and rhetoric of liberation. We have seen this recently in the rhetoric around so-called Web3. This language often hides extractive and anti-democratic intent.

Beware the term ‘decentralization’ in this context.

In the technology discourse around Web3, ‘decentralization’ can be a legitimate desire to unseat the powerful platforms that control much of the web as we experience it today.

But when coupled with ‘blockchain’ it is also easily co-opted into a series of ideologies that work against many of the ethics and purpose of our institutions. In this context ‘decentralization’ undermines the very idea of institutions and in some cases, sees societies only a mass of individuals distrustful of each other, mediated by so-called ‘smart contracts’. In this context, ‘decentralization’ can be code for unfettered libertiarian anarcho-capitalism.

Museums beware.

Beware, too, if you do not understand how the companies you work with expect to generate profit for their investors and shareholders. In modern technology industries, funded by venture capital, the way in which revenue is generated is often very opaque.

And remember the words of Kate Crawford and Vladen Joler in 2018, writing on the technologies behind the Amazon Echo, but applicable to contemporary digital services generally,

each small moment of convenience — be it answering a question, turning on a light, or playing a song — requires a vast planetary network, fueled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data

With that in mind, we need to be clear about what change we want our museums to make in our communities before we can appropriately choose the technologies that will help us realise this.

What does your museum actually want technology to do for it? Is it more than “greater efficiency”, more than “new revenue opportunities”, more than “reaching younger audiences”?

Looking back to that conference of 1968 and its prescient but unacheived ideas, how might your museum imagine possibilities that were actually unimaginable half a century ago?

Who do you partner with to achieve this ethically, sustainably, and in the least extractive manner possible?

You need to be able to confidently answer these questions in a manner that speaks to your institution’s mission and purpose because every museum technologist with any experience will tell you“… technology is expensive, difficult, needs a lot of maintenance, it will break, it will become obsolete, and your vendor will disappear”.

They are right.

Thank you to ICOM, the ICOM conference committee in Prague, Martina Lehmannová, Jiří Stýblo, and everyone who has been so welcoming on this trip.

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Seb Chan

I’m currently the Director & CEO at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) in Melbourne. Previously Cooper Hewitt (NYC) & Powerhouse Museum (Syd).