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It has become something of a cliché to say that in the world of Wikipedia and the sheer mass of information available on the Web, the role of the individual expert is being supplanted by the amateur/expert collective. Yet consider how these structural shifts change museums, especially with the increasing pressure to go digital. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York recently added a Digital Media Department. Its first project "Connections" aims to bring multiple voices to the visitor's experience. The National Museum of African American History and Culture, founded in 2005 without objects or a building, is opening its doors on the Web before the physical construction of the museum begins. It is also using the web to gather both a virtual and physical collection. The goal is to make "a museum for its visitors and by its visitors". At the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the show "Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects" came out of a visitors' blog (Alexandra Cheney "At MoMA, A Blog Becomes a Show" Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog at, July 23, 2011). (more)

Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, and author of the blog Museum 2.0 argues that going digital "removes authority from the content provider [museum/curator] and places it in the hands of the user [audience/visitor]." Motivating these choices is the desire for greater interactivity - a buzzword circulating equally in museums and the ivory tower in the context of digital projects assumed to be, by their nature, more engaging than traditional methods of presenting information. "Connections" is a suggestive choice for the title of the Met project and the NMAAHC is in many ways a collaboration between the museum and its many audiences (Kate Taylor, "The Thorny Path to a National Black Museum" NYTimes, January 22, 2011) while the MoMA show aims to embody a 21st-century culture that it explicitly defines as interaction-centered. Digital media's models of interaction also inform the new BMW Guggenheim Lab project, open in New York City through October 16. The Lab stages a group game called Urbanology, which can be played live or online, and smacks of web-based worlds like Second Life. In Urbanology visitors role-play scenarios that invoke the challenges facing modern urban life and have the opportunity to build an imagined city that matches their specific needs.

The assumption that the digital museum breaks down barriers by enabling audiences to drive museum narratives spurs the development of ever more sophisticated technology (Zoe Fox, "5 Ways Museums Are Reaching Digital Audiences", August 11, 2011), such as the QR "quick response" codes now present in many an exhibit, or the app launched last year by the Museum of Natural History in New York, which "allows you to chart your own course" with a type of in-museum GPS. Yet some critics argue these experiences turn out to be both more directive and more distancing than conventional models of reaching visitors (Edward Rothstein "From Picassos to Sarcophagi, Guided by Phone Apps" NYTimes, October 1, 2010; although cf the response by Shelley Bernstein, Manager of Information Systems at the Brooklyn Museum, posted on the Museum's community blog).

Jennifer Kingsley

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