Defining the museum: a pathway for digital integrations
The International Council of Museums voted in August to dramatically change its definition of what constitutes a museum for the first time since the 1970s:
A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.(https://icom.museum/en/resources/standards-guidelines/museum-definition/)
Reaching this new definition was fraught with difficulty and there are important points of divergence from the previous definition, which was:
A museum is a non-profit making, permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of people and their environment.Article II.1 of the ICOM Statutes, amended by the 18th General Assembly (Barcelona, Spain, 6 July 2001)
It’s straightforward to conceive of how digital and blended cultural heritage exhibits contribute to the interpretation and presentation of tangible and intangible heritage. Similarly, such efforts make inroads in widening the diversity of education experiences and knowledge sharing. But the new definition has created some important-to-recognize opportunities beyond those comfortable wheelhouses of digital storytelling. The standout excerpt of the new definitions (in our perspective) is the sentence “Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability”, in particular two words: “accessible” and “inclusive”. Digging into the implications of those terms takes us beyond the impulse to dismiss them as buzzwords.
There are two directions from which we might consider accessibility: first is the practice of lowering barriers for accessing a physical space, and second is the process of dismantling the inevitable barrier that physical distance imposes. It is the latter of these which is a focal point for us: bringing heritage stories and heritage knowledge to the places where people already are.
When widespread lockdowns closed the doors of museums around the world, there was a flowering of efforts undertaken to widen accessibility in the latter variation. During those periods when social distancing was required, every potential museum visitor was locked outside barriers of physical distance, and the response to the universality of this barrier was varied and exciting. Existing digital tools were applied, adapted, repurposed for heritage applications; the common feature was ready implementation in response to a crisis situation. Virtual tours popped up with differing formats, some structured like Google’s streetview, others more self-directed ‘virtual tours’, others were filmed walking tours. Collections were made more open, more online, than before, and it became a higher priority internally for museums to press forward with digitization efforts.
That initial response to crisis, the rapid expansion of published and curated digital cultural heritage interpretations, is gradually giving way to more considered and controlled application of these now-familiar tools. This new focus of the definition of a museum is an opportunity to propel greater investment in these barrier-removing efforts. Existing tools such as those described above, as well as game engines, 3D model sharing platforms, and cultural heritage portals such as Europeana have been the focus of a number of important endeavors for the years before the recent pandemic. These each offer opportunities distinct from simply ‘mirroring’ what a visitor views within an exhibition. Rather than replicating the experience of solely traveling through an exhibition space, the format can be experimented with to provide greater, or different, contextual information on objects, to present them as embedded parts of a cultural milieu, or to offer frank conversations about the difficult histories to be found in acquisition records. All of this requires careful introspection during concept design, asking “How can an experience bounded to a place and the people in it, including museum attendants, guides, and fellow museum-goers, be most effectively translated into a solo activity mediated by a computer, smartphone, or headset?”
What lies ahead for accessibility in digital and blended cultural heritage interpretations perhaps should explicitly consider how these existing tools – proven over years prior to and during times of crisis – might reshape our approach. Digital curation can offer the exciting prospect of extending the lifespan of temporary exhibitions well beyond their physical opening dates. It is estimated that by 2025 nearly 75% of internet users worldwide will access it exclusively via their smartphone, a projected 3.7 billion people. Planning for an internet-accessible and mobile-friendly future in digital and blended cultural heritage interpretations will accommodate the access needs of the most people, and explicitly focusing on prolonging the lifespan of temporary exhibits alongside permanent collections should feature high on the list of ways to expand accessibility.
For us, an inclusive world is one where we see ourselves reflected back wherever we look. It’s not just about seeing someone with skin of a similar color, or living as the gender or sexuality we identify with, it’s also about seeing that deeply rooted aspects of our own culture are handled with care and respect.
During her keynote at Europeana 2022, Caitlyn Southwick of Ki Cultures shared an analogy to speak about inclusion. She related her perspective on inclusion to planning a party. You might plan a party and choose not to invite someone, excluding them from participation at all. Inclusion efforts directly challenge this practice; the invitation is extended and exclusion is absent. The absence of exclusion is not a unified experience, however – Southwick’s analogy offered nuance to the ideal of inclusion. By extending an invitation to the party, a person is granted open access to the food, conversation, the contacts and the atmosphere of the party. They are a participant benefiting from the structures planned and created by the party host. According to the analogy, however, one step further can be considered. The party planner holds considerable power over the character and opportunities during a party, and to fully realize a sense of belonging (rather than just inclusion), a person who might have been excluded in the past might be invited to act as co-organizer. When a person belongs, they are a co-creator.
At present, the invitation has been extended. More and more heritage interpretations are presented in ways sympathetic to and accommodating of people who in the past were excluded from many aspects of society. Rather than just opening the doors to grant access, the concept of inclusion itself is an invitation toward co-creation and fostering the sense of belonging for people from a range of backgrounds and life experiences. Blended exhibits are an opportunity to fulfill a person’s cultural rights, from the UN Human Rights Council’s report A/HRC/17/38 which asserts that individuals and communities should “be consulted and invited to actively participate in the whole process of identification, selection, classification, interpretation, preservation/safeguard, stewardship and development of cultural heritage” by the State.
The reference above to the role of active participants places emphasis on deconstructing the barriers to co-creation. Moving forward, there is much positive work that can be done. Curatorial decisions are inherently collaborative, and curatorial decisions for digital and blended cultural heritage interpretations are no different. There is, perhaps, a bit of untapped flexibility to be explored. Production of digital content requires the work of many content creators, from 3D modelling to design, programming and game design. In each of these individual roles, and particularly in the more conceptual aspects of creation, there is significant potential for partnership with co-creators who might have been among those excluded in the past.
Beyond the mechanics of composing and compiling digital interpretations of cultural heritage, some of the features which make digital tools appealing can be applied to codifying co-creation and belonging. An enormous benefit of digital media is its propensity for layered interpretations and the accommodation of nonlinear exploration of subject matter. An archaeological site can be presented diachronically, its different periods of occupation as visual ‘layers’ which are toggled on and off, each interactive and explorable. This potential for multi-vocal evidence is readily applied to sharing the voices of diverse co-creators, powerfully illustrating their legitimacy as interpreters and sharers of cultural knowledge to visitors. This level of inclusion is not out of reach – the technology exists can readily accommodate such a shift in interpretive goals.
Individually and together, accessibility and inclusion conceptually relate to actively facilitating participation, both in terms of increasing potential for participation and in terms of negotiating the types of activities to participate in. This ties in to Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”.
Curation of blended exhibits, which explicitly integrates digital media (to be accessed from any venue) and in-person experiences (tied to a specific space and time), is an exciting step forward along the path designated by ICOM’s new museum definition. There is untapped leverage in digital interpretations of cultural heritage, which can fulfill the aims encapsulated by ICOM’s new definition. More than this, it’s possible to push the boundaries further and explore new ways of reaching an ever-more-interconnected audience, regardless of physical proximity or the burdens of past exclusionary practices.