this is aaronland

mostly drawings of airports these days...

fault lines — a cultural heritage of misaligned expectations

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at MuseumNext Melbourne. I did a talk that I've been threatening to do for a few years now so I was grateful for the chance to work through and better articulate my argument. A number of people said they enjoyed the talk which is always nice and I heard stories of people debating and discussing the talk on their own afterwards, which is even better.

Mostly for my own benefit of remembering I've included the talk proposal below:

Have museums, and in particular art museums, become too just a little bit too cozy with artists, their estates and their representative groups? Has it always been this way and is the only change that the increasing presence of in-house digital technologies in the a museum context only serves to highlight and reinforce this dynamic? What does it mean for a museum to try and cultivate a meaningful digital practice for their collections and exhibitions when the usage rights for their core assets are held by a third party?

How does the nearly ubiquitous presence so-called “bring-your-own” digital technologies in a museum context affect the issue? How do the abilities and expectations these technologies confer on visitors affect any middle ground that may have previously been established between the rights and demands of artists and the access and preservation goals of a museum?

What does it mean when artists themselves employ these same digital technologies and exploit audience expectations to create their own bespoke museums?

This presentation will plunge in to the topic, look around with a critical eye and endeavour to propose a practical and conceptual framework for where the museum sector goes from here.

This is what I actually said:

Hi, my name is Aaron. The story of my relationship with the cultural heritage sector is fiddly at best and boring at worst so I will just say that while I don't presently work at a museum I still use the second-person plural. I self-identify as we.

I'd like to start with a little bit of audience participation.

Raise your hand if you've ever been to a museum. Keep your hand raised if you've ever taken a photograph of a wall label to remember something you've seen while visiting a museum. Keep your hand raised, still, if you think that's working out well for you.

Between 2012 and 2015 I was part of the team at the Cooper Hewitt that built the Pen. I used to ask those same three questions during the time we were making the Pen, as a way to explain why we were making the Pen. The punch-line was always: Imagine if you never had to do that again? Imagine if you could come to museum with the confidence that remembering your visit would be easy and unintrusive and not require silly workarounds like photographing wall labels. Imagine if you could take for granted that your museum visit wouldn't be defined by all the things you had to do to remember your visit in the first place.

These days I am working on maps again. Specifically, I am working on a project to build a gazetteer of places with an open data license and global coverage spanning continents all the way down to neighbourhoods and venues. Every place in the gazetteer has a stable and permanent ID and by extension a stable and permanent URL.

When people ask why I sometimes like to say that it's mostly so that we can stop arguing about how to spell place names. What if, instead, we could take for granted that each place had a stable referent off of which we might hang all the names and all the variations in spelling, in all the languages? That might be useful if only in that it would allow us to focus on other more important things.

I mention these stories because I want to start by laying my cards on the table for what will follow in this talk. That is: I fundamentally believe that the distinction between museums and libraries and archives, in the minds of people outside the cultural heritage sector is collapsing. Assuming they ever thought those distinctions existed in the first place.

There are some people inside the sector who share my opinion but as often as not it is an idea that is met with outright hostility. These are fighting words, to many.

I have sometimes been accused of hyperbole or of not sufficiently understanding (or at least appreciating) the differing roles and responsibilities and historical contexts in which each practice has evolved. Both are fair criticisms but the problem I have with either is that that, whether or not they are true, they don't really address the actual argument I am advancing.

What if all the accussations on both side of the argument are correct?

Perhaps what I am seeing are shadows at dusk — ill-defined and lacking clarity — but that doesn't mean they aren't still there. So what exactly do I mean what I say that the distinction between these three practices has, or is, collapsing?

I mean to suggest that the functions, the external expectations of competencies, of any one professional class are blurring with the others in people's minds.

Why shouldn't a museum have a robust and well-structured body of searchable metadata not just of its collection but also all the ten-thousand word essays that have been written about it? Why shouldn't libraries be able to accept self-deposits both as an intellectual and an operational prerogative? Why shouldn't an archive offer interpretive guidance on the materials they house?

It is a challenge to explain to people outside the sector what actually distinguishes a museum from an archive when the former has storage facilities full of stuff that they can't, or won't, show to people because those objects haven't been catalogued properly. It is doubly challenging when you remember that libraries manage to make sense from a similar, often greater, chaos. It's not as though librarians actually read all the books they keep on hand but still they do enough to foster and cultivate a culture of curiousity and to promote learning and discovery in their patrons.

I think one of the reasons my argument is met with such hostility is that it is predicated on some still nascent changes that contemporary life has afforded us and the practice of preservation has not usually been in the business of nascent technologies.

By changes I mean the Internet, as a whole, and more specifically the permanent (or at least durable) and asynchronous network of documents we call the World Wide Web. This network exists in contrast to the mono-directional and now increasingly weaponized television and broadcast culture that many hoped would be relegated to the ashes of the 20th century but which has seemed to return with a vengeance.

A couple of years ago Jason Scott, whom many of you will have seen speak this morning, and I attended a different conference together and he and I were discussing his work, as part of both the Internet Archive and Archive Team, to pre-emptively save things you never knew you were going to miss on the Internet. I am 100% in support not just of these efforts but also their approach. Whatever missteps the Internet Archive and Archive Team make along the way those who follow in our footsteps will benefit from the willingness of Jason and his peers to bet on the future regardless of how dimly their contemporaries may have looked upon the present.

There is however a weak link in Jason's work.

It is a weak link whose consequences are potentially so catastrophic that unless things have gotten really really really bad we will probably never let them come to pass. It is worth recoginizing that all of Jason's work is built on the foundational layer we've come to know as the electrical grid. All of Jason's work vanishes when the power goes out.

I mention this because when you consider preservationists as a professional class and when you think about their work in an historical context then you start to realize that all they have ever known, on average, is war and pillaging and looting. As such is again important to recognize that although some mistakes have been made over the years they have otherwise done a remarkable job of keeping stuff safe under genuinely extraordinary cicrumstances.

So it's not crazy to imagine that for preservationists — again as an abstract professional class in an even more abstract historical timeline — the jury might still be out on whether electricity is anything we can depend on yet. I have yet to meet a preservationist who has expressed any kind of existential doubt about the electrical grid but, even just as an exercise, it is a possibility worth contemplating.

It seems only prudent.

I share this story because the larger argument I am trying to make in this talk rests on an even more recent and potentially less certain foundation. My argument depends not just on the electrical grid and not just a globally linked network of documents but also on a network of globally linked databases and a layer of applications that we are building on top of that.

The scale and the speed with which computerized and networked databases have shaped contemporary life often lend them and air and a weight of inevitability that is as confortable as it is misleading.

I want to acknowledge that at least one potential flaw in my argument is a misplaced confidence in our shared effort to ensure that we will be able to take for granted these layers of communal infrastructure. We treat these things as natural laws, rather than the shared and concerted efforts they are, at our own peril.

Again, even simply as an exercise, we would do well to imagine a world without an Internet. Or even just an Internet changed in nature beyond recognition. But if those possibilities are so terrible to ever let happen then we also need to think about what they makes possible. We need to to think about how those possibilities change what people expect as commonplace and, by now you might be starting to see a theme emerge, what they might take for granted.

I also want to mention that there is an entirely other talk about the roles and responsibilities that the cultural heritage sector should assume in not simply preserving this network infrastructure but actively running and maintaining it in the service of cultural heritage itself.

But this is not that talk.

Instead this a talk about the operationalization of recall. This is a talk about how recall — the core of what we champion and celebrate as so-called memory institutions — is being normalized by the network.

More than that, even, what I see is an increasing de-fetishization of recall. More and more we take recall for granted in that way we charge the most important aspects of our life with being mundane and unseen. Recall has joined the list of things that are only noticed in their absence.

I think this is a good thing but I worry that the cultural heritage sector, and in particular art museums, is structurally unprepared to adapt to it.

Here again we enter the territory of shadows at dusk. I do not want to suggest that either the problems I am describing, or their remedies, are universal. Like most things in the cultural heritage sector there will be many shades or grey that do not lend themselves easily to an eight-point strategy document. I do mean to suggest that there is something going bump in the night and it is worth our investigating.

I want to call attention to the assumption of a shared communal network infrastructure as a public good that is central to my argument. It is an assumption that, given the politics of the late 20-teens, no longer seems self-evident. And I also want to recognize that mine is an argument that presumes conditions which may be antithetical on both material and practical levels to the very practice of preservation itself. Maybe.

In the meantime it is hard to deny that we live in a world where reaching out and touching the sky is as much about touching the past as it is the present. And that we take this practice for granted.

For every Amazon order or dispatching of a car service or status update there is a Wikipedia query or someone consulting an email archive or a clown on social media being fact-checked. The list goes on. This is not simply about greater access to an ever-growing pool of information. More than that it is the ability to take for granted that the past is proximate, in a manner that is genuinely unprecented.

We use the network to circumvent the present and the moment and that's a curious environment for museums to operate in since being present in the moment is largely how we've come to see and to define ourselves.

So, in 2017 what is a museum (or a library or an archive) that does not usefully exist beyond the borders of the moment, beyond the borders of its walls? More importantly what is a museum, in 2017, that can not exist beyond its physical walls because it lacks permission to do so?

What follows is not a comprehensive catalog of ways this happens in 2017, nor are they examples specific to the network. Indeed we, in this room, could spend the rest of the afternoon documenting ways in which museums are prevented from doing their work. These examples serve only to illustrate the problem:

  • A prohibition on photography in the galleries or an overly heavy-handed response to visitors publishing photos online. A million years ago I worked at Flickr and we were constantly fielding take-down notices from the various French artists rights associations about tourist-quality photographs taken in the galleries.
  • Perpetuating the madness around print quality images in a universe where the minimum required image size for a musuem's iPad app exceeds the minimum required image size for a print publication.
  • Limiting or restricting catalog records from being published online because are not perfect or because they might upset someone.
  • Loan objects never being mentioned or included in a catalog or, worse, being removed after an exhibition comes down. This one is especially galling to me since we tell people that it's very important that they come see these objects and then pretend as though it never happened.
  • Generally limiting curatorial authority or decision making, whether it's a traveling exhibition or a retrospective of a contemporary artist's work. It's a practice that is fine if you're David Hockney and you want to hold a major retrospective of your own work at the Royal Academy which is basically a private members club. But that exhibition, in 2012, perhaps more than any other in recent memory highlighted the need for and the purpose of curatorial discretion.

What these examples point to is an imbalance in the relationship between museums and their dancing partners. That imbalance is further reflected in the inability to meaningfully interact on or with the network.

It reflects an inability for museums to engage with the network because of an overzealous regiment of permissioning or to use the network as a tool by which, to borrow Elaine Gurian's phrase, they might promote nuance and a more complex understanding of their collections.

That is also some pretty fancy talk for a pretty simple idea: That is it time for the cultural heritage sector, as a whole, to pick a fight.

It is time for the sector to pick a fight with artists, and artist's estates and even your donors. It is time for the sector to pick a fight with anyone that is preventing you from being allowed to have a greater — and I want to stress greater, not total — license of interpretation over the works which you are charged with nurturing and caring for.

The following passage did not make it in to the talk which was only 20 minutes long but since we have the luxury of time and space here: This has been a curious position to arrive at. If I studied anything it was painting and studio arts so I am broadly sympathetic with the demands of artists to maintain control and ownership of their work. I also closely followed and supported the efforts in the comix world leading up to the Creator's Bill of Rights which is an industry pretty much defined by how poorly publishers have treated artists and writers. There are good reasons why we've ended up here but I also feel as though we've gone from one extreme to the other which counts as dubious progress in my book.

It is time to pick a fight because, at least on bad days, I might even suggest that the sector has been played. We all want to outlast the present, and this is especially true of artists. Museums and libraries and archives are a pretty good bet if that's your goal.

Consider the number of works sent to MoMA, in the 1970's, after one of their registrars let it be known he would accession in to the collection anything that arrived on his desk by mail. Consider the well-known tactic of self-depositing any book with an ISBN number to the Library of Congress. If you do they are required to care and feed for that book for the rest of forever. Consider how happy people were to learn that the Library of Congress had acquired all the Twitter messages, and with it their tiny contribution, for precisely that reason.

Consider the growing number of artists and private companies who are creating their own museums in the services of... themselves.

It remains to be seen how well those last institutions will fare over time. Indeed being in it for the long-run and in being wired for the long-run, both operationally and intellectually, is what distinguishes the cultural heritage sector from other endeavours and the public is made better by those efforts.

My argument though is that taking on the burden of championing and preserving cultural heritage is a two-way street. My argument is that the sector has become prone to an unhealthy deference, to being little more than caretakers in the service of someone else's enterprise that is legitimized by our labours. There exists an imbalance in our relationship with those whose works we shepherd that, at best, hampers our ability to actively participate with the network and for our own work to square with people's expectations of what is possible and what can be taken for granted.

Ask yourselves: Can I actually do anything with my museum's collection sitting here in this or any other random conference room, right now? I suspect that that for most, probably all, of you the answer is resolutely: No, or at least not well. Those few ways in which it is possible for our collections to participate with the network are still surface-level, at most. Now ask yourselves why that is.

In closing I would like to leave you with an open question, perhaps even a provocation: Does the cultural heritage sector's current fascination with crafting experiences in fact betray our anxieties about the network? Or put another way: Is the vogue for fashioning these all-consuming, in-gallery shock-and-awe immersions actually a way for us to distract our visitors from the reality that there is often no recall of any consequence of that experience the minute they walk out the door?

Thank you.