Museums 2.0: What Happens When Great Art Meets New Media?

Museums deliver what has become increasingly rare in our world: the opportunity to disconnect from our hyper-connected lives, and the possibility of wonder.
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The holidays are here and people are using their free time to flock to the Fockers, gorge on bowl games, and figure out how to enjoy HuffPost on their new iPads (she said suggestively). And more than a few are heading to museums (museum attendance traditionally spikes this time of year).

Last month, I spoke at a conference of museum presidents and directors at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Museums are increasingly using technology to reach an audience outside their walls. And I, of course, am a complete evangelist for new media and for institutions adapting as fast as possible to changes new technologies are bringing to our world.

But when the time came to talk to the museum heads about using social media tools to expand their audiences and enrich the museum-going experience, I found myself oddly reticent.

That's because museums deliver what has become increasingly rare in our world: the opportunity to disconnect from our hyper-connected lives, and the possibility of wonder. As Maxwell Anderson, the CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, describes it, a museum's mission is to provide visitors with "resonance and wonder... an intangible sense of elation -- a feeling that a weight was lifted." Or as my fellow countryman Aristotle put it: "catharsis."

So the question is how to use social media to support that mission without undermining the essential art experience that allows us to connect with something larger than ourselves.

"Every era has to reinvent the project of 'spirituality' for itself," wrote Susan Sontag in "The Aesthetics of Silence." And in our digital era, museums offer one of the most fertile grounds for that reinvention.

Which is why the danger of social media becoming the point of social media -- connection for connection's sake, connection to no end -- is one museums need to particularly guard against. Reducing the museum experience to more apps providing more data is just as laughable as reducing the experience of going to church down to parishioners tweeting: "At church, pastor just mentioned loaves and fishes, anyone have some sushi recs for later?" Or whipping out their iPad to quickly look up the fact that the Sermon on the Mount took place near the Sea of Galilee, which, following a link, I see is the lowest freshwater lake in the world... I should totally tweet that!

At their best, social media build community and enhance communication. In the case of museums, they can provide access to a much wider audience, and can extend the museum visit by allowing a user to continue the aesthetic experience after leaving the museum.

All across the country, museums are already making great use of new media technologies. LACMA has Unframed, a blog dedicated to creating an open conversation about the museum between its curators and the public. It also launched a first-of-its-kind digital reading room, offering important out-of-print publications.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a comprehensive timeline of art history available on its website. The Brooklyn Museum of Art offers a type of membership built around social networking called "1stfans." The Indianapolis Museum of Art created, an online community that showcases art-based video content. The Walker Art Center website features the Walker Channel, which presents live streams of museum events. And the Smithsonian created a Flickr group entitled "Fill the Gap," which solicits ideas from the public on what the museum should put up on its walls when a painting is taken down for restoration.

It's great to see institutions dedicated to what is often seen as elitist high art engaging with the bottom-up energy of the web.

But if museums forget their DNA and get their heads turned by every new tech hottie that shimmies by they will undercut the point of their existence. Too much of the wrong kind of connection can actually disconnect us from an aesthetic experience. As Sontag summed it up: "contemplation... entails self-forgetfulness on the part of the spectator."

In a recent article on the proliferation of museum smartphone apps, Edward Rothstein, the New York Times' cultural critic-at-large, bemoaned the loss of contemplation, which has fallen by the wayside for those museum-goers whose primary goal becomes taking pictures of objects or of other people looking at objects.

"The artwork, document or fossil is a tourist site; the photograph is our souvenir," he wrote. "And the looking -- for which museums were created -- becomes a memory before it has even begun."

He found the Brooklyn Museum's app, with its social media ability to tag and "like" objects, resulted in "a kind of scarcely literate cybergraffiti that does nothing to help reach a deeper understanding of the works or reveal their artistic traditions or cultural significance. The museum becomes a smorgasbord of objects, their importance a mystery."

In response, Shelley Bernstein, the Chief of Technology at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, (there is a title I never thought I would hear when I first started going to museums!) wrote a blog post saying that "experimentation without perfection is a good thing" and that "it is our responsibility, collectively, to try new approaches and provide as many entry points into content and the museum as possible."

This is a really interesting debate to engage in. For me, the key question becomes: what happens after people make it through the entry point? Does the technology deepen the experience, or does it diminish it? Do we control it, or does it control us? Art is not simply information, pieces of data composed and arranged in a certain way, like blogs, tweets, Facebook postings, and YouTube videos are.

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, director of USC's Brain and Creativity Institute, described art and the museum experience in terms of "an emotional response that is related to the fundamental makeup of primates -- which has to do with curiosity, exploration and a sense of discovery. It produces reward when something is found... So you turn a corner in a museum, and encounter something you've heard about or looked for -- or have never heard about, but is very beautiful. That element of surprise is part of the trigger."

Or, in other words, mystery, wonder, self-forgetfulness, transcendence.

In the mid-90s I wrote a book -- The Fourth Instinct -- about the instinct that compels us to go beyond our instincts for survival, sex, and power. It's the instinct that drives us to find meaning in our lives -- the instinct that drives us to art and religion. That instinct is just as vital as the other three but we rarely give it the same kind of attention.

It's also the instinct most undermined by our always-connected 24/7 media culture. In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr writes that "there needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden."

There's not a lot of garden left in the world. And this is what makes museums so important.

It's great to see them taking advantage of new media tools to broaden access to the garden and increase the community around the garden. But we should never forget that while technologies will constantly change, the need to connect with great art never will.

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