The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

28 March 2012

An Eighteenth Sounding: Museum 2.0

Web Utopia and Museum Utopia's Converging Paths

In the final delegate paper of the day, Cristiano Agostino from the University of Edinburgh notes the impending collision of two Utopias - that of the Web, and that of the Museum, particularly in regard to the media strategies deployed by museums and related institutions, particularly art organizations, which have developed their own ideals of utopia, to do with the rarefied, auratic status of the art object.

A new utopian drive, as we saw earlier in Miranda's paper, to invite subversion and institutional critique in the museum began to arise over the course of the late 20th century. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the concept of Relational Aesthetics also began to arise, and the paradigm for art, for its display, and indeed, for the notion of the art museum itself, began to change. Bourriard, indeed, wrote about the microtopia - a small, contingent utopia of the moment which creates a temporary, rather than universal, ideal of the moment. Does this leave anything tangible, and does it lead to a real utopian experience? This is the crux of the amelioration paradigm - in this freedom, can we still create meaningful and useful experiences?

Such microtopias, contingent environments, might well be related to the World Wide Web. Since 2002, the Social Web has harbored great potential for opening up large spaces in which miniscule, temporary, 'guerrilla' microtopias can be created. From its beginning thought of as an open and dialogic arena, the Web's ameliorative possibilities have, for equally as long, been queried and criticized. How free, I wonder, are we in the virtual, online world? Is the strive towards perfection, as Helen suggested, always a frustrated one - and indeed, is that eschatological urge towards the future reductive, suggestive of a grand, predefined narrative and heavily philosophically problematic.

Neither are Web audiences as open, as active, or as present as those who propound the virtues of the virtual might like to think. On average, around 90% of those who go through an interactive website will leave no tangible place of their passage. 9% will contribute and interact sporadically, and only 1% will actively, regularly, engage.

So how do museums and art institutions, which themselves suffer from similar problems, negotiate these digital issues? Cristiano's work suggests that there are specific kind of media strategies which they employ - and many of the principles which underly this have heavily utopian content. But these principles, and ideas, are dependent upon the newest, shiniest things which we have to hand - dependent upon technologies which are constantly changing, developing and arising. Is the approach of museums and institutions to the social media - and, indeed, the idealized manifesto of social media itself - something rather more akin to wishful thinking than practical reality?

This is a rather difficult, sad note to end on. So I wonder if there is anything we can do? Perhaps this is a time of development, a time of changing technology but also changing attitudes in which we cannot risk romanticizing the possibilities we are presented with - celebrating their strengths, of course, but also recognizing their limitations.

This session has indeed seriously questioned the nature of the profession, its history and its actions. We always need, it seems, to question the motivations which we, as academics and practitioners have in our work, and our utopian seekings. It remains important, too, that we question the tools we use, considering not just their present impact, but their future possibilities, connotations and flaws.

We're heading towards another, last, break now, before our Keynote. Those of you reading only online might be expecting Bernadette Lynch will be sad to know that, due to illness, she is unable to attend. However, our own Janet Marstine is bravely stepping into the breach - so sign back in soon, after getting yourselves a cup of tea, for a mysterious journey into another, unexpected, utopia.

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