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

28 March 2012

A Final, and Rather Unexpected Sounding: Museum Transparency - Utopia/Dystopia

For our new Keynote, Janet Marstine, transparency is a huge ethical issue and ideal, not just in museums but across culture. But it is a complex issue, one which we have yet to come to terms with.

Even in their architecture, museums can be interpreted as reaching towards a transparent ideal, for many of them use large panes of clear glass as a metaphor for clarity, honesty and openness. But in looking through glass, we see reflections, fascinating intimations of another world; for glass presents, in fact, illusions of transparency.

Many conceptualizations of utopia invoke transparency as a transformational notion. The idealized notion of transparency associates it with measurable quantities, with enlightenment, democracy, and the ultimate, open truth. Transparency has been lauded as a human right, critical for even understanding what our other rights are.

But there is a tension between holding and revealing. It is not just a passive act of unveiling, but a negotiated engagement. Indeed, it is a contentious ideal, one which has to be defined by borders and boundaries and which, in fact, can create new boundaries, new limits.

Most of what is shared is that which is easy to benchmark - financial information and visitor numbers, for example. Less do we share curatorial modes of thinking, or institutional motivations. But if we were to do so, we might have to open ourselves up to vulnerability, to question who has the right to speak for whom, when and why.

Making transparency meaningful is a hard thing to do. On the one hand, transparency analyses behavior, and can thus empower communities into taking action. It implies the equitable sharing of knowledge, which necessitates translation, negotiation, and the identification of the motivations and authorities of those involved.

There are two basic approaches to performing transparency in museums - the 'dashboard approach', and 'radical transparency'. Neither is better than the other, but both allow us to see different things, and should be permitted to work in conjunction to create efficacy.

The dashboard approach gives hard, measurable data - it's efficient, but it certainly lacks some sense of what those data might mean. Radical transparency, on the other hand, lacks measurable efficiency, but does have substance.

The former is exemplified in the Indianapolis Museum of Art - when you enter their website you can access a panoply of statistics - including endowment and financial dips - a risky thing to do. But they feel presenting such information adds value and creates trust. Yet this kind of transparency isn't always easy to practice. It requires a centralized communication system and management structure, not always present in institutions where departments do not communicate well. It also lacks depth, for neither does it reveal deeper, analytical meanings, nor the negotiations and compromises which lie behind the data collected, and especially that presented. It is important, too, to note that it is mainly those with a special interest - largely insiders, employees, rather than publics - who use dashboard information to validate and measure their own performance in a way akin to that suggested by Gloria. Some of those who propound radical transparency, indeed, see its statistics not as revelatory, but as an impediment to the development and creation of transparency.

Janet is particularly interested in radical transparency, which allows those statistics to become meaningful. O'Neil's work in the philosophy of communication has, for Janet, been particularly influential. We need to think, to consider, who is talking to who, and what the back and forth dialogue is between the communicants. Manchester Museum uses the model of radical transparency to look at their past history and identity in a very powerful way. In the exhibition Myths about Race, which arose in the context of the Abolition anniversary, this was especially apparent; however, their knowledge and openness regarding their colonial past and its continuing legacy is long, and broadly standing. Radical transparency allows consumers of information to consider their choices and to take action; this is risky, for it makes museums vulnerable, partially giving up their status as doorkeepers, but it allows for the generation of civic engagement and shared authority.

Radical transparency is committed to reciprocity between museums and their public, particularly in terms of the choices and decision making processes which both face. It is committed to the equal opportunity of all participants to act upon information, is sensitive to audience needs and their expertise, and recognizes that whilst conflict can be painful, it can also be very, very important, useful and transformative. For instance, in performing institutional critique, museums open themselves up to this kind of radical, reciprocal understanding.

Radical transparency also allows informed choice, giving readers and visitors permission to decide how to engage with difficult, challenging subjects. By presenting the information that there are human remains in the gallery, Manchester Museum gives the visitor the option to avoid seeing them. Social media can also be a tool to enhance this, with curators and museum professionals talking about their day to day activities and professional ideals. It should also be remembered that, if museums are to thus engage with communities and visitors, they must also be able to do so in regard to their own staff. This, I believe, is something which could quite easily be overlooked.

Negotiating boundaries is inherent in radical transparency initiatives. An awareness needs to be maintained between ethics and the law, and it should also be pointed out that transparency is not always the best option for maintaining integrity. Confidentiality is also an important ethical principle to bear in mind, but it needs to be justified. We must, of course, be careful to recognize that principles we hold can sometimes come into conflict - and part of the utopian action, perhaps, is to mediate and manage these conflicts to the best possible ends.

There is no end point, no complete transparency; its generation is an ongoing process. There is no final, tangible utopia of openness towards which we can reach. But negotiating its speculative boundaries are central to good management, and allow us to strive towards something better, something more social, responsible and ethical.

Can we realise utopian dreams? This is a question I have been thinking about throughout the conference. I had, temporarily, begun to wonder if we'd ever reach a point of certainty, and whether this would be a problem or not. Fortunately, the practicalities of Janet's presentation suggest that there are activities which we can perform in order to make things better, even if there is no final ideal which we will reach. The utopian desire, then, can perhaps best be made manifest through individual, specific and contingent actions which strive towards making one particular thing better. By focusing less on the particular defined nature of the final location, perhaps we need to do the best that we can do with what we have at each independent, momentary point in time.

1 comment:

  1. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks...

    University of Leicester