The Contemporary Digital Museum


A review of The Contemporary Digital Museum in Theory and Practice by Cristiano Agostino

The Contemporary Digital Museum in Theory and Practice by Cristiano Agostino uses a theoretically grounded perspective to investigate the relationship between a selection of three museum practices; online media strategies, digitisation of artworks and crowdsourcing.  The main aim of the thesis is to explore if “our understanding of the contemporary museum’s approach to the digital, in all its expressions and specificities, be further understood by integrating professional and informal discourses with highly relevant, yet seldom evoked theoretical paradigms, borrowed from disciplines other than museum studies?” (p. 6).  Agostino argues that current debates on digital museum practices lack an understanding of the macro context of culture wide issues within which they take place.  The assertion is that existing discourse and debate on digital museum practice displays an excessive interest in advocacy, typically focusing on small scale, isolated examples of successful practice which ultimately decontextualises the museum from the rest of modern day culture.  He suggests that the contemporary digital museum could be better contextualised if it framed emergent digital museum practice within a theoretical framework that can be observed in other cultural and social contexts.

The thesis is structured around three distinct chapters.  After providing, in the introduction, an overview of the main issues it tackles, Chapter 1 focuses on the digital constructivist museum and ideas of utopia, in Chapter 2 the concept of digital beings is presented in relation to digital reproductions of art and Chapter 3 focuses on the contemporary museum’s use of crowdsourcing and discusses the concept of ‘playbour’.  Finally, the concluding section summarises the key findings of the research and acknowledges its academic contribution.

The decision to shape each chapter as a self-contained unit is an interesting one; each is thematically entwined with the main research question yet is formally independent and could easily stand up as a singular piece of writing in their own right.  Agostino himself asserts that the thesis structure “aims at being functional to the material, as well as making the dissertation more modular and therefore more easily disseminated” (p. 19).

Chapter 1, discusses two parallel discourses: firstly, the ideology of utopia and its many variations, and secondly, the evolution of the contemporary digital museum as a context for constructivist learning, visitor engagement, and re-mediation of content.  Agostino goes on to argue that museums have a long-standing involvement in utopia-making,  and the dynamics of amelioration and re-mediation, has been revitalised by its meeting the digital, particularly the ‘Web 2.0’ emphasis on democracy  and collaboration.  This idea is illustrated by looking at museum digital strategies.  Agostino analyses the textual typology of museums online media strategy, a key case study being the Smithsonian’s Web and New Media Strategy.  By applying the theoretical framework of utopia to digital museum strategies, Agostino argues that the contemporary constructivist museum’s drive for social utopia, is not isolated, but runs in parallel with culture-wide trends.  The overarching aim of the chapter highlights how the contemporary digital museum finds it necessary to engage its digital audiences in a collaborative process of digital utopia-building.

Chapter 2 turns to look at digital reproductions of art, and their inherent advantages and limits.  It explores user interaction with digital copies of art works in order to discuss how new ways of seeing are encouraged by the digital, and how this might impact on the state of museum content.  As more and more museums make available high-quality reproductions of their collections, Agostino asks some timely questions around the nature of digital reproductions of art:  What happens to the artwork and its place within the museum collection, when it becomes a digital artefact?  Should a user develop a new set of perceptual and intellectual tools in order to understand the digital object and the interfaces that frame them?  And, what role does the museum play in fostering, or discouraging these negotiations of interaction? (p. 22).  The idea of a ‘visual turn’ (experiencing the digital through the senses, rather than through language) is discussed as an useful anchor in articulating the perception of a digital reproduction as something ‘different’, related but not necessarily secondary to the ‘real’, physical work.  Two types of primary materials are examined in this chapter.  Firstly Agostino looks at several art projects that exist between the physical and digital, in particular Julian Oliver’s ‘LevelHead’ and Tom Gerhardt’s ‘Mud Tub’.  This artistic material acts a starting point for supporting the discussion and ideas around the experience that the digital offers in relation to the physical.  The chapter then turns to focus in on the museum perspective.  Two case studies are discussed at length; ‘Leonardo: The Studio Tour App’ created by the National Gallery London, and the much larger ‘Google Art Project’.  Both cases pose a model of closeness and mediation between the digital reproduction and the visitor.  Agostino argues that these case studies centre around the ability to radically reduce the distance between the art work and the viewer, and provide some form of immersion into the image –which Agostino suggests is a radical form of a ‘visual turn’.  Chapter Two’s overriding proposition is that digital artworks and digital reproductions of existing artworks is not a digital translation of its physical counterpart but is a ‘digital being’ in its own right (p. 124).

The third chapter explores museum crowdsourcing projects.  Agostino states that within museum studies there has been little effort to locate museum crowdsourcing projects within larger cultural trends.  Therefore he borrows the concept of ‘playbour’ from game studies and digital humanities: the idea that, if during a activity some kind of product is generated by unpaid consumers rather than paid developers, a game constitutes effectively a form of unwaged labour (p.169).  Rather than heavily exploitative, Agostino argues that the museum crowdsourcing framework is one of friendly, somewhat consensual exploitation where museums utilise catchy, playful, user-friendly activities in order to get their public to do a mass of work that would be impossible, or at least quite costly, for the museum to do on its own.  The chapter explores a variety of strategies that museums have adopted in designing crowdsourcing games, from repetitive and labour-like conveyor belts of information, to veritable games that include scores, ladders and even prizes.  Three key illustrative case studies are used to describe the range of ‘game’ activities that museums routinely use to capture visitors; the ‘’ project (p. 203-209); the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Beta Crowdsourcing Project (p.209-215), and The Brooklyn Museum’s ‘Tag! You’re It!’ and ‘FreezeTag!’ (p. 215-223). All the considered examples underline the importance of initiating an exchange with the user, rather than an exploitative relationship, especially in the context of the digital museum’s demographically varied and non-specialist audiences.

In the concluding chapter, there is a summary of the key thinking and illustrative examples and a discussion of how the thesis relates to the research questions.  The limits of the research are described, and future research directions are also considered.

This is a thought provoking and well-written thesis, which is notable for its readability.  The three key chapters focusing on online strategies, digital reproductions of art and crowdsourcing provide an excellent resource for museum professionals wanting to ground their practice more deeply in theory and research.  For me, the thesis also very much demonstrated the importance to museum professionals, and indeed digital museum studies researchers, of understanding the array of emerging digital museum practices in a practical context but also the importance of understanding them in theoretically grounded structures and perspectives, of which utopia, digital beings and playbour are but a possible few.

Claire Bailey-Ross
Postdoctoral Research Associate in Digital Humanities
Department of English Studies
Durham University

Primary Sources
Smithsonian’s Web and New Media Strategy
Google Art Project project
Victoria and Albert Museum’s Beta Crowdsourcing Project
The Brooklyn Museum’s Tag! You’re It! and FreezeTag!

Dissertation Information
University of Edinburgh, 2013. 247pp. Supervisors: Richard Williams and John Lee.

Image: Wikicommons. Digital elaboration by Cristiano Agostino

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