I subscribe to the concert series the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) gives in Canberra (& many other cities) each year. I have done so for many years and each year one or two concerts inspire the most amazing creative thoughts in my tiny brain while I am sitting listening and watching them perform. Some of the concepts and design features that I used in our current Lawrence of Arabia & the Light Horse exhibition came to me at their concerts.
Last Friday I saw and heard “Sublime“, a concert that featured music that was written very recently and that which was written as much as 500 years ago. Some of the vocal pieces by Holst, Nick Drake, Sting, Radiohead and Britten were performed and interpreted anew by Katie Noonan. Unlike the online review, I don’t think the combination of music was at all awkward, but that is another issue.
So how is all this relevant? Well, currently a lot of IT-based and web-based museum staff are talking about Web 2.0 and museums. Some curators are also talking about it, but mostly the debate is led by the more geekish and web-aware people who are not that attached to or involved in more traditional museum or gallery practices, like curating exhibitions or developing collections. Perhaps I’m generalising unfairly, but in my experience, that is mostly the case. With regard to the digitisation of museum or library or archival collections, those endeavours are also being led by either technologists or imaging experts or others from conservation or preservation backgrounds. Again, the interpretation of such efforts seems removed from the more traditional curatorial processes. So that is where the musical performance comes in. Sorry for the long and uncertain root to this point.
What dawned on me is that for those of us in museums who are responsible (like I am) for large digitisation programs, just scanning the material and then shovelling huge amounts of it up on the web one way or another is a bit like writing music and leaving it somewhere without performing it. Last Friday, the ACO brought a lot of music to life giving it fantastic new interpretations, like that of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah which Katie sang beautifully and completely unlike other recent interpretations by K.D. Lang or Jeff Buckley. So, what I think this means for us is that all of our efforts on the web re “Web 2.0” and digitisation need to be accompanied by some appropriate curatorial interpretation. It may not need to be that extensive as that certainly wouldn’t be possible with mass programs, but we can’t simply rely on links to hard-to-find catalogue entries, exposure Google search or public tagging.
As I said above, I have an exhibition running here at our museum for a few more months and we know that visitors don’t read much of the carefully written wall text (or storyline) and object or image captions. They will, however, happily come along and listen to me drone on and on about both Lawrence and the Light Horse, perhaps in much the same way that I go along to live music performances in preference to or perhaps in advance of buying a CD or downloading some music from iTunes. (I’m sure some of my “performances” are better than others.)
Museum curators need to be out there interpreting our online content by playing “our own instruments”. And that interpretation needs to be delivered in many different ways. Online means such as blogs, You Tube videos, podcasts or downloadable audio guides are just a few examples. Maybe there are more parallels between our institutions and orchestras and it might be instructive for some senior curators, for instance, to look at the role of orchestra principals and leaders?
More to follow as I think this through completely, but to me the way museums use Web 2.0, social networking applications and services and the provision of online access digitised collections goes well beyond the intersection of web strategy, IT strategy, marketing and a social media strategy. That only tells a very shallow layer of the story or the game, there is more to it than that: the museum or institution itself and its collection.
(A recent relevant newspaper article from the NYT touches on some of the points above. You can read it here.)