Museums and the Internet: Digital Reciprocation

By Carl Hogsden

Museum of Archeaology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Throughout the last decade, the web has increasingly been seen as one means to encourage visitors to contribute information to museums. But how useful is this, particularly when viewed as a mechanism to connect museums with those who have specialist knowledge about museum objects? To what extent can visitor generated content actually inform the work of the museum, when, by default, the contribution base becomes global in that the potential audience encompasses all users of the web. This broadcast-response model generates a number of issues in regard to the collaborative potential of such relationships. Opportunities for reciprocity can be lost amongst the ‘noise’ created by the large amount of information generated online. In this sense, rather than bringing together museums and their visitors in interesting ways, the web increases the divide, reducing possibilities for online contribution having meaningful value within the museum physical space.

Conversely, museums have been developing a strong in-reach discipline for decades, working face-to-face with community partners and small groups of visitors to bring new perspectives and voices into the museum, thereby influencing its work. In light of this fact, it would seem natural that, given the communicative qualities of the web, a movement from a physical in-reach offering to a web equivalent would be a likely progression. However, this has hardly been the case.

This paper will explore the paradox that, whilst the web could be seen to transform the nature of working with visitor contributed content, in actuality current museum use of the internet has in fact brought about an opposite effect and created barriers for discourse. The author will draw upon ongoing work at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to discuss how contact networks on the web could more effectively bring together museums, people and ideas around object information.

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