Nancy Proctor identifies ways in which the role of the curator is changing in her article, “Digital: Museum as Platform, Curator as Champion, in the Age of Social Media.” She notes that curators’ roles are moving from ‘stodgy’ experts who control the collections and information to being those who embrace change, and take a more collaborative approach to the community. Museums have typically been viewed as authoritative and snobbish, and they are working to improve their image with the public. Museums have had to embrace social media, especially since a museum’s digital presence is no longer confined to its website, and thanks to social media, it has lost control of the digital media published about its collection. Proctor summarized the challenges to the art museum in three points:
“First, a shift from substance and solidity towards activity and performance, and from history to the contemporary. Second, a privileging of the temporary exhibition over the permanent collection. And three, exhibitions that focus on creating events and sensations rather than generating knowledge.”
She notes that the role of curator is increasingly one of “storytelling” or generating narratives rather than producing classical art historical knowledge. How did generating knowledge become bad? I understand that museums are trying to engage more sectors of the public, and that is a positive step, but I think there is room for all kinds of viewers; those who want sensory experiences, those who want to learn, and those who want both. I like the idea of curators being approachable, but I don’t think of them as ‘collaborators’ with the public. I do think curators need to be acutely aware of the community they live and work in, and it should inform their decision-making process, especially in the creation of exhibitions. However, scholars who have spent years researching and studying a field are experts, and should remain so. On a separate yet related topic, I disagree with the current trend of decreasing the word count on the wall labels at museums, as well. Typically, this is done to feel ‘less educational,’ and to make visitors to the museum feel more comfortable. Can’t they just read less if they want to? What about those who would like to read more? There must be a way to reach more members of the public while still keeping current museum-goers happy. I believe there is a vast difference between making information more accessible and losing depth and nuance.
This week in class we discussed crowdsourcing, and its use in museums. Museums are working to increase their members and attendance, as well as to stay relevant in today’s world. One way that museums use crowdsourcing is in transcription. The museum will set up a project, for example, transcribing handwritten letters, and ask members of the public to work on it. Museums view this as leveraging some of their most passionate users. Data sets can be made available to scholars, which expands knowledge generally as well. Crowdsourcing projects allow those who are interested in history to actually work on it themselves, while making them feel that they’re helping to build something they care about. Using crowdsourcing for transcription of handwritten documents that OCR is not able to work with is quite valuable. This can be tremendously helpful for research institutions that have vast amounts of archival material, in a variety of forms. In addition to letters, there are also items like exhibition contracts and art dealer stock books. These types of projects are quite valuable to local history projects and restoration projects, especially for small, public history institutions places who have a small staff. This kind of work becomes a symbiotic relationship between the public and the institution. Particularly valuable are the older members of the community who have a lot of knowledge to contribute. I do think there is a difference between crowdsourcing and outsourcing. The difference lies in the collaborative relationship between the community and the institution. For example, in a transcription project, the transcription is one aspect of a larger project. Not only do the museum staff need to plan and set up the platform, they will also vet and process the data after transcription has taken place. The members of the community are contributing to a larger project that the museum staff is also working on as well. Crowdsourcing can also be seen as a form of engagement in which users contribute directly to the knowledge creation for cultural heritage. These projects can be very successful when users feel that they are part of a community working toward the goal of knowledge creation, as well as the ability to interface directly with the project team. Crowdsourcing, social media, and engaging with the public are some ways that a museum can create a sense of community, which has tremendous benefits, even if it is a virtual community.
Nancy Proctor, “Digital: Museum as Platform, Curator as Champion, in the Age of Social Media,” Curator: The Museum Journal 53, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 35–43.