Digital Society Forum Digital Society Forum
Dossier 06/06/2016

Museums when "everyone's a creator"

Museums are changing. In recent years, prestigious cultural institutions have taken an interest in amateur creations and opened up to sharing with those who until recently were mere spectators. Interactive kiosks, augmented reality, and even crowdsourcing... museums are dabbling in participation and co-creation with the public. These initiatives, which are more or less serious and more or less successful, are anything but natural for the guardians of culture: they have to let go of some of their authority. To what extent? And why?

Flashback to 2007. With the exhibition "Tous photographes !" (All Photographers!) created by the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, it seemed that the transformation of amateur photography was a done deal, and a welcome one. This interactive, changing collection showed close to 40,000 images submitted by participants around the world alongside work by recognised artists. Some of these photos, which were streamed on a screen, were even randomly selected each week to be printed and displayed. The initiative seemed highly popular with the public. However, despite its contemporary spirit, it has not been repeated.

It is clear that these new amateur productions generate tensions. The words "Photography prohibited" appear on the signs that welcome visitors to certain museums (generally focused on paintings), including the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Since 2010, visitors have been warned to keep their phones safely in their pockets. This policy, which was widely criticised, remained in place until 2015, when the then Minister for Culture, Fleur Pellerin, posted a picture of a painting by Pierre Bonnard on Instagram. And the best practices document which the ministry released in 2014 did nothing to reassure institutions. Are photos a nuisance? For art historian André Gunthert, the very idea is ridiculous. He argues that photography allows visitors to make the works their own.

Museologist Elsa Olu writes that, "the act of photography is a museographic and museological act par excellence, which turns visitors into actors in the museum." "They can become collectors (creating emotional ties to the work), curators (they archive them on their flash cards), and owners (they create "their" museums). Banning photography means banning works from existing outside the museum and its website, and ultimately means "banning painting," continues Gunthert. The polar opposite of a museum's vocation. In spaces where visitor demographics are already limited (upper class, generally older), isn't change in museums' best interests? At the Natural History Museum of Toulouse, a digital space has been created to "create relationships with users who will never visit the museum," explains webmaster Samuel Bausson. How can we take public participation a step further? How can we integrate the "pro-am" and "all creators" revolution?

When museums adopt amateur productions

Machinimas, films created from video games which originated online among hardcore gamers, are now gaining recognition. The proof: several festivals now feature them. In echo to the French festival Atopic, a major exhibition of machinimas is currently on display in Milan as part of the Triennale of Design. Cultural institutions are finally opening up to formats that originated among online amateur counter-cultures.

Mashups, the art of film recycling, provide further evidence of the emergence of amateur practices. For example, during the April 2016 Exit festival, the Maison des Arts de Créteil invited the public to use a "Mashup table" to create their own videos from existing films. The experience was further enhanced by an encounter with Julien Lahmi, a renowned mashup and film maker, and founder and director of an upcoming festival intended to replace the Paris Forum des Images's mashup festival. Lahmi has observed a shift in the attitude of cultural leaders: "While it's true that the most prestigious film festivals aren't too keen on mashup films created online yet, things are changing. For instance, the Tribeca Film Festival (an American independent film festival founded by Robert De Niro) recently selected a mashup. I wouldn't have said the same thing just a year or two ago. "

But would these two genres have been included in institutional offerings if they hadn't been adopted by "official" artists - or at least artists who can legitimately refer to themselves as such? According to Isabelle Arvers, a curator and machinima creator, artists were indeed behind the inclusion of these innovative genres in contemporary art. Integrating popular practices like selfies is more difficult. These digital self-portraits can be included in collections… if they are taken or selected by artists, as was the case of a 2013 exhibition in London, entitled National Selfie Gallery. However, the public may be invited to post on social media, especially on international #MuseumSelfieDay.

In addition to canonising certain online practices, certain museums, artists or even companies go a step further, making spectators - or more accurately their data - the medium for their work. A data-based art form that could take its place in museums like the Grand Palais or the Musée des Arts et Métiers? That idea is brought to life by the sensory maps Urban Mobs andSonaR , as well as Empreintes de mouvement , developed among others by Catherine Ramus, an engineer and - under another name - artist, and Orange teams. The collective used geolocation data collected on volunteers over a long period to produce travel footprints, which they then sculpted in a foam plaque, on which every pattern is unique. The public truly is the subject of these data-based artworks. But is it really their author? Or a conscious and genuinely active one?

When the public becomes a cultural expert

The public is changing. When it comes to blogs on museums, freely expressive enthusiasts draw larger crowds than do institutions. Mobilising these art lovers, the "new amateur experts" could help refresh the public's relationship to institutions, something proven by the success of Muséomix. The Muséomix initiative, created in 2011 by the #Muséogeeks, an informal group of professionals, artists and students, brings together amateur volunteers selected for their wide range of skills in partner museums for several days. The objective: to create projects that reinvent mediation every year. At the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, web users were even invited to assess part of the collection. At the end of the project, the works which earned the most positive comments or generated the most discussions were displayed together.

However, this type of approach does not come naturally to museums. The example of the Brooklyn Museum shows that the public's eye can directly compete with the expertise of professionals. When everyone can get involved, what remains of institutions' legitimacy and authority? Museums were created as guardians of culture, and are used to determining for themselves "what is on display and in what context it should be interpreted," as researchers Jessica Verboom and Payal Arora remind us. Online, however, where amateurs are considered just as good as specialists, museums find themselves forced to take a less dominant posture to attract web users. According to Ed Rodley of the Boston Museum of Science, "Participatory culture doesn’t do away with the need for authority, but it will privilege a different kind of authority," one which is less unassailable and more personal. Institutions do not lose their authority, but must become more flexible and take the tastes and knowledge of the "new online experts" into account.

When the public truly partners with a museum... up to a point?

Museums can invite web users to work with them in a variety of capacities. According to the work done by Rémi Mencarelli and Mathilde Puhl, the first of these roles is that of a new kind of "communications manager". One example is a 2009 campaign by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) called "It’s time we MET," which invited visitors to share their family pictures taken at the museum. The campaign was less unilateral than usual, but remained peripheral and fully controlled: contributions were filtered and selected due to fears that their quality might be inadequate.

The next step is turning the public into "curators," using folksonomy (collaborative classification) tools. Amateurs can replace experts' terminology with their own classification systems, using the keywords of their choice. 88% of these tags are considered useful for searches, even by museum staff, according to a study by specialist Jennifer Trant. However, social tagging, which makes online collections more accessible, is not yet used inside museums.

The ultimate step in public participation is when visitors become creators. The Tech Museum of San José is a prime example. It produced an exact copy of its building in Second Life and invited players to use it to display their work. Similarly, the Malraux museum in Le Havre displayed photos created and selected by web users as part of its "Voyages pittoresques" exhibition.

When museums experiment, too

Giving amateur experts' words a place in brand new installations is not enough to reinvent the relationship between an institution and its public. That truth is illustrated by the Louvre, France's biggest museum, which created the "Louvre Community" in 2010. The platform closed just a year later. Did it close due to a dearth of participants? Did the museum give up, disappointed by the results? The great institution never said. But it's easy enough to guess that expertise sharing never took root.

Today, it is clear that museums are taking the changing nature of the public into account. As they inexorably expand online, they develop the digital skills and programs needed to reach a range of objectives: boosting their reputation, developing proximity and interaction with visitors, and even drawing on their creative potential or generating traffic both online and in the museum. Even if that means doing away with their traditional image as cultural watchdogs and diluting their authority through participation. Is this the beginning of a redefinition of the missions of our cultural institutions? In reality, it is the continuation of a change in which new mediation technologies play a key role. The change has been ongoing for years, ever since museums were first asked to be educators rather than prescribers. In other words, more interactive and more empathetic...

These attempts at collaboration and co-creation - generally still uncertain and hesitant, some very successful and others total failures - all have the merit of encouraging new types of experience, which can enrich institutions as much as visitors.


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