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AAMC Online Publishing Panel

Posted By Sarah Eckhardt, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Wednesday, June 08, 2011

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Sarah Eckhardt

 

Nick Honeysett opened his panel presentation to laughter with a graph of the Gartner Hype Cycle. It included the Peak of Inflated Expectations, followed by the Trough of Disillusionment, soon to be replaced (hopefully) by the Slope of Enlightenment before the new "hyped” technology under consideration finally achieves the ultimate Plateau of Productivity.  The audience’s audible response seemed to indicate a mutual recognition of the familiar chimera of technological promises.  Yet, as Nick pointed out, the question remained as to where precisely museums currently fall on the hype cycle in regard to their online publishing expectations and practices. As the presentations proceeded, it became clear to me that the imagined point each person placed on the hype graph most likely had to do with their individual attachment to what Nick termed the Thwack or Thump Factor. An onomatopoeia reference to the physicality of a book’s presence, the Thump Factor encapsulates what Kwame Anthony Appiah admitted in an earlier panel was a fetish for the "aura of the object.” For most curators, the working assumption seemed to be, a book seems "real” whereas websites and online publications somehow seem nebulous and temporary. For example, Rui Guerra showed a chart mapping the point at which online visitors to the Tate Museums thoroughly outnumbered offline visitors. As the "online visitors” graph line shot high above the "offline visitors” someone behind me whispered, "Is that supposed to be a good thing?” That depends on the museum website. As Rui pointed out, these groups don’t necessarily compete with each other. Online visitors may be accessing the site from across the globe while "offline” visitors may have been drawn by an engrossing website experience. For both Rui and Nick, however, the key paradigm shift for cultural organizations involves acknowledging the website as a platform in and of itself and based on the needs of its online users, rather than treating a website as a mere virtual reflection of or advertisement for the architectural site. Both Nick and Rui emphasized that a traditional publication provides static information while an online site provides the opportunity to capitalize on one of the web’s primary advantages: the ability to open a dialogue with an audience and adapt fluidly as the context changes. Rui suggested combining dynamic, changing information, such as press releases and events with seemingly static information such as collections database materials like object descriptions and images, while also providing a set of related links to social network media such as Facebook, Youtube, and Flickr. Suffice it to say, a PDF version of a hardbound book is not the kind of online publication he or Nick are talking about. 

            On the flipside, Ed Marquand had been assigned the task of defending the book. As he duly noted, he didn’t need to feel defensive in a generally sympathetic audience of object fetishists.  Like Nick, Ed acknowledged that the hybrid model of book and online publications were the most likely path forward and he even proposed that the book might benefit in this scenario. Yet his language exposed an inevitable hierarchy: he talked about divvying up the information in a book so that one could "park” the less essential information "somewhere else.” That "somewhere else,” of course, was the ethereal territory of the web. At a later point Rui retorted that the web was not a dumping ground, but rather a space to be curated. The audience laughed when he asked whether we would dump all of our objects at the entrance of our museums. His humorous question, however, gets at the root of the problem: until we accept the validity of an online experience, not as a weaker substitute for a book or a tangential accessory, but rather as a legitimate experience on its own, we will either totter on the edge of the Peak of Inflated Expectations or drown in the Trough of Disillusionment. On the other hand, as Nick emphasized, embracing the potential to actively communicate with an audience via an online publication will also necessarily change the structure of the museum’s organization. Thus, the museum and the web do have to maintain a symbiotic relationship.

My own questions revolve around how the curator’s role will need to evolve to accommodate both. If online publications regarding our collections or exhibitions need to allow for dialogue, will we all need to actively monitor reader comments? Will we be called upon to maintain facebook pages or blogs for our projects? Or will museums develop web specific education departments to effectively play the role of docents in online galleries by offering live feedback to online visitors? And will all of that information strategically flow through editors or will typos and misinformation abound? If we could only summon a virtual labor force to wield what sounds like the never-ending responsibility to meet the demands of a dynamic, fluid, and very real online audience.

Several questions from the conference audience made clear that there is, indeed, still much territory ahead to navigate. How does copyright law work for images of art work in online publications? How do libraries consistently catalogue and archive online publications (especially when they are fluid and dynamic)? Is there an effective business model for online publications? Should museums provide online publications for free or as a benefit of museum membership or charge for varying levels of access? I am sure future AAMC panels will address these questions more specifically as we all attempt to achieve the Plateau of Productivity.

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