On Wednesday, I’m heading off for the Museums and the Web conference in San Diego, presenting a paper I wrote about forum structure and design for museum websites. As a person who studies and teaches (among other things–generalist here) media and rhetoric, I’m intrigued–and often horrified–by the ways people interact with sites and each other in online forums. The world of newspaper comments–the logical evolution of printed letters to the editor–has gotten a lot of scholarly attention, and I’m trying to use the best suggestions from that realm in analyzing online interactions with museums.
And this all started with a visit on a rainy weekend to New Plymouth’s Puke Ariki museum in the spring of 2010. My family had hoped to hike on and around Mt. Taranaki, but the short museum visit we were going to squeeze in around outdoorsy activities turned into a luxurious day spent wandering around Puke Ariki and taking in the stunning “Taranaki Wars” exhibit. Once we were back home in Hamilton, our Aotearoa/New Zealand base, I kept returning to the museum’s website to read further about the exhibit and digest some of the museum’s other online offerings. A curated display of visitor comments about the “Taranaki Wars” exhibit started my wheels spinning, and a paper presentation back home that fall at the International Digital Media and Arts Association conference turned into a paper in the New Zealand Journal of Media Studies and the research led to the paper I’m presenting at the conference next week.
I couldn’t be happier about where my interests have converged. I grew up near Chicago, and though my trips to the city’s Art Institute, Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, and Oriental Institute were frequent, they never got old. I simply love museums, and have always been the kind of museum-goer who reads every bit of accompanying text, stays for a long time before each piece, and tries, on the spot, to commit new information to memory. I love art and culture museums, science museums, and museums of the strange: I lived in Houston for a while, and Jefferson Davis McKissack’s The Orange Show taught me to appreciate folk art. While in Houston, I visited the Menil Collection constantly. I can’t think of a trip I’ve made that hasn’t included museum visits. Museums rank highly in my earliest memories, and I still remember how important I felt when my parents’ Field Museum membership got us to the head of the line at the King Tut exhibit in 1977.
But my museum-going changed utterly when I became a parent, a bit later than most, and, at first, I wasn’t at all happy about it. Oh, I love children’s museums, and I of course feel very strongly that my kids should go to all sorts of cultural institutions, but the way they use museums and the way I was accustomed to using them were, to my dismay, in direct conflict. I wanted them to stand still and listen as I read exhibit labels, and they weren’t buying it. They preferred to whiz around the museum spaces, pushing buttons and becoming intrigued by water fountains and balconies and grand staircases instead of, well, what I was looking at. In Aotearoa/New Zealand, they were interested in the fact that they had to remove their shoes before entering the marae exhibits at museums there, and spent as much time inspecting the variety of visitors’ shoes as they did tukutuku panels and Māori ancestral carvings inside the structures. Once, after being told we were moving on to the next building at Auckland’s wonderful Museum of Transportation and Technology, my daughter turned around and made a desperate dash to push every button and twirl every gear in the room we were leaving, mindlessly interacting while I wanted to hurry up and go learn about aviation pioneers.
My kids are smart, and now that my daughter can read at 5, they’re both literate, and they’re fairly civilized, but even so, their less than solemn behavior on our recent visit to the opening of a collection of Arnold Newman’s portraits at the college’s art gallery left me feeling like quite the curmudgeon; I’m sure my memories of my own childhood include well-polished fabrications involving my solemn worship before the George Seurat masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. But the re-seeing they’ve forced me to perform has coincided with an area of study that I’m not at all curmudgeonly about, and I’m finally ready to think about how people who are not me interact with museums.
I’ve been teaching communications-related courses since 1994, and of course that means I’ve followed and adapted to the online news revolution. I’ve become a disciple of media scholars who preach “digital first,” and I admit to having little patience with those who wish to turn back the clock to a golden age of print journalism. I’m excited about how newsgathering and reporting are becoming more democratic, more participatory. And, when I started thinking about museums and the Web, about museums and participatory culture overall, I realized that I was a big old dinosaur for thinking that all museum visitors should act the way I do. And I decided that my way of doing things had cut me off from a great many participatory activities that my children naturally loved.
So I didn’t feel like I was missing the rest of the museum last summer as my children built little sculptures and screen printed posters in the workshop at the Andy Warhol Museum. (I was actually pretty happy to hide in the basement after their rambunctious behavior in the Silver Clouds room anyway.) I read Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum and soon found myself hungry for news of innovative strategies that appealed to a diverse museum audience. Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse and New Heritage: New Media and Cultural Heritage became my foundational texts, reading late at night after grading papers on journalism or British Literature. I poured over papers from previous Museums and the Web conferences, and can hardly believe my good fortune at the prospect of being a part of the one this year.
My time in Aotearoa/New Zealand is clearly the spark for bringing together disparate threads of my interests and experiences. I’m investigating online museum forums because of Puke Ariki; I’m investigating Pacific oral literatures because of how Māori literary studies dovetails with what I know of debates regarding the composition of Beowulf; I’m satisfying my extra-disciplinary fascination with geology after living in one of the most dynamic landscapes on Earth. I’m grateful the country worked so much magic on me.
(Links to come–I have more papers to grade!)