I recently got a smartphone. It wasn’t the iPhone that I so desperately wanted, but then androids have come on in leaps and bounds in the last years and almost all apps are available for both.
I was now able to download and play with all the museum apps I have been reading about for what seems like an age. Museum of London’s Streetmuseum for example, a great app that I can’t wait to try out in London. But technology is moving so fast, that there is always something newer. Do not get me wrong, I am all for development and progress, but when does the constant development of solutions for the very newest technology become exclusionary?
The example that prompts this post is the new BBC international iPlayer. The service costs either €6.99 per month or €50 for the year. It is not the same as the iPlayer in the UK due to licensing issues, which means that you have access to BBC-produced material, at the moment that is 150 old and new programmes (it’s a different grumble entirely that some of the material is shown on BBC Entertainment - the international channel - anyway). So this is a paid for, limited version of the UK iPlayer. Oh, and it’s only available on the iPad. Now, this baffles me. We all know that it is perfectly possible to produce a programme like this for the computer, it’s not like lots of phone apps that require GPS or other technology a computer doesn’t possess. A lot more people have computers than iPads, there are more people have iPhones than iPads. The decision was obviously not based on how most people would like to access the service. So why would they launch an exciting new product, which has been hyped since the beginning of the year and only mention a week before that it’s iPad only?
I know the parallel between the museum and the BBC is a little forced, but you do see this happening in museums too. Until three weeks ago I longed for a phone that would augment reality for me, or find me on a map. Does anyone else feel this way? Or are you all smugly reading this from your iPad??
Alain de Botton’s piece on the BBC website asks the question “Why are museums so uninspiring?”.
I think the first thing to mention is that he seems to be talking from the central European perspective of museum = art. I’m not sure that that’s the case for a British public. If you say ‘museum’ to most Brits they will think immediately of artefacts and relics rather a gallery.
Modern museums typically lead us into galleries set out under headings such as “the 19th Century” or “the Northern Italian School”, which reflect the academic traditions in which their curators have been educated.
To a certain degree I agree with him: art galleries aren’t the most accessible. I am art enjoyer of the “I-know-what-I-like” sort, and this can make (especially modern) art perplexing. I want to understand, I want to be told what the artist was thinking and I need some interpretation from on high to draw out meanings and connections. Then I can decide whether I agree or not. But I don’t think this is what he is talking about. He doesn’t strike me as the kind of man who would admit that he sometimes doesn’t get what it’s about.
I think if you expect to go into an art or history museum and experience awe the same way the faithful do in a church, you are inevitably going to leave disappointed and uninspired. It’s a rather big ask of museums - all with different collections, structures, sizes and missions - to step into the giant space of the church, with its divine mysteries, clear rituals, sense of community and established hierarchies.
Do we even want that? I don’t and I can’t imagine that you will find all artists willing to have their works presented in this way either.
These curators should co-opt works of art to the direct task of helping us to live: to achieve self-knowledge, to remember forgiveness and love and to stay sensitive to the pains suffered by our ever troubled species and its urgently imperilled planet. Only then will museums be able to claim that they have properly fulfilled the noble but still elusive ambition of becoming our new churches.
If you disregard that he only talks about art under his broad sweep of ‘museum’, I would argue that museums are helping us live: the International Slavery Museum is an incredible example when talking about forgiveness and activism, but so too is the British Museum with the explicit links it draws and celebrates between ancient cultures and modern cultures, or the museum of London which has underlined that ‘Londoner’ is a bright, vibrant, diverse and - ultimately - fluid description.
It feels a little bit like Mr. de Botton has accidentally stumbled into this area without checking out what museums really are doing in this direction or at least trying to do. He seems to be completely unaware that there is a whole field of museological thought and a whole body of literature he could have tapped into to at least give more concrete examples of what can be done. Does he really think that people would have a more lasting museum experience if asked to look at something and be patient? Those who know museums already know that the people who read text labels tend to be the more patient audience members anyway.