18 July 2005

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - July 13 – Tony Hushion and Brian Porter

“Digital Imperative – New media is the message”

Tony Hushion and Brian Porter led a “virtual” (note the big quotation marks around that highly problematic adjective) tour of ROM’s new Digital Gallery, and more importantly, it’s raison d’etre. Here’s the bottom line of their presentation: the bottom line. Their presentation is yet another strong indication that the venerable museum is first a business, and only incidentally, a custodian of culture, history and context.

The details of their presentation are fairly straight-forward. What they call the ROM’s Digital Gallery is essentially a movie theatre outfitted with touch-screen workstations at each seat. While a high-production-values video of one of the curators plays, telling the “story” of a particular gallery – the only one produced so far is the highly in demand Egypt gallery – visitors can “manipulate” various artefacts from the corresponding collection on-screen. In this case, “manipulate” means “spin a 3D image of the artefact around on the screen to see it from various angles.” The thinking, such as it is, behind this is that (1) objects under glass with labels aren’t cool; (2) curators are scarce resources but videos of curators are but a push of a play button away; (3) existing “content” can be “repurposed.” For those not familiar with corporate-speak, allow me to translate point three: “We’ve got a lot of old junk in our collection, and we can charge money for people to view their images, (since we own the copyright on the images.)” Cultural artefacts, often collected under dubious circumstances over the last century and a bit, are thus converted into “digital assets” with the intent to “develop these assets to create new opportunities for access, education and revenue.” It is important to note that the revenue theme was featured prominently and pervasively throughout the talk.

The idea is to charge schools, researchers, and the general public, to partake of this multi-modal cinema experience – the museum as theme park. While volunteers can be tour guides in the physical museum, there is only one Egyptology curator, who now can be available to all through the magic of cinema. The ultra-wide screen tour, using the latest in digital video composition, is complemented by visitors interacting with the (video representation of the) artefacts. A museum for the gamer generation, paid for by the gamers themselves. What’s not to like?

Regular readers – particularly those who are following my write-ups of the Speakers Series – may have detected a certain... oh I don’t know... cynicism shall we say?... about this particular talk. I am, in fact, disturbed (but not surprised) by the direction the ROM is taking, for several reasons. First, this initiative suggests that ROM management has little understanding about the effects of these sorts of technology. Second, it also suggests that ROM management has little understanding about the role of the institution of museum in a society that is undergoing the types of reversals we are currently experiencing.

The proposed Digital Gallery, rather than being an interactive experience, is interpassive in the extreme. Just as I have said that mass media is no longer media for the masses but media by the masses, interactive media and technologies are those in which people actively participate in creating the environment in which they are participating. It is characteristically a cool medium, that is, one that is actively completed by the users relative to the environmental ground or cultural context in which that completion occurs. It is this last proviso that removes the term “interactive” from being an absolute descriptor, to one that is environmentally and contextually defined.

Television in Marshall McLuhan’s day was, arguably, an interactive medium, as its users had to complete the fuzzy picture, and actively participated in the completion of the viewing experience with friends and family. My iconic memory of this active participation was my grandmother arguing with Walter Cronkite during the CBS Evening News. Television today has “hotted up” – couch potato syndrome being the clear evidence.

Computer applications in which users activate certain pre-programmed sequences by actuating control points (I’m generalizing the concept of clicking an on-screen button with a mouse) was interactive compared to watching television, but has become interpassive compared to, say, participation in dynamic, massively multi-user narrative, typified by some of the online role playing games.

In the case of ROM’s Digital Gallery, they have created a (hot) cinematic experience, with (hot) interpassive control of (hot) images of artefacts. The primary sense that is engaged is sight (rousing soundtrack notwithstanding). The mere fact that interpassive screens are employed does not, in my view, engage the tactile (a point of semantic disagreement between Derrick de Kerckhove and I).

The story being told by the on-screen curator is THE story. Period. Now that Egypt is done, next in line is a Canadian heritage story (since that is the choice of the donors), to be followed by Medieval (the choice of the paying marketplace). But once a given story is told, it will play, if not forever, then for a very long time, since these things are (understandably) expensive to produce. And there are a lot of galleries to monetize, I mean, digitize. More problematic is the fact that this one story is one point of view, one construction of knowledge. What is valued as knowledge, in this instance, is what is valued according to a measure of financial viability. There is very limited opportunity for a critical examination of the cultural context – or more particularly, our contemporary cultural context – as informed by an examination and consideration of the artefacts in their original ground. A fixed story precludes active engagement as a way of experiencing and understanding the many complex dimensions of cultural history. This, I believe, is a vitally important role for museums to be playing today. Rather than creating “mini-Egyptologists” from the school children who visit the museum-as-video-arcade, the museum’s objective might otherwise be to create “mini ancient Egyptians,” early Canadians, medieval feudal lords or serfs, and other actors in a total participatory environment.

So what does this Digital Gallery retrieve from the past? Highly visual. One point of view. Focus on money and assets. Little wonder the new branding is Renaissance ROM. I suppose we’ll have to wait a very long time for Gutenberg ROM, and finally, Electricity ROM, to truly bring the museum up to date.

By the way, for anyone who’s interested in what a museum could be doing in creating dynamic, participatory environments for collecting, curating, and contextualizing culture, and presenting it online, check out the Victoria and Albert Museum Online, and in particular, their contemporary collection. VaM may not be as flashy as the ROM’s Digital Gallery, but then again, the institution hasn’t just built itself a shiny new storefront, albeit one with... ahem... corrugated aluminum siding.

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