If there was ever a statement to sum up recent conversations within the two worlds of tech and museums, it could be this: Nothing is neutral.
I attended MuseumNext 2018 as a dual representative – both of Museum Detox but also of the Natural History Museum where I work in the Digital Media and Marketing department as a User Experience designer. It was really due to the fantastic Shaheen’s suggestion that I put my name forward to attend, already a testament to the openness of Museum Detox. When I received confirmation of attendance, it’s hard to tell if I was as much excited by the opportunity to hear what was going on in the world of museums, or at finally getting to meet some of the famous Detoxers, folks whose conversations I’d been following online since starting my new role.
Tuesday’s session was filled with critical challenges from curators and activists such as Shaheen Kasmani, Sara looking at how museums need to fully appreciate their role as disseminators of oppressive narratives and what they can start doing to counter that; to take on board what it means to be an authoritative voice which now have to speak with their communities as much as at them. Karen Carter, Executive director of Myseum of Toronto introduced us to a museum built from the ground up by community input, with relevant and accessible programming at the heart of its operations whilst Nedra Deadwyler’s talk on the work of Civil Bikes for me revealed a really special phenomenon that arose from decentering institutions which created something new at the intersection of local history, activism, transportation and sustainability.
Although definitely affirming, these talks didn’t shy away from challenges. For institutions that are simultaneously symbols of hierarchy – considering many of their foundational collections and most prized treasures are the spoils of colonialism and many of their first curators were unnamed (and certainly underpaid) – yet oddly at the mercy of said hierarchy if we look at the impact of funding cuts, it is especially important to grapple with discomfort, not shying away from historical violences which allowed and continue to enable museums to exist.
If Tuesday had been about community, activism and sustained self-reflection, Wednesday’s talks started off with Henry Mason, Managing Director of TrendWatching showcasing the power of technology to help museums better understand and reach out to existing and new audiences. As a designer interested in the challenges presented by critical user centred practice in digital design, I thought this was a much needed juxtaposition. Considering the concern for effective outreach, it is true that technology offers us accelerated means of communicating with the ‘Other’. However, our current systems of production and evaluation mean that to do so, institutions are often engaging in another form of tecno-colonialism, be it as repositories or conduits of user data to digital platforms.
Whilst still grappling with their pasts and evaluating their present, if museums are to seriously consider the call to decolonise and make their collections, content and programs more accessible, it’s vital to ensure the mistakes of the past are not repeated. One cannot be seduced by the speed and the sleek design, by the data oceans and the connectedness of all things. Ultimately, technology is just an extension of us. It often has as much if not more value in the way it reveals the way we think about the world than in the problems we think we’re trying to solve.
So when we talk about social media listening for trends or collaborating with influencers, how does that mesh with concerns around due payment, accreditation and ownership? If we’re talking about decolonising the museum collection, how does that apply to the aggregation and exploitation of visitor data and/or labour which might be drawn upon to provide the content to make said decolonisation happen? When even the leading originators of technologies are rethinking their innovations, acting to mend mistakes in designing attention vacuums and unsafe platforms, how should museums make use of such technology in reflective and ethical ways?
As mentioned by Sara Boutall in her talk about the potential for machine learning tools in used in museums, it won’t do simply to raise points about bias in machine learning without looking at how institutions should then procure and test out new technologies to ensure that biases and other harmful outputs are minimised (if technology is a child of humanity, I am not convinced biases can be eradicated). That in turn almost brings us back to the initial problem requiring honesty about where the sector stands with the question of inclusion and representation.
I really enjoyed the discussions that arose out of MuseumNext 2018. I enjoyed engaging with the tweets, feeling inspired and challenged by examples of self-critical initiatives such as the Sámi Dáiddamusea at the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum and the deeply prescient yet superficially lighthearted take on public programming at the Philbrook Museum of Art, discussing representation and inclusivity over expensive-but-far-too-tempting-in-this-weather gelato. It was fun getting to critically discuss experiences and concerns about life in the museum sector without anyone getting precious and I look forward to much more in the future.
But what I’m especially intrigued by is how we can rethink museum practice in a holistic way, turning our critical gazes to every aspect, right at the intersection of curation, events programming, technology, community engagement and research. As someone who is still getting acquainted with the ways of the museum sector, I am excited by the prospect of a truly sustainable, interdisciplinary way of working, where community centred practice at every level of organisation becomes the norm, not an inspiring (or maybe even just quite cute) one-off occurrence.
Because nothing is ever neutral.
Florence Okoye is a User Experience Designer at the Natural History Museum. Since 2015 she has been events producer for AfroFutures_UK, an AfroFuturist collective exploring the intersection of race and technology. Her interests include critical theory, design practice for complex systems and the power of zines! She is a fellow at Birmingham Open Media where her research focuses on community led approaches to pervasive computing.