1 May 2013

'Brave New Worlds' MEG Conference Report, 2013



A nice sunny day in Brighton as delegates arrive at the 2013 Meg Conference, hosted by Brighton Museum and Art Gallery 


This year's conference theme was not chosen without controversy. Concerns were raised that 'Brave New Worlds: Transforming Museum Technology Through Ethnography' might loose the ethnographic element under a blanket of technological wonderment. Fortunately, these concerns proved unfounded, and on the 15th and 16th April this year, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery hosted a conference which raised considerable interest not only in the technology and technological applications which were displayed, but also in the deep ontological and ethical questions it raised for museum ethnographers and their colleagues. Instead of giving a blow-by-blow chronological account of the conference, I'd like in this report to tackle some of these arising threads, using the presentations given as the backbone. For as the conference organisers, Helen Mears and Claire Wintle, said themselves in their opening presentation, it is now an apposite time to reflect critically upon the implications that technological innovations have had, are having, and will have upon the practice of museum ethnography. In Digital Art, Christian Paul wrote that 'Technologies often develop faster than the rhetoric evaluating them' (Paul, 2008, p.67): this conference, and hopefully this report, goes some way to rectifying this imbalance.

Carl Hogsden delivers his paper 'Contact networks for digital Repatriation' 

 The first major thread it is important to address is that of relationships. Many of the papers presented dealt with the role of technology in the interactions of the various stakeholders within the ethnographic matrix. Not the least of these is the facilitation of contact. In the first paper of the conference, Carl Hogsden of the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology spoke of contact in the ethnographic sense - that is, the coming together of groups of people around objects and data with the purpose of exchanging information. Historically a physical act, contact has been significantly altered by the progress of digital technology. The UBC Reciprocal Research Network, of which MAA is a member, is one major example, and Artefacts of Encounter, which involved collaboration between MAA and various Pacific Island groups, another. For contact to be incited and sustained, account needs to be taken of the needs of the various participants: this was evidenced not only in the section of the Artefacts of Encounter database configured specifically to be appropriate to Maori, rather than Western, ontologies, but in the cultural sensitivity showed in the technological choices made by a number of other presenters. For Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharpe, Facebook was an appropriate tool of engagement with parties interested in the SierraLeoneHeritage.org project, being widely used by those with internet access in this still recovering nation: but as she pointed out, it is still a tool which engages only with the elite, internet access being slow and extremely limited outside the capital of Freetown. More accessible, perhaps surprisingly so, was the iPad used by Lucie Carreau on her research trip to Fiji. Her attempt to identify key sites depicted in the paintings of Constance Gorden Cumming as part of the Fijian Art Project necessitated the use of a portable device on which to show digital images. Her choice of an iPad stemmed from both practicality - the Internet and electricity in Fiji being notoriously unreliable and perhaps dangerous, and a laptop being cumbersome - and from cultural sensitivity - in Fijian culture, it is considered impolite to stand or move behind someone if they are sat down. The iPad proved perfect for the task - it was light, portable, easy to use and passable from one person to another without Carraeu, as researcher, having to get in the way. The images presented in her paper show how, almost immediately, it was forgotten that the iPad was a form of elite technology, and indeed that it was a technology at all. Instead, the people were absorbed in 'walking' through the landscape it showed to them, their island of a century and more before, in having contact and dialogue with both the past and present of their own geography.

Johanna Zetterstorm-Sharp presents her paper 'Negotiating knowledge: 'Facebooking'  problematic object narratives in Sierra Leone' 
But if that initial contact is to lead to more long-term relationships, then efforts to sustain them must be made. Here, technology can also help, as Alison Clark showed in her Work in Progress Paper 'What Happens Next'. During her PhD, she had encountered the Yirandali people of Lammemoor Station, a relationship she wished to sustain. In order to do this, she opened a Flickr site onto which she and her collaborators in Queensland could upload
images and data to create a digital archive. This was a private and safe space in which information of perhaps a more culturally and personally sensitive nature would be kept safe. But such private places are not the only means of sustaining successful relationships. In Hogsden's paper, the notions of contact and knowledge networks were suggested as potential alternative models to the more enclosed 'zone' or 'community': their worth for relationships between museums and external stakeholders was clearly shown by Felicity McWilliams in her account of The Museum of English Rural Life's project 'A Sense of Place'. This was a project seeking to benefit not only the traditional source communities by providing some form of digital repatriation, but also to provide the museum with a means by which its information databases might be updated and improved. In their use of the Google powered resource HistoryPin, the Museum also opened this project up to a wider public beyond that of the Bucklebury Local History Group. Yet contact and sustainable relationships are not important only for encounters between museums and source communities or audiences, but for encounters between museums. In 'Twittering, chanting and befriending witches: Generating Community in the Museum of Witchcraft', Helen Cornish showed how vital social media had been for the Boscastle Museum and its interactions with its counterparts in other isolated locations - such as the The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft in Hólmavík. Institutions are, ultimately, made of people, and it is important for people to seek out community.

Technology can also facilitate collaboration. Sylvia Wackernagel of the Museum of Ethnography at Leipzig presented an interesting example of exhibitory reciprocity. Between April and August of 2011, the UMISTA Cultural Centre in British Columbia and the Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau, Dresden, swapped major objects from their collections to be put on temporary display in a project called 'The Power of Giving'. Rather different from more traditional exhibitions in which collections are temporarily returned to their originating locations, this project shared the Potlatch collections of the Kwakwaka'wakw Big House and objects from the collections of the Saxon Court. Such a project could not have occurred without long distance communication and object protection technology. It is, however, more interesting from a technological point of view to note how the display of the Potlatch in Dresden was turned into a three dimensional digital exhibition by the UMISTA Cultural Centre, and that the other exhibition was not.

Collaboration, it has to be said, requires that some parties cede certain elements of control. Alison Petch of the Pitt Rivers Museum was entirely open about this element in her own online activities. Many of her projects, including The Relational Museum, England: The Other Within and Rethinking Pitt Rivers, have had the production of an online resource at their heart. But these are resources in which research and open data outweigh the need for aesthetic appeal. Neither are they intended to be static repositories for things already known, but spaces of openness in which data can be continually shared and reinterpreted. To a certain extent, this is equivalent to Petch making her research notes Open Access - a subject which is at present very relevant to the academic world.

Repatriation is also deeply affected by technology. There is now the possibility for the production of digital surrogates, images and 3D copies, which can perform a repatriative act that is perhaps impossible for the original object itself. It is possible for museums, also, to alleviate guilt by sharing collections which they feel uncomfortable owning or unable to keep. Such is the case with the 'Photo Seeks Family' project run by the Tropenmuseum: unwanted photograph albums originating from the Dutch East Indies have been digitised in the hope that they will be recognised and reclaimed. This particular project raises significant questions the purpose of repatriation - who, truthfully, are the beneficiaries? It is important, to, to consider this issue: with digital repatriation making 'giving back' surrogates and copies so easy, can museums really be said to be giving up control?

Wayne Modest presents a modified version of Hans van de Bunte's paper ''Tropenmuseum and Engaged Museology'
Attempts at collaboration and reciprocal relationships do not always work. Nicola Ashmore showed how the Manchester Museum's Collective Conversations project had, since the initial museum led collaboration had ended and the invitation to contribute had been placed in the World Cultures gallery, failed to incite any independent response in four years. The museum, Ashmore suggested, was not visibly participatory enough, and with its in-cohesive displays and curatorial anonymity presented an 'illusion of engagement'. Peter Pavement of Surface Impression noted a similar problem: whilst, he suggests, a great deal of effort has been expended upon developing reciprocal relationships between museums and the source communities of objects, those between the museum's media producers and the other invested community - the museum's audiences - still need working on. Museums, it seems, need to consider who their stakeholders are, and whether they themselves are stakeholders in something larger than their sphere's of physical and conceptual influence.

Technology, then, forces us to reconsider the nature of relationships, and the natures of the parties involved in those relationships. As Megha Rajguru and Wayne Modest both pointed out, technology has encouraged the emergence of new, invested and political populaces. For Rajguru, YouTube and the ease of making home movies means that 'ordinary' - non-expert, non-museum - individuals can now take an active role in the deconstruction and reconfiguration of museum spaces, and her paper, 'See how I see it? Museum ethnography through the eyes of the museum visitor' showed just how this kind of vernacular journalism is changing the definitions of museum audience and even that of the museum practitioner This kind of technology is also changing how individuals and institutions relate to and understand space and place within and without the museum - and it is this thread of the conference, the thread of technology and the physical encounter, to which we must now turn.

Although, as Hogsden noted, technology must not be allowed to replace the physical encounter, it nevertheless allows for the reconfiguration, re-presentation, reinterpretation and even, perhaps, the repatriation of physical sites and spaces. Virtual archives can refigure collections and knowledge’s dispersed over the world, and bring them together in a digital location - precisely as Alison Clark used Flickr to reunite the disparate parts of the Christison Collection. They can also be used to retain the memory of an event, as is the case with the UMISTA virtual exhibition of their Potlatch display in Dresden. In other words, technology can allow things, which would be impossible in the material world.

Sometimes, developments in hardware, software and digital services can allow for the development and enhancement of a sense of place. It might be argued that one of the reasons that the Museum of Witchcraft had such an extensive online presence so early on in the development of the Internet is the fact that the Internet was a new, uncharted place, somewhat clandestine and perhaps sacred. Though it occupies a much more ordinary position now, it is still a crucial place for fostering a sense of connection and community - a sense of a place made by code and the desire of humans to make and sustain contact. It also plays a crucial part in the acknowledgement and negotiation of contested sites and identities - Bill Tunstall demonstrated his own attempt to create a purely virtual museum for Mogadishu, and Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharpe recognised how central modernity and its technology is to the emergent Sierra Leonean sense of self and unity. Similarly Michael Hitchcock, in talking about his work to promote the heritage of Macau, showed how the notion of giant smart phones could be used to overlay and annotate the surrounding environment to make it more than just visually meaningful.

Certain projects, however, also showed how technology can emphasise the changing nature of space and place over time. Lucie Carreau recognised that the way the Fijians interacted with the iPad photographs was not as a comparison of spaces over time, but as a fusion - they appeared to be almost walking in these places that they both knew and didn't know, reforming them with their new information and perspectives.

It is precisely this kind of reformulation which Dafni Tragaki of the University of Thessaly, Greece, sought to show the conference delegates. Basing her work within the context of sensory anthropology, sound and visual ethnographies and the ethnographic walk, she showed how filmed walk taken in Thessaly can be used to enhance a sense of place, to mediate that place, turn the city into a museum, and bring the city into the museum. This film, then, became a mediated ethnographic place, a 'fictional topoi' in its own right. Similarities can be drawn with Rajguru's YouTube videos, in which the individuals who are the focalisors and central figures of the films - on or off camera - become alternative political cartographers of cities - and indeed, in the case of Rajguru, cartographers of museums and actants in 'performative democracies'. The production of these 'fictive' sites is a product, in part, of newly digitized, or digitally born, objects. The third thread of the conference, which I found intriguing, was that of the object - what can technology offer to the encounter with the object, and what implications might it have for their care and conceptualisation.

Paulo Viscardi presenting with Anita Hollinshead their paper 'Mermaids Uncovered' 
There is certainly little doubt that technological developments in DNA, scanning and imaging technologies have had a significant impact upon the ways in which information about objects is uncovered. This was brought sharply to light in two papers. Paolo Viscardi and Anita Hollinshead talked about the 'mermaids' in the collections at Buxton Museum and the Horniman Museum, discussing how genetic testing, Faxitron phosphor plate x-rays and CT scanning were used to uncover the fact that they were not, in fact, monkeys sewn to fish, but complex constructions of animal matter, finely carved wood and hand-moulded metal. Learning about the construction of objects was also important for Olivia Bourrat of the Museé du quai Branly, who used 3D scanning and imaging to assist in the conservation of the Museum's collection of Kanak masks. Unlike Viscardi and Hollinshead, however, this study also allowed her to pinpoint with greater accuracy the originating points of these ceremonial objects - whether to the North or the South of Melanesia.

Technology, whether used to interact with an originating community or directly interrogate an object itself, can also give insight into the histories of objects. As Chantal Knowles and Neil Curtis showed in their review of the Scottish Pacific Collections project, when this increased knowledge is combined and shared, it can be used to further the understanding of relationships between objects in dispersed collections, and the shared histories of collecting that institutions - Scottish, in this case - have. The relational nature of objects, however, is manifold, and it should be remembered, as Wingfield noted, that it is important to consider what new technological developments can offer to both the people who care 'for' objects, and the people who care 'about' them.

Objects are objects, and differently so, to more than one public. The momentary encounter and image of an object - all a human can ever have - is not the object itself and pure, but a 'third thing', as Wayne Modest said, a thing produced in the interactions of material and mind. The ontology of any given object is therefore inherently complex, and technologies which interfere with objects throw this fact into sharp relief. Digital surrogates and images create wonder, and are often truly beautiful - those shown to the conference by David Arnold of the Cultural Informatics Research Group at the University of Brighton produced a widespread intake of breath - but they force us to question the nature, power and even the true existence of the 'authentic' thing. The relationship between the original and the copy is a fraught one, related to the problems of digital repatriation as discussed above. When objects can be opened up and their insides viewed, it is also necessary to question the ethics of this evisceration. Bourrat's paper provoked an important question - What is, and what should be, knowable?

These are difficult questions even in the confines of the material world. But there is one question which needs significant interrogation and which as yet has not been thoroughly explored. What happens to these questions and conundrums when the object itself is digitally born?

The nature of objecthood is being remodelled by technology. And it is not just material culture, but the institutions which house it, which are seeing their underlying ontologies disrupted. This is the fourth, and final, strand of the conference which I will deal with here - how technology is affecting and changing museums.

At the end of the conference there was a debate as to whether technologies are actually changing us - as museums, museum workers and ethnographers. Some would argue that it is fundamentally rewiring our thought and activity patterns, others that it only enhances our abilities to do things that we have always done. What cannot be denied, however, is that technological developments are having - and, actually, always have had - a critical impact upon the way museums work and display the life worlds of others. Though it seems a commonplace that museums always need to catch up with technological developments, as Peter Pavement noted this is not at all the case. Historically, they have always been at the forefront of such changes, from their installations of gramophones, audio-guides and dioramas, to the Bring Your Own Device projects of today. Museums need to learn to embrace their forward thinking side: to learn to think about themselves as more than consumers, but commissioners of technology and producers of medially appropriate content.

The virtual archive, exhibition and museum have been with us for twenty years now - one of the earliest, perhaps the first, the Museum of Computer Art, went on-line in 1993. But they still raise an interesting question - what is the nature and purpose of the museum when you remove the physical surroundings? That question was one implicitly raised by Bill Tunstall's presentation of the Museum of Mogadishu - a museum that only exists on-line. Perhaps these are the kind of places where those strange digitally born objects will be housed: they are already home to the data of people like Alison Petch. These kinds of 'places' are as much contact networks as they are contact zones and, as Wayne Modest suggested, are zones of contestation as much as they are of encounter. Perhaps museums should learn from this - should learn to be more controversial, take stands, and take accountability for those stances.

Various factors of contemporary existence, technology amongst them, have created a 'new us' - a breakdown in the binary divisions of self and other. Technology can help us deal with this - can help us take account for what we have done, to accept the authorship Ashmore noticed was missing, and cease to be anonymous, controlling authorities. The opportunities for collaboration which technologies - particularly social media and easy long distance travel - have offered to the museum curator has also repositioned them as a another kind of source community. As Knowles and Curtis also acknowledged, it also has significant implications for the ways in which we deal with Knowledge Transfer and the training of the next generation of curatorial personnel.

A further implication of this 'new us' is the growing museum market outside its original home of Western Europe. It is important to question whether technology, as suggested by Wackernagel, is permitting the development of the post museum in this market, through digital repatriation, media powered collaboration and digitally enhanced contact or whether in fact such apparently open and permissive technologies are actually just new masks for the old, controlling, modernist museum: for, as we have seen above, there are certainly positives and negatives for the museum in any shifts in power and authority that technology allows.

This was not a conference which provoked easy answers - if any answers at all. As Mark Elliot of Cambridge MAA pointed out, the last decision is always being made. The final answer is never final, and if technology shows us anything, it is that it's possibilities are always arising. Museums and ethnographers must learn to cope in this mobile, malleable and manipulative world - for good or for ill, and almost always for both, it is the world we have. 

Jenny Walklake. 

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