Last month’s NYTimes cover story, “High Culture Goes Hands On,” argues that the renaissance of the “quest for experience,” revived by web 2.0 technologies, has museums scrambling to provide “the kinds of participatory experiences available almost everywhere else,” and this has author Judith H. Dobrzynski concerned: “Some of these initiatives are necessary, even good. But in the process of adapting, our cultural treasuries are multitasking too much, becoming more alike, and shedding the very characteristics that made them so special — especially art museums.”
So of course, we asked Steven Tepper to respond:
Very thought provoking piece. I think Judith tends to lean toward the elitist definition of art in most of her writing, but she raises some excellent points about balance. As a sociologists who has studied technology’s impact on society, my general conclusion is that technology doesn’t fundamentally change what people want or desire from life/work/social encounters/culture; instead, it changes how we go about achieving these human goals and desires. So, people have always wanted both sublime, reflective experiences and deeply, social and interactive experiences. They have always wanted experiences that they can share with others. Technology has changed where, when and how we can achieve these goals. This is one of the challenges facing any institution—commercial or non-profit. We build structures and organizations to deliver these experiences in one way, and then technology (especially today), provides people with a host of alternatives and we are slow to adapt. The real challenge, it seems to me, is to be smart about “modalities” rather than content. How do people want to experience moments of sublime reflection or intense and passionate, multi-sensory “experience?” Museums and other organizations need to be open to new modalities — but not change their mission or necessarily their content. People can still have a deep and reflective experience reading a book on a Kindle, in spite of what all the book lovers said about the demise of reading. If you are in the business of promoting “reading,” then you should be agnostic about how people get the book or what form the “reading” comes in. So, fundamentally, what business are museums in and what modalities exist today to help them better succeed in that business? That is the big question.