The new media artist as agent for a participatory museum

Benjamin Low Teck Hui Interactive Art Level Three Student ID 12406

A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree of Media Arts (Interactive Art) LASALLE College of the Arts © Benjamin Low Teck Hui 2012


Signed Statement Accepted by the Faculty of Media Arts, LASALLE College of the Arts, in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree in Interactive Arts.

Supervisor’s Name 1 Rashid Saini

Supervisor’s Name 2 Claire Merquita

I certify that the work being submitted for examination is my own research, which has been conducted ethically. The data and results presented are the genuine data and results actually obtained by me during the conduct of the research. Where I have drawn on the work, ideas and results of others, this has been appropriately acknowledged in the essay. No part of this paper has been or is being currently submitted for any qualification at any other university.

@ Benjamin Low Teck Hui 2012

In submitting this work to LASALLE College of the Arts, I understand that I am giving permission for it to be made available for use in accordance with the regulations and policies of the college. This work is also subject to the college policy on intellectual property.

____________________________________ Name: Student ID: Benjamin Low Teck Hui 12406 i  

Abstract This paper is written with the artist in mind as an active agent influencing and promoting a participatory kind of museum, using new media as the tools of choice. In order to do so, artists need to be educated about what museums and new media are about. Hence, there are two main parts to this paper. The first part touches on museum theory to lay the case for change in the museum. The second part examines the conventions of new media and how they are compatible with a new museum model. The paper ends with recommendations for new media artists on creating engaging and participatory experiences in a museum context.


Table of Contents Title Introduction ………………………………………………………………………….. Chapter 1 - Museum theory …………………………………………………………. 1.1 - Why artists should work with museums ……………………..………………… 1.2 - Moving beyond the modern episteme of the museum …………….…………… 1.3 The need for diversity in the museum narrative …………………………………. 1.4 - The museum experience is more important than the primacy of artifacts ……... 1.5 - Towards a participatory museum ………………………………………………. Chapter 2 - New media theory ………………………………………………………. 2.1 - New media and its compatibility with the participatory museum ……………… 2.2 - Participatory practices using new media ……………………………………….. 2.2.1 - Interactive exhibits …………………………………………………………… 2.2.2 - Web technologies …………………………………………………………….. 2.2.3 - Social media ………………………………………………………………….. 2.2.4 - Mobile technologies ………………………………………………………….. Qualifications ………………………………………………………………………... Summary ……………………………………………………………………………... Conclusion …………………………………………………………………………… References …………………………………………………………………………… Page 1 2 2 4 6 8 10 11 11 13 14 15 17 18 20 22 24 25



In a museum context, artists are in a special situation to influence the workings and the role of perception of what a museum should be. Compared to museum curators who may be bound to institutional mindsets, artists have more autonomy because they are usually external agents or freelance consultants on a project basis. Artists are also seen as authority figures on the form and aesthetics of art that help frame the narrative of the museum experience. Artists have also been historically the ones who are willing to challenge the notion of what a museum should be, for example, by choosing to set up alternative spaces that mimic and question the role of mainstream museums1, or by campaigning for minority representation in the museum narrative2.

Having agency as a museum artist in influencing the museum requires some knowledge of museum theory. In addition, although the museum as a medium can be seen as a gestalt of various media such as its architecture, staff, exhibits, archives and online website, it is new media that is the focus of this paper. It will be shown how new media can be the means by which artists can push for a participatory museum.


An example would be the artist Faith Ringgold (born 1930 - present), known for her painted story quilts, who has fought against the lack of representation of females and African American artists in galleries and museums and campaigned for alternative exhibition spaces for her works.

Such as aboriginal representation, or that of women, gay and lesbians.


Chapter 1 – Museum Theory

1.1. Why artists should work with museums

Although artists are free to work outside the cultural hegemony of museums and galleries, there are valid reasons why they should choose to work with them instead.

The aims of museums and artists are aligned in the area of promoting cultural awareness. In this paper, museums are defined as cultural institutions with the mission of public learning e.g. botanical gardens, science centres, heritage museums, and traditional art and history museums. Museums are sociocultural communicators and are concerned with aesthetics in a way much like artists.

Museums have access to resources such as government funding and public spaces that may not be available to artists. They have established venues and marketing channels to publicise events and art shows, saving the artist the trouble of searching for new venues, sponsors and means of publicity.

Artists are able to create transformative experiences in museums. According to John H Falk, “museums are excellent environments for meaningful learning because they offer rich, multisensory experiences. The proper representation of ideas through tangible objects, particularly if they are interactive, is a powerful device for sense-making and, thus understanding.” (Falk 1992, p.114) Unlike formal institutions of learning, museums offer a unique learning environment governed by free choice and open enquiry. One goes to a museum because one wants to. Museums offer a ‘free choice’ learning environment because of the multiple entry points that exhibits offer, and for the multi-layered contextualisation that comes with the presentation. This caters to different audience profiles such as


personal interests, age groups and preferred learning modes3. The museum also offers an appropriate social context for learning, by catering for school or family visits and guided tours by trained and friendly staff. The museum has expertise in exhibit design and offers a variety of physical spaces to cater to different learners such as archive areas for researchers and playful exhibit areas for children. In short, there is no comparable institution to the museum that makes accessible a variety of positive aesthetic experiences to the public for the purposes of learning and this is an advantage the artist should tap on.

Lastly, museums are highly trusted public institutions that can lend credibility and authority to the artist’s works. In the US, museums are seen as the most trustworthy and objective of all the institutions that educate American children. According to a 2001 American Association of Museums survey, 87 percent of respondents deem museums trustworthy while 61 percent trust books and only 50 percent trust television news. Working with the museum offers the artist a receptive audience.


Howard Gardner, a well-known developmental psychologist, postulated multiple intelligences (1983) - linguistic, logicmathematical, musical, spatial, bodily/kinaesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic.


1.2. Moving beyond the modern episteme of the museum It is important for artists to recognise that the museum does not represent a static model, but one that has changed over the centuries, and that it will continue to do so. For a perspective on how the museum has evolved, Michel Foucault traced museum history into three distinct episteme created by ruptures in the economic, social, cultural, political, scientific and theological status quo - Renaissance, classical and modern.

The museum was established around two centuries ago, during the Renaissance and around the same time as hospitals, prisons and barracks. Before the museum became a public space, its predecessor the curiosity cabinet, was a private space that reflected humankind’s understanding of the world around them. The curiosity cabinet represented the world in miniature and was organised according to the rubric of the day, such as the four element or seven virtues. It personified the Renaissance concept of a world created by both man and God. The classical episteme emerged during the mid-eighteenth century that placed an emphasis on rational thought and ordered systems of knowledge. Collections became classified according to systems of hierarchies. Displays were linear and embraced an ideology of progress. Collections were canonised into a single authoritative interpretation. The modern episteme of museums is represented by the metaphor of discipline. With the rise of Napoleon, the military culture extended into the museum with its binary delineation of domination and subjugation, the clear separation between decision makers and the passive bourgeois audience. The museum became a tool for nation-building and paternalistic governance. As Napoleon looted his way across Europe, a community of curators was born to handle the vast hierarchy of his new possessions. Curators wielded great power by being able to judge what was important and what was not, and in so doing, defined national identity while legitimising current policies by basing it on history and mythology. The visitor could only acquire knowledge through submission to the expert. Museum architecture demarcated private enclosed spaces for museum staff and


wide open public spaces for the visitor subjected to security surveillance and self-regulation by other visitors (Marstine 2006, p.22-25).

To a large extent, the vestiges of this modern episteme of museums can still be found today. Present day museums vest a lot of power in their curators who decide which artists’ works get shown and how much prominence they get. The museum is seen by some as an authoritarian establishment resistant to change, with rigid hierarchies and formal structures. There is little public visibility on the inner workings and decision making process in the museum. The museum dictates content to a passive audience who are expected to submit to the knowledge and authority of the museum curators.

This modern episteme of museum is largely irrelevant in today’s society. The next section will elaborate on how museums are inherently biased institutions and have to accommodate diverse perspectives on subjects like art, history and society. The subsequent section debunks the notion of ‘aura’ and ‘authenticity’ and urges museums to see themselves as a mass medium to engage audiences. The second half of the paper shows how new media such as the internet and social media have changed how people communicate with one another and their expectations of the way they interact with museums. It is therefore necessary for museums to move away from this model and artists can play a role in this.


1.3. The need for diversity in the museum narrative

A consensus arising from recent museum studies challenges the common assumption that museums are arbiters of an unchanging and objective truth or reality. As mentioned earlier, museums are highly trusted public institutions and it is precisely this reason that makes it dangerous for the public to believe that museums are neutral spaces where artifacts tell of an “authentic” history, or that “authentic” artifacts have a certain indisputable meaning. In fact, museums are highly contested spaces where the politics of art play out. For example, the meaning of an artifact does change over time. New interpretation arises when new scientific research or discoveries are made. Changing social-political conditions give rise to new cultural understandings that can conflict with how artifacts are currently being contextualised in the museum. For example, feminist and postcolonial studies since the mid-twentieth century have revealed the colonial triumphalism and patriarchal mindsets perpetrated by narratives found in the museum.

Another way of questioning the authenticity of museums lies in the understanding that museums do not just represent culture - they produce it by framing (Marstine 2006, p.4). A frame is not just the piece of wood that gives significance to the art it houses. Framing is a metaphorical process that creates a vision of the past and future based on contemporary needs. Jacques Derrida first appropriated the concept of framing for cultural theory in his 1987 essay Parergon which criticises Immanuel Kant’s Analytic of the Beautiful. Derrida challenges Kant’s assumption that picture frames, drapery on sculpture, and other devices that distinguish what is part of a work from what is outside, are merely ornaments, parerga or byworks to the objects that enhance. Derrida posits that frames not only set boundaries, they provide an ideologically based narrative context that colours our understanding of what is included. In this sense, architectural design, lighting design, audio-tour headsets, the museum cafe and the building itself are all framing devices. In other words, ideological biases come with framing.


Marstine concludes that diverse viewpoints need to be represented in the museum because claiming authenticity on a sole authoritative viewpoint is a means of perpetrating power structures and denying the patriarchal and imperialist bias that are inherent in museums. Official history is being contested all the time. There is a saying that history is always written by victors4. Museums and museum artists should design content and experiences that facilitate audiences to form their own understanding of art or history, rather than just offering a singular authoritative narrative.


A quote commonly attributed to the British World War II Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.


1.4. The museum experience is more important than the primacy of artifacts In his influential paper The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), Walter Benjamin made the case that “aura” and “authenticity” are no longer valid notions in the production and consumption of art. The advent of photography and the foreshadowing of cinema enabled art to be reproduced on a massive scale, thus giving rise to an anxiety about the “authenticity” of art. In response, Walter Benjamin came up with the concept of the “aura” - as defined by an original artwork’s unique position in time and space. No matter how perfect the reproduction is, the reproduction will always lack the “aura” of its original. To Benjamin however, dialectical reasoning dictates that an “aura” is only possible because of its reproduction.

The destruction of “aura” in mechanical reproduction signals the passage from the artwork as cult or religious object to the artwork as exhibit in museum and cinema5. The removal of “aura” also removes the sense of the unreachable or transcendent distance between audience and object. Walter Benjamin argued for art to move towards the sphere of mass media, to be shared with the masses. Reproducible art allows for new modes of sense perception, allowing an object to be presented as a mass collective experience. The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation. Reproducibility gives art the power to alter mass perception, and to be used as a political tool6. Walter Benjamin drew attention to the changes of conditions in the production in art as an intervention in the process of cultural production.

Since the “aura” is an irrelevant aspect of how art is produced, the same can be said about how museums have elevated the status of the artifact on the mere basis of its “aura”. The fetishisation of                                                                                                                        

Phillips, J. (2009). On Walter Benjamin. Available: Last accessed 20th Sep 2012.

It is interesting to note that Walter Benjamin wrote this at the height of fascism during Hitler’s reign as Chancellor in Germany, during a time of war propaganda and aestheticised politics. Walter Benjamin argued from a dialectical and Marxist point of view for art to be politicised, as a reaction to the fascism of that time.


artifacts is irrelevant if there is to be cultural production. The public mission of museums is to educate the masses, which is a form of cultural production. Museums have to move away from the notion of “aura” towards how artifacts can be reproduced as works of art. In other words, they should focus on the means by which artifacts can be simultaneously and collectively experienced. Museums have to see themselves as a mass medium, by which reproducibility of the artifact can take place.

Present day curators are moving towards prioritising the idea of what an artifact represent, rather than the artifact itself (Marstine 2006, p.87). When it comes to the debate of ‘pristine’ or ‘used’ artifacts, curators sometimes allow audiences an authentic experience of the artifact at the expense of its conservation, e.g. by touching or feeling it. Compared to the past, curators are more willing to accept that artifacts are ephemeral and compromise on its conservation as long as its artistic vision remains intact. This is especially true for artifacts that incorporate unstable materials.

The above means that the museum artist should recognise that they have the freedom to work with the unconventional media of their time with less worry about how the artifact can be conserved. The museum artist should instead focus on the quality of the museum experience and design to make it accessible to as wide an audience as possible.


1.5. Towards a participatory museum The case for change outlined so far demands a new kind of museum model, one that is participatory in nature. In this model, the museum encourages collaborative learning and the audience is invited to be part of the museum discourse. Authenticity is not claimed and the museum allows for multiple and sometime conflicting viewpoints to be heard. The museum is as a mass medium, prioritising the quality and accessibility of the museum experience rather than emphasising the importance of the artifacts themselves. The museum does mass outreach through both its physical and virtual architecture, with museum staff engaging audiences online via its forums and social media, or on site as tour guides or facilitators. The museum is an embodiment of ideas, and of action and community learning rather than just merely a building, or a collection of artifacts. The museum engages its audience in critical discourse, rather than treating them as passive consumers of a packaged culture. The museum becomes something like a theatre or a metaphor of performance where visitors, guides and exhibitions perform and play out the contestation of meaning. The participatory museum model is consistent with the political idealisation of citizenship and democracy, rather than site control.

Museum artists should have this ideal of the museum in mind when working with the museum and design their work accordingly. In the next half of this paper, I will show how new media is compatible with this kind of museum model and a tool of choice for artists to use in the museum context.


Chapter 2 – New media theory 2.1. New media and its compatibility with the participatory museum Museums have evolved in the past few decades with the continual emergence of new consumer digital technologies. The public comes to expect that museums use the same familiar consumer technologies that they use in their daily lives, thus posing a challenge to museums to keep up with the technology curve. At the same time, new technology gives museums fresh possibilities on improving the museum experience. For example, the miniaturisation of electronics in the 1980s onwards, that popularised the use of personal computers at the home or office, led to the widespread adoption of interactive exhibits in museums. This is especially seen in children’s and science museums that emerged around this time. The birth of the World Wide Web in the 1990s and its subsequent technologies led many museums to establish an online presence and use the internet as a platform to engage the public. Social media and mobile technologies that got into mainstream use in the 2000s onwards have led museums to adopt these conventions as well. In other words, as new forms of media come about, museums have adapted them into use.

In his 2001 book, The Language of New Media, Manovich describes the general principles underlying new media has that of numerical representation, which describes new media objects existing as data; modularity, which describes how the different elements of new media exist independently; automation, which describes how new media objects can be created and modified automatically; variability, which describes how new media objects exist in multiple versions; and finally, transcoding, which describes how the logic of the computer influences how we understand and represent ourselves (Parry 2007, p.68).

The characteristics of new media are compatible with the participatory museum. The modularity of new media means that the experience of the museum artifact can be made scalable for mass 11  

simultaneous experience. This is in line with Walter Benjamin’s debunking of aura and authenticity in favour of the reproducibility of artworks. The ability to reach out to audiences is significantly larger compared to say, using real human beings to explain the museum artefacts to a few people in a face-toface setting. Examples include the audio tour guide that replicates and makes distributable museum content to the masses, and multimedia shows that can be played back at regular intervals to scale the experience for a mass audience. The numerical representation and automation of new media also makes it reliable, consistent and precise in its content delivery. An analogy of the benefits of this can be found in the industrial factory, where robots are used to replace humans for automated and repetitive tasks. The programmed behaviour of interactive websites and exhibits for example, are predictable and reliable, unlike human behaviour that is variable and contingent to emotional states and mental mindsets. The variability of new media allows for the intangible representation of artifacts to take the place of their materiality, in order to make reproducible the ideas and meaning that they embody. Its material existence is therefore not important, and it can take on variable intangible forms while retaining its semiotic value. In the same vein, Parry describes seeing objects as ‘discrete, contained units of human experience’ rather than ‘principally material things’, and as being in a ‘state of motion, and may occupy and migrate through different states and media’ (Parry 2007, p.68). Henri Lefebvre goes even further to say that

“Intangibility, virtuality and simulacra are all part of what a museum has been and continues to be. In its ‘otherness’, therefore, digitality has a powerful (and entirely compatible) part to play in such a project. In short, virtuality is another instantiation of the mimesis that museums have always enjoyed: ‘a reflection upon the virtual is what guides our understanding of the real.” (Quoted in Parry 2007, p. 76)


2.2 Participatory practices using new media The best sort of participatory practices can be accomplished using new media. One principle of participatory practice is to create a social networked experience among audiences and museums (Simon 2010, Chapter 1). Simon proposes a framework for social participation in the museum which new media can be designed upon. In this framework, the museum designs platforms for social interactions to occur and becomes a facilitator for community spaces.

Fig: Five stages of social participation (Simon 2010, p. 42) Another method is to allow individuals to personalise their museum experience according to their own visitor profile, such as their interests, knowledge framework and visitor objectives. John Falk’s research into visitors and identity-fulfilment indicates that ‘visitors select and enjoy museum experiences based on their perceived ability to reflect and enhance particular self-concepts’ (Simon 2010, Chapter 1). 13  

By giving visitors the ability to create their own visitor profiles, museums recognise them as individuals, resulting in a meaningful social and learning experience. This also allows the museum experience to be designed around the individual visitor’s motivation. In the same way, Facebook is successful because it allows the user to personalise the social experience by giving control of its platform to the user.

These are just some of the general principles behind participatory practices and I shall now go on to give illustrative examples of how new media fit into this context, namely interactive exhibits, social media, web technologies and mobile technologies.

2.2.1 Interactive exhibits The 1990s saw the emergence of science and children’s museums with an emphasis on interactive exhibits requiring audience participation. Simon explains the benefits of interactive exhibits:-

“Interactive design techniques are additive methods that supplement traditional didactic content
presentation. Interactive exhibits, when successfully executed, promote learning experiences that are unique and specific to the two-way nature of their design.” (Simon 2010, p.5)

Simon notes that art and history museums, while not strongly associated with interactives, employ interactives as a supporting role. Interactives do not require any institutional shifts and are just one of the many interpretative techniques employed by museums. Some examples of interactives that create participatory social experiences are multi-touch table installations and quiz game style exhibitions at which audiences can answer questions in front of a large projection.

Interactives can be designed as social objects allowing visitors to interact with one another or the museum in the creation of content, or with the museum. For example, the Smithsonian American Art 14  

Museum’s Ghosts of a Chance game accessioned player-generated objects into a temporary part of their collection database, with clear rules about what happened to the objects at the end of the game (they became the responsibility of the game designers, a sub-contractor to the museum). Another example is that of the Chicago Children’s Museum using visitor-generated multimedia stories in their Skyscraper Challenge exhibit as the basis for research on cognitive development.

New media also has a role to play in providing media rich databases for visitors to access and navigate information pertaining to museum exhibits. This is in line with Manovich’s characteristic of the variability of new media, which allows content to exist in many forms, such as video, audio and animations. Museums are adopting formal strategies for capturing high-quality media documentation for their exhibits. Curators and content specialists are working closely with educators and technologists to use digital resources for multimodal learning in the galleries (The NMC Horizon Report: 2011).

2.2.2 Web technologies

Because of web technologies, visitor participation with museums can occur for anyone, at anytime and anywhere. Virtually all museums now have websites that allow visitor feedback in the form of comments, forum discussions or polls. Manovich describes the World Wide Web as a database, with the database being the “symbolic order of the post-industrial age.” The museum collection can be seen as a database of sorts, and more and more museums are putting their collections online. This extends the museum experience beyond the four walls of the building and allows for a virtual experience of the museum:-

“Expectations for civic and social engagement are profoundly changing museums’ scope, reach, and relationships. More and more, museums are integrating emerging technologies and approaches such as social media, open content, and crowdsourcing as a means of engaging their communities both internally


and externally on a deeper level. Embracing these innovations means that museums are providing patrons with more immersive opportunities to become part of the art. Increasingly, people who are unable to make a physical trip to a museum are able to access its collections and respond and contribute meaningfully to conversations about what may be happening in the physical space, redefining what it means to be a museum patron.” (NMC Horizon Report: 2011)

Simon quotes MIT researcher Henry Jenkins in saying that more and more cultural institutions are digitizing their content for users to appropriate and share online:-

“We entered what MIT researcher Henry Jenkins calls a “convergence culture” in which regular people— not just artists or academics—appropriate cultural artifacts for their own derivative works and discussions. Some cultural institutions responded, as did some music and television studios, by locking down their content so it couldn’t be used in this way. But as time has gone on, more and more content providers have opened up their material and have invited people to create, share, and connect around it. Particularly for cultural institutions with a mandate to use their collections for public good, digitization and accessibility of content has become a top priority.” (Simon 2010, Chapter 1)

The Google Art Project is perhaps the best example of this, with more than 150 museums (as of Oct 2012), including big names like MoMA and Tate Modern, putting their collections online for visitors to view. Visitors can then create their own collection of favourites and share them with others, much like how social media allows users to share and distribute content online. Some institutions like The Brooklyn Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum are even sharing their digital collection content and software coding openly with external programmers to develop their own custom digital platforms, such as mobile phone applications (Simon 2010, Chapter 4).

However, it is important to note that web platforms are merely an extension of how museums can involve audiences, and cannot replace the participatory possibilities of a physical visit. Museums offer 16  

physical venues, interactions with real world objects, sensory experiences designed by experts and personal interactions with museum staff and other audiences that cannot be substituted by a virtual visit.

2.2.3. Social media

Social media represents a cultural revolution that has changed the way people interact with one another, and this has profound implications for the museum as well. More and more, museums are establishing a social media presence to reach out to their followers, allowing them to share content created by the museum. Internet citizens expect to be able to express their individuality in the consumption and co-opting of media content, to be able to create their own content or distribute content created by others, and to be recognised and respected for this. The hit count, ‘share’ and ‘like’ buttons on YouTube and Facebook are examples. Social media has facilitated entire online communities revolving around common interests, e.g. Flickr groups, Google+ circles and Facebook groups, and museums have also created such groups for themselves as well.

Social media is an excellent way for museums to crowd source visitor-generated content and redistribute it, thus inducing a form of engagement aligned with both the interests of museums and audiences. For example, The Metropolitan Museum used visitor-generated photos from Flickr in the popular “It’s Time We Met” advertising campaign (2009) to generate interest in visiting the museum7. Another example is how the Powerhouse Museum and the Brooklyn Museum have both created print-ondemand books of content generated by visitors involved in community exhibits and online projects (Simon 2010, Chapter 3).


The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009) It’s Time We Met [WWW]. Available from: [accessed 28 Oct 2012].


2.2.4 Mobile technologies Tablet computers, smart phones, audio guides and custom handheld museum devices are all examples of mobile technologies increasingly employed by museums. As consumer mobile technology evolves, so do visitor expectations of museums in using similar technologies. Increasingly, visitors expect to be able to interact with the museum across various media devices and platforms:-

“Increasingly, visitors and staff expect a seamless experience across devices” Whether viewing objects in gallery spaces, ordering tickets, interacting with the online store, or simply browsing the museum’s website, visitors expect museums to provide a wide range of digital resources and content, and want the experience of interacting with that content to be consistent across their devices. Virtual visitors in particular expect to be able to perform typical tasks online quickly and easily irrespective of the device they may have at hand — but this is especially true of visitors to the physical space as well, where it is common to see people interacting with their smart phones as they decide which part of the gallery to visit next.” (The NMC Horizon Report: 2011)

Mobile technologies follow the conventions of new media such as numerical representation, modularity, variability, automation and transcoding, and share the accrued benefits. Modularity allows the scalability of the museum experience to many people as mobile devices can be mass produced. Variability allows museum content such as interpretative data and information on exhibits to exist on various mobile platforms, to complement the physical exhibits. Variability also allows the visitor to access the database of the museum in a random fashion according to their own interests and motivations. This makes the visit a personalised one, and thus highly engaging and memorable. This commensurate with Falk’s visitor-centred museum theory as well as Simon’s advocacy of technology to customise the museum experience according to personal profiles. For example:-


“The most familiar pull device in museums is the random access audio tour, in which visitors punch numbers into an audio guide or their phone to selectively listen to interpretative material. ‘Random access’ is a strange term to describe what is really ‘direct’ access - information that can be consumed out of sequence. Random access was the technological innovation that transformed museum audio tours from forced narratives into open-ended explorations. Museums with multiple-channel audio tours geared towards different audiences often use different visual icons for each tour, so you can see that a particular painting has audio commentary on the teen channel and the conservator channel, whereas another sculpture in the same room might just have audio commentary for children. You can pick what you want to hear thanks to random access.” (Simon 2010, p35)

According to Tallon, Walker (2008), handheld guides and mobile technologies have many benefits. They promote learning by providing just in time information about the environment. They have the ability to connect with an imagined community across time for social learning and provide opportunities for the social exchange of information and instruction. They allow audience participation in sense making and contextualisation of information as opposed to traditional learning methods, such as passive viewing and the guided tour. The mobile phone can be used as a sensor rich interaction tool, most notably location based services and near field communication (still in its infancy). With mobile technologies, audiences can learn according to their own pace and preferences, tailored to their own learning styles. They thus become self curators relying on their own intrinsic motivation.


Qualifications Museum artists should be aware that new media does not create a participatory museum per se; it only works as far as mindsets go. Walter Benjamin sees technology as an “extension of man”. In this sense, it is neither good nor bad, but merely a product of the human will. Change in the museum will only take place when there is a mindset for a participatory model. This will provide the impetus for museums to adapt new media to create new platforms and experiences that support this model. It is this mindset issue that artists may need to overcome before they can start working with new media to create participation in the museum.

By large and by far, new media is not the only means that can support a participatory museum model because the human touch, which no amount of technology can replace, is an intangible factor that can dramatically alter the quality of the museum visitor experience. The social context of the museum experience are just as important as the personal and the physical context from the visitor perspective (Falk 1992).

Fig. John H Falk’s model for the museum interactive experience


Courteous museum staff, friendly security guards, helpful gallery sitters and the approachable museum tour guide can all make or break a museum visit, and encourage or discourage repeated visits or future interactions with the museum. In this respect, art and heritage museums are on an even footing with science and technological museums, even though they do not adopt new media as much. Low or no technology means, such as artists giving educational talks to the public, taking on stints as curators, organising workshops and forums to exchange views with audience, these are all participatory practices.

As an illustrative example of how the social context of a museum matters, I visited the Singapore Science Centre sometime at the end of Sep 2012. The physical context of the Science Centre was impressive. It has an Omni-max theatre, sprawling areas of interesting and sophisticated interactive exhibits, lots of rest areas, cafes and shops, and a comprehensive coverage of science topics ranging from astronomy to bio genomics to satisfy any curious visitor. However, there were few visitors and there were no signs of any kind of community activities going on. The robotics learning lab was closed. There was no museum staff to be seen beyond the ticketing counter. There were no live shows going on. Some of the interactive exhibits were not working. Some had no explanation tags. There were a lot of charts, diagrams and data in some areas that were not engaging. There were neither handheld guides provided nor human tour guides. There was only one information kiosk with a complicated looking interface at the entrance. In short, the human touch and social context was missing, and the museum experience felt empty.



I wrote this paper with the new media artist as an activist for a participatory museum in mind, first laying the case for change in the museum and then expounding on how new media can create a participatory museum.

The first part on museum theory started off with justifying why museums are still relevant today because of their role and importance as institutions of public learning, and artists should choose to work with them. I then touched briefly on their history, establishing that museums are not static entities, but have evolved and are still evolving, and they should move away from the outdated modern episteme as described by Foucault. I then argued that museums should see themselves as a mass medium and focus on designing an engaging museum experience rather than as a collector of artifacts, using Walter Benjamin’s writings to debunk the myth of ‘aura’ and ‘authenticity’. I quoted postcolonial and feminist studies as disproving the notion of an unchanging reality or history in the museum narrative, thus establishing the need for diverse perspectives in the museum. I then brought up the ideal model of the participatory museum.

In the next part of the paper, I defined what new media is using Lev Manovich’s principles of numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability and transcoding. I listed some benefits of new media that supports the participatory museum model, such as the ability of new media to scale the human experience to many visitors, and to customise the museum experience according to the visitor’s personal profile. I used Simon’s model of social participation as a framework for participatory practices. I then gave several examples of different types of new media that fit this framework, namely interactive exhibits, web technologies, social media and mobile technologies.


I then qualified my thesis statement, saying that museum participatory practices also work with low technology, or the human touch, although the impact will be on a much smaller scale without the amplifying characteristics of new media. The mindset of the museum is the deciding factor in the success of the participatory museum model and artists should convince the museum first before they can work on creating participatory experiences.



“Access to educational materials of all kinds has never been so easy or as open as it is today, and this trend is only increasing. The model of the museum curator or museum educator who stands in front of an object and interprets meaning for a passive audience is simply no longer realistic in this world of instant access. Museum professionals must respond by changing their roles to reflect the new need to guide and coach visitors in finding, interpreting, and making their own connections with collections and ideas. Museums are also more willing now to see themselves as learners, taking advantage of user-generated content to enhance the overall understanding of collections.” (The NMC Horizon Report: 2011)

Whether through new media or low technology means, the mindset of the museum will determine its success as a participatory model. Artists should encourage museums to see themselves as facilitators for social platforms that encourage participation, on top of their authority as content providers. They should be discouraged from trying to control content but to co-create and co-curate museum content with audiences. Artists should be aware that museums cannot claim to be the sole authority of knowledge based on the purported myth of ‘aura’ and ‘authenticity’, but recognise that the narratives of artifacts can change over time with broad cultural shifts in the political, social, economic and technological paradigm. Therefore, museums must allow for critical and scholarly discourse on the meaning of artifacts, especially in art, history and heritage institutions.

Artists should help museums focus on their rightful expertise on delivering the participatory museum experience, in order to fulfil their role as institutions of public character with a mission of public education. With the right mindset in place, the evolution of the museum into a participatory model will take place, be it with new media or low technology means. This evolution will result in audience empowerment, learning and engagement, a participatory museum model and a new episteme for museums.


References Bibliography Falk, J. (1992). The Museum Experience. USA. Whalesback Books. Marstine, J. (2006) New museum theory and practice: an introduction. Malden, MA, USA. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Parry, R (2007). Recoding the Museum: Digital Heritage and the Technologies of Change. London: Routledge. Simon, N (2010). The Participatory Museum. London: Museum 2.0. Tallon, L. Walker, K. (2008). Digital Technologies and the Museum Experience: Handheld Guides and Other Media. London. AltaMira Press. Chapter 7. Publication New Media Consortium and the Marcus Institute for Digital Education in the Arts (2011) The NMC Horizon Report: 2011 Museum Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium. Media Situated Identities and the Museum Visitor Experience (c.2009) PowerPoint slides. JOHN H. FALK. USA: Oregon State University. Available from: [Accessed 26/10/12]


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