To help kick-off Walker Open Field, five guests from across the spectrum of art and ideas have been invited to share thoughts and pose questions on the cultural commons, framing a conversation that will continue throughout the summer. We’ll be posting our notes on each of these presenters over the next two weeks, and encouraging them to drop by Walker Blogs to recommend readings and other resources. The event kicks-off at 7pm on Thursday, June 3rd. Save the date!
For a very long time museums have focused on buildings and galleries, revered physical spaces built to keep and display collections of stuff. Around all of this stuff museums have created content, the explanations and interpretations that help us make sense of our cultural past, present and future.
Michael Edson is the web and new media strategist for the world’s largest museum complex, the Smithsonian, which holds over 137 million objects in the public trust. A person could spend a lifetime walking through the Smithsonian’s museums and research centers and still not see everything there is to see, let alone read all of the labels. This sheer volume of objects and information is just one of the challenges the Smithsonian faces when considering how to make their resources accessible to audiences via the web and new media. Another more formidable challenge comes from the nature of the the web itself. While physical museums have traditionally been about hoarding stuff and authoring expert knowledge for public consumption, our new media tools encourage free and open sharing of creative works and ideas, valuing crowd-sourced knowledge over individual expertise.
In this environment, how should museum content be created, shared and managed? What is the role of a museum in the digital commons?
Michael will take up these questions and others at the Open Field kick-off event. He has a unique perspective from which to contemplate the vast cultural resources that museums represent. A painter and printmaker, he understands the importance of objects and their ability to teach and inspire. His first job at the Smithsonian was cleaning display cases, so he also knows the invisible dimensions of museum work that are so critical to how these institutions function.
As a new media strategist, Michael has made it his goal to break down the display cases and walls that institutions historically place around their collections, and around themselves. Using web-based tools to encourage content-creation at all levels of museum staff and public, he hopes to redefine the role museums play in our society, looking to the old idea of the commons for inspiration.
According to Michael, “Commons have historically been created when a property owner decides that a resource—be it grass for grazing sheep, land for parks or even intellectual property—will create more value if freely shared. A museum commons functions much in this same way. Ideas and creative works are shared freely, creating more value for society.”
The result of Michael’s exploration of these ideas has been the creation of a new strategy for online engagement called The Smithsonian Commons. A new digital presence for the museum, the Smithsonian Commons “is dedicated to free and unrestricted sharing, and encourages new kinds of learning and creation through interaction with Smithsonian researchers, collections and communities.” While on stage at the Walker Michael will share a few ideas that led him to this project, as well as how it has fundamentally changed the institution. He’s hoping others will come with thoughts and ideas about the future possibilities of museum as commons.
In our conversation, Michael pointed out that “Museums right now are asking themselves, how will we survive in the digital age?”
It’s a good question. It seems the days are long gone when people were satisfied with museums that act simply as knowledge creation and dissemination engines, or worse, as tombs for creative culture. Today’s museums perform real, meaningful work in our society – and artists and individuals are equipped to participate.
Michael and others see the Walker’s Open Field project as an opportunity to test out a museum commons in real time and space.