Is metaspace a better space?

An exploration of the advantages of web-based digital heritage and the changing role of the physical museum.

Digital technology is ubiquitous and is growing exponentially. It is this rapid pace of change that often renders it immune to definition and analysis. While digital technology continues to assume normative status in the daily operations of museums, galleries and heritage sites, there exists a growing body of digital reincarnations of these spaces on the internet, or metaspace. Their extreme sophistication and wide applicability gives rise to an uncomfortable question: Is metaspace a better space; are the digital, web-based reincarnations of museums, galleries and heritage sites beginning to supersede their physical incumbents?

New Museology theory identifies objects, dialogue, meaning making, and education as key components of the museum’s mission which is fundamental to achieving social inclusion.The field of museology itself has a broad remit that refers to, and works with, both cultural and natural heritage.Thus, this article looks at archaeology, architecture and natural heritage to illustrate the variety of disciplines covered by museology.

While variance in New Museological theory does exist, there is general acceptance of the object’s principal role. Their collection, categorisation and display represents the ‘coping strategy of countless historically and culturally differentiated communities to bring some degree of order to the world around them.’1 These activities are contingent on the object’s value, not necessarily determined by authenticity, but by the individual or group making decisions concerning its exhibition or acquisition. 

This social element of museums contests the New Museological mission of just and representative object management. As societies become increasingly pluralistic, multicultural and transnational, and museum theory more confident in unpacking the infinite communicative potential inherent in museums, is it unrealistic to expect museums to be able to provide such a broad-based service and achieve social inclusion? While critical reflexivity provides some protection for museum staff and their communities, are we setting museums up to fail? Equally, are we failing to plan for the future? This is a fast-approaching reality that I believe the sector hasn’t adequately addressed, nor approached with the kind of candour required. The Information Age has created a context where the virtual can be authentic, engendering other ways of interpreting objects. While this involves a substantial shift in normative practice, herein lies an opportunity for the sector to avoid a future in which, I think, they will be over committed.

Image from Android Authority

Image from Android Authority

The Google Arts & Culture Project demonstrates one way the sector might authenticate on material lines which, I argue, is a more effective way for museums to manage their relationship with objects. The Google Arts & Culture Project is an online platform strongly resembling the New Museological vision of a forum.It provides users with free access to over six million items of tangible and intangible heritage in the form of high resolution photography and videography, Google’s Street View technology allows users to navigate their way around the sites and zoom in on works, many of which have been photographed with gigapixel technology. Gigapixel imagery can capture over 1 billion pixels, compared to the 12 million available in an iPhone 6. This offers an unprecedented level of access to works, where users can magnify their view to observe intense levels of technical detail, and even detect content indistinguishable to the naked eye, let alone from behind a barrier.These hyperreal manifestations of physical reality help to distance museum professionals and visitors from marginalising museum semantics, increasing their ability to re-attribute authenticity and value on material lines, allowing objects and their authors to speak louder than the information communicated by the museum itself.

Image from Interactive Media Archive

Image from Interactive Media Archive

A significant part of the New Museology mission is to create a ‘dialogue between curators and the public’ in a bid to disestablish its traditionally unilateral structure, build meaningful relationships with source communities and support transactional communication models that recognise the agency of audiences in creating and consuming meaning.It would argue that as a model, GlobalXplorer is surpassing the physical museum in this regard. GlobalXplorer is a free online platform of leading-edge satellite imagery whose mission it is to locate undiscovered archaeological heritage sites before they are destroyed by war, climate change or looting. Since its 2016 launch, its first project in Peru has experienced huge success and as a platform, GlobalXplorer is functioning with a ninety percent plus success rate. To date, 17 possible pyramids, 3,100 possible settlements, and 1000 possible Egyptian tombs have been detected.

Its major point of difference is that it uses crowdsourcing to generate information. Users of the GlobalXplorer platform are given access to the imagery and tools to execute robust micro-analysis for the regeneration of a collective history. Building crowdsourcing into your strategy indicates that as an organisation, you value pluralism, diversity and inclusiveness and are willing to share power with your stakeholders. This attitude is effective in breaking down common perceptions of traditional power structures inherent in binaries like institution and audience.

Institutions who digitise collections create systems that are more accessible to a wider cross-section of society. As at the museum, audiences can craft their own experience and have meaningful interactions with heritage on a digital platform. Audience agency is well-established in museum and heritage theory and can be so robust that often it is audience experience that becomesthe product of the museum. Digital heritage platforms have developed some incredible tools that capitalise on this phenomenon, like Make your own Masterpiece, an international design competition launched by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2013.

The competition is highly accessible: there is no entry criteria and it is built on the concept of open access. The Rijksmuseum has over 150,000 images in the public domain that occupy a purpose-built website. Participants partake by perusing this digital archive, ‘drawing inspiration from the collection and using them to make their own artwork.’ [S7] T[MW8] hey can save images or specific details they like and use tools to modify them before having it developed on a wide range of materials like canvas, aluminium, or plexiglass. There is no limit in terms of style, application or medium; the judges are primarily concerned with how the artist makes meaning from the Rijkmuseum’s collection. So far there have been 820 entries ranging from Delft Blue contact lenses to condom packets decorated with reproductions of engravings of Adam and Eve from 1643.

The Google Arts and Culture Project is relevant in the context of audience agency as it gives users’ unprecedented power to categorise, but in a way that is personally interesting or impactful. The innovations in their Experiments portfolio are especially demonstrative of this as they test how ‘machine learning’ can contribute to the museum experience and potentially disrupt some of the very foundations of museum work. Machine learning is when the computer functions solely on algorithmically-powered visual recognition. For example Tags produces results that the computer has learnt are visual representations of the search entry. Each result has a tag to explain why it has been included in the search results.Tags exemplifies a web-based digital heritage platform that can transcend dominant ontological and epistemological concepts and definitions inherent in the physical museum by incorporating examples so recent that museum professionals would not have even had the chance to classify them. A charming example of this is given by its director Amit Sood, in his February 2016 Ted Talk. Using Tags, Sood ran a search of what was most meaningful to his mother—gold. This produced the kind of images like jewellery you would expect, but it had also tagged images that represented gold’s contemporary namesake: “bling-bling”.

Image from Cyark.org

Image from Cyark.org

At the core of the museum’s mission has always been education. CyArk is an exceptional example of the educational potential of web-based digital heritage. CyArk uses 3D scanners to digitally delineate cultural heritage sites by reflecting laser lights off the site’s exterior. The scanners map millions of points per second to two to three millimetre accuracy. These are then connected in a lattice so intricate it appears opaque. This transforms the initial “point cloud” into a solid 3D model to which colour from photographs are applied. These 3D models eclipse the capability of conventional apparatus that restrict surveyors to a mere 500 points per day.

A significant section of the website is dedicated to education and provides free, easy to download lesson plans for teachers like ‘Math at Mount Rushmore’ and ‘Modernisation Theory and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Project.’ In addition, CyArk’s sustainability strategy is one of empowering through education with “technology centres” at partner universities in close proximity to project sites. There, students are taught the skills of digital preservation so they can take an active role in their local cultural heritage sector.

So what lies ahead for the physical museum? Museums need to be cognisant of how the heritage landscape is changing so they too, can take an active role in changing with it. For too long bureaucracy, funding, and sector standards have limited museums to incremental change rather than the big picture thinking that will incite the paradigmatic shift required to establish a point of difference in this digitally-driven environment. There is real value in museums adopting the kind of strategic planning that cause New Museologists to diverge. Basic internal and external analysis of the museum environment would reveal an opportunity in multisensory exhibitions that is humming with potential. This concept is already well supported by theory, and it is effectively employed in science and children’s museums today.

Championing big picture thinking and putting forward multisensory services as a potential launch pad is essential for the next paradigmatic shift in museum evolution. Together, these four examples of web-based digital heritage challenge the fundamental role of the museum in terms of objects, dialogue, meaning-making and education and build a strong theoretical case for metaspace as the better space. Despite this, I think we would be hard-pressed to find widespread preference for digital over physical heritage experiences, especially in the context of intensifying device dependency and the general pervasiveness of these in our everyday lives. However, I am confident that digital developments in the heritage sector will continue to be exponential and in some cases, beyond our comprehension. Rather than relying on reactive ‘coping strategies’, I advocate for museums to plan more strategically for a future that is characterised by increasingly pluralistic, multicultural and transnational societies and laden with sophisticated digital technology, and consider ways in which they might leverage their existing capabilities to establish a point of difference in this environment.

Kirsty de Jong

1 Parry, Poole, and Pratty, “Semantic Dissonance,” 96.