Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Platypuses, Motherships and Avatars

Dr Kostas Arvanitis opened for us this morning. A specialist in digital heritage, his paper ties in with Owain Rhys' presentation rather well. 'The Digital Lives of Objects' starts with speculation upon what the 'next big thing' in museums might be...

It's about having a vision.

Over the last decade, museums have established many different identities, virtual, hyper, cyber and digital. This was initially considered as something strange, and alien species...like a platypus. But we are beginning to accept it as a member of the family of museum mammals. Museums are beginning to bridge online and offline content. New career posts are being created in museum workplaces, and the museum is now amphibious, both online and offline creatures.

How does that material world link to the intangible, digital world? We have moved now from an online world which operated in a 'transmission' style of communication to a world of reciprocal communication and user generated content. Perhaps we, rather than the media, are now the message. Where does the museum fit?

The mothership is the place where information is aggregated and stored. This is what the museum is becoming - the collector both of tangible and intangible information, and of material and digital objects. Information, as Castells argued, is power. In this role of aggregator, the museum returns to its original role, making sense of the world around us. It is the world that has changed and with it the things that the museum deals.

Museums deal with the movement of information across geography and across time. This now includes the ephemeral, the temporary, the future, the present as well as the past. But how does the museum mothership collect this information? Through 'avatars', smaller, dependent ships which insinuate themselves into the online and physical worlds. In the past, these avatars would take physical form, postcards and miniatures, but now they might be more active - DVDs, exhibitions in Second Life, Facebook Applications, Youtube Videos...the list goes on. They leave traces which the museum can collect.

The challenge of the museum is to establish a suitable and ethical method of following their avatars. How might this be done? Sometimes avatars return - through listening to podcasts, seeing an image through a mobile phone app or blog, people may decide to come to the museum. Can there, then, be an interaction between avatar and original? What would happen if the material object itself became digitally connected, became a hybrid. Could such a thing happen?

No longer is the object bound in physicality. Objects travel, through their avatars. Objects are many things - material entities, representative symbols, digital entities - and they themselves could be said to have avatars. The Physical-Digital hybrid museum is a real and present being. Within museums, the disjunct between material and intangible collapse...the contested zones become connected zones.

Where does this leave the physical thing? The movement to the digital does not negate the importance of the material, tangible, touchable, sensible thing. Perhaps, infact, the increasing engagement with the simulacra makes the real more 'magical'.

But what will the future bring...will the less tangible digital objects we generate today still be relevant - will they even still exist as we know them?

My answer to this is no...but that is no matter. Have objects ever remained 'true' to their original selves? Not if their meaning is made in networks and relationships. The 'object' is too contingent for that. There are always layers upon layers upon layers...


  1. Impressive summary Jenny!


  2. Wow, thanks Kostas! I really enjoyed your discussion! It generated a lot of questions - I think that could have gone on a lot longer!