One of the mantras of museum discourse in the past decade has been that of digitalization. The future is digital, collections should be online, new digital medias define the frontiers of museum practice, and so on.
A quick glance at the Heritage Agency of Denmark’s list of supported projects in the past 10 years will confirm this state of things handedly – practically every single funded project is based on implementing new digital technology in the museums. The media is the message. The political and monetary winds have blown in the sails of the digital flagship.
But there is something philosophically backwards about this approach. It is an approach to museum practice constructed by digital immigrants, who believe that the medium itself carries some sort of intrinsic value. As Marc Prensky, who coined the digital native/digital immigrant distinction, writes:
Those of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be compared to them, Digital Immigrants. The importance of the distinction is this: As Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past.
Many, if not most, of the digital museum-type projects seems to me to stuck in a phase of digital immigrants trying to wrap their traditional ideas around new forms of media. Sometimes such projects results in a happy marriage, but often they end up in a limbo: The digital immigrants do not use them, because their practices and interest are fundamentally tied to other forms of media, and the digital natives are not interested in them, because of their inherently flawed form and often miserably poor use of the digital media.
But there is another, more fundamental misunderstanding at work in the fascination with ‘the digital museum’: The future is not digital. Digital natives might inhabit a world in which digital media play a different role, but it is not a digital world. Philosopher and game designer Ian Bogost makes this point forcefully on his blog:
It’s not “the digital” that marks the future of the humanities, it’s what things digital point to: a great outdoors. A real world. A world of humans, things, and ideas. A world of the commonplace. A world that prepares jello salads. A world that litigates, that chews gum, that mixes cement. A world that rusts, that photosynthesizes, that ebbs. The philosophy of tomorrow should not be digital democracy but a democracy of objects.
Museums have a unique position because they, literally, can display this democracy of objects. Time to lay the fetish of a digital museum to rest and get on with the business of showing the materiality of science, medicine and technology.