April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Object-Orientated Democracies: Contradictions, Challenges And Opportunities

F.R. Cameron, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney, Australia


Museum collections are increasingly linked to global networks and flows of information. Google-enabled initiatives and the placement of collections information and images in social spaces (YouTube, FlickR, MySpace) allow them to be linked to wider social, cultural contexts, used in unexpected ways in debates, and for political agendas within public culture . Interactions with collections, some planned, others serendipitous, are now happening through these multiple and extended connections of people, ideas and objects, across long distances and national boundaries. Collections space and the meanings, values and significances attributed to them can no longer be considered fixed, given or separate. It is now dynamic, less predictable and networked (Cameron and Mengler 2007).

This paper discusses conceptual work undertaken for the Australian Research Council research project Reconceptualising Heritage Collections with the Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney and the Powerhouse Museum. It offers some possible solutions on how museums and collections might operate as complex systems according to Latour’s (2005) idea of object-orientated democracies. Here I draw on the results of qualitative research, conversations and workshops with curators, and globally networked communities presenting models for transdisciplinary and socially embedded practices in collections documentation.

Keywords: museum collections, networks, global flows, Web 2.0, documentation, transdisciplinarity

Democratising The Object: Revisiting The Concept Of Access

Museum metaphors as they currently stand use collections to produce stable, certain meanings, ordered categories and unified heritage values. In museum space, the curator is regarded as the main entrance to a qualified interpretation of the object. Audiences are directed to read and use these texts in certain ways. According to these metaphorical tools, an object’s narrative is sustained around detailed descriptions of its physical form and production notes. An object’s significance lies more in its role in sustaining a socially symbolic meaning such as local or national identity rather than its contexts of use or consumption. Essentially, museums have striven to create a world of factual objects almost completely separate from human concerns, desires and conflicts through systems of classification, acquisition, and documentation procedures. 

While museums are placing more emphasis on their experiential and performative aspects in exhibitions (Henning 2006), the same consideration has not been given to collections. The experiential dimension accorded to collections tends to be orientated to access: the ability to detach objects and collections information from their fixed place in time and space allows them to circulate as multiples and reproductions via on-line collections interfaces. This parallels with claims that technology is democratic and neutral. While the idea of the democratic object is linked to access in theory, in practice museum classifications remain hierarchical, and museum-specific interpretive paradigms remain predominately closed.

Networked Collections And Its Transformations

The networked object overturns all this. By programming museum collections into Google and other social spaces like YouTube, Flickr and MySpace, and with the advent of Web 2.0, collections and information are now entering global flows. For example, in 2006, the Powerhouse Museum launched OPAC2 (Open Collections Access V2) linking its collections searches to Google, with users able to add their own folksonomies (descriptive terms) to searches and make search recommendations (Chan 2007b). The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA - Los Angeles), the Walker Art Centre and the Brooklyn Museum, for example, have presences on MySpace showcasing their collections and advertising upcoming exhibitions and events. Users interact and arrange to meet at virtual events and discuss memorable exhibitions to, as one MOCA user wrote, ‘revive the experience.’ Numerous museum visitors post photographs of their favourite objects and artworks to the photo sharing site Flickr. The National Library of Australia is harvesting images of telephone technology from Flickr to be archived in its collection.

Collections information now operates within networks that transcend their immediate location, placing them in wider flows of interconnected cultural, political, economic and technological ideas, agendas and resources. Through these public spaces, collections are able to garner greater interest and cultivate meanings within wider cultural and social contexts. Social actors in various locations and contexts are acting on and modifying collections information according to their interests.

Figure 1

Fig 1: Powerhouse Museum Collection object 93/391/66 Brassiere, womens, ‘Nu-U’, nylon / cotton / metal, Berlei, Australia, 1957 and advertisement for the 2006 Ubra.  

For example, the 1950s Ubra, in the Powerhouse collection, became one of the museum’s most viewed on-line objects late last year, in contrast to its previous relative obscurity (Chan 2007, personal communication). This can be explained through Google searches linking objects to a consumer culture of shopping. Its popularity coincided with the re-invention and launch of the 2006 Ubrain stores, with media coverage, and the efforts of consumers to purchase the item.

In some instances, objects are taking an active role in social networks and political agendas. Via Goggle, collections of Persian objects used as signifiers of Iranian cultural identity were mobilised to counter negative representations of ancient Persia following the 300 movie controversy about the battle of Thermapylae between the Persians and Spartans in 480BC (Jones 2007). Searches for the film 300 were diverted away from the film to a Web site Project 300 that displayed contemporary Iranian art, documentaries, and links to the British Museum’s Forgotten Empire exhibition of Persian artefacts (Jones 2007, 6). Art works were used as tools to project positive representations of Persian civilisation and bolster contemporary national narratives. 

Collections data from the Powerhouse Museum collection on Australian swimmer  Annette Kellerman, the “Diving Venus” who was arrested in 1907 for indecent exposure for appearing in her bathing suit, appeared on the porn blog, Silent-Porn-Star (Chan 2007, personal communication,

How heritage significance is ascertained is also being challenged.

Figure 2

Fig 2: Powerhouse Museum Collection object 2005/1/1 Evening dress designed by Lisa Ho and worn by Delta Goodrem, 2003.

For example, a dress designed by Australian designer Lisa Ho and worn by singer Delta Goodrem has remained the most viewed object in the Powerhouse Museum’s OPAC, probably having currency because of both her celebrity status and associated controversies around her personal life.

Interactions with heritage collections, some planned, others serendipitous, are now being conducted through these multiple and extended connections of people, ideas and objects, across long distances and national boundaries. Collections information is fluid, without  boundaries, enabling all these things to be used and reconfigured within flows

Global-Local Dialectics: Blurring The Boundaries Between Local And Global

Although museums tend to be locality-bound and represent that community, they simultaneously operate in a global network as a dominant node in heritage regimes. The global offers a different set of competing dynamics, no longer territorially defined and community based. In considering museums as global, this aspect works with the potential to integrate a multiplicity of political, economic, social, and cultural economies, linked to various communities, histories and geographical regions of the globe. All these have the potential to create and re-create meanings around collections in complex ways. While some collections have greater local resonance, many express global connections. Because the space of information flows is flexible and interactive, protocols of communication between cultures in networks, according to theorist Manuel Castells (2004a), are not necessarily based on shared values, but on sharing the value of communication. Therefore, collections now operate in an open-ended network of meanings and within many-to-many communication regimes that coexist but also interact and modify each other on the basis of exchanges. Here objects are simultaneously connected to locality and institution, and taking on a role in mapping out a public space beyond the museum.

Clearly, museums need to consider the changing and fluid nature of heritage significance in the context of these broader cycles of consumption and information flows. In referring to other dimensions, and drawing on Castell’s work, theorist Felix Stalder (2006) argues that the mainstream and single accepted way of representing reality is being fragmented into an ever-growing multiplicity of culturally specific symbolic and material discourses. The same is true for collections interpretative regimes. Clearly, the more technology facilitates a networked social structure and individual cultural expression, as seen most recently with Web 2.0, the more difficult it becomes for museums to produce universal or consensual meanings for their collections. Theorist Jordi Borja (2003) expands on this, arguing that the advent of technologies allowing participation in global networks also encourages people to assert their own culture and experience in their immediate localities. The ramifications of this for museums is indeed great in terms of how they relate to and interact with their constituencies, resulting in potentially greater interest by both local and more far-flung constituencies in how collections are considered and valued.

How to interface the variability, and at times the contradictory nature and clash of museum symbolic codes, multiple user values and significance, becomes an important consideration. Decisions about how collections are accorded meaning and significance cannot be understood only according to geographical location; position within overall global networks and the fuller range of expressions and desires this entails play a part. In short, collections space and the meanings, values and significances attributed can no longer be considered fixed, given or separate. They have become dynamic and less predictable.

Object Orientated Democracies: An Emergent Paradigm

These examples are more closely aligned to what Bruno Latour (2005b) calls object-orientated democracies rather than to the notion of the static object. The object-through-networks is enabled as an actor in these events, thus challenging museum canons. Many collections have implicit political tensions that are often denied and subsumed within the documentation process. Few exhibit a seamless knowable narrative in a real world context.

According to Latour (2005b, 15) and in referring to contemporary issues such as the Islamic veil in France or the latest beheading of fanatics in Falluja, each of these ‘objects’ generates a different pattern of emotions, passions, opinions, disagreements and agreements while drawing together an assembly of people, each with their own agendas and ways to bring about a resolution. Networked objects such as the above-mentioned accordingly generate changes in conceptions of what objectivity is and what the ‘facts’ are as competing assemblies of people and ideas coalesce. Latour argues that, “For too long, objects have been wrongly portrayed as matters of fact.” (19).

In a museum context, collection items are seen as matters of fact. This factual equivalent is made tangible through materiality (the inscribed objective nature of an object based on its material form and auric links to locations, events and people), museum significance and classification. In a networked environment, Latour (2005b, 19) posits that there is a shift from matters of fact, to one of matters of concern or matters of interest as the various agendas and opinions are brought together through networks. This shift is clearly evident in two of the examples discussed. The Ubra example shows how matters of interest; such as consumerism, shopping, sexuality, concepts of beauty, sit side by side with museum significance, demonstrating how objects might be used for a completely different intent.

Persian objects from the British Museum exhibition The Forgotten Empire were drawn into the object-orientated democracy around Persian nationhood and identity that emerged around the 300 movie. Here collections were used as players in international relations specifically to foreground and assert the matters of concern and interests of contemporary Iranian artists, activists and media about how the Persian empire was portrayed.

This event also highlights the fluidity of museum fact, how it becomes blurred and conflicted as competing notions of the past, good and bad, clash. The Forgotten Empire exhibition narrative extolled the Persian empire as advanced, civilized and glorious while countering other views by omission. This event also emphasises the power of ‘factual’ representations in a museum context and shows how this is increasingly used for political and identity purposes, because technology makes it easier. New technologies are mobilised to counter the effects of disagreement, produce different readings of events, enable people to challenge established orthodoxies, facilitate object-orientated democracies and group concerns and interests while drawing museums and collections into debates.

By the gathering together of different assemblies of relevant and interested people around an object, Latour (2005b) argues that the public space and the readings of the object that emerges are profoundly different from those usually recognised under the label of the political. Here the analogy for the museum object lies in how some collections are operating, read and used in networked public space by different individuals and groups, often in entirely different ways from those imaged under the guise of curatorial authority or heritage significance, value and certainty. For example, the space of the Ubra brought together an assembly of unlikely parties, heritage values, and an authorised museum significance with mobile worlds of consumer consumption and on-line shopping. The photographs of Annette Kellerman were read as both the iconic Australian swimming sensation and, in a different realm, as early twentieth century porn. How might these competing readings be acted out in the collections documentation context?

Object-Orientated Democracies: The Palestinian Example

To consider ways an object-orientated democracy might operate in the real world context of collections documentation, as part of the Reconceptualising Heritage Collections project we constructed this dynamic around two objects, a Palestinian thob abu qutbeh (wedding dress) and a British Mandate coin. Here we assembled curators from the Powerhouse Museum together with a group of Palestinian Australian people and networked them with curators from museums and cultural centres in Ramallah, Palestine and Israel. The project involved interactions through a collections wiki and discussions in real time.

Both objects chosen are politically charged for different reasons, one a Palestinian object made by women, the other produced by a colonial power. Each had an implicit object-orientated democracy activated through this network. These items operated as a juncture where matters of fact and the interests and concerns and agendas of these various assemblies of people could gather, and as a point where shifting meanings and significance attributed to these objects might be articulated.

For Palestinian nationals, for example, the thob abu qutbeh acts as a marker of identity; as a regional and national symbol; as a statement of resistance against the Israeli occupation; and a political map of the landscape to which style and colour of each talks of its specific location and to land lost in the occupied territories. As one focus group participant stated, “after the occupation the thob becomes a flag – while the flag cannot be displayed, the dress takes it place.” (Palestinian Focus Group 2008). The shifting ground of significance and meaning is expressed by the meanings played out prior to occupation where an emotional resonance around happiness and marriage was fore-grounded, with the former reading emerging since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

Diasporic readings (those of Palestinian Australians) of the thob abu qutbeh speak to it as symbol of identity but less as a political tool, and converse more directly of the emotional links to homeland, women’s culture, marriage, love and happiness and the skill and beauty of the hand-made stitch.

The Powerhouse Museum curatorial reading of the thob operates as a symbolic stand-in for Palestinian women and culture. Here the object as an isolated entity speaks through the description of its physicality and production, links to other wedding dresses, and connects to hippy parties in the 1960s.

Palestinian curatorial readings of the same object talk to the thob as a living tradition worn by women in villages and refugee camps, as a national symbol - marker of identity, social class, marital status and origin. A Jewish reading, on the other hand, seeks to challenge the uses of material culture and the thob as statements of resistance and occupation and the deployment of collections data as political tools, as well as an assertion that the thob has a Judeo-Christian origin.

The object-orientated democracy that emerged around the British Mandate coin c1927 in which Palestine is expressed in three languages, Arabic, Hebrew and English, illustrates how readings of significance differ, and conceptions of what facts are and what objectivity is clash according to these assemblies and competing agendas. One point of dispute was reference to the British Mandate as a “prosperous and stable period” in the Powerhouse Museum curatorial record. For many Palestinians, a reading of the British Mandate coin symbolized the British occupation and the destruction of Palestinian culture. To them, the British Mandate was a period of instability and hardship with clashes involving the British army, Palestinians and the Jewish terrorist gangs, and prolonged strikes. For others, the symbolism of the three languages reflected equal representation, the ability for the sides to work together, and optimism about future peace. These debates also highlight how the language of documentation in many instances has inherent political tensions.

Disputes also arose over status of the various languages prior to the British Mandate, underlying assertions about legitimate claims to land and a sovereign state. A Jewish lobby argued that Hebrew was an official language before the Mandate, whereas others refuted this, suggesting that this status was conferred under the Mandate as part of the process towards the establishment of a Jewish state.

A fuller expression of the complex meanings, passions, agreements and disagreements in a networked world will be played out when this wiki is made public. This, however, is seen as problematic. Tensions arise between an older idea of the political as part of a dominant museum culture, and newer ideas of the political and of governance as emergent, open-ended and unpredictable, enabled through open-source collections interfaces within networked contexts. Surprisingly, many articulated the need for museums to act as apolitical gatekeepers to protect Palestinian interests and material culture as a cultural symbol against ‘other’ interpretations and political subversion, particularly by Israeli interests. Here governance, for the majority, is deemed as previously expressed to mean taking an active role in providing safe interpretations for particular interests by limiting the associations and resonances that can be built around objects, especially those that are disputed or sensitive. These assertions led to questions about maintaining the authenticity of information for political and academic purposes and the legitimacy of other expertise and knowledge in this process. Strongly disputing this approach, one focus group participant stated, “competing knowledges are symbolic of life, blood and death, the interpretation of collections needs to reflect the real world” (Palestinian Focus Group 2008).

Networks, Significance And Visibility

The visibility or significance of objects also fluctuates in networks. Some objects have a higher visibility at times. Therefore significance is defined by the matters of interest and concerns of the actors and networks to which an object is connected. This is in sharp contrast to museum significance, where significance is directly related to why the museum considers an object important to collect, primarily for symbolic reasons. While museum disciplinary significance, presented as static unchanging statements, is authorised in this context, other significances are not given space.

Matters of fact, concern, interest, the fluctuating visibility of objects as significance, operate simultaneously in the way they are consumed. This could be fleeting or involve deep epistemological questions. The question is, how can the rigid structures in which collections and information reside take account of these new formulations of the networked object in which matters of fact operate at times in conflict and sit alongside the concerns and interests of diverse communities? In networks, objects operate as all these things.

Put simply, and drawing on Latour’s words, objects are more interesting, complicated, uncertain, open and risky, far-reaching, heterogeneous, historical, local and networked (Latour 2005b) than in the limited way presented by museums. Collections information can no longer be managed; expertise has broadened. Latour (2005, 21) refers to this as a new eloquence. That is, interpretation can no longer be considered as a unified stabilizing pattern.

Network metaphors are also used to explain and conceptualise the weakening of the hierarchy principle to which museums subscribe as both a general organisation model and a political technology of action (Stalder 2006). Media theorist Georgie Born (2004) in discussing the notion of expertise at the BBC suggests that there is less emphasis on expertise as a form of management but more on interpreting lived realities.

Despite all this, collections documentation tends to continue to produce a certain and stable material world with clearly defined inscribed cultural categorisations. The complexities of objects, their lived realities, their use and consumption contexts are seen as problems to be removed by classification, although this is changing.  This museum order has begun to sit uncomfortably with the increasingly complex interactions with collections. To date, complexity practices have not been given sufficient attention in the way museum heritage documentation and engagement operate. The emphasis has been on applying technical solutions rather than on giving close examination to the social contexts in which museums operate.

Collections And Disciplinary Dilemmas

figure 3

Fig 3: Conceptualising current museum collections documentation systems: the disciplinary context. © Fiona Cameron

Museum objects have always been more complex than their classificatory or heritage demarcations suggest. The museum system uses disciplines such as art, history, science and natural history as vantage points to describe all human knowledge and culture in an orderly fashion. The analytical dimensions of these disciplines reduce the complexities of objects so they can act as privileged symbols of culture and nature, and of national identity.

The limitations of disciplinary knowledge and heritage ascription has been acknowledged with a move to engage with post structuralist ideas such as object meaning as constructed and post-modernist ideas about plural voices (Cameron, 2005; Cameron and Mengler, 2007). These approaches have been widely embraced in museums, in exhibitions, in programs and increasingly, in collections. Plural approaches are still problematic in terms of ascribing heritage value. They use the various perspectives to  represent a cohesive story, to illustrate difference and act as separate non-interacting narratives. Considerable progress has been made in incorporating human stories into documentation. For example, curators at the Birzeit University Ethnographic and Art Museum, Ramallah, Palestine, base collections documentation largely on consultation and field research, gathering information about collection items from communities and antique dealers (Palestinian Focus Group transcription, 2008, 5). While innovative, these approaches still place the museum at the centre of the dialogue, controlling and directing the meanings and values ascribed in collections documentation and placing them into a cohesive narrative.

Figure 4

Fig 4: Museum collections documentation systems: engaging multi- and inter-disciplinarity. © Fiona Cameron

More recently multidisciplinarity has been seen as a solution to contextualise the complex object (Hooper-Greenhill 1992, 7). This, however, is a form of pluralism where the different disciplines are used as separate non-interacting entities to describe the object. Folksonomies, or object search descriptions in the Powerhouse collection by users, act as kind of in-between spaces between disciplines and formal museum nomenclatures - to engage the more nuanced social understandings of objects.

Interdisciplinarity, on the other hand, might be more useful as it is an approach that attempts to create bridges across disciplines, bringing them together and integrating their various aspects (Meek et al. 2005). It acknowledges that the different aspects of an object can be seen from different perspectives, each contributing insights that require integration to produce new meanings.

None of these discipline-based solutions, however, should be considered wholesale solutions for grasping object complexity. Nor should they be confused with real engagement with the social, spatial, political, economic and historical realities to be observed in the contemporary world and in which heritage collections now operate and arguably always have.

Museum Order: The Current System

Figure 5

 Fig 5: Mapping museum collections documentation in a complex chaotic world. © Fiona Cameron

This map shows the current system and how relations between the different orders operate in a complex chaotic world. The museum system of disciplinary knowledge sits separate. Museum order is bounded from the outside world but networked into wider public culture.  Interactions are mediated via Google, YouTube, Flickr and other avenues that permeate the museum walls: most pass through; few stay or are captured. Many of these interactions are momentary. Disciplinary vantage points remain as the predominant means for defining the object. Multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity as practices bring the museum world closer to contextualising heritage collections in a more complex manner, but these are still separated from the chaos and unpredictability of lived realities.

Clearly, existing museum collection metaphors and newer ones such as multi- and inter-disciplinarity are inadequate to grasp the dynamics, complexities and disorder of the contemporary world as described and the interfaces between the museum and material objects. The challenge of the Reconceptualising Heritage Collections Project is to move from the ‘plural’ to conceptualising museum collections practice as complex and networked; that is, from a predominantly closed to an open system of meaning-making (based on analytic forms characterised by unity, universality and certainty) to incorporating other aspects as mentioned by Tilley (2006,1) such as relationality, unpredictability, ambiguity, openness and emergence. The aim here is to put the complexity back into museum records.

Imagining A Complex Collections Systems

So what might a complex collections system look like? How might cultural relationships be formulated around collections in public culture? According to Hodge (2007), the basis of the complexity approach is that real life problems will always be too complex to be reduced to one approach or discipline. Clearly the complexity of objects requires equivalent complexity in responses regarding the way documentation is handled

A complex system acknowledges that objects derive their meaning and significance from a large number of elements; for example, from curatorial disciplines, from their production and consumption contexts, from their practical use in everyday life and within networks as technical, social or political entities. There is no division between the material and social world, and no definitive categories exist that can capture all that can be known about an object (see Dant 2006; Latour 2005a). As objects are increasingly taking a role in mapping out public space beyond the museum, they assemble people and ideas, many of which cannot be completely known or predicted, and some that might be momentary or fleeting. Collections information also becomes more discursive and playful, rather than solely based on deep ideological symbolic constructs about heritage, history or culture.

Figure 6

Fig 6: Complexifying museum collections systems in public culture. © Fiona Cameron

As demonstrated in this map, museum collections interfaces act as an open system. It is non-linear, made up of a large number of elements that interact dynamically through exchanges with both direct and indirect feedback loops between institutions and users, and have known but also emergent properties. This map shows the large number of interactions coming from many sources. This enables exchanges between the museum and users, and between user exchanges (links to wider debates and events) and communities of practice. Collections become more embedded and connected to their use and consumption contexts and are in a constant state of translation.

A complex approach will still retain rigour and respect for museum expertise. That is, because complex systems are based on groups and sub-groups of individuals that interact according to sets of rules, various forms of exchange create their own various knowledge properties in the cultural realm (Cilliers 2000, 4-5). So curatorial disciplines, as illustrated in this map, remain expert communities but involve interactions across curatorial areas, different forms of exchange, and at times spaces where new knowledge is generated. The boundaries are opened and permeable among the different types of knowledge, groups of users, and public culture, and these links involve movement.

Multi/inter/metadisciplinary (arts, science, humanities) engagement can be seen as a series of vantage points that produce a range of properties and knowledge of different types. The use of collections for consumption and translation in these different spaces cannot be entirely predicted. By engaging chaos theory, for example, we can interpret museum heritage properties as operating close to equilibrium. They are more predictable; whereas others operate further from equilibrium, are more chaotic. The benefits of a complex approach are that the scope and reach of the museum are expanded, linking heritage collections to debates, communities and other expertise within public culture, a process already observed. Previously static documentation categories become more ambiguous as objects are interpreted in unexpected and interesting ways.

This process offers a sense of indeterminacy, fluidity, and uncertainty, but also of becoming or emergence. It offers an opportunity for museums to realise something greater and more useful for their collections than was previously possible. Objects are able to perform at a higher level of complexity. The museum becomes open to the different ways the object is translated and consumed.

The idea of museums as places to access information denotes an authoritative position and static notions of producer and consumer. This idea is largely superseded as interactions between users and information increase, and collections information is linked to other social spaces. Therefore, it is more productive to conceive of collections interfaces as spaces for translation and consumption as part of a network.

Simplistic divisions between the serious scholar and the casual researcher are also no longer valid, nor are direct and predictable translations between the internal museum and external user. The object in translation also renders divisions between internal and external descriptions and significance less demarcated; in networks and flows of culture of which museums form part, there is no centre and no periphery.  In current museum culture, documentation operates as the central repository where meaning and significance is formed. In networks, however, documentation as a repository is a node in a much larger and more complex public space for the circulation of object meaning and significance. All this requires a mind-shift. A complex collections system cannot be completely designed, controlled, understood or predicted in the way documentation systems have been in the past.

Considering Transdisciplinary Collections Interfaces

Clearly, we need to realign the cognitive and practical ordering of museum heritage collections documentation practice to express these complexities and interactions on a global and networked scale. Collections space becomes open, dynamic and relational for the interaction and ongoing translation of the object.  The aim here is to expand the significance and meanings of objects beyond disciplinary boundaries that seek to close meaning off, and instead to build the social relationships and associations around collections rather than describing them as factual statements of the social (see Latour 2005). The museum can take a role in translating and integrating the various elements and seeing each as part of a chain that makes up the complex object.

There is a need to deal with expertise in three aspects: museum, participatory and local knowledge. There is also a need to think of material, emotional, social and symbolic and experiential knowledge (as demonstrated with the Palestinian collection examples) in a non-reductionist way, in addition to capturing the emergent or transitional state of object meaning and the fluidity and interactivity of these categorisations. Complexity will also need to be managed, to sort out the desirable and undesirable effects of its increase and to acknowledge the different levels of interaction. The aim is not to do away with disciplinary-based documentation and accumulated knowledge, but to add a level of complexity.

Transdisciplinary practice offers one model. (For a description of transdisciplinary practice see Guimaraes and Funtowicz, 2006; Nowotny, 2003).

Figure 7

Fig 7: Imagining a transdisciplinary collections interface and practice. © Fiona Cameron

In applying this to museum collections, museum order is hybridized where the boundaries of classification and description, contextualisation and significance become permeable. It acknowledges that there are multiple stances: museum/disciplinary, local, and participatory knowledge.

Moreover, it enables the bringing together of a range of properties not necessarily known or certain but which may emerge as part of the interaction, and where the meaning and significance of objects could take a number of forms. The transdisciplinary interface acts as a relational system, allowing for knowledge coherence rather than unity while enabling some elements of uncertainty and complexity to operate. There is also the potential to bring these knowledges together as jointly generated knowledge.

Structuring this interaction requires rethinking interfaces on the basis of a range of multiple, mobile metaphors of material (solid and linguistic) using different media forms to which various people can contribute. Solid metaphors refer to how an object is produced, its sources, raw materials, exchange and consumption contexts, uses, sequence of events or factual qualities (Tilley 1999, 263-6). For example, in terms of the thob abu qutbeh, this could include how it is made, a description of its form from a curatorial perspective, and Palestinian readings about location, colour and stitching. Conceptual metaphors are the meanings that frame an object’s activities and might include descriptive and emotional resonances to do with women’s culture, love and marriage. Linguistic metaphors are significance statements and are often opinion-based. This information might include a discussion of the political uses of the thob in a Palestinian context, diasporic readings of identity, museum significance as symbolic stand-in markers of women’s culture, and Israeli interpretations of the thob as a political tool and of Judeo-Christian origin. While museums are now in the habit of soliciting comments from community interests, this model offers new opportunities for interactions and exchanges. All these metaphors once discussed, for example, might be brought together as jointly generated knowledge. Citations or quotes bridge the distance between these views and exchanges and connect the more ephemeral and fluid nature of object meaning (Cameron 2007) while allowing for more momentary exchanges. A space for emergent knowledge and for what is uncertain and formed through dialogues and exchanges, according to this research, is also considered a desirable quality that could eventually feed into the other discourses.

All this challenges existing documentation and heritage structures. The emergence of museum knowledge in a complex world will lead to discussions about the authenticity of information, the legitimacy of other types of knowledge, ways of regulating exchanges, together with museum authority and expertise and where it sits in a complex, networked scheme. Tensions will also emerge over how the organisational structures of institutions might accommodate flexible networks within their hierarchy. Anxieties over the permanency and certainty of museum information, as opposed to its operation in an unstable and unpredictable field - including questions about sustainability in terms of museum documentation practice - will also emerge.


Born, G. (2004). Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC. London: Secker & Warburg.

British Museum. (2007). Forgotten Empire.

Browaets, M. and W. Baets. (2003). Cultural complexity: a new epistemological perspective. The learning organisation: An International Journal 10(6), 332-39.

Cameron, F.R. and S. Mengler (2007). Complexifying museum collections within global flows. Curator (in press).

Castells, M. (2004a). Informationalism, networks, and the network society: the theoretical blueprint. In M. Castells (Ed.) The Network Society: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. USA: Edward Elgar, 3- 48.

Castells, M. (2004b). eds. The Network Society: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Mass, USA: Edward Elgar.

Borja, J., and M. Castells. (1997) Local and Global: Management of Cities in the Information Age. London: Earthscan.

Chan, S. (2007). Tagging and Searching – Serendipity and museum collection databases. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2007 at

Cilliers, P. (2000). Complexity and Postmodernism – Understanding Complex Systems, London: Routledge.

Dant, T. (2006). Material civilization: things and society. The British Journal of Sociology 57(2) 289-308.

Guimaraes Pereira, A., and S. Funtowicz (2006). “Knowledge representation and mediation for transdisciplinary frameworks: tools to inform debates, dialogues and deliberations”. International Journal of Transdisciplinary Research 1 (1) 34-50. (

Hetherington, K. (2006). “Museum”. Theory, Culture and Society. 23(2-3). 597-602

Hodge, B. (2007). “The Complexity Revolution”. M/C Journal, 10(3). (

Jones, S. (2007). Building Cultural Literacy. Paper presented at New Collaborations: New Benefits – Transnational Museum Collaboration, International Council of Museums, UK, 26-27 July 2007, Shanghai with ICOM China.

Latour, B. (2005a). Reassembling the social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Latour, B.,(2005b). “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public”. In B. Latour and P. Weibel (Eds). Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge Mass.: The MIT Press, 14-43.

Latour, B., and P. Weibel, (2005). Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge Mass.: The MIT Press

Malraux, A. (1965). Le musée imaginaire. Paris: Gallimard.

Meek, J., and W. Newell. (2005). “Complexity, Interdisciplinarity and public administration: implications for integrating communities” Public Administration Quarterly 29(3) 321-50.

Nowotny, H. (2003). “The Potential of Transdisciplinarity”. Rethinking Interdisciplinarity. 1 May 2003 Interdisciplines.

Palestinian Focus Group transcription, (2008), unpub mans, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney

Project 300.


Smith, J., and C. Jenks. (2005). Complexity, Ecology and the Materiality of Information. Theory, Culture and Society 22(5): 141-163.

Stalder, F. (2006). Manuel Castells: The Theory of the Network Society. UK: Polity.

Tilley, C. (1999). Metaphor and Material Culture. Blackwell

Urry, J. (2003). Global Complexity. United Kingdom: Blackwell.

Urry, J. (2005). “The Complexity Turn”. Theory, Culture and Society 22(5) 1-14.

Cite as:

Cameron, F.R., Object-Orientated Democracies: Contradictions, Challenges And Opportunities , in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted