Conference Papers

Museums and the Web: An International Conference
Los Angeles, CA, March 16 - 19, 1997

Peter Walsh
Director of Information and Institutional Relations
Davis Museum and Cultural Center
Wellesley College, USA

The Web and the Unassailable Voice

Let me begin with a passage from Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler's book on the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Weschler is describing the audio commentaries that accompany the exhibits in this strange, post-modern museum in Venice, CA. "The voice in the receiver," Weschler writes, "the same voice as in all the other receivers, it may occur to you, is in fact the same, bland, slightly unctuous voice you've heard in every museum slide show or Acoustiguide tour or PBS nature special you've ever endured: the reassuringly measured voice of unassailable institutional authority."

This Unassailable Voice has, for many decades, been an essential part of the museum experience. It is an institutional tone and attitude that pervades museum labels, brochures, exhibitions, catalogues, audio-visual presentations, and now Web sites. Those of us who actually work in museums, of course, realize that the Unassailable Voice is a myth. Like the floating head and thundering words of the Wizard of Oz, the Unassailable Voice is created by smoke and high-tech projections, hiding most of the human activity and frailties behind it. The typical interpretive art museum label, for example, is the work of a committee of educators, editors, scholars, and administrators who not infrequently disagree. Even the simple line "attributed to" can, in a museum label, conceal fierce behind-the-scenes debates over the nature of the art object it purports to describe.

The words of the Unassailable Voice, for all their apparent unflappable confidence, often represent a series of compromises: compromises between the views of different experts or compromises between simple, understandable, and apparently fixed explanations on the one hand and, on the other hand, the complex and ever-changing, but richer and truer, accounts of reality. These complex and hidden accounts are the ones historians and scientists actually grapple with every day of their professional lives.

The Unassailable Voice thus has the flattened, vaguely evasive tone of a text created by committee. The voice itself often doesn't even believe or understand what it says. It merely mouths works of a disembodied, anonymous authority which, in most cases, is not the property of a single person but a group.

In my opinion, the Unassailable Voice is not an entirely benevolent presence in the museum. It tends to enhance the slightly patronizing, intimidating atmosphere found particularly in larger institutions, sometimes aided and abetted by their monumental architecture. This institutional atmosphere keeps some people out of museums altogether and vaguely irritates others. In its attempts to smooth over and conceal the complex and often contentious intellectual processes that really go into creating a museum, it edits out some of the most interesting and compelling parts of what a museum is.

The most deplorable side effect of the Unassailable Voice, the one that means that it often must be "endured" rather than "enjoyed," is that it tends to make people feel ignorant, and thus alienates them from the entire experience of the museum. This result, however unintended, should not come as a surprise. After all, in normal life, the know-it-all who speaks in a polished, endless monologue and has no interest in the ideas and opinions of others is not so much admired as he is considered a bore.

In their first forays into the World Wide Web, art museums have, in effect, tried to carry that Unassailable Voice into a new technology. Art museum sites are gradually standardizing themselves around a formula that essentially duplicates a collection of familiar museum products: the floor plan, the exhibition catalogue, the label, the Accoustiguide, and the audio-visual presentation. All of these are built around variations on the Unassailable Voice, whose message is, on a subconscious level at least, that museums have the knowledge and the benevolently dole it out to the comparatively ignorant public. But will this approach work in this new medium of cyberspace? Before answering that question, we must know a little bit more about what the Web is.

Coincidentally, the last thing I wrote before beginning work on this paper was a review of a new book on Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan was once enormously famous and controversial as the media guru of the 1960s. Recently, a number of those who ponder new technologies, including Louis Rossetto, founding publisher of Wired magazine, have taken a new look at McLuhan's ideas, which had largely been forgotten. Oddly, McLuhan's observations often seem to apply even more directly to the wired and digitized 1990s than they did to the 1960s, when he made them.

McLuhan believed that what most people think is the present is really only their "rearview mirror" view of the past. Thus most of us try to move forward in life while constantly looking backward, ignoring the changes happening around is. He also believed that the effects of a medium, the changes that they made in society, had little to do with the content conveyed by that medium. He often spoke of the content as a distraction, that diverted attention from what the medium was really doing. For these reasons, McLuhan thought, human beings tended to avoided understanding new media and were often oblivious to what they were doing.

The book I reviewed concluded with these words McLuhan spoke in a 1974 interview: "If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves."

How are we to understand the transformations of the World Wide Web? Let me suggest some things we can now conclude about it:

First of all, the Web is vast and growing constantly. It is already dwarfing the reach and extent of other electronic media. It is a vast, trackless space of information which no one can map or fully understand. It is a virtual frontier that is growing far faster than explorers can advance towards it.

Second, the Web is chaotic. Despite recent attempts to regulate it, there are no cops in the internet. Unlike other forms of media, which require the coordination of large amounts of money and people to work, the Web is open to almost everyone. It has no particular organization, no hierarchy, no catalogue numbers. The web is like a vast library without librarians, a library that accepts any book or manuscript that anyone brings to it, puts its on its shelves, and circulates it at random.

Third, the Web is constantly changing. What it is this afternoon it will not be tonight or tomorrow morning. That gem of knowledge you find today you might never locate again. In this it defines virtually all the usual guidelines of verifying and checking knowledge: it can not be rationally footnoted or checked as a reference, nor can its results be easily repeated.

Fifth, the Web is becoming increasingly commercial and profit motives are gradually infecting the information there. As Brian Hecht wrote recently in The New Republic, "Growing numbers of Web sites conveniently ignore the old 'separation of church and state' that divides editorial from advertising in quality print publications." Even some museum web sites are now commercially supported and include advertising, which increasingly is the main financial support of the web in general. The line between fact and ad is regularly bent and obscured in many web sites.

Finally, and most importantly, the Web is an environment where fact and fiction blend and meld. As Brian Hecht points out, on the Web, "itis impossible to know where information comes from, who has paid for it, whether it is reliable and whether you will ever be able to find it again. A student looking for information on the Internet, say, World War II, cannot know whether a given 'page' has been posted by a legitimate historian or by a Holocaust."

In a recent story about misinformation, Burt Andersen points out that the very accessibility of the Web has its downside. On the Web, he writes, "not only is every citizen entitled to his or her opinion but he or she is entitled to deliver it instantaneously, studded with chunks of fake information, to the whole world. With a computer and a phone line, anyone can become his own publisher/commentator/reporter/anchor, dispatching to everyone everywhere credible-looking opinions, facts, and 'facts' via the Internet... Thanks to the Web, amateurism and spuriousness no longer need look amateurish or spurious."

Until someone invents a system of authentication parallel to the ones that have grown up around print media, the tendency of the Web to always put "fact" between quotes will continue. The suspicion of spuriousness will cast a shadow over every Web site, no matter how reputable its name and purported origin. Early surfers of museum web sites will recall, for example, that the original "Louvre Museum" Web site had nothing to do with the famous Paris institution: it was a decoy created entirely by an amateur French art lover. For some time, it masqueraded as the only Louvre Web site.

I believe the qualities of World Wide Web I have just described make it fundamentally hostile to the Unassailable Voice. The tone of institutional authority that has been the essential medium of museums for decades will not easily cross the barriers of modems and html where all authority yields to a kind of electronic leveling. This is not to say that museums won't try, aren't trying, the transition. It is not to say that they might not create the illusion of a successful transition. But I believe it does mean that museums must find a new voice for the Web, one that does not rely on blind faith and Oz-like illusion to authenticate its authority. It is no longer possible or responsible to present "facts" over the Web without first admitting the medium's vulnerability to falsehood and distortion. On the Web, everyone is the Wizard of Oz.

This state of affairs may be difficult for many museum officials to swallow. Museums have relied so long on the Unassailable Voice and its barrage of invulnerable facts that it has become part of their identity. It has thus become difficult for them to imagine other paths to knowledge, the Socratic dialogue, for example.

As they learn more about the Web's tendency to melt facts and authority, some museum officials will undoubtedly try to shut out the Web altogether. This will not solve the problem, of course, as new technologies have a way of making their presence felt everywhere, almost like a force of nature. It is also not desirable, as I think that the World Wide Web has a great potential, one not yet fully exploited, of changing the partly falsified monologue most museums carry on with the world into an infinitely richer and truer dialogue with the world. It will mean abandoning or greatly modifying the tone of the Unassailable Voice, but, as I have already suggested, the Voice itself is not always a welcome or positive presence for everyone.

What might a museum web site look like without the Unassailable Voice? Let me suggest three basic principles that might guide it. The core idea behind these principles is that the medium should be used for what it can do that other media cannot do: it should not merely duplicate what has traditionally, and probably more effectively, been done in print.

First, the museum site should always be built with the assumption of change and provisionality. The Web is constantly changing and is never complete. Museums, although they tend to ignore this, are the same. Not only do the exhibits and thephysical plant of the museum change, its collections change, and, more importantly, its understanding of the meaning of those collections changes. Unlike the catalogue card for a book, the information about an object in a museum collection is constantly being revised. Art works are reattributed to new artists, X-rays reveal other images below the surface of a painting. Scientific specimens in a natural history museum are constantly being reclassified and the significance of, say, a fossil jaw from the Jurassic, may change abruptly with new information or a new theory. Museums, although they try hard not to admit it, are in a constant state of revolution.

The web has a great potential for reflecting this process of change and revaluation because it can so easily be updated and modified. A physical exhibition takes months and years to organize and present. Information on the web can be changed in a few minutes; new scientific developments can be documented as they happen. For example, the web made it possible to transmit images of the recently discovered cave paintings in the Ardeche region of France around the world within a few days of being found.

Exhibitions and other temporary phenomena in art museums can similarly be quickly mounted and presented to the world. The Dia Art Foundation in New York, for example, uses its web site to present artist installations that physically exist at its various exhibition sites. Museums could also use the web to present an exhibition as it is developed, or to present day-by-day reports of an object as it is studied by a group of scholars and scientists.

Exploiting the temporary and provisional nature of information on the Web in this way has another important benefit: it shifts the relationship between the Web and facts, which can easily be falsified there. By changing the nature of truth from the fixed state of the Unassailable Voice to a process over time, which is far closer to what really happens with the development of knowledge, the web can build a process of self-validation. If the steps in the process of building information are logical and hang together, they will tend to be self-validating. They will also teach a far more powerful lesson on the nature of information: that it is subject to a constant process of challenge and checking against other information. This is a lesson that needs to be taught about our entire system of information in this electronic age.

Second, the web should exploit its powerful ability to be interactive. Not long ago, I came across a message that asked for advice about dealing with the "problem" of questions coming into a museum web site from its public. Apart from the logistics, I would suggest, this is not a problem but an enormous opportunity.

Museums have traditionally ignored an important aspect of communication: that communication is not a monologue, but a dialogue. In order for true communication to exist, information must pass from both sides, like a conversation, so that each side can check and question the message.

Museums are almost unique among educational institutions in that they still are using a one-sided method of communication. This is unlike the relationship between a teacher and his students, for example, which is two-way: the teacher presenting information, the students responding with questions; the teacher testing how the information comes across with tests, the students responding with answers; the student making the information their own with papers and projects, the teacher evaluating how effective that information has been absorbed.

Museums largely by-pass this feedback approach to information. As a result, they are less likely to adjust ineffective methods of communication and can miscommunicate on a grand scale. Let me use a small example from my own museum, the Davis Museum and Cultural Center, which is on the campus of Wellesley College. When the Museum was built three years ago, a small gallery off a much larger gallery of twentieth-century art was set aside for Wellesley's small but choice collection of African art. This was, in fact, the first art museum gallery in the Greater Boston area devoted to African art.

African-American students on the campus, however, interpreted this gallery differently. They interpreted the African collection's separation as segregation, and the gallery's relatively small size not as a reflection of the size of the collection but a judgment on the importance of African art relative to Western art. In other words, they saw the entire arrangement as yet another racially-based narrative of exclusion and implied inferiority-- a message that, needless to say, the museum never intended to communicate.

I believe this sort of unfortunate and unintended miscommunication takes place every day in museums for the very reason that there has, until now, been no easy way to check up on how the words of the Unassailable Voice are actually coming across in the world. The Web's interactive capabilities can change that dramatically. For example, in a special project designed by a Davis Museum intern, the Web and the campus computer network are being used to help plan the exhibit of an Ashanti Seat soon to be given to the Davis Museum collection. Through the network, students, scholars, and curators will discuss the meaning of the object and the extent to which it was shaped or reinterpreted by European imperialism in Africa. A special web page will present the object, perhaps in the context of other art works, and will feature a more elaborate written discussion about how best to display the work and explain its meaning. Eventually, this discussion will help shape how the Ashanti Seat is shown in the museum.

Third, museums should exploit the Web's ability to look below the surface, to present the layers of knowledge that museums have not previously been able to show the public. Because of its ability to organize large amounts of information in a relatively compact area, the Web opens up possibilities that the simple, and necessarily deeply abridged, museum label can never do.

For example, in collaboration with Professor of Classics Miranda Marvin, we created a special label project on our museum web site and on a special computer installation in the Davis Museum's classical galleries. The project used more than a century of research on a single object in the collection: a classical sculpture sometimes known as the "Wellesley Athlete," to explore the gap between what is known about an art object by museum officials and scholars and what is presented to the museum's visitors.

Professor Marvin named this project "Truth in Advertising" because she believes most museum labels for classical sculpture are out-of-date and deeply misleading. In the "Truth in Advertising" web site, visitors were able to click on lines of the original label for the Wellesley Athlete to learn more about the research and scholarly attitudes behind each term and in the process explore how museum labels can distort and even conceal the truth about an art object and its history.

Projects like "Truth in Advertising" are only a small foray in what I see is the great potential of the on-going collaboration between museums and the World Wide Web. This collaboration, properly directed, can not only bring the wealth of museums to a far wider audience, it can help replace the traditional "Unassailable Voice" with one that is kinder, gentler, less pompous, more interesting, and, ultimately, far more inspiring.

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