Books - Museums Association


Museums in the New Mediascape: Transmedia, Participation, Ethics
Katy Barrett learns how new technologies and multiple voices are presenting ongoing challenges to museums.

Recent years have brought big changes to both the content and authorship of the Museums Journal reviews section.

To the traditional galleries, exhibitions and books have been added not only sections about digital content – websites, apps and interactives – but also pieces authored by volunteers, researchers and catalogue writers discussing the processes behind their work.
These developments mirror changes in the sector as a whole, as museums have embraced new technologies and multiple voices. Yet the world is changing so fast that it is a challenge for museums to keep up, and to evaluate their responses to such changes.

It is this challenge that Jenny Kidd addresses in Museums in the New Mediascape: Transmedia, Participation, Ethics. Her book may be read as a plea for museum professionals to think harder about how and why we use “new media”, what types of experience we expect visitors to gain, and how far we are prepared to relinquish control.

Framed within a detailed and dense consideration of relevant literature from media and communications studies, Kidd looks at the museum as a “mediascape”. This term allows her to consider museums as both physical and digital spaces in which new technologies expand the scale, ease and reach of the museum’s traditional role as a maker and purveyor of meaning.

The notion of “transmedia”, likewise, challenges the simple boundary between online and offline, instead grappling with the modern museum visitor who increasingly expects a fluid experience both inside and outside the museum.

Becoming media

Across seven chapters, Kidd analyses an impressive range of data from national and international museums. Her subjects range across science and technology, military, maritime, history and art museums, historic sites and archives.

She considers these museums’ differing uses of social media, of user-created content, of digital memory archives, of interactives and of online games. Each chapter then analyses how these media operate, how visitors respond and the different lessons they teach.
Overall, Kidd shows how all of these media have allowed the museums studied to adopt a more informal voice with visitors and to create a sense of increased participation in the construction of meaning.

What “new media” increasingly challenge is the museum’s traditional ownership of knowledge. Museums have become producers of media, but also media themselves. As such, they have become “mediated”; home to plural voices and fragmented authority.

There is a two-fold vulnerability to this. Not only do museums risk losing control of meaning in this new mediascape but, more importantly for Kidd, they risk lazy engagement with its possibilities.

Kidd questions whether we have created a “participation paradigm” in which we have added the act of engagement to the museum’s age-old role as a purveyor of spectacle.
The remix model

Is it enough that visitors enjoy the act of using an interactive or “liking” a tweet? Can we allow an online game to be simply a game, or should it have a broader educative purpose?

Are museums, in essence, embracing new media in order not to be left behind or are we finding genuinely new means to interpret and display our core objects, to expand and brighten their aura?
Kidd deliberately poses more questions than she answers. The importance, she concludes, is dialogue, “mash-up” and “remix”, both with and through new media, in which museums collectively create and consume content with their visitors.

Kidd is careful to layout what this book is not. It is a critical overview rather than a handbook. Yet what consistently piqued my interest were her case studies, often outlined with impressive succinctness, and leading me to head online to find out more.

As a traditional, physical knowledge object, Kidd’s book nicely embodies her argument, its pages inadequate to represent most of the media and technologies that she discusses.

Its boundaries are porous, bleeding into the “transmedia” world where the reader can follow Kidd’s lead into her case studies’ Twitter accounts, online games or digital archives.
This book is a timely reminder of the need to think about how we use those spaces in order to give them true value for museums.

Katy Barrett is the curator of art, pre-1800, at the National Maritime Museum, London

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