Evolving museums: between digital transformation and social transformation.

The new technologies that we’re seeing in museums today bring with them as much enthusiasm as they do fear. The issue has been pushing the buttons of museum professionals since the 1970s. While technophiles praise the virtues of digital technology, technophobes are more reserved, considering digital technology an attack on an authentic encounter with the objects on display.

The introduction of digital tools in museums has been marked by contrasting debates and contrary injunctions, crystallising both the hope of better access to works and the fear that technology will alter or replace traditional visiting practises. The work Les imaginaires numériques au musée (Digital imaginations at the museum) (Sandri, 2020) analyses the opinions of the different actors involved. Whether we’re talking about educational CD-ROMS, visit applications or virtual online exhibitions, we see the same paradoxical reactions from museum professionals and visitors, torn between a desire for innovation and a fear of changing past habits. These debates also fit into a more global reflection on current social issues, advocating a more inclusive and egalitarian museum.

 


  • Sandri E., 2020, Les imaginaires numériques au musée. Débat sur les injonctions à l’innovation. Paris: MkF

.                                                                                                                                   Eva Sandri is a member of LERASS, University of Montpellier Paul Valéry 3:  eva.sandri@univ-montp3.fr


Technologies used at the museum

Discussions on the transformation of museums related with the acquisition of technologies frequently address the question of digital tools in very general terms, which ultimately ends up masking the diversity of visit assistance tools. However, we can identify the different characteristics of the technologies currently present in museums, depending on how the visitor uses them, the time of use (before, during and after) and the different places they are used (in the museum and outside the museum).

These tools, generally interlinked, come in three types: fixed tools, mobile tools and online tools. Fixed tools are mainly used during the visit. They are fixed supports which allow the visitor to consult additional content in the exhibition rooms. These include, for example, touchscreen tables, interactive terminals, fixed augmented reality or virtual reality browsers.

In contrast, mobile and online tools can be used in different spaces (in the museum and outside the museum) and at different times (before, during and after the visit). Mobile technologies, such as touchscreen tablets with tour applications and video guides, accompany and assist the visitors in different places and at different times. The same visit application, downloaded onto a visitor’s smartphone or tablet, can therefore be used beforehand to access the museum’s practical information, then be used on site to help the user to understand a piece of work and finally be consulted once more the next day, for the visitor who wishes to review the content.

Likewise, tools offering online content (virtual exhibitions on the website, digital social networks, websites, serious games, chatbots and online catalogues) can be consulted before, during and after the visit. They aim to extend the experience. The digital offering in museums currently includes these different types of devices, associated with the multiple uses of its public. The museum believes that the link between the visitor and the contents of the exhibition doesn’t have to be lost as soon as they leave the building. Depending on the case, all of these technologies are involved in part or all of a mediation system. This may involve consulting content on a digital tool which would complement the what the guide says, or an application which would support a visit activity.

However, these technologies also play a part in questioning the place of the museum in our society.

The museum, digital tools and social challenges

How, then, can we envisage a socially and intellectually relevant museum given the current challenges (ecological, ethical, socio-professional and intercultural) concerning both museums and digital tools? The field surveys carried out in this line of research lead to questioning the imaginations of the different actors involved, both professionals and museum audiences. The methodology used combines interviews (with cultural mediators and visitors) as well as an analysis of discourses in the daily press (regional or national) from 2011 to 2023.

Ecological issues

Both during the interviews and in press discourse, there is little mention of the issue of sustainable development. Few speakers mention the ecological dimensions linked to digital tools. This silence on the ecological aspects of technologies can be explained by the strong imagination of dematerialisation which accompanies digital devices and which leads to an avoidance of the question of pollution, energy consumption and the recycling of tools. Although museums are offering more and more exhibitions on ecological or social themes, little in-depth reflection on the ecological issues surrounding the acquisition of technological devices is being relayed.

Ethical issues

Ethical issues are also scarcely mentioned, even though the conditions for manufacturing and recycling technologies are linked to strong political issues, due to the extraction of minerals necessary for their design. For example, only a handful of press articles mention that, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of children are working in cobalt and coltan mines located near areas of armed conflict.

Socio-professional issues

Another surprising thing is the lack of discussion about the socio-professional risks linked to digital technologies. Digital devices in museums often involve sound content that is played continuously in the exhibition space. The question of just how arduous this can be for room attendants and reception staff, as well as any possible solutions, is rarely addressed.

Intercultural issues

Similarly, certain intercultural questions linked to discrimination are only partially addressed in the discourse on the digital world at the museum. Although digital technology is often presented as a means of making the museum more inclusive and more welcoming for different audiences (notably “disabled” visitors), digital devices are rarely used in debates that evoke the racist and sexist biases of museums. However, there is a great deal of activism developing online, notably on Twitter and in blogs, demanding for the museum to be considered a political place, depicting power relations (often resulting from colonisation), and denouncing discriminatory practices.

In the corpus of journalistic articles studied, we find several references to the   movement, which criticises the ideological biases of museums and the intercultural problems resulting from them (racist cartels, issues surrounding the restitution of works in the countries of origin, etc.). Initiatives aimed at “decolonising the museum” (using the slogan: “Decolonize my museum”) have fuelled long debates on social networks and have led to a rethinking of cultural mediation in a less ethnocentric way, as evidenced by the creation of the Twitter account Decolonize The Museum which questions the ways in which slavery and colonisation are discussed at the museum.

This is also the case with the Guerilla Girls group, made up of feminist artists denouncing inequalities towards women and racialised people in the cultural sector. Their demands have been covered in the national press (Le Monde, Libération, Mediapart…), the international press (Courrier International, The NY Times…) and – increasingly – by cultural institutions.

Are some media outlets still too deaf to activists’ demands?

These movements, with a presence on social media, have sparked numerous debates about the social role of cultural institutions. However, media discourse seems to be more interested in the arrival of so-called “innovative” and “disruptive” mediation devices than in this more global repositioning of the museum institution.

An analysis of a media corpus from French-speaking newspaper articles in the daily press (regional or national), recorded between 2011 and 2023, highlights this type of discrepancy. Thus, in a technophile context, media discourse on cultural democratisation revived by digital technology is sometimes reduced to wishful thinking, limited to certain audience figures. Museums want to be more and more inclusive but, in some cases, struggle to hear what discriminated or vulnerable people have to say (Paveau, 2016) and to debate these issues.

However, exhibiting sensitive themes in the museum without listening to the voices of those concerned and without varying the speakers would amount to a ventriloquist statement, as mentioned by linguist Marie-Anne Paveau (2016), to such an extent that the museum would speak for them or even guide the debate.

According to the discourses analysed, cultural institutions therefore make a point of directing their discourses and practices on behalf of the public. However, when a part of this public expresses itself online in a way that is visibly too radical, they seem to no longer be considered the real public by the media. This audience is too engaged to be heard, too far from the model visitor displaying a lukewarm and cautious neutrality, heading in the direction of dominant social norms (patriarchal, etc.).

The restraint of certain media in the face of these political questions shows that we still have a way to go if we want to deconstruct a myth of museum neutrality. We have noted, however, that some media are listening to the arguments of these movements and choose to document the strategies of the museums that are repositioning themselves. They describe, for example, the way in which some museums which have inherited racist or sexist works and/or mediation texts have gone about re-writing them.

These questions are certainly political, just like all of the decisions made by cultural institutions, which are a result of ideological choices that are rarely debated. We need only consider how large companies choose to become patrons of cultural foundations essentially to obtain a 60% tax deduction. Or Bernard Arnault’s LVMH Foundation which was largely financed by public money. However, during this research, the author observed more angered reactions about the debate on Twitter concerning equal access to the museum than about certain sponsorship strategies of large companies.

New avenues of research… and actions

However, the current growing interest in other fields of study in situated research and the ethics of care, that is, behaviours that value the care and attention given to others (Laugier and Molinier, 2009), will perhaps be an opportunity to shed further light on these dynamics.

What’s more, an increasing number of researchers and professionals are now questioning the social role of heritage institutions and their responsibility when it comes to tackling current issues: the ecological crisis, social memory, the representation of migrants and especially various forms of discrimination (racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, LGBTI-phobia, postcolonialism, ableism, etc.).

The recent book Museum Activism (2019), edited by Robert Janes and Richard Sandell, is an eloquent example of the current challenges facing museums and the springboard provided by socio-digital networks and online tools in order to make these struggles visible. These issues constitute both blind spots in the debate surrounding technology in museums and avenues of future research for professionals, researchers and visitors. It’s up to us to enlighten them.


  • Janes R., Sandell R.,  2019, Museum Activism. London: Routledge.
  • Laugier S., Molinier P., 2009,. “Politiques du care” Multitudes, (no. 37-38). Accessed 10th January, 2018.
  • Paveau M.-A., 2016,. “Parler du burkini sans les concernées. De l’énonciation ventriloque”, La pensée du discours [research blog]. Online: Accessed 30th December, 2016.

Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: CC BY-NC-ND
To see more of her drawings, visit https://adelehuguet.wordpress.com/

Image credits in CC : Flaticon, Freepik, iconjam, roundicon, justicon

 

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Citer ce billet
Eva Sandri (2024, 26 février). Evolving museums: between digital transformation and social transformation. Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 18 avril 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/vwt4

Eva Sandri

Eva Sandri est membre du LERASS, Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3 : eva.sandri@univ-montp3.fr

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