Future of the museum or museums of the future?

With theories, visions and practical models, the conference attempted to "CultH – Future of the /digital/ cultural heritage" an approach to questions of cultural education in the digital age

The archiving of cultural heritage is a serious problem: while our libraries are literally crumbling to dust and other data carriers are not immune to decay, the attention of archivists is turning to new technologies. Is digitization the solution to the problem of cultural heritage?? The complex ie of digitization of cultural heritage was addressed for the second time at the conference "CultH – Cultural Heritage in the Global Village" in the Museumsquartier Vienna.

Future of the museum or museums of the future?

Art bunker in the Museumsquartier Vienna

The problem of tradition is not a theoretical one. A large part of what constitutes our understanding of culture depends on what of the wealth of libraries, galleries, museums, and archives is actually currently accessible. It was the devastating shock of the Second World War that led in 1954 to the adoption of the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (European Cultural Convention). As a result, strange treasure troves are being created that hardly anyone knows anything about: for example, Germany’s cultural heritage is being subjected to a cost-intensive security operation by the Federal Office for Civil Defense. Several times a year, old mine shafts in the Black Forest are filled with barrels containing microfilm rolls with selected cultural documents – project duration 1960 to 2020.

However, such seemingly absurd repositories of the mind can also be seen as a specific media effect, as Aleida Assmann has clairvoyantly noted:

The pathos invented with the writing of the eternity of the communication on immutable data carriers has given way at the end of the book age to the permanent concern about the preservation of the cultural archive.

Aleida Assmann: Memory Spaces, Munich 1999

While the cultural archive is designed to store data or art treasures for as long as possible, regardless of their current use, the other form of archive – that of the authorities and the military – is subject to the paradigm of permanent internal use. It is clear that new media technologies are upsetting this logic of the archive, as they force a culture of permanent use. No one wants art for eternity anymore, so that current access and availability create new problems. Furthermore, works in the state of their digital transmission are easily changeable, which makes the archivally charged concept of the original increasingly problematic.

In this situation, may one still ask the question of how culture continues to exist in its digital capture?? Or isn’t the question rather, what kind of culture a new media technology like digitalization as such will produce? The CultH conference took place in this area of tension, which was already expressed in a purely superficial way. The organizers invited the audience to the basement of Vienna’s new Museumsquartier, which immediately gave an idea of what a nuclear waste repository might look like, of course without any deliberate ironic gesture.

Augmented Digital Culture

One sits, completely cut off from the outside world, in the cellar of a cultural bunker par excellence, a high-security wing of art. But this problem of "Formatting", as obvious as it is, no one notices. The only things that pay are the aspects of technical connectivity and compatibility, especially if we believe Kim Veltman, one of the main speakers. According to the sporting motto "Faster, higher, further" In his presentation, the director of the Maastricht McLuhan Institute rushes from one technical vision to the next, from the idea of networking for cultural institutions to the idea of a "cultural archive "ambient intelligence", with which any cultural reconstruction can be made at will. Following the example of "Computational Grids", which virtualization is supposed to raise to the next level.

Technology then always plays a decisive role; in the technocratic vision, it practically becomes the historical-philosophical subject. That research and teaching gain a new vividness when they have left behind the static form of the representation of knowledge may certainly be true. The multimedia presentation of different worlds is, however, only one of the possible effects of new media technologies. If the Uffizi is already scanning their artworks at 1.4 GB per square meter, and Japanese technology is already at 3 GB per image, which allows zooming without pixel effects, then this is certainly remarkable. But this fixation on visualization technology reduces all questions to the binary functional principle of digital media, a narrow-mindedness that formally cries out for cultural critique and for questioning the social effects of the use of digitization in the cultural sector.


But this is exactly the original concern of Franz Nahrada, the initiator and co-organizer of CultH. He is concerned with visions of alternative lifeworlds, and therefore concentrates on the integration of computer culture and communication in everyday life. That’s why he and his research association, GIVE, are committed to the idea "Think Local" – for cultural regulars’ tables or the electronic cafe in the neighborhood, or organizing computers for Cameroon – a different kind of cultural mediation. Technology creates micro-urbanites in all possible places, Nahrada said:

"Access to cultural heritage, the jealous and well-guarded monopoly of cities, is in the process of disappearing. And thus perhaps an Archimedean point has been found that allows us urban people to inhabit and design any place with all our senses and desires. At the beginning of CultH there was a preoccupation with the possibility of decentralized forms of settlement. It was a mystery to me why, in spite of all local independence, an ever more blatant disparity has arisen worldwide between central places of communication and abundance and an arid, decaying periphery together with its losses in the world of life."

From this perspective, the role of digital technologies is critically addressed, especially in terms of their promise to expand the social and cultural spaces of creation. Precisely because the trend points in the opposite direction: with the question of the reusability of digital materials and digitized samples in new, "small" production processes, opportunities could open up. For this purpose, the ultimately productive effect of a repression of patent and property rights for society must be made clear. This is why concepts such as OpenCulture were also presented at the conference. It’s a kind of mascene model that doesn’t seem fully developed yet, but at least it demonstrates how free use of online content and payment for authors and content don’t have to contradict each other – whether it will actually work remains an open question for the time being.

In reality, the so-called cultural heritage is subject to very powerful economic interests that can be lucratively secured and exploited in copyrights, image and usage rights. However, since all cultural content is now becoming corporate content because it is a central pillar of commercial strategies, it is only to be welcomed that public institutions, libraries and museums in Europe are increasingly concerned with the implications of digital media – with some delay compared to the USA, but nonetheless. Only: torn between rough visions and micro-strategies, between local best practices and international networks, conference participants sometimes lose the feeling for what is or could be the actual topic here.

Virtual Meta-Museum

This feeling was unintentionally restored when Thomas Fuerstner from the Institute for Network Development at the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe was supposed to present his project of a metamuseum: in the high-tech cultural bunker Museumsquartier, of all places, the Internet connection did not work during the entire conference. Instead of a possibly fascinating excursion into a digital museum of the future, there was a relaxed reflection on what actually constitutes a contemporary implementation of the museum "Metaphor Museum" to the Internet. What such projects have in common, and this also applies to the Canadian online museum prominently presented by Patricia Young, is the reduction of the idea of innovation to the basic technology, i.e., image databases and VRML technology.

At some point, you have a more or less complete three-dimensional model of exhibitions on the web, but you can’t get beyond representational thinking, as Fuerstner criticizes. The new virtual museums, however, should not only be about transferring classic museum discourse one-to-one to the net. The task goes far beyond problems of representation and preservation of inventory.

The development of this metamuseum in the search for a new museum didactics, and how it brings together questions of mediation with those of cultural production, for example, could not be made visible due to technical deficiencies – which, of course, does not take away from the critique’s justification.