The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Postdigital Design

What came out of last week's University Museums Group conference was an understanding that we really, as a discipline that is both professional and academic, need to talk a lot more. This might seem like such a simple thing, but over the years of attending conferences and meeting with academics in the heritage sector, it's not simple at all. It's not simple because we don't do it.

On Thursday, James Davis, who is the Project (Programme) Manager of the Google Cultural Institute declared something that I've been thinking about for a while, but that came as a shock (judging by the whispers) to a lot of the museum audience.

Technology is advancing faster than museums can keep up. Stop trying.

It's logical. It's simple. But museums are not doing it. They are still trying to second guess the next great tech revolution in exhibition design. Point in proof is the Horizon Reports Museum Edition, which exists to tell museums every year what the tech outlook is for the following year. What tech they need to adopt in order to stay with the times.

Which sounds great if you're the BM or the Science Museum, but since 99% of us don't work there, there is a decided reality disconnect going on between what we 'should' be doing and what actually happens. Face it, we who are not the Big Nationals don't have the money.  And if we don't have the money, talking about how to keep up with the tech revolution on a tiny budget is a waste of breath.

Instead, Davis suggests that there is another way. Understand that you can't keep up. Give up. There is plenty of other things museums can do without spending their precious time and resources deciding if iPads will still be viable in 2 years time. Digital must become part of an organisation. Adopt the digital that is easy to adopt, the digital that doesn't take much money, that evolves slower and changes more gradually. But adopt it everywhere and in everything. Go digital. Whether it's your director, your curator, your volunteer coordinator, make sure they buy in and are on board. We don't all need to be tech wizes to do that. But there is something to be said for training (or hiring) staff to use digital in all aspects of their job. Once you get a digital institution, it's easier to adopt other digital and decide what works for you and what doesn't.

It was a great start to the one-day conference. It certainly got a lot of us thinking, but it especially appealed to me. Because one of the things that comes out of my research is the fact that most of the issues are because museums jumped on the tech bandwagon before they had any understanding of it and now they are suffering from the 'well, it's outdated, what do we do now?' response. And their answer seems to be to put more tech in. Davis knows that won't work. I know that won't work. But museums are still doing it.

Which means we need to talk a lot more about what we do and why we do it. We need to admit what didn't work (to each other, not just ourselves). We need to stand up at conferences and declare 'we did this entire programme last month and not a wit of it was digital' and not worry about being lynched (bad example).

Which brings me onto the topic of the postdigital, which was the final panel theme. Ross Parry dreamed this one up, as you might imagine, and brought it to the conference as a new way for the audience to start looking at how they do digital.

Basically, postdigital means looking at digital through a backward facing lens. Digital is not new. It's not sudden. It's not going to solve our problems. Digital has existed for ages (really, technology in the museums goes back 100 years) and yet we are still treating it as some kind of wonder, even while we live and breath digital in our everyday lives. No more. This has to stop. We live in a postdigital world and we have to admit that. We have to start considering digital as part of everything we do, not as something special we now do.

I pitched a paper on 'postdigital design', because it had something to do with my thesis. It meant a lot of work shoving two things together, but in the end it works. It works because my thesis is about children and technology. And if we are going to talk about children and technology in anything resembling a useful way, we first have to admit we live in a postdigital world.

Because I believe that children and technology already exist in a postdigital world. And you can tweet me on that (others already have).


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