Museums “social and digital innovation – bedfellows too often treated separately” Reflections on Museums of Ideas event Octo

Mia Ridge’s recent post about the Museums of Ideas prompted me to finally finish this post

I’ve been reflecting on the splendid Museum of Ideas event at Museum of London Docklands.  Skilfully curated  by Museum iD, it brought museum thinkers from the US and the UK and mixed social media and social innovation. A rapt audience listened how to hardwire innovation in the Cooper Hewitt and Dallas Museum respectively and to Lisa Junkin whose spoke of interpreting the contested histories of gangs in Chicago

As Georgina Young observered in her insightful tweet “I loved the combination of social and digital innovation – bedfellows too often treated separate”

In was privileged to be able to indulge another audience to the merits of the Happy Museum project. A key influencer in my thinking was the work of the American Socialogist Robert Putnam whose Bowling Alone highlights the decline of social relationships and networks in America over the last 50 years. He describes an atomised United States  where…

“we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbours less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues”.[1]

Rob Stein from the Dallas Museum of Art asked me whether I shared Putnam’s view (articulated in Chpter 7 of his book) that technology was partly responsible for a decline in Social interaction. Putnam noted that communities with high levels of newspaper readership were more likely to have stronger community organisations. He believed that the internet and plethora of TV channels meant that people consumed their news and knowledge of the world in their own homes rather than with others. Bowling Alone was published in 2000 several years before the explosion of social media, which enabled new ways of building social networks.

Many social media connections are made after connections in the flesh world. MEAL’s Facebook groups have grown following community events. The UK Traveller community has embraced facebook with gusto. In a community with traditionally low levels of literacy the informal medium suits and keeps large families, who are often dispersed, together

Mia Ridge (whose post earlier this week prompted me to finish this piece) quotes a Salzburg Global Seminar in 2011, noting that: ‘technology is a tool, not an objective, and that the creation of increased public value is the end goal. Identifying stakeholders’ needs means addressing human relationships, a sense of organization, and an intellectual construct to shape information and access’.

A digital divide is more likely a result of economics and geography than generational. The £40 a month I pay for my iphone is a luxury that not everyone can afford. And great swathes of the countryside have inadequate broadband or 3G coverage (we are eagerly anticipating 4G in rural Suffolk). Designing universal programmes because 50% of the population has smart phones is a bit like designing an education system solely around the aspiration that 50% of children will go on to university.

Overwhelmingly new technology is a source for social good. The rise of blogging, twitter and citizen journalists helps hold the rich and powerful to account. In the developing world mobile communications have revolutionised connectivity. Anyone visiting East Africa will be struck by high level of mobile phone usage. I travelled through Kenya a few years ago and in almost every village main street there three facilities , a grocers, a bar and a mobile phone credit store.

Digital technology is a brilliant tool for social innovation Its also exciting in its own right and museums might be mindful that they don’t just marvel at what technology can do and continue to ask how it can be used for social good


[1] R. Putnam, Bowling Alone New York 2001 frontispiece

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One Response to Museums “social and digital innovation – bedfellows too often treated separately” Reflections on Museums of Ideas event Octo

  1. One things is for sure, new technology is going to innovate drastically over the next few years, whether or not (some) museums will is another matter. Although Generation x crusties like me may struggle to grasp the full potential of this technology (and maybe too many of our core audiences) I marvel at friend’s children who are digital natives: they handle a £400 ipad, age 2, with the confidence and care beyond their years. But as you say its just a tool, the collections, stories and communities are what we are all about

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