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In their formative stage, the identities and functions of museums were strongly connected to their physical place. Museums of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were large, imposing buildings of classical architecture that manifested their legacy from royal collections housed in grand palaces. They were centrally located within European metropolises (London, Madrid, Berlin, Paris, and Vienna) where all citizens knew them well. These early museums were respectable places that (eventually) invited all parts of society to intermingle in a common public space with the overt goal of “civilizing” the masses and the covert goal of affirming the elite status of the educated and powerful, alongside other respectable public places such as theaters, libraries, parks, and reading-rooms. Museums were connected to physical place on yet another level through their role in representing and glorifying their respective nations. Sociologist Tony Bennett (1995, p. 98) writes that the public museum represented a coalescence of “the display of power to the populace and its display within the ruling class.” The lessons on offer were more about remembering than about learning history. However, as the industrial era brought the working classes to the cities to work in factories, museums became the ideal vehicle for “teaching” socially acceptable manners, values, dress, and comportment.

SLG-4Pae White: Too much night, again, 2013, installation, mixed media. Courtesy greengrassi, London. Photo: Andy Keate.

The museum today remains a dynamic cultural institution. It is undergoing yet another transformation from an earlyplace-based cultural institution to a more dispersed (post)modern space. As sociologist Michel de Certeau argues, the concept of place has been used by the dominant orders to organize and control society through urban planning and architecture. Space, on the other hand, is constructed by people through the practice of living and walking. Place implies stability, “an instantaneous configuration of positions,” while space considers “vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables.

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailjpgMuseum Castell La sauda (Lleida, Spain)

New practices of mobility have contributed to the dispersal of place in the modern museum. While we know that mobile culture actually began during the Industrial Revolution when workers migrated to burgeoning urban areas in search of work in the factories, more recently the velocity of cultural change of what Raymond Williams (1983) called “mobile privatization” is increasing as new technologies such as portable computers, PDAs, and mobile phones become more ubiquitous. Noting this transformation, Lynn Spigel (2004) reframes Williams’ phrase as “privatized mobility” – a concept that attests to the cultural significance of portability (now coupled with mobility) that brings private activities into public spaces. The dynamic of privatized mobility serves as one of the contexts for the consideration of the transformation of the place of the museum into distributed spaces of museology.

SKIN-Environmental-Foyer-by-P-06-Atelier-Joao-Luis-Carrilho-da-Graca-LisbonSKIN Environmental Foyer by P-06 Atelier & João Luís Carrilho da Graça, Lisbon 

Museums utilized early versions of mobile technology in the 1950s with handheld devices based on a closed-circuit shortwave radio broadcasting system. The real innovation in new museology, however, came when mobile communications were applied to new populist practices that took the museum experience out of the physical place. Today the “mobile museum” consists of satellite museum spaces around the city or the globe, museum programs conducted off-site by museum staff in schools, libraries and community spaces, and special vehicles designed to provide a multi-media learning experience based on museum collections that travel to schools and other organizations throughout the city. In the past decade, the “mobile museum” has morphed into what we call the “Distributed Museum”: a postmodern formation through which the modern museum seamlessly adapts its traditional functions and spaces to the new cultural environment of the digital age.

terence_koh_vitrines_2Terence Koh, Untitled (Vitrines 5 – Secret Secrets) 2006 Mixed media sculpture / Dimensions vary with installation

The distributed, dispersed, and decentered space of the digital age has also been called a networked space or a space of flows that “links places at a distance on the basis of their market value, their social selection, and their infrastructural superiority”. Within this networked space we situate the modern museum as one of the primary nodes. We argue that the space of the new museology is similarly dispersed, individualized, practised, and nonlinear as is the space of the digital age. No longer tied to a fixed place, the new museology can be described in terms of changes in practices, relations, and emergent experiences. The new museology continues to address the main functions of the traditional museum, such as curatorial and conservation services, as well as more recent functions, such as education and community outreach. To describe the museology of Distributed Museums, we focus on the educational mission of the institution as one of its key cultural functions.


Resources: Susana Bautista and Anne Balsamo, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.

Main Photo: Mind-Blowing Installation Makes You Feel Like You’re Walking On A Cloud | Co.Design