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06 October 2012
This month's topic: Distribution of contents
El Hipermuseo

We can not talk about institutions and museums and leave the Internet aside. The network as a system of cooperation and access to knowledge, as file and also as museum in the sense of giving visibility is the issue that Eduardo Pérez Soler has been exploring in the recent times. In the article published in A*DESK in October 2012, Pérez Soler explores the “hipermuseum” of the Web capacity in relation to its potential to encompass all documentaries and museum collections in the world.

Tim Berners-Lee conceived the World Wide Web as a large network of textual and multimedia documents, connected to each other via hyperlinks. The British developer, in collaboration with Robert Cailliau, developed a system which took advantage of the facilities offered by Internet, enabling users to add content independently to the net, while leaving the door open for other people to access them through an electronic terminal. All this is feasible thanks to the navigators that make it possible to traverse different pages lodged on the web, to consult and interact with their contents. Ultimately, Berners-Lee thought of the web as an open system, where information could be distributed and shared universally.

The web is a system designed to favour collaboration and access to knowledge. And the reason for its success lies precisely there. The possibility that anyone can add information from any terminal, so that any other individual connected to the web can consult it, has been the detonator for millions of people, institutions and companies from across the world, to launch into creating and sharing content on digital communication networks. Web users pour knowledge into it for very diverse reasons, but the truth is that they have transformed it into the largest legacy of human knowledge ever known.

The efforts of the masses have converted the web into a magnificent hybrid that takes the form of an archive and, at the same time, a museum. The web is, simultaneously, both a powerful storage device, that conserves an enormous variety of man-made documents, and an exhibition space, where it is possible to contemplate an immense catalogue of human creations. So, just as Jesús Carillo suggests, digital communication networks have made the blind machinery of the traditional archive merge with the apparatus of visibility characteristic of museum institutions.

On the one hand, the web is a powerful database where it is possible to house, classify and consult, an infinity of documents, various in origin, nature and character. The Internet has become a conglomerate of heteroclite materials that are grouped in numerous collections that constantly grow and mutate. From the databases created by institutions and private companies, to the registers of information elaborated more or less spontaneously by individuals, a diverse collection of documents is housed on the web, giving rise to an enormous virtual archive that aspires to conserve information about practically any aspect of reality. It is an archive where documents, accumulated according to disparate criteria, gain meaning, thanks to the metadata and algorithms that guide the search-engine spiders. Possibly this archive of archives, with all-encompassing aspirations, has its most appropriate metaphor in the Biblioteca de Babel (Library of Babel) by Jorge Luis Borges. A construction made up of an indeterminate –and probably infinite– number of hexagonal rooms in which are stored all the books possible and where as result, all mankind’s knowledge is preserved.

However, the web is also a fabulous visibility machine that makes it possible to contemplate an extremely rich mosaic of creations. In the digital networks, innumerable collections of virtual objects coexist, often equipped with a coherent discourse, that remain accessible to any user with an Internet connection. They are collections, elaborated sometimes in a more or less spontaneous manner by individuals or groups of individuals and at times according to a predetermined plan for formal institutions, that constantly grow, intermingle and recombine, giving rise to new collections and bestowing new meanings on the elements of which they are composed. Ultimately, the web is a museum of museums, the collections of which are revealed to be interchangeable, a fact that makes it possible to lead to new associations between the objects and, in the most fortunate cases, unleash serendipity. And maybe the best metaphor for this large emergent museum would also be Borges’ Aleph, that small iridescent sphere, described by the Argentine author in a tale from the middle of the last century, where it was possible to contemplate simultaneously, and without any overlapping, everything that occurred in the universe.

With a potential capacity to encompass all the collections of documents and museums in the world, the web is ultimately a hypermuseum. It is a container where all the collections of objects and documents in existence are conserved and exhibited, but it is also a space that tends to eliminate the barriers existing between them. Its reach is not restricted to a specific collection but extends to virtually all of them. In this way, it becomes possible for any material to become susceptible to being rearranged into new groupings or collections.

The hypermuseum is radically disrupting relations between museums and their users. If, before the consolidation of the Internet, the capacity to select the objects that were worthy of being conserved and to bestow coherence on the accumulated collections fell almost exclusively to museum institutions – all of them tied to hegemonic groups – the new communication technologies have opened up to the masses the possibility of choosing the fragments of patrimony that are worthy of being preserved and exhibited.

In the hypermuseum, museums are losing protagonism to the multitude connected to the web. Increasingly it is the communities of individuals who, following more or less informal patterns of cooperative work, give birth to fabulous collections of creative proposals and cultural documents. Digital citizens use the web as a sort of space to elaborate, grant meaning and give visibility to extraordinary collections of digital contents of all types. They are the ones who have contributed to the consolidation of the hypermuseum.

Once they have stopped being the exclusive holders of the capacity to preserve heritage and grant meaning, museums watch their influence and relevance decrease in leaps and bounds. Weighed down by hierarchical and centralized structures, the functioning of which weds uneasily with the logic of digital networks, these institutions run the risk of ultimately being buried by the multitude. This doesn’t mean to say that the task of the museums is not now important and that it won’t continue to be so in the future. Despite the fact that informal strategies of creation and distribution of content carry a lot of weight in the web, the points of reference brought by the cultural institutions continue to be relevant. Frequently, the networks of collaborative knowledge need institutionalised know-how to carry out their projects. This happens even with Wikipedia, one of the more open communities of free knowledge, which obliges its collaborators to validate the information in their articles through verifiable sources, many of which are related to the traditional world of academia. Just as Antonio Lafuente states in his introduction to Potlatch digital, by Felipe Ortega and Joaquín Rodríguez: “The excesses of the meritocracy could be backing the appearance of a new generation of gurus and other forms of charismatic leadership that threaten social and democratic stability. Of course, we are not questioning the benefits of p2p culture, but are inviting one to reflect on the tendency of their fans to compare it in all cases with the culture of bureaucracy, without considering that it is about two forms of organisation that could complement each other and occasionally be a logical extension of one another. All studies about the development of free software, for example, have proved the importance of organisational structures, be they public or private, in the sustainability of diverse projects. Wikipedia itself would be unimaginable without the public existence of libraries, universities or museums. To criticise bureaucracy (and here one should add the nuance of not pathologically bureaucratic) is necessary, but it is also essential to admit its capacity, at least ideally, to stabilise the world, to establish egalitarian rules and to uphold rigorous scrutiny”.

That said museums ought to change radically their strategies for the creation, distribution and dissemination of knowledge if they don’t want to find themselves condemned to irrelevance. They must reconsider their role in the hypermuseum, in order to not find themselves boxed in by it. But one thing is certain, the transformations -conceptual, technological and legal – need to be so profound that they end up affecting their very essence.

In the first instance, museums must eliminate the barriers that separate them from the outside world. If, for a long time, these institutions have functioned as closed spaces, managed according to hierarchical structures, isolated from their surroundings, from here on in they must design strategies to facilitate the participation of digital communities. This supposes becoming aware that digital citizens have left off being simple users to become “produsers”, capable of assuming an active role as creators of knowledge within museums. In this way, curatorial teams need to become accustomed to working with individuals and communities unconnected to the formal structure of the institution and will have to come to terms with the fact that the very construction of the collections, and the discourses generated around them, will basically be the result of processes of co-creation carried out by subjects situated as much within, as outwith, the museum.

For this to be possible, museums must really open their collections up to the users and create tools that enable users to interact with them. It is a case of elaborating communication and mediation technologies that enable digital communities to contribute in an effective manner to the processes of generating knowledge linked to the institution. We are not referring, of course, to networks like Facebook and Twitter, used, in the majority of cases to create an illusion of bi-directionality, but to technological solutions created ad hoc for collaborative working, like the wikis. Some institutions have already taken steps in this direction, as is the case of the Museu d’Art Contemporani in Barcelona (Macba) that has subscribed to an agreement to collaborate with the Associació Amical Viquipèdia, to promote the generation of content about contemporary art in the Catalan version of Wikipedia.

The permeability of museums outwards inevitably has consequences regarding how to manage copyright. The opening up of museum collections makes it necessary to adapt so-called “intellectual property” to the logic of the new communication technologies. As mentioned at the beginning of this text, the web is, essentially, a technology designed to favour the circulation and exchange of information. For this reason, to assume an excessively restrictive attitude to copyright merely hinders the diffusion of knowledge through digital networks, to the extent that it imposes legal obstacles to practices that are so specific to the web, such as the reproduction and sharing of documents. For this reason, the creation of tools to facilitate the access to museum collections needs to be complemented with the publication, under copyleft or creative commons licences, of the material generated by these institutions. In fact, there are already several museums that are beginning, to a greater or lesser degree, to place their contents on the web with free licences, despite the fact that on more than one occasion they have had to face the resistance of the creators themselves.

However, the full diffusion of knowledge generated around museum collections will only be guaranteed if the museums carry out their digital projects using shared and observed standards of good practice on the web. For the flow of information to end up being efficient it is important that museums develop their digital projects in accord with the recommendations and technical specifications that enjoy wide consensus amongst the developers and have the backing of the W3C. Standardised and agreed technological solutions are a necessary condition for information to circulate fluidly on the web.

What is more, it is important to aim to preserve the universality of the web, as an environment that permits equitable and unified access to the information lodged on digital communication networks. The use of a common space, devoid of obstacles and technological barriers, is the best way to ensure that the greatest possible number of people can access knowledge. For this reason, museums should avoid the use of tools that in any way fence in the Internet. In this sense, it is vital that museums privilege the production of projects specifically conceived for the web, instead of recurring to resources like apps for smartphones that, just as Berners-Lee warned, favour the fragmentation of the web.

The web has made possible the edification of the hypermuseum, this space of virtual convergence between the archive and the museum that aspires to become the compendium of universal knowledge. It is a space, the very existence and expansion of which, all of us who use the web have in some way contributed to: it is the result of a great collective effort with all-encompassing pretentions.

Given its desire to archive and collect everything, it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the hypermuseum would end up calling into question the pertinence of traditional museums. In a certain way, the web has decimated the central character that museum institutions have occupied for so long in our society. Museums have lost the dominant position that they held during modernity as the foci for the irradiation of knowledge: now their influence is no greater than that of many other agents operating on the web. This is not to say that their function is not still valuable. Their capacity to offer us referents about reality is still useful to us. However, these institutions need to submit to huge transformations if they don´t want their role to be occupied by other agents better adapted to the changes wrought by the digital communication networks.

Eduardo Pérez Soler thinks that art –like Buda– is dead, though its shadow is still projected on the cave. However, this lamentable fact doesn´t impede him from continuing to reflect, discuss and write about the most diverse forms of creation.

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