The distributed museum is already here–it’s just not very evenly distributed

[Author accepted version]

Ed Rodley, “The distributed museum is already here–it’s just not very evenly distributed” in Hannah Lewi, Wally Smith, Dirk vom Lehn, Steven Cooke (eds), The Routledge International Handbook of New Digital Practices in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Heritage Sites, London: Routledge, 2019,

Three descriptions of the distributed museum

The title of this essay is a play on science fiction author William Gibson’s quote, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” . It seemed fitting given that most, if not all, aspects of Bautista’s and Balsamo “distributed museum”–one where the generative acts of the museum are decoupled from the edifice of the museum building– currently exist, though nowhere all under one roof, physically or figuratively. The idea of the distributed museum has great utility to understand the dialectics impacting museum practice and explore how they are (or are not) manifesting in museums. I will explore the three early descriptions (Proctor 2010, Bautista and Balsamo 2011, Dewdney, Dibosa, and Walsh 2013) of the distributed museum and add five additional dialectical relationships that characterize the problematic state of 21st century museum practice.

A logical initial question to ask is what exactly is being distributed in a “distributed” museum. The early instantiations of the idea of “the distributed museum” explore the emergent shift in focus from the physical realm to the digital, and back again to a more nuanced approach that encompasses both. In her 2010 article, “The Museum as Distributed Network” Nancy Proctor advocates for museums viewing online audiences as being as valuable as visitors to the physical museum and requiring different engagement strategies. In this regard, she follows Falk and Dierking, who place a great emphasis on relevance for online visitors, “Since visitors do not make meaning from museums solely within the four walls of the institution, effective digital media experiences require situating the experience within the broader context of the lives, the community, and the society in which visitors live and interact.”(Falk & Dierking, 2008, p. 27) She problematizes both the traditional museum, and the typical multi-platform “hub and spoke” model of centralized production as being insufficient to the task, to imagine a museum that seeks to apply the cultural norms of the Internet to museum practice and expand into the various platforms of the digital realm in order to fulfill their missions to connect audiences with the cultural assets museums hold. For Proctor, museums that function as distributed networks are:

  • “conversational rather than uni-directional
  • engaging and relevant, rather than simply didactic
  • generative of content and open-ended rather than finite and closed
  • sustainable across platforms, communities, and time
  • and that become ‘smarter’, more effective and useful the more they are used: rather like Pandora or the Amazon recommendations system – increasing the quality of both the visitor experience and the online museum itself.”(Proctor, 2010)

For Proctor, audience agency and opportunity to engage suffuse all her categories. The distribution of museum content in this case builds longer-term relationships. This move away from the transactional “visit” model is echoed by Saldaña & Celaya, “A close relationship with users should be one of the keys to digital presence in cultural institutions. Visitors should feel free to converse and exchange experiences in both the analog and virtual environments of any institution. The entire digital content of a cultural institution should be predisposed to being shared by its audiences. Museums are no longer places to simply visit: physical, geographic and time concepts fade away. Museums may be found in a tablet, a mobile application or a social network.” (Saldaña & Celaya, 2013, p. 21)

Proctor’s model of museum is also rhizomatic in structure, dispensing with the Hegelian master and slave (Hegel, 1910, p. 480) and the assumption of communication and engagement exclusively emanating outward from a center in favor of the dialogic and non-hierarchical processes that the Internet is built upon. For her, “design based on the distributed network model turns visitors into curators and creators, docents and ambassadors for our museums by giving them the tools to contribute meaningfully to the development of the museum experience.”(Proctor, 2010) As an aside, it is worth noting that though all Proctor’s examples are Internet-based, none of the qualities of this distributed network she imagines are possible only via the Internet. For Proctor, what is distributed is both content and authority. Proctor’s distributed museum is in many ways a Hegelian antithesis to the traditional concept of a museum in the pre-digital era. What later authors like Bautista and Balsamo (Balsamo & Bautista, 2011) have articulated, and Dewdney, Dibosa and Walsh (Dewdney, Dibosa, & Walsh, 2013) have studied in great depth are the varied ways that museums are wrestling with these dialectics to synthesize new understandings of what it means to be a museum.

Whereas Proctor was focused primarily on exploring the potential of mobile social media, Susan Bautista’s and Anne Balsamo’s 2011 paper, “Understanding the Distributed Museum: Mapping the Spaces of Museology in Contemporary Culture” looks more broadly at current museum practice to plot three different dimensions of tension; the virtual versus the physical, fixed versus mobile, and open versus closed systems of creative offerings (Balsamo & Bautista, 2011, p. 55); and locates examples of progressive practice along these axes. It is informative to compare their categories to Proctor’s.

“The first set of terms, ‘physical’ and ‘virtual’, describes two ends of a continuum of ‘locations’ where the term ‘physical’ identifies a material location and the term ‘virtual’ identifies a digital location. The second set of terms refers to the boundaries of the experience. The term ‘fixed’ suggests that the experience is bounded by a particular location; the term ‘mobile’ means that the experience can be accessed as a person moves among locations. The third set of terms is used to describe the creative expanse of the activity. The term ‘closed’ is used when the activity is scripted or explicitly organized for a participant. The term ‘open’ describes activities that can be modified, changed or expanded by a participant.” (Balsamo & Bautista, 2011, p. 59)

Whereas Proctor is focused on the actors and qualities of their relationships, Balsamo and Bautista focus on content or experience. Their so-called “binary pairs” incorporate some of Proctor’s networks functionalities, but despite the name are intended to function not as oppositional binaries, but rather as the endpoints of continua which delineate the location, boundaries, and creative expanse of museum activities, in all its activities, not just in the digital realm. In this regard, Balsamo and Bautista have already begun moving beyond the physical vs digital framing then current to situate their exploration of the three binaries within the larger context of the transformation of the museum from a place to a space. Following the sociologist de Certeau, they argue that “the concept of place has been used by the dominant orders to organize and control society, as through urban planning and architecture. Space, on the other hand, is constructed by people through the practice of living and walking.”(Balsamo & Bautista, 2011, p. 58) The distributed museum is a space, inhabited by people and museum professionals engaging over time, across platforms, and in multiple locations, negotiating an emergent understanding of cultural heritage.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the shifting power dynamic embedded in the idea of “a space, not a place”. A 2014 survey conducted in the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council found that “digital technologies themselves have the potential to undermine the museum as a centralised controlling force in heritage, allowing participants to record, share and remember heritage experience in new ways.” (Cooke, King, & Stark, 2014, p. 17) The authors go on to state that though practitioners devote considerable thought to the matter, visitors had little to say about the importance of place. “Finally, a key question around digital engagement with heritage focuses on the role and significance of place. In a digital encounter, does a physical sense of place matter, and, if so, does it get lost? Whilst this theme was largely imperceptible in the questionnaire responses, it is an important subject within the literature.” (Cooke et al., 2014, p. 18) The great challenge for contemporary museums, and specifically art museums, is how to demonstrate their expertise and authority, while encouraging visitors to demonstrate their own in the digital era of distributed authority. Now, museums have to “rethink the nature of visitor engagement as one of collaboration that involves two ­way conversations… The museum’s challenge, and indeed its authority in the digital age, comes not only from a sense of accumulated expertise, but also from its ability to seamlessly navigate contradictory spaces and practices within this distributed learning network.” (Balsamo & Bautista, 2011, p. 66) The Internet, and the varieties of social interactions it has created, are all specifically designed to resist the kind of oversight and control museums traditionally employ over their offerings. (Dewdney et al., 2013, pp. 190–191) How museums navigate the competing imperatives of opening up and reaffirming authority is the subject of the third description of the distributed museum we will examine.

The most thorough study to date of how the digital realm now influences museum practice, and how difficult institutional culture change can be, even when that change is acknowledged as strategic and existentially essential, is Dewdney, Dibosa, and Walsh’s “Post Critical Museology: Theory and Practice in the Art Museum”. The result of several years of research, their book lays out what they call the Tate Britain’s “general crisis of representation”–what the authors define as the way that 20th century art curatorial practices, combined with modernist aesthetics, not only run counter to, but actively inhibit the museum’s potential to reach distributed audiences. (Dewdney et al., 2013, p. 5) The book is a result of a major research project to study a program developed at the Tate Britain: “Tate Encounters: Britishness and Visual Culture.” The unprecedented access Tate granted the researchers over a period of years has resulted in a unique (to my knowledge) output – a book-length study of one effort to attract more BME (Black and minority ethnic) audiences. (Dewdney et al., 2013, p. 4)

The “post critical” stance of the authors is noteworthy. They seek not merely to critique, but as self-described museumgoers themselves, “to develop a position which brings together academics, museum professional, and others, in productive ways in order to open up new avenues of meaning and purpose through the agency of audiences.”(Dewdney et al., 2013, p. 2) In this focus on agency, they are part of a chorus of progressives who view audience agency as a central part of the postcolonialist endeavor who see the potential for a museum that can open up its processes to “become an embodiment of democracy, which does not silence controversies but gives diversity public voices.”(Schorch, 2009, p. 28) For Dewdney, Dibosa, and Walsh, the term “distributed museum” becomes a way to understand “the networked, relational, hybrid and performative dimensions of the museum” (Dewdney et al., 2013, p. 189) The traditional understanding of the museum as a collection of objects is now competing with an understanding of the museum as conversations about collections. What Tate Britain tries to navigate is nothing less than “a radical reconfiguration of how ‘the social’ is registered through the operations and functions of communication and knowledge.” (Dewdney et al., 2013, p. 190)

In this regard, digital technologies accelerate the undermining of traditional privilege by intersecting with ongoing attempts to redefine museums in a postcolonial era. James Clifford studied this process in the 1990s, in his application of sociologist Mary Louise Pratt’s idea of the colonial “contact zone” to museums, “When museums are seen as contact zones, their organizing structure as a collection becomes an ongoing historical, political, moral relationship–-a power-charged set of exchanges, of push and pull. The organizing structure of the museum-as-collection functions like Pratt’s frontier. A center and a periphery are assumed: the center a point of gathering, the periphery an area of discovery. “(Clifford, 1997, pp. 192–193)

In the non-centralized, non-hierarchical, rhizomatic model of internet society, where do museums, with all their troublesome history, fit in, and how? For Proctor, the distribution of authority and content is essential to making experiences that are “higher quality, more meaningful and relevant to different audiences and their interests. In this model, the museum curates not just exhibitions and collections, but also conversations, facilitating and fostering communities of interest around the museum’s concepts, objects and events.” (Proctor, 2010) For Balsamo and Bautista, they identify three cultural implications that digital technologies have surfaced, which, for them, have the potential to shape the role of distributed museums in a digital age;

  1. An emphasis on open culture that “demonstrates the museum’s understanding of its role and responsibility to provide public accessibility of cultural materials.”,
  2. an appreciation that a museum’s digital network “is not monolithic: it is a network of communities that includes the community of visitors, patrons, teachers, artists, advisers, scholars, local community members and learners of multiple stripes.”, and
  3. place-based experiences where “The museum as a ‘place’ travels as personal mobile technologies allow visitors to experience the museum wherever and whenever they choose.” (Balsamo & Bautista, 2011, p. 67)

For Dewdney et al, with their singular focus on one project in one art museum, they identify the central challenge as being“…the many-to-many mode of communication now operating as an alternative to and replacement of the one-to-many culture of analogue print and broadcasting in which the analogue museum functioned: which is to say that the art museum in particular is a part of the system of representation that is now challenged.” (Dewdney et al., 2013, p. 191)

All three descriptions of “the distributed museum” share an emphasis on museums needing to engage in more open and dialogic processes, to make museums“…sites of interactive engagement rather than passive observation.” (Gonzalez, 2017)This is central to effectively engaging audiences in the digital era, where physical museum attendance is seen to be slowly and steadily declining and increasingly less representative of the diversity in most societies. These attempts to define a way forward for museums are a potential antidote to the existential despair voiced by Helen Molesworth, former chief curator of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, who recently wrote,

“The museum, the Western institution I have dedicated my life to, with its familiar humanist offerings of knowledge and patrimony in the name of empathy and education, is one of the greatest holdouts of the colonialist enterprise. Its fantasies of possession and edification grow more and more wearisome as the years go by.… I confess that more days than not I find myself wondering whether the whole damn project of collecting, displaying, and interpreting culture might just be unredeemable.”(Molesworth, 2018)

Five Further Digital Dialectics

In my own research and practice in museums, I have encountered a number of other dialectics that surface, particularly during the course of projects that have been identified as opportunities to innovate. I offer five pairs that to some extent mirror Proctor, and Balsamo and Bautista, and which I imagine would seem familiar to the museum staff studied by Dewdney, Dibosa, and Walsh.

Change vs Transformation

The theme of “change” has been a constant in museum discourse in the digital era. Responding to rapidly altering cultural, media, and social landscapes is a relatively new imperative for institutions founded around the concept of preservation for the long term. How to respond to new developments, technologies and social structures is an ongoing challenge for museums, which often manifests in two distinct ways. The first, change, is often treated like a discrete, time-bounded process which assumes a static endpoint one can visualize. An organization that goes through a change process is still recognizably the same, aside from the part, process or people that has undergone the change. Transformation creates continuously evolving, learning institutions that become whatever they need to become to address their missions. The endpoint is unknown and not fixed and the organization that has gone through a transformational process is difficult, if not impossible to visualize beforehand. (Rodley, 2017c) Janet Carding, former director of the Royal Ontario Museum, wrote that “change that is focused on achieving a specific endpoint is out-of-step with the digital-dominated trend towards perpetual beta.” (Carding, 2015) These strategies have strong similarities with Piagetian theories of assimilation and accommodation in learners. Like change, assimilation involves incorporation of new knowledge to an existing corpus of knowledge. Like transformation, accommodation involves a metacognitive shift, where new knowledge fundamentally reorganizes the entire corpus of knowledge.

Tradition vs Design

I would argue that one of the greatest challenges of working in a museum that is interested in innovation is the burden of tradition; the processes, mindsets, and workflows that are unquestioned and possibly have outlived the circumstances for which they were designed. The unwritten and the informal are hard to overcome precisely because of their lack of specificity and mutability. This desire to improve efficiency, which at least partly underlies the current vogue in applying Lean and Agile approaches to museum work, represents an important elevation of process design. Innovation happens through making active choices, from looking at a situation and looking for what interaction designers call the “designable surfaces”. (Rodley, 2017e) The difference between tradition and design is the difference between what Donald Schön calls “non-reflective” and “reflective” practice and resonates strongly with Schön’s idea of reflection as knowing-in-action. There are also parallels between the design vs tradition dialectic with psychologist Carol Dweck’s theory of fixed vs growth mindsets.(Dweck, 2006) According to Dweck, people with a fixed mindset tend to view failure as an indictment of themselves while people with a growth mindset see failure as an opportunity to learn and improve. (Popova, 2014) Oftentimes, innovation will require designing processes and projects that run counter to tradition, and will result in tension as the institution grapples with resolving this dialectic.

Hierarchy vs Network
(or Arborescence vs Rhizome?)

Hierarchy– “the sacred order of things”–originally the Roman Catholic description of the heavenly order of angels who oversaw all of creation–has evolved to describe any entrenched system where people are ranked according to authority or power or status. The apparatus of control is very clear and explicit, and the relative positions of actors in a hierarchy is apparent to both. In this system, increasing one’s power is tied inextricably to increasing one’s rank in the hierarchy. Paired with strong traditions, a strong hierarchy can be almost impossible to influence, let alone change, or transform. (Rodley, 2017d) As James McAnally stated in “A Call for a Collective Reexamination of Our Art Institutions, “When dismantling a hierarchy, those with real power always want to settle for plucking out a brick when it’s the foundation at fault, something in the water that was mixed in with the cement.” (McAnally, 2016)

Traditional hierarchies, like everything else, have been profoundly affected by the advent of the digital era and the transformations it has wrought. In “The Wealth of Networks”, Yochai Benkler describes how different power dynamics are a networked environment using the example of Linux inventor Linus Torvald’s relationship with the network of developers working on Linux,

“Torvalds’s authority is persuasive, not legal or technical, and certainly not determinative. He can do nothing except persuade others to prevent them from developing anything they want and add it to their kernel, or to distribute that alternative version of the kernel. There is nothing he can do to prevent the entire community of users, or some subsection of it, from rejecting his judgment about what ought to be included in the kernel. Anyone is legally free to do as they please. So these projects are based on a hierarchy of meritocratic respect, on social norms, and, to a great extent, on the mutual recognition by most players in this game that it is to everybody’s advantage to have someone overlay a peer review system with some leadership.” (Benkler, 2006, p. 105)

Thinking about organizations as networks rather than hierarchies is widespread in the business community and has been making its way into museums. Patrick Greene’s discussion of Museum Victoria’s new organizational structure explicitly described the museum as a “networked museum” and applies Lipnack’s and Stamps’ idea of a networked organization as one where “independent people and groups act as independent nodes, link across boundaries, to work together for a common purpose; it has multiple leaders, lots of voluntary links and interacting levels.” (Greene, 2006) In this dialectic, power shifts from being tied to status, to being a function of the density of connections at any node. As with any redistribution of power, conflict can and will occur.

In the course of exploring this dialectic, I have encountered a different pair that offers some interesting insights into how to understand distributed networks. Venkatesh Rao has proposed that the network/hierarchy dialectic is unduly simplistic and would be better replaced by thinking in terms of arborescent vs. rhizomatic structures.In arborescences like an onion, it is always possible to discern which way is up, and distinguish horizontal sections apart from vertical sections by simple visual inspection. With rhizomatic structures like a ginger root, there is no clear absolute orientation around an up, and no clear distinction between horizontal and vertical. A rhizome “allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.” For Rao, the rhizomatic/arborescent distinction is superior to the hierarchy/network dialectic because both onions and ginger roots show signs of both hierarchical structures and network-like internal connections. The important difference is that one has no default orientation, direction of change, or defining internal symmetries. (Rao, 2014)

Literacy vs fluency

According to the New Media Consortium “Horizon Report: 2016 Museum Edition”, digital literacy “…is essential to improving technical infrastructure and workflows. Digital literacy needs to be achieved across the board, especially in the context of museum leadership.” (Freeman, et al, 2016, p. 24) The mismatch between current museum staff digital literacy and museums’ digital ambitions is well-known and documented. Implicit in the mindset that “digital” is a domain that needs to be understood at least as well as any curatorial domain if anything is to be done. Since museums derive their authority from the expertise of their staff, it follows that without that same level of digital expertise, they cannot engage meaningfully in the digital realm. The literacy vs fluency dialectic, unlike the others in this article is more a confusion of related issues, rather than a real conflict. (Rodley, 2017b) Museums that want to do well in the digital era need to address both the digital literacy challenge, and the lack of digitally fluent staff. Focusing on one to the exclusion of the other will produce results, but won’t achieve the kind of transformation possible by doing both.

According to the American Library Association, a digitally literate person:

  • “Possesses the technical and cognitive skills required to find, understand, evaluate, create, and communicate digital information in a wide variety of formats;
  • Is able to use diverse technologies appropriately and effectively to retrieve information, interpret results, and judge the quality of that information;
  • Understands the relationship between technology, life-long learning, personal privacy, and stewardship of information;
  • Uses these skills and the appropriate technology to communicate and collaborate with peers, colleagues, family, and on occasion, the general public; and
  • Uses these skills to actively participate in civic society and contribute to a vibrant, informed, and engaged community.” (Visser, 2012)

One response to this literacy gap has been a movement to bootstrap internal continuous professional development in museums. Greg Albers and Annalisa Stephen detailed the Getty’s staff efforts to increase their own digital literacy by, hosting a series of 10-minute peer-to-peer technology classes, new communications tools and meeting formats, an on-site retreat for staff working on digital projects. (Greg Albers & Annelisa Stephan, 2017) At the Peabody Essex Museum, we have been engaged on a multi-year process of developing professional development programs for our colleagues and ourselves that cover issues from using social media as professionals, to copyright law and the Internet. I can already see how the efforts are starting to pay off, in terms of colleagues trying new tools, new ways of collaborating, and looking at their practices more reflectively. Continuous professional development is a tide that lifts all boats.

Increasing digital literacy, though important, will not be enough to bring museums’ ambitions to fruition. Digitally literate professionals may be able to identify digital endeavors that could address their museum’s mission, but actually doing that work requires professionals who are fluent with the tools. A common feature of the museums that have launched ambitious digital projects in the past decade (Cooper Hewitt, Cleveland Museum of Art, SFMOMA, Te Papa, etc) and without fail, you will find digitally literate leaders, and digitally fluent staff; software developers, coders, UX and UI developers, database administrators, etc… Lack of fluent staff is a sector-wide issue, not just in museums, but in the corporate world at large. A recent report in Venture Beat highlighted how far all organizations have to go. “Altimeter: When it comes to digital transformation, companies are still way behind” stated that “A lack of digital talent and expertise is one issue, according to 31.4 percent of respondents. And the perception that digital transformation is a cost center and not an investment is reported by another 31 percent.” (Stewart Rogers, 2017) The successful distributed museum will require a staff with enough confidence and training to use the digital tools at hand. The next step, building new tools to solve museums’ specific challenges, will also require staff who deeply understand those tools and can build new ones. It’s not an either/or situation, but a both/and situation.

Values vs culture

A quick Google search of “museum values” will turn up a long list of worthy-sounding concepts like Cooperation, Courage, Determination, Generosity, Integrity, Optimism, Positive Approach, Respect, Self-Discipline, Teamwork, Trust, Sacrifice, Volunteerism and many, many more. Vision statements are an accepted part of the museum strategy landscape. (Rodley, 2017a) According to the American Alliance of Museums, “mission is purpose; vision is future; and values are beliefs.” (American Alliance of Museums, 2012, p. 1) If you’ve ever doubted the power of standards, do a web search of how many museums in the United States (and outside) use this precise Mission-Vision-Values formulation. Jeanne Vergeront’s excellent dissection of museum values statements concludes, “If values are to be authentic and effective, effort, tested beliefs, and even sacrifice are required. That doesn’t seem to be too much to expect of the beliefs for a museum that wants to matter or, perhaps, to be indispensable.” (Vergeront, 2012) The dozens of museum mission/vision/values statements I’ve looked at generally fail to provide any concrete guidance on how to bridge the gap between the lived realities of employees and the grand pronouncements of the vision and values statements. The staff at Tate Britain studied by Dewdney, et al are a signal example of how difficult it can be to inhabit that gap. Jan Gunnarson’s 2016 presentation at the “Alibis for Interaction” conference neatly (if crudely) summed up the trouble with values statements. “Values have a tendency to be bullshit. Translating them into a culture, actually acting on those values, is the really challenging part.” (Jan Gunnarson, 2016) Like Gunnarson, I believe that culture is the manifestation of values, and that as a field, museums need to spend a lot more effort manifesting.

The economist Peter Drucker’s famous line, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a mainstay of business school teaching. For Nick Poole, former head of the Collections Trust in UK, a digital culture that privileged reflective action over strategy is a better indicator of future success, “A digital culture will get you through a time without a digital strategy much more than a digital strategy will get you through a time without a digital culture.” (Nick Poole, as cited in Rhiannon Looseley, 2012)


The distributed museum represents a radical departure from 20th century museum practice and is proving to be a fertile ground for experimentation. Tate Britain’s embrace of radical empiricism of their Tate Encounters program (Dewdney et al., 2013, p. ix), The Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum’s reconceiving of their visitor experience to privilege design thinking (Gonzalez, 2017) and non-institutional efforts like Wallace and Deazley’s “Display at Your Own Risk” exhibition of variously-licensed museum images all demonstrate how practitioners are exploring avenues of distribution to make museums “more radically become platforms for inspiration, critical dialogue, creativity, tolerance, and community.” (Wallace & Deazley, 2016, p. 261) The distributed museum is still elusive, though countless examples exist of museums striving to become more distributed. The challenges of doing so, as reflected in the dialectics described here and elsewhere, are substantial, but not insurmountable. Designing museums and museum workplace cultures that facilitate communication and dialogic processes with potentially global audiences as part of their core functionality will be the next step towards the creation of truly distributed institutions.

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