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The Virtues of Promiscuity: Technology and Theory in the Museum — Medium

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Being promiscuous, but discriminatingMuseums would do well to learn a thing or two from Jansen, and focus more on the creating and spreading the “digital DNA” of our shared cultural heritage and less on controlling access to those assets. This is a call to be both more promiscuous and more discriminating in what we share and how. I know that sounds contradictory, but bear with me.

Museums’ current survival strategy is not unlike those of creatures that have evolved on remote islands. We have gotten very good at passing on one model of “museum” from generation to generation. We may have developed elaborate plumage and interesting displays, but these mask the underlying sameness of the idea we pass on. As long as the larger ecosystem evolved slowly, museums could adapt and keep pace. The global internet has shattered that isolation for good, and in the new ecosystem our current reproductive specialization will not continue to serve us well. Insularity — the tendency to look inward, ignore the larger world and produce institutions that are increasingly self-referential, self-pleasing, and obscure to the billions of potential museumgoers — is a strategy for extinction.

For Jansen, encouraging others to build on his idea of Strandbeests is a reproductive and evolutionary strategy. His best hope for the survival of his creations beyond his lifetime is to let them loose for others to tinker with. Survival (and further evolution) lies in spread. Cynthia Coburn gave a fascinating talk at the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning conference in 2014 on scale and spread. If you’re at all interested in dissemination of ideas, it’s worth reading. One thing that struck me from her talk and the paper from which it was distilled are that we tend to be imprecise about what we mean when we talk about “doing more!” Unpacking that, Coburn finds that there are “fundamentally different ways of conceptualizing the goals or outcomes of scale. We identify four: adoption, replication, adaptation, and reinvention.” For this essay, I’m most interested in the fourth outcome. This way of thinking about spread Coburn describes as, “the result of a process whereby local actors use ideas, practices, or tools as a jumping-off point for innovation.”

Survival lies in spread. I like that. 

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