At the Frontier of interpretation: A report from the Museums Australia Conference, Perth 2011. Part 1

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A portico outside the 'At the Frontier' conference in Perth reads ‘The price of all history is the understanding of Modern Times’. Image Toner Stevenson.

Written by Toner Stevenson, manager Sydney Observatory who recently attended the Museums Australia and Interpretation Australia conference held in the new State Theatre and WA State Library in Perth, 14 to 18 November. There were many frontiers discussed throughout the conference and two themes that I particularly engaged with as being of relevance to the Powerhouse Museum were the new cultural frontier and how technology has impacted heritage conservation. This blog relates to the first theme.
‘Why Culture is Changing’ was the title of the keynote address by Professor John Holden, chair of a thinktank in London called Demos . Holden discussed the revolution that is occurring in the definition of the term ‘culture’. In the past exclusiveness defined culture and decisions were made for the many by the few. There was a gap between culture as selected and presented by the professionals and the home-made. An exciting frontier now exists through technologies which place the tools of creation, selection and ‘curatorship’ in many people’s hands.
Unlike in the era of the Beatles and Rolling Stones access to music recording, production and distribution is available to everyone using ever-more accessible technologies. The rules of the game have changed and there has been an explosion in home-made culture. Holden argued that if ‘making cultural choices goes to the heart of self-identity’ then the providers of cultural content, the muses, must be more important for society and the economy as everyone strives to reach their cultural potential. To engage with this frontier means that Museums have to make content available so it can be manipulated, owned and revealed by the population. This will result in a more democratic culture.
Over the next few days of the conference we explored how communication technologies can democratize culture and add deeper levels of meaning to heritage sites. This included making content available over the internet, using Twitter and Facebook to create dialogues between Museum staff and the public and how Iphone apps can provide deeper interpretation of exhibitions which can be taken away and used at any time by the user. Julian Bickersteth, Director of International Conservation Services, demonstrated, using the Powerhouse Museum Lovelace exhibition app, how smartphones can also collect feedback that creates future opportunities, including mapping behaviour patterns in exhibitions to improve decisions on exhibition interpretation.
This leads me to the second theme of the conference, the frontier Museums are facing to do with prioritising the collection and the conditions in which it is stored and displayed. The challenge is to improve our energy usage, respond to climate change and provide the longterm care of our heritage. I will outline this in more detail in Part 2.

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: Inside the Heath Ledger Theatre of Perth’s new State Theatre, Image Toner Stevenson.

Related reading:
Ivey, Bill (2008). Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights.

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