The Future of Media determines the Future of Museum. (Some remarks in the current situation of the Post-NMC era)

Harald Kraemer, School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong S.A.R.


Since the 1990s, multimedia technology has had a growing impact on communication and education in museums. Museums have spent enormous effort in the production of multimedia applications for kiosk systems, audio guides, portables, silver discs, websites, apps, etc. Nowadays museums are open to any kind of media that the new communication technology has forced them to comply with. But with the growing loss of the first three generations of digital cultural heritage, we are becoming aware that museums are in a growing spiral of dependence on communication technologies. Given this relationship of dependence and the so-called throwawayism, the role of the New Media Consortium is considered. Different examples outline the scope of the problems and show why digital preservation and the magic word of the emulation can only partially help. The second part of the article deals with the reasons for the lack of quality of many multimedia products today and the changed behavior of the new participatory visitors. Using Multimedia and Social Media-supported technologies, visitors have transformed from passive learning consumers to active clients who participate in co-authoring their visits. The Millennial generation in particular, with its narcissistic and event-driven behavior and its expectation of following the latest technology innovations, has led museums into a dependency with unforeseeable consequences. This essay contains aspects of the following question: How can we ensure that future generations will have access to the hypermedia applications created by museums, and that we will not lose these interactive masterpieces, as is happening right now with the first generations of multimedia classics and Flash-based websites? Last but not least, the inglorious end of the New Media Consortium (NMC) raises the question of what we can learn to avoid mistakes for the future.

Keywords: Dependency on technology, loss of digital cultural heritage, digital preservation, lack of quality of Multimedia applications today, the change of visitor behavior

The Future of Media determines the Future of Museums.

(Some remarks on the current situation of the Post-NMC era)

Harald Kraemer


Since the 1990s, multimedia technology has had a growing impact on communication and education in museums. Museums have spent enormous effort in the production of multimedia applications for kiosk systems, audio guides, portables, silver discs, websites, apps, etc. Nowadays museums are open to any kind of media that the new communication technology has forced them to comply with. But with the growing loss of the first three generations of digital cultural heritage, we are becoming aware that museums are in a growing spiral of dependence on communication technologies. Given this relationship of dependence and the so-called throwawayism, the role of the New Media Consortium is considered. Different examples outline the scope of the problems and show why digital preservation and the magic word of the emulation can only partially help. The second part of the article deals with the reasons for the lack of quality of many multimedia products today and the changed behavior of the new participatory visitors. Using Multimedia and Social Media-supported technologies, visitors have transformed from passive learning consumers to active clients who participate in co-authoring their visits. The Millennial generation in particular, with its narcissistic and event-driven behavior and its expectation of following the latest technology innovations, has led museums into a dependency with unforeseeable consequences. This essay contains aspects of the following question: How can we ensure that future generations will have access to the hypermedia applications created by museums, and that we will not lose these interactive masterpieces, as is happening right now with the first generations of multimedia classics and Flash-based websites? Last but not least, the inglorious end of the New Media Consortium (NMC) raises the question of what we can learn to avoid mistakes for the future.


Dependency on technology, loss of digital cultural heritage, digital preservation, lack of quality of Multimedia applications today, the change of visitor behavior

The growing dependency of museums on the development of media technologies and the part of NMC in this

On December 19th 2017 we received an email with the unbelievable message that the New Media Consortium (NMC) “finds itself insolvent. Consequently, NMC must cease operations immediately.” With this message, the museums have lost not only an important promoter, but also a transmitter that operates between the different worlds of technology, culture and education. In talks with responsible registrars and archivists, especially with colleagues from the US, often the achievements of the NMC have been highlighted. Since 2004 the well-edited and informative ‘Horizon Reports’ with their different editions like ‘Museum’, ‘Higher Education’, ‘K-12’ and ‘Library’ have served as helpful tools for the planning of future technologies in museums, libraries and universities ( However, we should not forget that apart from the regional issues the Horizon Reports first of all show a US-centric view and that the main objectives of these reports have been to introduce, evaluate and implement new technologies. If you read the issues of the ‘Horizon Reports Museum’, published since 2010, the reader will notice in the chosen language the uncritical belief in technology, which manifests itself in the mantra-like repetition of the necessity of using up-and-coming technologies appropriate to solve all kinds of problems facing museums. Furthermore, the Horizon Reports are characterized by a strong generalization. For the sake of simplicity visitors are differentiated between “virtual visitors” and “visitors in physical space.” Also, no distinction is made according to the different museum types. However, the attitudes and requirements of visitors to a science or technology museum differ from those attending an art museum, a cultural history museum, or an open-air museum (Falk 2009, Schweibenz 2008). In order to achieve their goal of implementing technology in museums, the Horizon Reports does not differentiate between the different requirements of the different types of museums, the staff in the museums and the visitor groups. Instead, scenarios—in the form of a wake-up call—were created that put the museums under massive pressure: “Any museum that is not making reasoned continual investment in its technological future is putting the museum’s ability to engage with ever more networked audiences at significant risk.” (NMC, 2010 Horizon Report, Museum Edition, p. 5). While this can still be understood as an investment in the future, another requirement of the NMC calls for the end of traditional museum educators: “Museums that do have resources may have to choose to reallocate funds from non-digital education efforts in order to implement the necessary technical infrastructure.” (NMC, 2011 Horizon Report, Museum Edition, p. 6). But despite these minor inconsistencies, the merits of the NMC are undisputed and need not be singled out here. Without these merits, museums would not have dared to make the leap into the information age, and I would like to express my deepest gratitude to everyone involved in the NMC and the Horizon Reports. I would like to use this moment of change to address some of the issues that have long struck me and are related to our theme of increasing museum dependency on rapidly evolving media technology:

1. The growing loss of not just one, but three generations of digital cultural heritage multimedia applications, databases, websites.

2. The often poor quality of numerous digital media, especially in art museums, based on an outdated education model. To avoid mistakes for the future of media in museums, we should take a look at the beginning of the golden age of multimedia.

The glorious past of Multimedia in Museums

One might say that media, especially multimedia, has absorbed museums for more than 25 years. In the 1990s, offline hypermedia applications like LaserDisc, CD-i, or CD-ROM combined text, image, video, animation, and sound into ‘a total work of art’ (Gesamtkunstwerk). Multimedia applications such as CD-ROMs became the dominant platform for storage of information and distribution of knowledge (Koester 1993, Kraemer 1994, Perrot 1995, Zahn 1996, Karasch 1997, Jocelyn and Guilloux 1998, Prehn 1998, Kraemer 2001, 2007b, Rihl 2007, Imhof 2018). The excitement around the rise of multimedia in the mid-1990s has now abated (Veltman 2006). Meanwhile museums have learned how to use these technologies for the purposes of information, communication, education as well as entertainment. The critical voices from the Neolithic Age of Multimedia have fallen silent. Who still remembers the media and technology critical writings of Neil Postman, creator of the term “infotainment” (1985, 1992) or Joseph Weizenbaum, co-founder of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (1976)? Since then it seems that a blind faith in technology has taken their place. Cultural institutions could not avoid these developments and several followed technological innovation in a lemming-like fashion, as Christopher Richartz predicted. In his visionary article of 1995 he wrote: “The new information technology could force museums to comply, even if they try to resist; the standards of information transfer experienced by the general public will establish the visitor’s expectations, so that the museum must comply in perpetuity.” (Richartz 1995, 332). Richartz also identified the power of the audiences when he said that the participation in the developmental process of communication and media technology will be of great importance for museums in the future. So, 25 years later we are facing some problems and challenges for the coming era of communication technology in museums.

Throwawayism or the increasing loss of our digital cultural heritage

The process of digitization seems to be an “antagonism,” as Robert Hauser declared (2011, 20). All content for media use are now created in digital form, with constantly updating software and hardware products, but on the other hand there is the uncertainty and in some sense also inability to ensure the long-term security of this data. How can the ever-growing gap be overcome between preserving digitized or digitally-born data, which increasingly is forming our cultural heritage on the one hand, and technological innovation on the other? We can observe four stages in the progressive obsolescence of our recent digital intellectual heritage:

  1. Most of the archiving institutions as well as museum libraries that collected hypermedia formats such as CD-ROM, CD-i or Laserdisc no longer use computers or other systems that run with the old specifications. Since Apple Macintosh released the Snow Leopard with OSX 10.6 in 2009, Apple computers are still running on Intel processors (Mac OS X and later), the installation of Classic, which has been used to run CD-ROMs is technically infeasible.
  2. The year 2010 was the next step in the gradual loss of the early interactive knowledge spaces. Then Apple-despot Steve Jobs decided that Adobe Flash should not run any longer on his iPhones, iPads and iPods. His decision had massive impact since numerous CD-ROMs and countless broadband Websites have used Flash as favourable and free Plug-ins to produce slideshows and animations. In February 2015 YouTube, a subsidiary company of Google, followed Jobs’ direction and announced that videos could only be played with an HTML5-enabled browser. Therefore all Flash-based animations on museum websites will disappear after the next relaunch.
  3. The apps make up the next generation of loss, as their life spans are even shorter than those of CD-ROMs and Flash websites.
  4. Finally, there is a fourth and arguably most serious loss which is beginning to afflict museums in this digital era: the loss of organizational capacity and institutional memory due to the departure of skilled employees who are leaving the cultural heritage sector to join technology companies. So we can speak of four generations whose knowledge is already—or is in the process of being—lost.

Now, younger generations will not miss the multimedia classics, as they never had the opportunity to get to know them. But the pioneers of multimedia in museums have had to watch painfully as their life’s work disappears into digital nirvana. In 2010, in my lecture ‘Against the Throwawayism. Ethics and authenticity as criteria of a successful hypermedia communication design’ at the Zurich University of the Arts, I characterized the term ‘Throwawayism’ to illustrate this increasing trend towards the destruction of digital data through the continuous production of new digital data—a form of radical multimedia consumerism. ‘Throwawayism’ does not just mean throwing away everything, but also the unrestrained accumulation as well as the ‘burial’ of digital data of any kind, because this precedes the act of throwing away. The artificial word creation ‘throwawayism’ is therefore also to be understood as a kind of over-all concept of our handling of data. Let us have some examples (Kraemer 2017a).

Access denied—moments to remember

Sporadic error messages have irritated the users since the beginning of multimedia, but they have been more the exception than the rule. But since a few years ago, almost all CD-ROMs have been interrupted by error messages. An example of humor occurred on the CD-ROM ‘Art Gallery’ of the National Gallery London when John the Baptist was not able to baptize Christ on Piero della Francesca’s painting ‘The Baptism of Christ’ from 1448 and the message appeared: “Sorry, there was a problem playing the animation.” (Art Gallery 1994). Some of the error messages have a certain irony. On the CD-ROM ‘Atlas of the Ancient World’ you will get the following message: “Not enough memory to load bitmap form file: MEDIA: EU: HW: EM: EUHWEM1G. MVP.” Is the storage capacity of a CD-ROM with 650–700 MB sufficient to save all the knowledge and wisdom of the ancient world (Atlas 1998)? Some of the error messages were irritating like the message: “Could not create a new document because the selected printing resource could not be found. Use Chooser to select a printer and try again.” on the early and truly interactive masterpiece ‘Josef Albers. Interaction of Color’ (Albers 1994). This CD-ROM edition, published by Yale University Press and still available on Amazon as version 1.1 for Macintosh computers, is therefore a masterpiece as it combines the text of the Albers textbook with a graphic design program. Thus, the instructions and examples given by Albers could easily be redesigned and varied. Some of the error messages showed that the CD-ROM was a phased-out model like the message “You can’t open the application because PowerPC applications are no longer supported.” on the CD-ROM ‘Museum Schloss Kyburg’ (Kyburg 2004), and mysterious messages appeared like “You can’t open the application because it may be damaged or incomplete.” on the CD-ROM ‘Arktis Antarktis’ (Arktis Antarktis 1998).

All these error messages are dramatic because they show our merciless dependency on a technology in continuous flux. Of course there are examples that teach us hope, but they are rare—like the CD-ROM ‘Documenta 1–9.’ In 1997 the Documenta Archive in Kassel published part of their text documents, images and videos for research in form of a database on CD-ROM. Now, the database can no longer be opened. The data was not lost, but with no access, the use of this CD-ROM was useless and senseless. But the team of the Documenta Archive understood that the same digital data could have different forms of access. So they transferred part of their archives into an online archive and saved this data for the public.The following example shows how the decision for the wrong hardware has led to failure. With their ‘Multimedia Encyclopedia’, consisting of three CD-i’s, the Austrian National Library created an excellent design and well-written overview of their collections. But even though more than one million CD-i players sold in North America, Philips did not reach their planned production and sales figures in Europe. The impressive CD-i’s with their titles ‘State Hall [Prunksaal]’ and ‘Impressions’, ‘Collections’ as well as ‘Apocalypse’ did not sell very well because the Austrian librarians chose the wrong hardware for their European visitors. A few years later CD-i was replaced by the new standard, DVD.

Since the Anderson Collection of Hunk and Moo Anderson has found a new home at Stanford University, there has been no access to the interactive application ‘Art as Experiment. Art as Experience: An Exploration of Fifteen Works from the Anderson Collection’ neither on the website of SFMOMA nor of Stanford University (Anderson Collection 2000). Created by the Multimedia team of SFMOMA, this interactive application was presented as a kiosk system, a CD-ROM with accompanying booklet, and a Flash website. Using a selection of only 15 works of art, this masterpiece showed how knowledge transfer and an inspiring way of education can happen at a high level. ‘Art as Experiment. Art as Experience’ has inspired numerous interactive applications and the way we document works of art with multimedia technology. Facing the missing access online and the reduced access on the CD-ROM, only the well-designed and richly-illustrated booklet will survive.

‘Virtual Transfer Musée Suisse’—an online communication strategy, developed for the Swiss National Museum Group which is a network of eight museums located in various regions in Switzerland and produced under my lead by Transfusionen from 2002 to 2004—is another example of the loss of digital cultural heritage (Virtual Transfer 2002; Kraemer 2007b). As part of the project, a web-preview edition in the form of a CD-ROM was published in 2002 before the website went online in 2004. With the term ‘Virtual Transfer’ instead of ‘Virtual Museum’, I wanted to implement a new type of knowledge transfer from museums by digital storytelling, drawing on the often untold experience of life which museum collections hold. Virtual Transfer allowed places and stories to be explored interactively, through a selection of objects and personalised modes of address. The Virtual Transfer was not a portal or a virtual museum, but a new way of interacting and communicating in five languages (German, French, English, Italian and Romansh). It contained interactive stories, about 600 artefacts, 140 flash animations, 30 videos, and 28 audio pieces. The realisation of the project enabled the museum team to learn a lot about the needs of their visitors, real and virtual alike, and to promote communication, participation and feedback with the visitors. It demonstrated the diversity and richness of interactive storytelling by using different dramaturgies. The impact of this project can be shown because some of the ideas have been copied by other institutions. After several relaunches of the Swiss National Museum’s website and the retirement of the original producers, the Virtual Transfer disappeared from the museum’s website.

Digital preservation—some drops on a hot stone

Therefore, the technical specifications of these relics make vividly clear the powerlessness of the next generation of computer users who will be blocked from access to the hypermedia classics. For the Digital Humanities, unreadable data and invalid scientific information will become a growing problem as well as a tremendous challenge. “An inaccessible database […] is an unusable database. To stop to maintain is similar with the destruction of the results of scientific work.” (Saraga 2015, 21). So it seems to be only a question of time until the latest technology no longer allows access to specific databases in subsequent generations of multimedia technology.

Coming technologies like Cloud Computing, Makerspaces, Wearable Technology, Flexible Displays, Telepresence and Augmented/Virtual Reality are influencing the ways museums will communicate with their visitors in the future and they will have also a massive impact on the archiving and preservation of the new born-digital intangible cultural heritage (Kraemer & Kanter 2015).

IT experts often start to explain that so called “emulations” will solve all our problems. Virtualization software like the open-source-programs ‘VirtualBox’—from Oracle, available for Windows, Linux, Mac OS X and Solaris—or ‘DosBox’ imitate the original (old) application on an updated system. As a strategy for the conservation of just one CD-ROM or a computer game, they may be helpful as the Computerspielemuseum (Computer Games Museum) in Berlin has demonstrated in some cases. But considering all the multitudinous varieties of system requirements including different versions of Quicktime, Macromedia Director, and individually adjusted programs, a 1:1 emulation proves prohibitively costly. Not to mention the high cost of individual rights clearance because the data has to be taken from the original data carrier and this is a clear infringement of the copyrights. This means that there are not only charges for compensation but also costs for the finding of the original media production company, should it still be in existence, and any other copyright licensors with whom it was under contract. It seems clear that in view of all these barely assessable costs, museums and archives have neither a strong interest nor the budget or bandwidth to preserve old multimedia-applications for coming generations. But there are some little drops of water on this hot stone. In order to be able to use at least some of the most innovative CD-ROMs in class as illustrative material, the project “Multimedia Classics & Transmedia Storytelling—a digital archive with case studies of multimedia applications to inspire and train students for the planning and production of future interactive transmedia applications” was launched at the School of Creative Media of City University of Hong Kong in 2017. The students not only learn about the history, various forms and uses of multimedia in the museum, but through the analysis of individual applications they learn how they differ in structure, navigation, storytelling, interaction and interface design. By getting to know the old masterpieces, the students are in a better position to create different media dramaturgies using present-day and emergent technologies with new kinds of digital media for a variety of purposes.

Digital Preservation and Conservation Technologies—the NMC view

The NMC Horizon Reports Museum Edition featured two chapters which covered ‘Digital Preservation’ (2011) and ‘Preservation and Conservation Technologies’ (2013). For a time-to-adoption horizon of four to five years—this is now—it has been emphasized that “Digital preservation of information is becoming an increasingly important topic everywhere” (NMC Horizon Report, 2011 Museum Edition, p. 26) and that “Digital preservation is less about updating content to work with the newest releases of software—a common misconception—and more about future-proofing digital works of art, documents, and media.” (ibid.). In 2013, preservation is supplemented by the term conservation, in addition “to protect important objects, artifacts, and documents” as well as “to stabilize and restore artifacts.” (NMC Horizon Report, 2013 Museum Edition, p. 31).

In addition to references to practical initiatives such as the Digital Preservation Toolkit of the Canadian Heritage Information (CHIN), the Digital Preservation Coalition, the online repository ‘Digital Preservation’ of the Library of Congress, the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information, as well as the examplary and helpful guidelines of Network of Expertise in long-term Storage and availability of digital Resources (NESTOR) in Germany or the ENUMERATE project, with its analysis of statistical data about digitization and digital preservation across Europe, the need for a new type of conservator blending the skills of an engineer, archivist, restorer, and an expert in media is made clear. “Museums across the world also have large collections of electronic media objects, each representing unique challenges from a preservation and conservation standpoint, including antiquated operating systems, hardware, and computer programs. […] While future technologies cannot be fully foreseen, the fact that conversations about preservation and conservation are increasingly taking place is an indication that they are poised to become better understood and executed over the next four to five years.” (NMC Horizon Report, 2013 Museum Edition, p. 32). In the 2015 and 2016 editions preservation and conservation no longer matter. The way in which the forward-thinking NMC handles the generalization of the numerous issues of data to be recovered is a good illustration of the general lack of knowledge of museums in this challenge.

Prospective strategies

At the moment, most of the digital strategies for documentation in museums as well as archives (Nestor 2009; Dekker 2010; Serexhe 2013) seem to be future-oriented, but they are just following the dictates given by the leading technology companies. That makes them retrospective. Organisations such as International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (INCCA) or research projects like ‘Documentation and Digitization of Contemporary Art’ in SFB/FK 427 ‘Media and Cultural Communication’ at University of Cologne (Kraemer 2007a) have shown that the documentation of contemporary art requires extended documentation procedures. The accompanying change in the role model of the registrar as well as archivist is only beginning to emerge. Currently, both act retrospectively, so the documentation takes place after a work of art has been created. However, in the case of time-based and process-oriented works of art such as performances, complex installations or interactive works of media art that integrate visitors into the game, this form of retrospective documentation is too late and does not meet the needs. Due to these changing requirements, the registrar/archivist will increasingly develop into a media-competent co-player with the artists, who will jointly develop prospective strategies for sustainable documentation (Kraemer 2007a).

While media art, with institutions like the ZKM (Center for Art and Media Technology) Karlsruhe, the House for Electronic Arts in Basel, the initiative Preservation of Digital Art at the Bern University of the Arts, Ars Electronica Center in Linz and the Krems-based Archive of Digital Art has a strong lobby, there is currently no archive which collects, preserves and saves multimedia classics from oblivion. But how can museums and archives follow the technical evolution and produce relevant content for their hypermedia applications without running into danger of losing their creations in the future? So it is only a matter of time before the advances in the next generation of computers, the aging of storage media and outdated data formats, the demagnetization and dematerialization of the data, missing strategies in long-term archiving of museums and archives will render the digital data of the pioneering age and its successors unusable. As with the other online and offline applications created by and for museums, the silver discs are increasingly and more quickly becoming unintelligible artifacts of an intangible cultural heritage. So it’s a tragedy that future generations will not have access to these masterpieces of multimedia classics, because the best of them are characterized by their high innovative and creative potential in storytelling, navigation and design—inspirations that we urgently need today.


The sobering present of Hypermedia in Museums

While hypermedia is increasingly being used in the areas of mediation and communication in museums with cultural-historical, technical and science-centered and scientific collections, this is only partially the case in art museums. There is often a kind of “aesthetic apartheid” against the use of technology, as Peter Samis describes in an essay in the forthcoming book The Routledge Handbook of Museum, Media & Communication. He describes the reluctance to use multimedia in art museums, which is often limited to audio guides (Samis 2018). The audio guide can “provide an alibi to museum leaders or institutions who want limited change” in the communication with the visitors, as if to say: “Yes, we’re supplying all that information if you just take the audio tour or look at our website.” (Samis 2017, 17). In order to make the audio guide more attractive for the visitors and since it is for now the only form of medial mediation in not a few art museums, the audio guide is simply included in the admission price. Samis points to Mannion, Sabiescu, and Robinson—one of the rare studies in this field—and states: “The sobering fact is the vast majority of museum visitors don’t take the audio tour—or consult the museum’s website.” (Mannion, Sabiescu, Robinson 2015; Samis 2017, 17). David Finn compared the audio guide back in 1985 with a trained guide who mechanically unwinds his tour and wrote: “Audioguides may vary in quality as much as live guides, although the former are likely to be more authoritative. […] The disadvantage of audioguides,” so Finn continues, “is that they take you through a museum at the speaker’s pace, and, because you are being told what to look for in each work of art, you may not have the same sense of personal discovery that you can get when you are on your own.” (Finn 1985, 55). Another possibility to provide visitors with information in the art museum was kiosk systems, which were housed in separate rooms. The ‘Micro Gallery’ in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London pioneered the use of media in art museums as far back as 1991. Since the mid-1990s, isolated computer workstations with access to a CD-ROM database have appeared outside the permanent collection. And they were either taken away like or lived a sad existence. Kiosk systems were generally located outside the exhibition area or occasionally in the entrance area of a temporary exhibition. The 2001 attempt to combine databases with sitting situations in the newly opened building of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne was quickly rejected because the media had too high rivalry to the artworks. So video presentation and increasingly audio guides determined and determine the proportion of media in art museums still today. In particular, museums with collections of modern or contemporary art are grateful that the mobile devices brought by the visitors themselves release the museums from the unpleasant situation of having to set up a kiosk system in the exhibition area. Meanwhile innovations in the fast-growing communication technology industry have led museums into a dependency. One of the big challenges in the last decade has been the changing role of visitors from passive consumers of given knowledge to active participating customers of a living museum community. This supposed “co-authorship” has fundamentally changed the way museums communicate, and will also have an increasing impact on the content to be provided. As psychologist Jean Twenge at San Diego State University found out from a study of 16,000 college students, the Millennials (born after 1982) are the most narcissistic generation in recent history and far from being socially-oriented. Social Media are supporting a self-portraying behavior, which goes far beyond what was possible in traditional media (Twenge 2011). Visitors consume the museum and they are becoming more and more customers, requesting the museum’s insights if readily available—but if they’re not, “simply Google’s knowledge” (as P. Samis said) on their personal electronic gadgets.

Following the history of multimedia applications since the early 1990s, there is indeed a growing trend towards a development that could be cautiously described as infantile occupational therapy with an emphasis on amusement. To a certain extent, this trend follows the artistic strategy of turning museums into temporary playgrounds, as is often the case at Carsten Höller’s exhibitions.

Thanks to gesture-based computing, science museum hands-on models finally found their way into museums with cultural-historical and art collections, so that visitors can access the often thin contents with a light gymnastics experience. Or the visitors are so overwhelmed by the rapid flood of images of thousands of artworks and objects that are offered to them on a 40-foot interactive multi-touch wall, that the original artworks come across as somehow colorless, lifeless and uninteresting. With their ‘ArtLens’ spectacle the Cleveland Museum of Art is an excellent object for the study of the changing behavior of visitors in an art museum and shows the ‘things to come’ (H.G. Wells 1936). To remain competitive art museums become more and more dependent on the latest technological innovations. We run the risk that technological pomp and frippery will become more important than pure content. The expectations of the customers will always follow the latest technology and if art museums do not want to lose their influence as one of the key players in the education and leisure arena, they will have to follow the technological hype too. Herein lies one of the cruxes of the problem. When the visitors change, so do the conditions for the museum educators, as we can see from the NMC Horizon Reports Museum Edition.

The ‘new’ role of the museum educator

While in NMC 2010 Horizon Report Museum Edition the wait-and-see attitude of the museum educators toward technologies is still criticized, the key trends of the following years point out the changing role towards increasingly active visitors. “At a time when their role is more important than ever, too many museum educators lack the training, resources or support to address the technological opportunities and challenges they face.” (NMC, 2010 Horizon Report, Museum Edition, p. 5). But the role of an active museum education will also change fundamentally, because “the model of the museum curator or educator who stands in front of an object and interprets meaning for a passive audience is simply no longer realistic in this world of instant access.” (NMC, 2011 Horizon Report, Museum Edition, p. 4; NMC, 2012 Horizon Report, Museum Edition, p. 7). When it comes to the authors of the NMC Horizon Reports, museum curators and eduators no longer convey content, but first of all serve “to guide and coach visitors in finding, interpreting, and making their [the visitor’s] own connections with collections and ideas.” (ibid). Elsewhere, even the abolition of traditional museum mediation is recommended: “Museums that do have resources may have to choose to reallocate funds from non-digital education efforts in order to implement the necessary technical infrastructure.” (NMC, 2011 Horizon Report, Museum Edition, p. 6). From Museum Edition 2013, museum educators only play a ‘subordinate’ role as a co-provider of content to help curators, content specialists and technologists “to embrace opportunities provided by using digital resources to enhance multimodal learning” (NMC, 2013 Horizon Report, Museum Edition, p. 7) as well as a provider of services, because now “visitors expect museums to provide a wide range of digital resources and content, and want the experience of interacting with that content to be consistent across their devices.” (ibid, p. 8). However, this active and creative use of knowledge by the individual visitor contradicts the provision of the content, because “Museum workflows are too often ill suited to modern content production techniques in which content is created simultaneously for multiple delivery modes.” (NMC, 2010 Horizon Report, Museum Edition, p. 5). The goal is “to integrate all interrelated content production into a single workflow that offers the possibility of publishing in many formats—including print and the web—but also video, social media, e-pubs, mobile apps and interactives, and to do so in ways that work across the range of devices” to establish “a uniform design.” (NMC, 2011 Horizon Report, Museum Edition, p. 24). In our days media in museums are mostly used to prepare the canonized knowledge to be easily digestible with instant gratification. So media technology cannot hide the fact that museum pedagogy has barely changed since Alfred H. Barr and is still following his educated consumer model. New media-literate visitors require new forms and structures of education.

The new participatory visitors

As the former director of the Tate, Nicholas Serota declared, “interpretation or experience” is the dilemma of museums of modern art (1997); he framed this tension as a major opportunity for art museums, thinking of museums as places of confrontation, of discourse and creativity. But the meaning of the experience has shifted and is no longer to be understood as self-awareness, but as an experience in the context of a group-dynamic process. Museums “promote different modes and levels of interpretation by subtle juxtapositions of experience” (Serota 2000, 55) and they are still institutions of enlightenment in the classic sense. On the other hand, “even if a museum is so multimedia-based, this does not change the way of thinking that hides behind it and only varies and adapts its expressions in terms of technology. New media does not mean new thinking.” (Tyradellis 2014, 143). One of the dilemmas of museums lies in being misunderstood as learning places to gain knowledge. So how do museums solve the demands of these new participatory visitors? The essential questions are: “Did the majority of visitors understand what they were seeing? Did they ‘get’ the show’s thesis and key takeaways? Did they benefit from this experience? Did the exhibition have the impact that those who organized it hoped it would—and if not, why not?” as P. Samis and M. Michaelson have defined the needs of the visitors in their book (Samis & Michaelson 2017, 169). As a result of their exemplary study, the two authors request that audience research be carried out from the beginning of the exhibition projects. This is the only way to ensure that the needs of the visitors are taken into account, because “the best way to understand what works for visitors is simply to ask them.” (ibid.).

This is not so easy as John Falk has demonstrated with questions like “What do people remember from their museum visits? And more importantly, what factors seemed to most contribute to visitors forming these long-term memories?” will lead to sustainable success. (Falk 2013, 108). This impact of the media is difficult to prove at the moment. We have an audience that feels excluded from the high consecrations of contemporary art but would like to know more about it to become part of this exclusive club. And to make things even more complicated, we have the public relations department of the museum, which wants to attract as many visitors as possible. Following a We-make-everyone-right-philosophy the marketing and PR people are taking over the responsibilities of curators and educators. Since the addicts of the I-like-Generation are increasingly influencing the interests of the educational and pedagogical departments in museums, the content has turned more and more into a Nice-storytelling-with-a-bit-of-facts-mix and Allow-them-to-take-selfies-everywhere-policy. Let’s be honest and answer the simple question of how often media in museums have given us a strong, inspiring and sustainable input? Already at the final ICHIM conference in Toronto in 2007, I devoted myself to this question and wrote at that time that “the narratives in hypermedia applications use a type of language combining verbal rhetoric with visual rhetoric to create a cognitive design. To unify content, navigation, and design, it is necessary for the designer to realize a sort of visual intelligence, but it also demands hypermedia competence from the user. Interactivity encompasses the intention to participate in both creativity and confrontation. […] Timeless questions need contemporary—in our case—hypermedia answers. Just using media in museums for the sake of communication with the user is not enough. But the museums should be aware that the future of the media will have a strong impact on their own future.” (Kraemer 2007b). For the last ten years, I have seen only a few applications—except for some media artworks—that could follow these demands. This risk of poor quality in content is implicitly highlighted by P. Samis when he states: “In museums that do not outlaw fixed digital interactives from their galleries, the potential for designing interpretive strategies that blend digital and analog components in service of a richer visitor experience is limited only by the imaginations of museum staff and their consultants.” (Samis 2018). Many hypermedia applications are so tiring and uninspiring because they follow the graphically professional homogenization of templates, their pseudo-interactive navigation is based on the user behavior of zombies and they are totally politically correct in content, and consist of clinically dead facts. So only officially “correct” and general answers are offered. With this Teflon knowledge, however, thought-provoking questions that open the works up wide are not provided for. There is no lack of courage to try new technologies in the media departments of the museums; there is a lack of the courage to avoid categorization and simply to risk provocations that lead to a rethinking of conventional patterns of behavior. In this context P. Samis has mentioned no. 4 of the Six Principles of Interpretation given by Freeman Tilden who already said 1957 in his book Interpreting Our Heritage: “The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction but provocation.” (Tilden 1957).

At the Museums and the Web conference 1999 in New Orleans Larry Friedlander demonstrated that these problems encountered when we try to communicate information about art are not art-specific but essential for the common transfer of all knowledge. Friedlander asked: “How can we analyze the structure of such a hybrid experience, and how can we better design this kind of complex space? How do we integrate media-rich environments with people-rich ones and make them human, warm and conducive to learning? How do we organize these experiences for the user so they can make sense of them without robbing them of their inherently rich and spontaneous qualities?” (Friedlander 1999). The timeless questions of this grand master of interactive education are more important than ever in our time.


Museums are content providers and produce values through their hypermedia applications. The loss of these values must be named in numbers. Only in this way can it be made visible what the technology’s dependency on the museums really costs. The loss of organizational memory due the termination of competent professionals leads to significant additional costs. If museums do not want to lose their employees to private companies, they need to create better conditions. Shareholders of technology companies need to understand that through the return-oriented of the companies, they are jointly responsible for destroying cultural values. Only by developing a critical awareness of the handling of digital-born data in the corporate philosophy can long-term strategies of archiving and sustainability be successfully implemented. Technology companies must provide guarantees and ensure that content can be transferred without loss.

We conceive, develop, design and communicate content and significantly shape the future of our visitor groups. We are the creators of knowledge environments at the interface of content, education, experience and technology. We are largely responsible for the success and distribution of our stories. As storytellers, we have a major responsibility for further generations to be able to experience the stories we have developed. But as long as we understand our stories as disposable, our products will never get the necessary recognition. So we should not blame the technology companies for it, but check our self-image. What we need is a broadened job description, a new job title that strengthens the sense of self and strengthens our work to those who equate to curators. I introduce the term Communication curator as a new job title for discussion.

Museums, especially art museums, should not be reduced to the function of the storyteller. Museums in the 21st century should, in the spirit of Joseph Beuys, be seen as universities with complex collections. The dilemma of art museums, according to Beuys, is that they have a much too narrow and isolated understanding of art and that they are “excluded from all the problems of the world.” (Beuys 1993, 48-49). However, if one extends this reduced concept of art to include a concept of culture of political dimensions, educational intentions and economic considerations, then a universal, new concept of art and science results. Beuys understands this expanded concept of creativity as a “totalization of the concept of art”, which means nothing other than “the world is something that wants to be shaped by humans.” (Beuys 1993, 20). Behind his saying, “Every human being is an artist,” there is nothing more than a call for responsible participation in building the world and a society that respects the creative potential of each individual, no matter where her or his place is in society and where she or he is working. The Museum should become a place in which questions and constellations can be discussed that are not considered elsewhere and that poses the crucial “cultural, democratic, social and ecologic questions” (Beuys 1993, 38) “that goes through all the ways of society.” (Beuys 1993, 49).Museums in the 21st century have to be forums in which people meet, who exchange experiences and seek inspiration in dealing with works of art and museum objects in order to be able to help shape the essential questions of the future. In view of the exhibition-oriented tendency, that art museums are increasingly becoming places of spectacle and playgrounds, the museum must learn to understand itself much more as a place of resistance to the impoverishment of thinking and also as a place of reflection on this process. This should also shape and reflect our future use of the media in the museum. Museums and new media should be neither old wine in new wineskins, nor new wine in old wineskins (Matthew 9:17). Media in museums should be understood more in the sense of process-oriented interventions and as experiments in a laboratory that gives different impulses to different users given by artists as well as curators. The knowledge provided by media is not simply retrieved, but must be designed to result in a creative process of perception. Only when perception leads to the self-production of knowledge does it have a true value for the recipient. And these findings must be made accessible to others as experiences. As can be seen in the two-part exhibition projects The Age of Experience (2015 Hong Kong & 2016 Vienna) and Interval in Space (2017 Nairs /Switzerland & 2017/2018 Hong Kong), curatorial thinking is characterized by the fact that different ways of thinking, codes and views are juxtaposed and designed in the force field of an exhibition space. (Kraemer 2017b). If we understand exhibitions as a thinking in a space, media in the museum can be understood as a thinking in motion that questions one’s own ways of seeing, perceiving and reflecting. This is the opportunity and the potential of media: to inspire us to rethink.



I dedicate this text to my ‘doctor father’ Michael Bockemühl, who would have turned 75 this year. I would like to thank Norbert Kanter, Tobias Klein, the unkown MW-reviewer and especially Peter Samis for their feedback and suggestions on my erratic thoughts.


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Cite as:
Kraemer, Harald. "The Future of Media determines the Future of Museum. (Some remarks in the current situation of the Post-NMC era)." MW18: MW 2018. Published February 4, 2018. Consulted .