Pandemic and Materiality

Another new paper, Galani, A. & Kidd, J.. 2020. Hybrid Material Encounters – Expanding the Continuum of Museum Materialities in the Wake of a Pandemic. Museum & Society 18: 298 – 301, comments on the “pivot to digital” that cultural heritage has been forced to make, with varying degrees of success, by the current pandemic. We know that the initial rush to apps that heritage made in the decade after the introduction the iPhone ran out of steam as use of devices on site, and downloads were low, and the projects were often made with capital investment with no understanding of how maintenance and updates would be financed or managed.

But museums have turn to the web, if only to retain mindshare during the pandemic, despite “Luís Raposo, president of ICOM Europe, passionately declar[ing] that ‘Humans are analog [sic] creatures, not digital’,
[and] urging museums to continue to be ‘spaces where each one [of us] can be confronted with real original materialities’ post-pandemic. (Luís Raposo, ‘Museums in Face of the “Perfect Storm”’, ICOM Europe Facebook, 15 June, accessed 29 June 2020.)

The authors of this paper suggest that “As museums and their audiences turned to digital forms of engagement in the absence of physical encounters, […] new hybrid materialities were made possible within and through digital spaces.” We saw a number of fun attempts to connect locked out humans with digital representations of cultural heritage, including the J. Paul Getty museum capturing the moment with a challenge yo recreate your favourite artwork with household objects. Galani and Kidd point to this and to Robot Tours provided by the Hastings Contemporary, “developed as partof a pre-existing research initiative to allow individuals at risk of isolation, including due to disability, to experience the gallery through a remotely controlled robot’s camera.” The popularity of these during lockdown threw the limitations of physical museum visits for a significant part of the population into sharp contrast.

They argue that Hastings Robot Tour “bridges physical encounters with art and remote visiting, animating the materialities of the respective experiences. The tours urge us to challenge the proliferating use of digital as a mere tool for capturing and representing literal forms of materiality and to revisit the ways we design for, value and make sense of material sensory encounters more broadly.” However they use the pandemic and digital responses to it to argue a point that seems well rehearsed, “As people assemble the materiality of their heritage encounters through a range of digital, analogue, tangible and intangible resources, their visiting experiences transcend traditional articulations of the physical-digital divide and operate on a continuum of materialities.” Which may be true but I would offer the counterpoint that most visitors don’t come seeking to transcend traditional articulations and operate on a continuum of materialities, but rather simply to be in a place, and/or surrounded by things.

Thats said, their call for hybridity is a strong one. I will not argue with their assertion that cultural heritage should “not only […] initiate but also to nurture relationships with content creators and to accommodate resulting outputs, such as the Getty re-creations.” Neither will I deny that it is an opportunity to unpick the “perceived neutrality of digital infrastructures, such as content management systems and metadata, which shape inclusionary/exclusionary practices and interpretations of original artefacts.” The argue that Covid has given museums the confidence to use the power of hybrid (digital/material) spaces to explore on-line engagement and, importantly, to make “online audiences […] key agents in the production of digitally-mediated material encounters.”

Their last paragraph is the best bit though as it support one of the final paragraphs in my own thesis,

In museums in the wake of the pandemic – together with the sweeping call for change of the Black Lives Matter protests and debates about the decolonization of our physical surroundings – materiality is likely to remain in predicament. Understanding material encounters as part of a continuum inherently embraces reflexivity, ‘flux’, ‘in-betweenness’ and ‘liminality’ and is, therefore, fitting for these times.

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