Is there still a digital opportunity for cultural institutions?

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Seb Chan

In their rush for 'digital transformations', cultural institutions may have lost important experiences and missed their chance to be more than venues. Speaking at the Victoria's Creative State Summit, Seb Chan argued for a new approach.
Is there still a digital opportunity for cultural institutions?

ACMI's Seb Chan believes museums can play a new role. Image supplied.

I benefitted greatly from the early years of the web, the Golden Age of the Internet. Back then student debts were manageable, there was some remnants of a welfare state, and it was pre-Austerity times. I could even get paid for writing about music, even paid columns in the street press. Imagine that. This was a privileged time in comparison to now. I’ll come back to that.

Australia has been at the heart of many firsts – from the first feature length films, some of the first graphic adventure video games, much significant ‘new media art’ and in the 1980s and 1990s. And – in the creative sector where ‘crunch’ is all too commonplace – let us not forget that Victoria also pioneered the 8-hour working day.


During the 1990s and early 2000s Australia was a pioneer in digital heritage. There were many world leading projects exploring the opportunities of a networked globe – Australian Museums On Line in the 1990s, Collections Australia Network in the early 2000s, and now Trove. And here in Victoria, Victorian Collections and the visionary VICNET that provided artists and community organisations with their first web access and website hosting in the mid 1990s (operating out of State Library of Victoria). Add to that the many groundbreaking institutional projects of that period and Australia punched far above its weight. These were significant, pioneering, and many (better known) overseas projects from Europeana to Digital Public Library of America drew inspiration from these local Australian innovations.

All of these projects happened before ‘digital transformation’ became a hashtag (and a ‘new business opportunity’ for large management consultancies to provide). And so we are still yet to see, in Australia, what a web-native, web-scale public cultural institution might be.

At the core of my work for the past decade and a half have been principles of openness that have been part of an attempt to scaffold a web-native, web-scale institution. Open access, open source, open APIs, and an open design practice. These have been deliberate design and infrastructural choices.

But now, especially in the last 3 years, the web, and networked technology more broadly, has darkened.

Toronto-based designer Udit Vira writes in his short essay for NESTA’s Finding Ctrl report (2019), ’[a handful of corporations] have systematically divided people into market segments and political tribes. A universal network splintered into a mess of disjointed platforms and disenfranchised user bases by a handful of corporations seeking profit and power.’

I wrote in 2018 that, ‘digital objects, digitised objects, are more fragile than their analogue ‘originals’. Digitised objects exist in systems that require power, engineering, maintenance, software development. At least analogue collections were relatively stable in air-conditioned conditions for many decades.’

Digital access has vastly increased the demand for physical access – but these demands are now coming from different kinds of people and in different ways that institutions are often neither resourced nor designed to meet.

And I’ve learned from the last twenty years that, unlike the fears of some in the cultural sector that digitisation would diminish demand for physical access and visitation, in fact it has been the exact opposite. Digital access has vastly increased the demand for physical access – but these demands are now coming from different kinds of people and in different ways that institutions are often neither resourced nor designed to meet.

The idea of a singular large exhibition about a topic as a way of meeting the broad needs of access has been replaced by a thousand smaller demands in the niches. And all of those demands are in the context of desiring a social experience and one in which the institution plays host to a series of conversations around objects, media, and ideas.

It has turned out that ‘digital’, ‘digitisation’, and more broadly, ‘technology’, now means higher costs for public institutions. Not just direct costs but indirect costs as well. And for those of us working under public sector funding models, this means a significant shift from needing ‘capital funding’ to needing significant increases in ‘operational’ funding. This is a broad public sector technology challenge but particularly complex in cultural institutions because we aren’t in the business of purely transactional relationships with citizens such as ‘digitising the process of getting a new drivers license’.

As Zeynep Tufekci (2019) puts it, we are witnessing a ‘wholesale tilt to becoming a tenant society’. But without the funding models to finance rented services.

With this shift from analogue to digital, from owned to rented, we are seeing a loss of some important commonly shared rituals around access to analogue culture. With this has come a similar flattening – a flattening that sees cultural works reduced to ‘content’ and then a loss of nuance, and of the importance of difference.

Unlike what many of us as 1990s internet utopians thought would happen, we have seen a major shift from a decentralised web to a highly centralised web. This return of centralisation of control, through a decreasing number of corporations and infrastructure, fuels the ability for both corporations and the State to ‘see at scale’. This underpins what Shoshana Zuboff terms ‘surveillance capitalism’. Not unsurprisingly, opportunities built on networked technologies now have a tendency to form ‘winner takes all’ markets.

As Australian academic, now in New York, Kate Crawford and her fellow researcher Vladen Joler (2018) write, ‘each small moment of convenience – be it answering a question, turning on a light, or playing a song – requires a vast planetary network, fueled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data. The scale of resources required is many magnitudes greater than the energy and labor it would take a human to operate a household appliance or flick a switch. A full accounting for these costs is almost impossible, but it is increasingly important that we grasp the scale and scope if we are to understand and govern the technical infrastructures that thread through our lives’.

This is not good.

One might think of networked digital technologies better as fire. Fire, one of the original technologies harnessed by our distant human ancestors, brought cooking, heating, warmth, but also when uncontrolled, it brought wildfires, and some humans, it turned out, enjoy lighting fires as firebugs. It was not until we collectively figured out how to control fire that it really became useful.

While we attempt to figure this out we need cultural institutions and art more than ever. We need to develop new types of critical literacies.

And we need to think deeply about whether art is used as a social glue, to bring our communities together, or whether it acts, as it sometimes still does, as a social solvent, dividing our communities by social and cultural status.

We will need to support new types of experiences, in new types of institutions; work with new processes and find new ways to collaborate, and build new social structures, new infrastructure, and support new ecosystems.

In order to do this we need to understand that all cultural institutions, and all cultural activities, traffic in the currency of time. Whether we are for-profit commercial or non-profit entities, our audiences, visitors, collaborators live in an incredibly time poor society. And when we do draw on people’s time, we need to deliver an unexpectedly great return on that time gift back to that person.

We may need new types of institution. And we may need to redefine the missions of our current institutions. And, especially for museums and galleries, we need to be clear that spectacle, ever increasing blockbusters, are both unsustainable and not enough for our public charters to deliver.

We need to be very careful not to assume that the same opportunities that people like us had, are still available to contemporary artists, makers and creators.

Mat Dryhurst is a Berlin-based artist and writer who has been examining the economics and new cultures of how independent music and scenes now survive. He warned (in 2013) – and this is especially important for the Gen X and older people in this room – that, ‘we can often get stuck in looped holding patterns that fetishise the aesthetic and cultural strategies and aspirations of the 80s and 90s, and are sceptical about internet native … cultures’. The social and economic contexts have radically changed – in those times young people had access to opportunities that no longer exist – and we need to be very careful not to assume that the same opportunities that people like us had, are still available to contemporary artists, makers and creators.

We need museums to play a new role. And a role that will be shaped largely through intentional design and strategic decision making. We know that museums are not neutral and that they need to take specific intentional choices to make change.

Museums, have, of course, always been about change. I’ve written before that, museums, even at their most conventional, are about change, even if that change is simply keeping an object in a state of suspended animation for the future.

We need museums to be more than that.

We need museums to be democratic spaces, to function as engines of curiosity for our communities, and to provide important persistence in this age of ephemerality – an ephemerality only exacerbated by the transformation to a tenant society.

We need to ask ourselves what new institutions we need to design and bring into being. How might they leverage the best, and largely unrealised opportunities of a networked world? How might governments truly value the impact of cultural institutions beyond tourism and the visitor economy? And how might our institutions have long term impact on creativity and the curiosity that underpins it?

This is an edited version of the keynote Fire, Fire, Fire (full version on Medium) presented at Victoria's Creative State Summit.

About the author

Seb Chan is Chief Experience Officer (CXO) at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). He has previously worked in digital leadership roles at Powerhouse Museum and New York's Cooper Hewitt Museum.