Friday, March 20, 2009

Part 1: Introductions

In "The Temple and the Forum" Les Harrison discusses two competing notions of the identity of museums: the Temple, in which the status-quo is preserved and a/the state has the greatest investment and control in the stories that are told; and the Forum, in which everything is questioned and debated by competing social groups. These two categories, which Harrison sees as opposites on a spectrum, reach their goals and achieve their missions by communicating ideas to their audience, and by allowing their audiences to communicate with each other about specific topics. 

If the function of a museum, regardless of its place on the Temple-Forum continuum, can be understood as that of a communicator, it is critically important for that museum (and the professionals working in it) to understand why people communicate, and through what means. If this understanding is pursued in a strategic and intentional fashion, the museum will be in a position to more effective achieve its mission and realize its vision.

Individuals communicate in a variety of different ways, the oldest of which is oral communication, followed by physical, visual and written communication.  Today, multiple communication methods have been combined, mediated by technology, into a new form of multimedia communication. No one method of communication is superior to the others, and the development of new methods of communication does not coincide with the death of others.  Rather, new methods of communication allow us to communicate with more people, more often, and to a more intimate degree than before (Briggs Chapter 2).

There are three characteristics of all types of communication: permanency, immediacy and interactivity. These characteristics are valued to different degrees by different people under different circumstances, but together they are an effective objective way to evaluate different communication methods. Different communication methods typically have different ratios of permanency:immediacy:interactivity. Consider the following examples:

There are 350 caves in France and Spain that contain prehistoric paintings of animals.  These paintings are widely studied and their content and age debated. What we know for certain is that they are old, with the youngest estimates placing them at 10,000 years old. The artist who created the paintings could have communicated a variety of ideas to his peers, but modern scientists and scholars learn a variety of things from the paints. The significance of these paintings demonstrates their considerable permanency, yet the variety of potential meanings gleaned from the painting demonstrate its weakness in immediacy and interactivity.

Historians consider the year 1450 as the beginning of the modern age, in no small part due to the invention that year of the moveable-type printing press by Johann Gutenberg in Mainz. Gutenberg catalyzed what is known as the "print revolution" whereby printing spread throughout Europe and produced 27,000 editions by 1500 (Briggs 13).  The printing press allowed for the greatest dissemination of knowledge and thought in Europe, the books produced by these presses allowed thinkers to rapidly ready and respond to their contemporaries, creating the philosophical foundation for the "Age of Revolution" beginning in 1789. Printed books were precious commodities in the 16th century, yet they were nonetheless less permanent than the vellum manuscripts that predated them, but the ease and inexpense of creation made the communication via the book more immediate and more interactive.

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the first practical telephone in 1875, he did not usher in a new way of communication. Rather, he developed a system in which the oral communication was possible without regard to distance. Likewise, the development of the United States Postal Service was established in 1775, it provided a system in which people could safely and effectively effect interactive communication over long distances. Rather than vessels of communication, these systems lay the foundation for traditional mode of communication: oral, written, to be more effective and more responsive to contemporary needs. 

The cave paintings at Lascaux, the printing press invented by Johann Gutenberg, Einstein's telegram to President Roosevelt and this blog posting all have different capacities for permanency, immediacy and interactivity. The cave paintings at Lascaux demonstrate the importance of permanency, as the author continues to communicate with us today, but there painting has no interactivity: there is no way to respond to the author.  In fact, the value gained in its extreme permanency presupposes any value gained form immediacy and interactivity. The printing press and a national postal system built around the letter demonstrate a balance between permanency, immediacy and interactivity; there are few original Gutenberg volumes available, but the printing press allowed for the dissemination of knowledge previously unknown, and the national postage system of the United States is a structure that allowed interactive communication that, while not immediate, was certainly more expedient than previous systems.

The culmination of these technologies and systems can be seen in the emergence of a system that has radically changed our expectations and methods of communication: the Internet. 

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