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Virtually Speaking: The Museum as Majilis

Seth Thompson

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #13 – Spring 2010

Capitalizing on the successes of other cities that have employed star architects to design trophy museum buildings, Abu Dhabi appears to have embarked on a similar initiative to jump-start cultural tourism with its Saadiyat Island Cultural District. This initiative has commissioned such notable architects as Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel to create memorable buildings that will further entice visitors to see the quality exhibitions that the Guggenheim and Louvre brands have been known to deliver. Although initiatives like this were conceived and implemented to develop or improve local economies around the turn of this century, conceptually the architecture of the museum appears to be changing— causing a notable paradigm shift from that of a storehouse or temple of objects to that of a visitor-centered educational repository of objects and information (Schweibenz, 1998).

This shift is evident in such books as Eilean Hooper-Greenhill’s Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture and Gail Anderson’s Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift. This swing was not an overnight revelation, but rather a long thoughtful process that took place over the 20th century and has lead to new ideas for museums in the 21st century (Anderson, 2004). While many of the essays in Anderson’s book exhibit the shift from being a collection-driven institution to a visitor centered one, it is Hooper-Greenhill’s book that leads to ideas for the future of the museum, especially when it entails the use of computer technology in order for the museum to “play the role of partner, colleague, learner (itself), and service provider” (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000). In her book, she proclaims that, “the production of events and exhibitions as conjoint dynamic processes enables the incorporation into the museum of many voices and many perspectives. Knowledge is no longer unified and monolithic; it becomes fragmented and multi-vocal. There is no necessary unified perspective—rather a cacophony of voices may be heard that present a range of views, experiences and values”
(Hooper-Greenhill, 2000).

The introduction of digital media and the Internet in the early 1990s into the mainstream cultural landscape prompted new considerations and opportunities for museums to develop and engage with audiences using novel forms of didactic experiences. During this time, both museums and media encountered a paradigm shift in which the notions of accessibility and participation expanded their definitions respectively. Using digital media and, more specifically, Web 2.0 technologies, the museum may not only enhance its ability to act as a mediator between object and audience— allowing
for visitors or users to learn, question and engage in ways that have not been possible before— but it can also potentially change the notion of the museum from an authoritative power to an inclusive voice—where memory may no longer be singular but rather collective.

For example, The “Make History” Web project (makehistory., an initiative of the National 9/11
Memorial and Museum is a model case of how individuals may create a collective memory of a time, place or event using Web 2.0 technologies. Users of the site have the ability to upload images, videos and personal stories to the site as well as search for different media, locations and topics through its database. Jake Barton of Local Projects LLC who developed the site for the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum states, “Make History allows the history of 9/11 to be spoken from the voice of those who experienced it. We know that there were vigils in Tehran, London, Berlin, Japan and this is our way to reach out and make contact with anyone who has images or stories about experiencing 9/11 around the world.
This is an effort to invite the world to understand history from the perspective of those who witnessed it.” (National 9/11 Memorial and Museum, 2009)

In a sense, a virtual museum can become a majlis or meeting place where people can share, learn and remember. With a museum’s digital assets such as images, video, audio and text, museum media design that employs Web 2.0 and social media technologies—while still being invested in the more authoritative Web 1.0 model as “publisher”— potentially allows the museum to assume multiple roles as authority, partner and learner in regard to the assembling, dissemination and interpretation of knowledge.

Over the past four decades the United Arab Emirates has embarked on a transformation that has substantially changed its cultural landscape. From a predominately Bedouin culture in which people lived in both ephemeral structures as well as more modest permanent ones to a landscape of skyscrapers and grand buildings, which reconfirms the UAE’s ambitious plans for itself. This transformation has placed an emphasis on the preservation on past material culture and the creation of a new identity for the UAE through its endeavor to acquire a global contemporary architecture, which is especially evident in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. However, the predominate wealth of the UAE’s culture does not necessarily reside in its material artifacts, but rather lies in its rich intangible cultural heritage such as storytelling, dance, poetry and rituals, which needs to be also preserved. In addition, the shared stories of both the past and present local and ex-pat communities in the forms of text, image, and sound, potentially allows for a collective memory in which a more rich and complex story may be told of the Emirates.

Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan once stated, “He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn.” (UAEInteract, 2005) It is through the preservation of both the tangible and intangible that potentially creates a richer understanding of the past. A virtual architecture may allow for both the local and international community to learn, engage, share and enjoy in a rich cultural past that cannot necessarily be understood in purely physical terms.

Eilean Hooper-Greenhill writes, “Where the modernist mu22 Architecture & Art seum was (and is) imagined as a building, the museum in the future may be imagined as a process or an experience.
The post-museum will take, and is already beginning to take, many architectural forms. It is, however, not limited to its own walls, but moves as a set of process into the spaces, the concerns and the ambitions of communities…[T]he postmuseum will negotiate responsiveness, encourage mutually nurturing partnerships, and celebrate diversity” (Hooper- Greenhill 2000, 153). With this in mind, the region may be the breeding ground for the new museum that reconsiders both the physical and the intangible—challenging the material nature of the museum with the intangible, and a
virtual or digital architecture may be the most appropriate space for this genesis.

Anderson, Gail, ed. (2004). Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift.
Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira Press.

Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. (2000). Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture. New York, New York: Routledge.

National September 11 Memorial & Museum. (2009 September 10) Public Invited to “Make History” Through National 9/11 Memorial and Museum Initiative. New York: National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Retrieved February 21, 2010 from .

Schweibenz, Werner. (1998). The “Virtual Museum”: New Perspectives For Museums to Present Objects and Information Using the Internet as a Knowledge Base and Communication System. Retrieved on November 6, 2009 from isi98 .

Thompson, Seth. (2009). Redefining the Notion of the Museum in the Digital Age: Web 2.0 Technologies and Contemporary Museum Theory. The International Journal for the Arts in Society. Champaign, Illinois: Common Grounds Publishing LLC.

UAEInteract (2005 February 11). Sheikh Zayed in quotes.
Retrieved on March 4, 2010 from http://www.uaeinteract.

Research for this article was supported in part by a Faculty Research Grant from the American University of Sharjah.