If the museum goes on-line

In terms of access, questions arise around whether digital and electronic technologies can create more encompassing and portable forms of storage, organization and distribution that will be available to everyone regardless of social and geographic location. As many sources suggest, access will be segmented and exclusionary if user fees, expensive software and hardware, and the necessity of acquiring highly specialized skills to negotiate new systems of organization are required for the use of the virtual museum. And, what does it mean for the museum’s physical embodiment – its artifacts and architectural housing – if the museum goes on-line? Whether the virtual museum becomes globally accessible, or the property of an ever-shrinking few with the skills, time and resources depends on the social practices that are instituted to negotiate and utilize the electronic and digital mediation of social and cultural institutions.

If new modes of interactivity are to favour democratic expression over monopoly practices, attention must be paid to the ongoing negotiation of the social uses and governing regulations surrounding the formation of the virtual museum. Here, it is useful to consider the distinction political economist and communications scholar Harold Innis made in the early 1950s between balanced and monopolizing cultural biases. For Innis, cultural balance occurred when innovative and dynamic social configurations existed alongside those that fostered continuity and encouraged belonging. Cultural democracy could occur when provisions for dialogue created diverse, plural expression, and spaces for reflection which helped individuals and their groups to make well-informed decisions. Such a culture was supported and strengthened through the proliferation of information and communication media. Innis’ call for a multitude of communication practices fully acknowledged that the liberal rhetoric surrounding related issues of freedom of expression and universal access to knowledge obfuscated practices of exclusion and elitism. To counter liberal tendencies, he analyzed how monopolies formed when the organizational and perceptual biases of any one media predominated and operated to the advantage of existing administrative bodies. At the same time, Innis asserted that monopoly rule was cyclical. For example, those that were disadvantaged by monopolizing configurations utilized new technologies to bypass the restrictions of entrenched monopolies in an effort to establish their own predominance. Eventually, these stakeholders competed, clashed or could result in mutually reinforcing or destructive alliances.