Due to the excellent choice by the good people at the National Board of Antiquities’ museum sector development unit of inviting Jasper Visser as one of the keynote speakers to this year’s Museum Theme days, it is about time to put down my notes on his insightful presentation I had the privilege of hearing at last year’s ICOM Nord meeting in Nuuk, Greenland.
Jasper is a change maker and inventor widely dealing with cultural heritage matters in the Netherlands and elsewhere, whose Cards for Culture -museum strategy game you should have heard about last year. In Nuuk he talked about generations, digital revolution and participating communities. To summarize roughly, generations experience the world differently, digital revolution is a human one and cultural heritage plays a role in providing real connections and experiences on which present generations can build on.
|Jasper Visser (right) in Nuuk, Greenland, September 2015. Photo: Eero Ehanti|
Jasper showed us a photo of elderly men merrily playing cards after a round of Petanque over glasses of Pastis (or so I imagine), switching then to a video of a very attractive young couple clearly enjoying while playing some kind of a dance game. They were jointly holding and moving between them a smartphone, which made them do beautiful ballet moves.
What's the difference between these images, these people of different generations? Nothing much, says Jasper Visser. Nobody has asked them to do what they're doing. They're simply enjoying very simple things. What is common is joy. Only means and media differ.
Jasper then characterized the most recent generations as follows: first there was generation X, the last ones without Google, who were fixed on TV, from where the Bill Cosby show was watched. Then came the Generation Y, or the millennials, the "narcissistic ones", who grew up watching Friends and Sex and the City and who eventually learned to live through smartphones. Then along with the generation Z we arrive to the digital natives, the youngsters, who make no distinction between physical and digital. Their media is multimedia and the shows they watch are something like the Beauty Pie(?) Youtube channel.
|Image courtesy of Jasper Visser|
No distinction between physical and digital? All's equally real, no matter if it's a physical thing or a digital one?
Being a guy proudly set between the generations X and Y, and a father of two teenagers, I do see the point. We’re different, me and my daughters, who might find the best bits of a museum exhibition being something they swiped on some touchscreen or looked through a virtual reality headset, while I myself definitely go for real artefacts as the best means to link me to distant times and places. I confidently believe that my daughters with their Asterix enthusiasm (always a good sign!), and genuine awe I’ve seen in their faces in places like Venice and Istanbul, are firmly on their way to appreciating art, culture and civilizations, but they’ll definitely experience and share things differently.
A short moment from the week past: My daughters taking a series of photos of each other whilst working in our garden, then turning them to a short movie with music, animation and all, within minutes, right there on the spot, after which the product/experience is promptly shared with friends through social media.
This, I believe, what Jasper meant when stating that the generations Y and Z are the “can do” –generations and the best connected lot of us all so far. The garden scene kind of situations are of course happening in museums as we speak, unless the museum in question prevents it, and it's bound to be much bigger than just funny videos. It just might evolve to some kind of content the museum didn't even think about nor would have the skills or resources to produce. Why not utilize and encourage this? Why should we museum pros take all the responsibility in cultural heritage? Give people good material and they'll turn cultural heritage into something relevant to themselves. If there’s joy, people tend to find good concentration and a creative mindset, I gather, and eventually participating communities are formed.
Here I see a parallel to another speech I witnessed last year, that of Michael Edson at the very same Museum theme days (always a suberbly forward-looking occasion!). He talked about the black matter, referring to 90% of the existing material reality of the universe actually constituting on the unseen and hitherto unutilizable dark matter. Similarly the resources museums might have are largely somewhere else than apparently at hand. The unutilized resources, the huge potential, lies within the public, who should be given good access to cultural heritage material and the possibilities to freely make something relevant out of it. This is how cultural heritage data, for instance, turns to wise applications, which museums alone could never come up with. Similarly physical sites can be utilized by ways totally unimaginable to museum people.
This is all great, and I do know that many a museum is encouraging communities to participate and asking them what they want. I do support this strongly. However, I also think that we museum pros should be proud because of the knowledge we have and fear not tell people what's worth learning about. We are carriers of true knowledge and deep understanding of the founding stories of our society, and we have real artefacts in our collections to validate those stories. This puts us in a unique position. We get to choose what stories to tell. But in doing so we should be open inclusive enough to allow the strength and skills of communities to develop on our thoughts and materials. That’s the way to find surprising and relevant aspects of our cultural heritage. But that hardly happens if our initiative comes through wrong channels or worse still in a dull form. I believe that people prefer experiences to understanding or learning. I know I do.
See you at the theme days, where I expect to hear another eye-opening talk from Jasper!
Chairman, ICOM Finland