Everything Anywhere: Welcome to Your New Life as a Platform

This article appeared in Museum-iD, September 2017

Jonas Heide Smith on why museums need to be more reductionist yet more disorganized in order to succeed in the digital world.

The signs are all around us: Museums are abandoning the museum-as-building paradigm and even stepping beyond the museum-as-building + website “tiny addendum model” to embrace the idea of the museum as platform. Not in a coordinated rush, and certainly not at similar speeds but as an audible rumble fueled by the affordances of digital technologies.

If I may very briefly summarize, the idea is this: The interface to our collections is now a myriad different views through a myriad different screens over which we have very little control. The museum, in other words, has become increasingly distributed (see also Bautista & Balsamo, 2011) and strictly prioritizing one interface over another is non-trivial. Or as Nancy Proctor exemplarily notes “a bricks-and-mortar museum is an analog platform” (Proctor, 2010).

Now, while this new model may be increasingly accepted in some variation it often remains largely metaphorical. While digitizing one’s collection, surrendering control, and making files accessible through third party platforms is brave, commendable, and challenging in itself it does not fulfil the digital potential of most museums. Let me explain why I believe we need to be more reductionist yet more disorganized in order to succeed.

Towards a thick connection

You may have accepted that the internet is the prime repository for shared knowledge (or ‘information’ if you insist) in our societies. For any knowledge institution we are long past the point where choosing not to have a strong impact online is the choice in need of an explanation.

Many institutions have material online in some form and thus have at least some connection to the web. But the usefulness of these connections runs the gamut. A “thin” connection is one where very little material is published and/or where this material is unorganized. It’s what you get if you, say, place a collection of photos for download on your website. The very dedicated, the very knowledgable, or the very lucky can find them and use them but the downloaded photo will typically have very little associated information. Your museum may know a lot about the object but the user will be able to find out very little. In a sense, then, your collection will be connected to the shared knowledge bank though a very thin connection.

At the other end of the spectrum, a “thick” connection is one where the museum’s knowledge resources are published far more systematically than the occasional JPG image file. It’s one where material is both accessible and useful to individuals and to systems. And it’s one where ideally all of the museum’s relevant knowledge comes packaged with the object. It’s also one that requires a leap into reductionism and disorder.

The case for reductionism

To the computer on your desk and the phone in your pocket, everything is data. Your device can run mind-numbing accounting software, play Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, or display your flight schedule and in an important sense it will do it all equally well. It won’t care about specifics – it’s a platform, and a wildly important one due to rampant reductionism.

Think of the standard shipping container (that probably contained your device at one point) as a similar mechanism. It’s context-free blandness is its very strength: It’s highly flexible and can pretty much contain anything and everything.

Museums have digital content. But in order to make this content flexible enough to be truly useful we need to see not videos, research articles, blog entries, nor exhibition websites but content blocks. In a sense, then, we need to do what we are trained not to do: We need to ignore context.

Does this sound disturbing? If so, the notion may have made you think of the disreputable practice of cross-platform publishing; the (often problematic) idea that the same content can work well in many different formats. But the reductionism we’re looking for here is not this, but rather that of a library: To be useful, a library defines any book as “simply” an instance of books, thus ignoring typography, quality of writing, the mental state of the author, the imagined reactions of the reader etc. But, emphatically, the library does not reformat books on purchase to look the same and museums have no good reason to do this either.

In other words: We need to forget the properties of our materials that are irrelevant to organization without, of course, destroying these properties.

Order through disorder

Which is the best way to organize our digital content blocks? If you’ve ever tried to draw up a sitemap for a complex website you know that this is dangerous territory. But in an important sense the answer is “in every way”. Organizing digital content is decidedly not the same as organizing physical objects. A physical object can be in one place at a time. In an art museum, you can organize your exhibition chronologically, by theme, by style, or by painter but you can only choose one. On the museum’s website, while you cannot have the physical artworks themselves, you can have all your representations and all your material in every way at once and this requires a footnote: We need to leave behind the shipping container metaphor – despite all their flexibility shipping containers can only be in one place at a time. Let’s refer to our material instead as elements.

A sitemap has its uses but it’s a strangely physical exercise as it imposes a particular hierarchical structure on elements that really don’t need it and will necessarily correspond to the logical structure of only very few users (on deeper levels it’s likely that no one user will find the structure fully logical). What we need is a way to let users choose their own structure based on their own definition of relevance. And for that, we need to establish connections between our elements by introducing what we could call associators. Associators are labels used to form relationships, in other words they are ‘metadata’.

Of course, the more common name for such metadata is “tag” or even “keyword” but those may give the wrong impression as an associator is better thought of as anything that defines a relationship between elements. On this view, we can identify at least four types of associators:

  • Organic. Keywords contributed by someone, whether museum staff or uses
  • Machine-based. Keywords contributed by computer analysis of image content (for instance)
  • Found. Properties of the file itself such as camera metadata, document length, color distribution of an image.
  • Implied. Relations gleaned from user behaviour. For instance, a relationship can be established between two objects that are often seen by the same user.

Using a scheme such as this, rich relationships can be built between objects in a collection. No all-encompassing authoritative taxonomy is needed. The price, of course, is a certain unpredictability. But the advantages are legion as you (and your users) will now have a much more versatile way of organizing everything based on any requirement.

Towards thicker connections

To successfully be a platform – in the very concrete and somewhat technical sense described here – museums must not just publish their material online but meaningfully connect their materials to each other and to the web. I’ve left out the technical specifications on purpose since the whole point here is to think beyond concrete platforms but in outline, it’s a model we’ll be pursuing at SMK as part of the SMK Open project (www.smk.dk/smkopen) in the years to come

The idea of the distributed museum is by no means new but if we can establish much more powerful “thick” connections between museums and the web we may just be pushing our relevance into a whole different league.


Proctor, Nancy. “Digital: Museum As Platform, Curator As Champion, in the Age of Social Media.” Curator: The Museum Journal 53, no. 1 (2010): 35-43.

Bautista, S, and Anne Balsamo. “Understanding the Distributed Museum: Mapping the Spaces of Museology in Contemporary Culture.” Museums and the Web 2011. 2011.

Museums: We Have Never Been (Post)digital

Guess what: Your museum won’t have to worry about digital anymore! It’s a nice thought, but as they say, don’t quit your day-job.

Museums are starting to move beyond digital as a separate field, or at least should be. This notion (in slightly different forms) is making the rounds and is clearly striking a strong chord.

The Met, in their October 2015 blog entry “Next Steps in the Met’s Digital Evolution”, speak of preparing for a postdigital world and the need to take steps “that respond to the inevitable growth of digital-related roles and responsibilities in the organization to the point where digital is no longer something ‘special’ but a mainstream business activity”.

Kajsa Hartig of Stockholm’s Nordiska Museet in her predictions for 2016 speaks of museums moving towards a post-digital condition requiring organizational change and the need for a unified channel strategy beyond a digital/analogue divide.

This notion of the postdigital museum (or at least the term) stems from Ross Parry’s 2013 paper “The End of the Beginning: Normativity in the Postdigital Museum” in which he observes how, for certain large UK museums, digital “has become logically wired into the reasoning of the museum” (conveniently there’s a YouTube version). Indeed, Parry quotes the head of digital media at the Imperial War Museums as saying that “We do not mention digital anymore. It is taken that there will be some digital activity even if people are not quite sure what that is.”

The point, of course, is not that digital has become unimportant but that it has become unquestionably important and that institutions no longer see digital as a separate goal in itself, but rather as part of the mixed arsenal necessary to further their goals.

Now, of you’re like me, this will be sweet music to your ears.

Goodbye strange platform-centric silo projects, hello unified omni-channel approach aligned with actual institutional goals. Wonderful indeed. But what will – or should – this mean organizationally? This seems much less obvious and, at least to me, sparks two new questions: A) What are departments for? And B) Can digital skills be  gradually embedded with known museum professions or are they distinct enough to require digital professionals?

A digital department?

A common argument against a digital department is that digital is not an end-goal but rather a means to an end. This is trivially true but unfortunately makes no sense as an argument. Research is not in itself an end-goal (but a means towards increasing our understanding), education is not an end goal (but a means towards learning), communication is not an end goal (but a means towards increased knowledge of the museum, building relationships etc.), fundraising is not an end goal… oh, you get the picture.

The organizational chart of your museum is somewhat arbitrary. The departments work in somewhat different ways and employ people from somewhat different backgrounds but the actual, current split may be as much based on convention as any clean logic.

More interestingly, perhaps, most of the longing for a postdigital near-future where we won’t need to use the d-word would make an equal amount of sense when leveled against any other department. Would it be ideal if research were a “natural” part of everything we do? And what if communication were simply a core component of any project no matter who initiated it? And shouldn’t fund-raising simply be a skill that everybody employed in every activity? Of course. Everybody should know everything and work towards all goals at the same time. But only in the sense that there should be world peace and donuts shouldn’t make you fat.

In the end, the debate on whether digital should be its own department mirrors the decade old discussion on whether IT should be taught separately in schools and be a part of all other subjects. At a glance, scenario 2 sounds ideal, but many of its advocates actually change their position over time when it turns out to not really, you know, work.

For my part, I don’t think there’s any one-size-fits-all correct decision on this. And it’s probably less important than having a management (and funding body in the broadest sense) who make sensible, strategic digital development a priority.

Digital skills

Are there specific things that only the digitally trained can do or understand? Some people just seem able to do anything or pick up knowledge by themselves, so there are exceptions, but in my experience the answer is a resounding yes. There are genuine digital skills that do not come gift-wrapped to people of every profession, no matter how much they use computers.

Now, obviously programming is one such skill but that much seems generally accepted. I’m thinking here of two other competencies.

The first is User Experience Design, and more concretely user interface design. It is something that even the cleverest people without direct experience tend to get horribly wrong. Designing an interface means making 100s of tiny decisions and to get it right you need to be attuned to design trends and a constantly evolving field.

The second is data architecture: The understanding of the interrelation between data, content and representation. Understanding how these elements work together and how to leverage them for a given project is not something you learn in other professions – it’s a specifically digital “skill”.

In the end, all of this is to say that most of what we track under the heading of postdigital is a true cause for celebration. It means that museums are becoming increasingly platform agnostic and this can only be a good thing for our budgets, our sanity, and for our audiences. But just because we’d love for something to be true does not mean that it is true or that it is even fully possible. We’ll see digital being normalized and employed as part of other efforts but it will still require a continuous effort by trained professionals – just like everything else important.

We’ve got 99 problems but the museum selfie ain’t one

In 2015 the museum selfie was taken hostage and used as a cultural lightning rod. What is proper museum behaviour? The discussion is almost comically separated from reality but its very intensity makes one thing clear: Something fundamental is at stake.

Follow Danish public debate on museums? One permanent fixture of the past year was the museum selfie controversy. Mirroring an international debate, Danish news media displayed quite a bit of concern over the behaviour of museum guests and the priorities of museums as regards “user involvement”. A few examples:

Later followed by:

Having museum practice debated in national media is a fine thing indeed. But there’s something strange here as well. Excepting the personally normative criticisms of current practice in Kristeligt Dagblad (which are fully legitimate even if I heartedly disagree) the selfie “problem” is a victimless one.

None of these articles point to concrete problems nor showcase one single guest (apart from art critics) interested in voicing their discomfort.

This rhymes well with the volume of complaints that we have received at the SMK. Now, there may be letters I haven’t seen and comments at the ticket counter that I haven’t heard (and I’m not saying the sentiment cannot possibly exist), but I have a pretty decent idea of all feedback from digital channels and adding everything together across all these platforms gives a huge big… zero. Also known as “nothing”.

The SMK has received some media flak for our “selfie room” constructed as part of our Eckersberg exhibition. The room in question is a small one in which the guest may climb a small staircase to make the perspective fall into place and thus place herself “inside an Eckersberg painting”. Opposite the staircase is a mirror to observe the effect. Number of hashtags, camera pictograms and use of the words “selfie”, “photo”, and “Instagram” on the walls in total: None.

Equally interesting is the number of guests who actually do post selfies from this room. Doing my best to monitor social traffic related to the museum I have probably seen around 10 selfies from this room and certainly no more than 15 (my guess would be that the actual total posted online is far below 100). If nothing describes the room as a selfie room and almost no guests use it as a selfie room, is there then actually a selfie room? It’s not that we’re super holy and cannot see why the thing has selfie connotations, but the answer to this philosophical conundrum is surely not a given.

The perspective room
Yours truly taking a picture into a mirror. Okay, okay, it’s a selfie.

And yes, you’re right. The whole thing is a smoke-screen. Journalists (apart from, I suspect, sometimes simply finding the combination of lofty “museum” and profane “selfie stick” fascinating) are picking up on the larger debate. Or, in the case of newspaper art critics, they are simply addressing larger issues through the selfie example.

We are talking here about The Proper Way to Enjoy Art. No, that’s not actually precise. We are talking about the proper way for others to enjoy art. With the possible exception of Louisiana’s wildly successful (and visually stunning) Kusama exhibition no-one visiting SMK, the National Museum or indeed any other Danish museum can possibly have their museum experience negatively affected by other people’s mobile phones.

You may wish that these other people would approach the art without further mediation but as I often tell my daughter when she makes unreasonable demands: “Yes, and I would like a sports car delivered to my door”. Now, I’m sure that is a very annoying comment but there are many things we cannot – and have no business trying to – control.

So, let’s by all means keep the discussions going, but here’s to worrying mainly about, oh you know, real things in 2016.

See also:

Lucky shots of 2015

Assorted highlights from this year’s camera roll, that (for reasons sometimes surely obscure to others) I happened to like.

The worst of times

Shot at Glyptoteket during Kulturnatten, it’s admittedly just your average sculpture but there’s a nicely ambiguous narrative here.


That's shocking news!

My daughter with a landline phone and mysterious random stuff (at SMK’s Laura Lima exhibition). Mostly I like the look on her face – what shocking news is she receiving?


Kids in museums: The Truth

The internets are awash with well-timed shots of nicely groomed youngsters respectfully contemplating our shared museum heritage. Here’s a glimpse behind the scenes. It’s the #nofilter version of the museum child shot.

You should try it yourself sometime

Pictoresque evening by the sea with flying rock. Dramatic background and plenty of movement.


The prophet and the smartphone dude

The über-serious meets the utterly irreverent.


Østre Anlæg, Copenhagen

The SMK, also known as “work”, on a particularly colorful day. I later realized that the light effects were mainly due to a irreplaceable nearby building being on fire. Hmmm.


Marktstrasse hangabouts

Hipsters of Hamburg hanging out. I like the way they are totally framed by the semi-abstract background.



Selfies can be ok, as long as they are pretentiously abstract.


Wanås Slotspark, Sweden

Nice contrast between the stable composition and the implied movement. Also, people with hats are awesome.


Towers of FlorenceBecause Florence.


Casentino landscape

Kind of a dreamy phone shot taken during an evening walk in the hills of Tuscany. As you do.


Streets of Chicago

It’s a cliche and also probably a bit too HDR. But come on, it’s a train up in the air!!


Chicago morning

This phone shot captures well my sense of Chicago (on those particular days in April). Impressive, and grey, and often empty.


SMK as seen through a tiny round window

Nothing special. But you’ve gotta love those highly alternative takes on familiar subjects.


The Thermes Ruler

At the Royal Cast Collection the light is just pretty good sometimes.


Creative colleague's office

I like the way it takes some time before you notice my colleague Michael among all his assorted, well, necessities.


Copenhagen Springtime

I never really fell in love with the VSCO Cam app, but it does have its uses.


Photowalk at the Royal Cast Collection

Nice lines and fortunate composition – at the Royal Cast Collection.


Ancient faces

Someone set up these beauties in a pretty strong relationship – at the Royal Cast Collection.


Leaving work the other day

Caught this leaving work one winter evening. It’s the magic of dusk along with the welcoming window light. Also, it’s the good old blue/orange combo.

Measuring Instagram reach with barely any magic

Instagram reach can be measured. At least sort of. Here’s the SMK approach.

I’ve been describing our approach to Instagram measurement in a number of emails now, so I thought I’d just outline it here.

For those of us who like to track what we’re doing the whole problem, of course, is that Instagram does not provide any behind-the-scenes metrics. Thus, while you can add up engagement numbers (numbers of likes, numbers of comments etc.) you can’t tell how many people actually saw your masterful squares.

But that’s just one problem. At SMK, we really prefer to look beyond our own channels and include what museum guests and others are sharing. We like to see ourselves as initiators or inspirators of conversation, but we certainly don’t see worthwhile activity as confined to the channels that we happen to “own”.

Here’s what we do: First of all, we try to catch the largest possible amount of Instagram activity related to the museum. For this, we use the wonderfully flexible IFTTT (If This Then That) web service. IFTTT users can set up simple “recipes” using “ingredients” in the form of web services and selected actions. For instance, a recipe can be “Send any image uploaded to a specific Facebook page to a specific email address”.
We’ve set up IFTTT to track Instagrams posted at the two locations of SMK and/or with one of the hashtags often used by museum guests.

IFTTT recipe
IFTTT recipe

When such a photo is posted, IFTTT adds it to a Google Drive spreadsheet immediately. The spreadsheet fills up with lines like this:

Instagrams in a spreadsheet
Instagrams in a spreadsheet

At this point, what we have is just lines in a spreadsheet. Getting to reach requires a combination of math and guesswork informed assumptions.

We counted the number of followers for all posters in one whole month and it turned out they had an average of 400 followers. To measure reach for any month, we thus multiply the number of photos with 400. Obviously, however, Instagramers don’t see all images in their feed – and there’ll be a certain overlap of followers – so we’ve found it appropriate to divide by three.

Now, the ‘three’ is highly arbitrary. Is three the optimal number? Almost surely not (it is a prime number, though, shouldn’t that count for something?…). You might suspect that the resulting number will be too high, but our logic is that the IFTTT does not capture everything posted from the museum (i.e. everything not geo- or hashtagged) and so we compensate upwards. Thus, the SMK formula is:

Instagram reach = Number of photos posted in a month * 400 / 3

Of course, you can adjust the 3 any way you find appropriate.

Feel free to argue, but my logic is this: Our formula is not perfect, but it is the most reasonably approximation we can currently come up with. Also, while the actual number should be asterisked with disclaimers, the math here is simple and gives an easy way to track development over time. In short, we are happy with it until more precise tools come around.