Willem Velthoven

Cultural Dating

on the future of museums, archiving and cultural institutions

TIME magazine choose YOU, the internet user, as person of the year 2006. Meanwhile however, the cultural sector is not making many moves to harness the potential of the enormous amounts of active internet users.


Time Person of the Year 2006 - They had a mirror on the cover. Wired Magazine will try to one-up them in the summer of 2007 by printing customised covers for subscribers. They have to send jpgs to get their face on their own copy of Wired. Not very social. More a demo of technical possibilities in co-operation with Xerox. I think Time had the better representation with their old fashioned mirror cover.

That is a pity, because internet offers two important options for the cultural sector. The social role the cultural sector plays could be strongly developed, and external users could be involved with the development of knowledge about cultural heritage. Both directions would lead to the strengthening of involvement and growth of participation. On top of that, they would strengthen each other.

This piece is mainly dedicated to the social function of the sector.

Thoughts on new media in the fine art sector are focussed on education, digitalization of artefacts, catalogi and communication via internet. These areas are important. But the real chances are in what we now call web 2.0: social participation and users who contribute content.

The cultural sector uses internet to offer information. On the internet it has become clear though that most users prefer to do things themselves in a social environment. The magnitude of that activity is enormous. There are more than half a million blogs in the Netherlands. Youngsters all have profiles on sites such as Hyves.nl and Myspace.com. People are sharing their photos and videos en masse via Flickr and YouTube. Dating has moved to Parship or Gaydar, and play has moved to MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and Second Life. The Netherlands has the highest broadband density in the world, and 96% of its youth is online.

The subsidized cultural sector is not used to letting its users do something themselves. The users of the cultural sector are "audience" and "visitor". They are not allowed to cough during the performance, they are not allowed to touch the art. They do not interfere with the knowledge development or the program. The public is not part of the content.

Making art and organizing art is done by geniuses and experts who speak a different language that the public. They are kept at a distance by friendly education and PR employees.

Of course it is wonderful that the makers of our culture and quietly focus on their work. It is very important that they can choose who they work with. It is very important that our heritage is carefully stored, and there are no high school students "studying" straight through the opera.

What is interesting is the shill contrast with the practices of the professionals themselves. They speed from premiere to opening and from festival to biennial. There they maintain a close knit professional and personal network. For the (would be) professionals, it is very normal to do things together in the social surroundings of the arts. We know each other. We talk about each other. We do each other (art has everything to do with sexuality and death, everyone knows that). Successful professionals from the arts circles go to more receptions than in any other circles. Except for perhaps politicians. And we think that is, especially at the beginning of our careers, just sort of nice. We passionately interact with each other and with the arts. That is a forming part of our identity and of our whole life.

And then the "normal public" comes again. On a Tuesday morning.

They are allowed to walk around in the museum halls with people they do not know. There is no talking. They may drink a cup of mediocre coffee or overpriced wine in the foyer or restaurant, and then go home.

Luckily we have very good art. So good, that it is still worthwhile; even without all the stimulating measures that we professionals have made for each other, the public always comes. But for how long? And can it not be better?

For the "normal public" the cultural institutions should also become a social machine.

Why isn't the museum helping me find people with the same passion?

Why isn't the library telling me who else loved that book?

Why can't I see beforehand who else is going to a dance performance?

And who would like to meet others (me)?

For years we have seen a shift in visitor presence in favor of festivals, museum nights and blockbusters. That is not only because the public is only interested in stars. It is because the social experience is better. Because culture is something to share, and because art connects people. Perhaps not for all, but for many.

Cultural institutions need to play a stronger part. Not by pulling more visitors for the festivals and blockbusters. But by strengthening the social experience of the rest of the supply. So that on Tuesday morning there might be something to do as well. For those who want it.

For that matter, a good dating-site could never do a festival any harm.

The benefit of a book from the library is not only that I can read it for free. Books hardly cost anything nowadays. Which is why the lending numbers are in steady descent.

The benefit of a library book is that I am not the only one who reads it.

It is even so that libraries know who else read that book. They only need to ask permission to show my information as a passionate reader to all. We can figure out what to do with each other ourselves. The possibilities are unlimited.

The museums and stages do not register their users yet. Yes, you can join the mailing list. There is some database of museum card holders and CJPers*. Omroep C is registering its members. But no one knows what those people do or want. The average supermarket maintains a better relationship with its customers that the cultural sector! Despite the fact that art has more meaning for its users than cat food or cleaning detergent.

At this moment a new network industry is growing, which has an enormous range of new social applications where the participants do things together. These things could work very well in the cultural sector. They publish their logbooks for friends and acquaintances, they discuss, they put their profiles online and they show their personal network. They date, they buy, they sell everything they can. The time that a Dutchman spends online is increasing every year, stealing time from classic media where participation is not so easy.

The cultural sector can choose: stay with the group of authoritative media or make sure you reach some of the new market. That be be done centrally, by inviting the museum card holders to participate in a network of culture appreciators. If the users of that network can show when they want to go to an exhibition, or what they thought of it, then there can be very interesting interaction. The social interaction give an added value to the museum visit and will lead to an increase in visits.

It can also be done on a much smaller scale. For instance the Groninger Museum has a beautiful collection of De Ploeg, a group of local expressionists from the beginning of last century. There is a special pavilion for in the museum and a series of publications. An ambitions digitalization program even surrounds the work of H.N. Werkman, where an illustrated public online catalog of high quality is being developed. According to Kees van Twist, the oeuvre of De Ploeg has about 1000 real fans. A lot of the work is also in local private collections.

It would be very simple for this group to install a social network where they can share their passion and interest. Such a project could deepen the involvement and form a direct communication medium. It would be easier (cheaper) for the museum to organize supplemental activities and it would be easier for the external appreciators to contribute to such activities or to organize something themselves. The content that these participants would publish surrounding the museum would contribute to the whole. It would attract others and broaden the offerings of the museum for all.

It could also be a channel through which the knowledge development of the oeuvre could flow. There are not many amateurs who have the level of the specialized conservator and his fellow academic researchers. On the other hand, it is very likely that 1000 appreciators and owners can add a lot of useful information. As long as they have a structured channel. Phoning the conservator is not really an option. Publishing yourself in the social network of culture lovers is a lot better and more motivating. Then the origin of the information is also clear. But that is a whole other story.

If, to start, the cultural institutions would invite their users to fill the social network themselves, that would cost very little and bring a lot of extra involvement.

\* CJP stands for the cultural youth passport, which gives teenagers from 12-26 discounts in museums, cinemas and theaters.