Dark Matter: Is it worth it?

The second two readings for the week have to do with the usefulness and difficulties of using the web for promoting museums that are traditionally inaccessible places for most people as well as the troubles of the web regarding the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” (WWIC) complex. The first reading, a Medium article by Michael Peter Edson entitled “Dark Matter,” compares the vastness of the internet to the dark matter that was discovered by Vera Rubin and was found to make up most of the universe. The second article, “The Web Is a Customer Service Medium,” written by Paul Ford, details the problems that people encounter with creative license and what he calls the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” problem, in which people on the internet feel they are entitled to deciding how other people’s art, work, etc., should look. Both of these articles take different stances on the “dark matter” of the internet and the advantages and disadvantages of people entering into the worlds of museums and creative license.

First off, Edson discusses the internet as being 90% dark matter, but does not give an explicit definition of what he means by dark matter, because it’s obviously not the same as the kind in space. We can easily define dark matter as the groups and communities on the web who are sharing and learning from one another through usually more casual means of communication such as Reddit, Facebook, Tumblr, and more. There is also dark matter sharing and learning going on in more academic locations such as with TED Talks or Wikipedia (Of course Wikipedia isn’t academic, but for this purpose it is, just go with it).

A major subject Edson touches on is how museums around the world can reach out and connect with communities everywhere and give them the experience of their particular museum. In his research, Edson finds that the Vlogbrothers’ YouTube channel, the one he spends most of the article discussing, has acquired 2,058,156 subscribers in the seven years of existence by 2014, and they are considered part of the dark matter of the web. Today, six years later, they have 3.3 million subscribers. This can be compared to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s channel, the capital’s most visited museum yearly with almost 4 million visitors in 2019, which has just over 9,000 subscribers on YouTube, significantly less than the Vlogbrothers.

Edson’s solution to the problem of lack of attention for these museums is for them to create online exhibits and other ways for communities to interact with them other than traveling there. Many famous world museums have Instagram accounts (I know because I follow a lot of them, like the Louvre, Uffizi, Van Gogh, Rijks, Versailles, etc.), which are useful for posting artworks housed in their museums, but there is a disjointed feeling about the accounts. They also lack the followers that reflect how many visitors they receive each year. The accounts I follow, I follow because I have actually been to the museum, with a few exceptions. Therefore, it is easier for me to understand the context of the posts because I have a sense of the structure of the museum and if they post one work of art, I can picture the rest of the museum relative to that piece.

But what about those who have never been to the museum? The Instagram or YouTube accounts won’t suffice for these people who are still interested in learning more. In this day in age, it’s harder to make your dreams of travel a reality with higher expenses, such as student loans, which I’m sure you all have to deal with, so you get it. There are also people around the world who simply are unaware of the museums or are extremely incapable of visiting another country to see artifacts and paintings. Because of all of these factors, it would be enlightening to these online communities if virtual exhibits were added to their websites or social media pages that can encompass what it is like to be at the museum. With more of an online presence, these museums and archives would be able to disseminate knowledge more easily and to a wider audience. I’m curious to know what my Public History friends think of this. Is it worth it to almost destroy the novelty of visiting a museum in a far away country by putting some or all of the exhibits online? Or is it helping make history more accessible and inclusive for those who cannot travel to see all of these different exhibits?

In contrast to the potential benefits of dark matter on the web, Ford writes about the pitfalls of including the online community into creative processes, which could potentially include digital history with choosing certain artifacts over others or the structuring of an exhibit. He writes about the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” issue that the internet faces in which online communities attempt to take ownership of something that isn’t theirs, usually by criticizing it. Ford uses the example of a writer in the television series Lost (aka my favorite show), to demonstrate this. But to go further with this specific series, we can look at the finale of the show, or the finale of most shows for that matter (i.e., Cheers, The Sopranos, How I Met Your Mother, Dexter, etc).

In the series finale of Lost (which was a great finale), most of you might be familiar with the theory that the passengers of Oceanic 815 had “been dead the whole time,” whether you have actually seen the show or not. After the finale aired, fans took to the internet to express their dissatisfaction with the ending, even though the writers and creators have come out numerous times and said they were not, in fact, dead the whole time. There are subreddits, news articles, blog posts, and more arguing about the meaning of the ending of the show. This is an example of the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” problem that the internet deals with regarding creative pursuits. It almost always causes these communities to essentially take ownership of something, in this case a television show, and criticize it even though they had not spent years creating it. The same thing happens with the Game of Thrones finale, with the literal petition, currently signed by 1.8 million people and counting, to rewrite and remake the final season, simply because fans did not like what the writers did with it. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t like it either, but this is still another example of the WWIC issue on the web with taking ownership of another’s work, simply because you’re a fan.

This brings about the question of what the WWIC problem could do for digital history. Could it cause communities to simply be offended that archives and museums are digitizing their exhibits? Maybe communities would create backlash for certain museums and archives housing certain items or choosing what they classify and declassify? Would there be arguments in communities about potential racist or sexist artifacts on display? With this issue, communities would attempt to take ownership of not only the artifacts in the museum or archive, but also the structure of it, which has been curated by professional public historians and archivists. Most of these comments would likely come from those who did not understand the museum or archive, but annoyances such as these would arise and cause issues for the museums or archives in question. Ultimately, after analyzing these two articles, is reaching out to the dark matter of the web worth it for digital history?

4 Replies to “Dark Matter: Is it worth it?”

  1. Sarah– to your question about online exhibits: for people who actually want to visit a museum and see a collection in person, digital versions will never take away the novelty. Art and artifacts can never have the same effect online as they can in person, so I don’t think that this question is an “either/or.” Instead, we should appreciate the “and” of having things online AND in person, so that those who will never make it still have some access point.

  2. I wanted to comment on the project Edson mentions in Oakland!
    I attended the 2018 California Association of Museums conference where there was a presentation on a very similar topic. A science museum in the LA area, I can’t remember which one, was working to “break down [their] walls” and get out into the public, rather than wait for the public to come to them. They started working with local ‘scientists’, like mechanics who work on low-riders, in order to help the surrounding community see themselves in the science museum. I think this presentations is one of the big reasons I got into Public History.
    Seeing yourself as belonging in a cultural institution is crucial to getting through the door. (This could go into a discussion of “The Art of Relevance”, but I won’t right now.) I wonder to what extent this is also true for digital exhibits and digital history. How/Are people going to seek out these exhibits and platforms if they don’t know they exist?

  3. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for your thoughtful post on Dark Matter and WWIC. I’ve thought a LOT about this conversation of the physical vs. the virtual over the past several years. I used to be one of the loudest proponents of the “you can’t REALLY experience it unless you’re there” viewpoint. However, while working at a handful of museums and a Special Collections, I was fortunate enough to have thoughtful colleagues weigh in on how my perspective was an ableist one (because I, personally, rarely have had to reckon with my ability to physically access a space). In addition to the valid points you make about the costs of traveling and visiting these institutions, considerations of how these spaces are designed and for whom add additional and important layers. For all of these reasons, I now tend to agree with Sarah Fling that it is a “both/and” situation. The more opportunities and environments we can thoughtfully and critically create to provide access to and experiences with history (or any other subject for that matter), the more equitable and far-reaching our practice and field will become.

  4. Thanks for a great post, Sarah! I agree with Sarah F. and Carmen about the “both/and” approach to digital exhibits, and wanted to elaborate on how the WWIC problem could actually be productive for the digital side of museums and cultural institutions. Sure, I agree that it is problematic when people take ownership of things that they know little to nothing about, but it could also lead to productive conversations between museums and the communities they serve. We’ve talked a lot about “shared authority” (and it’s strengths/weaknesses) in Public History classes, and have learned that museum staff are not and should not be the only ones with “authority.” Digital exhibits could more easily allow communities to take authority over exhibits that are meant to serve them. If comments come from people who didn’t understand the museum, it’s a chance to understand why and maybe make changes! If it sparks debate about potential sexist/racist objects on display, that’s probably a good thing! Museums need to be responsive to their audiences. There will always be trolls, but I see digital exhibits as more of an opportunity for open/democratic conversation and participation.

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