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"Digital craft" project at Frankfurt's Museum of Applied Arts aims to change the way we think about museums and technology

Director James M. Bradburne is a passionate believer in new technologies

We have not even begun to scratch the surface of the possibilities for digital media to support learning in the museum.

Computers can be used to access a wide range of information relating to the museum’s objects, and access to the internet could be available throughout museums. Palm Pilots could be used to deliver information in different languages. A computer lab can let visitors design their own website.

Technology is not an end in itself—it is a support for people learning from each other. New media now allow us to put the emphasis on our collections, and to make these collections available globally without compromising the privileged relationship between the viewer and the object. Global information networks allow for the first time virtual institutions to open to visitors from around the world. The system allows genuine in-put from visitors and allows the visitor’s voice to become an integral part of an on-going dialogue with the objects in our collections.

Moreover, the museum must integrate the digital media in its daily operations—on the one hand, to increase the institution’s effectiveness, on the other hand, as a commitment to the future of the applied arts—with digital craft.

In June 1999, the Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt am Main launched its newest project entitled “Digital craft”, a three-year research project in collaboration with Frankfurt’s Institut für neue Medien (INM) that has as its goal to define a museum approach to what can only be described as the applied arts of this new century—digital media.

This project enjoys the support of some of the leading producers of digital craft in the world, and shares with them several key values and aspirations: Nokia, Apple, Lego, Sun and Frankfurt’s oldest private bank, Bankhaus Metzler. With the help of these partners, the museum is poised at the threshold of modern museology.

The project has two distinct parts: “using digital craft” as a means of supporting users of the museum (internal and external), and “defining digital craft”, a research project to provide the theoretical basis for a museum strategy, culminating in a collection, public exhibitions, a curator, and plans for further research.

As part of its plans for renewal, the museum is installing “reading tables” throughout the museum, where visitors can browse through newspapers, magazines, and books—and learn how to access the Internet—even build their own website—on new Sun Rays and iMacs. The museum’s own website will provide a convenient way to link to related sites—other museums, information about applied arts, as well as to the sites of museum partners.

Another experimental programme will be the use of Palm Pilots (“Palm reading”), Nokia Communicators, and WAP mobile phones (“Handy headlines”) to access information about the objects in the museum’s design collection in several languages.

Programmes also play a key role in looking at the way in which all things digital have become an integral part of the applied arts of the 21st century. The museum has regular “test drive” evenings when teenagers can test and evaluate the latest computer games. The museum will host monthly introductions to e-banking and regular internet auctions.

The key to the “Digital craft” project is not just making the museum a digital paradise for its visitors. The museum must also identify the best and most significant “virtual objects” of digital craft, and collect them, preserve them, display them, and interpret them. The underlying goal of the project is to explore the ways in which a museum can respond to the challenge of collecting the intangible—interactivity, connectivity, play behaviour—properties that are a consequence of the digital media, but not the media themselves.

The project’s second part—“defining digital craft”—is at the heart of the modern museum enterprise. Digital products, which are increasing shaping the world around us, are legitimate, even indispensable objects for our museum collections. Certainly there are museums that already collect hardware—computer museums, film museums, museums of the moving image, technology museums—and there are museums that collect digitally created art, such as the Zentrum für Kunst und Medien (ZKM) in Karlsruhe and the Ars Electronica Zentrum in Linz. But who is collecting the computer games, the websites, the Palm Pilots, the mobile phones? The answer is that despite the huge number of projects in this field worldwide, only a few museums have taken this challenge seriously.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Digital products or applied arts?'