The Social Function of Museums in the Digital Age
Museums of the 21st century plays a central role in decreasing knowledge gaps and in leveling knowledge due to increased opportunities for participation, entertainment, and curiosity offered by new digital technologies, but there may be a hidden benefit for maintaining knowledge gaps. In 1970, Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien proposed their knowledge gap theory that sought to explain how people acquire information differently, resulting in a gap in the amount of knowledge separating those of higher and lower socio-economic status. Despite the multifunctional and populist approach of modern museums, most people still expect to learn something new from their visit; they hope to increase their cultural capital or fill their knowledge gap. Museums are seeking creative ways to communicate art and their expert knowledge to all visitors, who are encouraged to not only construct their subjective interpretations from information provided by the museum, but to go further and seek out new information and aesthetic experiences on their own. Museums represent the vanguard of originality and creativity in our society, yet their established role also provides a necessary balance and anchor to the uncertainty and anxiety often associated with contemporary art and with our rapidly changing digital society that presents us with an abundance of knowledge and opinions. The important question is whether this popularization of knowledge is a means for museums to maintain the gap necessary to preserve their hierarchical status and power, or whether it motivates and empowers visitors to learn enough to close that gap and deconstruct the institutional power structure. Perhaps the real goal should not be to close the gap and have everyone possess the same knowledge, but to inspire individuality of the interpretation and performance of that very knowledge.
Keywords: Museums, Art, Digital Technology, Knowledge Gap, Social
Susana Smith Bautista
Ph.D. Student, Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California