Museums without walls: Breaking across the borders of organizational structure and preparing the next generation of museum professionals in the digital age

Adrienne D'Angelo, St. John's University, USA


A question museums face in the digital age, inherent to their mission, is how can we not only address and increase access to the institution physically, but also virtually? This session aims to share dissertation research and findings of the qualitative research study "Museums without Walls: The Google Art Project and Smarthistory—A Mission Possible Prophecy." The results highlight the potential changes in pedagogy for those that prepare future museum professionals, from the words of leaders in the fields of art museums and academic art history. Our discussions with art historians, museum directors, educators, and curators reveals how they think and feel about using digital resources, specifically the Google Art Project and Smarthistory, in their own research and learning practices, as well as for those they teach and their audiences. The data collection of 14 interviews includes representatives from these roles and those who created both the Google Art Project and Smarthistory. This lens on both those in the field and those who created these entities draws a parallel between museum professionals and those that use or participate in either of these digital resources in their practices. Participants in the session will walk away with information on how leaders in the field feel about the shared content and interactive experiences that are available to those that prepare and teach future museum professionals, and how in the future, digital resources like these, aggregators of content, may offer increased access to content across institutions and organizations offering infinite educational possibilities. Most evident will be the impact that advances in digital technology are having on museum professionals, on the roles that exist within museums today, and the way that teaching emerging professionals in the digital age is changing.

Keywords: professional, pedagogy, organizational structure, digital resources, training

Introduction to the problem and study

In mid-2015, we began a qualitative study using interviews and observations to collect data answering the following questions: Given the similarities and differences between physical art museums and digital resources such as The Google Art Project and Smarthistory, what and how do professionals in the fields of art history and art museums, who have traditionally managed curatorial, educational, and collecting practices in a physical museum, think about the educational potential and problems that digital art resources present? What are the implications of their thoughts for the fields of art and museum education as these intersect with new technologies?

Data collection for this qualitative study (a dissertation entitled “Museums without Walls – The Google Art Project and Smarthistory A Mission Possible Prophecy”) was conducted over a period of 124 days, beginning on June 5, 2015 and ending on October 6, 2015. 14 interviews were collected with 16 participants. All participants consented to the use of their full name for the purposes of the study and for future educational publications and/or presentations. Interviews with 13 of the 16 subjects were comprised of large encyclopedic art museum directors, curators, educators, information technology officers, and academic art historians. Interviews with three of the 15 interviewees were with those that created or directly manage both The Google Art Project and Smarthistory.

Themes emerged while reviewing and coding the data. There were seven overarching coded categories, each yielding a handful of various sub-categories that appeared throughout participants’ responses to the interview questions. These are the categories: access; authenticity; educational criteria; evaluation; experience; modes of collaboration; and pedagogy. These categories served as points from which analysis of the data and educational implications were drawn, two of which are implications regarding collaboration and job preparation of the next generation of museum professionals; we will discuss this further in this article.

Open source and creative commons

The American Association of Museums published a journal in 2014 entitled Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosytem. In this publication, Michael Edson, former Director of the Web and New Media Strategy across all the Smithsonian Institutions and current co-founder, Associate Director, and Head of Digital for the newly forming Museum for the United Nations (UN Live) raises awareness on the importance of scale. Edson talks about scale not in a physical way, such as losing perspective when experiencing works of art digitally; but rather, the scale of knowledge. Turning the idea of scale on its head, participant Timothy Rub, Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, suggested that scale is lost in the digital experience, because one cannot engage with an original work of art in the same way. Edson proposes that museums think about scale not solely through the lens of the object (requiring visitors to physically encounter objects at the museum), but through information about the object that can be exponentially shared. As a precursor to this philosophy, on the cusp of the explosion of the internet world-wide, French sociologist and philosopher Paul Bourdieu judged museums in this way:

…statistics show that access to cultural works is the privilege of the cultivated class…if it is indisputable that our society offers to all the pure possibility of taking advantage of the works on display in museums, it remains the case that only some have the real possibility of doing so…even in their smallest details, museums reveal their real function, which is to reinforce among some people the feeling of belonging and among others the feeling of exclusion. (Bourdieu, 1991)

Therefore, it is incumbent on those that work in art museums to do more than just be aware of this problem; awareness is not enough for institutions that for too long have been considered elitist and Western-centric; “introspective and inward-looking…obsessed with their own collections based identity” (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992). Instead, for the good of all humankind, they must enact policy and change using the opportunities and affordances of new digital technology. Michael Edson contends the following:

Our industry, museums, forged our dreams in the 20th century when being successful meant having impressive buildings full of experts, big collections and visitors through the doors. That was our reality. There was no Internet yet, and we could imagine no other type of success. In that world, we dreamt about things like bigger, better buildings, rock-star curators, preeminent collections and more visitors. (Edson, 2014)

His views connect that museums, with primary sources of educational mission, must think big and dream in scale. Implied in this meaning is scale of audience; what they want, who they are, and how they interact with museums. The turn in the 21st century from what he described above towards a massively impactful and influential capability means that museums are compelled to widen their reach, their dreams, and their goals in working towards fulfilling an educational mission. He concludes, “museums accomplish wonderful things in society, but a billion learners—that’s the kind of dream we need to have” (Edson, 2014). Michael is a proponent of open sources and creative commons. He serves on the advisory board of Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open GLAM.

GLAM’s are coming together because of the impact digital technology is having on them, connecting their work together differently than we’ve ever seen before. Through the connectedness the Internet offers, those that work in institutional content management are now being brought together collaboratively or under one disciplinary umbrella, as universities look to merge and rebrand them.

While neither the Google Art Project nor Smarthistory are considered creative commons or open sources, our study finds that both are limited, and seem purposefully disengaged from, allowing content sharing or a platform for communal discussion over the internet (Web 2.0), they are leaders as aggregators of content and limited metadata which for too long museums have and in some instances even from this study with the example of the Cleveland Museum of Art think within the confines of their physical walls. How can open source and creative commons benefit museums? In The Digital Museum: A Think Guide published by the American Association of Museums, Robert Stein, participant in the study along with Susan Chun and Michael Jenkins, describe the relationship this way:

Open source software is software for which the code is made public-either under terms of a license agreement or through the copyright holder’s decision to place the code in the public domain-allowing users to freely modify or adapt the software for their own needs. Its corollary, which in this paper is called “open access” software, exposes enough information about the code to allow users to take advantage of the software without requiring the developer to actually publish or relinquish control over the code. In rejecting proprietary software models, leaders of the open source movement also embraced collaborative, even public processes for specifying and developing software, which are here referred to as “open source methods. These methods, and the philosophy that they embody, represent a potentially invaluable new model for the museum community. (Chun, Jenkins, & Stein, 2007)

This raises more questions. How then can art museums as specific types of educational institutions adopt a standard of collaborative knowledge sharing? Is it enough to partner with aggregators like the Google Art Project and Smarthistory?

On February 7, 2017, Thomas Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and participant in this study announced a new policy. All images of public domain artworks in the museum’s collection are now available for free and unrestricted use. Using Open Access and Creative Commons designation, the Met is a forerunner for art museums facilitating the use of more than 375,000 images for both scholarly and commercial purposes. In the press release, Mr. Campbell makes the following remarks:

…our core mission is to be open and accessible for all who wish to study and enjoy the works of art in our care. Increasing access to the Museum’s collection and scholarship serves the interests and needs of our 21st-century audiences by offering new resources for creativity, knowledge, and ideas. (Campbell, 2017)

What is significant is the leading role The Metropolitan Museum of Art is taking in this endeavor to champion sharing, openly and without the pause that previously has been the precedent set by art museums. This is a learning opportunity for museums to evaluate these efforts and in doing so, provide much need evaluation and publications on the results as Chun, Jenkins, and Stein raise:

Finally, museums that choose open source solutions for new projects should evaluate and publish their results, and-in the spirit of civic contribution and collective creativity that is the open source movement-add both the product of the work and the understanding gained in the process to the body of knowledge that is shared by the museum community. (Chun, Jenkins, & Stein, 2007)

Something that for this study has been difficult to find and is lacking.  In seeking to be exemplars of vision and mission as ambassadors of culture and heritage, it seems art museums have stifled their progress and now have a groundbreaking chance to scale mission beyond what they ever dreamed possible.

Organizational structure

The study connected discussions with those in the fields of art history and art museums. The Socratic conversations led to discoveries about the work they do, how they do it and who they rely on to get the job done. With a light shining specifically on two outside entities, The Google Art Project and Smarthistory both aggregators of images and to some extent content related material, the study findings suggest there is a lot of variances on who works collaboratively institutionally, cross-institutionally and with these two digital resources. One of the findings was that for the most part, those in art museums interviewed, whether museum director, curator, educator or digital technology officer, were disconnected from the partnerships their institutions had with either aggregator or were not aware of the reasons their institutions did not partner with either. This is telling on many fronts.

One example, at the Cleveland Museum of Art, is that both participants Jane Alexander and Jennifer Foley admit that the encyclopedic collection and holdings of the CMA provide enough of a resource for their work and constituency. However, at the same time it was brought to light that in creating ArtLens and Gallery One, with the many accolades both have received, they discovered their audience was wider, more global than they imagined. This impacted the phased roll out of the ArtLens to reach a wider audience. The CMA recognizes now that their digital audience is greater than they thought and like other museums, are in larger amounts than physical visitors and want more information and opportunities for experiences. This points to a very important implication of the study, collaboration is necessary because of that demand.

Michael Hearn, Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when questioned about how he learns and researches information for his work responded that much of the information resides in his head. In his Malrauvian way of conducting his work which to be fair is his primary responsibility as a curator, scholar and researcher, he is restricted to a certain set of resources. Similar in the way Jennifer Foley, Jane Alexander, and academic art historian Stephen Murray believe that authority rests between the confines of what they know and feel they can successfully manage; namely what is directly in their purview. While this is understandable and certainly not a fault or flaw in any way to their great accomplishments, it does raise a question about the trepidation of those in these fields to want to make available their content related work across multiple platforms for the greater good of their larger audience. For some, and perhaps these four participants, it may also be a lack of admitted understanding on what The Google Art Project and Smarthistory or digital aggregators afford. Therefore the tools they use reflect this thinking about their own practice and perhaps nod to a certain level of comfort.

Basing one’s work habits off what “I’ve known” instead of “what the audience knows/wants to know” is a new view for art museums.

Though curators now might stand for a certain intellectual authority and authenticity in museums, the emergence of the curatorial profession has certainly been a troublesome process. As museums emerged as major public institutions in the nineteenth century, control of collections still rested with the collectors, with museums staffed by amateurs and enthusiasts; the role of curator was often more like a “caretaker-servant to those in authority. (Cairns & Birchall, 2013)

If art museums have functioned in this mode for this long, it isn’t surprising that there is an institutional as well as standard of practice for those in this field to think absolutely in terms of their own collection and the physical space that contains them. What the digital aggregators like The Google Art Project and Smarthistory pose are questions about how that theory may be an outdated singular way of thinking. These two model, and perhaps neophyte and with glaring trepidations in their stylistic approach, how aggregating information and content is knowledge rich and serves audiences. They increase the access to information by bridging knowledge, namely through images and metadata across time, distance, space and question these ways of thinking that remain limited in exclusivity. One must come to our website to learn more. One must engage in our platform and learn how to use our tool to interact with our collection. The possessive rhetoric echoes the way museums have operated for far too long.

Another finding in this study was that many of the participants did not mention or bring too often to light how they work collaboratively for their institutions who participate with either or both digital resources. While no one participant interviewed in this study said “I am the one, I am the liaison to Google or Smarthistory and this is what I do…” In their roles as leaders who direct policy and practice in their institutions, if they are operating in a way that fosters self-reflective practice and ties back to mission as discussed in the study discussion with findings from Randi Korn & Associates (Korn, 2008), than what they didn’t say was telling.

Many participants, save for a few art historians, didn’t elaborate much on collaboration. It didn’t ignite them. In fact, for most that question fell flat on enthusiasm. There are many different factors that could have caused such a reaction and it is not the intent of this researcher to presume, but overwhelmingly it is apparent that when it comes to thinking about collaboration in terms of using digital technology and specifically these two resources, the participants were remote and distance about it.

What if there was cross-institutional collaboration beyond participation with digital resources? What if things like the Google Art Project and Smarthistory along with the rise in Creative Commons and open sources went beyond just sharing images and wall text? What if Nancy Proctor was right in saying, wall text all over walls in museums is contradictory anyways? What harm would there by if scholarly differences were shared, aggregated, and the public allowed to make their own interpretations? They do anyways.

Museums can welcome visitors’ Web content in a format for steering towards a productive path of inquiry supported by institutional knowledge. The most valuable kind of information can provide to a conceptual age audience is the modeling of expert thought. The explanation of how something is known from a collection and analysis of facts will help your Web and museum audiences to edit their own content and bolster their expert thinking. (Deborah Howes, 2007)

It is clear that digital technology and audiences of art museums and students of art history have familiarity with going to seek information over the Web is now mainstream. What isn’t clear and isn’t prevalent, either from this study or in codes and standards or practice (of which no participant mentioned having), is how organizational structure in museums is being affected, how the traditional roles of director, curator, and educator are now compelled to work along with newer and expanding roles of digital officers and how in light of these changes art museums are managing a culture of collaboration.

After more than four decades of digital formats, technology today is no longer an isolated tool consulted to accomplish specific tasks. Instead, it has become infrastructure, structure, essential to all aspects of museum operations and fostering better collaboration and access; and, like all infrastructure, digital technology must be supported, maintained and replaced when it becomes obsolete. The assertive presence of the digital has forced museum professionals-including curators, collections managers, educators and security officers-to master a new set of tools. It has forced museum administrators to expand their organization. (Selma Thomas, 2007)

While Selma Thomas is correct, I would argue that it isn’t enough to know you need to be about a wider audience, there is an obligation to be a change in the way those that work for that audience do so in an audience driven capacity through clearly articulated goals and self-reflective practice that undergoes evaluation at all levels and across all departments. Undeniably, there is crossover of research between curators/art historians and museum educators about the works of art they study and prepare to present in their unique capacity. There is also clear differentiation in how they present that material. Neither should be exulted over the other because given the same constituency, and knowing that audience wants the information delivered in various ways, why doesn’t it foster closer collaborative relationships? One than wonders how that trickles to those in digital technology roles within museums.

The participants of this study who manage digital technology strategy in art museums all believed too much emphasis on vetting, meeting, and editing content related material results in slow progression and costly impediments to rolling out knowledge digitally. Art museums, different from academia, seem to have a culture of wanting to hold that information in when societal mores are demanding they get it out.

While conversely, academic art historians like Karen Shelby, Michelle Fisher, Stephen Murray and Ginger Spivey, all participants in the study, along with Beth Harris and Steven Zucker of Smarthistory seem to want to use multi-modal pedagogical tools especially those related to digital technology in their pedagogical practice.

Art museums as institutions of knowledge are also called to educate beyond those walls and outside of the environs of the actual object.  They have done so for decades ever since the printing press. They provide information on whether or not an object is on view, not on view, on loan, in scholarly publications and in some instances art museums have their own publishing houses but there is a reluctance to have a presence in the digital arena as a stronger authoritative authentic voice. Perhaps, given these findings and implications, one way to change that is to take a closer look at how professionals in these roles are educated and trained.


Evaluation and judgement is part of the work of every academic and art museum director, curator, educator, and digital technology officer. Everyday judgements are made by these individuals to foster and further their work and that of the mission of their institutions. Is judgement enough? One glaring implication of the study is that better evaluation is not only necessary but desired by the participants.  Institutions of higher education, art museums and self-confessed by those who manage both digital resource, must invest in more and better evaluative tools and create time to assess at all levels; from the top down and cross-institutionally with transparency.

The participants responded to the questions about evaluation in a very candid and humble way. One can draw from their responses that they are hungering for a way to increase evaluation process and know their audience’s needs better. Both aggregators keep analytical information about their sites. During the interview with James Davis in London and the observations conducted in Paris at the Cultural Institute Lab, both times it was mentioned that Google is interested in knowing more about how they can better enhance their product educationally. They don’t know who is using the Google Art Project in their classrooms. They don’t know aside from randomly conducting surveys in their offices to glean anecdotal information from users what the users want. What’s missing is a direct analysis and evaluation of who this growing, and growing exponentially fast and furiously digital audience is and desires.  What might better evaluative practices afford? According to Sherri Hsi, research scientist and focused on museums and science centers:

Evaluation provides an opportunity to gather useful information about audiences, online programs and technology-mediated experiences, and for everyone to learn from audiences including developers, evaluators, museum administrators, visitors and online users alike. Now and in the future, evaluating museum technology experiences will require ongoing institutional support beyond a single project…A range of new possibilities exists for using technology for evaluation, and, in turn, for evaluating museum technology experiences to inform professional practices and improve user experiences. (Hsi, 2007)

That is a wonderful word package on the benefits of evaluation. But how? How can academics and art museums, when staff is over-burdened, over-worked, and under paid, take the necessary time to expend energy in what some might consider a luxury to be able to do? Time and time again in my own experience in museums, there just isn’t enough time in a day. Days turn into weeks, weeks into months, and so on. If from the findings of these data and evaluation is not done or done in a way that connects to mission as Randi Korn suggests (Korn, 2008), per her advisement would evaluation of audience in relation to mission lead to enhancing digital participation in such resources as The Google Art Project and/or Smarthistory and cultivate a larger presence? Here, the answer lies outside of the scope of this study and with the very heart of it, audiences of art history and art museums.

The audience

The symbolism in Homer’s Odyssey of the Oneiri or the dreamers who lie in a dark cave waiting to be awakened by the gods is not the audience of today’s art museum. One could argue that out of the Enlightenment and with the age of the modern museum as we know it, audiences were considered this way but a transition has occurred over the past few decades. The shift from saying art museums are at the heart of their mission about the audiences they serve has become front and center. Icons of civic pride and servitude, museums have transformed from the model of the kunstskammer and being about harboring things to being more about laboring for the people they serve. At the keynote speech of the American Association of Museums national conference on April 27, 2015, Johnnetta Betsch Cole encapsulated this refocusing in this way:

If we are to be relevant [and] stay artistically and financially viable, [we must rethink] what takes place in our museums, to whom our museums belong, and who the colleagues are who have the privilege of telling important stories through the power of science, history, culture and art. (Betsch Cole, 2015)

Rethinking what we do, whom we do it for, and who we do it with, simple advice. The increase in audience over the Internet, while completely an underlying idea with each question asked about the two resources in this study, was not always on the mind of each participant. After all, there are cultural differences to consider, hundreds if not thousands of languages, various economics, socio-political ideas, religions and the list goes on but the important thing art museums and those that teach art history are to be reminded of is that they fit that special niche and hold a responsibility to being educators about those very nuances and changes in the history of the world and in real time. The real-time part, and especially in real-time digitally, seems troublesome to some. How can professionals address all that? Should they?

Regardless of how each institution negotiates such questions, what is clear is that the superfluity of hyper-connected information now online requires new approaches and new tactics to make meaning. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault writes that history “organizes the document, divides it up, distributes it, orders it, arranges it in levels, establishes series, distinguished between what is relevant and what is not, discovers elements, defines unites, describes relations” (Foucault 2010, 6). The Internet, too, demands organisation and distribution, discovery and contextualisation, and recontextualisation. Although museums cannot be wholly responsible for this process, neither can they neglect it. Failure to connect that which is within the museum to the broader information ecology beyond is a failure to understand the context in which the institution’s offerings are found. (Cairns & Birchall, 2013)

This study didn’t aim to address this process in specificity but it is important to mention and especially here because it points to who makes up this now larger audience and the growing responsibilities that come with a digital presence. These issues will be on the rise and need to be addressed in the very near future because the digiterati is our future.

The study also raises questions on the policy in art museums related to participation in outside aggregators such as the Google Art Project and Smarthistory as well as connections to open source information. How does policy reflect the mission? How does policy address the needs of the larger audience?

Institutions must also examine, at a policy level, their commitment to open source activity, as those who see sharing knowledge as an extension of a core mission may be well served by endorsing open source software development or methods. Those institutions choosing to endorse open source should do so publicly, by openly expressing a policy that gives preference to vendors or museum collaborators who choose open source solutions… (Chun, Jenkins, & Stein, 2007)

Chun, Jenkins, and Robert Stein 10 years ago advised that institutions need to look at their justification process for participation in open sources. Some of the details they discussed, like tagging, has become second nature embedded within the changes of technology over the past year and museum’s participation in those various platforms that use it (i.e. social media, blogs, etc..). Beyond tagging, a way to aggregate metadata, true open source participation with content heaviness is barely visible in the digital horizon with both these digital resources and art museums. This is another implication of this study and one that I hope we will see come to fruition through stronger advocacy from those who work in the field and outside of it.


Taking judgement as a theme and weaving it throughout the discussion of the findings of this study, what emerged is a web of inferences towards new models for those that work in the discipline of art history, art museums, and digital technology resources like The Google Art Project and Smarthistory that are platforms of art-related content. These propositions point to necessary considerations for increased access of content and scholarly material through open sources and creative commons, cross institutional and cross-digital/virtual collaboration, audience related studies and evaluation. Additionally, suggestions for studies that include experiences with works of art for their entertainment, fun and social engagement (Web 2.0), are longitudinal to better capture and garner information in relation to digital technology that relates to the business of teaching art history and art museum education as well as studies that focus on how professionals in these areas can strategize about more efficient digital policy projects for their institutions.

Lastly, the rate at which digital technology changes and the pace of those changes seem to be overwhelming, therefore looking towards the newest trends in digital technology and how they may impact teachers of art history and art museum professionals are an important area of focus for both training the next generation of professional in these fields and for the next generation who are all digital natives. How digital natives make judgements is a last reflection because if we must recognize what we know about them. These future museum goers, seekers of knowledge, and visionary explorers think and thrive in across different worlds; physical, digital and very soon coming…virtual. We as museum professionals need to ask how we are prepared to do our work in all of those places to best reach our growing audience.


Betsch Cole, J. (2015). Keynote address: AAM Annual Conference in Atlanta, GA, April 27, 2015.

Bourdieu, P. (1991). The Love of Art: European Art Museums and Their Public. Stanford University Press.

Cairns, S. & D. Birchall. (2013). “Curating the Digital World: Past Preconceptions, Present Problems, Possible Futures.” In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published February 6, 2013. Consulted February 9, 2017. Available

Campbell, T. (2017). Open Access. The MET.

Chun, S., M. Jenkins, & R. Stein. (2007). “Open Source, Open Access: New Models for Museums.” In H. Din H. & P. Hecht (eds.). The Digital Museum: A Think Guide. American Association of Museums Press, Washington, DC.

Edson, M. (2014). Building the Future of Education – Museums and the Learning Ecosystem. Center for the Future of Museums, The American Alliance of Museums,

Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1992). Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge. New York: Routledge.

Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1999). “Objects and Interpretive Processes.” In E. Hooper-Greenhill (ed.). The educational role of the museum. London: Routledge. 103-23.

Howes, D. (2007). Why the Internet Matters: A Museum Educator’s Perspective in H. Din & P. Hecht (eds.). The Digital Museum: A Think Guide. American Association of Museums Press: Washington, DC.

Hsi, S. (2007) “Evaluating Museum Technology: Experiences from the Exploratorium.” In H. Din & P. Hecht (eds.). The Digital Museum: A Think Guide. American Association of Museums Press: Washington, DC.

Korn, R. (2008) “Transforming Museums—To What End?” Published in proceedings for Transforming Museums Conference Seattle, WA.

Thomas, S. (2007). “Introduction.” In H. Din & P. Hecht (eds.) The Digital Museum: A Think Guide. American Association of Museums Press: Washington, DC.




Cite as:
D'Angelo, Adrienne. "Museums without walls: Breaking across the borders of organizational structure and preparing the next generation of museum professionals in the digital age." MW17: MW 2017. Published February 15, 2017. Consulted .

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