Volker Grassmuck
for ARCH Symposium "Virtual Museums", Salzburg, May 8-10, 1998
V 1.0

When Philips announced its release of the CD-I in Japan in April 1992, it praised its technology by pointing out the new conveniences and pleasures it will add to our life: "You can walk through an art museum, play on a golf course, play various popular children's games interactively and enjoy experiences of the world around you." When I saw this I wondered what a person one or two generations ago would have said: "Well, of course you can, but what do you need this box for?"

I boldly propose that if there is such a thing as World Cultural Heritage it will have to be medial. There are several reasons for this.

First, there is an inherent contradiction between unique, singular objects and seven billion people who are supposed to perceive them as their culture. The very idea of World Culture implies that it is of all the world, and for all the world. Only its technical reproducability allows a trace of the singular and auratic artefact to reach all those who are supposed to perceive themselves in it as one single global system.

Then, there is a physical, material contradiction exemplified by the Lascaux effect. The masses destroy the unique artefact simply by appreciating it, by nothing more than being there. The solution in this case was to construct a high-fidelity replica next to the original cave. Any number of these could be build in other places or as a travelling exhibition, maybe in a digital format presented in an interactive panoramic projection system, like "The Cave". Lascaux presents us with a first powerful metaphor of an object being closed off in order to save the abstract idea of the original, while at the same time those who experience it as part of their ancestry are sitting in a cybernetic cave of light.

Another contradiction is ethical and political in nature. Cultural singularities tend to gather in European and North-American museums. Even if these countries have a long history of making culture accessible to all their citizens, these still remain a select few in privileged countries. If the concept of World Culture is proposed, then the people who are to view themselves as one world vis-à-vis certain artefacts should have an equal opportunity to interact with and relate to them. The scale of audience demands that the artefacts in question be medially accessible. From this reasoning follows another essential precondition - the analysis of which lies outside the scope of this article - which is: universal service and equal access to telecommunications and media.

There is a media-historical reason as well. The very idea of globality has emerged from the extension of the temporal and spatial range facilitated through media which, according to Anthony Giddens, defines modernity. The history of traffic, script, print, electrical, chemical and electronic media is that of de-limitation. Significant parts of our individual and collective horizons are medial already. This is the 'natural' place to situate global culture.

There is a last reason. Six years after the Philips ad and further into the Turing Galaxy the idea has come to be self-evident that we "enjoy experiences of the world around" us through media. Especially for the Nintendo and Techno generation, it is a matter of course. If it's not digital it's not hip.

I recently stumbled across the expression "terminal culture" in one of the books on media theory. It referred, of course, to a culture that experiences the world through video terminals, but I misread it for a culture in a terminal state, a culture about to decease.


The Living Dead and Collective Identity

The literature on the origins and the current state of the museum then proved this Freudian slip to be an important hint. In fact, the histories of the museum start from practices to commemorate the dead, from the offerings to the spirits of the ancestors and to the gods (e.g. Pomian 1998: 20 ff.; J.Assmann 1997: 33f.; 60ff.; Groys 1997: 9; see also the Theban Necropolis or Mark Lehner's Giza site). For this purpose, a special class of objects emerges that Krzysztof Pomian calls semiophores,  i.e. objects made to manifest something other than themselves, objects of primarily or exclusively symbolic value in distinction to their use value.(1) Together with holy places and ritual pratices, they create reference points for linking those present to the spheres of the dead and of the invisible.

These externalizations of commemoration of the dead create a distinct realm of culture. The egyptologist Jan Assmann defines cultural memory (in reference to Maurice Halbwachs) as belonging to a concrete group in a lived space and time. Its function is to create a contemporaneity of present and past, and thereby a sense of "we" among those who share it. Cultural memory is a 'connective structure' that founds group identity by creating a ritual and - once there is script - also a textual coherence. The mythical narrative "either becomes the 'motor of development' or the foundation of continuity. Under no circumstance the past is remembered 'for its own sake'." (Assmann 1997: 75) The founding function of these 'mytho-motorics' situates the present at the end of a collective path as meaningful, necessary, unalterable. The 'counter-presentical' function starts from an experience of the present as deficient compared to a mythical heroic past. The first emphasizes continuity, the second a rupture or a fall, and therefore motivates change, possibly as messianism or as revolution (ibid.: 79).

My point here is, that there is not such thing as a cultural artefact in and of itself. Semiophores are not a given but a construction. As such they are subject to an agenda of the present, more acurately: of those in church, state, philosophy, science and art who hold the power to decide what is selected and what is rejected. Not the object is decisive but the symbolizing power of the social imaginary - the needs of the identity of an Imagined Community (B.Anderson; Hobsbawm/Ranger; Moreley/Robins). We can not escape the "horizon of normative and formative value setting" (Assmann 1997; 129).

Living culture is a recursive, self-referential operation. It's a process not a thing. A continuous exchange between memory objects and cultural memory. A closure appears in this fluid exchange with the establishment of a canon. The Aegyptians and the Jews stand at the beginning of a canonization of cultural memory. In both cases it was triggered by a rupture of the culture. Foreign rule, as Assmann argues, led to the formation of the Aegyptian architectural and pictorial canon. The expulsion led to the Jewish textual canon under the imperative "Remember!"

Nation State

This authoritative, obligatory canon is inherited by the museum. The museum belongs to another turning point in the cultural configuration together with moveable type, renaissance art, the sciences, with their the 'neutral', empty, homogenous classification systems (geography, linguistics, ethnology, art history, sociology) and the nation state.

Where the links of tradition, the unity of space, time, social group and worldview are severed, i.e. where memory ends, history sets in (J.Assmann 1997: 44) - and with it the idea of a unified time-line and of progress and of humanistic cosmopolitanism - concepts we now know to be themselves particular to one space and time. Technically speaking, when memory ends, storage takes its place.

The 'we' this modern necropolis constitutes and upholds is that of the nation state. A "necrological census" is what Benedict Anderson calls the beginnings of archeological activities in Southeast Asia in the early 19th century. Unearthed from the Asian jungles, ancient monuments like Angkor were claimed as cultural asset of the home land in the colonies, and displayed for transient tourists. At the same time, measures were taken to prevent them from becoming sites of pilgrimage and religious ceremony for the locals (Anderson 1996: 180 ff.). This is a crucial mechanism of modernity: in the name of an abstract world culture and for the sake of the colonial nation state, sites are touristified and closed of from living culture.

From the necropolis, via temple and church, to the collection of the feudal lord and up to the national institution of the museum all the collections of semiophores retain the character of a mausoleum. In order to enter the collection, things have to shed all the use value they might have had before and become pure semiophores. As Boris Groys pointed out, an automobile museum is a place for cars that don't drive (1997: 8). The sanctified objects are taken from the continuous processes of natural-pysical, technological, symbolic flows and are frozen in time: stuck on a needle, freeze-dried and put in a show case.

And also for most artists, the museum is still the heavens they hope to rise to in order to become immortalized. Since Bioy Casares' novel "Morel's Invention" we know the paradox law of technical media: In order to become immortal you first have to die (Casares 1984).

Beyond the Nation State: Globality

It probably started with the list of the Seven Wonders of the World compiled in the 3d century BC of the most renowned architectural works and art pieces from antiquity. This list creates the idea of one series of wonders and one world. The modern western sciences establish their common matrices of comparability and exchangeability. Capitalism, as Marx noted, makes the whole world its playing field. Today mobility and media turn all cultures and periods into options to chose from.

The various globalization trends certainly undermine the territory of the nation state, but this doesn't mean that the old power hierarchies go away. The term world culture still implies a hegemonial stance. The universal matrix of science, the classifications, measuring techniques etc. are western. There is no innocent glance, no innocent concept of culture. Who speaks and who is spoken to? Who is spoken of or spoken for? Who is helping to preserve cultural artefacts, and who is being helped? I can't help noticing that there is not a single representative from East and Central Europe present at the symposium, which is the main field of activity of ARCH. In a polemic overstatement we can speak of the perpetrator of the museum and its victim.

Globalization raises the issue of global semiophores that create a global sense of 'we'. We do know that commodities of the culture industry function as global signifiers - Nikes and the United Colors of Beneton, Madonna and Startrek, Super Mario and Tamgotchi. Such a convergence of mankind calls up the image of a drab, mediocre, smallest-common-denominator global melting-pot culture. Also in commemorating global media figures like Princess Diana and Mother Theresa a sense of globalness arises. Ecology provides incentives to think of ourselves in a more substantial way as citizens of the world. The experiences with the Internet so far make me doubt the idea that the 'netizens' will 'automatically' be cosmopolitans.

Storage of Everything

With the loss of history and of the compulsory canon as selection criteria on the one hand and with the technical feasability on the other the trend is now to simply store everything. Another turning point was reached around 1970. The concept of the Information Society came up at that time. Hayashi Yûjirô, the Japanese father of the term "information society" defines it as a society where the symbolic value of everyday things increases over their use value, which recalls Pomian's definition of the semiophore. In that sense, design has the effect that every houshold appliance is now a semiophore, and as such worthy of a place in the museum. With the explosion of the input and storage capacity of digital data, audio and video recorders, magnetic tape and optical disc we are now re-storing the world - literally storing it again in a digital format. The Oil Crises and the report of the Club of Rome brought to the awareness the urgency of preserving natural resources.

In the same movement also a drive to preserve cultural resources set in. The UNESCO World Heritage Convention was ratified in 1972, and currently has 552 cultural and natural sites inscribed on its list (including the historic centre of the city of Salzburg). Its selection criteria of the monumental and the superlative, of sites "of exceptional beauty and importance" or "representing a masterpiece of human creative genius" (see WHC Criteria) prove it to be a classical 19th century-style museum. By placing a plaque at the site and proscribing a 'buffer zone' around the object it museifies it in situ.

In 1978 the International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage (TICCIH) was set up in Sweden, and during the 1980s we wittnessed how disfunctional industrial areas were museified right after closing down their operations. What Pierre Jeudy calls the "eco-museifying process" mummifies the social of whole (ethno-) cultures. "The complete liquidation of cultures warranties their even stronger, more expressive and vivid conservation." (Jeudy 1987: 23 f.)

Other collections preserve everyday objects and practices. CYC, the enCYClopedic database and reasoning engine for common sense knowledge, is a huge long-term AI project collecting world knowledge. One of the most monumental archiving projects is the genealogical database of the Mormons intended to prepare mankind for the Final Judgement Day (44 Gigabytes of data plus six million rolls of microfilmed records stored in a vault in a mountain near Salt Lake City, Utah, yet to be digitised). There are archives of the history of social movements and of colonialism, of technologies of war and of the postal heritage. Others collect genes of flora, fauna and humankind. There are even archives of the Internet (like Brewster Kahle's attempt to store it in its entirety) and museums on garbage. There seem to be no limits to storage mania. Cryogenics is one of the leading paradigms of our times. The Freeze is also a technical term referring to the storage of an Internet server in toto onto non-volatile memory: the flow of social communications is set stop, a time slice is cut from an ongoing process and archived. "One of the most wide-spread dreams is, everybody their own museum." (Jeudy 1987: 22)

If originally semiophores were a link to those who are not present any more, today's museum-mania reversely reveals the fear that everything might be disappearing unless it is preserved. Looked at from a virtual outside, this tendency of the 'terminal culture' looks as if it is readying itself for its termination. A millenarian atmosphere hovers above the maniac storage drive that has come over us during the last decennia. It seems as if World Culture is taking stock in order to prepare itself as heritage to future generations - or possibly to aliens. As if it is saving as much of itself as it can for posterity by enclosing it in Time Capsules like those of Andy Warhol and other artists. Gathering the pairs of each species for Noah's ark. A self-museifying culture is one that doesn't live now, but in the future perfect. It says "We will have been."

Yet as long as we are still around, the metastatic excess of storage poses the problem of how to turn it into cultural memory. With the development of sensory and storage media we are now approaching Lyotard's state of postmodern knowledge, where we play games with (virutally) complete information. The challenge is not to create new knowledge but to recombine and recontextualize what is there. One strategy of the 1980s was Appropriation Art. In a postmodern critique of the concepts of originality, authenticity and individual genius these artists replicated pre-existing imagery and created an ecletic mix from the inventory of all styles and periods. "Appropriation, site specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discoursivity, hybridization - these diverse strategies characterize much of the art of the present and distinguish it from its modernist predecessors." (Craig Owens 1992: 58)

We are wittnessing a loss of binding systems of meaning and canons of knowledge. We are shifting from history to her story, from the Big Meta-Narratives to the many little ones. Where the canon is still being handled, it is done out of lack of alternatives less arbitrary, and because the totalizing impuls which characterizes modernity - like the inertia of a fly-wheel - perpetuates itself.


There seem to be two basic patterns for the reception of culture: tourism and what I would like to call procreation. Tourism is culture as spectator sports. Cultural heritage as a theme park or a Club Med. The UNESCO Heritage list, in fact, functions very well as a Baedeker guide to the 'Best of' World Culture. A space of information and spectacle, but not necessarily knowledge. Of things reduced to images in the window of a show case or a computer display. Don't touch! (in the 'interactive' version: Press this button!) and Pay per view! Communication, i.e. the social, is reified, petrified, pasteurized, administrated, and presented in a userfriendly, accessible way. It invites not procreational, but recreational use of culture.

In Eastern Europe we can observe how the touristic expectation goes hand in hand with a nationalistic assertion. Groys notes an anti-modernistic resentment in the new states, and a recourse to pre-modern identities for which these states avail themselves of the charged artefacts of the museum. Their resistance against a modernity seen as western cultural imperialism also meets with some appreciation in the West. Moreover it coincides with the interest of what Groys calls the "international visitor of the virtual museum of identities." The touristic gaze is searching for the authentic - not the global uniform of Nikes and T-Shirts, but original folk costumes. What it wants is not the same, but the different. "The postmodern, global, identity-less flaneur who places all cultural signs on the same level, is certainly extremely skeptical of any claim to universal truth. But precisely this fundamental skepticism allows the acceptance of any cultural stance that understands itself as regional. And thereby this postmodern tourist also accepts the cultural fundamentalism, that wants to establish an absolute truth only on a regional level." (Groys 1997: 53) Therefore a complicity arises between the international cultural tourist and the fundamentalistic national or regional cultural censorship. The living dead are returning to haunt us.

On the other hand, there is a cultural knowledge space that is used, that is constantly being reworked and added to, that breathes, that is alive. A space for intertextual procreation as a productive continuation across the gap of time. A place where reception, appropriation and production go hand in hand. Like a library that is used by people who write books, or a national gallery used by people who paint, or the internet used by people who create websites.

In post-canonical times, the freedom for intertextual procreation has increased. Sampling is a strategy we see bearing fruit in graphics design, in House and Techno Music and in other fields. Also the productions of the fan cultures belong here as appropriations of the iconic commodities of culture industry. Eg. the Trekkers (Startrek fans, 35.000 of whom are organized in clubs in the USA alone) whose comics and texts are copies, pastiche, ironic inversions. A 'participatory' knowledge space. Of course, this side of knowledge rests on 'dead' storage, and eventually produces it, but the emphasis here is on the impermanence of communications, the fleetingness of something that escapes all fixation. That belongs to many, but never to one.

The Internet caters both to touristic and to communiative procreational approaches. An art form that explores the specificity of the medium is Net.Art, and it finds that its expressions are inherently unexhibitable. Says net artist Alexei Shulgin: "projects like Refresh could never be exhibited, although it attracted some attention of art institutions. The most interesting stuff dealing with the idea of communication and communities and flow of information and crossing over boundaries - you can't exhibit it in traditional forms." (interview VG)
While culture-as-tourism combines well with mass-media (center-to-all), communications media (point-to-point) can support intertextual procreation. Culture in this sense can be one-way or two-way.


The virtually complete storage poses the question of forgetting. Memory, also cultural memory, needs forgetting. Niklas Luhman even claims that the main function of memory is not recalling but forgetting. Yet storage media do not know a 'structural amnesia' (Goody/Watt). Maybe one of the presumptions of the UNESCO Convention is not so self-evident: "Considering that deterioration or disappearance of any item of the cultural or natural heritage constitutes a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all the nations of the world."

What about the police archives that authoritarian regimes leave behind? They are certainly part of East-Germany's and South-Africa's and thereby the world's cultural heritage. In Poland people called the publication of a list of supposed agents's names 'a grenade thrown into the sewer', some it kills, some it hurts but it soils all. Adam Michnik, publisher of the Gazeta Wyborcza, Warsaw: "They say, the truth must come to light. But is that really the highest value? Is it not sometimes better to pull the cloak of merciful silence over this tangle of human dramas and human injustice?"

At other times people preserved only what still had a direct and living connection with the present. Holy places were 'recycled'. Parchment was erased and written over. Stones from old buildings are reused for houses people now live in. In Japan, Shinto religious implements that to the touristic gaze look like nice souvenirs are ritually destroyed. An alternative concept of memory is linked to a cycle of becoming and vanishing.

Land art that is meant to be eroded and reclaimed by the forces of nature keeps this idea alive. It presents an allegory reminding us of the transience and impermanence of things. A more radical strategy is that of Alexander Brener, a Russian artist feared by museums the world over for his acts of destroying paintings. This is the most extrem response to the cultural tombstones of the past piling up in the archives: appropiating the singular original by erasing it.

Brener's work is necessary to keep this theoretical option open, but it is not really a feasable solution. We will not destroy our storages because we lost our memory. The traumatic diseases characteristic of our times are the attention-deficiancy-syndrom, multiple-personality-disorder
and memory disorders like Alzheimer's. Everything can be stored, but we can't remember anything. Everything is there, but we can't focus on anything. All the role-models are there, but we don't know who we are or who we want to be.

Empirical Test

Against the tableau that I have sketched so far, a number of question can be raised. How can storage be linked to memory and to forgetting? What do interfaces between 'auratic' semiophores of various degrees of deadness and productive, contemporaneous cultural processes look like? Is cultural memory inevitably linked to the identity politics of nation states? Is there such a thing as World Culture? Is there such a thing as 'outstanding universal value' beyond and above any temporal and spatial context? Is 'globalization' more than a keyword to legitimize the ongoing techno-nationalist olympics for 'Network Nation Number One'? Does culture use the networks, or do the networks use culture - in the shape of 'content' - as a marketing incentive? And - as always - the question formulated by Groys of who collects and who is being collected?

I think these are questions worth testing empirically. The test tube for such a virtual museum project would be the Internet. Two interlocking forces would be brought together that for sake of snappiness I'd like to call top-down and bottom-up. These two forces are of a quite different nature and need different support systems. Both utilize - in different ways - media, and media today are computerized and networked.

The Power of the Computer: A Multiplicity of Contexts

In the world order of the museum, an artefact can be placed in the framework of the historic setting in which it was saved from destruction, of its geographic context, of the period when it was formed and was most significant, of all its historic changes, of related artefacts in other cultures, etc. It can also be presented for a variety of audiences, for children, for a learned and lettered class, for students, for scientists. On a computer, all the different paths through the same base material, the same knowledge space can be offered in a parallel manner.

Computers scale well. A modular knowledge space allows levels of depth a user can go into as deep as she likes. They also allow to customize the knowledge space according to each individual's needs and tastes, to make annotations, create links and copy whatever they want to use for own productions. A personal adaptable agent can assist in understanding, learning and creating. Everbody can have their own museum.

The computer can fulfill these storage and presentation functions both off- and online. Offline storage can be on packaged media like a CD-ROM(2) that has to adhere to widespread consumer standards. Installations at exhibition sites can use high-end machinery and prototype-style technology (motion platforms, robots, a Cave etc.). An offline system presents a frozen segment of the continuous process of knowledge formation. As a presentation medium the computer can provide degrees of interactivity.(3) Besides superficial push-button selections it can also allow for a certain intervention into the material. The room-based ensembles of the late Anne Oppermann, for instance, with a thousand or more pieces each are currently being digitized. On the CD-ROM one can get a total view and zoom in on each part. It would be easy to allow the user to rearrange the Ensembles, as indeed Oppermann herself had seen as a chance the computer offers.

With sufficient bandwidth, the same can be achieved in online storage.(4) Here a continuous updating of the information is possible. Digital storage space is cheap compared with the efforts needed to preserve the material artefacts and with the costs of maintaining a real-live exhibition space. Therefore 100% of the digital archive can be online all the time (like the heroic commitment of the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco you see here indicates). If the various institutions agreed on a common interoperable format, a seamless museum net could grow inside the Internet at large. This is one of the aims of the National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage (NINCH), a broad coalition of arts, humanities and social science organizations in the USA, but alas, as the name indicates within national boundaries.

A packaged medium, even granted some interactivity, for most part remains static knowledge for the 'user' to explore. Online, an additional social dimension can come into play. An online communications environment is more appropriate to the processual quality, the ongoing discourse that knowledge is. Dynamic knowledge for the 'user' to participate in.

The Power of the Net: Communities of Communication

The concept of self-organizing systems has become popular in various disciplines during the same time the Internet grew as a decentralized, anarchic, self-organizing structure. From common interests emerge communities of informal yet continuous communication based on newsgroups, mailinglists and MUDs.(5)  The focus here is not document-oriented but process-oriented. Not search and retrieval of data, but interactions and collaborations with others.

There are newsgroups on every conceivable topic. Also a museum might spawn them around  a core of subjects supporting different communities. Again: children, a general audiencs, students, scientists, curators, restorers, art historians etc. One could imagine an ongoing survey on the Net asking "What is World Cultural Heritage to you?"

While mail-based forums are asynchronous, MUDs (like Habitat aka Worlds Away seen on the sceenshot above) are synchronous communcation utilizing a metaphor of place. Shared places of presence inside a telecommunications environment are media-historically a new quality. On the phone one shares a conversation but not a separate third place. In multi-user online worlds people meet if not exactly face-to-face, but Avatar-to-Avatar, and nonetheless with a sense of 'being there' 'together'.

If community is the place where meaning is created then it can be viewed as a front-end to the 'meaningless' virtually complete global archive of knowledge. Local is vital. And local can be geographically close but also distributed online. Self-organizing communities of shared interest are something fundamentally different from centrally planned knowledge spaces. Farmer and Morningstar who were running Habitat concluded: "It was clear that we were not in control. The more people we involved in something, the less in control we were. We could influence things, we could set up interesting situations, we could provide opportunities for things to happen, but we could not dictate the outcome. Social engineering is, at best, an inexact science." (Morningstar/Farmer, The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat)

A museum that wants to encourage community forming will find a range of tools to do so. The simplest and in many ways most efficient are still newsgroups and mailinglists or plain mail. The Lost Museum of Sciences, for example, engages young audiences by posing "World Muse Trivia" and "Find The Exhibit" questions. The first person to mail back the rights answer will get an honorary mention. Such a Treasure Hunt turns an individual virtual museum or the whole Internt into a gigantic participatory game board.
Today we witness a trend towards three-dimensional, interactive surround-sound systems. This is certainly in part a technology-driven fashion. For simply presenting 2D images it is nonsense. When the hardware-maker Toshiba opened its virtual gallery with 200 van Gogh paintings it admitedly did so to test ATM and MPEG technology (see picture on the right). 3D does make sense, of course, where spatial works are displayed, e.g. architecture. Also the bodies we meet in real life are 3D. That non-verbal cues, facial expression, location vis-à-vis others indicating attention etc. are import aspects of communication is evident. How useful they are online has yet to be proven. If the virtual museum is 3D, by adding avatars one could imagine guided tours, lectures, some 'hands-on' interactivity, and people working there or just hanging out and chatting.

Among the various Avatar worlds available on the Internet (Blaxxun, Active Worlds, OZ etc.) OnLive! sticks out because it has voice communication capabilities and moderation tools for up to 225 participants. (One of the OnLive worlds is Utopia running at ACTLab of the University of Texas where this screenshot was taken.) Users are chatting not by typing as in the other systems, but by speaking into a microphone while their avatar moves its mouth synchronously. We will encounter these 'immersive' distributed avatar worlds increasingly not only in the form of museums and games but also in connection with processes of work and private communication. Technically speaking they are currently the 'coolest' interface to the net, still a word of warning is in place: 3D, voice-support, surround sound, distributed environments are cool, but, write Morningstar and Farmer: "The essential lesson that we have abstracted from our experiences with Habitat is that a cyberspace is defined more by the interactions among the actors within it than by the technology with which it is implemented." (Morningstar/Farmer, The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat)

We can draw an analytical distinction between self-organization and organization. The second needs an institution. Money, basically, to warrant quality work, research, continuity, maintenance, service. Publicly funded universities, libraries and museums, meta-national institutions like the UNESCO (if they were doing their job, that is), and non-profit organizations like ARCH are fulfilling this system function. I am not implying that for-profit culture is a contradiction in terms, but commodified culture does run the risk of disabling the dynamics of self-organization.

Self-organization needs - at the risk of sounding tautological - community, living cultures and active fandom. It could be invited and nurtured but not planned and managed by a virtual museum. It's a volatile quality, but not mysterious. It is not by chance that today two computer operating systems - Microsoft and Linux - provide the prototypical modells for top-down organization and bottom-up self-organization.

Cultural Memory is Public Domain

The central issue at the interface between organization and self-organization therefore is that of ownership of rights to cultural heritage. If a 'virtual' museum is to provide a foundation for Living Cultures its content has to be Public Domain. There is a strong sense of the fundamental immorality of access restrictions to knowledge, information, learning, culture, wisdom at the very basis of western, modern, democratic civilization. At its origin in the 17th century, when a bourgoisie formed and especially scientists, writers, scholars and artists demanded education and free access to the semiophores stored in private collections of the rich and mighty, the first public libraries (1602 Oxford, 1609 Milano, 1620 Rome) and public museums (1683 Oxford, 1734 Rome, 1743 Florence) were created (Pomian 1998: 77f.).

An inherent contradiction of the 'information society', i.e. a society based on information technology and information capitalism, is that it provides the means for knowledge to be shared freely, and at the same time turns Cultural Memory into one of its central commodities. A pre-history of the 'information society' would show how the private ownership to exploitation rights on 'intellectual property' was continuously expanded.(6) Nowadays, works become accessible - and this is the crucial point: not only to consumption but also to appropriation, i.e. to Living Culture - only when they are dead long enough so not too many people care anymore. (The Project Gutenberg is founded on this mechanism of expired copyrights.) The alternatives to private, always potentially monopolistic, exploitation of Cultural Memory can summarily be placed under the heading of Public Domain.(7) World Cultural Heritage, whatever it contains, certainly should be accessible to all, without a price or any other restriction on copying and using.

To illustrate the two sides, commodified culture and public domain: Bill Gates' company Corbis is building a monopoly of our image heritage, which will be at least as problematic as the one he already holds on the system this world is operating on. Absurdley enough, it is not selling digital images at all. The thumbnails on the Net are just a catalog. A few days after ordering and paying, Corbis mails out an analog chemical photographic print. The alternative is an old-fashioned public model: the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco that will offer all of their Image Database online in a fairly high-resolution format.

The main point would be not to try to control the culture that is being preserved. The concept of public domain on the Internet is based on the give-and-take mechanism of the famous 'gift economy'. Have the skate board kids copy the stuff and do their graffiti all over it. Living culture needs appropriations, including those we are not going to like. To quote Richard Stallman: "What does society need? It needs information that is truly available to its citizens - for example, programs that people can read, fix, adapt, and improve, not just operate. [...] And above all society needs to encourage the spirit of voluntary cooperation in its citizens. [...] Cooperation is more important than copyright." (Why Software Should Not Have Owners)


Living Museum

The dualism dead/living is, of course, schematic. Yet, the fact remains that the museum is a mausoleum. The problematic term therefore is the 'living museum'. Every curator, of course, hopes that his or her collection comes alive and that it radiates and creates effects outside of it. But the museum has a function for 'living culture' precisely because it is distinct from it.

Even when the museum as a way to relate to the world brakes all boundaries to include virtually everything, the museum as an institution still has the task to mediate between dead people and things on the one hand and the living on the other. It still is a selector. It is the institutionalization of the system function of differentiating the world into things that are worthy of entering Cultural Memory and those things that remain profane, part of life but not of its meaning, finally sinking into the garbage pile in the basement of every culture.

Risking another oversimplificaton, I see this operation devided into three functions.

Until now the three spheres of the museum were separated. The archive as an internal function of the museum is usually not accessible at all. The audiences view the exhibition (to an increasing degree: ‘experience' the ‘spectacle'), comment among themselves, and maybe read a review in a newspaper or magazine. The digital museum allows to integrate these three functions in a way not possible before.(8) A technical implementation of the empirical experiment I suggest would utilize the powers of computer and network for the three functions of the museum. The success of the experiment would not be measured in the number of clicks in the display sections, but the traffic in the expressive areas and in the number of sites and other projects it spawns and influences. The cognitive and social effects - the collective creation of meaning - are exterior to the museum. At best, the museum can offer openings, incentives, invitations for participation and appropriation - including hybrid places where a curated presentation meets with an ongoing debate about what is important to local and distributed communities and a field of procreation that leaves the museum, the dead and the past behind.

When I read the motto of ARCH: "Engaging the past into the present is synonymous with participating in the future" I had to think of the price question the magazine Lettre International posed for the end of the millenium: "Liberating the Future from the Past? Liberating the Past from the Future?"

In his time, Ulrich - Musil's  Man without Qualities - called for an "Erdensekretariat der Genauigkeit und Seele" (global secretariat of precision and soul). His method is still very much called for:  "Essayism and a sense of possibility (Möglichkeitssinn), and a phantastic rather than pedantic precision." (Musil : 592) The secretariat's task back then was an intellectual and spiritual general inventory ("geistige Generalinventur"). Now it's called "benchmarking the world's cultural heritage" (ARCH). Today the same task would require combining the contradictory (?) complementary (?) qualities of top-down and bottom-up.

Notes 'n' Books

 1. Museums and media both have the magic touch that transforms things into "semiophores". What is put into a collection becomes a carrier of meaning representing the invisible, thereby losing any further use value - something to be looked at. What the mass media touch becomes information, again something pointing towards something other than itself and to be taken in by the eyes. Both take something from the 'living' process and freeze it into a visibility to all. And nowadays the museums are never far behind the media.

2. Examples of concepts for organizing and navigating knowledge spaces on CD-ROMs are the documentation of Doors of Perception 1, Amsterdam, 30-31 October 1994, in: The Storage Mania Issue. Mediamatic Vol 8 # 1, Amsterdam 1994; Rudolf Frieling & Dieter Daniels, Media Art Action. The 1960s and 1970s in Germany, Springer Wien & New York 1997 and George Legrady's installation "Slippery Traces, 1995-96" at Deep Storage, also included in ArtIntact # 3, ZKM Karlsruhe. An example of a medial knowledge space that gains by being placed in a realworld exhibition space: Muntadas, The File Room.

3. The Exploratorium, founded in 1969, is usually considered the forerunner of interactive museum design. It was preceded by the Palais de la Découverte realized for the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris [thanks to Erkki Huhtamo for digging this one up]. Pressing Buttons is still the main approach to planned interactivity for computer-based installations and web pages these days. Commercial sites utilize the mechanism of people's desire to communicate by adding chat rooms as a cheap way of making people stay.

4. Classics of museum style presentations, curated and mostly static, include Scrolls form the Dead Sea and the Vatican Exhibit (both Library of Congress, Washington, DC), the former WebLouvre, the real Louvre, Paris, the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, the Natural History Museum, London (redesigned to include VRML displays), the  Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC (also reorganized), the Vatican City museums and virtual exhibits (including virtual tours such as the Sistine Chapel). A meta list of museums on the Net is here.

5. Classics on the subject are Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community, and Ronda and Michael Hauben, Netizens. On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet. The prototypical case of an urban sociotop going online in one big step was the Digital City Amsterdam that now has more than 60.000 inhabitants; see Geert Lovink, Die Digitale Stadt Amsterdam. Morningstar/Famer, The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat, provides some important insights on the relation between planning and community formation. W. Gibson's novel Idoru is a good study on the powershift between the culture industry and their customers: "assembled around the hollow armature of celebrity" the production of the fans supercedes that of the idol industry. For further MUD links see my MUD Info Page.

6. In the USA the period was extended from originally 14 to 28 to now 50 years after the death of the author. Other countries have similar periods. Note the difference in concepts of Goetheian 'Urheberrecht' and Anglosaxon 'copyright'.

7. Public Domain is a concept that has grown into a variety of models. Librarians want to see their storehouses of knowledge freely accessible to the public, and in recent years have fought for the continuation and extention of fair-use, which allows students and researchers access to copyrighted or patented materials without paying intellectual property rights (see the Copyright & Fair Use Site at Stanford). The US legal system knows the institution of Eminent Domain, under which a federal agency can "condemn" a piece of property and convert it to public use for the benefit of the greater community, while providing monetary compensation to the property owner. In analogy, Public Domain has been suggested as model serving public interest, preventing monopolies, and rewarding developers. Intellectual objects that might be classified under this special category as being of vital public interest include chemical formulas, such as cures for cancer or AIDS, and software, such as operating system source code (see Nadeau 1998). A more moderate system already in operation is compulsory licencing where the government grants access to licences and copyrights for a royalty rate fixed by government or law (e.g. for textbooks and pharmaceuticals in the Philippines, see Verzola 1998). In the field of computer software, Shareware (under various schemes, such as free trial periods,  free distribution, voluntary payments, etc.) and Freeware are common models. GNU is a project of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), set up by Richard Stallman in reaction to the commercial closure of UNIX by NT&T. Software and books under the GNU General Public License (GPL), aka Copyleft, may be used freely by anybody, may be shared freely with others, and the software may be freely modified because the source code is included in the distribution. Users agree to the license condition that the sourcecode may not be removed and that it is illegal to distribute the improved versions except as free software. Linus Torvald's UNIX derivative for Intel computers, Linux, which now gains popularity also in business and administration as a reliable and free alternative to Microsoft Windows is distributed under GPL.

8. When, for instance, Wulf Herzogenrath curates an exhibition of the Wiener Schule and does not include certain artists he doesn't like that's fair enough, as long as it doesn't pretend to be exhaustive, and as long as visitors can go into the archive and find out about the missing works. They can then question Herzogenrath about his selection and a clarifying, productive dialog might ensue. And all this can take place in the same environment.

Anderson, Benedict, Die Erfindung der Nation. Zur Karriere eines folgenreichen Konzepts (Imagined Communities, London 1983), Campus, FfM/N.Y. 1996

Assmann, Jan, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, Beck, München 1997

Assmann, Aleida, "Jenseits der Archive", Einsteinforum Berlin, 11.3.1998 (She reports on the thought experiment of a total archive of garbage as the inverse image of cultural memory.)

Casares, Bioy, Morels Erfindung, Frankfurt/M. 1984

Deep Storage. Arsenale der Erinnerung. Sammeln, Speichern, Archivieren in der Kunst. Catalog of  the exhibition in Munich, Berlin, Düsseldorf & Seattle, I.Schaffner & M.Winzen (eds.), Prestel Verlag, München & New York 1997

Geert Lovink, Ueber den Aufbau einer virtuellen Oeffentlichkeit. Die Digitale Stadt Amsterdam (fuer den Katalog der Ars Electronica 95),

Gibson, William, Idoru, Viking, London & New York 1996

Groys, Boris, Logik der Sammlung. Am Ende des musealen Zeitalters, Hanser, München & Wien 1997

Hobsbawm, Eric & Terence Ranger (Hrsg.), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1997

Jeudy, Henry Pierre, Die Welt als Museum (Paris 1985), Merve, Berlin 1987

Michnik, Adam, "Comment nous pouons vivre avec notre heritage", presented at Einsteinforum, Potsdam, 27. Nov. 1996

Morely, David  & Kevin Robins, Spaces of Identity. Global Media, Electronic Landscpapes and Cultural Boundaries, Routledge, London and N.Y. 1995

Morningstar, Chip & F. Randall Farmer, The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat, in: Michael Benedikt (Hrsg.), Cyberspace: First Steps, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1990 und

Musil, Robert, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, Rowohlt, Hamburg 1970

Nadeau, Tom, The Case for Eminent Domain, first posted: 1 January 1998,

Owens, Craig, Beyond Recognition. Representation, Power, and Culture, University of California Press, Berkeley etc. 1992

Pomian, Krysztov, Der Ursprung des Museums. Vom Sammeln, Wagenbach, (Paris 1986-88), Berlin (1988) 1998

Stallman, Richard, Why Software Should Not Have Owners,

Storage Mania. Mediamatic Vol 8 # 1, Amsterdam 1994

Verzola, Roberto, Cyberlords: The Rentier Class of the Information Sector, Philippines 1998, posted on Nettime,


Thanks to Julean Simon, Ute Vorkoeper, Pit Schulz, Inke Arns, Jörg Pflüger, Karel Dudesek, ARCH and all the participants in the "Virtual Museum" symposium.