On Monday the Museum of London launched its new iPhone app, with a display in Trafalgar Square. I was reading David Fleming’s 1998 article ‘Brave New World: The Future for City History Museums’ (from Kavanagh and Frostick’s ‘Making City Histories in Museums’). It’s often said that any imagining of the future is noticably of its time, and twelve years on, some of Fleming’s populist references seem jarringly dated – Waterworld, Judge Dredd – just as the iPhone will date my words. These superficial signs highlight the passage of time and perhaps today, twelve years on, it is appropriate to consider some of David Fleming’s ideas about the future of the city museum.
It is an ambitious agenda which David Fleming lays forth. His ideas for the museum as a site of social regeneration and as a site for careful identity work have gained currency since he penned them, twelve years ago. There is an onus on museums to work with communities, and to reach out more to wider sections of society.
The Museum of London is reaching out across London digitally with its app (and in future its collections online project). Within the walls of the museum digital technology is being introduced into visits (Paul Clifford’s work on blended learning). Within its cases, the museum displays the material objects that make this possible. City museums have historically dealt in the slippage between technological progress, visual media and the development of the city itself – as an early directory of one city museum put it; it was “a natural step from a Museum of Photography to a Museum of New York” (Henry Collins Brown in Max Page, 1999: 57). The identity work that Fleming anticipated for visitors is being carried out by the museum, as it experiments with ways to employ new digital technology.
To me, it seems that central to Fleming’s agenda is the changing significance of museum objects. Rightly, he asserts that “[city history museums] of the future will place less reliance on objects as transmitters of the past into the present, and rely more on images, films, re-creations and other virtual representations of the worlds they have lost” (Fleming, 1998: p145). In this way the Galleries of Modern London run true to Fleming’s prediction. Video, audio and physical interactives are accompanied by ‘immersive spaces’ – theatrical evocations of envoronments designed to engage visitors, using an array of their senses. Fleming continues, suggesting that ‘museums will have to accept that, as evidence, objects have outlived their golden age’ (Flemnig, 1998: 146), and this is where his predictions and my research diverge. Rather than being de-throned and replaced by film and photography, material objects and intangible interpretation exist side-by-side. In the Galleries of Modern London digital interactives are integrated into objects, they do not replace them.
As David points out, ‘today’s favourtie toy, game, football shirt, pop group or television programme is rapidly consigned to oblivion’ (p145). My iPhone is not new enough to run the entire app. My old phone isn’t quite a museum-piece: the Galleries of Modern London include an iPhone, but the museum’s is two versions ahead of mine. Fleming argues that museum objects will be challenged. I would suggest that they are supplemented by the objects visitors bring with them; phones which can bring the museum home with them.