Museums making headlines

By Matthew MacArthur

Being a minor-league news junkie, a former student journalist, and a habitual reader of the morning newspaper along with my breakfast cereal, a recent item from the e-zine Slate about the virtues of print vs. online media caught my eye. Anyone who reads the news is probably aware of the dramatic changes happening in the business of journalism today, with local daily newspapers buckling one by one under the inexorable rise of instant, free, online sources of information. Many ask what would be lost if the traditional print newspaper—a staple of American life for much of our history—were to die out, and what, if anything, will take its place.

To begin to answer that question, a group of Slate journalists undertook an experiment. For a period of time, half of them got all their news from local print sources; the other half was restricted to Web-only media outlets. Each day, they came together to compare notes about their experience and their exposure to national and international events.

The results interested me, and not only for what they revealed about the state of news media. Museums, like journalists, are being told from some quarters that the era of “editorial control” over information is over. The democratization of online publishing means that anyone can create, curate, and disseminate information, whether about the day’s headlines, or scientific discovery, or the interpretation of art, or the meaning of history. But it is important to ask whether such sweeping generalizations throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

The key, I think, is in that word I used above—“headlines.” The Slate writers mused that the news world would be much more chaotic without the daily ritual undertaken by the editorial teams of major newspapers to filter, sort, and package the day’s top stories. This more or less sets the agenda not only for water cooler conversation among the well-informed, but for the many others that rely in one way or another on the high-quality, original reporting that is now done by fewer and fewer news organizations. Does that mean that the freewheeling, democratic Internet has no virtues of its own? Of course not. The same group agreed that for information and commentary that is up-to-the-minute, hyper-local, representative of an exciting diversity of voices, or otherwise fills in the cracks that the major media outlets missed, the Web can’t be beat.

I’m convinced there are lessons here for museums. In journalistic terms, I see an institution like the Smithsonian as the major news organization that provides a steady source of reliable, high-quality “reporting"–in the case of this museum, on American history and culture. (Based on the response to my previous blog posts, many of you agree with me.) Not every topic, fact, or worthy voice is represented in our halls—we don’t have the resources to do that, just as a newspaper cannot be encyclopedic about current events. Hopefully, our own editorial process results in wise choices about what to collect, research, and display for the public.

But, like newspapers, we ignore the Internet-driven forces of change at our peril. These days, anyone has the capacity to be a published armchair historian—and why not? We can only gain from a multiplicity of voices telling the American story from a million points of view. Does it diminish the role we play? I don’t see why it should (in fact I think it enhances it in a number of ways). But it does mean we might need to change some things about how we relate to our audience. I remain hopeful that the electronic age will hold bright new possibilities for museums—as well as that pillar of democracy, a robust free press.

Matthew MacArthur is Director of New Media at the National Museum of American History.