Museums in the Digital Age

The 21st Century Curator

There is a rising tide of interest in the return of manufacturing to the USA. New technologies like 3-D printing, low-cost multipurpose robots and cheap computer controlled machine tools, are beginning to reverse the idea that everything will be made in China or one of the other BRIC countries. Just as smart phones and location aware apps are redefining the idea of local, allowing us to embrace ‘hyper localism’, so we’re beginning to take seriously the idea of the local manufacture of complex objects.

In museums we’ve long made the distinction between the handmade, unique object and the machine or factory made repetition item. One lives in the realm of the singular, in collecting territory we love to inhabit — the human world of biology, cognition, inspiration, even genius, We can build significance around special objects through scholarship, we can know the ‘body of work’, foreground the maker. And in museums whilst we also embrace the world of machine production and the cars, the washing machines and iPads it churns out, it’s less comfortable to collect. Secretly we think it’s second class curation. Real curators collect art and archaeology not trains and boats and planes.

But what if in a re-manufactured future, where we have returned to local, the technology is so good we can 3D print a Mies Van de Rohr chair, or a milking machine or a car? And what if manufacturing robots get so good they are as good as the human hand? What if the artistic circuit between hand eye and brain can be matched by software controlled making devices? Then the future sculptor doesn’t use a mallet and chisel but a computer and a 3D printer. The painter no longer applies paint, but controls the robot brush. Then what distinguishes the singular from the multiple is a difference in the code, nothing more. Code for art or code for product.

The future curator collects not objects but code. His or her museum now makes the art in situ. And the artist may be anywhere on the planet. The future museum becomes a workshop. The workshop of the world.

Written by Stephen Feber Ltd – Museums in the Digital Age was originally published at

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