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The Commercialization of Digital Information: Implications for the Public Role of Museums

Rottenberg, B.L. (2001). The Commercialization of Digital Information: Implications for the Public Role of Museums. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


In recent decades, Canadian, British and American museums have faced a number of significant challenges to their traditional role. One of the major challenges has been the reduction of government funding and the incipient pressure to find new sources of revenue. A second has been the introduction of digital technologies that provide new opportunities for museums to communicate with their public, but that require significant investments of both time and money. This thesis explores the impact of both on the public role of museums.

Drawing on the work of Jurgen Habermas and, in particular, his belief in the importance of cultural institutions and democratic communication in maintaining a healthy public sphere, this thesis argues that universality remains an important objective for museums. The commitment to serving a universal public, although imperfectly realized, was gradually recognized as an important principle in nineteenth-century Britain. Under the financial pressures of recent decades, however, notions of equality and access have been overshadowed as Anglo American museums have increasingly looked to a paying public to generate revenue. This trend can also be seen in museums’ approach to digital information, where early expectations of financial returns through the licensing of museum content, coupled with the high costs of creating and maintaining digital resources, have resulted in a tendency to view information as a commodity rather than as a public good.

By means of two case studies, this thesis argues that digital information does not represent an important new source of revenue for museums. The first case study examines the commercialization of information at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, long a proponent of new technologies, while the second looks more broadly at the experience of stock agencies, museums and consortia in licensing digital content. Together, they throw into doubt the belief that the Internet and other forms of technology will unleash pent-up public demand for museum images and result in significant new revenues flowing into institutional coffers. Given the centrality of the dissemination of information to institutional missions, this thesis argues on behalf of open and equitable access. Museums would be better served by a more critical view of technology that balances benefits with costs, experimentation with evaluation, and short-term goals with strategic, long term institution-wide planning. Renewed government support for education would allow museums to re-establish a balance between market and mission both in the physical and virtual environments.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: A General Works > AM Museums (General). Collectors and collecting (General)
T Technology
Z Bibliography. Library Science. Information Resources > ZA Information resources > ZA4050 Electronic information resources
Departments: School of Communication & Creativity > Media, Culture & Creative Industries > Culture & the Creative Industries
School of Communication & Creativity > School of Communication & Creativity Doctoral Theses
Doctoral Theses
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